Friday, October 31, 2014

First Impressions: The Flash

So it's ridiculous how much good television is out right now. How could any normal human being possibly have the time to watch it all? It is completely impossible to keep up. The problem is that while some tv stations have figured this out and make sure that the entire current season of their shows are available through On Demand or Hulu or something legal, CW is not one of them.

Which basically is why I will never try to keep up with Supernatural's actual airing schedule (plus being four seasons behind) and last year we totally gave up on trying to keep up with Arrow because the show is good, but we couldn't watch it for a few weeks and then we couldn't catch up legally and we gave up. Seriously CW, stop it. Just stop.

Unfortunately The Flash just looked too darn good to give up without trying to watch it.

So basically we ended up doing a couple days marathon watching Arrow in order to catch up just in case there were some cross-over stuff. Really, we only needed to have watched the two episodes with Barry Allen guest starring, but I wasn't sure. So I'll review the second season of Arrow later.

But for now, I'm all about The Flash instead because wow, do I like this show. And it's almost 100% because of Barry Allen/actor Grant Gustin. When we watched his guest star spot on Arrow, I told my husband, "Barry is my new favorite." His reply was, "well, I've got good news for you."

I'm actually excited to watch it every week, because Barry is the kind of character I love to see, and that I feel like we're running low on guys like him. Oliver Queen is great and all, but he's still tortured (literally), troubled, and all Broody McBroodface most of the time. You know, like half the heroes on television aimed at the younger crowd. Stuff aimed at adults these days are almost entirely stocked with anti-heroes and what I simply call "terrible people being terrible." And I'm tired of it. I want optimism, I want good people trying to be good.

And that's what Barry is. At his very core, he's a good person. He's super smart, and mostly unapologetic about it. The only reason he ever regrets being smart is if it leaves somebody out. He's funny, sarcastic, charming, and definitely very nice to look at. He is, in short, one of my ideals when it comes to male characters. Sure, you want to watch Oliver Queen training but you'd want to actually get lunch with Barry.

It doesn't hurt that his mentor and adopted father Joe is amazing. I like pretty much every moment Joe is on screen, and the two of them play off each other perfectly, the actors were paired perfectly for this set of roles. And Dr. Wells is such a perfect mix of motivations that you can't get a read on him, which I think is exactly what they're aiming for.

The rest of the cast is good, though some of them need to find their feet a little more than others. But I suspect that will come with time. The villains are okay, but honestly I don't care if they never got any better, because I'm just in this for Barry and Joe (and I'm sure the rest of the cast will win me over, I'm not worried).

I also love that The Flash and Arrow fit so perfectly together as two sides of the same coin, they're very clearly the same universe but from different perspectives and that's something that I think might be missing a bit in the way that comics are transitioning to other media. One critique of the Marvel movies is that they all look and feel the same, and that's pretty true. But the world doesn't all look the same, and people see it differently.

So in short, The Flash gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me, and as annoyed as I am with CW's system for on demand, I'm too anxious to see the next one to notice it might expire.

I wouldn't mind being able to go back and rewatch later though. So CW, if by some slim chance you see this, I still think you should keep the entire current season up on some free streaming service like xfinity or Hulu because I would be watching episodes again and again and you could put whatever ads you want on it, I don't even care.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Julep Round-Up: Final Post - The Polish

So, I've told you about Julep's hand and foot care products, reviewed their makeup selections, and explained why I think the plie wand is a waste of money.

But what about the thing they're actually about, the nail polish?

Because I was a Maven, and I got a little carried away, I actually have dozens of bottles of Julep nail polish. Possibly upwards of 75, I haven't counted lately. I don't really think anybody wants me to review each and every one so I thought I'd just give a general thought on some of their finishes and the product as a whole.

I'll divide the finishes into the categories they use on their website.

Creme: Sadly we have to start with creme because it's alphabetical. Julep's creme polishes are generally just not that good. Actually, I typically avoid them and have gotten rid of most of mine. Well, to be fair they're really hit or miss, with the emphasis on miss. The ones I have kept, because they're just too good for designs or because I really love them, tend to separate and get goopy looking in the bottle, which I don't think bodes well for the formula, not that I'm an expert. My bottles of Alexandra and Sylvia look terrible whenever I pull them out. They go on okay, with a bit of work, but in general if you like a creme finish don't bother with Julep. You'll just be disappointed, especially for the price they charge. You can get similar colors in the same finish for much cheaper at the drugstore, and they'll be just as good if not better. You can see a look I did with a blue creme called Amy in this pic:

Glitter: There are a lot of really fun glitters in Julep's store, don't get me wrong. But I've gotten to a point with glitter polish where I want really small and subtle glitter (and usually mixed into the formula instead of a top coat) because of ease of removal and the flatter texture. I don't like bumpy nails. That said, I've got a few I really love that give a color an extra sparkle, but are discontinued now. Autumn and Vanessa were particularly pretty. The glitter in this pic is Autumn, along with the Alexandra creme I mentioned.

I do want to address the birthstone polishes specifically. The only one I've bought and tried myself was my own birthstone, Martina. I was pretty disappointed really, first because like I said, I like smoother nails and this is a very textured look. But it's also really hard to get a consistent color, and is just a bit messy to use and terrible to remove. The color is very pretty, but I'd rather have a metallic than this texture.

Metallic/Chrome: Speaking of metallic, metallic colors are probably my favorites when it comes to nail polish, I have a lot of them. Again, Julep's are hit or miss, but this time with more on the hit side than the miss. Oddly enough the more it's actually meant to look like a metal, the more likely it is to be streaky and difficult. But polishes like Angela and Boris and Nicole are very nice. If you're going to buy a polish from their metallic section, I would suggest searching for swatches by bloggers, so you'll see how streaky it really is when it goes on. The silvers are especially bad.

Neon: The only neon that I have is Bette, and it's pretty nice in the bottle, I don't think I've actually used it yet. But the neon "finish" is actually just a bright creme, and so it falls victim to all the problems of cremes, which means they're usually just not a good formula.

Sheer/Frost/Pearl: The frost polishes actually are going to be similar to the metallic but in softer colors. A few of these I've gotten in mystery boxes and gotten rid of, but that's because I don't like soft pinks for my nail polish. In general, they tend to be okay, but again, look up swatches.

Shimmer: These are my favorites, and the ones that always tempt me the most when there are sales. I haven't really come across a bad one yet (I'm sure they're out there) and all of my favorites are either shimmer or silk finish. The sparkle and glow is just perfect for what I like when it comes to polish. Some of my favs that you can still buy are Lacey, Greta, and Petra. The swatch on the site for Petra doesn't make it look as nice as it is.

Silk/Satin I have to admit, I own every single silk finish polish that Julep makes. It started with one in my maven box, but the finish is gorgeous, the color was beautiful, and it was just general fantastic. The understated colors are just very subtle and professional and I know I said I didn't like light pinks, but Abigail doesn't feel like a light pink. Especially when I pair it with black tips (like in the picture) or another very dark color. Farrah and Noelle are equally lovely, and I think the only polishes I would say you might find worth the full price (Julep is generally very overpriced). I have not tried any of the satin finish.

Special Effect: The only special effect polish I have is Casper, which is a glow in the dark white. It's really not a solid coverage white, so if you care about how your nails look during the day, this is more of a white shimmer. It's actually quite nice in the daylight, I enjoy it. Below you can see my Halloween manicure that I just did, with Casper as the base. The glow really does work, and it was really fun when I was going through the haunted houses at Howl-O-Scream, or riding the roller coasters through the tunnels. Casper is a good purchase if you want something fun for Halloween.

There are a few other things I'd planned to cover before this got long, so if anybody wants to know my thoughts about the fact that they photoshop their swatches, the way half the store is always out of stock, and their really high prices, let me know in the comments and I'll ramble.

But the tl;dr takeaway: Julep does have some very nice polishes, and if you get them on sale then they're well worth it for some of the silk and shimmer ones especially. But don't bother with the cremes for sure, and don't buy most of them full price, they're just not THAT great and there are other similar options for less money or that are better polishes.

And don't sign up for the Maven boxes. Just don't. They're difficult to cancel, they're overpriced, and there's a million reasons why they're not worth it.

Special: Busch Gardens I'm Afraid of Roller Coasters Review - Verbolten and the Loch Ness Monster

Last weekend, my best friend and I traveled down to Williamsburg to spend some time at Busch Gardens for their Howl-O-Scream event. I'd been meaning to go for years, since the park is actually pretty close to us, but I haven't managed.

What's especially sad is that for only being a few hours drive away, I haven't actually been to this park since I was a kid. As in, I was too short to ride most of the rides and was extremely disappointed not to be able to join my brother on the Big Bad Wolf or the Loch Ness Monster. I didn't even get to ride the log flume because it was closed for repairs. Basically my big memories of Busch Gardens before last weekend was that we got caught in a huge thunderstorm, and that I couldn't do anything. Though I do also remember riding the train and the skyride.

Anyway, so I had two main goals for this trip: make up for lost time and hit every haunted house. I'll review the haunted houses and Howl-A-Scream in another post, but first, I want to go through the rides.

See, one thing changed in the 30-ish years since I'd last been to the park: I'm now afraid of roller coasters. Well, I would say less afraid and more anxious. Once I was tall enough to ride and tried out a few I realized that there were just significant aspects I just didn't like. No, not the upside down parts or even the big drops. I hate the lift hills and the slow parts.

Luckily I went with someone who is both likes coasters and doesn't mind people who don't. So there was no pressure to ride something I didn't want to, and all the support I needed to try anyway.

The first night, we mostly did Howl-O-Scream stuff but we did notice that there was a very short line on Verbolten when we went by, probably because there had just been another storm and people weren't back out yet.

Verbolten was on my list of things to try for two reasons: first, because it replaced the Big Bad Wolf and since I couldn't ride that one I'd have to ride it's replacement. Second, because it's a launched coaster and has no lift hill. It was actually another launched coaster that made me realize what my issues were with the lift hills, because I rode that one and loved it.

Now my first ride on Verbolten was actually at night, so I wasn't entirely thrilled with it. Honestly, I don't know that riding coasters at night really has much appeal to me. Though with Verbolten you can see in the picture that there's a significant amount of the ride that's actually inside a tunnel, so it's dark anyway. But the light show makes it more fun.

The first ride on this was interesting to me because first, it was dark so I didn't see the last drop really at all and missed out on the part that goes towards the water (a very similar drop to the Big Bad Wolf) and second because I was just on the cusp of thinking that I wasn't actually enjoying it when the ride ended. It was in fact the perfect length for me, just enough fun stuff but not too much. So I told my best friend we'd have to ride it again the next day during daylight.

Which we did, and I really liked it the second time around. Being able to see the outdoor track made it a lot better for me, and it made me appreciate that last drop so much more. Though I do think that for Howl-O-Scream they should put some spooky, eerie lighting just under the water at the bottom of the drop to make it look creepier. They should do that for any of the coasters that go near water, just some green underglow.

But anyway, my point is that Verbolten is a fantastic coaster, and it's especially good for people like me who may have some issues with the "thrill" rides but still want to do something fun. I'm pretty sure it doesn't go upside down (in the tunnel I have no idea what the track did). The only reason we didn't ride it again was that the line was so long. And even though I'd watched the ride video above before I went, there were still some surprises, which was great. I wish we'd seen a different theme, there are three random themes for the lights in the tunnel but we saw the Wolf theme twice.

The second day we were there, the first thing we did was head for the Loch Ness Monster.

Now, before I go to an amusement park I spend a fair amount of time researching the rides. So I knew before I went that of the five coasters at the park, the Loch Ness Monster had one of the smaller lift hills, and since I had wanted to ride when I was a kid, I kind of had to do it, even though it kind of scared me.

The Loch Ness Monster is actually over 30 years old, and the first lift hill is only 130' which is a good 40' shorter than the tallest one I've ridden. But it's claim to fame is being not just the first coaster to have interlocking loops, but currently it's also the only one still running with that feature.

Now as I said, I have no problem with loops so the interlocking loops actually looked like a lot of fun to me. The funny thing about this one is that at the top of the anxiety-inducing lift hill is just this casual little turn to the side instead of a big drop. It was actually a bit anti-climactic. There is a second lift hill, but it's really minor.

One thing I didn't expect was how much of the ride was in the tunnel that's midway through the trip. I saw the tunnel on the map, and I guess I hadn't watched a video because I thought it just went straight through. But instead it loops around inside a couple times in complete darkness, which was really disorienting but kind of fun. But since I didn't expect it, it felt a bit long and I was wondering if we were ever leaving the tunnel.

All in all, the two coasters that we rode were actually quite fun, and as much as I don't really plan to ride the Loch Ness Monster frequently, I'd go on it again. I'd ride Verbolten a lot more times.

For those who might be interested, the other three coasters in the park were struck off my list because of the height of their lift hills. Apollo's Chariot is about the same as a coaster I rode that I really didn't like too much, Alpengeist is much taller and a suspended coaster which I've never done before. And I'd ruled out Griffon because of the 205' lift hill but then I actually saw the ride in action and how it pauses at the top before a 90 degree drop and no thank you. But seriously, if you like coasters, Griffon is probably pretty amazing. Next time I go to the park I might try Apollo's Chariot.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Penultimate Julep Round-Up: Plie Wand

As I've pointed out before I'm kind of over and done with Julep, despite being a really happy customer and a Maven for nearly a year. So I've been going over their products that I've tried and reviewing them, but also suggesting places you can get similar or better products, usually for cheaper.

My review of some of their makeup selections is here, and many of their hand and foot care items are here.

Now, if you've been following Julep for any length of time, you'll probably remember when they did their crowdfunding campaign to announce their new product, the Plie Wand.

The wand is a new tool that they say will "bring more accuracy, control, and fun to every manicure—especially when polishing with your non-dominant hand."

Now, I for one had no problem with them crowdfunding this venture for a lot of reasons. Primarily because they were using the term "crowdfunding" because it's a hip thing that gets attention. They weren't crowdfunding, they were offering pre-orders on a new product and some packages with extra stuff in them. Honestly, it wasn't really a thing.

The big deal with the "crowdfunding" though was that it gave their customers a chance to see this new product before it went to market and comment on it. In this case, they'd decided on an ill-advised and frankly idiotic design that would have involved every customer that had been buying polish from them to completely change out the caps for every. single. bottle. Julep gave vague promises that they weren't going to make you purchase a new cap for every single bottle, but everybody saw this as what it was-a hassle, and an expense that was just unneeded.

At least two customers that I saw spoke up on social media and stated the obvious - that Julep's bottles are already designed perfectly to accommodate switching out the top of the caps without a need for a huge redesign. And lo and behold, Julep switched up the design to do exactly that.

So once that problem was solved, I was ready to check out this new product, primarily out of curiousity.

Now, I should point out some important things about me when it comes to nail polish:
1. I've never really had a huge problem painting my nails, even on my dominant hand because
2. I really don't care that much about how perfect my edges are because
3. Cleaning up your manicure is NOT THAT HARD and also
4. Nobody notices your edges anyway. People don't even notice when my polish is half chipped off and I haven't had a chance to remove it yet. Seriously, nail polish, not serious business. Lighten up, it's just fashion.

Honestly, I think half the reason there's this stigma that it's SO HARD to paint your nails because they must be PERFECT is to sell products like the Plie Wand. If you are generally able bodied, then just practice. That's really all there is to it, practice and a smidge of patience. You don't need some $25 tool that only works with one brand of polish anyway.

So okay, you can tell I went into this with a bias - I didn't really think anybody needed this product. If you have trouble with the standard bottle cap or whatever brand you use, there's a very simple and cheap solution: paintbrushes. Just buy a pack of cheap paintbrushes at the craft store. I've been using really cheap paintbrushes to do nail art since the mid-90's.

I tried to give the Plie a fair shake, I really did. Because I thought "I use paintbrushes, this is the same thing." But the main problem is that the wand actually is very uncomfortable for me to hold. It's too big at the base, so I can't wrap my fingers around it the way I would a brush or even a polish cap for pretty much any brand. And honestly I think I had LESS control when I was trying to use it because I was trying to rest the wand on my hand the way they show in the picture, because they say that's why you get better results and that's not the way I hold pencils, paintbrushes, or anything else.

The big deal about the wand is that it bends so that you can try different styles, and they swear that doing this will help you paint your dominant hand. For me, this was a DISASTER. Here's a thing about the way I paint my nails: I rotate the brush as I go. I don't just hold it in the exact same way the entire time, I use the shape of the brush and the way the polish is situated as part of how I control where things are going to end up. Not being able to easily rotate the brush meant that it took me twice as long for poorer results and that's just not going to fly for me.

I saw somebody online say that there's a "learning curve" to using the Plie Wand. I'm not kidding, if there's a learning curve to using the wand it's probably the same learning curve for just doing it yourself in general.

I could see an argument that the Plie Wand is helpful for people with particular disabilities or hand problems. If that's the case for you, then that's absolutely awesome and kudos. I think you probably could still just use some paintbrushes (you clean them off with nail polish remover when you're done, works like a charm) but you do what works best for you.

For the average person though, that $25 could do so much more for you.

Also of note: The Plie Wand Creativity Kit which is $10 extra and includes a dotting tool and a striping tool. I picked this up as an add-on to my Maven box that came with the wand because I kind of wanted a dotting tool just to see if I could do more fun stuff with it.

I've yet to try the dotting tool actually, but I have tried the striping brush and it's RUBBISH. I cannot stress to you enough how terrible this is for what it's advertised to do. The bristles are too long to have any control AT ALL, and when I'm trying to do delicate lines like that with a paintbrush I hold the brush really close to the bristles, because you need CONTROL. But this striping brush is like an inch long, and because it's attached to the wand there's no way to hold it to really get the control you need to do a very good line. I've had better luck freehanding french manicure tips with a regular polish brush.

The worst part is that you can also buy a "precision brush" for the Plie Wand that has a shorter stem and shorter bristles, to allow for even more control. They KNOW that a short handle and short bristles is what makes it easier to control something like this, they've done it on another product, and they still released a striping brush that is unusable for striping because of lazy, poor design.

I cannot stress enough that this product is NOT AT ALL worth the price. I don't regret getting mine because it was just part of my Maven box that I would have gotten anyway, but purchasing it separately is a WASTE OF MONEY. Just go to a craft store and pick up a variety pack of small paint brushes, and maybe a pack of toothpicks. There are very few nail art techniques you can't figure out with those, especially if you add in some scotch tape or stickers for stencils. You do not need to spend a ton of money on fancy tools, all you need is some polish, patience, and practice.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Book Review: The Power of Habit

I'll be honest, I probably would have never picked up this book if it hadn't been a selection for my occasional book club. I didn't really expect it to impart anything I hadn't already read or been exposed to in one way or another. So perhaps my low expectations are to blame, but the fact is I didn't really like it at all.

The problem with it basically was that it was clearly something that should have been a science book written by a science writer, instead written by a business reporter. Now, it could have been a fascinating business book too, if it had tried to be a business book. But it didn't, it tried to be a science book and it failed.

Maybe I've just read too many amazing science books and my standards are too high.

There's one glaring problem with the book that I just couldn't let go of: the author never offers a clear definition for what he considers a "habit." How can you write an entire book about something, trying to make it scientific, without defining the term? Especially when it's a term that is used in different ways in everyday life. Whenever I thought I had figured out what he meant by "habit" he would go and do something like try to make a case for sleepwalking and parasomnias being "habits." Hint: they're not, even a little. And if you're wondering why not, read Dreamland by David K. Randall.

The author also had a habit of bouncing back and forth between three or four different topics within each chapter, telling part of a story A then derailing to story B then back to story A then a bit of story C before back to story A. This is a structure that can work, but it just really got confusing and frequently led to repetitive sections that reminded me of how irritating it is to sit through a "previously on" teaser when you're binge watching a TV series. And often the topics were only tangentially connected, sometimes the connection was so difficult to find I honestly would have no idea why I'd suddenly spent five pages reading about something else only to go back to the original topic.

So why did I actually read this entire book if it irritated me so much and it was so inconsistent? Because buried in the difficult structure and lack of scientific rigor were some really interesting stories and a couple points that I'd heard before but didn't mind hearing again. In the introduction, the author talks about an Army major who had discovered a way to curb riots in Iraq by removing food vendors from some public areas. A later chapter talks about how changing safety habits in a corporation actually revolutionized the entire company, including increasing profits. They were all fascinating stories, and I would have happily just read a set of essays or stories. It was only the analysis of the topics where it all fell apart, especially whenever the author slipped into weird self-help book language (and he seemed to be more than a little fixated on obesity and diet despite that not being something that came up in a way that suggested he did a significant amount of research on the topic, especially since several things he said could be proven untrue by reading other books about food and eating habits).

The one good thing that came out of reading this book was that while I was getting irritated at it, I was reminded of some things I already knew and ended up buying a FitBit to change some of my own habits. So even if I didn't learn anything new, the reminder did end up being useful.

But anyway, I can't really recommend this book. If you're interested in any of the topics covered in it, other authors have looked at most of them more effectively in other books.

Friday, October 03, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

As I said in my review of the first film, I was really slow to get around to watching How To Train Your Dragon. I wasn't going to make that mistake twice, so I went to see the sequel the night it came out.

I did make one mistake though, and that was forgetting that the creators of this series don't pull their punches. Ever. It's so easy to say "it's a kid's movie" and forget that some people are smart enough to know that kid's entertainment doesn't need to be stupid or simple or well, not emotionally devastating.

The animation is, of course, beautiful. Hiccup, Astrid, and most of the rest of the vikings of Berk are hilarious and wonderful and multi-faceted.

This movie has a LOT going for it. Hiccup's inventions have only become more complex and amazing, and he's embarking on a quest to map out their world. He happens upon a dragon hunter who is delivering dragons to the unimaginatively named Drago Bludvist. Bludvist is of course building a dragon army for conquering the world, or something. Let's be honest, that part of the story wasn't particularly well developed or original. Was it thirst for revenge? I don't even remember.

Because the thing is, the real main plot here are the relationships between the characters we know, and one significant newcomer - Hiccup's mom, Valka. Hiccup and his father Stoick have assumed she was killed many years ago, but instead she's been hiding out and rescuing dragons, creating a gorgeous sanctuary. Valka and Astrid are fantastic, and should be held up as examples of nuanced and interesting female characters for other screenwriters.

Name any two characters among the main set (Hiccup, Stoick, Valka, Astrid, and Toothless to be specific) and their relationship is amazing, multi-faceted, and interesting. Stoick and Valka have something that is absolutely beautiful and completely unexpected in a movie of this type. Love of this type isn't really something that's shown in "kid's" movies. Or honestly movies at all. Hiccup and Astrid still have a relationship that feels like a partnership, and the two of them model something really positive that again, is rare for teenage characters.

But obviously the centerpiece is Hiccup and Toothless, as it should be. Toothless is absolutely the star, to no one's surprise, and he makes everyone want their own dragon. I don't know how to warn you about the plot without being full of spoilers so I'll just say this: be prepared for utter heartbreak if you love these characters. I was crying harder than I have at a movie in a very long time, and almost everybody in the theater was quietly sniffling. This is an AMAZING movie but it hurts, so don't watch it if you're looking for a fun, simple, uplifting time okay? This franchise is too complex for that, and yes that's absolutely a good thing but you know, full of tears. Hiccup goes through a lot of emotions, but for once he doesn't really have much time in the wallowing "I'm being a stupid idiot" phase that most male protagonists go through after this kind of thing. Seriously, sorry for the vagueness.

Now, the movie wasn't 100% perfect. Several of the side characters actually grated on my nerves more than a little, and Bludvist is really wasted and kind of boring (especially because they got the super talented Djimon Hounsou for his voice). And honestly there was one particular twist regarding Astrid that I thought would be awesome that they didn't go for, and I really wish they had. But honestly, I will be there on opening night for the third movie, expecting it to break my heart even worse.