Thom on August 28th, 2015

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that I have no respect for Miley Cyrus. And I suspect she doesn’t place much importance on my opinions, either. But she isn’t helping her case any when she appears on the Tonight Show wearing pasties and defends herself with the following, when asked what her father would think:

“My dad doesn’t know how to turn on the TV,” she joked. “He’d rather have me with my tits out and being a good person than rather have my shirt on and be a b**ch.”

Are we expected to believe those are the only two options available to her? Is she seriously insinuating that people who believe in shirts are not good people? The trouble is, she also seems to have strange ideas about what constitutes being a “good person.”

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Cyrus — who’s hosting Saturday Night Live on Oct. 3 — opened up as to why she sports such scantily-clad outfits. “I’m using it as a power stance,” she said of the nudity and strategically placed pasties. “It’s funny to see people try to look me in the eye.”

So she uses her nudity as a means of intimidation and to provide herself amusement over the resulting discomfort? That doesn’t sound like a “good person” to me. If a man were to do that at work or on the street that would be indecent exposure at best, sexual harassment at worst. Going against socially accepted standards specifically to make people uncomfortable for your amusement is not something a person does out of concern or consideration for others. And any list of qualities of a “good person” that does not include consideration for others is seriously lacking.

Miley, I know this might be an original thought, but try being a good person with your shirt on. I suspect your dad would prefer that to either of the only two options you seem to be able to imagine.

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Thom on August 27th, 2015

My son has a goal of going to the Pokemon World Championships. As parents we’re excited to see him motivated about something, and so we’re doing what we can to support him in this. For me that means, among other things, serving as a sparring partner. And that means I need to develop my own playing ability to, if not World Championship levels, at least a level where I can provide a challenge to someone at that level.

I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, not much of a sacrifice there, Thom.” And you’re probably right. I do enjoy playing games. And I find I do enjoy them even more when I actually can provide a challenge. To do that I’ve had to humble myself a little and listen to better players on how to improve my game. This means listening to my son. He’s had to teach me how to play at his level.

But to be a good sparring partner I need to learn to think in ways he may not have considered. I need to try different things to help him improve his own decks and game. So with that end in mind I entered a tournament this week at our local league. Some exposure to other players and their decks could only be a good thing.

I haven’t entered a tournament for a card game in at least twenty years since I tried a local tournament for another game and had bad experience with a jerk of an opponent. I decided then that I really didn’t need that sort of rubbish in my life and I was just fine confining myself to family and friends.

But Pokemon seems different. Yes, there are a few bad apples, but most of the players–of all ages–I’ve met are good sports, and pleasant people. And I’m a little older now, and perhaps a little wiser, and maybe even a little more thick-skinned. And it’s for my son. The things we do for the good of the children.

I’d like to say I wasn’t nervous. And at first I wasn’t. My first match was against the former league organizer who was a judge at the recent World Championship. He’s got a reputation as a good player. I didn’t think much of my chances, so there wasn’t anything to be nervous about. And sure enough, not only did he have a better deck and more experience, but my deck fell flat. There was nothing to do but laugh. Every single card I needed seemed to be hiding from me. He swept me in short order.

My next game was with someone from my son’s age group. And at first it looked like a similar story. I couldn’t get the cards I needed. Fortunately neither could he. He made some interesting choices that left me alive long enough for my deck to start cooperating.

And that is when I started getting nervous. Nothing makes me nervous, I guess, as much as actually having a chance of winning. Things started going my way, then avalanching my way, and suddenly I won my first game. And I was a mess. My hands were shaking.

Then for my last game I was paired with a gentleman in my age group. As we were getting set up he asked me if I was a PokeDad. I admitted I was. I’m not sure what that meant in his book, but it almost seemed like a condescending question. But I wasn’t concerned until I saw his cards start to come out. He was playing a deck much like the one that won the World Championship. I knew what that meant: I had better get a good, fast start or I’d be toast.

I didn’t get a good start. But neither did he. As a result I was just ready enough by the time he got his offense set up. And again I started getting nervous. I had a small lead at that point, then expanded it quickly with one of my heavy-hitters before he brought out his own heavy-hitter. I fed him a few sacrifices to try and soften him up while I tried to get my next counter-stroke set up, and I somehow made some very good choices.

Then, in a final gambit I took a chance that relied mainly on luck. Not fantastic luck, mind you, just average luck. But average luck tends to elude me at the worst times. The game came down to two coin flips (my pokemon had an attack where you flipped two coins and did 20 damage for each heads). I needed one of those two to be heads to win. By law of averages I should be able to do that, but I’ve had games where I’ve had some terribly long runs of tails. My first flip was tails. My second flip was…heads.

I finished 2-1 for my debut event, and earned fifth place (out of seven) in my group. I suspect I ranked lower because one of my opponents was from the lower group and therefore was someone I should have been able to beat (they clearly haven’t met my son). But that doesn’t matter that much. The win for me was that, in spite of nerves, I was able to keep my head and play solid games. I made mistakes, but not many. I even made some semi-inspired moves.

I went in expecting to go 0-3, frankly. And there were people there that, had I been paired with them, I would have. My son, for one (he got first place in his group). But I went in hoping to gain experience and see what other players are doing. I came away feeling like, by golly, I really have improved. And, yes, I had fun.

I’ve just got to do something about the nerves.

 

Thom on August 26th, 2015

I’ve been reading The Fellowship of the Ring again lately, and this time its struck me just how often characters sit and think things through. While this doesn’t happen “on camera” most of the time, it’s nonetheless there. The wiser the character the more they spend time thinking, sometimes far into the night.

Pondering is not something we’re big on these days. “The life of the mind,” just doesn’t get the airplay it used to. Not that anyone has time any more to just sit and think. If we’re lucky the closest thing we have is conversations with friends in which we think aloud at one another and bounce ideas about. Granted, those can be quite fun, interesting, and fulfilling conversations, but they’re not as common as they should be.

The other alternative is during boring, repetitive work when the brain can mostly roam free, but even then the thought processes are regularly interrupted. No, just sitting and thinking is, if not out of favor, certainly out of practice. And I wonder if we’re not worse off for it. Or at least I would if I had the time to ponder such things.

Perhaps this is why I blog, though I’m not sure that is even a reasonable substitute.

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Thom on August 25th, 2015

Visitors to a public chat recently had a chance to participate in a live-action video game. An experiment by British production company Realm Pictures, it mimicked a first-person shooter, but with the players giving a live actor verbal instructions. The result is the video below.

Perhaps just as interesting is the “behind-the-scenes” look at how they were able to do this live. As someone who has been behind the scenes on many productions, this looks like it’d be tons of fun to pull off.

I wonder how much it would cost for one of their Nerf-gun mods.

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Thom on August 24th, 2015

Mars rover Curiosity has been sending back some incredible pictures. Here’s a high-definition look at he Martian landscape I find inexplicably compelling. This is cool stuff!

Here’s another view.

Thom on August 21st, 2015

As I mentioned recently, Sofie, our sweetheart rottweiler-hound mix, had to be put down several weeks ago. Well, we knew we couldn’t do without a dog in our home for long, and so many are in need of one. From Terhi’s experience at the Idaho Humane Society shelter in Boise we knew that three categories of dogs have the hardest time getting adopted: old dogs, black dogs, and handicapped dogs.

So Terhi went looking, and we found the un-adoptable dog trifecta: Sam.

Sam3

It might be a little hard to tell from this picture, but Sam has only one eye. He lost the other to glaucoma when he was a puppy. He’s eight years old, and as you can see, he’s black. And big. Like 90 pounds big. He’s a black Labrador mix (we think the other part might be Newfoundland), surrendered when his family had to move to an apartment.

Let’s just say that when John O’Hurley states repeatedly each year during coverage of the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving that you should do your homework and make sure you understand the characteristics of the breed before you select a dog, he is not kidding!

One reason we chose an older dog is because they are calmer. That may be true, but Labradors are high-energy dogs. They love to play, and there is a reason they are called “retrievers.” So for the first couple of days we were caught off guard by the hurricane of energy called Sam–okay, we were overwhelmed.

But then my dear, sweet wife went to work, researching everything she could find on Labs and dog training, especially for old dogs. And we realized that we did pretty much everything wrong for poor Sam at first. Fortunately, things can be undone, and we’ve been working on it for a couple weeks now. And things are getting better.

But new dogs, young or otherwise, will require changes. We’ve had to change up our routine for both Sam’s and our sanity. He sleeps quite well at night, but when he wakes up his batteries are fully charged. We need to find ways to burn off that energy, and a walk just doesn’t cut it. Our morning routine is a bit chaotic at the moment, but we’re learning, and so is he. He also gets another big burst of energy in the late afternoon, but the kids are coming home from school then, and they’ve promised to take him outside and play with him when they get home. One more walk before bedtime seems to burn off his energy enough to sleep at night.

Sam1

We’re pretty sure Sam was an outdoor dog. At first he required some work to make sure he did his business outside, but after a couple of days he seems to have it down now, and we’ve learned his signals that he needs to be let out. But we suspect he didn’t get as much attention as he would have liked before, and he is a real attention hound. It most often manifests whenever the whole family gathers in one place, such as dinner, family prayer, or watching TV. Suddenly he wants to play. If we don’t play with him he goes and finds our shoes. If that doesn’t work he finds the biggest, most destructive toy he has and starts to play with it in the most dangerous, destructive manner he can devise. Ever been whacked with a knotted 1-inch rope propelled by a 90-pound dog?

But he’s learning. We’re all making progress. The cats, currently barricaded safely upstairs behind a child gate, are slowly getting used to him. We’re discovering the power of Kongs, including the MOADT (mother of all dog-toys), the Kong with peanut butter inserts, frozen overnight. He’s learning our routine, and developing a little more patience. And he’s learning commands, which he mostly follows. (By the way, the covering on that dog toy at right was stripped off by Sam within the first few days.)

I don’t mean to imply that Sam is Marley incarnate. He certainly has his good traits. He’s very friendly, and gets along just fine with other dogs. We arranged a “play date” with one of our neighbors’ two-year-old husky the other day, and they got along great! He loves people, hardly ever barks, and will take all the petting and hugging you want to give him. He doesn’t have “doggy breath.”

And even though he’s full of energy, he’s still an older dog. He’ll play until his body hurts, and then insist on playing some more if we don’t stop him. He’s not as young as he used to be, but he remains in denial on that point.

He gets along just fine without his right eye. He does have his limitations, but he can play fetch just fine, often snagging the ball out of the air. He’s still getting used to where everything is in the house, though, and sometimes he’ll turn to his right and whack his head on something he couldn’t see. I don’t know if this results in a higher focus on movement, but that’s certainly the way for the cats to get his attention. The faster they move the more he wants to chase them. If they move slowly they can go right by him and he couldn’t care less.

Taking in a new dog is never something to be approached lightly. We knew that, or thought we did. We know now our previous two dogs spoiled us a little. That, and we’d forgotten how much adjustment they required at first. Six months to a year from now we’ll probably have forgotten those first trying few days before we figured things out. But we owed it to Sam to give him a chance, and we’re glad we did. We still have a way to go, but he’s already fitting in with our family and becoming part of our lives. We’re glad he’s got a home with us, and we think he is, too.
Sam2

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Thom on August 20th, 2015

What if the poem you’ve been told all your life is a tribute to individualism, to charting your own course, wasn’t about that at all? There are few people in America who haven’t heard the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” But what if it doesn’t mean what we think it means? Inconceivable, you say? David Orr, in his new book, “The Road Not Taken” offers some food for doubt:

“This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance),” Orr writes.

“The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” he continues. “It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”

Wrongly referred to by many as “The Road Less Traveled,” the poem’s true title, “The Road Not Taken,” references regret rather than pride. That’s by design. Frost wrote it as somewhat of a joke to a friend, English poet Edward Thomas.

Orr posits that the poem grew out of Frost’s visit with British poet Edward Thomas who, on their many walks in the woods, always seemed to feel that the other path they might have taken would have been better.

In 1912, Frost was nearly 40 and frustrated by his lack of success in the United States. After Thomas praised his work in London, the two became friends, and Frost visited him in Gloucestershire. They often took walks in the woods, and Frost was amused that Thomas always said another path might have been better. “Frost equated [it] with the romantic predisposition for ‘crying over what might have been,’ ” Orr writes, quoting Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson.

The poem was supposedly meant as gentle teasing, but Thompson suggests that Thomas didn’t take it as such, but rather mocking his indecisiveness over joining the military in World War I. Thomas joined, and was killed two years later.

So could it be true that the poem we thought we understood was simply meant to pull someone’s leg–and hence has been pulling our legs for over a century? Could be. I’ve been accepting the commonly-accepted interpretation, even though my own internal language critic has always been bothered by the ambiguity of the last line, “And that has made all the difference.” It never says whether that difference is good or bad. One could say “And I, I smacked myself over the head repeatedly with a frying pan until I developed seizures, And that has made all the difference” just as easily as “And I, I went against the grain, made a boat-load of money, and now sneer at all the dorks who used to mock me, And that has made all the difference.”

We know Frost was not above teasing with his poetry, as the poem “Departmental” proves. So who knows, perhaps Orr is right. We all love to attribute to Frost a certain rustic, quiet, even cryptic wisdom. Certainly there is as much or more wisdom to saying, “there’s no point fretting over what might have been” as “don’t follow the crowd.” So I suppose it doesn’t really matter which interpretation is correct.

But I’m grateful to Orr for pointing out that alternative interpretation. He certainly takes the road less traveled by. And it’s still an awesome poem, regardless. Here’s the whole thing, courtesy of Bartleby.com:

67. The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20
Thom on August 19th, 2015

Before Jean Shepherd became the man behind “A Christmas Story”, he was the man behind one of the biggest literary hoaxes in history. He and his late night talk radio show followers successfully got a book title “I, Libertine” on the New York Times bestsellers list, even though the book didn’t even exist. Eventually, in an opportunity too great to pass up, Shepherd met a publisher who convinced him and friend Theodore Sturgeon to actually write the book the world was clamoring for, and made the New York Times bestsellers list for real, though Shepherd gave all his proceeds to charity.

This was well before the age of the Internet.

You could call Shepherd the father of the Internet Viral Hoax.

Read the whole story here.

Thom on August 18th, 2015

I hear many people lamenting the lack of willingness to seek compromise, especially in the political realm. I’m one of them. But like most things, I suspect these people, myself included, haven’t completely thought things through. Is a compromise even desirable, let alone possible? As usual the answer is: it depends.

For starters, most of us, when it comes to compromise, aren’t really serious about it. What we really want is for the other side to compromise. And by “compromise” we really mean “surrender.” That’s the current environment regarding Planned Parenthood and the recent undercover videos that have part of the population up in arms and the other part manning the walls. What would true compromise look like here, and would either side be satisfied with it? Would the Pro-Planned Parenthood faction be willing to accept only partial defunding, or for that funding to be reallocated to improve female health coverage under Obamacare? Would the Anti-Planned Parenthood faction be willing to accept a promise that no aborted fetuses will be sold or given to any party, but destroyed within a certain brief period?

We’ll never know, because ultimately neither side seems remotely interesting in anything resembling true compromise. We simply want the other side to fold. This stems from an ongoing insistence that this particular issue is just too important to accept anything short of complete victory. They feel it’s like asking Israel to compromise and let ISIS kill only half their population.

Another problem with compromise is that we can be extremely myopic about issues. If it’s not important to us it doesn’t exist or isn’t legitimate. And if it’s an illegitimate concern, what reason is there for compromise? Who freakin’ cares if Hillary Clinton broke the rules and used her own off-site mail server to send official Secretary of State emails, many including classified information? There are more important issues at stake here, like whether we can get her elected President of the United States? What is there to compromise on?

Or why do we need to worry about police overreach? If you don’t want to get abused by the police don’t commit crimes, or don’t talk back and get aggressive with them when they’re just doing their job. Clearly they’ve got a tough job, and if you’d just give them the respect they deserve there’d be no problem. Right? What’s there to compromise on?

We all get pretty good at ignoring that another side to the issue even exists, let alone acknowledge an opportunity to compromise. Tempest in a teapot, and all that.

What’s more, we seem to completely forget that before compromise can even occur, two sides actually have to come together and negotiate in good faith. How often is that going to happen in today’s poisonous environment? How can you expect someone to negotiate in good faith with you if you were just broadcasting to everyone that you feel their faction is comprised of moronic baboons who have no heart, no soul, no merit, and no legitimacy? You don’t sound very approachable. Demonizing, denigrating, dehumanizing or devaluing your opponents does not lay groundwork for compromise. It just confirms in the minds of your opposition that everything they thought about you is true and there’s no point in trying to reach out. Victory or death.

Compromise is a moderate position, requiring a moderate approach. Our political climate is increasingly becoming “Miyagi-land”: Walk left side of road, okay. Walk right side of road, okay. Walk middle of the road? Squish. Like grape. We don’t like moderates. They’re the annoying “Yeah, but…” people. They’re not the cool kids. They’re not the edgey, hip “take no prisoners” types like the rest of us. Best to ignore them and hope they go away. Or better yet, marginalize them, call them “out of touch”, sell-outs, traitors, “Uncle Toms”, or anything else we can think of to justify our not taking them seriously.

If we really, truly want compromise then we have to be the ones to push for it. How often do we contact our Congressperson and voice our support for compromise? Or do we just (re)post on Facebook in support of our side only, giving no credence to the other side, and making no mention of the need for compromise? How often do we make moderate statements that would give support and hope to moderates leaning the other way that we’re open to compromise and might be sensible enough to make it worth reaching out to us? How often do we seek out and support moderate candidates, even if they only exist on the other side in that particular race?

My experience has been that we slap down moderates, and hard, lest their crazy lack of clarity infect the rest of us. Any candidate that runs as a moderate we immediately distrust. They might cave on the issues that really matter most and sell the farm out from under us. The latin saying “the translator is a traitor” is alive and well today. Anyone who would claim to understand both sides well enough to represent the one to the other, and vice versa, is someone not to be trusted. You can’t count on them to do the right thing.

Compromise might be a great thing–might even be essential to our survival as a nation–but if we really wanted it as badly as we claim, we probably wouldn’t be in the position we’re in. We want to cling (not unjustifiably in some cases) to our side of the issue and hope the other side will step up and compromise. We’ll take a little now so that we can get the rest from them later. That’s our idea of compromise: make the other side surrender their position, be it slowly or all at once–it’s all good, so long as we get our way.

If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got. It’s time for something different. Moderates of the world, time to work in roughly the same direction for a somewhat common cause!

What do we want? Compromise! When do we want it? When’s good for you?

 

Thom on August 17th, 2015

Talk about your crossover books. Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom, is a historical fiction mystery, though admittedly that’s a sub-genre that has gained significant popularity in recent years. It’s a new genre to me, however, which is precisely why I chose it. Lamentation is the sixth book in the “Shardlake Mysteries” series, but there’s no real barrier to starting there. No previous knowledge is required, and whatever is important to the current story is provided as you go.

Matthew Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. He’s also been noticed by some of the top people of the realm; Thomas Cromwell, Archibishop Cranmer and, lately, Queen Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife. This is not the safe and sane path to a comfortable retirement, mind you. Powerful people have powerful enemies, and people like Shardlake are but pawns, useful and expendible.

The year is 1546, and England is caught up in religious turmoil. The Traditionalists–those supporting a return to Catholicism, or at least preservation of as much of it in the Church of England as possible–are pitted against the Reformists, looking to depart further from the Church in Rome. The Reformists, however, run the gamut from the cautious, slow reformers to the wildly radical Anabaptists, who want to overthrow the aristocracy and create an egalitarian society.

Shardlake is an agnostic, but his sympathies lay with the Reformers–most notably Catherine Parr, whom he admires, even loves (without hope, of course). This does not endear him to the Traditionalists, many of which he has crossed paths with before and made bitter enemies. He’s even annoyed King Henry previously, as well. But amid all this comes an urgent request from Queen Catherine and her uncle, Lord Parr. She has secretly written a book with radical overtones. And it has been stolen. Anne Askew, radical reformer and heretic, has just been burned at the stake (a rather gruesome business), and the queen’s enemies wouldn’t mind the same fate for her.

It’s up to Shardlake to ferret out who stole the manuscript and return it safely to the queen, but it’s no easy task. It becomes clear early on that he’s dealing with several different factions, but who is who, and which has the manuscript? It’s a high-stakes game and a dangerous one, and Shardlake is hardly the dashing, slashing hero. He needs to protection of friends, but he is continually torn between keeping them out of it and protecting his own hide. To make matters worse, he has difficulties among his own household servants, and a rather nasty case he’s involved in between two feuding siblings that could spiral out of control.

C. J. Sansom is a historian and solicitor (lawyer), and pays great attention to detail, both in setting and in plot. Much of what happens in the novel is real. Catherine Parr did write a book titled “Lamentations of a Sinner”, and Anne Askew’s manuscript, smuggled out of the Tower of London, was printed by radical sympathizers. Sansom’s talent is fitting his story into the gaps. There’s no indication that “Lamentation” was ever stolen, but there’s no evidence it wasn’t, either. We know there was a signficant power struggle between the Traditionalists and the Reformists during this time, and we know who won. Sansom’s story fills in the gaps with a credible scenario.

It was a dangerous time to live in England. When asked what one believed religiously, the only “right” answer was “Whatever the King decrees.” (And Henry was back and forther on that issue.) Even speculating aloud how long the king might still live was considered treason. Questioning whether the blood and body of Christ were indeed present in the mass was heresy. Incessant war with France had drained the public coffers, devalued the currency, and driven up taxes. The English economy was on the verge of collapse, and the commoners bore the brunt of it.

Lamentation is an enjoyable novel, and a lesson in history at the same time. There’s even a lengthy author’s afterword in which he discusses what is true and what is speculation in his book, as well as providing even more background on the period and the major players. The book is quite frank in its depictions of the conditions in England and the environment our heroes operate within. It’s quite clear early on that Shardlake and his opponents are playing for keeps. The suspense is palpable.

I enjoyed this book, and I may try out some of Sansom’s other novels some day. If you’re the type of person who likes history, but also enjoys a good story more than recitations of facts and details, this is the right brand of historical fiction. It’s an engaging story, set in a well-rendered backdrop of real history. Good stuff!

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