February 2013 Archives

Book Review: "The Passage" and "The Twelve"
February 20, 2013 6:36 PM | Posted in:

I just finished reading The Twelve, the second book in what will eventually be author Justin Cronin's trilogy that began with the 2010 release of The Passage. The trilogy's conclusion, The City of Mirrors, isn't due until sometime next year...and that seems like an eternity.

If you're already a fan of speculative fiction, you no doubt are familiar with these books. On the other hand, The Passage escaped my attention for two years, so perhaps there's some value in restating the obvious.

A comparison with Stephen King's The Stand is inevitable, and a quote by King graces the cover of the first book. Both novels employ a vast array of characters trying to survive an apocalyptic event that irrevocably changes the face of society and culture (is that redundant?). Both events arise from man's clumsy attempts to manipulate nature to achieve dubious ends - we never learn, do we? - and both trace multiple subplots as a remnant of souls do their best to either regain the high ground for humanity, or turn the disaster to selfish gain. Both prominently feature some apparently obligatory supernatural themes. In other words, they're both variations on the classic "good vs. evil" theme.

But, frankly, The Stand doesn't stand up well in comparison. King is a popular writer, but he isn't necessarily a good writer. He's formulaic and often unnuanced, and the reader isn't likely to get lost in the beauty of his prose. The Stand was an epic novel in its own right, in its own time, but it had the advantage of being early on the scene of the genre. (It didn't help that the movie adaptation was a made-for-TV version that starred Molly freakin' Ringwald. Is that King's fault? Probably not, but, still...)

Cronin, on the other hand, is the real deal, an author with legitimate literary credentials - not to minimize King's credentials of selling eighteen zillion copies of his books, which buys lots of immunity to hack blog critics like yours truly - and he proves that you can apply beautiful and moving prose to scenes that also scare the living daylights out of the reader. Plus, he's a Texan, albeit a transplant, having been an English professor at Rice University and still residing in Houston. A good deal of the action in the second book takes place in Texas - focused on Kerrville, of all places, but Midland/Odessa gets a couple of mentions as well, albeit nothing that the Chambers of Commerce will be publishing in their annual reports .

I'm intentionally not going to reveal the basic plot for Cronin's trilogy, even though it's all over the interwebz if you care to read other less considerate reviews; I don't want to spoil any surprises. The first volume pretty much requires that you invest in the next one, but the second one has a very satisfactory ending that, despite the angst implied in the first paragraph above, makes the wait for the final volume bearable. (This stands in stark contrast to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, which is positively criminal in the way each volume ends maddeningly and without the slightest sympathy for the reader's absolute need for the next fix...um...installment.)

If you're seeking a couple of page-turners that will consume days of your life, and you wish Stephen King didn't rely quite so heavily on evil clowns (I know; more redundancy) and/or precocious-but-disabled children, you'll find the first two books of Cronin's trilogy to be a suitable investment.

February 19, 2013 9:00 PM | Posted in:

Remember those old electrical insulators? This one was inexplicably shattered...but only on the inside. You may know some people like that.

The bloom on this flower reminds me of popcorn...deliciously buttered popcorn. With tentacles.

There went the neighborhood.

This golfball had seen better days, but it's gotten a new life on this page as...well, you can fill in the blank.

I see a sleeping fox. What do you see?

iPhone Tips
February 13, 2013 9:22 PM | Posted in:

MacWorld recently published 33 Expert Tips and Tricks for iOS 6, and there are a few worth passing along.

Note that even though the article's title contains the word "expert," if you can turn on your iPhone, you can implement each of these features. It's not rocket surgery.

Reverse Panorama

We were at a restaurant with friends last month and I was trying to take a panorama photo of the striking interior, and was having trouble because the starting point for the photo set the exposure for the whole picture. In this case, the left-to-right default for the panoramic movement had me starting at a really bright window and moving into the relatively darker interior, meaning that most of the resulting photo was too dim. 

"Apple should give us some way to reverse the panorama to cope with settings like this," I observed (although probably less eloquently than that, around a mouth full of seafood). Well, as it turns out, Apple did that and I'm just now finding out that all it takes is a tap on the panorama line, which will reverse it so that you move the phone from right to left, as the following photo illustrates.

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

Emoji Keyboard Activation

Emoji is the Japanese term for pictograph, and it refers to those tiny, brightly colored and often annoying characters that you see in many emails. They're like emoticons on PEDs, and you, too, can fill your writing with them via your iPhone (or iPad). There's an entire alternate keyboard dedicated to emoji built into iOS 6 and it's activated via Settings. Select General, then International, then Keyboards, and you'll see a screen similar to this one:

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

Tap "Add New Keyboard" and select Emoji from the rather extensive list (including Tibetan and Flemish). After doing so, the next time your iDevice's keyboard appears (e.g. when you're creating a new email), you'll see a new "Globe" icon that, when selected, yields a plethora of overly cute emoticons to choose from. Uh, like this...

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

If you turn on the "Read selected text" setting, Siri will attempt to read these characters aloud. I haven't tried it. I suspect Siri is grateful.

Note: Before you get visions of filling up your friends' Facebook walls with icons of cute caterpillars, you should know that - as far as I can tell - Facebook doesn't support Emoji characters. So, you'll have to annoy them via email.

Custom Vibrations

The last tip is my favorite, and it should be yours as well, if you have any respect at all for your inner drummer. You already know you can have custom ringtones that are associated with specific people so you can recognize their calls. Well, did you realize you can do the same thing with vibration alerts? And unlike ringtones which can be downloaded, you can only have custom vibrations that you create yourself, right there on your phone's screen. Here's how to do it.

Select a contact via the Phone or Contacts app and tap the Edit button. Scroll down the resulting screen and tap the Vibration line; this will yield the following screen:

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

The perceptive among you will recognize that I've created a custom vibration alert based on the most famous drum solo in the history of drum solos.

Tap "Create New Vibration" and you'll be presented with a drum set...OK, not really, but it's pretty close:

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

This is where it gets fun. Harken back to those great extended rock drum solos of the hazy past - Wipeout, anyone? - or re-create your favorite drumline riffs from your marching days. In other words, tap to your heart's content, and the phone will record the result. If you don't like the results, cancel and try again. Here's how I did it (it helps to have fingernails, by the way; I guess you could use actual drumsticks but you didn't hear that from me):

Once you're satisfied with your tapping, save the new vibe and it will automatically be assigned to the person whose contact you opened at the beginning of this tip. Unfortunately, custom vibrations are nearly as interesting as custom ringtones when it comes to actually using them, but the fun is in the creation. That goes for a lot of things, though.

February 10, 2013 9:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Moth floating in water
Photo - Moth floating in water
Photo - Macro of dandelion flower
Photo - Macro of dandelion flower

Praising Parrot
February 9, 2013 2:16 PM | Posted in: ,

So, this is what my Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 quadricopter looked like about a month ago following an apparent total electronics failure and subsequent crash.

Wrecked Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

That thing dangling in the lower left corner is what's left of one of the motors, and the propeller that you don't see is the one that snapped off when the bird impacted the ground.

At the time of the crash, the onboard camera was recording, but the device apparently has developed the human-like ability to blank out traumatic memories because the video ends a couple of seconds before the chopper dropped from the sky. However, below you'll see a faithful re-creation of the whole event, pretty much exactly as it happened. (Warning: Some scenes contain graphic violence and may be disturbing to some watchers. Viewer discretion is advised. However, artist discretion was also advised, and look where that got us.)

Animated GIF of quadricopter crash

Immediately after this tragic event, I found on the Parrot website a number of videos for self-repair of the device, as well as a section for ordering replacement parts. It appeared I could fix it myself for about $80 (and no telling how much mental anguish). But I decided to try one outrageous strategy before embarking on that perilous journey: I emailed the company and asked them what to do.

See, as far as I could tell, I didn't contribute to the crash. The weather was calm, I wasn't trying anything crazy, and the device just shut down in mid-air. So I attached screenshots of the error message on my phone, and of the settings in the app that controlled the flight parameters...that set limits on speed, altitude, angle. All of those settings were pretty conservative since I'm a new pilot.

The company's response was gratifying. "If you can provide proof of purchase, we'll fix it under warranty." So I asked my brother for a copy of the receipt (it was a Christmas gift - a very generous gift, I might add) and boxed up the remains and shipped it to Holland, Michigan.

Allowing for shipping time both ways, I estimate that it spent only two or three days in their possession and I had it back, good as new, much quicker than I expected. And we've been terrorizing neighborhood dogs ever since.

There are a lot of companies out there that do a great job of providing customer service and support, but too often the ones that don't get all the publicity. My feedback to Parrot after getting the repaired 'copter back was that I'd put in a good word for them on the blog and my Facebook page. They lived up to their commitment, and now I have, as well.

And if you have some spare shekels, buy yourself one of these things; they're fun as all get out.

Random Thursday: The Friday Evening Edition
February 8, 2013 10:46 PM | Posted in:

Dang, it's been awhile, hasn't it? You were probably thinking, "well, we'll probably see turtles fly before there's anything new on the Gazette." And you were right.

Flying turtles (sort of)
Thanks to Shana M for the tip; photo " borrowed" from Head Like an Orange

By the way, those little guys will keep coming over the edge until you make them stop, which can only be done by reading ahead until you scroll them off the screen. I know, I know; Nature can be a cruel mistress.

Speaking of nature, I got to visit the neighbors' fox earlier in the week. He was napping in their back yard, and was annoyed when we came outside to get a closer look. But he was also as curious about us as we were about him. Can you spot him in the following photo?

Fox peeking around corner of house

He's just a tiny thing, hardly bigger than a house cat.Our neighbors are content to let him hang around if he wants. [This is the sort of story that often ends, "...he seemed like such a quiet guy..."] But the problem is that the city's Animal Control, if summoned to address the situation, will just trap and kill him, and I understand their policy, given that foxes can carry rabies. In the meantime, he's a living nature lesson for the family (and for me, as well).

Speaking of lessons, what kind of study would be required to become a hairstyle archaeologist? I certainly don't have a clue, but Janet Stephens, a stylist in Baltimore, can answer that, because she's apparently become the world's leading authority on the hairdos of the ancient Romans and Greeks.

This is a great story on a number of levels. First, it challenges what I suspect are commonly-held stereotypes (sure, hairstylists should know about hair, but how many of them learn to read Latin in order to do so?). 

Second, it's a classic example of following one's dream. Stephens embarked on her profession at the age of five (she's now fifty-something), and says in the article that "Whatever you're most passionate about when you're five is what you should do for the rest of your life." Of course, when I was five, I was mostly just eating paste in kindergarten, and while there's nothing wrong with that, I have yet to figure out how to turn it into a vocation.

Speaking of vocations, we're getting wonderfully close to the time when we can send our robot double to the office to handle all those pesky interpersonal interactions while our meaty selves are safely enrobed in our jammies, wielding a bowl of cereal and a TV remote. Cue the Double, which is actually just a Segue for your iPad.

It's a simple concept: mount a tablet on a pair of wheels that can be remotely controlled via another iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) and WiFi or a cellular data plan, and use the iDevices' built-in cameras and microphones to show your mug on the remote screen and simulate actual conversation.

There are some intriguing applications, including using them for self-guided museum and gallery tours, but we're all secretly thinking the same thing: Mech-Warfare, albeit a very leisurely version, and without any weapons. OK, it would really be just like driving around an HEB parking lot, running into things in slow motion. Still, for $2,000 (plus the price of some iThings), you could probably watch as someone ran away with your investment.

Speaking of science fiction, here's an article about "science fiction investing," which - based on the results - is apparently what I've been doing for years, sans the science part. A big part of science fiction is scaring the living daylights out of you about what's just around the corner. Google's Project Glass fills that role perfectly; if you think you're connected today with your cell phone and computer, just wait until your eyelids will cue continuous interaction with everything Google thinks you need to know.

And speaking of things you need to know, you need to understand just how good a guitarist Brad Paisley is...good enough to hold his own with the legendary Joe Walsh. I recommend Paisley's 2012 book, Diary of a Player: How my musical heroes made a guitar man out of me for some insight as to what following your dreams entail (see also: hairdressers and Roman literature).

Note: This is a later version of the duet, as the original was in Flash format, and the Gazette
is a strict Flash-free zone. Sorry, but rules are rules.

Macro Mania
February 2, 2013 4:33 PM | Posted in:

Made some time this afternoon to play with my new(ish) macro lens and ring flash, with just a dash of Photoshop thrown in. 'Tis not the season for much nature photography, but it's fun to see what subjects present themselves in the garage. To wit...

Photo - Circuit board heat sink
Heat sink from a computer circuit board

Photo - Pliers in a tool bag

Photo - Driver bits
Driver bits

Photo - Lime

Photo - Circuit board
Motherboard from a Mac G4

Photo - Work gloves
Work gloves

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from February 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

January 2013 is the previous archive.

March 2013 is the next archive.

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