Pregnancy update: ZOMG! Almost due!

As I mentioned in the last pregnancy related update, the act of gestation has lost some of its intensity this time around given that we’ve been through it before. We’re no longer desperately trying to cram baby-related information into our fevered minds and thanks to the survival of Sam’s nursery furniture, clothes, and other sundry items we’re not running around and screaming about all the stuff we have to buy. So it’s been relatively mellow.

Until now. The other night Ger and I were sitting at the dinner table when the fact that the baby is due in less than a month kind of slammed home for both of us. I mean, as great as Geralyn looks, she still appears appropriately pregnant for someone nearing the end of a full term:

Pregnant Belly

Newly panicked, we both started shouting things that needed to be done, mostly at the cat and at thin air. Then, this babel not leading to anything actually getting done, we grabbed a pad of paper and started making a to-do list. Only somehow it turned out to be a general to do list instead of relating specifically to the baby, so we got things like “Change air filters” and “Hang Christmas lights” listed before “Install car seat.” So if I don’t get to that latter item in time, the baby may have to ride home in the glove box but at least the air will be full of holiday cheer and free of allergens when Child Services comes to visit.

Also still on that list is “Name the baby.” We actually have it narrowed down to two, neither of which appears in a crayon box. We started talking last night with the intention of arriving at a final decision, but I just couldn’t commit. We played briefly with the idea that we would again try to make the baby’s initials spell out her name or a variant thereof (like how Samantha Alyse Madigan has “SAM” as her initials), but we didn’t like “Pam” or “Kim” and didn’t think that our daughter would appreciate being named “Tom” or “Tim” or “Jim.” No other three letter names ending in “M” came to mind, even after lying awake for hours thinking about it. I’m sure that you all will now instantly come up with a dozen each, causing me much forehead smacking.

So we probably won’t even tell our family what the baby name is until after she’s born. Gotta keep some surprises. The only thing I can say is that we’re not going for one of those gauche manglings of an existing name that are so popular now. You know, the kind that aim for “creative” and land somewhere closer to “illiterate.” Also, the child shall not be named “Mona” or, to my exasperation, “Samantha v2.0.”

After initially being blase about the whole thing, Sam seems to be coming around to the impending reality of the baby. She’ll occasionally, randomly, remind us that she’s going to be a big sister, and that Mommy has a baby in her belly. We’ve also been trying to prep her for the event by talking about helping out and sharing, though she seems to still have a lopsided idea of the latter. She’ll frequently take stuff out of the nursery, bringing it to me and saying “I can play with the baby’s giraffe. I’m good at sharing!”

“Yes,” I’ll say. “You are! And are you going to let the baby play with your toys?”

At this she sometimes rolls her eyes, snorts “No” and throws the giraffe down the stairs.

But just sometimes, not every time. We’re working on it.

Do It Yourself Lightbox for about $10

While most of my photography consists of squatting in front of a two year old and shouting “Sammy! Look at Daddy! Sammy! Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” I do enjoy trying to stretch myself every now and again. Studio photography intimidates the heck out of me, though. I read a number of photography websites and the ones that talk about studio and off-camera lighting (like this one) quickly lose me in their discussion of terribly expensive sounding equipment and complex lighting techniques that require the assistance of three microcomputers and a fifth year graduate student.

Still, that being said, there was one project that I thought within my meager budget and my skills when it comes to working with tape and cardboard: a do-it-yourself light box. Light boxes are essentially little white boxes that you can place small items in so that you can photograph them against a white background with maximum control over lighting. So I printed off this tutorial from and headed for a local hardware store where I bought the following:

  • Three pieces of 22″ x 28″ white posterboard ($1.47)
  • A package of white tissue paper ($0.79)
  • A shop lamp with a clamp on its base ($7.99)

Back home I procured the following from various drawers and closets:

  • A yardstick
  • Scissors
  • A glue stick
  • Packing tape
  • A pencil
  • An exacto knife
  • A 120 watt light bulb

Total cost: $10.25 plus tax.

I then arranged the materials on a table thusly:

Light Box Construction 1

If you want the details on the “how to” part, just read the article on If doing that is too much trouble, close your eyes and imagine lots of furious crafting, cutting, gluing, and cursing. Now open your eyes. What I ended up with was this (click for larger version):

Light Box Construction 2

Not technically a box since it’s only got four sides, but close enough and the open top allows you to take top-down shots. The project done, I grabbed whatever small objects were nearby and took some test shots. The results? Not too bad:

(Actually, my favorite shot I’m saving for the Photo of the Week tomorrow. Tune back in then.)

Eh, I guess these shots would be fine your quick and dirty eBay product shots, but the lighting still isn’t quite there. Ideally you would have a couple of remotely triggered speedlights flashing light through the tissue paper covering the holes in the sides of the box, but the shop lamp clamped to the edge of the table is a poor man’s substitute ($8 vs. well over $1,100). I’d actually recommend two shop lamps –one on each side– because having just one casts undesirable shadows. I ended up setting up a lamp on the other side to compensate, but I still got a lot of ugly shadows and the mix of tungsten bulbs, flash, and natural light meant that I had to use the Auto White Balance setting on my camera, which often produces goofy colors and a yellow cast to the pictures.

The whole thing is also really flimsy (it’s just poster board, after all) and doesn’t seem like it would survive much use or transportation. My next project is going to be to follow this tutorial and build a sturdier one out of foam board or try this one and use an old cardboard packing box.

After that maybe I’ll drop tens of thousands of dollars into a home portrait studio. Gotta start small and immediately lurch into gargantuan, right?

Sam’s Story: Week 148

Thanksgiving did, of course, pass us in a gravy drenched and meringue-topped blur last weekend. Following tradition, we spent the majority of it out at “The Farm,” a place that Ger’s family owns out in the wild lands prowled by savage beasts and slightly less savage hillbillies. And like the rest of us, Sam has grown to love The Farm, both for its wild charms and for the chance to visit with the rest of her family.

Sam was actually pretty sociable throughout the entire gathering, though I was constantly left wondering where she learned that the appropriate way to greet someone was to get two inches from his face and say “Hi! Hi!” for like five minutes straight. I’m pretty sure I didn’t teach her that. But still, she had fun going for walks in the woods, climbing things, and sleeping. On Thanksgiving day proper, she also managed to stuff herself silly like the rest of us, belch, and then demand to be put to bed early.

Sam’s mental and verbal abilities continue to climb to new heights, though I’m still pretty sure I could take her in a fair debate if I had time to prepare. One new thing that I’ve noticed is that she’s starting to take pieces of information and put them together to make inferences or conclusions. She often, however, does this very poorly as of yet. For instance, we had this exchange with her when she picked up a rock outside:

“Sammy, don’t pick up rocks off the ground and then put your thumb in your mouth,” I said as she did just that. “That’s dirty. And leave the rocks outside where they belong, please.”

Sam pauses here to consider my words for a moment before responding with “I can only suck my thumb OUTSIDE.” She beams as if she totally stuck the landing on this bit of logical gymnastics.

“Um, noooo. That’s not really what I meant.” But by this time she trying to fit the actual rock in her mouth and the thumb doesn’t seem that bad after all.

Sam has been much better, however, at tackling longer conversations and explaining series of events. I came in on her the other day to find her with an old game from her grandparents’ bookshelf. The contraption consisted of several concentric rings placed so that each ring was lower than its exterior neighbor, forming a kind of shallow funnel. Each ring could spin around the center of the board and had several slots into which you could place marbles. The object of the game seemed to be to rotate the rings so that gravity pulled your marbles down the slots when two of them were properly aligned. Doing this, the marbles would eventually drop into a well at the center of the board with a satisfying clunk. I know all this because Sam basically explained each step in surprisingly effective terms.

The funny thing is, though, that Sam quickly either got stumped by the game or came to the end of her patience. So she’d just pick the marbles up and drop them directly into the well at the center of the board. When confronted about this, she proved coy and difficult to pin down.

“Hey!” I said. “You’re cheating!”

“Mmmmm, maybe I’m not cheating,” she said, still not looking up at me.

“You just picked that red marble up and dropped it in the hole, Sam. I think that’s cheating.”

“I think it’s not.” She looked up at me with an furrowed brow. “Maybe you’re cheating.”

I probably shouldn’t have let her watch all those political ads during the last election.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I’m not entirely sure what to think of this book. The author, Truman Capote, supposedly set out to create a new genre of books called “literary journalism” by combining factual research and reporting with artistic presentation. In a way, it makes the book about the senseless murder of a Kansas family a lot more uncomfortable to read, because you assume that everything really did happen and that the characters weren’t really characters at all, but real people. And if it really happened to them it could really happen to you. (This kind of fear is, in fact, one of the recurring themes of the book.)

But as an artistic piece the book seems pretty long, plodding, and repetitive. I was pretty ready for it to be over long before it was, and several parts that described the two murderers’ escapades just seemed to go on and on. But at the same time, I do appreciate the obvious artistry that went into creating this, and the way that Capote juxtaposes images and provides depth to the characters raises the book above —way above— the status of simple pulp mystery or suspense novels. In the book’s opening sequences, for example, the author flips back and forth between the victims, the all American Clutter family, to the murderers. The result is a kind of montage of competing themes –the idealistic against the warped— that resonates with a lot of people disillusioned with the American dream.

By the end of the book we also come a lot closer to understanding the two killers, if not condoning or forgiving them. The interplay between the two was interesting to watch for the most part, and Capote thankfully didn’t feel the need to spell everything out for us. Instead, he just showed what was going on and let us figure it out for ourselves. It’s good stuff, even if he does repeat himself and drone a bit on the occasional tangent.


A while back I mentioned a photography contest that I entered and in which I won second prize. In addition to a cash prize, the winning photographs were to be published in an issue of a local magazine later that month. That issue arrived in our mailbox last Wednesday and I was quick to grab it, find the page with the contest winners on it, and swear vengeance upon the adorable baby in the First Prize photo. Then finding myself with the magazine open in my hands I did something I’d actually never done before: I read it.

I was pretty shocked by what I found in the pages surrounding a picture of my daughter. It was actually the “Letters to the Editor, the first thing I turned to, that acted as a splash of cold, liquid lunacy on my still smiling face. Besides a couple of letters praising the magazine for it support of a proposition to bring clean, fresh rulers to Mrs. Brixby’s Fourth Grade Class out in Hootenville, the reader contributions to this particular column consisted of big buckets of crazy heaped upon the results of the recent midterm election.

And I’m not just talking about gruff old timers sitting around a checker board and grousing about higher taxes and Slick Willie (though Bill Clinton, who did not run in this last election as far as I know, was inexplicably included amongst one reader’s bulleted list of rapid fire complaints). These were WAY out there. The kinds of things that you might expect from some bearded and wild eyed hermit, naked except for a John Deere cap and cranking out missives in his hidden cabin with the help of an old mimeograph machine and jars of his own bodily fluid. Here’s one example:

Think about it. Al-Quaida and the radical Islamo-Faschists are very happy to see what happened in our election. What does that tell you?

Remember, if they could have voted, the terrorists would have voted for Democrats.

Beware, the country now is at great peril, from now-happier terrorists and from within the 535 seats in Congress.

I often have considered the American populace as politically naive, clearly worldly simplistic, but with a remarkable tendency to behave as though they were sheep. The Nov. 7 election is but the latest evidence.

Okaaaay… The irony of that last one makes my eyes sting. There’s more that goes on about the liberal press and Democratic conspiracies to aid the Terrorists (pronounce that word without any vowel sounds for best effect) and plunge us all into Communism, but I think you get the idea. I kept flipping through the pages of the magazine looking for a competing viewpoint to balance things out, maybe a big headline like “Magazine Sponsor Barbara Streisand Offers Readers Free Admission to 2006 Abortion-thon!” But no luck.

I don’t want to turn this blog or even this post into a “my side vs. your side” debate more appropriate to a baseball game than an election. Truth is I’m conservative on some issues, liberal on some, moderate on some, and don’t give a flip about the rest. So let’s not go there. It’s just that the letters to the editor and some of the other editorial columns struck me as really extreme and not the kind of things I’d normally read. But to help Samantha fit in with her fellow magazine contributors, I’d like to present the most patriotic picture I have of her:

Patriotic Sam

They’re so cute until they they grow up to support the terrorists by voting Democrat, aren’t they?

Thanksgiving and Child’s Play

Today is Thanksgiving here in the States, and I hope you all are getting a break from work or school to enjoy yourselves and devouring obscene quantities of oven roasted fowl. For the first time in a while Ger, Sam, and I will be able to spend the holiday surrounded by family without trudging halfway across the continent. I’m grateful for that, for Edward James Olmos in the new Battlestar Galactica, and a lot more. I am, for example, grateful for the combination of luck and hard work that’s allowed me to secure a career in my chosen profession and support, with some prudent measures of restraint and planning, expensive hobbies like photography and video gaming. A lot of people aren’t so lucky.

And speaking unlucky people and video gaming, you may have noticed a big green ad for “Child’s Play 2006” on the right-hand side of the page.Child’s Play is the annual charity organized by the super webcomic guys at Penny Arcade, who you you may remember from my post about how I recovered a piece of their original art and had myself drawn by the artist. What is Child’s Play? Essentially it’s an annual charity drive that asks gamers to buy age appropriate video games and other toys for children’s hospitals around the country (and beyond). I’ll quote directly from the website:

Since 2003, gamers have banded together through registered Seattle-based charity, Child’s Play. Over a million dollars in donations of toys, games, books and cash for sick kids in children’s hospitals across North America and the world have been collected since our inception.

We collect no administrative fees or other charges, 100% of all gifts and donations go directly to our partner hospitals, to help make life a little brighter for a sick child.

This year, we have continued expanding across the country and the globe. With over 25 partner hospitals and more arriving every month, you can be sure to find one from the map above that needs your help! You can choose to purchase requested items from their online retailer wish lists, or make a cash donation that helps out Child’s Play hospitals everywhere. Any items purchased through Amazon or DStore will be shipped directly to your hospital of choice, please be sure to select their shipping address rather than your own.

When gamers give back, it makes a difference!

I respect and admire the Penny Arcade folks for a variety of reasons. Their ability to turn an uncompromising web comic into a successful commercial enterprise without pulling up their roots is one example, and Child’s Play is another. With nitwits like Jack Thompson on the loose and the mainstream media lapping up every nonsensical chance to link video games to violence and other antisocial behavior, I think it’s important to show that gamers come in all kinds of forms, including charitable ones. We’re not button mashing sociopaths that like to strangle baby nuns with our game controllers. Besides, real gamers use wireless controllers. And when one of the biggest, most identified with voices in the hardcore gaming world starts to mobilize other gamers into fits of philanthropy, it’s good for the targets of that generosity, it’s good for our hobby, and it’s good for our subculture.

That’s why I’m supporting Child’s Play in a couple of ways. First, I’m replacing my Google Adsense ads with the Child’s Play skyscraper ad you see on the right-side of the site, foregoing any (admittedly meager) ad revenue for the duration of the charity drive. Click the ad (or click here) and you’ll go to their website. Second, I’m participating in the more direct way by making donations. A lot of you out there are probably trying to identify good charities to donate to so that you can do your part and get them in for the 2006 tax deductions, so I encourage you to consider Child’s Play instead of, say, shooting up the place.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.

Photo of the week: Steamy Conductor

Steamy Conductor

You see, this picture is supposed to be kind of out of focus. Because of the steam. Yeah, that’s it. It’s a shot of one of the conductors on a miniature railroad that we went to a few weeks ago. The steam powered trains were actually really cool –completely hand made steam engines built to a fun-sized scale. They regularly bled the steam off like this for some reason, I’m not sure why.

Unplugging at the park

A couple of weeks ago was Veteran’s Day, for which I got a Friday off from work. Geralyn and Sam were going to some Mom’s group gathering, though, so I was faced with the prospect of the whole morning and most of the afternoon to myself. What I really wanted to do was park my lazy self in front of the TV and play video games until I slipped into some kind of torpid slug state, but my conscience got the better of me. So instead I packed up my gear and headed out to a local park to stretch my legs and engage in a little photography.

This particular area was actually a kind of sculpture park where they had all kinds of oversized artworks on display. Most of them looked like some giant had chewed up a bunch of I- beams and spit them out in a big metallic lump, but it gave me a chance to shoot something that wasn’t a toddler.

Like at the Chihuly exhibit I wrote about a while back, I found that the wide angle shots of the sculptures failed to produce anything resembling an interesting photograph. There was too much going on in the scene and the overcast skies didn’t exactly look appealing, either. So instead, I tried to isolate parts of the sculpture and capture a sense of scale through different angles:

A couple of the most interesting shots, like the ones below, were of a statue that had been wrapped in a green cloth for the winter, mostly because it looked kind of eerie. Like some mafia informant caught in the last instant before he met his end. The picture on the right below is actually my favorite from the whole trip. It’s a shot of the wrapped statue’s reflection in the algae-filled pool below.

And speaking of surreal, there was this shot of a giant, white, cowboy cutout (#2968443) inexplicably posing in the woods, as well as the statue that had yellow propellers jutting out of it so that it was hard to see where its face should have been. Sometimes you’re just walking along and you see stuff like that and you think “What the…? Where’s my camera?” Fortunately I had one.

The main problem with this outing was that it was a really overcast day, with rainclouds glowering at me but never quite working up the gumption to dump. The clouds really diffused what sunlight there was, which had good and bad effects on photography. The good is that there was less harsh light and fewer stark shadows, which is generally desireable. The bad is that the colors in the scenes around me weren’t, as a rule, too vibrant. Still, I did manage to spot a few places where color really popped. One was a blue sculpture against a backdrop of bright yellow leaves. The other was a trio of trees that still hadn’t shed their foliage yet:

Speaking of leaves, it was kind of getting late in the Fall season, so that many of the trees had dumped their leafy load. I tried a lot of shots of leaves that day, raning from giant fields and walkways covered entirely in leaf blankets to close-ups of leaves on a pale blue picnic table. Here’s a couple that I kind of liked:

And finally, to wrap things up, here’s a couple of fairly colorless shots taht I found kind of interesting in the way that they isolated parts of larger works. One was a giant collection of steel balls and the other was part of a concrete pit shaped like a smiling face. Freaky.

Anyway, the day turned out to be more fun than staying at home to play games, plus I was reminded of how nice it is to just break away, unplug, and spend some time by yourself out in the woods, away from your computer. So that you can, you know… go home and upload pictures of it to your computer and share them online.

Sam’s Story: Week 147

Wow, this week really kind of slipped past us. Nothing really big happened, and when I looked on my camera’s memory cards earlier I thought “Woah, I kinda slacked off on taking pictures.” Well, bound to happen once in a while. Still, I did have the sense to grab my glass when Sam got ahold of a pair of safety glasses and my old hardhat from San Diego Gas & Electric:

Wish I still worked there, ’cause I could probably get that framed and hung in some hallway.

Actually, this weekend marked one minor milestone: Sam’s first real outing to a movie. She had been before as an infant, but this weekend I decided that a very pregnant Geralyn needed some time off to herself and that a movie would be just the ticket. So Sam and I packed it up and went to see Happy Feet, the new animated movie about a penguin with the voice of a hobbit and the feet of a dancer. It was substantially less horrifying than the last movie about penguins we saw, but it still had some stuff that scared Sam, as well as some fairly overt sexual innuendos. And Robin Williams. I should really research these things more in the future, but at any rate she did really well, sitting all the way through the movie and seeming to enjoy herself. Hurrah, I have found a new way to kill an afternoon with her.

And now here’s the federally mandated picture of Sam with something smeared all over her face. I think it’s chocolate. I hope it’s chocolate.

Besides smearing things, Sam’s new thing is being extremely bossy. We had a rather one sided conversation at dinner tonight that went something like this:

“Take your napkin, Daddy, now eat your noodle NO NOT THAT ONE NOT THAT ONE, this one! EAT IT! USE YOUR FORK! Now, keep your napkin on your lap like a princess and eat SLOOOOOOWW. And don’t talk with your mouth full it’s not polite.” This last particularly ironic given that she delivered these instructions through great mouthfuls of black beans, noodles, and carrots.

Finally, here’s another video that I made of Sam doing her nightly ritual of singing the ABC Song while brushing her teeth. Click to watch:

I may make the occasional video like this, but nobody really said anything about last week’s. You all dig them?

Wii were successful (barely)

Well, as I mentioned I would do in my screed against the PS3 launch, I got up this morning in an attempt to procure a Wii, the new Nintendo gaming console that went on sale today (and in some places, at midnight last night). Here’s what’s sitting in front of me right now (spoiler alert!):

Actually, I turned out to be that guy. The guy who ended up getting the very last one the store had in stock, the guy hated by everyone in the line behind him. My morning unfolded thusly:

6:55 – Wake up, throw on clothes, brush teeth
7:05 – Eat a hearty breakfast of Pop Tarts and Diet Coke. Check e-mail.
7:15 – Leave house
7:25 – Arrive at Target. Get line pass, numbered 42 of 42. Queue up.
8:00 – Store opens. Line moves inside.
8:35 – Leave store, Wii and Zelda in hand.

When I first got there I saw four people lined up outside the store, so I thought no big deal. I had seen people up the street at Best Buy with couches and tents, so I had actually been a little worried. Then as I was walking up to join them, the store manager came out and started handing out line passes. When I greeted her with a sunny smile, the grinned back at me and passed me a ticket, saying “You got the last one, buddy.” They had received a shipment of exactly 42 Wii consoles, and I was number 42 in line. Apparently people had been showing up since the wee hours (ha! get it?) to get line passes and being told to come back at 8:00, but I just barely slipped in.

Several people gave me exasperated and faintly malicious looks as they fell into line behind me, but it looks like I barely made it. Now it’s time to hook this sucker up and see if it’s as wondertacular as everyone is expecting it to be.

Book Review: Nickle and Dimed

Nickle and Dimed

The full title of this book by Barbara Ehrenreich is Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and the premise is similar to another book by her that I recently read, Bait and Switch. Ehrenreich is an educated, White, accomplished writer who goes undercover as a minimum wage earning laborer at various jobs in order to research how the poor in America try to get by as waitresses, housekeepers, and Wal-Mart drones.

As with Bait and Switch (which actually came after this book), the best parts of the book are where Ehrenreich turns her wit on the absurdities and injustices of the world she enters, especially with regards to what she had to go through to get the job, like drug testing, farcical orientation programs, and brief but bizarre interviews. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the Wal-Mart onboarding process, and how the company cleverly sort of just slips people from the role of “applicant” to the role of “new hire” like a magician performing a slight of hand trick, so that they don’t have much chance to negotiate the terms of their employment before getting caught up it the momentum of the situation. It’s a nice glimpse into a world that many of us have never seen, or have only seen from the point of view as a relatively well off teenager looking for a part-time job.

Ehrenreich rounds out the social experiment by spending a fair amount of time discussing how she tried to make ends meet in the realm of housing, transportation, food, and basic health care. Her self-imposed rules allowed her to only use the money she earned from her menial jobs, which quickly became a rather masochistic exercise –one that millions of Americans have to endure constantly. When you earn so little, dinner can be whatever unhealthy fare you can scrounge and home becomes whatever hovel you can find within your means –no matter how unsafe or far from work. Or worse, you end up in a vicious cycle living beyond your means when you have to rent a ramshackle hotel room because you can’t find any housing or you can’t afford the required deposit. And recreation time is all but crowded out by the demands of working two full-time jobs and not having enough money to afford anything but sitting on a park bench anyway.

There were just a few things about the book that irked me. The author wears her politics on her sleeve throughout the book instead of being totally objective (her rant against drug testing after having partaken of a certain illicit substance struck me as lame). Things also seem a little contrived after she turns down a job paying around $10 an hour at a home repair superstore just so she can take a job for less money working at a more controversial target, Wal-Mart. One has to wonder if she did it just so she could include the “how terrible it is to work at Wal-Mart” hook in the book.

So sure it’s liberal White guilt galore, but it’s still an interesting, thought-provoking, and often entertaining read on balance. Though you may never look at your housemaid or waitress the same way again.

Friday brings PS3, irrationality

So the Playstation 3 (PS3) launched today, providing unequal measures of relief and frustration to the hundreds (thousands?) of numskulls who camped out in all kinds of awful circumstances ranging from bad weather to drive-by shootings (with BB guns, but still) to robberry to near riots when hapless store managers tried to move the line a few feet to the left. Personally I’m completely baffled by all this, but still utterly fascinated.

Why on Earth would people do this? The obvious answer is that some portion –perhaps a generous, man-sized portion– of these people hope to snag a PS3 and flip it on e-Bay. With bids on preorders for the $600 console reportedly going for $2,000 or more, it’s easy to see the appeal of that get rich quick scheme. Well, until you realize that because Sony botched their production leading up to launch, you’re not guaranteed a PS3 just because you show up outside Best Buy with a pop tent, a cell phone, and a stack of peanut butter sandwiches. Apparently a lot of those exasperated store managers –guys and gals who no doubt wish this obscene madness would just vanish so they could go back to rearranging the latest 50 Cent CDs– were coming out to these semiprofessional loiterers and and telling them “Look, we’re only going to get ten consoles. There are like fifty of you people out here blocking the fire exits and trying to bathe in the bathroom sinks. Could forty of you JUST GO AWAY?” But they didn’t, because they’ve got sunk costs and don’t want to be wussies about it. Shine on you crazy nincompoops.

But what really boggles me are the unknown proportion of gamers who really want the consoles for themselves. Not that they’d want it at all, ever, but that they’d want it RIGHT NOW to the point that they’d wallow in their own filth for days, braving other overzealous shoppers just to get a chance at buying one. Why? Looking at the list of launch games for this thing isn’t exactly an invitation to hyperventilate with joy. Most of them are ports of games already released on other systems! If I had the time I’d have gone down to Best Buy to stand outside the exit and pelt them with slumped shoulders and confused expressions.

If I had to guess what really drives these people, especially the ones who aren’t just e-Bay flippers, I’d say it’s the desire to be part of an event. It’s not about getting a PS3, it’s about taking part in the launch craze and boosting your fan credentials. It’s the journey, not the destination, because the destination is where some minimum-wage earning register jockey in a blue polo shirt (a clean shirt, unlike yours at the moment) just shrugs at you and points to the guy who just bought the last console. The guy who’s walking out the door and composing his auction posting on his cell phone as he goes. That and what my psychology textbooks called Escallation of Commitment. But still, it’s fun for some people.

And I’m not completely immune, either. When the Playstation 2 launched, I got up at an ungodly hour and went down to the megastore to see them open the doors. I didn’t actually buy one, but I felt like I should be there since I was working for GameSpy at the time and was kind of part of the biz. And honestly I’m kind of excited about the Nintendo Wii this weekend, too. I plan on trying to buy one on launch day, in part because I want to play the new Zelda game, but also because I want to contribute to and revel in the buzz and excitement that’s already been building up in various online communities for months. Sometimes it’s fun to boost your geek chic rating through being a hardcore, early adopter.

The difference is, I guess, that I’m not camping out. Since Nintendo actually produced a few million consoles to have on hand for launch day, my plan revolves around moseying into Target on Sunday afternoon and seeing if I can pick one up. No tents or grousing about line management involved. Failing that, I may wander over to a few more stores in the area to see if they have the Wii in stock, but if I can’t find one I’ll just sigh and go back home to play some more Guitar Hero on my trusty ole’ Playstation 2 and try again next week.

Photo of the Week: Kick Flip


I was at the park taking pictures of Sam last weekend when this trio of skateboarding kids started begging me to get shots of them doing tricks. Normally I’m very reluctant to take pictures of strangers’ kids (even teenage ones like these), but I couldn’t pass up the chance since they were asking for it. So I started yelling “Okay left, up, triangle!” by way of direction. They must have played the Tony Hawk video games, too, since they got a laugh out of that.

I also think situations like this are a good measures of one’s photography skills, even for an armature hobbyist like myself. The reason being that it tests your ability to quickly switch to semiautomatic mode and make technical and artistic choices on the fly with very little time to think about it. These kids started doing tricks and I was like “Oh crap wait I want to freeze the action so switch to shutter priority mode crap what shutter speed three times focal length is that right boost the ISO what white balance do I have this on oh crap he’s getting ready to jump!”

Actually, a few of the shots turned out good, but I like this one best. See the rest of my Flickr photostream.

I’m in ur contests winnin’ ur prizes

Much to my surprise, I am now a prize winning photographer. Well, sorta, if you go by the most generous interpretation of that phrase. A few weeks ago Geralyn spotted a photo contest in one of those free magazines –you know, the kind that you often find in the waiting areas of suburban chain restaurants? No, the kind that features wholesome family activities and day care services, not the kind that advertise underground films and plastic surgery.

Anyway, the theme of the contest was “Kids at Play” and Ger thought that out of the bajillion pictures I’ve taken of Sam in the last year that I’d be able to field an entry or two in my ongoing efforts to exploit her for Google Adsense revenue, free diaper bags, and other monetary gains.

In fact, I went ahead and submitted versions of the five pictures below, the maximum number of entries allowed by the contest rules:

  1. Waving on the swing
  2. Blowing bubbles
  3. Looking up at the pool
  4. Grinning on the swing
  5. Lying tummy down on the tire swing

Lot of swing pictures, but we actually thought that the pool pic had the best chance of winning, if any of them did. Which I really wasn’t that optimistic about. So I just kind of mailed them off and forgot about it.

Well, lo and behold, yesterday Ger got a call from the magazine saying that I had won second place! Not exactly a Pulitzer and it’s amazing how going from “loser” to “second place” can make you shake your fist and say you were robbed of the big prize, but hey, still… And to our surprise, it was the bubbles picture that won:

Blowing Bubbles

The best parts are that the photo will be published in the magazine later this month, PLUS it comes with a $250 cash prize. Sweet!

I had originally intended to put that cash back into my photography hobby, say towards a new lens. But you know, there’s nothing I’m dying to get right now, having just gotten a nice new lens, a gadget bag, and a speedlight recently. So I thought that I’d spend my new windfall on something that I really want, but had decided not to buy because it seemed frivolous: a Nintendo Wii. Thanks, Sam! And thanks to Geralyn, too, for encouraging me to enter. I think she was as excited as I was to get the news.

Sam’s Story: Week 146

Being a grandparent must be pretty great. Ger’s parents, for example, get to see Sam every week and they get to be the heroes. They’re the ones who shower Sam with gifts, treats, and affection while reserving discipline for only the most severe situations. Seems we can barely take Sam over to her grandparents without cookies and sweets flying out of their jars and into her gobbling maw, as if by some magical force. If I ask Sam how her visit was, she’ll burst out with “YEAH! I ate cookies, and I played with the train, and I had chocolate and I ate cookies!”

Keep in mind that I don’t begrudge them (or my Mom) this frivolity one bit –it’s a privilege they earned many times over and I hope cover Sam’s kids’ faces with a light coat of sugar some day. But really, there are some things that push it. Earlier this week, for example, Sam came home from one outing to the grandparents, and when I put her in the tub that night she started singing, well… here, I just had to go get the video camera and record it. Click below to watch the movie:

In case you can’t get the movie to play, that’s Sam singing Barney’s theme song, “I Love You, You Love Me.” She was actually bellowing it earlier, but toned it down when I turned the camera on. Watching Barney was on my “I will never do the following as a parent” short list, but apparently I can’t control what goes on outside my own home. Alas.

(I put the video up and embedded it here with the help of, by the way. The process was stupifyingly simple. No wonder they’re so huge.)

This weekend I spent a lot of time with Sam so that Geralyn could attend some Scrapbooking/Stamping events and peddle her wares unencumbered by a whining, bored, and pesky tag-along. Or Samantha. I had mentioned to Sam the day before that I’d take her to the park, but when the temperature plummeted to the 30s I attempted to revise that plan, pitching the concept of an exciting day of Staying at Home instead. Being a recent resident Southern California, though, I don’t think Sam really grokked the concept of “thirty six degrees” this side of the freezer door, so she insisted and I acquiesced. I bundled her up and we went to the park, but after ten minutes of climbing over ice-cold metal play structures, Sam waddled up to me and moaned “My haaaaands are tooooo coooold! I wanna go hooooome!” Lesson learned, but at least I got a couple of shots:

The last thing I’ll mention this week is that I’ve noticed is how Samantha has been picking up on not only on our mannerisms, but on tactics for navigating the waters of everyday interpersonal relationships. I’ve written before about how she seems to have a natural sense of guile, but this is a little bit beyond that. For example, one tactic I’ve learned to employ against Sam’s growing stubbornness is to ask her if she wants to do something I know she likes, then tell her that she can’t do it until she does what I want. So if she’s being obstinate about brushing her teeth, I’ll ask her what she wants for breakfast, then when she answers (“a waffle!”) I’ll tell her that she can have it after she brushes. You know, even though that had been the plan all along. Basic Manipulation Through Perceived Empowerment 101, really. We psychologists take to this kind of thing easily.

Sam, though, has decided to model this kind of manipulation, or at least try to. The other night, after a full day of play, I was tired and wanted to sit and check my e-mail. Sam wanted to play “grocery store,” though, which would have involved lots of running around the basement with her toy grocery cart and pretending to unload, scan, and bag her little plastic groceries while she chanted “two pounds of cow meat, please” or “two pounds of ice cream, please” (groceries only come in two pound allotments in Samland, apparently).

So I decided to try Misdirection, another basic parenting technique, in an attempt to get her to forget about grocery shopping. “Sam,” I said, “Can you name the cars in the Cars movie we saw today? This usually works, because like a lot of kids her age Samantha is compulsive about naming things.

“Daddy?” she said, putting a hand on my arm.

“Yes, Sam?”

“Do you like to play your guitar song?”

I gave her a queer look. That’s her name for Guitar Hero. I had just bought the sequel, Guitar Hero II, earlier in the week and had been rocking out whenever I got a chance. “Yeah,” I replied after a moment.

She pulled on my arm. “You can play your guitar song after we go grocery shopping. Come on!”

I laughed and we went grocery shopping –like five times, actually. And while I never did get to check my e-mail or play Guitar Hero II, I didn’t really mind.

Oh, no, Tivo…


Man, what are the guys at TiVo thinking? I love the little device for how it records my shows and lets me watch them at any time and fast forward through the ads, but they’re really starting to test my loyalty lately. First they price their new Series 3 TiVo, capable of recording high definition programing, at an absurd $800. That pretty much puts it out of reach of me or anyone whose guest bathroom I’ve ever seen. So I have bupkis hooked up to my new HDTV while my old TiVo sits upstairs on our standard def TV recording episodes of Sesame Street and Smallville like the cavemen used to.

Then, though, TiVo announces that they’re raising their monthly fees for the service. You can sign multi-decade contracts to bring them down a bit, but most of us will be paying $20 a month or $200 a year! Whisky Tango Foxtrot? And that means to get that new Series 3 TiVo I’ll have to pay over a grand in the course of a year? Really.

It would be quite satisfying to say “Well, I’ll just purchase a competing product, then.” But the truth is that TiVo is pretty much the only game in town. When we first moved in back in MAY I asked my cable company for a DVR, which costs like $10 a month, hardware included. They cheerfully put me on a waiting list, and we haven’t heard from them since, despite at least one trek through their byzantine phone system to complain. So I got nothin’.

Now, I know that for some people, like say those being eaten by hyenas, that this is an absurd thing to rant about given all the other troubles in the world. And that’s true, but I’m sure I could find more worthwile targets for my angst if I could record PBS in high def.

Book Review: Lisey’s Story

Lisey's Story

I am, of course, a long-time Stephen King reader. Lisey’s Story, his latest novel, is a bit of a departure for him in that it’s primarily a book about how a woman deals with the loss of her husband. But don’t worry; it’s also got a psychotic killer and a giant, man-eating worm-slash-monster thrown in there just to keep you on your toes and your finger poised to turn the next page.

The short version of the plot is that Lisey Landan is a widow whose husband, Scott, was something you don’t see often these days: a superstar writer who achieved both critical acclaim and public adoration rivaling that of any movie star. At the start of the book Scott Landon has been dead two years, and when a violent and mentally unhinged fan shows up asking Lisey to turn over her dead husband’s unfinished works, the book starts to flip through flashbacks that tell us how Scott got to be what he is and how the very real and very magical world of “Boo’ya Moon” proved to be both his sanctuary and his hell. Through it all we get personal insights into Lisey’s relationship with Scott and her sisters, and what it means to her to be alone now.

There are a lot of cool ideas here, some of them very core to what it’s probably like to be a writer. It’s like King engaged in some naval gazing and took a lot of whole cloth from his own life so that he could use it to craft this book. Where do writer’s ideas come from? What’s it like to be the wife of a famous writer? What would happen to his wife after he dies or if he had died in that awful car accident he went through a few years back? What if one of those kooky fans goes too far and crosses the line to stalker? What price has he –and his family– had to pay for his success? These questions are all worked into the novel pretty well, and I loved the idea that there’s some magical “word pool” where writers go, at some level, to cast their nets and hunt for stories like big fish. In Lisey’s Story that pool is both figurative and literal, and the idea just clicks.

The writing is generally good –a few irritating overuses of home-brewed private language like “smucking” or “SOWISA” aside– but one complaint that some people may have is the pacing. King’s standard operating procedure is to build slow to a huge crechendo, but here he’s all over the map, with action interspersed through flashbacks and quick cuts. We also see him do one trick he’s done before, cutting back and forth between two scenes –one flashback, one in “real” time– in rapid succession, and it kind of works if you’re willing to let go of the old King formulas and give him permission (so to speak) to do something different.

Ther’s a couple of points where that’s a little hard, though. At one point the psychotic fan, who had filled the role of the antagonist and main threat, is …well, he’s dealt with and taken out of the picture. Thing is, the book kept going for quite some time after that, following Lisey’s life after that event. At first I was ready to criticize this as a flaw in pacing, but by the end I realized that this wasn’t a book about determined widow vs. crazy fan, and the resolution of that conflict wasn’t the climax of the book. This is a book about a woman dealing with what her husband was, accepting that, letting go of him, and moving on with her life. The point where Lisey does that is the true climax of her story, and it’s in just the right place. King’s attempts to write a middle aged woman came off as stilted in a few spots, but he really nailed the relationship between the Landons to the point where I found it touching in a few places.

So, different kind of book, but a good one. I like that this is a Stephen King story where the universe is not emperiled and a whole town is not being stalked by a supernatural terror like in some of his more popular books. There are elements of the unnatural fear and horror here (I may not look at the reflections in the curves of a juice glass the same way for a while), but it’s really a small-scale story with characters you can latch on to.

Photo of the Week: Pool by Myself

Pool Trio

Playing around with my new remote control for my camera. This trick is pretty easy to do:

  1. Put camera on tripod and don’t touch it
  2. Turn off autofocus, select a smaller aperture (higher f-stop number), and manually focus on something about 1/3 of the way into the scene. This helps give you a large depth of field so more of the scene is in focus.
  3. Use remote or self-timer to take three different shots (try not to block light sources like windows or lamps)
  4. Put the three shots as three layers in one image using Photoshop
  5. Erase the parts of the top two layers so that the desired parts of the shots underneath show through
  6. Flatten and save

What I’d really like to do is get several shots of Sam playing on her swingset, preferably in different sets of clothes, so that I can put together a multi-Sam montage. That’s my next project.

See the rest of my Flickr photostream.

Sam’s Story: Week 145

To celebrate the end of the “able to go outside” season here in the Midwest, we all went out earlier this week to this kind of miniature railroad where all the trains were fun-sized. Unfortunately the fun was kind of fun-sized, too. The idea is that you can take a ride on these little steam powered, hand crafted trains, chugging along the rails through the beautiful fall foliage. That was the theory, anyway.

Our first mistake, I think, was to get there late in the day, for the last ride on the last train on the last day of the season. The lines were long, and rather than send everyone home the conductors decided to just keep adding cars to the train. There was some big long delay while they brought out “Ole Number Five” out of the yard and I imagine here a grizzled veteran of a train who has a heart of gold and crippling arthritis. This involved much backing up, scooting forward, and blasting of steam while twenty guys in overalls and handlebar mustaches stood around and said “Yup…” to each other. I should have known by their pitying looks that we were in for it.

By the time we actually hit the tracks for our farewell voyage it was almost night –thanks, Daylight Savings Time, you’re a champ. The subsequent blackness made it kind of hard to appreciate the wonders of nature, but we still had the experience of plodding along in an honest to goodness steam engine. Sam seemed to love it. For a few minutes, anyway.

It seems that the guys running the train thought that he laws of physics had been repealed in their jurisdiction, though, because once we hit a seven degrees incline the force of the little engine that couldn’t became inadequate to keep us going. We stopped, in the pitch dark, in the middle of nowhere.

It’s amazing how dark and how quiet things can be just a few miles outside the city, and given this I fully expected that when our conductor turned around he’d be wearing a hockey mask. Only he’d take it off and it would actually be a BEAR. A HUNGRY bear. A hungry bear WHACKED OUT ON DRUGS. He wasn’t, though he was also not very helpful, as we stayed stranded there while they brought in a bigger engine and I wondered why they hadn’t just used that one in the first place.

I mentioned this to Geralyn, who just kind of shrugged and said “Well, we’re all gonna die.”

“Yep,” I said. “Looks that way.”

“Yep,” Sammy echoed as she clambered down from the train and tried to bolt off into the darkness.

We spent another half hour sitting there on an absurdly tiny train waiting for rescue. The funny thing was that we probably could have just gotten out of the thing and walked back pretty easily. I even offered to have Sam get out and push, but no. We were told that we had to stay there in the rapidly cooling night air and wait until they could split up the trains into two smaller trains that could be pulled back. Cold aside, though, Sam actually seemed to enjoy it. Wonders of being a kid, I guess. They find everything cool.

This week was Halloween, too, which I talked a bit about last week. Sam wore her second costume on the actual holiday, though, and made a pretty good Minnie Mouse. Sam totally got into the trick-or-treating this year, dragging us to nearly every house in our neighborhood. She’d clomp up to the house, wail on the door and shout “HappyHalloweenTrickorTreatOkayThankYou!” as soon as someone opened it. She made a huge haul of candy, which we’ve been putting to excellent use as bribes for good behavior.

As you can see in the picture above, we also carved a pumpkin earlier this year. I fully expected Sam to go wild for the “pulling the pumpkin guts out” part of the activity, but she stuck her hand down into the gourd’s slimy cavity once, pulled out a fist full of goo and seeds, and promptly announced “I DON’T LIKE THIS!” before jumping off my lap to run to the bathroom sink. It took some coaxing to get her to come closer to the table again, but eventually she decided that she could participate with the aid of a spoon. My daughter the neat freak.

Interestingly enough, her proclivity for tidiness seems to conveniently vanish the second you put a beater full of cookie dough in her hand.