Book Review: The Mother Tongue

mother tongue

Another helping from the Bill Bryson smorgasboard. This book definitely has a different flavor to it, though, as it’s about linguistics, philology, and all things language. This area has actually been a secret interest of mine, as I’ve always found it fascinating how we learn language, how languages change over time, and how they change across regions. It’s one of the many great things about having a kid –you get to watch them learn to think and speak using language, and the natural, organic, and ultimately mysterious way that they go about it completely fascinates me.

Bryson goes into that a little bit, but the majority of the book focuses on the quirks of the English language and how it developed and emerged in its present form out of the mists of history. The point that I took from all this is just how absurd a language English is. Why is “know” spelled with a “k” at the beginning? Why is something “aural” or “urban” instead of “soundish” or “cityish”? What the heck does “spic and span” mean? Imagine if in mathematics 2 + 4 = 6, but 4 + 2 = 5, and 6 – 2 wasn’t even possible. That’s the level of absurdity we nonchalantly deal with every day, and and Bryson does a good job of making it apparent how weird that is.

Unfortunately this is not the caustic, witty, and consistently funny Bryson that I was used to from his travel diaries and collections of observational humor. It’s not exactly textbook dry, but Mother Tongue does get bogged down in one (or two or five) too many examples and meandering blatherings about things that just aren’t that interesting to anyone this side of a nameplate that says “Linguist” on it. It’s not snappy, it doesn’t make you smile that often, and I the only time I really laughed was the wide section of the book that Bryson spends tracing the etymology of the word “fuck.” But I admit, that part was pretty funny, ironically thanks to the scholarly tone of most of it.

So this wasn’t Bryson’s most entertaining work, but it was perhaps his most educational. And I just like this kind of stuff, so any attempt to breathe any character into it was welcome.


You may have noticed something new along the right-hand column and at the end of posts lately. Or maybe you didn’t, in which case you really should be paying closer attention. I added Movable Type’s tag functionality to the website to see how I like it, then went back and tagged last few dozen entries. Tags are very chic right now, very de rigueur for any self-respecting Web 2.0 buzzword spouting mover and/or shaker. And me.

At any rate, tags are just mini-categories or labels that can be attached to an entry. They’re usually very granular and often specific to that post and maybe just a few others. I already have major content categories like “Samantha” or “Books,” but think of those as the table of contents to the blog while the tags are the entries for the subject index. If you click on the link for a tag (either on the right-hand column or in the “Tags” list at the bottom of a post) you’ll go to a page listing all the other entries that share that tag.

Brilliant, no? No? Well, maybe not brilliant. But kind of neat, and a good way to get people to look at the long tail of the site and visit some of the older content that’s just sitting around. There are 731 older entries on the site. And counting. I just find it amusing to think that someone will glance at the list and note that there was at least one entry related to dead penguins or hobos.

Update: Meh, I didn’t like having a ginormous list of tags on the right-hand menu, so I added links to separate pages. One with an alphabetical list and the other with a nifty tag cloud thingie.

Sam’s Story: Week 139

Hiring baby sitters has always been nerve-wracking to me. We had a party to go to this last weekend, though, and Ger’s parents were busy so it fell to us to go gently inquiring to neighborhood girls about finding someone to watch our spawn. I’ve never gone shopping for crack, but I suspect it’s a pretty similar procedure: you start dropping subtle hints to your neighbors whenever you happen to see them, then as time goes by and you get more desperate you start being more direct, telling people that you gotta get something NOW, but do you know this guy and can you totally vouch that he’s cool, man?

And actually, the girl we found turned out to be great. She put her best foot forward by showing up on time and not absconding with our child to Mexico while we were out drinking wine and eating couscous. And after a few moments of uncertainty the idea clicked in Sam’s head and this gal was suddenly her very best friend in the whole world. Sam actually took her by the hand and started pulling her around the house, showing her where the stacking cups and blocks were kept, and where the potty was, though she didn’t’ think she’d have any need for that tonight, thank you very much.

I did spend much of the evening worrying that Sam would freak out when the baby sitter couldn’t figure out what “Wan read Artur Cluck!” or “Make a hide for the amamowls pees!” meant (“Want to read the [book called] Arthur Cluck” and “Make a slide for my stuffed animals, please” respectively). Sam was in bed when we got home, but I couldn’t resist checking in on her to make sure that the sitter hadn’t done something like put her diaper on outside of her pajamas. She hadn’t, and the young girl’s competence was further delineated when I went in the next morning to get Sam up and she demanded “Hey, where’s the baby sitter?”

Here’s some pictures for your clicking pleasure:

This picture is my new favorite. It captures a lot of the personality that Sam has been so diligently developing. There’s also some great shots of the day that Sam insisted on wearing a pink tu tu and frog slippers, including her jumping up and down. I can’t vouch for the fashion statement, but the kid sure loves to jump lately. She’ll jump in place, jump off curbs, and even off stairs if we don’t jam out our hands and run towards her, shrieking.

Speaking of Sam’s personality, it’s really blossoming nicely. Much better than those actual flowers Ger’s mom sentenced to slow death under our care. This kid loves to laugh, and will do so at the drop of a hat. This is great, because I love to make her laugh, and I’ve found that laughing myself is one of the best ways to get her to do so. So it’s not uncommon for Geralyn to walk into a room to find both me and Sam sitting in the middle of the floor just sitting there and guffawing at each other like morons. She will, of course, join us. Sam has also managed to balance both being petulant and polite in the same breath, as evidenced by exchanges like this:

“I want to go outside, Daddy.”

“Okay, but you need shoes. You’ll have to go get them.”

“You go get them. Now!”

“Hey, Sammy… Is that how you talk to me?”

“You go get them. Now! Please.”

And, let’s face it, she’s starting to get a little manipulative. The other day I was sitting down in the basement watching TV when same came up and gave me a big hug.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said into my shirt.

“Awwww. Sammy, I love you too, sweethea–“

“I want something to drink. I’ll wait here.”

Of course, I went and got it.

Photo in the RAW

I’m trying to kick this photography thing up a notch, so to speak. Or perhaps I should say kick it up an f-stop. Har har! Nerd photography humor! I kill me.

At any rate, while poking around Flickr and other photoblogs like my friend Todd’s website, I keep noticing how much better many pictures look than mine. Better color, sharper, better contrasts. Part of this, for sure, is that these people are shooting with better cameras and with better lenses. But as we say in the psychology biz, even after partialling out the effects of these factors there still remains significant variance to be accounted for. Har har! Nerd psychology humor! I kill me.

To whit, these people probably just know how to take better pictues and use their equipment to its fullest extent. One example of this is probably shooting in RAW format instead of the default jpg. For the neophytes among you, jpg is a pretty standardized and widely used computer file format used for images. The vast majority of images you see on the Internet are jpgs thanks to its universal support. Just about all digital cameras can save pictures in the jpg format, but higher end ones can save them in the RAW format.

Without getting too much into it, the RAW format is supposed to better because it saves EVERYTHING about an image instead of discarding some of it for the sake of size and standardization. That means you can tweak more in digital post-production –stuff jpg users couldn’t dream of doing, like changing camera settings after the fact and exercising rediculous levels of control over color, contrast, and sharpness. It’s like being able to go back in time and fix all the settings you should have fixed but you were in too much of a hurry because Samantha was doing something cute that would be over in another two seconds. The drawbacks of RAW include the fact that you have to buy special, proprietary software to work with the images (though most cameras come bundled with at least some such software, even if it is usually lousy) and the image files are huge. And you have to ultimately convert to jpg anyway if you watn to e-mail the pictures or post them on the Web.

But given all that I was reading about the superiority of images coming out of RAW image processing software, I decided to do a little experiment and dive into the format. I set my camera to capture both RAW and jpg, so that every picture I took would be saved in both formats. Then I took like two pictures and frowned at the “Card Full” error on my viewfinder.

I picked one shot of Sam to start with. The RAW files I imported with the trial version of Capture One so I could work with them. I played with colors, tweaked the white balance, fiddled with contrast, and exported it as a high quality jpg file. But what I really wanted to know was whether or not shooting in RAW would produce better looking pictures than what I was used to from fiddling in Photoshop. So I opened the picture in Photoshop and did a few more tweaks, like sharpening and brightening a bit more. Then I took the out of the camera jpg and did the same exact same tweaks in photoshop. Here’s the results (click on each to enlarge):

From jpg

From RAW

Which do you like better? I like the from-RAW one on the right because the colors are better and it’s a little bit shraper with a little bit less noise (the differences are more pronounced in the original, uncropped and un-resized versions). But still, this was less of a dramatic than I was hoping for.

The thought occured to me, though, that more of an advantage might reveal itself if I looked at a picture that was worse off to start with. So I looked through my shots and found one where I had used the flash but forgot to change the white balance to the appropriate setting. It was also of a scene with a lot of white next to dark colors, which can throw off the camera’s light meter. I took both versions of the shot and repeated the experiment, resulting in this:

From jpg

From RAW

Little more pronounced, no? The yellow cast in the jpg picture was impossible for me to shed with my meager Photoshop skills, while it only took a quick change to the white balance in Capture One for the RAW image. Again, the colors look more realistic, too (out of the camera jpgs often seem oversaturated to me). Now this is actually a pretty crappy picture, with lousy composition and a big ugly shadow on the wall behind Sam, but i think it proves the point even if this particular shot isn’t a keeper.

So what I think I’ve learned is that I should try shooting in RAW for a while. It’s going to paly hell with my workflow, as it adds several steps to the process of reviewing, editing, and saving the files. But if it can change one flub to a keeper each week, it’ll be worth it. I also expect to get better at using the software, which should help a lot, too.

And if that doesn’t work I can always just drop $1,600 on a new, high-end lens. Just kidding, Geralyn!


Of crayons and babies

“Hey, Ger, what kind of color is cyan? Is it like a light blue?”

“Yeah. …Cyan. Isn’t that pretty?”

“Meh. If you like light blue, I guess.

“No, I mean as a name.”

“For a color?”

“No, dork, for the baby.”

“Ugh. No, are you kidding? It’s awful.”

“I think it’s kind of nice. Cyan.”

“Why don’t we just name her ‘Burnt Umber’ or ‘Flesh’ if we’re picking names from a crayon box?”


“No. I’m exercising my veto option on Baby Cyan.”


“Stop saying ‘Cyan!'”

Review: Sammon’s Guide to Digital Photography

Rick Sammon's Guide to Digital Photography

The complete title here is actually Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photography: 107 Lessons on Taking, Making, Editing, Storing, Printing, and Sharing Better Digital Images, and the book pretty much delivers on that. It covers an impressive breadth of material related to digital photography –everything from buying a camera and other equipment to composition and lighting to editing and touching up in the digital darkroom.

What I like about Sammon’s writing is that it’s very approachable, easy to read, and occasionally entertaining. Each of the 107 chapters is only a few pages long at most, so they’re easy to breeze through and skim if you’re using the book later as a reference. I also like that the work is replete with –who’d have thought?– photographs. Just about every single point Sammon makes about photography or digital image editing is accompanied by one or more photographs or screenshots. This is good, because for photography it’s as important to show as it is to tell.

What I didn’t like was that while the book has impressive breadth, it lacks depth in some areas where I’d like it and spends too much time on areas of no use to me. I’d really have appreciated more nuts and bolts chapters on creative composition, lighting, or tricky situations like shooting in high contrast scenes or in low light. Other chapters are pretty much worthless to me. I don’t need, for example, a discussion about choosing a Mac or PC or how to select a printer. Those are foregone conclusions for me and probably most readers. A lot of the other chapters also felt like filler to me –they barely introduced a topic before ending, having only covered the bare basics.

Where I did get great value was the section on using Photoshop to enhance and alter pictures. Sammon covers simple topics like cropping, but also goes into more advanced stuff like adjustment layers, curves, filters, plug-ins, and layers. Just learning about how to use the dodge and burn tools to lighten or darken parts of the photograph selectively was great, but I also learned to do things like change the saturation, brightness, or contrast of an entire photo or better yet just part of it.

Take this picture of my Mom and Sammy, for example. In the original, my Mom’s orange sweater was really bright to the point of being distracting. But thanks to what I learned in this book, I desaturated her sweater without losing any of the vibrancy of the blue sofa cover behind her. I used a similar technique here to brighten the cash register in the foreground without washing out the rest of the photo. I also used Sammon’s chapter on getting a better conversion to black and white to create this photo, which would have looked flat and less interesting had I created the black and white using the methods I was used to.

So overall, I think this is a pretty good book for beginner to intermediate photographers to have lying around. It’s got some solid, if brief, advice on the basics, and the digital darkroom stuff is really indispensable if you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

Sam’s Story: Week 138

It always amazes me that my sister, who has no kids, somehow manages to stay more informed than I about what’s hot in the world of kids at the moment. It’s like she has a TiVo season pass to Entertainment Tonight –Toddler Edition while I’m stuck with NPR and the Journal of Applied Psychology. This most frequently manifests itself in the baffling presents she frequently sends to Sam. I distinctly remember opening the first of these packages a couple of years ago and asking Sam who the hell “The Wiggles” were and why they looked so happy.

This time around the source of my bamboozlement was the delivery of a DVD and CD by The Laurie Berkner Band. Sam insisted we watch the DVD right away, so I popped it in. The titular band consists of a trio of middle age adults who look like they’ve eaten a pound of Prozac between the three of them, probably on the way to the mall for a shopping spree at Shiny, Stretchy, and Brightly Colored, Ltd. They jumped around on stage with exaggerated expressions of glee and sang songs about spaghetti and dinosaurs. “I kept seeing this gal on places like The Today Show,” my sister said later when I called to thank her. “And kids were going crazy. It was like when people saw the Beatles for the first time.” While she didn’t scream and tear her hair out, Samantha was entranced, as was my mother. So now she doesn’t have to listen to any more Talk of the Nation –Science Friday and Ger can’t get “We are the Dinosaurs” out of her head.

And here are pictures.

A lot of the pictures this week are from a children’s museum where Sam got to play with sand, dump water, buy ketchup, eat pizza, and get electrocuted. Much fun was had.

Another trip (no pictures unfortunately) took place on Sunday. Ger was at some yogurt class (or maybe it was yoga class, I wasn’t listening) so I took Sam to the grand opening of this little train store down the road. Her love for Thomas the Tank Engine is well documented, so I thought she’d love it. I wasn’t wrong. This place was pretty cool, with tons Thomas and other train toys set out for kids to play with while their parents blanched at how expensive this stuff is. In the middle of the place they had what looked like the whole island of Sodor set up, with all the handcrafted trains and buildings just waiting to be mangled by the many little hands who had come to visit. If you’ve ever heard the sound of dozens of toddlers simultaneously pushing little wooden trains around and chanting “Chooooo chooooo!” then you know the voice of madness.

There was also a clown named “Lollipop,” a name which many of the children apparently misheard as “Grothgar the Flesh Reaper,” because she scared the bajeezus out of most of the kids there. Sam, to her credit, just gave Lollipop a few suspicious looks up and down before deciding that the clown just wanted, in fact, to give her a Scooby Doo sticker and not grind her bones for bread.

What was really interesting for me, though, was watching Samantha interact with all the other kids since it’s not something I get a lot of chances to do. For the most part she either played nice or ignored the other little shoppers completely. At one point, though, this newly arrived little girl about Sam’s age deigned to stand in the exact spot where Sam wanted to go. So my little girl, normally the most placid of creatures, reached out and totally shoved this fellow toddler out of the way. It was the first act of aggression or rudeness I had ever seen from her. Granted it was pretty mild compared to the little boy not three feet away who had just used a wooden Percy toy to kneecap another lad, but I was horrified just the same. Sam got a good talking to (she seemed repentant and said “I sowwy” to the other girl, at least), then I decided I would change the scenery by taking her to get complimentary cake and juice.

I think I handled that pretty well. Sam only shoved two other kids on the way out, then asked for more cake.

Sam’s Story: Week 137

We’ve hit another big milestone this week: Sam went to pre-school. Well, actually it’s kind of a pre-pre-school, or as I like to think of it: a pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-Ph.D. program. Or as Geralyn thinks of it: a chance to run errands twice a week.

Not being the stay-at-home member of our parenting dyad I haven’t been able to see the pre-school, but Ger apparently hasn’t gotten to see much more. The place is run with a kind of efficiency reminiscent of a prison yard: parents drop their inmates off with their backpacks (bright pink and festooned wtih Strawberry Shortcake in Sam’s case), which is immediately deposited in THE DESIGNATED BASKET RECEPTICAL. Mixing of backpacks or backpack contents is strictly prohibited. From there, children are taken out of sight to engage in wholesome activities like coloring, playing with a ball, holding hands, and possibly assembling Nike sneakers. At the end of the day parents drive up and display a sign with the child’s name on it. Designated school personnel deposit the child into the appropriately labled minivan and tell them to move along. The entire process is overseen by the mysterious “Miss Jeanie,” who I have never seen but envision as a kind of cross between Nurse Ratchet and Mr. Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Except that she shops for clothes at Old Navy.

Okay, I’m joking. I’m told that the school is wonderful and Miss Jeanie is a very nice person who has not created a jungle stronghold deep in Cambodia where she uses perscription medicine to keep her wards in check. Yet. In fact, Sam seems to really like it so far and look forward to it. The first day back she showed me a new trick she called “tumbling” and which I call “falling down repeatedly.” Then she made me a pair of sneakers.


Also of note this week is the fact that my mom, Sammy’s “Nana,” is visiting from out of town. When Sam and I went to go pick her up, Sam was delighted to find out that not only had we paid her a visit to the airport to see Nana, but she would actually be getting into the car and coming back with us! Sam is loving the visit, especially seeing as how Nana bought like 600 children’s books for a nickel from the Goodwill store before she got on the plane. It’s actually pretty cool to see how Sam remembers my mom and has affection for her even from just the few visits they’ve had when Sam was younger. They seem to get along great, and have plenty of conversation fodder, like how they both have knees that are less than three years old.

Finally, we also had a long overdue housewarming party at our new place this weekend. Much of Ger’s family was in attendance, including a few younger kids that made good use of Sam’s toys and back yard playground. Sam was still the youngest one there, but she displayed an impressive degree of sociability in that she wanted to play with the other kids. Still, they were usually quite a bit older, which presented difficulties. They were all friendly and accepting of Sam, but most of them weren’t really sure what to do with this little thing that just kept looking up at them and saying “Hi!” over and over again.

Child Hobo

People often say to me, “Jamie, we’d like to see a photograph of you dressed like a child hobo.” Okay, fine, here you go:

I think –I hope— that this picture was taken one Halloween, most likely by my mom or dad. I vaguely remember the costume, but I have no idea how old I was here. Probably less than twenty.

Still, I can’t compete with Sam’s various Halloween pictures.

Book Review: Flight of the Nighthawks

Flight of the Nighthawks

Wow, Raymond Feist is really phoning it in here. Feist is one of my guilty pleasures as far as books go, and only one of two high fantasy authors I read everything from any more (the other one being George R. R. Martin). That may have to change, though.

Flight of the Nighthawks really isn’t all that well written, what with half the characters using idioms straight out of the 20th century and with clumsy and distracting phrasing that any editor should have been able to catch. It seems pretty clear that Feist wants to write something in another genre, but can’t make himself or is just fulfilling some contract. Two of the characters even get drunk on whiskey (a far cry from the staples of ale or wine) and one of them owns a restaurant. I’m not against breaking out of the mould, but Feist’s really not doing anything interesting with it; it’s like he’s breaking the rules out of bordom, not creativity.

The book doesn’t even have a very interesting story, unlike previous installments in this new series. The pacing is completely bizzare, the characters are uniformly uninteresting, and Feist can’t seem to let go of old standbys (though that’s probably just as well, since his new characters are unremarkable). Oh, and everybody gets a plotline in this book. Magnus? He’s got one. Pug? One for him. Nakor? Caleb? Tal Hawkins? Kaspar? Yep, all got their own private plotlines. Miranda? Well, no –she’s a woman and for some reason Feist doesn’t write women. Just as well, though. And it’s not like all these threads weave together in any significant way. It’s practically the SAME overall story as the last book –cliched, mad magician disguises self and tries to take over the world only to be suddenly stoped by a party of high level characters once the page count hits a certain mark. Bleh.

I think Feist needs to take another break. Write something in another genre, whatever. I’m sure I’ll read the last 2 or however many books in this series just to close it out, but I’m not exactly hopping from one foot to the next in anticipation and I really hope things pick back up.

Comments temporarily down back

Comments are temporariliy disabled while I deal with some nasty spam attacks. I know what I need to do, just need a few spare moments to do it. Should be back up later tonight.

Speaking of which, where ARE all the comments? Seems kind of dry here lately. I’m not going all attention seeking emo boy here, I’m just curious if there’s some technological reason. I’d ask you to post a comment as to why, but…

UPDATE: Okay, they’re back. I updated to Movable Type v3.32 and it didn’t really fix the problem. For some reason the SpamLookup word/phrase filters are JUST. NOT. WORKING. I’m clueless as to why. And the Movable Type team seems to have movd all tech support, including helpful forum members, behind a subscription wall. I’ll try a third party spam filter tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ll just deal with the spam and manually delete it.

Sam’s Story: Week 136

Another busy week, with one bitter and one sweet thing to report.

The bitter comes in the form of a little pill with the word “No!” written on it. Honestly, I thought we had missed out on the terrible twos and that whole negativity thing, but Sam just appears to be late to the party. And it’s the kind of party where everybody wears black, listens to weird music, and drones on about the ultimate negation of the universe. Then they all get time outs because I’m totally not going to put up with that kind of thing.

Seriously, Sam will shout “No!” or “No it isn’t,” just to contradict us or deny us whatever favor we’ve asked for, like eating her banana or not jamming a nail in the electrical outlet when there’s a perfectly good one jammed in there already. This really kind of started out of the blue, though, so maybe it’ll go away just as quickly. Right?

The sweet thing to balance out the bitter, though, is that Sam has taken a shine to singing. This is profoundly odd, since neither Geralyn nor I sing. EVER. It’s not that we’re under any kind of court order, we just do it very, very poorly and don’t want to trouble the rest of the world with it. Sam, on the other hand, is pretty good. She’ll just sit there and make up songs, or she’ll sing tracks from Guitar Hero. The other night I listened through the baby monitor as she sang “Hey you, you’re nodding out / What’s this all about?” over and over for like 15 minutes.

The really funny thing, though, is when she sings in church. Like the rest of us she only knows some of the words, so she just chants along in these nonsense syllables with the occasional random word or snippet from another song thrown in. So we get something like this:

Oh ral ral ree, God
On Lord dah dah dah dur
Blood Elmo duh-duh
Tip me over and pour me out!

It’s cute, in a sacrilegious kind of way. And now, pictures.

I finally made it to the massive pool complex I mentioned the other weeK, and it was indeed pretty impressive. My favorite part was when I convinced Ger and Sam to yank on a particular rope that resulted in their own private deluge that I captured for posterity. Unfortunately it was like 73 degrees out and Sam didn’t really figure she should tell us she was cold until she was shivering and had goose bumps the size of actual geese. So we cut the visit a little short.

The next day, though, we went out to the fabled “Farm” with other members of Ger’s family for the Labor Day weekend. So instead of the pool, Sam got to squat in the lake. Many people hadn’t seen Sam in a while, and they were all suitably impressed with her charm and wit. And the fact that thanks to Dora and Diego, she can count in Spanish better than she can in English. Counting fingers comes out “uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco” just fine if she’s in a south of the border kind of mood, but otherwise it comes out to “one, two, three, eleven, nineteen!” almost every time.

We’re working on it. Plan B is for Ger and I to just learn more Spanish and pretty much just speak that.

A sign I’m playing too much World of Warcraft

Here’s another sign that I’m playing too much World of Warcraft, and maybe working too much to boot.

I’ve been working out of remote offices for most of the last 3 weeks, which has put me really behind on my work e-mail. Yesterday I sat down to get a handle on it and decided that an important first step was to sort it indo different categories based on how old, important, and easily actionable it was. So, basically, I’d assign it a label based on its stats in these areas.

I tried “Critical” “Important” “Low Priority” and the like, but they just felt clumsy. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I seized on this:

e-mail prioritization

(If you don’t get it, don’t worry. And DON”T start playing WoW to find out. It’s not worth it)