Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas 2010 Advance Delivery Holiday Newsletter.

Merry Christmas
from the North Carolina Branch of the Haslup Clan

It’s time for another installment of the North Carolina Haslup Clan Obligatory Christmas Letter ™ and, as it happens, here it is. It is written very much in the hopes that it will find you and yours all well and happy, and having a Merry Christmas… or a Happy New Year, or whatever other holiday is timely whenever I finish the letter and get it mailed out.

When I first sat down to write this year’s newsletter I had in mind an approximately chronological presentation and the first thing I realized is that I couldn’t remember much about the first half of the year. There was, mind you, nothing wrong with the first part of the year; we did stuff – the time passed pleasantly enough – but, in retrospect, there wasn’t really much to write home about. I let this problem stump me for an absurd amount of time; I sat there, staring at a blank screen, trying to remember something we did in January or February that would be worth the effort to write down. It was only today, the fourth day in December, with the various postal deadlines for Christmas letters looming, that I realized there was much that was interesting about the year, and I should just do the most interesting thing first, then write about the second most interesting, and so forth until I have filled the space allotted and/or exhausted the patience of my long-suffering readers.

Chris and Reid

Item Number One: A Wedding. The most interesting news for the year by far won’t be news at all for some of you since many of you were there when it happened. Christopher was married October 30th to Reid Clonts – now Jennifer Reid Clonts Haslup – who, for those of you who weren’t at the wedding and don’t know, is a lovely and charming young lady and a very welcome addition to the family. I used all four of her names here in part to tease Reid, who tried to get the Jennifer part dropped when she changed her last name to Haslup, and in part so that, reading this, she can see that it really does make her sound like a princess to have so many names, and is not at all a bad thing. Apparently, changing your last name is easy but changing your first name is hard; it requires hard-to-obtain paperwork which she described to me but I have forgotten – I seem to recall something about a visa signed by General DeGaulle, but perhaps I am remembering something else.

The newlyweds live in an apartment in Raleigh with Reid’s dog Roo (Rue? Roux?) about whom there was some concern leading up to the wedding that, being rather set in his ways he might take a dim view of all the changes of situation that a bride’s dog necessarily faces. But he did much better than expected, even putting up with an extended visit in a household with other dogs while his mistress was away getting married at the Ridgecrest Conference Center in Black Mountain, NC, or was at Disney World, or on a cruise ship off the Mexican coast, or at some other port of call in Chris and Reid’s rather ambitious honeymoon. The apartment (which this paragraph was originally about) is convenient to Christopher’s job at Capstrat where he works as a graphics designer, and to NC State University where Reid is hoping to complete her PhD in Dye Chemistry. In her work for her dissertation she is becoming one of the leading experts on dying things black and on the various color gradations and degrees of blackness of things so dyed. When she receives her degree she hopes to find a teaching position, where she will struggle with the fact that the term “Black Studies” is already in use by a different department.

Janet and Irene – Christopher’s and Reid’s respective mothers in laws

A wedding, of course, is the joining of two families and I am pleased to report that Reid’s people and ours seemed to mix without untoward incident at the wedding. Irene and I like Reid’s mom, Janet, in particular. She will fit in nicely with the family, I think. Since she doesn’t know the family that well she may not know what sort of a compliment that is – and neither do I, sometimes – but it remains true.

Item Number Two: Another Wedding. The main thing I am instructed to say about Amber’s upcoming wedding is that it is a really, really small affair and the mailing list for this newsletter runs much longer than the invitation list for the wedding. Amber’s schedule at the Lake Erie School of Osteopathic Medicine (in Bradenton, Florida) has very few breaks for the next several years and those breaks are brief. If she wants to get married (and she does) then this year’s New Year’s break is pretty much it. The wedding is being held on New Year’s Eve morning in a Tampa restaurant that does events and the size of the venue limits the attendees to immediate family and a few local friends. If your invitation fails to arrive you may have been one of the names forced below the line when we belated realized that the bride and groom must be included in our count.

Amber and Lee. At Christopher’s Wedding (left) at Disney World (right)

Amber is marrying Lee McPherson who will pass for a renaissance man. He has a PhD in chemistry, has worked as a computer programmer, and is handy with things mechanical. He fixed the transmission on Amber’s PT Cruiser and when he was done they drove it away. It was this last part that impressed me because I too have made repairs to Amber’s various cars over the years but my repairs often ended with the car being towed away with a bag of assorted greasy car parts in a plastic bag on the passenger seat. Since the renaissance man biz is a bit slow right now, Lee is teaching chemistry at a community college in St. Petersburg, Florida, and waiting for a the rebirth of the job market for chemists.

magic fountainLee proposed to Amber while they were visiting the Magic Fountain of Montjuic in Barcelona this past spring as part of a trip to France for Lee’s mother’s and grandmother’s birthdays. The more observant among you will have noticed that Lee and I have the same name and, in answer to the first question that everyone seems to ask: No, we haven’t worked out what we will be called so people can tell us apart. Actually, it’s not hard to tell us apart. Lee has black curly hair, and I have… rather forgotten what sort of hair I used to have.

Item Number Three: Everything Else. It’s been a busy year. Lee has been working at Glaxo Smith Kline where he has converted one of their accounting systems to handle multiple currencies. Capstrat is one of Glaxo’s vendors and, since Chris and Capstrat are both in the database, Lee uses them to enter test transactions in the system. Sadly, the test system is not hooked up to the real world and all the business steered Chris’ way is only make-believe. Irene continues to sell cheese at Harris Teeter and to volunteer at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The NCMA has reopened in their much-larger space and Irene and the other docents have been kept quite busy giving tours. Their current big exhibition is the Art of Norman Rockwell which is well worth seeing and runs through the end of January.

Various Cousins (Several Times Removed) from the Copley Reunion

In July we attended a Copley family reunion on Gwynn’s Island, Virginia. We stayed in nearby Gloucester and spent a few hours at the Blackbeard Pirate Festival in Hampton. The reunion was for descendants of my mother’s father’s parents and most of the people there were first and second cousins of some sort. There were lots of kids – they would be cousins once or twice removed. I have included several photos of the event here but I won’t try to identify people in the photos. Many of the ladies looked like their mothers had when last I saw them and, while it is a natural mistake to identify someone you see infrequently as her mom, it never makes anyone happy. It was over supper during the reunion weekend that Amber and Lee, just back from France, announced their engagement. The reunion was quite an event and I am quite grateful for the hard work that several of my cousins did in organizing it.

DSCF3758 DSCF3880
More Cousins. Eddie Demonstrates the “Mosquito Sounds” Hearing Test App on his IPhone and Assorted Young Cousins Enjoy a Pile of Dirt on the Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Dad and I at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau

My next subject is the cruise to the Bahamas that Irene and I took with dad in early September and, as a sort of preamble, I would like to confess that I am totally unable to steer a kayak. Before you all write to tell me that to turn left you either paddle on the right or drag you paddle on the left, or that you can use your paddle as a rudder, let me say that I know all that. It just doesn’t work for me. There is something about the way I hold my paddle, or the shape of my stroke, that allows me to paddle on the right and still turn right, or paddle on the left and still veer left, depending on which side of the boat offers the nearest obstruction for the damnable, unsteerable thing to run into.

Kayaking Through a Mangrove Marsh on Grand Bahama Island

That said, if you are ever looking for an excursion on Grand Bahama Island, you might consider the Lucayan National Park Kayak and Cave Tour. The first leg – kayaking through a mangrove estuary – is one of the highlights of the trip. It includes stops where the guide pauses and all the boats gather around while he tells interesting and amusing things about the mangrove marsh. For details of this part you would have to ask dad, who was in the boat with the guide. Irene and I were busy at the time zigzagging our two man kayak back and forth across the narrow channels behind them, giving the mangrove roots a much closer, hands-on inspection as we ran into them. All I remember the guide saying at the stops in the mangroves was “Ah, they’ve caught up. We can go on.”

The tour also includes a gourmet lunch -- ok, bologna on white bread, cheap packaged cookies, apples and powdered lemonade, but after a morning of wrestling with mangrove roots it was pretty tasty, and they did have some guava jam which gave it some Bahamanian flair -- plus a guided nature walk, an hour at a really nice beach and a tour of two “caves” which, National Geographic will tell you, are some of the most extensive in the world. Of course, nothing on Grand Bahama being that far above sea level the caves are almost entirely underwater, but you do get to see quite a nice hole in the ground with stairs you can descend (about 30 feet) to water-level.

Dad and Irene Climb the Stairs out of the “Cave”


In January… [yes, I have remembered January …] Irene made her annual trip to Disney World with her former co-workers from the time when she worked at the Disney Store. Amber and Lee came over and spent one day with her in the park. Shortly after her return to NC, her car was involved in one of the showiest parking lot car accidents I have ever seen. A woman who had been drinking ran into a car in the parking lot at Harris Teeter -- and then she tried to flee the scene, running into Irene’s car plus six more cars and a shopping cart corral in the process. Her demolition derby show took place in the employee area of the parking lot and the most of the cars she hit belonged to Irene’s coworkers. No one was hurt in the accident but of the nine cars involved Irene’s was the least damaged at slightly more than $2000 in repairs (for which the woman’s insurance paid.)

Irene’s car is the white Subaru wagon on your left.

Miscellaneous Photos:

Breakfast in Gloucester Va.

Family Photo in Atlanta Last Dec.     Irene’s Fellow Disney Store Expatriates.

Irene and Her Cousin Lorrie At Ridgecrest

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gateway Support Fun

There are no agents available to chat with you right now. Please try again later.
There are no agents available to chat with you right now. Please try again later.
You have been removed from the queue. Please contact us by email.
You are currently number 1 in the queue. We apologize for the delay. We will assign you to an agent as soon as one is available. The average amount of time a customer has to wait is 00:48.
Sujith (Listening)
Sujith: Hi, my name is Sujith. How may I help you?
lee haslup: I am trying to get HDMI audio to work on my netbook.
lee haslup: I went to the Intel site looking for dirvers but they say I have a "custom" driver that they can;t update.
Sujith: I will be glad to assist you with your inquiry.
lee haslup: My netbook came with a windows 7 update which I have installed.
Sujith: Could you please confirm the serial number or the SNID of your product is lxw80x01493207ff12500?
lee haslup: That looks right. I copied it off the bottom of my netbook.
Sujith: Did you purchase the product in the US or Canada?
lee haslup: In the US
Sujith: Lee, the serial number does not match our records. Could you please recheck the serial number?
Sujith: You may also provide SNID. It is an 11 digits number which can be found along with the serial number.
lee haslup: the SNID is 93203275325
Sujith: Lee, I see that the computer is out of warranty.
Sujith: As a onetime best effort, I can provide you with some basic information or self help links to fix the issue.
Sujith: May I know the exact issue with your computer?
lee haslup: yes, please
lee haslup: I have no audio on my HDMI connection
Sujith: I will provide you a web link which would be helpful for you.
lee haslup: And the control panel lacks the device controls for it.
lee haslup: I have already read that link. It didn;t seem to help.,
Sujith: Was it working fine before?
lee haslup: it has never workd. I didn't try it before I upgraded to Win 7
lee haslup: I am hoping for a video driver update
Sujith: How did you upgrade Windows operating system?
lee haslup: on a dvd from microsoft
lee haslup: there was a coupon included with my netbook when I got it.
Sujith: When did you upgrade Windows operating system?
lee haslup: Dec 2009 (less than 1 year ago)
Sujith: Lee, I am sorry to inform you that technical assistance for this kind of issues are provided by our dedicated support team. They will help you resolve any software related issues.
Sujith: They have the facility to connect to your computer remotely and resolve the issue. You can simply sit back and relax, see the unit work normally.
Sujith: They offer various support packages including yearly subscriptions. A very nominal fee is associated with these packages.
Sujith: If you wish to hear more on this team and their support packages, I shall setup a call back and our representative will call you at your convenience with these details.
Sujith: Would you like me to setup the call back for you?
lee haslup: yes.
Sujith: For Setting up a callback may I have the below details:
Sujith: 1. Telephone Number: 2. Alternate telephone number: 3. E-mail address: 4. Best time to call with time zone:
lee haslup: The computer was purchased 1 year ago today, How long was my warranty
lee haslup: 919.555.3641 (no alternate)
lee haslup: afternoons are best.
lee haslup: eastern US time zone.
Sujith: May I know then time zone?
Sujith: Thank you.
lee haslup: do you know the length of my warranty?
Sujith: It is one year.
lee haslup: Should have called yesterday then.
lee haslup: Thanks. You've been no help. But not your fault.
Sujith: I am really sorry for the inconvenience caused.
Sujith: Thank you for contacting Acer Technical Support. Have a great day.
Sujith has disconnected.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Episode 72 In which I waste YOUR time for a change.

Ok, so I sat down at my computer to do something else -- something important and necessary, as I vaguely recall -- and I wound up wasting half an hour catching up on the weekly podcasts. This half-hour represents time I don't have to waste and I am sure that all of you are out beavering away at whatever it is that focused, goal-oriented people do on a cold and drizzly Saturday morning in November. So I hit on the brilliant plan that I would create a post here with several Woot! videos embedded -- in the hope that you will all waste your time watching them and, if enough of you do so, it will slow down the progress of the world at large and give me a few minutes to catch up...

I'll start with the Halloween podcast since I, sort-of, missed Halloween this year. My son got married the day before. The wedding was out of town and I didn't get back until Halloween was over. Hmmm... The wedding... There is something I was supposed to... Oh yes, I promised to post wedding photos. I'll get to that. But first...

Feel free to watch that again. It takes time to embed these things and write these brief comments and, if I am going to waste more of your time than of mine you are going to have to work with me on this. Here's the latest podcast. It sucks in just about every way possible. But, because it sucks in just the right ways it is very funny and oddly endearing.

So, I've included a live-action bit and some lousy animation. All that remains is puppets to complete the set.

Grrr. I just remembered that I had to resize the embed windows to make them fit in my blog's template. That took several minutes. Please watch you favorite video again a couple of times so I can catch up that time too. Or better yet, follow some of these links:

Real Actual Field Tests #7: BuckeyBalls

Woot Podcast Mail Bag

Katy Perry's "California Gurls" -- Ben the Over-Literal Dermestid Beetle

When you have watched all of those several times check back. Maybe I'll have some wedding pictures up...

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Mystery Mushrooms in Back Yard

side view

Some photos of polyspore mushrooms growing in our backyard in a spot where we had a large pine tree removed and the stump ground. I took a stab at identifying the mushroom from photos I found online but while it looks a bit like meripilius giganteus it clearly isn't one.


Whatever it is it's quite large. Several of the fruiting bodies are more than a foot across.


The main thing that convinces me that this is not meripilius giganteus is that several sources have said that giganteus (which of all the photos I found on line it most resembles) makes a white spore print, while my mushrooms sit in a dusty pool of red-brown cinnamon-colored spores.


Here's a closeup of some grass that has been covered with the obviously not-at-all white spores.

red-brown spores

I started to clear away the grass to get a better photo but was fascinated to find that the musrooms had grown around the grass instead of pushing it aside. Here is a stem of grass growing through the middle of the mushroom.


When these mushrooms first emerge they look rather like an over-cooked fried egg -- a white, plate-shaped cap with a egg-yolk-yellow center and a brownish rim around the edges. As they mature the center color darkens and spreads and the single plate-shape grows quite large. Once it gets about 10 inches in diameter other plates start to grow on top but they lay quite flat (compared to other photos I have seen of similar mushrooms). The younger growths have a bit of a spiral shape and are rather pretty, I think.


Here's a shot from another angle with Jaxon getting into the photo.


One last photo from yet another angle. As I mentioned above, the area where the mushrooms are growing is the spot where we had a large (24" diameter) pine tree removed (after watching similar trees squashing houses in our neighborhood like bugs during wind storms.) The mushrooms are obviously growing on the decomposing roots of the tree and, I think that the part of the mushroom that shows above ground is a small part of a larger, mostly underground organism.


I am fairly sure that several of my friends developed an interest in mushrooms during their wild college days. If you are one of them and you remember anything about mushrooms -- or, for that matter, much about college -- and you have any notion of what sort of mushroom I have here, do let me know.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Window Willie: Life continues to imitate fiction.

F&SF Door into Summer Cover
F&SF November 1956

Here's a snippet from Robert A. Heinlein's 1956 novel The Door into Summer:

Yes, I invented Hired Girl and all her kinfolk-Window Willie and the rest-even though you won't find my name on them. While I was in the service I had thought hard about what one engineer can do. Go to work for Standard, or du Pont, or General Motors? Thirty years later they give you a testimonial dinner and a pension. You haven't missed any meals, you've had a lot of rides in company airplanes. But you are never your own boss. The other big market for engineers is civil service-good starting pay, good pensions, no worries, thirty days annual leave, liberal benefits. But I had just had a long government vacation and wanted to be my own boss...

I got to thinking about dirty windows and that ring around the bathtub that is so hard to scrub, as you have to bend double to get at it. It turned Out that an electrostatic device could make dirt go spung! off any polished silica surface, window glass, bathtubs, toilet bowls-anything of that sort. That was Window Willie and it's a wonder that somebody hadn't thought of him sooner. I held him back until I had him down to a price that people could not refuse. Do you know what window washing used to cost by the hour?

And here's a bit from's "Self-cleaning technology from Mars can keep terrestrial solar panels dust free" the day before yesterday:

The self-cleaning technology involves deposition of a transparent, electrically sensitive material deposited on glass or a transparent plastic sheet covering the panels. Sensors monitor dust levels on the surface of the panel and energize the material when dust concentration reaches a critical level. The electric charge sends a dust-repelling wave cascading over the surface of the material, lifting away the dust and transporting it off of the screen's edges.

A note on the illustration: The question may be asked, what does the illustration that F&SF selected have to do with Heinlein's novel? Not much, actually. The woman in the painting is a redhead. Heinlein liked redheads, his wife was a redhead and the romantic interest in the novel was a redhead. But Door into Summer is a time-travel romance and the girl in the story spends most of the book as a twelve-year-old. Still, I am sure Heinlein liked the painting, for obvious reasons, and he was easily mercenary enough to appreciate the extra readers that it would attract.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Cheap Critic: Metropolis


Last night I saw the film Metropolis at our local boutique cinema -- the Galaxy in Cary -- and enjoyed it thoroughly. Here's a trailer for the version I saw which contains newly found footage that restores the film to within a minute or two of the original version screened in its 1927 German premier:

Fritz Lang's Metropolis was the first science-fiction mega-epic and, even in today's post-Star Wars culture of high expectations it remains visually stunning. It has always been a favorite of mine but, that said, there have always been a few obstacles to full enjoyment that I had to work around. Possibly the biggest problem is that the central theme of the film -- "the heart must be the mediator between the head and the hand" -- is a childish and annoying take on the conflict between capitalists and labor in an industrialized society. The screenplay was written by Lang's then-wife Thea von Harbou, and Lang left the ideological content pretty much entirely up to her, focusing his spectacular talents on on the plot, the visual storytelling and the symbolic content. The result is a gigantic, brilliant film -- filled with some of the most striking visual metaphors for the dehumanizing potential of the industrial workplace ever filmed -- that leads up to a trite, maudlin ending that makes one squirm.

And what's worse, if you put the film in its historical context it's hard not to notice how neatly von Harbou's thesis fits as a seque to her later enthusiasm for National Socialist economic theory. Lang and von Harbou split up over her Nazi enthusiasms which he very much did not share, and Lang fled to the US where he spent most of the rest of his life disliking his film for its idiotic theme. It was only near the end of his life that he was able to get over his distaste for the thematic content and see past it to the achievement that the rest of the film represents. I mention this in my review so that readers who may be seeing the film for the first time can begin the process of getting over the idiotic theme ahead of time and not let it spoil their enjoyment of one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

The other problem that I have struggled with in viewing Metropolis is that it is a long, silent film and, while it is wonderful, it has always also been a bit wearying, especially since it seemed disjointed and the plot was hard to follow. I must admit to a bit of a worry about the new "restored" version. In the back of my mind was the thought that, while it was exciting that they had found another half hour of footage in a print from Buenos Aires, I hoped I would be able to stay awake to see it since the old version always seemed more than long enough.

I am pleased to report that the restored version of the film, while it still seems longish, is much more engaging and the length is felt as epic sweep rather than as an artistic endurance contest. The restored footage gives the film a plot one can follow and it is easier to get through the new, longer version than the shorter but disjointed versions. One is swept along through the film and deposited at the (stupid) ending in a very enjoyable rush. It is a huge improvement.

Also wonderful is the accompanying music which is a modern orchestral recording of a restored version of the original score. Silent movies were never intended to be watched in silence and the music track is a very important part of the experience. The orchestral version of the original score is wonderful and represents a good, strong second-best way to see the film.

The best way to see Metropolis is to find a performance of the film accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, described on their website as
"a three man musical ensemble, writing and performing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Working with an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects, they thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources.

Performing at prestigious film festivals and cultural centers in the US and abroad (The Telluride Film Festival, The Louvre, Lincoln Center, The Academy of Motion Pictures, the National Gallery of Art and others), Alloy has helped revive some of the great masterpieces of the silent era."

I've seen them preform Metropolis with an older print and it was astounding -- easily the best possible way to see the film -- and they have rewritten their 1991 score to fit the new, longer version, After an April premier performance at the TCM Classic Movies Festival in Los Angeles they are now touring with the new, restored print. Sadly, none of the performances on their schedule for the rest of 2010 are in the southeast -- and with both of my kids getting married in the next four months my travel budget is limited -- but I plan to keep an eye on their schedule and catch a performance at my next opportunity.

Check out the Alloy Orchestra's upcoming performances. If there's one you can get to, do that. If they are out of reach, plan to catch the new, restored version of Metropolis at your local cinema. It's worth the trip either way.

Oh, and thanks to Julie of the Triangle Geeks Meetup group, for organizing the outing and bringing my attention to the showing which might otherwise have slipped by unnoticed.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review: Soundfly SD WMA/MP3 Player Car Fm Transmitter for SD Card, USB

soundflyMy car is eight years old and it has a very adequate sound system -- one that was pretty nice in its day -- but it is not MP3 friendly. The CD player won't play MP3 encoded disks. It has no USB input port, and no auxiliary inputs for an external MP3 player. I do have a cassette player in my car. and a cassette adapter is an option, but then I have to figure out how to keep my MP3 player charged on long trips. This is starting to get into a lot of wires to fumble with in my car.

Enter the Soundfly. In principle the Satechi Soundfly MP3 player and FM Transmitter is everything I should need in order to add all the missing features to my car's sound system. It is a small device that plugs into your cigarette adapter. It has a built-in MP3 player that works through the FM radio in your car. It will play music or audio books from a USB thumb drive or from an SD memory card. It also has a standard jack for an input that it will also transmit to your FM radio so you can use it with an external MP3 player, or a computer, or your phone, or whatever.

One theoretically handy feature is that when you are using its built-in MP3 player it will remember which track you were on and resume at that point when you power it back up after a stop. What should be even better if you listen to audio books is the ability to set a bookmark so it will restart at exactly the place in the chapter you were at when you stopped for gas. If you are thinking about buying the device as Satechi currently sells it you should know that the first feature--going back to the same track you were on--works great, but the second feature--setting a bookmark--is mostly useless due to a firmware bug that prevents its use past the first few minutes of a long chapter. More on the firmware bug later but first a few more impressions:

The FM modulator in the Soundfly is the best I have ever used. Most FM transmitters for your car hiss and buzz and fail to block out competing external signals which, for some reason, always seem to be the sort of obnoxious hip-hop which is most unwelcome in the middle of you Jane Austin audio book. But with the Soundfly I simply own 88.5 on the FM dial as my personal private frequency.

If your radio is compatible with the radio data standards the Soundfly will display the MP3 tag information on your radio's information display. My radio is not compatible so I can't speak to this feature. All I have to navigate with is the three-digit display on the unit itself which briefly shows the directory number and track number on your memory card or thumb drive when you enter a navigation command and usually shows the FM frequency.

The unit itself has a few control buttons but many of the buttons you will need for audiobooks--fast-forward, fast-reverse, next and previous track and folder--are all on the small remote control. In general I think remote controls for use in your car are silly but this one works ok and there is, I guess, something to be said for a hand held device where you can use muscle memory to find the buttons instead of taking your eyes off the road to look at something plugged into your cigarette lighter socket.

As to the firmware bug I mentioned it happens when the unit is performing operations that require a timestamp in the file it is playing. My guess is that the variable or register they are using will not hold enough bits to save a timestamp past, say, the fifteen minute mark in a track. If you have a single track that plays longer than fifteen minutes the Soundfly will play it fine as long as it is not interrupted but if you try to save a bookmark past the fifteen minute mark it will fail to save it, and if you try to fast forward past the fifteen minute mark it will jump backwards to somewhere near the start of the track. This means that if you have a thirty minute chapter and a twenty-five minute commute you will arrive at work with five minutes of chapter left to play and, unless you sit in your car and listen to the end of the track before you report for work you will spend most of your ride home trying to get back to the point where you left off.

There are several books where I simply never heard the end of a few chapters and others that I only heard because I listened to them on my computer after I had arrived home. It is a maddening process. Your objective is to fast-forward to minute fourteen -- just before the unit will get lost -- and then repeat eleven minutes you have already heard to get to the part where you wanted to set a bookmark but couldn't. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no way to know when you have reached minute fourteen and if you go too far it will skip back to near the start of the chapter and you have to start over.

So, the bottom line is that if you want it for music (where a track seldom runs over fifteen minutes) you are golden. Buy the Soundfly SD, you will love it. If, on the other hand, you are looking for something for audio books and/or podcasts then you shouldn't consider the Soundfly until such time as they fix the firmware. I had mine for three months, during which time the long-suffering Satechi customer support guys were promising me a replacement with corrected firmware "Real Soon Now" but they finally said they were struggling with the firmware upgrade and wanted to refund my money. Since I really like their FM transmitter I requested, instead, that they replace the unit with a similar one they offer that is designed to work with Sandisk Sansa MP3 players. I have a Sansa E250 that it should work with. Hopefully, with my E250 and a Satachi FM tranmitter and car charger I should be good to go. But I still plan to pester Satechi tech support about the Soundfly firmware upgrade. It was supposed to be exactly what I wanted. It was a near miss. I'll buy another one if they ever make one that works.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mohammed (P B U H, P B & J)

The Prophet Mohammed (P B & J)

When I opened my sandwich this morning to add more jelly I found this miraculous image of the Prophet Mohammed (P B U H, P B & J). I thought about selling it on eBay (so I could retire early) but I was hungry, so...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Cheap Critic: War of Frogs and Dragons -- Disney Animation vs. Dreamworks


I've been interested in the competition between Disney and SKG Dreamworks ever since Jeffrey Katzenberg was booted from the helm at Disney in the early 1990s, teamed up with a Steven Spielberg and David Geffin to form SKG studios, and started to crank out competitors for everything that had been in Disney's pipeline at the time that he left the company. At first, Dreamworks' animated products were simply tit-for-tat responses to Disney -- Disney was about to release Toy Story II and Dreamworks rushed out Small Soldiers, Disney's A Bugs Life was answered with Dreamworks' Antz -- and in all cases the Dreamworks product just wasn't quite as good. But after a while Dreamworks Animation developed their own pipeline and started to make something besides bizarro Disney films and their product began to improve -- a gradual improvement that has continued until their best work now offers real competition for Katzenberg's one-time employer.

Their latest animated offerings offer a case in point: Disney's Princess and the Frog and Dreamworks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon show both studios in action. Here are my impressions:

The Princess and the Frog


In The Princess and the Frog, Disney returns to hand-drawn animation after a long series of computer generated and/or computer assisted animated features. Computer animation has improved in recent years and has reached the point where there is no compelling reason to prefer hand-drawn animation over the stuff done with computers. But the hand drawn product does have a different look and, in an industry where most animation is done on computers, the hand drawn animation in The Princess and the Frog is, at the same time, nostalgic and oddly fresh; it is beautifully drawn and animated, especially in the sequences at the beginning and the end that evoke the grace and charm of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and in several fantasy sequences that are homages to artist Aaron Douglas. (Douglas was a luminary of that outpouring of African-American art, music and literature in the 1920s and -30s that was known as the Harlem Renaissance).

Jazz is one of the themes that runs through the film and the plot is a jazzy variation on the story of the princess whose kiss frees a prince from the enchantment that turned him into a frog. In this version, our heroine, Tiana, far from being a princess, is the daughter of a working-poor black family -- her mother works as a seamstress for the richest family in town (the La Bouffs) and her father has passed away leaving her his recipe for gumbo and his dream of opening a restaurant. Opposite her is prince Naveen, (who really is a prince.) He is a charming, carefree but largely useless vagabond who would rather be a musician than a prince, and has gotten himself turned into a frog by hanging around the sketchy parts of town where he ran into an ambitious voodoo man. They meet at at a party thrown by Tiana's friend, spoiled but good-hearted Charlotte La Bouff, who is determined to marry the prince, unaware that the handsome figure she is wooing is an impostor, or that the real prince, in frog form, is upstairs hectoring Tiana for a kiss to break his enchantment. Tiana's role as the "princess" in the scene comes from the fact that she has put on one of Charlotte's princess costumes when her own dress had been damaged in one of Disney's obligatory slapstick sequences involving frenetic action and messy food.

From there the story unfolds pretty much as you would expect: Prince Naveen, when his persistence pays off and he is rewarded with a reluctant smooch, is not turned back into himself (possibly because Tiana is not a real princess) but instead, Tiana is turned into a slightly cuter, but equally green frog, and hilarity and adventure ensue.

There is a lot to like about The Princess and the Frog. For one thing, it avoids several obvious cliches. Tiana is Disney's first black "princess" but the film is not at all about her race, and Tiana's best friend, Charlotte, is white, very rich and very spolied but also good-hearted, loyal and generous. There is a wonderful sequence where Tiana rides home on a trolly from the La Bouff's mansion to her family's small house in a poor black neighborhood. The contrast between rich and poor, white and black is quite clear but is drawn with such a light, graceful touch that, rather than showing us an unfair world, we see the gulf that transcendent friendship can span. Disney could easily have dislocated their collective shoulders, patting themselves on the back for completing their set of racially and ethnically diverse princesses but they didn't. Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos were very good as the voices of Tiana and Prince Naveen and the other voice actors were all fine. As I mentioned above, the art direction and animation were wonderful and the music is sprightly, if slightly unmemorable.

That said, The Princess and the Frog is not without its problems. It struggles to decide what sort of film it wants to be. It is set in New Orleans early in the last century, during the birth of the jazz culture on which so much of our idea of the cultural life of the city centers, but spends very little time there. Instead, for most of the middle of the film it is bogged down in the Louisiana swamps where our froggy hero and heroine cavort with an all-singing, all-dancing cast of talking animals, splashing their way through rather-too-many musical numbers in an anachronistic folksy musical style that has little to do with turn of the century New Orleans -- or with Louisiana's Cajun culture -- and very much to do with Disney's desire to include a rehash of popular bits from The Jungle Book.

In these sequences a talking, trumpet-playing alligator named Louie plays the dual roles of Baloo and King Louie from the Jungle Book. This digression into the bayou, I think, was a mistake. New Orleans in the 1920s was a sufficiently musical and magical place for their purposes; a lot more could have been done with New Orleans, its culture and the emergence of Jazz; the screenwriters should not have wandered off into the swamp.

The countless procession of talking animals tends to distract from the magical element of Naveen's transformation. When Tiana first meets him her reaction is "Eeek! A talking frog!" Which is fine and fits in the rather naturalistic portrayal of Turn of the Century New Orleans. But then it's "Eeek. A talking alligator" and "eek, a talking firefly" and "...eek, a ... oh, never mind." We find ourselves in a world where all animals talk and Tiana, apparently, was simply unobservant enough to grow up without noticing.

The Princess and the Frog is very much worth seeing. It is, in fact, a very good film but it misses being a great film through the pacing problems and the stylistic discontinuities introduced when ill-fitting bits of obligatory Disney formula was jammed into a movie that could have stood on its own. Pity, that, but still a good effort overall.

Odd aside: The Teleospouse volunteers at the North Carolina Museum of Art where she gives tours. She immediately recognized the Aaron Douglas inspired sequences although it took her until after the film was over to remember his name. (In the film look for our heroine's daydreams of the restaurant she wants to open someday.) The NCMA has a number of works by Douglas and the one I remember best is a striking gouache and pencil illustration he did for Paul Morand's book "Black Magic" in 1929. The illustration is entitled "Charleston" and it features a black saxophonist being admired by a languid white woman. It also shows a pair of clutching hands in the foreground and a hangman's noose between the man and the woman. Taken all together these elements suggest that the sexual tension between the black musician and the white woman was a dangerous thing. It makes an interesting and ironic contrast to the rather less edgy relationship Disney shows between black Tiana and apparently white Prince Naveen (a musician) in a story with a very similar time and setting.

There is a small image of Douglas' "Charleston" on one of the middle pages of this brochure from a show at the Spencer Museum of Art at The University of Kansas, Lawrence.

How to Train Your Dragon


I will have less to say about Dreamworks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon, mostly because it is the better film of the two and I will find scarcely anything to criticize. It is, perhaps, a bit less ambitious than The Princess and the Frog but it does what it sets out to do effortlessly. I complained that some of the obligatory elements seemed to have been wedged into Princess and the Frog as an ill-fitting afterthought but when I saw How to Train Your Dragon it was only after the film was over, as I took stock mentally of what I had seen, that I noticed that all of the obligatory elements of a kid's adventure film had been present: Geeky kid who is ignored by adults and made fun of by other kids turns out to have the stuff of heros? Check. The cute, popular, tomboy, on whom our hero has a bit of a crush, is the first to notice his change in status? Yep. 3D eye candy? You betcha. Waterslides, roller coasters or swoopy flying scenes? Only the latter, but plenty of it. Animals that are cute and scary at the same time? Yes. Giant monsters? Ohhh yes. Unusual pets? Yep. Lots of stuff cribbed from Harry Potter? Of course. Action sequences with risk of death and dismemberment? Roger that. Death and diememberment? Yes, both actually; I don't remember any main characters that die but the film pays off big time in the dismemberment department.

The film opens with views of a picturesque viking village perched atop rugged cliffs by the sea. In voiceover our hero, Hiccup son of Stoic, sets the scene for us:

This is Berk. It's twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It's located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. My village. In a word? Sturdy, and it's been here for seven generations, but every single building is new. We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunset. The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have... dragons.

I won't go to the trouble of summarizing the plot here. From Hiccup's introduction and my list of obligatory kid's adventure film elements you can work out all you need to know about the story, although it is tempting to offer the further suggestion that you can consider How to Train your Dragon to be a sequel, of sorts, to Beowulf, done as a kid's coming of age tale. Gerald Butler, who plays Hiccup's dad played Beowulf in the 2005 film Beowulf and Grendel and he seems to have brought much of the situation to this film with him.

So please do see How to Train your Dragon, if you get a chance. It is quite the best kid's film in years, and saying that is to undersell it because you don't have to be a kid to enjoy it. It is wonderfully written with engaging characters and real excitement. The 3D animation is top notch and adds to the enjoyment without becoming the only reason to see the film -- catch it in 3D if you can (it is well worth the couple of extra bucks) but don't hesitate to watch a flat print if that is all that's available. It's a lovely film. I recommend it.

On balance, I have to hand the win to Dreamworks Animation this time. Disney's film was a worthy effort but they seem a bit off their game. Score one for Katzenberg.

I am, once again, semi-cheating on the "Cheap Critic" theme for these two films since I paid full price to see How to Train your Dragon in 3D, but I did see The Princess and the Frog at our local second-run theater. This makes the average ticket price about six bucks: more than I like to pay but not enough to endanger my cheapskate creds.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Curling Mnemonica

Here is the USA -- and particularly here in the southeastern part of the USA -- curling is a sport that one sees briefly during the coverage of the Winter Olympics, idly wondering "what's with the brooms?" and forgetting altogether for another four years. In these parts, most people are almost as vague about curling as they are about the game of cricket, but unlike cricket, it is safe to ask about curling if you run into a fan. A cricket match can run several days, and the average explanation of how the game is played can seem much longer and leave the idle questioner with only one new fact: he shouldn't have asked. Curling, on the other hand, seems to be about having fun and drinking beer although the Olympic media coverage of the latter aspect seems spotty.

John J Miller, of the Corner at National Review Online suggests visiting a page with ten great curling songs to listen to while we wait for the next Winter Olympics. They are more entertaining than one might suppose. I've promoted a couple of favorites to this posting but by all means click through to check out the rest.

I'll close with some lyrics from The Curling Song by the Arrogant Worms:

Curlers, underneath your two feet
the whole yin/yang of life comes to pass.
For there's a slippy side to make you go real quickly
and a grippy side so you don't fall on your ass.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Indicators of a Modern American Conservative

Two friends of mine (Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver) have hashed out a list of what they feel are fourteen key indicators of a current-day American conservative. Here they are:

1. Optimism about the future and the courage to face its challenges

2. The complete rejection of utopianism or human-achievable perfection -- this one was suggested by Brad; I hadn't thought of it, but Brad is right!

3. Adventurousness, dreaming big, achieving the "impossible"

4. Individualism, in contrast to collectivism

5. Capitalism, in particular, small-business entrepeneurship

6. Strong tendency towards preserving American traditions, whether good or bad

7. Patriotism

8. Religiosity

9. A strong belief that personhood begins at conception, thus that abortion is nearly always morally bad

10. A strong tendency to reject evolution by natural selection as denying God and the spiritual nature of Man

11. Belief in the legislating of virtue

12. Deep respect for and appreciation of the American military

13. Respect for the democratic decisions of the people -- extreme distaste for oligarchy (especially kritarchy)

14. Distrust of foreigners, especially immigrants

Read the whole thing in Dafydd'd blog, Big Lizards, here.

I wrote a tedious and overlong comment in response which I have decided to post here as well. (Why should only Dafydd's reader suffer?) Here it is:

My rule-of-thumb notion of a "conservative" is a person exactly like me when I am surrounded by libertarians. Contrariwise, a "libertarian" is me when I am surrounded by conservatives. As a Frank Meyer-style fusionist I think that the silly schism between libertarians and American conservatives can and should be patched over, and whenever I am surrounded by members of one group I feel the need to serve as an ambassador for the other. Since you and (especially) Brad tend to identify more with libertarians than conservatives I will be using myself as a model of conservative perfection for purposes of this discussion and as I visit each point I will either admit, humbly, that it describes me perfectly or complain that you have larded your list with not-necessarily-conservative vices to justify your rejection of the label "conservative". Feel free to bear that in mind.

Trait 1 -- Optimism: This one is odd but mostly true. More on it later.

Trait 2 -- Antiutopianism: Perhaps the reason that Brad needed to point this out to you is because you didn't derive your list, as you state, from first principles. This is the first principle of modern American conservatism.

Trait 3 -- Adventurousness: This is related to traits 1 and 4. Individualist optimism tends to manifest itself as adventurousness.

Trait 4 -- Individualism: Given its roots in classical liberalism this is a key attribute of most variants of American conservatism.

Trait 5 -- Entrepreneurial Capitalism: Quite right. It is merely adventurousness expressed in its economic variant.

Trait 6 -- American Traditionalism: I'm something of a traditionalist and I must quibble here a bit. I don't think any traditionalist would agree that we seek to preserve "bad" traditions. We merely give the traditional modes of thought and behavior the benefit of a the doubt until the evidence become persuasive.

Trait 7 -- Patriotism: Certainly a virtue associated with American conservatives (and occasionally a vice as well.)

Trait 8 -- Religiosity: Religiosity is closely related to populism and populists are ideological nomads. It is true that they are currently camped in conservative territory -- so for the moment you are right -- but they are fickle and may move on at any moment.

Trait 9 -- Personhood of the Unborn: There are pro-choice conservatives but this seems fair since there is a strong correlation with other markers for conservatism. This is a difficult issue for fusionist compromise. I suppose I might support a woman's right to kill her baby provided that she understood that that is precisely what she is doing, and that all arguments to the contrary are rubbish.

Trait 10 -- Creationism: Um, really? You mean to tell me that something like the majority of the conservatives that you guys know are creationists? Weird.

Trait 11 -- Legislating Virtue: This libertarian talking point is a truism that is not particularly true. If you look at the seven deadly sins (Catholic version) -- sloth, lust, anger, greed, pride, envy and gluttony -- you will find liberals and conservatives have split the list fairly evenly for their proscriptive legislative agendas.

Trait 12 -- Respect for the Military: Currently true but, as I am sure you know, historically problematical as a marker for conservatism.

Trait 13: Respect for Democracy: I must admit I had to hit Wikipedia for "kritarchy." I was initially inclined to mostly agree here but on further reflection I have decided you are mistaken. With a few obscure exceptions such as those very few people who know what the word republican means (most of whom, coincidentally, tend to vote "Republican") all political organizations will extol "the will of the people" when they are winning and tend to be OK with judicial activism when it is on their side. "Conservatives" do it, which is disappointing since they should know better, but no more often than the other side.

Trait 14 -- Nationalist Xenophobia: Yes, there is rather more of it in conservative circles than I would like. It is an understandable, but nonetheless unfortunate reaction to militant internationalism, multiculturalism and affirmative action on the other side. It irks me because the anger is misdirected and wasted -- charging the cape and ignoring the matador.

Getting back to the concept of conservative optimism, it is quite real and, in a round-about way, a consequence of conservative antiutopianism. Modern liberalism is officially more optimistic than conservatism -- after all they believe in the perfectibility of human institutions and the conservatives don't -- but that belief sets liberals up for a lifetime of disappointment. Conservatives, on the other hand, expect to have to muddle through in a not-altogether-satisfactory environment. Experience makes liberals cynical as they fall short of their hopes, while conservatives are mostly pleased to find how much can be done in an imperfect and non-perfectible world. This cheerful but conflicted optimism is a key indicator of a conservative mindset and is almost-always present, even in officially-dour paleo-cons such as John Derbyshire of NR.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010



This review is, technically, not part of my "Cheap Critic" series since I actually coughed up the big bucks to see Avatar in 3D during its first run and it has not yet quite hit the local second-run cinema as I type. That all being said, it would fit rather nicely in the series since Avatar is at heart a remake of a 1970s-era movie that was never made for obvious technical reasons. More on that later, but first a public service request...

If, like me, you are a conservative or right-leaning libertarian, to enhance your enjoyment of the film and for the sake of other members of the audience, please remember to turn off your liberal bullshit detectors before you enter the theater. For SF films I usually set mine to the "Star Wars" setting -- its lowest level where it only goes off for the most egregious drivel -- but even at that level it went off three times during Avatar. After the second time I set it to vibrate but it still activated so violently near the end of the film that several California natives fled the theater believing an earthquake was in progress.

For a lifelong science fiction fan of a certain age, watching Avatar is like a party where your best friends from college show up, all looking happy and well off, and you spend a couple of hours reminiscing about what used to be cool back in the day. Every now and then the doorbell rings and instead of another old friend you find a door-to-door evangelist handing out pamphlets about Gaea but you quickly shoo them off with "Not now, I'm having a party," and you get back into the groove.

You see, with the admitted, very notable exception of the film technology used to make it, there is nothing whatsoever new about Avatar. All the elements that make it up -- its plot, its themes, its visual style, its virtues and its vices -- can be traced to the popular science fiction and fantasy milieu of the mid-1970s. It is the product of sensibilities formed in the '70s finally given an outlet to express itself in film. Since I too am a product of those times, Avatar reminds me strongly of a lot of my favorite stuff -- things I have wanted to see on the screen for almost half a century; how could I not think it is swell?

Here are a few example of the kind of stuff I mean: To start with there is the visual imagery in the film. If you read what Cameron and his conceptual artists say about how it was developed you will hear about flying creatures modeled after sea life and floating mountains inspired by the Chinese Huang Shan mountains but that is just after-the-fact smoke-blowing; the truth of the matter is that they cribbed it all from progressive-rock album artist Roger Dean. Here's a link to an article about Dean's influence on Avatar -- "Did Prog Rock's Greatest Artist Inspire Avatar? All Signs Point To Yes" -- click on all the images and see what you think.

One of many Dean images that io9 finds similar to Avatar.

As for the plot, themes, etc. you can easily construct the screenplay for Avatar by cutting bits out of several novels from the '60s and '70s and scotch taping them together. You start with Harry Harrison's short novel, Deathworld, published in 1960, for the broad outlines of the plot. I'd outline the commonalities for you but that would constitute major spoilers, both for the book and the movie -- they are that close. Then, for the themes and some details of Na'vi civilization you throw in Ursula K LeGuin's short novel, "The Word for World is Forest", 1976 (based on her Hugo-winning Novella published in "Again, Dangerous Visions" in 1972), then to get the right tension between things technological and maqical add a dash of Andre Norton -- say, "Judgement on Janus" which she wrote in 1964 -- and borrow a dollop of Ann McCaffrey's Dragonflight -- 1968, from her Hugo-winning 1966 novelette, Weyr Search -- for the dragon-riding bits, and finally, for some of the military technology -- but none of the philosophy -- throw in just a pinch of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.

With the possible exception of Roger Dean I don't blame Cameron for not crediting his influences. It suffices to say that all of these sources had a huge effect on speculative fiction during that period and that Cameron is a product of the times. One hears Avatar criticized as derivative, and not without some justification, but it is derived from material from other media from forty years ago. If finally getting around to making the sort of film that has waited a generation for technology to catch up is to be derivative then I can't see what is wrong with it.

There are a few minor nits to pick aside from Cameron's very successful capturing of the pre-new-age, mildly cretinous liberal vibe of the '70s. Avatar obviously wants to be "hard" Science Fiction but, with Cameron's penchant for action rather than exposition, it lacks the Mr Wizard moments necessary to wrap a gloss of technobabble around its more magical elements. Cameron had the material (see the explanation of "unobtanium" in the Avatar wiki, for instance) but he just refused to use it. You could vastly improve the film's hard SF creds by having one of the "scientists" who our hero pals around with spend sixty seconds on the properties and importance of Unobtanium.

And, of couse, it would be nice if the script didn't suck in all the ordinary ways; none of the characters has any motivation for his or her actions -- the bad guys do bad things because they are bad and, conversely, our hero is heroic because he is our hero -- and they all appear to be as dumb as a pile of rocks -- their synapses apparently being dedicated to staying in character with none left over for anything like problem solving.

But, as I said, these are all nits. Films like Avatar require the willing suspension of disbelief for their enjoyment and Avatar only occasionally makes that difficult. It is great fun, especially if you are old enough to remember the 1970s. I recommend it highly but don't forget to turn off that bullshit detector so your ears don't whistle like a tea kettle and disturb other members of the audience.

A bit of random reading for making your own cut-and-paste script for Avatar:

Harrison’s Deathworld and Cameron’s Avatar from the Crotchety Old Fan

Full text of Deathworld by Harry Harrison - Project Gutenberg

Cover from Paperback Judgement on Janus by Andre Norton

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin -- Wikipedia

The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey -- Wikipedia