Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Volunteering at the Ravens/Bengals Game 2016

Our church's youth group has a fun volunteering opportunity. Volunteers travel to M&T Bank Stadium to hand out game programs for some of the Baltimore Ravens football games. My wife volunteers with the youth group for their regular, at-church activities. She volunteered me for this activity, for which I am quite grateful.

I went this past weekend to the Ravens versus the Cincinnati Bengals 1 p.m. game. The group had to arrive by 10 a.m. to go in, get informed on what to do (and what not to do), and get to our stations for the gates opening at 11 a.m.

The sponsor's logo is much bigger than the teams!

Arriving that early at the stadium is an eye-opening experience. The neighborhoods near the stadium where the street parking is free on Sunday mornings were crowded by 9:30 with tailgaters. Some people were using the sidewalks to cook some brats and such. Celebrating can't start too early, I guess.

At the stadium, things were just getting busy outside. Other volunteers and employees were showing up. One beer tent was ready to serve!

No one was taking off at this flight deck at 9:45

Hospitality tents for VIP guests?

A lot of vendors were set up on the path between the Ravens' stadium and the Orioles' stadium. The vendors gave away freebies and sold stuff to the fans. I enjoyed a free coffee from Dunkin' Donuts (I usually don't drink coffee but the weather was in the 40s Fahrenheit) and a bag of chips from Utz. A mattress store had a "spin the wheel" giveaway but the only items they had on offer were a plush "Mr. Mattress" doll and a bunch of t-shirts. The shirts all had sayings like "I'm a superstar in bed." I wasn't interesting in getting either, so I didn't spin the wheel. A local grocery chain had their own wheel, offering cookies, breakfast biscuits, fruit snacks, and granola bars. I won a bag of cookies, which I smuggled into the stadium.

Ravens Walk just outside the main entrance to the stadium

After a quick visit to Ravens Walk, we got back to our gate, where volunteers enter.

Rendezvous at Gate A-1

We received badges and went through security before our training in a special room. The training was mostly "be positive and smile, make this a fun experience for the fans." The trainer said if there were any problems, we should refer them to one of the regular staff in a green coat. We were issued vests, hats (though there weren't enough hats in the room, I got mine later), and water bottles. Soon enough we were off to our gate just before 11 a.m.

We worked at Gate A and saw plenty of action from 11:45 up to 1:15.

Horrible lighting from inside the stadium

Myself, geared up and ready to go

As volunteer opportunities go, this job was fun. Most people were happy to receive programs. Some were surprised that they were free. Some wanted extras to share with friends and family. Some didn't want any at all. Some politely took the programs and later dropped them back in the box while our backs were turned! Kids loved getting something free. When the crowd got thick, we had to make some passes over and in between other patrons. People were always polite and happy to be there.

By the end of the first quarter of the game (around 1:30), they closed the gate. We stacked up the few boxes that remained and headed back to our secret room. We turned in our gear, got an extra bottle of free water and a free ticket to the game. The seats were good ones, too--lower deck, very close to the field.

Free ticket for volunteering

View from my seat

Playing on my end of the field

Seats that had the benefit of sunshine on the 50 degree day

The game went well, by which I mean the home team won without too much trouble. Some of the patrons nearby grumbled about referee calls that went against the Ravens. Otherwise the crowd was pleasant.

At half time, four junior teams came out for some quick playing. Two middle school girls' teams played flag football at one end of the stadium while two elementary school boys' teams played tackle at the other end.

Half time entertainment

Peewee football was at my end of the stadium

The weather was too cold to enjoy a cold beer. I bought a hot dog for lunch and snacked on chips and cookies from the Ravens Walk. I almost bought hot chocolate but couldn't stomach the five dollar price.

The whole experience was great and I'd do it again, though the church group doesn't have any more games on their schedule till next year. Here's hoping the Ravens make it into the playoffs!

Reading the program at home

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Visitation (1982)

Doctor Who: The Visitation (1982) written by Eric Saward and directed by Peter Moffatt

Fifth Doctor Peter Davison tries to return his companion Tegan (Janet Fielding) to Heathrow Airport in 1981, ending her adventures with him. The TARDIS gets the location right but the year wrong. The year is 1666 and the plague is raging throughout England. If that wasn't bad enough, a "comet" crashed recently which the locals took as a sign of doom. They are quite right of course, because it was actually a spaceship. The Doctor wants to help the stranded aliens get back to their home world. Those aliens, the Terileptils, have other plans, the typical enslaving and/or wiping out humanity so they can have the Earth to themselves.

The show has the usual antics--kidnappings and escapes, chasing good guys or bad guys, building a science-y weapon, bantering between the Doctor and the companions (two others are on board in addition to Tegan). A fun addition is Richard Mace (Michael Robbins), a highwayman who used to be an actor before the plague made theater-going less appealing. He helps out the Doctor with his highwayman skills (picking locks and shooting pistols, that kind of thing) and provides some extra comic relief. The aliens are typical Doctor Who baddies, though at least they are imaginative enough to dress up their android as Death to scare the locals away.

Overall, this four-parter is a fun if a bit average adventure for the Doctor.

A bit of fun trivia--in the special features, they mention that Peter Davison played Tristan in All Creatures Great and Small, which made me look at his career on IMDB. Another fun role was this one:

I laughed because I knew exactly what role he had just from the name! He's the cow that points out his best parts to diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 1 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 1 by Hiro Mashima, translated and adapted by William Flanagan

Young aspiring wizard Lucy wants to join Fairy Tail, a famous guild with top-notch magic users and a bit of a bad reputation for going overboard when working on assignments. Lucy runs into Natsu, a young wizard with a talking cat for a companion. He has come to Hargeon searching for a fire dragon named Salamander. He's found a blowhard wizard who calls himself Salamander and is the idol of all the young women. Lucy almost falls under his spell until she realizes he is in fact using a charm spell to convince women to come to his leisure yacht for a party. Salamander's purposes are much more nefarious than wanting to party with pretty women. Luckily for Lucy, Natsu sticks around to help out and is from Fairy Tail. He's her ticket to the big leagues.

The story is quite imaginative and has a good blend of humor and action. Different wizards have different abilities--Natsu has dragon-based magic with lots of fire-related results. Lucy uses celestial keys to access various zodiac characters (Taurus is a goofy axe-wielding bull). She doesn't have a complete set of keys and has to negotiate contracts with the characters (what days she can access them, how much she can get from them, etc.). When they get to Fairy Tail, Lucy meets a huge assortment of wizards. They wind up in a big barroom brawl (as if the story is an American western and not a Japanese manga) that's broken up by the arrival of their master.

The book ends with Lucy and Natsu (and Happy the cat) going off on a job to recover a book in Duke Everlue's possession. So there's a cliffhanger ending pulling readers into volume 2.

The book also has some handy explanations from the author in the front and the back.* The most fascinating bits are the cultural translations. For example, "master" is a word the Japanese have borrowed but it mostly means "someone who runs a business." The notions of "having expertise or skill (e.g. mastery of cooking)" or "being a slave owner" are completely absent in the Japanese use of the word. 

I was also watching the anime version of this story through Netflix, which no longer has the first season available. So far, the plots are exactly the same. Both are equally enjoyable, though the manga has a bit more fan service, i.e. the female characters are chestier than their TV counterparts. There's no nudity but skimpy outfits are everywhere.

*The front and back of the book are opposite because one reads manga with the book's binding on the right, not the left, resulting in a "backward" paperback book. It's surprisingly easy to get used to reading right to left after a couple of pages.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail, Caesar! (2016) written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a fixer at Capitol Pictures in the 1950s. His job is to make sure operations run smoothly at the studio, mostly by fixing problems that come up. Like the singing cowboy who can't quite act in a sophisticated melodrama and is driving the director crazy; the swimming star who is pregnant and unmarried; the big star (George Clooney) who is kidnapped off the set of the studio's big Biblical epic. The epic's script has already gone through the theological wringer of a rabbi, an Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a Catholic priest (which is a pretty funny scene). Eddie is a Catholic and struggles with his sins and with an offer from Lockheed for a better paying, fewer hours job.

Both the characters in the movie and the movie itself vacillate between earnestness and frivolity. It comes off as the film makers both admiring and poking fun at the Golden Age of Hollywood. The problem is they have too much admiration to have the sharp and biting satire I was expecting. The lighter tone would be okay if there was more comedy or the comedy was funnier. A lot of jokes have too much set up, leading viewers to guess the punch line long before it's actually delivered on screen.

I did like the theme of the importance and value of work. Eddie is considering the offer from Lockheed because the company does serious business and he can have more home life and deal with more rational people than the Hollywood set. But there is value in the work he does at the studio, it isn't completely frivolous. There's an extended subplot with a sort of Hollywood communist think tank (though they seem to have jumbled up Locke, Hegel, and Marx, with more emphasis on jumble than on philosophy) which also reflects on the value of work. But again, the film makers can't seem to decide whether to take it seriously or not and the sequence comes off as muddled filler that helps to tie up loose ends of the plot.

I wouldn't say this is a bad movie, there are plenty of entertaining bits. But the movie has a lot of potential that never gets actualized, so it winds up disappointing. If taken as pure fluff, it's a fine film. But is that really what they were going for?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sky Zone Visit

My daughter was invited to a birthday party at Sky Zone, a trampoline-based play area in one of the warehousey neighborhoods of Columbia, Maryland. The building used to have a lot of inflatable playgrounds, slides, etc., but I guess the new fad in fun athletics is the trampoline. The place is quite amazing and hosts not only children's parties but "SkyRobics" and a dodge ball league! So adults get in on the action too. Sadly, I was too shy and too amazed to join in the fun. My daughter had enough fun for the two of us...

The party consisted of about an hour with a reserved, private trampoline arena (they have about five of them) and then a pizza party in a party room. The room turned out to be an upstairs, open-air room with views of the whole complex. It was quite impressive. We were too busy eating to take pictures.

In addition to enjoying the trampolines, my daughter also liked the foam pit, a sort of hybrid of trampolines and ball pits.

Jumping in with full force

Climbing out

They also have trampolines under basketball hoops, making it easy to slam dunk a ball. My daughter didn't try it out.

The party was a fun time. We may go back again on our own if we find a deal ($16 an hour is the standard rate per person, which is a little pricey for us).

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

TV Review: The Hollow Crown: Richard III (2016)

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Richard III (2016) directed by Dominic Cooke based on Shakespeare's plays

For the previous Hollow Crown series, see my reviews of Richard IIHenry IV Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V. For the previous episodes in the Wars of the Roses series, see Henry VI Part 1 and Part 2.

Richard III (Benedict Cumberbatch) rises to and falls from power in this adaptation of Shakespeare's popular play. Richard is a man of cunning and ambition with no apparent sense of goodness in him at all. He manipulates his family members and the nobility with horrifying ease and effectiveness, always redirected responsibility and guilt on others. He acknowledges his guilt to viewers (he makes many asides to the camera to clarify what he's really up to) and has no remorse. In spite of killing two brothers, two nephews, a wife, and a host of other nobles and relatives, he gets his comeuppance at the end.

The production is very elaborate. Scenes are filmed in historic locations and battles occur in towns and fields, giving the movie a very cinematic feel. Richard starts the movie with an aside to the camera (the "Now is the winter of our discontent..." speech) so his talking to the camera seems natural, though the previous episodes haven't had anyone speak directly to the camera since the Chorus actually appears at the end of Henry V. Since the story is an intimate portrayal of Richard, the asides work well.

On the other hand, just because it's intimate doesn't mean it's accurate. Critics of the play like to rail against it as Tudor propaganda (Henry VII beats Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and winds up with the crown) and character assassination. Setting those (legitimate) concerns aside, this story gives a compelling picture of the most Machiavellian man ever. Dramatically it is very exciting and Cumberbatch gives a great performance, sliding around from fake meekness and icy calculation to moral outrage and anger with amazing ease. It's a great performance of Shakespeare's take on Richard III.

This is well worth watching and a fine end to the series.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Crazy (and Not So Crazy) Quotes

Here's a bunch of quotes that have been waiting to be published. I thought I would get a bunch more but I'm never near the computer when I read a book and find a quote I like.

From "Walk Around Historic Harrogate" by Malcolm Neesam: "Just round the corner from Harrogate theatre, the unusually named BEULAH STREET (once a hotbed of rampant Methodism)..." Neesam also quotes Charles Dickens who visited Harrogate in 1858 and described it as "The queerest place, with the strangest people, leading the oddest lives..."

From the health and hygiene section of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer: "So, as long as you can get enough to eat, and can avoid all the various lethal infections, the dangers of childbirth, lead poisoning and the extreme violence, you should live a long time. All you have to worry about are the doctors." [p. 209]

From Adler's Philosophical Dictionary by Mortimer Adler: "We cannot understand what it means to say that man is a rational animal without, at the same time, recognizing that a rational animal is a freak of nature. The nature of a rational animal is a mixture of incompatible elements." [p. 74]

From the Tippecanoe Battlefield Museum: "The greatest tragedies in history occur not when right confronts wrong but when two rights confront each other." Henry Kissinger

From Medieval Women Mystics, quoting Julian of Norwich: "I am not good because of this vision, but only if I love God more because of it. And to the extent that you love God more than I do, you are that much better than I am. I am not saying this to those who are wise, for they know it well enough. But I am saying it to you who are simple, to give you peace and comfort, for we are in fact all one in love. And truly it was not shown to me that God loves me more than the least soul that is in a state of grace. I am sure that there are many who never had any revelations or visions outside the ordinary teaching of Holy Church and yet who love God more than I do. [p. 132]

Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 26 by R. Kirkman et al.

The Walking Dead Volume 26: Call to Arms written by Robert Kirkman and art by Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano, and Cliff Rathburn

After the Whisperers have marked their territory with the heads of people from Rick's Alexandria community, there's been an uneasy truce. Secretly (but not too secretly) Rick has begun training his people for another war. He manages the political situation at Alexandria but not well. One boy decides to sneak Negan out of jail with disastrous consequences for many.

The political situation in Alexandria is interesting. Rick wants to keep the people up in arms against the Whisperers. His methods are a little too clumsy to be completely effective. His relationship with his son is touched on briefly. The story is definitely losing interest in the father-son dynamic. The focus is shifted to Negan, who has a rather unbelievable character development in this story.

Overall the story still reads like its best days are behind and getting further away. I think I keep forgetting how disappointed I am with the series, since the trade paperbacks come out every six months or so. I don't remember how disappointing the last one was and I jump back in once the library has a new issue. It's probably time to stop. Sorry, Walking Dead!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve

Aliens have come in twelve separate ships that are randomly scattered across the planet. Each country has teams of scientists trying to figure out the aliens. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the U.S. military to help them communicate with the extra-terrestrials. Dr. Banks is chosen since she's already got a Top Secret clearance and has helped the government translate time-sensitive materials. The aliens use a language that is completely foreign so she has a huge task ahead of her. Relations with the other nations are strained as they try to determine if the visitors are a threat or peaceful. Louise is also plagued by memories of her daughter who dies of an unnamed disease.

The movie is this year's big ambitious thinky/feely science fiction film (cf. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian). Language and memory are the main subjects of this film. The discussions about language and the various attempts to communicate with the aliens are interesting and creative. The military pressuring scientists to get results is typical of the genre. That part of the movie is mostly predictable and uninteresting, even with a fine actor like Forest Whitaker as the main military man dealing with the scientists. The nature of memory is set out as the main theme at the beginning but by the end the filmmakers have made a mess of it.

Weirdly enough, that mess is what makes Louise's narrative make sense. She comes to grips in a new and startling way with her daughter's fate after she understands the aliens' intent in coming. As a larger narrative, the story doesn't make sense but as it specifically relates to Louise and her life, it pulls things together at the end.

I have fairly mixed feelings about the movie. The score is a bit ham-fisted in melodramatizing events in the story. The movie looks very similar to other films going all the way back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so it isn't particularly original (except for the alien writing). The ideas are interesting and fun to chew on, even if they are ultimately hard to swallow. Amy Adams gives a great performance in the lead role, holding together the shaky narrative.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Our Summer Harvest 2016

This past summer (summer of '16) we started gardening in earnest. We had two amazingly good crops come in. We planted corn in late June and were able to harvest some beautiful ears in August.

Corn growing high

Corn close up

Our "field" wasn't very big, so we had to do some stalk-shaking to get the germination, but it paid off.

Shucking at our compost pile

More shucking

The smell test

Compared to store-bought corn, ours wasn't so big but was definitely more yellow. We think it was more flavorful.

Big corn, little corn

Enjoying the fruits of our labor

We planted sunflower seeds which shot up at a nice rate. The flowers were large and impressive.

Our sunflowers

We did not have to do our own pollination for the flowers.

Bee careful!

They got big enough that they started to droop (or to point at stars other than our sun, i.e. on the other side of the planet).

Another sun?

We cut off the flowers and began the seed-harvesting process.

Flower on our porch

Making faces

In the house, we picked out seeds.

Looking for seeds


Some seeds had already been sampled by others of God's creatures, so we had to sort those out from the good ones.

Sorting seeds

Keeping a close eye on things

To make them extra good, we boiled them.

Sunflower seed prep brought to you by Golden Blossom Honey

Some seeds

We also had some good herb harvests, except for the basil which bugs love to snack on. We will definitely getting a big crop next year. We've already planted garlic for spring harvesting!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

TV Review: The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Part 2 (2016)

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Henry VI Part 2 (2016) directed by Dominic Cooke based on Shakespeare's plays

For the previous Hollow Crown series, see my reviews of Richard IIHenry IV Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V. For the previous episode in the Wars of the Roses series, see Henry VI Part 1.

The Wars of the Roses rages on as King Henry VI is assailed by the house of York with their claims as rightful ruler. Henry is too mild and pious to hold the crown on his own. His scheming wife Margaret is certainly more aggressive if not entirely faithful. They have a son, Edward, whom Henry disinherits in a moment of weakness while negotiating with the Duke of York. There are plenty of betrayals among the Yorks as well. The plot requires a bit of attention.

For a Shakespeare play, this production includes a lot of violence and bloody gore. There's no stagey-ness or skimping on the battle scenes. They show the full horror of battle. Coughing up blood happens a lot; many throats are slit. Heads are cut off and piked on the walls of cities (a common practice in dealing with traitors back then). So squeamish viewers need to beware.

The story moves along at a rapid pace, almost to the detriment of the storytelling. Loyalties reverse many times throughout the show, sometimes happening a bit too quickly to be believable. The story takes place over 15 or 16 years. Things slow down at the end as the focus shifts to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, (played well by Benedict Cumberbatch) who does the dirty work needed to ensure his brother, Edward IV, remains King of England. Richard will wind up as Richard III, the subject of the final movie in this series. The other actors do a good job as well. The story just looks stripped down to the bare bones.

This movie is better as a connective tissue between Part 1 and Richard III, I'm not sure that it can stand on its own as a story. Certainly it was produced as part of a trilogy, and Henry VI was originally three separate plays, so a lot of material was condensed to make it to the finale.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Book Review: Pretty Deadly Vol. 2 by K. S. DeConnick et al.

Pretty Deadly Volume 2: The Bear written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and art and covers by Emma Rios

After Volume 1, the story jumps ahead to World War I with an elderly African-American woman on her deathbed. All of her family and friends have come to visit except for one son, Cyrus, who is off in Europe fighting in the trenches. The old lady convinces Death's agent, a guy named Fox, to delay a month to give Cyrus a chance to make it home and say goodbye. Turns out Fox is an old flame for the old lady, so he not only agrees to the month delay but he actively campaigns to get Cyrus back home. The narrative shifts to the World War I battlefield. There, Ginny and Sissy (two of the main characters from Volume 1) are in pursuit of Cyrus. They also want to take out the Death agent who is causing so much carnage during World War I. Can a senseless war end with the banishment of Death's agent?

The story in this issue is simpler, more direct, and more artistic. With less plot to get through, the artist has more room to show the plot and themes of the book on big panels and splash pages. The big images also give an epic feel to the more intimate story of a son trying to get home to say goodbye to his momma.

I found the story enjoyable but not as good as the first volume, which was able to pack in more mythology. Also, the theme of Ginny being a sort of avenging angel (which I found the most interesting part of the story) is dropped. This book contains some fun supplemental materials about the creation and the art of the story.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Belle Grove Plantation, Virginia

Belle Grove Plantation was founded by Joist Hite in 1731. He came from Pennsylvania with many other families and settled in the verdant Shenandoah Valley. In the late 1700s, the property was developed by Major Isaac Hite (Joist's grandson) and his wife Nelly, who was sister of President James Madison. They grew wheat to sell as flour and to make whiskey. They were highly prosperous, in part due to the use slaves. During the American Civil War, a battle raged on the very doorstep of the Hite's home. The Battle of Cedar Creek was fought on October 19, 1864. The early morning fog provided cover for Confederate troops as they assaulting the sleeping Union Army. The day was almost a rout of the Union's forces, but General Phil Sheridan arrived to bolster his troops. The Union was able to overcome General Jubal Early's Confederates in a day-long battle that saw over 8,600 men killed, wounded, or captured. The war would end in six months.

Entrance sign for the Plantation

Memorial tree to Mr. Hite

Dedication plaque from the 1985 family reunion!

The grounds have the foundation of the original building, the Old Hall, where Isaac and Nelly Hite first lived in 1783. Newlyweds James and Dolly Madison spent part of their honeymoon there! After the new house was built, the hall was used for guests and as a school for the family's children. The Old Hall was destroyed in the late 1800s.

Foundation outline

More of the foundation

My toddler learning about the hall (if only he could read!)

Next to the foundation is the blacksmith's shop, a very important part of the farm.

Blacksmith's shop


Anvil secured to a tree stump

Not sure what this is

Pottery wheel

Across a path is what looked to us like a sunken house. When we went inside, our children asked about it.

A roof with no building?

The docent let us make some guesses and then explained it was the ice house. In the winter, workers would chop ice from the lake or river and store it in the large well under this roof. They'd add in sawdust and hay to keep the ice from melting. During the warmer months, the family would use the ice to keep containers cold or to chill glasses for their drinks, as well as refrigerating meat inside the ice house. The ice itself wasn't potable (pond water plus sawdust plus hay equals nothing good for human consumption). The pit is an amazing 16 feet across and 18 feet deep. The docent lowered an electric lantern to show the size.

Toddler examines the door

Inside the ice house

My daughter feels the chill

Belle Grove Mansion was built in 1794 by Isaac Hite, probably with design input from Thomas Jefferson. The family lived, did business, and entertained guests all on the main floor. The attic is accessible by a small spiral staircase and was probably used for storage and as sleeping quarters for the older children (Isaac had twelve!) and some slaves as well. The basement was the kitchen and laundry area. Photography wasn't allowed inside so I only have exterior shots.

Front of the mansion

Civil War-era bullet hole on one of the pillars

The side of the mansion

Back porch

The back stairs

The farm ran for over 200 years, so more modern buildings like the 1918 barn are still extant.

1918 barn

Rain garden

We were inspired to check if a geocache was nearby. We discovered one on the property. The box was the fanciest we've ever seen.

Geocache (log in the lid)

The National Park Service also provides self-guide pamphlets and an audio tour for the Battle of Cedar Creek, which we will do on a later visit.