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February 24, 2006
Friday Afternoon Scratchpad
Do-It-Yourself Oscar Pool Creator
In case you missed the announcement: the Do-It-Yourself Oscar Pool Creator is available here.
The flight from Seattle to D.C. only took 4½; hours, as we had a 100 knots-per-hour tail wind; consequentially, the return trip took 6½ hours. It was so long that they showed two films: March of the Penguins and The Manchurian Candidate.
The woman sitting beside me watched the first hour of Penguins and then fell asleep with the headphones still on. She slept through the rest of the film -- in fact, she didn't wake until several hours later, as Denzel Washington, in full uniform, kills a man and woman with an assault rifle.
The woman next to started awake to the sound of the gunfire, gawped at the television screen, and looked sublimely confused. I could almost hear her thinking, "Man, I'll have to rent this March of the Penguins movie when I get home -- there must be some major plot twist in the middle!"
How much does an adult, male, African elephant weigh?
Go'wan, take a guess. Please don't do any research in advance -- I want your off-the-top-of-the-head reckoning. If you happen to know the answer (because you're a professional zookeeper, or whatever) please participate as well -- I'm trying to get as random a sampling as I can, so I don't want anyone to self-select themselves out of the pool.
We bought a new mattress. As The Queen and I put it on the bed, I noticed this tag.
The guys at the mattress company are fans of the blog, I guess.
After my rundown of Games For Kids, a few people wrote and asked me to suggest games for toddler. Here are a few that The Squirrelly and I are playing (or will be soon):
February 23, 2006
Sark Defends Port Deal
Sark today sought to quell the growing controversy over his decision to grant the MCP control of several major ports throughout the region.
"I believe that this arrangement with the Master Control Program should go forward," Sark told reporters aboard Solar Sailer One. He emphasized that security would continued to be handled by Tank and Recognizer programs, with the MCP only be in charge of port operations.
But Dumont, guardian of the I/O towers, voiced skepticism. "I could understand ceding authority over ports 21 and 80," said Dumont. "But port 443? That's supposed to be secure!"
The public's reaction to the plan has also been overwhelmingly negative. "No no no," said a bit upon hearing the news. "No no no no." Others were more blunt. "Sark should be de-rezzed for even proposing this," said Ram, a financial program.
Sark, who has repeatedly denied having ties to the MCP, has insisted that the hand-over go through, and says that he will vigorously resist any effort to block it. But programs such as Yori are equally adamant that the deal be scuttled. "My User," she said, "have we already forgotten the lessons of 1000212400?"
February 21, 2006
I'm in DC this week. I flew in yesterday. As the plane left the ground the stewardess came on the intercom and told us that this would be the captain's last flight, and he would be retiring tomorrow. Not comforting. I've seen enough cop movies to know what will happens to the the grizzled old veteran (and presumably everyone on the grizzled old veteran's plane) when someone mentions, in the first act, that it's his last day on the job before retirement.
I had a window seat above the wing. On the engine I could see a red circle, with a pictogram of a man inside it and a line crossing him out. I wasn't sure if this was to warn people from getting too close, or if the captain was an ex-WWII ace and was keeping a record of his kills.
Also: I must be getting old, because I now firmly of the opinion that members of a flight crew should not refer to one another as "bro."
February 20, 2006
Books: Hard Case Crime
Last year I embarked on an ambitious project to read the finest contemporary fiction, an endeavor I dubbed The 2005 Booklist Project. And it worked, for a while: I read House of Leaves, perhaps my favorite book of the last decade; I read other experimental fictions such as Cloud Atlas and The Time-Traveler's Wife, as well as more traditional narratives such as Blindness and Oracle Night. And I loaded up my bedside table still more recommendations; Wicked, Gilead, Life Of Pi, etc.
And then, like a drinker who resolves only to drink only the finest Bordeaux and Pinot Noir, I rediscovered the joy off getting buzzed off of a $4 bottle of drugstore merlot. Or, in this case, I discovered Hard Case Crime.
Hard Case Crime is relatively new publishing house, one that specializes in new and vintage "hardboiled" pulp fiction novels. I've always been a fan of the genre (as a teen I read scores of Earl Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane), but, in the last decade, I had found my noir in cyberpunk, steampunk, Frank Miller comics, and films in which the cinematography is best described a "caliginous." Hard Case Crime novels, though, are the real deal, full of deeply-flawed protagonists who reach for a .45 or a fifth of whiskey at the drop of a hat, and make unironic references to molls and mooks.
About half of the books in the series are reprints of classics for the form, and the others are brand new works by contemporary authors (though typically in the classic hardboiled era and tone). As most Hard Case Crime novels are around 200 pages, full of dialog, and compulsively readable, I can usually plow through an entire title in two evenings. Here are the five I have read since discovering the line:
February 16, 2006
Games For Kids
Could you suggest some games that adults and kids can play together? My 6 year old daughter is a great gamer, but I have trouble finding games suited to both of us. She usually beats me at Mancala, and we play Clue and Monopoly, but I'm looking for something more interesting. Perhaps Ticket to Ride?It's our lucky day, David: yours because I recently sent a list of just such games to a friend of mine with a seven-year-old daughter, so I've already done the legwork on this one; and mine because ... well, because I've already done the legwork on this one, so I get to compose an entire post just by cutting and pasting from my Sent mail folder. Sweet.
Here's a few suggestions. I'm sure my readers can offer more.
Family Strategy Games
Enchanted Forest: Attractive wooden trees are randomly distributed around the board, all of which are identical except for the pictures on their bottoms. You may peek at the image beneath a tree as you pass it on the path, but when the King asks for a particular item will you remember where you saw it? Aimed at the younger girl market, but enjoyable by all.
Dawn Under: This recent title was nominated for the "German Game of the Year" award last year. Players try to get rid of their vampire cards by finding like-colored crypts for them to sleep in. Sounds a bit macabre for a kids game, but the mechanics are simple and the illustrations are cutsey.
And by the way: Ticket To Ride might be a little advanced for a six year-old, but it's a great game and you should pick it up anyway. If you'd like a train game that a youngster could certainly play and enjoy, take a gander at TransAmerica.
February 15, 2006
Hell Is Other Patrons
A man walks up to a cashier. He wants to purchase something embarrassing: porn, say, or hemorrhoid medication. He has a few other items, too, but it's unclear as to whether he really wants to buy them or if they are just a beard for the shameful merchandise. He has a plan: when the cashier picks up the copy of "Car & Driver" to reveal the three-pack of "mango flavored" condoms, he will feign surprise and say "whoa, how did those get there? Well, I don't feel like returning them, so go ahead and charge me -- I guess I'll buy them ..." But then, as the teller rings up the items, disaster strikes. For some reason the bar code on the product fails to scan correctly. The teller gets on the intercom system and says, "I'm going to need a price check for the jumbo pack of Tink'L Trapp'R brand adult undergarments ..."
This scene is such a staple of comic strips and lazy sit-coms that when I actually saw it happen last weekend my first reaction was not to laugh, but to think "Jesus: what hack wrote this scene ..."
I was in Walgreens with The Squirrelly, behind three other people at the checkout line. The guy in front looked to be about 35, maybe 37 -- stubbly beard, glasses, a little paunchy. Everything was going fine until multiple swipes of some item over the scanner failed to elicit a response.
"That's okay," the guy said hastily. "I don't really ..."
But the teen behind the counter had already commandeered the microphone, and his voice boomed through the store as he haltingly read off the information from the package. "Claire, can I get a price check for a Super ... Star Wars Clone ... Super Clone Trooper Star Wars Action Figure?"
The guy flushed, turned to the next people in line, and said "I didn't really need ..." before trailing off. He told the cashier to go ahead and help the next people in line, but, no, the kid behind the counter was committed to his course of inaction. Finally the guy resigned himself to his fate. He gave the rest of us a "what can I do?" shrug, jammed his hands into his pockets, and turned to look out the glass automatic doors.
I wanted to take him aside and say. "Look, dude: I think buying Star Wars action figures at your age is a little silly. But if you enjoy it, at least enjoy it proudly. If the rest of us were stuck here waiting for you to buy something that you were unabashedly enthusiastic about, we probably wouldn't care." But of course I didn't take him aside to soothe his tortured soul, because he was making me stay in a Walgreens for a few extra moments and so I wanted him to suffer.
A few moments went by. Suddenly the whole scene turned into a play by Jean Paul Sartre -- "No Exit From Walgreens" or something. With no discernable activity from the back of the store (Claire? Are you back there?) we abruptly transformed from a line at a drugstore register to A Bunch Of Strangers Standing Around In Close Proximity To Each Other For No Apparent Reason.
The Squirrelly got bored, started looking around, and saw a display of enormous Valentines Day teddy bears on a nearby shelf. "Teddy bear!" he cried. The two girls behind me, both maybe 14, squealed with delight and said, "awwwwww!" in unison. Taking this as his cue, The Squirrelly charged over to the shelf and grabbed one of the stuffed animals, which was almost as big as he. "Teddy bear!!" he shouted. "That is so cute!" one of the girls behind me said.
I took a few steps over to reclaim my son; as I did so I heard one of the girls say excitedly, "oh cool, he stepped out of line."
After separating my toddler from his ursine pal, I turned around to discover that the girls had rushed forward to fill my spot. The line at Walgreens abhors a vacuum.
"We were here," I said when we got back, and indicating the place in line in front of the girls. "I just had to grab my kid."
"But ... you got out of line," said one of the girls. Not defiantly. She seemed genuinely perplexed.
"Look," I replied. "The convention of queuing up at a cash register is not a federal law, and my leaving the line for a moment is not some loopholes you can exploit without fear of reprisal. Queuing is merely a custom that we as a society collectively adhere to, because, in doing so, we make life easier for everyone. There's no rule that states that, in momentarily leaving the queue, I have waived my right to return to my original spot, because no such rights exists. The line itself is nothing but a social construct. There's nothing preventing me from simply going to the front of the line and ignoring everyone else. We do these things -- queing up, allowing people who have momentarily left the line to return -- not out of obligation, but because we are a civilized people. So with that in mind I am going to ask you, citizen to citizen, to allow me to resume my place in line."
Hah hah! No, I'm just kidding. I'm 34 years old now and have a kid, which, by my reckoning, means I'm entitled to be an Asshole Grown-Up once in a while. So what I really said was: "You know what? I'm not going to argue about this." The two girls scowled and resentfully moved backwards about seven inches, allowing me to wedge myself and my son into the vacated space like half a bagel being crammed into a regular-sized toaster slot. Thereafter they made a point of standing as close to my back as they could without actually touching me, to best express their sense of injustice at my unlawful usurpation of their spot, I guess.
Claire finally materialized and completed the price check. Once Darth Obstructus was out the door, things picked up a bit, though there was some doubt as to whether the cashier had ever used a register before in his life. By the time we got to the front of the line, we'd spent about 15 minutes in Walgreens for what should have been a 30-second purchase.
"Do you want your receipt in the bag," the cashier asked when he had finally finished bagging my items, holding up the piece of paper as if it were a winning lottery ticket.
I figured that operation would take another half an hour, based on what I'd seen so far. I snatched the receipt from his hand, grabbed my bag, and made a break for the door.
February 14, 2006
In a telling indicator of how we view the Vice President, every media outlet apparently feels the need to put the qualifier "accidentally" between the words "Cheney" and "Shoots" in their headlines, e.g., "Cheney Accidentally Shoots Fellow Hunter," "Cheney accidentally shoots Austin man while hunting," etc..
If you read "Bush Stabs Fellow Napper," you'd chuckle knowingly and say "oh, that loveable bumbler -- what will he do next?" But with Cheney they actually have to waste valuable headline space to clarify that, in this particular instance, shooting a septuagenarian in the face was not part of his Master Plan.
Of course now that the media has used "accidentally" in this case, they'll be forced to clarify yet again when the Vice President intentionally attacks someone. CHENEY GARROTES ZOOKEEPER TOTALLY ON PURPOSE
February 13, 2006
February 10, 2006
The Bad Review Revue
When A Stranger Calls "Long distance information? Get me Hollywood, USA: I’ve got a rusty ice pick to bury in the gullet of whoever greenlighted this pointless exercise in masturbatory tedium." -- Marc Savlov, AUSTIN CHRONICLE
The Pink Panther: "The Pink Panther ees, how you say, ze real dog. " -- Ann Hornaday, WASHINGTON POST
Annapolis: "It is the anti-Sundance film, an exhausted wheeze of bankrupt cliches and cardboard characters, the kind of film that has no visible reason for existing, except that everybody got paid." -- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Film Geek: "You'd be better off spending an evening with the collected works of Rob Schneider. " -- Elizabeth Weitzman, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Firewall:"Instead of dramatic tension, Firewall makes do with a lot of frantic typing at computer keyboards. It's like watching Microsoft's Service Pack 2 download for nearly two hours." -- Bruce Newman, SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
Underworld: Evolution: "Evolution doesn't have a shred of intelligent design." -- Ben Kenigsberg, VILLAGE VOICE
February 09, 2006
Tichu (And Other Climbing Games)
When the Top 100 Modern Games list was released, I took no small amount of geeky pride in noting that I owned every single game in the top 10. However,my sense of accomplishment was muted somewhat in realizing that I had only played nine of them. I'd purchased the remaining game, Tichu, several years prior, but a quick read of the rules convinced me that it was nothing special, and it sat on my shelf untouched for years.
But it's appearance in the top 10 made me wonder if I was missing something. So I dug it up, dusted it off, and gave the rules another readthrough. I remained unconvinced. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I recruited three other players, dealt out the cards, and started playing Tichu.
And now I can't stop.
Tichu is a partnership game played with 56 cards: a standard deck (four suits, cards ranked 2-10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace), plus four special cards (the Mah Jong, the Dog, the Phoenix, and the Dragon). After the cards have been evenly dealt out the lead player begins a trick by playing a poker combination -- three 5s, say. Every other player then has the opportunity to either play a higher combination of the same type (in this example, three 6s, three 9s, etc.), or pass. Play continues around the table until all players have passed, at which point the person who played the final combination takes all the cards and leads the subsequent trick.
The hand does not end when someone gets rid of all his cards; instead, you note the order in which players "go out," and play until the penultimate player has gotten rid of his final card. Thus by the end of the hand everyone has a ranking, from "first out" all the way down to "last out."
The mechanics of the card game will be familiar to anyone who played a few drunken hands of Asshole (a.k.a., President) in college. Like Asshole, Tichu is a climbing game; that is, players are generally striving to get rid of their cards as quickly as possible by playing them to tricks.
Several elements set Tichu apart from the standard climbing game, however, the first of which are Bombs. Bombs are special combinations (four of a kinds and straight flushes) that someone can play onto any trick at any time, even when it's not their turn. A Bomb will always win a trick -- unless another player follows it with a higher Bomb.
Each of the special cards has it's own power and liability: The Mah Jong counts as a 1, but the person playing it gets to make a "wish" -- they name any card value and the next person able to play a card of that value must do so. The Dog is the lowest card in the game, but allows a player to pass the lead to his partner. The Phoenix is a wild card and can be used in any combination, but is worth negative points. And the Dragon is the highest card in the game, but if a player wins a trick with the Dragon he must immediately give it (and all the points therein) to one of his opponents.
Scores are tallied after all cards have been played : 5's are worth 5 points a piece, 10's and Kings are worth ten, the Dragon is worth 25 points, and the Phoenix counts as -25. If a player and his partner go out first and second, their team receive 200 points and their opponents receive nothing. And any player can up the ante for a hand by declaring a "tichu" before play begins: if the declaring player goes out first, his team receives a bonus 100 points; if he does not, his team loses 100. The first team to 1000 wins.
If all this sounds rather mundane to you ... well, now you understand how I felt after reading the rules. But the addictive quality of Tichu is hard to quantify. For one thing, the game is surprisingly deep -- it seems that every time I play I stumble upon some facet of strategy that I'd overlooked before. For another, the dynamic of a Tichu hand is always in flux as you play. You may start with a strong full house (three Kings and two 5's, say), but necessity may force you to break it up, playing the three kings to win a three-of-a-kind trick and leaving yourself with a relatively weak pair of fives. The dynamic nature of Tichu makes every hand engrossing.
In the last month I have been teaching all my friends how to play Tichu, to ensure that I always have a plentiful supply of opponents. And everyone who has learned to play has become a fan. It takes a hand or two to get your "Tichu legs" despite the relatively simple rules, but once you grok the fundamentals you are likely to become hooked. The partnership element of Tichu makes it perfectly suited for those evenings when you, your significant other, and another couple get together, or anytime you find with three others and an hour to kill.
Though I've only been playing it for a few weeks, I can see how Tichu wound up on the Top 100 Games Lists. Indeed, it's already in my personal Top Five, and will likely remain there for years to come.
* * *
February 08, 2006
On July 3, 1957, John Stephenson Singleton filed for a patent with the UK Patent Office. His invention was called "Improvements in and relating to perpetual calendar devices," and described a way by which two cubes could be used to display all the days in a month.
If you're thirty or older, you may remember these calendars from the bank. There was typically a barrier at the back of the check writing station, with three wells on the top of it and three windows on the side facing the patron. The first of the three wells was rectangular and the remaining wells were square. The bank employee could drop a wooden block into first slot and two wooden cubes into the second and third. The block bore the name of the month; each side of the cubes showed a digit; between the three of them, they could display the current date, e.g., [April].
Mr. Singleton received his patent on March 17, 1958. But I want you to consider something.
One of the criteria for a patent is that the invention be "non-obvious." On the face of it, Mr.Singleton "improvements in and relating to perpetual calendar devices" seems like a no-brainer: you have three blocks (each with the names of four months on their rectangular-sides, and their square-sides blank) and two cubes with the digits distributed amongst them in such a way that every possible day from 01 to 31 can be shown -- what's so innovative about that. In truth, that final bit -- the part about distributing the digits amongst a pair of cubes such that every possible day can be displayed using only the two of them -- is considerably more "non-obvious" than it seems. Can you figure out how to do it?
The patent can be seen here -- but viewing it (or the comments to this post) will ruin the fun of trying to solve the puzzle. Wait until you're stumped or, better yet, confident that you have sussed out the answer -- you'll be glad you did.
February 07, 2006
Shares Of ACME Corp. Plunged In After-Hours Trading
No more dropping pianos onto the heads of infidels, alas.
February 06, 2006
The fact that an "Everything But The Girl" song is being used to hawk Hummers makes me want to go Amish.
February 03, 2006
Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page
The Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page is up and running at http://www.defectiveyeti.com/oscars. I made some changes to the back-end, so let me know if you find any bugs, experience any bugs, or have any suggestions.
Update: Should be working fine, now. Let me know is that's not the case.
February 02, 2006
February 01, 2006
Research Day: Brew's Clues
The Queen and I are not above gambling when some fact of brobdingnagian importance is in dispute, such as "did Punky Brewster get a breast reduction?" (She did.) Our standard monetary unit in such wagers is One Beer. Unfortunately we are old and betoddlered, so we tend to forget the bet was ever made mere moments after the handshake is concluded.
Today, however, I have dredged up our last three bets from the murky depths of my memory. If my calculations are correct, The Queen will soon be bestowing Hops On Pop.
Is that Tony Danza?! We both asked that question aloud while watching Crash on DVD. I thought the actor looked like Danza, but decided that it wasn't because he sounded all wrong; The Queen didn't think the guy look like Danza at all, but was convinced it was based on the sound of his voice. Only one place to go for this answer: IMDB -- Crash.
Verdict: Yup, that's a Danza, all right. Winner: The Queen.
Is corn a grain or a vegetable: This one's a bit tricky, because it depends on whether you are considering an entire cob, a bunch of fresh, detached kernels, or ground up meal. The latter -- corn meal -- is a grain, as grain (also called caryposis) is defined as "the seed of a grass. And irrespective of what else it may or may not be, corn is indisputably a grass.
But what of about fresh corn? That's a vegetable, right? Unfortunately, the word "vegetable" does not have a strict botanical meaning, unlike -- just to pluck a random example out of the ether -- "fruit," which means "the ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant." And guess what: they may as well call 'em "Kellogg's Ripened Ovary Flakes," because corn is all fruit, baby.
Verdict: We were both kind of wrong, but as (a) I was only half wrong and (b) The Queen was all wrong and (c) it's my goddamned blog, I'm giving myself the point. Plus The Queen is a professional botanist, so I get credit just for holding my own on any subject that involves chlorophyll. Winner: Me.
Do peanuts grow above ground or below: The nice thing about betting for beer is that you'll wager even when you're not entirely sure you're correct. For instance, I was unsurprised to discover that the Mystery Actor was Danza, and The Queen wasn't adamant that corn was a vegetable.
But we were both suffused with certainly on the question of whether peanuts grew above ground or below. Though peanuts are outside of The Queen's professional bailiwick (she's an expert on native plants, and peanuts hail from South America), she was sure that they grew underground. I insisted otherwise. After all, I reasoned to myself, peanuts are actually legumes, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and peas) grow on stalks. I don't need no fancy bow-TAN-ikle degree to know that growing on a stalk = above ground.
Except, apparently, when the stalk grows above ground ... and then, in a shocking surprise twist sure to have you on the edge of your seat, bends over and burrows into the soil before producing fruit. WTF PEANUTS?!!
That was totally unfair -- there was no way I could have known that those legumes were going to go all psycho on me. Verdict: Peanuts grow below ground. Winner: The Queen, but only on a technicality. The technicality being that I was completely wrong.