Sunday, December 28, 2008

All I got for Christmas

There aren't many better ways to know what people's perceptions of you are than to see what they got you for Christmas. Here's my loot-list for this year:

I'll let you make your own judgments as to what sort of person I am based on this list.

So what gift did you get that best fits your personality?

Life's Little Annoyances

Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore by Ian Urbina

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
An interesting, albeit very quick, read, Urbina recounts stories of people who got fed up at the little annoyances of everyday life (excessive cell phone charges, tailgaters, telemarketers) and decided to do something about it. In general, the stories read more like accounts of grumpy people who are just being ornery, but a few of the entries are humorous and even useful. My personal favorite: the guy who adjusted the sprayer on his car's rear window to spray onto cars that are tailgating.

A moderately entertaining distraction, but not a book to approach too seriously.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Great commercial

For some reason, this video makes me totally happy. The song is "Let Your Love Flow" by the Bellamy Brothers and I just downloaded it from Amazon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beards of Our Forefathers

Wondermark: Beards of our Forefathers Wondermark: Beards of our Forefathers by David Malki

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wondermark is a webcomic written by David Malki in which he adds dialogue to reprints of Victorian-era panels. In principle, the idea sounds ridiculous, but the humor comes in applying modern-day issues and speech to what are, effectively, really old pictures. It's certainly a unique brand of humor, but I've found it significantly smarter than most webcomics out there (which isn't saying much), without being snooty or condescending.

Beards of Our Forefathers is just a print collection of the comics that have appeared online, with some commentary and additional content added by the author. It's a great, light-hearted, easy read that definitely draws out a few belly laughs.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Areas of My Expertise

The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman

This is by far one of the most random, bizarre, and yet still funny books I've ever read. Hodgman (the PC from those "I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" commercials) has written an almanac, in the old Benjamin Franklin style. The catch is: everything is completely made up. He talks about the discovery of the furry lobster, and recounts how hobos took over the country for several years at the middle of the 19th century. I know, it doesn't sound like it makes any sense, and that's because IT DOESN'T. If you could take the randomness of a Douglas Adams book and combine it with the journalistic integrity of Dave Barry, and then somehow make it even more bizarre, you'd have something approaching this book.

But here's the catch - it's still kind of funny. You get to reading, and you just sit there and shake your head because none of it makes any sense, but you keep reading, and the sheer ridiculousness starts to get to you. When you're reading his 400-entry list of hobo names, you start giggling once you get past the first hundred.

This book is NOT for everyone. You've got to be in a mood for something well-written but completely silly.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pet peeves

  • “Its” is a possesive pronoun. Example: “I took its candy and ate it while it cried.”
  • “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” Example: “It’s not fair that I took its candy, but such is life.”
  • “Your” is a possesive pronoun. Example: “Give me your candy.”
  • “You’re” is a contraction of “you are.” Example: “You’re going to give me your candy or you’re going to receive a sound beating.”
  • “There” is used like “here.”
  • “Their” means “it belongs to them.”
  • “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.”
  • “i.e.” is an abbreviation of the Latin “id est,” meaning “that is.”
  • “e.g.” is an abbrevation of the Latin “exempli gratia,” meaning “for example.”
  • These two terms are not interchangeable.
  • “Thou” is a second-person prounoun, equivalent to “you,” but not when used as a direct object. Use it as you would use “I.” “Thou took my candy” is correct. “I took the candy from thou” is not correct. For that case you would use:
  • “Thee.” Equivalent to you when used as a direct object. Use it as you would use “me.” “I took the candy from thee” is correct.
  • “Thy” is a possesive pronoun, equivalent to “your.”

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Not a geography major

I just had the following exchange with a Sprint operator:

“I’d like to know how much it would cost to place a call to Austria from my cell phone.”

“Of course, sir, I can help you with that. Where did you say you wanted to call?”



“No, Austria.”

“Can you spell that, please?”


“Okay, please hold, sir.”

Three-minute hold.

“Thanks for holding, sir. I have the information about your call to Aus… Austra.. Aus…”


“I can’t even say it!”


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How to Survive a Robot Uprising

How to Survive a Robot Uprising [UNABRIDGED] How to Survive a Robot Uprising [UNABRIDGED] by Daniel H. Wilson

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of those books that is presented very tongue-in-cheek, similar to The Zombie Survival Guide: what do you do when the robots begin to take over the world? Anyone who's seen a sci-fi film in the last, well, ever, knows that the day is coming.

The secret to these types of books, where a completely ludicrous situation is presented completely seriously, is to never ever blink. The author has to maintain the illusion that he's serious the entire time, even though we the readers know that he's not.

The difference between this book and The Zombie Survival Guide is that this one is actually educational: Wilson was a PhD candidate in robotics when the book was written, so the book actually describes real, present-day elements of robotics development and what the future might hold.

The book is a quick, easy read, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in how robotics actually work, especially if you're willing to have a bit of a sense of humor about it.

View all my reviews.

I have a bad feeling about this

I have a project here at work that will be fully realized at 3:00 pm, January 15th, 2009. I'm trying to assess the threats to that project, and I made the following estimates:
  • There are about 40 independent problems that could cause this whole thing to be a catastrophic failure.
  • I know of about 20 of these problems.
  • I understand 10 of them.
  • I am currently working to solve 4 of them.
  • I figure maybe two of them have any chance of being solved in time

Sunday, November 16, 2008

We dance a lot at our house

Aretha Franklin is a popular choice.

Kids dancing from cbalmain on Vimeo.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Now send me money

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The most awesome birthday gift ever

Last week, for my birthday, Ann got me the most awesome birthday gift ever: clothes. Normally, clothes are the lamest gift possible (except for maybe deodorant - I actually got that as a gift once). But in this case, it was perfect.

Okay, let me explain. First, you have to watch the following clip from the classic comedy Three Amigos. To set the scene: it's El Guapo's 40th birthday, and he's feeling a bit self-conscious about his age, so Jefe is throwing him a party.

Three Amigos from cbalmain on Vimeo.

I was born on October 31st, 1975. So this year, for my 33rd birthday, Ann got me a sweater. And because it's such an inside joke for us, the inherent lameness of the gift is overcome by its staggering awesomeness. Thanks, babe - you rock.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What "Quantum of Solace" means

The new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, comes out this week. Bond movie titles are often meaningless relative to the plot of the movie; this one however seems particularly bizarre. The title is actually that of a Bond short story that has nothing to do with the plot of the movie. In the story, Ian Fleming describes a Quantum of Solace this way:

"Quantum of Solace - the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you can say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it's obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You've got to get away to save yourself."

A quantum of solace is the smallest amount of feeling that a relationship requires to stay alive. Once that measurement reaches zero, there's nothing left to the relationship. Who knew that a Bond movie title could be so profound?

Oh, and QUANTUM is the name of the evil organization in the movie, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

72 hours

Now that the election is over, here's what I hope for: 72 hours to get over it.

McCain fans, you've got 72 hours to mourn the loss, groan for what could have been, fear for what will be. Then, take down the yard signs, peel the McCain/Palin '08 stickers off the bumper of your Chevy, and get behind Obama. Because, for better or worse, he's the guy now, and if you don't get behind him, your fears may become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Obama fans, you've got 72 hours to celebrate, revel in the uniqueness of this moment, shout about the change that's coming. Then, take down the yard signs, peel the Obama/Biden '08 stickers off the bumper of your Prius, and move on. Because you can still screw this whole thing up if the spirit of divisiveness continues.

Mr. President-Elect Obama, you've got what you wanted. The American people have spoken, you've been given a mandate, and you've got a lot to prove now. I am very cautiously optimistic that you can pull this off, that you can raise our standing in the world and start to pull us out of this economic hole. You've been given the trust of our nation, now run with it. Prove to me this change you keep talking about is a good thing.

And Republican party, you've been given a mandate too. In four years, it's my sincere hope that you will present the American people with a good alternative, someone who people can embrace as much as they appear to be embracing Obama, someone who can be respected both by the nation and by the world.

And now, I shall step down from my soapbox.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Postcard #1 from the Wasteland

Bethesda, the company that created Fallout 3, also developed Oblivion, another amazing RPG I played a couple years ago. One of their trademarks is to set the first level in a confined area, teach you a little about the game, and then turn you out into the Real World. Fallout 3 is no different.

The first 30 minutes or so of the game are spent in Vault 101, an underground labyrinth of tunnels. When you step out of the tunnel to look out at the world, the screen is bright white, as if you’re blinded by the light. This is the best part about the game, that moment when the expectation and excitement of the world you’re about to explore sets in. This is what I saw:

You can find a higher-resolution version of the picture here. Remember that ultimately I'll be able to go to every place you can see in this picture. Note the sign labeled “Scenic Overlook” in the foreground and the ruins of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument way in the background. Apparently ads featuring these ruins had some people upset in Washington, D.C.

My character’s name is Plebius (a name I commonly use in these games). He’s a quiet type, but he’s handy with rifles and great at picking locks. I’ve made it over to the town of Megaton, which you can just see on the right side of the picture, and which has a live nuclear bomb sitting in the middle of it. Apparently I’ll ultimately get to choose whether to detonate the bomb or not. Plebius is kind of an anti-social type who likes explosions, so I suspect he’ll end up pushing the button.


Fallen Fallen by David Maine

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
David Maine's sophomore outing is just as engaging as his previous work,The Preservationist. This is the story of Adam and Eve, their banishment from the Garden, and the effects on them and their children, particularly Cain and Abel. This is the story of WHY. Why did Eve eat the fruit? Why did Adam eat it as well? Why did Cain hate Abel and ultimately murder him? The blanks are filled in, and the characters, so dimly understood from the Bible, are fleshed out.

Obviously this book is not canonical; it's truly a work of fiction. But it forces the reader to at least consider these characters as real people, people who were motivated by a difficult life and a lingering sense of failure. Adam and Eve are forced to spend hundreds of years of their lives living beneath the shadow of "what-if," and this shadow looms over their children as well. Cain and Abel are developed into two extremes: Abel the optimistic, blindly-trusting, perhaps dim-witted good son, and Cain the bipolar, brooding difficult one.

The book is constructed in a way that forces you to focus closely on what's happening. I won't give it away - you'll understand what I mean by the second or third chapter - but it's really an interesting way to write a book that I've never encountered before.

Once again, Maine has taken some very sketchy characters from the Bible and built a plausible if fantastic world around them. If you liked his first book, you'll like this one. The Book of Samson is now fully on my list as well.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Preparing for the Apocalypse

I suspect that when many people think of video games, Super Mario Bros for the NES comes immediately to mind. That was truly a defining game for my generation and established a standard for years to come. Of course, EVERYONE remembers Pac-Man, the game that started the video game crazy of the early ‘80s. Was there anything cooler than those sit-down Pac-Man booths at Pizza Hut? And then there’s my Dad, who still believes that Janitor Joe is the pinnacle of interactive computer gaming.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today, Fallout 3 comes out.

Doesn't look much like Super Mario, does it?

To be honest, I never played Fallouts 1 or 2, but somehow I suspect this game will be incredible. Set in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., the universe is completely open-ended. You can become any type of person you want: a sniper, a spy, a smooth-talker, a liar, the good guy, the bad guy, or anything in between. Fallout 3 was created by the same people who developed The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the game that holds my personal record for most time played; last I checked I was at about 120 hours. I love this type of role-playing, where you can go out and do anything you want to do and become anything you want to be. I strongly suspect this game will grab me by the throat and keep me engaged for a very, very long time. I’ll keep you updated on my travels. When I start playing tonight, instead of setting out on any particular quest, I’ll just start walking, say, north – and see what kind of trouble I can get into.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Parenting is HARD!

Monkey: But Daddy, I want it to be dark now.

Me: Well, we have to wait for the sun to go down.

Monkey: I wish we had a remote control to make the sun go down faster.

Me: Well, God controls the sun, not us.

Monkey: How does He make the sun go down?

Me: It doesn’t really go down, the Earth just spins and so it LOOKS like the sun is moving.

Monkey: So how does God make the Earth keep spinning?

Me: Um, he started it spinning long ago and it just keeps going because of... um… (some mumble about rotational momentum).

Monkey: So how did he make it spin long ago?

Me: Umm, well, there were these accretions disks and it just kind of started spinning and… well… it’s complicated.

Ann: Nice recovery.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

If Canadians didn't have Pilgrims...

Then why do they have Thanksgiving?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

You can't deny it

Immaculate Conception of the Shark would make an awesome name for a rock band.

Friday, October 10, 2008

My idea of a great meal

When I was growing up in Argentina, my dad would take me out on my birthday to get a parrillada mixta, which we called a "Guts 'n' Grease Galore Gala." It was a mixed grill of meats, some of them normal by American standards, some of them not so much. The exact meats that were served varied, but the picture below gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about:

Picture used with permission from Buenos Aires Daily

Man, that was some good eatin'. I didn't really like the kidney or morcilla (seriously, you've not seen gross till you've seen someone spread morcilla on bread - thanks for THAT image, Dad). But I could eat molleja and chinchulines all day long. I even got a parrillada once that had "seso" on it - look that one up. In case you didn't know, molleja is sweetbread, which is apparently the thymus gland. Sounds a lot more disgusting when you call it that.

True story: my aunt was scheduled for some type of intestinal surgery, so my dad went down to the butcher shop and bought a pile of raw chinchulines, effectively a bunch of small intestine. He grilled them up, took a picture of us chowing down on them, and sent the picture off to his little sister. An idea that's twisted, yet so awesome - sort of like the chinchulines themselves.

I truly miss this type of food, and believe me, it's not something available around here. Throw in some of that incredibly hard, crusty bread and you've got yourself a great birthday meal. I'd pay a lot for that these days...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Yeah, I'm pretty much that cute.

Vanilla Bean dancing from cbalmain on Vimeo.

You've taken your first step into a larger world.

On Saturday, the Monkey and I watched the first episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the new animated show on Cartoon Network. I've been reluctant to introduce him to Star Wars up to this point - it's got some decently scary stuff, and the themes would certainly be over his head. I'd decided I would wait until he's six or so before he comes face-to-face with Lord Vader, but this cartoon has given me an out.

It's a goofy, definitely-kid-oriented cartoon - and we both love it. We can both appreciate the awesome "lightsaver" combat, and it doesn't help that I stop the show every three minutes to explain the oh-so-elaborate plot. I had to explain that Count Dooku is the bad guy, and then explain that he's trying to take over the galaxy, and then explain that the galaxy is sort of like the whole world, only bigger. His favorite character is Yoda, who he calls "the little guy."

Now I just need to convince Ann to let him dress as Yoda for Halloween, I'll break out my Obi-Wan outfit, and it will truly be a glorious day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Can't have it both ways

An interesting set of quotes from Senator McCain during tonight’s debate:

“I'm going to ask the American people to understand that there are some programs that we may have to eliminate.”

About two minutes later, he said:

“I'm going to tell you Americans we'll get to work right away and we'll get to work together, and we can get them all done, because that's what America has been doing.”

So which is it, man? Are we going to have to eliminate programs, or are we gonna get it all done? Because, you know, it really can’t be both.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Awesome reason to vote for McCain

This article on CNN claims the following about how Maine Republicans are responding to Palin:

"Local Republican officials told CNN they were thrilled to have Palin on the ticket, saying her accent and love for guns made her someone independents and Democrats uncomfortable with Sen. Barack Obama could relate to."

What better reason could there be to vote for someone than that their running mate talks funny and likes weapons? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you your next President of the United States:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Who will win the November election?

I added a little poll to the right side of this page: who do you think will win the presidential election? Notice that I'm not asking who you think should win, but who you think will win. And if you're one of those, "YEAH! RON PAUL '08!! HE'S GOIN' ALL THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE!" types then just don't even bother voting.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Things I just don't get

You know how sometimes there are pop culture phenomena that just don't make sense to you? I mean, I'm sure these make sense to SOME people, just not to me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Star Wars: Outbound Flight

Star Wars: Outbound Flight Star Wars: Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Anoter run-of-the-mill Star Wars book, pumped out to appease the Star Wars masses (myself included). It's not that it's a bad book, it's just that it's not really good. Sure, it gives General Thrawn's origin story, and it fills in some of the blanks between Episodes I and II. But ultimately it's just that - filler.

Zahn is forced to work within the content already predetermined by the movies. As with any prequel material, the fate of the main characters is known. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are never in any real danger, since we both know they have to show up for the next movie. The other Jedi are completely expendable, since they'll either die now or die at the end of Episode III. And, of course, we know Thrawn will succeed since he's the star of Zahn's classic Thrawn trilogy of novels, which really set off the Expanded Universe in 1992.

I suppose the point of a book like this is not to know WHAT happens, but HOW it happens. Zahn is able to set up a few interesting scenarios, and he really shines when describing massive space-battle scenes. His description of the political machinations onboard Outbound Flight are interesting, if ultimately irrelevant to the central plot.

Overall, not a bad read, but I would only recommend it for the most hard-core and completist of Star Wars mythology fans.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The coolest guy I've ever met

I recently had the honor of meeting Gene Kranz, arguably the most famous flight director in NASA’s history. In case you don’t know who I’m talking about, he was played by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13.

Gene Kranz

Not Gene Kranz

For a NASA geek, meeting Gene Kranz is about as cool as it gets. This would be like meeting the Pope if you’re Catholic, or John Wayne if you’re my dad. Kranz was the guy in charge of mission control during the first Moon landing and during the Apollo 13 ordeal. He set the standard for how manned spaceflight mission control is done, and many of his philosophies are still being used today.

We’d gone to Cheddar’s for dinner and I saw him and his wife eating at a nearby table. I summoned up enough courage to go over and introduce myself. Despite the fact that I was interrupting his dinner, he was extremely friendly, shook my hand, and asked me about my work at NASA. We only talked for about 30 seconds, but I was impressed that a guy as famous as he is was willing to put down his fork to talk to a relative nobody for a few seconds.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A geek project

Someday, when I have all the money I could ever want to throw away, it'll be time to build my ultimate geek retro-gaming console cabinet. I'll collect all the consoles I've ever owned into one place, buy the best games I ever had on it, and spend some time reveling in the joys of old-time video gaming.

Starting at the bottom would be the Atari 2600 - what most people probably remember as their first console.

Everything about this console screams early-'80s cheese. I mean, faux-wood on a video game console?! That thing looks like my aunt's old station-wagon. I still remember when my dad brought this home for me when I was six years old. It had the horrific slider-switch in the back that allowed you to switch from the antenna input to the console input. Apparently there was a time when TV manufacturers didn't think TVs would ever need more than one input (I think my current TV has something like seven). I cut my teeth on the classic Atari game Combat, which looks ridiculously primitive by today's standards but was freaking awesome at the time. This was the console that ended up getting packed up and taken to Argentina, and thus was my only gaming console until we came back to the US when I was 13. Seven years on one console. My mom probably made me give it away to some poor kid, along with all my Star Wars toys. A single tear rolls down my cheek...

Must-have games: H.E.R.O. That's it - no other game would be required.

Next up in the retro-gaming cabinet would be, of course, the Nintendo Entertainment Console, or NES. This is what most people still think of when you say "Nintendo."

I VERY specifically remember receiving this one. We'd been overseas for four years, and coming back to the US when I was 13 was like summer camp, a birthday party, and Christmas morning all rolled up into one. I'd told my parents that the two things I wanted to get when we got home were a skateboard and an NES. They got me both (trying to make up for giving all my stuff to poor kids, no doubt). The morning after we got back to the States, I opened this bad boy up and plugged it into my grandparents' television. I still recall the distinct joy of playing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt for the first time. I mean, the console shipped with a gun! How awesome was that?

Must-have games: Contra (duh) and Double Dragon, both received Christmas Eve 1989 at my grandparents' house.

Oh, and one more bit: I got my NES in the summer of 1989. It'd been released in the US in 1985. It's not entirely clear to me why this discrepancy wasn't evident at the time, although I suppose being isolated in South America for four years helped.

The NES was my gaming standard until I graduated from high school in 1994 and came back to the US for the final time. I'm not sure what happened to it, but I suspect some poor kid got it too. Anyway, the next console in my retro-gaming rack is a slight discrepancy in that I never actually owned one. During college, my sister had one as did my fiancee's roommate, so I spent a lot of time playing the Sega 16-bit Genesis:

It's too bad Sega got out of the console business after the Dreamcast, because the Genesis was AWESOME.

Must-have games: Aladdin and Biohazard Battle (which I now own emulated on the Wii).

After I graduated from college, I decided it was time for me to get a grownup console, so the next one in my rack would be the PS One:

To be honest, I didn't really play it all that much - I've always been more into PC games, and the Playstation has got to be the polar opposite of what I enjoy about gaming. It's more arcade-y, action-y, fighting games, and as I've aged I've developed a stronger taste in strategy oriented games. I kept the console for a few months and ended up re-selling it on eBay. One thing about the version that would go in my retro-gaming cabinet: it has to be the PS One version, pictured above, not the standard Playstation. Because look at that thing. It's sexy.

Must-have games: Masters of Teras Kasi. Widely considered one of the worst fighting games ever made, but I played it a ton, and you could play as Princess Leia in her steel bikini, so what's not to love?

The final entry in my retro-gaming cabinet would be my current console, the Nintendo Wii.

I won't make any final statements on what my must-have games for this console would be, but I suspect Force Unleashed might be on there.

To be fair, except for the Wii games, I could probably get every game on this list emulated for free on my PC. But the point is not to have the games themselves, the point is to have the consoles that I remember so fondly from the past 25 years. So one of these days, I'll place a few hundred dollars worth of bids on eBay, build a five-tiered cabinet, and reserve an entire weekend to relive the past.

PS: Mom, if you're reading this, I just thought of a great way for you to make up for having given away all my stuff to poor kids.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

MY translation

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal."
-Matthew 6:19-20, New American Standard Bible

Here's the Modern Electric Monk Translation version of the verse:
"You know all that junk you've got in your house? Yeah, well, there's a pretty decent chance that something like, oh I dunno, a hurricane could come through and mess it all up. Not that it's bad to have that stuff, just maybe don't put too much stock in it. Instead, think about putting your investments into a more secure portfolio, like one that NO ONE COULD EVER TAKE AWAY. Yeah, think about it."

Friday, September 12, 2008

You want me, Ike? Come and get me!

We're holed up at my in-laws in Sugar Land, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the monster known as Ike. My brother-in-law, his wife, and their baby are here, so the nine of us are spread out all over the house. We've already gone through a game of Ticket to Ride; next on the list is Puerto Rico. We've got enough food to feed a football team, and enough water to last us well into January. There's nothing left to do but wait.

Best part so far: we've started a pool to bet on when the power is gonna go out. I think it'll be two in the morning.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Spore unleased

I've looked forward to Spore, the new release from Will Wright, longer than any other game I can remember. It was originally announced more than three years ago and news has trickled out regularly ever since then. I finally got my copy on Sunday and, I gotta say, it's pretty stinkin' cool.

I've always enjoyed Wright's games. I played the first version of SimCity on our PC when I was a kid, and I stuck with the series even through the almost impossible SimCity 4. I was hooked on The Sims for quite a while, and it still is the only PC game I've ever gotten Ann to play. I still remember the Christmas break (long before children came along) when we would take turns: one of us would work on house projects while the other would play The Sims. After an hour, a timer would go off and we'd switch places.

Spore is definitely a wide game - spanning the evolution of a lifeform from single-celled organism to galactic dominator - but it doesn't seem to have the depth of something like SimCity. To call it a strategy game, thus putting it in the same category as something like Civilization or Sins of a Solar Empire would be a gross mislabeling. The creation tools are astoundingly complex while still being easy to use. It remains to be seen whether this game will have the longevity of Wright's other works. Will I still be playing it in two months, or six months, from now? Will the user-created content provide enough incentive to keep coming back for more? Will I drop 30 bucks every few months for the expansion packs? It's hard to say. But what I can say is that I wish I could ditch work and go home to play right now!

One editorial comment: there's been a lot of badmouthing of this game because of its DRM process. I hate DRM as much as the next guy. I've never bought a song off iTunes because I felt their process was far too heavy-handed. But knocking this game in general, and specifically the tactic of flooding Amazon's ratings board with negative reviews, is completely uncalled-for. I guarantee you that most of the people who gave it negative ratings never even played the game - they were basing their judgment solely on the presence of DRM. And I would guess that the vast majority of people who buy and play the game legitimately will never encounter the DRM block as an issue. This is another case of the Internet getting people all riled up over nothing.

More details on my creations are forthcoming, but for now, enjoy this little widget showing my first character, the Vengari.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Watchmen Watchmen by Alan Moore

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anyone who doesn’t think comic books can be “art” needs to read Watchmen. This is one of the highest-quality, most well-crafted books I’ve read in a very long time.

The art style is incredibly elaborate and carefully crafted. The style and quality is consistent throughout the very long book, and the amount of detail in each frame is at times overwhelming. I expect I’ll read this at least once more to try to catch the intricacies and nuances hidden in each panel.

The storyline is very elaborate. It’s brought together by a combination of the pictures themselves, dialogue, and snippets from newspaper articles, biographies, and even a comic-within-a-comic. Details of the characters and the story itself are slowly drawn out over the length of the book – a reference made in chapter two might not be explained until chapter five. As a result, the reader is forced to pay very close attention to what is happening, what each character is doing, and how these references are pulled together. As opposed to most comic book storylines which can be drawn out indefinitely, this is a completely self-contained story, written in twelve distinct chapters.

I highly recommend this to anyone who’s been disappointed by poor comics in the past. The art, characters, story, and unexpected ending all come together to create a well-above-average comic experience.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Star Wars: The Force Unleashed by Haden Blackman

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’ve fallen out of touch a little with the Star Wars lore ever since the release of Episode III. I never really kept up too much with the post-ROTJ stuff to begin with; I read some of the books, but could never keep up with the frequent release schedule and, to be honest, what I did read wasn’t all that good. I’ve heard some positive stuff about the New Jedi Order series, but I’m hardly likely to start off on a 13-book series right now.

LucasArts has done a good job of getting me back on board with Force Unleashed. They’re selling it as completely canonical and tying together a book, graphic novel, and videogame definitely appeals to my completionist side. I decided to spoil the videogame storyline by reading the graphic novel first.

I gotta say, as graphic novels go, it wasn’t all that great. To be fair, I haven’t read all that many, but this mainly felt like a sixteen-dollar advertisement for the game which is, of course, precisely what it is. The story is not fleshed out nearly as much as I would like, the book is far too short, and the art is so-so. The action scenes are written almost as fill-in material, and it’s not always clear what’s happening on the page.

As I said before, I may end up reading the book as well, but hopefully the videogame will be a little more fulfilling.

View all my reviews.

This is as cute as it gets.

I think Vanilla Bean may have peaked in cuteness. I can't imagine her getting any cuter without swallowing a puppy or something.

Vanilla Bean talking from Electric Monk on Vimeo.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Preservationist

The Preservationist The Preservationist by David Maine

My review

This book was a pleasant surprise. I read a recommendation for it (actually, for another book by the author) off a day-by-day calendar, picked it up at the library two days later, and had finished it two days after that.

Maine takes the story of Noah and the ark and fills in all the details. It's similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that he's taking a story about which we know little and filling in all the empty bits: what were the people really like, what did the ark look like and how was it built, and where did all those animals really come from? My favorite sections were the ones exploring the daughters-in-law, who were dragged into this adventure in spite of how they felt, and their thoughts and feelings show them to be fully different characters. The book is a very quick read - about 250 pages, but I finished it in under 36 hours. I could easily see it being written as an epic, sweeping novel, but instead it is light and a relatively easy read. That's not to say it isn't serious; it is. But it's not overburdened or cumbersome.

The book also does not step around the humanity of the characters. Even Noah is portrayed as flawed, despite the fact that God saw him as a righteous man. The people are concerned about sex, and their chidren, and food. It also portrays what I suspect is a reasonably accurate depiction of ancient life in the Middle East.

I like this idea (similar to Wicked, I suppose) of taking a little event that everyone knows of and fleshing it out in a completely fictional way. The author has another book about Adam and Eve and a third about Samson. Those are now securely on my "to-read" list.

View all my reviews.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Precision mechanics

Some of you may remember a post I made several months ago telling about my project of fixing up my Papa's watch. After the Fuji climb, I decided to send my Citizen in for a cleaning. I figured being exposed to volcanic ash, essentially powdered glass, couldn't be good for it. Anyway, while the Citizen is away, I'm wearing the Bulova. I decided it would be a good time to figure out just how precise it is.

I set the watch at exactly 9:16 pm with our radio-set clock as the reference. Due to the way the watch is set, I'm not able to control the second hand. I'm not sure if this is a flaw or how the watch is designed. Either way, the watch started off being 13 seconds behind. Every morning I wound it tight and then wore it like normal during the day. After exactly three days, I referenced the watch against the clock again. The watch had gained two minutes, twelve seconds in three days. That means it's fast by 44 seconds a day, meaning it's fast by about 0.017%.

I know nothing about watches, but I'm pretty impressed that an approximately 40-year old mechanical watch can be off by 0.017%.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm so ashamed.

According to Glassbooth (one of those online surveys where you put in your opinions and it tells you who to vote for), the candidate that most matches my viewpoints is... is...

Ralph Nader.

I don't even know how to deal with that information. I'm so embarassed. This is like finding out my dad is Darth Vader. I hope no one I know ever finds out about this.

For the record, my second "choice" is Obama, closely followed by McCain. Apparently my political opinions are somewhat of a condundrum.

All the news that's not news...

Okay, I get it: Obama's choice for a running mate is kind of a big deal. His choice will open up a large block of otherwise inaccessible voters. (Chances are he's not going to pick a slightly overweight white videogamer, so I'm still gonna be on the fence).

But seriously, for the last several days every time I log onto one of the lead headlines has been something like: "Obama still hasn't announced a VP candidate!" That's not news! That's NON-news! Why don't we all just assume you'll tell us when he HAS announced a selection, and until then you can write another article dedicated to Michael Phelps. At least Phelps is actually DOING something. In fact, today's article literally starts off with: "The question is starting to feel a little old: Who will Barack Obama pick as his vice president?" Seriously, some day I want to be so famous that I can NOT do something and it becomes headline news for a week.

In other non-news:
-Alien life still hasn't been discovered.
-Britney Spears is weird.
-People who have iPhones are pretentious and annoying.
-Six still isn't equal to seven.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

So smart, and yet so frustrating

The Monkey knows that he's not to get out of bed until his clock says six o'clock. He's got a cute little digital clock with colored numbers that he checks when he wakes up, and if he gets out of bed too early he gets in trouble.

Unfortunately, he's been having nightmares lately. We've been trying to encourage him to stay in bed when they wake him and comfort himself. Oddly, he came wandering into our room at 2:30 am last night and said that his clock said 6:00 and that he was ready to get up! Sure enough, when Ann took him back to bed, his light was on, his books were out, and his clock was reading 6:30.

As it turns out, he'd had a bad dream and didn't want to stay in his room. So he decided to fool us and (somehow) advanced his clock to six o'clock so that it would be wakeup time. Clearly we've underestimated his intelligence, but clearly he's underestimated ours if he thought we would fall for THAT one!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

US Guys

I picked up this book thinking it would be an interesting study into how men in American think today. The author traveled all over the country, living and working with different groups of people, trying to assimilate himself into their ways of life.

Instead, this book is a freak circus. NONE of the essays were about men with whom I could identify. He worked with (I'm not joking here): a gay rodeo cowboy and his lover, a circus family of Russian immigrants, an uber-violent motorcycle gang, male models in New York city, and on and on. These were not "guys," these were parodies of male society.

LeDuff's writing is horribly self-serving and pretentious. He acts as if, after living with these people for a week, he "understands" their way of life and thinks he's one of them. He treats himself as an embedded journalist, taking on the lives of those around them. Charlie, you can't say you're living a new lifestyle after one week. Even his writing style is annoying - full of cursing and foul language, he masks his shortcomings by trying too hard to be "edgy."

But there is a lesson in this book. Easily half of the bizarre lifestyles portrayed in this book can be related to a single thing: bad family situations when they were children. The author himself describes the hideous family cicumstances he grew up in. So here's the lesson: Dad, love your kids. You don't have to be smart or athletic or necessarily even a "cool" dad. Just be with them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Cause it'll be your fault if they grow up to be a gay rodeo cowboy

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 4 - The Aftermath

After being awake for 40 hours straight, and walking or hiking for about 28 of the last 36 hours, my body was completely done. My shirt had been soaked through with sweat and dried out several times over and was emitting an unholy smell. My pants were covered in ash dust, and my shoes looked horrible. I should warn you that the next few pictures are pretty gross.

After quite a bit of effort, I took off my shoes. This was particularly difficult as the repetitve motion inside my shoes during the descent had left me with a gigantic blister on the outside of each heel. I'll spare you that picture. Once I'd gotten my shoe off, I peeled off my sock and was amazed at how dirty my foot was. Keep in mind that this is what my foot looked like inside my sock, inside my shoe.

My hands weren't doing much better, but at least I'd had a chance to wash them a couple of times.

I took a shower and then a long, hot bath. One of the best baths I've ever taken.
The next day was when the true pain began. Everything hurt, some parts more than others. I had a sunburn, a problem I'd never really expected but should have given the thin air we were trekking through. My elbow hurt from using a walking stick for so long. And my legs - oh, my legs. My feet were killing me from the blisters, and every muscle in my thighs and calves hurt. Interestingly, any sort of downward incline was the worst, and stairs were pretty much unmanageable.
Over the next several days the blisters went away. I had a problem walking downhill for quite a while, but eventually got past that. Towards the end of last week my sunburn started peeling, but that's pretty much past now. I'm still finding rocks in my shoes.
In the end, the climb was worth it. One of my co-climbers figured out we'd walked 11 miles on the mountain, a half-marathon, which doesn't necessarily sound like all that much until you consider that it was all up- or down-hill. The sunrise is something I'll remember forever, and the personal challenge, while far more than I expected, was fun to overcome. My walking stick made it all the way back home with me and I plan on mounting it on the wall in my study.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 3 - The Descent

As it turns out, getting down the mountain was way more difficult than getting up it. We expected it to take about two to two-and-a-half hours - it ended up being a solid three-and-a-half. To be fair, we were very tired starting off, but the path down was significantly harder than I expected it to be. It started off with a series of switchbacks, covered with very rough, broken rocks. It could hardly even be called a path; several of us slipped and fell several times, and there were a few slightly twisted ankles.

Then the joggers came. About an hour into our climb down, we were passed by a guy in a windshirt and running shorts jogging UP the mountain. He was breathing hard, but he wasn't slowing down. This was clearly something he did frequently. There wasn't a gram of fat on his body, and his calves were nothing but muscle. We respectfully stood to the side and let him pass. Over the course of the climb we passed about ten more guys racing up the side of the mountain. About an hour later, they began passing us coming DOWN the mountain. I promise you, you've never done a morning jog like this. I later found out about some Navy guys who are going to do the mountain circuit four times in a single day for charity.
About halfway down the mountain, at the final rest stop, the path changed completely. It went from the rough switchbacks to a steady downward slope of what I guess is called lava ash. It's difficult to describe: it was like a very thick bed of fine gravel. When you stepped on it, your foot would sink down several inches. Since it had a decent slope to it, your momentum would actually drive your foot several inches down into the gravel. The easiest and quickest way to navigate it was to let yourself kind of fall foward, then let your heel act as a shock absorber as it planted itself into the gravel. There were only two problems with this method: it caused my heel to slip inside my shoe with every step (resulting in two enormous blisters) and it worked over my calf muscles like they've never been worked over before. More on those two in the next post.

The ash flow was so bizarre. I ended up on my own, walking down this slope that seemed to go on forever. A mist had blown in, so I couldn't see more than a few hundred feet in any direction. All that I could see were grey rocks and then a wall of mist all around me. I was completely alone and the fog had dampened any sound but the wind and my feet crunching in the ash. One of my co-climbers later said it felt like being in a sensory deprivation tank. Either way, it felt a long way from home. I eventually pulled out my PSP and started playing some podcasts just to get my mind off the freakiness of the surroundings.

This path went on and on and on. There were markers every few hundred feet but just as I would pass one another one would appear through the mist in the distance. Due to the fog, I couldn't see the bottom of the mountain so there was no way of knowing how much further I had to walk. Since I couldn't see the sun, had it not been for my watch I'd have had no idea how long I'd been walking. As it turns out, I wasn't on the path as long as I felt like I was. In retrospect, it feels like it was an eternity, but it was actually only a couple of hours.
One of the things I remember most was just wanting to stop. I just wanted to sit down and not get back up. But there was no other option but to get up and keep walking. No one was going to carry me - the only way I was ever going to get back to the hotel was to keep trudging through the ash.
I'd drunk the last of my water as I left the previous station, thinking it was only another 30 or 45 minutes to the last station. As I walked on and the ash dust dried out my throat, I got more and more thirsty. Once I finally made it to the rest stop at the bottom, I ended up drinking four bottles of water before I started to feel better again.
Getting to the bottom of the mountain was only part of the journey. Once we'd all gathered together (I was the last one to make it down), we started to walk (!) towards the bus station. We hadn't received very good directions, so we made our way about half a mile down a very steep hill before we realized we weren't going the right way. So, of course, we had to walk back up the hill. Once we got to the top, we realized we'd walked right by the bus station. We took a one hour bus ride to another bus station, then another two-and-a-half hour bus ride to a subway station in Tokyo, then a subway ride to the other side of town. During that ride, a notification was displayed on a screen in the train that our train back to Tsukuba had been shut down because of lightning. By this point, we were all bleeding our reserve tanks dry. Fortunately, by the time we got to Akihabara and got something to eat (shamefully, at McDonald's) the train was running again. We had an hour-long train ride and then another 20 minute walk to the hotel from the station. Finally, at 9:00 pm, about 10 hours after we'd started the climb down the mountain and 35 hours after we'd left the hotel, I slid my card into the door and stumbled into the hotel room.
Next: the aftermath.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 2 - The Summit

The top of the mountain was a cool little village, with shops, places to rest, and of course souvenir stands. The sky was astoundingly clear, will only a few very high-level cirrus clouds and a solid bank of clouds several thousand feet below us. It was very crowded near the shops.

The most interesting experience though was trying to pee.
At the rest stops along the mountain there'd been nicely maintained, very clean bathrooms. Each cost 100 yen, about a dollar, to use. I expected a similar setup when we got to the top. Oh, how wrong. Because this is the top of a mountain in Asia, baby.

The line to get to the toilet was loooong, and the wait ultimately took about 30 minutes. I was with three co-workers, two females and one male (a detail which would become extremely important very soon). When we got to the front of the line, we were charged TWO hundred yen to use the facilities. That's capitalism for you- supply (very low) and demand (VERY high). When we got to the front we noticed that, right at the front of the line, there were two urinals and then a series of stalls. I have to confess that I have a weird thing about stalls: I just don't like going into them unless there's a particular need to, and in this case such a need did not exist. So I had every intention of hitting the urinal. But that urinal was right at the front of the line, with no walls around it, not even tucked out of the way. It was in full view of all 30 minutes of people standing behind me. I had to decide whether I was gonna do the stall or the urinal, and at that moment my pet peeve took over, and I decided I was more grossed out by the stall than I am modest. But I sure wasn't going to be able to perform in front of two female co-workers. So I stood in line with them until they moved on, and then I went up to the urinal, unzipped, and did my duty in front of a mountain worth of Japanese. No fear, baby.

We got something to eat and bought the stamps for our walking sticks that proved we'd made it to the top. After resting for a while, we began the hour-long hike around the crater that would put us at the highest point on the mountain, and thus the highest point in all of Japan. This part was particularly strenuous; we were all exhausted from the climb and the air was SO thin that any uphill walk was very difficult. In this picture, you can see the weather station at the summit just over my right shoulder.

Once we got to the top, we (you guessed it) had to wait in line to climb a staircase to a platform with a marker. The nine of us who'd made it to the top gathered for a group picture at the marker and then had a celebratory snack of Asahi beer and squid jerky.

Seriously, squid jerky is disgusting.

We wandered over to the highest post office in Japan where I dropped off a post card for the Monkey. He loves volcanoes, and I wanted him to know that Daddy had climbed a BIG one. Finally, around 11:00 am, we took a deep breath and started on our way back down. Little did I know the hardest part was yet to come.

Next: the descent.

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Part 1 - The Ascent

This weekend I undertook what was, for me, the most physically demanding activity ever: I climbed Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan. I should begin by stating that this is not a hard mountain to climb by mountaineering standards. There is no technical aspect involved: no wall-climbing or use of ropes. It's not really all that steep. It's not even really all that high (12,388 ft) - there are plenty of peaks in North America that are way taller. However, by slightly-overweight-guy-who-works-a-desk-job standards, this was tough.

Climbing Mt. Fuji is said to be a traditional pilgrimage in Japan, although I've found surprisingly few Japanese who've actually done it. Most of them kind of shrug their shoulders and just admit that it's something they've never done. I'm starting to wonder if maybe it's just a joke they play on foreigners: "Oh, yeah! Fuji! That's TOTALLY a Japanese tradition, Fat American! You should climb it, just like we do! And here, you should eat this raw fish, just like we do! And use these little sticks to pick it up, just like we do!" Then they all go into the back room and have a good laugh at our expense.

We left our hotel at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. Somehow we decided it would be a good idea to go tour around Tokyo for a few hours before starting the Fuji hike. We stayed in town for lunch, and then got on a bus at 4:00 to take us to the mountain. We gathered at the Fifth Station, the highest point the buses will take you to, and started the climb at 8:15 pm. We'd all bought walking sticks - the idea is that you stop along the way and get your stick branded to prove you've made the climb. In this picture, you can see my stick before I got it stamped.

Our goal was to hit the summit in about seven hours and watch the sun rise at 4:38. That's another part of the little joke: "Oh, yeah, and you have to climb it at night, just like we do!"

The Fifth Station is already quite high at 7500 feet, so the thin air began to show its effects quickly. Twelve of us started the hike and we managed to stay together for the first hour or so. We made good time at first - the paths were pretty clear, and there weren't too many people. We were optimistic about our chances of making it for the sunrise and were planning to stop to sleep for an hour or so along the way. We had plenty of water and food to share, and there were rest stops along the way that sold snacks (who knew you could come this far and still buy a Snickers bar?). As we climbed higher, the paths got more uneven, the air got thinner, and the temperature continued to drop. The paths narrowed, the pace slowed, and the crowds got thicker. At about 1:30 am, after a rest stop to have some warm soup, we began our final push to the top. It soon became clear that, if we wanted to make it by sunrise, we would no longer be able to stop along the way. At about 2:30 am, we effectively hit a wall of people - the line was moving at only a few feet per minute. In a way, this was a blessing. With the thinning air, it was becoming difficult to keep a decent pace. At best, I'd climb for a couple of minutes, then have to stop and catch my breath.

I should explain that the view at this point was amazing. There was a cloud cover, but it was several thousand feet below us, so as the Moon rose it reflected off the clouds around the base of the mountain. Above us was a fantastic view of the Milky Way. And while the mountain itself was effectively invisible in the darkness, you could see a steady line of flashlights winding literally thousands of feet up, reaching all the way to the summit. It was by far one of the most exotic sights I've ever seen.

At about 3:30, several hundred feet from the summit, the line came to an almost dead stop. Every couple of minutes it would move a few feet. Finally, at 4:00, the five of us who were together stepped off the path and relaxed while we waited for the sun to rise. Eventually, everyone did the same, until the side of the mountain was covered with thousands of people facing east, waiting for the sun to peek above the clouds.

I'm so glad we chose to climb at night. While getting to the top of the mountain was cool, seeing the sun rise is what made the whole thing worth it. The sky had been brightening for several hours already, and I thought I knew exactly where the sun would come up. Then I saw one of the most amazing optical illusions ever. Instead of rising at the horizon, from behind the clouds, the sun actually rose from inside the clouds. I still have no idea what made it look this way, but it actually looked like the sun was coming up from out of the clouds, in between us and the horizon. You can see what I'm talking about in this picture.

The pictures don't even come close to capturing what the sun looked like. The color was, as lame as it sounds, neon pink. Set against the blue-grey of the clouds and the orange of the sky, it was absolutely stunning.

Once the sun had risen, we started our climb to the summit. Even though we were only a few hundred feet down, the crowds were so thick that it took another hour and a half to reach the top. It was quite an experience to come over the edge and finally see the top of Mt. Fuji.

Next: At the summit.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New education?

So I’m thinking of returning to school to get a different degree. I was thinking of bioengineering. I could then go on to get graduate and Ph.D. degrees, with a specialization in limb regrowth therapy. Then I could spend years developing a process by which I could grow myself a third thumb. Why?

So that I can give The Dark Knight three thumbs up.

I could talk about all the standard stuff: the awesome acting, the good story, the fact that it’s not a comic-book-y movie, but a good movie in a comic book setting. But if you’ve read any of the reviews, you already know all this, so I’ll focus on another point in the movie.

There is no backstory for the Joker. There are no clues given as to where he came from. In fact, the Joker himself gives a couple of conflicting hints as to how he got his scars. His real name is never given, no hints are provided as to why he acts as he does.

Personally, I think it was very smart storytelling on the part of the writers. We the viewers know nothing more about the Joker than the other characters in the movie do. And, just as importantly, we never find out. As one of the producers put it, the Joker is just an absolute. Within the context of the film, not only do we not know why he does what he does, there is no reason for what he does. He just does it because, well, he’s the Joker. It’s who he is. It forces you into a feeling of frustration about the character: you’re continually trying to understand him and his motivations, but there are none. It’s not just that they’re not explained to you the viewer, it’s that he literally has no motivation. It narrows the focus of the character and, in a way, makes him easier to watch. Once you understand the simplicity of a character who does things for no other reason but that he can, you can’t help but enjoy watching him do it.

So maybe this is a little bit high-minded of an analysis for a Batman movie. But this movie is different. It allows, even encourages, this sort of thought. The themes in the movie are modern-day and relevant, but treated smartly. So even you if don’t like comic book movies, this is one you should see.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I tried, I really did...

As you well know, I love to find and eat the weirdest stuff I can when I travel, and Japan is a great place for that. Last night I almost out-did myself: I ordered rectum at a restaurant. When I asked her for it, the waitress just shook her head. I can't tell if she was saying they didn't have it, or if she thought it was such a bad idea for me to eat it that she wouldn't serve it to me. Either way, I didn't get to try it.

I did commit one of the most embarassing international incidents yet. The food I eventually managed to order came with a dipping sauce. They brought over this enormous bowl of sauce and placed it next to me. When my food came, I dipped it into the sauce and took a bite. Delicious. I dipped my food in again and took another bite. At this point the waitress (you'll recall her English was so poor she couldn't clearly explain why I couldn't order rectum for dinner) came over and said, "One dip, okay. Two dips, no!" At that point I realized this was some sort of communal dipping pot. Imagine if they brought you a huge bowl of salsa at the Mexican place and then, when you were done, just shifted the bowl over to the next table. So I'd just double-dipped into the sauce that would end up at who knows how many other tables that evening. Stupid American...

So I closed out the evening by running by the grocery store. There I was, surrounded by all these strange and wonderful foods, and I walk out with a box of cookies, a Kit Kat, and four Diet Cokes. I hate myself.

My first earthquake

I'm pretty excited, as I got to experience my first earthquake last night! I'm in Japan for business, and we got in late yesterday. Last night at about 12:30 I woke and felt the room shaking. On some level I knew it was an earthquake, but I was so out of it that I just rolled over and went back to sleep. Actually, the thing I remember most was that I could hear the water sloshing around in the toilet tank in that bathroom.

The earthquake itself was decently large (magnitude 7.0), but it was pretty far away from where I am now. Of course, most people around here were pretty unphased by it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sorry, bud, I can't let you play with that.

I'm headed off to Japan next week, and during the weekend several of us will be climbing Mt. Fuji at night. Apparently it's a big deal to be at the top of the mountain when the sun rises. Since we're climbing in the dark, I went and bought a clip-on head lamp that will attach to my hat.I want to show this to the Monkey, but I can't. I really just can't. And there are three very specific reasons.
  • First, he would definitely want to play with it until either the batteries ran down or it broke.
  • Second, he would want to disassemble it in the Secret Lab. For those who don't know, the Secret Lab is where he and I routinely go to take stuff apart to see how it works. I should clarify that "Secret Lab" is something of a misnomer. It is neither secret nor a lab. Pretty much anyone who can infiltrate our house (such as by knocking on the door) is told about it. And it's not really a lab, it's more of a master closet.
  • Third, he would want to keep it in his bed. That's the greatest honor he can show to a piece of electronics - keeping it in his bed at night. I can usually convince him to at least keep it on a nightstand or at the foot of his bed, but often we'll find all kinds of toys under his pillow the next day.

So, sorry bud. You can play with it all you want when I bring it back, but for now I kind of need it to work.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


I don't like summer. I really don't. And I feel like I've come by my dislike for summer honestly, for two reasons.

First, I live in a place where the summers are absolutely miserable. Right now it's 100.6 degrees outside. There's no way in the world anyone could enjoy this. It was even worse when I was a kid. Growing up in Argentina, we lived in a place where the climate was very similar to here, but we had no air conditioning. My parents eventually got a window unit in their bedroom and on the most uncomfortable of nights my sister and I were allowed to sleep on their bedroom floor. Then, the year before we left, my parents got a window unit for MY room, on the condition that I had to let my little sister sleep in there with me. TOTALLY worth it. But most of the time, our house was just hot.
Secondly, I've had more than my fair share of summers. Since we often traveled back from Argentina after the summer there (and into the summer here), in my 32 years of existence I figure I've gone through something like 35 summers and only 29 winters.
So as the season wears on, I begin looking forward to those little hints that the end is in sight. The summer solstice is a good example. Sure, it's the official start of the summer season, but from this point forward the days are getting shorter, which helps some. It's also nice when the summer movie season winds down. Once The Dark Knight comes out, most of the blockbusters will have come and gone, and so we can start talking about the fall movie season.
But my first real sign of the end of the season came in the mail yesterday:

That's right, it's a flyer for a fall clothing sale. A subtle thing, to be sure, but there it is. Soon, the back-to-school ads will start, and I can start smiling smugly at the little kids out on the street, throwing baseballs and riding their little punk-scooters until late at night, threatening to wake my children who have to be in bed at 7:30. Their time will come soon, a time when they'll have to be in bed at a decent hour as well.

And then maybe, just maybe, it won't be quite so hot outside...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The great questions of life

A friend of mine posed an interesting question to me today. Basically, she asked, “If a wizard turned you into a whale, would that be awesome?” This is the conversation that ensued by IM. I post it because I think it’s hilarious.

Hmm, I say No

May I assume that I'm a KILLER whale, as shown in the picture?

You may

Then, awesome. And I'd spend all day eating baby seals.

See, you had to go there, didn't you

You make me a killer whale, and you expect me to NOT eat baby seals?! That's a lot to ask.

You should befriend a troubled preteen who has to do community service at the local sea life park for vandalizing their water tanks
And then Michael Jackson will write a song for you

Can I eat the preteen at the end of their service time?

And you will take a mighty leap over the jetty in the ocean to escape the bad guys

I mean, I'm a killer whale, I'm pretty hungry.

Yeah, because that kid was pretty annoying

Yeah, he was. Can I eat Michael Jackson?

I don't know if you'd want to - I believe he's made entirely of plastic, polyester wigs, and eyeliner
Oh, and a single glove

Maybe there'd be little nutritional value, but you'd certainly be doing the world a favor.

Yeah, I was going to say it might not be satisfying to your hunger, per se
But there might still me some gratification

Monday, July 7, 2008

Statistical probability

This is a great story. According to CNN, the Virginia State Lottery continued to sell tickets for which the top prize had already been won. Some businessman figured out that the top prize was no longer available and is now suing the state lottery commission for damages equal to the number of tickets that were sold while the top prize wasn't available ($85 million).

So, to be clear, the odds of winning the top prize in the Virginia State Lottery are 1 in 175 million. This guy's odds of winning that prize had gone from astronomically negligible to actually zero. And now he's suing.

This is why everyone should be required to take a basic statistics course before playing the lottery.

This is why Japan is so awesome.

This video is the perfect example of why Japan is so awesomely bizarre. Apparently this is some kind of game show.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Disclaimer: The following post is NOT a statement of my personal philosophy or beliefs. It's an account of an experience that I had and some subsequent thoughts about that experience. Please do not think that this is my final, fully thought-out and concluded opinion on these issues. This post is just me thinking out loud.

I'm at a conference in San Francisco this week. I've never even been to California, so I was very excited about this trip. I had an experience yesterday though that was completely unexpected and got me to thinking about some stuff.

I saw the Gay Pride Parade. Not a gay pride parade, the Gay Pride Parade.

I didn't mean to. Well, not at first anyway. I was meeting an old friend of mine who was coming in on a train. I walked out of my hotel and noticed a bunch of people gathering on the side of the street, so I asked a security guard what was going on. Turns out the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transsexual (GLBT) Parade was starting right outside the front door of the hotel. As I had some time to kill before my friend showed up (which ended up being an hour and a half through no fault of his) I just sat and people-watched.

It was one of the freakiest things I've ever seen. I've been lots of place, and I thought I understood how the world worked, but this was a completely new experience for me. First of all, let me say that there were some serious, no-holds-barred fruitcakes. I saw one guy, tanned and shaved and completely naked walking down the street (where did he keep his wallet?). I saw at least two guys riding bikes wearing shirts - and nothing else. There was a woman wearing a tight shirt with cutouts for her nipples. There was another woman was had one breast hanging freely out of her shirt. I saw a transsexual who was wearing an S&M outfit who appeared to have had her breasts surgically removed. I saw one guy who was wearing little besides a length of pantyhose wrapped around his genitals.

These people fit every stereotype I've ever had (and many I didn't even know I had) for how gay people should look, dress, and act. But there was something else I noticed. Something a a little more subtle. Many of them were holding signs that said something like "Together for 22 years, married for one week." As you know, in the last few weeks it effectively became legal to get married in California. These people were celebrating their new opportunities. They were walking with the kids they were raising together. I was even standing there when the mayor of San Francisco drove through, and everyone around me was cheering "Thank you!"

So this got me to thinking about the issue of gay marriage in this country. Stay with me here - I'm just thinking this out. Don't burn me at the stake for this one.

First of all, let me say that I believe that homosexuality is a sin. That is certainly not a popular viewpoint (especially for 99% of the people in this city), but I really do believe that the Bible teaches sex is meant for a man and woman. Specifically, I think that it teaches that sex is meant for a husband and a wife. Seriously, hold on, I'm going somewhere with this.

Many Christians claim that marriage between two people of the same sex is not holy. But I contend that many, many heterosexual marriages that take place in this country are not holy. When my wife and I got married, it was a binding contract between ourselves and our God that we would live our lives together and for Him. That is not what the legal and societal institution of marriage is in this country. From the government's perspective, marriage is effectively non-religious. So applying the argument that we should deny that right to gay people on religious grounds seems inconsistent; shouldn't we then be denying it to anyone for whom the marriage is not a holy contract, as is the case for the vast majority of marriages in our country?

Let's put it a different way (and I may really rock the boat on this one): why is it okay for two atheists to get married, but it's not okay for two gay people to get married? In neither case are they recognizing the holy aspect of a marriage, so why arbitrarily say one is okay but not the other?

Of course, once you start down that path, it gets really ugly. Does that mean you can only get married in a Christian church? What if I don't believe my wife should submit to me? What if I'm not a biblical literalist, or a pre- or post-millenialist? All of a sudden, we're living in a theocracy, and that's a scary place to be. The bigger question becomes - what is the place for our particular religious beliefs in the government's legislation?

So maybe we just say the gay people can get married. They're grownups, they both love each other (at least, as much as most heterosexuals do), so why shouldn't the state recognize that?

Now, tell me why I'm wrong...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Imus in trouble again

Well, Don Imus has once again opened his mouth and stuck his foot squarely into it. The blogosphere (for the record, I think "blogosphere" is one of the dumbest words ever) is abuzz with his latest possibly racist remarks.

But I'm not writing about that. No, this blog is not going to even address Don's stupid remarks. This blog is above such petty arguments. I want to talk about another aspect of Mr. Imus.

His face.

Seriously, is it just me, or is that guy not the ugliest thing ever created? I mean, look at him:

I understand now where the phrase "a face made for radio" comes from. Imus seems to transcend any acceptable level of ugliness, though. It's like he was cloned from an old alligator-skin boot. I don't mean he's just Bobcat-Goldthwait-ugly:

I'm talking about even more than Rodney-Dangerfield-ugly:

Imus is in a whole class to himself. I think if the hairy angler had crawled out of the ocean and evolved into humans, maybe we would all look almost as bad as Imus:

At some point in the past, he even made poor hair choices. Seriously, Don? A perm?

Monday, June 23, 2008

What If?

I finally finished reading What If?, a collection of alternate history essays. Each essay takes a single event in history and analyzes how things might look differently today had that event occurred in a different way. One of the more intriguing essays was about Cortez and his conquest of what is today Mexico. This still stands as one of the most lopsided wars in history, and had Cortez not pulled it off North America would be a very different place today.

One author brought up another what-if question that I thought was interesting. Effectively, he spoke of the what-ifs that we don’t even know of. Take World War I as an example: how many poets, scientists, artists, or diplomats died as a result of that conflict? We can’t even know how different the world would be had some of those people lived out their lives fully. We have no idea what we’re missing out on because of the way things weren’t…

I, however, ended up reading this book from a much more personal perspective: what are the choices I’m making today, right now, that seem small but determine what my life will look like years from now? What if I hadn’t offered to give that girl a ride to a Bible study, the girl who I ended up marrying and has now born me two children? What if my fellow engineering student hadn’t mentioned to the USA recruiter that I was particularly interested in working here, leading to him calling me back? What if my parents had turned down the opportunity to live overseas, and take their children with them?

As some of you know, a friend of mine recently made a choice that will change every day for the rest of her life. At the time, it probably didn’t seem like too big of a deal, but the consequences of that seemlingly fleeting decision are literally life-altering, for her and everyone around her.

But, maybe there are other factors at work. Maybe God, or Destiny, or Whatever You Want To Call It, simply manipulates the dice to put us in this place right now. Maybe Cortez couldn’t have lost. Maybe there was no other way but for him to win. Maybe there is no Alternate Universe where I didn’t give the girl a ride. Maybe this is all the way it has to be.