I don’t watch a whole lot of TV. Well, I do and I don’t. When I don’t, I don’t. When I do, I gulp it down. For example, last year, I watched all of The Wire over the course of a few weeks (maybe it was months?). I also watched all of Deadwood. I did the same with Battlestar Galactica a year or so before and recent Doctor Who the year before that. It’s vaguely cyclical. I’ll read books for a few months without even really glancing at the television for anything other than family movie/pizza night on Fridays, and then I’ll binge watch something, or a few somethings.

This year, I’ve recorded more reading in the first 5 months than I did in all of last year, and I had thought that last year was a pretty good year for me. But I’ve still mixed in a little TV over the past few months, mostly episodes of Castle (which is so endearing and funny) and of CSI: Cyber, the latest variant of the long-running CSI franchise.

It turns out to be a ridiculous show, but one I’ve not been able to resist because computer stuff is sort of in my wheelhouse. I’ve often wondered how much shows like that fudged (or, to be charitable, simplified) facts about the various disciplines they incorporate. I don’t know anything real about forensics, for example, and I’ve often suspected that when we hear on television about blood spatter patterns and other more technical things, we’ve been fed lies (or, to be charitable again, we’ve been fed palatable but quite lame simplifications of the truth). I’ve wondered if doctors and morgue techs didn’t sit at home and chuckle about the absurdity of these shows.

Well, now that there’s a show about computer stuff that makes a fair amount of sense to me, I can confirm that we’re all being lied to. I mean, we all know this to a degree. There’s an interview with Sandra Bullock about her appearance in The Net in which she says that she was typing all kinds of personal catharsis that made her look like quite the hacker indeed but that a program was making the hackerish things appear onscreen. Well of course it was. Typing is hard even when you’re not being filmed, and of course an actor couldn’t be expected to frenzy-type hacker stuff in real-time. I typoed while typing that typing was hard. Take a movie like Swordfish that depicts hackers as people who chug caffeine and can high-five one another while hacking whatever insanely secure system on a deadline and under extreme duress. There are probably cases in which this sort of behavior is what happens in the real world, but I don’t feel like they’re terribly common. (Let it be known: You cannot open some magical window on your computer and type “filter by credit card to show purchases on August 23 between $23 and $98 by people 28 years or younger” and actually get results (and a color-coded map of relevant area stores). Extracting data (and especially data across many sources) is really hard.)

CSI: Cyber gives us a fair amount of this sort of theater. You have your stereotypical fat bearded white-hat hacker working for the government and plenty of other socially maladjusted hacker types who perpetrate internet crimes for various reasons. Then you have what I suppose is sort of the manic pixie dream girl version of a hacker, with dyed hair often knotted up on top of her head in cute little horns. Then you have this strange little dapper black-hat-reformed hacker working out penance and being the figure of redemption. And there’s The Biscuit from Ally McBeal, and Patricia Arquette reprising her role from Medium, but instead of being a psychic, she’s a psychologist who can intuit truth from eye and hand movements of the people she casually observes during interviews. And also she goes into dangerous situations with a gun. And then there’s Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, sort of the beefcake who sort of maybe sometimes when it’s convenient knows stuff about computers but is mostly just the vaguely tragic muscle of the show (he has aged quite nicely, to be fair).

Of the various CSIs I’ve watched, CSI: Cyber seems definitely the weakest. I sort of want it to succeed because I think it’s actually a potential vector for teaching people about the various dangers of being online (though also: it’s also maybe sometimes sort of alarmist; probably nobody will steal your baby by hacking your baby monitor). But I think there’s so much that’s bad about it besides the ways in which they oversimplify the computery bits (which, let me say, I laugh out loud a couple of times an episode at how they show fragments of html or silly bits of pseudocode scrolling by, and I sort of wish I could be a code writer for the show and do my own special brand of trolling in these bits).

The show is badly dramatized. They’ve sort of blown their wad in season one with respect to the arc that is supposed to justify the Arquette character’s involvement. And honestly, her character is probably the weakest in the show. She’s the human element, but her story and Arquette’s portrayal of the character is at various times so wooden and near-mystical as to make it impossible to sympathize with her or to believe her as a person who interacts with other people as written.

The show has been picked up for a second season, and honestly, I’m surprised. I’ll probably keep watching, if only for the comedy of the failure of the seriousness with which the show proceeds. Probably I should read a good book instead.


My wife ran across an idea for making home-made coasters using glazed tiles, sharpies, and rubbing alcohol. You start with a plain white tile and scribble on it with rainbow sharpies. Then you spritz or dropper alcohol onto the ink. The alcohol makes the colors run together and then it evaporates, leaving the color smears behind.

Sometimes you wind up with these weird almost burned looking effects (I think probably where alcohol has puddled too much). You rarely get quite what you expect. The tiles are dirt cheap, and it’s a quick, neat craft. Once we figure out how to seal the colors in, we’ll have a nice new assortment of coasters, and we’ve talked about figuring out a way to mount these together somehow as a wall hanging in the kids’ playroom.

My tiles are the rainbow one in row 4, column 3 and the one with lots of sort of marbled whitish space (intentional but not exactly as I had intended) in row 3, column 1. I think the top left one looks really neat — like something the Hubble telescope would send back — but my son was really disappointed in it. The one to its right has some neat striations that I think were the result of blowing the pooling alcohol a little.

Our house is a standard subdivision house with standard subdivision house problems. For example, the pantry was pretty small, though compared to our last standard subdivision house, which had no pantry at all, it was a big improvement. Storage in general isn’t great in the houses in our tax bracket. A few months ago, we added a bunch of shelves to our bonus room. This week, we finished some remodeling of our kitchen. There used to be a useless desk and cabinets tucked over in the corner beside our pantry, and since all we used it for was a dumping ground for papers and craft stuff, we decided to make a bigger pantry of it instead. Now we don’t have to keep our wok in the garage anymore!

I forgot to take a “before” picture, but here’s the first stage of renovation. We had the desk and cabinets ripped out and built a wall up around the space. Partway through the demolition, we learned that there’s actually a pipe going through that dividing wall, so we trimmed it back a few inches but left it there. We were worried it would wind up looking dumb, but it actually divides the space nicely and lines up with the edge of one of the doors, so it’s not so bad.


We had some lights wired in too and moved a light switch and a couple of outlets around. My wife poured a couple of old buckets of paint together to make a color that matches pretty closely the color of some of the old mason jars that decorate our mantel (we’re southern, not hipsters).


Here the shelves are built in and the doors added. The doors were beige for some reason rather than white, so we’ll have to get those painted. You can see here that some of the tile we laid a few years ago had to be ripped up, so replacing that was part of the job too. Luckily, we had some tiles left over from the original job.


With doors and shelves hung, I got excited over the weekend and put a couple of things in the pantry even though I knew we couldn’t fully move in yet since there was still tile work to be done and baseboards to reinstall.


The doors are a good bit wider than standard doors. This is a really big pantry, and here’s what it looks like closed, minus door knobs.


And finally here it is with knobs, baseboards, repaired tile, and food. We’re really happy with the project. Our carpenter was installing doors on the room I moved my office into and alternating work between the two projects. It took him about 6.5 calendar days to finish up. We still have a little painting to do around both parts of this remodel, but hopefully this wraps up our home fixes for the next couple of years.


A few weeks ago, I proposed that we make sock puppets as a fun activity for the kids. My wife was out of town this weekend and I was antsy to get the craft going, so we went ahead without her. After a trip to the craft store, we laid out our supplies, and the kids started designing their puppets. Although I had intended to make one of my own, we found that our various room-temperature glues weren’t really doing the trick, so I operated the hot glue gun (a first for me) and stuck the various limbs and accessories on. The kids were really happy with their puppets and went straightaway after finishing them to go write and perform for me a brief puppet show that made absolutely no sense. It was a fun afternoon. Pinterest, here I come.


Earl, over the last couple of months, has finally become a lap kitty. Our other cat — Aster —  still mostly likes to stand on my book when I lie down and try to read, and she’s otherwise mostly aloof. She was my favorite of the two for a while, but a new favorite is emerging.

My team at work spent a few days last week at Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria — one of the canary islands. The islands are part of Spain but are geographically much closer to the northwest coast of Africa. For some reason, the airfare from my home airport was outlandish, so I drove to Charlotte, then flew through JFK to Madrid and then on to Las Palmas and more or less reversed the sequence (with some complications) on the way home, which was not altogether fun.

The city was mostly unremarkable to me — just sort of a standard city with lots of one-way streets and crazy parking (like on the sidewalk, straddling a corner, or at times even double parked). It was my first time driving outside of the U.S., which made me pretty nervous.

Most of the cities I’ve visited outside of the U.S. were pretty English friendly, but here very few people spoke English, so I often felt like a big, helpless, boorish, American baby. It didn’t help that I’ve been familiar with French more recently than I have Spanish, so when I did try to speak — even just to apologize for being a dumb American or to communicate other simple things, I often enough did so in a strange English-Spanish-French pidgin. Luckily, one of our guest attendees from a different team was a native of Argentina wonderfully fluent in both English and Spanish and was able to help us navigate meals and other transactions with the locals. Most of the time, he would just order plates of various foods for the table, so we had lots of variety, and it was all really good. We ate various rice dishes, lots of seafood of many types (squid, prawns, snails, clams, several fishes, octopus, and likely others I’m forgetting), and wrinkled potatoes with just about every meal. It was really some of the most consistently yummy food I’ve had at a meetup, and it was very inexpensive to boot.

Some of my colleagues had hoped to do some surfing or snorkeling while we were there (we worked at a place catering to such outings called The Surf Office, which was featured in the New York Times while we were there, complete with pictures of our team and some others who were sharing the space with us), but weather and scheduling stood in the way of those plans. Our main venture as tourists was to visit the Caldera de Bandama, a volcanic caldera. There’s a steep path down into the basin of the inactive volcano, where a working farm is currently situated along with some abandoned buildings. It was really neat, and the trip back up out of the volcano highlighted how seriously out of shape I’ve let myself get.

We got some good work done on the trip, and for me, the tourism to work ratio was about right, so the trip itself was very good, though I could certainly have done with less travel at both ends of the trip.

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I had been interested for some time in watching The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m not sure why I was really interested in it, as I’m not terribly interested in finance or the history of its madness, but the movie had been on my to-watch list, and finally I sat down last night and watched it. On looking at Martin Scorsese’s page on IMDB, I see that I’ve watched a lot fewer of his films than I had thought, but my general impression has generally been that I like his films. Right or wrong, I think of his work as gritty and real. This is the impression I brought to watching The Wolf of Wall Street, which I did not think turned out to be a very good movie at all.

I don’t think I have a great eye for such things, but even I noticed a number of really bad edits — hands moved or drinks suddenly refilled as the camera angle switched, pants suddenly adorning what had been a bare bottom without there having been opportunity to slip them on. I figure that if I noticed a few of these, there must have been many more that a better trained eye would have seen, so the movie struck me as rather sloppily edited.

It was also grotesque. Of course, the behavior of the characters depicted was grotesque, and so a grotesque depiction seems well enough in order. What I mean to say is not that the grotesqueness itself is inappropriate but that the manner of its assembly seemed wrong. Often I felt like the movie was a string of clips from a gag reel: the boys snort cocaine off of some hookers’ bodies; the boys do too many quaaludes; the boys have an orgy; the boys crack wise about little people; the boys tape lots of money to their friend’s wife; DiCaprio effectively does a Gilbert Grape impersonation. Yes, we are seeing here the sort of excess that I suppose the movie is supposed to criticize, but it feels like a series of snapshots, and it gets a little old and feels pieced together. Often enough it feels more like a variant on the Hangover franchise.

The Hangover movies are surely funny at times (well, I assume — I’ve seen only the first one and didn’t love it but also probably laughed at it), but they have no real moral center. From a Scorsese film about Wall Street, I suppose I had expected at least some cynicism or a sense of quiet outrage about the excesses depicted, but I watched instead a film that seemed to make comedy of it all. Maybe it wasn’t a bad film as much as that it wasn’t the film I expected, which is more my fault than Scorsese’s.

And it’s entirely possible that I’ve simply misread the film. It is a narration for the most part from the perspective of the main character, who breaks the fourth wall from time to time. This device seems reasonable enough in a movie based on a book written by that character. Maybe what I’m reading as a weakness in the film is in fact the point of the film. That is, a cautionary tale told by a purportedly reformed scoundrel might in fact unfold in the way this film does, reveling more in the chain of zany exploits than in the reclamation of any true morality. How many times have I myself told gleeful stories of youthful debauchery without lingering overmuch on the regret and the hangover that followed? Is the film about this phenomenon as much as about Jordan Belfort’s particular exploits, and is the film perhaps cynical or moralistic after all, suggesting that there really is no such thing as redemption for such scoundrels? Does the book unfold in a similar manner, and is the film a critique of the book?

Even with this revised reading in mind, I didn’t love the film. It could be shorter and better edited and meaningful with a little less slapstick. I haven’t yet read any reviews of it, but I can’t help feeling that if it was favorably reviewed, it was more on the basis of its director’s reputation than on the merits of the film itself.

A friend of mine teaches art at the University of Tennessee, and I pick his brain from time to time about art. I’m really interested in art but don’t really know much about it, and knowing an artist is really neat, though sometimes I worry that by turning chat so often to art, I’m being sort of a jerk (maybe he’d like to talk about sports or politics or parenting or television sometimes). I’ve also always been fascinated by industrial things. For example, I’m really interested in things like factory tours, although I never actually manage to go on any. Mechanization — or really human innovation in general, with things like mechanization as just one example — is really amazing to me. So too is the fact that one day somebody figured out probably more or less by accident that molten iron could be molded into useful forms and that, as our species began to be able to allocate more resources to culture than to survival, people started practicing this skill with a more artistic than pragmatic purpose. So when my friend mentioned that the UT sculpture club was going to be holding an iron pour, all my little fascination alarm bells started dinging.

wpid-wp-1415497957489.jpegIron pours, it turns out, are a pain to put on, and so they’re fairly rare. Some sculptors will basically go on road trips from one iron pour to the next, and so sculptors from at least as far away as Minnesota were visiting to help throw this shindig. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when we (my family came with) arrived. There was a big kiln or perhaps you’d call it a furnace, maybe a bit smaller than a 50 gallon drum, sitting on a stand. A few people stood around while others began loading the furnace with what I guess was maybe coke. It would be a couple of hours, my friend told us, before they would begin pouring any metal. Other people were filling sacks with salvaged iron and still others were breaking larger pieces of salvaged iron into smaller pieces that would then be put into the sacks.

The club was making sort of a fund raiser of the public event, selling shirts and the opportunity to make scratch tiles. This stuff wasn’t set up yet when we first got there, so we walked to an anthropology museum on campus and let the kids run around some in the lovely Fall weather and came back a couple of hours later to get started making scratch tiles.

To talk about scratch tiles, I first have to talk about how you make a mold to begin with. I imagine there are several methods, but the one in evidence today used molds made of sand. What? Yes, sand. Well, it’s sand mixed with some kind of chemical that makes it hold its shape and that I suppose might impart some properties to the sand that prevent it from turning to glass under extreme heat. The artists pouring iron had brought many molds, some of whose shapes you could discern and some of whose shapes were buried inside the molds with holes for pouring the iron in. So, say you’re making a bowling ball: the whole thing has to be encased in a mold with something like a periscope hole for pouring the metal into; a piece with a flat exposed surface (like, say, a relief) needs no such contrivance, and so its negative shape can be seen in full; these tend to look like oddly misshapen bowls. A scratch tile uses a shallow square mold with a recess in it, as if you had taken a square brick of hardened light brown sugar, which is what the stuff looks like, and pressed a tile into it. You then scratch your design into the recessed area, and when the iron is poured in, it fills the scratched design and leaves you with an iron tile basically scarified with your design.

We’re not accustomed to carrying much cash and were ill prepared, but borrowing four bucks from my friend (which made me feel like a real tool — some patron of the arts I am — though he was very gracious about it), we were able to scrounge enough cash to let the kids each scratch a tile.

wpid-wp-1415497959578.jpegSince our departure and return, a bunch more people had showed up, many of them wearing what looked like suede protective outfits and helmets with face shields. The furnace shot a point of bright orange fire out its top, and one of the holes near its bottom spit occasional sparks. When I say a jet of fire, I don’t mean that it was a flame; I mean that it seemed like the kind of thing that you imagine shooting out the back of a fighter plane’s engines. One guy climbed a little platform beside the furnace occasionally and dumped in buckets of iron scraps. Things were really getting exciting! Well, they were exciting for me. My kids were pretty bored by it after they were done designing their tiles, which sort of blows my mind. At some point, some of the folk working the event turned what I guess is probably called a crucible upside down over the fire, I suppose to heat it gradually so that the sudden introduction of super hot iron doesn’t break it, though I’m really not positive that’s why. And then all of a sudden, two people in their fancy suede duds were carrying the crucible on a pole between them over to some of the molds. They pretty casually poured the iron into the various little periscope holes like some thick psychedelic orange juice. They didn’t get much of a pour, it seemed to me, but then I suppose that’s why the event was scheduled to last all day.

Before and between pours, some people worked on keeping the crucibles hot by pointing what seemed like basically an industrial hairdryer into the vessels, only instead of air, it blew flaming gas until the inside of the crucible glowed.

My daughter in particular was really sick of the affair by now (both kids were put off by the smell, which was a little acrid but not so bad, really), but I wanted to see one more pour, and they were going to pour the scratch tiles next, which I thought the kids might find interesting since they had more of a stake in it. I was wrong. It took a few minutes to get the iron back up to temperature, but when they did, they had two crucibles going for a couple of minutes, and watching those carrying the hot metal navigate around one another and around the various obstacles (people, pallets of molds, the ground made irregular by mounds of sand used for dampening any spills) was like watching a sort of dance.

The tiles flamed as they were poured and even after, and we could see the orange molten square glowing for minutes after. I’m not sure how long it takes them to cool and harden, since we left shortly after this second pour. We’ll retrieve the tiles later.

Watching this event made me wish I were artistic. Or, as I said wistfully on the drive home, I’m artistically inclined but not artistically talented, so that while an event like this has a whole lot of appeal for me, it’s not the sort of thing I could ever have hoped to attend as more than an interloper. Interloping was fun, though. I would have gladly stayed and watched, pretty well mesmerized, for the whole time. If there’s another iron pour in the next few years, I’d love to go and would for sure make a scratch tile of my own. I’m grateful that my friend let me know about the event. It was a real treat.

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Earl doesn’t usually hang out with me very much. When he was brand new (he’s about two years old now), he spent much of my workday napping in my office, often enough bundled up inside my sweater to keep warm in the winter chill. Now he won’t deign to sit on my lap or even on the same piece of furniture as me. So of course I crave his attention and follow him around the house to pick him up so that I can hug him and pet him and squeeze him and name him George. (Actually, full of self-conscious humor at the silliness of it all, I do smoosh him and nuzzle him and kiss him and call him love muffin and snugglepuss.) This morning, he hopped up onto my new desk for a quick rest and then moved in for a closer look as I typed. It was a rare treat.

Over the spring and summer, we tried to sell our house, but it didn’t work out. We’re still not sure why. We’ve fixed up a bunch of things since we bought the house, and the place really is quite pleasant (we’re trying to get a jump on moving school districts before high school). Anyway, it didn’t work out, and the new plan is to stay for a little longer. The remaining carpet was original to the house and pretty gross, so we’ve replaced that (we had previously installed nice wood and tile elsewhere in the house). We also decided to make the bonus room more useful. We had hidden most of our books in storage and gotten rid of the rickety old book shelves we’ve been carrying around for years, but now that we’re staying, we need space for our books, which I’ve really missed for the past few months. So we had a carpenter build in some cabinets and bookcases for us, with bonus window seats in the dormer windows for extra storage. Our daughter is especially delighted by the prospect of curling up with a book in one of the window seats. Here’s what the process looked like, and the final product. Now we need only to get the rest of our books out of storage and the room will be quite lovely.

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