Week 209: Birthday, Bike, and Bum!

Big event this week was Sam’s 4th birthday and ensuing extravaganza. Much like Christmas, she has gotten old enough to go completely ape over everything, yet young enough to insist that her birthday spanned the entire weekend from Friday morning to Sunday night. When told she could choose where we went to dinner on Friday night, she initially chose Sweet Tomatoes, which is one of those super soup and salad bar places. We jumped on that, and when Sam later said “No, maybe I want to go to Chuck E Cheeses instead” we were adamant that, no, by the ancient laws of birthday celebrations, she was not allowed to change her mind and there would be no fricking mechanical rats trying to sing Happy Birthday to the birthday boy or girl.

As you may have noticed from those pictures, Sam’s big birthday gift was her first bicycle! We had actually won it in a raffle back in October and kept it hidden in the basement this whole time. Geralyn had snuck it into the living room and put a big bow on it while the kids were strapped in the minivan outside waiting to depart for dinner, so when we returned Sam cluelessly marched inside and was astonished by her last treat of the day. I made sure I had a good view, and let me tell you that the look of pure, astonished joy was totally awesome.

Since the weather has been so cold, Sam has had to ride the bike around our kitchen in tiny circles, but she doesn’t seem to mind. At first she had a bit of trouble, though. The bike has training wheels, but it still wobbles a bit from side to side, presumably so kids can learn to balance for themselves but won’t fall over while they’re doing it. When the wobbling started, though, Sam’s first instinct was to DIVE, DIVE, DIVE and lurch –or attempt to lurch– off the bike with a kind of panicked, end of the world kind of expression on her face. This quickly led to the “Yes you have to wear the helmet, even indoors” rule.

She apparently practiced in her sleep, though, because the next morning she was riding like a pro.

We took a bit of a breather on Saturday, then on Sunday we had a small birthday party with some family. Sam got more gifts, including a working digital camera from her Aunt and Uncle that she has since used to take several hundred pictures of the floor. Also, there was cake, with a little Curious George diorama that reminded me of that one scene from King Kong where the giant monkey eats the lady.

Lest we forget Mandy, she hit another big milestone for herself this week –she walked! Well, I’m not sure if you can call it “walking” or not, it was more of a falling forward motion while desparately trying to keep her feet moving and under her, but whatever she did she took like 5 steps. And the amazing thing is that she keeps trying despite constantly falling down. She just shouts “Bum!” (her version of “Boom!”), gets back up, and tried again. This kind of built-in determination and placidity in the face of impossible odds really makes kids amazing. If we could retain more of that into adulthood, ther would be casinos and fast food places on Mars by now.

Book Review: The Guns of Avalon

Note: This is book 4 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.

Guns of Avalon

Not quite sure what to say about this bit of pulp fantasy from Roger Zelanzy. It’s the second in the “Amber” series, the first of which I reviewed here. To recap a bit, there’s this guy named Corwin and he’s one of the princes of the city of Amber, which is a kind of Platonic ideal city that casts reflections into a multitude of alternate realities. Royalty like Corwin and his siblings can travel between these alternate realities and thus travel to alternate universes at different times and places. They’re also all usually vying for control of the great city of Amber, because ruling that is supposed to be REALLY classy and the thing to do.

At the close of the last book and the opening of this one, Amber is being ruled by Corwin’s brother Eric, and Corwin has just escaped imprisonment and blinding –don’t worry, he got better. He enacts a plan to retake Amber by finding a substitute for gunpowder, which because of some nonsensical plot device won’t ignite within the city. But first he kills some demons, beds a wench, conquers some dudes, and beds another wench.

So far these books are okay –not great, but okay for a kind of quick read between other stuff. Zelanzy’s style is easy to read and the plots zip along without any filler. It’s mostly action with only the occasional bloated description of what it’s like to travel between alternate realities or engage in some kind of magical battle of wills. In fact, at some points it’s downright manic and I can barely keep up with what’s going on.

The books are also episodic in nature, largely devoid of the standard structure of a stand alone novel and instead inviting us to dive right in to the next one to see the rest of the saga. Maybe I’ll view the big picture differently if I ever get through the whole “Corwin Cycle,” which consists of 5 books total, or the whole Amber series, which consists of 5 more after that. But for now they’re just little diversions.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

Week 208: Standing, Robots, and Roles

Here’s another milestone marker: Mandy stood up by herself this week. As with most great accomplishments in the history of mankind, she did it by accident. She was using one hand to lean against something while holding a toy in her other hand. She then let go with her supporting hand and reached for a second toy, then stood there inspecting it for a moment before realizing that ZOMG I’M STANDING UP! The weight of this realization made her spaz out and do a face plant on the carpet, but we were both still delighted. And for once I was right there on the floor with her when she did something for the first time and I got to see it first. Before her, even. For me, this is a highlight, and if she never learns to walk I’m fine with that, because hey why push it?

Sam hasn’t hit any milestones, though she has been back to preschool for a couple of weeks now and continues to bring home all manner of clever art projects. One day it was a little clock, the next day it was …well, something I’m still not sure what it was and Sam doesn’t seem to want to tell me. Most recently, though, they were studying squares (which seems a little remedial for today’s 3-year olds, but what do I know) and Sam created this little guy out of craft paper:

Upon coming home from work and seeing this out on the counter I burst into gales of laughter. If you don’t understand why, I assume that you’re either a) not a native English speaker, or b) don’t have the vestiges of your adolescent sense of humor. For help with option a, click here. I can’t help you with b, but I wish you luck in your career as a schoolmarm.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this, and the labels upon this little robot’s chest are not as lascivious as I first took them to be. At any rate, I explained to Geralyn that the whole double entendre could be eliminated with the strategic placement of the world “The” to make things more clear. She agreed, but I suspect that she was thinking of putting the “The” after the word “Randy,” and I was thinking of placing it before.

At any rate, Sam does seem to be developing a fascination with the bad boys. For a long time she would want to reinact the various movies that she’d seen as a form of play. I was usually ready to participate in such charades, but Sam had a habit of of picking odd roles for me. She was always Flounder while I was always Ariel. Or she was the mouse while I was Cinderella. Or she Boots to my Dora. Sensing a pattern here? Couldn’t I be King Triton instead and she could be the pretty little mermaid? Wouldn’t that make more sense since Triton was the daddy? No! I had to be Ariel. And so I practiced my falsetto and went along with it, because that’s my JOB.

Since we checked out Disney’s Aladdin from the library the other week, though, she has changed her tune. Aladdin, the golden hearted hero of the tale, gets barely a scornful mention as “that boy’ from sam. Instead, she wants to pretend to be the parrot Iago and I must be the villainous sorcerer Jafar. I must caper about and try to do all manner of wicked things to our heroes –and, I should mention, succeed far more often than was the case in the movie. I’m not exactly being a positive role model, but it beats talking to mice and pretending to sew dresses in time to fall in love with some prince, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

Well, it’s more fun for both of us at any rate.

Book Review: Kelby’s 7-Point System for Photoshop

7-Point System

Note: This is book 3 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.

Scott Kelby’s 7-Point System for Adobe Photoshop CS3 Featuring Scott Kelby by Scott Kelby with a special introduction by Scott Kelby is kind of what you’d expect based on a quick thumb-through. The author, Scott Kelby, lays out a seven-point system or workflow that he uses for finishing off digital photographs in post production using Photoshop CS3 (with or without the accompanying Lightroom program). Those steps are:

  1. Basic camera RAW adjustments
  2. Curves
  3. Shadow/highlight adjustments
  4. “Painting with light” (i.e., using layer masks and brush tools)
  5. Channels
  6. Layer blending
  7. Sharpening

Not every photo needs all 7 of those steps, but Kelby claims that after years of taking shots from out out of the camera rough to spit-shined and polished, this is his basic workflow. After this brief introduction, the rest of the book consists of many projects in which the author takes a “so-so” or even awful picture out of the camera (that is, before any post processing) and walks you step-by-step through the process of making it presentable or even fantastic. Each of these projects follows the 7-step process, though some of them omit unnecessary steps and some of them include “bonus tips” like cloning out flaws in a flower petal, adding in a fake sky, or other Photoshop wizardry.

In a way, this is kind of an odd way to write a book. The idea is apparently to lay out the 7 steps up front, then drill them into you by having you read and watch (by way of many, many full color photographs of each step along the way) their application over and over again so that at the end of each project you can marvel at the “before” and “after” versions of the picture when laid out side by side. Given that, this is not a book for beginners. If you don’t fundamentally understand a digital photo’s histogram or what curves are or how layer masks work, you should probably start with a more basic text and then come back to this.

But once armed with that foundation, I figured that the best way to work through this book was to occasionally download one of the source pictures from Kelby’s website and actually work along with him on that project, seeing for myself how sliders affected the picture and how to use layer masks in ways I hadn’t thought of in order to brighten, darken, or sharpen only the parts of the photo that I wanted to. Unfortunately Kelby’s website was borked and I couldn’t do this. But it was a good thought! So I worked on my own pictures.

Perhaps the best thing to do here is provide an illustration. Here’s a before and after comparison of my own, involving a picture that I processed with this 7-point system in mind:

I didn’t find much that I didn’t know about in theory, but the projects did do a good job of bringing it all together and presenting me with an order and workflow that I could use to approach my post processing in general. My only complaint is that this isn’t likely to make a very good reference book –its value is more akin to watching a video or live demonstration of a technique, and in fact this whole thing would probably work better in those media. Look for that product soon, I imagine.

Others doing the 52-in-52 challenge this week:

Week 207: Swim, Deer, and Circumference

Sam and I have recently modified our weekly Saturday ritual to include the swim class that Geralyn signed us up for. Well, she really just signed up Samantha. I just sit there with the other parents and hope nobody drowns. Or, if someone absolutely HAS to drown, that it’s that kid with the huge forehead and Power Rangers swim trunks who totally just shoved Sam out of the way. Watching these swim lessons has brought to light one thing about my eldest daughter, though: she still has a lot to learn about operating in structured environments.

Sam is as friendly and outgoing a kid as I’ve ever seen, but a few minutes in to the first lesson I was having flashbacks to my own childhood, where my grade school teachers would routinely tear at their hair when I traipsed off in my own la-la land, even if that meant standing up and walking across the classroom –between the teacher and the rest of the class, even– to inspect the hamster cage in the middle of a lesson while everyone sat still at their desks and gaped at me. In short, Sam displayed an amazing ability to completely not pay attention to what the teacher was saying and instead jabbered at the alarmed little girl next to her, else she delighted to flailing and splashing in the water around her. I would have been more concerned if the water were more than a foot deep and the poolside weren’t lined with a platoon of lifeguards perched on the balls of their feet. So I was just bemused and Sam was thoroughly happy.

Later that afternoon, though, we got a special treat. I was just getting ready to get Sam dressed to go out to dinner when the doorbell rang. Since it seems like the only people who ring our doorbell are entrepreneurial neighbor kids who want to sell me candy bars so their school band can go to Tunisia or something, I have been asked by the rest of the household (read: Geralyn) not to answer the door because apparently telling these little swindlers to take a hike reflects badly upon us as neighbors. As a result, we have a lot of candy bars sitting around if you ever want any.

This time, though, Geralyn called me down a moment after answering the dor, saying that I needed to see this. There were indeed kids on our front porch. And our sidewalk. And our yard. There was a veritable gang of children before me and my first thought was that I was going to have to buy a hell of a lot of chocolate bars with almonds.

“Dude,” said the nearest tyke, who for some reason was holding a loaded squirt gun, “you got a dead deer in your flower bed.”

This was, I admit, one of the last things I expected to hear. But I only had to glance over to the right of the front porch. There, with its neck unnaturally bent so that the top of its nose was touching the top of its back, was a very dead deer.

Samantha tried to dive past us to see, but with some frenzied footwork and door slamming, we were able to keep her from seeing it. I looked again, and the contorted deer had not gotten up, shook it off, and bounded off. On the plus side, this had made us wildly popular with the neighborhood kids. It seemed like there were 20 or more youths standing in my yard, all staring slack-jawed at the fluffy-tailed corpse in my flower bed. I hoped it would be enough to get me out of a few future fundraisers.

The down side, of course, was that there was a carcass in my yard. Geralyn started frantically calling places trying to get someone to cart it off, and when the first place wanted to charge us $300 I offered to roll the deer up in a tarp, dump it in the trunk, pop in The Soppranos soundtrack, and drive it to some ditch off a back country road. THIS WAS NEARLY THE PLAN THAT WON OUT. Animal Control told us that one of their “Carcass Removal Technicians” (I almost called them out just to get one of their business cards) could dispose of it, but not if it were on private property. So, they said, if the carcass could “somehow find itself out to the middle of the road…” I had brief vision of my grabbing ahold of one hind leg and dragging the diseased corpse to the middle of the street with one hand while cheerfully waving to our gaping neighbors with the other, but even I knew that this might prove a wee bit too unpopular amongst the townfolk.

In the end we found that, ironically, the State Department of Conservation said they would come and remove it for free. As of the time of this writing, they haven’t actually shown up, but we’ve managed to distract Samantha by letting her letting her make mashed potatoes.

Finally, let I forget to mention her this week, Mandy was also spared the spectacle of seeing the deer succumb to its natural predator the suburban soccer mom in a SUV. She seems relieved, though she also seems to be practicing how to run into things in her little car walker thingie. She also had a 1-year checkup at the doctor’s recently, and we were surprised to find out that she’s at the 50th percentile for both weight and height, which suggests that she has grown into her weight a bit.

Unwilling to leave us with a sense of normalcy, though, the doctor just had to throw in that she’s only at the 48th percentile for skull circumference. This fact doesn’t worry me so much as it just sits on my mind, never leaving me be to neither forget about it or obsess over it. So I’ve put Mandy on some skull stretching exercises, which Sam is happy to help out with.

Book Review: Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government

Note: This is Book 2 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.

In some ways, Max Barry’s Jennifer Government is like the inverse of Orwell’s 1984. It’s set in the near future where things have gone loopy, but instead of an out of control, totalitarian government oppressing everyone, it’s uncontrollable megacorporations and hypercapitalism (or, one could argue, hyperlibertarianism) that’s ruining everyone’s day. Unfortunately, Jennifer Government is unlike 1984 in that it’s not particularly well written.

The hook, like I said, is that Barry has created a near-future world where capitalism and its slothful cousin consumerism are the defining forces in the free world, to the point where the USA has taken over most of the planet, abolished taxes, moved nearly all traditionally governmental functions like education to the private sector, and yelled “Okay, let ‘er rip!” It’s the kind of place where McDonald’s and Mattell run the grade schools, the police are mercenaries who dispense justice only after your credit card clears, and most of the world’s ginormous corporations are banding together into ruthless syndicates centered around competing frequent buyer clubs. The consumer culture is so extreme that one’s job is the most important thing in life, so that people do the very improbable thing of taking on their employer’s name. So you got among the cast of characters John Nike (two of ’em, in fact), Billy NRA (uh, two of those, also), and one would assume Alice Freeonlinecreditreports.com (but just one of them).

By this you may surmise that the titular character, Jennifer Government, is one of the few people left in the employ of the dwindling public sector. She is, in fact, a law enforcement officer, and one of the last laws that remain in her world is a proscription against murder. So Jennifer gets involved when John Nike and his colleague the other John Nike launch a marketing campaign that involves assassinating 12 of the first youngsters to buy their new sneakers. You know, for the free hype and street cred.

The book jumps around between the points of view of several characters, including Jennifer Government, a suicidal stock broker, an anti-consumerism saboteur, a computer hacker with a screw loose, and the megalomaniacal marketing executive John Nike. But in general it’s a tale of revenge and thrills. In fact, Jennifer Government is so obviously cast in the same mold as every rogue cop in every formulistic cop movie you’ve ever seen that I kept expecting her to fall to her knees, throw her head back, and howl “MEEENNNNDOOOOZZAAAAA!” And then she practically did just that.

The other main problem I had with this book was that the author’s hand was WAY too visible in the plot, shoving things this way and that so that they went the way he wanted. There are a lot of threads and characters introduced, which in a way is great because it gives us more points of view into this potentially very interesting world that Barry has created. But what really kind of broke the magic for me was that unlikely coincidences started piling up and the characters started to do very improbable things so that those threads could be twisted together. There are cases of mistaken identity thanks to so many people having the same name but apparently no other way of establishing identity, chance meetings on airplanes and street corners, spontaneous and completely unexplainable romances, and overly convenient job assignments that bring characters together. It feels a lot less like the author is weaving various threads together and a lot more like he’s yanking us around by the nose. In other words, it’s not that the plot is so contrived, it’s that the reader is so aware of it.

This is too bad, because the situation and world that Barry has created has a lot of potential. I wish he had expanded on the book a bit more and had the guts to slow things down a bit so that we got more vignettes and viewpoints about what it’s like to live in a world where corporate executives can literally have you killed and get away with it, buying things is a way of life tantamount to religion, and class structures are defined less by race and wealth and more by which frequent buyer’s club card you have in your wallet. The role of the media (tv, print, web) in this kind of world was also completely unexplored in the book. The author had some neat ideas going on here, but he seemed less intent on exploring them and more intent on railroading us through a predictable yet ham-fisted crime thriller. Still, it is fun and interesting enough in places that I can mildly recommend it as a kind of quick, entertaining read. It’s kind of like a summer blockbuster action movie in book form.

Others participating in the 52-in-52 challenge this week:

Week 206: Aping, Bananas, and Bones

Some days I can’t believe how quickly Mandy is changing. I swear that she literally looks a little different when we go to get her out of bed in the morning than she did when we put her in there the night before. I can hear stretching and popping sounds coming through the monitor at night. She’s still trying to talk, but her newest thing is imitation. The other day she was sitting in her high chair and I was sitting next to her at the kitchen table. I looked over to see that she was peering at me, with the palm of her hand tucked oddly underneath her chin like she was trying to push her jaw through the top of her head. It took me a second to realize that I had been sitting there with my elbow on the table and my chin resting on my upturned palm. She was trying to imitate my pose. We both laughed, and then I discovered the limits of her mimicry abilities when I did some jumping jacks.

Sam is also developing nicely. One thing that she’s gotten into a lot lately is drawing instead of just coloring. Specifically, she’ll draw picture after picture of what she identifies as “people holding balloons.” She says this with more than a little indignity if you ask, because apparently you’re just supposed to KNOW what that is. You idiot.

Here’s a recent example of her work, with some helpful notations added by me:

Sam has also started to key in to the idea of jokes, or being silly. As you can imagine with me in the house this is quite useful. We share jokes all the time, though her own contributions seem to revolve around affixing the word “banana” to everything in sight. Banana hands, banana head, banana plate, banana cat, banana banana, et cetera. Beyond that, however, she seems to have misunderstood this concept of joke-telling as a way to write off whatever she doesn’t want to take seriously. So if I tell her to pick up the five thousand toys that litter our living before she can go upstairs to take a bath, she’ll just head for the stairs, dismiss me with a curt wave of her hand, and say “That’s funny, Daddy. You’re just being silly.” Once again, I am tempted to try this strategy out at work the next time someone tries to delegate some odious project to me and see if it works out any better than it does for her.

Sam does seem interested in learning, though, and like most toddlers she displays an amazing ability to just soak in information and an insatiable curiosity about everything. And her retention is often surprising, not only for its depth but for the non sequiturs she often introduces to otherwise normal situations. Yesterday we were driving in the car and she pipes up, “Daddy, the hard parts on your body are BONES.”

“Yes! That’s right.” I decide to push the conversation forward: “Sam, what do you call the bone in your head?”

“Your skull!”

“That’s right!” She seemed to be doing okay, so I figured I’d escalate things. “Sam, do all animals have bones?”

She paused for a minute, here, perhaps searching her databanks. “No,” she said, “octopuses don’t have bones.”

“Hey, that’s true!” I’m delighted at this point, because I had told her about the octopus thing a couple of weeks ago and I didn’t even think she heard me at the time, much less remembered. So I decided to see what else I could cram in there.

“Sammy,” I said, “did you know birds have hollow bones so that it’s easier for them to fly? And some animals like ants or crabs don’t have bones, but they have their skeletons on their outside. They’re called ‘exoskeleton’ and they’re not made of bone. They’re made of something called ‘chitin.’ It’s like bone, but different.”



“You’re just being silly. I don’t want to talk about bones. Don’t talk about bones any more.”

“Okay, Sam.”

We’ll see if she remembers the chitin thing, though. I bet she does.

Book Review: Shakespeare The World as a Stage

Shakespeare The World as a Stage

Note: this is book 1 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I’m really not quite sure why Bill Bryson wrote Shakespeare: The World as a Stage. I know that writing his books is Bryson’s thing (and God bless him for it), but in most ways this book isn’t about the eponymous bard. It is instead about the Shakespeare shaped hole in history given that outside of his writings we know next to nothing about the man except for the few uninteresting facts that can be scraped from a paltry few official documents. This is substantially less interesting than actually knowing things about the guy.

Really, Bryson simply moves through various stages of Shakespeare’s life and basically says, “Nope, don’t know nothing about what he was doing at this point, either. But here’s some interesting side notes!” These side-bits ARE often interesting, though, and the book is at its best when Bryson is chatting you up about the culture and civilization surrounding Shakespeare’s age –the Protestant vs. Catholic conflicts, the defeat of the Spanish armada, the plague, the business of running a theater, social hierarchies, etc. I was often irritated when the author returned to discussions about everything we don’t know about Shakespeare because I had gotten caught up in these trivia. I kind of wish that Bryson had written a more expansive history book about the Victorian era, with Shakespeare included in a chapter or three.

But it helps that this is Bill Bryson, and even though he’s not being as witty and funny as he usually is in something like The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid or his travel diaries, he’s still snappy and easy to read. The best bits are actually towards the end, where Bryson goes after the kooky Shakespeare conspiracy theorists –those who think that Shakespeare did NOT write Shakespeare and was secretly someone else or even a group of people– with the kind of wry, poking you in the ribs while we share a joke kind of way. This is the kind of Bryson I liked best, even if there was all too little of him.

Still, fun as it was to read I still closed the book at the end and thought “Well what was the point of that?” It was, if you will forgive me for making the painfully obvious joke, much ado about nothing.

52 Books in 52 Weeks

I know, I know, new year’s resolutions are so pedestrian. But this is one I’ve been thinking about for a while: I want to get through at least 52 books (or audiobooks) in 2008. Thus I’m embarking on the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.

I’ve seen this kind of thing floating around in different places, such as Shelfari.com and A Modest Construct, and I thought it sounded fun. The rules I’m setting for myself are simple:

  1. Read 52 books in 52 weeks, which you can probably figure out averages a book a week
  2. Write and post a review of each book on this blog, preferably on Fridays as I usually do anyway

I’ll keep track of the books here if you, you know, ever want to see how things are going. Also, if you have a blog (or whatever) and want to participate in this little exercise, let me know. I’ll add your blog to my RSS reader and be on the lookout for your reviews and/or reading list. As I post each week’s review I’ll link to any new reviews/updates you’ve made. Just leave a note in the comments for this entry or shoot me an e-mail.

And if you like you can change the goal to something more realistic for you –12 books or 100 books or whatever. The idea is to have a stretch goal that’s both attainable and challenging.

So, who’s in? The timer started ticking today!