Friday, September 29, 2017

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Ghost in the Shell (2017) directed by Rupert Sanders

Major (Scarlett Johansson) is on the cutting edge of a futuristic technological revolution. Lots of people have cybernetic enhancements. Major is a next step--a human brain implanted in an artificial body by the Hanka Robotic Corporation (thus the human "ghost" in the robotic "shell"). She works for Section 9, an anti-terrorist law enforcement unit focused on cybercrime, with other, less enhanced, individuals. They break up what seems to be an assassination attempt on an African leader but quickly it becomes clear someone is targeting high-level Hanka scientists. Major works the case, only to discover that memories of her life before implantation may not be accurate and the glitches she experiences may be her true memories trying to resurface. Where should her loyalties lie?

Much like Blade Runner, the film depicts a future overrun by both technology and squalor. Most people enjoy the benefits of cybernetic enhancement but life isn't completely changed or improved. The new project, where just the brain is preserved, is presented as a next step in human evolution. But the step is hardly definitive given the technical difficulty and the opportunity to manipulate those who undergo the process. Criminals still exist and it's not just Major who has altered memories. Areas of the city are rundown and stray dogs still wander the streets. The film both admires and fears the future it promises.

The film also deals with the philosophical problem of identity. With the possibility of false memories, Major's identity comes into question and she has to decide (if she can) what to do about it. The identities of other characters are called into question, not just from false memories but also from false information given about them. Several times, characters say that what you do is important, not your memories. Such an attitude is a bit of an oversimplification, since decisions rely on character and past experience. Past experience can be unreliable, but so can character. Choices certainly can shift character in new directions through creating new attitudes and new memories. Major seems to have these shifts during the film though the filmmakers have not teased out the detail. The movie loses focus on the dynamics of human moral life and instead seems to advocate humanity achieving a new evolutionary level.

I found the film more intellectually engaging than emotionally satisfying. Major is an interesting character but her shift from more robotic to more human didn't draw me in. The performances are good but not outstanding. The belief that this is the next step in human development (which the filmmakers seem to endorse) is almost wholly unconvincing. Visually, it's amazing but the false optimism of a new life for humanity drags it down into the squalor the movie so aptly depicts.

Only recommended for science fiction or philosophy of identity fans.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Book Review: Amulet: Book Three The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet: Book Three The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kibuishi

After a harrowing battle in Book Two, forces are scattered. Elf Prince Trellis is on the run from his oppressive father. The Elf King hires Gabilan the Assassin to go after both Trellis and Emily, the heroine of the story. Emily is reunited with her family but they decided to abandoned their house (the one that can walk around on its own) because it is too conspicuous. Her group winds up hiring an airship to go to the semi-fabled city of Cielis. Cielis was the home of the Guardian Council, a group of Stonekeepers who ruled the planet in peace and prosperity for many years. The Elf King rose up against them and pillaged the city, which has disappeared. Some think it wasn't completely destroyed and that a remnant is ready to fight back against the elves. The trick to confirm the story is that the city flies in the air--hence the need for an airship. With elves and assassins in pursuit, can they find the city and keep it secret so they can plan a counter attack?

The story is great though the author is clear a fan of Star Wars. Emily hires a gruff pilot in a seedy bar where fights break out. The pilot's ship is a bit of a shambles. They are going to a cloud city. A bounty hunter is in pursuit. Even borrowing all these elements, there's plenty of imagination and great characters to make this an exciting read.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

North Carolina Beers

While in Raleigh, I sampled some of the local brews.

White Zombie White Ale (5.1% alcohol by volume) by Catawba Brewing Company, Morgantown, North Carolina--The label describes it thusly: "Although named as a Halloween seasonal, Zombie's refreshing taste makes it a year round staple. It is brewed in the Belgian Witbier tradition of using unmalted wheat to create the light body and white sheen. Additions of coriander and orange peel give it a fruity and spicy character, while the hops are subtle and lightly detected. Don't be scared to blow the head off a Zombie and drink up!" This write up is possibly the best I have ever read, though I may be biased. I actually didn't get much head when I poured this ale. It is refreshing with just a hint of the bitterness that undeath (or the hops) brings.

Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen Ale (5.8% alcohol by volume) by Lonerider Brewing Company, Raleigh, North Carolina--The label says, "Part vixen, part vigilante, Shotgun Betty uses her sharpshooting skills to target those that show a weakness for wheat beer with a body that won't quit. This German-style hefeweizen features a rich, banana-clove nose and refreshing dry finish." The ale has a nice caramel color and a smooth, delightful taste that is refreshing with no bitterness. The write up is about as good as the White Zombie one. I like this a lot--Shotgun Betty definitely blows the head off of White Zombie!

If these beers were the subject of a Dual/Duel review, you know who would win...

Don't mess with a lady who has a shotgun on her shoulder!

Sticky Fingers Brown Sugar Porter (5.3% alcohol by volume) by Trophy Brewing Company, Raleigh, North Carolina--We went out one night to Trophy Brewing Company's Brewing + Pizza location for dinner. This beer was the first one that I tried. The sweetness of the brown sugar is well balanced with the heaviness of the porter, making it a fun drink on its own as well as a good beer to go with a pizza.

Sticky Fingers

Cascade DAVE New England Style Single Hop Pale Ale (4.5% alcohol by volume) by Trophy Brewing Company--This was the second beer I tried. It was milder than most pale ales, which I liked, but was not so tasty as the Sticky Fingers.

Cascade DAVE

We went to an arcade/bar joint called Boxcar where I had another Trophy beer. This one was called Milky Way. It had a smooth, caramel taste that I loved. If only they had it in bottles or cans, I'd take back a case!

We went to Trader Joe's on our last night in Raleigh and they had "make your on six pack" beers. So here's six more from North Carolina.

  • Oatmeal Porter (5.9% alcohol by volume) by Highland Brewing Company, Asheville, North Carolina--the label reads, "Tradition led to a uniquely smooth combination. Porter was the dominant style in Britain throughout the 19th century. Our addition of flaked oats produces a silky mouthfeel, unusual for beers this dark. It is very malty with hints of chocolate-roasted flavor and a well-balanced hop character." This porter is amazingly smooth though it tastes more of roasted nut than of oatmeal or chocolate. The flavor is nice with hardly any bitterness involved. Very delightful!

  • People's Porter (5.8% alcohol by volume) by Foothills Brewing, Winston-Salem, North Carolina--on the label: "Porter. Consider it the mild-mannered granddaddy of stout. Our version stays true to the classic English style popularized by the Industrial Revolution's working class. Ruby-hued with strong upfront notes of chocolate and toffee, People's Porter finishes strong and flavorful, blending delicious herbal hop flavor and just a hint of espresso. Bloody terrific!" This beer is darker and tarter than the previously mentioned Oatmeal Porter. This one is satisfying in a warming way, giving energy and verve to the drinker. This beer would be better by itself than paired with food. Maybe it does call us to rise up and drink!

  • Buckshot Filtered Amber Ale (4.8% alcohol by volume) by Natty Greene's Brewing Company, Greensboro, North Carolina--shockingly, the bottle has no cute description, even the label is unfiltered! This beer has a nice red/brown color with a smooth and toasted taste. The flavor is light with a bit of bitterness as an afterthought. I like this but think it's a bit more average than amazing.

  • The Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout (5.7% alcohol by volume) by The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery, Farmville, North Carolina--The bottle doesn't have a write up but the website has this: "The Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout is a traditional full-bodied stout brewed with lactose (milk sugar). Because lactose is unfermentable by brewer's yeast, it remains in the beer. The subtle sweetness and fullness of flavor imparted by this sugar balances the sharpness of the highly roasted grains that give this delicious beer its black color. All year long, Milk Stout is our number one selling beer!" The beer starts with a sweet, chocolatey flavor that becomes a more roasty flavor after a second. It's a fascinating experience to drink and a delightful dark beer.

  • Bed of Nails Brown Ale (6.1% alcohol by volume) by Hi-Wire Brewing, Asheville, North Carolina--The bottle says, "Bed of Nails is crafted as an American ode to a traditional English brown. A light hop addition balances the natural sweetness present in the specialty malt. This beer's delicate body and dry finish allow flavors of toffee and dark fruit to shine through." The beer does have the sweet smoothness of toffee and does make me think of a carnival treat. It is surprisingly close to Trophy's Milky Way, which is saying a lot. I might have tried to get a six-pack of this if I had tried it before we left Raleigh.

  • Hell's Belle (7% alcohol by volume) by Big Boss Brewing Company, Raleigh, North Carolina--All the label says is "Belgian Style Ale." The web site is more loquacious: "Hell's Belle is a subtle but complex ale that is meant to be a showcase for our favorite Belgian yeast and beautiful Belgian malts. These elements produce a clean, spicy citrus finish. Hell's Belle remains light and refreshing but still packs a 7% finish." The beer is oddly flavored. It tastes like a lager but with a better finish. For me, there's no Belgian flavor and I'm not sure what the "Belgian Style" is they are imitating. This beer was a disappointment. Bummer of a way to end.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Pullen Park, Raleigh, NC

A fun little amusement park is nestled just outside of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Pullen Park features a myriad of playgrounds, a train, a carousel, and a lake with paddle boats. We visited early one weekday morning, perhaps too early.

Pullen Park, Raleigh

The quiet entrance

We arrived at 8:30 a.m. to a mostly empty parking lot. The park was open but the rides didn't start until 10 a.m. Happily, the playgrounds were open though still damp from summer overnight condensation. We've run into this problem before and have a rag in the car suitable for drying off slides and swing seats. The rag saw a lot of action that day.

Some items didn't need drying, like this fantastic spider web climber.

We miss these from England

Toddler not yet ready for the web

King of the web

King close up

Other play equipment was more accessible to everyone, including climbers and slides.

The 5-to-12 year old climbing area

The 2-to-5 year old climbing area

My kids tried out a see-saw, but unfortunately their weight differences were enough to make it a little challenging. They persevered. 

Toddler and daughter on see-saw

While the big kids climb over most everything, the toddler found what he likes best and spent nearly 40 minutes there.

I think this shot is now mandatory in my playground posts

From our vantage point by the toddler swing set, we saw some more accomplishments by the older children.

Web king and queen

Trying out a new web

Rope-enhanced climbing!

We also saw the kiddie boats which were not that appealing to me or the kids--another case of just the wrong sizes.

Waiting for 10 a.m.

About 9:30 we decided to check the ticket office and the snack bar to see if they were open early. We wandered a little haphazardly and discovered the carousel building. The carousel was warming up but the doors weren't open yet.

Carousel building

 Nearby is a statue of Andy and Opie from The Andy Griffith Show. It was donated in 2003 by "the people of TV Land." My older son has watched the whole series so he was excited to pose with them.

Andy, son, and son

Daughter and toddler pose too!

 We discovered the snack bar didn't open until 10:30 but the ticket office was about to open. By this time the park was filling up with people young and old. We waited in line for the longest ten minutes of the morning to buy tickets, then went over to the train for a ride. We didn't know how long the train ride would go but I was sure it would be longer than the carousel. After that excruciating ten minutes, I didn't want to take any chances.

Pullen Park train ready to pull out through a tunnel

Ready riders

The train ride was a pleasant six or seven minutes around the park. We saw the stream and the lake along with many of the attractions.


Bridge over the stream

View from the bridge

After the bridge, looking on the lake


Some more lake

Flowers in the park!

The carousel again

The playground

After we got off the train, we investigated a caboose-like structure near the playground. Inside was not very impressive so we took no pictures.

Stranded caboose?

 We went over to ride the carousel. The building had an old-fashioned organ on display.

Wurlitzer organ

The carousel itself is a Dentzel Carousel, like the one we rode in Philadelphia. It was built in 1912 and is an impressive and fun ride.

A shot of the carousel

More of the rides

The official poster from yesteryear

My toddler wanted to ride on the outermost ring, which did not go up and down. We actually sat pretty far from my daughter and older son, which was fine with them.

Toddler and blogger

Back of my daughter's head (and yes, the camera is zoomed)

The art and imagination put into the figures still impresses me a lot. 

Fierce donkey

Cat with fish in mouth!

 After the carousel ride we finally had a snack and headed out for other adventures.