Thursday, April 30, 2015

J's BSA Report for April 2015

April was a quiet month for scouting in our parts. We had the usual den meeting where we did two electives (making change and playing games) and the usual pack meeting where J got the official really real Tiger Badge. To liven up the badge delivery ceremony, the pack leader taped the badges to paper plates and we parents had to toss them frisbee-style to our sons. Let me just say paper plates do not make good frisbees.

Flying Tiger Badge

Next month will be more exciting--the pack meeting will be the bridging ceremony for those Cub Scouts moving up to Boy Scouts (and thus to new packs) and we have the spring camping trip. We are shopping for our own tent and an upgraded sleeping bag right now. Any suggestions are gladly welcomed!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Book Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift Part 1

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift - Part One script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

The city of Yu Dao has elected a coalition government of Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom representatives who are committed to working together--a bright new future is in store. Avatar Aang and the gang attend the celebration banquet where Aang sees the ghost of Avatar Yangchen (one of his previous reincarnations). She can't speak and just points off into the distance before disappearing. Aang puzzles over the meaning of this until he realizes it's the time of the year that Yangchen's Festival was celebrated by the Air Nomads a hundred years ago. He decides to relive fond memories of the past and reestablish some Air Nomad culture by having an impromptu festival.

He takes his Air Bending apprentices and his friends to a clifftop with a massive statue of a woman. This spot is where the festival traditionally begins. They start to go through the rituals but Aang can't remember who the statue is (it's clearly not Yangchen) or why they do certain things. He says, "That's just how it's done." This sets Earth Bender Toph off since she grew up in a sheltered home where her parents always told her "that's just how it's done" whenever she questioned anything. Aang and Toph almost start to fight. The group heads down the hill to a field where the feast used to be held. The field is now an industrial town where a coalition of Fire Benders and Earth Benders run a refinery. The local river is polluted though the industrialists say it's from natural causes, not the refinery. Aang sees the whole thing as a violation of sacred ground but Toph sees it as the future of harmony that they've been working for all along.

The story is an interesting look at the tension between doing things "the old way" and "the new way." This issue seems a little slanted towards the old but not very slanted. The situation could go in many different directions. Based on the previous graphic novels, it will be very interesting to find out what's really going on and how Aang and Toph will patch up their differences (plus there's a big surprise at the end of this issue).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Movie Review: Life After Beth (2014)

Life After Beth (2014) written and directed by Jeff Baena

Life After Beth starts with Beth's Jewish funeral, where mourners grieve and comfort one another. Zach is (or was) Beth's boyfriend. He is very distraught but is still friends with Beth's parents. He visits them regularly until the day they stop answering the door. He's frustrated and starts snooping around only to discover Beth is back! At first he is angry for being deceived. The parents explain that she just showed up and they are hiding her. Beth has no memory of what happened and is happy to see Zach. After he finishes freaking out he starts hanging out with her and wants to resume the relationship (even though she apparently broke up with him before she died). Things are okay until they want to go on a date outside the house. The parents are dead set against that but he sneaks her out anyway. She starts acting oddly every now and then, which makes Zach nervous that she's eventually going to eat him. He also faces the awkward questions from his own family and his mom's attempt to set him up with a childhood friend.

The movie starts out like it's a quirky independent romantic comedy with a zombie theme thrown in. But it isn't very funny. You'd think there would be some comedy about overprotective parenting or Jews claiming Beth is resurrected "like Jesus" (which they say several times), but their behavior and line delivery is too flatly honest to get a chuckle. The romance is hampered by the ambiguities in Beth and Zach's relationship history. Did they break up? Was she really difficult at times before or is her behavior just the zombie coming out?  Beth could have been a manic pixie dream girl turned tragically evil by zombification but she comes off like she's just occasionally rude and unlikeable (and unnaturally strong with the inevitable unnatural hunger). I never got the sense that there was a great love between them or what he saw in her.

The movie tries to end big with the threat of a zombie apocalypse. It's played for laughs but never land a good punch line. The resolution is formulaic and uninteresting--Beth and Zach's tragic parting is emotionally ho-hum and the solution to the other zombies is nothing viewers haven't seen before in most every other zombie movie. The film just peters out at the end, leaving me wondering why the film makers couldn't pull something more interesting thematically or plotwise from a good premise. The shame is the actors are good at their roles but they aren't given enough to shine.

Monday, April 27, 2015

School Carnival 2015

J and L's school had their annual carnival in April on a day that felt more like November (cloudy and cold). We still had a grand time. The carnival ran from noon till four and somehow we stayed the whole afternoon! At the beginning, not many people were there.

School carnival outside part one

School carnival outside part 2

School carnival inside

We bought some tickets for the rides and activities. J was immediately drawn to the obstacle course that looks like a fire fighting free for all. The two side allow people to race each other. L was not interested in racing J.

That's J sliding down on the right (timing the picture was impossible)

Back of the course

L was more interested in racing an inflatable horse at the Fun Derby.

Fun derby

L races

We also went around the school grounds on a scavenger hunt. The theme was the positive environmental designs in the school--the rain water drainage, the bird feeders and nests, the recycling plans. At the end of the hunt, J and L received some recycled crayons--they were bits and nubs melted down into fun multicolored squares.

We went inside to try out those activities and warm up a little. J did his best to get some bank shots in the Bank Shot game. The goal is to roll the balls from one lane to the other by bouncing them off the angled walls. A nice mathy dexterity challenge!

Bank Shot game

Face painting was a popular activity and L has a hint of Frozen on her face.

L's face paint

Another fun challenge was golf putting. L and J were not as familiar with clubs as they should be so they needed several strokes to sink their balls.

L golfs

J golfs (or plays pool)

The carnival had a cake walk but we didn't try it since the odds were about twenty to one that a walker would win.

Cake walk

Back outside, we took some spins on the Chick-fil-A wheel and won free food. The cow princess was there and L loved to pose.

L and the "Reel Princess"

J was more interested in climbing the rock wall. At first he was scared to try but overcame his fears and harnessed up for the thrill.

Super tall rock climbing wall

J gets ready

His first ascent wasn't far but was fun, meaning he would do many more ascents throughout the day.

Getting attached

First effort is a little unnerving

Checking how high he got

Posing as best he could

Later on in the day he became much more daring, hanging precariously without any worries!

One foot and one hand only

Close up

His fifth ascent

A tight spot

Ready to come down

Later on, we volunteered at the lollipop booth and at the wall climb. Great fun was had by all, with great naps when we got home!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale

Most every American can recognize the line "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country" as the final words of Nathan Hale, an American spy hung in 1776 during the American War of Independence. Any other details about his life are vague at best. This small book (written by another Nathan Hale who was born in 1976) fills in a lot of the details, especially his service during the war, in a way that's entertaining and engaging for children and adults alike. The book is a graphic novel and Hale (the 1776 one) tells his story to his hangman and a British officer who are curious about his previous life. This set up nicely enables both an American and a British commentary on events (if only television news shows were so balanced!), along with mostly jokes from the hangman. The last ten pages are a mini-comic about Crispus Attucks, an African-American who was one of the five who died during the Boston Massacre. Attucks shows up at the gallows where Hale and the two Brits discuss his life and the events in Boston prior to his death and the fallout after his demise. The best thing about the book is that it is thoroughly researched and has a section detailing the parts where artistic license was taken (or not taken, as the case may be).

Highly recommended for young and old! I will definitely read more in this series.

Sample text--the coolest bibliography ever!

Click to enlarge (and sorry about the scan flare on the right!)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review: City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis by John C. Wright

City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis by John C. Wright

Nothing lasts forever, even if you have the ability to travel through time and try to make it stay. John C. Wright's collection of short stories tell various significant and insignificant events near the end of the city of Metachronopolis, where time travelers called "Time Wardens" live and gather various items and people from history for their own amusement. With great power comes great corruption, but not everyone embraces the decadence and manipulations of the Time Wardens.

The stories have somewhat complicated plots that require the reader to pay attention to details, which is something that I like about time travel stories. The city is an interesting place with lots of nooks and crannies where unusual but plausible (granting the possibility of time travel) events take place. Murder mysteries, paranoid thrillers, and romantic dalliances are mixed in different levels in every story, providing dramatic tension. I especially enjoyed "Slayer of Souls" in which a man trys to run away from a horror that can read his mind. The sense of paranoia is strong but it is also well thought out and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

This collection of stories is intelligent and entertaining and I look forward to revisiting it when my memories have faded a bit (nothing lasts forever!) and it reads like new.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 8

Doctor Who Series 8

The Doctor regenerates into the form of Peter Capaldi! Companion Clara Oswald has to help him get reoriented while he helps her go on fantastic adventures, not only in space and time but in her personal life as well. She's settled in to a teaching job. The school provides both a place for action and a new boyfriend for Clara in the form of Mr. Pink--ex-military, now maths teacher. The series follows the usual formula of mixing some Earth history, some Earth present day, and some other worlds into the show while giving some hints at the big finale and a romantic interest for the companion (though thankfully the romantic interest is not the Doctor!).

I like Peter Capaldi as the Doctor quite a bit. He has a good mixture of zany franticness with occasional seriousness and grumpiness that makes his Doctor charming. Jenna Coleman as Clara does a good acting job but the writing for her character is all over the place. Sometimes she's sweet and fun, sometimes she's bossy and taciturn, with little narrative to give her character continuity. Her love interest, Mr. Pink, does not have quite enough depth to make him a very interesting character.

Overall, I've found the writing to be substandard this year. In addition to the variable nature of Clara's character, a lot of the stories are either not compelling or so full of plot holes as to be distracting. The overarching theme questioning whether the Doctor is a good man/hero also feels a bit forced and unsatisfying, especially with the "I'm just a guy running around having adventures" conclusion. The theme could have been inspiring and challenging, but it comes off like a rehash of previous series (like those last few David Tennant episodes) with no decisive or compelling ending.

I haven't seen the Christmas episode but am definitely going to wait until it's available from the library or free streaming somewhere. Oh Doctor, what's happened to you?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Movie Review: Lucy (2014) by Luc Besson

Lucy (2014) written and directed by Luc Besson

Lucy is an imaginative movie about the power of the human brain. Starting from the premise that humans only use 10% of their brain matter (a questionable premise to be sure), writer and director Luc Besson weaves a tale of a pretty and average young woman named Lucy living in Taipei. She lives a party life but her new boyfriend (they've known each other for a week) gets her into trouble when he gets her to deliver a briefcase to some shady characters in a hotel. Said characters kill the boyfriend and kidnap Lucy, forcing her to take a kilo of an experimental recreational drug in her stomach back home. Three other guys have a pack of drugs put in their stomachs and are headed to Europe. As she is hustled to the airport a rival gang grabs her and as they are beating her up, they accidentally rupture the bag and a massive dose of the drug enters her system.

The overdose doesn't kill her. Instead, it enhances her brains' ability to use itself, escalating to higher levels where she can repair and change her own body (like instantly changing her hair color at the airport when she needs to) and can influence other living beings and even the objects both near and far from her. She pursues the other drug carriers and Dr. Norman (played with proper gravitas by Morgan Freeman), a neuroscientist who has been working on theories of what enhanced brain usage would encompass.

The first third of the movie intercuts Lucy's story with a lecture given by Dr. Norman which outlines what's going to happen to Lucy as she becomes more powerful. The lecture is quite grandiose (referencing evolution's history from the first hominid) and far-fetched. Scientifically and philosophically it's just plain bonkers but it establishes the rules of this world neatly. Lucy grows in power, doing more fantastic things and sensing everything, including the flow of sap through trees and the lines of information going from cell phones into the sky. She develops amazing fighting skills (it's a Luc Besson film, after all) and control over all the fundamental forces of nature. What will she do with so much power and will the shady characters from the beginning of the movie get their drugs back?

Thematically, this movie reminded very much of Besson's The Fifth Element, in which Milla Jovovich's character is referred to as "the supreme being" because she has lots of extra DNA packed into her cells, giving her extraordinary powers. She struggles with her humanity and her nearly God-like powers and she is destined to save the Earth. Lucy is clearly becoming a God-like being who can manipulate reality (not only physical objects but even time itself) and can help save the Earth by using her power to give more knowledge to humanity. Both films have an underlying desire to explore and explain the transcendence of human nature over the rest of nature. While I find the conclusions wrong, the effort is still a lot more interesting than the B-movie trappings of the rest of the film.

The premise, however, is completely ridiculous. Neuroscientists have all sorts of opinions about how much of their brains people actually use and the idea that telekinesis or telepathy or more amazing powers would result from using more of the human brain is just wishful thinking. If the viewer can suspend disbelief for that (which I was able to), the movie is enjoyable with a mixture of crazy and interesting ideas plus a fun visual storytelling style.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Soccer Class 2015

J and L took soccer lessons for a couple of months just to try it out. J had done a bit of football back at his English school so he had some skills already. The children were both a little reluctant to go but had a great time when they were there.

The coaches started classes with huddles where they'd discuss issues and get the kids fired up. During the first lesson, the kids had to pick a name for the group. After several recommendations and votes, they chose "Lightening Lions."

Soccer practice huddle

The lessons were a great mixture of different games that either taught basic skills or let the kids practice skills. One game was "Red light, green light and more." "Red light" meant stopping with your ball (i.e. putting one foot on the ball and standing still). "Green light" meant go at a regular speed. "Yellow light" meant dribbling along slowly. "Blue light" meant reverse direction. "Purple light" meant to pass the ball to someone else. Lots of skills were practiced when the instructors shouted out a new color--it's tough to remember so many different colors!

Yellow light

Red light

"On the line" and "Pacman" are games where the children have to dribble their balls along lines on the floor. Being a school gym, plenty of straight and curved lines for basketball provided plenty of options to move around. "Pacman" includes a couple of kids who are the "ghosts" trying to steal the balls from the other children.

Crowded lines at the beginning of Pacman

Less crowded pack doing Pacman

"Sharks and minnows" was another popular "steal the ball" game. At the beginning, one child is the shark standing in the middle of the gym. All the other boys and girls are at one end of the gym with their balls. When the coaches say, "Go minnows!" they have cross the gym without their ball getting stolen by the shark. Whoever's ball is stolen becomes a shark for the next round. Eventually all the kids are turned to sharks!

Crossing the floor

"Hit the coach" is a chance to get back at the coaches, though they were pretty good at dodging.

Getting ready to go after the coaches

They set up obstacle courses as well so the kids could navigate around various objects. L liked this a lot.

Setting up an obstacle

The last two or three classes included games of soccer. The coaches had to remind the kids of several things: (1) which team they are on, (2) which goal they are protecting, (3) which goal they are trying to score on. The games generally were packs of kids chasing the ball around the floor. The children without the ball would shout "pass the ball!" The child with the ball would try their hardest to score a goal while ignoring all that pesky shouting. By the end of the class, some players started passing--progress was made!

Coach as goalie

J reports that the kids play soccer at recess, so the lessons were definitely worth it (for him).

Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Review: Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories by Zack Whedon et al.

Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories by Zack Whedon et al.

This graphic novel fills in a little bit of the world of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a web short created by Joss Whedon and friends during the writers' strike of 2008. The short is entertaining and creative, showing the life of Dr. Horrible, a villain who wants to move up in the world. His big aim is to join the Evil League of Evil but his evil schemes are thwarted by oafish hero Captain Hammer. He's also distracted by Penny, a beautiful young woman he's fond of. She winds up dating Captain Hammer, another thorn in Dr. Horrible's side.

The graphic novel tells several stories about different characters. Some were definitely more entertaining than others. The best story follows the Evil League of Evil as they rampage across the city while the Council of Champions is off on retreat. The stories where Penny goes on a date and Dr. Horrible remembers his origins are both interesting and fun stories. Captain Hammers PSA and Moist's origin fell flat for me.

The book is a mixed bag and only of interest if you have seen the Sing-Along Blog.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

TV Review: iZombie Pilot

iZombie Pilot Episode created by Diane Ruggiero and Rob Thomas

I read the first twenty or so of the iZombie comics back in 2010. They have an interesting premise: a girl named Gwen dies and comes back to life as a zombie. She stays normal as long as she has brains to eat, otherwise she begins to go feral. Happily, Gwen works as a grave digger at a "green" cemetery where they don't embalm the bodies before burial, so she has access to plenty of fresh, untainted brains. Whenever she eats brains, she has visions of that person's life. Since she is a bit of a do-gooder, she helps out the next of kin with whatever problems the dead person remembers (everything from cats in trees to murder most foul). Gwen has a crew of supernatural friends--the ghost of a girl from the 1950s who hangs out at the cemetery and a guy who is a were-terrier--who form a sort of Scooby Gang to help her. Vampires figure large in the early stories as well as a mummy. The mythology of the comic is fairly well thought out and the comic is clearly popular enough that was transformed into a television series.

The TV show has a girl named Olivia ("Liv" for short, haha) Moore who is a star medical student with a hunky boyfriend and not much else in her life. She reluctantly goes to a party on a boat where an drug-induced zombie plague breaks out. She is turned but still has control of herself as long as she eats brains. She dumps the boyfriend and the medical career for an assistant job at the Coroner's Office, where she has access to plenty of fresh, untainted brains. She gets the visions like in the comic books which help the police investigate crimes (the morgue is full of murder victims, after all). Her supervisor in the morgue finds out about her condition and is amazingly supportive (both keeping her secret and working on a cure for her condition). There's no sign of any other supernatural beings so far.

I'll admit a laughed a few times during the show and the plot was enjoyable enough, though not as quirky and fun as the comics. None of the twists in the story were surprises and I felt that she had too much voice-over commentary. Maybe with the setup done that will be toned down in future episodes. The cast is charming enough. I'll watch a few more episodes to see how it goes.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Montpelier Mansion--Interior

The interior tour of Montpelier Mansion starts in the East/South Wing. This room was originally the kitchen but has been turned into a meeting room available for rentals. The fireplace was originally in the center of the room to make cooking easier. The chandelier is a Waterford and modeled after an old pattern.

East/South Wing

New(er) fireplace

Leaving the wing, visitors travel through a hallway (called a "hyphen") to the main house. Naturally the kitchen hall leads to the dining room!

Dining room

Desserts and things

The fireplace

The cupboard

Across the hall is the Lady's Chamber, where Anne Snowden managed the household affairs. In addition to her desk there is a four poster bed on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. The wing back chair has a slip cover with a popular (back then) peacock design.

Lady's desk

Four poster bed

Another view of the bed

Wing back chair

Right next to the chair is a small staircase that was used by servants as the back stairs. It was turned into closet space for modern convenience.

Back stairs

The central passageway has the main entrance to the house and is lined with chairs that would be moved to rooms as needed. The area was used for entertaining (extra dining area or dance floor) or a sleeping area in hot weather since it has good cross-ventilation.

Central Passageway

On the other side of the passageway is the Parlor, a sort of family room where the family played games, read books, or played music. During fancy dinners, the ladies would retire here for tea and gossip while the men stayed in the dining room with their cigars and brandy.

The map over the fireplace is noted in an 1831 inventory of the house. It's the 1816 Shelton-Kensett map of the United States.

Parlor fireplace with map


The central passage also leads upstairs to the second floor.

Upper hallway

Detail from the molding

The Bed Chamber is where the back stairs leads and was probably used for guests.

Bed chamber

Children's toys

Top of the stairs!

Across the hall is the Snowden Family Bedroom, which includes original furniture and a photo of a Snowden wedding gown from 1885.

Bed with trundle

Sitting area

Hope chest

Photo of the wedding gown

Family coat of arms

The cool floor pattern

Also upstairs is a Hands-on-Room, where children can dress up and try out various items, including toys, from the 1800s.

A sample desk for kids

L pretends to have a snack

J tries a bit of everything

L tries wooden shoes

Loom (not for trying)

Back downstairs, our tour led through the other hyphen into the Library/North Wing. The brass fox is an ash tray and is almost as cool as the corner chair.

Brass fox

Bicentennial-era chair

The library was originally a store room and plantation offices. It was refurbished in the early 20th century as a library. It contains displays on the history of the area and is also available for rental.



The gold gilt French mantel clock dates from the 1840s.

Mantel clock

The room is lined with a variety of portraits from the family or that the family collected. Sadly, some are slightly obscured by the displays.

A portrait

The house was impressive to us but J's main comment was "it's so small." The houses from the late 1700s and early 1800s in England were much larger and fancier, probably because the people were wealthier and had more resources and artisans. J was not convinced by our arguments. We'll have to take him to Mount Vernon or Monticello to see a grand home from back then!