Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Review: Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 1 by Hiromu Arakawa

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 1 by Hiromu Arakawa

Two brothers dabbled in alchemy for selfish purposes and sustained horrible injuries. Alphonse Elric nearly died and his soul was transferred into a suit of armor. His older brother Edward lost an arm and a leg which were replaced by mechanical limbs. You'd think Alphonse would be the Fullmetal Alchemist but that title goes to his brother. Edward is more adept at alchemy (the transmutation of natural objects) and has become a government agent. He uncovers corruption and fraud and sets things right.

Three separate adventures are told in this issue, so there's no grand story arc. The brothers fight bad guys by their wits or by their alchemy. The big dramatic twist (which I haven't mentioned) in their origin story makes them very sympathetic characters. But other than restoring Alphonse's human body, they don't have any big goals. The stakes never feel very big--maybe they will build up to something bigger in future issues. I am curious enough to continue on.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TV Review: Attack on Titan Season One (2013)

Attack on Titan Season One (2013) based on the manga by Hajime Isayama

See my review of the first manga here.

After enjoying the first volume of the manga, I tried the first episode of Attack on Titan and was blown away. The show is more vivid and visceral just because the format is better suited to the action-filled story.

The time is the far distant future. Humanity has become trapped inside a walled area (there are actually three ring walls--Sheena, Rose, and Maria). Outside the walls are Titans--gigantic humanoids who eat humans. The average Titan is typically between two to fifteen meters (six and half to fifty feet) tall. The walls kept them at bay for a hundred years, but then a new sort of Titan appeared. The Colossal Titan (sixty meters (two hundred feet) tall) is able to break a hole in Wall Maria and the other Titans came pouring in. The Colossal Titan mysteriously disappeared and the surviving humans were forced to retreat behind Wall Rose. Eren Jaeger is a boy at the time and witnesses the death of his family. Before his father died, his father told Eren he had a secret in their basement. Eren has the key but has been unable to return. He trains to join the armed forces, hoping to take revenge on the Titans for his losses. Five years later, just as he and his friends are graduating from boot camp, the Titans (including the Colossal) attack again and the rookies are drawn into battle immediately.

Little is known about the Titans except some key facts--they appear mindless, they eat people, and their only truly vulnerable spot is the nape of the neck. Any other injured spot will grow back alarmingly quickly. The humans developed a harness with gas-powered grappling hooks as a way to fight the Titans. Battles are very tough (though also very cinematic, with lots of Spider-man-like swinging from buildings and walls and trees). The humans suffer great losses but still fight on. Sometimes battles lead to more information about the Titans, fueling the hope that humanity can eventually take back the world.

The story is a very gritty and gory war. The Titans do eat people and viewers see that fairly graphically displayed several times. The Titans are brutal; sometimes the humans are brutal to each other. The characters talk a lot about personal sacrifice and the duty to follow orders, even in hopeless situations. Occasionally the officers don't provide all the information about what's going on, leading to conflicts and bad decisions that seem like good decisions. The loss of comrades is tough on the military and also on the families back home, who are both proud of and concerned for their children who have gone to war.

The style of storytelling is very Sturm und Drang. The characters' emotions are often hyperbolic. The life and death situations involve the seemingly worst sorts of death. The music emphasizes the heightened emotions and peril, making the series exciting, if occasionally over the top. Check out the initial credits, which captures what I am trying to describe:

The animation and editing also enhances the storytelling, with the occasional freeze-frame or odd angle to create visual interest and show the chaos. The story also provides mysteries about where it is going, making it just as fun to think about after the episodes as during the episodes.

Highly recommended. I watched it streaming on Netflix, though it is also available on disc and from other streaming services.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Patuxent Research Refuge and National Wildlife Visitor Center 2018

We visited the National Wildlife Visitor Center in the Patuxent Research Refuge last month. The weather was a shade too hot (unless we were actually in the shade) but we enjoyed going for a hike and seeing the exhibits at the center.

National Wildlife Visitor Center

Inside the desk worker told us about the adventure packs we could borrow. Each backpack includes a scavenger hunt, a bug trap (they told us to release any bugs we trapped), a magnifying glass, a bird directory, and lots of other fun items for the kids. Our prescholar enjoyed using the binoculars but called them "miraculors."

Miracle of not-so-modern technology--making far away things look closer

We debated about which trail to take, finally opting for the 1.4 mile Cash Lake Trail. Our youngest took on the scavenger hunt, immediately looking for spider webs and insects and other items along the way.

Checking the fence for spider webs

"Did you find any?"

The trail includes an oxymoronic "viewing blind" where we could observe wildlife without them observing us. We didn't see much on a late morning with the heat was getting hotter. All the sensible animals were relaxing in the shade somewhere while we looked around for them.

Inside the blind

View of the blind over Cash Lake--wait, I can't see the lake!

The trail leads across the Cash Lake. From the bridge we saw some tadpoles swimming around in the shallow waters.

A massive amount of tadpoles

Tadpole close up

We saw some nice lily pads with yellow flowers but the camera wasn't able to get the bright yellow in the bright sunshine.

Blossoming lily pads

One item on the scavenger hunt we found again and again was the "reptile or amphibian" because the woods were hopping with adult frogs. Some of them were very well camouflaged and we only saw them when we were about to step on them! Moving definitely blew their invisibility.

A frog

Further along the trail we were able to see the waters of Cash Lake.

The lake

A bird house on the lake

We circled around the end of the lake and came upon a fishing pier. Our kids were not interested in fishing which was just fine with us since we have no gear and no license to fish. Also, we parents don't have any skills either.

Fishing pier

The trail also has an outdoor educational center that needs a bit of TLC, or at least a good weeding.

Unused bleachers in the middle of the woods?

By this point we were very hot and headed back to the nature center. After some long drinks at the water fountain, we visited the exhibits. The favorite was the "Be a Whooper!" interactive exhibit. An Xbox Kinect camera would spot visitors and then create Whooping Cranes on the screen that imitated the movements of the visitors. We had a lot of fun there.

Whooping it up!

My daughter tried to take a nap and my youngest son decided to photo bomb her. She took her revenge by photo bombing his nap.

I want to rest too!

Blurry bombing

My daughter finally found a peaceful spot in a simulated bear den. It's actually a well-decorated cardboard stand. I'd like to get one for home if we could find someplace that sells them. I didn't think to check the bookstore, but if you staffers are reading, be sure to stock this popular item!

Hibernating is the real way to nap

Monday, May 28, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Thanos of Titan has set himself a quest. He wants to collect the Infinity Stones, a set of six gems that give the wielder power over the Soul, the Mind, Power, Time, Reality, and Space. Combined, he will have the power to do anything he wishes. What he wants to do most of all is solve a problem. On his home world of Titan, the population outgrew the planet's resources. Titan was devastated. To prevent such a tragedy on other worlds, Thanos decided to wipe out half of all life on every other planet in the universe. He justifies himself because it's necessary and he randomly chooses who will die. He begins a literally semi-genocidal campaign. With the Infinity Stones secured in a special gauntlet, he will have the power to halve the universe's population by merely wishing it so. If he can get them all.

This being the Marvel Cinematic Universe, several of the Stones have already appeared in previous films. Vision's forehead gem is the Mind Stone, Doctor Strange's Eye of Agamoto is the Time Stone, etc. Thanos and his minions split up to collect the Stones, which means a lot of battles with the Avengers who have been scattered since Captain America: Civil War. Loki still has the Stone from the Tesseract. The Asgardians are Thanos's first target. Thor and Loki have a humiliating defeat, which puts Thor on the path of revenge. Back on Earth, Iron Man (Tony Stark) teams up with Doctor Strange (Stephen Strange) to protect the Time Stone while Captain America and a handful of other Avengers fight in Scotland where Vision has been laying low, though not low enough to avoid the notice of Thanos's minions.

The movie quickly turns into an action-packed fight to keep the Stones from Thanos. Even with the very grim plot, the filmmakers are able to keep up the comic tone of the previous films, giving many characters moments to shine and to look like human beings rather than costumed crazy people. Almost every character from previous films shows up which does mean that some get short shrift. The film moves swiftly but doesn't feel rushed.

The ending is a huge cliffhanger which may be frustrating for some viewers, especially with the end credits scene that references a hero who has not yet appeared in the MCU. I recognized the logo and am excited for this character to show up.

Highly recommended, though it might be difficult to follow if you haven't been keeping up with the Marvel movies. And the cliffhanger, while very dramatic, is not very convincing.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Book Review: Black Hammer Vol. 1: Secret Origins by J. Lemire et al.

Black Hammer Volume 1: Secret Origins script by Jeff Lemire, art by Dean Ormston, and colors by Dave Stewart

A group of six superheroes live a reclusive life on a small town farm. They pretend to be normal which is very tricky since one is a fifty-ish woman trapped in a nine-year-old body (Golden Gail), another is a cabin-dwelling witch (Madame Dragonfly), another is a half-mad astronaut (Colonel Weird), another is his robot sidekick (Talky Walky), another is a warlord of Mars (Mark Markz, known as Barbalien). The only normal one is tough guy Abraham Slam, who poses as Gail's grandfather and the farmer/patriarch of the group. Ten years earlier, they were heroes in Spiral City where they defeated Anti-God, a tough opponent whose defeat inexplicably banished them to the farm. Some of the heroes have been trying to get back; others have tried to blend in. No one is very successful.

The book is an interesting collection of familiar superheroes in an odd setting. They have issues with their past and their present, giving the characters some depth and resonance. The art style is very reminiscent of Mike Mignola (of Hellboy fame), which is a plus. The only odd thing is the title, Black Hammer, which refers to a Spiral City superhero who is not on the farm. The set up (which is what most of this volume is) is intriguing and makes me want to read more.

Recommended, especially for comic book superhero fans.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Movie Review: Cargo (2018)

Cargo (2018) written by Yolanda Ramke and co-directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling

A zombie-apocalyptic plague hits Australia, leaving people in small family groups. One family (dad (Martin Freeman), mom (Susie Porter), and daughter) rides a houseboat down river, hoping to make it to a military base which is presumably safe. An incident while scavenging a wrecked boat leaves the mom infected. She has about 48 hours until she turns into a mindless, ravenous beast. The dad tries to save her and winds up trying to find someone to take care of their daughter. He meets a few people along the way who have very different opinions about how to survive the zombie apocalypse and treat him and his daughter very differently.

The movie was inspired by the short film Cargo from 2013. This expanded version builds on the great premise and has the spirit of the short film. The story adds some aborigine mysticism (but not magic) as a foil to the ineffective scientific treatments. The historic treatment of the Australian natives comes up several times as a parallel to the classic zombie theme of treating other people as less than human. The movie has a good blend of original elements and standard zombie movie tropes.

Freeman gives a good but subdued performance as the dad. The rest of the cast is good, even those in the rather thankless evil roles. The tone vacillates between bleakness and hopefulness with a sad but hopeful ending.

Recommended, though currently (May 2018) it is only available through Netflix streaming.

Parental warning: the movie is a bit sweary and a bit gory (though mild by zombie movie standards, just slightly more gruesome than Shaun of the Dead). Thematically it is very heavy and not a lot of fun. It is thought provoking.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Game Review: Sticky Chameleons by Iello

Sticky Chameleons designed by Theo Riviere and Cedric Barbe, art by Remy Tornior, and published by Iello

Sticky Chameleons is a two- to six-player game where players are chameleons trying to eat just the right bugs to win the game. Setting the game up is easy--the game comes with a bunch of sturdy cardboard insects who will be lunch for the players. Players have to watch out, though, so they don't grab the wasps by accident. The bugs are spread across a table randomly.

Setting out the insects (including the wasps)

Closer look at the insects

In turn, each player rolls two dice. One determines the color of insect, the other the type of insect.

Dice, which are normal sized, this is just a close up picture

Then players try to get the insects. This is where the "sticky" part of the game comes in. Players use their tongues! Not their actual human tongues--the game comes with eight elastic sticky tongues that players flick at the table to catch the right critter.

The sticky tongue (which is washable and reusable)

If a player's tongue grabs other colorful insects in addition to the right one, that's okay. They'll still score a yummy token. If a wasp is on their tongue, then they won't score. Also, the player has to remove the insect and put it back on the play area. While they are drawing their tongues back, other players could flick their tongues over and possibly snatch the bug off of the other tongue. So chaotic fun is had by all.

Since play only continues till one player has collected five yummy tokens, the game goes pretty quickly--assuming you have good players. Our youngest son is a bit of a challenge to play with since he hasn't figured out how to flick the tongues and he gets very upset if he doesn't win or if someone steals his insect. He's also slower than others at finding the right color and type of insect on the table. So the game might require patience with the under-five crowd.

Dipping is not flicking!

The game is fun and inexpensive and quick to play, as long as you have the right crowd to play along.

Recommended, if your players aren't too competitive.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Green Fest 2018

One of our local high school's hosted a "green fest" focused on recycling, conservation, and various critters who live locally.

Low key display at the entrance

The first activity that drew my children was a beanbag toss that simulated sorting waste items into trash, recycling, and compost. They were better at identifying what should go where than they were at throwing the items through the right hole.

Throwing stuff away

Tea bag and broken mug, do you know where they go?

The high school students made displays on going green, giving advice on how to shop locally and use resources wisely.

Scout display

Another fun activity was painting little pots. After the pots were dry, the kids picked out plants to take home and grow to full size.

A quick painter

The highlight of the morning was a presentation in the school's media center about rescue animals. A representative from the Maryland Park Service told us about three birds currently kept at a local sanctuary. The birds are unable to live in the wild for various reasons.

Three mystery guests!

The first bird was a red shouldered hawk. The hawk was hit by a car when it was eating on the side of the road. The hawk lost its right eye!

Red shouldered hawk

Next was a barn owl who is nearly blind due to cataracts. Normally, the rangers occasionally switch the birds' habitats at the sanctuary to give them some variety. This owl stays in the same habitat since it has memorized where everything is.

Barn owl

The third bird was a turkey vulture. This bird was discovered as an egg by a nun, who raised the bird until she died. The other nuns did not want to take care of the bird, so the vulture wound up in the habitat. Turkey vultures are social birds, scavenging together. They are migratory as well. This particular bird spent too much time with people to live the vulture life style. It's twenty-nine years old and in good health.

Turkey vulture

Mighty wing span!

Back in the main room, our youngest (who bailed out on the bird program when they got too noisy and flappy for him) worked on a sail boat donated by a local big box hardware store.

A happy worker!

I was amazed at the boat on the table which I assumed he had built and painted. Later, when we got home, I saw the right boat, which was more in line with his talents as a three-year old.

What I thought was his final result

Actual result

The local library had a display of nature books and a simple rock decorating craft. My daughter tried it out. We already have plenty of books from the library at home so we didn't pick up anything new.

Library craft!

Adding a finishing touch

A local beekeeper brought a small hive and had his bees on display. He showed us the queen bee, whom he marked in the display below. Can you find her?

Look carefully

He explained that he marks his queen bees with a white dot so they are easy to find and take care of if there are any emergencies. He doesn't sell honey or wax or anything, he just keeps them as a hobby.

Close up of the marked bee

The kids were hungry at this point, so we decided that rather than eat snacks from the snack counter, we'd head home for lunch. We had a fun and educational time at the green fest!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Laurel Main Street Festival 2018

We went to the Laurel Main Street Festival, held on May 12, 2018.

A view of Main Street, Laurel, with festival in progress 

We didn't make it to the 9 a.m. parade, which featured our pastor as the Grand Marshall (since the parish is celebrating its 175th anniversary). We did run into the parochial vicar on the street later and had a nice chat with him.

Taken from the church's Facebook album!

The street was lined with all sorts of vendors from food providers to clothing sellers to home repair and renovation companies to local businesses and on and on. One vendor interesting vendor was a local beekeeper who was selling honey and soap. He had some bees on display. Our kids were fascinated to see them. We parents were happy that the bees were safely stored behind glass.

Admiring the bees

The guy told us that the bees were gathering at the top to keep the about-to-be-born bees warm. We even saw the queen bee, which they had marked with a small spot of paint to help them find her.

Testing the temperature of the bees

The attractions weren't just on the sides of the street. My son saw a dinosaur walking down the center and was happy to greet her.

Run in with a dinosaur

In addition to the sales, a couple of bands were playing. We didn't stop to listen since the kids were drawn down the street by the smells of popping corn and frying foods.

One set of singers

We eventually gave in and bought a fresh-made funnel cake, which is the best way to have funnel cake. We split it among the five of us, making it a tasty treat without it being a diet-busting experience.

Powdering our cake

By the way, that box of Oreos isn't there by accident--the stand was also selling deep-fried Oreos! Such a treat is too decadent for us.

Our funnel cake

We walked down a bit farther and bought hot dogs at one of the church stands. The church offered shaded seating which we liked very much. Another church across the street was having a book sale, which we naturally could not resist. We picked up the Bartimeaus Trilogy and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among other fine acquisitions.

On the way back to the car, we bought some honey from the beekeepers. We enjoyed their presentation and we use honey quite a bit, so it just made sense.

We are looking forward to next year's festival!