Archive for May, 2005

Book Review: Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Eats, Shoots and Leaves — Lynne Truss

Rating: 4/5

This is a short, fun, improbably successful book that manages to be both informative and hilarious at the same time. And amazingly enough, it does so on the subject of English punctuation. Lynne Truss is a British author who has been a punctuation stickler all her life. She addresses the use and abuse of all the common punctuation symbols, from the comma and apostrophe through the subtleties of the dash and ellipsis. Although I’m not perfect at punctuation, I tend to have a pretty good eye for spotting gross errors. Ms. Truss liberally salts her text with examples of the most hideous punctuation misuses, and usually adds on a sarcastic comment or two that pretty closely mirrors what I was thinking when I saw it.

This book actually does accomplish a purpose other than ridicule and humor, however. It is full of useful information on the subtleties of using punctuation symbols effectively. In addition to the lists of rules for using punctuation symbols such as the comma and apostrophe, there are many examples of both effective and ineffective use of punctuation. There are many places in the text where she shows a snippet of text punctuated two different ways. Sometimes the effect is a stark distortion of meaning; sometimes it’s a very slight change of emphasis. Often the resulting differences are hard to actually put into words, but they are there.

I had purchased this book for my Mom as a birthday present. I have fond memories of helping my Mom grade her college English papers when I was in junior high, and sharing a good laugh over the best examples of the horrific illiteracy of the students. I remember being somewhat scandalized that these college students — almost godlike creatures to an eighth-grader — wrote such pitiful English. After Mom finished reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves, she was kind enough to lend it back to me. I had originally expected to read this book and solely be entertained, and was pleasantly surprised to also learn many rules I never knew about the proper use of punctuation.

The book takes only about three hours or so to read, as it is written in a very conversational style that makes even the driest minutiae go down fairly easily. I greatly enjoyed it, although I do think that the subject matter is not going to be of true general appeal.


Sith Happens — Movie Review: Revenge of the Sith

OK, it’s not original; the phrase has appeared in many places across the web. You can also buy “Sith Happens” gear at various places if, for some reason, you have the desire. And I even liked the movie — a lot — so it’s not even an appropriate tag for this review. But still, it’s a sophomoric pop-culture word game reference and I have a weakness for them.

Revenge of the Sith

Rating: 3.5/5

I saw Revenge of the Sith on Thursday, and I must say that I was impressed. It doesn’t have the same magic or sense of discovery that A New Hope had, nor the powerful revelations about Luke and Darth Vader that The Empire Strikes Back centered on. What it did have was solid acting from the cast as a whole, stronger writing than I was expecting, a tragic plot for which I had little trouble suspending disbelief, and outstanding cinematography and effects.

After the sub-mediocre The Phantom Menace and the somewhat better Attack of the Clones, I was resigned to more wooden performances from Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader), Natalie Portman (Padme Amidala), and, inexplicably, Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu). Christensen did a much better job of portraying a conflicted young Jedi wrestling with the proper role of his own feelings and desires as he slowly succumbs to the temptations of the Dark Side. Portman, once again, has her considerable talents underused. She gets some better scenes in this movie, and when she is allowed to act like a full human being you can see some of her true talent shining through, but her character is no Leia from the original trilogy. Jackson is an outstanding actor, and if he had to play a Jedi, playing ass-kicker Mace Windu was probably the right choice, but he wears the serenity of a Jedi Master very uncomfortably. He would have made an outstanding Sith.

The true standouts are Ewan MacGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious). I can’t say enough good things about Ewan MacGregor’s performance in this movie. Perhaps the best praise I can give him is that, to me, he made the transition from the young Obi-Wan of the prequel trilogy to the older Obi-Wan of the original trilogy seamless. The nuances of character that the great Sir Alec Guinness imparted to Obi-Wan are clearly visible in MacGregor’s younger version.

Ian McDiarmid gives a great performance as Chancellor Palpatine, the “friendly face” of Sith Lord Darth Sidious. Of course, he gets to chew the scenery on a regular basis, but he does a good job of displaying just enough self control and false compassion to be believable as an avuncular mentor for Anakin, while letting just enough smug malice leak out around the edges to make you squirm in your seat as his seeds of evil take root and start to sprout.

I’ve heard that Lucas retained Tom Stoppard to punch up the dialogue a little. I could certainly believe it. While it’s still not Shakespeare, we were not treated to any cringe-worthy lines like “I love you because you’re not like sand.” The love scenes still seemed a bit forced (no pun intended), but with the twin swords of war and Anakin’s dire visions hanging overhead, there was a sense of urgency and desperation to Anakin and Padme’s time together that added some much-needed dramatic tension. Also, Lucas does have the tendency to hit you over the head with his metaphors and morals like he was trying to convince you through blunt force trauma. I thought a bit more subtlety and deftness would have helped the scene where the Chancellor assumed the mantle of Emperor. Lucas could have shown, rather than told, for much greater effect.

The heart of the movie, of course, is Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side. Here Lucas really did it right, showing that he’s aware of how power corrupts, and how rationalizations and propaganda can so easily twist positive motives to evil. Anakin’s road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Anakin is fundamentally a good man as the movie starts. He loves his wife, respects his Jedi master Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi Council, wants to serve and be useful to the Republic and its Chancellor, Palpatine. Unfortunately, he has great power but has not yet mastered Jedi detachment, so that his emotions and the trappings of power such as titles, respect, and glory still have a pull on him. Palpatine systematically finds, explores, and turns each positive motivation Anakin has back on itself before pinching it off completely, encouraging him to justify his personal desires by either rationalizing them as serving the greater good, or telling himself that he deserves them.

Anakin’s corruption is slow, gradual, and eminently believable. By the time he joins the Sith and takes the name Darth Vader, you can almost hear him thinking, “how the hell did this all go so wrong?” Sidious keeps stringing him along farther and farther until, finally, he’s betrayed or destroyed everything he originally held dear. Mutilated and scorched along a river of lava on a lifeless, volcanic planet on the outer rim of the galaxy, he’d seem to have hit bottom. But, as we eventually find out, the Dark Side doesn’t really have a bottom, and Darth Vader continues to fall for a long, long time.

From a visual perspective, the movie is exceptional. The action scenes are well-staged and well-choreographed, and the many quick panoramas of faraway planets we get to see during the course of the war are stunningly original and believably alien. Padme’s Senatorial quarters, where she and Anakin spend considerable time, believably portray an island of calm in the midst of the political and military chaos of the rest of the galaxy. It’s easy to see that Anakin feels at home and comfortable there with Padme. The soundtrack is generally good, although the use of mood music was sometimes obtrusive and jarring.

Overall, I would rate Revenge of the Sith easily better than the first two prequels, and on a par or slightly superior to Return of the Jedi. It falls quite a bit short of the high bar set by A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.


Book Review: Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

The Baroque Cycle — Neal Stephenson
Quicksilver
The Confusion
The System Of The World

Rating: 4/5

Quite a few people dislike these books, as they are “neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring.” (John Heywood, 1546) Personally, I thought the series, taken as a whole, was magnificent.

Quicksilver introduces readers to Daniel Waterhouse, a Fellow of the Royal Society. He’s also the son of Drake Waterhouse, a notorious smuggler and Puritan stalwart who was on intimate terms with Oliver Cromwell. Daniel’s roommate at Oxford is Isaac Newton, in whom Daniel immediately recognizes an unequalled genius. Plague, fire, war, and intrigue affect the lives of Daniel, Isaac, and the other members of the Royal Society as they pursue their researches into new fields of Natural Philosophy. We are also introduced to Jack Shaftoe, a syphilitic Vagabond and opportunist, and Eliza, a Qwghlian girl abducted into a Turkish seraglio. Jack rescues Eliza during the sack of Vienna and together they pursue opportunity and profit across Continental Europe.

The Confusion follows Jack as he criscrosses the world on one misadventure after another, and Eliza as she continues to grow in power and influence in European society. Massive plots, schemes, and conspiracies are launched, mostly to go wildly astray. Political and economic struggles dominate this book, as Louis XIV, the Sun King, tries to achieve dominance over England, Holland, and Spain, opposed by William of Orange. Gottfried von Leibniz, the House of Hanover, and even Tsar Peter the Great are drawn into the machinations as well.

The System of the World rejoins Daniel as he returns from America at the request of Princess Caroline of Hanover. Isaac Newton is running the English Mint, and English coinage is acknowledged as the best in the world. He is opposed, however, by Jack Shaftoe, now known as Jack the Coiner, who has his own motives for trying to subvert the English currency. Daniel has a full agenda, from helping to reconcile Newton and Leibniz to constructing a “Logic Mill” for Peter the Great to figuring out who is trying to kill him with phosphorus bombs.

Some of the reason that many people are ambivalent about these books stems from the fact that Neal Stephenson is well-known and has an extensive fan base for his over-the-top writing style and his corpus of science fiction works. Some of those established fans were not interested in a long series of novels that were set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with heavy emphasis on the sociology, politics, and economics of the period, and no futuristic technology. Some other readers whose preferred genre is historical fiction were not enamored of the liberties he took with historical characters and his gonzo, “sugar cocoa puffs” writing style (as my friend Garrett puts it), not to mention the science-fictional sensibilities he brought to his portrayal of the emerging technologies of he 18th century.

If you look for things to dislike about this series, you can certainly find them, whether you are focusing on style or substance. The books are both long and long-winded; Neal Stephenson has striven to adopt at least some of the styles of writing contemporaneous with his setting, and this can be hard to follow at times. The first book meanders quite a bit, setting up the backstory and characterization while not seeming to make much progress in terms of plot, while the second book jumps to an entirely new set of characters as they partake in some highly improbable adventures. A lot of history gets bent throughout the series to allow the protagonists to appear in and influence, “Forrest Gump”-style, many of the major world events of the time. The ending to the series is somewhat abrupt, with some significant questions unanswered.

But, like a goldsmith assaying the fineness of a well-minted guinea, I find that the gold in the Baroque Cycle far outweighs the base metal. Every facet of this novel series is extensively-, almost obsessively-researched. The setting is very immersive, even if the plot events are often over-the-top. The central characters are fully-rendered in full human detail. His primary three fictional protagonists are the most fleshed out, but he also invests a lot of effort into plausibly portraying the human thoughts and goals of his ancillary fictional characters and the myriad of historical figures that pass through his work. Much of the length and wordiness of the series is devoted to establishing the setting and characters so that the reader is fully submerged into the author’s vision of Enlightenment-era Europe, and I believe he succeeds completely.

As far as content, Stephenson cooks a very eclectic stew, as he often does. Science, alchemy, propaganda, sex, war, squalor, philosophy, piracy, mathematics, disease, counterfeiting, baksheesh, religion, slavery, the stock market, politics, insurance, coffee, dueling, mystery and love are only some of the ingredients he uses. If it happened between 1680 and 1710, it’s pretty sure to be in the series somewhere.

One of the most frequent complaints about Neal Stephenson is that his endings are unsatisfactory. While I won’t claim I was completely happy with the way the Baroque Cycle concluded — there were several things I was still curious about that the various epilogues did not cover — I would rate this the most satisfying ending to a Stephenson work to date. There was an actual denoument, although shorter than in most non-Stephenson novels, and the explanations of what many of the characters were doing or were going to do after the pivotal events were believable and true to their personalities.

All in all, I highly recommend this series, although you will spend a lot of time with it.


Bonk!

Well, shortly after writing the followup to the Club Chalupa article yesterday I just about collapsed. At the time I thought it was my first racquetball-induced bonk, but after reading up a bit on the whole phenomenon of bonking I now conclude that it was just my first “everything bonk,” and that I’ve had pretty frequent minor bonk episodes for quite a while. If you read the linked article, they’ve itemized many of the mistakes that people make that can lead to bonking. Yesterday I made almost all of them.

I normally drink orange juice in the morning, but we were out yesterday, so I just blew it off and ate an apple and some peanuts for breakfast. I had one glass of unsweetened tea, but that was all the fluid I had in the morning. So I entered the match low on hydration and calories. I played a really hard match against Ron Jones and felt really exhausted afterwards. I then stopped by Taco Bell for the Club Chalupa on my way back to the office. That helped a little bit, but as that was all I ate, even that wasn’t enough to really compensate for the caloric drain of the match, given how low my reserves had been.

Around 1:30 I got a sudden spike of headache pain, which is a bonk sign. I’ve had these headaches before and not recognized the problem — I think every time I’ve had these I’ve had at least a minor bonk, as I don’t feel hungry after racquetball and generally don’t eat after a match. That is going to change. Anyway, along with the headache came a total lack of energy. I was just limp in my chair, staring into space. I headed over to the nearby convenience store and got a bottle of cranberry/grape juice and drank it, which helped to start recovery. But for most of the rest of the day I was lethargic and hurting pretty badly.

So what have I learned?

1. Drink more fluids in the morning.
2. Eat more calories in the morning.
3. Eat immediately after racquetball, whether I’m hungry or not.

With luck, these improvements to my routine will allow me to avoid this problem in the future.


Return of the Club Chalupa

Well, the Club Chalupa is back at Taco Bell. Normally I avoid Taco Bell. It’s not that the food tastes bad, but I always feel that the astoundingly non-nutritious offerings are leaching the life-giving vitamins and minerals right out of my body. Also, the Fire sauce tastes vaguely dirty, like its secret ingredient is a pinch of cigarette ash.

The Club Chalupa is really the only Taco Bell item that I enjoy enough to overcome my distaste for the restaurant in general. I’ll be going there today after racquetball to see for myself if the new incarnation of the CC is a worthy successor to the 2002 version. And lest you think that I’m over the top writing a blog entry about the Club Chalupa, check out these guys….

(edit) Well, I’m happy to report that the Club Chalupa is everything it used to be. Since a comparison just wouldn’t be fair without the degenerate taste of Fire sauce, I slathered the contents of one packet over the chalupa before eating. I was immediately taken back to 2002, the heyday of the original Club Chalupa. As far as my gustatory and olfactory senses can tell, it’s exactly the same.

Sometimes you can go home again.


Had Enough of Star Wars Yet?

I haven’t seen Episode III yet, although I hope to this week sometime. In the meantime, you ought to check out this link to Adam Bertocci’s Star Wars parody site. It’s hilarious! “The Chopped-Off Hands of Star Wars” is really good, but my personal favorite is “Run Leia Run”, a parody of “Run Lola Run”, the bizarre German film of the late ’90s.


Thomas is Four!

Well, Thomas turned four over the weekend. We had both sets of grandparents down, along with Robin’s sister and husband, plus cousins Cordelia, Hayden, and Brooke. Robin set up a really great party — she really outdid herself. Thomas has been just incredibly into animals lately so we did a jungle theme: green balloons and streamers, some inflatable animals for decorations, and face painting and headbands to make the guests look like animals. Robin arranged animal-themed party games like the “elephant cake walk” and “catch a tiger by the tail” (a variant of duck-duck-goose). To top it all off, she decorated a snake cake made out of four half-circles of bundt cake, complete with fruit roll-up tongue. It was really cute and a big hit. A good time was had by all.

Of course, we were totally exhausted afterwards. I’ve got tons of pictures and digital video of the party, so I’m really going to prioritize getting the photo gallery segment of my website implemented first so I can upload some of these. I’m about 30 pages from the end of the Baroque Cycle, so in the next day or so when I finish that, I’ll review it and then get going on the SWiSHMax development.


Implementing This Blog

For years I have wanted to set up a website, but was always daunted by the minutiae of getting hosting and controlling the site. I tried a free service (Tripod) for a while, but was really disappointed by the speed, the crude level of access I had, and the ads liberally slathered onto every page served.

Long ago I’d secured the wigdahl.org domain. I set up mail forwarding to my Comcast account, but that was about it. I had wanted the wigdahl.net or wigdahl.com domains, but both were taken. wigdahl.com is taken by James Wigdahl, a distant relative and West Coast software developer; he’s had it for years and has an extensive Web presence there, so I knew that one was off the table. Wigdahl.net seemed to be in limbo, never used for anything. I checked in every now and then to see whether it had freed up or been used, and watched as the time to expiry ticked away.

Finally, the domain expired. Unfortunately, the registrar held onto it for quite a while. They offered it to me for $60, but I knew that if they released it I could get it through Namecheap for $8.88, so I just stood pat. Finally the original registrar released it, and I snapped it up.

It seemed criminal to leave a nice .net domain blank and only used for email forwarding, so I started researching hosting options and web software packages. Robin wanted a website on which she could host digital photos in a nice album format, so I was looking for a web host that offered a lot of space cheaply.

When I started looking I discovered that Namecheap now supports dynamic DNS, which would make it possible for me to host my website on my own hardware. This looked much more interesting than using a remote hosting service. The more I looked the more I began to realize that with the sheer number of open-source software packages available today it would be quite easy to host my own server. I’ve got a secondary computer that doesn’t get used for much other than web browsing and occasional Office use, so I started looking at specific software packages.

Selection of a web server was pretty easy — Apache is almost a no-brainer. I downloaded Apache 2 for Windows and quickly got it installed and configured for basic operation.

After looking around for good blog software, I settled on WordPress, a well-regarded package. This software required MySQL and PHP to operate, so I started downloading.

Installing MySQL was extremely simple, and PHP was quite easy as well. I had to do a bit of documentation scanning to figure out how to run PHP as an Apache module and how to configure PHP to be able to communicate with MySQL, but I figured it out pretty quickly. I then installed WordPress, configured it, and started installation.

Unfortunately, it came up with a blank screen.

Luckily, I found a great tutorial on the Web with detailed instructions on how to configure Apache, PHP, MySQL, phpMyAdmin and WordPress. I downloaded and installed phpMyAdmin, which allows browser-based administration of MySQL installations. Using phpMyAdmin, I was able to set up the proper accounts to allow the WordPress installation to configure a database in MySQL using PHP. Finally, the configuration was complete.

All of this software is open-source and all of it works very well. Despite some relatively poor documentation in some areas, I was able to get the blog up and running in no more than 3 hours total, starting from a naked Windows XP box, for absolutely zero cost. I would highly recommend this approach to anyone that wants to experiment with Internet and web technologies.

Next on the agenda — learning modern web design and SWiSHMax!

***

2009 update:  I’m still using WordPress, but I’m up to the 2.7 version now and am using the Arclite theme.  Still getting my feet wet with the details of implementation now that 4 years have passed…


Welcome!

Welcome to my new blog, The Quern. I chose this name because the decentralization of media represented by blogs and other Internet content distribution mechanisms reminds me of the transition from querns to mills, only in reverse.

Ever since humankind has practiced agriculture, there has been a need to prepare the tough kernels of grain for human consumption. Soaking or boiling will work, but grinding the grain into meal is much faster and provides a more easily-digested and consistent product. Early farmers used querns — stone grinders of various designs — to grind their grain.

With the advent of the higher technology and more centralized governmental structures of the Middle Ages, mills were established. These were dedicated buildings with heavy, high-capacity grinding equipment that charged for services and could grind large amounts of grain finely and easily.

These mills were controlled and taxed by the local lord, who was eager to maximize his revenue. Querns, allowing poor farmers to grind their own grain independently and tax-free, were a threat to this revenue source. Therefore, use of querns was outlawed in many areas during the Middle Ages and many were broken to prevent their illicit use.

Until recently, large media corporations and the government have enjoyed exclusive use and control of mass communication. Whether they have used these media channels for profit, propaganda, or legitimate journalism and education, the public had little say in the content and operation of these channels.

Today, the Internet, through the flowering of e-publishing, peer-to-peer file sharing networks and the blogosphere, is actively reversing the centralization of media control. Now anyone can broadcast any ideas they wish to whomever wishes to read or listen to them.

Anyone can set up their own quern.


The Quern is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache