Sunday, April 30, 2006

Books: Stronghold

Earlier this month after finishing Hard Drive, I started reading Stronghold, the first book in the Dragon Star trilogy by Melanie Rawn. I had read Melanie's previous trilogy (the Dragon Prince) quite a while ago. That trilogy ends with quite a cliffhanger setting up the next trilogy. But for whatever reason I had never gotten around to reading it.

However back in March, Linzy and I ventured up to Uncle Hugo's to trade in some books. Amazingly they took all of my books (usually they don't take any, or maybe just one or two) and I had a bunch of store credit to use. While wandering the store I stumbled across a complete set of the Dragon Star trilogy in aged, but good shape. Since they were older, they were even cheaper then normal, and with the store credit I couldn't pass them up.

Stronghold turned out to be quite good. I enjoyed the Dragon Prince trilogy, but seem to recall being a bit bored with the books in the middle, and then amazed at how much the third book picked up. Stronghold takes place several years after the first trilogy, but for all practical purposes picks up with the plot right where the other books left off.

Since it had been so long since I read the first trilogy, I struggled a bit at first with the massive collection of characters. But after a while, and with enough refresher information woven into the story, I was able to recall who everyone was.

The basic plot for Stronghold is one that has been done a million times before, a land united in peace under a just ruler (see: the first trilogy) is ripped apart by a basically unstoppable invasion by an unknown enemy (see: Sword of Truth, Wheel of Time, etc, etc).

Despite the well-worn plot device, all those characters are what really make the book. Melanie Rawn has a talent for creating and describing intricate characters who really make you connect with the story. In particular, she did a terrific job in Stronghold really making you feel for the characters forced to abandon their homes in the face of the enemy invasion.

At times, the book seemed to get a bit too focused on minutiae. For example, Melanie will spend a couple pages describing two characters, their family history, how they met, their arranged marriage, how they ended up falling in love, etc only to kill them off in the next paragraph.

Now, is that building a realistic world, adding to the tragedy of the invasion? Or is it just being pointlessly long-winded? In that case I happened to think that it was a legitimately added to the feeling of senselessness to the whole invasion, but in other books stuff like that has annoyed me. So whether I was just in the right mood for meandering storytelling, or whether Melanie Rawn just does a better job weaving those details into the story without them feeling pointlessly tacked-on, I don't know.

Overall I quite enjoyed the book, and happily started into the second book in the trilogy. Hopefully it will be able to maintain the high standard set by Stronghold.

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

How Many Pages?

Tonight I was clicking through pages of search results at a website. When I started looking through the results, it was claiming there were going to be 21 pages of results.

A few pages into things, the site changed its mind and said there were only 18 pages. Then, a few pages later it changed back to 21 pages. Then as I nearly reached the end, it recanted and went back to saying '18 pages'. It stuck with that estimate all the way to the very last (18th) page, when inexplicably it went back to saying 21 pages despite the fact that the 'next page' button disappeared.

What the Heck?

I can understand the total number of pages being an estimate on the first (or even first few) pages. You might not run the full query, returning only enough results to populate the first page and estimate the total number of rows.

But as you get further into things, you should start to have a better idea of how many pages there are going to be. Certainly by the last page, when you are disabling that 'next' button you should be pretty dang sure this is the last page. It's just not that hard.

Or maybe there were three pages of top secret results I wasn't allowed to see.


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Friday, April 28, 2006

No Fun

When I was leaving work tonight (late, as usual) the rain that had been drizzling all day was starting to pick up. At that point I noticed a guy who was about to have a lot less fun on his drive home then me.

Why? Because he was riding home on a moped.

Now, personally I don't find riding on a moped to be a particularly fun way to travel any significant distance anways. But certainly riding on one at 20 mph in the pouring rain has to be extra not-so-fun.

The guy at least had what looked like semi-waterproof pants, a jacket, and a helmet with a face shield, but his face still looked pretty glum about the whole deal as he puttered away through the parking lot.

So, despite it being Yet Another Terrible Day at work, I still felt a little better about my day as I climbed into my warm, dry car. All thanks to the anonymous guy who suffered through the rain on his moped.


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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Wii

So, you might have heard that Nintendo announced the name for their next-generation video game console: Wii (as in we)

At this point I am thinking it is a pretty terrible name for a console. I kind of liked the code name "Revolution".

The explanations of the logic behind the name are fairly sketchy ("the two i's look like people playing together"....ummm what?) but then again, I wasn't a big fan of "Gamecube" when they announced that as the name for their previous console. So perhaps it will grow on me.

On the other hand, maybe it's just a stupid name. I guess only time will tell.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Battery Tester

A few days ago at work one of my co-workers was nice enough to give me a multimeter. He apparently was buying a whole bunch of super cheap ones from a local Chinese junk store to give to his kids (who have moved out), use around the house, etc. He thought of me and so got one for me too.

That was pretty cool, since I didn't have a multimeter. And actually I've run across a couple situations recently where I thought that I might be able to use a multimeter to help figure things out.

So when I got it home that night, I opened the package up ready to test it out. Except when I turned it on, nothing. Then I was thinking that maybe it wouldn't come on until I hooked up the testing wires, but still nothing.

At that point I decided the battery was probably just dead, and flipped it over to replace it. There I was greeted by a big warning:

CAUTION

This instrument contains no operator serviceable parts. Screw removal by qualified persons only.


And lo-and-behold, there was no battery compartment, just some screws to remove (by qualified professionals only) to open the whole thing up. Brazenly labeling myself 'qualified' to remove two screws, I cracked the thing open.

Despite their claims to the contrary, the battery was just a normal 9 volt connected to a standard plug. So I scavenged our last available smoke detector replacement battery to replace it with. After reassembly, the multimeter came right on.

And so what did I test with it? Why, the battery it came with to confirm that it was in fact dead-as-a-doornail.

The most amusing part was that Don had specifically mentioned "Yeah, they were only 4 bucks, and came with a battery too!" What we both failed to ask apparently was whether it came with a working battery.

[ I should mention, this is not meant to be a slam on the gift, it was really nice of him to get one for me. I just thought it was amusing that we had specifically been talking about it including a battery, and that the first thing I ended up using it for was to test that battery. ]

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tasty Cowhide

This weekend when I was helping plant trees and worrying about the self-esteem of the neighborhood kids, I had put my wallet, cell phone, work pager, and assorted other goodies from my pockets in a small pile near the deck. I didn't think too much about it at the time, other then that I didn't want them getting in the way while digging holes and wrestling 16 foot trees around the yard.

Anyways, after we had finished the manhandling the first tree into its hole, all of the sudden Paul turned around and noticed his Samoyed acting suspicious over in the far corner of the yard. As he walked over, he realized just what it was that Sammy was tearing up/eating, my wallet.

Sammy must have had it for a while, because the wallet was ripped into about 20 pieces, none recognizable as even being part of a wallet. All the paper things in the wallet was in various stages of being digested, the credit cards were all chewed up, and Sammy had actually completely eaten some of the money.

As we were chasing Sammy and all the half-eaten receipts around the yard, I learned that apparently the dog has acquired a bit of a taste for leather. He had eaten Paul's wallet, his father's palm pilot cover, chewed on a couch, and now my wallet.

Luckily my drivers license was mostly intact (and has to be replaced in June anyways), the only credit card I use is still fairly usable, and of the two bills in my wallet Sammy only swallowed the $1 bill, and left most of the $20 bill. That made it easy to appreciate the humor of the situation, and reassure a horrified Paul and Laura that it was not a big deal.

I found it fairly amusing when I went to head home, and had to scoop up the two fistfuls of crumpled pieces of paper, broken credit cards, and junk that was all that was left of my wallet.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Prancing

This weekend I was over at a friend's house helping him plant two new trees. While leaning on my shovel, I happened to notice a dad and his sons playing baseball at a house behind me.

A little later while I was busy mixing up some mulch/dirt mixture to fill in the hole, when I heard the dad bellow:

Quit running like a girl!

By the time I glanced up, he had yelled "That's better", so I didn't get to see his little boy prancing around the bases. But however he was running, Dad didn't approve.


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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Video Games: Oblivion

At the beginning of April, I found a new way to spend what little free time I have: playing Oblivion.

The game is just outstanding, and every bit as good as I imagined back in October 2004. If you are even remotely a fan of non-linear RPGs, you owe it to yourself to pick the game up.

There are many things the game does well, but primarily it is just providing a huge seamless world to explore, filled with tons of stuff to do. It's about a close to an MMORPG as you can get in a single player offline game.

The bad part about the game is that it has some pretty high system requirements. My computer nearly meets the recommended criteria, and manages to run fairly well. Certainly well enough to enjoy the game. But with a faster CPU and more importantly a better video card, I could crank all those detail settings all the way up and have a really gorgeous game to play.

Regardless I am really enjoying the game, to the point that I haven't played Guitar Hero since I got Oblivion. Now that's a sign of a good game.


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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Red Rock Canyon Pictures

On Thursday while in Las Vegas, Linzy and I used the rental car to drive over to Red Rock Canyon, which is about 20 miles west of the Strip (but these days just outside the edge of the Vegas urban sprawl).



There wasn't quite as much to see as at Valley of Fire, but it has a lot of hiking trails and there were a lot of bikers doing the 13-mile scenic loop.

A small Joshua Tree (I think), and some of the mountains surrounding Red Rock Canyon.


The rock formations at one of the first stops on the scenic loop. For a sense of scale, look at the little tiny people just above the start of the red on the left side, climbing the rocks.


A chuckwalla that was sunning himself on a rock I was climbing on.




A cocoon filled with creepy wiggling worms or caterpillar or something.


Did you know there was a desert tortoise? Well, there is, and apparently they are considered to be 'threatened', due to loss of habitat, people taking them as pets, and, I imagine, generally being slow.


A chuckwalla laying on his iguana couch, inside the visitors center.


And, as a fitting end to this week's endless photo posts, one of my favorites.



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Friday, April 21, 2006

Valley of the Fire Pictures

After visiting the Hoover Dam, Linzy and I drove the scenic lakeshore route around Lake Mead, through the desert and up to Valley of Fire State Park.



It was a pretty cool (though small) park featuring lots of brilliant red sandstone formations.

What passes for a flower garden, in the desert.


One of the "Seven Sisters".


Petroglyphs carved by natvies long, long ago.




A cool arch you could climb up to.


Elephant rock.


A huge rock wall covered with petroglyphs.


A sandy path we hiked up to see Mouse's Tank.


Rainbow Vista, which was much more stunning in person.


Even in the desert, there are flowers here and there.




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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Hoover Dam Pictures

On Wednesday while in Las Vegas, Linzy and I rented a car and drove out to see the Hoover Dam. It's a fairly quick drive, just 20 or 30 miles to the south-east of Las Vegas.



The generators on the Nevada side of the dam. Amazingly the second generator from the front is the original one that was installed when the dam was first constructed way back in 1936.


You can't see it in the picture above, but just below the lower right corner of the picture, there is a different type of generator that provides all the power the Dam needs for itself. The other 17 generators are used strictly to provide the power the Dam sells.

The view of the dam from the Arizona side.


The dam is 724 feet tall, which is hard to capture in a picture.




The bottom of the dam


Looking down the river from the dam


The observation platform where you stop on the tour.


The two Arizona intake towers.


Amusingly the walkway to the Arizona and Nevada intake towers each have a clock above them that say "Arizona Time" or "Nevada Time". Which are exactly the same, at least during the summer.

Lake Mead (the enormous lake formed by the dam) is down quite a ways from where it looks like it normally is.


It is also really, really clear.


The lake further upstream from the dam. It was amazingly blue.



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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Obsess Much?

[ Today I'll give you a breather from this week's stream of photo-only posts. ]

On the flight home from Las Vegas, Linzy and I ended up sitting across the aisle from each other. Sharing my row was a woman and her ~1-1.5 year-old son, Kieran. They were fine flying companions. Kieran was a little loud but quickly succumbed to the patented male-Eck charm with little kids, and spent a good portion of the rest of the flight making faces at me.

Anyway, the lady had a rather large bag of toys and items to keep Kieran occupied during the flight. He was more interested in playing with the phone in the back of the seat then with any of the several personalized books Mom had brought along. (By personalized, I mean those books that you can order where they insert your child's name at key points in the story).

When we landed, Mom whipped out her cell phone (with Kieran's picture as the wallpaper) to call for a ride. Then, it so happened that Linzy and I were standing on the sidewalk waiting for our ride when Kieran and Mom got picked up. Dad arrived wearing a custom trucker hat emblazoned with Kieran's picture.

Finally, for the coup de grace, I noticed that Mom's car (she had asked on the phone if it would be her car used for the pick-up) had a license plate that read "KIERAN2". Implying, I guess, that their other car also also had a vanity plate sporting Kieran's name.

Large quantities of toys? Pretty normal when traveling with kids.
Cell phone wallpaper of kid? Also fairly normal.
Multiple personalized books? Relatively mundane, although there were more then just a few.
Trucker hat with the kid's picture? A little less normal, I think.

But, vanity license plates for each car with the kid's name? Crossing into scary obsessive territory.

At least in my mind.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bellagio Pictures

The fanciest hotel we visited on Monday of last week was by far the Bellagio. It was amazingly posh inside. Of course, you pay for that luxury in the ridiculously high room prices ($100 more a night then the MGM Grand, for reference)



The ceiling of the lobby.


Marble everywhere, was apparently the design motto.


They also had an amazing conservatory just off the main lobby filled from floor to ceiling with perfectly maintained flowers. It was really quite cool.












A frog made of mums.


They even had a huge butterfly cage because, you know, they can.


A little further back in the shopping section we stumbled onto what is apparently the world's largest chocolate fountain. Totally random (though it at least was in a chocolate shop), but pretty cool.


We also got to see the dancing fountains a few nights later, and they were just as amazing as we had heard. We watched the end of one song and then waited around to see the next show all the way through. It was well worth the wait, very cool.

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Stratosphere & Test Drive Pictures

On Tuesday morning last week Linzy and I ventured to the far North end of the Las Vegas Strip to see the Stratosphere Hotel and Tower. The tower is the tallest building west of the Mississippi river (1,149 feet tall), and you can go up to the top to look out over Las Vegas.



Looking down towards the Strip, from the top of the tower.


At the top of the tower, you can ride several rides. I went on "Insanity", which spins you out over the edge of the tower, at about 70 degrees (that is, tilted so you are nearly tipped forward and are dangling over the ground). It was a lot of fun. (this was a picture of the people on the ride before me)



The worst part of the ride (for me, since I am scared of heights) was the first part, where they were levering you out over nothingness, and you didn't really know what to expect. Once they started spinning you it wasn't too bad, and definitely fun.

Here is a view from the ground. You can see the Insanity hanging over the right edge of the tower.



Another ride on the top of the tower shoots you over the side. It looked scary, but not as much fun as the Insanity.


When we got off the monorail at the Sahara, we discovered a new attraction that just opened this month. It was called Test Drive, and was two driving courses where you could drive GM cars on. For $10 you could drive around one of the courses twice.


I originally wasn't going to do it, thinking it would be too expensive. But when we found out it was only $10 Linzy talked me into doing it. I am really glad I did, as it was a blast. Beating the heck out of a $50,000 sports car on a race course (even a 1.2 mile loop) isn't something you get to do very often.

I drove a CTS-V (a Cadillac CTS with a Corvette engine), so Linzy could ride with, and because my buddy at work has one. It handled terrifically, and despite my rusty clutch skills I even got the tires to chatter a bit off the starting line (i.e. what would have been squealing save for the traction control).


The off-road course, where you could drive a number of different SUVs through (almost everyone was picking the Hummers, imagine that).



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