Friday, April 29, 2016

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender Smoke and Shadow Part Three by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender Smoke and Shadow Part Three written by Gene Luen Yang, lettering by Michael Heisler, art and cover by Gurihiru

Reviews of Part One here and Part Two here!

Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang have chased down the Kemurikage and discovered Azula, Zuko's disenfranchised sister, is their leader. She escapes during the fight and kidnaps Zuko's baby sister. Zuko uses his authority as Fire Lord to shut down the capital city and round up all of the people involved with the New Ozai Society, which turns out to be an arm of the Kemurikage. Riots erupt. Can Zuko rescue the kidnapped children and keep the peace with his people? What is Azula's plan?

This volume finishes the story well. It focuses on the characters' motivations and has a nice awareness of the larger political situation. The book doesn't skimp on the action, either, though the humor is less than usual. The last page of the book promises the return of Sokka in October 2016 so you can be sure the humor will be back in full force then. I can't wait!

Thursday, April 28, 2016


After attending a birthday party at a local roller rink, my daughter loves rollerskating. With soccer done, we decided the kids should try skating lessons. The rink has very reasonable lessons each month. The kids have been going twice a week (Tuesday evening and Saturday afternoon) for lessons.

The local roller rink (unchanged since the 1970s)

The first lessons were pretty tough. Lots of kids and adults started on the first day of class. Many were gone by week three. Our children showed rapid improvement in both skill and enthusiasm for roller skating.

The daughter

Our son, the man in black

By week three, they were so enthusiastic that we stayed for the post-lesson skating session. As a break between lessons, we had a snack from the snack bar and my daughter checked out one of the video games.

The next lessons--learning to drive?!?

They loved skating around the rink and were eager to get back to the action.

Put me in, coach!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: Richard III by David Baldwin

Richard III by David Baldwin

King Richard III (1452-1485) is one of the most controversial kings of England. He was the last of the Plantagenet line and was replaced by Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII. Richard came to the throne through a mixture of circumstances and deliberate acts. His decision to take the crown may not have been the act of unbridled ambition it is often portrayed as. He lived a hard and unstable life, seeing many relatives die and many reversals of fortune as the Lancastrian Plantagenets fought with the Yorkist Plantagenets over the throne(i.e. the War of the Roses). His nephews (who were legitimate candidates for the throne) were taken into the Tower of London (which was both the royal castle and a prison), never to be heard from again. People assume he killed them or had them killed though there is no direct evidence. His efficiency at governing was at times ruthless and at other times completely just. He put in motion many reforms and established a courier system that eventually developed into the Royal Mail. His life is a lot more complicated than either Shakespeare or Thomas More make it out (though their writings have colored popular opinion).

David Baldwin's biography of Richard makes the effort to be objective, looking at the historical records and evidence. Baldwin does not want to paint Richard as a villain or as a saint, but to see him for he was. The story is complicated not only by the lack of records and the Tudor propaganda but also by the many overlapping names (the book starts with a list of 23 people who have similar names, including three Georges, three Margarets, and four other Richards besides Richard III!). These various challenges are well met in this book, which is readable and convincing. An extra chapter was added where Baldwin describes the discovery of Richard's remains in the Leicester car park.

The even-handed approach and clear writing make this an excellent look at the life of Richard III. I see the author has also written Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. Based on the excellence of this biography, I am going to hunt down his Robin Hood book.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Movie Review: The Final Girls (2015)

The Final Girls (2015) directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

Max is the recently-orphaned daughter of Amanda Cartwright, an actress whose most famous roles were in low-budget 1980s horror films. Max is having a hard time at school too. She agrees to go to a screening of her mom's most famous film, "Camp Bloodbath," when the nerd organizing it promises to help her with her studies. Some friends come along as moral support. A fire breaks out in the theater, blocking the exits. Max realizes there's an exit behind the screen, so she and her friends slice their way through the screen (one of the patrons came dressed as the movie's killer and conveniently dropped his machete in the confusion). Instead of making it to safety, they wind up inside the film! They have to work with the characters in the movie to survive the killer's attacks. Too bad those ditzy camp counselors are more interested in sex than anything else. At least Max has one last chance to talk with her mom, or at least the character she played. Max and her mom's character are both virgins, so they have a good chance of making it to the end and defeating the bad guy, if Max can keep her mom from following the plot.

The movie is surprisingly good. The first scene establishes the relationship between Max and her mom really well and makes them sympathetic characters and three-dimensional people. They give the film an anchor that keeps it from drifting off into mere silliness or excessive gore. Actually, the gore is surprisingly minimal--the filmmakers opt for style (there's a funny and impressive slow motion chase sequence) over splatter (one character falls head first into a bear trap but viewers don't see anything). The movie is creative in a good way.

While the box says this is a loving send-up of '80s slasher films, it actually has a bit more substance than that description implies. It reminded me a lot of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, another surprisingly well-crafted horror comedy (though I don't think this is as good as Tucker and Dale vs. Evil).

Monday, April 25, 2016

Fooling with Fondant

My daughter's cooking enthusiasm has not waned. The latest adventure is working in fondant, a thick moldable icing used to decorate cakes. Or in our case, cupcakes. After making some delicious chocolate cupcakes to serve as a canvas, she prepared some white fondant as a base layer and colored fondant for decorative details.

Rolling out the fondant

One large flat sheet wouldn't do so she found a cookie cutter that was just the size of the cupcakes and made the perfect top.

Making circles

Careful alignment

Cooking is a full-contact sport

She used cake-decorating tools to make the colored decorations and combined them in creative ways.



In order to ensure the process did not ruin the flavor of the decorative icing, she did the only thing she could.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: X-Men The Dark Phoenix Saga by C. Claremont et al.

X-Men The Dark Phoenix Saga written by Chris Claremont, co-plotted and penciled by John Byrne, inked by Terry Austin

The X-Men are returning from another adventure when Jean Grey experiences yet another seeming time slip where she inhabits an ancestor of hers from the 18th century. The 1700s Jean Grey is head-over-heals in love with Jason Wyngarde. Unbeknownst to her there's a modern-day Jason Wyngarde who is a member of the inner circle of the Hellfire Club. The overall club is populated by the rich and powerful of America. The inner circle is a bunch of mutants with world-domination ambitions. They want to bring other mutants into the fold, especially Jean Grey. Her telekinetic and telepathic powers recently went off the chart when she became the Phoenix. When the X-Men get back to headquarters, Professor X sends them to check on two new mutants detected by Cerebro (Kitty Pryde in Chicago and Dazzler in New York City). The Hellfire Club has secretly hacked into Cerebro so they are after the two new mutants and they know all the powers of the X-Men. A hard fight is in store.

This book is a far ranging and focuses on Jean Grey's psychological turmoil. At first she can't figure out what's going on with the time slips; the earlier Grey is more dangerous and cruel. But that's just a side of her personality she keeps under wraps. Keeping that undercover is harder and harder as her powers grow and the corrupting influence of Wyngarde deepens.

The story is also loaded with lots of action which occasionally go over the top, especially at the end. The drama goes to eleven, but in a satisfying way.

Friday, April 22, 2016

TV Review: Daredevil Season Two (2016)

Daredevil Season Two (2016) created by Drew Goddard based on characters by Stan Lee and Bill Everett

See the review of Season One here.

In the wake of Wilson Fisk's arrest and imprisonment, organized crime in New York, and especially in Hell's Kitchen, is not so organized. A fair number of major players were taken out and other, smaller gangs are trying to seize control. Someone had tried to put several gangs together with a drug deal in Central Park but that turned into a bloodbath. Among the innocent bystanders killed was the family of Frank Castle. Castle has gone on a one-man killing spree, but he's only targeting bad guys. With lethal force. Daredevil targets bad guys too but is no killer. That principle is put to the test when his old girlfriend Elektra shows up. She was a friend from college who has a dark and mysterious past that comes back to haunt everyone in the show.

This season has several intriguing plot lines. Castle is dubbed "The Punisher" by the media and he is definitely shown as Matt Murdock/Daredevil going too far in the vigilante business. The Punisher is, at worst, a very sympathetic villain--the show does a good job of keeping his status ambiguous, or at least letting viewers make up their own minds. Elektra is another murderous character whom Matt wants to reign in even though dealing with her makes his life more complicated. His old mentor Stick (played by Scott Glenn) shows up and he also pressures Matt into being a killer. Stick is back because another group of organized criminals, the Hand, has come to New York with their own nefarious agenda. The various threads interweave around Daredevil but never become confusing or convoluted, though occasional bits feel rushed.

The actors overall are very good, lending the right amount of gravity and humor to keep viewers engaged. The show suffers a bit from not having a clear villain. Matt has the typical trust issues with everyone so no one is ever fully in his camp, but they aren't fully opposed either. The ambiguity creates a certain level of tension, but not nearly as strong or as satisfying as the tension in season one with the clearly evil (though highly understandable) Wilson Fisk.

So this season is not as great as Season One but is well worth watching. Currently it is only available through Netflix streaming.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Build a Car at Home

One project at a recent Cub Scouts den meeting was building self-powered cars. The components were a bunch of simple, household items: an empty spool of thread, a rubber band, two washers, a paperclip (or two), a pencil, and some tape.

Unassembled car

The first step is to thread the rubber band through the spool so it sticks out both ends (so the rubber band needs to be longer than the spool). Pinching the end of the rubber band helps to insert it but it is hard to get it all the way through. We used a second paperclip to push it through (after we unbent the clip). A skewer works too.

The first step

The next step is to put the paperclip through the rubber band on one end. We used tape to keep it in place. The paperclip holds the rubber band so it can be wound up later.

Securing one end of the rubber band

On the other end of the spool, put the two washers on. Again, pinching the rubber band makes the task easier.

Two washers

Next, put the pencil through the free end of the rubber band.

The penultimate step

Finally, power the car by twisting the pencil in the same direction until it gets moderately tight. Overtwisting will break the rubber band. Happily rubber bands are cheap and are easy to replace.

Winding up

Finally, put the spool/pencil on the floor and let it go! It's fun to figure out if it will go forward or backward. That depends on which way you've wound the rubber band.

The car does tend to curve to one side. Another scout tried replacing the paperclip with another pencil but winding up became extremely difficult, as well as putting the spool/pencils on the floor.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Movie Review: Pius XII: Under the Roman Sun (2010)

Pius XII: Under the Roman Sun (2010) directed by Christian Duguay

This 200-minute made-for-TV movie (in two parts) depicts Pope Pius XII during World War II. He lives in Vatican City surrounded by Axis-controlled Rome. As the movie starts, the Germans are moving in since Mussolini is faltering and the Allies have landed on Italy. Part of the German's program is to deport Italian Jews to the German concentration camps. So both the war and the Holocaust loom over the city. The story isn't just about Pius XII. At least half the story follows three Jews who live in the Jewish Ghetto--two guys and a gal. At the beginning they have a love triangle--intellectual and supporter of the resistance Marco is the "nice guy" while black market profiteer Davide is the "bad guy." He's not so bad, though. He helps out people when he can. The girl is Miriam, whose father owns a bookshop with a secret printing press in the basement. In addition to producing propaganda, they can forge travel documents. As the Nazis clamp down, they are forced to flee, though our trio can't make it out of the city and have to hide in local monasteries and convents (which has been allowed by a direct order from Pius XII). The story goes on until the liberation of Rome by American troops in 1944.

James Cromwell (from Babe and L. A. Confidential) plays Pius XII and does a fine job showing both his inner conflict and his integrity. The three actors in the love triangle (which is fairly chaste and the romantic part resolves about half way through, leaving them to suffer under the German threats) are okay but their storyline is cliche and less interesting than the actual historical events. The Nazis characters run the gamut from fairly interesting to one-dimensional and wooden.

The history is accurate but occasional bits (like the flashback describing how a papal encyclical denouncing the Nazi government was distributed and received in 1930s Germany) feel more like an infomercial than good storytelling. At one point in the movie the Nazis plot to kidnap Pius XII but nothing interesting ever comes of it. The movie looks like it is trying to balance historical accuracy with an interesting story but overall doesn't hit the mark.

Surely this accurate depiction of Pius XII's actions to protect Jews during World War II is important but the movie isn't as satisfying as it could be.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

News I Wish Was True

As an April Fool's Day prank, the venerable Bruce Campbell posted this image in his Twitter feed:

Holy Awesome, Batman!

Read an article about the reaction here. I would start watching Doctor Who again if this were true! Replace those Sonic Sunglasses with a Sonic Chainsaw...Groovy!

In case you don't know, there's a Catholic version of The Onion which is called Eye of the Tiber. They had an article about a recent superhero movie that has performed poorly at the box office...

This is what happens when you have two popes at the same time

Like the Batman vs. Superman movie, I'd probably wait for this one to come out on video and then rent it from the library (so I can see it for free if it was real). The popular movies at the library usually have hundreds of requests, so often I wait two or three month before I get the DVD. By the time I reach the top of the queue, I sometimes have lost interest. I know I've returned unwatched DVDs to the library but I can't even remember an example (other than I almost returned an unwatched Jurassic World but then had an unexpected free evening and wound up watching it anyway).

As for actually true news, Everyday Einstein podcasts about a report that eating chocolate can make you smarter, in addition to the other benefits science claims for chocolate eating, e.g. better cardiovascular health and less chance of stroke. Like we need more reasons to eat chocolate! Sadly, no information is provided for people who want to volunteer for future studies concerning chocolate consumption.

So at least one bit of news really is true.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Review: The Walking Dead TP25: No Turning Back by Robert Kirkman et al.

The Walking Dead Trade Paperback 25: No Turning Back written by Robert Kirkman, penciled by Charlie Adlard, and inked by Stefano Guadiano

At the end of the last issue, Rick and company discovered the Whisperers' latest atrocity, killing twelve Alexandria people and leaving their heads on sticks to mark the border between the Whisperers and Alexandria. Rick's people process their grief pretty quickly and move onto anger and revenge. Most everyone wants to attack the Whisperers immediately. Rick doesn't think that's a good idea since they know nothing about where the Whisperers are or how many of them there are. He wants to make a plan before doing anything. The people get the impression that he wants to do nothing. They want blood for blood. Infighting breaks out. The situation becomes so desperate that Rick goes to the imprisoned Neegan for advice! Can Rick keep everyone civilized and strike back at the Whisperers?

This book is a return to form for the series. A lot of debate and discussion go on about the nature of leadership and the importance of keeping people safe. The issue is a bit low on zombie killing which doesn't bother me since the main dramatic interest is how the survivors try to live together with some modicum of safety and happiness. This issue makes me excited for more (something that hasn't happened for a while).

Friday, April 15, 2016

TV Review: The Bletchley Circle Season 2 (2014)

The Bletchley Circle Season 2 created and written by Guy Burt

The second season of Bletchley Circle has two two-part stories (so four 44-minute episodes). In the first story ("Blood on Their Hands") one of the other women from Bletchley has been convicted of murder and is about to be hanged. The weird thing is she mounted no legal defense at all. Also the victim is a former lover from Bletchley, a famous scientist. The ladies are on the case, though Susan is reluctant, seeing how she was almost killed last season. They promise not to get so involved this time. That falls through pretty quickly, creating interpersonal tension along with the investigative tension.

In the second story ("Uncustomed Goods"), Millie's sideline work selling black market goods has become her main source of income. Unfortunately, her supplier has been playing fast and loose with the money leading both of them into hot water with the Maltese "importers" he's been scamming. They are taken to a secret hotel where Marta, the head of Maltese smugglers, interrogates them. Millie finds out they are importing more than booze, smokes, and perfume--families are paying to smuggle their daughters out from behind the Iron Curtain. Marta promises to set the daughters up with good jobs, but it's clear they are sold as sex slaves. The rest of the Circle try to find out what happened to Millie but as usual the police are not very responsive. So they get to work. Can they get Millie out and bust up the smuggling and sex trafficking ring?

Both stories are good though I found the first story better. The villain in the second story, Marta, was just okay, making the story less compelling. Also, adding a new character in the first story made that character more dramatically expendable; I never thought Millie in the second story would ever not get out of the bad situation. While not as great as the first series, these stories are still good, solid dramas.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

New Toddler Skills

Our toddler is expanding his skill set at an alarmingly rapid pace! Three new levels have been acquired in a short month's time.

The toddler section of the library has a room with a bunch of fun toys. My son took the blocks and started to stack them!

Can he add the sixth block?

Making the ultimate tower of mega-power

A different stack collapses

Being cute

Previously, he only knocked down block towers. We are excited to see him building his own towers.

Also at the library, he enjoys the simple pleasure of sitting and reading a book.

A book he can identify with

All done!

He doesn't limit his reading to the library.

At home, at the table

He's an expert at turning pages and holding the book right-side-up. He even babbles along as he flips pages, with occasional real words coming out of his mouth.

The most infamous skill he has acquired is best shown in a video...

At least he hasn't figured out how to walk through, though that is surely to come shortly!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: The Journey of the Mind to God by Bonaventure

The Journey of the Mind to God by Bonaventure

Saint Bonaventure was a medieval Franciscan theologian. He wrote this brief but dense work inspired by Francis of Assisi, who often focused on seeking peace as a way to God. Bonaventure meditated on this peace and found a way to the mystical contemplation of God. He describes six steps that lead to God.

The first step considers the very faint image of God in the "vestiges of the universe." By our human sense powers, we come to a knowledge of the world and perceive the orderliness and abundance in the universe. Bonaventure's idea here isn't how we can see an intelligent design to the universe, but how the rationality and immensity of it is reflective of higher and more perfect things, leading to the highest and most perfect God.

The second step looks to that faint image of God in the visible world. How is this different from the first step? Bonaventure explains--in this step we see the universe not as a product of God but as God is present in the universe. After some scientific explanations (which, quite frankly, are no longer valid), he cites Augustine's argument that numbers can be found in all things, and these numbers reflect an order and harmony that leads to God.

The third step sees God's image in our natural powers--memory, knowledge, and desire. Memories are made in the present and include the past; memories also give a hint to the future. So memory gives a shadowy reflection of the eternity in which God lives. Knowledge seeks the truth of things, understanding what they are and how they are related to one another. Truth relies on knowing the being of things (which ultimately relies on the Supreme Being) and the relationship they have to each other (which is a shadowy reflection of the Trinitarian community of the Godhead). Desire is always for the good and must focus on the highest good for man, happiness. That happiness can achieve fulfillment if it has the greatest good as its object, the unchanging and infinite good found in the Supreme Being. Our natural intellectual powers are an image of God.

While the third step is attained through philosophical reflection, the fourth step sees God's image in the human soul perfected by grace,. This step is attained through the gift of grace. A deeper understanding of our relationship to others and to God comes with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These virtues cannot be acquired through human effort but are a gift from God that we accept. Contemplation of Sacred Scripture reinforces and deepens the impact of grace on the soul.

The fifth step looks at God Himself in His essential attributes. Like the third step, this contemplation looks with a more philosophical eye at the primary name of God given to Moses at the burning bush: I am who am. God is Being, pure and simple. Pure being has no potency or division; it cannot be improved or added to. As such, it must be eternal and unchanging. God is one.

The sixth step looks at God as the Good, that is, the highest and most perfect good. Such a good must exist (Bonaventure cites Anselm's famous argument) and also be self-diffusive. This supreme self-diffusion is the starting point from which Bonaventure explains the Three Persons of the Trinity and shows how They can be co-equal and distinct. This is the highest level of contemplation, where the mind is illumined most perfectly.

Of course, a person's ascent to a mystical understanding of God requires not only the intellectual insights described. Bonaventure says in his prologue that only a prayerful and purified spirit can make this ascent. A life of holiness both in prayer and in act is prerequisite for the journey of the mind to God. He reiterates this dependence on divine power in the final chapter. By contemplating Jesus Christ and relying on the grace He provides us, we are able to come close in this life to the vision that we will have in Heaven.

The text, like many medieval writings, is very terse and has some technical language common in medieval philosophy and theology. So reading it isn't the easiest thing but it is very rewarding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review: Morning Glories Vol. 4: Truants by Nick Spencer et al.

Morning Glories Volume 4: Truants written by Nick Spencer and art by Joe Eisma

After the surprising ending of the last volume, where some sort of time split happened leaving the teachers of Morning Glories Academy in a different state from most of the student who were out in the woods. This current day story is stuffed with flashbacks that fill in details about what's going on and the motivations of various characters. A new set of students have shown up and are working their own scheme (they caused the time rift). So things are even more complicated than before.

The plot is getting more outlandish which has me a bit worried. So many separate threads and odd details are introduced, it is hard to tell what's a red herring, what's there just because it's cool, and what's important to the main story (or will be important). The various parts are very interesting but is there a greater whole to be seen soon? I'm still intrigued enough to read the next issue.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Savage Geocache

We went for a spring-time hike to Savage Mill. The mill dates back to pre-Civil War days and was built on the rapids of the Little Patuxent River. The mill processed cotton and by the Civil War days was making canon covers and tents for the Union Army. The railroad already ran through Savage but the remaining landmark of the locomotive era is the Bollman Iron Truss Bridge built in 1869.  The design by William Bollman was used on over 100 bridges built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The bridge at Savage is the last one still standing.

Approaching the Bridge

On the bridge

Blowing bubbles off the bridge

The other end of the bridge

We had printed out information on A Boy's Bridge Cache from the Geocaching website. The cache is a mystery cache, meaning we had to find some information on the bridge and use that to figure out the final coordinates. The new coordinates led us down a trail along the Little Patuxent for about half a mile. The walk was long, especially for the toddler, but we were able to make the find.

Walking down the trail

River rapids

Near the cache

On the way back, we admired the view of what's left of the Savage Mill, which has been turned into eclectic retail shops, including our favorites The Family Game Store, Bonaparte's Bakery, and Ram's Head Tavern.

Best view from our side of the river (good thing it was early spring!)

Back by the bridge

Seeing the mill from the bridge

The old water-wheel house