Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gopi's best man

I used to work with a guy name Gopalan; we called him Gopi. He was a lot of fun and at some point it came out that his parents were giving him a lot of heck about not being married (to a nice Indian girl of course) yet.

We were working at a startup that was a complete boy's club, and we teased Gopi endlessly about his prospective brides, his preparations for marriage, and so on. And I'd built up this whole thing about how much I admired and worshipped Gopi....he went on a two week trip or something, and I created a series of diaries on a wiki at the office showing how despondent we all became from missing him.

So between that and the marriage stuff, my wife came up with the idea of me lobbying to be Gopi's best man at his wedding. We made a T-shirt with the words "GOPI'S BEST MAN" on the back, and I wore it to work. 

Unfortunately this only cemented the idea that I was gaga for Gopi firmly in everyone's heads. Not that I didn't love him with all my heart. But it was never serious. The guy had no boobs at all.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Can this be for real? The stovepipe bird trap

I was reading the wild intertubes and I came across a tubular bird trap idea: the stovepipe. The idea is that birds can't back up, so you put some birdseed inside a pipe that's big enough for the birds to walk into (and too small to turn around),  you block one end of the pipe, and make sure the birdseed is deep enough in the pipe that the bird has to go all the way in.

That's it. Because birds can't back up.

They can't? Well, I found more than one reference to this idea. I have half a mind to try one and make a pigeon pie. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

You didn't ask me how tennis went yesterday!

It's October 2003, and I'm driving six-year-old Ethan to school and he says, apropros of nothing: "You didn't ask how tennis went yesterday." 

I laugh. He's dead serious. So I ask him: "How did tennis go yesterday?" 

He starts telling me, a little incoherant. I'm driving. He says something about doing "flip-flops." I gather he means bouncing the ball on the racket and flipping the racket. 

"It's hard," he says. He asks if I know what "edgies" are.

"Hitting the ball with the edge of the paddle?" I ask, slipping into ping pong terminology.  I repeat and correct, since he doesn't seem to have understood: "Hitting with the edge of the racket?"

He agrees. I can't somehow imagine that is teacher is asking them to bounce the ball on the rim of the racket, so I ask him again, but that's what he maintains. 

So I check this with the wife later. She confirms: yes, indeed, Ethan does 'edgies'. He has to bounce the ball on the edge, on one surface, then on two...flipping the racket...coordination stuff. They are supposed to count their hits while the teacher times them. For a six-year-old, it sounds brutal. No wonder he wanted to be asked about it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to make a Word document display its wordcount

Here's a fine feature of Microsoft Word that's been around for ages, but you might've missed it: the field code. Word has a bunch of these. Essentially, they're little dynamic objects which get updated automatically by Word to contain various useful bits of content. 

For example, you can use one of these to put a document's filename in its header or footer -- and that item will get updated when the filename changes. 

But we're going to use wordcount as an example. Say you have just written the best little short story ever, and you need to put the wordcount right up at the top of the first page before you mail it off to some kind and generous editor. 

You could view the document properties (select File->Properties, then click the Statistics tab), get the wordcount there, and manually enter it. 

Or you can use a field code. 

With a field code, you can put the wordcount in your document when you get started, and click on it anytime you like, and press F9, and get an updated count. I like to put one right below where I'm working, and set a goal to write 1000 words or so, and then I can check it as I work. 

To add a word count to your document, put your cursor where you want the count to appear, and then:

  1. Select Insert->Field.  The Field dialog appears. 
  2. In the Categories box, select Document Information.
  3. In the Field Names box, select NumWords.
  4. Click OK.
When you've done this, the number of words appears at your cursor. It looks just like any number, but if you click on it, it is shaded. To update it, click on it and press the F9 key. It'll update when you print the document too. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

How I made a hot wire foam cutter

Make magazine posted a 5-minute project to make a hot wire foam cutter.

I got real excited because I had almost all of the materials at home already. There were only two things I needed: an aluminum rod, and a piece of Nichrome wire.

I looked for the Nichrome wire on the net, but I couldn't find anybody selling it in small quantities. So I started calling hobby shops.

Our local Hobbytown turned out to stock a replacement part for a Woodland Scenics brand foam cutter...4 feet of wire -- plenty and to spare.

They weren't kidding. Why, it only took me ten minutes to make it.

I've had a few problems. The wire broke when I tried to cut a 2" thick block of foam. I'm not sure how durable this wire is. But it was easy to make, and I've always wanted one. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How to get started reading Schlock Mercenary

Schlock Mercenary is a science fiction webcomic of the type with long-running storylines told in frequent short strips. It's good, and it's up for a Hugo award right now, which has prompted the author to put one of the better storylines up as a PDF. This is a good way to get into the comic. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ball dropping...a fun, sound-oriented webtoy

I liked this. It's not really a game, more of a toy. It's a little physics model where balls drop from a point on the screen. But you can place lines that the balls bounce off of. And each time a ball bounces, it makes a sound.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The petting zoo at the Austin rodeo

Lily somehow managed to be the best model once again for photos during our trip weekend before last to the rodeo.

Ethan, though, was enjoying it a lot. No hint that he might be getting too old for this.

Not even when he went for a ride.

For me, though, the highlight was the deer. We got to pet deer!

Monday, March 23, 2009

The one in which I make dutch babies

I've been wanting to try making dutch babies for a while now. This weekend, I finally got around to it.

What was I waiting for? It's way easier than I expected.

A dutch baby is a baked pancake that rises in the oven to epic proportions.  Here's what they look like in the oven. They rise while you watch. It's magic.

We eat them with powdered sugar and lemon juice. It is the only way.

Before this, I could only get these at the Original Pancake House. My mom made these for me a few times when I was a kid, but I guess I exhausted her patience. I guess I can see why. I made five of these this weekend alone. 

I used the recipe I got from the Dalai Mama website. Really, these are easy to make. You just have to heat the pan up in the oven and have the batter ready, and pour it in all at once. It doesn't call for any ingredients you don't already have lying around: flour, milk, eggs, salt. 

Oh, and lemon and powdered sugar. Don't forget those. 

This recipe made me realize, though, that I'm most interested in recipes that are entertaining, like flambes and making cheese from milk while you wait. Basically I want to do chemistry circus stuff in the kitchen. 

I tried to explain this to my wife, but her mouth was too full of dutch baby  to respond. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Heinlein's Rules for Writing

I put a copy of these rules, helpfully put online by Robert J. Sawyer, in my tickler file, and they came up recently, and they spoke to me, I tell you, they spoke to me. They're relevant to any writer, not just a writer of speculative fiction.

Plus my mother-in-law has cheerfully and valiantly ventured forth into creative writing, and discussing the course she is taking made me think of some of the issues these rules address. And made me want to post writing how-to links. So Karen, sweetheart, this one's for you.

Robert J. Sawyer, as long as I'm mentioning him, is worth a read. I enjoyed his Neanderthal Parallax series quite a lot.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How to back up your blogger blog

I love using web-based tools, keeping my data in the cloud, it's the hip Web 2.0 thing to do. But even Google (praise the name!) might screw up and lose my data. So I back up my blog once a week.

Here's the best tool I've found so far for this: the Blogger Backup Utility. It's super easy to use, and that's mostly why I stick with it. Its big drawback is it doesn't back up the images. You get the text of each post in a simple xml format, so you can imagine transforming that back into something else later. In raw form, though, it's only good for restoring to blogger. It's simple enough xml that you can read it in a text editor, though. Your words are safe, is the point.

That's a blogger-specific approach. Another approach would be to use some tool that spiders and downloads a website, to get every page and image on your site. That'd probably be smarter and more complete, but that approach has drawbacks too: it takes up lots more disk space, it takes more time, and it stores the data as plain HTML.

I tried some tools -- a command-line tool -- for backing up the whole site, and ran into some issues, and never got very far. The BBU approach works like this:

  1. Launch the Blogger Backup Utility; you get a GUI.
  2. Configure it to point to your blog. You can use it to back up several different blogs.
  3. Select a blog, hit the backup button. It downloads posts. You can use it to back up just the last few posts, or all the posts.

Because it's so simple, I back up pretty consistently, and that's the important thing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Barbarian diary

Not since Caveman Lawyer have I enjoyed a confluence of opposites as much as this one. Barbarian Diary is a 4-panel webcomic with a delightful art style by the same fellow who creates the dude-a-day images. Go to the page, scroll to the bottom and read from there. You won't be sorry. Our Barbarian deals maturely with difficult issues. There's lots of cleaving, but no cleavage so far.

This barbarian is imagined as having the personality of a sort of frat guy. A frat guy who wanders around with a sword.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Here's what toilet instructions look like in Antwerp

David Cramer recently went to Antwerp and brought back a report from the toilets there, where they try to provide good documentation on how they are used:

He notes, however, that this covers only the basics, and doesn't explain things like the fact that there are two buttons for flushing...one for big jobs, one for light duty. I wondered what kinds of icons such buttons might be adorned with.

This came up because I had reported recently on advice to Gentlemen in the toilets.

Art from the walls of Summitt Elementary

I did my D.O.G.S (Dads of Great Students) day for my birthday last month. It was fun. One of the fun things was to see the art that fills the halls of the elementary school.

I'm glad our schools take the time to give kids a chance to try out different kinds of art. I see all kinds of crafts when I visit our school.

I've been thinking about how everyone should make art every day, and I don't mean high art. I mean putting pen to paper or brush to page just to see what happens. We'll get the high art when the pile of art is tall enough.

Baby god

Lately Lily, 3, has been talking about 'baby god' a lot. In this manner:

Daddy's gonna have a baby. Baby god. Baby god is jesus. Baby god is
a girl, and I'm the big sister.

I'm really hoping she doesn't know something I don't know.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March Modok Madness

If someone is going to go to the trouble to create a blog all about the Marvel comics character MODOK, the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing (hah! I can't  unpack that acronym without laughing), then I can certainly go to the trouble of linking to it

This is a parody site that posts pictures that are riffs off the MODOK idea.

I've always liked the wackiness of MODOK. He's basically been mutated so that his head is so big he can't walk and has to use a hoverchair to get around. And he's got a great origin: he was a hapless janitor that the mean scientists of AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics, the bad boys of evil science), turned into a guinea pig. Naturally he used his powers to take over AIM straightaway. 

Whoops, that's not quite right. He wasn't a janitor -- more of a junior technician. Hmm, I like the way I remembered it better. It makes a better story. 

I'm not sure I could find it now, but for a while I had a great action figure of MODOK. Great, in a stupid way. It had a rubber head with a hole in the forehead, and you were supposed to put a plastic dart in the hole, and mash down on the head so that it would shoot out the dart -- as a mental blast. It didn't work very well. But it did a good job of displaying the manic Jack Kirby-style MODOK face.  Here's what this figure looked like; you can see the hole in the head.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bolt: recommended

We watched the Travolta-voiced Pixar movie Bolt this past weekend, and enjoyed it immensely. We went with Tanya's mom Karen (hi Karen!), and we all had a blast, young and old.

The flick has a lot to recommend it:

  • First of all, there's the premise. Bolt is a superdog, whose powers exist only on TV, but he doesn't know that. Yes, this is similar to Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story. No, that's not a problem.
  • Next, there's the buddy movie thing that Pixar does so well.
  • The animation is another step forward. The backgrounds and objects are more realistic than ever. But they've kept a lot of stylization in the people and animals, thereby avoiding any uncanny valley issues. Bolt, for example, has a puppylike enormous head, despite being five years old.
  • Travolta is understated and dignified.

I enjoyed it almost as much as Chloe did, although I could not match her guffaws when the hamster named Rhino stole the show. She's into hamsters at the moment. We're on our third hamster, actually.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chloe was ready for the TAKS test

Last week, Chloe was so excited about the TAKS test. She got up at 6 am, on her on recognizance, no alarm at all. She's usually into school, but I've never seen her this excited about anything.

Several days before, she insisted we had to buy her some peppermints. It was important. She reminded us a dozen times. Turned out a teacher had told her that peppermints wake your brain up. In her mind this made peppermints into an essential test talisman she could not do without.

Then that morning, I forgot to give her her ADD meds, so she was at the test utterly lacking one very important focusing tool.

Thank heaven for the peppermints. She said she thought she did okay anyway.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I'm enjoying this novel work

Okay, I believe this is becoming something of a mantra, but I'm finding that I enjoy working on this novel, this world, this project Dragon Matrix that derives from my Elf and Troll story.

I find I most enjoy it whenever I work on it long enough to get into it. Really short sessions aren't good enough. I need about an hour to really get into it.

I am surprised by how long I've been working on this project, counting all mutations and permutations of it. But that's why I chose it. I'd already proven I would stick with it, even though the short-story versions of it have been awful.

But this is heartening. I feel like I made the right choice. I'm kinda scared to put these optimistic words to net, I have a strong knock-wood reaction. I was just reading something about how this part of the novel project ends eventually and the work gets harder. I guess I'll walk into that wall when it gets here.

Unipoid to Sextapoid Poids

Here are some more Poids that I drew; the schtick here is each Poid has one eye if it has an odd number of tentacles, and two if an even number. I wanted to do a bunch of variations.

Friday, March 13, 2009

To get better ideas, generate more ideas, says _Story_

Apparently I haven't posted before about Robert McKee's book Story, which is a great resource on how stories work. It's aimed at screenwriting, but its advice applies to stories and novels just as well.

One of my favorite tips from this book is aimed at avoiding clichés in writing, but it's good for any creative work. It boils down to this:

Instead of using the first idea that comes to mind for a scene, a tactic, a design, or a solution, try to generate a list of ten ideas...then pick from that list.

And: if you really like your first idea, but it seems overused, try to come up with ten ways to nuance it, change it, make it your own.

After all, the easiest ideas, the ones that are first to mind, are the most common ones: the ones most likely to be clichés.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The sumac that you can eat

The other day, I had to dash out to find some pretty specific ingredients for a school project for one of Ethan's middle school classes. He had to make Austrian food. This doesn't come up every day.

It provided me with the opportunity to go to Central Market, all by myself, and not be in a hurry, and actually buy a few things for myself.

One thing I picked up was a little package of powdered sumac, sold in the spice area. They sell spices by weight there, and you can buy enough for a recipe without spending a lot: I spent 9 cents getting my sumac, for example.

The sumac powder was a dark maroon, like a more violet version of chili powder. It had a tart taste, a little like lemon. I put it on some unsweetened yogurt that I was using as a sauce for a savory dish; it was good.

I felt daring, too, since I'd only known sumac as a poisonous plant. According to this site, it's poisonous here, but the variety that grows in the Middle East is not and is commonly used in cooking, which is how it ended up in my grocery.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Watchmen is awesomely sucky!

I've already heard that Watchmen is amazing, great, wonderful, and that it is a soulless sucky thing. Awesome. I believe that nets out to zero so I still get to see it.

Let's make a jealousy detector

When I saw a jealousy-detecting poodle in "The Princess Planet" webcomic, I wanted one immediately. How can you not be jealous of a dog like that?

But my idea is much more practical, and you could use it for anything: it's just a gadget that buzzes or lights up. For example, it could be set up to look like a scifi sensor, a la a Tricorder. But it has a secret button that makes it go off.

In its simplest form, you hold it over your sibling's head and it buzzes. "See? My loser detector works!"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A city not recorded in the 'Other Cities' catalog: Omelas

On further pondering the stories of Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Other Cities" series, mentioned previously in "My Other City, Quall", I realized that they greatly resemble the Ursula K. LeGuin story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which you can find on the web here, and which is well worth a read. My friend and coworker David Cramer was the first to point me at this story, some months ago. It's unusual in that it never quite takes a specific character's point of view. But that, too, is something the "Other Cities" pieces do. LeGuin's story is a story of utopia and the costs of achieving it.

"Omelas" seems unusual among LeGuin's stories. LeGuin's main branding for me is her Hainish stories, stories of an advanced culture analyzing a devolved or deviated human culture, and of the culture shock that results when two cultures meet. Probably her most famous work of this type is The Left Hand of Darkness, but I love the short stories she has written in the Hainish setting, such as those collected in The Birthday of the World

Rosenbaum, too, has other good stuff out there. I recently read his story "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum"....yes, his name is part of the title, and in fact the main character's name is Benjamin Rosenbaum, though the story is not autobiographical.  This is a steampunk story in a sense: it has zeppelins, at any rate, which ought to qualify it.

But if zeppelins alone aren't enough to grab you, know that it opens up a wild way of looking at other worlds. Rosenbaum has considered a world far more different from our own than most stories ever give us, while clearly harking back to our own at the same time. 

And it's a rollicking good read. How are you going to resist a story whose main character begins by explaining that he has just come from Plaus-Fab Wisconsin, which turns out to be a speculative fiction convention, but in his world, they're called Plausible Fables? And if that isn't enough, then read it to get to the point where he's confronted by someone who mistakes him for a different, more famous, Benjamin Rosenbaum.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Wood cutouts

Some wood cutouts I made with a scroll saw and decorated with permanent marker. The bird was inspired by something I saw on mocoloco.com.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Handy public restroom tip

I record this tip for all and sundry as a way of paying it forward. My tip is of the kind everyon finds useful eventually. I speak, of course, of the inevitable times when you find yourself in a public restroom, forced by your indigestive tract to make sounds reminiscent of a bassoon or compact tuba. 

Ever since some kids in first grade climbed onto the toilet seat in the adjacent stall and looked over the stall walls at me, I've been a little shy in public restrooms. But I long ago came up with a solution that applies the same sort of logic as covering your eyes to hide from someone: I cover my ears. 

Safely insulated from my own horrific notes, I can grunt and strain my way to comfort. This has stood me in good stead for many years.

I commend this tip to you, 
in the hopes it may prove useful, 
with greatest respect, 
yours sincerely,
& etc.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Useful advice for how to write an action scene

I occasionally check Gav Thorpe's Mechanical Hamster web page because he has good articles about writing. This one, about writing action scenes, has good advice for writing any scene. He's really talking about how you can write any scene in several different ways, hitting different levels of detail.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Free SF/fantasy books as PDFS

A site named Suvudu is now offering free PDFs of published scif and fantasy books, with a bias towards the first books in their series.

I downloaded His Majesty's Dragon from this site and I'm enjoying it. It's off to a good start. Napoleanic Royal Navy + Dragons = fun. Actually, either of those two elements is a good recommendation. I'll read a romance novel if it's Napoleanic. As long as the main character's not in love with his ship, or a pegleg, or something like that.

I browsed around the forum on the Suvudu site a little, saw some complaints about PDF format and DRM. I'm not really seeing this. PDFs are pretty darn portable. I grant you that it's not easy to read a whole novel in PDF for, but you can do it if you're motivated.

I routinely download PDFs and store them for reading if I'm every stuck somewhere with nothing but my laptop to console me. Truthfully, this doesn't come up very often...I've been in the habit of carrying books around for too long. But now and then I'm glad I can store a library in a few megabytes.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Chinese exchanging political freedom for personal freedom

Ethan Zuckerman's post about Michael Anti and the end of the golden age of blogs in China discusses the idea, proposed by Anti, that modern Chinese are, mostly willingly, exchanging political freedom for personal freedom. He says they have no conservative party, no God, to hold them back from free sexual and personal behavior, and that they are more accepting of gays. There are a bunch of interesting ideas like this in the post. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Made a swift for my wife

Here's a photo of a swift I made for my wife last year at about this time. It's a pretty simple device...an adjustable spindle for yarn. You wrap the yarn around it, and then you can unwind it onto a ball winder to make a nice ball of yarn.

The design I used is from here, and it was super easy to make. You just need to get a piece of hardwood. I think it's the first thing I've ever made where I sought out and bought a piece of hardwood. You only need one piece, it's not going to cost an arm and a leg.  

This freed me from standing around holding skeins of yarn. So really, making it was a form of self defense.

This design has the virtue of quickly coming apart for storage.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Continuing the Burma Shave tradition

On one of our annual Christmas drives to Wisconsin, this one in 2003, we saw some signs put up in Burma-Shave style:

The villain that night
got really rough
until the little lady
got really tough
And here's the kicker: 
(However, I checked this page out just now, though, and it seems like it has been parked.) 

That was my first introduction to this modern takeoff on Burma-shave. But here's a better one we saw later:

Castle or cabin
or geodesic dome
homeland security
begins at home

I'm no gun fan, but I love it when people pursue their agendas with humor.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Three robots

Here are three robots I sketched. 

Sunday, March 01, 2009

So, should I get up and go do something?

I can hear Lily and Chloe on the couch. I'm in the dining room, blogging. 'Cause I'm a blogger. I blog out. 

But they're getting louder. Lily is saying "I'm not a baby," over and over again. And periodically Chloe growls. It's gonna blow up any minute. 

Ooh, one of them just made a sound like a cougar. That takes me back. I did that a lot when I was a kid. But then, I maintained that I was half man, half cat. I dunno what their excuse is. 

Photo stage for small things

This is the photo stage I'm using to take pictures of models and such. It's just some pieces of grey foamcore taped together...taped so that I can fold the sides over the back, and the base over back of it, and slide it behind some furniture when I'm not using it. 

The idea is that it provides a neutral background and diffuses the light. I think it helps. What I need more than anything is a way to trigger the camera without jostling it. I should get a remote control and try that out. 

I got this idea from the Kevin Kelly Cool Tools website, but there it just suggests using a flat piece of foamcore. The other benefit of this approach is that it is supposed to provide a good background for photoshopping.