Friday, December 28, 2007

Have Yourself a Merry Little Wintersday

This time of year provides one of my favorite and most interesting yearly gaming experiences. Last year, I discovered there is a yearly change made in Guild Wars, one of the online games I play. Several of the towns in-game are altered to be covered with snow and the fictitious holiday of "Wintersday" is celebrated. There are several holiday festivities added to the game, including special quests and items. My favorite part, however, is the PvP Snowball fights.

To play in the Snowball Arena, as it is called, you chat with one of the "Wintersday Priests" and are then transported to the arena gathering area. When you click the "Enter Battle" button, you are randomly assigned three other members to your team and a random side to represent in the snowball fight. All the normal skills used by your character are replaced by the special snowball skills and you are tasked with delivering 5 presents to your team's avatar before the other team can.

The key to this PvP competition is that it is all random. You will likely not know any of the players on your team, nor on the opposing team. You have no say about which side you are playing for. You cannot pick which character classes you want to be teamed with. The luck of the draw determines all of this for you.

I haven't played a lot of PvP prior to the Snowball Arena, and started playing only after exhausting all the other single-player Wintersday festivities last year. However, once I began, I understood the fascination with PvP.

If you lose, you are returned to the waiting area. If you win, the previously random group stays together and plays another round against another random team. If you find a team that you "click" with, you can string together an insane number of wins (my highest is 34, but during one of my runs, someone on my team said his highest was 87 wins in a row).

What interests me is the feeling of comradery that develops between a group of strangers. After you win 10 in a row, everyone knows where to go, what to look for, where to be, all without the benefit of communication: you can only type to one another, which is unlikely during a round, and there is only a short 15-30 second break between rounds. When a team clicks, the hive-mind that occurs really is uncanny. You start to trust in strangers in a very short period of time.

I played a lot of games that I either lost or only won because the other team was more inept. But, when I found that winning team, the feeling derived from that unrehearsed, spectacular show of single-minded teamwork. I haven't played much PvP prior to Wintersday, but I think I will have to participate in some of the regular PvP now.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Multi-Step Solutions to New Year's Resolutions

Every year, I like to put the effort into self-improvement via the tradition of New Year's resolutions. Of all the things I've blogged, my yearly resolutions is easily the most consistent topic. The one post I really think is worthwhile is the one from three years ago that describes how to create an effective resolution; I've re-read it before I started writing this post and my old words have helped me re-think and re-form some of my goals that were a bit off-target.

That said, I am modifying my strategy a little this year. Instead of a focus on a few, more lofty goals, I've decided to be less choosy and select a larger number of resolutions; however, I made a trade-off to keep things balanced: I've reduced the quantitative expectations, with the inclusion of incremental goals that can be accomplished in each category.

What I've considered first this year are the elements that I'm interested in improving. I want to procrastinate less, take on more responsibility for my life, read more, eat better, exercise more, write more and have a better attitude. Each of these qualitative desires I matched with a basic improvement that is not lofty and should hopefully be easily accomplished. They are as follows:

  1. Procrastinate less - This is something I consider to be a matter of training. If I can train myself to be aggressive about not leaving things till later for one particular task, it should be an easier transition to recognizing tasks that don't get better when left for later. My training task is to do the dishes: I will never be done with a meal until all the dishes are out of the sink and in the dishwasher. If the dishwasher is full, I will put soap in and run it. When the dishwasher is clean, I will empty it. If there are things left to dry that are no longer wet, I will put them away. This isn't anything complicated, but it should be an easy way to train myself to not leave things till later. At this moment, upon establishing that routine, I will focus on never putting somewhere "just temporarily" or at least having a plan for when it will be put away. The formation of this secondary goal will be left until the success of the first. Success will be determined by the length of time dishes remain out of place: if dishes are put away routinely for three months, without being left out for longer than necessary.
  2. More Responsibility for My Life - Before I was married, I was responsible for all aspects of my life, including health care and bill paying. If I payed a bill late, or didn't bother taking the time to choose the most effective health plan provided by work, it only affected me. Once married, my wife had a higher standard and more demands regarding both these, as well as other, areas of responsibility. Her solution, which I did not object to, was to take full responsibility for nearly every aspect of the home. From finances to cleaning, she took responsibility. She has done an awesome job, but it hardly seems fair that she should bare the burden of the entirety of our life together, as well as our child. Deciding how to make an effective difference in helping with this burden can be tricky, since there can be a steep learning curve in some areas of household management. However, there is a series of tasks that I know I can do that will help ease the burden, and I know Kendra will offer no resistance to this specific help. Since I know that this is her least favorite part of dealing with stuff, I intend to make any and all phone calls necessary for arranging things, fixing things, or even just making simple queries. Kendra hates having to talk to these people and, while I don't enjoy it either, it seems like something I can do without as much dread. To succeed at this task, I will need to make any requested phone call within 48 hours, and do so for three months without lapse. The next task in this series will need to be determined; once I prove my effectiveness at this, I am certain I can persuade Kendra to help me expand my responsibilities.
  3. Read More - Reading is a pastime that I've always enjoyed, starting in my youth. As many people find, once you are out of school and have a full time job, reading for enjoyment is something that oftentimes goes by the wayside. While my goal from two years ago to read a book every two weeks is extreme for someone who barely reads, to read one book a month should be a much more achievable goal. The success requirement for this task is simple: once twelve books are read in 2008, I have succeeded. The next increment will depend on how long it takes to succeed. Ideally, I'd like to try to double it, shooting for two shy of my original reading goal.
  4. Eat Better - When I was originally losing weight, I knew that the changes I would need to make would be significant. Thus, to try to keep it as simplistic as possible, I put no limit on what I would eat, only caring about the number of calories consumed in a day. Doing so, I was able to lose 50 pounds eating carefully measured portions of hamburgers with fries , hot dogs and pizza. Now that I have established a calorie counting routine, it is time to look at the types of food I am eating and to improve upon it. Currently, Kendra and I scrounge for ourselves and eat a lot of instant meals (frozen meals, chips with cheese, burritos, hot dogs). My goal to eat better will be that I will plan and prepare a healthy meal once per week. To do this will require so forethought to pick a recipe and ensure the ingredients are available for the chosen day. As this is another reoccurring task, the success of it will be measured across a three month period. Once a meal being prepared weekly is established, the next level will be twice a week.
  5. Exercise More - Part of being healthy includes eating better, but regular exercise is also a necessity. Currently, I have no established exercise plan: I had tried to exercise thrice weekly for awhile, but it was more than I could keep up with and haven't done so for several months now. An easy starting place will be to exercise once per week, including both strength and cardiovascular routines. Again, this will be measured across three months. The next level will be twice weekly, either splitting and intensifying the two types of routines across two days, or doing both routines twice weekly.
  6. Write More - Every year, the lure of NaNoWriMo attracts me back to my desire to become an author. And, every year I barely make a dent in the novel I attempt to write. Part of this, I think, comes from my lack of practice with creative writing. While I am already trying to do this, I am oficially declaring my goal of posting to this blog thrice weekly as a resolution for next year. If, over the course of three months I determine I am successful, I will declare specific days that will have posts, and maybe add an additional fourth post.
  7. Better Attitude - I tend to already have a pretty good outlook on a lot of things in life. However, I still fall into unnecessary negativity at times. My way to improve this is going to actively seek out involvement with others (parties, visits and the like) regardless of whether I instinctively am attracted to such engagement. Additionally, I will go with a positive outlook and look forward to it. This is a trickier resolution to judge, so I will put a minimum requirement of one such engagement per month. I will also have to evaluate my success on a case by case basis. This isn't so much a pass/fail as a how good can I do resolution.
That should do it for 2008's resolutions. While there are a much larger number than I have previously suggested, the difficulty level is realistic and promising. We'll see how it goes. I encourage anyone who does happen to read my blog to use the comments to discuss and share their possible resolutions.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Perception of Time and Time Trials

The way time is perceived is known to change, varying on the task at hand. Typically, if it is an enjoyable activity, the time flies by. Conversely, if the task is less enjoyable, time progresses at a snail's pace. In my life, I have encountered enjoyable activities that take less time than I would assume. There are two example of these activities, and both involve Katy.

When I was signing Katy up for swim class, I was surprised that the classes lasted a measly 30 minutes. "What could possibly be taught in such a short period of time?" I wondered. At the first class, I learned that thirty minutes was exactly the right amount. It didn't feel like the class dragged, and yet it seemed that Katy had an opportunity to learn and do a large variety of activities in the water. Even the five minutes of play at the end was just right.

Another activity that we recently experienced our fair share of was Bounceland. Katy was invited to two parties, both structured the same way, with a week between the two. The first part of the party is an hour of bouncing, followed by some time after to eat cake and open birthday presents. The number of times you get to go on the bouncy slides in an hour is much more than you would guess, if you didn't really think about it. An hour was plenty, but I thought it was going to feel short.

These misperceptions about how long was enough caused me to reflect on other things that occur in my life and how long I believe them to take and how long they really take. Already, considering these different things has helped me to either do things that I previously avoided because I thought they took too long as well as looking for ways to reduce time on things that I thought weren't taking that long. The big item I considered was showering.

One way to categorize those who shower is by time spent showering. Really, it seems like there are two groups: those who are quick and are on a mission to get clean, and those who are slow and forget why they entered the soothing, blissful warmth. I am in the second group. Since I know that I might take a little longer in the shower than I thought, I decided to start tracking how long it takes, followed by time trials.

I needed two showers today. This morning, it took 29 minutes in the shower, plus another 12 to finish getting ready. Tonight, I decided to try to stop lolly-gagging and go for a best time. It only took 8 minutes in the shower, with another 4.5 minutes to finish. The point is that often all it takes to improve the time of something is to realize how long it is taking and then trying to change it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Per Mike's Request

During Thanksgiving, our friend Mike did a magic trick. I recorded it with my new camera and he requested I post it. So, here it is:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

GameTap has Servers

One of the video game community websites I visit, Evil Avatar, has a forum that I frequent. While a variety of topics are discussed, the most common theme involves video games. In the weekly "what are you playing this weekend" thread, over a course of a number of weeks, I would see various people post about such-and-such a game on GameTap, a service that charges a monthly fee to access their collection of video games. I knew what it was and assumed it was not for me.

Finally, after seeing it mentioned a number of times over several weeks, I decided to give the free option a try. A selection of approximately forty games are available to play at any time and are supported by ads. Essentially, you would choose the game you wanted to play and click start and then watch a 30 second commercial. It was pretty painless, actually.

After seeing the sheer number of games available, I was impressed. And, it wasn't simply a bunch of old games; while there are a good number of the older games available, there are games from 2007 included as well. What finally sold me for the pay service was that, after hearing my co-worker Rob talking about Overlord for the XBox 360, I saw that it was available for play on GameTap. Their promotion includes the first month for $0.99, so one Saturday night, I gave it a shot and was hooked.

If that wasn't enough, they even host "Myst: Uru" an MMO for Myst that has the same gameplay as the original, but allows you to play with others, too.

Since then, I have played a huge number of games. The nice thing is, if you get tired of one, or the game just sucks, there is none of the gamer-obligation to get your money's worth: you can just move onto the next one. I payed for the discounted full year, about $54: about the price of one new game. I have easily played my money's worth.

The best part is that I constantly remind my co-workers of my love for GameTap. I think, deep down, they really appreciate it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Work Necklace

I went to Best Buy with some co-workers one day during lunch. While there, waiting in line for Rob to buy Rock Band, I noticed a box full of Loco-Roco (little smiley face guy) key chain-type things (or Christmas ornaments, even) that were listed free. So, knowing my daughter like I do, I grabbed one for her.

A couple days later when I remembered that I had it, I gave her the little guy and she was happy with it, just as I expected that she would be. There wasn't a clip or ring to attach it to anything, though: just a small nylon cord in a loop. So, I grabbed one of her bead necklaces and looped it through itself to tie it onto the necklace. She was happy with that and wore it for the rest of the day.

Then, before bed she decided to hang it on the bathroom doorknob by the door to the garage and called it her "work necklace". I wasn't sure what she meant but was glad she was happy with it.

The next day, she called it her "work necklace" again and put it on in the morning before going to school. It occurred to me what she meant: I wear a badge on a cord around my neck for work and leave it on a hook by the garage door when I get home. She is duplicating my "work necklace" habits.

So, now we both put on our work necklaces every day before I take her to daycare and I go to work. How's that for adorable?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Inevitable Conclusion

This year, I once again attempted NaNoWriMo with the hope of completing a novel during the month of November. This year, like all previous, I did not even come close. Previously, I had a hope of finishing: this year, I did not. Forgetting about NaNoWriMo until the day it begins, not having an idea for a story, and not spending any time thinking or working on it make for an effective way of not completing it. Really, I treated like a poor resolution: wishful thinking without any plan as to how to make it happen.

On a seemingly unrelated note, replacing the toilet paper is something that everyone has done at some point or another. For a long time, when I needed to replace the paper, I would simply grab a roll and haphazardly replace it whichever way it happened to be aligned. Somewhere along the road of life, it was pointed out to me that there was a "correct" orientation for the roll, with the end hanging from the front instead of behind, the idea being that it is easier to find the end when you can see it. The two methods seem similar to resolution efforts, with the haphazard being the wishful, whatever-comes-to-mind manner of thinking them up when compared to the directed, planned, carefully evaluated method.

The toilet paper analogy can even be taken a step further. Not only is there a correct way to orient the rolls, but it is critical to never overlook the quantity available on hand. Purposely thinking about and ensuring that there are always two extra rolls in addition to the one in the dispenser is like the planning: making sure your environment is aligned with your goals. Running out without a backup is like the random method of not really setting yourself up for success.

Now, it isn't a dichotomy: there are a number of partial successes and a degree of doing some things right while overlooking others. That can be a trouble with analogies; in making things simpler to explain, there comes the temptation to assume the analogized subject is also simple. Making sure you have toilet paper on hand and that it is easy to access from the dispenser is a really easy task when a little thought is put into it. Making sure a resolution, or goal, actually is setup to succeed is, often times, less concrete.

Back to the opening topic of NaNoWriMo, if I had taken the month of October to come up with a good concept, create an outline, think through the characters' personalties and motivations, and decided what times of day I would write and what areas of the novel I would write first, I would have had a much better chance of success. It is definitely something I will keep in mind for next year.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Swim Class... without that Pesky Swimming

Katy still loves swim class. On Monday night, she excitedly was talking about getting to swim the next day. When I dropped her off at school, she we excited about it. When I picked her up from school, she was still excited about it; a teacher even mentioned that she had been talking about it all day.

So, imagine how happy we were to discover that it was "Safety Day" at swim class.

Don't get me wrong: learning about water safety and the proper way to wear flotation devices and to behave around a body of water is worthwhile. It's just that the age of the kids in that class doesn't lend itself well to being denied something they were desperately looking forward to.

The only time spent in the water was at the very end, when they jumped in with the life jackets on (Katy was able to put hers on by herself!) and swam on their backs. When they reached the edge of the pool, it was time to get out and class was over. Katy came to me and made it clear she wasn't ready to go. I asked if she wanted me to dip her in the pool and she agreed that that was good enough. After dipping her about ten times, she was good to go. I apologized for her not being able to really get to swim like she wanted and said that I would have warned her if I had known. I also mentioned that she should be able to do a lot of swimming next week like she had been planning to do; she seemed cool with that.

Friday, November 23, 2007

FAT Fest and the Turkey Experience

After a slower start than I wanted due to needing to run into work for a little bit, Katy and I made the Thanksgiving journey that so many Americans make this time of year. We only hit a little traffic on our trip on Wednesday afternoon and it took an extra hour to get from Kalamazoo to Grandma & Grandpa's house in Sterling Heights. She is amazingly patient and becoming such a big girl: at one point near the end of the trip, she told me she "had to go potty"; I asked her if she could hold it and she was able to make it all the way to her grandparents' without needing to stop.

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After a quick potty break, we went to Katy's favorite restaurant, Red Robin; she has a lot of food allergies, but we discovered that she can eat the fries and she discovered that she loves them. We played a little bit back at the house and then it was bedtime. David, Jenny and I ran off to David's house and played "Guitar Hero III" and watched "Flight of the Conchords" for the rest of the evening. A good time was had by all.

On Thanksgiving, Davey and I went back to the 'rents. We all had a good day playing with Katy, watching football (on DVR so we could skip commercials and the boring parts), eating and just generally enjoying one-another's company. After bedtime, once again, the three siblings went to Davey's place and played GHIII and several board games. The entire trip, I had been making good use of my new digital video camera, which I will write about in a later post. Some of the videos are pretty amusing.

On Black Friday, Jenny had to work (after the rush so it isn't too bad). David and his friends have been playing an annual game of football on the day after Thanksgiving for about eleven years now, and I decided to join them after my long hiatus. The game is called "FAT Fest", which I believe just stands for "Football After Thanksgiving". In the past, when we were young and stupid, it was full-contact tackle football; now that we are old and less stupid, it is flag. For the first time ever in FAT Fest history, another group of players also wanted to play on the field we were using. So, we ended up playing us vs. them. It was a little anxious, but it ended up being much closer than the feared blow out and we only lost by two scores (7 touchdowns to 5 touchdowns).

Now, the plan is to run out at 4 and catch the new movie, Hitman. It hasn't gotten very good reviews, but I like the game enough to watch it just to see a movie with my bro and dad. Afterwards, we'll likely have dinner (probably turkey, if I had to guess) and then hang out with David's friends who are in town and can stop by at his house to play.

Right now, the plan is to leave on Saturday after lunch, but Katy has been begging to stay until Sunday. I guess I'll just play it by ear. So far, it has been a non-stop fun time.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Joys of Being Evil

One of the perks of my job is the interesting people I work with. Several of us do a lot of things together, including the obvious, such as lunches, and the not as obvious, like bike riding. One of our popular activities is Game Night.

Game Night, or Geek Party as my wife is fond of saying, started over a year ago, when my co-worker / friend, Rob, and I started playing D&D with our boss / friend, Tom. He ran a standard 3.5 campaign, with a couple of homebrew rules, in a custom world that his friend had created ages ago.

As time went on, our projects expanded and the number of contractors we had expanded as well. Another three of the guys from work joined Game Night, for a grand total of six of us. Eventually, the pressures of work increased, and the expectations of family life increased, and we found we had gone six months or so since we had gathered to game.

Since then, we have rectified the situation. And, we have expanded our original scope. We've tried superhero RPGs, a D20 future campaign, a Shadowrun campaign, a D20 Modern Arcana campaign and an Iron Heroes campaign. Some of these were more interesting than others, but all were fun.

On the nights that we cannot all gather, and with as many members of our gaming group as we have it is not uncommon that someone is missing, we normally play a board game of some sort. Recently, someone suggested that we play a quick drop-in campaign, one where it goes on when people are missing and it isn't big deal. We decided that this one would be our first evil campaign.

As mentioned, we've tried a wide range of games. However, they all share the common theme of the players as heroes, trying to save the world in some way, shape or form. The game we were to play would occur in the same fantasy setting as our first D&D 3.5 game, but with the key difference being that we were the bad guys.

We played level 6 human Half-Fiends (ECL 10). It played very different from normal. In the past, we've rushed headlong into any problem we encountered; this time, we were not content to simply beat the enemies, we had to do it in a thoughtful, no-good-nick manner.

The story was simple enough: the sons of a devil of some power on the evil plane had come of age and were to prove their worth, via the completion of a mission or two of their choosing, from the selection provided by dear old dad. We had three choices: rid the plane of the lesser devil that had been contending for power and becoming a nuisance to Dad, drive off the paladin spreading his do-gooder ways throughout the land, or destroy the bronze dragon.

Immediately, I wanted the paladin. Not to simply drive off or kill, but to corrupt and own as a plaything for evil. However, it occurred to us that the lesser devil might be an easier target. Then, I hatched a fiendish (or Half-Fiendish, in this case) plan. Instead of attacking one or the other, we'd use them against each other.

I forged a document, an official letter in the name of our father, requesting the service of the devil and promising a piece of the domain. All that was asked for in return was his assistance in the destruction of the paladin. He fell for the forgery, bought our bluff and eagerly accompanied us, even providing the teleportation needed to reach the paladin. During the battle that ensued, we all weakly, and half-heartedly, 'assisted' the devil in his attack on the paladin. When they had both done sufficient damage to one another, and the devil appeared ready to retreat, we ambushed him, feeble-minding him and backstabbing him to death. Then, we Held the paladin and nearly finished him, too; if only we had taken the time to remove the Helm of Teleportation. So, the paladin lived to see another day. I took solace in the fact that he had already begun to act as our instrument of destruction.

For a quick, drop-in campaign, we decided we were into it enough to decide we were going to play it the next time we met, too. We had a slow start, and not much happened, but this game is easily the one in which we have done the most planning and strategy. It looks like it might be our "sleeper-hit".

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Katy Swims with the Fishes

This Tuesday was the third week of Katy's swim classes at the Y. As mentioned earlier, now that she is agreeable about Floatie, she is completely comfortable in the water. It is awesome and amazing to me to watch her being so excited about being in the pool; at the start of class, while waiting for the other kids, she will push off the wall and swim and spin around in the water whenever the instructor's back was turned. It was amusing.

She is very excited about it and puts all her effort into swimming, even if her form isn't the best, yet; occasionally, when using her arms, she forgets that she has to point her legs behind her instead of in-front and will be stationary for a little bit.

For the past two weeks, she has been using only one of the two yellow arm-floaties and is very fast in the water. She is good at jumping into the pool, even though she thinks she needs the teacher to hold her hands out for her. She loves to watch the older kids and try to duplicate what they are doing. And, the swimming: she is a swimming champ.

I am, obviously, very proud at how well she is doing and what a good swimmer she is. What I find interesting, however, is that it seems that her affinity for the water is a part of her; she has always loved the water, even in baths, even if it gets in her eyes, even if she accidentally goes under for a little while. So, while I am proud, is there really any true reason to be so? Kendra and I didn't do anything special that would encourage her love of the water, at least nothing I can think of. So, it really seems like there is no good reason to be proud, but I am anyways.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Our Journey through the Candycane Forrest

Katy likes to do a lot of different things; she likes reading, and coloring, and cutting, and lots of art-type stuff. One of the things that she hasn't done a lot of is playing games. She has had Candyland for a while now, but every time we would "play" it, explaining the rules or showing her how it worked was beyond her attention span; she would be more interested in putting the little pawns on their corresponding colors than actually playing.

This Sunday, Katy and I played her first game of Candyland. Once I got her to understand the rules, she was very excited to draw the cards and move the guys. She picked the yellow pawn and I chose the blue. I am happy to report that she completely crushed me. Even so, she was a very good winner and even helped me draw cards and move my guy all the way to the end so that I could "win" too. I am looking forward to continued gaming with her; maybe next time we can try "Arkham Horror." ;)

She also expressed a desire to work on puzzles, something else which she doesn't frequently do. Kendra and I had a hard time getting her to understand the concept of how to find the edges and how to figure out what goes together. I had some better luck with encouraging her to look at the picture on the box and then deciding on some part to try to put together. Doing it that way, she easily put her Curious George puzzle together by herself. She is getting to be such a big girl.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Coding Horror and the Lessons It Teaches

Coding Horror is a website I recently discovered through Jason, one of my friends from work. Jeff Atwood, the blogger who runs Coding Horror, writes about a number of different computer related things, many of which are of direct interest to me. A word of warning: if you aren't a developer / computer person, your interest in the site will be limited.

One of the things he wrote about recently was his success with his blog and what the trick to having a successful blog is. The part that struck a chord with me was the frequency: he suggested that you pick a scheduled number of posts and stick with it.

After reading this, I realized that I had been neglecting my blog; while I do not write about a specific topic, and the audience I really write for is mostly just myself, I felt that I would benefit from the discipline of writing a predetermined number of times per week. Additionally, I do enjoy writing and story-telling and a schedule would encourage me to take the time to do something I enjoy.

Two weeks ago, I decided to revamp my blog and also picked a posting schedule: I am posting three times a week, preferably on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Thus far, I have not missed a day. I think part of my success comes from several things: the first is that, with a schedule, I now have a target posting deadline in mind, and I will start a day or two before I actually post; this gives me plenty of time to formulate an idea for a post and to fill it out in time to meet my schedule.

The second is that I only write about one thing per post now; previously, I would notice that I hadn't posted in a long while and try to cram everything I had to say into one post. This would leave me without anything to say for the next post, and there would be a large gap between posts, again.

The third is that I am less picky about the final result. I don't mean to say that quality isn't important, but not every post has to be a perfect dissertation on a topic of utmost urgency and importance. I am much more likely to post now that I don't feel like I need to be profound.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Happiness Known as the Coney Dog

I live in south-western Michigan, specifically in the Portage/Kalamazoo areas, but I am originally from the east side of the state, moving here from Ann Arbor and growing up in Sterling Heights. A common restaurant, one that is easy to take for granted, is Coney Island.

For those of you who are not from Michigan, when I talk about Coney Island, I am not talking about the amusement park in New York. Instead, I am talking about a restaurant that serves hot dogs with chili and cheese on them, as well as chili-cheese fries. Almost universally, these places are owned by people of Greek heritage and will also server Gyros (pronounced "year-ohs.") And, while there are chains of these places, like "National Coney Island", there are a number of them that are independently owned and named things like "Phoenix Coney Island," "Koney's," or "Kirby's Coney Island."

For whatever reason, the "Coney Island" concept just hasn't caught on in Kalamazoo like it has on the east side. So, I was thrilled when I saw a place called "Coney'Z" off of Romence. I was able to convince the guys that we needed to try it for lunch, promising gyros would be available.

"Coney'Z" is a very small restaurant, with a very limited amount of space. There were about ten closely packed tables/booths, and the store itself was sharing space with the cafe next door. The food selection was pretty limited, too. There were no gyros, but there were "sliders", described as being like the White Castle ones. And, of course, there were hot dogs.

I was happy with my Coney dog with cheese and chili cheese fries, and it seemed most of the group was happy with at least portions of their meals. It seems like a place we will visit again. I am happy for this little place, but it really isn't like the Coney Islands from back home.

I also tried some chili-cheese fries at Nisker's recently, but wasn't really impressed; their regular fries are decent enough, but the chili and cheese they add really doesn't do it for me. So, I'll keep looking for my stand-in Coney dog and chili-cheese fries place.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's that NaNoWriMo Time of Year Again

Something that I've taken part in, or at least tried to take part in, every year for the past three of four years now is the NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month, specifically November. What you end up with is not necessarily the greatest novel ever. It might be a bit short. It will likely need a lot of editing. It is, most likely, a rough draft. But, to get those 50k words written would be a huge accomplishment.

Last year, I think I've come the closest I have ever been. The problem I ran into, however, was that I couldn't find a direction for the story; it was about time travel, but I wasn't sure what I was trying to do or say about it and I hadn't placed any limits on it. If you've never tried it, writing a story about traveling through time / stopping time without any limits on its frequency, while the actual time traveling is trivially easy, is extraordinarily difficult. I also didn't have a good idea on how to handle the repercussions of changing the past and how it would affect the future. Would it split the universe? Would it simply change the present? I didn't know, and the story died right there.

This year, I think I've learned a bit about what not to do. I don't have a strong idea about where I want to go with this new story, but I've had a number of different ideas over the years and some of them just keep nagging me. Specifically, the concept of a special hammer won't let up. So, I have a start, and 536 words written. It isn't much, but hopefully it will be enough to give me something to think about and try to figure out where to go from here.

For those of you who are mathematically inclined, to stay on target requires approximately 1667 words per day. As this is the fourth day, to be on schedule requires 6667 words by the end of the day. So, only 6131 words left for today. Already, it isn't a very promising performance for this year, but I'm going to stick it out, anyways.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Halloween, Halloween, Trick or Treat

Katy was a princess for Halloween. She had told us quite awhile ago that that was what she wanted to be, so Kendra had purchased the princess outfit. Recently, when she couldn't make up her mind about what she wanted to be, I would help direct her back to the princess outfit: you want to be Dorothy the Dinosaur? How about Dorothy the Dinosaur dressed like a princess? You want to be Dora? How about Princess Dora? You want to be a kitty? How about a kitty princess? We had the costume, and gosh-darn-it, she was gonna wear it one way or another.

It was, of course, cold and rainy for trick or treating, but my little princess was excited anyway. I left a bowl of second-rate candy on the porch; I was saving the good stuff for distribution by Katy and me when we finished with her outing. We headed toward Claire 'n Abby's house, since there was a small group from the neighborhood going trick or treating together. I grabbed a picture of all the girls sitting together on the stairs in their various outfits, then we were off.

Initially, Katy wanted me to come up to the door with her, but she quickly got the hang of trick or treating and it was easy to encourage her to run up to the door herself or with the other girls. At this age, the concept of "together" is still pretty loose and the girls would sometimes be at a house begging for candy at the same time, while other times they'd be at different houses as someone would fall behind or someone would run ahead.

I tried to encourage Katy to hang back with Abby a little, since she is younger and was very clingy to Ron, her dad. Eventually, we had to split up, since Ron and Abby had to go catch up with Claire and Katy was ready to get back to our house. At her age, there still isn't the overwhelming need to hit every house at Halloween. As we were walking back home, we were passing by houses that we had not stopped at: when I would ask if she wanted to stop on the way, she said no, that she had enough candy.

At home, the second-rate candy was still about half-full, so I brought it in and mixed in "the good stuff." I sorted through Katy's candy to find stuff that she could eat, and then we sat on the stairs and waited for trick or treaters. As generous as I try to be with the candy, Katy makes me look like a scrooge: she would scoop candy with both hands and cheerfully distribute it to the masses.

About 7:15 or so, there was only a little candy left and it was pretty gloomy and rainy, so I turned off the light and Katy and I went to visit her preschool teacher, Miss Linnea; Linnea had sent home a note saying that she'd love to see the kids in costume and that any of the kids who were in the area were welcome to come and trick or treat. We arrived at the same time as her classmate, Gwen, did. After we went upstairs to her apartment, another classmate, Lizabeth, arrived. The kids had their pictures taken and got some candy and were excited to give the dog treats.

We got home after 8pm, at least fifteen minutes after Katy should have already been in bed sleeping. Halloween is a special occasion, though. She got ready for bed like she always does, we read a book and she happily went to sleep, likely thinking / dreaming about all the fun we had. It was a good Halloween for both of us.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Swimtime and the Floating Enemy

Tuesday evening was Katy's first swim lesson. She has always loved swimming and been fearless when it comes to the water. For example, in Jamaica, when she would tumble off of the lounging mat and would be underwater for a second before I'd retrieve her, she be smiley and laughing when I brought her up. Well, being fearless is one thing, but we felt is was important that she be able to back up her fearlessness with some awesome swimming skills.

We arrived at swim much earlier than needed; I wasn't sure how long it would take to pick her up from school and get to the Y and change, so we ended up waiting around for about 25 minutes! It wasn't all bad; the wait helped build excitement for the swim class. And, I think it helped that I took her to the edge of the pool a couple of times to give her a quick dunk. :)

The first sign of trouble arose when the kids started lining up for the class; they were all grabbing a little flotation device that strapped to their backs. When Katy saw this, she immediately told me that she "didn't need one" and didn't want to wear one. I told her not to worry and that she wouldn't have to put one on unless/until a teacher told her that she needed one.

The instructors then split the kids into two groups: the experienced "Pikes" (the younger group) and the "Eels" were in one group and the new "Pikes" were in the other group. Katy and two other kids were in the new kid group. Inevitably, all the kids in both groups had to put on the floaties. Katy was screaming and crying and really carrying on about having to wear one, but I eventually just put it on her and then the instructor picked her up and comforted her in the water.

The instructors must experience bugged-out little kids fairly frequently, because "Miss Sue" was able to quickly calm Katy about the whole experience. After the kids got used to the floaties on their backs, they added two extra yellow arm floaties that they all wore, too. Then, they started swimming with the floats on. It was amazing to me to see how quickly and easily Katy took to swimming. Sure, she is being propped up by floats, but she was able to propel herself quite a distance fairly quickly.

Well, I was sure Katy was over the floatie issue when, from half a pool-length away, she called out to me, "Daddy, I like the floatie now. The floatie's OK now." After the class was done, she asked me, "Please, five more minues?" I told her that I was glad that she liked it and that we would do it next week, but that the teachers said it was done for today. She was cool with that.

I am glad that she still likes the water as much as she used to and that she is so ready to swim. I am relieved that she got over having to wear the floatie, too. I tried to use it as an example of how she should trust that Daddy is not going to suggest something that isn't good; we'll see if I can remind her of this the next time she is freaking out about something meaningless. :)

After swimming, of course, we still went swinging for a little bit before bed. The extra missing pieces arrived in the mail, so I was able to attach the rings and the hand-holds for climbing. I'll probably install the extra anchors in the next couple of days.

Tonight is Halloween, so there might not be much time for swinging, but we'll see. Katy is going as "Princess Dora." We bought her a princess outfit a while ago, but she recently has been saying she wanted to be "Dora." So, I suggested "Princess Dora": the "Dora" part will be that she will say "Gracias" for the candy instead of "thank you." ;)

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Swingset Adventure

Katy has been asking about a swing set of her own for several months now. As the days have passed, she has become progressively more aggressive about it. Well, it was her fourth birthday a couple of weeks ago, and Kendra and I decided that she would finally get a swing set. When I heard that Grandpa Carl was coming to visit this weekend and wanted to help with the swing set, I knew it was time to get one.

Last weekend, Katy, Kendra and went to Menard's and picked out a swing set. During the course of the week, I tried to get as much prepped prior to Carl's visit. I borrowed a chop-saw from my buddy and co-worker, Jason, cut all the wood to length and started the assembly of the pieces. There wasn't much time on Saturday to work on the project, but that night, I made the roof and the two sides that, when combined, become the tower.

The swing set before its creation.

Sunday, I needed to buy one more 2x4x8 to support the gray "climber", so I ran back to the store. While I was shopping, Katy and her grandpa moved all of the cut wood, tools and play-pieces outside to the planned location. Then, Carl and I moved the large pieces I assembled out of the walkout basement where I constructed them and into the backyard.

The swing set before its creation.

Shortly after we started, Katy was already asking if I would push her on the swings. It took all day, and multiple swaps of the battery for the drill, but we finished. By the end, she was crazy excited: hanging off me, wanting to climb on it, wanting to swing. She was very cute for the duration.

An excited little girl.

The excited little girl, again.

We were short a couple of pieces, but I went back to Menard's and asked about them during lunch today. We were missing a two lag screws, eight pan screws and two short chains (for the rings.) Apparently, the company that manufactures these swing sets, Playstar, is very good: the guy helping me called them and told them what I was missing; they talked to me, took my name and are Fed-Ex-ing the materials to my home.

The nearly completed swing set.

The entire process took about a week and much of the prep-work can be done by one person. The assembly process took all day on Sunday, but went much faster than if we had to cut everything as we needed it. It was a fun time, and it is a good feeling of accomplishment. A big thanks goes to Grandpa Carl: without his help and expertise, I seriously doubt that I would be posting about a finished swing set right now.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Reworking the Site

I am going to take some time to try to update the layout of the site. Some of the links might not work for awhile as I screw around.

As you can see, the site has a completely different look to it. When I first started my blog, I did a couple of pretty neat things. However, as time progressed, the neat things I was doing was making it difficult to add the even neater features, such as comments, that Blogger was adding.

Also, some aspects of the site were becoming outdated. The original blog I had here, the Silly Monkeys, was made with the intent of all my friends posting there. And, they did. However, as time went on, the interest faded and now it seems silly to even allow the option of it being a start page. I do intend on adding a link for posterity's sake, as well as the remote possibility it may yet be used again.

I think I will still put some thought into modifying the template so that I can change the look of the site without republishing everything.

In the mean time, give the comment system a try. :)

The Half-a-Sandwich Plan

As someone who has lost a modest amount of weight by obsessively counting calories, I have an insight into certain things that most people might not notice. Several of these insights are with regard to dining at restaurants, the most important being portion size.

Everywhere I eat, it seems that the caloric values of the food being served per person is much, much too high. An example is a burger with fries; regardless of which place you are eating, if it is a chain restaurant like Chilis, then you should expect a meal that consists of about 1300 calories, and that is without considering any additional condiments you might add after (like ketchup or ranch.) On my diet, both past and present, I have set a caloric intake value of 1500 per day. Thus, if I want to eat out, I have to know ahead of time and eat only minuscule amounts the remainder of the day, or the other option I have recently adopted: eat only half and take the rest home.

Even if not on a diet, I'd be amazed if it could be shown that anyone actually needs to consume 1300 calories at one meal. Mathematically, most men probably need no more than 2500 per day. If you eat 1300 in one meal, you are left with only 1200 for the rest of the day. So, while it is doable, the meal would necessarily be huge (more than twice as much) as each of the other meals for the day (assuming three meals). Eating out twice in one day (which happens frequently to those who travel for business) means eating more calories than one needs. And, most people like to snack at various points along the day, which becomes trickier.

A reasonable strategy is the one I listed above: eat only half the meal. A good rule of thumb is: if you are looking at your plate and think it looks like enough food, it is likely more than you need. If it looks like it isn't enough, then you are likely eating the right amount. Half a meal always looks too little, but it is plenty big enough. Take the other half home and eat it for dinner or lunch the next day. Or, if you really don't care for leftovers, either split with someone or just throw it away. Remember, it isn't a waste if you really don't need the food. I have had some limited success with convincing the guys I go to lunch with that we might consider ordering one thing and splitting it between two. If enough people did this, I am certain restaurants would change their portion sizes accordingly. Until that time, I am content to get a half-off deal on all my lunches.

I wonder why portion size is so ridiculously large in the US? I suspect it has to do with the concept of getting your money's worth: the more you get the better the deal. It also likely has to do with the cost of food to the restaurant: food is cheap, but the markup on it for being served is significant, and even more of a markup can be included if a larger portion is served. It might also have to do with the balance of quantity and quality: when I eat at the nicer restaurants, the portion size always seems much more reasonable.

As I briefly insinuated above, I have taken up my caloric restriction again; I had stopped keeping track and found it was very easy to return to my old ways of eating. A couple of months ago, I decided I needed to re-do my diet before it got way out of control. At 200 lbs, I wasn't even close to approaching my original pre-diet starting weight of 230 lbs, and I have already dropped back to a more reasonable 186 lbs. My intent is to get my weight to 180 lbs and then schedule my yearly free "healthy checkup" with my doctor. At that time, I'll discuss what a reasonable weight for me is. According to BMI, I'd need to drop to about 170 lbs to be at the top of the "normal" range, but BMI isn't a very accurate way to determine if you are at your ideal weight.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Group of Updates

I went to a wedding several weeks ago, and one of my old friends there mentioned that he enjoyed my infrequently updated blog. So, this is for you, Mike. :)

At Work

Work has been dying down a litte now. At least, from my perspective. The big rush on the HD project has mostly been resolved, with the only issue being something outside the scope of what I am working on. So, I've been moved onto another project, one which is going to be vacant of people soon, since the last person working on it is going to be deployed to Iraq in a couple of months. This new project is much smaller and has had fewer people working on it, but there are a number of things that need to be resolved. It will be a nice change moving from bug fixing to more general problem solving / design.


I've become the crazy biking guy at work. There is a nature preserve, Al Sabo Land Preserve, near my house. Well, I had my bike serviced at the local bike repair shop and also bought a bike rack for my car. Since it takes about five minutes to get to the trails, I will often go after I put Katy to bed (when Kendra is home, of course.) I have actually gone enough now that I have lost track the number of times I've been there this year. I've also encouraged my group of co-worker/friends to come join me on Sunday nights at 6:30 for a biking excursion together there. The response has been much more favorable than I thought it would be, and there are about five-six of us that will meet. So far, the largest turn out and one time has been four. I think we will be short one person for awhile, since my boss wiped out and smashed his knee up pretty bad. :(

My best record is 28.58.40 for the first lap, 26.21.25 for the short lap and a total 55.19.65.


I used to wonder why anyone would be excited about a portable gaming device, namely the Nintendo GameBoy; it always seemed like there would be limited opportunity to play it, since you really are only going to play while you are away from home. If you were at home, why wouldn't you just play a console hooked to a TV? Well, my eyes have been opened to the wonder and beauty of portable gaming devices, namely the Nintendo DS. The thing I overlooked was that the answer to when and where you are going to play isn't "when you are away from home, sometime" it is, "everywhere." I spend a bunch of time on "my little game" and even will screw around with it while we are watching something "light" on TV. Mucho fun.


Well, I was able to actually drag myself away from my DS for several days when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. Since I was afraid of encounter spoilers online, posted by a**holes, I took a break from the internet until I was done. Without revealing anything, I'll say it was a decent ending, but I really enjoyed the first five books more than the last two. These last two seemed to really be written with the intent of them being made into movies.

I've borrowed a book from one of my biking / Guild War playing co-workers, Matt, called "the Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks. It is an amusing read, since it takes the threat of an attack from zombies very seriously. I wouldn't call it a hilarious book, but it is a fun read due to the subject matter.

I have a couple of books from one of my neighbors, the Hyperion series. I will probably take a quick read of those once I'm done with the zombie guide.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Resolutions and Such

Looking back at last year's resolutions, I realize that they were a bit too ambitious and I didn't even follow my own resolution rules. At any rate, let's revisit my previous resolutions and evaluate them, shall we?
  1. Read 26 books this year - While I did read more this year than previously, including several good novels such as Greg Bear's Moving Mars and Asimov's Foundation trilogy, the expectation that I would be able to go from nearly zero to a book every two weeks was, perhaps, unrealistic. Although, I did accomplish my resolution from two years ago.
  2. Maintain and follow an elaborate To Do list - This wasn't very quantitative. I used a To Do list and a day planner for a good part of the year; did I succeed then?
  3. Fiscal Responsibility -Not very specific or quantitative. In fact, it was so open-ended that I barely did anything with this.
  4. Donate blood as often as possible to the Red Cross -Come on! What part of "specific" and "quantitative" don't you get, Andy? I didn't give blood at all last year, but it could still be considered "as often as possible," couldn't it?
  5. Attitude adjustment -Not quantitative, specific or definitive. More like a half-thought out wish.
So, it is clear that the problem wasn't with my execution, but instead with the actual resolutions themselves. I'll try again this year and will update in a future post.

Time and Time Again

I haven't taken the time to bother writing here for quite awhile. While I really only do it as a type of public journal without any monetary benefit, there is a definite feeling that I should be posting more frequently. Certainly, the creation process is rewarding. Additionally, it is always interesting to me to hear about who has been reading this. And, I occasionally read through the archives, which stirs memories that I had not recalled for a long while. So, once again, I decide that I will post on a more frequent basis. :)