Tuesday, March 31, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Winning Chess Openings

Title: Winning Chess Openings
Author: Yasser Seirawan

Winning Chess Openings: Yasser Seirawan: 9780735609150: Amazon.com ...
via Amazon

Back when I first discovered Seirawan's books in the late '90s, I started with Openings.  My problem at the time was straightforward: I didn't know how to begin a game.  I knew some general principles but lacked the tools to implement them, especially if my opponent should go off-script from the main line.  So, I needed a resource to properly dig into the subject and Seirawan's book was perfect.

And now, having read and re-read several of his other volumes, I feel confident saying it's the best one.  His introductory chapter provides a wonderful history of his own early journey in the game as well as a glimpse into what he projects as a charming, jocular and refreshingly self-deprecating personality.  With that first read, I liked him instantly, both as a writer and a person, the sort of patient teacher who would never shame you for your ignorance. 

Am I a better chess player now than I was 20 years ago?  Probably, though more practice over the years would have helped.  I do, however, understand more of what he's talking about now so even if I'm not a significantly better chess player, I am a better chess reader

Once Seirawan gets to the meat, he divides his openings study into seven chapters:  classical king pawn openings, classical queen pawn openings, modern king pawn defenses and modern queen pawn defenses, wrapping up with three chapters for his own recommendations in each relevant situation.  I understand his approach to each better than I did 20 years ago.  He builds the first three around the most studied main line: Ruy Lopez for the king pawn, Queen's Gambit Declined for the queen pawn and the Sicilian Defense for the modern king pawn.  The queen pawn defenses are more varied.  Through each, he digs into the significance of each individual move and also explores relevant variants.

His actual recommendations are decidedly unconventional: the Barcza Opening, the King's Indian Defense and the Pirc Defense.  For those of you who are not chess enthusiasts, each intends to protect the king before challenging for control of the middle of the board, the primary function of most opening sequences.  I have used all three in the years since and have been more or less happy with the results.  In the book, he also recommends the English Opening (1. c4 for the curious), though he doesn't analyze it.  No doubt an editor told him to stop already.

Fortunately, it looks I will get a chance to practice more soon.  A colleague is starting an online chess league at school in this new distance learning phase of our lives.  Teachers are playing, too.  Can't wait!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: Fantastic Four #40-43

I'll admit it, I'm finding The Fantastic Four to be a tough slog.  You'll notice my issue count is down this week, despite social distancing.  Part of it is finding other interesting things to do, which is certainly a good thing.  However, I'm finding the series itself to be a bit tedious, especially compared with The Amazing Spider-Man.  Mind you, many of the problems I have with the FF are shared with the Spidey saga: the villain of the week, good guys always win formula becomes tiresome.  While there is more dimension to the heroes than there had been in the 1950s, there isn't much moral ambiguity with anyone, good or bad.  The Dr. Doom origin story in Annual #2 (see here) offers moments of sympathy for the guy but he went all in on the megalomania too quickly for it to last.
Marvel in the Silver Age: Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 1 - Fade Out
via Marvel in the Silver Age
Both series are also problematic when it comes to female characters.  This is not entirely surprising given the era.  However, the women in Peter Parker's life are the primary drivers of the more compelling threads in the Spider-Man stories.  Aunt May, Betty Brant, Liz Allan and Gwen Stacey are all more assertive and more nuanced than the FF's Sue Storm.  Sue has cool powers but is nauseatingly deferential to the others, especially Reed Richards.  She is certainly not an equal member of the Four.  The villain Medusa has a lot more backbone.
Medusalith Amaquelin (Earth-616) | Marvel Database | Fandom
via Marvel Database
Obviously, I don't have to stick with the series or the project at all really.  However, an important character introduction is coming soon: The Silver Surfer.  His solo series is the next stop on the Comic Book Herald tour anyway so I'd hate to miss the debut before moving on.  I might skip ahead, though.  There are surely other fun villains in store, too, but I could always come back.  We'll see.

My Recent Reads

Fantastic Four #40
Originally Published July 1, 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
  • Part 3 of a 6-part arc
  • Villain: Dr. Doom
  • Ally: Daredevil
  • The FF's powers are restored via Reed's power ray.
  • Doom is defeated but let go, Reed believing the wound to his pride is punishment enough.  Yeah, that line of thinking always turns out well in the long term...
  • The Thing is not entirely happy with his powers being restored.  If anyone gets an interesting story through this thread, it's Thing.  While the others enjoy being superheroes, it's a burden for Ben Grimm, just as it is for the Hulk and, eventually, Wolverine.  He is understandably a bit resentful of Reed for essentially making the decision for him this time.

Fantastic Four #41
Originally Published August 1, 1965
  • Part 4
  • Villains: The Frightful Four
  • The Wizard uses an "Id Machine" to convert an already bitter Thing to the Dark Side.  Oops, wrong franchise...

Fantastic Four #42
Originally Published September 1, 1965
  • Part 5
  • The Human Torch is turned to The Frightful Four's cause as well!

Fantastic Four #43
  • Part 6: the finale
  • Apparently, the Id Machine didn't actually work on the Torch and he's been faking his allegiance.  So clever.
  • The Frightful Four are defeated, though Medusa escapes, her feminine allure too much for young Johnny Storm to look past at the consequential juncture.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Star Trek: Where Silence Has Lease

Episode: "Where Silence Has Lease"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 2, Episode 2
Original Air Date: November 28, 1988
Curiosity kills the cat, and sometimes puts the Enterprise in great peril as well.  Data picks up an unusual reading, an area of total emptiness - no matter, no energy, nothing.  As the ship moves closer to check it out, our heroes are caught in what is essentially the mouse trap of a superior being, Nagilum.  The entity is curious as well, planning to kill half the crew just for sport.  Having no intention of subjecting his crew to prolonged suffering, Picard goes all in, setting the ship to self-destruct.  Is it a bluff?  Probably.  We still have over five seasons to go.

Most of the story is fairly tedious, I feel - just one more superior being putting humanity to the test.  As in The Motion Picture, there is way too much time devoted to shots of worried crew members staring at the view screen.  But it is a decent development episode for Picard and also for the Pulaski-Data relationship, one of the more important themes for Season 2.

Jean-Luc Picard is a bona fide badass.  His calm in facing down Nagilum is one thing.  His ability to sit back and be philosophical about impending death while the self-destruct clock is ticking is quite another - Macbeth-worthy.  Regular readers have already likely caught on but I am firmly in the Picard camp for the Kirk v. Picard debate.  This is the sort of episode that clarifies that choice for me.

I have difficulty warming to Dr. Pulaski and her dismissive attitude towards Data is the reason why.  Witness the following exchange:

PULASKI: Isn't this impossible, sir? I'm not a Bridge officer, but. Increase by one thousand, Mister Data. By ten thousand. It does know how to do these things, doesn't it?
PICARD: Commander Data knows precisely what he is doing.
PULASKI: Forgive me, Mister Data. I'm not accustomed to working with non-living devices that. Forgive me again. Your service record says that you are alive. I must accept that.

I realize Pulaski eventually comes around to respecting Data but their early interactions remind me of an old pearl of wisdom: if someone is kind to you but rude to the waitress, she is not a nice person.  In other words, Pulaski is only considerate when she has to be.  This may be oversimplifying the situation but it still rubs me the wrong way.

Acting Notes

Image result for earl boen
via The Disney Wiki

Earl Boen (Nagilum) was born August 8, 1941 in Pueblo, Colorado.  His biggest role was Dr. Silberman in the Terminator franchise.  He is the only actor besides Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear in each of the first three films.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Squid Mixes: Sazerac

I got my Sazerac recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide: bourbon or rye with Pernod, sugar, Angostura or Peychaud's bitters, water and a lemon twist.  I chose rye and Peychaud's.  In fact, the latter was the initial inspiration for the drink.  We've had a bottle for a while but I don't think I'd actually used it yet - not that we were able to taste it much.  The Sazerac is named for the brand of cognac which served as its original base liquor.

The Pernod, an anise-flavored apéritif, was definitely the dominant flavor even though there's only a scant amount in the mixture: a mere half-teaspoon against three ounces of whiskey.  We're not big black licorice fans so a little bit of anise goes a long way.  The drink was enjoyable, though definitely strong.  The preparation is a bit fussy.  One coats the glass with the Pernod before adding anything else.  One must muddle the sugar, too, which is tedious.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: Fantastic Four #34-39

As I dig into the Fantastic Four's adventures, I am particularly aware of important similarities and differences between their stories and those of Spider-Man. 

Both franchises are based in New York City - center of the entire Marvel universe, in fact.  However, while Spidey tends to stay close to home, the FF end up in all kinds of crazy places: the Mole's underground world, Namor's Atlantis kingdom and, perhaps most important in the long-run, the Skrull world.

The Skrulls first invaded Earth in Fantastic Four #2.  In issue #37 (see below), the FF pay a return visit.  The Skrulls have been a prominent presence in Marvel ever since, far beyond the Fantastic Four saga.  In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Skrulls have been featured in both Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far from Home.

My Recent Reads

Fantastic Four #34
Originally Published January 1, 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Image result for mr gideon marvel
via Marvel Database
  • Villain: Mr. Gideon, a billionaire set on world domination.  In the end, he gives up his fortune and devotes himself to his loving family.  Awww...
  • Beatles reference!

Fantastic Four #35
Originally Published February 1, 1965

Image result for dragon man marvel
via Marvel Database
  • Villain: Diablo, controlling Dragon Man
  • Cameos: Professor X and Scott Summers of the X-Men, Peter Parker
  • The FF's personal lives aren't nearly as interesting as Parker's but there is an important development in this issue: it would appear Reed and Sue are engaged!

Fantastic Four #36
Originally Published March 1, 1965

Image result for frightful four
via Comic Book Religion
  • Villains: a new bad guy team known as The Frightful Four, featuring the Wizard, Medusa, Sandman and Paste-Pot Pete
  • Guests at Reed and Sue's engagement party, invited and otherwise: the X-Men, the Avengers and Spider-Man

Fantastic Four #37
Originally Published April 1, 1965
  • The FF travel to the Skrull world so Sue Storm can avenge the murder of her father.
  • Nemesis (villain doesn't fit since the FF picked this fight): Morrat
Image result for morrat marvel
via Marvel Database
  • Princess Anelle and her father, the king, Dorrek VII (unnamed in the issue) also appear.  She is Morrat's fiancée and Dad doesn't approve of his prospective son-in-law.
Image result for anelle marvel
Anelle via Marvel Database
Image result for dorrek vii marvel
Dorrek VII via Marvel Database
  • Beatles reference!

Fantastic Four #38
Originally Published May 1, 1965
  • Villain: The Frightful Four
  • Paste-Pot Pete renames himself The Trapster, thank goodness.
  • The story ends with a cliffhanger.  As with Spidey, we're gradually getting longer arcs.

Fantastic Four #39
Originally Published June 1, 1965
  • Part 2 of the story arc begun in the previous issue.
  • Villain: Dr. Doom
  • Crossover: Daredevil, and for more than just a cameo.  He's on-hand to help.
  • After their run in with The Frightful Four in #38, the Fantastic Four are stripped of their powers.  They feel helpless and vulnerable, which of course, they're not really.  They just have to be resourceful.  There is a powerful message in Daredevil, in particular, stepping in.  Not only does he lack obvious superpowers but he's blind.  He knows all about making the most of what you have rather than dwelling upon what you don't.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Star Trek: The Child

Episode: "The Child"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 2, Episode 1
Original Air Date: November 21, 1988

Image result for tng the child
via Memory Alpha

We have a lot of ground to cover so settle in and get comfortable.

Deanna becomes unexpectedly pregnant when an alien entity invades her body.  I will keep my story analysis brief except to say that it's memorable for Deanna's emotional journey from the conception to the ultimate loss of the child.  Others have criticized the writers for avoiding the rape issue and for the lack of follow up for Troi in succeeding episodes.  But they certainly did not shy away from the matter of choice, making Captain Picard's position, at least, crystal clear.

Okay, first the good...

Riker's Beard

Image result for riker's beard the child
via Wikipedia

Between seasons, Jonathan Frakes stopped shaving.  He intended to remedy the situation before filming but Gene Roddenberry liked the beard and, with an assist from a convention audience, convinced him to keep it.  A television expression was born.

Riker's Beard is the opposite of Jumping the Shark.  The series Happy Days started heading permanently southward after an ill-conceived episode in which Fonzie jumps over a shark in a waterskiing daredevil stunt.


Jumping the Shark has since been used to mark all such moments in the decline of a once dependable television show.  Similarly, the debut of Riker's beard has long been seen by the faithful as the moment when TNG stopped being terrible and started being awesome.  Riker's Beard is now employed for the moment when any struggling series finally finds its footing.

In my opinion, this season opener is not noticeably better than the best of Season 1, apart from a few promising hints.  Despite uneven quality of material, the first season's ratings were strong enough to merit a budget increase so production value went up.  We get a few character improvements, too.  Geordi is now chief engineer, giving him stronger character definition and bringing Scotty's old job into the principal cast.  Similarly, Worf now has a better defined role as chief of security.  Wes's character gets toned down from wunderkind to that of insecure teenager which makes him a tad more likeable.  He also gets a snazzy new acting ensign uniform.  Gone are the horrible sweaters, thank goodness.  Plus, we get Guinan - more on her in a bit.

But the point of Riker's Beard is not that it is the quality apex.  Rather, it is the moment marking the beginning of an upward trend.  Here we go.  For real this time, folks.

Now the bad...

McFadden Fired

During the first season, the cast, up to and including Patrick Stewart, were not shy about expressing their objections to the more offensive material, particularly the racism in "Code of Honor" and the sexism of several episodes, most egregiously "Angel One."  Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) was particularly vocal and, unfortunately, pushed hard enough to get on the bad side of Maurice Hurley, head writer and showrunner.  Though officially the studio said McFadden asked to leave as Denise Crosby had, in truth, she was fired.

It was not exactly a clean cut, which suggests that others within the operation were not so bothered.  The character was actually promoted within the story rather than killed off.  Also, her replacement, Diana Muldaur (first appeared on TOS, here) was never listed among the principal cast.  Finally, as soon as Hurley left the show himself after the second season, McFadden was invited back.

In the meantime, we must address the Uhura legacy.  While Muldaur's character, Dr. Pulaski is quite different from Crusher (more on that next week), she is the most obvious placeholder until Crusher returns.  So...

Uhrua = Dr. Crusher = Pulaski

Back to the good...

Ten Forward

The world-building aboard the Enterprise gets a big boost with the introduction of Ten Forward, the ship's lounge.  There, one can relax with friends, enjoy a quiet moment or seek the counsel of the enigmatic bartender Guinan, who offers wisdom along with Mareuvian tea and Delovian soufflé.

Acting Notes

Image result for whoopi goldberg
via Wikipedia

Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan) was born Caryn Elaine Johnson, November 13, 1955 in New York City. She is, of course, an elite Hollywood superstar, one of only 15 entertainers to have achieved an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), all in competitive categories.  There are those who argue her Emmy doesn't count because it's a Daytime rather than a Primetime award.  I say an Emmy's an Emmy and for good measure, she's won two of them.

Goldberg was a huge Star Trek fan as a child, inspired by the character of Lt. Uhura in The Original Series.  As the story goes, she first watched the show at age nine, then went running through the house saying, "Come here, mom, everybody, come quick, come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!"  She first expressed interest in working on the new series through her friend LeVar Burton but when he passed it on, the producers initially thought it was a prank.

The Guinan character was a perfect fit for the circumstances.  The writers were already planning to introduce Ten Forward but did not plan to include it in every episode.  Goldberg, while eager to be involved, couldn't commit to a primary cast role.  The character name derived from Texas Guinan, a famous speakeasy owner during the Prohibition era.

Image result for texas guinan
via Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Squid Mixes: Old Overholt vs. Ezra Brooks

Ezra Brooks Straight Rye Whiskey is a relatively new product on Vermont's liquor store shelves.  It is $4 cheaper than our former standby, Old Overholt.  Therefore, it presents a meaningful challenge as a staple rye for when none of the higher-priced brands - George Dickel, for instance - is on sale.  Worth noting before we dig in: the Ezra Brooks is 90 proof whereas Overholt is 80.  Let the whiskey battle begin!

On the Rocks Test

Both whiskeys were perfectly nice straight.  Brooks was more bitter while Overholt was both sharper and fruitier.  Call this one a tie.

Manhattan Test

My wife tasted both blind and found the Ezra Brooks to be smoother.  I thought it more flavorful.  I let her finish the EB one while I finished the Overholt.  She accepted, with apology.

Edge: Ezra Brooks

Highball Test

A blind test again.  This time, she found the Overholt smokier and preferred it.  We both agreed, though, that the ginger beer was once again the more dominant flavor, the whiskey difference essentially negligible.  We used Otto's again.  At some point, once we've settled on a whiskey, we'll do some ginger beer tests.  The main thing we've learned so far is that there's no harm in sticking to the cheap stuff.

Slight edge: Old Overholt

Overall Winner: Ezra Brooks

Far and away, we consume most of our whiskey via Manhattans so the Brooks is the clear winner, especially with the difference in price.  Looks like the end of the road for Old Overholt at our house - kind of a shame but what can you do?  The change in recipe was not a good choice for the brand.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Amanda Ripley

Title: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Author: Amanda Ripley

Image result for the smartest kids in the world
via Wikipedia

All told - between being a student and teacher, pre-K and higher ed included - I have spent 39 years in American education.  Virtually that entire time, I have heard about how rotten our schools are compared to the rest of the industrialized world's.  In the '80s and '90s, Japan was held up as the gold standard.  In the 21st century, Finland has become the model.  I've never been entirely sure what to make of such claims.  My own experience teaching in Japan, 1996-98, revealed many struggles in that system to go along with the many strengths.  Were the international comparisons being made truly apples-to-apples?  Were comparable cross-sections of students represented in testing from one country to another?  I willingly concede that the approach to education in the United States is highly flawed and in need of numerous reforms.  But how useful is it to compare ourselves to others?  Is there as much harm in the attempted cures as there is in the disease?

In her book, journalist Amanda Ripley explores these questions and more.  She dives into the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam - the one used to evaluate a nation's educational effectiveness - from its origins.  And yes, I am now convinced that it's both fair and thoughtfully administered.  Next, she follows the stories of three American exchange students on their adventures in Finland, South Korea and Poland, three countries with particularly impressive recent PISA results.  She interviewed and surveyed numerous other exchange students - in both directions - as well as educators, administrators and government officials around the world.  Her findings reveal significant cultural and structural differences between the United States and the nations who have been more successful on the PISA exam.

Not surprisingly, the cultural differences are the more daunting.  Put simply, education is a higher priority in other countries.  Take South Korea.  On the day of the national college entrance exam - a nine-hour ordeal far more difficult and comprehensive than our SATs - the stock exchange is closed.  The airports hold off on flights during the English aural segment so as to cut down on noise.  High school seniors ride in taxis for free on exam day.  This is just one day, albeit an important one.  But the message to all involved is crystal clear: this is a big deal.  There is no equivalent in the United States.

Both South Korea and Finland have recently placed a higher priority on teacher training.  The number of training programs was reduced and thereby became more competitive.  Students and parents respect the teachers more in part because they know how hard they had to work to get the job.

By all accounts, extra-curricular activities, especially sports, play a far more prominent role in American school culture than they do in other countries and Ripley suggests this may be part of the problem.  I concede the point.  It breaks my heart a little but I know it's true.  I dearly love college and scholastic sports.  I would assert that sports can, when kept in perspective, be part of a well-rounded education.  But far too often, they're prioritized far beyond where they should be and the academic purpose of school - any school - is diminished as a result.

Ripley's most interesting revelation is the connection between student diligence and national performance.  A group of professors attached a student survey to the PISA exam and monitored, not the answers themselves but the thoroughness with which students answered the questions.  Patterns emerged from country to country.  Amazingly, this diligence correlated more strongly with a nation's PISA performance than any other factor studied - more than socio-economic status, more than average class size more than anything.  As a teacher, once this is pointed out, it seems obvious.  Naturally, the students who care more are going to learn more.  But knowing how this tendency plays out on a global, cross-cultural scale is astonishing.

The Smartest Kids in the World is a humbling read.  So many of our issues in schools have deep, systemic roots that are difficult to change.  Frankly, the United States struggles to find collective will in much of anything these days so imagining it can be done with something so enormous and fractured as education policy feels near impossible.  And yet, other countries have done it, often starting with fewer resources than we have.  And so we must as well.  Just one question:

How do we start?

Monday, March 16, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #36-38, Fantastic Four #31-33 and Annual #2

This week, I wrapped up the Steve Ditko run with Spider-Man, at which point the Comic Book Herald list shifts to the Fantastic Four.  I'm a little sad to leave the Spidey saga just as the Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn stories are taking off but I know I'll be back.  I have to admit the villain-of-the-week formula gets tiresome but Peter Parker's personal life hardly ever does.

The introduction of The Fantastic Four in 1961 - not Spidey, the Avengers or the X-Men - ushered in a new age for Marvel Comics.  For starters, it marked the beginning of the most important collaboration in American comics, that between writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby.  Plus, the FF were different from the superheroes who had populated comic books to that point.  They embraced their own fame, eschewing the idea of secret identities from the get-go.  They also had real personality differences beyond the variations in their superpowers.  Their relationships with each other would serve as important drivers in the narrative.  This, in a nutshell, was the Lee/Kirby gift to the medium.  Marvel has been kicking DC's butt in character development ever since.  The relative success of the two 21st-century movie franchises is not coincidental.

Assuming I stick with the Comic Book Herald list, and I see no reason not to, I'll be with the FF for issues #31-60, plus the second annual.  That should keep me going for a few weeks.

Our heroes...

Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic:
Image result for reed richards marvel
via Marvel Database
Sue Storm, Invisible Girl (now Invisible Woman):
Image result for sue storm marvel
via Marvel Database
Johnny Storm, Human Torch:
Image result for johnny storm marvel
via Marvel Database
Ben Grimm, Thing:
Image result for ben grimm marvel
via Marvel Database
My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #36
Originally Published May 1, 1966
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Image result for looter marvel comics
via Marvel Database
  • Villain: The Looter

The Amazing Spider-Man #37
Originally Published June 1, 1966

Image result for robot master marvel
via Wikipedia
  • Villain: Robot Master, aka Dr. Mendel Stromm
Image result for norman osborn marvel
via Marvel Fanon Wikia
  • Important character introduced: Norman Osborn, father of Harry.  He is a sneaky and malevolent operator - rotten dad, too.

The Amazing Spider-Man #38
Originally Published July 1, 1966
  • This is the last Spidey comic book for Steve Ditko.  John Romita Sr. takes up the artistic reins for the series in issue #39.  
Image result for joe smith marvel
via Marvel Database

  • Villain: Joe Smith, a down-on-his-luck boxer who gains superpowers through an accident on a movie set.  He actually isn't much of a villain as he comes to his senses by the end of the story and is absolved - even gets a movie deal.
  • The Norman Osborn story gets more interesting.  He puts out a $20,000 reward for anyone who can take Spider-Man out of the picture.
  • Peter Parker runs into Ned Leeds at the Daily Bugle.  Ned doesn't know where Betty is either.  Peter's worried about her.
  • Campus protests are referenced.  The late '60s are coming.  Stan and Steve are clearly unimpressed by the protesters.

Fantastic Four Annual #2
Originally Published September 10, 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
  • We get two full-length stories plus fun extras.
  • Story #1: Dr. Doom's origin and probably my favorite early Marvel tale so far.  
  • In between, among other things, a gallery of most famous foes, including:
    • The Super-Skrull
Image result for super skrull
via Wikipedia

    • Rama-Tut, now known as Kang the Conqueror
Image result for rama-tut
via Marvel Database

    • The Molecule Man
Image result for molecule man marvel
via Wikipedia
    • The Hate Monger
Image result for hate monger marvel
via Wikipedia
    • The Infant Terrible, now known as Delinquent
Image result for infant terrible marvel
via Marvel Database

    • Diablo
Image result for diablo marvel
via Villains Wiki
  • Story #2 begins with a chance encounter between Doom and Rama-Tut in outer space.  Are they related to each other?  Are they actually the same person split in two by a time travel paradox?  Neither is sure.
  • Doom is the main villain, returning to Earth to exact revenge upon the Fantastic Four.
  • Don't let the presence of Sue Storm on the team fool you?  There's still plenty of 1960s male chauvinism flying around.

Fantastic Four #31
Originally Published October 1, 1964
  • Villain: Mole Man
Image result for mole man marvel
via Marvel Database
  • Crossover: The Avengers
Image result for doctor storm marvel
via Marvel Database

  • New character introduced: Dr. Storm, Sue and Johnny's father.  He escapes from prison, then shows up at the hospital just in time to save Sue's life.
Fantastic Four #32
Originally Published November 1, 1964
  • Villain: Super-Skrull
  • Appearance by Alicia Masters, The Thing's girlfriend
Image result for alicia marvel
via Marvel Database

  • Dr. Storm dies heroically.  We'd only just met... 

Fantastic Four #33
Originally Published December 1, 1964
  • Crossover: Sub-Mariner (Namor) and Lady Dorma
Image result for sub-mariner marvel
via Marvel Database
Image result for lady dorma marvel
via Marvel Database

  • Villain: Attuma
Image result for attuma marvel
via Marvel Database

  • I love underwater adventures.  I adore deep sea documentaries.  If I'd had the money and lived closer to the ocean, I'd have followed the Scuba hobby a lot further than I did in my 20s.  As such, I'm a sucker for both Namor and Aquaman.  Any visit to Atlantis is a treat.  I especially enjoyed the following full-page panel on page 8.  Jack Kirby's talents are on full display:
Image result for fantastic four 33 page 8
via The Fantasticast

Friday, March 13, 2020

Star Trek: The Neutral Zone

Episode: "The Neutral Zone"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 26
Original Air Date: May 16, 1988

Image result for tng the neutral zone
via Wikipedia

On their way to the Neutral Zone to investigate destroyed outposts, our heroes encounter a derelict Earth satellite.  Aboard, they discover three cryogenically preserved human bodies.  Once restored to life, the three have the expected Rip Van Winkle experience in adapting to their surroundings.  The story has long-term significance for two reasons: the reintroduction of the Romulans for the first time on TNG and ominous allusions to the Borg.  Though we don't see the Borg and they are not mentioned by name, they are clearly the perpetrators of the outpost attacks.  With the Ferengi having failed to pan out as Starfleet's primary adversary, both the Romulans and the unnamed Borg would seem suitable candidates to step into the role.

A couple other points of note from the season finale:
  • This is the last episode for Gates McFadden until Season 3.  I'll have more on her departure next week but for now, it's hard to miss the significance of her getting a patronizing pat on the bum from Sonny (Leon Rippy), one of the cryogenic survivors, in her final scene.  The gesture speaks volumes.  
  • For the first time, we see that the replicator can produce a musical instrument, in this case a guitar for Sonny, a professional musician in his previous, 20th century life.


Thoughts on Season 1

General Impressions

Overall, Season 1 is weak.  A few of the episodes are worth watching, particularly for their implications for future stories.  However, the worst episodes are disastrously awful, even occasionally offensive.  Throughout, writing is weak and acting stiff.  Thank goodness for the already loyal fan base and the professionalism of Patrick Stewart holding the place together.  Otherwise, Star Trek: The Next Generation might never have survived beyond one season.

That said, a foundation had been set.  Character development and on-ship world building already far exceeded the original series while the moral parameters of Trek were still firmly in place. 

Favorite Episode: "11001001"

A tight story, beginning to end.  The Enterprise is hijacked by the Bynars who have been hired to upgrade the ship's computer.  They get everyone off the ship, save Picard and Riker, who was lured by a beautiful holodeck woman.  The Bynars, it turns out, are genuinely desperate and, in the end, we're able to forgive them.  There are other episodes that are more meaningful long-term but "11001001" is good old-fashioned solid Trek.

Least Favorite Episode: "Code of Honor"

In the midst of vital diplomatic negotiations, Tasha is kidnapped by Lutan, the leader of the delegation from Ligon II.  The writing is weak but what really made this one a stinker was the boneheaded idea to cast all of the Ligonians as Black actors in a "1940s tribal Africa" theme.  As such, what would have been merely tiresome became downright offensive.  The director was fired for the decision but the episode was still aired.  One of Trek's all-time worst.

Favorite Recurring Character: Q

Image result for q hide and q
via Wikipedia
As noted in my post for "Hide and Q," I actually don't like Q much.  But Season 1 truly sucks so the other candidates aren't so great either.  John de Lancie is, at least, an engaging actor so I'll give him the nod here.

Favorite Blast from the Past: Dr. McCoy

Bones returns for a brief cameo in the pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint."  His exchange with Data is one of the highlights of the episode - indeed, the entire first season.

Favorite Guest Actor, One-Shot: Gracie Harrison

Image result for gracie harrison
via Memory Alpha

Ms. Harrison played the part of Clare Raymond, one of the cryogenically preserved Earthlings in "The Neutral Zone."  Her reactions to waking up in the distant future - shock, sadness, frustration, ultimate resignation - are all perfectly relatable.  She's an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances - often the most interesting characters of all.  There's nothing over the top about her performance and that's why it works.  Simple, honest, human, effective - nicely done.


If only Riker would stop shaving, TNG might find its feet...

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Squid Mixes: Bourbon Sidecar

In last week's Wednesday post, I explored the idea of a Breakfast Manhattan and suggested the Whiskey Sidecar as a possible alternative.  I got this Bourbon Sidecar recipe combining bourbon, triple sec and lemon juice in 4:2:1 ratio from The New York Bartender's Guide.  I included a cherry garnish.  The recipe doesn't call for it but, well, we like cherries.  The result was definitely sweeter and more citrusy than a Manhattan.  It's tasty but still not quite what I had in mind.

My next attempt was more satisfying, a combination of my own devising:  rye, sweet vermouth and triple sec in 6:1:1 ratio plus orange bitters and a cherry garnish.  I'm still not sure the drink was exactly breakfasty but my wife and I both preferred it to the Sidecar.  Worth remembering.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #29-35

Once again, Peter Parker's personal life offers the most interesting story lines.  I had not realized that Peter met Gwen Stacy before he met Mary Jane Watson.

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #29
Originally Published October 1, 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Villain: The Scorpion
  • Ned Leeds is back from Europe and appears to have the inside track with Betty Brant.
  • Is Aunt May sick?

The Amazing Spider-Man #30
Originally Published November 1, 1965

Image result for cat burglar marvel comics
via Marvel Database
  • Villain: The Cat Burglar
  • Flash is stalking Liz Allan and Peter Parker intervenes.
  • Ned proposes to Betty.  She still loves Peter but confesses to him that she'd be terrified to be with someone like Spider-Man (not knowing Peter is Spidey), preferring a quieter life with someone more dependable.  Sensible woman, really.  Though it breaks his heart - and hers - Peter steps out of the mix.  He doesn't explain why but he walks away from Betty and doesn't take her calls.  Let's be honest, it's the merciful choice.  For once, Parker did the right thing.

The Amazing Spider-Man #31
Originally Published December 1, 1965
  • Part one of three - longer arcs are creeping in.
  • Villain: the Master Planner.  We don't know who he is yet but we know it's someone Spidey has faced before.
  • Peter starts at Empire State University, meeting Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy, a particularly important character for the franchise and - again, no hyperbole - the American comic book medium as a whole.
Image result for harry osborn
via Wikipedia

Image result for gwen stacy
via Wikipedia

The Amazing Spider-Man #32
Originally Published January 1, 1966
  • Part two of three
  • Master Planner is revealed to be Doctor Octopus.
  • Dr. Connors (Lizard) returns, this time trying to help Spider-Man find a cure for Aunt May's current ailment, probably caused by a blood transfusion from Peter.
  • Doc Ock's goons intercept the curing serum en route so Spidey has to go get it.

The Amazing Spider-Man #33
Originally Published February 10, 1966
  • Master Planner story concludes.

The Amazing Spider-Man #34
Originally Published March 1, 1966
  • Villain: Kraven the Hunter
  • Betty Brant finally gives up on Peter, leaving her job at The Daily Bugle.  Jameson has a new secretary, as yet unnamed.

The Amazing Spider-Man #35 
Originally Published April 1, 1966
  • Villain: Molten Man
  • Peter meets Jameson's new secretary (still unnamed).  He learns from her that Ned Leeds has also left for the West Coast.  Peter suspects Betty and Ned have run off to get married.
  • Yogi Berra reference!  A New York baseball legend, and history's most quotable athlete, the Hall of Fame catcher retired as a player after the 1965 season.  In 1966, he was a coach for the Mets.
Image result for yogi berra
via Wikiquote

Yogiisms, Because I Can

"It ain't over till it's over."

"Pair up in threes."

"It gets late early out there."

"We made too many of the wrong mistakes."

Friday, March 6, 2020

Star Trek: Conspiracy

Episode: "Conspiracy"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 25
Original Air Date: May 9, 1988

Image result for tng conspiracy
via Memory Alpha

An old friend warns Picard of a conspiracy within Starfleet.  When the friend's ship is found destroyed, the Enterprise returns to Earth so the captain can warn the top brass of the impending danger.  Alas, the admirals have been possessed by parasitic aliens.  Admiral Quinn (Ward Costello) and Lt. Cmdr. Remmick (Robert Schenkkan) return in pivotal roles.

"Conspiracy" often features in Best Episode lists for TNG.  While it's definitely on the stronger side for Season 1, it's not one of my favorites.  For one thing, it tends more towards horror than usual - heads exploding, people eating squirming worms, aliens bursting out of people's chests - and horror is generally not my scene.  The episode also undermines the satisfying resolution of its prequel, "Coming of Age."  While it is kind of cool that the threat Quinn warned of in the earlier story is happening right under his own nose, it turns out Remmick truly is a rat.  He was redeemed so nicely before.  Oh well.  There's some production sloppiness, too, especially with the camera work for Costello's body double.

Acting Notes

Image result for henry darrow
via Memory Alpha

Henry Darrow played the role of Admiral Savar, one of the top brass who came under control of the aliens.  Darrow was born Enrique Tomás Delgado Jiménez in New York City, September 15, 1933.  When he was 13, his family moved back to Puerto Rico where he went to high school, then the University of Puerto Rico as a theater major.  As a junior, he won a scholarship to study at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles.

His best known professional role is as Mano in the the 1960s western series The High Chaparral.  He also won an Emmy for his performance on the soap opera Santa Barbara.  Along with Ricardo Montalbán, Edith Diaz and Carmen Zapata, he co-founded the Screen Actors Guild's Ethnic Minority Committee.  He was also a founder of Nosotros, an organization which helps Latino actors find non-stereotyped parts.

Darrow appeared in Santana's video for "Hold On":