Friday, February 28, 2020

Star Trek: We'll Always Have Paris

Episode: "We'll Always Have Paris"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 24
Original Air Date: May 2, 1988

Image result for tng we'll always have paris
via Memory Alpha
A time distortion is quickly followed by a distress call from Dr. Paul Manheim (Rod Loomis), a scientist once kicked out of the Federation Science Institute for unauthorized time experiments.  Evidently, something has gone wrong with Manheim's current work and our Enterprise heroes rush to the rescue.  For Captain Picard, this is tricky personal territory as Manheim's wife Jenice (Michelle Phillips) is a significant ex-girlfriend.  Dr. Crusher works to save Paul's life while Jean-Luc confronts regrets from his own past.

This story of lost love, including its title, is largely inspired by Casablanca, the 1942 cinema masterpiece starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Early in the episode, Riker, Troi and Picard discuss an old bar they know called the Blue Parrot Cafe, also a locale name borrowed from Casablanca.  What could have been one of the season's stronger episodes was negatively impacted by the Writer's Guild strike at the time.  Filming had already begun before the production staff realized the script wasn't quite finished.

I have a little tidying to do.  With Tasha's death in the previous episode (see here), the Scotty chair in the Star Trek legacy pantheon (see here) is now vacant.  In the initial exercise, I assigned the quality of loyalty to TOS's chief engineer as his main contribution to the broader narrative.  Will Riker is the best choice to pick up the baton from here, his devotion to the ship, his captain and his duty being the prime driver for his character.  As noted in my original TNG post, I was tempted to put Riker in this spot from the beginning but then I wouldn't have known what to do with Tasha.  So, the legacy of the Scotty character, in this strange, self-devised game of mine, shall run as follows:

Scotty = Tasha = Riker (originally Will Dekker line)

Acting Notes

Image result for michelle phillips
via Wikiquote

Michelle Phillips is the first but not the last TNG guest star who has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in her case as a member of the Mamas and the Papas.  She was born Holly Michelle Gilliam, June 4, 1944 in Long Beach, California.  After Michelle's mother died of a brain aneurysm when Michelle was five years old, her father moved the family to Mexico for six years.  They moved back to Los Angeles when Michelle was 13.  She left for San Francisco to pursue a modeling career while still in high school.  There, she met John Phillips who divorced his first wife in order to marry Michelle.  She was only 18.

John and Michelle formed the Mamas and the Papas along with Cass Elliott and Denny Doherty in 1965.  The band became one of the iconic acts in the folk rock scene of the late '60s, their first three albums certified Gold.  Success was short-lived.  Michelle and John divorced in 1969 and the band was finished for good by 1971.  Many of their songs remain classics of the era, including their calling card, co-written by John and Michelle:

After the split, Michelle embarked upon what turned out to be quite a successful acting career.  She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in 1973's Dillinger.  Television has been particularly kind.  In addition to numerous guest appearances, she was in the principal cast of Knots Landing for 88 episodes.

Michelle is the last surviving member of the Mamas and the Papas.  Her daughter Chynna Phillips was one of the members of the vocal group Wilson Phillips.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Black Panther

Title: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artist: Brian Stelfreeze

Image result for black panther a nation under our feet book 1
via Amazon

Title: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book Two
Writer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Artists: Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Laura Martin

Image result for black panther a nation under our feet book 2
via Amazon

In 2016, a new Black Panther comic book series was launched with esteemed author/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates as head writer.  The two books listed above collect issues #1-8 along with three classic comics.  Fantastic Four #52 (first published in 1966) features the original introduction of the Black Panther character while Jungle Action #6-7 (1973) introduce Killmonger, Black Panther's nemesis in both Coates's story and the blockbuster film.

Wakanda is in turmoil.  A superhuman terrorist group called The People is encouraging the populace in armed rebellion.  T'Challa (Black Panther) struggles to reunite the people and regain control of his nation.  He even enlists some despicable nation-builders to consult though, thankfully, he doesn't follow their advice too far.  The story challenges the very idea of monarchy, a long-standing conflict within the Black Panther idiom if the earlier issues provided are anything to go on.

The early comics, in particular, leave me confronting an uncomfortable question: is the Black Panther story racist?  Is inclusion coming at a cost?  I have no problem identifying Star Trek's "Code of Honor" episode as racist.  Is Black Panther so different?  I don't feel it's an issue with the more recent series.  Having a black and racially conscious author like Coates and a black and racially conscious film director like Ryan Coogler guiding the character's arc in the 21st century is a good thing.  But when white Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther in 1966, perhaps the politics were sketchier.

As I work my way through the early Spider-Man issues, the lack of black and brown faces on the streets of New York City is both astonishing and preposterously unrealistic.  The first black character I saw was a police officer in #23.  So, inclusion was definitely an issue at the time.  Still is half a century later, appallingly.  Having any black face on the page or on the screen seems a revolution, let alone a character with nuance or even one the consumer is encouraged to root for.  Once you've crossed that inclusion threshold, the slope gets slippery awful quick.  Why not a story set in modern black America rather than going to Africa?  And if you must go to Africa, why must everyone be outfitted according to Euro-American stereotypes?  Is it even entirely Stan and Jack's fault?  Were these the sorts of compromises that had to be made in order for the book to get published for fear of alienating what I assume was a predominantly white readership? 

I can't find any articles examining the comic books along these lines, though there are plenty in regards to the movie.  I want to focus on the comics for this post but for anyone interested, these folks write more thoughtfully on the matter than I could anyway:
Getting back to A Nation Under Our Feet, Coates's language is beautiful and the artwork is outstanding.  As with many contemporary comics, the reader is expected to know a lot going in.  I was glad to have seen the movie as I would have had difficulty keeping up with all of the characters otherwise.  I felt more secure by the time I got to Book 2.  Coates, an avowed feminist, has gotten a lot of credit for elevating the female characters and Coogler has certainly followed his lead in that regard.  I'm up for more, with the character in general and this story in particular.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Squid Eats: Subway

Image result for subway wiki
via Wikimedia Commons
We need to talk about fast food.  Rest assured, I require no convincing that it is emblematic of all that is horrible in our modern consumer culture.  It's bad for the environment.  It's bad for our health.  It's bad for our society.  Indeed, I realize it's not even good food.  But sometimes it is damned convenient and ruthlessly reliable.  As with other aspects of our dietary life, it is highly ritualistic in the sense, at least for me, that I always get it in particular circumstances.  I'm not talking weekly or even monthly.  But within a broader time frame, I will confess to eating it regularly.

In particular, let's talk about Subway.  There is a franchise in the town where I teach and there are a couple nights every year when I have about an hour between the end of one meeting and the beginning of an evening commitment.  No time to run home.  Going to the grocery store seems like too much hassle and doesn't really provide preferable quick options.  Bringing something from home requires too much advance planning.  And, I will admit, it does have the seductive appeal of a mild indulgence.  Besides, it's Subway.  That is the healthier, more responsible alternative to the Scottish Bistro, right?


I love a good submarine (not subway!!!) sandwich as I love few things.  (In Vermont, they're called grinders.)  I have devoted considerable time and thought to the elements of the perfect sandwich (read here).  Given access to a full kitchen and prepped ingredients, I am fully confident that I could prepare a superior sandwich on my own.  If I lived in New York City rather than northwest Vermont, I could easily acquire a more satisfying meal at a corner deli.  But again, given the circumstances, I have neither.  Subway it is. 

I didn't grow up with Subway.  Maryland and Virginia are still well-served by a robust local chain: Jerry's Subs & Pizza.  I didn't encounter the global operation until college.  Subway does require a little more patience than its competitors but the relatively fresh ingredients (are they really?) will generally win out for me if I have a few extra minutes to spare.

If you check the nutritional stats between Subway and McDonald's, Subway does offer a broader range of healthier, less fatty options.  But, and this is a huge condition, one must choose carefully.  Including cheese on that sandwich?  How about mayonnaise or one of those other tantalizing squeeze-bottled condiments?  Advantage negated.  Even if you stick to the healthier choices, you're still getting a lot more sodium than you need, especially if you're adding a bag of chips to your meal.

And no, the ingredients, even the vegetables, are not as fresh as they seem.  Fresh is an illusion for all chain restaurants, even the sit-down places like Red Lobster or Olive Garden.  I know this.  Under the right circumstances, I guess I've decided I can live with it.

I suppose that's what it comes down to in the end.  Fast food is an inexorable part of the devil's bargain I and billions of others have made in navigating life in the 21st century.  I know the choices I make are often, in ways both large and small, damaging to the greater good and even my own.  But they make my life incrementally easier.  I'm not proud of this.  But it is the truth. 

For the record, my order: foot-long turkey on white, no cheese, not toasted, all the veggies, mayo (my guilty pleasure), no chips, tap water.  Met the factory specs very nicely.  Done in plenty of time to make my call at 5.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #18-21

As one might expect, Spider-Man's creators are titans of the industry.

Image result for stan lee
via Wikipedia

Writer Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber December 28, 1922 in New York City.  He worked his way up from the lowly ranks of what was then known as Timely Comics to become the driving creative force of a world-class, pop culture powerhouse.  His creations represent the bulk of Marvel's Silver Age: Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil and many more.  He lived long enough to make cameos in the box office juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Image result for steve ditko wiki
via Wikipedia

Artist Steve Ditko was born November 2, 1927 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  While he deserves massive credit as the co-creator of both Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, his time with Marvel was relatively brief, leaving in 1966 for reasons he never specified.  For DC, he created or co-created the Question, the Creeper, Shade the Changing Man and Hawk and Dove.  Whereas Lee embraced the limelight, Ditko was more reclusive, mostly declining interviews and public appearances.

Both Lee and Ditko passed away in 2018.

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #18
Originally Published November 10, 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Villain: Sandman
  • Crossovers: Fantastic Four, Avengers, Daredevil
The Amazing Spider-Man #19
Originally Published December 10, 1964
  • Villains: Sandman and the Enforcers
  • Crossover: Human Torch
  • Evidently, Betty and Peter are not exclusive.  She's seeing another guy: Ned Leeds.  In fact, she's hoping to make Peter jealous.  It doesn't work.  Actually, Peter and Ned like each other just fine.
Image result for ned leeds
via Wikipedia

The Amazing Spider-Man #20
Originally Published January 10, 1965
  • Villain: the Scorpion is introduced.
Image result for scorpion spiderman
via Marvel's Spider-Man Wiki
The Amazing Spider-Man #21
Originally Published February 10, 1965

Image result for beetle spiderman
via Villains Wiki
  • Villain: the Beetle, first introduced in Strange Tales #123
  • Crossover: Human Torch

Friday, February 21, 2020

Star Trek: Skin of Evil

Episode: "Skin of Evil"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 23
Original Air Date: April 25, 1988

Image result for skin of evil
via Memory Alpha
Tasha dies.

Yes, there's more to the story but I will leave it to the many others who have tread this path to discuss the rest.  In the end, it all boils down to the sad and simple fact that Tasha dies.  The rest is just details.

Towards the end of Season 1, Denise Crosby asked to be released from her contract.  She was dissatisfied with the lack of material and development for her character and I, for one, find it difficult to blame her.  At the same time, Marina Sirtis (Troi) was worried her character was going to be cut at season's end.  Plus, there was another shoe yet to fall: Gates McFadden (Dr.  Crusher) was about to be fired.  A principal cast of nine wasn't leaving much food to go around, to be sure.  Furthermore, is it a coincidence that the three listed above are all women?  I assert it is not.  Worth noting, too: Tasha was never replaced.  TNG went from a principal cast of nine to one of eight and would never grow beyond that number again.  So, it's possible there were indeed moves in the offing if Crosby hadn't made the choice she did.

In hindsight, it seems a foolish decision.  But let's face it, TNG's first season was pretty poor.  Crosby couldn't have known there were six much better seasons to come, not to mention four feature films and several spinoff series - plenty of time for Tasha to come into her own.

Sadly, Crosby has said since that if she'd been given more episodes like "Skin of Evil," or even more scenes like her exchange with Worf early in the story, she might have stayed.  Her death at the hands of Armus, the oil slick bully creature, is abrupt, much to the annoyance of critics.  Roddenberry liked the choice as realistic for a security officer.  Her memorial service on the holodeck is certainly touching, though maybe a little too sappy.  I found Spock's more traditional naval funeral in The Wrath of Khan to be more effective.  Deanna's tears are genuine.  Sirtis and Crosby had grown to be close friends and Sirtis's emotions during the memorial were honest.

Acting Notes

Image result for mart mcchesney
via Memory Alpha

Mart McChesney is the actor inside the Armus suit, though the character is voiced by Ron Gans.  McChesney was born January 27, 1954 in Abilene, Texas.  This was his first of two TNG appearances, also performing in "Shades of Gray."  Otherwise, he had only one other screen credit: Pete "Maniac" Krizaniac in Girls Nite Out.

McChesney died January 14, 1999 of complications due to AIDS, age 39.  When I did my TOS series, I found lung cancer to be the most common cause of death among the actors.  While that hasn't disappeared with TNG, AIDS is rearing its ugly head.  This is the second week in a row with an AIDS victim in a guest role and I'm guessing there will be more.  Because of HIV, the '80s and '90s were a frightening time, especially for the gay community which, of course, is always well-represented in the performing arts, historically relatively safe industries in which to be out.  The virus is still around but, fortunately, the medical community has come a long way in treating it.  The number of those infected is up but that's largely because they are surviving longer.  Consider this:  Magic Johnson was diagnosed in 1991 and he is still alive.  The rates for both deaths and new cases are way down.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Squid Eats: Sweetwaters

Burlington, Vermont was under a boil-water advisory from Saturday night through Monday morning.  As one might expect, this wreaked havoc upon the restaurant industry on Sunday.  Many places simply closed their doors for the day.  We, with three hours to kill between our daughter's call and her concert, struggled to find a place for lunch but Sweetwaters accommodated.

Sweetwaters, yet another American bistro with locally sourced ingredients, has been one of the mainstays on Church Street for many years, well preceding our time in Vermont, yet we'd never been before.  We haven't avoided it for any particular reason, just never got around to it. The water restriction had only minimal impact on the menu: no coffee, tea or sodas.  We both ordered lunch specials: I the fried chicken sandwich, she the grilled cheese with soup.  Both were nice, though apparently for my wife, the sandwich was better than the soup.  Service was friendly and professional.

Squid on the Vine

Clovis, Syrah Blend 2016
Rich, dry, spicy
Chocolatey nose
Our Valentine's Day dinner wine, pairing with the beautiful duck breast and potatoes my wife prepared.  Mmm... duck!
My wife decanted this one thinking that quite a lot of our wine club wines - as this one was - would have benefited from opening up a little.
My rating: 8.2

Monday, February 17, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #13-17

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #13
Originally Published June 10, 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Villain: Mysterio
Image result for mysterio
via Marvel Database

The Amazing Spider-Man #14
Originally Published July 10, 1964
  • Villain: Green Goblin, backed by The Enforcers
Image result for green goblin
via Wikipedia
  • Crossover: Hulk
  • It's 1964 so I suppose it's not entirely surprising that the story should include a Beatles reference.  Interestingly, this single was released in the UK on the same day this comic was published in the US.  No song is more emblematic of the mania:

The Amazing Spider-Man #15
Originally Published August 10, 1964
Image result for kraven the hunter
via Wikipedia
  • Villains: Chameleon and, introduced for the first time, Kraven the Hunter.
  • First mention of Mary Jane Watson, though we don't actually get to see her yet.

The Amazing Spider-Man #16
Originally Published September 10, 1964

Image result for circus of crime
via Marvel Database
  • Villains: The Ringmaster and The Circus of Crime, all of whom made their first appearance in The Incredible Hulk #3
  • Crossover: Daredevil 
The Amazing Spider-Man #17
Originally Published October 10, 1964
  • Villain: Green Goblin
  • Crossover: Human Torch
  • James Bond reference!  At one point, a classmate makes a joke about Peter Parker reading a "James Bond Mystery."  The novel You Only Live Twice was published in March of 1964.  The film From Russia with Love was released in the United States in April of that year.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Star Trek: Symbiosis

Episode: "Symbiosis"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 22
Original Air Date: April 18, 1988
Image result for tng symbiosis
via Memory Alpha

The Enterprise rescues a freighter crew and its apparently precious cargo, though in fact, it turns out, they've thrown themselves into the middle of a drug deal.  T'John and Romas are two rather unkempt representatives of Onara, a world whose entire population has grown addicted to Felicium, a narcotic produced only on the planet Brekka.  The role of pushers is filled by Sobi and Langor, the more refined Brekkians seeking to be paid for their merchandise.

The relevance of the storyline hasn't diminished in 31 years.  If anything, the role of Big Pharma in the current opioid crisis fits the "Symbiosis" allegory even better than that of the crack dealers of the late '80s.  However, as is often the case with Star Trek, the messaging is far too heavy-handed.  The cast expressed strong objections over a particularly eye-roll-inducing Just-Say-No lecture with which Tasha burdens Wesley.

That said, I always enjoy a solid Prime Directive dilemma.  Even in the decidedly uneven first season, TNG delivered some good ones.  The question of whether to interfere with an obviously destructive relationship is tricky in light of the policy.  Picard's sparring with Dr. Crusher over the matter is especially interesting.  A medical doctor's approach to problem-solving: find the cause of suffering and eliminate it.  Heal the patient.  A Starfleet captain's responsibilities frequently obligate him/her to ignore the issue.  Picard's ultimate decision is reasonable, yet it doesn't actually make anyone happy.  So it goes.

Image result for merritt butrick
via Memory Alpha

A sad real world note: the part of T'John is played by Merritt Butrick who some may remember as David Marcus, Kirk's son, in the Star Trek movies.  In 1988, Butrick was dying of AIDS.  He had no health insurance so he was cast in this episode to help him pay his medical bills.  He passed away in 1989, age 29.

Acting Notes

Image result for judson scott
via Charmed Wiki

Judson Scott (Sobi) was born July 15, 1952 in Azusa, California.  He holds a BA from Cal State-Fullerton and a Graduate Diploma from Julliard.  During his student days, he entered the American College Theater Festival and was named Best Actor in the Western United States.

Like Butrick, Scott also appeared in Wrath of Khan as Joachim, Khan's sideman.  As a result of a spat between his agent and the film producers, he is uncredited in the film, even though his is a rather prominent speaking role.  In television, he has been particularly successful in scoring guest star roles with the sci-fi franchises including V, Voyagers!, Babylon 5 and The X-Files.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Dan Barlow

Title: Play Cribbage to Win
Author: Dan Barlow

Image result for play cribbage to win
via Amazon
Few things in the world are more versatile than a deck of 52 playing cards.  You can build things with cards.  You can do magic tricks or tell fortunes.  Cards make for good bookmarks in a pinch.  And, of course, you can use them to play games - thousands of different, enduring, compelling and downright addictive games all from the same deck.  You can play alone.  You can play with groups of variable size.  My basic philosophy of traveling anywhere: as long as I have a good book and a deck of cards, I will never be bored.

I love cribbage.  It's probably my favorite card game.  I don't know when I first learned the rules but I didn't learn to play well until I met my wife 22 years ago.  She plays with muggins (more on that in a bit) which meant I had to clean up the careless mistakes in a hurry.  Over the years since, I'd like to believe I've developed a reasonably sophisticated game.  Cribbage is mostly mathematical - more so than other games - and I'm generally pretty good at math.  Against a phone app, my most frequent opponent, I win a lot more than I lose.

Humans are, of course, more challenging as they are less predictable.  I've recently found an opportunity to test my skills against real people more often.  The Boardroom has started a cribbage league!  We gather monthly.  Last month, my performance definitely left room for improvement.  So, I have revisited Barlow's book, one I first read several years ago.

Before I dive into the specifics, those unfamiliar with the game can learn the basics here.

I am confident in my toss game - the bit where you decide which cards to keep in your hand and which to "toss" to the crib.  That's straight math so figuring out which cards are likely to be most useful to me and least helpful to my opponent is relatively simple.  Computers are brilliant at analyzing such decisions and mine are usually right - or at least not disastrously wrong.  If there's an art to cribbage, it's in the pegging.  Computers are not as good at picking up on the subtleties and are therefore less than satisfying opponents in this regard.  You need real people for decent practice.

Barlow's insights are certainly helpful.  He offers solid strategic advice for each individual card you play from your hand.  There's a lot to remember but I do my best to latch on to a few guiding principles.  The first couple plays are the most important so if I prioritize that for now, I'm hopeful of seeing improvements.

The league is a relaxed one, including both beginners and experienced players.  We don't play with muggins.  That's when you can steal points from your opponent if s/he doesn't see them.  There are some psychological issues to work through, though.  My adrenaline was running like mad last month.  Beer is a decent sedative, though you certainly don't want too much, especially when you still need to drive home afterwards.  Hopefully, that will also get easier as I adapt to the circumstances from month to month.

I will refer back to Barlow, too.  I'll look into other books eventually for a different perspective but his short, 96-page volume packs a lot.  He gets into the endgame also, aka Fourth Street.  He has a whole separate book on the subject.  I'm not even ready to put much thought into that before I master the pegging.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Squid Eats: Jules on the Green

Image result for jules on the green
via Jules on the Green

As you may have heard, we got a huge snowstorm in New England last Friday.  As such, by Saturday afternoon we were all pretty desperate to get out of the house.  Why not lunch?

I suppose Jules on the Green is fairly typical of newer restaurants these days: standard American fare with fusion elements, mostly Italian in this case; great beer list; locally-sourced ingredients; friendly but not over-bearing staff.  A couple elements I especially appreciate are the large windows in a relatively small space so you get plenty of sunlight - a particularly nice thing when you've been snowbound - and the fact that they serve breakfast all day if you want it.  I had the creme brulee French toast which sounded more exciting than it actually was but was still perfectly nice French toast, my go-to breakfast in diner-type establishments.

We've been a couple times now, the first for my birthday a couple years ago.  We'll certainly go again.  It's a little further away that our nearest comparable place but also nice for changing things up from time to time.

Squid on the Vine

Chateau Cadenette, Costières-de-Nîmes Grenache Blend, 2017
Rather bitter.
Sweeter nose and finish.
A bit of apple.
My rating: 7.8

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Family Book Swap: La Belle Sauvage

Title: La Belle Sauvage
Author: Philip Pullman
Image result for la belle sauvage
via Amazon
As noted in this post, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series was a favorite of my wife's and mine even before we were married.  We listened to the wonderful, full-cast audiobooks on road trips early in our relationship.  So, hopes for Pullman's latest series about Lyra's world are rather high.  La Belle Sauvage is the first volume of The Book of Dust trilogy.  It is set several years before The Golden Compass.  Lyra is an infant and the new protagonist is Malcolm, a young and extraordinary innkeeper's son who is heroically devoted to protecting her.  Malcolm is drawn into a world of simultaneously colorful and terrifying characters.  Some we already know: Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter.  Others, like the horrible Bonneville, are new.  Practically by accident, he stumbles into a spy network through which he learns of alethiometers. 

For a different hero, we get quite a different tale.  The new story is a lot darker than His Dark Materials.  The subject matter and even some of the language implies teenagers rather than younger children as the intended readers - not a good read-aloud for the tots.  In parts, the story also tends more to the surrealist end of fantasy than the original series did. 

Malcolm and Alice, his partner in this adventure, are total badasses.  One can't help admiring them tremendously by the end.  There is some untidiness in the narrative.  For instance, at one point Bonneville is revealed to have a predilection for young boys, a fact presented in such a way that one assumes it to be important to the story but then it isn't.  Or maybe it still will be in future books?  Hard to see how but we'll see.  Overall, Pullman's language, character development and world development are all expert level so I'm certainly up for more.  The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, jumps ahead to the time after His Dark Materials.  I expect my wife will be swapping with me for that one soon, too.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #7-12

Following on last week's post, I've realized that the Peter Parker story is often (always?) the more interesting side of the Spider-Man saga.  It is certainly the less predictable side.  The basic superhero story is highly formulaic and, certainly in the idealistic early '60s, you can usually count on the good guy winning every time.  The colorful villains add variety from issue to issue but you still generally know what's going to happen.  But the path of the alias is a lot more complicated.  The six-issue stretch I read this week includes meaningful development for several of Peter's "real world" supporting cast.  In fact, it's fair to say at this point that some among them are more dynamic characters than Peter himself.

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #7
Originally Published December 10, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Villain: The Vulture
  • Peter Parker's personal life gets a little more interesting as he starts putting the moves on Betty Brant, Jonah Jameson's secretary.
Image result for betty brant
via Wikipedia
The Amazing Spider-Man #8
Originally Published January 10, 1964
  • Villain: The Living Brain
Image result for living brain spiderman
via Wikipedia
  • The first major development for Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's high school bully.  The two end up in the boxing ring at school and Flash finds out just how strong Peter is, even when he's trying to pull his spider-strength punches.  Though he doesn't tell his friends of his discovery, Flash's attitude towards Peter has clearly changed.
Image result for flash thompson
via Wikipedia
  • Bonus story with a Fantastic Four crossover.  Spidey actually comes across as the jerk in this one, crashing the Human Torch's party, then picking a fight with him.  Fortunately, the Invisible Woman puts the webslinger in his place.

The Amazing Spider-Man #9
Originally Published February 10, 1964

Image result for electro
via Wikipedia
  • Villain: Electro
  • A good story for Aunt May, Peter Parker's one unbreakable loyalty.  She is badly ill in this issue, enough to require surgery.  The medical bill is expensive and Peter needs to find a way to pay it quickly.

The Amazing Spider-Man #10
Originally Published May 10, 1964

Image result for the enforcers marvel
The Enforcers via Marvel Database
  • Villains: The Enforcers, led by The Big Man
Image result for the big man marvel
via Marvel Database
  • Jameson reveals the root of his hatred for Spider-Man: guilt over his life of greed compared to Spidey's selfless devotion to good.  I'm not sure I buy it but it's interesting.
  • The Betty story is getting interesting - she's hiding a shameful secret from Peter but we don't know what it is yet.

The Amazing Spider-Man #11
Originally Published April 10, 1964
  • Villain: Dr. Octopus
  • A brief exploration of vigilante ethics as Spidey tries to prevent Doc Ock being released from prison at the end of his sentence.
  • Betty's secret is revealed.  Her brother is a mob lawyer with a gambling debt and Betty has been caught up in his twisted web (pun intended).

The Amazing Spider-Man #12
Originally Published May 10, 1964
  •  The Doc Ock story continues.
  • We've learned a Spidey weakness as his powers are compromised by a virus.
  • Liz Allan is suddenly and unexpectedly falling hard for Peter Parker.
Image result for liz allan
via Spiderman animated Wikia

Friday, February 7, 2020

Star Trek: The Arsenal of Freedom

Episode: "The Arsenal of Freedom"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 21
Original Air Date: April 11, 1988
Image result for arsenal of freedom
via Memory Alpha

The USS Drake has gone missing and the Enterprise travels to the planet Minos to find it.  They are greeted by a holographic salesman hawking advanced weapons systems.  The system is so advanced, in fact, that it killed all of the planet's inhabitants and is now hunting the away team.  Meanwhile, the Enterprise, left under Geordi's command, is also under attack by the automated defense force.

The story started with promising elements, including development of the Picard-Crusher relationship.  While on planet, the two fall down into a pit.  The doctor is badly injured and the captain, in an interesting role reversal, must attend to her wounds.  The original intention was for Picard to be hurt and for Crusher to confess her deep feelings for him while trying to save him.  Roddenberry nixed the idea and rightly so, I think.  There are several feeble attempts at a Picard-Crusher romance in Season 1 and, while it's sweet in a way and entirely believable, I'm glad the writers never followed that path too far, or made too much of any romance among the principals.  Things do develop for some later on... but it's handled in such a way that it doesn't hijack the entire narrative for the series.

Otherwise, the episode actually gets kind of boring at times, an unforgivable sin for science fiction.  The Geordi story is probably the more compelling one as he is challenged for leadership by another officer, Lieutenant Logan who outranks him but only appears in this one episode so obviously that can't happen.  Deanna also urges Geordi to be encouraging towards those under him, Picard style.  He handles both situations beautifully, just as we all knew he would!

A final story note: in the beginning, we learn that our dear Riker had actually been offered command of the Drake before coming to the Enterprise.  Again, one of our heroes passed up a promotion in order to remain a part of our story.  Also worth noting, this is not the last time a ship Riker was meant to lead is destroyed, in a way justifying his choice.  But again, worth asking, how often do people pass up promotions in the real world military?  At the very least, it defies credibility.

Acting Notes

Image result for vincent schiavelli
via Memory Alpha

Vincent Schiavelli plays the part of the Peddler, the holographic salesman.  Schiavelli was born November 11, 1948 in Brooklyn, New York.  Over a 30+ year career, he established himself as one of the best character actors in Hollywood.  In film, he had roles in several high-profile pictures, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ghost.  I first became aware of him when he made a guest appearance on Moonlighting as the love interest of Agnes, played by Alice Beasley, Schiavelli's real world wife at the time.

He also appeared in a ZZ Top video:

A man of many talents and interests, Schiavelli wrote three cookbook/memoirs and starred in a PBS cooking show called Chefs of Cucina Amore.  His work in food was well-regarded, earning him a James Beard Journalism Award in 2001.  Schiavelli suffered from Marfan syndrome and served as honorary co-chair of the disease's national foundation.

He died in 2005 of lung cancer.  He passed away and was buried in Sicily, the ancestral home of his grandfather.  Schiavelli spent much of his later life there.  Much of his food writing draws from his time in Italy.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Squid Games: The Heart of Africa

Image result for ticket to ride heart of africa
via Amazon
Ticket to Ride is my wife's favorite board game.  When she suggested games on Sunday afternoon and she requested "the usual," I knew exactly which one she meant.  The German-invented train building game has been our standard go-to for quite a while.

I'm fairly confident in claiming it as my own favorite at this point, too.  For starters, I love maps.  I have loved them from about age 6 onward.  So, any game involving maps - and I prefer real world maps to invented world maps - is already winning with me.  For this reason, I love Pandemic, too.  I also prefer a game in which no players are eliminated - everyone's in it until the end.  Pandemic's great that way also.  Where Ticket to Ride has Pandemic beaten is that with the former, I feel satisfied whether I win or lose.  I get to build trains and building trains is fun.  I am a little disappointed if I can't finish all of my routes but I can live with it.  I can certainly live with losing.  Pandemic, on the other hand, is a lot more stressful.  It's a cooperative game and if we lose, the urge to play again right away is powerful.  Mind you, it's still loads of fun but for a relaxing afternoon, I'll take Ticket to Ride every time.

While the original game is based on a USA map, the franchise has published several variants and expansions using others.  This weekend, we tackled Africa.  One of the main challenges in approaching a new map is, of course, the less familiar place names.  Ticket to Ride also favors the names in the local language rather than the English ones as they should.  However, it does make the names more difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.  Most of the longer and higher-scoring African routes run North-South, as is also true with the India map.  However in Africa, most of the action seems to play out along the coastlines whereas with India, it runs down the middle of the country.

With each new map, Ticket to Ride also adds a wrinkle.  The Heart of Africa includes terrain cards which offer a bonus for building a route through Desert/Savannah, Jungle/Forest or Mountains/Cliffs.  It's an interesting variant as it brings more importance to the colors of the train car cards.  One also has to consider whether or not it's worth using a turn to get more terrain cards rather than simply playing a route.  I'm not sure the change actually makes the game better but it is interesting for variety.

Overall, I would say the USA and Europe maps make for the best game play but I do enjoy exploring the others.  We'll certainly play The Heart of Africa again.  

Monday, February 3, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #1-6

Image result for peter parker comic
via Marvel Database
Let's talk about secret identities, long a common element of superhero comics, enough so that part of the novelty of the Fantastic Four when they came along to usher in Marvel's Silver Age was the fact that they eschewed the idea.  Secret identities haven't been significant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe either, with the notable exception of one character: Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  My question is why?  Why are secret identities such a big part of the broader mythology to begin with and why has it remained so particularly for the one guy?

The most obvious reason for using a secret identity is to protect loved ones.  If Dr. Octopus, for instance, were to learn of Spidey's alias, Aunt May would be in immediate peril, just as Lois Lane would be in the case of Superman (Spidey's parallel in the DC universe in many regards).  Having a secret identity also allows a superhero to live a somewhat normal life on the side.  With Spider-Man, especially, his "real world" contacts form an essential part of the story.  His complicated relationship with Jonah Jameson wouldn't be nearly so interesting without his duality.  Peter Parker's girlfriends become very important, not just to the Spidey saga but also - this is no exaggeration - to the broader history of American comic books.

One can also see some appeal to the target audience: let's face it, nerdy, school-age boys.  You wouldn't be so mean to me, Mr. Bully, if you knew who I really am!  Naturally, there's a parallel with a more recently invented hero: Harry Potter.  His wizard identity isn't exactly a secret from the Dursleys but, once he learned of it, it gave him a great deal of leverage in his relationship with them that he didn't have before.  It's satisfying to the reader - and probably the creator - in much the same way.

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #1
Originally published March 10, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

  • Introduction of Spidey's most important long-term nemesis: J. Jonah Jameson.

Image result for j jonah jameson
via Wikipedia

  • First crossover story, with the Fantastic Four.
  • Introduction of a new villain: the Chameleon.

Image result for chameleon spider man comic
via Wikipedia

The Amazing Spider-Man #2
Originally published May 10, 1963

  • Two stories, two new villains: Vulture and Tinkerer

Image result for vulture spiderman
via Wikipedia
Image result for tinkerer spiderman
via Marvel Database

The Amazing Spider-Man #3
Originally published July 10, 1963

Image result for doctor octopus
via Wikipedia

  • Doctor Octopus introduced.
  • Human Torch (Fantastic 4) crossover.

The Amazing Spider-Man #4
Originally published September 10, 1963
  • The Sandman introduced.
Image result for the sandman spiderman
via Wikipedia

The Amazing Spider-Man #5
Originally Published October 10, 1963
  • Fantastic Four crossover
  • Villain: Dr. Doom, more a Fantastic Four nemesis originally and historically, though he gets around to other series, too
Image result for doctor doom
via Wikipedia
The Amazing Spider-Man #6
Originally Published November 10, 1963
  • The Lizard introduced.
Image result for lizard marvel
via Wikipedia