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Archive for November, 2011

Doodlebug is watching.

This little guy here is Doodlebug.  Don’t let the cute name fool you.  He works for the big guy.  You know the one.  Red suit.  White beard.  Reindeer.  Perfectly willing to cut you off if you’re naughty…..  Doodlebug does the big guy’s dirty work.  He’s a scout elf and he gets paid to keep an eye on things.  Crack wise at your dad, you’re on the naughty list.  Pull your sister’s pigtails… naughty list.  He makes sure Santa Clause is always in the know.

The Elf on the Shelf is an interesting story.  He comes to your house and finds an out of the way place to sit and watch.  Each elf is named by the family he lives with and every night he flies back to tell Santa how everyone is doing and every morning when you get up he’s in a different place.

Elf on the Shelf’ is a branded version of a story that I suspect has been around for generations in some form.   The idea was conceived by the mother/daughter team of Carole Aebersold and Chandra Bell.  They wrote a story about the Christmas elf tradition in their family, but all the publishers they approached weren’t interested.  So they started their own company in 2005 to sell ‘Elf on the Shelf’ kits regionally in the Atlanta area in 2005.  By now they’ve sold 1.5 to 2 million and it’s becoming a national trend.

We got our own elf last year.  Personally, the idea of some elf sitting around all day watching us creeps me out, and the elf’s appearance makes it even more creepy.  But, Santa is already watching so the elf fills a niche and explains just how Santa knows just who is being naughty or nice.  The elf comes with a sturdy little kit to store him in and a book that explains the rules to kids with rhyming verse and warm water color illustrations.

The kit has a very retro feel to it.  In this era of polish and flash it practically looks home made, you can decide for yourself if that is a good thing.  As you can see, our little guy is very Caucasian but they do come in darker skin models these days, and an add-on skirt is available separately if you want a girl elf.  The elf comes wearing a red jumpsuit and Santa hat and doesn’t have any hands or feet.  The arms and legs all come to a point and his eyes are perpetually glancing to the left giving it a definite ‘eye on you’ vibe.  The vintage look comes off creepy to me because it reminds me of an episode of the classic Twilight Zone where a puppet comes to life and does a lot more than tell Santa if you’ve been naughty.

I’m pretty sure ‘creepy’ is a pretty typical adult reaction, but adults aren’t really the target audience.  So I’ll cover the four year olds reaction next time.  And if you’re an elf newbie, come back and read my tips on elf care and handling tomorrow.

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Turns out there really is life on other planets. And they have a multi-planet, multi-species government already in place. This government sends out survey teams to keep an eye on developing species on various planets, and one of these teams decides to check out Earth. This is the set-up for ‘Out of the Dark’ by David Weber.

Book Cover The plot thickens when we discover that nearly all intelligent species out there are herbivores, with the occasional reformed (only eat meat on holidays) omnivores and they’ve formed a hegemony to govern this corner of the galaxy. According to their view, carnivore and omnivore (omnivores eat both meat and plant material) civilizations are so violent they usually destroy themselves before becoming space-born. So they’re somewhat concerned by human barbarism, especially since the vegan survey team arrived in the middle ages when organized warfare is just getting seriously bloody.

The vegan aliens cook up a plan to make sure humans don’t grow up to trouble the peace of the galaxy. Turns out there is one token carnivore species called the Shongairi that did make it into space to join the ‘weed eaters’. In the interests of keeping the fox out of the hen house the powers that be cook up a plot to let the space-faring carnivores colonize Earth and use humans however they like. If the humans make trouble, well that just keeps those nasty carnivores busy. (Turns out the herbivores are right too, the Shongairi are up to all sorts of nasty business and are delighted that the humans with their gift for mayhem will be the perfect slave race.)

So then we jump forward to an invasion fleet approaching Earth. Only this isn’t middle ages Earth. It took awhile for the plan to come together, so it’s now the early twenty-first century and the Shongairi conquerors aren’t prepared to face modern human weapons. Fortunately the Shongairi are better hackers than Anonymous AND they have the capability to drop asteroids on Earth. So thanks to an Iranian cab driver with a weakness for Lady Gaga and an unsecured WiFi connect the attack begins with a near simultaneous space borne kinetic bombardment of every single military base on the planet.

This is where things slow down as Weber focuses on the guerilla war that humans are forced to wage since the bad guys control the sky. Mix in a few protagonists who lost their families thanks to the sneak attack and you have the recipe for some serious doings. Weber’s setup essentially sets up the human defenders from all over the world as terrorists fighting a superior power. And just to make sure you notice, several characters bring that up at various points. It does make for an interesting perspective to be able to read something where the good guys are terrorists. (Though if you really think about it, the heros from Star Wars Episodes 4-6 were a lot like terrorists too.) The fact that all the humans are using terrorist methods is pointedly mentioned several times, but to me it’s only a passing similarity. The main distinguishing factor between terrorism and legitimate guerilla warfare being that terrorists attack an enemy civilian population while guerilla soldiers attack military targets around a generally sympathetic civilian population. Fortunately there is no enemy civilian population since they live on another planet, so we don’t have to delve too deeply into the question of ‘justifiable terrorism’.

I just have to stop at this point and say…. this doesn’t read like the David Weber I’ve come to know and love. Weber has a tendency toward what his fans fondly refer to as an ‘info-dump’. Which is exactly what it sounds like. A huge glut of information dropped all at once during a meeting or conversation. These usually explain a bit of technology and/or the motives of various characters. While there are a couple of lovingly written gun descriptions in this book, info-dumps are largely missing this time. Probably because the human technology is pretty much what readers are used to in every-day life and there aren’t very many point of view scenes with the aliens.

That turns out to be a double edged sword. While an info-dump tends to slow things down and require some heavy thinking, they are also a way of getting to know the characters, which was a problem for me. The characters were very shallowly explored and I had trouble generating a lot of interest in their plight, which seems like a pretty odd thing to say given that they were faced with genocide. There was one group of characters I had assumed from the beginning were going to be a big part of the story because Weber spent a lot of time setting them up, but they were largely left alone. It felt a bit like back story for a sequel.

Starting the war off with a giant bombing of the entire planet had the welcome effect of largely being able to ignore the ‘world goes to hell’ part of most disaster/alien invasion novels where we see the futile fight against impending doom. Weber skipped over all that and just started when humanity was already at the bottom. The ‘world goes to hell’ portions can be entertaining, but it’s always like the origin story of any super-hero franchise. You know where it’s all going so sometimes you just want to skip ahead to the sequel and see some action.

I’m also happy to report, this particular story can stand alone and not take up time Weber could better spend dealing with Honor Harrington or the troubles on Safehold. The story was wrapped up pretty well, though there is a small teaser for follow-up volumes if he wants to go that route after finishing what he started with ‘Off Armageddon Reef’.

All told, I really enjoyed Out of the Dark. It was like distilling out Weber’s best parts. I don’t want to give away anything, but it’s safe to say the genre collisions at the end pretty much blew my mind even if there was some slight foreshadowing.

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There is a famous quote that says something to the effect of ‘If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.” No one seems to know who actually said it, I’ve seen it attributed to a lot of infamous historical figures like Lenin and Joseph Goebbels, but I think it actually came from someone like Don Draper.  Who ever it was, I think they were way before their time, because that quote is a tailor made description of modern social media.  Whisper in the ears of the right people in the right places and you’ll soon be hearing the lie from all corners. In effect, if not in reality, the lie becomes true.

Let me share my fun times trying to buy early Christmas presents as an example…. (if you want something more visceral, I refer you to the vodka soaked tampon rumors currently pwning the web)

I’ve been anxiously waiting for the twins to get old enough to play some video games, and now that their fourth birthday is on the horizon it’s finally time. So a few weeks ago the wife and I decided we wanted to get them one of the little hand-helds that are made for kids. I did a lot of research and decided the new LeapPad was what we wanted. It’s essentially a cut-down iPad built a little more rugged for kids. So I started monitoring the prices online back around Halloween.

Right about this time I started seeing the ‘Hot Toys for Christmas’ lists, with the LeapPad right at the top. It started small on some obscure websites that I only saw because of my Google Alert on ‘LeapPad’ but then I saw it on the morning news show as I was getting ready for work. It worked on me too. I decided I’d better go ahead and grab a couple now because surely there won’t be a buying run on them before Thanksgiving. Just in case we had another ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ craze on our hands.

I was wrong. The lie has been repeated enough times already. It now really is the hot toy for Christmas because they were everywhere last week and nowhere to be found on the Internet or in stores now. Amazon Marketplace has sellers hawking them at 60-70% markup and the auctions are starting at 30% markup on Ebay.

At this point I’m expecting I’ll still be able to find one two before Christmas, because it’s only Thanksgiving after all.  Hopefully the biggest worry I’m going to have is whether or not it’s ethical to sell one on Ebay for double come mid-December.  Because I really should be compensated for the trouble, right?

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My David Weber Rant

A few years back I saw Amazon advertising that Weber had a new book ‘coming soon’, and my initial response was positive.  I enjoy reading Weber’s work, and he has contributed to several fictional universes that I like to read about from time to time.  But that first response was the direct cause of the second, less favorable, response.  To paraphrase, “*&#@ Weber went and created another independent series.”

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea.  Every writer obviously has the right to branch out when they start getting stale, but sometimes a fella just feels led on and teased a bit.  Weber’s Honor Harrington series is his most famous work, and he’s written a lot in that universe.  When he got tired of playing in that universe he went and created a brand new one with the Safehold series.  My initial reaction to that was pretty much the same as now, but then I read the first book and Weber hooked me in tight in that universe too.  We won’t even talk about all the other series he’s dabbled in.

So from both a selfish and selfless standpoint, it’s hard to begrudge the man exploring whatever projects he wants.  But as a fan, I can’t help whining about it anyhow, at least a little bit.  See…. he had brought his Harrington series to a good stopping point.  The war between interstellar powers was finally winding down and came to a satisfactory conclusion, as was the personal life of the heroine.  I’d miss the familiar characters and universe, but I had closure.  And then Weber went and did another novel picking up where that one left off and essentially positioning the original two warring powers from the first dozen or so novels at odds with an even bigger power.  It wasn’t really a surprise, you could see the pieces falling into place many volumes ago, but still, this might have been a good place to pause for a few years and go write about somebody else.  Instead I’m left with ongoing cliff hangers in two universes as he switches back and forth publishing books in both.

The biggest sad though, is the Hell’s Gate series.  Weber and co-author Linda Evans created a multi-verse.  Rather than being about space travel in our universe like typical sci-fi, it’s about inter-dimensional travel.  Lots of Earths existing in parallel universes and on two of those Earths civilizations find portals to travel between the parallel earths and they use those to explore and exploit resources from the other Earths.  One world developed magic, and the other discovered special mental abilities along the lines of telepathy and telekinesis.  (Both of these seem to be in place of the reliance on science on our own Earth.)  Weak leaders and poor decisions when groups from both worlds meet result in a war between the civilizations.  The war between the civilizations was in full swing for two novels with attacks and atrocities on both sides, and then nothing.  No third novel.  It’s like a series finale with on a cliff hanger.  As I understand it there are some practical business issues holding things up, but it’s enough to make my eye twitch every time I see those two books on my shelf.

This all started as a way to introduce my review of ‘Out of the Dark’, and I realize I’m not doing anything but complaining.  So we’ll just cut this off here and you can tune in next time for the actual review.

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Is It Hubiris To Review Tina Fey?

Book CoverI’ve had a minor celebrity crush on Tina Fey since her early days on Weekend Update. She’s very much the sexy and smart girl next door type and she couldn’t have the career she does without being ambitious and hard working too. Plus, I just kinda dig chicks with glasses. So I had some pretty high hopes when I picked up a copy of her new book. I won’t say I was disappointed, Bossypants is funny and entertaining, but it didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I had set for Tina Fey.

She sets the tone early on by mentioning the scar on her face, but she doesn’t want to explain it. Instead she says, “I only bring it up to explain why I’m not going to talk about it.” The brief explanation…… a stranger slashed her cheek in the alley behind her house when she was in kindergarten. I hadn’t been aware of the scar until she mentioned it, but the semi-serious discussion about what she learns about people from how they react to the story has guaranteed I’ll feel ashamed if (when) I give in to the temptation to Google ‘Tina Fey scar’.

That’s pretty much the tone throughout the book. Fey occasionally lets out something personal or shows a little vulnerability and then immediately brings on the zingers to distract the reader. That’s not entirely unexpected, humor is a popular defense mechanism and she is a master of the form. It does tend to make you wonder why Fey bothers at all since the more personal portions of the book obviously make her uncomfortable. On a personal level I can’t fault her for that, but the book does suffer for her choices in that regard.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions where Fey’s humor enhances her personal confessions rather than distracts from them. Most noteably, everything related to her husband and daughter ‘(For the record: epidural, vaginal delivery, did not poop on the table.)’. But for the most part she deploys her humor in a way that distracts from the point.

There is really only one other area I can find fault with Fey in the book, but to get there I’m going to have to talk about Fey’s show, 30 Rock. No one doubts (and she doesn’t deny) that 30 Rock is based on, or at least inspired by, Fey’s experiences as head writer at Saturday Night Live. Fey’s alter ego on the show, Liz Lemon, has been a walking punch line for all the ways she’s undesirable. A little of this type of humor goes a long way and the prevalence of these jokes is one of my major complaints about the show. A lot of the jokes fly in the face of reality because Fey, and Liz Lemon, obviously isn’t goofy looking or over-weight no matter how many times they make jokes about her clothes or eating habits. Maybe she was at one time, but not these days and pretending otherwise sucks the humor out of the jokes after the third or fourth punchline. (The book cover is a case in point.) Not to mention that treatment of the character has really started to push the line of bullying. I suspect Fey wouldn’t allow Liz Lemon to be treated so horribly if any other actor was playing the character.

A person who didn’t know Fey was running 30 Rock might think the writers just really dislike Fey. Having read Bossypants though, it’s pretty clear that Fey is most likely the impetus for most of the Liz Lemon jokes. The very same brand of self-deprecating humor runs throughout the book. At first it’s simply Fey showing us her humble roots as a gawky drama geek with questionable taste in wardrobe and hairstyle but it quickly starts to read like my three year old insisting that the sky is actually green just so his sister won’t be right about that whole blue thing. (That may be a true story. I have no comment.)

Now, with that messiness out of the way, I get to talk about the things I liked. Foremost on that list is the look behind the scenes of Saturday Night Live. It’s an interesting insight into how things work, “Saturday Night Live runs on a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment”. Fey starts out with a story about Cheri Oteri being passed over in favor of Chris Kattan in drag in her very first week on the writing staff and includes a detailed discussion of her discovery that the male writing staff pee in cups and like to pretend to rape each other. The combination of humor and pulling back the curtain made the ‘work’ portion of the book very enjoyable.

The chapter devoted to her days as a Sarah Palin look-alike was especially entertaining and delved into how to react to bad press (telling them to ‘go suck a bag of dicks’ is a bad idea). Fey also uses her hate mail to make an interesting point about how women are perceived. The hate mail she received (and to a lesser extent, media discussions on the topic) assumed that she was making a personal attack on Palin but no one ever castigated Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase, or any of the other male comedians for ‘going too far’. I suspect she’s wrong about this. Fey is undoubtably correct that she got more because of the gender issue, but if the male comedians she mentioned didn’t get hate mail for their impersonations it was only because they didn’t get as wide an audience. (Of course Palin got a wide audience largely because of her gender so I suppose that partially negates my point.)

Fey does deploy the self-deprecating humor I was complaining about above to do a good deed in her chapter about photo shoots. She couches the chapter in the form of advice in case you end up the subject of a photo shoot, “because Snooki and I have, so anything can happen!”. Her insider’s view makes the extremely important point that nothing is what it seems and ‘every person you see on a cover has a bra and underwear hanging out a gaping hole in the back. Everyone.’ She closes the chapter with a discussion on Photoshop and equates it to a modern day version of Victorian era corsets and neck stretchers. “As long as we know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.’

All told, I enjoyed Bossypants as an intelligent and witty presentation of being a woman in the business of comedy. Fey’s sarcasm and ‘zinger out of nowhere’ brand of humor enhanced the later parts of the book where she discussed work and her adult life, but they really distracted from the childhood stories she was trying to tell in the early chapters. She may have been better served by removing or glossing over her early years, but I hesitate to council this because childhood stories are usually very helpful in understanding a person. I feel like a more serious tone at the beginning incorporating more humor when she reached the SNL portion would probably have been the best way to go.

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Not So Dirty Old Man

Somehow I got caught in a loop where I couldn’t help but watch that old 80’s sitcom chestnut Family Ties.  The show seemed pretty good back when it originally aired, but it hasn’t held up well since then.  These days it seems both simplistic and preachy which may be a sign of cultural evolution, or maybe just a sign that I was 10 when it originally aired.

Either way, watching it again 25 years later hasn’t been great for my self-esteem.  I feel a little old when I notice the gray hair creeping in.  I feel a little old when I realize that people born while I was in high school are legally adults now.  I feel a little old when I stay up till 1 AM and have to get up with the boy twin at 7 AM the next morning.  But I can unequivocally say that think watching Family Ties has done more to make me feel old than all those other things combined.  The problem is all those actresses.

Cast Photo approximately 1984

Back in the days I originally watched the show I was about the age of the youngest daughter on the show.  I had a little crush on Mallory and to a lesser extent Jennifer, who were the high school and junior high daughters (but aged to college and high school as the show went on).  Now when I watch it both the girls look so young and I find myself thinking about how hot the mom (Meredith Baxter Birney) is, and what she would look like if she had a contemporary look.

Now don’t get me wrong, at this point in my life it would be pretty unfortunate if I wasn’t  attracted to the mom instead of the teenage daughter.  That’s not the part that makes me feel old.  Having a ‘before and after’ perspective, on the other hand, is a cold splash of water to the face.  That’s a huge drawback of nostalgia.  It makes you feel old by its very nature.

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Second

A little background seems in order just so you can judge for yourself the credibility of who you’re reading….

 I’ve been claiming I’m still in my mid-30’s despite my wife’s insistence that it’s actually late 30’s, but in light of my recent birthday I suppose it’s time to give in to the inevitable.  I’m in my late 30’s now.  In the interests of fairness we’ll just say I was born between Watergate and the dawn of the Reagan era.

 I’m a married man.  I didn’t find the right lady until fairly recently and she has often been heard to lament that fact.  Apparently living with a man who has lived on his own for a decade is an added level of difficulty above and beyond what you get when you live with a man in his 20’s because the longer a man lives on his own in the wild the more ideas he gets about how the domestic life should go and he gets more adept at withstanding the feminine mystique.

 I’m a dad.  With twins.  They were born in a few days into 2008 just because it would have been just too easy for daddy’s little tax deductions to come a week earlier and help out with the 2007 form 1040.  Trust me when I tell you…… if you come here regularly you’re going to hear a lot about the knee biters (graduated from ankle biters on their third birthday).

 Most people would consider me a man of science, but an actual man of science would sneer and at the idea of engineering being considered an actual science.  I’m actually a civil engineer who designs bridges and works on drainage and flooding issues.  Someday we’ll discuss the difference between engineering and science but that’s another day

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