Week 157: Science, Birthday, and Smiles

I’ve mentioned before how Sam picks up slightly distasteful media obsessions when visiting Grandma and Grandpa. Erstwhile holdouts from the 20th century that they are, they don’t own a DVD player and thus Sam’s TV time is limited to whatever battered VHS tapes the public library had to offer that week. Last week she came back babbling about bears. Bears that care. Care Bears! Sam can identify John Stewart and all the cast of The Simpsons (her favorite is Otto the bus driver for some odd reason I’d rather not contemplate) on sight, but this spong-like property of her brain also means that she spent several days recounting the saccharine sweet adventures of a bunch of stuffed animals that Darwin would have pegged as extinct several generations ago. If there’s any consolation, though, it’s that Sam says her favorite Care Bear is Grumpy Bear.

Still, while at home Sam currently has an obsession that’s much more agreeable to my sensibilities: Curious George. If given a choice between watching an episode of Curious George and doing just about any other activity, Sam will go for the former. Unless it’s between watching George and eating cake, in which case she’d probably try to negotiate eating cake while sitting in front of the TV and watching Curious George. Seriously, her interest can rightly be called a mania.

But I don’t really mind, because the show is great. What I like abuot it is that George, a very curious little monkey (only he doesn’t have a tail, so he’s probably some kind of midget ape), explores the world around him with the intent of learning everything he can about how it operates. In one episode, for example, George breaks a friend’s toy boat. Wanting to build a replacement, George sets out to examine all the other boats he can, noting their properties and behaviors so that he can attempt to reconstruct a working watercraft. So in other words, he observes the word around him, formulates theories about how things work, makes controlled observations to test the theories, revises the theories in light of the information he gathers, and then repeats the process until the theory and data synch up.

In other words, George follows the scientific method. He’s a scientist. The only thing that’s missing is sharing his findings so they can be repeated and expanded on by other scientists, but I think we can cut the little guy a break on that one. He’s a monkey and the academic publishing world has a severe and ugly bias towards non humans. Anyway, I think that’s why kids like George –they’re little scientists too. It’s a very natural way of looking at the world that we eventually discard or at least compartmentalize for the most part when we grow up.

I love watching Sam try to make sense out of something that’s new to her, but mundane to us, like masking tape or magnets or the pilot light on our hot water heater. She’ll get engrossed and engage in repeated trials of experimentation until understands what it is she’s dealing with and can predict what will happen under various circumstances. I think the best adult minds –the brightest and most likely to contribute to the world– are those who never lose this childish penchant for science.

Of course, maybe I should be glad that Sam tempers her love of Curious George’s persuit of knowledge with the empathy of the Care Bears. Otherwise I may find her some day building a doomsday device in her secret volcano lair. Or maybe a weather machine. Who knows?

Oh, I guess I should also mention at some point that Sam had her 3rd birthday this week and we celebrated with a small party of family and her godfather. Sam absolutely raked in the loot, and at first it appeared that the most favored gift was a Big Sister Dora doll that Sam franticly insisted that I free from her cardboard and plastic prison, but what eventually took the cake was something that she …took from the cake: a little plastic Lightning McQueen car. So odd. But aside from that, she seemed to enjoy just about everything.

Sam did, of course, have to share some of the lime light with her sister Mandy. I wish I had more to report on her, but really she’s still not doing much except growing and all the other usual baby stuff. She has, I’m happy to report, started to smile at me, a fact that fills me with much glee. It may still be gas most of the time, but sometimes I can get her to imitate me if I grin at her first. It’s amazing how babies –already cute beings by nature– magnify their innate cuteness just by smiling. It’s neat.

Clerks II

David asked me in the comments to my Great Gatsby review to talk about the movie Clerks II. This stuck me as a sufficiently bizarre juxtaposition that I’d just make a whole post about it. And I’m probably going to have to disappoint him on Clerks II, too. There was some funny stuff in there, but the whole movie seemed like one attempt at creating the next big catch phrase after another. To the point where the dialog felt less like Smith’s usual snappy stuff and more like a string of quotations from the signature lines of hardcore Kevin Smith fans. He’s just trying too hard and it’s getting a little awkward.

And hoo boy, the acting was almost uniformly awful. The guys playing Randal and Dante don’t seem to have much of a career outside of Kevin Smith movies, and I can guess why. The only member of the cast who seems to have much acting talent is Rosario Dawson, who plays the restaurant manager Becky. And it doesn’t help that she looks good, too, though it’s hard not to find the rooftop dancing scene gratuitous. …But I’m not complaining.

Also, I’m getting tired of Jay and Silent Bob. They had their big movie (which was actually a lot funnier than this one), time to reduce them to cameo status, please.

The one redeeming quality about Clerks II was how it ended. SPOILERS HERE if you haven’t seen it:

Randal and Dante choose to not only stay in Jersey, they choose to purchase and re-open the convenience store and run it themselves. This is kind of the slacker’s version of Sophie’s Choice, and they choose to grab their their misery with both hands and own it. It is, ironically, a full out rejection of the American Dream –they’d rather be masters of their own slackerdom than slaves to a more rewarding and ostensibly better life away from their roots.

It’s this kind of touch that reminds me that Smith can be really talented and that he’s the same guy who directed something like Chasing Amy. But while Clerks II had a few laugh out loud moments, but it’s too stilted, it tries too hard, and by the end I was just tired of it.

Book Review: The Great Gatsby

I thought for a while on what I would say about this book, and I’m still coming up a little short. It’s a good story about a displaced bachellor gets caught up in an affluent neighbor’s quest for an old love, but beyond that I’m not quite sure what all the hubub is about. I must be missing something obvious.

Mayve the book’s literary value is how it encapsulates the 1920s in America. It’s a period you don’t hear a lot about, but the spasmic increase in wealth across nearly all social stratas and the juxtoposition of decadance against the horrors of World War I that created it is a pretty interesting backdrop. The Great Gatsby seems to give you a pretty good sense of this, and you can see how a simple Minnesota boy like the narrator finds it all a little bewildering and disconcerting. The book also does a great job of using the characters of Daisy and Gatsby to epitomize the antagonism between ostentatious new rich and the disassociated old rich. Even though they pine for each other, these two characters are as star-crossed as you’ll find this side of a Shakespeare play (which, come to think of it, my English teacher wanted me to read, too). Ultimately it doesn’t work out and Gatsby has to accept that he can’t recreate something that existed before the 20s and their associated lifestyles came roaring in. I imagine a lot of this kind of thing happened at the time as society in general flopped down into the self-destrictive decadance that eventually landed it in the Great Depression.

Actually, I guess I take it all back. Maybe I do get it, or at least part of it. Well played, Mr. Fitzgerald, well played.

Happy 3rd Birthday, Samantha Alyse Madigan

Dear Samantha,

You turned three years old today. Outstanding! Like I did last year and the year before, I thought I’d send you a letter to let you know how it went and what I thought of the whole thing. Some day, when you’re famous and powerful, you can include this in your memoir. Possibly in a chapter entitled “See, This is what I Had to Put Up With.”

Looking back over your last year, I’d say there are two major themes flowing through it: independence and change. And hoo boy, let’s talk about independence. You started off life as the most milquetoast of creatures, mostly sanguine as long as your basic needs were met and ready to please or conform. Somewhere along the line, though, you decided that you’d be missing out on a lot of developmental opportunities if you didn’t push back a bit. At first you kept it pretty straight forward, opting to throw the occasional hissy fit if you didn’t get what you wanted. This prompted me to create the Samantha Alert System and we pretty much adapted.

From there you progressed on to ineffective Jedi mind tricks to get your way, as well flat out power struggles. And of course, there’s always the nonsensical contradiction of everything we say and constant rearranging of the command structure in our house.

And then there were the times when you actually tried to use your noodle and talk your way into (or, perhaps more frequently, out of) different situations. Your nascent understanding of negotiation led you to turn my own manipulation techniques against me.

But I have you tell you, Sam, I don’t hold it against you. In fact, here’s a secret: it’s one of the things that I love about you. While having you obey me without question and never having you lunge outside the boundaries we’ve set up for you would make life a lot easier and safer for you, I know that testing the boundaries and flexing your own prowess –social, physical, mental, and otherwise– is part of growing up. I want you to question authority when it’s appropriate –even my authority. I want you to think for yourself and to be brave enough and confident enough to disagree when your heart or your mind tell you to do so. That doesn’t give you carte blanch to try to rake a screwdriver across my computer monitor like you did that one time, but you’ll fine tune those impulses eventually. I’ll help you.

I think the second theme to hit us this last year is change. You obviously changed a lot by simply dividing your cells over and over again, but about midway through the year your surroundings changed, too. See, you were born in this mystical land called “San Diego, California.” Literally, there were princesses and magical kingdoms right up the highway from us, but you had to pay through the nose for tickets and wait in line forever to get to the best stuff. Anyway, San Diego was five separate and distinct kinds of awesome. The weather was almost always perfect, there were fun community parks all around us, there were zoos and nature reserves, there were beaches, there were theme parks, and there was just about everything you could ever want to take your daughter out to do on a Saturday afternoon. On top of all that your and your Mom had a playgroup full of friends that got together every week and there were neighbors with other kids about your age. It was great.

So, we left.

Yeah, I know. WTF? (Don’t tell your mom I taught you that.) We left the only home you’d ever known and we sent you to live with Grandma and Grandpa for a week while your Mother and I drove the minivan more than halfway across the continent to our new beginning. Why? Well, in large part, for you.

I know you may be thinking that that’s a stupendously stupid thing to say, but hear me out. Family is important, Sam, and one of the main reasons we moved was to be closer to the rest of your family. You visit your Grandma and Grandma like every week now instead of a couple of times a year. Plus they can give you a TON more presents if they don’t have to take them through baggage claim or to the post office to get them to you. You’ve also gotten to see your Nana a lot more, plus your Aunt Shawn and Uncle Brent and your various cousins, aunts, and uncles on your Mom’s side. And sometimes THEY buy you stuff, too. Trust me, you’re raking it in. You’ll be able to open a retro toy store in a decade or two and live off the profits.

Plus, the new house is a lot bigger and nicer than what we could afford in San Diego, don’t forget that. You actually have room for all your junk now, even if it did take you a while to learn your way around. And there’s actually these things called seasons here, where the weather goes through wild mood swings. You enjoyed the Fall, and when Winter brought its first big snow storm you loved it. Slurping hot chocolate from a mug so big you can barely hold it just isn’t the same when it’s sunny and 74 degrees out.

So, I hope you don’t mind. You adapted to the new surroundings without any problem at all, so I’m guessing you’re cool with it. In fact, you’ve dealt with it better than we have. Occasionally someone will say the word California and you’ll arch one eyebrow in thought, trying to remember why that sounds familiar. And when Lightning McQueen, star of the hit movie Cars, said he had to get to California for the big race, you even straightened up and squawked “I used to live in California!” but then a few seconds later you seem to have gotten past it again. That’s one of the other things I love about you: a few exploratory tantrums aside, you’re incredibly easy going.

And of course, keeping with the theme of “change,” we pulled another huge change on you recently in the form of your baby sister, Mandy. Suffice to say that you took this change to your world with minimum difficulty as well, though there have been some complications to all our lives and some new challenges.

But that, as we say in the entertainment biz, is a cliffhanger. I’ll tell you all about it next year.

Love you,

Want to send Samantha a quick “Happy Birthday” note? Shoot an e-mail to samantha.madigan@gmail.com.

And of course you can read the archives for more.

Week 156: Alarms, snow, and forbidden photos

It’s funny how families refine roles and responsibilities. Geralyn is responsible for managing our finances, most of the cooking, and the dry cleaning. Me, I’m responsible for winning the bread, killing spiders, and dealing with anything in the house that starts emitting a shrill beeping sound.

For example, take the other morning a little before 6:00 a.m. when I was yanked out of a deep sleep by an impossibly loud and discordant beeping sound and Ger’s request that I deal with it in the form of a knee to my lower back. I clumsily stabbed at every button on my alarm clock, then just mashed my palm across its every flat surface when the stabbing achieved no results. When the beeping persisted, my still foggy mind arrived at the only possible conclusion that presented itself: the robots are attacking. I think I may have even said this out loud.

Actually, it wasn’t robots. A winter storm had knocked out our power, and the beeping was coming from the battery-powered baby monitor on our dresser. This wonderful device is programmed to start shrieking in the event that its base in the nursery loses power, since the hyenas crouched outside the window have probably been waiting for just such an opportunity. There were no hyenas –this time– but there was a lot of snow so that later I got to take Sammy out in it. It’s weird that it actually takes a snowstorm to get her out of the house.

And unlike our last snowstorm this time the white stuff was sticky enough so that we could build a snowman. I think that this is a major milestone in our daddy/daughter relationship –the kind of right of passage that I’m supposed to make special note of. Next on the list, if I’m not mistaken, is for us to kill an innocent animal together.

Sam has continued to display more and more guile, but thankfully her attempts at deception are hamstrung by a short memory and an inability to think from other people’s perspectives. Exchanges like this one are getting to be pretty common:

“Sammy, stop doing that. You’ll put a hole in the wall. Sammy. Sammy! Okay, go take a time out.”

“But I don’t like taking a time out.”

“I know. That’s why we make you do it when you do something naughty. If you liked taking time outs we’d have you do something else.”

“Daddy, I… I like taking time outs.”

“Wow. Points for trying, but you’re still taking a time out. And that is totally going in the blog.”

Geralyn also had a disagreement with Sam over proper behavior the other day. Sam knows that she’s not to touch any of the following: the camera, the TV, the computer. And also I think we might have mentioned knives, prescription medicines, and hyenas. But definitely the camera, TV, and computer. So when Ger heard the flash and beep of her camera go off the other day she whirled around to find a chagrined Sammy holding the delicate piece of electronics and marveling at her first piece of photographic artistry in the camera’s LCD screen.

Of course, there were immediate admonishments, which Sammy’s new and sensitive artist’s soul did not take well.

Cheer up, Emo kid. I’ll buy you your own toy camera as soon as I can actually find one.

I guess I should talk about Mandy a little, too, but in truth there’s not much to tell. She’s still sleeping lots, most of it at night, which is mighty convenient for us as well. She’s lots more responsive and alert these days, able to turn her head and follow someone who has caught her attention.

I tried to see if she would watch a Baby Einstein DVD the other day, but her fascination with the brightly colored toys and classical music was short lived. Alas, but we’ve found other ways to adapt. I, for example, am able to play video games and prepare this week’s photographs with only one hand and a forehead while the other hand was preoccupied with jiggling Mandy to keep her calm until Ger was ready to feed her again. It’s an important skill that’s going to get big bold type the next time I update my resume.

Parenting Week 155: Trying times

It’s been kind of a tough week. I’ve said before that I think the so-called “terrible twos” are misnamed, as the really belligerent times seem to have come right around Sam’s third birthday. Everything is a negotiation, followed by a refusal to live up to the terms of the negotiation, followed by threats, followed by more refusals, followed by attempts to follow through on those threats without resorting to actual violence, followed by crying. Fun, fun.

Really, all rules seem to have gone out the window in the last week. My new system for encouraging cleanup started off fine, but seems to have lost any effect. The only good thing is that cleanup is still a snap when I all have to do is chuck toys into a big plastic “trash” bin after the timer goes off, and there are getting to be fewer and fewer toys that currently reside outside that plastic prison, but that’s not really the point. The bin is filling up, too, so that we’re now letting Sam rescue a toy from it for just about any good behavior. Use the potty? Get a toy! You said please and thank you? Toy! Filed your taxes already? Two toys!

And then there’s playtime. We’ve been trying to get Sam to learn how to play more on her own, but she hasn’t quite grokked this concept. We must be with her at all times, participating in whatever play she has cooked up. And that’s fine, theoretically, because playing with her should be fun. Only half the time Sam kicks in some kind of bizzaro logic and flightiness of mind where she will demand that we do something with her, then demand that we stop and let her do it herself. So we have one sided conversations like “Would you like to color with me, Daddy? Color with me! Okay, take the orange crayon. NO! NO! I WANT THE ORANGE CRAYON. YOU USE THIS CRAYON. NO! I WANT THAT CRAYON.” And I’m just left there holding my head in my hands and trying to figure out what’s going on. Playing with Sam is less like playing and more like getting bossed around by a miniature madman with the attention span of a gnat.

So, cleansing breath. And I guess I can’t blame Samantha exclusively for all this. The weather has been bad here, and that combined with the new baby means that Sam will sometimes go days without leaving the house. She must be getting stir crazy. And the effects of Mandy’s arrival aren’t just hypothetical –we’re all left with less time, less patience, and less energy than we had to give before. Plus on top of everything else she has another cold and hasn’t been feeling well. But I’m pretty sure life will go on. I’ll actually be kind of annoyed if it doesn’t, because I was specifically told that it would.

The one time when we can count on some reprieve and no requests for our involvement, though, is showtime. Sam still likes her shows and will sit quietly and watch as many as we’ll let her. We have a variety queued up in the TiVo, but Sam is very particular about what she wants to watch. She normally moves from one obsession to the next, eschewing a balanced media diet in favor of gorging on one show until she finds a new one to move on to. Lately it’s Curious George, which is actually a pretty great show. Before that it was Thomas the Tank Engine. In fact, one of the great things about keeping an online diary about your kid is that I can look back and create a timeline for Sam’s media obsessions, like this (click for full-size image):

I mean, if I wanted to. You know. I could even make the timeline accurate and to scale.

So, that’s what’s going on with Sam. Mandy continues to do fine, though she has apparently figured out that if she cries one of us will come pick her up and hold her. Fortunately she seems content to use this newly discovered power responsibly and sometimes out of boredom. She’s still sleeping through a good chunk of the night, going 5-6 hours between feedings. She’s much more alert and awake now than she was even a week ago, though she does have her groggy moments.

So, other than that, nothing really to report. With this weather and half our household being sick, we really haven’t gotten out to do much. Going to the grocery store has become a huge event, one we look forward to. I can’t wait for Spring.

Book Review: Gerald’s Game

If you were to take a room full of Stephen King fans, hose them down, and ask them what they consider to be the worst Stephen King novel, many if not most of them would probably pick Gerald’s Game. And I can see why, though this book about a woman who is handcuffed to her bed (kinky sex game and all that) when her husband dies of a heart attack has its moments.

Jessie Burlingame, the book’s ensnared heroine, spends almost the whole time handcuffed to a bed. Geralyn says she once tried to read the book, but decided to quit when she peeked ahead a few hundred pages and found that Jessie was still handcuffed and still hadn’t left the bed, much less the room the story starts in. Indeed, King moves things along at the rate of a peppy glacier, making generous use of flashbacks to explore Jessie’s shall we say “problems.” The funny thing is that I listened to this on audiobook, a good chunk of it while sitting in Mandy’s nursery and rocking her to sleep. I would often drift off myself, awaking to find that half an hour had passed while I dozed in the glider with headphones on, but I wouldn’t need to rewind the audiobook because next to nothing had happened. King is obviously in page count padding mode throughout this entire book. Such padding isn’t unusual for him, but here it’s so egregious as to butt up against ridiculous.

The other major facet of this book to criticize is the sharp left turn King takes in the last quarter of the volume, wrapping things up by narrating a letter from Jessie to an old college roommate. This chunk of the novel is completely incongruous with the part that precedes it, to the point where it seems like a separate story tacked on to –you guessed it– pad out the page count. I’m not sure why King decided to take this route, but it totally didn’t work for me.

That all said, there are some genuinely creepy and horrible scenes in Gerald’s Game –the kind that make its place in the “Horror” section of the bookstore appropriate. At one point late in the still night while chained to the bed Jessie wakes up to find some tall, silent figure standing in the corner. She’s scared out of her mind (almost literally) and tries to plead with the figure, but it just stands there, watching her. I think most of us have woken up in the middle of the night to see some assembly of shadows that we mistake for an intruder, and even when our rational mind identifies it for what it is –a piece of furniture, a coat hanging from a peg, whatever– another part of our mind refuses to believe it. What made this scene particularly effective for me was that I was sitting in Mandy’s nursery with the lights completely out when I listened to it, and I could look in the corner and almost see what King was describing. For me, this scene even rivaled his penultimate scary scene: the lady in the bathtub from The Shining.

And then don’t even get me started about how Jessie makes her final, desperate attempt at escaping the handcuffs. I was literally squirming the whole time I listened to that. I thought I was going to have to fast forward.

So on balance, while there’s a few genuinely effective scenes in this whole affair, its super slow pacing and bizarre change of structure towards the end make it hard for me to recommend to anyone not trying to assemble a complete Stephen King library. There’s lots to choose from that’s better.

A surge in the war on spam

Just a quick note to say that I’ve implemented the Comment Challenge Plugin in an effort to stamp out what will hopefully be the last of the annoying comment spams by automated spambots. When you go to comment on a story you’ll see a new field asking you to type in a keyword to prove you’re human. Follow its advice, otherwise your comment will be trashed, verbally abused, dressed funny, and made to stay late after school. Also, it won’t be posted.

Don’t worry, though. It’s not one of those annoying things where you have to squint at a grainy image full of jumbled or squiggly letters and try to figure out if that’s a “j” or an “i” while your comment’s life hangs in the balance. It’s just a text field and the keyword won’t even change that often, if ever.

Thanks, by the way, to Todd for telling me about this plugin. Woot!

My latest column in the January 2007 TIP


Just noticed that the January 2007 issue of The Industrial Psychologist (TIP), the quarterly publication of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology, is online, even though I haven’t gotten my print copy yet. As usual, my column on Good Science Good Practice is in there.

This was an interesting one to write. Most of it centers on a series of articles in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (JOOP) that ask if the journal should be more inclusive of less scientifically rigorous (and, let’s face it, less boring) articles so that it can serve a wider audience. Not everyone starts to dance from foot to foot in glee when presented with a giant table of statistics or a Methods section that takes days to read.

Of course, nobody was suggesting that JOOP should become, as I say in the column, “the I-O equivalent of People Magazine or Highlights.” But it’s still a sticky issue. How far do you bend to accommodate people without the advanced education or experience required to consume (and, perhaps more importantly, to make use of) traditionally erudite scientific research? At what point does such accommodation start to undermine the science and the mission of your publication?

Read the column for the full discussion.

Parenting Week 154: Names, Naps, and Neatness

Fun fact: Amanda was almost named Abagail “Abby” Madigan. Not “almost” as in “we thought about it, and that was our second choice.” More “okay, we’re pulling up to the hospital, Ger’s in labor and we still haven’t decided.” We literally decided on the way to the big event, throwing in as the tie breaker that we would name her after a life-long friend of my Mom’s who had died just a few weeks earlier.

Kind of a downer, I know, but it made my Mom happy and we liked the name. After a week or so of accidentally calling our newborn “Sammy” we’ve gotten used to it. Picking a name out is a weird affair, though, since any names shared by someone who you (or your significant other) have less than happy feelings about are pretty much out. This includes former girlfriends/boyfriends, as well as machete-wielding madmen as I learned when I floated the name “Jason” before we knew it would be a girl. These associations seemed to be particularly objectionable the further back one went to one’s childhood, so that “Claire” was out because of that girl who used to live down the street and always beat me up.

Acting on a flash of inspiration and thinking to take the inverse of this rule, I had also cheerfully supplied names that had immense, positive personal associations from my childhood:

  1. COBRA Commander Madigan
  2. Atari 2600 Madigan
  3. REO Speedwagon Madigan
  4. Ms. Pac Man Madigan
  5. Dungeon Master’s Guide Madigan

Alas, none of these were found acceptable or worthy of more than a glare. Probably for the best, though I still take private pleasure in knowing that Samantha was at least partially named after my favorite character from The Lord of the Rings. Don’t tell Geralyn.

And speaking of Sam, she has been developing a few annoying habits in the last couple of weeks. Strangely while Amanda has been a blessedly good sleeper at night (and, come to think of it, most other times as well), Samantha has decided to break her long streak of proper sleep behavior. Last night she got up five times after we put her down, contriving all kinds of excuses ranging from “I want something more to drink” to “Hang on, I need to clip this fingernail.” Naps are even worse. During those blessed islands of free time Ger and I usually go down to the basement where our main computer and TV setups are. Lately it’s not uncommon for us to sit there and hear thumping and crashing from the upper levels of the house, followed by several moments of silence, followed by a visit from a smiling Samantha who comes sauntering down the basement stairs as if out for a mid-day stroll. So we take her all the way back upstairs, put her back in bed, go back down to the basement, and wait for the whole process to repeat itself two or three more times.

This new routine has placed a cold fear into our hearts: perhaps Sam doesn’t need naps any more. The idea of this precious source of unstructured free time drying up terrorizes us like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like waking up one morning, drawing the curtains, and finding that the sun has finally depleted all its hydrogen core and winked out. Also, all puppies are gone. You just kind of stand there, still holding the curtains in one hand and muttering “Aw, man! Now what am I going to do?” And then Sam is there, because it’s 6:00 a.m. and that’s what time she wakes up these days.

The getting up from naps isn’t the only bad behavior we’re trying to curb lately, though. After Christmas hit, we were left with a bewildering number of toys, most of which Sam took great glee from spreading to every corner of the house. Each night we’d ask Sam to clean up, but she’d flatly refuse, telling us to do it. This earned her a time out while we picked up the toys ourselves, but it didn’t take long to figure out that we were doing all the work while Sam reclined in the corner and watched us –though I have to admit that Sam apparently figured it out before we did and found it to be a perfectly agreeable arrangement.

So I decided to rectify things by procuring two items: one kitchen timer and one large, clear, plastic storage bin. Then, that night, I explained the new routine to Samantha:

  1. Step 1: I set the timer for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the mess
  2. Step 2: Samantha picks up her crap and puts it away
  3. Step 3: The timer goes off
  4. Step 4: Any toys that aren’t where they belong get thrown in the bin which stays closed up but out in plain sight
  5. Step 5: For each night that Sam puts away ALL her stuff, she can “rescue” one item from the bin

The first night I tried this things didn’t go too well despite the thorough explanations I offered. Sam just kind of went into spaz mode and actually took out more toys. When I pointed at the ticking timer and told her to get a move on, Sam ran over and grabbed the timer. She then made some kind of sputtering sound and threw it into the air, where it sailed across the room in slow motion, gleamed in the fluorescent lights, landed scant inches from Mandy’s head, and shattered the resulting silence by finally going off. This promoted a Class Five Freakout on my part and Sam got her usual time-out for not picking up, but this time I just shouted a lot and dumped all her remaining toys into the bin.

Sam was hysterical at first, but let me tell you something: The next night she jumped up, cleaned up her toys with minutes to spare, and took great joy in choosing an item to free from its acrylic prison. And the same the night after that and so on. We hardly even need the timer anymore.

I knew I could outsmart her if I tried.

Books I read in 2006: a review

Like I did for 2005, I thought I’d do a round up on the books I read in 2006. Here’s the quick stats:

  • Books read: 49
    • Fiction books: 28
      • Fantasy: 11
      • Other fiction/Literature: 8
      • Horror: 5
      • Sci-Fi: 4
    • Non-fiction books: 21
  • Audiobooks: 33
  • Paper books: 16

That’s down from 61 books in 2005, which I pin on a shorter commute for most of the year and fewer road trips from San Diego to Los Angeles. Both those were great for ripping through audiobooks. But in 2006 I still got through more books (49) than movies/DVDs (47), though just barely. Also, I have to stop reading so much fantasy stuff. Old habits die hard, but hardly anything I read in that genre last year was any good.

Now, in the end of the year spirit, here’s a few best/worst awards:

Best Book I Read in 2006

This is actually a really tough call, so I’m going to cheat and call it a two-way tie between two books that wreck the traditional, linear narrative found in most other books. I can do that. The rules allow for it, I just checked.

First we have The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audry Niffenegger. I really didn’t expect to even like this book that much when I started it, but it really hooked me. First, it’s a good story, even for a romance. Niffenegger paints the characters as overly romantic (in both senses of the word) at times, but this story about a man who involuntarily slips back and forth in time to meet his wife at all stages of her life is fascinating and raises some interesting questions that you normally don’t see in time travel stories. I loved the way the author flipped back and forth between multiple timelines in a way that laid down mysteries and upcoming storylines without being confusing or annoying. It was really well done and if I had to choose just one book as my favorite in 2006, this would probably be it.

But the fact is that I also enjoyed House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski just about as much, even though it’s a very different kind of story. Actually, the story about a mysterious house with a city-sized labarynth hidden within it isn’t the thing to really appreciate about this novel. It’s the way that the author forms one tale by stitching together six different layers, including a film documentary discussion, the journal of a madman, academic footnotes from another reader, and a series of letters between a mother and son. It’s purposefully bewildering given that one narrative will literally interrupt another in the middle of a sentence and continue on for pages before the original one resumes, but it works really well. Also notable is the avant-garde typography not only discriminates between the various aforementioned narrative layers, but also does things like squish words together on the page when talking about enclosed spaces or leaves almost a whole page’s worth of white space at the top when talking about large open areas. It’s an amazing piece of work that pushes the written novel in directions that I’ve never seen before.

So there you go. Read either of those books and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Now, on the other hand….

Worst Book I read in 2006

It was a close race, but The Five People You Meet in Heavan by Mitch Alboom won. Or lost. Either way, this was the worst thing I read all year. Alboom’s book about a amusement park maintenance worker who dies trying to save a little girl from a deadly accident just drips with schmaltz. It’s chock full of the kind of over the top sentimentality that you would expect from a made-for-TV movie (which, in fact, it became, though on ABC and not the Lifetime channel). The author’s prose is also inelegant, ham-fisted, and about as subtle (and deep) in its sermonizing as a box full of Hallmark greeting cards. Thankfully the book was short and I was on a long drive or I probably wouldn’t have even finished it. I recommend you never start.

Runners up for worst book I read in 2006:

Miscellaneous awards

Otherwise known as “Books I want to mention, but aren’t best/worst material.”

Getting things Done by David Allen is the book I’m most glad I read in 2006, since it tuned me in to a practical productivity system that I’m still using to keep on top of things at work. Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, a biography about mathematician John Nash, was the most pleasant surprise of the year given how different (and more fascinating) a picture it painted of its subject relative to the movie of the same name. Finally Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson wins the award for “Most Thought Provoking” for how it turned prevailing assumptions about the effects of pop culture vessels like movies, reality television, and video games on their head, showing how they are actually more complex than many other media and how they actually make us smarter in ways I’d never thought of.

So, that’s it for 2006. I’m already started on my 2007 book list, and I’ll do the same thing next year. What about you? What was the best/worst book you read last year?

Final Fantasy XII: really good

I finally finished the PS2 game Final Fantasy XII the other night. After over 70 hours playing time over a couple of months (a lot, but not a record –I put in over 250 hours on Baldur’s Gate 2 for the PC) I was ready to call it quits and move on, but I have to say this is probably my favorite Final Final Fantasy game yet and one of the best games overall on the PS2. There’s very little that the producers, their legion of workers, and their millions of dollars didn’t get just right.

I love, for example, the new combat system. I had tried to play Dragon Quest 8 a while back, but couldn’t get past all the awful, terrible, old-school goodness. Turn based battles are boring, and outside of some interesting boss fights they were always my least favorite parts of the FF games. FFXII, however, combines exploration and combat, giving us something closer to what you see in massively multiplayer online games (such as the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, I assume). Finally there’s more freedom to explore, engage, and mitigate risks when it comes to the frequent combat.

Now, that’s good to start with. But mix in FFXII’s Gambit system and you’re really talking. Gambits are essentially ways of automating the actions of your characters, relying on simple “If this condition THEN do this action” snippets of logic. So you could set up one of your characters to automatically share an antidote if he or another character gets poisoned. This takes a lot of the tedious micromanagement out of the game, but strangely it also adds a whole new layer of strategy and tactics. Gambits can be prioritized and concocted according to a number of different conditions and outcomes, so you’re faced with new questions. Should you set a gambit up to use a potion or cast a healing spell? Should you prioritize casting a protection spell on remaining party members or casting a spell to revive one who has fallen in battle? Who should get the gambit to dispell beneficial enchantments on enemies? Especially by the end of the game, managing multiple gambits across three characters is a game in and of itself. And it’s a fun one!

Of course, I could go on about the production values, too. The animation, graphics (on a Playstation 2 no less), music, and sound are all superlative. So is the writing, which sports a much more adult and darker story than previous FF games. Sure there’s still giant chickens (Chochobos, whatever), magical doo-dads, and assorted cute little creatures, but there’s also genuine character development, political intrigue, romance, drama, war, regicide, and weighty moral dilemmas. I greatly prefer all this to the relatively shallow and cheerful fare of previous games, especially when it’s done this well.

All that said, there were still a couple of things that I didn’t like. I hated the license system, for example, which required you to accumulate “License Points” from combat to spend on a special board so that you could gain the ability to cast certain spells or even wear certain pieces of equipment. Only the two-part development process also required you to find and/or purchase the equipment or spells. Given that the license board didn’t actually describe the equipment or spells it was asking me to spend LPs on, I was often annoyed and left wondering what I should do. I would have greatly preferred a simpler approach.

And, of course, there weren’t nearly enough save points. Like recent FF games, you can only save your game at designated spots, and at certain points in the game they are few and far between. So if the baby wakes up or you just really, really need to go to bed, it’s easy to get frustrated if the game requires you to play for another hour or more before you can save your progress.

Those two complaints aside, though, this was a fantastic (har har) game. If you’re looking to squeeze another title out of your aging PS2, this is the one.

Book review: The Lady Tasting Tea

The full title here is The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century. This book by David Salsburg is pretty much what the title suggests: part history of the rise of statistical methods in scientific research and part biography about the people responsible for it. This probably isn’t a book for anyone not already versed in inferential statistics and related subjects. It won’t, for example, teach you much about statistics, so you’ll be pretty lost or at best unimpressed by most of the stories and adulations the book contains. I would have appreciated a bit more exposition and explanation, but for those of us with a background in stats, it keeps things at a sufficiently high level so that we’re not forced to pull out our old textbooks just to know what’s going on.

And it’s pretty interesting stuff. While Salsburg lacks (or at least holds in reserve) the panache and wit necessary to make this a really entertaining read, he does give glimpses into both the absurdity and mundanity of scientific process in this area. I was amused to learn, for example, that many august statistical techniques like analysis of variance were created so that someone could figure out how much artifical cow poop to spread over an acre of farm land. The book also tracks some of the more interesting personalities in the field, relating tales about how William Gossett created a now common and relatively simple procedure known as “Student’s t-test” while working for a beer brewery (Guiness, no less) whose strict policies about sharing research forced him to publish under the (perhaps unimaginative) psudonym “Student.” And then there were the cat fights and irrational, career-long grudges that these men and women slung around at each other. Though not quite on the level of say Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, this book does a decent job of layering those pedestrial and alltogether human eccentricities over the enormity of the scientific accomplishments they created.

So while not exactly light reading and not for the uninitiated, it’s a pretty interesting read.

Further reading: The Child Eating Cheese.

Parenting Week 153: sleep, Christmas, and biology

Instincts are strange things. I had forgotten how much the simple crying of a baby can snatch me out of the deepest sleep with the part of my brain stem where ancient instincts take root demanding that I leap up and attack the intruding sabretooth tiger with a rock or pointy stick. Failing to find a sabretooth tiger after several moments of groggy searching, I usually lower my alarm clock and wander into the baby’s room to see what all the fuss is about. It’s usually gas, which is actually harder to deal with.

Geralyn forgoes the tiger thing, but she sometimes reacts before the baby makes a peep. We’ll be sitting watching TV and Ger will suddenly straighten up and cross her arms over her chest, palms to shoulders. “There they go,” she’ll say. “Baby’s gonna wake up in three… two… one…” And she does, thanks to some weird but deep-seated cycle synchronization between mother and baby. You other moms out there know what I’m talking about.

Besides the crying and the late-night burping and the clockwork lactation, the other big news this week was that it was Christmas last Monday. As predicted, Samantha made out like a incontinent bandit, scoring tons of loot from me and Ger, my mom, my sister and brother in-law, and Ger’s parents. The biggest hit was one of those big plastic kitchen sets with a whole store’s worth of accompanying plastic food, dishes, cups, pans, pots, and appliances. We whittled away a whole hour the other day with me just flipping through “Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals” and telling Sam what ingredients he’d need for “Chicken Salad with Figs and Proscutio” or “Turkey Loco Burgers with Chunky Guacamole.” She’d run to her kitchen, find plastic replicas of the ingredients I read to her (or a reasonable substitute, like banana for fresh oregano) and cram them into one of her little aluminum pots. Then she’d run over and dish out a plateful for me and yell “EAT IT! EAT IT” for a couple of seconds before snatching it away and babbling something about leftovers and the refrigerator. Repeat.

On the opposite end of the gender stereotype spectrum, Sam also loved her Lightning McQueen and Mater cars, which she delighted in repeatedly ramming into each other, the wall, and plates full of “Moo Shu Pork Pockets with Jasmine Rice Sundaes.” Tying for third place are her wooden train set and a bright pink electric keyboard with a voice synthesizer that she loves to sing into. I’ve already succeeded once in getting her to take the latter and jam out with me while I play Guitar Hero.

Sam also continues to take to Mandy, pretty much constantly wanting to give her kisses and running over to her when she cries to say “It’s okay. Don’t cry.” Which, you know, doesn’t really work. But it’s a nice sentiment. Sam is also fascinated by the entire nursing process –which does work– and wants to get up close and personal every time her little sister has a snack. This has led to some very basic biology lessons and conversations like this one:

“Babies drink boobie milk!”

“Yes. Or milk from a bottle, but Mandy drinks …um, boobie milk. As you say.”

“Do you have a boobie, Daddy?”

“Er, no.”

“If I had a boobie, I could feed the baby.”

“Okaaaay. That’s true, but that would be really weird.”

“Yeah, that would be weird.”

Generally, Mandy is doing great. She’s not quite sleeping through the night, but usually she just wakes up a couple of times in the wee hours to feed. We can can get anywhere from six to eight hours in, which is way more than we dared hope for and a lot more than we got in the first few weeks of life with Sam. Mandy hardly ever cries except when hungry, which again stands in stark contrast to Sam, who pretty much constantly wanted to be held or soothed.

It’s nice, but I think Ger is still apprehensive about when I go back to work in the next few days. We started off having my family in the house for Christmas right after we got home from the hospital, then having me home from work, and when I go she’ll be outnumbered. I’m just afraid that when I come home from work one night it’s going to be like the ending of Lord of the Flies. Wish us luck.