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29Mar/10Off

Week 322: Early Easter and RAWK

We got a bit of a head start on Easter as you can see from the pics below.

This was at some little Easter egg hunt at a local park, but they had a massive turnout. The kids were all segregated by age group, but over in the "Ages 1 to 3" lot Mandy had the advantage of being at the top of her age bracket. She put this to good use, sprinting ahead of the crowd when the whistle blew and throwing the occasional elbow into the face of the 18-month olds who got into her way. I had to do a lot of apologizing, but she scooped up the little plastic eggs by the armload and was well pleased with herself.

Sam didn't quite do as well despite being at the top of her own age bracket. The differences between 6 and 4 are not as tower as between 3 and 1, for it seems that once you learn to walk and generally control your limbs it levels the playing field dramatically. Still, she did score one special egg containing a prize ticket that awarded her a stuffed animal. Because, you know. SHE NEEDS MORE STUFFED ANIMALS.

The girls spent the rest of the weekend playing with some stuff that their Aunt Shawn had mailed them a bit ahead of the holiday, including some sunglasses that they put to good use totally rocking out. Notice Sam's tee shirt, please. She's legit. What Mandy lacked in proper instruments, she more than made up for in sheer attitude and furiously banging two nondescript pieces of plastic together as hard as she could.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
26Mar/10Off

Book Review: Men at Arms

Men at Arms is Terry Pratchett's fifteenth ...woah, really? This is the fifteenth Discwordld book? And I'm not even HALFWAY done with the series yet? And he's still writing them? That's AWESOME!

Anyway, in Men at Arms returns to the metropolis of Ank-Morpork, specifically the Night Watch charged with preventing suicides, such as suicide by strolling through the wrong part of town or saying the wrong thing to any of its inhabitants. Captain Samuel Vimes is relegated mostly a B-story for most of the novel, allowing Pratchett to focus more on the new recruits foisted on the Watch by the city's new affirmative action. But since on the Disc Black and White live in harmony on account of their ganging up on Green, the race relations here have more to do with dwarfs, trolls, and the undead being added to the Watch's ranks. Pratchett has a ton of fun with this concept, playing both sides by skewering the idea of affirmative action in employment while simultaneously lampooning people who are biased against other races without even really being aware of it.

Of course, that's not all. There's also some fun stuff about detective novels, investigative police dramas (Corporal Carrot of the Watch does a great Columbo impersonation), charismatic leadership, gun control, clowns, and the domestication of dogs. Speaking of which, Men at Arms gets bonus points for including Gaspode the Wonder Dog, the talking mongrel who only survives his many diseases (including Lickey End, which you only get if you're a pregnant sheep) because "the little buggers are too busy fighting among themselves."

All in all, another great book in one of my favorite settings with some of my favorite characters. Pratchett really shows that he's more than a simple satirist, he's actually a good writer capable of including characters that are subtle and nuanced while still standing in as proxies for larger concepts that the author wants to lampoon. I don't imagine that it's easy to do something like that.

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25Mar/10Off

Weight Loss Week 12: 9.5 pounds to go

March 25 weight: 171.5

Weight a week ago: 172.5

5 day avg weight: 171.6

5 day avg weight a week ago: 173.7

Workouts in last 7 days: 6

Another week another pound. That loss should be higher. I was weighing in at 170.5 yesterday and the day before, then ate poorly yesterday. Still, I'm down over TWO pounds if you look at the 5-day running average. I hope to drop into the 160s next week or the week after at the latest.

Graph!

Weight loss graph week 12

Picture:

And just for fun, here's me photobombing my daughter after she asked to play with the camera remote:

You probably can't tell from the photos, but it seems that one place the weight loss is really showing itself is my face. I've actually got a more squared off chin now (the trademark Madigan chin, which my dad had, which my sister has, and which Mandy has) and I swear sometimes you can see cheekbones. There's stil some soft/baggy flesh under my lower jaw, but even that is diminishing. It's nice to see. Or not see.

Filed under: General 1 Comment
19Mar/10Off

Book Review: Under the Dome

With my tepid reaction to recent Stephen King books like Just After Sunset, Duma Key, Cell, and Lisey's Story, I was kind of prepared to be vaguely disappointed by Under the Dome. I wasn't. In fact, it's one of my favorite King books to date, because it harkens back to a lot of what I loved about his earlier work. It also does some stuff that's new for King.

This epic novel (the print version is over 1,000 pages long while the audiobook version took me 35.5 total hours to listen to) tells the sad tale of what happened when the town of Chester's Mill is suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an inexplicable, dome-shaped force field. There's relatively little supernatural or sci-fi to the story beyond that, as what King seems really interested in is examining how the social fabric of a small town ripples, strains, and eventually tears when Chester's Mill becomes insular to an extreme. At the center of society's startlingly rapid deterioration is the opportunistic and sociopathic politician James "Big Jim" Rennie, a town Selectman and --I kid you not-- used car dealer. Big Jim takes "dome day" as an opportunity to seize and consolidate power in Chester's Mill, building a ruthless police force and deftly manipulating public opinion in his favor. Opposing Rennie is Dale "Barbie" Barbera, a drifter and ex-Army Captain who had worn out his welcome in town but becomes trapped there by the dome. Barbie and his cohorts do their best to counter Rennie's machinations, but they have to swim against the tide of apocalyptic hysteria and mob mentality created by the dome disaster. That and the fact that things seem to break Big Jim's way at every turn.

The concept of a small Main town alienated from the rest of the world and preyed upon by sinister forces is one that King has worked extensively with before. It's the central theme of both Needful Things and Storm of the Century, plus it shows up in other works like The Tommyknockers, and Desperation/The Regulators. But King explores the concept a lot more thoroughly and a lot more convincingly in Under the Dome, if for no other reason that he shows how the people of Chester's Mill are responsible for their own doom moreso than the dome. The dome is just there. It's the people, and the mob they form, that freaks the hell out and turns to Jim Rennie for help. It's the people who blindly believes in Big Jim to the point of savaging each other and tolerating his abuse "for the good of the town." The town cracks along the fault lines of human nature, and with Jim Rennie in charge things get really bad astonishingly quickly.

Likewise, King does a pretty good job of showing how the voices of reason, like newspaper owner Julia Shumway and physician's assistant Rusty Everett, have their work cut out for them. And in the last few chapters of the book everything goes to hell (as it always does in King's stories) and people are fighting just to stay alive, sometimes without success, in a poisonous and polluted environment. This part was pretty effectively done and evoked genuine despair in me.

You may be thinking, "Hrmm. That makes me think of Iraq. And global climate change. And the Bush administration." To which I would say, "Yep, pretty much." Under The Dome is clearly King's most nakedly political (or allegorical, if you prefer) work. Big Jim Rennie and his easily manipulated First Selectman Andy Sanders are CLEARLY stand-ins for Dick Cheney and George Bush, respectively. The rapid deterioration of the air and weather inside the dome is CLEARLY global warming writ small. The town's rapidly expanded and sadistic police force CLEARLY embodies the deterioration of civil liberties in the last decade. This is not subtle stuff, people, and you wouldn't have to hunt very far to find King going on record with it. But at the same time it clicked for me, and Under the Dome becomes not only King's most exciting book in a while (it has an amazingly peppy pace for such a long work with a whole town's worth of characters) but also perhaps his most insightful and relevant examination of human nature.

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18Mar/10Off

Weight Loss Week 11: 10.5 pounds to go

March 18 weight: 172.5

Weight a week ago: 173.5

Last 5 days avg weight: 173.7

Workouts in last 7 days: 5

I've lost one pound (or 1.3 pounds if you go by the running 5-day average) in the last week. That's okay. Not great, but okay. It's progress. Graph:

Weight loss graph week 11

Unfortunately I didn't live up to my pledge to avoid the "Monday spike" I talked about last week. This probably had something to do with the St. Patrick's Day celebration over the weekend, with specific blame going, oddly enough, not to beer but to baked goods. Part of me says I should have opted for the beer.

Sorry, no picture this week. I find it harder to get up in the morning with daylight savings time and I was running late this morning. Maybe I should start taking them Wednesday evening.

With the weather warming up I'm starting to get outside to run a bit more, and I'm reminded of how much better (and more demanding) it is than running on a treadmill. Still, I can still run well over 5K at a time on the ground, so I shouldn't have any trouble finishing next month's 5K race. I actually haven't attempted a long run (by which I mean in the 10 kilometer or 6 mile range) on the ground yet. I hope to soon if the weather would stop slingshotting around.

Filed under: General 1 Comment
16Mar/10Off

Week 320: Happy St. Patrick’s Day

As you can probably see, we celebrated St. Patrick's Day a little bit early at our church's annual ...whatsitcalled. Thing. Carnival. Event. There were games and food and beer. The girls partaked of two of the three.

Mandy has generally been on good behavior, but one event does bear mentioning. We had put her to bed for the evening and thought she was down to stay, but when Geralyn came upstairs to get ready for bed, she found that all of her fingernail polish bottles had been arranged on the bathroom counter and every one of them opened. The thing is that the mess you'd expect was nowhere to be seen. Not a drop of the stuff was anywhere, but it was too late and too dark to inspect Mandy so had to go to bed and lie awake for quite some time wondering what she'd look like when she bounded in to greet us in the morning. Turns out that she had actually done a fairly good job of painting just her fingernails (and one toe), without making a mess. So Geralyn let her redo the job with green fingernail polish in honor of St. Patrick.

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12Mar/10Off

Book Review: Nudge

The full title here is Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and between them the two authors, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, can claim a substantial amount of expertise in psychology, economics, law, and public policy. The stated goal of the book is to take lessons from these four areas and squish them into a concept that the authors dub "libertarian paternalism." The idea is that as libertarians the two believe in free information and free choice in all things public and private, but as students of behavioral economics and psychology they know that most people, most of the time, simply make bad decisions on account of our human nature. This is a book about how to fix that. Or at least improve things relative to the status quo.

Specifically, Thaler and Sunstein propose a series of "nudges" that spring from the way that choices are presented, framed, and informed. Early on they give the example of Carolyn, a fictional director of food services for a public school. Carlyn wants the students at her school to eat healthy, but she has limited control over menus so she can't just ban unhealthy food --nor does she necessarily think she should. But what she can do is nudge children into making healthier choices by changing how food is presented and what information kids are given about their choices. Putting carrots at eye level while chips are relegated to the bottom shelf, for example, would translate to more carrots being eaten. Or including milk with the value meal by default, even if kids can request to substitute soda for free. It's not a matter of forcing (read: legislating) students to eat their damn carrots, but rather creating what the authors call a helpful choice architecture that encourages the students to make better decisions on their own by side stepping (or even capitalizing on) well known foibles in human decision-making.

After a few introductory chapters to explore these foibles (think anchoring, framing, availability heuristic, loss aversion, status quo bias, etc.), Thaler and Sunstein run with the idea by showing how to create choice architectures that favor their libertarian paternalism approach to public policy and personal choices in everyday life. Specifically, they show how to nudge people into saving more money for retirement, investing money better, choosing a better prescription drug plan, increasing organ donation, protecting the environment, choosing the right school for their kids, and more. I have to admit that I enjoyed the early chapters on psychology and behavioral economics more than the later chapters, which became more nakedly political, but there are a lot of really solid ideas in here, even if they are of varying levels of practicality.

The authors also have a great style. They keep things friendly, funny, and engaging, with the occasional vignette, figure, or photograph to illustrate their points as needed. I was rarely bored, even when talk turned to traditionally tiresome subjects like 401(k) savings, prescription drug plans, and fuel economy. And the book is full of thoughtful insights on how human psychology plays into everyday decisions and, more importantly, how to avoid those kinks in the human brain that often lead to poor decisions about things that really matter.

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11Mar/10Off

Weight Loss Week 10: 11.5 pounds to go

March 11 weight: 173.5

Weight a week ago: 175

Last 5 days avg weight: 175

Workouts in last 7 days: 6

Okay, back on track and trending in the right direction. I had been worrying that this would be another bad weigh in.

Graph:

Weight loss graph week 10

And here's a picture. Happy St. Patrick's Day. God, why are my pants hitched halfway up to my armpits?

Weight Loss picture week 10

I noticed something about the graph. Notice how it regularly spikes. Those spikes? Seven days apart. Every Monday. Every one of those spikes is a Monday weigh-in. The implication is pretty clear: I do fine when I'm at work and I have little choice but to eat what I packed. I could go out or go to a vending machine, but that's kind of a pain. At home on the weekends, though, I'm more likely to snack and eat bigger meals at breakfast and lunch. Apparently.

So, here's my new mini-goal: No spike come this Monday. I'm counting every calorie again to help make this happen, but I want to see that green line smoothed out next Thursday.

Filed under: General 3 Comments
9Mar/10Off

Week 319

As you may be able to see from the picture above, Sam's latest mania is Batman, fueled by our semi-regular evening sessions of Lego Batman. Like any good geek, she immediately clued into the fact that the best part of the whole Batman thing is the rogue's gallery. Pictured above, from left to right, are Catwoman, The Riddler, and Man-Bat. She had also drawn Joker, Clayface, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Two-Face, and Killer Moth, and Mad Hatter. The Poison Ivy one was actually really elaborate, with plants, flowers, and stuff.

Mandy's new obsession, you can see, is scribbling on her own face with magic marker and then saying "ROWR! I'M A CAT!" Which make Sam mad, because she always wants to be Catwoman.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
4Mar/10Off

Game Review: Borderlands

Gearbox's Borderlands is kind of a weird bird as far as first person shooters go. In some ways it smacks of a game that wasn't quite 100% finished, and you get the inkling that its publisher just jettisoned it out into the wild, knowing full well that it might flop to the ground and die. It's supposed to have role-playing elements like quests and NPCs, but the world of Pandora seems anemic and sterile, lacking in people to talk to, things to interact with, and stuff to do that's not shooting bandits or local fauna until they die. There are NPCs standing around, but they're soulless and by and large don't do anything other than utter the same stock phrase. Most of the "quests" involve murdering bandits or collecting Pandora's equivalent of Goretusk livers. The nifty sci-fi meets wild West vibe aside, it's not very engaging.

And yet, somehow, Borderlands manages to be a ton of fun, due in part to funny writing but mostly thanks to the gameplay. The combat mechanics of aiming, shooting, and triggering special abilities just feels right, and it took a long time before it got to feeling old. The leveling up mechanic and 4 character classes also gave you some fun tactical choices to make, with different buildouts and class choices giving you many options on how to approach shooting things in the face (I myself played a soldier with emphasis on building up my deployable Scorpio turret). The "bajillions of guns" loot mechanic where the game randomly cobbles together weapons by combining different attributes is a bit oversold (I found it too mentally taxing to evaluate slight differences in weapons across so many factors), but it does add a nice incentive to keep checking treasure chests and an occasional payoff when you score something clearly better than what you've currently got.

One other design philosophy that I feel compelled to comment on is that Gearbox apparently started with a goal of making everything player friendly and then sprinted past that goal line into "crazy" territory. But crazy in a good way. There's ample fast travel options, for example, and vending machines are conveniently if absurdly stationed in the wilds wherever you need them. Even getting gunned down by your foes barely rates as a minor annoyance, as you just respawn nearby and only have to take a small hit to a bank account that grows to obscene balances early in the game. It's not very challenging, but it is FUN, and I'm all on board for that.

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4Mar/10Off

Weight Loss Week 9: 13 pounds to go

March 4 weight: 175

Weight a week ago: 174

Last 5 days avg weight: 175.6

Workouts in last 7 days: 6

Feh. Bad week, not sure what else to say. The culprit is, as usual, diet. I really need to rein that in and see what I can do over the next 7 days.

Graph.

Weight loss graph week 9

I was running late this morning, so I didn't grab a picture yet. I'll try to snap one tonight and update this post. If not, just use your imagination

And now, I'm going to get ready to head to the gym.

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2Mar/10Off

Week 318

The girls dug into one of the cabinets the other day and decided to ROCK OUT. And in this case, "rocking out" involved Sam's bellowing songs about princesses and Batman while Mandy beat the ever living daylights out of a tiny toy piano. Rolling Stone has been notified.

Filed under: Parenting 3 Comments