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In Asheville there’s a cool little indie bookstore called Malaprop’s that I make a point of stopping by any time I’m in town. Almost every time I stop by, there’s some kind of event going on — an author reading, story time and face-painting for kids, that sort of thing. Yesterday my family and I went to Malaprop’s and discovered that we had just missed a book signing by the author of a book we had just recently purchased for the kids.

As I was browsing books, I found a shelf containing books wrapped in brown paper written on in black marker. A nearby sign revealed that the idea — dubbed “Blind Date with a Bookseller” — was that you’d buy a book on the vague, un-spoilerish recommendation of a staffer without knowing in advance what the book was. I loved the idea!

Of the half dozen or so different book descriptions on the shelf, the one pictured appealed to me the most, so I bought it. My wife was nervous that it might turn out to be one I had already read. I was a little nervous about the possibility too, but the little thrill of coming across this opportunity buying a surprise book outweighed the small risk. The store clerk assured us that if I had in fact read the book, I could return it for store credit. When I ripped into it, I discovered that it was in fact a book I already owned and had recently read, but that didn’t diminish my pleasure by very much at all. In fact, it was kind of fun to have myself sort of typecast as a reader interested in the sorts of things listed on the wrapper.

I won’t reveal what the book was, lest I spoil it for some reader who happens by Malaprop’s and decides to pick up a mystery book — which, if you are a reader in the Asheville area, you should!

Years ago, my wife and I said sort of idly that if our state ever allowed civil unions for same-sex couples, we’d get a divorce and get a civil union instead, as sort of a show of solidarity or a recognition that our union with its privileged title of “marriage” wasn’t more meaningful than the type of union we imagined gay couples might one day be afforded was. I’m not sure how seriously we meant it. We didn’t say it in jest, but it’s not something we ever dwelled on, and our backwards state never got around to allowing civil unions much less actual marriage for gay couples.

So I’m really glad that our prospective gesture has now been rendered moot by the Supreme Court’s decision to rule in favor of same-sex marriage. My gladness isn’t selfish, of course. It just seems so much better to grant equal and full rights than to quibble over terminology and afford gay couples an essentially second-place civil right.

This also of course is the first step down a much-anticipated slippery slope that will allow me to eventually marry my goldfish. Goldie and I couldn’t be happier.

A few days ago, I wrote briefly about the work of a few artists whose representation of the human form sort of dazzles me. I knew there was one I was forgetting, and now I’ve gone and found her. Lola Dupre makes these really often disturbing collages of people. I’m not sure that, given a ream of yellow construction paper and a ream of black, I could make a convincing smiley face, so what she does with shading and texture to make these distorted people really amazes me. I can’t look away.

I’ve come across a few artists lately whose work to represent the human form really amazes me. I remember drawing a few sketches of human faces as a teenager that were nowhere near even vaguely realistic (in spite of my best attempts) but that didn’t embarrass me utterly (at the time, I was sort of proud of a couple of them in spite of their vaulted foreheads, their ridiculous chins, their pencil-carven noses, their ashen complexions). What these artists do to capture the human form (or face) is astonishing.

First up, Jason Thielke:

He shows more absence in this piece than presence. With circles and arcs, a few curves, and some white space, he creates an image of a woman transported. I’m no art expert, but the impression I receive from his work is that he’s something like the love child of a draftsman and a spirograph enthusiast. I marvel at every piece, cannot conceive of how he does it.

Second up, Mark Khaisman:

He makes his art by layering packing tape over backlit acrylic sheets. He creates curve and gesture, light and shadow — with tape. There’s a degree to which the majesty of the human mind gets some credit for the impressions his art leaves, but I am so very taken with how he can bluntly apply his simple materials to goad the gullible mind into seeing what he would have us see.

Up next, Lui Ferreyra:

Ferreyra, like the prior two artists, uses geometry and shading to capture form and somehow attitude or mood. He seems to have several modes of work. Here I’ve chosen my favorite, the geometric, but he also has remarkable pieces that resemble the painting books we received as children in which by applying water to inked areas on a page we seemed to paint a picture and pieces that are more like simple line art.

And finally Egon Schiele:

Schiele is apparently famous and nearly 100 years dead and I am a philistine for not having known his work before. The pieces I’ve looked at have been disproportionate and raw and grotesque, very human for all their muddled monstrosity. Leaping 75sh years past Schiele’s death, it’s hard not to see echoes of his work in the old MTV cartoon Aeon Flux, his ragged post-WWI dystopian horror reflected in that jittery dystopian futurescape.

On the recommendation of a coworker, I’ve begun reading Lloyd Alexanders’s The Chronicles of Prydain book series to my kids. I hadn’t know about this series, though I had known the second book’s title The Black Cauldron from a video game I had played in my own childhood. The video game apparently was commissioned by Disney, who made a movie version of the Newberry award-winning book. Well, I was apparently basically illiterate as a child (or more likely, my small-town library didn’t have these books, though my mother in perhaps her most formative and best parenting moves made sure I had frequent and mostly unfettered access to the library), but somehow we managed to score the video game to play on our Tandy 1000 computer. This computer had 640k of memory. That is kilobytes, not megabytes or gigabytes, mind you.

Beginning to read the series with my kids has helped me recall the videogame, and I’ve found some YouTube videos of a play-through! I remember toiling away at this game and being so proud when I could play it through at last. We had the Tandy but didn’t have any other actual cool gaming system until much later (my sister’s Nintendo, which she bought during college and brought home over the summer; to be fair, we did have a Texas Instruments gaming console with lame versions of various games, but it was hardly cool [though still, in retrospect, it was still a good bit more than most in my podunk town had, so in a way maybe my parents were pioneers]).

Looking at the game now, I think it’s sort of ridiculously low-fidelity. It’s tempting to quip that Minecraft has just barely surpassed the graphics quality of this nearly 30-year-old video game, but Minecraft is really quite a bit more complex in spite of its low-fi graphics. My kids could basically program a game these days of similar complexity to The Black Cauldron using Scratch.

Watching some of the video play-through has filled me with nostalgia. How vividly I remember some of these screens and the trials of trying to get past them!

Here’s the first video in the series, in case this was, against most odds, a part of your childhood too:

Other games from this era that we played were King’s Quest IV and Police Quest. I also played a whole lot of Earl Weaver Baseball, under which in certain circumstances (I forget specifics) you could hit a home run over the backstop.

This was in the days in which we used DOS with the ubiquitous C:\> prompt and our calendars and document management were handled by a program called Deskmate that looked like this (credit):

Granddad

Of my two grandfathers, I only ever knew one, and he died when I was a toddler. This is the other one, my mom’s dad. I understand he was not the best guy in the world, but otherwise I know very little about him. He laid tile by trade if I recall correctly, and I believe he flew airplanes as a hobby, though perhaps it was a commercial concern too. At any rate, here’s the only picture of him I know of. My mother found it years ago and I’ve had a copy ever since. I attach no sentimental value to it, but he sure does look swell all decked out for a flight, like somebody out of an old movie.

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.

Tiles

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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