Thursday, October 31, 2019

Movie Review: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein (1974) co-written and directed by Mel Brooks

Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), the grandson of the mad doctor Frankenstein, inherits the family's Transylvanian castle. He's foresworn his legacy and is teaching legitimate anatomy in America. But an inheritance is an inheritance, so he leaves his stuck up fiancee (Madeline Khan) for Europe. He's met at the Transylvanian train station by Igor (Marty Feldman), the grandson of the mad doctor's assistant. With a new lab assistant (Teri Garr) in tow, they go to the castle. Frankenstein is led by some strange music to the secret laboratory and library of his grandfather. He reads his ancestor's notes and becomes convinced he can recreate life from inanimate matter. His success only leads to problems with the monster and with the locals, led by a police inspector (Kenneth Mars) with a fake arm and an incomprehensible accent.

The movie is a comedic take on the early Frankenstein movies (see here and here). Brooks does a good job coming up with gags and comedic set pieces based on the original (movie) material. The best routine has Gene Hackman as a blind hermit who befriends the monster (Peter Boyle) but is rather incompetent at helping the monster. Wilder's performance is very over-the-top which naturally fits with this oversized comedy. The movie is a fun, non-horrifying movie for Halloween.

Recommended--just be sure to watch the first two movies before watching this or they will be ruined for you. Also, the movie is bawdier than I remember, so it's not appropriate for little kids.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Book Review: Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi

Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey by Nick Bertozzi

This graphic novel recounts Ernest Shackleton's attempt to cross Antarctica on foot. He had tried a few times to make it to the South Pole but was never successful. Roald Amundsen succeeded in 1912, followed one month later by Robert Falcon Scott. Making it to the pole had already been done. To gain glory for himself and England, Shackleton conceived the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After gathering financing, he set out in 1914 (just as World War I started). His ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice of Vahsel Bay, just short of landfall on Antarctica. After waiting it out for several months, it became clear they would never cut through the ice and make it to land. As the ship was slowly crushed by the ice they turned back. The journey back was hardly easier. Shackleton brought his entire crew back to civilization, an impressive feat in and of itself.

The simple black and white art tells the story quite well. The attention to detail is amazing and the story of perseverance through adversity is inspiring. The book includes a bibliography for further reading.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Book Review: The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

An American family buys a haunted estate in England in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The Americans are very practical and pragmatic. They don't believe in ghosts and are perfectly ready to clean up the recurring blood spill with Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent, which does indeed work wonders. But the ghost is all too real and all to ready to pull out his best roles from his five hundred years of haunting ("The Vampire Monk, or the Bloodless Benedictine" is a favorite). The young American twins are quite the terror and put the ghost back on his heels. He tries rattling his chains at night in the hall. Dad recommends a bottle of Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to reduce the noise. The twins set up tripwires. The ghost has hardly a chance.

The story is a delightful comedy, poking fun at flat-footed American pragmatics and English stuffiness. Even so, the writing isn't harsh or cynical; there's a certain sweetness about it. The ghost did some terrible things during his life but he's long past those deeds and now does little more than fulfill his role as a ghost. The Americans also follow their roles which create the comic conflict between the two cultures and the two situations. The resolution is very satisfactory.

Highly recommended.

This story is discussed on Episode 218 of A Good Story is Hard to Find, their Halloween offering this year!

Monday, October 28, 2019

NASA Goddard Visitor Center and Agents of Discovery

We made another trip to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The visitor center is one of the locations for Agents of Discovery, a mobile-device based activity that we have done before. So we enjoyed the exhibits, the gift shop, and discovering some new facts.

Entrance to the visitor center

My children liked getting on the concrete barriers at the front of the building. The lady at the front desk told us not to climb on them, so I guess this is the last picture of that activity.

It says "No Parking," not "No Sitting"

Inside, we saw a sign that had different messages when looking through different colored filters.

Unfiltered message

Red-filtered message

Different types of soil are found on the lunar surface. Dust, volcanic soil, and meteor remains are all found on the moon.

Lunar soil exhibit

Also on the moon are footprints. We tried out the replica on display. None of us measured up to the Apollo 14 astronauts.

Big shoe to fill

Another display has models showing how the Hubble Telescope was repaired back in the day. I miss our old shuttle system.

Doing repairs

One display explains satellite mapping by having visitors bounce a pinball off a surface. The way the ball returns mimics the way satellite signals are reflected by the Earth's surface.

Satellite pinball

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has a copy on display. The many instruments it uses to observe the moon are described, along with interactive panels. My kids weren't so interested in this.


My children really enjoyed the infrared camera display. The pictures include a regular camera and the infrared.

Posing for the infrared camera

What the regular camera saw

What the infrared camera saw

We started the Agents of Discovery challenge, only to find that the QR reader on the app wasn't working. So the indoor discoveries went undiscovered.

I did find the QR code, Mr. Squirrel

Outside, the app worked better. At the Delta-B rocket, we read how it was used to deliver over 200 payloads into orbit. The app asked us what nickname was given to this rocket. We found the answer easily on the sign describing it.

A hard working rocket

From the rocket plaza we could see the flight center in the not-to-far distance.

Where the work gets done

Another outdoor challenge was to use the directional sign by the gift shop to see which NASA center was farthest away.

Various NASA bases

One interesting form of scientific detection is the Ozone Bio-Indicator Garden. The display tells how plants are effected by lower ozone layers. The plants are grown right next to the sign, enabling us to make our own observations.


These plants are out of season or completely sensitive to ozone variances

Tobacco still grows strong

We took one last set of photos before buying some astronaut ice cream (the dehydrated kind) at the gift shop.

Sticking her neck out

Our man in space

A two-headed monster?

Yes indeed

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Book Review: Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 17 by Hiromu Arakawa

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 17 by Hiromu Arakawa

The adventures in the frozen north continue as the new homunculus, Sloth, is gradually defeated through intelligent tactics, because brute force does not do the job. The Elric brothers and Major General Armstrong play tricky games of cat and mouse, first with each other, then with Lieutenant General Raven. Raven is one of the Furher-President's lackeys who has come north for a variety of secret reasons. The grand scheme of the bad guys is finally revealed but will the good guys be able to stop them?

The bigger story works surprisingly well, a natural outgrowth of what has happened before. The scheme makes sense for the bad guys and fits in with the overall story. The new characters are well-developed and fun to read. We also find out more about the brothers' dad and his role in what's going on.


Friday, October 25, 2019

Movie Review: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) directed by Terence Fisher

Fourteen-year old orphan Victor Frankenstein uses the family fortune to hire a tutor named Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to help him plumb the depths of science. Over the years they finally get to the point where they can restore life to a dead dog. Krempe wants to publish the results and use their skills to help out humanity. Frankenstein wants to take the next step before publishing. That step is restoring a human to life. But not just any human--he wants to make one with the hands of an artist, the physique of an athlete, and the brain of a genius. Which means putting various parts together. Krempe reluctantly goes along. Meanwhile, Frankenstein's cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court) shows up and is expecting to marry her cousin because it was arranged long ago. Frankenstein welcomes her into the house but puts off the wedding. He's been having an affair with the house maid (Valerie Gaunt), so his questionable judgment isn't limited to grave robbing and bizarre medical practices. Krempe stops helping with the experiments due to his horror at what's happening and in hope of protecting Elizabeth. Frankenstein succeeds without him, though the creature (Christopher Lee) does not turn out to be a perfect specimen of humanity. In fact, keeping him from killing everyone he meets is a full-time occupation.

This movie revitalized the Hammer Studios horror film series. The story is a bit closer to the original novel than Universal's 1930s movie. But not too close. The monster is much less a character than a force of nature; he has none of the pathos of Karloff's creature. The makeup is horrifying and in full color, so he is definitely scary looking. The real villain is Frankenstein, who pursues his life-crafting mission in spite of all the other warnings he gets about what he is doing. His methods are clearly corrupt, bribing morgue workers for fresh parts and even killing for good brains. Cushing gives a good portrayal of a man as obsessed with himself as with his work. The production quality is good but not great. I'm sure the horror budgets got bigger after the success of this movie. I was entertained but not wowed by this film.

Slightly recommended.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

This book contains several short stories of speculative science fiction that focus on the personal impact of the imagined technologies. The back of the book has some short notes about what inspired Chiang to write each story, which helps to give insight into the stories. Here's a bunch of mini-reviews:

1. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate--Abbas is a merchant in Middle Ages Arabia who comes upon a shop with truly unique objects. The shop owner explains how he got the objects. He's crafted the Alchemist's Gate, which allows him to travel into the future or the past (depending on which way he goes through the gate). He has allowed others to use the gate. Abbas tells the stories of a few people who have used the gate, including his own story. The entire story is like The Arabian Nights, with a main storyteller who gives several interrelated stories. Time travel is a tricky topic to deal with--everyone wants to go into the past and change things. That's not possible here, though people do learn and grow through their time travel experiences. It's rare to find a good and consistent time travel story that doesn't fall down into ridiculous paradoxes but Chiang has done it here. Even better, the story shows a lot of human need and satisfaction that naturally result from the tales told. This is one of the best time travel stories I've ever read.

2. Exhalation--In a seemingly robotic society, a scientist dissects his own brain to discover why a time discrepancy has cropped up all over his world. People are thinking slower. This society is powered by air pressure, using a high-pressure pocket of air in the planet's crust to power people. The problem is the eventual equalization of pressure between the atmosphere and the pocket below. The scientists foresees the doom of their reality. The story is less about the mechanics of the end and more about the meaningfulness of life for the in-story author. I found the story more interesting than compelling.

3. What's Expected of Us--A warning from the near future tells about the ultimate let-down: A new toy on the market will prove experientially that free will does not exist. I read this story as a bit of comedic nonsense, but judging by the notes the author takes it more seriously (but not too seriously--he was inspired by a Monty Python skit, after all).

4. The Lifecycle of Software Objects--reviewed in depth here.

5. Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny--A Victorian-era scientist named Dacey decides to make a mechanical nanny when he discovers that human nannies do not fit his ideal for child raising. The product is immensely popular for six months until one of the robo-nannies accidentally kills an infant. Then everyone throws away their mechanical nannies. Years later, Dacey's son gets one of the automata and tries the experiment again on an adopted child. The story is a creative and thoughtful way to explore parenting issues.

6. The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling--A journalist tries to write a story about how terrible a new technology is. Remem will use people's lifelog (a video recording of everything they've ever witnessed) to search for the video footage related to memories of past events. The Remem story is paralleled with one about a South Pacific islander learning from a missionary how to write and the impact of writing on the islander's life. Chiang has the journalist look at the situation from so many angles that he gives the reader a lot to think about, agree with, and disagree with. The conclusion doesn't so much resolve these issues, rather it asks the reader to be aware of the issues. Awareness is enough to push us into being better people.

7. The Great Silence--This isn't so much a story as a bunch of related commentaries from a parrot's perspective. The parrot is musing on the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, which is a massive human project to contact other intelligent species in outer space. The parrot laments humanity's lack of interest in parrots as an intelligent species. The parrot also laments the possible loss of parrot culture as they face extinction, especially as the telescope displaces their natural habitat. Like "What's Expected of Us," this could easily be interpreted as a parody of human self-importance and fear of extinction but Chiang is able to give a surprising amount of pathos to the parrot.

8. Omphalos--An archeologist lives on an alternate Earth where all the physical scientific evidence points to the Earth being only six thousand years or so old. In this world, science still goes by the old-fashioned name Natural Philosophy and it works hand in hand with belief in God. For the most part. An unusual set of circumstances leads her to an unpublished but sure to be controversial astronomy paper. The sky doesn't have many stars (due to the six thousand year-old universe) but the article describes astronomical guesswork about another observed planet where intelligent life might exist and might even predate life on their Earth. Or worse, that life might be more important than life on their Earth. Either way, belief in God is clearly in jeopardy. This story brings up a lot of interesting ideas and discussion points but is unsatisfying in itself.

9. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom--People use a new technology called "prisms" that not only generates a parallel reality but also enables the owner to communicate with their "paraself" in the other reality. The other reality is altered on a quantum level at first. The changes bloom rather quickly generating more substantial differences between the para-realities. As with all technology, at first it is too expensive for regular people to own. Eventually the prices drop and private companies offer access to prisms, including buying and selling of prisms. Nat and Morrow work at one company. They both come from questionable pasts, though Morrow is more of a hustler than Nat. Morrow schemes to make money off the prisms in very questionable ways. These schemes create the drama of the story just as much as the prisms do. The story is another meditation on free will, this time looked at with regard to parallel worlds where other selves may or may not take the same actions. The story is more convincing in its human drama than in its scientific exegesis. I enjoyed it.

Overall, I found these stories thought-provoking and interesting, even when I didn't agree with them. Chiang has a very creative and very humane way of writing. The people seem like real people and they deal with situations in believable ways. I will probably read more from him in the future.

Some of the stories are discussed on Episode 216 of A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

More Random Bits of Batimore

Here's some more random spots in Baltimore...

A sign commemorates an 1877 railroad strike near the Orioles Ball Park. The strike broke out on July 16, 1877, because wages were being slashed by ten percent. The strike turned violent by the 20th. President Hayes deployed Federal troops to restore order. By the 22nd, peace was reestablished in the city, though the striking workers and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company did not come to a settlement. Read more detail here.

Strike memorial

Nearby is an art display of a giant folding fan. The pattern on the fan is a reflection of the building on the right, it's not just some weird color scheme!

Mirrored fan

We discovered a crosswalk with a hopscotch overlay! And yes, I did cross in the boxes.

Who can resist?

A closer look

Just outside Oriole Park in Camden Yards is a statue dedicated to Brooks Robinson.

What's he looking at?

Oh, the ball park!

At the Union Collective, a friend and I tried out a sampling of ryes and aperitifs. The Baltimore Spirits Company happened to have an uncasking that day and had already sold 300 of their 305 bottles of rye just released for sale. I tried the special new rye and was impressed. I'm not a rye drinker, so I didn't get one of the last five bottles. I did enjoy their apple brandy and their amaro, an after dinner digestif. My favorite was the coffee, with hints of toffee and cocoa nibs.

Samples on offer

The distillery part of the distillery

We also visited Second Chance, a used furniture and furnishings warehouse full of materials reclaimed from buildings and homes that would otherwise have been demolished. They sell the material at very reasonable prices to fund their initiative to train people from the Baltimore area for employment.

Cool statues

Purposeful porpoises 

Trying out a chair

Fun, if scary, wall hangings

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Gaver Farm Kindergarten Trip

My youngest son's kindergarten class went on a field trip to Gaver Farm in Maryland. The day was overcast and started cold but warmed up nicely by the afternoon. We arrived with the admonitions to keep our groups together (each chaperone had three or four children) and not to buy anything at the gift shop. Sadly, that also included buying things at the Donut Hut, which looked like the most awesome shop ever.

No purchases today!

First we took a hay ride to pick out pumpkins. My son was a little disappointed that the cart that was not full of hay. The ride was fun nonetheless. We saw pumpkin fields and Christmas tree fields as we rode along.

Hayless hay ride

The big group split up. I had three boys to take around. The farm has all sorts of fun activities that my little cadre of boys enjoyed.

The shortest tunnel ever

A duck race had the boys hand pumping water to move rubber duckies down a rain gutter. The gutters were arranged so that pumps were on both sides. Thus the boys were constantly feeding ducks to each other.

Pumping for fun

Nearby, some goats and alpacas watched without much interest.

Animals on the farm!

My son enjoyed trying to toss rings onto various fruits. He was not very good but did have a good time.

Ring toss

A fire truck converted into slides sat at the bottom of the hill. The boys enjoyed climbing up and sliding down. One side had straight slides, the other corkscrew slides. The only real disappointment with the fire truck was that they couldn't get in and sit behind the steering wheel.

Straight slides

Corkscrew slides

Hose controls outside the cab

Another ring toss simulated lassoing a horse.

Hula hoops or horse wrangling?

They rode on a cow made out of metal containers. They needed boosts but also loved jumping down.

Simulated cow

Another set of slides was attached to a boat. The boys had fun playing captain and pretending the ship was attacked by monsters (aka chaperones like me).


We walked back up the hill to have lunch. After picnicking, we saw some goats who really wanted us to feed them. Luckily, the "no shopping" restriction was a good excuse not to buy any feed for the critters.

Not always hungry but always ready to eat something

A small graveyard, with tombs dating back to the 1800s, is in the middle of the farm. The kindergartners didn't notice, which was probably a good thing.

A small cemetery

One big attraction at the farm is the corn maze. We went in with enthusiasm. I soon had to establish a turn-based system for deciding which way to go. Every fork in the path was a chance for the next boy to choose a direction. After about ten minutes, the boys were less enthusiastic. In another two minutes, we were picking the path that led us toward the noise of kids playing. Eventually, we had to bushwhack out of the maze. We came across a path that wasn't the exit but that did get us out of the corn.

Paying no attention to the sign

Which way to go?

We did some more activities, including shooting some hoops and riding some tricycles.

That bike is too big!

The day went by quickly. We didn't have the chance to try the big slides because they were still too wet from the previous night's rain. We did make it back to the buses on time and even managed to pick up our pumpkins to take home.

The pumpkin