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30Jun/08Off

Llots of Llamas

Llots of Llamas

Are you a llama lover? You are? You're in luck! My local camera club took an outing the other weekend to a llama farm out in the middle of nowhere. Some of you may know that I have a thing for llamas. And that thing is that I think they're awesome. So there was no way I could miss this.

I took ...MANY pictures of llamas there. I put some of my favorites in this Flickr set for your clicking and viewing pleasure. Careful, they spit.

Filed under: Photography 6 Comments
27Jun/08Off

Book Review: Einstein: His Universe and Life

Einstein

Note: This is book #29 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

A while back I had tried to read Walter Isaacson's biography on Benjamin Franklin, but just couldn't get through it because the author mired everything down in pointless details. Despite that, I decided to give his more recent book about famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein a try. If it turned out to be boring, I'd just drop it. Turned out, I loved it.

What I loved about Isaacon's book here is the way it delicately balances three aspects: the life of Einstein from a strictly biographical angle, the examination of his scientific works like special and general relativity, and the discussion of how Einstein impacted and viewed the scientific zeitgeist of the early 20th century --particularly within the field of physics. I could see how someone setting out to write this book might want to focus on just one or two of these facets, but that would really be missing a huge opportunity. Each member of this trio of topics interacts with each other, and Isaacson finds ways to discuss two or more of them within the same passage. We get interesting little tidbits about Einstein's personal life and character, but we see how those things impacted the way he pursued his scientific work and thinking, and how that body of work turn defined (or, later, ran counter to) the entire field of physics. Seeing how all these pieces intersected and linked was fascinating.

It's all pretty well written, too. We get neat little anecdotes about Einstein like how contrary to popular belief he never failed math, or how he married his cousin, had four citizenships, or how --SPOILER ALERT-- the coroner who performed his autopsy stole his fricking brain and kept it in a jar for years while periodically giving out pieces of it to friends. I'll admit that when Isaacson would go off on a lecture about special or general relativity my eyes would glaze over while trying to follow his discussion of say four-sided triangles in non-Euclidean space or whatever, but at least some of the time it was written at a level I could follow, at least conceptually. Enough to understand the impact it had on the field, at least until Einstein's own theories were supplanted by quantum theory. If I have any criticism of the book, it's that while Isaacson does an admirable job of placing Einstein's achievements within the context of scientific discoveries at that time, what he fails to do is give us much perspective on how much --if anything-- the modern science of today owes to Einstein and his theories. What did Einstein get wrong, and what parts of his theories have been crowded out by the inevitable march of scientific progress? Dunno. Didn't say.

All in all, though, I found the book fascinating and would recommend it. I think I may go back and give the Ben Franklin book another shot.

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

Filed under: Books 5 Comments
25Jun/08Off

Week 230: Pool, Words, and Yes

As you can probably see from the pictures, we had a pool-filled weekend thanks to Ger's godparents. Samantha continues her psychotic disregard for the danger of water when gathered in massive quantities, and has as her new thing jumping into the pool. But actually with the life vest on she's able to keep upright and her head above water, so she just takes constant surveilance if not contact.

Mandy also enjoyed the pool, and even got into the whole jumping in act. She'd stand at the edge of the pool looking at Ger or me with our arms raised up in preparation for saving her life, then yell "Jump! Jump!" before just kind of ...leaning and falling forward. Often she even went into the pool. Then she'd want to do it again.

Speaking of Mandy and speaking, I did a little experiment this weekend where I wrote down in a notebook every word she said. Here's where we ended up:

Mommy, cup, sister, Sammy, cat, car, Daddy, eat, please, milk, outside, chair, table, peas, TV, potty, bath, bed, teeth, no, down, home, go, Papa, doggie, swing, hat, sock, baby, book, bird, cow, star, read, poo-poo, shower, Mandy, ball, truck, bowl, napkin, bunny, stair, step, up, uh-oh, cheese, cracker, snack, hand, hair, and play.

And the weird thing is that she said all of these words at once on Friday night and then didn't say anything else the whole weekend. Curiously missing from that list, you may have noticed, is the word "Yes" or any variant thereof. Despite having learned to use "no" whenever something displeases here, Mandy has never said "yes," electing instead to nod vigorously. I'm giving her until next week.

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20Jun/08Off

Book Review: Mort

Mort

I wrote last week about how Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites was a bit of a letdown. Fortunately I didn't let that slow me up and went right into Mort, which is considered by many to be one of his better Diskworld books. Much like Equal Rites, Mort deals with the subject of apprenticeship, but it does it in a fairly different way. The eponymous character, Mort, is a clumsy but earnest young lad who is unsuited for just about any job his well meaning father can find for him. At a hiring fair, Mort's potential apprenticeship is turned down by everyone until the stroke of midnight when the grim reaper Death himself appears and agrees to teach Mort his own macabre craft. Mort accepts and starts immediately, largely unaware of the slightly madcap calamity waiting for him but willing to give an honest go at it.

Pratchett really seems to hit his stride with Mort, and his knack for clever writing and endearing characters is on full display. The jokes-per-page ratio is sky high, and a lot of them made me smile, snicker, or even laugh out loud. And Mort is a great character --he's a klutz who doesn't know he's a klutz, and in the course of the book his character really does change. Even Death is made into a sympathetic and interesting character, and I always find the idea of Death as an entity with a job to do fascinating and ripe for satire.

It's smart fun, and if you want a sample of what the Diskworld books are like to decide if they're for you, I'd recommend Mort since it's a self-contained story. If you like it, you can go back and read the first 3 books, then move on to the next ones. I am. But don't worry if you're not a fan; this is the last Pratchett book review for a few weeks.

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

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19Jun/08Off

Week 229: Father’s Day, Potty, and Paper

Quick update this week. Mostly pictures. What with gas being $4 a gallon and all.

Father's Day was last weekend, and I had a GREAT time of it. Besides a couple of nice shirts, Geralyn's main gift to me was on Saturday to gather up the various children living in our house and take them away for many hours. I then sat down in the basement and played video games all day, ate whatever I wanted, and took myself out to a summer action flick in the afternoon. It was AWESOME. This was all in reciprocation for my Mother's Day gift to Ger, which had me watching the kids while she went to a 12-hour scrapbooking jamboree. I sense a pair of annual traditions developing here...

You may have noticed that Mandy is starting to show interest in the potty. We got out the little plastic training potties, which really got her excited for some reason. She'll just stand there pointing at it, shouting "POTTY! POTTY!" over and over again. This shall, I think, be the last thing I ever write here about her toilet training, except to say that she needs to learn a little moderation when it comes to unspooling the toilet paper.

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13Jun/08Off

Book Review: Equal Rites

Equal Rites

Note: This is book #27 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I liked Terry Pratchett's first two Diskworld books so much that I drove forward into the awaiting pile of his subsequent writings with great relish. Unfortunately Equal Rites didn't impress me nearly as much, mainly for its lack of the funny for the first half of the book.

For those of you in need of a refresher, Pratchett's shtick is that he lampoons the high fantasy genre (wizards, barbarians, dragons, all that) without having his books drown in their own mockery. He's also very funny, even apart from the whole satire angle. Equal Rites focuses on not only the fantasy conventions of wizards, witches, and the apprenticeship thereof, but also on more contemporary issues like gender equality and women in the workplace. The main character, Esk, is a young girl who displays talent at the traditionally male craft of wizarding. When nobody else will have anything to do with her, she's taken on as an apprentice by a witch named Granny Weatherwax, a practitioner of the female half of the magic yin-yang. Granny, who is old, proud, insular, set in her ways, and distrustful of the world outside her cottage, makes it her quest to escort Esk from the country to the big city where she will enroll at Unseen University as the Disk's first female wizard. Hilarity ensues.

Well, hilarity eventually ensues. My main beef with Equal Rites is that it's really slow to get to the funny. The first half of the book preoccupies itself with Esk's coming of age as a sort of wizard/witch hybrid and her apprenticeship to Granny Weatherwax. They spend a fair amount of time stomping around in the wilderness learning about herbs and communing with animals, and other kinds of witchcraft. Pratchett strikes me as the kind of writer who can make anything funny, but it's like he's purposely holding back or too ill at ease with the whole scene to break out and be himself beyond the occasional wise crack. It's not until Esk and Granny arrive at Unseen University that Pratchett seems to find his groove and remind me so much why I enjoyed his previous two books. Maybe that's the reason why Esk has never reappeared to date in any other Diskworld novel (though I understand Granny Weatherwax becomes a major character in her own way).

So, while Equal Rites isn't a bad little comic relief, it's not as good as the other 5 Diskworld books I've read to date. And it's short, so it shouldn't distract you for long on your way to the better stuff.

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

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12Jun/08Off

Week 228: VBS, Climbing, and Cats

Since Sam is out of preschool for the summer, we have endeavored to pad out her social calendar a bit. Last week Geralyn signed her up for a kind of Bible camp held at one of the local churches. Since I grew up a Southern Baptist in America's heartland, I was somewhat familiar with this concept from having attended many backyard vacation Bible schools of my own. Most of these involved sitting around someone's back yard listening to Bible stories, banging the crap out of tambourines while singing about blood and crosses, and roving the neighborhood in small gangs trying to guilt other parents into sending their kids to the camp tomorrow. So, you know, I thought I kinda knew what to expect.

Well, things have changed a bit. Apparently Samantha was sent to something called Powerlab VBS, which is an entirely pre-packaged VBS event with startlingly high production values and a whole science/laboratory theme. It's like a franchise you can purchase. Seriously, it's the Dunkin Donuts of vacation Bible schools, as envisioned by Industrial Light and Magic. Geralyn went and saw for herself, and there were huge productions, LIVE BANDS, games, original movies, activities, pyrotechnics, and a periodic table where all the elements were replaced by books of the Bible (with all the Gospels arranged to correspond with the noble gases, of course). Sam even brought home some little action figures and a CD full of catchy Christian music with what sounds like the Vienna Boys Chior all hopped up on equal parts methamphetamines and the Holy Spirit.

Sam loves to listen to the CD and try to sing along, but the most she can seem to manage is "POWER, POWER, POWER! He's mumblemumblemumble POWER, POWER, POWER!" She has also started to repeatedly ask her if we have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior, to which we reply yes, yes and we actually knew Him before He was all cool and had His own gigantic bubble machine out in the parking lot.

Mandy did not get to partake in the festivities, but instead enjoyed some quality running errands time with Mommy. Mandy continues to get more and more mobile, and has added "climbing on anything she can get a good grip on" to her repertoire. This includes couches, chairs, the cat, me, and several other dangerous things. Her speech also continues to broaden, though the occasional two-word combination still marks the apex of her linguistic prowess. She also seems to have an infatuation with cats. During our nightly book reading the other night turned to a page that had a picture of a kitten and just sat there saying "Cat, cat, cat" over and over again, refusing to let me turn the page. I guess she knows what she likes.

Filed under: Parenting No Comments
6Jun/08Off

Book Review: Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational

Note: This is Book #26 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008. I'm at the halfway point and going strong!

It's only about the middle of the year, but I think Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational is a shoe-in for my favorite non-fiction book of 2008. When I was studying psychology one of my favorite topics was judgment and decision-making, which dealt in large part with the kinks in the human mind that could lead us to irrational behavior and decisions. Why are you likely to pay more for something if you are shown a large number completely unrelated to the price? Why do people who read words like "elderly," "decrepit," or "senior" tend to walk more slowly when they get up and leave the room? Why does losing a dollar cause us more pain than gaining a dollar gives us pleasure? Why are we more likely to buy a product we're not even shopping for or don't even need if we're given a free sample? And, perhaps most importantly, how do people in the know --people like advertisers, politicians, and psychology graduate students-- use these ideosycracities to subtly manipulate us?

These are the kinds of questions that Ariely, a professor at MIT, discusses under the rubric of "behavioral economics." Each chapter is dedicated to a particular concept, like the anchoring effect, priming, social norms, supply and demand, procrastination, loss avoidance, the effects of price on perception, and the like. Ariely usually chats you up a bit about the concept, then walks you through a scenario or hypothetical situation that invites you to make predictions about human behavior, then comes at you with some findings from scientific research (often experiments that he's done himself) that turns your assumptions on their little figurative ears.

Ariely's style is great --conversational, to the point, made relevant to some part of your life, and easy to follow despite navigating some tricky twists of the human psyche. And it's not just dry recitations of clinical psychology experiments --everything talked about here is ensconced in everyday life. For example, this book should win some award for describing some fascinating research on the effects of sexual arousal on decision making. Let's just say that it involved naughty pictures, experimenter issued laptops covered in protective Seran Wrap, and answering some very odd questions while in the throes of ...well, you know. I'm now more disappointed than ever that all of my extra credit in college psychology classes was never earned from anything so interesting. I just had to look at ink blots and fill out the MMPI over and over again.

Really, anyone with even an ounce of curiosity about how the human mind works --or fails to work-- within the context of every day life should find a lot of fascinating material in this book. You should definitely pick it up. And then, preferably, read it.

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

Filed under: Books 3 Comments
3Jun/08Off

Week 227: Pigs, Rides, and Combos

Summer is officially here, as evidenced by how I get sunburned if I stand too close to an exterior wall and the arrival of local community carnivals. Our church had the first of the latter this weekend, and we had to make an appearance. Sam had a blast. She started off right by winning a carnival game where they had a dozen little robotic pigs lined up on a race track, and you had to place a bet on which would reach the finish line first. If you picked right, you won a little pig hat. Sam picked the winning pig, but when it reached its destination first she misinterpreted the rules and made a grab for the toy pig itself. She almost got away with it, too. Fortunately, things were put right and she looks good in the pig hat.

There were also rides set up in the church parking lot, but as usual they did nothing to put me at ease. Think about it: This kind of traveling show is designed to easily come apart and move down the road to the next venue. This sense of disquiet was amplified when I noticed that one of the giant teacups that Sam rode in had its gate held together by --and I'm totally serious here-- duct tape.

My anxiety reached its apex when Sam wanted to ride on what was perhaps the most terrifying attraction, one of those giant contraptions that spins hapless children up and around 30 feet off the ground in little metal chairs that don't look any sturdier than what you might find on any inner city playground's swingset. Look, here's a picture. Sam insisted, though, and so the indifferent Catholic Carny strapped her in. I cringed at the base of the machine, waiting for the inevitable snapping sound that would precede Sam's trip over the horizon in a screaming tangent to the ride's jolly circle. Or would be an ellipse? No, I think it would be a tangent, but I'm not entirely sure. I never really took any advanced geometry in school. I would have, but I didn't know it would apply so directly to my progeny's demise at the hands of rickety carnival equipment.

Mandy is doing great, and has managed to go an entire week without suffering some bodily injury --hooray! She's starting to use two-word combinations, like "Hi, Daddy!" or "Mama's cup" so that's very cool. And her vocabulary in general is skyrocketing thanks to her hitting that stage where she repeats all kinds of words she hears and walks around muttering the names of things to herself, accompanied by fervent and sometimes vaguely accusatory pointing.

She's also gotten to the age where she can really interact and play with Sammy, which is hilarious to watch when it's not exasperating. Sam will shout orders and directives ("Follow! Follow! Follow!" seems to be her favorite playtime script), and half the time Mandy will comply but the other half of the time she'll completely ignore Sam and do her own thing. At any rate, the best thing is to see them doing something silly together that makes them lean in towards each other and laugh big and hard. When they do that I just have to smile myself, because those are the times when it feels the most like we're family.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments