Friday, August 23, 2019

Book Review: The Quantum Age by J. Lemire et al.

The Quantum Age written by Jeff Lemire, art by Wilfredo Torres, colors by Dave Stewart, and letters by Nate Piekos

One hundred or so years after the events of the Black Hammer main series, the Earth is part of a galactic alliance and has a new team of heroes, The Quantum League. They were inspired by Black Hammer's team and even include a distant descendant of Black Hammer, who gets herself on the team through plucky insistence. The team is very successful until Martians attack the Earth in a homicidal rampage that forces the team to make a hard decision. The team breaks up after that. Twenty-five years later, the world has slipped into a dictatorship. A new hero wants to get the Quantum League back together to make things right. But is it a fight that they can even win?

The book has some intriguing ideas but the story meanders a bit and isn't as satisfying. The ending is original but disappointing, mostly because their scheme to achieve victory is unconvincing and impractical. The writing uses the reluctant/disillusioned superhero trope for too many characters (basically, all of them). The future isn't that bad, is it?

Slightly recommended--it's an interesting story that falters in the execution.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

In an alternate reality (viewers know because Koka-Soda has taken the place of Coca-Cola), Miles Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets the same powers that Peter Parker has. This reality already has a Peter Parker who has been saving New York for years and years. Miles recognizes the Spider powers and goes back to investigate where the spider was. His discovery is interrupted as Spider-Man and Green Goblin crash through a wall and fight over a gigantic machine in the next room. Spidey is trying to shut the machine down but fails, i.e. he is killed in the battle. He passes on the mission to Miles, who reluctantly joined in the battle. The machine is an inter-dimensional transporter that got a whiff of Peter and pulls in Spider-Beings from other dimensions, including another Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker with her SPDR robot, and Peter Porker, the spectacular Spider-Ham (yes, he is a literal pig, though he can talk). The group bands together to get back to their own dimensions and stop the machine from wreaking havoc on this world. Miles is almost ready to help out, if he can get some mentoring from all these good Spider-folk.

The visual style of the film is interesting. They pay homage to the old four-color print style of earlier comics (1950s to 1980s) with spotty colors and the occasional dialogue box showing the words Miles is thinking or speaking. The style isn't limited to classic comic-book flavor--anime visuals are used for Peni Parker (who is an orphaned Asian child adopted by Aunt May and Uncle Ben in the 31st century) and Looney Tunes styling for Spider-Ham, who is very cartoonish in the best possible way. The different elements are not jarring, they blend quite well and seem like the natural consequence of different realities bleeding into each other. The movie is enjoyable just to watch.

The plot is far-fetched and more of an excuse to bring all the characters from different comics together. Each Spider-Person has their own personality and interesting twists in their back stories. The focus is on Miles (it's his universe, after all) and his origin story, which echoes the Peter Parker origin in a fresh way. The Miles Morales universe is not the classical Spider-Man universe, so a few of the characters, including the villains, have some nice surprise changes. The main villain, Kingpin, has an interesting motivation for using the inter-dimensional portal, giving him a lot more depth than other villains in other movies. The plot comes together quite well with its mixture of humor and drama and well-developed characters.

Usually a film that is dripping in visual style lacks in story and character, making it unsatisfying to me. Happily, this movie gets the balance right and turns out to be a top-tier Spider-Man film and a great film in general.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Book Review: The Right to Be Wrong by Kevin Seamus Hasson

The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America by Kevin Seamus Hasson

Every December it happens. People complain about how their holy day is being ignored or trivialized. Others complain about Menorahs or Nativity sets being set up on public property. Outrage over too much or not enough or not the right religion turns into clickbait headlines on the internet, in print media, and on television. People squabble over the right to freedom of expression and freedom from expression of religion.

According to author Kevin Hasson, the problem lies between two extremes, two groups he calls Pilgrims and Park Rangers. Pilgrims have the truth, and they think that only that truth should be (and ought to be) displayed in public. The original Pilgrims came to Plymouth Colony fleeing religious persecution in England. Ironically, they began persecuting the non-Pilgrims who came on the trip and arrived later in what is now Massachusetts. After celebrating the first Thanksgiving with a day off to feast and enjoy themselves, the Pilgrims forbade any celebration of Christmas, which they knew was a Catholic innovation and not part of their pure Christian faith. Anyone who wanted to enjoy themselves in public places had to take it into their homes and not disturb the good, hardworking Pilgrims. Park Rangers deny that there is a definitive religious truth and that therefore there should be no public displays favoring any religion. Hasson tells the bizarre true story of a parking barrier set up in the wrong spot of a public park. At first, the Park Rangers wanted it removed. Then a local garden club said the barrier made a nice aesthetic balance, so it stayed. Then some New Agers saw it as a sacred representation of balance, and that was enough for the Park Rangers to get it moved out of public sight. The state can't sponsor a religious object on public property, can it? "You can celebrate in the privacy of your own home" is the conclusion of the Park Rangers, which is almost the same as the Pilgrims sending other Christians indoors on Christmas. Resolving these two extreme viewpoints is tricky but necessary.

The culture war over religion has played out again and again in America's history. Hasson uses historical events from the 1700s to modern day to bring up issues and insights. He advocates for a middle ground, where everyone needs to allow the religious views and expressions of others within reasonable limits. He appeals to the truth that we are all humans who search for the truth and have the conscientious obligation to follow that truth. Even if that truth is mistaken. Living by that understanding requires both vigilance and flexibility, because the issue will come up again and again in both new and old ways. If our history teaches us anything, we should learn the futility of being a Pilgrim or a Park Ranger. Also, the inhumanity of being a Pilgrim or a Park Ranger.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Charmery Ice Cream Factory, Baltimore

The Charmery Ice Cream Factory is a great hidden secret in Baltimore. I found out about it from a blog post on National Ice Cream Day. We are fans both of touring factories and ice cream, so it was natural for us to go and check it out. Of course, I read the blog after Free Ice Cream Day happened (Sunday, July 21, in 2019). The holiday was declared by President Ronald Reagan back in 1984. Lots of ice cream places celebrate with free ice cream or other sweet deals. We missed out on the deals but were able to check out a new, fun place.

The factory is located at the Union Collective, a large building near the Baltimore Zoo. Union Craft Brewing was looking to expand into a larger facility. They found this building but it was twice the size they needed. In the spirit of communal entrepreneurship, the brewery invited other Baltimore businesses looking to expand into larger locations to join them. The Charmery was run out of a shop that is basically the bottom floor of a row house, with ice cream production in the back room and sales in the front room. Wanting to expand their operations, they took part of the building as their ice cream factory, freeing up room in the shop and enabling them to open a second shop just north of Baltimore.

The factory's location

The factory has plenty of fun stuff inside, including a now-defunct ice cream delivery truck that kids can play on.

My daughter takes a turn driving

They also have an ice-cream cone rider that only fit our prescholar. The quarter slot was broken on it, so it ran whenever someone pushed the button. Free rides were very popular.

Getting ready to launch


The factory tour was not very long. They have a work floor where they keep ingredients and a walk-in storage freezer.

Factory tour entrance

Ingredients storage

Entrance to the freezer

We did a quick walk through the freezer because the temperature is about zero degrees Fahrenheit. After seeing the freezer, they showed us the ice cream-making machines. Since it was a Saturday, things were quiet. We saw where the ingredients go in and get mixed. A spout fills large containers that are taken to a quick-freeze freezer (either -29 or -35 degrees) before going to the walk-through freezer. Faster freezing means fewer ice particles can form in the ice cream, saving their creations from freezer burn.

Industrial ice cream machine

They make about 300 gallons of ice cream in a day. The company prides itself on local flavors (like an Old Bay Caramel) and the occasional odd flavors (like Cheese and Crackers). We got a preview of a new mango flavor that was very delicious. It wasn't available for purchase when we visited (late July 2019) but is probably available in August 2019 for a while.

Mango-based ice cream!

The tour guide gave us fridge magnets to commemorate our trip to the freezer.

Great souvenir

For my post-tour treat, I sampled the salty caramel and the baklava. I was too chicken to try the cheese and crackers ice cream. For my waffle cone, I had the baklava, which was delightful.

They don't sell their flavors in grocery stores, though some restaurants buy them for their dessert menu. We'll just have to go back some time to try some more.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Nats vs. Rockies July 2019

We went as a family to see the Washington Nationals play against the Colorado Rockies. The Nats had won both games of a double header the day before, so we had good expectations.

The view from our seats

The game going

Us, cheering our team on

The ball park is offering free meals to kids until September 2. The box comes with a hot dog, chips or apple sauce, and a drink. The kids were happy with the meal, though hot dogs aren't popular with them all. We had to supplement with french fries and a few other snacks.

The kids meal!

This particular night was Secret Service night. The government agency had some displays up and participated with the game. An agent sang the National Anthem. Another one threw the opening pitch. 

Secret Service equipment

They also helped out the mascots during the inter-inning mascot race. Teddy Roosevelt had a couple of agents who helped him out. By "help him out," they knocked over the other presidents along the way to the finish line.

Teddy and his escort

Tom Jefferson "left behind" by Teddy's entourage

Getting to the finish line through George Washington

The other fun thing at the game was when pinch hitter Gerardo Parra came up to bat. The players pick out songs to play as they come up to bat, typically songs that are popular hits or inspiring to the players. Parra chose the song "Baby Shark." The fans was totally into it.

Doing the "Baby Shark"

 In case you don't know the song, here's a news report about it.

In the eighth inning, the mascots were back out to throw t-shirts into the stands. Alas, we didn't receive any, but it was nice to see they had recovered from the race.

Hanging out on the foul line

Not the best outfit for precise throwing

Sadly, the game ended in an 8-7 loss. We had fun at the game anyway.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Book Review: Shazam! by G. Johns et al.

Shazam! written by Geoff Johns and art by Gary Frank

Billy Batson is a poor orphan boy. He's gone from foster home to foster home, where he has been rejected again and again. The reason--he's an arrogant jerk. He winds up with the Vasquezes, who have five other adopted children. He barely fits in, though he does stick up for his pseudo-siblings when they are bullied at school. So Billy has potential as a hero, though little actuality. On a subway ride he is transported to the Rock of Eternity. There, an ancient wizard gives him the power to be a champion, specifically the champion Shazam. The wizard is desperate because Black Adam, another champion with the same magical power, has been released from his imprisonment and is, in typically supervillain fashion, gonna kill us all.

Johns is a really good writer who adds lots of snappy dialogue and the plot line is interesting. Batson has enough mix of bad and good elements to make his changes believable. He's also convincing as an immature kid granted amazing powers. The villain has a backstory that makes him more understandable if not sympathetic. The story is from DC's New 52, so it is older. This story looks like the basis for the recent movie. I haven't seen the movie but from the trailers and some reviews I read, this is the origin story they used for the film.


Friday, August 16, 2019

Movie Review: The War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds (1953) directed by Byron Haskin

A meteor crash lands outside a small town in California. The residents are excited for a new road-side attraction. The local authorities bring in some scientists who happen to be fishing in the hills nearby. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) knows enough to be cautious about an object that came skidding across a field rather than creating a crater. Something is fishy, he thinks. The meteorite is too hot to investigate and too radioactive to leave alone, so the local sheriff leaves three men to guard it while the scientist heads into town for square dancing with Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), a local who quickly grows attached to Forrester. The dance is cut short when the power goes out, along with all other mechanical devices. The meteorite has opened up and stuff is starting to come out! At first, just a weird periscope sticks up, but soon enough ships emerge with heat rays and energy weapons to conquer the Earth.

The movie is more of a disaster flick with science-fictional causes. Scientists are called upon to discover what the Martians are like (everyone guesses they are from Mars since the red planet was so close to Earth in its solar orbit). The scientists are hampered by the ongoing attacks by the Martians, which are world-wide, and the utter lack of success on the military's part. Science doesn't really save the day against the Martians. The fact that neither science nor the military saves humanity is striking in a 1950s movie, an era when one or the other (sometimes both working hand-in-hand) would always win against the enemy. Humanity winds up fleeing in helplessness, often getting in their own way as riots break out.

The movie is a bit uneven. The special effects are all over the place. Some are excellent, like the Martian ships flying through the air and the little bit of their technology that viewers see. Some of the destruction looks a bit cheesy by today's standards. The acting is good for the most part. The script follows the spirit of the original novel while successfully moving the situation to the (then) modern day. Overall, there's more good than bad to this film.