Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Review: Morning Glories Vol. 5: Tests by N. Spencer et al.

Morning Glories Volume 5: Tests written by Nick Spencer and art by Joe Eisma

Morning Glories Academy is in chaos. The students got lost in another reality during the Woodrun, an outdoor scavenger hunt. Some of the students were hoping to escape the school (because things are very odd and very dangerous there) but another group of students were able to return everyone (students and teachers) to the same reality. Confrontations ensue. Meanwhile, more backstory is given for key characters.

Unfortunately, having taken a two-month break in between reading volumes, I've lost enough details that the story and the implications of events are hard to follow. Some big revelations are made but they don't make a lot of sense to me. At this point, I'm not sure there's a bigger picture that the story is working towards. The writer is just throwing in more mysteries and complications to string the readers along. So I am bailing out on this series.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Movie Review: Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day (1996) co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich

This summer has lots of sequels and remakes coming out, so I'm reviewing the earlier works and seeing if they will inspire me to see the new films!

Only July 2, a mysterious object shows up near the moon. It broadcasts a signal that's picked up on Earth. No one can understand it--not scientists at S.E.T.I. (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) or the Pentagon. Soon enough, the object releases over a dozen 15-mile wide saucers that fly over various capitals (London, Paris, Moscow, Washington D.C., etc) and important cities (like Hollywood, I mean, Los Angeles). One down-on-his-ambition scientist (Jeff Goldblum) figures out the signal is really a countdown, so he rushes to the White House where his ex-wife is serving as Press Secretary. He just barely convinces the president (Bill Pullman) to flee before the attack happens. All the alien ships attack at once, wiping out cities across the world in spectacular displays of fire and destruction. Fighter pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) leads his squadron against the Los Angeles ship where they utterly fail. He is able to knock down one alien fighter ship and takes the alien pilot captive. The Americans regroup at Area 51 (the US Government has been hiding an alien space ship there for decades) where they plot to defeat the alien menace.

The movie is a pastiche of other science fiction films, borrowing from War of the Worlds, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and the television mini-series V. I had the problem (which I had twenty years ago when I saw it in the theater) of being reminded of all these other better films. The eventual solution is almost completely implausible and an awkward blending of War of the Worlds and Star Wars. Even so, the movie is enjoyable as an action romp if you set your brain in neutral and enjoy the ride.

The sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, looks like more of the same from the trailer:

Unless I hear some stellar reviews or friends invite me to see it, I'll probably wait for the DVD release.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review: Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Isaac Newton is most famous as a scientist, a key figure in the scientific revolution who developed laws of motion and gravitation as well as calculus (whether Leibniz developed it first is a controversy for another book). He is less well known for his interest in alchemy (transmuting base metals into gold) and esoteric biblical studies. Perhaps least known is his tenure at the Royal Mint, where he oversaw a major recoining project and prosecuted counterfeiters.

While focused on Newton's years with the Mint, this book does sketch out Newton's early years and scientific contributions. During his Cambridge professorship, Newton wrote the Principia and secretly worked on alchemical experiments. He became quite famous in Europe, though he was not very personable. As described in the book, he is the paradigm of the cold, calculating scientist. He did well for himself but did have a teacher's salary.

Friends encouraged him to move to London where he'd have more contacts and better prospects. Newton didn't go until he was offered the job of Warden of the Royal Mint. The main project that faced him was recoining the English money in circulation. At the time, all money was in coins made of precious metals. Unfortunately, silver was more valuable on the Continent than in England, which lead to various schemes where criminals would clip off bits of coins (if not just melting them down) and take the silver to Belgium and France. There, the silver bought more gold than it would in England. The process of exporting English silver, converting it to gold, and returning to England to buy more silver was highly profitable. The Mint redesigned the coins to prevent fraudulent activity.

The other task Newton faced was prosecuting the "clippers" and the "coyners," people who made false coins by mixing in other metals with the silver (if they even used silver). One of the most skillful men at this was William Chaloner. He had the skills to make dies from which to cast coins. In the last two decades, he counterfeited both English and French money. To solve their economic woes (i.e. financing a war with France), the government began issuing the first bonds, described as a lottery investment. Chaloner also forged lottery sheets. These many crimes were hard to prosecute thanks to the corruption in the legal system and the craftiness of the criminals.

The book explains the economic state of England quite well, making it easy to understand the issues involved and the urgency of the situation. The grittiness of criminal life in late 1600s London is especially interesting and compelling. Networks of criminals acquired needed materials, produced forgeries, and distributed the fake money. But if someone was caught they often would be willing to testify against others in order to save their own skins. The cat-and-mouse game Newton and Chaloner played is vividly described and makes for an exciting legal thriller.

Well researched and written, this book is a great, quick read that gives readers a glimpse of a fascinating, if forgotten, bit of history.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Raingutter Regata 2016

As the scout year came to a close, our pack had the raingutter regata. The boys put together and decorate boats which they race in raingutters (see last year's race). We left it to the last minute so we had some last minute painting and assembling to do.

The finished product

The evening was pleasant--warm but not too warm, threatening rain but never delivering. Getting things ready was easy.

Getting the boys fired up!

Getting the raingutters ready

My son's den had a handful of boys, so they raced in multiple heats.

Getting ready for the first heat, which my son lost

Blowing the boats

We discovered an error--an upside down sail!

The next heat went better with the topside top.

Moving fast!

The fastest racers (which did not include my son) got trophies.


First and second place winners

The pack also gave out a trophy for the boat decorated with the best Scout spirit.

Some nominees

The winner

A good time was had by all!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review: Superman Vol. 1: Before Truth by G. L. Yang et al.

Superman Volume 1: Before Truth written by Gene Luen Yang and art by John Romita, Jr.

Superman has developed a new power: when using his heat vision, he can emit a "solar flare" burst of energy that does tremendous destruction. Two problems come with the power. First, it causes more or less indiscriminate destruction. Second, it leaves Superman drained, i.e. he has no superpowers for about 24 hours. So he can be injured and, in a comic scene, become drunk. The Justice League is helping him gain control of this new power.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent gets an anonymous text with a good tip for a story. The tip leads him to an arms dealer's lair. The arms dealer is trying to close a sale but the security system warns him about intruders. So Superman has to save the day. So things turn out okay. The anonymous texter wants Clark to do more questionable things for him. As extra motivation, the texter reveals evidence that Clark is Superman and threatens to leak the story unless Clark follows instructions to the letter. Clark goes along until he can think of a move to get his loved ones (who will be obvious targets for every villain Superman has ever faced) out of danger. Unfortunately, more forces are at work than just Superman and the texter.

This story is the debut of Gene Luen Yang in DC Comics. The two-fork approach to solving Superman's invincibility is interesting. Not only does Superman temporarily lose his powers from time to time, but also the main villain has a way of controlling him without brute force. In fact, the villain doesn't even have to go face-to-face with Superman. He is a villain for the Information Age. I'm typically not interested in reading Superman but Yang's involvement had me interested and this is a fun story. In addition to the creative plot, Yang gives the characters some snappy dialogue. I don't love this book like his work on Avatar, but it is of similar high quality.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Risi e Bisi

A fun find at our local library was Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley, a children's book with some recipes in the back. My daughter wanted to try the Risi e Bisi recipe, since it fit in with our green pea challenge.

Reading for fun and food

Here's the ingredients:
  • 2 cubes vegetable or chicken bouillon
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups uncooked rice
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen green peas
  • 1/2 to 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Thanks to hard work in our backyard garden, we were able to use the freshest of all possible peas.

Harvesting pods

Harvesting peas

Here's the instructions:
Use a pot with a tight cover.
  1. In a bowl, dissolve bouillon cubes in 2 cups of water, then add to the rest of the water. Set aside.
  2. Over medium heat, cook garlic and onion in olive oil untion the onion is transparent. Don't let he garlic turn brown!
  3. Turn off heat right away and pour in rice. Stir in the 4 cups of water and dissolved bouillon and cook on highest heat until micture boils. Lower heat and do not remove lid. Cook for 25 minutes.
  4. If using frozen peas, soak them in warm water. When rice is cooked, add peas, stir Parmesan cheese, and sprinkle with nutmeg.
We altered the cooking instruction a bit for our Risi e Bisi. We only had 1/2 cup of peas from our garden, so we only used that much. We also substituted 2 cups chicken broth and 2 cups of water for the bouillon and water in the recipe.

Stirring in peas and other stuff

The big test came at the end, when the cook tasted her creation for the first time. My daughter was a little reluctant. She overcame her fear of something new by realizing she likes all the ingredients.

Cooling before tasting

A happy customer

Friday, June 17, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo (2003) co-written and directed by Andrew Stanton

This summer has lots of sequels and remakes coming out, so I'm reviewing the earlier works and seeing if they will inspire me to see the new films! 

Nemo is a clownfish who lives with his father Marlin. Marlin's wife and the other children were all killed by a barracuda when Nemo was still an egg. Naturally Marlin is overprotective of Nemo, but that needs to change now that Nemo is old enough to go to school. The first day's lesson is at the Drop Off, an area where humans have been known to show up. Marlin races after the class and tries to take Nemo back home, especially since a trio of kids is playing "how close will I swim to the boat" with Nemo. Nemo is mad about the overprotection and swims all the way to the boat. A human diver shows up and captures Nemo. Marlin can't keep up with the boat and enlists the help of Dory, a Blue Tang who has a short-term memory problem. She saw where the boat went but they go astray and have all sorts of odd and exciting adventures following one clue (a lost diver's mask that has an address on it) to find Nemo. Nemo meanwhile makes friends with the other fish in the diver's office fish tank and helps with their ongoing escape plans.

The computer-animated recreation of the underwater world is amazing and beautiful. Marlin and Dory wander through many environments (a deep-sea trench, a field of jellyfish, a tidal current, a whale's mouth, etc.) that are distinct and detailed. Their journey is a Homerian odyssey, meeting many strange and enchanting characters.

The movie is thematically moving. A parent's search for a lost child is a classic story made more dramatic by Marlin's trauma-enduced attitude toward Nemo. Marlin is a classic case of a father who loves not wisely but too well. As he goes through his journey, he learns to trust others and to take risks, giving him a more balanced outlook on life, a happier attitude, and a closer bond with his son.

Highly recommended, though having watched it a dozen times with the kids, Finding Nemo has lost some rewatchability (which is not true for The Incredibles--I'd watch that again in a heartbeat by myself). 

The sequel Finding Dory (out in US theaters as this posts) looks suspiciously similar to the original, judging by the trailer:

If the kids want to see it, I'll go with them. I'd have to hear some good reviews to watch it on my own.