jmadigan.net

29Apr/12Off

Sam’s First Communion

Wow, time flies! Sammy, of whom I think I was just posting baby pictures, just had her first communion ceremony this weekend. This is a Big Deal for Catholics, and it means that she can now drink wine under very specific circumstances. She did great during the ceremony, and we had a great party afterwords with lots of family and friends. There was a five foot sandwich involved!

So, congrats to Sam!

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10Jan/12Off

Book Review: You Are Not So Smart

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself is a blog turned book that aims to explore many of the common biases and errors in decision-making that have made the field of behavioral economics so active in the last few decades. Author David McRaney confesses to not being a psychologist (hey, it happens) but he does a pretty darn good impersonation of throughout the book’s 48 chapters, each of which is dedicated to one reason why you may not be so smart about day-to-day decision-making as you think.

In general, McRaney does a good job of making each one of these 48 topics accessible. He doesn’t talk over a general audience’s head, yet he usually manages to work in descriptions of the research and scientific evidence that each chapter’s topic is predicated on. And it helps that by and large each topic is something that most readers can relate to --remembering childhood events, procrastinating, deciding what brands to buy, affirming your political beliefs, responding to authority figures, arguing with idiots on the Internet, and the like. The book’s schtick is that through its revelation of common errors and biases related to these topics it constantly posits that you aren’t as smart or rational as you might think, because you are no exception to the effects described. Each chapter tries to hook you with declarations of a common misconception and a related truth. It’s the kind of “See, science and psychology matter to YOU and your everyday life” stuff that I love reading about. You should find something interesting in every chapter.

The other thing that makes the book approachable is that McRaney isn’t afraid to use informal language and specific cultural references. The book is replete with references to Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and other touchstones. It also contains occasional phrases like “this is bullshit” and “what the hell?” and other casual language that makes it feel like you’re listening to someone go on about this stuff over a beer or a shared commute. It’s a friendly and refreshing tone for which I’d like to thank not only the author for offering, but also his editor for allowing.

The book’s roots as a blog also show through in that most of the chapters are very short --some are in fact as brief as a healthy blog post, it may not surprise you to find out. On the one hand, this can be nice because you can nibble your way through the book, working through one or two of the chapters at a time if you’re not up to taking huge bites. It also makes the book easier to use as a reference later if you want to return to one of the errors or biases.

On the other hand, though, I think the book often misses the opportunity to tell stories that give some more context and meat to the phenomena it describes. Other books in this same vein that I’ve read have walked the reader through narratives about either how the researchers developed their ideas and experiments, or told stories about real-life applications of the biases and mental hiccups they describe. In his book How We Decide, for example, Jonah Lehrer frames a discussion about dopamine predictions by describing how a Lieutenant Commander in the British Navy reacted to odd readings from his radar display and barely saved many lives in the process. There’s none of this gripping storytelling in You Are Not So Smart, nor does McRaney do anything along the lines of tying several related topics into one larger concept, like maybe how our instincts to preserve our self image worm their way into an astonishing array of daily decisions. This book is clearly a collection of blog entries based on a bullet list of topics. And while that has its appeal, if McRaney does a follow-up work I’d probably enjoy it more if he really took his time to research some interesting background material and weave a bigger picture out of all the individual strands.

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15Nov/11Off

Book Review: Ready Player One

Okay, let's say you're a child of the 1980s, and like a lot of people who were teens during that unprecedented explosion of pop culture you're thoroughly steeped in the lore of 80s American movies, television shows, video games, music, and toys. NOW, imagine that all that trivia is key --almost literally-- to proving not only that you weren't wasting your youth, but also to defeating evil, getting the girl, and acquiring massive riches. That's pretty much the nerd fantasy behind Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

The setup for this dystopian future science fiction novel is that James Haliday was a game designer and fan of the 80s who was equal parts Howard Hughes, Richard Garriot, and batcrap crazy. He was also the pro generator of "The OASIS," a virtual reality game into which most of the world has retreated in the face of global calamity. Right before dying, Haliday announced a massive quest within his creation, challenging players to find a series of secret challenges within the virtual universe. The winner gets control of the OASIS as well as several billion dollars. Enter our hero and narrator Wade Watts, a.k.a., "Parzival," a destitute youth who educates himself on everything the 1980s had to offer in order to find Haliday's Egg before an amoral megacorporation can do the same and seize control of the virtual paradise.

The main hook in Ready Player One is how it revels in 80s pop culture. Absurdly enough, Parzival has to quote lines from Mathew Broderick movies and master multiple classic coin-op arcade games in order to find and beat each of Haliday's challenges. In addition to these central plot points, conversations between fellow egg hunters (or "gunters" for short) are thick with similar references. Having come of age in the 80s I'm in the sweet spot for this kind of thing, and I recognized and appreciated almost every single reference. I smirked, for example, when one character snapped at another with "Tell the truth, Claire!" even when the author provided no other context. And I not only vividly remember the classic Atari 2600 game Adventure, but I had myself found the game's easter egg after which Haliday's entire hunt was patterned. So as a literary device, this stuff is fun if you're the kind of person who will appreciate it. If you're not, I'm not so sure.

On the downside, while the OASIS makes a vivid and flexible backdrop against which you can tell a story, Cline seems to over rely on it a bit in terms of plotting. Improbable plot devices constantly popped up in the form of overly convenient "artifacts" or super-items within the game, which highlighted cracks in Cline's otherwise good plotting. Need a way to make the bad guys totally invincible for just long enough to make things dramatic? Artifact. Need a way to save the hero from certain death? Artifact. Want a humongous showdown between protagonist and antagonist? Two artifacts. It gets a little obvious at times, as does Perzival's uncanny knack for possessing whatever area of obscure expertise needed to beat every challenge.

That said, Ready Player One is generally really readable and a lot of fun if you're in the target audience. Things zip along quickly in the vein of a classic quest tale, which is exactly what the story is. Cline also taps into many themes that are relevant to anyone living nowadays --things like online privacy, escapism, commercialization of art, the value of offline friendships, obsessive fanboyism, and the like. These topics are handled pretty well in the context of the larger story, and Cline makes some insightful and interesting statements.

So I'd recommend Ready Player One if the gist of it sounds interesting to you. The "everything that was nerdy about your youth is actually awesome and totally key to domination of your opponents" plot is a bit eye rolling, as are the transparent plot devices, but it's still fun and it's neat to see someone throw references to things I loved as a kid like they were so much party confetti.

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23Oct/11Off

I Ran Another Half Marathon!

You guys! I totally ran another half marathon! I ran my first one back in April and decided to give it another go. It went better this go around. Final time was 13.1 miles in 2 hours 7 minutes 14 seconds (average pace 9:43 per mile). Here's a link to the whole thing on Garmin's website. Note that this is way better than my time last April by about 16 minutes, which is progress I'll take.

Speaking of the Garmin GPS device, I'm super annoyed with myself because I was looking forward to using it on the run, but I made two substantial mistakes. First, I somehow accidentally changed the settings to show miles per hour instead of minutes per mile and I was used to using the latter to pace myself. I didn't realize it until the race had started and I didn't want to stop and fiddle with menus. Second, I had intended to use the "Lap" feature at each mile marker to measure my speed on each one, but at Mile 1 I accidentally hit the button to pause the timer instead of the button clearly marked "Lap." This I failed to realize until about half a mile later, so I was never quite sure what my exact time or distance was until the finish. Alas, but I'll know better next race and at least I was able to manually edit the race data on the website.

On the "things that went right" side of the house, there are several things that made this better than last April. First, the weather was perfect --about 60 degrees amd partly cloudy for most of the race. Couldn't have asked for better, especially in St. Louis. Second, I was way more agressive about fuel on the run. Last time I felt the bottom drop out of my energey around mile #11, and I had to walk most of the rest of the way. This time I ate a big bowl of oatmeal and peanut butter in the morning, a banana on the drive to the race, a meal replacement bar about 5 minutes before start, some jelly beans at mile #4, a packet of Gu (think really expensive cake icing in a little tube) at mile #7, and some energy gummy candy things at mile #11. That and brief stops at all the aid stations for water or sports drinks kept me going no problem.

The other major thing I think I did right was doing my outside training in areas with lots of hills. The course in the 1/2 marathon was fairly flat, but there were a few hills, and my experience and mental attitude towards running uphill meant that I was able to keep a good pace instead of even thinking about stopping to walk. I passed people for almost the whole race, probably because I was in starting corral #16 out of 23, and should have been up further. In fact, I surprised myself for taking NO breaks to walk the whole time, except briefly to grab drinks at the aid station. I never did that for so long a run, even while training.

So it was a great race and I surpassed my own expecations with the time. During the last leg of the race I was really hoping I could come in UNDER 2 hours, but I guess I still have a bit of work to do. The thing is, this went well enough that I think I'm going to shoot for the full marathon next year. The idea of what I just wen through just being the halfway point is a bit crazy, but I think if I put in the training I could do it. Who dares me to?

Oh, also, pictures!

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12Oct/11Off

Happy Birthday, Me

So, last weekend had a pretty big milestone birthday. Apparently I am now at the age where it is expected that people send me birthday cards featuring dogs in sunglasses and funny hats. This is, quite frankly, awesome because dogs in sunglasses and funny hats are hilarious. Here's a rundown of how the day went:

6:00 am: Dog needs to go out, wife gets up to do it BECAUSE IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!
7:00 am: Kids come in screaming "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" Bound from floor to bed and from bed straight onto my diaphragm and windpipe.
7:45 am: Wife takes kids to soccer games and dance lessons; I stay home. BECAUSE IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!
7:46 am: Video games! (Horde mode in Gears 3, to be exact.)
10:30 am: Family returns, bearing a box of assorted donuts. Wife puts candles on one. Better than cake.
10:45: am: Presents! Handmade cards, new luggage, and a new Garmin 350 wrist GPS workout thingie
11:00 am: Make kids play outside. I stay inside and more video games!
12:00 pm: What's for lunch? Donuts! BECAUSE IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!
2:30 pm: Head out for 5-mile tun to test out new Garmin device.
2:45 pm: Oh, god, maybe I shouldn't have eaten so many donuts before this run...
5:00 pm: babysitter arrives.
6:00 pm: Steak dinner with lovely wife! Nice glass of Malbec!
7:30 pm: Buying pants and slippers at JC Pennys. (Hey, the opportunity presented itself.)
8:00 pm: Drinking beer out of huge plastic tumblers on the patio of local bar.
10:00 pm: Home again. Watch some tv with the wife before heading to bed.

Others might have wanted a big party with streamers and elephants and fireworks, but the above was much more my speed and I count it all as pretty awesome.

The next day, with Geralyn's permission (heck, practically with her urging I returned the nice piece of luggage, took that and the birthday money from her aunt, and bought a brand new Playstation 3!

My collection is now complete, in that I now own all the modern gaming consoles --PC, Xbox, Wii, PS3. Looking forward to catching up on all those PS3 exclusive games that I've heard about. I think Little Big Planet is going to be a particular hit with the girls. And the PS3 is a Blu-Ray player as well, so I just updated my Netflix subscription to include those. You know, now that I'm old, I've got to get caught up on all this technology.

And while we're on the topic, I really like the Garmin 350 as well. It's basically a tool to help runners measure pace and distance using GPS technology. I really like being able to see what my current and average min/mile pace is at any point, and it's great to be able to rely on the GPS to measure my distance on outdoor runs. It also came with a heart rate monitor, which I still don't quite see the point of, but okay. I also love how you can connect the device to your computer and upload all your run data to Garmin.com and dailymile.com. That's pretty slick.

Anyway, great birthday and here are some additional pictures. Enjoy.

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23Aug/11Off

Book Review: The Information

Jame's Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is kind of all over the place, as you might expect given its nebulous subject matter. The author intends to do pretty much what the subtitle suggests: review the history of information as a concept, dive into the scientific field of information theory, and ponder what recent volume of information flow means for us as a society or even as a species. As such, it's a mix of history, hard science, and even a dash of speculation.

My favorite parts of the book were the history of science bits, which Gleick presents after what seems to be exhaustive and comprehensive research. He traces the evolution of information as a concept, starting around the invention of the written word, then working up through the time line and pointing out landmarks like the printing press, the discovery of logarithms, the telegraph, Morse code, the telephone, the computer, the Internet, and the like. Each of these is discussed in the context of how they shaped the abstract concept of "information" and all led to the inevitable creation of a theory of information. I also loved learning about all the people behind these inventions and discoveries, and Gleick delivers the best bits of biographies on characters like Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace (nee Byron), Claude Shannon, James Maxwell, and more. These parts of the book were replete with fun facts and amusing stories, like the woman who tried to "send" a bowl of sauerkraut by the newly invented telegraph or how the editors of the Oxford Dictionary decide what new words to add each edition. It's all very educational and made me think of information and the information technology around me in new ways. I always love learning about visionaries and how they made their mark.

The sections on the formal theory of information, though, were also enjoyable, but to my layman mind they were sometimes dense to the point of being impenetrable. Gleick doesn't shy away from the hard stuff, and his discussion of information theory is flung far enough to cover many fields: mathematics, cybernetics, quantum theory, psychology, electrical engineering, chemistry, astrophysics, computer programming, genetics, history, cryptology, and more. And while Gleick doesn't revel in jargon and he makes many attempts to keep things at a high level, much of the book is unavoidably scholarly. Still, I was usually able to follow along with the WHAT he was getting at, if not the HOW. And it really is impressive how widely he casts his net.

And I'm glad I did. While some of the finer points may have been lost on me, I enjoyed the history of science treatment and got enough of it to get a feel for the shape of information theory and how the general concept of information has evolved and been revealed through advances in philosophy, science, and technology --what it is, how it's measured, where it goes, and what its properties are. It's heady stuff, but fun to think about.

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21Jul/11Off

Book Review: The First Two Gentleman Bastards Books

As far as character archetypes go, we've seen the likes of Locke Lamora before: clever, dashing, silver-tongued, and full of tricks, he seems to have been put together with the same blocks as Robin Hood, Brer Rabbit, and most Errol Flynn movie roles. To have him as a character in a psudo-fantasy novel, then, is pretty interesting. Lamora and his partners in crime fancy themselves as diciples of the god of thieves, and they live simply to be "richer and cleverer than anyone else" with stealing from the rich being more the point than actually being rich.

The Gentleman Bastards, as his gang calls itself have a penchant for long cons and elaborate schemes that require more acting and subterfuge than swordplay. Their playground is the city of Comorr, which author Scott Lynch presents as a kind of Rennaisance Vennice built on the bones of a mysterious, powerful, and completely abandoned civilization. There's magic, but outside of a kind of supercharged chemisty called "alchemy" it's very powerful but extremely rare. This all gives Camorr and the larger world a very refreshing feeling to it, as it's unlike any other high fantasy I've ever read.

One of the things I like about Locke as a character is that Lynch manages to avoid the tempting trap of making him too good at what he does. Cleverness can be a superpower that trumps any danger if the author sets his mind to it, and then it becomes as boring and trite when the hero thinks or talks himself out of any peril as it would be if he just punched everyone super hard. While Locke and his companions clearly think fast on their feet and show a preference for extreme preparation in whatever they attempt, it's often not enough. Things go badly, they make mistakes, complications arise, and unfortunately runs of bad luck do happen. What's entertaining, then, is watching the characters react to these challenges and seeing them suffer setbacks and maybe even complete defeat.

The first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora is definitely the better of the two I've read so far. The plot is sufficiently complex given the nature of the characters, but it hangs together well and lets us enjoy seeing Locke and his partners wedged into a tight spot before finally wiggling their way out. It also presents a nice mystery or two and lets us learn about the workings of Comorr's gangs and culture in the process. It's entertaining all the way through.

In contrast, the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, almost stalls out in the beginning. It opens with Locke and his companion Jean attempting a casino heist that seems like something more out of an Oceans 11 movie than a fantasy novel. Sure, this isn't a typical fantasy setting, but the "Sinspire" casino still seemed a little too incongruous for my tastes. From there the plot gets messy quickly and it seems like Lynch is picking up and abandoning threads all over the place just to have fun with them but not putting enough thought into a coherent narrative. This changes towards the end of the book when all the major parts of the plot mostly come together, but it's still nowhere as nearly done as in the first book.

So, if you fancy a fantasy page turner with a unique setting and a likeable but flawed trickster hero, give the first book a try. There are more in the series coming, with the third book supposedly due out later this year.

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14Jul/11Off

Book Review: Robopocalypse

"Robots go bananas and kill everyone" isn't exactly a novel idea in science fiction, but it stands as a sturdy foundation for Daniel Wilson's book Robopocalypse. You know the drill: Man creates artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence takes one look at man and says "Yeeeeah, I'm gonna just go ahead and destroy all humans." Man proves resourceful, spirited, and difficult to eradicate. Time travel may or may not be involved.

What's interesting about Robopocalypse is that instead of focusing big battles a la Terminator, it lingers on the beginning of the "New War" and shows how the AI serendipitously gains control of all the mechanical and electronic do-dads that near-future humanity has grown reliant on and turns them against their creators. So not only are there service robots choking people to death, there's killer vacuum cleaners, smart cars that deliberately crash themselves (and their human passengers) into one another at high speeds, buildings that turn off the lights and lure people into elevator shafts, and the like. Much like World War Z, each chapter in Robopocalypse is a vignette following a wide cast of characters who aren't even connected until the book's climax. These early to middle parts of the book were the most enjoyable to me because they showed a wide, creative array of ways that things could go south if our machines turned against us.

Unfortunately this also works at cross purposes with the rest of what you want out of a novel. Robopocalypse is epic in nature --it chronicles the near annihilation of humanity-- but it feels very cursory. The rapid-fire chapters cover a lot of ground, but Wilson doesn't take any time to build characters or develop them beyond crude, stunted arcs. I don't really feel like I know or care about any of these people --or robots, for that matter. The book is full of great gaps in its plot so that it lurches forward months at a time, robbing the reader of getting to know the characters or get a feel for what they're going through. It's all punchline and no setup.

The nature of the chapter vignettes also fails in that each one is supposed to be told from the perspective of a given character, but the author often tries to convince us that the action is being reconstructed by an overall narrator who sees gleans events from a variety of sources such as security cameras, eyewitness testimony, and other recordings. This conceit simply doesn't work in that you're always conscious of an omniscient author cramming things together in a way to tell the story he wants to tell. There's no "found footage" feel to the narrative like I think he was going for. Instead you just have to decide to go with it, but roll your eyes a little while you do. Worse, the characters often don't sound like what you'd think they're supposed to, like the frozen yogurt employee who throws in just a few too many similes and colorful turns of phrase when supposedly dictating his eyewitness testimony to a cop.

So, it's unfortunate that Robopocalyse wasn't better written, because it has some neat ideas that could have stood some fleshing out. It feels like a book that should be three or four times longer than it is, given its desired scale and large cast of characters.

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4Jul/11Off

4th of July 2011

Photo dump! Had a great 4th of July weekend at The Farm, per our annual family tradition. We actually had a HUGE crowd out this year, with over 40 members of Geralyn's extended family all sitting down to the same dinner at one point. With the heat the lake saw a lot of use, including by our new puppy, young Ezio. Since he's not very well trained yet, we had fears of unclipping his leash and then watching as he sprinted off into the woods to be eaten by a bear, but he actually did really well while off the hook. He chased some butterflies on the beach, explored his love of digging in the sand, and even went for a handful of short swims.

Ezio was also the center of much attention and fawning, though I lost count of how many puzzled looks I received when trying to make people understand his name. "It's Italian" isn't quite the conversation ender I had hoped it would be, as people kept asking "So what does that translate to?"

At any rate, lots of fun and the girls were really well behaved despite all the commotion. Would do again.

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30Jun/11Off

We Are Dog People Now

Yep, we are no longer among the canine challenged. Behold young Ezio:

(The name is Italian. Ask a gamer to explain it to you if you don't get the reference.)

We'd been talking about getting a dog since before our cat passed away, but kept putting it off for one reason or another. Then Geralyn found online photos of some dogs from a rescue shelter that were going to be at a Pets Mart up the road last Saturday and we decided that it was as good a time as any. They actually had several really great dogs there, though a litter of little shitzus (which is a phrase with just one too many "zus" to properly describe those things) was getting all the attention. Our decision came down between the beagle-something mix we eventually walked out with and a cute labrador-spaniel mix. Both were puppies, about 11 or 12 weeks old. The latter displayed a more friendly personality, but eventually we decided that at a projected 40-45 pounds he was going to grow too big. Ezio (the adoption folks had accidentally named him "Cody," but we're fixing that) was a bit more mellow, about the right size, and satisfied our "we want a beagle mix" criterion. So after long deliberation we went with him and it seems to have been a good choice so far.

The adoption process was more involved than I expected. I had thought that if these places could load up a vending machine full of cats and dogs, they'd be happy to let you walk up to it, purse your lips in thought for a second, then select a puppy and maybe a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos to walk out with. Instead, we had no fewer than three interviews where they tried to ask us questions not much more sly than "So, how long do you think it will be before you abandon this cute little guy in a ditch?" I guess we came across as all-American enough to warrant rescuing a dog, though, and Geralyn's status as a stay-at-home mom probably helped a lot. So they had us fill out some paperwork, told us some cautionary and very disturbing stories about heart worms, and helped us pick out some squeaky toys.

As I said, Ezio is a pretty mellow fellow for a puppy. He doesn't bark much (except in one situation I'll get to in a sec), he hasn't shown much interest in chewing things with electricity flowing through them, and he has proven himself able to endure much hugging and involuntary relocation at the hands of Mandy. He's playful, friendly, and generally what you'd want out of a puppy.

The challenges, it seems, are going to be house breaking him and crate training him. The house breaking is to be expected, of course. He'll usually do his business outside if we take him, but he also seems content to just drop a load on the kitchen floor if we don't. But we're making progress. One of the tips we're trying to follow is to leave his scat out in the yard so that he can smell it there and associate that area with his bodily elimination. Geralyn thought this made sense in principle, but was worried about all the little brown land mines littering our yard and decided that we should wrap each piece of dog crap with a paper towel, then leave these sheets out in the yard. This is exactly as disgusting as it sounds, so I hope Ezio turns out to be a quick learner.

The other major challenge we're facing is with crate training. Since he's not housebroken yet, we want Ezio to stay in a crate during the night and when we have to leave him alone in the house. This is based on the principle of "don't defecate where you sleep" which most living creatures seem to think is a right and sensible policy. So we've been littering his crate with dog treats and praising him when he goes in to get them, thinking that this will build positive associations with the den-like environment and we'll be able to close the door and have him lie quietly. Ezio, on the other hand, believes that closing the door is his cue to begin howling, braying, and crying bloody murder. The first two nights we put him in our bedroom at night, thinking that our proximity would calm him. At one point he barked for two hours straight, so we relocated the crate to the basement. He still barks incessantly, but now it sounds like something in the ventilation ducts is very upset with us. Hopefully he'll get used to it and we can move him back up to a more trafficked area if not our bedroom again. But we went through this crying through the night thing with two human youngsters already. Not keen to do it again.

Anyway, on balance he's pretty great and makes a nice addition to the household. We're taking him through obedience training, so I'm sure I'll have some stories to share again in the near future. Now, here are pictures!

Filed under: General, Parenting 2 Comments
25Jun/11Off

June, 2011 — Pools and Such

Been a while since I posted any pics of the girls, and given that it's pool season this seems like a good time. Sam has gotten quite competent at swimming and no longer has to wear any kind of life saving apparatus. She even dives off the diving board, if by "dives" you mean "flops belly-button first." We had TWO pool parties this last Father's Day weekend, so the girls got their fill of pool. Like, literally. Mandy kept drinking the pool water.

Mandy also had her first dentist's appointment, which went, to use an awkward segue, swimingly. When I got home that night she showed me how she had to open wide, then held that pose at my request until she caught on. At any rate, both of them had good checkups and got bags of toothbrushes and floss, the latter of which was immediately used to garrote some unfortunate stuffed animals.

So, pictures! I think you know what to do with them.

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20Jun/11Off

Book Review: Cannery Row


Continuing to try and work my way through John Steinbeck's novels. This short work bears a lot of resemblance to Tortilla Flat in that it's largely devoid of plot and focuses on a group of loafers and bums, and it's kind of funny in places. Cannery Row has a bit wider scope, focusing as it does on the community near a fishing cannery in Monteray, California. I'm not sure of the timeframe, but I'd guess that like other Steinback books it's set in the early 20th century. The bums in question here are the residents of "The Palace Flophouse and Grill," a former fish meal storage hut. Like the paisanos in Tortilla Flat, the Palace's inhabitants are possessed of skills and philosophy but are lacking in ambition. Instead they just choose to take things as they come and enjoy life. Their outlook largely mirrors the first half of the novel.

This changes a bit when they decide that they should throw a party for one of Cannery Row's other residents, Doc, a kind of dour but helpful natural philosopher who collects and works with wildlife specimens. The book loosely follows the Flophouse crew and Doc as they screw up one party and try to make it right with another. Chapters are interspersed with little scenes and tales from around the community, giving us sometimes funny and sometimes grim views of everyone else in town. And for such a short book it has a wide cast. In addition to Doc and the Flophouse inhabitants there's Lee Chong, the owner of the local grocery store, Dora Flood, the madam of the local restaurant/brothel, and assorted other neighbors. Through them the book hits on its themes of happiness, community, charity, and ambition.

And, like Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck's appreciation for simple pleasures and the authentic, straight-forward people who love them shines straight through. You get the feeling that Mac and the others in he Palace Flophouse and Grill may not amount to much in life, but they're doing a better job of living it than any politician, businessman, or person of would-be significance ever could. To me, though, the bums in Cannery Row were much more likeable than those in Tortilla Flat --they're lazy and they may steal on occasion, but they're more honest about it and don't go through the (admittedly amusing) mental and philosophical acrobatics needed to justify their actions. They just do what they do, and they care about the other people in their community enough to put up some effort. They seem like nice fellas.

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15Jun/11Off

Book Review: Bossypants

You know Tina Fey, right? Writer and host of Weekend update for Saturday Night Live, actress and producer on 30 Rock, and reluctant Sara Palin impersonator. Bossypants is the result of the "hey, I should write a book!" urge that people like her get, and lucky for us it's as funny and well written as we could want. The book is autobiographical in nature, and follows the typical template of starting with her childhood, moving through adolescence, then young adulthood, early career, then current day. For some reason I thought the book was going to deal more with motherhood, but while that particular topic is present, it's no more so than others.

As you might expect, those other, accompanying topics are slapshot and almost random, and the book reads more like an extended blog than any kind of memoir. You get stuff on her dad, the time she spent surrounded by gay teens in a summer theater camp, her early days at SNL, her time with an improv troop, her wry description of a magazine cover photo shoot (probably my favorite chapter), her honeymoon, and others. But that's cool; I certainly wasn't looking for or expecting any kind of coherent narrative or theme to tie everything together. I just wanted to be amused. And for those of us who are fans of 30 Rock, there's a delightfully meaty serving of inside baseball (is that a weird mixing of metaphors?) that describes getting that show off the air and the creators' pleased amazement over its eventual success.

And, as I said, it's all pretty amusing. Fey has a great, wry, and piercing sense of humor that couples well with the familiar staple of self deprecation. She makes fun of herself constantly, seizing on her shortcomings and using them to bludgeon the reader into amusement. It also works in that once she does turn her sights on other targets, like answering particularly insipid reader e-mails and messageboard posts, she doesn't come off as arrogant or superior. It's more like she and the reader are sharing a sidelong "Oh my god, can you believe this?" kind of understanding. It's also notable that this version of Fey is a lot more raunchy and lewd than you might be used to if you've only experienced her through the filters of network television. Not that it's all potty jokes, but there's a few pointed jokes about things like sex, religion, menstruation, and homosexuality. Oh, and there's also an extended bit about jars full of urine, so I guess there is some bathroom humor too. But it's all pretty funny.

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30May/11Off

Book Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay is the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, in which our heroine Katniss Everdene finally comes into her own. Here’s the super condensed version of the setup: dystopia, dictatorship, reality TV, gladiatorial games, love triangle, rebellion. That will get you most of the way there, but you can read my review of The Hunger Games or Catching Fire for more detail.

After the filler that was book 2, I was glad to see Collins finally start running full speed with a theme she’s been hinting at since the first book: Katniss as an unwilling and even unknowing role model and inspiration to the growing rebellion in Panum. She, along with several of the other characters from previous books, find themselves in the middle of a full-out war against Capitol, fighting for their freedom by cutting off the city’s access to the goods and services it had traditionally plundered from its various surrounding districts. Only Katniss finds that life as a the face of a rebellion isn't much better than the alternative, since she’s still being pushed around, still having to throw herself into danger to protect those she loves, and still finding herself literally on camera and fumbling to play a part for the sake of appealing to home viewers. It is, in short, very much like being in the Hunger Games. I thought this was pretty clever of Collins, and I really like how she plays with this intersection of celebrity, politics, and warfare, which you can see pretty clearly in the real world if you squint your eyes and cock your head just a little.

The author also continues to touch on other themes like responsibility, government control, sacrifice, the role of media in war and politics, class warfare, poverty, and the rest. And, of course, while things resemble the Hunger Games thematically, we are finally not watching Katniss and Peeta stomp around an actual arena. Instead we see Katniss and her crew engaging in real warfare, making hard decisions (or failing to), and living with the consequences (or trying to). The book does, in fact, get pretty dark at times. Like really dark. Like, dead babies dark. This is kind of surprising for a book found in the “Young Adult” section of the bookstore, but at the same time it gives it a sense of gravity that entirely fits with the themes being laid out.

I cannot, unfortunately, say the same thing about the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gail, but at least in Mockingjay I can sigh and remind myself of three things: 1) this is indeed a book written for young adults, 2) Katniss is supposed to be like 16 or something and most every one of us was also emotionally retarded at that age, and 3) it’s not nearly as bad as it was in the first two books. And, in the end, Collins decided to give us a payoff (or at least a resolution) that actually felt natural and deserved.

So, while Mockingjay wasn’t the novel page-turner that I found the first book to be, it was definitely better than the second and made for a nice cap to the series.

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14May/11Off

Book Review: The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: There are going to be some spoilers for The Wise Man’s Fear below. I don’t feel like I can really explain my opinions about the book without delving into that kind of territory, so come back later if you haven finished the book yet but plan on it.

It’s disappointing, really. I generally liked Patrick Rothfus’s initial book in his fantasy series, The Name of the Wind, which introduced us to the trouper orphan Kvothe and promised to tell us both how his extravagant legend grew and what the truth behind it really was. We saw Kvothe live on the streets, use his native wit and ability to get into The University, and then saw him start to make a name for himself while trying to learn what he could about the mysterious company that foisted that whole "orphan" status on him. The book was framed in an interesting way by “present day” Kvothe telling his story to two men: one who wants to tease the truth apart from the legend and one who wants truth to become legend again.

The Wise Man’s Fear continues Kvothe’s story, and while it’s still got some of the interesting world building and character moments that the first book does, it’s also got some crippling flaws that made it hard for me to get through the book if for no other reason that the constant face palming kept blocking my view of the page.

First among these is the fact that Rothfus spends the first chunk of the book retreading territory well worn from the first volume. We get to see more of Kvothe puttering around the University, more of Kvothe being poor, more of Kvothe pining after his untouchable lady love, more of Kvothe feuding with the obligatory rich bully kid, more of Kvothe imperiling his health for the services of a money lender, and generally more of everything we got in the last half of the first book. And this isn’t just a quick refresher to help span the long wait between books; the author spends THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE PAGES rehashing.

Then, when Kvothe does move on, Rothfus pointedly refuses to discuss an entire adventure involving "a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck." Granted, you could view this as more deconstruction of the genre on Rothfus's part, but what it really did was make the retreading of University life seem even more glaring. And while things do get a little more interesting after we leave the University, this is quickly followed by the two biggest face palms of the whole book. One of my complaints about The Name of the Wind was that Kvothe was a bit of a “Mary Sue” in that he was super good at everything and way too mature for a kid in his early teens. Kvothe excels at almost every subject, is a master musician, a clever magician, a brilliant engineer, a fleet-footed burglar, and more. Rothfus does not rectify this in the second book, but rather exacerbates it. In fact, at points it rather embodies some of the most embarrassing male wish fulfillment fantasy that the genre has to offer.

To wit: at one point Wise Man’s Fear’s plot lurches to the left and Kvothe suddenly runs off to …well, I’ve really got no other way to say it: he learns to have sex real good. He becomes (or is naturally) supernaturally good at the sex, in fact, because his tutelage comes from the ancient goddess of …sex. Of course. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that this whole section of the book was so embarrassing and out of place that it really seemed more like it came from a mouth breathing fanboy than the author of the imaginative and well plotted The Name of the Wind.

And from there, it doesn’t get much better, because after our hero graduates with his Ph.D. in sexing, the next stretch of story takes us to Japan. Well, not really, but it might as well be, since Kvothe’s learning martial arts and swordplay from a mysterious, honor-bound warrior society again sounds like something that some Japan-obsessed fan fiction writer would come up with. Also, he shows some ninja ladies how awesome he is at sex. No, I’m totally serious.

All that slagging aside, there are actually things about The Wise Man’s Fear that I liked. The interludes with modern day Kvothe continue to be interesting, and even in the awful “goddess of sex” and “Japanland” sections there are scenes that I liked, such as Kvothe’s meeting with a malicious tree spirit that uses its clairvoyance to mess with people and the way he solved his final warrior’s test with a different tree full of leaves sharp enough to cut him to ribbons.

And I continue to like how Rothfus deconstructs the whole fantasy hero trope through the telling of Kvothe’s story. But I just wish he had shown enough restraint to let the real Kvothe be less than the legend and let his exploits be revealed to be less than what they became in the retellings. In the first, book, for example, we learned that while Kvothe didn’t “slay a dragon and save a princess” as legend has it, but he did trick a large, lizard-like beast into poisoning itself, thus saving himself and his female companion. That’s the sort of clever stuff that I think is infinitely more interesting than tossing in a incongruous clichés like a sex goddess or a mysterious society that teaches people how to be kung-fu masters in just a few weeks.

I’ll still read the next book --look forward to it, actually-- but suffice to say I’m pretty disappointed in this one and hope Rothfus returns to proper form.

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2May/11Off

Book Review: Catching Fire


Catching Fire is the second in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I liked the first book pretty well, so I went right into this one. Unfortunately it's really not anywhere as good, despite having a lot of potential. I get the feeling that Collins only had two books' worth of story to tell with these characters in this world, but because she needed a trilogy she set out to fluff up this completely unnecessary middle book.

As you may know, The Hunger Games books are set in the post-apocalyptic world of Panum. The empire's capital, Capitol, is nestled in the bones of North America and maintains a firm boot on the necks of 12 surrounding districts. Part of this bullying involves sending 24 youths to fight to the death until one is crowned victor of the annual Hunger Games, which are televised to both entertain the citizens of Capitol and rub it in the rest of Panum's collective face. In the first book, our heroine Katniss Everdene survived the Games, along with her love interest Peeta. But the manner in which they did it required thumbing their noses at the Capitol, which had two unintended consequences that form the plot of Catching Fire. First, the other districts take inspiration from their defiance and start rebellions. Second, the Capitol exacts revenge against Katniss and Peeta by forcing them to fight in another Hunger Games.

So, yes. We get essentially the same plot as last time: Katniss and Peeta fighting in the Games and fumbling around with their emotions. Collins shows she still knows how to write a page turner, but it's THE SAME PAGES WE'VE ALREADY TURNED IN THE LAST BOOK. I was really expecting Collins to run with the idea of the unintentional heroine who has to figure out how to lead a rebellion, as she had set up in the end of the last book and in the opening of this one. Instead we get that all delayed until the third book while we're left to putter around in the arena again in an adventure made more dull by its lack of novelty.

I really do think that Catching Fire could have been excised entirely, with the few important bits (like Katniss's victory tour and the instigations of rebellion) put into the beginning of the next book. It would have been much better than what we got.

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10Apr/11Off

I Ran a Half Marathon!

Samantha and I had a weekend full of running, and nobody was even chasing us. Today, for example, I completed my first ever half marathon --13.1 miles in 2 hours 23 minutes and 20 seconds. That's about 10:56 per mile on average. I'm not particularly happy with this time, but going in I was thinking that I'd be satisfied with two hours 20 minutes, happy with 10 minutes less than that, and ecstatic if I could finish in 2 hours or less. But really, if I finished on the same day that I started, I'd call it a success.

As I said, this was my first half marathon and I'd been training for it for months. I did a 13.1 mile treadmill run a few weeks ago so I knew I could finish, but I wasn't sure beyond that given that this race would be a) on the ground, and b) starting at 7 in the frigging morning. Here's how the time line broke out:

  • 5:00 am - Wake up after maybe 6 hours of sleep (probably closer to 5), dress, eat oatmeal and drink large mug of coffee.
  • 6:00 - Leave the house.
  • 6:30 - Arrive at the race site. Visit the horror that is the port-a-potty to deal with the large mug of coffee.
  • 6:58 - Oh, man, I need to go to the bathroom again, but the race starts at 7:00! Do I have time?
  • 7:00 - Nope.
  • 9:23 - Cross the finish line, bladder still demanding my attention

The course took us through various parts of downtown St. Louis and the surrounding areas, including treks past the Anheuser Busch brewery, Busch Stadium, Union Station, and the Soulard neighborhood. The latter was fun, as in keeping with that area's quirky character, many of the spectators were drinking bloody marys and cheering us on while wearing pajamas and bath robes.

I started off doing great, reserving my strength and maintaining a pace between 9:00 and 9:30 per mile, as per The Plan. I felt great for a long time, stopping to walk only when I hit the water stations and when I snarfed my Cliff bar at about the halfway point. Things were fine until around mile #11, when suddenly the bottom dropped out of my energy levels for some reason. This coincided with a really long, gradual hill that sapped what juice I had left. For the rest of the run I had to alternate between running and walking, and the former became increasingly more difficult. Upon approaching the finish line I tried to sprint to cover the last remaining ground, which in hindsight was probably a mistake because after crossing I seriously felt like I was going to either throw up, black out, or both.

Still, I finished and I got my medal and some little granola bars. Also some "Gu" which is a kind of high energy goop that's supposed to be great, but which left me feeling like I had a mouth full of vanilla flavored snot. I think I'll just pass out next time, thank you very much. On the plus side, I still think the best part of these races is how after hitting the water stations you get to just crumple your paper cup up and throw it on to the ground with complete impunity. That's worth the $80 entry fee right there. And over all, I enjoyed myself despite the weak finish and I'm going to try to do another half marathon in October and see if I can't get my time closer to the 2 hour mark. Need new training plan!

In other news, the day before my run, Sammy had her own event --the Read, Right, and Run Marathon. The idea was that in the weeks leading up to the date she and her participating classmates were supposed to read 26 books, do 26 good deeds, and run 25 miles (one mile at a time, of course). On Saturday they topped off the mileage to marathon length by doing a 1.2 mile run. Sam did pretty well, though like me she crossed the finish line dragging pretty hard. But we're proud of her, and she wants to do it again!

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4Mar/11Off

Book Review: Reality is Broken

Unlike people who apparently pay attention to what's going on in the gaming industry, I only recently became aware of Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. in Performance Studies best known for designing alternate reality games and thinking really big thoughts. After reading her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World, McGonigal strikes me as part cheerleader, part social scientist, part entrepreneur, and part that crazy lady in the downtown L.A. parking lot that would always throw pigeons at me. It's an interesting combination.

I wanted to review Reality is Broken here because McGonigal does what I do: she examines the intersection of psychology and video games. Only where I tend to look at the larger world and apply theories about human behavior to explain game design and player behaviors, she does the inverse by starting at maxims of game design and player desires to understand how we do things in the real world.

Or rather, how we should do things in the real world. The central thesis of the book is that reality --that is, everything that's NOT a game-- is inferior to games and we can learn a lot about how to make reality better by looking at what makes games so wonderful. This idea is codified in fourteen different "fixes" for real life, such as getting in a epic mindset (Fix #6), opening yourself up to having fun with strangers (Fix #9), and doing work that's intrinsically satisfying (Fix #3). The book is at its best when it draws these straight lines from the things that make video games great to ways to improve our work, philanthropy, and relationships outside of games. Specific, actionable goals subject to clear feedback, for example, are things that every game designer aims for and every player seeks out, and to the extent that we can adopt those same standards in real life and frame our everyday activities in game-like terms, we can be happier and more productive. The game-cum-todo-list Chore Wars is a perfect example, and I find that kind of stuff fascinating.

That's a pretty cool topic, and I have to admit that McGonigal has a knack for drawing these parallels in ways that are really clear and make you think "Yeah, I can see that!" This made the early chapters of the book (grouped under the heading "Why Games Make Us Happy") my favorites, since they focused on building her argument and really nailing in a clear way many of the things about video games that can make us happy and mentally healthy. The second group of chapters ("Reinventing Reality") start to deal with applying these rules to alternate reality games. My favorite one of these was "Cruel to Be Kind," which was a re-purposing of the old "Assassins" game that many of us played on college campuses. The difference is that instead of sneaking up to people and squirting them with water pistols, C2BK players would perform random acts of kindness --such as a warm greeting, a helping hand, or a kind compliment-- in order to take each other out of the game. Only you never knew who your fellow players were, so many perplexed but pleased bystanders are often caught in crossfires of friendly words and offers of aid. It's the kind of thing that perfectly captures the kind of "let's make the WHOLE WORLD totally awesome HELL YEAH!" attitude that McGongal is so well known for.

Things start to fall apart in the third section of the book, however, which includes description after description of McGonigal's various other alternate reality and crowdsourcing projects. It's here that I kind of started to lose the thread, because describing things like Wikipedia other collective intelligence projects as "games" starts to strain credibility and the premises put forth earlier in the book. How exactly did we get from "Players seek out experiences that create psychological flow" to "Let's get gamers to blog about solutions to the energy crisis?" Is that really a game the same way that Halo or The Sims are? It sure doesn't feel like it, and that's kind of where I think Reality is Broken is itself a little broken.

Still, it's a very interesting book, and it gave me some great ideas. I should also mention that McGonigal's tone takes some getting used to and more than a couple of pinches of salt. She obviously believes these big thoughts and thinks that games can serve as models for making the world better, to the point where she (somewhat infamously) thinks there should one day be a Nobel prize for game design. But like I said her claims sometimes strains credibility and you often wonder what the point B between points A and C looks like, because you apparently missed it. But at the very least, the chapters on what makes games work are worth reading, and the rest of the book will at worst make you feel pretty good about being a gamer. Still, her joy and optimism are infectious, and having champions like McGonigal for our hobby is hardly a bad thing.

By the way, if you want to get a taste for McGonigal's grandiosity and ideas, you can do so by watching her TED Talk here.

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28Feb/11Off

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars is Stephen King's latest collection of stories, but unlike previous anthologies this one consists of novellas instead of short stories. "1922" is about the fate of a Nebraska farmer who kills his wife and tangles his star-crossed, teenage son up in the consequences. "Big Driver" is a lot like if Stephen King wrote a Lifetime Movie of the Week script: female author on a road trip is waylaid, sexually assaulted, left for dead, then has to wrestle with how to deal with her shame and rage. "Fair Extension" offers a disturbing answer to the age old question of why bad things happen to good people, while "A Good Marriage" examines what might happend when a wife discovers that her husband of 27 years is secretly a serial killer.

Relative to King's last collection, Just After Sunset, I liked Full Dark a lot more. My favorite of the novellas is "Big Driver," which I hated at first because it felt like King was basing his character's inner dialog on pamphlets swiped from the local battered women's shelter. It just felt stilted and cliche. But not long into the story, things take an interesting turn and it starts to read more like what you'd get if the lead character from one of those "bloodless murder mysteries" that so captivate little old ladies were to find herself trying to solve a brutal crime where she was not only the victim, but the artiber of justice. I also liked "1922" for its skillful use of an unreliable narrator and the way King toys with us by leaving clues about how reality might have diverged from this character's confession.

As I went through each of the 4 novellas, I kept thinking that the theme tying them all together was that of people being forced (or at least strongly nudged) into bad situations by the events around them. Most of these stories exhibit excellent plotting on King's part --you can see the characters ponder their next act or their next decision, and you can see the forces at play. Tess wants to go to the police about her attacker, but she fears the shame and damage to her career. Darcy wants to turn her serial murdering husband in, but she doesn't want to leave an indelible stain on the lives of their children. Wilfred wants to acquiese to his son's demands to sell their land, but he doesn't want it going to buyers who will turn it into a polluting slaughterhouse.

All this is done in a way that doesn't make the author's hand apparent in dictating the plot; the characters' actions seem believable and understandable, if not conscionable, because their reasons ARE part of their characters. And indeed, I was happy to hear King mention in the author's Afterword that this is exactly the effect he set out to create, even if he also identified the collection's theme as "retribution" (which, in hindsight, makes total sense).

So, while this is not traditional King (there's nary a supernatural element to any of these stories that can't be explained away) it's still pretty good writing in the thriller vein. King fans should check it out.

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24Feb/11Off

Sam the Science Kid Experiment 9: Circulating Heat

I had a few experiments in my back pocket for this week, but when I asked Sam what kind of thing she wanted to try, she raised her fist in the air and said "Something with FIRE!"

Okay. I can do that.

Here's the setup:

  • oil
  • A glass bowl
  • a short candle
  • Something to prop the bowl up between (I used two rectangular dishes per the picture below)
  • food coloring

I poured a few inches of oil into the bowl, propped it up between the dishes, and put the lit candle underneath it. I then explained to Sam that when the oil at the bottom, nearest the flame, heated up, it would rise up to the top. Then, as it cooled, it would move back down. To help us see this, I used the dropper to put a few blobs of red food coloring in the oil.

At first I was kind of worried, because nothing seemed to be happening at all. I added a second candle, though, and before long the little red blobs began to "blorp" up to the surface in sputters, then scatter and slowly descend just as promised.

I explained to Sam that this kind of hot/cold circulation happens all over in nature, including in the air (which affects weather) and the ocean. Here's her journal entry:

Experument 9: circulating het ...It blrpt up all the letl dots. Its lic ther's a invesable lin that the bobles go up. It blorpt. Hot oyl flots to the top.

As a bonus, Sam drew a little picture of the setup, which was nice.

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