Thursday, December 24, 2009

You can read and search Swain's _Techniques of the Selling Writer_ on Google Books

I've previously mentioned the highly helpful Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain on this blog. Just now I was doing some writing and wanted to refer to it, and I'm away from home and don't have access to it. But I was able to locate it on Google Books, and search through it, and find useful stuff. The Singularity is very near. Where do I sign up to upload my brain?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Planet 51 was a blast

Just saw the CGI-animated movie Planet 51, very much enjoyed it. Some tidbits:

  • Tons of little sci-fi asides, like a shot that echoes the flying bicycle shots of E.T.
  • The titular planet is effectively in its own 1950s. No explanation for this is offered. But the styling of all vehicles and buildings and props is Popular Science UFO meets widebody 50s cars. At least one of the vehicles looks like a moving Denny's.
  • John Cleese has a fun voice role. So does The Rock.
  • The main character, Lem, is voiced by a guy who also did a voice in Terra...another recent scifi animated flick that was good.


One thing: this one chronicles earth-meets-aliens with a happy ending.But it's about a single earthman visiting the planet, and being surprised to find life there. I don't hold out a lot of hope for a happy sequel. Imagine what happens when earthmen return in force, with McDonalds and Halliburton in tow? All available historical examples suggest total culture destruction.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Armenian Rhapsody

I was telling my lovely wife, earlier this month, about an article I read, about why Armenians are so good at chess, and she interrupted with this: "Because they divided their country up into 64 squares?"

I've been noticing that the kids are trying really hard to make puns lately. Chloe used to try them and just fail miserably. But she's learning to make them work. I do this rhyming-pun game all the time...taking a word and varying it...and the kids are joining in lately. I don't know what to call this game: the classic example is porcupine. You've got the table variant (forkupine), the silly one (dorkupine), the bulletin board (corkupine), and on and on.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Costume idea: Star Wars

...the whole movie. Go as Star Wars, the whole thing. That is, wear all black, and cover yourself with action figures.

This idea might only make sense to people who have a box of Star Wars action figures lying around. I mean, it just bothers me that they sit there, unplayed with. Forlorn, even.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Make a complex walking robot with just two motors

I'm kind of in love with this project. I had noticed the Jansen walker devices a while back. But I didn't realize anyone made smaller versions. I like walker-type robots, but usually they involve lots of motors for all the different joints. This method does all the complex movement via linkages between the parts. So you get this complicated-looking bot, but the electronics can just be an Arduino controlling 2 motors, or perhaps a Lego NXT doing the same.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My camp popcorn story

Somehow, in the car, driving Chloe somewhere, we got to talking about popcorn. I asked her if she wanted to hear my popcorn story.

Back when I was a junior in college, I took a summer job teaching juggling to kids in a camp up in Pennsylvania. The camp didn't have many beanbags for the kids to use, so I spent some time sewing some up. I found some ratty cloth and started cutting diamond shapes and sewing them together. The cloth was some kind of synthetic monstrostity with a sort of mesh supporting some fluff.

Now I needed something to stuff these beanbags with, and I thought it'd be a great idea to use popcorn kernels, because the camp had plenty of those...they served us popcorn in the evenings. But I didn't reckon with the sharp points of the kernels. I laboriously hand-sewed many beanbags, only to find that within a couple of weeks, the kernels wore holes in the cheap fabric. Not a one of those beanbags lasted the summer.

That was just one of the lessons I took home from that summer. The other big one was that camps are aimed at pleasing the kids, not the counselors they hire for a pittance. But that's another story.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

_Collapse_ by Jared Diamond

Image clipped from the cover art on Amazon, and linked to the same.

I liked this book a lot. I didn't quite finish it because I had to return it before the Christmas vacation. For a 600+-page tome, it read fast. The basic premise is that we can learn something from looking at the factors that led to the failures of various societies. Diamond develops a multi-factor model that accounts for environmental causes but doesn't lay all the blame there. He talks about deforestation extensively, with some very interesting examples...the image of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island is striking. The chapter about China's environmental woes is painful, and the realization that all the Chinese want is the same standard of living we have here...and that the world probably can't support that for everyone...was scary.

Jared Diamond you may better know as the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. He's worth treasuring for this quote alone:

"Just think what the course of world history might have been like if Africa's rhinos and hippos had lent themselves to domestication! If that had been possible, African cavalry mounted on rhinos or hippos would have made mincemeat of European cavalry mounted on horses. But it couldn't happen."

For the explanation of that, see Guns, Germs, and Steel. :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Corey Doctorow gets by on 500 words a day

It was nice to hear that one of my favorite writers uses 500 words as his daily standard for the novels he's working on. I rather enjoyed this article.

Of course, he's also writing 500 other things. But I'll take my encouragement where I can get it.

Today will be day 53 of writing 500 words a day for me, so I'll soon reach my 60 day goal. Maybe I'll keep this one for a while, I do like it.

Speaking of Doctorow, I am enjoying his book Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town right now. It is freaky weird. It lays down a pattern of normalcy and then sends it all to heck. So far, it's alternately hilarious and scary and I love it.

I'm reading it on my phone, though, so I'm really only reading it when I'm caught at loose ends. I'm not trying to barrel through it. I have four or five books on my phone right now and I want to keep 'em around for Christmas travel. This'll be the first test of how useful such books are when I really need a lotta reading material.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Halloween 2009: Doctor StrangeGlove

Here we see the Doctor brandishing the Mark II StrangeGlove, which features a Polymer Projector, Hydroxide Sprayer, and Scarlet Ray (silly string, squirt gun, and light). Goggles are of course required for any self-respecting mad scientist, but Dr. StrangeGlove is debonair in foregoing a lab coat for a snazzy vest.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Halloween 2009...whole family shots

Lily = Cinderella; Chloe = Saquaro; Ethan = Dangerous German in Black; Aaron = Doctor Strangeglove.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Halloween 2009...Chloe's Saguaro Costume

I finally dug up the camera and found some pictures to upload. Enjoy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Make me mighty

Ha! This page allows you to enter your name, and then creates a mighty alter ego for you, proclaimed in heraldic splendor. Here's one I did. Do your own!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

_New Avengers_ vol 2 by Brian Michael Bendis

The short form: the Avengers start to track down the criminals who escaped in Breakout. The Avengers try to make a hero out of the mystery character The Sentry, described by Reed Richards as the most powerful hero on earth.


There's lots of good stuff in this volume. I liked the scenes of a teenage girl confronted by a supercriminal who has shown up to collect his supercriminal widget, which her father bought for his collection. She's trying not to get casually killed by this guy with the power to level her house, but keeps offending him by not ever having heard of him. He finds her sunning herself by the pool, and starts demanding his widget, and hinting that he's going to kidnap her.

The text gets suggestive, but Marvel doesn't want to go too far: "Please let me put some clothes on."

"I just did hard time, so that's a no."

Then the Avengers show up before the artist can do more shots of the girl in a skimpy bikini. It's okay, though, Spider-Woman is on the team, there will be plenty of cheesecake.

In general, this book cemented my opinion that this series will deliver Avengers-style-fun with Bendis' delightful dialogue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Second generation punster

Ethan came out with this horrible wonderful pun last month:

"Leper-cons don't have money to give you...they're too busy conning money from you to pay their medical bills."

That's my boy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

500 words a day, for 60 days: getting started

A little while ago I set up a new writing goal. I decided to write 500 words a day for sixty days. I've done bigger goals before, but this one feels right for right now. 500 is enough to not be intimidating, and I usually end up with more when it's all said and done.

I have to keep changing these goals. I'm usually trying to write every day, but I need a metric of some kind to keep me honest.

As I write this, a couple of days in advance of its publication, I've done 21 days, and I'm very happy with my consistency. The good thing about a number goal is it's hard to game. The bad thing is when you need to do some editing and your work doesn't fit the wordcount umbrella.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Telling church ladies about dragons

Image from the Urban Dragon Hunters blog, about looking for dragonflies
One Sunday last month I brought my laptop to church. I feel a little weird carrying the tech into the church world, but I don't have anything to do while the kids are in Sunday school, and I wanted to get a little writing done.

I planted myself in the church office and got started. One of the older ladies who helps out in the office asked me what I was working on.

Since I'm using the Snowflake method, I actually had a ready capsule description of the story I was working on, called Dragon Hunter. But it's one of those things that sounds kind of hilarious when you say it out loud.

I wasn't able to be quite this succinct on the spur of the moment, but it goes something like this: "In a world where humans are ruled by dragons who forbid the use of guns, an agent of the dragons infiltrates a group of gun runners."

To her credit, she try to back away slowly or back down from her encouraging attitude. Let's face it, all of my stories are going to sound ridiculous when reduced to twenty words.

It still feels odd to talk about this sort of thing, even with movies like The Lord of the Rings hitting the mainstream. Maybe I just need to get over some residual outsider feelings about this stuff. This lady didn't make me feel weird: I made me feel weird.

But not too much. I'm still pretty psyched about my dragon story.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

_New Avengers_ vol 1 by Brian Michael Bendis

The short answer: It's a great read with a fun plot involving a massive breakout of supervillains from one of those super-prisons the government loves to build in comic books. And it's a rejuvenation of the Avengers with new faces, but with Captain America at the helm, guided by Brian Michael Bendis. What more do you need?

I've been trying not to follow the current Marvel or DC comics world continuities for a few years now. I've been trying not to be up to date, and to cherry pick good collections of finished series and read those.

There are good reasons to do that:
  • I don't want to be waiting for the next episode of something to come out. I don't want to be held up by cliffhangers.
  • I don't want to feel compelled to buy every comic out there for continuity.
But graphic novels are more and more available at the library, so I don't actually have to buy all of these issues. And it seems I'm missing out. Bendis, one of my favorite writers, has been writing tons of books in mainstream Marvel continuity and I didn't know that. He's had time to write eleven volumes of New Avengers books behind my back.

Really, what with the availability of good news on the internet and all, I should have been keeping tabs on everything Mr. Bendis has written for a while now. I've enjoyed his Powers books to no end. I liked Jinx and Goldfish too. Ultimate Spider-Man was a blast.

Yeah, back when I started readin' comics, we didn't have the internet. You had to find out about new books from ads in other comics, or by reading one of the industry books, or by talking to weird older guys who hung out at the comic store.

Does that mean I'm too old to hang out at the comic store now?

But I was slow to look for comic books based on their authors, and then slow to apply that to mainstream comics franchises like The Avengers. I mean, you read the Avengers because you want to read big superhero slugfests, right? It's one of those franchises that's been around forever, through many different writers.

Well, following specific authors in comics isn't new. I remember people getting excited about John Byrne back when I was a teen. It's just new to me.

In any case, I've got something else to be excited about. My local library has the New Avengers volumes 1 through 11 available, and I've already read 1 through 5. Mr. Prolific Bendis has gotten ahead of me; it's time to catch up.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Bad Machinery" is more than good

It's great, actually. The Nov 12 episode has a teacher who has just bumped into one of his students in civilian life, at the farmer's market, while shopping with his wife. He's upset that she introduced herself:

"Why do you think I wear dad's old glasses and a dead man's suit to work? They can't know you're human. The kids got to think you're a mad old robot."

This kind of chagrin, people going ape over little things, is one of the things I like about the comic; the other is the way characters tease each other creatively.

_The Merchants' War_ and _The Revolution Business_ by Charles Stross

Um, still really liking this series by Mr. Stross. These are books four and five. They are exciting and he keeps upping the stakes.

One of the back cover quotes mentioned this being an homage to the Zelazny Amber books. I hadn't thought of that at all, though there are many obvious connections. I like that idea, actually, but I don't know that I would ever have made the connection. What is interesting here is that Stross has his world walkers actively think about how to profit from the crossing of worlds. And then he tears into them for the flaws in how they do it.


We start with two worlds...Earth and an alternate-earth. We add a third. Guess what? That's not all. By book five it's clear there may be an infinity of worlds.

Nukes are brought into the picture. Small ones that can be toted across worlds.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shrinky dinks used to create medical diagnostic chips

This is a pretty great piece of work, making high tech cheaper: a scientist who was strapped for cash found a way to do make chips with microscopic fluid channels, using shrinky dinks instead of expensive equipment.

The combination of the ability to print from a computer onto plastic, and then to shrink the plastic with heat, allows the creation of molds to create the tiny channels.

_Thor: Vikings_ by Garth Ennis

Image from Amazon, and used to link there
A Thor comic by Garth Ennis? I had to have a look. Oooh, and it was under the MAX comics 'explicit content' label, too.

Well, it lived up to that name. One of the bloodiest comics I've ever read. You think New York has it bad in the usual comic book disaster? Galactus puts fear in your belly? Galactus might step on you, but he wouldn't decapitate a dozen people in front of you and then use your bones to make a chair.

I suppose I'll get tired of grim, gritty, bloody, foul-mouthed versions of the comic books I enjoyed in my youth, but not soon. Doctor Strange joined Thor in this adventure, and that was fun too.

The plot revolves around Vikings who are cursed to wander the earth in vague Flying Dutchman style, but they have a few interesting twists, and the story is worth a read.

If you can handle the flying heads and limbs.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drench: don't play this game

Don't even start playing this flash game. How will you stop? I can't help you.

This is a super simple puzzle game where you try to fill the board with one color. It doesn't appear to do anything more than present you with a random set of colored squares, so the coding looks as simple as promised. But it's fun.

Every turn, you choose a color. That's all the choice you have to make. And there are only six colors to choose from.

I really like how Flash has made it possible for coders to deliver fun throwaway games to the rest of us for nothing at all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Do My Kids Keep Singing "It's a Barbie World" When the Song is Sexually Suggestive?

I kept hearing my kids sing this annoying song about Barbie. They said it came from commercials, but some of the lyrics sounded ironic or critical of Barbiness.

A quick search of YouTube revealed a pop song by a Danish band named Aqua. The lyrics were sexually suggestive, and the song was more than a decade old, so it didn't seem likely my kids had encountered the song directly. But it was clearly the correct tune.

Good song, too, with a funny video. But not something I'd have chosen for the kids to listen to. Ken calls Barbie a bimbo, she says "You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere..."...not that my kids notice that.

Wikipedia revealed that Mattel had actually sued the band over the Barbie reference, for hurting Barbie's image. But the judge laughed them out of court, telling them to "chill."

A search of the internet at large on "mattel aqua commercial" then revealed this article about how Mattel, seven years later, licensed the song for commercials. They tweaked the lyrics some.

Meanwhile, Lily and I were rocking out, listening to Aqua, and the sexual content of the song was sailing innocently over her head. Loves her Barbies, that girl.

The song is a hit with 12-year-old boys, too, who seem to get the ironic content: "Life in plastic, it's fantastic!" Granted, I've got exactly one data point on this.

I'm not the only blogger to notice this of course; here's someone who blogged about this on October 20.

Monday, November 09, 2009

_The Hidden Family_ and _The Clan Corporate_ by Charles Stross

I'm still very much enjoying Mr. Stross's Merchant Princes books, which cover a family of traders from another dimension.

Things get tense and interesting in volumes 2 and 3, when a third dimension is introduced (so you've got Earth, Earth2, and Earth3, let's say), and when the most paranoid parts of our government find out about the worldwalkers.

One of the most interesting ideas here is that the Merchant Prince family, called the Clan, is from a feudal world, and visits our Earth. So although they have this ability to travel between two places, their social and economic thinking is pretty backward. And they really just grab portable high-tech goodies from Earth, mostly, and carry them home. However, there are important exceptions to this that are being hinted at.

These books are tense and fun and interesting and the strong main character Miriam is great. My library has all of the books, looks like, so I'm no longer kicking myself for getting started on the series...except for the fact that it looks like the series isn't all written yet. I keep trying NOT to start serieses that the AUTHOR hasn't finished writing yet. But I'm not perfect at it yet.


In book 3 we learn that someone is trying to find or genetically engineer additional worldwalkers, using Earth tech to track down the genes responsible for the worldwalking ability. This is interesting and puts the series definitely in the realm of scifi...I'd thought we might find out that the ability was magically based, but nope.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

_The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis_ by Warren Ellis

Art from Amazon and used to link there

This was mostly well done but suffered from a bit of power inflation. Art was good, story was good. Makes a nice self-contained story in one volume.


I presume it lays the groundwork for some other Iron Man story I read where Stark gets hold of nigh-telepathic control of the armor. That's the power inflation I mentioned. Maybe Stark's alcoholism will erode that power away at some point and bring him back to ground level.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

_Serenity: Those Left Behind_ by Joss Whedon

Art from Amazon and used to link there.

This graphic novel fills the gap between the end of the Firefly TV series and the Serenity movie. It wasn't that interesting. It felt like a rehash of a Firefly episode. I'm a huge Firefly fan and I give this a big "meh."

_How Loathesome_ by Ted Naifeh

Art from the Amazon page for the book, and used to link there.

This graphic novel was okay, but I think I would be a revelation if you're highly interested in gay/lesbian/transgender issues.

It focused on the clubbing scene more than I care about, but several of the stories are quite good. I liked how the art worked with it. If I had a little more interest in the subject matter, I think I'd love it. But the gender confusion stuff didn't fascinate me. We all feel like an outsider sometimes, but the main character's perpetual outsider pose didn't grab me as much as it should have.

I'll keep an eye out for other stuff by the same author and artist, though.

Friday, November 06, 2009

_Stormwatch: Post-Human Division_ by Christos Gage et al

Image taken from the Amazon page for the book, and used to link there

I got a copy of this trade at a Half Price Books recently. I'd been down on Stormwatch in general, but I found I enjoyed this story arc a lot. It focuses on attempts to create a superhuman response team staffed by ordinary Joes.

However, those Joes aren't so ordinary, of course. I was particularly interested in a woman who displayed face reading of _Lie to Me_ quality, and used it in interesting ways: in one scene she walks into a room with a combat team, flirts with one of the team members, and then explains how the relationships amongst the team were such that he was the one guy she needed to flirt with to destroy the whole unit's solidarity. Fun stuff.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Strange Case of Mr. Salad strange

I enjoyed this steampunk short story from the website. They've been doing a steampunk month thing.

However, although I enjoyed the story, I'm having trouble putting my finger on why it feels like enough of a story. Very little seems to be resolved by it. Does it work? If so, why does it work?

Fun detail: part of the action of the story turns around a replication of the internet in print: newspapers which print essays and then print comments to go with them, as fast as possible. That's true steampunk, that: taking a modern idea and moving it back to an earlier technology. It's almost plausible, too.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Try to critique an ad, and you just get ads of that type on your page

Image from men's superhero costumes video ad from CostumeStore

Ok, so I felt pretty good about the sendup of 'sexy women's costumes' that I posted about a few days ago.

Then today I see that that posting about that just causes an ad for sexy women's costumes to appear on my blog. Setting up Google Ads is like selling out, automatically.

(Except for the part where I haven't actually seen any money yet from the ads. I haven't hit them minimum hit rate required to get me any money. I basically put the ads in place just in case I hit one of those overnight-fame-internet-memes.)

You can go ahead and click on these links. The 'sexy costumes' are nothing that's unsafe at all, and the video ad is pretty boring, although I'll concede that if you're thinking about buying the costume, the ad will show you the costume. It's like a video catalog, more than an advertisement.

I guess I should stop mentioning sexy women's costumes, huh? If I keep putting the words 'sexy women's costumes' on my blog, that can't be good for my hit rate, huh?

Okay, I could talk about men's costumes instead, right? The sexy women's costumes ad thing led me to a related video ad about men's superhero costumes. They are terrible. Horrible. The men's costumes have fake muscles and just look ridiculous. Bulky, ill fitting things.

I've come to terms with the fact that actual spandex costumes look bad on actual real people, or at least on me; that you'd better have a superhero physique if you want to wear a superhero costume. But adding fake padding for muscles is such a bad idea that I can't believe it got through the design process, and the fact that someone spent money to make a video in which people stand around looking uncomfortable in terrible costumes is mind boggling. If the company can't find anyone who looks good in the costumes, then what are the odds that a customer is going to look good in them?

Libraries and bar codes

The Wells Branch Community Library near me, which serves the Wells Branch municipal utility district, has a simple system for book checkout. They have PCs set up with self-service signs on them and a bar code gun hung nearby.

The Austin Public Library has a similar system, but instead of a gun you line up your book on a surface; I like the gun better.

The Wells Branch system has you scan your library card to start, then scan books, then scan a "done" code when you're done; the done code is on a little card. It's just brain-dead simple. The only interface you use is the gun.

The Austin Public Libary system is a fancy machine with a touch screen. It's slower and harder to use.

The Wells Branch library makes cards by printing bar code stickers, putting them on a business card, and laminating them. The whole library feels like some smart college students put it together on the cheap, and it works well anyway. I like it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

New webcomic, Bad Machinery

Hey, this one is really good. British kids starting up at school. Neat simple art. Great writing. From the guy who wrote Scary Go Round.

The episodes have an odd and subtle style to them. The characters are great.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pluggable sensors for Arduino

MakerShed is now offering a product that allows you to plug various sensors and a display into an Arduino, without soldering. This is a great idea, making the Arduino more like a cheap open-source Lego NXT.

The $50 price for the set isn't bad, either.

I've still got a nice Arduino-based game kit lying around. Haven't spent time on the hacking lately.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Video but no sound from DVDs on Windows Media Player

I got a shiny new laptop at work, but when I popped a DVD into it, it gave me video, but no sound. Coincidentally, I was having some problems with my DVD player on another laptop. The coincidence made me think the problem was hardware.

But when I got around to googling for 'no sound windows media dvd', I found a couple of forum topics indicating that Windows Media player isn't fully DVD-capable out of the box. My last machine had a more extensive AV software package bundled with it, too, and that led me to believe that full DVD capability was something that ought to work right off.

I found a free video player VLC here, and that took care of the problem right away. The player was only 20 Mb in size and installed without a fuss.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vampire Reunion

College Humor imagines a vampire get-together. I love how every new vampire novel reinvents the rules of vampires; this uses that idea.

Image by user FriedC from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license

Fierce competition for 'favorite halloween costume ideas as shown in a webcomic'

Diesel Sweeties combines Marvel Comics and reality television frighteningly

The webcomics have outdone themselves with great costume ideas this year. First of all, a big thank you to Diesel Sweeties for "Doctor Octomom".

Then, Girls With Slingshots hits the internet memes with a 2 Girls thing. Link IS safe for work.

But the best I've seen was the pun-combination in PVP: Brent and Jade BOTH dressing up as Starbuck. It's not just a fun idea, it also fits the characters well.

Friday, October 30, 2009

_Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl?_ by Bendis and Oeming

Image from the Amazon page for the book, and linked there.

I recently reread this volume 1 of the Powers comic series written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming.

I've been reading Powers for years now, faithfully buying each trade paperback volume as soon as it's available, and every book sustains multiple reads, some of the best value I get for my comics dollars.

Also, I like cop stories. The Powers premise is that it follows a couple of homicide detectives who investigate superhero-related murders. Underlying that is an anchoring of superpowers in everyday life; seeing superheroes with their pants down; hearing them curse like drunk sailors whose ship just sailed without them.

The Retro Girl story remains a great standalone book, showing off Bendis' dialogue and Oeming's cartoony style well. If you're just now cottoning on to the idea that comics aren't just for kids anymore, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween card

At work we have stacks of old branded blank cards. The other day, I realized that if I fold the front of the card, I can cut out the company logo, leaving a bat shape.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


A photo from 10/12/09. I grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. One thing that's different about Austin is the fog. Several times a year we get this very dense low fog that really deserves the name. On this day, I was straining to see the traffic ahead of me when I drove to work. This is a scenic view of my office's parking lot.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Star Guard handles character death differently

On a tip from Metafilter, I tried the free arcade shooter Star Guard (downloable installs for PC or Mac available). On my PC it runs in an Adobe Flash Player.

It's got super-simple graphics and gameplay, which appealed to me. In it, you run through a maze populated by various space monsters and try to shoot your way to the end of each level. What's unique is that when you die, you simply restart at the last flagged location you passed (each level contains many of these automatic restore points. So death amounts to just a minor setback. There's no limit of lives, and you don't even have to restart the current level. It's very player-friendly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

_Class: A Guide through the American Status System_ by Paul Fussell

Picture from the Amazon page for the book

Mr. David Cramer recommended this to me a while back. I had it on my list for a long time before I finally got a copy from the library.

This is an interesting book for its exploration of class signifiers and its acknowledgement that Americans don't want to admit they have class distinctions. It was hard to read, though, because Fussell is disparaging about the habits of every class, and it's unsettling to view everything in your life through the lens of class. In some ways it was one of the most depressing books I've read, aside from David Simon's The Corner.

I know I should list some specific details from the book, but now I don't have it handy to refer to. Many of the class signifiers were out of date, and of course they change with each generation, but it was still an eye-opener of a book. Oh, I know: he analyzes the style of each recent president in class terms. That was fun.

I checked out too many books this time, and this was one I had to return before I'd quite finished with it. Also lost in that shuffle was a thick tome about genocide and several books about the Middle East. I've been abusing the library's hold system and it caught up with me.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The secret is in the spinning

I don't have a photo of this, wish I did. Yesterday I spent a lot of time running the cotton candy machine at our elementary's Fall Fest, and I got covered in sugar floss.

We had few instructions but it didn't take long to figure out that it's important to spin the paper cone a lot, to wind the floss onto the cone nice and tight. I got to teach a few rounds of volunteers the tricks of the trade.

It wasn't too bad being by the popcorn machine, either. I did not go hungry.

This is the first time I haven't juggled at the event, which was kind of a load off. When I wasn't making food, I wandered around and had a good time. Of course, our friend Marie was taking Lily around the fair, which made things easy. Ethan and Chloe are big enough to wander on their own in that environment.

Chloe's cactus costume attracted plenty of attention. As predicted by Doug, some thought she was Gumby.

We like pie

Tanya made a beautiful pie recently. We all like pie and yet pie is a problem. Nobody ever seems to want more than one piece. This gorgeous apple pie fared better than most. Only one piece was left to hide in the back of the fridge until I threw it away. Bye, pie.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chloe's spelling sentences

We were kind of blown away by these sentences written by 9-year-old Chloe on the back of her spelling test recently.

Asked to write complex sentences using their 4th grade spelling words, she came up with these....

1. Hacking through the rain forest the adventurer began to doubt see anything at all but, He saw a Black Panther prowling on a tree!

2. The farmer went to mount his horse once on, the trail finally got some hoofprints, in its dirt, but when they arrived in town it was the same as always on Satardays.

3. It was dawn when the artist set about painting the picture he had drawn, but a frown crossed his face when he heard a knock on the door, to his surprise it was not who he expected.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chloe's Saguaro Cactus Costume

Chloe and I have been having fun making her costume. She wanted to be a saguaro cactus. I'm not making this up. She came up with the idea all on her own.

Of course, from someone who was a funny hat for Halloween last year, it's not so surprising.

Here are two work-in-progress photos of her costume, which is basically eggcrate foam. We folded the foam in half, flat side out, and had her lie down on it, and I drew the basic shape with a marker. Then we sewed it with big stitches, cut it out, and turned it inside out. We took turns sewing and she worked hard on it. Then I fixed all the holes from where our stitching was bad. Then I sprayed it green. These pics are pre-painting.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lily starts to get into the Halloween spirit

Changing clothes

Changing clothes this weekend after church, I told Tanya, "Brace yourself, I'm about to disrobe."

But I'm considerate about it: "To help you control your passion, I'm leaving my socks on."

Tanya: "That'll work."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wishing well

Seen around the neighborhood. Looks carved, but I bet it's molded from a resin or something. Maybe bought from a catalog? From a garage sale trip around the hood, 9/19/09.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

_How We Decide_ by Jonah Lehrer

Cover photo from the Amazon page for the book.

This book was chock full of great stuff. I love books about how the mind works; this one focuses on making decisions with either your head or your heart, with a thesis that each method has advantages in different situations.

It has stories of people making tough decisions in crises, like the firefighter who realized that the fire racing towards him was moving faster than he could run, or the pilots who invented a new way to control an airplane when the triply-redundant hydraulics powering all their control surfaces failed. It describes lots of ways to make bad decisions by letting your reasoning reason you away from good gut instincts, and ways to choose whether to go with your gut or your genius.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2009

_How to Build a Dinosaur_ by Jack Horner and James Gorman

Subtitled "Extinction Doesn't Have to be Forever," this book talks about ways and means of reverse-engineering a dinosaur from a chicken. The author is dead serious, and transmits a lot of interesting science, but the path is meandering.

I love pop sci books, and this one, like a lot of them, turns science into a narrative. I went along with most of that, but I wasn't always sure where we were going. The main thing this book did for me was to introduce me to evolutionary development ideas. It also brought home the close relationships between dinosaurs and birds.

It puts the ideas from Jurassic Park into some perspective. Jurassic Park's method of getting DNA from insects that sucked blood from dinosaurs was far-fetched. But some of the real science outlined in this book is mind-blowing.

The basic idea is to analyze evolutionary developments and reverse some of them. There's no magical rollback, no turning people into rats the way the High Evolutionary sometimes did. But there have been discoveries of identifiable biological molecules in fossils. There's an exciting bit about cutting open a bone to split it in half for transport and finding organic material inside. It's a fun read.

Great green goblin costume

Here's a great goblin costume that I bumped into on Flickr, taken at Dragon*Con 2008.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When Thunderbird's e-mail address completion offers you an address you don't find in your address book

I discovered the other day that Thunderbird was offering me two addresses for an old friend I hadn't e-mailed in a long time. I checked them both and found out that one of them was defunct.

So I went to my address book and tried to delete the offending address. But I only found one entry for her, listed with the address that worked. I'd assumed there were two entries for her in the address book.

There weren't. Instead, the bad address was in the Additional Email field....which isn't listed with the person's name in the table of addresses in the address book. You have to display the full details of the entry to see it.

I use the Portable Thunderbird version of the app. I'm very happy with it. I keep files on two different systems and sync them with each other daily. This way I have backups and easy access to my files in two locations.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lily and a friend enjoy a doughnut

From 9/19/09.

_Sandman Slim_ by Richard Kadrey

Cover art is from the Harper Collins folks, who presumably would love for you to click on it and go visit them.

Lessee....I devoured this one in just a few days. I liked the premise immediately: dead guy comes back from hell to get revenge on those who sent him there.

It's rather well done, but not too deep. By the end, it resembled the Dresden Files more than I liked...the main character ends up with a situation that seems designed to set him up as a wizard-solver-of-problems, with a sidekick quite similar to one of Dresden's.

However, I thought Butcher's books took several goes to get good. I thought the third Dresden book was fantastic, but was lukewarm on the first. This book was a wild ride from the start. And the Dresden correspondences didn't strike me as being too close until I got near the end.

I label stories like this one "celestial", because I needed a label in my database/journal for stories about angels and devils and the hierarchies of heaven and hell. As with vampire books, the fun of these is that every author essentially sets out to reveal to you the true story of these supernatural beings, with the result that the author comes up with some new twists on the standard genre rules for them.

Here, the charm lies in having some details about hell, which is given a language and denizens called Hellions. The main character has brought some tools with him from hell: a magic item so powerfu as to make you wonder how he was allowed to steal it, and some hellish magic. In fact, he used to be a fancy wizard on earth, and now has trouble with ordinary earth magic, which is a nice touch.

I enjoyed this book, but I never quite understood why it's called Sandman Slim. I mean, the main character eventually gets labelled that, but I don't recall a reason for it, so the connection never resonated with me. And since that became the title, it ought to have been a stronger connection.

Friday, October 16, 2009

_The Family Trade_ by Charles Stross

Pic is a slice of the Amazon photo of the book, and used to link there.

I've been trying to blog about EVERY book I read lately. This has not been easy. But I found I was waiting for 'enough time' to 'do justice' to the better books, and I decided to try someting that would get me to write SOMETHING about the books.

I liked this book a lot. I'd ready a couple of Stross books and enjoyed them, and Doug had recommended them once or twice. This one, I liked mostly because of the very strong female protagonist. Ahem. That is, the kickass lady main character rocked. She's a journalist, so, of course she rocked.

The plot revolves around the main character A) losing her job because of zealous journalism that reveals her companies' crimes then B) discovering she's related to a family of dimension-travelling smugglers.

There's a repeated theme of finding out she's a long lost princess, and then being FORCED to go live the life of a princess. It's a great idea and it works well, because our kickass main character is so up to the challenge.

It is, however, book 1 of a series, and it isn't one of those relatively-self-contained book one items. Nope, it's 1/3 of a plot. Things are just getting started when it ends, so I was kicking myself, because I don't have the next one handy, and I don't know when I'll be able to get it.