SuperNerd!

Last night I posted to Twitter:

Watching a Nova show on string theory. (It was a requirement to maintain my supernerd certification this month.)

This morning, my friend Jeff presented me this, created in cooperation with his wife Fazia:

SuperNerd Certificate

This of course immediately became one of my new favorite things. Be sure to appreciate the seal and the signatures!

Of Teddy Bears and Farting Dogs

My friend Amy Boyd has, over the time that she has worked at Texas State University, acquired a fairly impressive collection of stuffed animals. This was not because she bought them herself, or even because she’s particularly fond of them, but because someone gave her the first one as a joke. Other people got it into their heads that she collected them, and have given them to her as gifts until her desk was awash in them.

Among these unsolicited stuffed critters was one Walter the Farting Dog, a stuffed canine apparently based on a children’s book series of the same name. Walter is a scruffy-looking beast who, when squeezed, emits a distinctive flatulent sound. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), his batteries were eventually exhausted, and his noisome and noisy gastric distress came to an end.

I thought that Walter deserved a second lease on life, but that it would be much funnier and more surreal for Walter to do something entirely different when resuscitated. While on an outing with Abigail, we happened across a Build A Bear workshop, where I noticed a good selection of voice boxes for their bears — just the thing for Walter! I explained to Abby what I had in mind, and we rooted through their selection of sounds until we finally settled on this. The woman at the desk was a little baffled that I only wanted the voice box without a bear around it, but happily obliged me when I started waving around the Lincolns.

A couple of weeks later, I divulged the plan to Jeff Snider, and we kidnapped Walter early one morning to do the necessary surgery on him. Putting his old scouting skills to good use, Jeff deftly snipped Walter’s belly stitches, extracted the old sound box, slipped in the new one, and with a surgeon’s precision, sewed him back together so neatly that one would never know by looking that Walter had been through trauma. (Photo gallery is here.) We thought about neutering him while we had him sedated, but decided that with the romantic hurdles he already faced, it was probably unnecessary.

Walter in the Operating Room.

Walter in the Operating Room.

We discreetly replaced the dog on Amy’s desk, and then began the most difficult part of the whole process: waiting for someone to discover Walter’s new personality. Neither of us could go squeeze him ourselves, as we would give ourselves away all too quickly. But nobody who was already familiar with Walter had any inclination to squeeze him any longer, as his batteries had died long before.

Fortunately, we were rescued from our purgatory about a week and a half later, when Whitten picked Walter up and gave him a good squeeze.

“Let’s go shopping!” chirped Walter.

“What the h***?” responded Amy promptly.

A few more squeezes elicited more of Walter’s new vocabulary, all delivered in a cloying preadolescent whine:

“Hey, Girlfriend!”

“It’s great to have a new friend like you!”

“You look great!”

“You are too cool!”

All of this happened while I was at lunch, alas. After our earlier Cuckoo Clock prank, Jeff and I were immediate suspects, and since I lack the ability to lie well, all the details quickly spilled out. Amy thought it was hilarious, and has now demanded that we install the flatulence voicebox into her stuffed spider.

What My Friends Are Up To

One of the best things about being me is that I’m blessed with some amazing, creative, interesting friends. Here are a few things that they’ve been up to lately:

  • David Barnard has started an iPhone software company called AppCubby, and has just released their first product, TripCubby, the sine qua non of mileage tracking for the iPhone. David has worked extraordinarily hard to get this venture off the ground, and that effort shows in the quality of the work that AppCubby is doing. (I’m also excited about this because I did some of the copy writing for David — one of my first professional jobs writing prose instead of software.)
  • Misty Jones has released a song called Gasoline on iTunes. Misty’s musicianship has impressed me all the way back to high school, and I really dig this latest effort. You can check out 30 seconds for free, or get the whole thing (DRM-free, even!) for a mere $0.99. She plans to finish out the album on which this song will go soon.
  • Ross Richie continues to helm Boom Studios, an increasingly successful comic book publishing venture. One of their bolder efforts of late has been releasing some of their books for free viewing online. They’ve recently added RSS feeds, which makes it super-easy to follow the books as they’re released page-by-page. There’s some very high-quality work in their stable, so if you’re in to the medium at all, go check their stuff out!

Blasted Nonsense From The Past

Back when dinosaurs roamed the Internet and you could get a cup of coffee and a shoeshine for a nickel, before the kids all had their newfangled “Mybook” and “Facespaces” and the blink tag still seemed a pretty nifty idea, there was Brain Sausage.

Brain Sausage was an early proto-weblog, created before such things actually existed. I wrote the software for it because I wanted to learn Perl, and enlisted the aid of Robert Leahey and Chris Morris to help populate it with interesting links and a liberal dose of snarkiness. Chris also wrote a super-cool little ticker for Windows that would alert interested parties when there were new posts.

While most of it has been lost to history at this point, I was amused/delighted/horrified to discover that the good folks at archive.org had actually preserved a few pages. The logo, sadly, appears to be lost, either by the vagaries of the program that collected the information or by the good judgement of a censor somewhere. But here are a few bits that historians, masochists, and the easily amused might enjoy having a look at:

A few other horrors I pulled from the archive:

Make Software? Make Money? Help Cure Cancer

My friend and occasional boss Seth Dillingham is gearing up again for the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, an annual bicycle ride fund raiser that benefits the Dana-Farber Institute, a research organization that battles cancer.

Part of Seth’s fund raising each year includes a big Macintosh software auction, for which he’s now collecting donations. If you make Mac software and wouldn’t mind donating a few licenses to a very worthy cause, give him a hand! If you don’t create software, you can still support his efforts in other ways. Please do what you can to help!

Stupid Guy Trip VI

I’m just back from the sixth Stupid Guy Trip, an annualish gathering of my brother, me, and a few of our oldest and dearest. This year Chris McMains, Daniel Priest, Mike Brack, Ben Mengden, Ross Richie, Jason Young, and Jonathan Hunter made up the roster. More than ever this year, it was an experience I can’t really do justice to in a weblog post. A few of the highlights, however, were these:

  • A visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Great collection housed in amazing architecture. Most notable was the giant, bird-wing shaped sunscreen that opened and closed over the solarium several times a day, but the rest of the space was fantastic as well.
  • Nearly getting into a fight with some people vying for a parking space near the mob scene that was RiverSplash. They noticed the license plates on the rental car, and shouted repeatedly at us “Go back to Idaho, you potato-*****,” which was a wholly novel epithet for us.
  • Touring the Lakefront Brewery. Our guide was funny and personable, the beer was good, and the company excellent.
  • The Safe House, a spy-themed bar. To gain entry, one has to know the password or perform an embarrassing act in front of the video cameras that pipe your image into the bar ahead of you. Once cleared, a bookcase swings aside and admits you to the establishment proper, which features all sorts of cold war/James Bond/spy memorabilia, as well as a “secret passage” that locks behind you as you go through it. (I ended up having to exit the bar altogether and lobby the doorkeeper for re-admittance.)
  • Seeing a Brewers game. Miller Park is beautifully constructed, and we had a great view of the ball field from our relatively-cheap seats. It was especially enjoyable to see how seriously fans there take their tailgating; we could see the smoke rising from all the grills from half a mile away, and actually getting in required dodging a number of thrown beanbags from an inexplicably popular game that was played throughout the parking lot. Plus, it’s the only ball park I’ve been to with a slide, though it was sadly not open to the public.
  • Trocadero, a European-style cafe where we enjoyed a fantastic brunch twice. The service was great and the food amazing. (I got to try ratatouille: yum!)
  • Playing full-contact whiffle ball in a park near Jonathan’s apartment. We attracted a fair number of spectators, a couple of injuries, and innumerable grass stains.
  • The biggest highlight for me, however, is always the company and conversations. I count many of these friendships in decades now, have been through a ton with these guys, and am very grateful indeed to be able to carve time out of our lives to nurture those relationships. (Though from the outside, it may be hard to distinguish “nurturing relationships” from “insulting each other’s mothers”.)

A special thanks to Jonathan for hosting our octet of malodorous males in his efficiency apartment.

Tamale Party

A highlight of this past weekend was a tamale-making party at my friend James Buratti’s house that he and his wife Jen hosted. Tamale-making is a ritual that holds a certain mystique in Mexican culture, with recipes and techniques handed down from generation to generation and horror stories of young people’s apprenticeships in the kitchen during the process. While I adore tamales, I’d never gotten to be a part of their production, so was quite excited to get to participate and to be a part of that cultural institution.

Jen and James had things well organized, so we got right to work. They were each trying different approaches to the process: Jen using the traditional techniques and recipes handed down through her family, James working with a recipe from the grocery store that looked good and trying every time and labor-saving innovation he could think of.

The first step was mixing the masa. While you can get a big bag of masa from the grocery store pretty cheaply, it needs further preparation to be used for tamales. We mixed in salt, chili powder, and alarming amounts of lard and vegetable shortening, working the mixture until it had about the consistency of hummus and would float in water. We tried doing so both by hand and using a mixer. The latter produced a fluffier masa, and was certainly less work than doing it by hand. On the downside, one didn’t get the lovely hand-conditioning benefits that the lard provides for practitioners of the manual technique.

Next we spread the masa onto the corn husks, which had been prepared by trimming off the tops and soaking them in water. (Again, you can get bags of corn husks at your better grocery stores if you don’t happen to have a corn field handy.) We started using spoons and fingers to do the spreading, but James, who had been drywalling a lot lately, pulled out a few different sizes of putty knives, which eased the process considerably for me, though they got mixed reviews from others.

Next, we spread fillings in a line and wrapped the whole husk/masa assembly around the filling core like paper around a pencil. The most traditional filling for tamales is actually pulled from a whole cooked pig head, but fortunately nobody was feeling quite that traditional. We settled for spiced pork and beef fillings, with a few raisins added for sweetness in some of them. (Later, beans and cheese and chicken fillings also arrived, though that was after Liam and I had headed home for Christmas decorating. Some of the best tamales I’ve ever had also had strips of poblano peppers and cheese for the center.)

Finally, the finished tamales were steamed for about 45 minutes. And while I thought I loved tamales before, I must say that the ones I have had paled in comparison to these freshly cooked ones — hot, fluffy and delicious!

My only complaint about the whole process is that, as with many things, once I saw what goes into them, my enthusiasm for tamales was diminished a bit. I’m not a fan of lard in general, and watching big blocks of it going into the masa caused a disturbance in the force that I’m sure my cardiologist felt all the way across town. James and I discussed the possibility of substituting olive oil, which might make slightly less-savory tamales, but would certainly make me feel better about eating them!

James took lots of photos of the process, which you can see here. Thanks, Burattis, for putting together such a great event!

UPDATE: Here’s the post from James & Jen’s weblog.

Thanksgiving

I’m late on this, because I was too busy enjoying the things for which I’m thankful! Here’s a list of them:

  • Food, shelter, and the fact that all my physical needs are met.
  • A country where the rule of law is generally respected and where individual rights are usually protected.
  • The beauty of creation, and the chance to live in a place where that beauty is so evident.
  • The freedom to practice the faith I believe to be true, and the fact that faith makes a home for wretched, messed-up people.
  • A family who has loved me steadfastly through times both difficult and joyful.
  • A wife who patiently endures my foibles and faults. Their name is Legion, hers is Grace.
  • A houseful of children who bring love, joy, and immense amounts of laughter with them wherever they go.
  • A generally stimulating job that allows me to strike a decent balance between work itself and the reasons we work.
  • The men and women brave and self-sacrificing enough to put on a uniform and put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us.
  • A cadre of musicians I’ve now enjoyed playing with for over 5 years. Sharing that regularly has brought a lot of joy, fun and laughter into my life, and has made certainly me a better musician.
  • I have several friendships I now tally in decades, as well as some fantastic newer ones, and feel richly blessed for these people whose lives I’ve been able to share so deeply and enjoyably.
  • Giant burritos.

For these and many more things, I give heartfelt thanks!

Hiking the Canyon Lake Gorge

A few months ago, David Barnard tipped me off to the existence of the Canyon Lake Gorge, a feature formed in 2002 by the torrential overflow from Canyon Lake during that year’s floods. We were both able to secure one of the scarce reservations for a hike through the gorge, and embarked on our little adventure yesterday.

The gorge is striking. It was stripped of life during the floods as the water carved into the limestone bedrock, but has slowly had plant life return as seeds fall in or are brought by animals. There are lots of springs where the water seeps up from the aquifer or escapes from the lake, as well as a ton of different sorts of fossils: algae, sea biscuits, snails, clams, and even dinosaur footprints.

It was great fun to get to see this area, to talk with the people who have watched it change in the 5 years since the flood, and to literally stumble across evidence of life from thousands of years ago.

Gorge, Lake, People

You can see more photos here, or download a KML (Google Earth) dump from my GPS showing where the hike went here.

Hovercraft Building

The inimitable Jason Young and I took this past Sunday to build a hardware store hovercraft out of wood, plastic sheeting, a leaf blower, and peanut butter. (Note: one of those things is a lie.) We then set my children (read: “lab rats”) floating down the street on it like passengers on a giant air hockey puck. We had a super time constructing and running the thing, and highly recommend it as a weekend project for anyone inclined toward similar sorts of potentially dangerous madness.

Please enjoy the video, won’t you? Thank you. [Note for Facebook friends: the video quality on Facebook is much better than that on Google Video.]