Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman takes the old Norse texts, the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, as his source to tell the tales of the ancient Norse gods and goddesses, made so familiar by Marvel's Thor. Odin and Loki and Baldur and the rest are here. Gaiman picks and chooses the stories he wants to retell and has wound up with an overall narrative from the Norse creation myth (the nine worlds connected by Yggdrassil, the world tree) to the Norse apocalypse (Ragnarok, the great battle that ends the lives of just about everyone, gods and humans). But not quite everyone dies, so the ending isn't so grim--it suggests a cyclical nature to the mythology's history.

The individual stories are interesting, though some have more charm and memorableness to them. I especially liked "Hymir and Thor's Fishing Expedition" where Thor (who has never fished before) goes out with a giant and tries to catch something for dinner. Thor is a bit clueless and brutal though he is willing to try anything, because he's Thor. Loki features in many stories for good and for ill. He has a large roll in Ragnarok, especially as the father of many of the evil creatures fighting against the gods.

My only complaint about the book is the style of writing, which vacillates between having the voice of an ancient and otherly narrative and the voice of a very contemporary speaker. Such a juxtaposition works well in something like Anansi Boys, where ancient gods live in modern times, but here it is ill-advised and much less satisfying. Otherwise the stories are excellent.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bowie Baysox Game 2017

We took Grandpa to a baseball game for his birthday. We went to a Sunday afternoon game for the Bowie Baysox, the AAA team for the Baltimore Orioles.

The game in action

 We went the weekend of First Communion for my daughter. She wanted to go to the game and she had a fun time hanging out with Grandpa.

Explaining the game to his granddaughter

 My son brought his baseball glove hoping to catch a foul ball. He lucked out and managed to snag one in the middle innings.

Guy got ball

 The game was fun but a slow and steady loss for the home team. The visiting team was the Richmond Flying Squirrel (I kid you not) and they were able to exploit the gap between the short stop and the outfielders.

In between the innings they had various activities. Since it was Mother's Day (we left Mom and Granny behind so they could relax while the toddler napped at home), a lot of moms in the crowd were selected to compete in various contests, like crab walking a certain distance or the ever popular sumo wrestling suits. Occasionally the kids soloed on a contest, like this one where they had to race around a bat and then try to walk in a straight line while they were dizzy.

Bat challenge

My son managed to catch a second foul ball which he gave to his sister as a souvenir. 

Double play!

 My brother (who was down from Jersey for the First Communion) also came to the game and had a good time but managed to avoid the camera. Everyone had a fun time, except for the home team who lost 4-1.

Farewell, ball fans!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender: North and South Part Three by G.L. Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender: North and South Part 3 written by Gene Luen Yang, art and cover by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Team Avatar works to protect a meeting between Southern Water Tribe leader Hakoda and the newly arrived Fire Lord Zuko and Earth King Kuei. They have come at Hakoda's invitation to discuss plans and support for economic development in the Southern Water Tribe's kingdom. Oil has been discovered and a refinery is under construction but some locals oppose development that might turn the Southern Water Tribe into a pale imitation of the other nations. Resistance leader Gilak (who was imprisoned in the last issue) breaks out of jail and makes trouble for everyone.

As always, Yang does a great job balancing the action and jokes with a more substantive storyline. Waterbender Katara has both nostalgia for the tribe's past and fear of a future assimilation into the other cultures. The story presents many sides of the issue and gives a nice, hopeful resolution.

Highly recommended!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic (2016) written and directed by Matt Ross

Viggo Mortensen is Ben, a father of six who lives with his children in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Ben is a survivalist and intellectual and wants to pass those on to his children. They live a life that is idyllic for Ben; the children hardly know any other life. On one of his runs to a nearby town for mail and supplies, he calls his father-in-law to check on the status of his wife, who had been hospitalized many months before. This call is the worst news--she has committed suicide. And the father-in-law says he will have Ben arrested if he shows up for the funeral because he blames Ben for her condition. Ben tells the children, who are naturally very sad though Ben is not very comforting. When he reads her will, he discovers that she wants to be cremated and taken to a populous area where her ashes will be flushed down a toilet. Ben wants to respect her wishes, so he packs the kids up and heads off to the Southwestern United States.

Initially Ben's life is presented as idyllic. The children read and discuss and farm and hunt in the forest. Once they confront the rest of the world, the contrast is stark and his parenting looks very questionable. The oldest son, who has been accepted to a bunch of Ivy League universities, has no ability to talk to young women his own age. The children's lack of basic social and life skills is a reflection of his anti-capitalist ideology which has really poisoned them against everything--for example, he hates not just fast food but even a normal diner or restaurant (claiming "there's no real food on this menu"), though he's perfectly willing to steal junk food from a grocery store. The contradictions in his lifestyle come to a head when he gets to his wife's funeral and he has to confront his father-in-law.

The movie's great strength is that it shows both the good and bad of Ben's decisions and forces him to deal with the consequences for himself and for his children. Exploring that shift for Ben is quite fascinating. The movie waffles a bit at the end, trying to have two very different emotional endings. He both gives up everything and gets everything he wants, which makes no narrative or thematic sense in the story, especially with the third and final ending where Ben has learned to adjust, presumably for the sake of his children.

This movie brings up a lot of interesting points for discussion but, as a narrative, the strong beginning is let down by too many endings that don't fit with each other.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

One Ingredient Challenge: Fizzy Fruit

Part of an ongoing series of cooking from scratch. That is, we cook something from basic items that don't have multiple ingredients (e.g. store-bought spaghetti sauce includes all sorts of spices and maybe other stuff too; we'd start with tomatoes and individual spices and add them together to make our own sauce). See other challenges here.

This particular challenge is unique. My wife found out about fizzy fruit through the wonders of the randomness of the internet. Fizzy fruit is introducing carbonation into fruit through the use of dry ice. We took the recipe from Chef Steps and didn't change a thing.

The basic recipe is putting fruit in a container (like a cooler) with the dry ice (about a pound is good). Trick #1--The dry ice should be covered with a towel or rag to keep from freezing the fruit. Trick #2--The cooler should be wrapped in plastic wrap to keep the dry ice fumes (scientifically known as Carbon Dioxide) from dissipating.

The cooler under wraps

We set this up the night before my daughter's First Communion, hoping to spring it on the guests at the party afterward. We used red grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries.

Prepping fruit

In the First Communion dress (in case you missed the earlier post)

When we cracked open the cooler just before the party, there was no hiss or blast of cold air. We got the fruit out and found that most had frozen. We had covered the dry ice with a dish towel but maybe we should have used a more substantial towel. We plated the fruit with the hope of some thawing.

The goods

My daughter pealed a grape to see the bubbles, but there were none.

Cracking open a grape

Luscious (but not visibly fizzy) insides

Even so, we could taste a little fizz with the grapes. The blueberries and the blackberries also worked well. The strawberries did not work so well. The guests were impressed but not wowed by our fizzy fruit. I think we overdosed on the dry ice and may have to scale back next time. The video never mentioned the fruit freezing. Maybe we've made a new discovery?

After dinner that evening, we had fun doing some simple experiments with the leftover dry ice. First we put a chunk in a glass of water and saw the carbon dioxide ooze over. Then, we put soap in the glass of water to make a huge pile of bubbles. Finally, we tried filling balloons with carbon dioxide. Getting the ice inside the balloon was too hard, so we put the ice in a beer bottle and the balloon over the top. The balloon filled but did not fly off. We were too busy having fun to take pictures!

Good luck if you try this for your next big party!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (1970)

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (1970) written by Robert Holmes and directed by Derek Martinus

The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) makes his debut (in color, no less!) when the Earth is threatened by invasion yet again. A group of objects have fallen to Earth and are not the typical space debris. They are glowing orbs being collected by odd-looking mannequin people (and one cantankerous human farmer). The Doctor is still recovering from his transformation, so roughly the first of the four episodes is more about the local reaction, especially the activities of U.N.I.T., the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. They are trying to locate and investigate the orbs as well as determine the identity of the Doctor (since he has a new face, he doesn't look like the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) anymore). Meanwhile, the baddies are slowly revealing themselves and their nefarious plans.

Slow is probably the key word in describing this story arc. Not much happens in the first episode other than establishing the various characters. The plot moves forward very slowly and the action doesn't pick up until late in episode two. The finale has some wobbly special effects, a bit of a shock after a fairly good, minimalist presentation of the bad guys. Pertwee is more dashing and robust as the Doctor, and not so comical as others before and after him. He may be a little too serious as the Doctor, though his good looks are offset by the flamboyant cape and puffy shirt. He's not my favorite Doctor but he does a good job.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: Wires and Nerves Vol. 1 by M. Meyer et al.

Wires and Nerves Volume 1 written by Marissa Meyer and art by Doug Holgate with Stephen Gilpin

A band consisting of a mutant, a cyborg, an android, and some humans have successfully led a revolt against the Lunar queen and put the rightful queen (a teenager and the aforementioned cyborg whose name is Cinder) on the throne. That's good news because it ended the war between the Moon and the Earth. But there's still some problems, like the army of genetically-altered wolf-human hybrids the evil queen sent to subjugate the Earth. Small packs of the army still wander around terrorizing (and eating) locals. Queen Cinder has sent the aforementioned android (named Iko) as a secret agent to take out the wolf packs one by one. Hopefully the situation will be settled enough that Cinder can safely attend attend a festival and ball which the Earth emperor (one of the aforementioned humans and quite the hottie) will attend.

The story is a continuation of a Young Adult fantasy series called The Lunar Chronicles. I had no idea when I selected the book, I just saw it in the "new graphic novels" section on the library web site and liked the cover and the title (there must be some sci fi robot story called "Nerves of Steel" somewhere, right?). The series reimagines classic fairy tales in a science fiction setting, thus Cinder is based on Cinderella, though she is her own character and not just Cinderella in Space. This particular story has a bit more focus on dresses and romance than I was expecting, so those parts of the story stuck out for me. On further reflection, the storytelling is balanced between action, romance, and political intrigue. No element is particularly deep or new, but together they make a fun story.


Monday, May 22, 2017

First Communion 2017

Our daughter had her First Communion on the day before Mother's Day this year. She has been diligently preparing spiritually.

Dress, veil, and wrap (shoes not visible)

She's been doing well in her religious education classes and we received an email from the director asking if our daughter would like to be a reader. She readily agreed and practiced at home several times. Her brother read the first reading last year at his First Communion. She had the second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles:
The followers of Jesus spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread and prayed together.
Everyone was amazed at the many miracles and wonders that the apostles worked.
All the Lord’s followers often met together, and they shared everything they had. They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it. Day after day they met together in the temple. They broke bread together in different homes and shared their food happily and freely, while praising God. Everyone liked them, and each day the Lord added to their group others who were being saved.
She read beautifully and made us all want to be in that early Christian community.

Like last year, they didn't have pictures during the Mass, so we have none of the actual event. It was a very beautiful moment with family gathered around her.

Since it was a rainy day, after the Mass they did not take a group picture outside. Instead, they went to the parish hall where a lovely picture was taken.

Taken from the Religious Ed Facebook page!

The gathering afterward went rather quickly. My daughter picked up her certificate and the special cross given to each communicant and we headed back home.

A quick selfie with Granny's phone

There were a few parking lot photos but we did not do many other pictures. She has a natural modesty about her that precluded many photos.

With mom

Close to mom

Back home, she slowly changed her outfit back into regular clothes. The party was lots of fun, with yummy foods, good conversations, and fabulous presents.

Still no shoes, sorry!

The day was very beautiful and precious to us.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Charlie Gordon works in a bakery doing the most menial tasks. Nowadays we'd call him mentally challenged (or possibly a more specific diagnosis) but in the book (published in 1966) he is described as retarded. Even though he lacks many skills, he has the ambition to be more. He goes to special classes to help him read and write better. The teacher recommends him for experimental surgery and therapy that may increase his intelligence. The scientists have succeeded in making a mouse named Algernon smarter. The mouse can solve mazes with skill and speed. When Charlie is first brought to the lab, the scientists give him a paper-and-pencil version of the same maze that Algernon is about to run. The mouse beats Charlie. Charlie doesn't give up--he agrees to the experiment. His intelligence is increased, even beyond the level of the experimenters. But then Algernon shows signs of deterioration. Will the same thing happen to Charlie? Can he avoid losing his new-found intelligence?

The story is told through Charlie's journals. He begins writing them at the request of the scientists. The first entries have the poor spelling and grammar characteristic of Charlie's state. They also reveal a little bit of his family history and how he's been treated by his co-workers at the bakery (not too well). The transformation into an intelligent person is believable as is his character development as he learns more about the world and himself. Smartly, the story recognizes that his emotional development is not considered in the experiment, leading to problems for Charlie in dealing with others. He realizes intellectually how few people have treated him like a person and becomes a bit difficult and taciturn, in part because his emotional development doesn't match his intellectual development. He tries to reach out to his estranged family but has a difficult time there as well. His eventual slide back into a less intelligent state is heart-breaking.

The story is very compelling and well worth reading. It's also the topic of discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast #154.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea (2016) written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a maintenance guy in Boston who's uncommunicative, unpleasant, but very good at the job. He has little joy or satisfaction in his life, apparently doing nothing other than his job and drinking (with the occasional bar fight). Until he gets the call that his brother has died in Manchester, the town where they grew up. His brother left a son, Patrick, who Lee has to take care of since the mom left a long time ago. Lee is reluctant to stay in Manchester and just wants to get things settled so he and the teenager can go back to Boston. But Patrick has a life and lots of friends in Manchester. Can Lee come to an understanding with his nephew and a reconciliation with his old home town?

The story is very low-key and slowly reveals more of the character of Lee and why he is so closed up inside of himself. The character exploration is fascinating and Affleck definitely deserves the acting accolades he has received. Lee has a lot more going on under the surface. The movie is very good except for some heavy-handed scoring, especially for a key flashback that loses a lot of its emotional impact because the score is practically blaring "this is so sad!" far too early and far too much. It doesn't ruin the film but makes the deliberate pacing seem slow and dragged out. I think the scene would have played much better without the accompaniment, and for the rest of the film any time music started I was worried about it being overblown again. It's a shame because otherwise the movie is a good drama. I found the ending disappointing but can see what the filmmakers were going for.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review: Avengers vs. X-Men by J. Aaron et al.

Avengers vs. X-Men written by Jason Aaron, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction, and others; art by John Romita Jr., Olivier Coipel, Adam Kubert, and others

The comics industry is always looking for two things--a big epic storyline and an excuse for the heroes to fight each other. Fans are always debating who could beat whom if the heroes ever faced off against each other. Companies want a hook that keeps readers coming back for more. Have they pulled it off with this storyline?

The story starts with the discovery that the Phoenix entity (the one that drove Jean Grey crazy and to eventual death way back in the day) is coming to Earth. Presumably the entity is coming for Hope Summers (who apparently is no relations to Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclopes). She's a mutant whose destiny for greatness has been predicted since her discovery. She was the first mutant born after Scarlet Witch did something to reduce the number of mutants on Earth below 200. The X-Men and a bunch of the mutants (including Hope) live on an island called Utopia off the United States west coast. Once everyone knows about the Phoenix entity, Captain America and the Avengers want to take Hope into protective custody; Scott Summers and his X-Men want hope to embrace the Phoenix entity in the hopes that she will bring back the mutants. As the entity approaches, battle lines are drawn and the mayhem begins.

So the set-up is a little convoluted but this book contains enough explanation that it works as a stand-alone story. Back story is explained to get readers ready for the epic battle of epic epicness that ensues. The writers shoe-horn in a lot of characters (clearly hoping to please the fans) and have lots of battles all over the globe with all sorts of match-ups that are interesting and handled well. The main story keeps moving forward at a good pace and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The book also contains six issues of a companion series to the A vs. X main storyline. In the companion, various battles between individuals are given in detail, though with a lot of humor thrown in for good measure. The companion stories are clearly fan service, the more outlandish being the more fun (like the Cyclopes vs. Captain America verbal abuse battle where they argue about who is a lamer character, or the Toad vs. Jarvis battle where Toad (who acts as a butler in one of the mutant schools) comes into conflict with the Avengers' master butler). Unfortunately there is a "Spider-woman vs. X-Women" that confirms a sexist attitude toward the female characters. Deliberate pandering to adolescent male attitudes is not good.

Recommended, except for that one page.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, Part II

A continuation of yesterpost...

Back upstairs, we had fun at the Roadside Attractions area. Various mass transit and mass transport are on display, along with fun shops.

Roadside Attractions attraction

My Toddler the Bus Driver

An ice cream stand that, sadly, is fake

Scooping together

A special, temporary exhibit was "The Fantastic World of Dan Yaccarino" which ended on May 14, so it is already gone as of this post. Sorry! Yaccarino is a children's books illustrator. Both his work and other items inspired by his work were on display.

The Fantastic World of Dan Yaccarino

Drawings from "Little Boy with a Big Horn"

Story generator exhibit

Campfire in the area!

In the back corner of the museum is the Rocket Room, dedicated to things in space. My son enjoyed shooting little foam rockets in an attempt either to hit the other wall or to have the rocket fly through a rotating ring. My daughter loved being in Mission Control.

Rocket launcher

Mission controller

The ceiling and windows follow the space exploration theme.

Mobile of the planets

Sun and nine(!) planets window

Phases of the moon window

The other side of the museum houses a Dentzel Carousel. William Dentzel had a carousel in Woodside Park which he showed off to potential customers. He built several carousels over the years (there's one in Glen Echo Park in Maryland). This particular carousel has a long history, moving to Long Island and then New Jersey before being purchased by the Smithsonian Institution. In 2002, the Institution gave the carousel to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which loaned it to the Please Touch Museum in 2005 for restoration and use in Memorial Hall.

Our children loved riding on it. It has sixteen stationary horses on the outside row and jumping horses, rabbits, cats, pigs, and goats on the two inside rows.

Woodside Park Dentzel Carousel

Detail from the top

Toddler on a horse

Daughter on another horse

Having fun

Having more fun

Having the most fun

In the same room are some Centennial Exhibition-inspired cut outs that let our children ham it up.

Visiting the exhbition

Who is your two-headed date?!?

The museum is a lot of fun and well worth visiting, even if the Yaccarino exhibit has moved on.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, Part I

On our Spring trip to Pennsylvania, we visited the Please Touch Museum, a children's museum that's all about kids interacting with the exhibits. Like many children's museum, it was a hit with our children.

Big friendly letter, just like HHGG

Building exterior

In the lobby is a recreation of the Statue of Liberty's torch. It's made from toys and other bric-a-brac and is quite impressive, though our kids were not so interested in it.

Arm and torch from the Statue of Liberty (sort of)

The first exhibit we saw was the River Adventures, with lots of wet play stuff. The kids enjoyed playing with floating things and manipulating water with Archimedes' Screw and other gadgets (like canal locks) on display.

River Adventures section

Archimedes' Screw!

Duck Pond

A small tree house (though big enough for the kids to go in) had a fun periscope and a musical instruments.

Looking around the high tech way

Brothers make music

We had one of these as a kid!

The Imagination Playground lets children construct all sorts of shapes and structures from large, light-weight blocks.

Assessing the options at the Imagination Playground

Working together

Making arches

Crafting a slide

Posing on the slide

Downstairs is an Alice in Wonderland area with all sorts of optical illusions and fun mazes.

This hall looks longer than the building

Children forcing themselves into perspective

A nearby fairy garden has more musical fun.

Toddler makes music

The basement also has an exhibit on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Philadelphia had a massive festival back in the day to celebrate America's Declaration of Independence (even though we didn't win independence till much later). There's a 20-by-30-foot model of the exhibition's 200 structures, including Memorial Hall which has been turned into the Please Touch Museum.

Centennial Exhibition exhibit entrance

Model of the Exhibition

The area also has a lot of model and toy trains for children to play with.

Building tracks

What's this station?

Also downstairs is the City Capers area, with recreations on a child's scale of various shopping experiences. They have a supermarket, a shoe store, a restaurant (fast food), and even a little hospital!

Shopping in the freezer section

The fish counter

Elvis "Pezley" Pez dispensers on display

More Pez dispenser on scale with the characters from Tolkien

My daughter as a shoe clerk

My toddler as an MRI patient (not sure patients should run the equipment!)

More on the museum in the next post!