Year in Review: Blog’s Eye View of 2010

The first sentence blogged each month.

photo by AL_hikesAZ
photo by AL_hikesAZ

January: One of the gifts I got for Christmas is a “Utility Towel” with 42 on it.

February: I received this book as a Christmas gift last year and have been a bit hesitant to dive in, since it looked a bit dry.

March: Mattheson tells the story of Tom Wallace, a regular guy living in a normal suburban neighborhood.

April: I’ve read this novel before, of course, but I reread it in the week before PCA since I built my presentation on it.

May Walking toward the train, effete British accents of a radio play murmuring in my ears, I walked by a mini-van with a middle aged black woman in the passenger seat, on her mobile phone, looking aggrieved.

June: Bones was fine this season, with a bit of a strange season wrap-up — almost as though it was a series finale.

July: 2001-2002: After watching a bunch of those home-improvement shows, we painted some (now) hilarious boxes in a weird pattern on the wall.

August: July 26 – Writing log today: 1300 words, fiction. Story done.

September: Please supply a caption for the image below.

October: When I was visiting Minnesota last week, I checked out three graphic novels from the local library and buzzed through them.

November: Lots of Halloween fun this year.

December: It feels like I had almost too much music again this month.

See also: Bird’s Eye View of 2009, Apparently I skipped this process in 2008, Blog’s Eye View of 2007

Year in Review: Music

"Information Superhighway" by Nick Wheeleroz
"Information Superhighway" by Nick Wheeleroz

In some ways, this is the hardest of my review posts for me to write.  I tend to listen to music in the background and let it filter into my consciousness subtly.  Then, later, I make mix CDs and other silliness to get it off my computer and into other venues (like my car or iPod).  So for this post I’ve decided to skim the last twelve months’ worth of music (that I’ve acquired–some of this is not 2010 music, per se) and pick out a few songs that stand out to me as especially significant, in no particular order.

  • “On the Edge of a Cliff” by The Streets: a song about how life is amazing and we should treasure it, using the miracle of our own ancestral evolutionary survival to provoke that majesty.  It’s astonishing, really, to think that every one of our ancestors, back to the dawn of time, carefully shepherded, guarded, and passed on life so that we could have it.
  • “Sentimental Heart” by She and Him: just a good, good song.
  • “Everybody’s Got Nipples” by Norm Sherman: a surprisingly nice song about how we’re all just people, and we should all get along.  Because after all, everybody’s got nipples.  Here’s the chorus: “Everybody’s got nipples/ everybody’s got two of them/ unless you have a birth defect/ or surgically removed them.”  Classic.  Wins novelty song of the year, just outpacing the DaVinci Notebook song about a well-endowed man.
  • “I Am a Paleontologist” by They Might Be Giants: An excellent song with a great rhythm and a good message.  Also, sung by an actual paleontologist.
  • Cover Lay Down had a great year, offering tons of fantastic covers and helping me discover a number of new artists.  My favorite single track, though, is the folksy cover of “Self Esteem” by Veronica Maggio.
  • “She Doesn’t Laugh at My Jokes” by Jonathan Richman: A long running jest between Jenny and I is that I have a limited stock of funny stories and comments, all of which she has now heard.  So when I heard this song about a man who laments that his girl doesn’t laugh at his “hot hot jokes,” I knew we had a new anthem.
  • “Billie Jean” by Chris Cornell: Soundgarden’s front man has always been an incomparable wailer, someone who can put as much pathos into a note as Ella Fitzgerald, but with a grindy guitar as backup music.  His recent solo albums have highlighted this quality, none so well as this M.J. cover.  And, like all the best covers, this brings an entirely different feel to the song, a plaintive rather than indignant air.
  • “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Coulton: this anthem of awesomeness MUST become one of our family’s favorite songs.  Avery’s can-do attitude embodies everything the princess might become.  See also, the story of Princess Smartypants.
  • “F*** You” by Cee-Lo Green: a shockingly catchy song that I can’t help but enjoy immensely every time I listen to it.  I find the radio edit, “Forget You,” much less interesting.  Obviously, it’s because they’ve de-fanged the viciousness of the original idea, but also because the jaunty, mo-towny, 1970s-via-2010 sound works so much better with the original jarring epithet.

Also, bands I’ve now discovered that I will return to for sure: The Clash, The Hold Steady, Passion Pit, Social Distortion

From the Department of WTF?!

I  live in a house built in 1924.  We bought it in 2006 from a family that had owned it since 1951.  At some point in those years, they finished the basement with linoleum and put in a wet bar.  As part of our continuing project of updating and renovating the house, we’ve now ripped out the wet bar to make more space, and I just noticed a coaster taped to the wall behind the bar.  It is below.

Creepy "Always Willing" coaster

I really don’t know what to say, except YIKES.  I wonder what was going on in our basement in the 1970s?!  I thought you blog readers would enjoy it.

Also, there’s an unnecessary apostrophe in the word “Always.” Unless her name is “Alway,” which is even CREEPIER.

Year in Review: Blog traffic

Some rundown of stats for the last year.  If you read this blog by RSS feed, please glance below!

2010 traffic chart
2010 traffic chart

Overall, my traffic continues to climb very slowly.  Since I don’t really DO anything to promote more traffic other than tying my social networking accounts to one another, this isn’t surprising.  I AM surprised by the big jump in traffic starting in August.  While I would like to attribute that to the increased coverage of zombie classes (and the rising tide that brings my boat along), the reality is that more people are searching for “Krakatoa” or “The Dark Knight” or “Joker” on Google Image search and making their way to my blog via those channels.

I am happy to see that my homepage is the third most popular post for the year.  That’s way up from before, when it didn’t even make the cut.  I think the flow-through traffic from Facebook makes all the difference there.  Welcome, Facebook readers!  In the graphic above, I labeled October a success because of the zombie interviews, but the traffic actually suggests that it’s people searching for zombie and Joker images around Halloween.  Sigh.

I’m also not clear how RSS readers play into these stats.  The numbers about “unique visitor history” on Google analytics make it seem pretty dire — that only one or two people have read 100 or more of my posts.  But I know that there are several (many, one could wish) people who read this blog via RSS feed, and have certainly read or skimmed more than 50 posts over the past two years.  So if you read this blog by RSS feed, can you please click through and post a comment on this post? I would really like to get a sense of how that “traffic” is reflected in the stats, if it is at all.

Raw numbers reported below in various configurations… Continue reading Year in Review: Blog traffic

7 bullets from holiday break

Christmas Lights by jspad
Christmas Lights by jspad
  • Struggles with Comcast continue.  After two site visits to get the cable upgraded, the internet connection is S L O W, so I need to call back and figure out what’s going on.  I already replaced my wireless router (which was getting futzy anyhow) and the usb link to my desktop pc.  That journey begins today, now that my grades are (mostly) in.
  • Holiday highlight 1: Avery as a “friendly beast” in the nativity play at our church.  She was an elephant, who sat right between the unicorn and the dragon.  No kidding.  (At the practice, I whispered to one of the other parents that I thought this was anachronistic, since unicorns and dinosaurs died in the great flood.)
  • I’m loving the big pile of new books I got.  Among them: P.D. James’ book about detective fiction, the Zombie Night Before Christmas, and Earth (the book).  The last features an hilarious picture of the well-endowed Larry King, naked except for suspenders.
  • Zombie class starts next week.  YES. and EEP.  I have a couple movies to watch.  And, like, six books to read.  Ideally before the class starts.  (Yeah, right.)  The downside of the current upsurge (rising?) in zombie popularity.
  • Holiday high(low)light 2: Drove to the wrong airport to pick up my mom when she arrived to visit.  She called to say she was waiting at “3E” and I realized, after one loop through the Midway pickup area, that she was at O’Hare.  They are about an hour apart.  So she took a cab to our house and I drove back, feeling totally stupid.  The joyous laughter when I got home, from everyone including myself, was really lovely.  It’s funny how laughing at you can shift to laughing with you in a heartbeat.  The self-recrimination I’d been stewing in all the way home broke and washed away like a wave on a rock wall.
  • It’s hard breaking out of the holiday inertia.  I’m moving as slowly as my Comcast internet.  Har-de-har har.  But still, two smallish projects to do ASAP: programming project for English department, rewrites of the two stories I wrote this summer.  Gotta get those bad boys out the door and get me some rejections.
  • Holiday highlight 3: Finn playing his new Buzz Lightyear Bean Bag toss game.  He starts several steps away, shuffles right up to it, and vigorously tosses the bag into one of the pockets from two to three inches away.  Sometimes he misses.

Year in Review: Blog Posts

"Ryan Seekrest Updating Twitter" by aboutmattlaw
"Ryan Seekrest Updating Twitter" by aboutmattlaw

I guess this presumes I don’t have much magic left  for the next week, but there it is.  Here are my favorite twelve blog posts from the year.  I zipped through the list of posts and reviewed the twenty five or so that seemed like they were probably extra awesome.  Some of these clearly wouldn’t make the cut, others were carefully pared away until I got to these twelve.  They’re listed in chronological order.  Enjoy.

2010-12-26 Tweets

  • go Al!: #
  • Rediscovering the baby-holding dance w/ my 10-week-old niece. #
  • Excellent line from Community: "If farts are fair game, so is God." #
  • Overheard between Jenny and one of the kids: "get your foot out of daddy's glove, right now!" Ahh, the witching hour. #
  • Have you heard CTD's creepy Jingle Bells? #
  • $7 for $15 Worth of Fare and Drinks at Harrison Street Cafe in Forest Park – #
  • @JMeredithHR woot! If only I took cabs, um, ever. They should do Cash CTA. You could win up to $50. in reply to JMeredithHR #
  • The local cigar club is open xmas day–in case you need a holiday stogie. #
  • Just found my subject to read about for Ada Lovelace day 2012: #
  • @johnpwalter wasn't it Jesus who said "it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for Comcast users to stream Netflix"? in reply to johnpwalter #
  • On a carousel @ winter wonderland #
  • Holy cow, did Santa bring the noise to our house! And a nice dusting of snow to boot. Peace and joy, everyone. #merrychristmas #

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’tis the Season

Santa says hi

Whether you celebrate or not, whether you believe or not, here’s hoping you had the opportunity to make merry a little bit.  Wishing your family the best, from mine.

Badass Santa

Santa smokes?
Santa smokes?

We watched Elf the other night (the third or fourth time this year that I’ve begun the movie and only the first time I’ve made it all the way through).  It occurred to me that the Santa in this movie isn’t so crunchy or sweet as other Santas.  So I’ve compiled a list of all the Santas I can think of in the few minutes I want to spend on the project, and placed them on an ascending scale of badassery.

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Nagashima stop-animation Santa (animated, Stan Francis voice) is about as nice as they come.  Fluffy even.

2. Santa Claus: the Movie: Santa (David Huddleston) does his best to defend his franchise, but a skeezy toy developer almost runs him out of town.

3. The Happy Elf: Santa (animated, Mickey Rooney voice)  is almost a non-entity in this movie, getting pushed around by his underlings and only asserting the rightness of Eubie’s claims about the poor little kids in Bluesville.  (The eponymous helper’s name is pronounced YOU-bee for those of you who haven’t seen this movie.  I’m sad to say this is my childrens’ favorite holiday movie this year.)

4. Snow: Santa (Tom Cavanaugh) lives a quiet life as a local carpenter.  Someone steals his reindeer and he frets about it for a while.  Then he tries to rescue it and stuff.  Dreamy eyes on this Santa.

5. The Polar Express: Santa (animated, Tom Hanks voice) as monolithic, stoic giant.  Probably how my two-year-old sees him, or the poor kids in the “Scared of  Santa” photos.

6. The Santa ClausE: He kidnaps children, breaks out of jail, and has the city smarts any modern Santa needs.  Despite these felonies, Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is pretty white bread, but we are talking about Santa here.

7. A Miracle on 34th Street: Sure, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn) doesn’t do much rumbling in this movie, but when confronted with the contemptable, selfish, unreasonable man like Sawyer, he knows the only solution is a swift bonk on the head with a cane.

8. Elf: This Santa (Ed Asner) is fast with the tire iron in New York, shouting “Back off, slick.  You’re scaring the reindeer.”  Also, he has a long-running feud with the New York police.

9. Scrooged: When terrorists attack Santa’s workshop (Al “Red Dog” Weber), he recognizes the attack immediately, shouting “Incoming!”  The Elves break out machine guns, and Santa takes a stand.  “This is one Santa who’s going out the front door.”

10. Santa’s Slay (2005) — I haven’t seen this, but the premise that Santa (Bill Goldberg) is actually an evil demon forced by an Angel to give out presents makes any cane or tire-iron wielding seem a little tame.

Extra: Badass Santa pretenders: Bad Santa, the Macy’s Santa from Elf, the drunkard Santa from the beginning of A Miracle on 34th Street, or the smoking, drinking Santa from Home Alone.  These are, of course, people pretending to be Santa and thus ineligible for the list above.

So who did I miss?  Who would you add?  Where would you put them?

ps> In preparing for this post, I did a Google Image search for “badass Santa Claus” and here are my favorites of the first 30 results or so:

Manga Claus
Manga Claus

Bad Ass Santa by Perzo at Deviant Art
Bad Ass Santa by Perzo at Deviant Art featured on a "Santa vs. Chuck Norris" post
Badass Santa by DaySummerfield (Taku?)
Badass Santa by DaySummerfield (Taku?)
Heavy Metal Santa
Heavy Metal Santa

Year in Review: Films

I try to write a bit about each film I watch.  Below are a few of my favorite films from this year.

Book What I said then My thoughts now
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scott battles ex #1
…My favorite part of the movie is the non-metaphorical nature of the fights.  I read one review that described the battles as symbolic or metaphorical — the film makes it quite clear that they’re real world, despite their fantastic elements.  The damage they do sticks around after it’s over, and the other characters witness the fights.  Excellent, except that you shouldn’t push your brain at it too hard, or it will hurt.

Read the rest…

Quirky and fun, Scott Pilgrim hangs around as perhaps the best of the Michael Sera qua Michael Sera movies.  It takes his too cool to notice his uncool hipster edge to the farthest limit, with too cool to notice its uncool graphics and wackiness, an hilarious roommate, and Jason Schwartzmann.
The movie does an excellent job of using an SF dongle to give us access to a fantasy world.  This is definitely “soft SF,” more concerned with what the story can do with the premise than how it works.  Solid and excellent.

Read the rest…

Of course, Inception.  I suspect this will, in the long run, come to be thought of as Christopher Nolan’s third “memory” movie.  Its relentless (and LOVELY) dive into the mind and the kinds of thinking that dive prods are well worth the trip.

And it’s really fun to see a movie that prods you into the coffee shop to talk about the ending.

The Brothers Bloom
The Brothers Bloom
One element of the aesthetic that stands out for me is the movie’s timelessness.  While there are glimpses of modernity (cell phones, wire transfers), the characters travel by train and steamer, they occupy timeless places around Europe, they send telegrams, and they have the fashion sensibility of the Roaring Twenties.  It’s delightful.

Read the rest…

I just realized that three of the movies I picked (Pilgrim and Zombieland and this one) could easily be described as “quirky.”  This film gets closest to the vibe Wes Anderson hits in Rushmore and tries to get back to with every one of his other films.  Plus, it’s about con men.
The Haunting
This film once again reiterates, for me, the value of character development and the slow burn in horror movies.  Even though I really disliked most of the characters, the long time we had to get to know them gave us time to get really creeped out on their behalf.

Read the rest…

I don’t get to watch all that many creepy movies.  Zombie movies, mostly, are scary for being gory, and they usually try to make you feel suspense, but it’s the immediate suspense of the shambling horde outside the door, not the unbearable suspense of ghosts in the creepy nursery.  Yikes!
In the drive to develop strong characters we care about, it would be easy to forget about the zombies.  Don’t.  Zombieland balances this well, giving us plenty of abandoned apocalypscapes in contrast with plenty of sprinty, bloody zombies.

Read the rest…

A funny, charming, clever zombie movie with plenty of blood and guts but heart too.  I know you’ll enjoy it.

Run if you Can / The Devil’s Punchbowl

Run If You Can / The Devil's Punchbowl

What would YOU do?

Problem: Internet connection in my office has gotten futsy — not consistent, keeps reconnecting, much lower bandwidth than the rest of the house.

Possible causes:

– wireless adapter on my computer

– router is old (6 years)

– Comcast internet might be sketchy

Factors to consider:

– wireless on my laptop in my office is also futsy, consistent in the living room (much closer to the router).  Makes it likely it’s the router.  But sometimes the laptop gets really good signal in the office (just did a 6.4 mbps speed test). But equally often it fails.

– router signal still strong in the living room, but office is a good 50 feet away, and up a floor.

– bandwidth test high in living room (~5-6mbps, 1.5-3mbps in office).

Possible solutions:

New wireless adapter for desktop computer — advantages: cheap, easy; disadvantages: might not work (if signal is the problem), wouldn’t solve laptop issue

Run 2 ethernet cables from router to office — advantages: cheap; disadvantages: a pain in the ass, might not solve the problem in the long run if the router fails anyway

Buy a new router — advantages: will probably solve the problem, will allow for easier authentication when people visit; disadvantages: expensive, pain in the ass to set up (at least, last time I bought a router it was).

Help me, fellow nerds.  What would you do?

The 39 Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps

I’ve seen Hitchcock’s film version of this text, and I enjoyed the Broadway adaptation of the film quite a bit, so I was pretty interested to see what the original text looks like.  It’s okay, with fast pacing and a strong narrative voice.  The book focuses almost entirely on the chase after the murder — will he get away!? How!?  In this way, it works almost like a television series: each episode/chapter involves another stage in the chase, each ending with our hero barely eluding his pursuers.  Whew!

A few more thoughts:

  • While the Broadway show and the film kept the basic plot structure of Hitchcock’s film (plus madcap HUMOR), they both have a better resolution for the title than the novel does.  On the off chance that you haven’t seen or read any of these, I’ll leave them mysterious for now.  But let me put it this way: the book’s resolution involves a staircase.  Hitchcock’s end is much better, but ends up being kind of a cheat, using the title of the work to get fans of the book in the door and then playing a small game of “gotcha.”
  • The voice is distinctive and amusing, though not nearly as much as, say, P.G. Wodehouse.  I was particularly amazed at how many people Hannay finds who answer his “I’m being pursued by the police and shadowy figures, but I’m an upstanding guy whom you can trust and help” with “sounds good!”  Being that he’s the narrator, we can understand that he’s no villain, but I’m not sure how I’d act if someone came running up to me at my house with that story.  I don’t think I’d let them in my house.
  • I love all the disguise stuff in this book.  There’s all sorts of dressing up and identity changing, including one guy who assumes the role of a high diplomat in a small meeting without giving himself away.  This is an aspect of early 20th C thrillers that I never tire of.  Amelia Peabody Mysteries, by Elizabeth Peters, play up this part of the genre quite a bit.
  • There’s not a lot of room for character development or other aspects of more complex writing in this book.  Like many thrillers, the book’s entirely focused on the action of the moment, with the hero always running or working directly on the case.  The protagonist is a bored adventurer (ala Nick Charles) who stumbles into an adventure.  The adventure takes up most of the book, then the denouement is literally a (short!) paragraph, with a very short moment for falling action (I suppose you could call the last chapter the falling action, but really it’s the climax).

Not bad, but not all that great either.  You can see how it would inspire a good film and fit in nicely as part of the thriller genre, but as a standalone book for the modern reader, it’s a bit skimpy.

Year in Review: Nonfiction

The top five nonfiction books I read this year.

Book What I said then My thoughts now
The Big Short
The Big Short
…Anybody who’s blaming individual homeowners for this mess should be smacked upside the head.  While the homeowners certainly got themselves in over their heads, they weren’t the ones making stupid loans to begin with.  When you are responsible for managing money and you loan it in astonishing numbers to people with no discernible means of support, it’s your fault when their mortgages fail.

Read the rest…

This book stands out as an excellent piece of nonfiction journalism that exposes, through its intimate discussion of individual experiences, the monstrous error that the financial community made in the sub-prime housing debacle.  Outstanding book.
The Worst Hard Time
The Worst Hard Time
…It’s interesting to see the same kinds of battles we fight now being fought then. On one hand you have scientists and other folks who look at the evidence and say, “Hey, we did this. We’ve got to try and do something to fix it.” And then you have people who revile those proclamations, irritated that anyone would blame the farmers for the plight of the dust bowl. One story that threads its way through the whole book involves a group of people called the “Last Man Club,” panhandle-dwellers who vowed to stay on “until the last man.” The founder of the club moved to Amarillo. The parallels with modern evaluations of global climate change are hard to ignore.

Read the rest…

To put the current era into perspective, Egan documents the nightmare that was the dust bowl, especially for the people who stayed in the godforsaken spaces that had the worst of the dust storms, where soil coated everything all the time.  The pictures are particularly horrific.
Punished by Rewards
Punished by Rewards
…One of the main ideas, though, is collaboration.  Students will feel more ownership and value in grading if they help determine the grading system.  I plan to do this with all three of my classes on the first day.  We’ll discuss what they hope to get out of the class, what kinds of evaluation we should use, and what goals we can use to push toward them.

Read the rest…

Aside from Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the single most significant book to influence my teaching style.  I’m still trying to grapple with the most basic piece of advice: Reward systems harm intrinsic motivation.    It’s SO counter-intuitive that it takes a whole book to just start dislodging the idea.

But then you run up against the big question — how do you deal with that fact?

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes
…“Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?” follows the story of a man convicted of murder by arson all the way from incident to execution.  Grann expertly pushes the reader along the rails so that we could see how the jury and the system could believe him guilty, then dismantles that notion.

Read the rest…

A series of pretty great nonfiction pieces.  Those that stand out particularly strongly for me right now: the Sherlock Holmes scholar who was strangled in a locked room and the author accused of murder based, at least partly, on the recounting of it he gives in a novel.

But even the pieces I wouldn’t normally care about, like Ricky Henderson’s waning career in the farm leagues, did a good job of piquing my interest.

The Last Log of the Titanic
Last Log of the Titanic
…In most narratives, Murdoch makes a call for ‘hard ‘a starbord,’ which would have turned the boat left, to port.  Then the ship scraped against the iceberg.  Brown demonstrates, with great clarity, that ships steer quite differently than cars, and that the different axis of rotation would have meant that a turn only to port (via a hard-starboard command) would have smashed the stern into the iceberg, because unlike a car, whose back wheels follow the track of the front wheels, when a ship turns to port, the stern swings to starboard.Instead, Murdoch must have called a “hard a port’ command shortly after to swing the stern back and swing the bow back toward the iceberg.  Brown claims Murdoch executed this maneuver a few seconds too early, though he was pretty new to the ship so it would have been hard to do well.

Read the rest…

My favorite of the Titanic books I read this summer, Brown makes a couple strong arguments based on (in my mind) better evidence than many other books.

Among his two most controversial claims: that the Titanic ran aground on an ice shelf, and that the boat sank not because of its original wounds, but because the captain (and J.R. Ismay) restarted the engines and steamed for an extra 20 minutes after the collision, flooding the interior under pressure that would have been absent had they remained stationary.