November 30, 2013

Working at a college doesn’t always mean getting an education myself (though I am seriously considered taking a class in German next year, since my 8th grade son says that’s the language he wants to study in high school). But now and then I do learn something new in the course of my work – quite aside from the constant process of learning how the software works that is the focus of my job.

With Thanksgiving approaching, a colleague forwarded an article about turkeys and Big Bird. I really had never thought either about what happens to a turkey’s feathers when it is slaughtered to become Thanksgiving dinner (or any other time of the year), or about where in the world those bright yellow feathers come from that make up Big Bird’s costume. But apparently the two are connected.

While Big Bird is not a turkey (according to Muppet Wiki, Oscar has claimed Big Bird is a turkey, Big Bird has claimed to be lark), his costume is made from turkey feathers. Approximately 4,000 of them – unless you want to take the Count’s word for it that there are over 5,961.

This article, written during the 2012 presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney said he wanted to cut funding for PBS, describes how feathers are prepared for Big Bird’s costumes. This introduces a whole new subject to learn about, which gets into the challenging topics of economics and politics. (I’m inclined to agree with this article.)

I doubt that any feathers from the turkey we ate on Thursday (and yesterday, and today, and probably tomorrow) will ever find their way to Sesame Street. Most poultry feathers are either used in low-grade animal feedstock or thrown out (incinerated or consigned to landfill). But scientists have been working on ways to recycle the feathers into useful products.


Movies: Ender’s Game

November 10, 2013

The problem with going to a movie made from a great book is that you know the movie will inevitably fall short, but you still want to see the story played out on the big screen. Because the author of Ender’s Game (the book) was one of the producers of Ender’s Game (the movie), I knew the movie would get the key things right. But I still had to keep reminding myself that the movie is a separate work, and that it can be good in different ways from the book, even while lacking so much that made the book great.

The first thing that surprised me was that the movie started with Ender as a preteen rather than a 6-year-old. To see a boy of around twelve use the violence necessary to keep a bully from ever attacking him again just does not have the same impact as seeing that happen with a mere 6-year-old. Still, it makes its point, while bowing to the reality that finding a much younger boy with the ability to play this role convincingly would be as hard as finding a real-life Ender Wiggin.

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Just my type?

September 18, 2013

As a fan of the Harry Potter books (and movies), when I saw this on facebook I was naturally curious to see which character in the series has the same Myers-Briggs personality type as I do. I was not exactly thrilled to see that – at least according to whoever put the chart together – I share the ISTJ type with Severus Snape.

OK, so the description matches: “… Somewhat reserved and prefer to work alone … Deeply value traditions and loyalty and often put duty before pleasure.” Yes, that sounds like me. But … Snape?

My husband, an EFNJ (yes, opposites do attract), is more like Dumbledore, “the Teacher.” I have always admired Teachers (who often are in fact teachers), and wanted to be like them. I’m sure that’s why I became a Spanish teacher. I suppose there are ISTJ teachers who are much more approachable than Snape. But I decided that my ISTJ personality belonged to a computer room more than a classroom.

I discovered that people have tried to identify the Myers-Briggs personality type of a lot of characters in books and movies. This article only identifies one book for each type. I apparently share the ISTJ type with Inspector Javert in Les Misérables; not exactly the most favorable comparison either.

So I found this page, which identifies a great many characters for each type. It also lists Inspector Javert, as well as Spock from Star Trek, Agent K from Men in Black, Susan Calvin from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and a lot of characters I’ve never heard of. I don’t know how accurate the identifications are, though – Hermione Granger is listed here as ISTJ, while the chart I looked at first classed her as INTP. This page doesn’t list her there, but it does have Agent K in that category as well as in ISTJ. Hmmmm.


5K in 33:26

August 4, 2013

For months I have been preparing for yesterday’s 5K race, hoping to beat my time from last year. Until last week, though, I remembered wrong how long it took me last year, and thought I just needed to finish in about 36 minutes or so.

Then I went back and checked last year’s time: 36 minutes, 29 seconds. How had I managed that? (I remember being equally surprised last year when I was told my time upon finishing.) My best time in my recent runs averaged about eleven and a half minutes per mile.

That would put me under 36 minutes, but not my much. What if I couldn’t push myself nearly to exhaustion as I did last year? (Last year I ran with someone who kept pushing me to keep going, and it was easier to put my energy into complying than arguing I couldn’t do it.)

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Movies: Iron Man 3

May 10, 2013

If you like nonstop action and lots of thing blowing up, you’ll probably enjoy Iron Man 3. If you’re looking for originality, character development, and a chance to give your adrenaline glands a rest – well, you probably wouldn’t be in the theater watching it. Unless, like me, you wanted to do something together with your comic-book-action-hero-loving husband and sons.

One viewer at imdb.com calls it an average movie and says that he (I’m guessing, but could be she) was hoping for a darker story. It was plenty dark enough for me, thank you, and so filled with violence that after a while I started letting my eyes glaze over a bit. I just don’t get what’s entertaining about explosions.

Special effects are impressive, I suppose, if you like special effects. Personally I don’t like watching people’s bodies look like they’re turning into molten metal.

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Movies: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

March 12, 2013

I wouldn’t want to have spent money in order to see this movie, but as a free checkout from the library, The Pirates! Band of Misfits not a bad family movie. The story is kind of wacky (actually the whole movie is kind of wacky), but there is a lot of humor, and a message about being true to your friends and to who you are (though even this last bit is saved from undue moralizing by its humorous context).

Pirates aren’t usually role models for the values of friendship and personal integrity, but these aren’t exactly your typical bloodthirsty pirates. The Pirate Captain (that is his name, not just his title) claims to enjoy running people through, but his motivation for attacking other ships is to collect enough loot to win the Pirate of the Year award.

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Movies: The League of Incredible Vegetables

December 30, 2012

Our family watches a lot of superhero movies. We recently reorganized the DVDs, setting aside a rack just for superhero movies. And we like Veggie Tales. So when a new Veggie Tales movie came out with the title The League of Incredible Vegetables, well, of course we had to buy it.

Since my boys are far past the age of the target audience, it’s hard to say just how effective the video is in getting its message across. But it’s fun to watch, even for teens and adults, and of course no one is too old to need the lessons taught by Big Idea’s colorful vegetables.

The subject of dealing with fear is one Veggie Tales has addressed before. Their very first video, Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?, is still one of their best, even if the animation isn’t as good as those produced using today’s computers and software.

Both videos teach that God is bigger than the things that make us afraid. The earlier video addressed Junior Asparagus’s fear of monsters in the closet, a fear that is very real for young children even if the monsters are not. The fears cited in this new video seem a bit odd, in comparison.

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Movies: Brave

December 29, 2012

The best review I’ve seen of Brave is by Frederica Mathewes-Green, so I won’t attempt to add much to her excellent comments. I read her review months before buying the DVD (as usual, we skipped seeing it in the theater), and I had by then forgotten what she had said about it except that it has more depth than she had expected based on the trailer. I wondered how I could have forgotten the surprising twist that is central to the story – and then I reread her review and saw that she had complied with a request not to give away the plot.

So, for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t yet seen Brave or heard much about it, I will likewise limit myself to generalities. What is disappointing about the movie is that it could have been much better. We expect a lot out of a Pixar movie because most of their movies have been so good. From what I have read in other reviews, Brave‘s shortcomings have a lot to do with a change in directors during production, and with Disney involvement. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what the movie would have been like if it had been completed by the director whose vision formed its core.

There are a lot of movies that deal with conflicts between parents and teenagers. I’m not sure how many focus on the mother-daughter relationship – perhaps there is a fear that they will be seen as “girls” stories if they do. Though, as Mathewes-Green points out, there’s not a whole lot that is distinctively “girl” about Merida – the whole point is that she is such a tomboy and doesn’t want to act like a girl. What is perhaps distinctive is the character of her mother, Elinor. As some reviews I read point out, Elinor is the true heroine of the movie, not Merida.

The movie ends with Merida saying, “Some say fate is beyond our command, but I know better. Our destiny is within us. You just have to be brave enough to see it.” But it’s unclear just what Merida has done that is brave, other than apologize for making such a mess of trying to change her destiny. While Elinor tells Merida that they have both changed, the changes in Elinor are more evident than those in Merida. Merida does learn to see and follow wisdom in her mother’s words, which is certainly good – but I’m not sure how brave it is.

I am disappointed also by the fact that all the men seem to be such buffoons. (The three younger brothers, meanwhile, seem to play the role often taken by cute animal characters in Disney movies.) I suppose it may be effective for Elinor’s strength and wisdom to be seen against a backdrop of men acting like overgrown children, but I thought that was carried a bit too far.

The biggest problem, I think, as Mathewes-Green and other reviews point out, is that neither Elinor nor Merida is really developed well as a character. Elinor emphasizes the values of duty and responsibility, while Merida displays unrestrained desire to “do her own thing.” Those are ways to sum up their characters – yet that is all they are, a summing up with nothing much else underneath.

Still, as Mathewes-Green concludes, “If Brave has flaws, it’s still better than almost any non-Pixar kids’ movie you can name.” While Brave may fall far short of what it could have accomplished, if it gets people thinking about the importance of responsibility, the meaning of destiny, or even what a really good tomboy character would be like, it has accomplished something worthwhile.


Games: CLUE Secrets and Spies

December 15, 2012

There are actually two games called CLUE Secrets and Spies, as I discovered when I tried to find a link to include here. One is an online game, which I haven’t played. The other is a board game, which I recently purchased at Goodwill.

I bought CLUE Secrets and Spies because it can be played with only two people, unlike the original Clue board game. This is important because usually it’s just Al and me, when it comes to playing board games, especially now that Zach is at college most of the year.

As it turns out, there isn’t much this game has in common with the original game besides the brand name and the colors (scarlet, mustard, green, white, peacock, and plum) used to identify characters. And there is a certain amount of mystery involved – though you could say that about just about any game that isn’t based just on luck.

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Movies: Puss in Boots

November 22, 2012

I noticed the DVD of Puss in Boots as I was about to check out books from the library last weekend, and grabbed it. I remembered having heard very positive things about it when it came out last year, and figured it would be a fun way to spend some family time together today.

It’s an enjoyable movie, but not a great one. I am somewhat surprised at the number of user reviews at imdb.com that give it really high marks, especially for humor. Some reviews mention that it was originally intended to be direct-to-video, and the finished product does seem more the sort you expect from direct-to-video than a true feature film.

As with the Shrek movies (to which this is apparently supposed to be a prequel), there are characters from a variety of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, though they bear little resemblance to the originals. Puss in Boots has not only the title character, but also Humpty Dumpty, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Jack and Jill (here appearing as husband and wife), the magic beans and the beanstalk, a goose that lays golden eggs (actually it’s a gosling, and I don’t think goslings lay eggs, but this film is hardly going for realism), Mother Goose, and even a brief, strange appearance of Little Boy Blue. I’m not sure quite how the giant could have been killed previously by Jack, since Jack doesn’t seem to have ever managed to plant his beans, but again, who’s expecting accuracy here?

Themes touched on include friendship, betrayal, and reconciliation, as well as loyalty and honor. But there’s little depth to its treatment of these themes, and no great emotional involvement for the viewer. Shrek was memorable not just for its humor but for its deft handling of issues related to outer vs true beauty and what it means for dreams to come true. Sure, there are lots of enjoyable animated films that have little depth, but others like Toy Story and Finding Nemo prove that it can be done.


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