Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Photo Picnic (Ketchup on Digital Pictures, Part 5)

A couple more pictures of the Luxor. It has the largest hotel atrium in the world. The pyramid is 350 feet tall. We ascended and descended the pyramid both in the inclinator and also via an internal service stairwell. It is very strange to look down the stairwell 30 stories on a diagonal.

"Luxor" is egyptian for "design that does not age gracefully and will soon be replaced by something new and even more trendy and short-lived."

This is the interior pyramid taken from directly underneath. Yes, I was lying on the floor to take this picture!

Next, our Mother's-day picnic on Lake Mead, showing Colin and Brian. There were not Starbucks in visible range. After the hotels, this made me feel very confused!

It was very breezy and gritty that day, so we were not able to set up a tent, but we had a nice picnic anyway, and covered ourselves with lots of sunscreen.

Memorial Day Photo Picnic (Ketchup on Digital Pictures, Part 4)

A short hike at Red Rocks. I've got my new prescription Ray-Bans, which came in very handy in the desert! The wildflowers were apparently just past their early-May peak. The temperatures were only in the '80s, but I'm glad we did this hike on the weekend of the 11th, because by the 19th I think it was 106 degrees.

Memorial Day Photo Picnic (Ketchup on Digital Pictures, Part 3)

Our Las Vegas trip: inside the Luxor. In the "inclinator," an elevator that travels at a 39-degree incline. Unfortunately, there was no view out of them as they went up.

If you look closely, in this photo you can see the view from one Starbucks to another about 30 yards away, inside the Luxor. There were two on the entry level, and at least one more. I counted nine within walking distance in the interconnected Mandalay Bay/Luxor/Excalibur complex. Peak Starbucks is upon us!

We went with Brian and my niece Madeline (12) and nephew Colin (8) to the indoor amusement park at Circus Circus.

An amusement park ride. I think it was called "the Nauseator."

Our hike at Red Rocks:

More photos of the Vegas trip in the next batch.

Memorial Day Photo Picnic (Ketchup on Digital Pictures, Part 2)

Meanwhile, Isaac was also drawing something on the tablecloth...

Let's take a closer look!

Wow, that's old-school geekery! I think he's constructing "phi," the golden mean. What was Veronica up to?

Daddy asked her to draw a face, and she came up with two. We're saving these. I think these are pretty close to the earliest coherent pictures of faces we've seen her draw, although a week or two ago I saw a somewhat cruder face on the chalkboard at home. She's about 3 years and 7 months, and I'd been wondering when we were going to see something more representational in her drawing (the snakes and worms and pieces of string don't really count).

She also enjoyed her sorbet for dessert, which she ate while wearing Isaac's rainbow hat.

All in all, it was a lovely meal out, and we had a lot of leftovers to take home.

Memorial Day Photo Picnic (Ketchup on Digital Pictures, Part 1)

Or, playing catch up with iPhoto and Blogger.

The plus side of my relatively cheap digital camera is that memory cards are very cheap, and so I don't feel wasteful taking dozens of photos trying to get good shots. On the minus side, that means I have a huge backlog of photos to pick through. Here are the best of the last few months.

Yesterday (Sunday, 25 May 2008) we took the kids out for dinner at Macaroni Grill in Ann Arbor. The food was pretty good! Here is Sam's fine dining experience.

Waiting for the food to arrive:

He enjoyed the pasta.

Quite a bit.

Even its texture and adhesive properties.

As an exfoliating facial treatment.

Back to coloring.

A Sam's-eye view.

What are you doing with that thing, Daddy?

Give it to me! (Sorry, no).

A top-down view of the aftermath (it could have been worse):

Friday, May 23, 2008

In This Post I Reveal...

...that I have yet to see the 3rd Star Wars film in the prequel trilogy, Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. I guess I'll get around to it eventually, if for no other reason than I'd like to be able to make sense of the various parodies.

This from a guy who saw the original Star Wars film at least a dozen times in the theater, as they say, "back in the day."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Galactic North

I have in my sweaty paws a copy of Alastair Reynolds' story collection Galactic North. Amazon still lists this paperback as only available for pre-order, but my local Borders somehow got a copy on the shelf. After reading the two excellent novellas that comprise Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, I knew I'd want to read this one.

I've been waiting quite a while for this book. I'm a fan of pretty much everything Reynolds has published, to one degree or another. He writes a kind of dark space opera for the most part, heavily tinged with cyberpunk and horror. I like his writing style, although he's prolific, and collectively the Revelation Space books have become pretty weighty. If you decide to read them, I advise taking breaks between volumes. The recent standalone novel Pushing Ice might be a better starting point. Galactic North also wouldn't be a bad way to get accustomed to the Revelation Space universe before jumping into Chasm City.

I'm on story number four -- they are all long short stories or even novellas. These stories fill in some of the back story about Clavain, Galiana, Remontoire, Freya, and other characters from the Revelation Space universe. But it's a big, messy universe, with relativistic time dilation, so there is no danger that Reynolds will give away all the mysteries anytime soon.

I should clarify by reiterating that Reynolds writes space opera. In particular, the Revelation Space stories and novels are filled with intrigue and revenge and assassinations and alliances and betrayals, as well as nanotechnology, brain implants, weird and frightening weapons, artificial intelligence, and cold-sleep. He seems to pay homage to Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy, as well as to Gibson, Sterling, and maybe Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and others too numerous to mention. The Revelation Space universe is not virgin territory but Reynolds definitely has his own spin and his own atmosphere, but his stories are ultimately character-driven, a bit like Joss Whedon's Firefly was both a science-fiction story but also a western and a very human drama.

While I read this I'm also eagerly waiting for the American edition of The Prefect. Borders tells me he has yet another book in the pipeline, House of Suns. I know nothing (yet) about either of these.

I've been waiting on several other books as well, so I might as well mention them. John Scalzi's The Last Colony is coming out in paperback, and his book Zoe's Tale is also in the pipeline. Scalzi writes in the mid-career Heinlein school to a certain extent, although he's carved out his own particular niche in the military SF sub-genre, and keeps his stories very tightly edited, which I admire. Anyone (it seems) can write a thousand-page space opera, but a tight 300-page novel like Old Man's War impresses me with its lack of wasted words. It's up there with Haldeman's The Forever War. These novels prove that a story doesn't doesn't need to be extremely complicated or wordy to be a good read.

I'm also awaiting the ailing Terry Pratchett's Making Money, certain to be one of the best of the Discworld novels to date. I enjoyed Going Postal.

I've been anticipating the arrival of Greg Egan's novel Incandescence in an American edition from Night Shade Books. However, Night Shade Books has been driving me crazy by pushing back the publication date for the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson, Volume 5 indefinitely. I got sick of waiting for the American paperback edition of Incandescence, so I ordered a copy of the Gollancz (British) edition instead, which has shipped and should be in my mailbox soon.

On impulse, a month or two ago I picked up Iain Banks' novel Matter (in hardcover). It was decent enough, but it seems like I have started to have less and less respect for "soft" SF. The difference between hard and soft SF generally boils down to whether you allow breaking known physical law. Not stretching it, or extrapolating, but breaking it. This usually means that hard SF does not allow faster-than-light travel, and interstellar travel has to take into account relativistic time dilation.

Now, writers like Stephen Baxter introduce loopholes, like using wormholes, but with physics, at least in his earlier books, more-or-less extrapolated from current speculation by physicists, and with corresponding complications. In recent books Baxter has chosen to play tennis with the net down, so to speak, and has gone over to allowing ghosts and psychic projection and time travel and all manner of other wish-fulfillment. And then there is Gene Wolfe, who gets a free pass, because he is a genre unto himself.

Anyway, back to Matter. It had neat aliens, but I really disliked the ending, and so I can't really recommend it. I've heard good things about Banks' Culture novels so I'll give them another chance; The Algebraist is on my to-read pile, but Matter is going in the giveaway pile.

Let's see, while I'm at it I should also mention that I read Charles Stross's novel Glasshouse on the trip to Las Vegas. I wouldn't rate it his best work -- I think he's best when he's writing in a looser, more humorous style, like The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue, or the linked stories-made-into-a-novel book Accelerando, or his excellent short stories in Toast. Glasshouse is a little grim, and will also probably go on the giveaway pile. I also polished off David Brin's Kiln People, which was very clever and funny and enjoyable but far too long and which, I feel, also did not end well.

Last, after picking at it for the last couple of years I finally finished volume 1 of Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight and am starting on volume 2. Gene Wolfe really is a horse of a different color!

How does a parent like me with a full-time job and 3 kids find time to read? The answer is that I don't find very much. I manage to get maybe 15 minutes a day that are truly to myself, and so it takes me a relatively long time (usually two weeks or more) to finish a book. But I'm also usually chipping away at a half-dozen books at once, and I switch between them to keep myself interested. I also read very quickly, which helps make up for it, although the downside of reading very quickly is that my attention sometimes wanders. That's a surefire way to lose track of what is going on, particularly in a Wolfe novel, but that's again a topic for another day.

Oh, while I'm at it, I bought one interesting movie, a Criterion Collection edition of The Man Who Fell to Earth. I'm a sucker for psychedelia. I did not know it at the time, but apparently this is the film that Philip K. Dick wrote about in disguised form in his veiled-autobiographical Valis. (And speaking of Philip K. Dick, I've also pre-ordered the second Library of America volume!) Anway, it's a weird movie, just the way I like 'em. Grace hated it. She wants to start recording a movie review show, Potts and Potts. She's thinking a videotaped segment to run on Community cable; I'm thinking a podcast might be better. I've definitely got a face for radio!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Happened in Vegas

Isaac and I took a brief trip to Las Vegas, leaving the evening of Thursday the 8th and returning the evening of Monday the 12th. Here's a quick trip report.

The outgoing flight was on time.

It's very strange to see slot machines in the airport gate area.

Airport shuttle vans whose sides are covered with ads are a pain, since you can't see out properly. That made our first 30 minutes on the strip a bit disappointing.

The Luxor pyramid is quite an amazing place. (We stayed there). We were supposed to have a room in the pyramid, but they told me that there were no more non-smoking rooms available in the pyramid, so we had to stay at ground level in one of the towers. I didn't mind this much, since our room was quite nice, although I was somewhat indifferent to the Egyptian decor.

My brother Brian came out late to meet us at the hotel, and kindly brought us a cooler full of bottled water and juice, with some yogurt and muffins. That was very helpful and it saved us quite a bit of money on breakfasts! We sat up with him to chat for a while, and my first meal in Vegas was a very good salad with smoked chicken and a glass of good white wine, eaten in a restaurant at the back of the casino. We learned that the casinos all generally had their very expensive name restaurants, but there was also always a less visible "cafe" with more reasonably-priced food.

The room and flight were prepaid, but trying to maintain a tab on our hotel room was a mistake. I had my VISA scanned when I checked in, and all seemed well, then later that evening tried to put our late dinner on my room -- only to be told there was a problem with my account. I paid cash for the meal. Then the next morning I had a phone message about a problem with my account. I went to the desk, they said they did not have my card on file, and scanned my card again, and said everything was fine. Then I had another phone message. Back to the desk again, to be told no, there was no issue, everything was fine. I checked with my bank: there was plenty of money available, and I was able to charge other items like show tickets with no trouble.

My guess is that the Luxor's attempts to reserve money on my card were silently failing, but the system was not clearly displaying this to the employees looking at my account. But the Luxor claimed they were only reserving $100 a day, which did not seem unreasonable. I've used my card to pay for hotels with similar policies before, with no troubles. No one at the Luxor's front desk, or at my bank, could tell me what specifically had gone wrong. This definitely raised my blood pressure. If we go back I'll just keep everything on a cash basis and avoid trying to bill anything to my room at all.

The 3-hour time change hits me harder as I get older; in Vegas, I was consistently waking up ready for the day at 6 a.m. Isaac, being 13, had no trouble sleeping for another three or four hours. This actually worked out well, since I got a little quiet time in the morning to go get breakfast and read.

I think we counted nine Starbucks locations within walking distance of our room. We probably missed at least one. I'm imagining a call to Starbucks:

"I'm looking for a Starbucks. On the Strip, near the Luxor."

"Starbucks operates several locations in the Luxor -- do you mean on the casino level, the mezzanine level, or the attractions level?"

"The mezzanine level."

"OK, do you mean the mezzanine level on the side next to the Mandalay shops, or on the side next to the towers?"

"Ummm, next to the towers."

"OK, do you mean next to the entrance to the East tower, or the entrance next to the West tower?"

"By the entrance to the East tower."

"OK, sir, look straight ahead and walk about fifteen feet. Thank you for calling Starbucks information."

I have a photo I'll have to post, showing the view of one Starbucks, in which another Starbucks barely thirty yards away is visible. And of course this doesn't count the numerous Starbucks in the airport, also within a few yards of each other. While there may be no consensus yet about Peak Oil, I'm quite certain we've passed Peak Starbucks.

The next morning (Friday) we met up with Brian again. This was slightly complicated because the traffic on the strip is terrible, and he did not want to park, so it was a dance of cars and backed-up traffic and pedestrians and cell phones in the front of the hotel. Brian was a real trooper to deal with this traffic every day so that we did not have to rent a car. He showed up with my niece Madeline (12) and nephew Colin (8). I had brought them some small gifts -- a book about Mars for Colin, and a copy of the animated movie "Ratatouille" for Madeline.

Brian gave us a brief tour of the more famous hotels of the strip and then we went to Circus Circus, which has an impressively large indoor amusement park for the kids. A fun time was had by all, although my stomach no longer enjoys amusement park rides very much -- they should give them names like the Queasinator! Their rattling, jarring roller coaster served mainly to give both Brian and me a headache, although we both still enjoy good roller coasters. Laser tag was much more fun. After a few hours of SpongeBob and Duck Dodgers, Brian and I were starting to lose our sanity, so we fed the kids some burritos and shoved them back on spinning, flipping rides to see if we could make them lose their lunches. No spectacular high-speed lunch-losing followed, though. (It might have if I had ridden the Inverter or the Disko myself, but I decided that discretion was the better part of valor).

I'm slightly hazy about what happened next. We were juggling several ideas while trying to arrange to meet up with Amy (my sister-in-law) for dinner, but things were getting complicated because several of Amy's long-lost family members were coming in from out of town, and she was trying to arrange a sort of family reunion. Brian had all kinds of errands to run, meeting people at the airport and what-not. Things were also complicated because I was trying to figure out whether I could manage to take Isaac to see a Blue Man Group show. Several things were up in the air, but what we finally decided on was that we'd get a quick dinner (burgers and salads), then Brian would drop us off a the Venetian and we'd say goodbye for Friday. So that's what he did.

I managed to get mid-price tickets for the 8 p.m. Blue Man Group show -- the hardest part was finding a location that was quiet enough to make the cell phone call. Isaac and I first had several hours to get dinner and wander around the Venetian. There is an indoor canal with gondolas that runs through numerous galleries full of shops, with an artificial sky -- it is a bit mind-blowing. These buildings are just enormous. The Blue Man show was entertaining -- surreal and funny -- and Isaac enjoyed it. At one point we had a blue man standing on the back of Isaac's seat! But I had the feeling that there was a small, inexpensive, artsy black box theater-style show trying to get out from inside the extremely expensive and lavish show, and they were basically trying to cover up this simple fact with strobe lights and paper and expensive props. We caught a cab back to the Luxor and promptly fell asleep.

The next day, Saturday, we had some time in the morning to relax and kick around the Luxor. Isaac and I did some exploring. The Luxor is part of a linked complex of 3 hotels, including the Excalibur and the Mandalay Bay, all linked by pedestrian walkways (the monorail was apparently not running, sadly). We explored the enormous casinos and restaurants and shops. I was trying to find Isaac a pair of nice non-prescription Ray-Ban sunglasses. I guess Ray-Bans are far too downscale, though, because all I could find were much more expensive brands covered with Swarkowski crystals or what-not.

If I recall correctly -- I might have the day wrong, since the whole four-day weekend was a bit of a whirlwhind -- Brian then picked us up and drove us out to Red Rocks state park, we did an audio tour of the visitor center there, then drove out to find a short hiking trail. It was just the right length for us, especially given that we were not at all accustomed to the climate. The terrain was gorgeous and I took some pictures, some of which I'll get up here on the blog eventually. Even after living for a time in Southern California and seeing the American west, I still find it just a bit surreal to get on a plane in Michigan's climate and vegetation and get off a few hours later in the middle of a desert.

The plan was for Brian and a friend to meet up with us that evening at the Rumjungle bar and restaurant in the Mandalay later that evening, preparatory to seeing Rush live in the Events Center. That plan was slightly delayed, because of all the picking up and dropping off that Brian had to take care of. But we all met up in plenty of time for the show.

The Rush show was fantastic -- Brian had done some ticket trading to get terrific seats, and the sound quality was very good. We could even see the chickens turning on their rotisseries behind Geddy's keyboards! Rush plays a very long show, and they dug into their back catalog with songs they have not played live in a long time, like "Digital Man" and "A Passage to Bangkok." They played all three instrumentals from Snakes and Arrows, and all three were really good live. This was the best rock show I've ever seen. The show ended late, so after showing Brian and his friend around the Luxor we said goodnight and headed back to our room.

On Sunday Brian picked us up again, we all picked up some of Amy's relatives, and headed out to Lake Mead for a picnic and the family reunion for Amy's side of the family. That was a lot of fun, although it was a bit windy and gritty out on the lake. We were all a bit sunburned and dusty by late afternoon and wanted mostly to get a shower, so we didn't make a late night of it. Isaac and I went to explore the Excalibur shops, found a t-shirt for Veronica, had crab cakes and ribs for dinner at a restaurant in the Excaliber's casino, and unwound.

On Monday we didn't have a lot of time left before we had to get to the airport for our flight -- and Brian was back at work, with a court appearance in the morning. We basically packed up, explored the Mandalay shops, and then Brian picked us up and we went out for a coffee. When he had to head back to work, he dropped us off at Ed Roman Guitars, a landmark music store, where I spent a couple of hours checking out their stock of vintage Steinberger guitars, and Isaac tried out electric basses.

We had checked our bags at the Luxor, and when it was time we were able to walk back to the hotel, stopping off for a quick meal at In and Out Burger, to pick up our bags and catch the pre-arranged airport shuttle. We had a bit of a wait at the airport, since the plane was delayed, but only by an hour. I'm pretty sure, but can't prove, that Paris Hilton was on our flight to Detroit, traveling with a small entourage. I have no idea what she was doing on her way to Detroit, if it was her. I'm not really a Paris Hilton fan and am unsure if I could pick her out of, say, a police lineup, should the need every arise, but nevertheless I still think it was her.

So there it is! A very enjoyable trip -- a bit of a whirlwind tour, but I'm hoping to go back to Vegas someday soon. I did not gamble a dime -- the only game of chance was wondering if our plane would be on time. We lost that bet, but fortunately it did not cost us anything except some sleep!

Eat Breakfast Before Going to the Dentist

I had a routine dentist visit this morning, and it went fine, except that I had not yet eaten anything. So while the hygienist had her hands in my mouth scraping my teeth with her little steel tools -- basically, while I had nothing much else to think about or look at, and I obviously couldn't hold a conversation -- I could only think about how much I wanted a coffee drink (a soy mocha). Or a muffin. Or a bagel. These things were literally appearing like hallucinations before my unfocused eyes.

Apparently I was producing an unusual amount of saliva, because she had to stop every minute or so to suction out my mouth. Oops! Am I that much of a greedy slob that if I delay breakfast an hour or two, I start drooling? Apparently the answer is "you bet!"

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

West Virginia Family Values

From the Washington Post here:
For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.


One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"


Karen Seifert, a volunteer from New York, was outside of the largest polling location in Lackawanna County, Pa., on primary day when she was pressed by a Clinton volunteer to explain her backing of Obama. "I trust him," Seifert replied. According to Seifert, the woman pointed to Obama's face on Seifert's T-shirt and said: "He's a half-breed and he's a Muslim. How can you trust that?"
It's gone beyond words into vandalism, too. America, your (white) pride is showing! I've been pretty indifferent about the democratic field in this election -- from my perspective it's pretty much two business-as-usual players with nearly identical voting records. but these people are making me mad. Time for another donation to the Obama campaign...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Going to Vegas

I'm on my way, with Isaac, to Las Vegas for a four-day weekend. We'll be staying in the Luxor pyramid. I got a package deal through Travelocity. We'll see just how much more unpleasant flying has gotten; it seems to go nowhere but downhill.

We're not going to gamble or explore the strip -- we're going to visit my brother and his family, including a niece and nephew I haven't seen in seven years.

It's going to be a bit of a shock to the system -- our host is planning some outdoor activities. Temperatures are supposed to be in the high 80s.

It was 40 degrees this morning in Ann Arbor. I guess it's better than the time we were having a record cold snap in Ann Arbor and it hit 25 below zero. I called my father in California where it was 75. A 100 degree temperature difference!

The Difference Between 13 Years and 18 Months

Yesterday I picked up my new glasses. They look different than my old ones -- these are brown plastic tortoiseshell, and the old ones were wire frames.

Sam, my 18-month-old son, said "new glasses!" He's still a bit hard to understand some times, but he talks a great deal these days, and even sings us songs.

Isaac, my 13-year-old son, said nothing. When asked he claimed that he noticed but just didn't bother to say anything.

Does that count as noticing?