October, 2010 Photo Dump (Part 2)

Halloween! Mandy changed her mind about what she wanted to be at fifteen minute intervals right up until the time she needed to get ready, but finally settled on a fairy. Samantha, on the other hand, had been resolute all along to engage in some gender bending and go as Harry Potter. We suggested Hermione, his female friend, but Sam was not going to play second fiddle (lyre, whatever) and wanted to be the main character. Good for her.

Book Review: Tongues of Serpents

Descriptions of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series usually invoke the phrase “the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” But after reading the last few books in the series, including the latest, Tongues of Serpents, I think “travelogue of a dude and his dragon with Napoleon doing stuff somewhere else entirely” would be more apt.

Tongues picks up with (supposedly) disgraced and former Captain William Laurence and his draconic companion Temeraire being banished to the unsettled continent of Australia for having chosen his conscience over orders from his superiors in the previous book. And so it becomes apparent that the reader, having visited locations such as China, Africa, and the Middle East in previous books is in for a dragonback tour of the land down under. Indeed, it isn’t long until Lawrence, Temeraire, and their companions are soon chasing a macguffin into the continent’s sunburnt interior and telling us all about the sights, sounds, and tastes (all three of which largely involve kangaroos).

It’s not like Novik hasn’t learned how to tell a ripping good yarn in this setting and with these characters. She has. There’s danger, mystery, challenges, and hardships. But at the same time, Novik can be a bit transparent in her practice of drawing from a bulleted list of “Danger/Excitement Ideas” and plopping them down in the narrative to break up the travelogue. There’s a bar room fight here, conflict with the natives there, a wildfire over there, and a snake bite induced fever tucked in somewhere else. But at least things pop.

That being said, though, it seems like little of consequence happens during the book. It’s mostly flapping around the outback. Any larger plot about England and the war with France is abolished to the background, and there’s no big ideas like in earlier books, such as equal rights for dragons or the morality of deliberately spreading a virulent disease among their enemies. Laurence’s situation doesn’t even really change until the final pages of the story.

I’ll probably read the next book, though, because they continue to be decent adventure stories if nothing else. The next one seems primed to take us to the Americas –either North or South or maybe both. I just hope something more interesting happens.

October, 2010 Photo Dump (Part 1)

Okay, here’s some photos of the kids from the early part of October. Figured I should get these out of the way before Halloween. Sam wishes to be Harry Potter (NOT Hermione), and Mandy changes her mind every time you ask her. Though as you can see, she has vampire teeth and a hula skirt. So maybe a vampire Hawaiian.

As you can see, Samantha lost one of her front teeth, giving her that coveted adorable gap-toothed hillbilly look. She wears it well and was quite excited to lose that particular tooth.

Mandy is turning into quite the little ham who will mug for the camera and perform silly dances on command if you catch her in the right mood. She really seems to love getting reactions out of people, and will make faces and prance around in front of them until she does. Great fun!

Summer 2010 Photo Dump

All summer long I’ve been meaning to put up some pictures of the girls, and all summer long I’ve been letting it slide. So instead of not doing it at all, I thought I could at least just do a huge photo dump. So here it is.

This covers a lot of ground, including lots of time at the pool, swim lessons, trips to the Farm, the 4th of July, our vacation in the Lake of the Ozarks, and culminating in Sammy’s first day in 1st grade. Of them all, this one is probably my favorite because of how it tells a little story. Enjoy.

Book Review: The Last Colony

The Last Colony is set in the same sci-fi universe as some of John Scalzi’s other books, like Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. It also features the same hero, John Perry, joined again by his ex-supersoldier wife, Jane Sagan. And like those other books, this one deals largely with the macro-level drama of the human race’s (or really the Colonial Union, which calls most of the shots on behalf of humanity) frantic quest to stay alive and propagate in an unfriendly universe rife with competition for limited resources.

But not right away. At the beginning of the book, Perry and Sagan are retired from the military, mostly enjoying their lives on a pastoral planet and raising their adopted teenage daughter. Soon they’re convinced to help seed a new planetary colony, but it becomes quickly apparent that the Colonial Union is playing them crooked and using them as an expendable pawn in an attempt to outmaneuver The Conclave, a coalition of other races bent on putting a stop to colonization by non-member races such as the humans. The Conclave welcomes everybody to join its team, but otherwise plays really rough, so things get dirty and the two heroes have to figure out how to survive the situation.

I like Scalzi’s stuff, but The Last Colony is easily my least favorite book in this series so far. What I liked about the earlier works was that they were all about adventure, genetically and technologically modified supersoldiers, nanotech, and fightin’ dudes. The Last Colony has a bit of that in spots, but far too much of the book contained simple talking heads. There’s even one stretch where we’re actually watching Perry watch a video of two talking heads, so you kind of get a double down effect. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit boring in places. Scalzi drew some parallels about Western imperialism and colonization that were a bit on the nose, but they were generally interesting and it was fun to see if you could figure out what (if any) message was there about the American empire (i.e., the Colonial Union) and its chances of standing against a world set against it (i.e., The Conclave, a.k.a, the United Nations).

So The Last Colony isn’t bad, but it’s not as enjoyable as the other books I’ve read so far. I’m going to continue reading the series, though, in the hopes that Scalzi returns to form.

The Psychology of Video Games: An Update

As I noted before late last year I decided that my blogging project for 2010 would be writing one article a week about the overlap of psychology and video games. Thus psychologyofgames.com was born.

While the site hasn’t exactly “blown up” mega huge, it has developed a readership that’s sizeable enough to surprise me. At first I halfway expected it to exist purely for my own pleasure and maybe a few friends and the random stranger or two, much like jmadigan.net. But soon I was getting comments and e-mails from real game developers and other people who said they really dug it.

So I kept at it and started putting not insubstantial amounts of effort into writing the weekly articles. In addition to drawing on books I had read, I actually started going to my local university library and doing research in scientific psychology journals. It was cool, because I love writing, I love learning new stuff, and enough people seemed to appreciate it.

A few months ago the Editor in Chief at GamePro contacted me to tell me that he liked what I was doing and that he wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing some freelance writing for the GamePro print magazine. I jumped at the chance, as writing this stuff for a “real’ magazine had been one of the things I had been daydreaming about since I started.

My first article, which is on the psychology of anonymity, is now appearing in the August issue of GamePro, which has this cover:

I also have a second article written, submitted, and in the pipeline for September’s issue, plus I’m just now finishing up a third article for October. Woo!

So while the GamePro thing is one of the biggest things to come out of this little blogging experiment, it’s not the only cool outcome. Here’s some others:

  • I partnered with my friends at GameSpy to lecture on the psychology of games at a conference in Seattle
  • I made Internet friends with another psychology Ph.D. who works for Valve Software, one of my favorite game developers.
  • Actress and nerd celebrity Felicia Day tweeted about one of my articles, resulting in a 1000% spike in traffic.
  • A graduate student in psychology took one of my off-the-cuff ideas (the effect of time distortion on the enjoyment of a game) and is using it as the basis for his dissertation
  • I’ve been interviewed by a handful of people writing about psychology and video games for other outlets
  • A marketing consulting firm interviewed me about video games to tap my supposed expertise on the topic (I did my best)
  • One of my articles was discussed on one of my favorite video game podcasts, Idle Thumbs.
  • Gamasutra.com started syndicating some of my articles for reprinting on their website
  • A literary agent contacted me asking me if I’d like to write a book proposal that he could evaluate and maybe shop around

So, at this point, I’d call the blog a success –much more of one than I ever experienced with jmadigan.net. So I’m going to obviously follow through with the rest of the weekly updates for 2010, and most likely beyond. At this point I’m thinking seriously about making 2011 the year of that book proposal; here’s to hoping things continue on the same trajectory.

Book Review: On Stranger Tides

Tim Powell’s On Stranger Tides caught my interest because it’s apparently the story on which the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie is going to be based. I could see it: Powell’s book is set at the twilight of the great age of piracy in a world where magic is possible, but almost exclusively in the new world of the Americas and Caribbean.

As far as world building goes, this struck me as a pretty darn interesting premise. The magic is a mix of voodoo, old-world hexes, necromancy, and good old fashioned “burn the other guy to a crisp” approaches. The author plays it pretty loose with the internal logic and rules of his system, so that I never really did understand it and there were several aspects of it that were transparently there in service of the plot. But it was creative and fun, and that’s enough. Plus I like pirates and all that nautical talk.

The plot of the book is kind of another story. Our hero is Jack Shandy, a former English gentleman forced into piracy by his capture and a series of unlikely events –a standard trope of stories that want to have a pirate hero, but want to side step that whole “he’s a murdering murderer who murders” problem. Shandy spends most of the book trying to track down and rescue his inexplicable love interest, a young woman form whom her sorcerous father has nefarious plans. There’s also the Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard, and lots of zombies.

All in all it was a pretty fun book, but mostly for the world building an the pure novelty of it. Jack Shandy and the other characters in the book aren’t inherently interesting, though, and Powell didn’t strike me as a writer that could hold my interest once the novelty of the setting wore off.

Book Review: Grand Theft Childhood

I came across Lawrence Kuthner and Cheryl Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Games (And What Parents Can Do) while doing some research for an article on the psychology of video games. The book is the end result of a research program by the authors, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice weirdly enough, focusing on violent video games and kids. Kuthner and Olson claim to be impartial researchers who don’t have any particular axe to grind on the issue, unlike activists, politicians, professionals working in the games industry, or gamers themselves. Their aim, they say, was to let their data do the talking.

The data in question are those collected by the researchers from surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews with kids and their families. Right away any reader who has taken anything beyond a Research Methods 101 class could tell you that this is a limiting factor –self report data are subject to a range of biases and using only one or two methods of data collection represents a substantial flaw in any program. But that’s not to say that the data are worthless or that the conclusions the researchers (who readily cop to these limitations) draw from them can’t be used to inform continuing research or draw some conclusions with the right caveats.

And the claims that come out of all this make a certain amount of sense: kids are vulnerable to some of this stuff, but bullying and warped senses of gender or race roles are more likely outcomes than sociopathic killing sprees. Some kids are more vulnerable than other on account of good old fashioned individual differences. Actually, girls play and enjoy violent games, too. Kids think guns and weapons are cool, but what they really like are chances to develop skills, make choices, and interact with other people. Some games may only be single player, but kids build social relationships around them by talking about their common experiences. There is a ratings system in place (the ESRB) but it’s pretty flawed and kids are savvy about how to acquire restricted games. Anyone who has a reason to lie to you about the effects of violent games on kids and culture may very well be. That kind of stuff.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and a pretty quick one. There are some chapters, like the one drawing parallels between the uproar over violent games to past uproars over every other media you can think of, were a little too long and turgid, and despite claims to be impartial the researchers occasionally pinned their political views onto their sleeves, it is a pretty impartial look at the topic that doesn’t toe any particular line. It’s not the last word on the subject, but I hope that other social scientists pick up on these research programs and build on them.

Book Review: The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely’s previous book on behavioral economics, Predictably Irrational was fantastic. It explored the way that economics work on a personal level when you stop assuming that people are completely irrational and provided a great overview of the many kinks in the human brain that lead us to make weird, suboptimal decisions. His new book, The Upside of Irrationality, flips that coin onto its other side and looks at hour our penchant for irrational decision-making can actually benefit us and make us better off. Or how it could if we let it.

Like in his last book, Ariely draws from a deep well of research conducted by himself and his colleagues in order to provide context for everything he discusses. What I love about this aspect of the book is how clever off-the-wall many of the experiments are. Ariely and company send researchers to villages in India to measure the surprising effect of extravagant rewards on task performance. They construct fake and experimental online dating sites to see how we might better construct our online interactions to capitalize on what it really is that people –especially those of us south of “supermodel” in the looks department– look for in a mate. They talk about subjecting lucky subjects to massages and unlucky ones to excessive vacuum cleaner noise in order to see how we adapt to pleasure or pain. And a lot more. Every chapter contains descriptions of scientific research, but it’s almost all really interesting and takes you to conclusions that will stick with you.

So while I still think Predictably Irrational is the better of the two books because it’s more interesting and instructuve to see how people fail than to see how they might succeed, The Upside of Irrationality is still a very quick and very interesting read. What’s better, it’s practical and may change how you think about your own behavior.

Carnival Season, 2010.

It’s been a while since I posted anything about the girls, so I thought I’d throw up a few pictures I’ve taken during “carnival season 2010.” About this time of year the local churches and municipalities call in carnival companies employing people with more cigarettes in their mouthes than teeth to run rickety rides. The girls love it, of course, so we usually hit up a couple. There’s also some father’s day pics in there.

It’s worth calling out a few of the pictures below. This year Sam informed us that she wanted to go up on the tallest, scariest ride in the joint, which was this tower structure that took you up quite a ways before letting you free fall for a second or two on your way back down. Sam bravely strapped herself in, and I captures some of her reactions photographically. This is how she looked going up, this was captured during free fall on the way down, and this is the expression she walked around with for about half an hour afterwords.

She’s a little thrill seeker, I think.

Mandy, by the way, won second place in the coloring contest she’s seen working on here. None of us knows exactly what she’s won yet (we have to pick it up tomorrow), but whatever it is, Sam is absolutely, positively sure that she wants it.

Book Review: Priceless

I’ve always been interested in the psychology of consumerism, along with related topics like marketing and purchasing behaviors. Both for how shameless it is and how readily we (myself included) seem to fall for what really amount to simple psychological slight of hand. Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (And How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone looked like it was going to scratch that itch, and while it does to some extent I’m left a little off balance by the book.

If you look at Priceless as a whole, it seems to hit a lot of the right notes for me. It takes practical questions like why we buy what we do and why marketers do what they do, and it answers them by turning to theories and well established phenomenon from psychology –most notably Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory. There’s chapters on how menu consultants use psychological anchoring and the contrast effect to get you to order what they want, an examination of the effectiveness of prices ending in “.99” and other such “charm” numbers, the allure of all-you-can-eat buffets, the power of breaking out many small benefits in a sales pitch (i.e., the “But wait! There’s more!” trope), and other such fascinating topics. And overall I’d say it’s a good read for all that.

The main thing that keeps me from whole heartedly recommending Priceless to any reader, though, is that none of that good stuff really starts until page 143 out of about 290. The entire front HALF of the book focuses less on the specifics I listed above and more on the general case of prospect theory and its history. In places it reads more like a mini-biography of Kahneman and Tversky as well as some of their predecessors. And when he’s not doing this “history of science” thing, Poundstone is going into some pretty gnarly specifics on the science (both from psychology and economics) of all this. Now personally, I loved all this and ate it up because while I knew most of it I was interested to get some biographical information and see it all in a different context. It’s just kind of hard to recommend to someone who’s walking into the topic without any other education.

And while the book does turn the corner halfway through when it starts getting into some practical and fascinating specifics, those chapters do assume that you’ve read and understood most of the stuff in the earlier, technical parts. The discussion of our preference for all-expenses-included vacation resorts, for example, assumes that you grokked an earlier discussion about the convex nature of the value function to the left of an individual’s reference point. Or somesuch.

It’s an interesting way to structure the book, as opposed to the typical approach of tackling one topic (say menu design or the fallibility of real estate agents) and then presenting all the related research in one chapter. One advantage to the approach in Priceless is that the latter, topical chapters are all really short, averaging just 3 or 4 pages each. I think this will make it a pretty good reference book and I enjoyed it overall, but any recommendation has to come with the caveot that you should know what you’re in for.

Book Review: The Drunkard’s Walk

Yeah, that’s right. A book about probability theory. And actually, it’s not bad if you can either shrug off or endure a bit of lecturing on basic mathematics and statistics. Author Leonard Mlodinow sets out to review the history of probability, starting with the ancient Greeks and following the field’s evolution and application. Mlodinow has a pretty good style, keeping things relatively low level so that anyone with a high school education in math can probably follow along. He also peppers the narrative with jokes and asides to break up the otherwise less-than-fluffy subject matter. And it works pretty well, though I suspect the lengthy discussion of the normal curve might have lost me if I hadn’t already had all that info drilled into me in graduate school.

My favorite parts of The Drunkard’s Walk were the historical bits dealing with the personalities and biographies of the people who helped define the field. It’s interesting to see how one, for example, labored as a would-be academic for years and years, before turning his burgeoning probability theory to gambling and making more money than he ever dreamed of. Actually, that theme shows up a lot –another section describes how another researcher working in the field went to a casino and used his meticulous study of roulette tables to uncover flaws in the system and make himself fabulously wealthy before they kicked him out.

Where The Drunkard’s Walk falls down (ha!) a bit is in its examination of the practical problems to which probability theory can be applied. That is, why it matters to YOU. The best books on popular science do this really well, and it moves the work from being academic to accessible by anyone looking to be both educated and entertained. Don’t get me wrong, Mlodinow does some of this, but he doesn’t really nail it as well as some others I’ve read. Still, if you’ve got a little bit of grounding in the topic and want to add some context to your knowledge, The Drunkard’s Walk should do that quite nicely.

Book Review: Influence: The Science of Persuasion

I first read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Science of Persuasion when I was in graduate school studying judgment and decision making. I was amazed not only by the power of the psychological levers for influence that the author describes, but how easy he makes them to understand. It turns out that MANY things guiding my every day decisions have their roots in psychology, but what’s really amazing and a little distressing is how these levers are used deliberately by people in the know to influence me. Free samples at the super market? They’re given out because the reciprocity effect makes you more likely to buy the product. Fraternity hazing? The consistency principle makes you put up with it. Buying things on sale when you don’t need them? It’s the scarcity principal and loss aversion making you do it.

What’s equally impressive about Influence is how effectively Cialdini communicates these ideas. He provides one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of straddling the line between practical examples anyone can recognize and how it relates to academic research published in scientific journals. Each chapter focuses on one major concept and then dives deep into it before ending with a set of recommendations about how we can guard against unwanted influences. The latter often boil down to “You just gotta be aware of it,” but sometimes they offer pointed advice that can be quite useful.

For anyone interested in the topic of psychology and how it relates to what you buy, what you like, who you support, how you act, what you value, and what you think in every day situations, you can’t do much better than this book. It’s a great combination of empirical science made accessible (and relevant) to the masses.

My First 10K Race: DONE

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve kind of gotten back into running in the last few months. More so than ever before, really. Earlier today I finished my first actual 10K (about 6.21 miles) race and had a great experience. There were a LOT of people there. I finished in 54 minutes and 59 seconds (8:51 per mile), which placed me in 108th place total and 20th place in my age bracket. Not trophy winning, but that’s not what I was aiming for. I finished without walking (or lying down, for that matter) and I’m pretty happy with that pace; I’ll try to kick it up next year.

Sam, Mandy, and Geralyn came down to see me after the race as well and they even surprised me with some pretty awesome signs. Though I actually didn’t see the signs until after I finished the race, at which point the advice they gave was a bit inappropriate. But it was still great! Here’s some pics!

Instead of writing up a big long post about the race itself, here’s some bullet points in stream-of-consciousness style:

  • I listened to music during the run and had my Nike+ track the kilometers. That did a lot to break up the monotony, but apparently the randomization algorithm in my iPod thought that Black Eyed Peas was the most motivating music available.
  • The best thing about the race: periodically there are these tables where guys hand you paper cups of water –then you can totally just THROW THE CUPS DOWN ON THE GROUND! Being a runner means you get to litter!
  • Mile 2: Oh, god, oatmeal burps. Yeaugh.
  • Passing people is invigorating.
  • Getting passed is emasculating.
  • Mile 4: Broke through a wall and just ran on autopilot the rest of the time. Almost easy from here on out.
  • There was this guy in front of me for most of the race I came to think of as “Daddy Long Legs.” Because he ran the whole 10K pushing a double jogger stroller with two kids in it. Impressive.
  • Thinking that the asperin I took just prior to the race was a good call.
  • Wow, there are a lot of really toned legs.
  • Mile 5: There was totally a huge and dead racoon lying right in front of the mile marker. Oookaaay.
  • Waving at people standing on the side of the road and cheering you on is more awesome than you’d think.
  • Knowing what I know about crowd psychology doesn’t make me feel particularly confident about just following everyone else when some of the trail markers went missing. Worked out, though.
  • Mile 6: Tried to do the exact math to figure out how much distance was left. Failed.
  • Finish line: Woo! Free Vitamin Water(tm)!

I’ve got a 5K in June, but I’m already setting my sights on a half-marathon, possibly as early as October of this year. We’ll see…

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

I really enjoyed Audrey Niffeneger’s first book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, so much so that I named it my favorite book that I read in 2006. So it’s kind of surprising to even me that it took me so long to got around to picking up her sophomore novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which tells the story of two (almost) identical twins who inherit a London flat haunted by their aunt’s ghost. No, seriously. Unfortunately this book isn’t nearly as good, mainly because it tosses about as much drama, weird plot twists, and inexplicable behavior as a daytime soap opera.

To be fair, The Time Traveller’s Wife did a lot of this as well. The marriage on display in that book is maudlin and overwraught, with gushing emotions and breathless dialog more suited to a romance novel. But I enjoyed The Time Traveller’s Wife DESPITE all that, because Neffiniger did such an awesome job twisting the time travel threads around the lives of these people. But Her Fearful Symmetry has no such hook, and what we’re mostly left with is some heavy handed themes about freedom and identity. Julie and Valentina, the two aforementioned twins in their early twenties, move from America to London to fulfil the inheratance requirements of their aunt’s will. Their aunt and mother happen to also be identical twins, but are estranged for some reason that’s not revealed until late in the book, by which point it’s actually both hysterically stupid and contrived. Their aunt’s ghost is haunting the apartment where the twins live, and they are also visited by their aunt’s long-time lover Robert, who lives downstairs. In a particularly icky plot line, Robert falls for Valentina, which is a little skeezy when you think about the substantial age difference, really skeezy when you consider that Robert and Valentina are for all intents and purposes uncle and niece by marriage, and super skeezy when it becomes apparent that Robert is only interested in her because she’s the spitting image of her aunt. Who, you know, is watching all this happen as a ghost. And encouraging it.

So yeah, it’s kind of crazy. I get the feeling that Niffeneger was trying to write some kind of romantic thriller, what with all the vulnerable girls, twins, coming of age, rocking the cradle, weird sex, and death. The plot reaches a climax with a series of decisions that no rational person –even an immature girl– would pursue, and which no reasonable adult would condone much less participate in. I actually thought that the author had done something mind blowing with this when it seemed that her characters had more nefarious intentions than we had thought, but she backs down from that twist in the next chapter. Niffeneger had a plot to wind, so there we went. Like I said, the rapid fire series of reveals, twists, and betrayals made me think that I was watching an episode of Guiding Light written by Stephen King.

So if I were to recommend one of Niffeneger’s books, it would still definitely be The Time Traveller’s Wife. It’s much better and has a better hook.

Weight Loss Week 18: 6 Pounds to Go

May 6 weight: 168.0
Weight TWO weeks ago: 170
5 day avg weight: 169.8
5 day avg weight two weeks ago: 171.7

All right, finally establishing a beach head in the 160s and just 6 pounds to go. Hopefully I’ll keep the momentum up until I hit my goal. I missed last week’s update because I was traveling and didn’t take the scale with me. So the graph actually has some guesswork in it:

Weight loss graph week 18
Weight loss graph week 18

That’s still about a pound per week, which at this point I’m happy with. My food diary has helped me keep my diet a little more in check, though I still don’t count calories because every time I come across a meal that isn’t prepackaged or served at a restaurant it becomes more trouble than it’s worth to figure out the caloric content and serving size. I’ve just tried to use what I know to eat healthier and in reasonable portions.

The other part of the equation, of course, is that I’m working out a lot. Specifically, I’ve gotten into running more and have been doing weird things like tracking my miles (22 last week) and trying to get my pace down. I’m also running my first 10K race on May 22. I don’t think finishing will be a problem (I ran 13K last Saturday, albeit on a treadmill) so I’m really looking forward to it.

In fact, I’m been so savaged by the running bug that I went out last weekend and did something ludicrous: I bought a pair of shoes specifically designed for running. BEHOLD!

running shoes

The box says they’re “Nike Zoom Structure Trimax+13 size 9.5” I went to a small local shop that specializes in running equipment and the guy there was really helpful. He had me jog the length of the store so he could study my gait –normal, except I turn my right foot a bit and push off of it hard. He then recommended some different kinds of shoes with different types of support that would help me based on that and the types of surfaces I usually run on. I still ended up trying on 8 different pairs before I settled on the ones above. I also decided to go whole hog and buy a couple pairs of socks made from that technical fabric that supposedly “wick away sweat before it reaches the liquid form.” Which is fascinating, because I wasn’t aware that sweat came in any other form than liquid and honestly I’d rather not think about it.

Do the shoes work? Well, they’re definitely lighter, and they feel different. But the psychologist in me wonders how much of any other benefits (less post-workout pain, easier to run, etc.) are are result of the shoes and how much they’re a result of my expectations and desire to justify the expense. Well, either way is fine, I guess.

Book Review: The Best of Dinosaur Comics

The Best of Dinosaur Comics 2003-2005 AD (subtitle: Your Whole Family is Made Out of Meat!) is a collection of a webcomic strips that by any reasonable analysis really should never have gotten to the point of having enough strips to be collected. Author Ryan North basically took six panels of generic dinosaur clip art and just changed the words to make a new comics every weekday. Not the pictures, just the words.

Here’s what he starts with every time he makes a new strip:

Then he just writes words. What’s amazing: he’s been doing this since 2003. What’s even more amazing than THAT is that Dinosaur Comics is totally, inexplicably awesome. You should at least check out a few strips at www.qwantz.com.

The strip features just three dinosaurs plus the occasional off-panel character like God or The Devil. The strip’s star is T-Rex, who is a force of pure id in that he’s constantly amazed by his own awesomeness, utterly enthusiastic about everything that involves him, and oblivious to the implications of his hijinks. Yet you can’t help liking T-Rex –even loving him– because while he’s a bit narcissistic, his zest for everything that crosses his fever-dream of a consciousness is contagious. He’s a bit like a more thoughtful and intelligent Homer Simpson. In one strip T-Rex may be expressing his irrational fear of cephalopods or how much he enjoys stomping on things, but in others he may be discussing philosophy, the etymology of obscure phrases, or novel applications of fields like economics, statistics, or literary criticism to problems your non-dinosaur brain never thought of.

T-Rex is joined by Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor, who often act as his foils, but who just as often go along with his debates, discussions, and proclamations simply because doing so makes life more fun. You get the feeling that North is a really smart guy whose interests are far flung, and he is somehow able to use these six panels of clip art to talk about whatever thoughts happen to cross his mind. The strip is blessedly bereft of your typical pop culture or subculture references, instead opting to create its own weird amalgam of quasi-intellectual absurdity. The fact that North has been able to do so for so long and to make it so consistently entertaining is really astounding. Go to www.qwantz.com to see examples of what I’m talking about.

Week 325: Pigs, Dances and Daddy Daughter Weekend

Just a quick multimedia sampling for you this week. Sam had her operatic debut in her school’s production of “The Three Little Piggies Opera,” which I was disappointed wasn’t sung in the original Italian. Sam played the part of “Brick Vendor #2” and while it wasn’t exactly a headliner role, she did impress us by actually knowing all the words to every other kid’s song. She also got to dress in a red hankerchief.

I also love this picture, because it proves that Sammy is good at “panting Rambos.” Which is a good skill to have.

Geralyn actually did capture the entire performance on video cassette, and while I had strong, virtually palpable intentions of transferring it and post it here, I kinda ran out of time. But I did grab this little bit where we captured Mandy’s song and dance routine while I was reacquainting myself with the camera. It even features the fabled “Mandy Dance” about 1:15 in. It’s kinda totally worth it.

The last couple of days have been a blur. Geralyn went out of town, leaving me to take care of the kids from Saturday morning through Sunday evening. I’ve never been the kind of dad who was afraid of stepping up to take care of his own kids –I still outweigh them and can still outsmart them most of the time– but I have a new appreciation for what Ger goes through every day. Rainy weather kept us indoors, but I started off strong, thinking I not only take care of the girls but do a load of laundry and mop the kitchen floor. I made it until early Saturday afternoon before deciding that I was utterly spent and that there would have been a very good chance that my children would die of starvation if the fruit snacks weren’t kept on the bottom pantry shelf. Fortunately I rallied my strength and things have gone pretty well.

All told, the weekend involved a donut breakfast, the gym (to work off the donut breakfast), a trip to the science museum, a “everybody make your own personal pizza” party, movie night, a Sunday school recital, a trip to the Butterfly House to replace the little plastic butterfly that got washed down the tub drain, and another movie night that should really be more accurately called a movie afternoon. Geez, I can’t wait for Geralyn to get home. Or the sun to come out and dry up all the rain. Either one.

Weight Loss Week 16: 8 pounds to go

April 22 weight: 170.0
Weight two weeks ago: 170.5
5 day avg weight: 171.7
5 day avg weight two weeks ago: 171.4
Workouts in last 7 days: 6

Hrm, stuck in another plateau. Weight spiked up on Monday, then it took me the rest of the week so far to bring it back down to basically where it was last week.

Weight loss graph week 15

It’s odd, because I’ve really cranked up the intensity of my exercise. I went running six days last week, covering 27 miles –a record week for me. That’s a lot of calories burned, but apparently not enough to move the needle much.

The culprit, of course, must be food. I’ve abandoned calorie counting because it’s too much of a pain to do with home made food. I don’t really want to be the kind of person who obsessively enters every component of a recepie in order to get an estimate of its caloric content that’s probably not that accurate, anyway. But it strikes me that a good middle ground is probably to just write down WHAT I eat and approximately how much, even if I don’t track the calories contained in it. So I bought a $.79 pocket notebook and plan on carrying it with me everywhere. Just the act of writing down that I just gobbled a fist full of jelly beans may be enough to make me stop there, or better yet eat something else. So we’ll see how that goes. I really want to get into the 160s, like NOW.

Returning to the topic of exercise, I’ve really been enjoying running lately. I did my first 5K run at SIOP the other week, and signed up for another 5K in my neighborhood this June. But then I found that my local science museum was sponsoring a 10K race in May, so I signed up for that. I think I could do 10K at this point, since I have, in fact, run that far in one go many times at the gym. I’ll just have to do it outside now, on a ground that doesn’t politely move itself underneath me to spare me the extra trouble. I’ll let you know how that goes, too.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind is the first in a planned trilogy of high fantasy novels by Patrick Rothfuss that follow the adventures of the improbably named Kvothe. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe is a young boy traveling with his minstrel parents and their trope. Ha ha, sorry, I meant “troop.” Bit of a Freudian slip there. Regardless, Kvothe soon finds himself homeless and scrounging to survive on the streets of a large city. The lad is gifted, though, so he weasels his way into University where he sets about learning magic. Only Rothfuss thinks he can trick us by calling it “sympathy” and talking about it like it’s a science, but we’re not fooled –it’s magic. Anyway, the bulk of the book follows Kvothe through his rapid but trecherous rise within the school’s student ranks. Also, there’s a girl.

I liked The Name of the Wind pretty well as pure entertainment and an example of the genre. It’s a little offsetting that Kvothe is a bit of a Mary Sue character, in that he’s super smart and mature beyond his years from the offset. He learns an entire language in a matter of hours, for example, and more than once he easily grasps advanced academic subjects for the sake of moving the plot along and letting Rothfuss engage in some quick world building. But in the end Kvothe is flawed enough to avoid falling into this trope entirely and he faces his share of genuine adversity. Most of the conflict in the book comes not from swordplay or spell slinging, but from the young student’s struggles against his poverty. He’s constantly living on the edge of destitution and scrambling to not only make ends meet, but save up enough to pay for next term’s University tuition. He works multiple jobs, borrows funds from a convivial but nonetheless dangerous moneylender, launches a career as an entertainer, and scrounges wherever he can. Kvothe is also a bit of a prig and despite his best intentions to make friends and influence people, he can’t help making enemies of a few people in positions to make his life difficult. This was a novel source of conflict for a high fantasy book. You’re used to seeing the youths in these books fight bandits and slay monsters, not pinch pennies and eat out of garbage cans. So if nothing else, it’s unlike other stuff in the genre and it’s very readable even if we do catch ourselves rolling our eyes at Kvothe’s improbable aptitudes.

And while we’re on the subject, don’t let anyone tell you that this book is “like Harry Potter, but for adults.” It’s nothing like Harry Potter except that they both feature young boys learning magic at a school. Past that, there’s nothing alike, neither in character, larger setting, or tone. The Name of the Wind isn’t exactly dark, but it’s not the imaginative, fanciful romp that the Harry Potter books are at their best. I also get the feeling that Kvothe isn’t going to stay at the University once subsequent books are released. And while we’re on the subject, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the prospect of waiting years before a series is complete and available for reading, you may want to hold off on this one; as I mentioned, it’s only the first of a trilogy, and we all know that those have a habit of blooming into quartets, and then five or six book series, and then so on until the author finally dies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.

Still, Rothfuss is a snappy enough writer and an imaginitive world builder that I was able to look past Kvothe’s “I’m an orphan but I’m totally noble in spirit and can do anything really super effectively” pastiche. As a character he’s kind of “meh” but I’m hoping that Rothfuss moves past that in subsequent volumes. At any rate, I’m along for the ride if he can get them to me before the close of the next decade.