Wednesday, April 26, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Yasser Seirawan

Title: Winning Chess Tactics
Author: Yasser Seirawan with Jeremy Silman
via Amazon
It was through playing chess that I first learned the difference between a strategy and a tactic.  A strategy is a broad plan of action designed to gain a long-term advantage: controlling the middle of the board, for instance.  A tactic is an action intended for short-term gain: forking the king and queen with a knight.  Naturally, the two ideas are closely related and, in fact, often employed in concert but the distinction is important.

Tactics are my greatest weakness as a chess player.  I am good at setting up strong positions (strategic play) but I am not good at seeing the tactical possibilities that will lead to victory.  Even more problematic, I tend to be vulnerable to tactics employed by my opponents.  If I'm ever going to progress as a player, this is the part of my game that needs shoring up.

The Winning Chess series is written by Yasser Seirawan, a Syrian-born U.S. chess champion.  His book on tactics covers all the tricks: forks, pins, skewers, deflections, etc.  He also profiles several of the great tacticians of chess history: Alekhine, Tal and Kasparov among others.  He includes full transcriptions of some of their most famous games, too.  This was my second time reading the book.  It's all fascinating but I think I'll need to refer back to it often for it to help my game.

If you'd care for a game, I'm ikaspiel at  My current rating is 1246.  I hope to improve that in time for my next chess post!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Clone Wars: Missing in Action

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Missing in Action"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 12
Original Air Date: January 4, 2013
via The Clone Wars Wiki
If there's one way to save a droid story (part three of four), it's by throwing in an interesting clone trooper story - counterbalance the series at its worst with the series at its best.  This week, D-Squad wanders into Pons Ora, a sketchy town on the desolate world of Abafar.  There, they encounter a dishwasher who goes by the name of Gregor.  Gregor is clearly a clone, though one with amnesia.  Colonel Meebur works to remind him of his past and win him over to their own cause.
via Wookieepedia
Gregor, as it turns out, had been in the Battle of Sarrish.  While in retreat, his transport crash landed on Abafar, his injuries inducing the amnesia.  This episode marks his only appearance in The Clone Wars.  Gregor is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, as are all of the clones.

Next week: "Point of No Return."

Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Eric Temple Bell

Title: The Magic of Numbers
Author: Eric Temple Bell
via Amazon
It took me a while to sort out a major in college.  I arrived fully intending to be an English major but then I hated my first lit course.  Then the activist in me thought either sociology or political science (coincidentally my parents' college majors) might fit but the intro classes didn't do much for me.  Eventually, I came around to mathematics.  All through school, math had always been by far my best subject - better than music, even.  I didn't especially enjoy it but it came easily, far more so than subjects like English and history which were considerably more fun.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I'd never gotten caught up in the history of math the way I had with music, for instance.  In kindergarten, I had a wonderful music teacher who introduced us to all of the great composers.  While I certainly enjoyed their work, I also saw them as characters in a captivating story.  I never got that with Pythagoras, Euclid or Galileo.  Math isn't really taught that way.  I enjoyed fiddling with numbers but never got caught up in the history behind them.  That is why I picked up this book, The Magic of Numbers by Eric Temple Bell.

So, that was 25 years ago.  I tried reading it that summer before sophomore year but didn't get too far.  The book has survived on my shelves through several moves and book purges.  Now, I've finally read it.

The book was interesting, though not everything I wanted it to be when I was pondering my future as a college sophomore.  Pythagoras is the star, though Plato has a strong supporting role.  While most of the book is devoted to ancient Greece, the historical path runs all the way to the 1930s.  The intertwining of mathematics and philosophy has been a vital thread for both disciplines so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to see significant material devoted to Aristotle, Bacon and Kant in addition to Copernicus, Newton, Lobachevsky and Einstein.  There is some mention of the important work in the Arab world, though more would have been historically appropriate. 

Most of the numero-philosophy discussion was over my head though some of it was fun.  I learned about harmonic means for the first time.  You take your numbers, find their reciprocals, average their reciprocals, then reciprocate the average: 2 and 4; 1/2 + 1/4 is 3/4; half of that is 3/8; reciprocal is 8/3.  I love stuff like that.

My most meaningful connection was the discussion of the five regular polyhedra - also known as the Platonic solids - as discovered by the ancient Greeks.  These are the only convex, three-dimensional objects in Euclidean space that are comprised entirely of regular polygons: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosohedron.  Those of you have devoted significant portions of your life to Dungeons & Dragons know them better as the 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided and 20-sided dice.  Those dice were an important part of my childhood and while I always thought they were neat, I never before realized they were the only shapes that were composed of regular polygons.
My own dice, which I've had for closer to 35 years
For the record, there are also four star polyhedra and they're pretty cool, too:
via Dan Elton
The book was worth reading for the D&D dice discovery alone.  The book was intended for non-mathematicians though occasionally, more numbers would have been nice.  Numerology - unfortunately, the driving force in the discipline for centuries - was never fully explained.  I realize it's all hooey but Bell was clearly too disgusted to provide meaningful details of what was so objectionable.

So, 25 years later, I'm still glad I eventually majored in music.  Math might have been more profitable but music has been more fun.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Squid Mixes: Greyhound

A greyhound or a salty dog?
My wife picked up a bottle of grapefruit juice and suggested it might go well with vodka or gin.  That opened a discussion.  I always thought that grapefruit juice with vodka was called a salty dog but my wife insisted it's a greyhound, a name I'd never heard.  As it turns out, while both contain these ingredients, the two are entirely different cocktails.  A salty dog is served in a cocktail glass, salted rim, with equal parts juice and vodka.  A greyhound is served in a collins glass: 2 oz. vodka over ice, topped off with juice.  It's essentially a screwdriver but with grapefruit juice rather than orange.

The greyhound was, in fact, what she wanted so that's what I made.  I got the recipe from American Bar by Charles Schumann.  Here's another question, though.  As I used ruby red grapefruit juice, does that change the name of the drink?  Color matters in mixing.  I found ruby red greyhound recipes online, though all seem to involve additional ingredients.  So, until I learn otherwise, I'll stick with the basic name.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Clone Wars: A Sunny Day in the Void

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "A Sunny Day in the Void"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 11
Original Air Date: December 7, 2012
via Wookieepedia
This week's episode is the second in a four-part story arc.  D-Squad, led by Colonel Meebur and consisting of five droids including R2-D2, crash land on the planet Afabar.  Determined to complete the mission begun last week, Artoo leads his fellow droids across the wasteland.  Meebur reluctantly tags along.  The most interesting part of the story is an argument between Meebur and droid WAC-47 weighing the value of a soldier's training and intuition against a robot's programming.
via Wookieepedia
WAC-47 is a DUM-series pit droid.  This arc is his only canon appearance.  He is voiced by Ben Diskin.

Next week: "Missing in Action."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Squid Eats: Poor Service

via Toronto Sun
I have a lot of sympathy for those who work in the food service industry.  While I never have done so myself, I have done other customer service work and I know how difficult it can be.  I'd like to believe we are generally easy-going restaurant patrons, too.  We are polite.  We don't make fussy orders.  We almost never send anything back unless there's something obviously wrong.  We tip generously.  For the most part, our kindness earns the like in return.  That's the way the world's supposed to work, right?

Every once in a while, though, you hit a restaurant on an off night.  I've chosen to believe that's what happened to us recently.  I've chosen to believe that a near-universally highly regarded establishment in our northwest corner of Vermont was having an off night when we made our first visit.  As such, I am also choosing not to name said establishment in my post.  They also did right by us at the end of the evening which certainly helped me in feeling forgiving.

There were warning signs early.  The hostess - also the co-owner, we later learned - seated us rather hurriedly.  Then it took a while for our waitress to even come by for a drink order, long enough for my wife to ask if we had a Plan B for dinner.  She got my beer order wrong.  She forgot to tell us the specials, causing some confusion when she finally took our food order.  Little things in themselves, but a pattern was set for the evening.  On the rare occasion when we'd see our waitress, she seemed preoccupied.  Tables near us, serviced by other waitresses, were turning over a lot more quickly.  The food itself wasn't bad and we thought about dessert but as my wife said, "I don't want to give them any more of our money."

Eventually we had to practically tackle another waitress just to get our check and she picked up on our unhappiness.  The hostess came over to make amends and we learned what had happened.  A cook had gotten ill and gone home.  Our waitress, the only member of the waitstaff qualified to help out in the kitchen, was pulling double duty.

It was, to a point, an understandable situation.  Even high-end restaurants get a wrench in the works from time to time.  But especially for the amount of money one puts down for such a meal, the staff should be better able to weather such a storm.  Knowing they were one down, tables could have been reassigned and tips shared.  The hostess herself should have made doubly-, triply-sure we were covered.  It didn't happen.

Once she realized our dissatisfaction, the hostess moved quickly to make it right.  She comped our meal and even gave us a $25 gift card to encourage our return.  It wasn't enough to save the evening but it was perhaps enough to keep us from writing the place off forever.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Clone Wars: Secret Weapons

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Secret Weapons"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 30, 2012
via Wookieepedia
R2-D2 and three of his astromech droid colleagues have been enlisted for an important mission, capturing a Separatist decoding module from a battleship.  WAC-47, a pit droid, is also part of the team, a good thing for the audience as none of the astromechs are, by human standards, technically verbal.  Their leader is the diminutive Colonel Meebur Gascon.

As a rule, I don't care for the droid episodes and this one is as hokey as all of the others. WAC-47 is especially annoying.  However, I will grant that this story provides a credible narrative premise for focusing on the robots.  The droids are sent on the mission because no one would expect mere service machines to be up to anything suspicious.  They could slip in and out of the enemy ship without anyone paying any attention to them whatsoever.  Indeed, the plan works perfectly.  As an added, geeky bonus, there's a James Bondish scene in which all of the droids are fitted with new gizmos for the job.

Alas, this is not just a droid episode.  It's a four-part droid story arc.  Groan...
via Clone Wars Wiki
Meebur Gascon is a Zilkin.  He is listed on Wookieepedia as 33 cm, small enough to fit into the head of an astromech droid.  His design came from Phantom Menace concept art originally intended for Jar Jar Binks.  This arc marks his only canon appearance.  Gascon is voiced by Stephen Stanton.

Next week: "A Sunny Day in the Void."

Friday, April 7, 2017

Squid Eats: Gaku Ramen

My eternal search for the perfect Ramen shop continues.  Burlington's latest is Gaku Ramen, a hip and sophisticated looking establishment on Church Street.  They're working hard for an authentic atmosphere, the staff yelling "Irrashaimase!" as customers enter, their enthusiasm undercut somewhat by their awkward gaijin pronunciation.  The decor is sort of Pan Asian, including some interesting photos: an Osaka street scene and hyper-magnified noodles.  Anime play on TV screens above the bar, frequently distracting my dining companions.

The food is nice.  We've been, I think, three times now and I've found my go-to order: spicy tonkotsu (slightly funky transliteration - one normally sees the second o as an a but perhaps this suits the Vermont accent better).  I've grown to enjoy spicy ramen in general, something I never experienced in Japan.  The Japanese don't really go in for peppers the way other Asian cultures do. Fusion can certainly be tasty.  I practically licked my bowl clean.

The Burlington location is the first step in a broader mission.  The owners envision more franchises in more New England college towns.  Despite honest efforts, I would say the restaurant falls well short of authentic.  But it's good anyway.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Clone Wars: A Necessary Bond

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "A Necessary Bond"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 9
Original Air Date: November 23, 2012
via Wookieepedia
War makes strange bedfellows.  At the beginning of this week's episode - the finale of a four-part arc - Ahsoka and her younglings are still in the thick of it with Hondo and his pirates.  But soon Grievous arrives with a droid army in tow.  Faced with a common enemy, Team Ahsoka and Team Hondo join forces.  Once again, in the end we are left wondering what this Hondo guy's really all about.  Sadly, this is the last Clone Wars episode for him (unless you're going in DVD order as Andrew is).  Not to worry, he comes back in Rebels!

Overall, this youngling story is a decent one.  It's great to see some of the Jedi training and Huyang, the lightsaber building droid, is a lot of fun.  It's a good Ahsoka story and, of course, Hondo shows up.  Last week's traveling circus was an unfortunate misstep but overall, Season Five continues to be strong.  Next week, a droid story.  Groan...
via Wookiepedia
Ganodi, a Rodian female, is the best pilot among the younglings so she drives the getaway car... er... ship.  This arc marks her first appearance in the series.  Ganodi is voiced by Georgina Cordova.
via Wookieepedia
Cordova was born January 2, 1980 in Los Angeles.  She also has credits under the name Georgie Kidder, her married name.  She is best known for her voice work on Justice League: War, The Tale of Despereaux, The Lion of Judah and the video games The Sims 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  She and her husband, actor Ross Kidder, have two children.

Next week: "Secret Weapons."

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2017 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, April 28th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, March 31, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2017

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America
Editors: Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians
via Amazon
We're living in interesting times.

My wife's most recent Family Book Swap book for me was What We Do Now, a collection of essays from a range of left-leaning leaders.  Included on the roster are current senators (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), a former cabinet secretary (Robert B. Reich), a Nobel laureate (Paul Krugman), leaders of powerful political organizations (David Cole and Cornell William Brooks) and even novelists (Dave Eggers and George Saunders).  Okay, so "left-leaning" is an understatement.  These are the true blues.  All write in response to the current liberal panic: how do we survive a Donald Trump presidency?

As a rule, I avoid discussing politics on the blog.  Here, as in the real world, it's an easy way to lose friends.  But we're living in interesting times and it's becoming darn near impossible to avoid discussing where we suddenly find ourselves on the American cultural journey.  For those of you who visit regularly, my own positions probably aren't too difficult to suss out, though I'm sure this post will resolve any lingering confusion.

The liberal objections to the rise of Trump are both numerous and obvious.  I think it's important, though, to delineate between objections to the Orange One himself and objections to policy shifts that would have occurred with any Republican victory in November.  Narcissism, paranoia, contempt for humanity, lack of experience: that's all Trump and frankly, there are plenty on the right who find those qualities just as terrifying as I do.  (Any bets on which Republican senator will ultimately take him down?  My money's on Lindsey Graham.)  Trump certainly owns the ridiculous Muslim ban, the stupid border wall, his attacks on the press and his way too cozy relationships with white supremacists.  But overturning Obamacare, backslides on race relations, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, climate change?  Those were likely with any White House party switch.

All of the book's essays are well-written.  Unfortunately, not all of them do genuinely offer constructive solutions.  There's a lot of admiring the problems.  Too many of the writers focus too much on their own areas of interest (though to be fair, that's probably exactly what the editors requested of them).  I can't say the book actually made me feel any better, though I do feel I have a better grasp of some of the issues.

I did have one important epiphany after reading: perhaps we, as liberals, have bigger problems than losing one election.  Maybe there are good reasons why our side lost and failing to attend to those matters is why we lost.

Clinton lost the election because she lost three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  The last Republican to win any of those three was George H.W. Bush in 1988.  The last to win all of them was Reagan in '84.  All three were close.  Trump won Pennsylvania by 68,236 votes, 1.2% of the votes cast.  Wisconsin: 27,257 votes, 1%.  Michigan: 13,080 votes, 0.3%.  All three states have been hit harder than most by the changes in industrial America over the past generation.  As Eggers pointed out in his piece, 110,000 voters in Michigan chose neither presidential candidate in 2016, twice as many as in 2012.  To be clear, these are not people who didn't vote at all.  These are people who dutifully filled out ballots, making their choices in statewide and local races, but left the Clinton/Johnson/Stein/Trump boxes blank.  110,000 people were so disgusted by the choices at the top of the ticket that they chose no one.  110,000 people felt that no candidate was doing anything to address their interests.  If 13,081 of them could have been convinced that Clinton was the best choice, she would have carried the state.

But it's not Clinton's fault.  It really isn't.  Yes, I know all the Bernie supporters (of which I was certainly one) say he would have won and maybe he would have but that's beside the point.  Those 110,000 people in Michigan are right to be disappointed with the Clintons and with the Democratic Party at large.  When you make free trade agreements that help the stockholders but screw the workers, you're going to pay for it at the ballot box.  Sure, the Republicans aren't really offering much help either but the Dems are supposed to be the pro-labor party.  For too many in this country, the Dems dropped the ball.  For those 110,000 people in Michigan and the thousands of others like them in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., the lesser of two evils isn't good enough.  And it shouldn't be.

For me, it all boils down to this one simple truth: we, as an American society, are not good at dealing with poverty.  Americans see being poor as personal failure, not as an inescapable reality in an economy built on inequities.  We're great at scapegoating.  The inner cities would be better if there weren't so many poor people.  Let's gentrify!  Public schools can be saved by upper middle class parent involvement!  The far right blames minorities, immigrants and labor unions for the problems of the working poor.  Democrats blame Republicans, knowing full well their own campaign coffers are just as dependent on big-moneyed interests.  We on the left would rather blame Trump and what could only be his racist and misogynist supporters or question the validity of the Electoral College than own up to our shortcomings.

Meanwhile, poor people are left to wonder who the hell is actually going to help make their lives better.  No one does so they lose faith in the whole process.  Who can blame them?  Oh, that's right.  We do.  All the time.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post April's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is April 28th.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Clone Wars: Bound for Rescue

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Bound for Rescue"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 8
Original Air Date: November 16, 2012
via Wookieepedia
The Young Jedi arc continues, part three of four.  Ahsoka has been kidnapped by Hondo who apparently intends to sell her for profit.  The Younglings are now on their own with help from the Republic not forthcoming any time soon.  So, they set off to rescue Ahsoka on their own - foolhardy, to be sure, but how else is the story going to move forward?

What has been a strong arc so far, the story goes a bit off the rails as the Younglings join a traveling circus in order to infiltrate the pirate camp.  Now, I realize they have to get in somehow and Force-sensitive children as acrobats is certainly plausible.  It's just hokey.  This episode has a lot of strong elements nonetheless.  The Younglings finally succeed in assembling their lightsabers and the Wookiee Gungi's has a wooden handle - very cool.
Gungi's lightsaber via Wookieepedia
Petro is the hotshot bad boy of the Youngling crew.  He is a human from Corellia.  Hmm, a Corellian with a sneering, rebellious streak.  Where have we met one of those before?  Petro is voiced by Jeff Fischer.
Petro via Wookieepedia
Fischer was born in 1968 in the United States.  He has the usual long list of voiceover roles, most notably a character named after himself in American Dad!  Fischer is also a vintner.  His Habit Winery is based in Santa Barbara, California.
via American Dad Wiki

Next week: "A Necessary Bond."

Friday, March 24, 2017

Squid Eats: East West Cafe

via yelp
Saturday night was Vermont Symphony night for us.  We went to East West Cafe for our pre-concert dinner.  A relatively new Thai place in downtown Burlington, East West is tiny with seating room for maybe 15.  It's popular, too.  We had the place to ourselves when we arrived around six but it was full when we left, with a steady stream of take out customers, too. 

No wonder.  The food was great.  We shared gyoza and duck salad for appetizers.  I had pad kra pow for my main course.  They are not wimpy with the spices!  Mind you, I like heat but this was just short of painful.  I expect we'll definitely be back but I'll request medium spicy next time.  Of course, mango sticky rice for dessert makes everything better.

It was a nice concert, too: the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th, Beethoven's 2nd Piano Concerto and Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony.  The Mahler was especially lovely.  Joseph Kalichstein was the pianist for the Beethoven.  His is a wonderfully elegant touch.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Clone Wars: A Test of Strength

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "A Test of Strength"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 7
Original Air Date: November 9, 2012
via Wookieepedia
This week's featured episode is the second in a four-part arc following a group of Younglings in their Jedi training.  Having successfully found their Kyber crystals in the previous episode, they now receive instruction from the droid Huyang in how to assemble their lightsabers.  The similarities between Huyang's workshop and Ollivander's Diagon Alley wand shop assuaged my suspicions of a Rowling influence upon this story arc.

In fact, this episode represents a convergence of elements from several science fiction and fantasy idioms.  We've got the Potter thing going with the lightsabers/wands.  The ship they're traveling on gets boarded by Hondo and his band, bringing with them elements of Star Trek (Hondo's voice is modeled after Khan's) and, of course, good old-fashioned pirate tales.  There's one scene with a definite Monty Python flavor to it.  Plus, Huyang's voice seems awfully familiar...
via Wookieepedia
The saber builder droid is voiced by none other than David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor in the Doctor Who series.   Tennant was born David John McDonald on April 18, 1971 in Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland.   Tennant is a lifelong Whovian, first inspired to become an actor at age three because of the show.
via Wikipedia
At 16, he passed an audition for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to become one of their youngest students.  He already had a considerable resume by the time the Doctor gig came his way in 2005 including, wouldn't you know it, an appearance in a Harry Potter film: Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  He's got major Shakespeare cred, too.  With the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was Touchstone in As You Like It, Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors, Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.

Doctor Who was the big score.  The role catapulted Tennant to major, international superstardom.  He did plenty for the show, too, as he was easily the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker (#4).  Even two Doctors later, Tennant is still the Doctor for many Whovians, especially those who discovered the show in its 21st century relaunch.

Tennant won a Daytime Emmy for his performance as Huyang, the only acting Emmy for The Clone Wars.

Next week: "Bound for Rescue."

Friday, March 17, 2017

Squid Brews: Rooty Toot Root Beer

Ladies and gentlemen, we have root beer...

Yet another recipe from Homemade Soda by Andrew Schloss, this "Rooty Toot Root Beer" is quite intensely flavorful: not especially sweet, though.  My daughter, while she liked it, even described it as a little bitter.  For me, it was alright but not as satisfying as the orange honey ginger ale from a couple months back.  We still must see if it passes the ultimate root beer test: floats!

The carbonation process is a bit mysterious.  The way it's supposed to work, after you add the yeast and bottle, the plastic bottles sit for a few days.  You know the yeast has done its job when the bottles harden - and they're really supposed to be rock hard.  That worked beautifully for the ginger ale but not as well this time.  They were harder after a few days but not quite what I expected.  I saw bubbles, though, so I figured the soda was, in fact, carbonating.  Once the bottles harden, they go in the fridge for a week to slow the carbonation down.  I took a chance and put them in, hopefully not prematurely.

I needn't have worried.  The bottles were downright explosive when I opened them.  I don't know if it's worth looking into reducing the carbonation.  I have the same issue with the beer.  The mess is a drawback, of course, but I also regret losing so much of the liquid to foam.  On the other hand, I don't exactly understand all of the microbiological processes involved so perhaps best not to tinker until I learn more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Clone Wars: The Gathering

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "The Gathering"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 6
Original Air Date: November 2, 2012
via Wikipedia
To kick off a new four-part arc, we are introduced to a group of Younglings (including a Wookiee - huzzah!) about to embark upon a crucial step in their training.  They must build their own lightsabers.  Ahsoka brings them to the planet Ilum where Yoda sends them into their Crystal Caves to find the Kyber crystals they will need.  Just as with the wands at Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, each crystal is Jedi-specific so each Youngling must find his/her match.  Naturally, each must overcome his or her own personal weaknesses to fulfill the quest.

This is not the first time I have sensed J.K. Rowling's influence on The Clone Wars and, knowing something of what's coming as we near the home stretch, I expect it won't be the last.  It's hardly surprising, perhaps even inevitable.  Hogwarts has been one of the most powerful forces in pop culture over the past 20 years, arguably attaining Star Wars-like status.  A nod to the Potterverse is appropriate, even if unintentional.  If anything, I'd love to see more of this idea in science fiction.  I have long thought that Star Trek, for instance, would do well to create a series set at Starfleet Academy.
via Wookieepedia
Katooni is a female Tholothian Youngling.  In the cave, she must overcome her fear of heights to get her crystal.  She is voiced by Olivia Hack.
via Hey Arnold Wiki
Hack was born June 16, 1983 in Beverly Hills, California.  She started young in the business, getting her first commercial spot when she was eight months old.  She is best known as the voice of Rhonda Wellington Lloyd in Hey Arnold! and as a highly authentic Cindy Brady in the Brady Bunch films.

Next week: "A Test of Strength."

Friday, March 10, 2017

Squid Eats: Montreal 2017

A couple weeks ago, our family made its annual winter trip to Montreal, just a two-hour drive from our home in northwest Vermont.  For me, the highlight of these visits is nearly always the food.  One of the world's great cultural crossroads, Montreal boasts top-notch restaurants across a broad range of cuisines.  Here are a few of my favorites among our new discoveries:
  • La Taberna - Potuguese - Chicken piri-piri is the star of the menu. 
    The bird is perfectly cooked and had us plotting future visits.  It's Montreal so, of course, the restaurant offers its own version of poutine featuring said chicken.  We didn't try it but we will next time.  They offer pastéis de natas: lovely but overpriced.  There are more reasonable Portuguese bakeries in town, including the one I wrote about here.
  • Otto - Japanese - There are a couple aspects of Japanese culture that I will miss for the rest of my life: good train service and great bars.  Izakayas are magical places for me and North America facsimiles rarely live up to my memories of the real thing.  Otto comes pretty darn close.  For starters, it smells right.  The music's a little loud but the food's great and not outrageously priced at all.  Kawa (chicken skin) yakitori was my favorite, not included in the photo as we'd already gobbled it up before we thought to take pictures.
  • Mei Yuan - Chinese - Our daughter loves dumplings of all varieties so we generally try to find at least one good dumpling restaurant when we travel.  Mei Yuan has many to offer, including soup pork dumplings.  My favorite was the curry dumplings, a little soupy themselves and yummy.
  • Café Reine Garçon - café - True to its French roots, Montreal has a thriving café culture.  There are Starbucks around, though they seem more than a little silly with so many high-quality local options.  Café Reine Garçon was right around the corner from our hotel, a delightful spot for breakfast.  The offerings are simple and wonderful.  I had the smoked salmon bagel and pain chocolat both mornings we went.
And yes, we did find a few things to do between meals.  Our top museum discovery was the Stewart Museum which focuses on Montreal history, particularly the early European influence.  The current featured exhibit is called Curiosities, basically an organization of various smaller items from the museum's collection in "cabinets of curiosities."  Lots of fun.

We also attended part of the String Quartet Marathon held as part of the city's Montréal en Lumière festival.  The group we saw was quite capable, though the selections a bit too modern for our tastes, even our daughter who likes the weirder stuff.  Modern string music is interesting for its exploration of the full instrument, using harmonics and other unusual techniques.  Three of the composers were in attendance, too, which is always fun.  But afterwards, I could have used a heavy dose of Vivaldi to bring me back to equilibrium.

As always, we were sad to leave but happy to get home.  We'll be back.  There's talk of gathering the family in Montreal for Christmas, in fact.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Lee Lowenfish

Title: Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman
Author: Lee Lowenfish
via Amazon
It's no stretch to say that Branch Rickey was one of the most important figures in the history of baseball, particularly among executives.  He will always be best remembered as the man who signed Jackie Robinson, thus paving the way for integration.  However, his contributions extend far beyond that one extraordinary moment.  As general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1919-1942, he developed a farm system of minor league teams, the first of its kind in baseball.  His idea of using affiliated teams as a development system for players contracted to the major league club has since become standard practice, even spreading to hockey and, more recently, basketball.  I knew both of those things before reading Lowenfish's book.

What I didn't know was Rickey's role in advancing Major League expansion beyond the original 16 teams.  It's worth noting, however, that he didn't get quite what he wanted in that instance.  He wanted to start a new eight-team circuit, the Continental League, for which he would have been president.  While that didn't pan out, the pressure exerted by Rickey and his backers did force the existing leagues to expand.

Lowenfish's biography is certainly thorough, covering all 83 years of Rickey's life over 598 pages.  Glimpses of baseball history are always fun for me and in particular, I learned a lot about the politics around expansion that I didn't know before.  Following the sport from an executive's perspective is certainly different from the player view one usually gets in biographies.  As can be expected of a book of such length and breadth, the text does frequently get bogged down in details - there's no way I was going to remember all of the players mentioned, for instance, apart from the most colorful superstars.  Lowenfish's overuse of words like paterfamilias suggest that more heavy-handed editing might have been in order, too.  The writer does lapse into hero worship from time to time, always a danger with biographies, but he succeeds in providing a multi-dimensional view of the subject.

Overall, Branch Rickey is an engaging book that reads surprisingly quickly.  I don't know if it holds much interest for anyone not already a baseball fan but I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Clone Wars: Tipping Points

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Tipping Points"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 5
Original Air Date: October 27, 2012
via Wookieepedia
The four-part Onderon civil war arc concludes this week.  There are several interesting developments, though not all of them can be shared just yet.  In less spoilery news, Hondo shows up again and serves an important narrative purpose, too.

The Onderon arc has quite a lot going for it.  It revives the interesting Ahsoka/Lux Bonteri relationship.  It introduces Saw Gerrera, who resurfaces in Rogue One.  Most importantly for the series, it provides essential character development for Ahsoka in regards to her loyalties.  Most importantly for the franchise, it supplies an early history for the Rebel Alliance.  Not bad for 92 minutes of material.
Dendup image via Wookieepedia
Ramsis Dendup is Onderon's true king and the rebels fight on his behalf to oust the pretender, Sanjay Rash.  This arc is Dendup's only appearance in the series.  Dendup is voiced by Barry Dennen.
Dennen image via Muppet Wiki
Dennen was born February 22, 1938 in Chicago and his career path is one of most interesting I have come across.  He dated Barbra Streisand for three years in the early '60s and helped her to develop the nightclub act that started it all.  He spent years doing stage work in London, including the master of ceremonies role in Cabaret.  He also played Mendel in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof.  His best known role is that of Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar on the original album, in the Broadway production and on screen.  In addition to Clone Wars, he has voice credits on The Dark Crystal, DuckTales, Batman: The Animated Series, Animaniacs and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Next week: "The Gathering."

Friday, March 3, 2017

Squid Brews: Mosaic Single Hop IPA

This was actually my fourth time making my own beer, though it's been a few years.  To this point, I have only used mixes, all from Brooklyn Brew Shop.  This time, it was the Mosaic Single Hop IPA.  The beer turned out just fine but I won't kid you, making beer is a royal pain, especially in comparison to making soda.  Admittedly, most of the process involves waiting: waiting for water to boil, waiting for the brew, waiting for fermentation, waiting for carbonation, etc.  But transferring liquid from one vessel to another is always a hassle, especially bottling.  Again, the beer is good but is all the effort worth it?  Even if I had better equipment?

I do live in a land of fantastic beer.  Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state in the USA and most of the product is top-notch.  Is it worth making my own if I can easily pick up something better at the local store?  The soda I recently made, on the other hand, was much better than anything I've ever bought and that was on the first try.

My wife is the one who has encouraged me to try brewing my own and is willing to invest in better gear.  After all, she reasons, I really like beer - true.  She suggests, however, that I should get away from the mixes and make them from scratch.  I do have a couple books with recipes.  I'll give the idea some thought.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Clone Wars: Soft War

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Soft War"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 4
Original Air Date: October 19, 2012
via Wookieepedia
"Soft War" is the third in a four-part story arc, one in which a rebellion is waged against the new, Separatist-aligned king on Onderon.  As Andrew pointed out in a recent post, this arc is a particularly important one for the series and the Star Wars saga as a whole as it marks the beginning of the Rebel Alliance.  This week, the rebels on Onderon are working to free their true king and oust the pretender.  While Anakin and Obi-Wan have gone back to Coruscant, Ahsoka is still hanging around.  Her actions in this episode establish a new relationship between the Jedi and the rebels, a relationship with major implications for the adventures to come.
via Wookieepedia
The pivotal character in "Soft War" is General Tandin for reasons best not shared just yet.  The episode marks his first appearance in Star Wars.  He is voiced by David Kaye.
via Scoobypedia
Kaye was born October 14, 1964 in Peterborough, Ontario.  In the '80s, he moved to Vancouver to pursue a career in radio.  He found stage work there, too, starring in both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Harvey.  His voice over career began in 1989 with the G.I. Joe animated series.  His voice credits are extensive and the Transformers franchise has been particularly kind to him as he has had prominent roles on six different series.  At present, he is the in-show announcer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Next week: "Tipping Points."

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2017 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, March 31st.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, February 24, 2017

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: February 2017

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka
Author: L. Neil Smith
via Wookieepedia
This is the third and last of The Lando Calrissian Adventures, first published in 1983 after the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi.  As I've written in my previous posts about this trilogy, these books by L. Neil Smith don't really offer much in the way of character development for Lando but they are reasonably fun in their own right.

Starcave, in particular, plays with a highly intriguing science fiction concept: the possibility of life - intelligent life, even - thriving in the vacuum of deep space.  Lando and Vuffi Raa, his droid sidekick, befriend the Oswaft: enormous, space-dwelling sting ray beings.  Unfortunately for the Oswaft, Lando and Vuffi Raa have enemies and their association has put the Oswaft in danger as well.

While there are gambling tales in each of the three books, I'd have loved it if that aspect of Lando had been more of the focus: The Sting or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels among the stars.  At the end of the story, Lando does come into enormous riches, suggesting a potential path towards the role we know he will have as administrator of Cloud City on Bespin.  Lando is a likeable character in the books, though lacking in dimension.  The Vuffi Raa story is actually more interesting and all of the questions surrounding him are answered in the third book.  Raa calls Lando "Master" throughout the books, much to the gambler's annoyance.  It is the trilogy's slightly annoying running gag but it actually turns out to have narrative relevance in the end.
Vuffi Raa Image via Wookieepedia
I doubt I'll pursue the Star Wars novels any further.  They're fun to a point but there are too many other good books I'd rather read.  I have learned this much in my exploration of science fiction over the past few years: Star Wars is best at the movie theater; Star Trek is best on television.  The other material for both is fun but it's not the main event.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post March's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is March 31st.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Clone Wars: Front Runners

Andrew Leon and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008.

Episode: "Front Runners"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 5, Episode 3
Original Air Date: October 12, 2012
via Wookieepedia
The civil war on Onderon continues.  The rebels, supervised by Ahsoka, Lux Bonteri and the Gerreras, carry out a series of attacks on the capital.  Meanwhile, Onderon's Separatist-aligned king frets.

This seems as good a moment as any for a geopolitical aside.  As a rule, I try to avoid politics and religion here at The Squid but sometimes it's unavoidable as the stories I explore take such matters head on.  The king of Onderon refers to the rebel band as terrorists, which they are not.  Terrorism is a word thrown around too casually by world leaders.  Terrorism is one means by which war is waged against a greater power.  A group like ISIS or Al Qaeda employs attacks against civilian targets with the intent of striking fear in the general population, thereby drawing attention to its cause.  Such a group has no hope of fighting its more powerful enemy on its own terms so it resorts to cheaper, faster tactics like terrorism.

However, not all insurgent groups are terrorist groups.  Guerilla tactics are another way Davids fight Goliaths.  The US's own Revolution could never have been won against the mighty British Empire without them.  Espionage is another means.  Ghandi's or MLK's civil disobedience is yet another.  There's good, old-fashioned sabotage, too.  The greater power doesn't like any of that stuff used against it because it knows it would easily win a "fair" fight.  The traditional rules of engagement serve to keep the big boys in power forever.

Here's the problem: leaders of nations too often refer to any rebellious group as terrorists, even if they're not really.  Such leaders know the power of the word and their use of it from their own side of the tilted chessboard is meant to inspire fear, too.  "You might not like me (or my own attacks against civilians)," they seem to say, "but those other guys will slit your throat in the street."

Fortunately for Onderon, the rebels' targets are all military and their efforts appear, so far, to be winning the hearts and minds of the populace.

via Wookieepedia
Saw Gerrera is Steela's brother.  He doesn't like Lux much and is also clearly jealous of his sister's popularity among the other rebels.  Saw Gerrera plays an important role in Rogue One, too, played there by Hollywood heavyweight Forrest Whitaker.
via Wookieepedia
By that point in the story, Saw is seen as one of the forefathers of the Rebel Alliance.  To my knowledge, he is the first character to appear initially in The Clone Wars, then in the movies.
via Regular Show Wiki
In The Clone Wars, Saw is voiced by Andrew Kishino.  Kishino was born March 20, 1970 in Toronto.  He first found his way into show biz as a rapper, going by the stage name Big Kish.  He has released two albums of his own and has also worked as a producer.  He has had extensive voice-over work in both animation and video games.

Next week: "The Soft War."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Squid Eats: Mad Taco

There are two restaurants in Vermont which inspire instant salivation for me and both are in Montpelier.  One is Royal Orchid, the best Thai restaurant in the state boasting a crispy duck dish that is just about the most fantastic thing I've ever eaten.  The other is Mad Taco.
via TripAdvisor
We live closer to Burlington than to Montpelier so we are usually more likely to head west than east for our weekend adventures but our charming state capitol has plenty going on for a town of its modest size (smallest state capitol in the US: 7,755 people).  The Savoy is one of the best artsy movie theaters in the state and is currently screening both the animated and live action Oscar-nominated shorts.  On Saturday, we decided to take in both, stopping in at Mad Taco for lunch.

Montpelier is actually Mad Taco's second location.  The original is in Waitsfield.  The simple, order-at-the-counter restaurant aims to provide authentic Mexican tacos with locally farmed products and in-house smoked meats.  The beer list is excellent and also predominantly local. 

I always order the same thing: kimchi tacos.  I consider being more adventurous but why mess with success?  The restaurant also makes a range of salsas, served in squeeze bottles, rated 1-10 for heat.  I love heat and can say that in my experience, anything rated at 3 offers plenty.  5 is heading towards danger territory.  On this visit, I tried a 3 and a 4, both lovely.

As for the movies, this was our first time seeing the live action ones.  We've been going to see the animated shorts for several years now, figuring they're more child friendly - not necessarily so.  In fact one of this year's animated nominees, Pear Cider and Cigarettes, came with a not-for-kids warning.  Wife and daughter (13) left the theater for that one - last in the program - but I stayed. 

All of the nominated films in both categories were really strong - not always the case.  My favorite among the animated ones was Pearl, a six-minute, essentially wordless story about a girl growing up with her single, free-spirited but ultimately responsible father.  Daughter preferred Pixar's offering: Piper.  Wife liked Blind Vaysha, a Canadian-produced parable about living in the moment.  The objectionable aspects of Pear Cider and Cigarettes are many: nudity, objectification of women, violence, lots and lots of substance abuse.  But mostly, it's sad as addiction stories usually are.  The artwork was excellent, as it was for all five.  Any of the five would be a deserving winner.

So too, for the live action works.  My favorite was Timecode from Spain, the Palme D'Or winner for short film at Cannes: two parking garage attendants find a wonderful way to amuse each other.  We all enjoyed Sing, a Hungarian film about a children's choir and poetic justice.  Two of the nominees deal with immigration issues: the Danish Silent Nights and Ennemis Intérieurs from France.  If timeliness is worth anything, Ennemis Intérieurs will win.