Category Archives: Books

Best Money I Ever Spent

They say the best things in life are free. This may be true, but there are some pretty terrific things out there that do cost money. Some things are so good they are life changing. Here are the things that make me happy every time I use them or think about them.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
$7.50
I could probably fill this article with fantastic books, but Influence stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s the most powerful non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Not only does it explain how you can be influenced, but it uses social psychology to describe various phenomena like coups and revolutions. As Strongbad might say, it can be used for good or for awesome, so even though it’s on every list of the best marketing/business books, I hesitated to suggest it in public like this. Some of the techniques it describes are the closest thing we have to charm spells, so I didn’t want it falling into the wrong hands. But I’m sure I can trust the fine readers of this blog to only use it for good. Or at least not use it directly against me.

Lasko 5429 Oscillating Ceramic Heater
$30
I occasionally suffer from back strain, AKA a pulled muscle. Sometimes it’s just sore and inconvenient, other times I’m taking Advil and the day off from work. I noticed this occasionally happens when I’m drying off after a shower and decided to figure out why. Well, I learned that pulling/straining a muscle happens when you stretch it beyond the limit, and cold muscles get tight and are more susceptible to straining. I surmised that when you get out of a hot shower into a cold bathroom, your muscles can tighten up pretty quickly and get you in the danger zone. I remedied this by buying the Lasko heater to heat my bathroom up while I’m taking a shower. I don’t know conclusively whether this fixed the problem (I also dry off a little more carefully), but every time I step out of the shower into warm bathroom I think, “This is the best $30 I’ve ever spent.” Note that while it isn’t specifically rated for bathroom use, I’ve done so for 2 years without a problem. Just make sure you keep the bathroom fan off!

MovingHelp.com
$200 (but depends on size of move)
I remember from the movie Moving that moving is the third most stressful life event after death in the family and divorce. I used to compensate for this by getting friends and family to help me out, and reciprocate when it was asked of me. But I’m now getting old enough that when I hear someone is moving, I secretly think, “Please don’t ask me to help.” If they do ask I will help out, but I have to sheepishly explain how I’ve screwed up my knees and back in previous moves, so why don’t I just pick up the pizza and beverages?

Because of that, in my last move, I decided it wasn’t fair for me to ask anyone to help. I’d pack myself, but I was going to pay for real movers. That’s where Moving Help came in. It’s got a great rating/feedback system that makes it easy to find the best movers in your area. I hired a tall, wiry gentleman who brought 20 years of experience, 3 helpers, and all the extra crap U-Haul tries to sell (or rent) you: blankets, dollies, tie downs, etc. He even drove the truck! All said and done it cost me $200 and xcept for the packing, I barely lifted a finger. Note that if you’re extra lazy (and trusting) you can hire people to pack your stuff and clean your home as well.

Dell UltraSharp U2410
$500 (Black Friday deal)

When I traded my desktop for a laptop, I decided to upgrade my monitor as well. My previous monitor was a 21″ Hitachi CRT that I paid $1,100 for in 1997 and served me very well for over a decade. I was putting off going to LCD because of issues with color gamut and viewing angles, but the U2410 solves all of this. It features “PremierColor”, which has 110% color is gamut capable of producing over a billion colors (way beyond the traditional 16M colors of 24bit hardware). It is also factory calibrated and comes with a printout in the box that proves the color quality of that individual monitor. Right after connecting it, I was seeing detail in images that I never noticed before. I also love the matte finish, which is very forgiving of random light sources. It’s perfect for photography or graphic design.

There’s more. It has just about every connector you’d need: HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, and VGA. It even routes audio from HDMI or DisplayPort to an 1/8″ mini-jack so I can use it to feed my computer speakers. Since this monitor does double duty as a TV, this works out perfectly. I’ve got an HDMI switch that handles both my laptop and my DVR, and changing the source automatically switches both video and sound. It also functions as a USB hub so I can connect the Tivo to it to download listings and software updates. It’s overkill as a television, of course, but I’m not complaining. Unless, of course, my eyes stray to my HP laptop display that I use as a red-headed step-monitor. Ugh, what a dog.

So, tell me, what’s the best money you’ve ever spent?

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Kick-Ass: Where Are The Superheroes? (spoiler-free)

I just saw Kick-Ass. It’s like if Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie had a baby, and that baby made a comic book-inspired vigilante movie. Fucking operatic. And it’s already cracked the IMDB Top 250. BTW, it’s rated R and absolutely not a kid’s movie. That’s all I’m going to say about the movie, but it (or the comic book it was based on) raises an interesting question: Why aren’t there more (or any) superheroes? I am enough of a geek to try and answer that question seriously.

The main issue is motive. You need a pretty powerful motive to get you to risk your health to fight crime directly. And I think motives are rare. Yes, there are homicides every day, but consider the details – the cops are always pointing out that most victims knew their killer. It’s personal. You will be filled with anguish and rage if your sister gets killed by her ex-boyfriend, and you might take a bat or shotgun to the bastard, but you almost certainly won’t don a costume and start targeting other ex-boyfriends out there. Odds are you’ll just call the cops.

The kind of act that would motivate you to go superhero is something like random gang violence. Street crime. That’s pretty rare, all told. 9/11 inspired thousands to take action, but you can’t fight terrorism in a costume. You do it in a uniform as a Marine, or in a suit as a CIA or FBI agent. But most crime just inspires people to be racists.

The other issue is ability. In Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson writes:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Even as an overweight computer geek with a poor history of coordination, I was no different. Now I’m well past 25 with lots of extra weight, a bum knee, a bum shoulder, a back that can go out while sneezing or toweling off, etc. If I ever fight crime, it won’t be up close and personal. It will probably involve a computer.

Criminals know this. They target women and guys who look older or weaker. They don’t mug guys who are anywhere in the running for world’s baddest motherfucker. This is why, when I’m in a sketchy area, I walk tall, chest out, arms uncrossed, hands out of pockets (or one hand in a gun-sized pocket), and put on my serious game face that says, “Please. Try and fuck with me. See how that goes.” This is because I am thinking, “Please. Dear Lord up in Heaven. Don’t let anyone fuck with me.” And also, “He just had to pick a restaurant in the hood. I’m going to kick his fucking ass.”

Conservative Time-For-Tea

Time for a little break.  So much going on at work, you tend to stay away from TV, movies and popular culture.  But those who are blessed with a job1, however tenuously, should take a break and thank the Power-That-Be for the people responsible for these humorous asides:

 

Sarah Palin does a pretty credible job getting back at our old friend William Shatner.  If Bill’s reaction is genuine surprise at her sudden appearance, then I am even more impressed with Bill’s acting abilities !!  Someone really, really needs to get him in the Star Trek sequel quickly, before he joins Scotty and Bones in the big Starship in the Sky. 

Oh, and by the way.  Bill is a Canadian actor taking valuable Hollywood jobs away from US citizens.  Can someone get the immigration problem in this country corrected?  Too many Canadians are coming down to take our high-paying white-collar jobs in this country.   Forget the Mexican border; folks down there are coming to take the lesser-paying jobs and will not affect your six-figure, professional position.   It’s the Canadians that are the problem.  And they look just like you and me so that they are harder to find and deport.

However, good going Conan.   You are so good at this that I may start watching the Tonight Show again.  I stayed away for the last 15 or so years, but I think the Show is in good, capable hands again.   Can anyone tell me what happened to Triumph, the Insult Dog?2

Finally,  I just have to mention this item that I read in the news about poor Tiger Woods.  No more jokes, this is serious.   Here’s the excerpt in the news from one of his supporters:

“One thing people don’t understand is that we’re human,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said in Miami. “You’re not born with a menu on how not to do things wrong. You’re going to make mistakes like every human being.”

Actually Dwyane, there is a menu that you were given when you were small.   It’s called The Bible.   Sure it’s old and seemingly out-of-date or out-of-touch.  It’s as old as Humanity, and it does seem to be in touch with the foibles and peccadillos that affect all of us, all of the time, since the beginning of time.    I don’t think Mr. Woods is the first person that has ever cheated on his wife; plenty of those stories in the Bible.  You may want to crack it open one of these days.

  1. I’m not implying that most bloggers are out-of-work, left-of-center hipsters with too much time on their hands.  But it is an effective stereotype. []
  2. As I said earlier,  I’ve been away from TV for awhile. []

Archie Engaged to Veronica

After a 67-year courtship, Archie finally buys the cow (when he was getting milk from two cows for free). Most thought he’d end up with Betty, the hot blonde next door. Instead, Archie chose the hot, rich brunette who’s into anal.1 So, yeah, big surprise there.

Archie proposes to Veronica

  1. C’mon, I think we can all agree it’s implied. []

Angels and Demons: are they real? (Part 2)

Well, the answer to the titular question would be yes, for if you believe in angels then you must also believe in their counterparts, the demons.  And of course if you don’t have a spiritual bent, then this whole article is moot and you can just skip it and go see the new movie.  I suppose this is similar to watching the Star Wars movies:  I don’t believe in The Force powering up the Jedi Knights, but it sure makes for an entertaining 2 hours at the cinema.

Angel or Demon?

But if you do believe, as I do, then let me get back to the discussion we started in part 1.  I am going to relate the first part of the argument that was started so long ago in the back of a church bulletin:

(Read 1 Timothy 4:1-5)1  This passage describes the great Apostasy that is to come.  Do you think the Bible teaches that Demons are active?  Why don’t we hear much about Demons here in the United States?

The scripture passage is copied here, for your convenience (verses 1-2):

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron,

Well, I think the Bible has tons of passages showing that Demons are active.  Even without a Bible degree, I recall a couple of times in the old days when people would foam at the mouth and throw themselves into fires, while under the influence of demons.  In today’s newspapers, there are plenty of stories of people doing similarly unexplainable things (like killing their entire families or trying to kill all of their co-workers).  So if the equation is demons = crazy behavior then we can safely say that demons are still active.  But why don’t we hear more about them in today’s world?? How come the angels grab all of the attention and show up in all the movies and books and holiday cards?2

 As I said earlier, if you believe in Angels, then you must also believe in Demons.   I believe that you don’t see much demon activity because we do live in a society ruled by science, which has disproven the existence of demons (if you could ever prove a negative, which a lot of experts believe is a lot harder than we think).  If our society no longer believes in demons, then you can be sure that they have a lot more flexibility to act in our daily lives.  If you have ever found  yourself in a terribly emotional state (rage, depression, etc.)  then who is pushing the chemicals and hormones around in our brain??  Could someone be pressing on your adrenal gland at just the right time??  If our bodies are masses of cells, what leads them to start behaving in some fashion that we have not initiated with our mind??

I’ll play the rational scientist and respond that our bodies have been conditioned to pump hormones into our bodies at times when our very existence is threatened.   Quick, get that adrenalin shot in your system so that you can outrun a woolly mammoth and survive to procreate another day !!  So when we are in a situation that demands action, our bodies sometimes respond inappropriately and send the chemicals flying into our bodies, possibly making us go cuckoo and go grabbing for the nearest blunt object, projectile weapon, etc.  But as I recall, we also have been programmed for “fight or flight”   so why is it that most of the time we take this 50-50 choice and go for “fight”  against our very loved ones??

Who pushed the balance to the side that drives us to want to ram our truck into our neighbor’s house because his dog will never quit yapping??  That’s the “fighting” side that’s winning.

I’ll stop here, but if you want to read verses 3-5 of the Bible verse go ahead.  It is even more apropos since it talks about men advancing the cause of Demons by spouting heresy3  or in the case of the movie “Angels and Demons”  by spouting half-baked ideas about secret societies and giving it the veneer of truth.  This is OK when a movie bills itself as escapist entertainment, but the film-makers have gone out of their way to give credence to the theories in the film;  this helps the box-office but it does not advance the cause of truth.    And you thought Chariots of the Gods  in the 1970’s was a hoot; this new film goes one better.

Angels don’t have a prayer when you have CGI on your side.

Stay tuned for Part 3:   Demons, a distressing spirit.

  1. This would be in the Bible, of course []
  2. Beelzebub wishes you Happy Holidays — now there’s a card I’d like to send a friend []
  3. In this case the issue was abolishing marriage and incorrectly having to abstain from sinful foods — more reason to skip the cheesecake tonight.  But go ahead and propose to your girlfriend; it’s OK []

Doug Prasher – Nobel Prize Hero

Notice that I did not use the familiar phrase: Nobel Prize Winner.   That is because Doug Prasher is a victim of circumstance, Nobel prize rules and a slowing research environment.   You can read his full story here as provided by NPR, but the gist is that he was a scientist that provided a vital link in the research that culminated in this 2008’s Nobel prize win.  However, because his funding ran out at a succession of research jobs, he is now under-employed as a courtesy shuttle driver in Hunstville, Alabama. 

Courtesy Shuttle Driver and Nobel prize researcher Doug Prasher

But he is a hero, because he did the unselfish and ethical thing: he shared the fruits of his research with other scientists and helped them to get to the Nobel prize.  Heck, if the prize committee did not have the 3-person rule for awards, Doug might have found himself with winfall cash and an invitation to Sweden (do they pay for the airfare??) .

My advice to Doug: sell and write your story to Hollywood.  If they could make a crummy movie about the guy who invented the windshield wiper, they can certainly make a movie about your story.  I am hooked already, and have found your persistence and courage inspiring.  You are not only putting your kids through college but also providing a vital service in our community.  I can only hope that the added attention to your tale brings about a job offer in the scientific field where your contributions can make our economy grow (are you listening, President Obama??)

Now, the auto industry is slowing down; nobody is buying cars.   I hope this does not result in further unemployement for our hero; the auto dealership should trump up the fact that a Nobel prize researcher works there.  This could result in upscale clientele — people that don’t care if the new Toyota SUV only gives you 10 miles per gallon.  Better yet, someone hire Doug to invent a car that runs on hot air;  there’s plenty of that blowing around our state and federal government centers as they try to get their hands on our (and our children’s) money using the recession as an excuse…….

UPDATE: Our hero will be going to Stockholm after all !!  The Nobel prize winners invited Doug and his wife to travel with them to Stockholm and be at the ceremony, where he will be thanked for his contribution.   That’s how a real scientist behaves; kudos to all involved.   Now don’t get me started talking about Rosalind Franklin  and how Watson and Crick scammed her out of their Nobel Prize for their so-called discovery of the DNA double helix !!

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: Review

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman I started reviewing Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs a while ago. It got so long I decided I could write a series of posts on or inspired by the book. Like anything that ambitious, I eventually realized it’s too much work and I should just write a succinct review. I just tried that and I still fell short. See, my aim is to get you to buy the book, and just not for the pennies I might get from an affiliate sale, but because I think it’s awesome. So here’s why you need to buy it:
  1. It’s laugh out loud funny and never boring.
  2. It’s insightful on many interesting topics, assuming you find our culture remotely interesting.
  3. Its chapters are pretty unrelated, and broken into subchapters and sidebars, so you can pick it up and put it down easily.
  4. Wherever you go with it, people ask you about it. Often female people. It makes you look cool (or at least interesting).

Basically, if you know anyone like me, buy it for them for Christmas or Hanukkah or something. They will love it.1

If you’re still not sold, here’s an excerpt I feel is fairly representative:

My obsession with serial killers began when I was ten years old. My fourth-grade teacher told our class that we should never hitchhike, because the only people who picked up hitchhikers were perverted serial killers. This advice was complicated by what my fifth-grade teacher told us the following year; she said that we would all have driver’s licenses in a few years, and the one rule we always needed to remember was never to pick up hitchhikers. This was because all the hitchhikers were serial killers. According to what I learned in public school, every person on every freeway was trolling for destruction. I used to imagine nomadic, sadistic drifters thumbing rides with bloodthirsty Volkswagen owners, both desperately waiting for the first opportunity to kill each other. Hitchhiking seemed like an ultraviolent race against time.

  1. Thanks again, Doubledeuce! []

Hogwarts Schoolgirls

I was flipping through the OC Weekly “best of” issue and couldn’t help but notice the various Halloween costume ads. One that immediately jumped out at me was a rather modernized Hogwarts schoolgirl uniform. If only Dumbledore weren’t gay Hermione Granger would be walking around looking like this:

Hogwarts Schoolgirl Uniform

I really hope this will be a popular costume at the Halloween party I’ll be attending. And if you’re thinking, “That’s all wrong! There’s certainly not a star at the end of their wands!” then I’ve got a guy named Albus I’d like to introduce you to.

Orson Scott Card Slams J.K. Rowling

Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, slams J.K. Rowling for suing a small publisher for copyright infringement. The book, Harry Potter Lexicon, is based on info from a website that Rowling herself awarded in 2004.

Card is right on several points. He does an excellent job pointing out the similarities between Ender’s Game and Harry Potter, which reminded me of Harry Potter vs. Star Wars.

However, he seems so upset about JKR’s actions that he undermines his own agenda. Bringing up the Stouffer lawsuit diminishes his case, as 2 minutes of research shows it is without much merit. For one, the character Larry Potter is not, as he claims, in the Muggles book.

He also speculates on her motives rather unfavorably. I’m wondering if he had space to fill, or was just pissed off and rambling. If he kept his tone a bit more civil it would have made a more convincing argument. If I were to speculate, I’d say that as a literature snob himself (OSC almost got a doctorate in English lit.), he’s a tad peeved that JKR was so successful with her “subliterature”.

What he doesn’t bring up is that Rowling has stated that she wants to do a Harry Potter encyclopedia1. If the Lexicon was done well enough, it could potentially cut into her sales (although with a 10K print run it’d be like a fly buzzing around a cow). I agree that for publicity’s sake, she shouldn’t have sued. She does look rather greedy given her target.

For the record, I think Ender’s Game is one of the best sci fi books in the last 30 years, and the Harry Potter series is pure joy.

  1. Which I wrote about here, but it does contain Book 7 spoilers []

“Deathly Hallows” – Parts I & II

Variety reports that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be made into two movies, with the second to be released 6 months after the first.

For those not familiar with the books (no spoilers here), they keep getting bigger. By the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, Rowling was including enough material for two films. In fact, director Mike Newell was planning on splitting it when Alfonso Cuarón (director of Prisoner of Azkaban) convinced him it would be better to cut out tons of material and make one movie.

I was pissed, as were many (most?) other Potter fans. The movie turned out good, but when Order of the Phoenix was released, I think it became too obvious that subplots were missing, as well as chunks of the main plot. It felt very rushed.

So when I read that Hallows will be split I got pissed off again – because this means Half-Blood Prince won’t be split! Which only gives me 3 more shots at getting tickets to a premier and hitting on Emma Watson. Who, by the way, turns 18 next month. Just saying.