November 2007 Archives

Friday Random Six

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I used to write a Friday Random 10, where I just grabbed 10 CDs from my collection and ripped the most interestng tracks. I don't really have the time to do ten, but how about we do six?

Richard Thompson - "From Galway to Graceland" (Watching The Dark (disc B) : Watching The Dark is a three disc collection of Thompson's greatest hits. This one is probably my least favorite of the three, but it still has some great songs on it. He is such an amazing storyteller. This song describes a woman who chucks it all to get "married" to Elvis, hanging out at his gravesite. A tragi-comic tale, this is his second best story (52 Vincent Black Lightning is his best - strangely enough, not in this collection). (Note - man, the third CD in two days I've come across with massive skips in it - damn!)

From Galway to Graceland
Richard Thompson


The Smiths - "Girlfriend in a Coma" (Strangeways, Here We Come [1987]) : Hard to pick one from this great album, that's for sure. I never was much of a Smiths fan, but this CD is another one that gets ripped from first to last track. This song carries on a great tradition, one that The Smiths (and Morrisey in particular) excel in - cheery lyrics tied to a downbeat subject. Good way to wrap up a career for The Smiths.


Dresden Dolls - "Backstabber" (Yes, Virginia [2006]) : Again, so many great choices from this CD. You can go creepy lonely (First Orgasm), poking fun at friends (My Alcoholic Friends), great character portraits (Mrs. O) or this one, where Amanda goes right to the bitch of it all.

Backstabber
The Dresden Dolls

Single Gun Theory - "Take Me Back" ( Millions Like Stars in My Hands, Daggers in My Heart, Wage War [1991]) : I have several CDs from this Aussie group, featuring the ethereal voice of Jacqui Hunt. This is a good one and this is a very nice song, which includes a snippet from Natalie Wood in "Splendour in the Grass".
03 - Take Me Back
Single Gun Theory

Lui Collins - "Wildflower Song" (Baptism of Fire [1980]) : A popular local folk singer, I even have her autograph on this CD. Plenty of great bouncy folk songs, including this one. About half the songs are written by her, while the others are done by some real "names" in folk, including Stan Rogers, Greg Brown and Jack Hardy.
Wildflower Song
Lui Collins

The Cure - "Pictures of You" (Disintegration [1989]) : I was a huge Cure fan, right up to this album. For whatever reason, while I have virtually all the ones before this, I never felt the urge to buy anything after this. Disintegration is a solid example  of Robert Smith's goth rock, with plenty of dreamy, dark songs.







Some pretty emotional stuff from Christopher Hitchens, describing how his words influenced a young man to serve, and die, in Iraq.

Hitchens was an early Iraq war proponent and remains a staunch apologist for the war, but he comes at it from a very practical point of view - if we don't control these religious fanatics now, we could truly be facing Armageddon (and don't make the mistake of assuming the total absence of Al Qaeda ties with Saddam that he was some kind of agnostic ruler).

It's an admirable point of view, but unfortunately entrusted to complete boobs and arrogant incompetents. And I still think preemptive strikes is the wrong method. But I don't know nearly as much as many, especially Hitchens.

Bored. Tubby. Mild.

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Fresh over the email transom:

QotD: Today's Musical Horoscope

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What's your musical horoscope?  (Put your player on shuffle and write down the first 10 songs that come up.) 

Using Amarok to pick a random ten songs from my collection on the hard drive delivers me:

1] It's Good To Be In Love - Frou Frou
2] God Damn The Sun - Swans
3] Ixtapa - Rodrigo y Gabriela
4] Short People - Randy Newman
5] Baby, Won't You Please Come Home - Gloria Shannon (from Mojo Mamas, a CD featuring female blues singers I bought at a blues club in Chicago)
6] My Eyes - Laurie Anderson
7] She - The Pretenders & Emmylou Harris (from Return of the Grievous Angel, a collection of Gram Parsons covers)
8] Waltzing's For Dreamers - Richard Thompson
9] Pabst Blue Ribbon - The Untamed Youth (from the Children Of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The Second Psychedelic Era collection)
10] Life By The Drop - Stevie Ray Vaughan (from The Sky Is Crying greatest hits collection)

Not too bad a list, and pretty representative. Some blues, some old new wave, some pop and some new stuff.


More Australia

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A couple more pictures from our now almost mythical Australia trip.

GreatOceanRoadKangaroo
A view from Great Ocean Road on the left. We rented a car in Sydney and drove to Melbourne, via the Blue Mtns and Canberra and, on the way there, everyone told us that if we had the time we should drive out along Great Ocean Road, a scenic highway along the coast from Melbourne to Adelaide. So we took a half a day and made it as far up the road as we could and, yes, it was well worth it.

And then, of course, you have to have a picture of a kangaroo if you are going to take pictures of anything in Australia. On our road trip, we stopped at a little state park and got some really nice wildlife pictures, including this one, which was a group of kangaroos, very tame. I also got some excellent photos of a kookaburra.
 



Wingsuit

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And for my next thrill:

Wingsuit mountain swoop



Just Another Strawman

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A little biting commentary from Lou Reed strikes home:

Does anyone really need a billion dollar rocket
Does anyone need a 60,000 dollars car
Does anyone need another president
Or the sins of Swaggart parts 6, 7, 8 and 9, ah
Does anyone need yet another politician
Caught with his pants down and money sticking in his hole
Does anyone need another racist preacher
Spittin' in the wind can only do you harm, ooohhh

Strawman, going straight to the devil
Strawman, going straight to hell
Strawman, going straight to the devil

Does anyone need another faulty shuttle
Blasting off to the moon, Venus or Mars
Does anybody need another self-righteous rock singer
Whose nose he says has led him straight to god
Does anyone need yet another blank skyscraper
If you're like me i'm sure a minor miracle will do
A flaming sword or maybe a gold ark floating up the hudson
When you spit in the wind it comes right back at you

And here it is. Glory in the angry guitar.

Strawman
Lou Reed


 


Unfortunately, I haven't read any of these. But I have read three or four (all non-fiction) from the 2006 list (see the links on the left). And just what I need - yet another list of book I just gotta read :-(

mp3eme VOX: Color Me Red

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For our next color, let's try another popular color - red.

Red Letter Day
China Crisis

We went to see China Crisis open for Simple Minds back in the day, and much preferred them to the "headliners". This isn't from my favorite China Crisis album, but it is red.

Beautiful Red Dress
Laurie Anderson

Some day, I'll see Laurie Anderson in concert, as I've just missed her on several occasions.

Red Guitar
Loudon Wainwright III

On the other hand, I have seen Loudon Wainwright in concert. Several times, in fact, and can highly recommend it. This is from his "Live One" CD, which shows off his wacky sense of humor.


Clannad is an excellent Celtic folk/rock group and this is a good example.

mp3eme: Color Me Blue

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Let's start this week's mp3eme of colors with the color blue.  Not surprisingly, a pretty common color when it comes to songs.

First up is the velvety crooning of Roland Gift, in the Fine Young Cannibals eponymous first release. This CD contains several excellent songs, both original and covers.

Blue
Fine Young Cannibals

Another Blue song is one of my favorite songs from one of my all time favorite albums, Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. He is really in top form on this CD and this song is just great. I just love the rhyming pattern(s) in it.

Again, sorry for the icons instead of pictures. Uploading MP3s with album pictures still doesn't work for me on a consistent basis and today is one of those "no you don't" days.



S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

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So I played two more hours of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl last night. It is a pretty fun first person shooter / RPG for Windows that I have been playing sporadically (which pretty much defines my computer game playing routine) for a little while. I'm not too far into it - maybe about six hours total. I was having problems getting it to run on my "old" computer, but it runs like a champ on my Quad 2.4mhz with nVidia 8600 video card.

The basic story of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is that the area around Chernobyl turns into a real strange place after the "Second" catastrophe. You play a Stalker, someone who is exploring the "Exclusion Zone" for adventure and profit, although there is something strange about you. You've been picked up after a truck accident and you have amnesia (yeah, I know, the ol' "I don't know who I am" trick). The only thing you know is that your are looking (to kill?) someone named Strelker.

So far, I've gone on a few "FedEx" quests (go get this item and bring it back). I guess it can't really be called an Role Playing Game, because there are no personal attributes that you are trying to increase. Rather, you just can afford better armor, weapons and ammunition.

So far, I've enjoyed the graphics and the gameplay. It's pretty creepy, especially at night, as you explore and await getting pounced on by strange mutant creatures. I hope to get more play time tonight.

Movie Review: Unforgiven

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I popped in the HD version of The Wild  Bunch, Peckinpah's elegiac Western, freshly delivered from Netflix. Oops, didn't work in the ol' HD player. It fires up, notices that it is an HD disc and then pops some kind of error code on the front panel. Many cleanings and retries later, I gave up.

Luckily, I didn't need to give up on my HD Western fix, as I had purchased Unforgiven in HD a few months ago, so instead I popped that disc in. And, lo and behold, it worked! This 4 time Oscar winner from 1992, directed and starring Clint Eastwood proved to be a perfect complement to my vegetable preparing labors. Many potatoes, squashes and beans later, I was able to turn my attention 100% to the movie.

Unforgiven is the story of William Munny, an old time gunslinger who long ago gave up the calling to settle down with a good woman. She dies of smallpox, leaving Munny with two kids and debts to pay, so when the son of an old sidekick shows up offering half the bounty for killing two cowboys accused of maiming a whore, the allure proves to be too much, so he heads out. Before he does, though, he swings by and recruits another old sidekick, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help out in the job.

Obviously rusty (he can't hit a can from 20 yards and can barely get on his horse), Munny needs the money too much to turn away. As they head towards the Wyoming frontier town of Old Whiskey, we see the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, (played with true coldness by Gene Hackman) enforcing the No Guns rule with ruthless precision. English Bob (Richard Harris) is the first to feel his wrath, as he gets the snot kicked out of him.

Which is the fate the befalls Munny when he first gets to town. He has to recover, and then come to grips with the wildness and coldness rising from his past in order to do the murders for hire. Other tragedies befall the trio and much violence and mayhem follows, especially after Munny harnesses his inner demon.

Unforgiven starts out slow, gets a little silly and then settles into a deadly rhythm. I'm not really sure the whole back story of the bounty needed to be told in such detail, as it really didn't add much. I would have started the movie where The Schofield Kid first shows up to the widower's "ranch" (actually, just a mud farm). And a rusty Munny was a little over played, but I guess made sense. Once it settled down into a deadly game, though, the movie really hit its stride and became a true meditation on death, killing and the Wild West.

Eastwood shined as the beaten down yet still deadly Bill Munny. His weathered face and cracking voice truly filled out the character. He mentioned in one of the commentaries that he had been sitting on this project for years, knowing that he would be growing into the older main character. And he picked a good time for it, too.

And the picture was simply breathtaking. Definitely a reference DVD. Some of the extras showed the film in "plain" DVD, and the difference is truly revelatory. Just an amazingly clear picture, where each wave of grain and glorious autumnal leaf blazed out. A perfect DVD to show off HD DVD.

The extras were a little sparse. A couple of Making Of... featurettes (with repeated footage), a Clint Eastwood retrospective and a commentary track. I like the HD menu setup, that's for sure. It doesn't interrupt the show, just pops up on the bottom.

All in all, a very nice evening at the home theater. And with my new Marantz, there were no cutouts and no fiddling with the plugs. I even spent some time the other night getting my MX-500 universal remote setup, so the remote control mayhem has been controlled somewhat.



My last.fm week

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Top Artists for the week ending 18 Nov 2007

The SmithereensMassive AttackSquirrel Nut ZippersRichard ThompsonThe MotelsThe Smiths
  1 Play The Smithereens
22
  2 Play Massive Attack
21
  3 Play Squirrel Nut Zippers
19
3 4 Play Richard Thompson
9
  5 Play The Motels
6
  5 Play The Smiths
6
4 7 Play Run On
1
  7 Play Hank Williams
1


My new CDs top the list this week. And the fact that I ripped 2 of the 3 Watching The Dark Richard Thompson CDs also shows up. But not too many plays this week, overall.

mp3eme VOX: Spelling Bee

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Sorry, but I must - NMKY....

Finnish YMCA cover

I'll show you mine...

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I just got my new A/V receiver in the mail yesterday. I didn't really need a new one, but almost. My old Marantz SR7000 had served me well, but had four annoying quirks:

  • It was so old it didn't even have component video switching, never mind HDMI 
  • The Monitor Out line was flaky, so if I wanted to use the On Screen Display adjustments, I usually had to fiddle around with the plug in back until it finally showed up.
  • There was an intermittent failure with the audio. I could never narrow it down, but, especially with the DVD player, the sound would just cut out, again requiring fiddling around in back.
  • It had 6 digital audio inputs, but 4 were coaxial and only 2 optical, which was a problem because 3 of my components needed optical.
So I had my eye on the Marantz SR7001, as I really liked the performance and sound from the SR7000. But its list price of US$1300 or so kept me away from it, so I had an eBay search set for it. And I just happened to be on eBay and checked out the search and there was a very new (bought in January) SR7001 going for a reasonable price. So I threw in an eSnipe bid and was shocked to find out a week later that I had won it!

It's actually slightly behind the tech curve, as Marantz recently came out with the SR7002. But the only real difference is the HDMI is v1.3, and not 1.2 like on the SR7001. Some quick web research showed that it just didn't matter, so I'm very happy to get a new A/V receiver. This one even has HDMI switching (4 in, 1 out). And I think it even upconverts the video to HDMI, which is real nice.

So I've begun the massive job of unhooking my old one and hooking up the new one. As you can see from this close up of the SR7001 back, it's no small job:

So far, I've hooked up the 6 speakers and the CD player. I still don't understand why speaker connections have to be so difficult. There should be a plug, not these "feed the bare speaker wire into the virtually impossible to reach screw plugs" inputs. So I cussed and cursed but finally got the speakers hooked up. At least the subwoofer is a simple RCA plug.

So I took a picture of my home theater setup:

A] These are Phase Technology Teatro 7.5 VDT main speakers. Phase Technology actually makes many "name brand" speakers, and the experience really shows. These are great sounding speakers. I see they don't make the Teatro series any more, but I'm sure their new ones are just as good.

B] My new Marantz SR7001. 110 watts per channel, lots of inputs, great FM tuner. It's a tad taller, but not as deep as the SR7000, which is good, because the old one didn't really fit on the top shelf, but this one fits perfect.

C] Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD player. The lowest of low end HD DVD players, but works well enough for my usage. Upconverts to 1080i and, in general, a pretty solid player. Slow, but sure.

D] A Kenwood dual cassette player. Yup, a cassette player. I think I'll probably not bother hooking it up this time around, as I haven't used it in years.

E] My Comcast HD DVR player. In general, I think the quality of the HD DVR players from Comcast has been pretty dismal. I got a new one upstairs, which is a different model, but both are slow to respond to commands, can get into bad states that require unplugging them and in general, just have poor software.

F] Sony SCD-CD775 6 disc SACD player. Does the job with one unfortunate drawback - the remote doesn't have a Power switch. Is that bizarre or what? The front buttons are also pretty incomprehensible. I don't have too many SACD discs, but the ones I have sound pretty spectacular.

G] My Monster HTS 1600 Power Center. When I bought my HDTV, I was talked into buying this, and I have to say, I'm really glad I did. We have flaky enough power, and this smooths out the ups and downs of the power, gives me a single turn off point for the entire system, and should protect very well. I think it was worth it.

H] The center speaker, which is the same as my two rear surround speakers, which are also Phase Technology Teatros, this time 6.5s. Again, fantastic speakers. I bought like four different speakers when trying out for the center speaker and this one blew the rest completely away. Far better than Boston Acoustics, Bose, and Cambridge Soundworks, for example.

I] My 50in Sony KDS-50A2000 SXRD HiDef TV. I'm really enamored with this. It is sort of Sony's version of the DLP, so it isn't a plasma or LCD. But it is still pretty small, at least compared to my old 36in tube behemoth. Really dark blacks, 1080p (if I ever get anything that does 1080p!) and just a great TV.

Hiding off to the right is my Cambridge Soundworks subwoofer. Suffice to say, my next speaker purchase will be an upgrade to this; probably a Hsu VTF-3 MK3 subwoofer.

And on the table in front is my collection of remotes. The big one on the left is my universal remote a Home Theater Master MX-500. It works pretty well, but I'm hoping the SR7002 remote (on the far right) will replace it. I've always wanted to upgrade to a computer programmable one, like the Harmony but just haven't made that move yet.



mp3eme VOX: Spelling Bee

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F-I-R-E-I-N-C-A-I-R-O



Apples

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A poem from my 7 year old (indentation is straight from the source):

Apples
by A.

                                                         Apples grow on trees,
                                                                as everybody sees.
                                                             Sometimes we make pies,
                                                           or buy a few,
                                                                       sometimes we make
                                                sauce too.
                                                               Chicks eat them in their pen,
                                                with their momma, Momma Hen.
                                                       we call them apples,
                                                              but babies call them rapples.
                                                                          rapples, trapples as
                                                babies say,
                                                                 Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful day!
                                                           

                                                                

Vox Hunt: Take Me Anywhere

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If you had the ability to teleport, where would you go right now?

Australia.

Kings Canyon:

or the Blue Mountains:


QotD: This Show Never Sucked

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Which TV show never "jumped the shark"?
Submitted by healthypanda

I agree with Noun/Verb - we don't need no steenkin' quotes 'n' links...

Anyway, I don't watch series TV, so I'll go with:


I keep watchin' it, and they keep winnin' it:-)


The Nerd Handbook

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This handbook describes me to a terrifying degree....

Movie Review: The Devil's Backbone

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The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del diablo) is the first of director Guillermo del Toro's movies dealing with the horrific Spanish Civil War. I reviewed its more famous follow up, Pan's Labyrinth here and found out about The Devil's Backbone from the director's commentary found on the Pan's Labyrinth DVD, so I ordered me up a copy from Netflix. It arrived about a month ago and I only just now got around to watching it.

The Devil's Backbone tells the story of a young boy, Carlos, who gets dropped off at an orphanage by some wounded rebels. The orphanage is located deep in rebel territory, during the last part of the Spanish Civil War. The boy joins 15 or so other boys at the orphanage, which is headed by a widow of a rebel and her paramour.

An unusual feature of the orphanage is the huge unexploded bomb stuck, half buried, in the middle of the main courtyard. Legend has it that a boy disappeared the same night the bomb dropped and he continues to haunt the orphanage. Carlos has exactly the kind of troubles you might imagine he would trying to fit in with a bunch of wild boys, and goes through a few trials as he does his best to get along.

Also in the orphanage are two workers - Jacinto, a "graduate" of the orphanage and general handyman, and his lover, Conchita, a beguiling beauty played by Iren Visedo. They dream of escaping the dreary place and getting their own house on the ocean. Jacinto's burning intensity and hatred of the orphanage is played with real bravura by Eduardo Noriega. Jacinto is trying to find the stash of gold the rebels have kept at the orphanage, and he makes love to the head mistress in order to get the keys to the safe.

As the government troops close in on the orphanage, stresses build and an escape plan is hatched. But it all explodes in a cacophony of violence, evil and mystery, in a typically del Toro ending.

While not nearly as assured and deep as Pan's Labrynth, The Devil's Backbone proved to be an excellent ghost story, filled with interesting characters and more than a few twists and turns. The actors, including the kids, were very solid and I thought Irene Visedo was truly beautiful. A very nice effort by a young del Toro.



VUDU - streaming HD movies

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A friend of mine was talking about this new gadget that lets you stream HD movies from the Internet. If you have a broadband connection, this looks like an interesting option. At US$399, though, it seem a little pricey. For that much, I'd buy a PS3 and either rent or buy BluRay movies (I already have an HD DVD player). Movie "rentals" cost from .99 to $3.99, and I guess you can even buy movies. Maybe something to keep an eye on anyway.

The Tide Is High :: The Rising Tide

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Well, it says it supports OGG, so we'll try it. For some reason, my CD ripper (Banshee) goes haywire sometimes and starts doing its ripping in OGG. And as you can't put images in OGG, I don't feel so bad, as I still can't upload MP3s with image.

Multimedia Mayhem

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I struck a motherload of media yesterday. Great music and books were discovered, songs were dug, first chapters were devoured and much joy commenced.

I had a 40% off up to 3 CDs coupon at Borders, so I took a quick run up to the local one. The CD racks were a mess and I could not find anything specifically on my want list. But some more digging uncovered a few gems, including Blown to Smithereens: The Best of the Smithereens, Massive Attack's Collected and The Best of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I've listened to the first two and am totally blown away by both.

I'm not even sure how  Massive Attack got on my want list, but their first three CDs were on there, so the Collected CD was a nice find, as it summarizes their first four CDs. And wow, what a great collection of trip-hop! I love the sounds and really dig Liz Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) on this one called Teardrop:

Teardrop
Massive Attack


Then I popped in the Smitheeens CD and I immediately hearkened back to simpler days in the 80s, when their first CD, Especially For You came out. With their heavy guitar sound and Pat DiNizio's unique vocals, they are immediately recognizable. And this CD is filled from front to back with great indie rock sounds. Hard to pick just one, but I'll go with the big, deep guitar sounds of Blood And Roses.

Blood  & Roses
The Smithereens


(sorry for the icons instead of pictures in my MP3s. I still can't seem to correctly upload MP3s that have the cover inserted in them.)

I haven't listend to the Squirrel Nut Zippers yet, but I love their infectious swing/jazz/pop sound.

And then I took the girls to the library and while they were checking out the children's section (R took out her first Hardy Boys mystery - she wasn't interested in Nancy Drew), I looked over the new books. Again, not that I need any new books to read, as I really just want to finish the library books I have and get back to my War and Peace reading, which has slipped horribly. Luckily, I didn't see anything there, but then I remembered another author I wanted to read - Norman Mailer. Perusing his obits, I realized that I had never read a Mailer book, although The Executioner's Song has always been on my To Read list. Well, both it and The Naked and The Dead were there, so I decided to go with his first book, a 500+ page epic on the taking of an island during World War 2, written when he was just 24. And just reading the first chapter has me dying to dive into the epic.

And then I decided to check out the "humanist" section of the library (Dewey Decimal at 211, if you're interested). And, lo and behold, there was The God Delusion! There are like six holds on it, but there it sat, lonely and hidden deep in the stacks, which is very odd. I wonder if someone was trying to bury it?

Be that as it may, I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I quickly scooped it up. And just reading the introduction made me remember how excited I was reading his book The Ancestor's Tale - it sounds too good to just be a temporary library borrowing and I'm pretty sure I'll have to own it. Especially as it comes out in paperback Real Soon Now. I'll probably have to bump that to the top of my reading list, as I'm sure I won't be able to renew it.

So a plethora of stimulating sounds and words. Truly my cup runneth over! And now, rather than type this in, I should head upstairs and get my nose in a book.


Best Children Books

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A friend of mine asked me for some kid book recommendations, so I thought I would just post them here.  We have a ton of books, and story time is an integral part of our bedtime routine.  My wife has been a stickler for a regular time (7pm) and routine for bed, and I think it is the major contributor to our girls' excellent sleeping habits.  They tend to go to bed reasonably easy, and are usually sound asleep before 8pm. And they sleep until 6:30 or so, no matter what time they actually go out.  And rarely wake up during the night. And it has been that way ever since they were very little. Can't ask for anything more!

The final step in the routine (after things like toothbrushing, bathroom, washing, and the like) is for all of us to gather together on our bed and read a book or three.  We borrow plenty of books from the library, and each girl has a full bookcase.  This list doesn't include any classics, like Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd), Pat the Bunny (Dorothy Kunhardt) or anything by classic authors like Dr. Seuss, Sandra Boynton, or Eric Carle (you can't go wrong with any of them). These are more obscure books that I think really work well with any child up to about 6 or so, but are also interesting enough to read (over and over and over and over) again and again by adults.  Often this means some good rhyming action, but not always. 

  • Click Clack Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. We haven't found the sequels to be nearly as clever.
  •  
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. On the other hand, we've found all the books in this series to be outstanding.  One of my fondest memories of our youngest are of reading this book and her answering the question "Noooooo".
  •  
  • Bubba and Beau Go Night-Night by Kathi Appelt, Arthur Howard (Illustrator)
  •  
  • Oh My Baby, Little One by Kathi Appelt, Jane Dyer (Illustrator)
  •  
  • The Water Hole by Graeme Base. This one has some cool illustrations, with hidden animals on each page.  We're still working on finding all of them
  •  
  • The Complete Adventures of Big Dog and Little Dog by Dav Pilkey
  •  
  • Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, Marla Frazee (Illustrator). Babies love babies and this one has a bunch of them, with some really nice rhymes too
  •  
  • Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. The whole series remains a favorite, with sparkly illustrations that really attract the eyes, and very nice fables with solid morals.
  •  
  • Sally Goes To The Beach by Stephen Huneck.  All the Huneck Sally books are big colorful books on a Labrador Retriever's adventures.  This one and the mountain one are favorites.
  •  
  • The Everything Book by Denise Fleming
  •  
  • Kiss Good Night by Amy Hest, Anita Jeram (Illustrator)
  •  
  • My Car by Byron Barton. Probably the best for the youngest set, very bold bright colors and easy words.  A real favorite of the girls when they were younger. The author has a bunch of books and all are good.
  •  
  • Two Little Trains by Margaret Wise Brown and Leo and Diane Dillon. Clever rhyming in this one, with typical odd Brown patterns.
  •  
  • All By Myself by Aliki.  If I were forced to pick just one book, I think this would be it.  Clever rhymes about growing up and trying to do stuff yourself.
  •  
  • I Love You Like Crazy Cakes by Rose A. Lewis and Jane Dyer. A poignant book about adopting a Chinese baby
  • Ella Sarah Gets Dressed by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. For any parent who has tried to convince their kid about clothing choices. That means all of us.
  •  
  • When Sophie Gets Angry...really, Really Angry by Molly Bang. Very clever book about a little girl who can barely contain her anger.
  •  
  • Alpha Bugs: A Pop-Up Alphabet by David A. Carter. There's a whole series of these pop-up books, but this was a favorite.
  •  
  • I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark. All of these are very cute stories about a little girl and her stuffed animal, Blue Kangaroo

As for buying these, I can heartily recommend AllBooks4Less.com and its sister site BookCloseouts.com.  I think they may actually be the same company, but the prices can't be beat, although as you can imagine from the names, the selection is hit or miss.  I always start with AllBooks4Less and then try the other major online vendors.

I'm not slacking off

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Book Review: Disgrace

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After seeing a good review of it on M-----l's blog, I asked for and received Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee from my local library. Like I needed another book to read, but luckily this was a rather thin tome, so it was one I figured I could handle.

And I did finish it, which something I've had a hard time doing lately. Disgrace tells the story of a South African professor who gets involved with a student of his, gets found out and then kicked out. He goes to stay with his daughter, who has gone back to the earth and runs a farm by herself off "in the country".  More bad things happen, which interferes with his writing of a Lord Byron opera.

I have to admit to being a little nonplussed by it all. Disgrace is a Booker Prize winner, and Coetzee is a literary darling. But in many ways, it reminded me of reading The Welsh Girl - a book populated with characters who seemed to never leap off the page, remaining just literary figures who never resonated with me as "real" people. Motivations seemed to be missing or, even worse, random. And the main character never came off as someone to feel sorry for, who seemed to be reaching for something, but actually rather pathetic in the end. Not a bad book, but not one that makes me want to run out and read another Coetzee.

Disgrace
J. M. Coetzee


The Moral Highground

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Fresh over the email transom:


Zombie Christmas card

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Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is a short, provocative pamphlet, written in response to vociferously critical letters and emails he received from Christians of all stripes after the publication of his The End of Faith (which I reviewed here). Aimed most directly at the most conservative of Christians, the book carefully spells out just how bizarre and irrational a "deep and abiding faith" can be.

It seems to me to be shooting fish in a barrel by trotting out all the truly sadistic, tribal, and primitive the Bible can be, but fundamentalists bring this upon themselves by quoting it constantly. I love this Richard Dawkins quote from his The God Delusion book:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:
jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty
ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal,
pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadamasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.


So I suppose it is of some civic good to point out just how fallible a book the Bible is, and Sam Harris trots out a few more examples. He also tackles the canard brought up by the religious of how "atheists" like Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin remain some of the most brutal killers of the 20th century. As Harris says:

While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. ... The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.


Other weighty subjects Harris discusses in such a thin volume include discussing just how good the Ten Commandments are, whether morality needs a God, just how off track the religious right can be when it comes to doing "good", are the states that are more religious lower in crime (they are not), discussing how fallible this "God" is when it comes to showing any kind of mercy (and the "pirouettes" the devout go through to try and justify the overwhelming misery of so many), Biblical prophesies and their astounding bad track record (or, even better, how they accurately reflect a two thousand year old point of view) and other basic tenets of "faith". It is quite a short, sweet, distillation of all that is irrational when it comes to the Bible and the conservative Christians who live by it.

It ends with:

This letter is the product of failure - the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures - failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently.

Non believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well - by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. this letter has been an expression of that amazement - and, perhaps, of a little hope.


His list of recommended books is:

  1. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins 
  2. Breaking the Spell by Danial C. Dennett
  3. Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman
  4. Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg
  5. The End of Days by Gershom Gorenberg
  6. Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby (my review is here)
  7. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
  8. Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
  9. God, the Devil, and Darwin by Neil Shanks
  10. Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smit

To which one could, of course, add his own The End Of Faith. I am currently reading Breaking the Spell, which is a fascinating exploration of religion as a phenomenon, biological and psychological. Dennett is a professor at a local university (Tufts) and I am keeping my eye out for any local talks he might be giving. Here is a video of Richard Dawkins introducting Dennett as he receives an award at  the Atheists Allegiance International '07 conference. Dan Dennett receives the "Richard Dawkins Award" at the AAI 07 conference in Washington, D.C. Julia Sweeney introduces Richard Dawkins, and Richard Dawkins introduces Dan Dennett.



Geek Humor : IPv6 song

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No, not just geek humor - but network geek humor. Pretty funny stuff!


Link: Electronic Road Signs and Me

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Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil

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Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil, is a very funny cartoon series from Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. Here's the first episode:



Dolls and Zombies

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My favorite Doll makes a zombie video:



Make the Perfect Martini

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These are the steps to martini nirvana. You really should use a high quality gin, but if you must make a vodkatini, you can still follow these steps.

  1. Most importantly, you need cold ingredients.  This is where most bars fail.  Store your vodka and gin in the freezer.  Store your vermouth in the refrigerator (it's a wine, so it will freeze up solid if you put it in the freezer).  You don't necessarily need to store your cocktail glasses in the freezer, although I do.  If you put them in the ice tray about a half hour before you need them, you'll have nicely frosted glasses.
  2.  
  3. Fresh, perfectly cracked, ice.  Not ice that's been sitting in your freezer for months, slowly desiccating away, absorbing strange odors.  And you need it cracked just the right size.  Too big, and it won't chill things nicely. Too small, and it will water down your drink.  Up until recently, I found the best tool for doing this was the Lewis Ice Bag.  You put ice cubes in the heavy canvas bag, give it a few whacks with the wooden club, and you have correctly sized ice pieces.  You can easily control how big or small the pieces are, just by how many times you whack it.  It comes in a nice container, with some classic cocktail recipes, including the martini one I now use.  Electric ice crushers don't work very well, as they tend to make the ice chips too small - more like slush than ice cubes, which means they melt too rapidly.  But now I use the ice machine in our new refrigerator, which makes some pretty good crushed ice.  Maybe a tad too small, but servicable nonetheless for making the perfect martini.
  4.  
  5. Top shelf ingredients. Because there is nothing masking the taste of the liquor in a martini, you have to use great booze.  We're a Bombay Sapphire family here.  There just isn't enough taste to regular vodka to make it all that interesting as a martini.  Tanqueray is a solid gin, especially the No. Ten label.  However, gin seems to be affecting us a little more and for a little longer, as we get older, so moderation is the key here.  Vodka doesn't seem to have this effect on us, so it has become a preferred mixer.  I'm not nearly as wedded to a premium vodka brand as I am to Sapphire as a gin.  We've done some taste testings in the past, and while you could taste some differences, it was more that - a difference - and not something that would create a preference either way.  I've enjoyed all the big names in premium vodkas, like Belevedre, Grey Goose (what is it with these liquor web sites? Addicted to Flash and asking a stupid question about how old you are, like they are pr0n peddlers or something), and the like. I also like Three Olives Vodka, for something that tastes great and is a good price.
  6.  
  7. The vermouth you use is amazingly important, despite the fact the the modern martini uses very very little (the Winston Churchill martini recipe calls for gin in a cocktail glass, and then look at a bottle of vermouth:-).  This is especially true for a vodka martini, with the (dry!) vermouth adding most if not all of the flavor.  I'm a Noilly Prat man myself.  Remember, vermouth is a wine, so you need to keep it cold but it can also get old.  Don't let it sit around in your refrigerator!
  8.  
  9. Okay, now that you have your ingredients, it is time to make the drink.  Put the perfectly cracked ice pieces into your cocktail shaker.  I love to collect cocktail shakers, but I really only use the standard stainless steel tall cup, topped with a glass mug.  Like James Bond, I like my martinis shaken not stirred. I used to stir it, but then I tried this recipe from the Lewis Ice Bag and have been shaking it ever since.  Pour your cold vermouth into the shaker, give it a couple of vigorous shakes and then strain out all the vermouth you can get out, leaving just coated ice in there. That'll be plenty of vermouth.
  10.  
  11. Now add your vodka or gin that you've pulled from the freezer. Don't be stingy, add plenty, because you have nice big cocktail glasses, chilling in the freezer right?  Now shake it again, until your hand gets too cold to hold the steel cup. Set it aside to let it rest.
  12.  
  13. While the martini is resting in the cocktail shaker, get out your olives.  I don't like fancy olives. Give me a nice giant, pimento-stuffed green olive any day.  All the other kinds add more flavors I don't want in my martini - anchovy, pepperoncini, etc.  I have to admit, we did try almond-stuff olives once. I figured the almonds wouldn't add flavor to the drink anyway.   I still prefer standard ones.  Put the olives (don't be stingy here either!) on a paper towel and squeeze.  Try to dry them off. Again, you don't want olive brine to ruin your perfect martini, do you?  While some (like FDR) like a "dirty" martini, where you actually add extra brine on purpose, the very idea of mangling a perfect cocktail like this makes my skin crawl. Stick the olives on a colorful toothpick and set them aside.
  14.  
  15. Take your chilled cocktail glasses out of the freezer.  You want a clear glass, so you can enjoy the transparent perfection of your creation.  Don't hide it behind a colored cocktail glass please!  Now strain your martini into the cocktail glasses.  Don't worry about a few ice chips getting in there; that just adds to the beauty of the whole thing.
  16.  
  17. Gently place your toothpick of olives into your cocktail glass and bask in the perfection that is a martini.  Take a sip.  It should almost take your breath away, even a vodka one.  Freezing cold on the tongue, yet with a burning warmth down the throat.  Ahhhh, I can taste it now!

So that's my process for making the perfect martini.  And I've never gotten any complaints, either!  The main thing is to use cold ingredients, the right vermouth and to make it dry.

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