Christmas 2010. Part 1: The Star Wars

Let’s be clear about one thing right off the bat: I’m living vicariously through my five-year-old son. Not every minute of every day, mind you, but at the very least I’m reliving my own childhood with him. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that my young apprentice received a few Star Wars-themed Christmas presents.

  • Twin-Pod Cloud CarsTwin-Pod Cloud Cars — When I was a kid, the Star Wars vehicle I most wanted was the All-Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT): the lumbering mechanical walkers that assaulted the Rebel base on Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. Second on my list of “Most Wanted Star Wars Vehicle Toys” was the Millennium Falcon. The twin-pod cloud cars that patrolled Bespin (AKA Cloud City) were right at the bottom of the list, just below Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder. Perhaps someone who owns or owned the original toy can tell me whether or not it had a second, hidden set of missile launchers revealed when the cars were pushed together. It’s a simple thing, but definitely kicked the toy up the list several notches.
  • Galactic Heroes AT-ATGalactic Heroes AT-AT — The Galactic Heroes toys are short, cute, manga-influenced versions of regular action figures; perfect for the younger Star Wars fan. The Imperial walker playset ay not have all of the moving parts of the “full-sized” AT-AT, but it’s still pretty cool. It comes with a speederbike that can be stowed in the main cargo compartment, as well as a driver figure. For reasons I can’t explain, the latter is holding a blaster, making it rather difficult to fit him into the walker’s cockpit. ((As you might imagine, this is not something that Kyle is bothered by; he has yet to say “Why does the AT-AT pilot have a blaster? Not only is it terribly impractical, I question whether it’s canon!” )) The walker also features light-up blaster cannons, blasting and walking sound effects, and a “cable” that allows you to recreate the scene in which Luke Skywalker destroys an AT-AT using a thermal detonator (not included) and the tow cable salvaged from his snowspeeder. Though it was designed for the Galactic Heroes sets, the AT-AT is also a reasonable size to crush some smaller LEGO vehicles, which leads to…
  • LEGO Star Wars setsLEGO Star Wars Snow Trooper Army Pack and LEGO Star Wars Rebel Trooper Battle Pack — I’m not sure whether the focus on The Empire Strikes Back was intentional or mere serendipity, but there are LEGO Rebels aplenty upon which the Galactic Heroes AT-AT can tread, not to mention Rogue Two, ((AKA Zev Senesca. “Echo Base, this is Rogue Two. I’ve found them. Repeat: I’ve found them.”)) a Rebel “ice cutter,” ((AKA Vehicle Not Appearing in The Film.)) a couple of Imperial snowtroopers, an AT-AT driver (( Sans AT-AT, sadly.)) an Imperial speederbike (which the Empire appears to have had no trouble adapting to the cold) and an Imperial “battle station.” ((“Station” as in “stationary” as in “not moving or intending to be moved.” Call me a nit-picker, but I don’t see how this could play into the Empire’s assault on the Hoth base.)) One of the Rebel troopers has a mustache, and when Kyle and I were watching the Hoth assault (for reference purposes) he spotted similarly-‘stached Rebel on-screen and excitedly declared that he’s “got that guy!” Each of the sets has between 70 and 80 pieces, and it took me the better part of an hour to assemble everything on Christmas Day. I’ve heard some criticism about how specialized LEGOs have become, and claims that the majority of pieces in the sets can only be used to build the vehicle (or battle station) pictured on the box. That doesn’t appear to be the case with these sets; the only piece (apart from the various weapons and equipment held by the minifigs) that an imaginative child would likey have trouble repurposing is the chassis of the speederbike.
  • R2-D2 is in Trouble, Star Wars Mighty Muggs and Star Wars Mighty Beanz — There’s really not too much to be said about these, except that I really, really hope Kyle doesn’t decide that he wants more Mighty Beanz because they are, in a word, dumb.
    R2-D2 is in Trouble Game Star Wars Mighty Muggs Star Wars Mighty Beanz

The Beard Remains

It’s approaching mid-December and I still have the “beard” I grew last month during our Beards4Boobs fundraiser. I’ve kept it for a number of reasons:

  1. Every time I see myself in the mirror I’m reminded that I haven’t announced the winner of the Name That Beard contest yet. I really need to do that, because someone did win and there is a prize to be awarded.
  2. Neither my wife nor my son has inquired as to just when I plan on shaving.
  3. I’m curious to see whether another month of growth will fill in the sparse bits.
  4. I may want to go all Joaquin Phoenix at some point in the near future.

In case you missed it, we managed to raise just over $3,900 in November, thanks to our fuzzy chins and the generosity of our sponsors. I’ve also heard rumors that a Beards4Boobs t-shirt will soon be available for purchase, with a portion of proceeds from each sale going to the Breast Cancer Research Fund. Not coincidentally, Pete DiLillo, the man whose beard attracted the most sponsorship dollars will soon be receiving one of these t-shirts in recognition of his awesomenity…awesomnambulance…awesomeness.

HoNoToGroABeMo and Beards4Boobs

It is November and I am once again observing the long-standing ((Relatively speaking.)) tradition of demonstrating my inability to grow a beard in thirty days. I shaved my goatee off in the wee hours of the morning on 01 November and my razor has been resting comfortably since. Unlike last year I have opted not to shave my burgeoning neckbeard, despite the strange compulsions it seems to create. ((The toaster lives in fear that I will attempt to replace it with something running an open source operating system.))

What began four years ago as a spoof of National Novel Writing Month—with no purpose other than showcasing buffoonery and a certain amount of chest-thumping—has since evolved into a month-long quest; a quest known as Beards4Boobs.

Perhaps if we were all Chuck Norris, we How Not To Grow A Beard Month participants could combine the awesome might of our beards to cure breast cancer. As it stands, there isn’t a Norris among us, so we must use our buffoonery and chest-thumping to coerce people (whether out of respect, awe or pity) to sponsor our beards, thus supplementing our meager follicular might with cold, hard cash; cash that will be used to fund research to find a cure.

If you’d like to assist my humble beard in this noble effort, please visit the site and sponsor me. If you don’t care to sponsor me, please visit the site and sponsor someone else. While you’re there, enter the Name That Beard contest and you just might win a signed copy of Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story, the third volume in the San Francisco Vampire Trilogy. I’m not promising anything, but if you check back in the second half of the month it is entirely possible that there will be another contest and another prize; you can probably figure out what the contest might be, but the prize will not be so easy to guess.

44 Inch Chest (2009)

44 Inch Chest (2009)

Starring Ray Winstone, Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley and Jim Hawkins.

Directed by Malcolm Venville.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is having a rough night. His wife of 21 years—Liz (Joanne Whalley), the love of his life, the queen of his universe, the mother of his children—has found someone new. Emotionally shattered, his life and home in ruins, Colin calls his friend Archie (Tom Wilkinson) who quickly rounds up the whole gang: Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), a foul-mouthed codger who’s quick to tell Colin how the late Billy Brighton would have handled the whole mess in the old days, by God; Mal (Stephen Dillane), a foul-mouthed hothead only too eager to conjure up imagined details of Liz’s affair; and Meredith (Ian McShane), a smooth and suave dandy who remains cool, collected and emotionally detached from the whole nasty business.

With a near-comatose Colin riding shotgun, Archie—good old soft-spoken, ever-supportive Arch, who lives with his mum and has never been married—drives the gang to the restaurant where Liz’s Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud) is a waiter (a waiter!). “Concentrate on your snails,” a bat-wielding Archie advises the patrons as Loverboy is forcibly removed from the premises and shoved into the back of the van, whisking him away to an abandoned apartment building, where he is locked in a large wardrobe (presumably the titular 44-inch chest) to await whatever revenge Colin chooses to exact.

“This isn’t a guys’ movie,” Laura declared as we watched Mal, Peanut, Archie and Meredith hurl abuse at Loverboy, finally removed from the wardrobe and seated—hands tied and a bag over his head—on a chair in the middle of the rundown apartment. “They’re talking too much; they’re not doing anything. That’s not how men behave.” It’s true: once Loverboy has been abducted, the main thrust of 44 Inch Chest is Colin deciding—with no small amount of advice from his friends—just what he’s going to do with his wife’s paramour.

44 Inch Chest is a tricky beast: a fairly straightforward story that often suggests all is not as it seems, that we are not privy to the entire picture, that at any moment some crucial bit we’ve been missing will be revealed, all the pieces will suddenly fall into place and our collective minds will be blown. For example, Loverboy’s face remains hidden for roughly two-thirds of the film, leading us to wonder if perhaps the gang has nabbed the wrong bloke or maybe when the bag is removed Meredith or Mal will recognize him, and his true identity will turn the story on its side.

Colin, too, teases us with flashbacks to his encounter with Liz; each subsequent flashback revealing a little more, planting the suggestion that maybe—just maybe—something horrible has happened to his estranged wife. Adding to the sense that all is not as it seems, Colin appears to be growing more and more delusional as time goes by, first imagining that Liz has found him and Loverboy, then dreaming up ever more unusual encounters with Liz and the gang. “Colin’s gone,” he says at one point, and Laura and I both began to wonder if we weren’t watching a British version of Identity.

We watched and waited, expecting that the next flashback would detail Liz’s gruesome death, or that the next words out of Old Man Peanut’s mouth would—between f-bombs—reveal that the entire scenario is playing out in Colin’s mind as he lies dying on his living room floor, murdered by his estranged wife.

When Colin leaves the apartment for the last time, it is immediately apparent that it really is the last time, that the other shoe we’ve been waiting for is never going to drop—it doesn’t even exist. The ending does not twist, the figurative sneeze we’ve been building up to for the past ninety minutes is denied, and along with it any sense of satisfaction, release or relief.

My Favorite WordPress Plugins: Absolute Comments

One of my favorite WordPress plugins is Ozh’ Absolute Comments. Why? Because it turns this:

Into this:

That’s it. See that little highlighted bit? Absolute Comments pre-populates the Reply form with that bit, so I don’t have to type it myself. The upshot is that each reply I make is addressed to the person to whom I am replying, and their name is a link to their original comment, followed by a space, an em-dash and another space (e.g., “@Kingfish — “). When I reply to a comment, I don’t have to create a link or track down the em-dash (Alt-0150 on the numeric keypad in Windows, but no keyboard shortcut that I’ve found on my MacBook.); I just start typing my reply. I could make it fancier if I wanted to, but I don’t, and Absolute Comments is integrated into the WordPress dashboard’s commenting system, so it doesn’t have to load special pages; everything is in-line, right on the dashboard.

It may not seem like much, but not having to manually link to the comment I’m replying to makes engaging in a dialogue much simpler. I didn’t realize how much I appreciated this plugin until a WordPress update created an unwanted “feature” and I had to disable it. Ozh recently released a fix for the problem and the plugin is back, which makes me one happy blogger.

Where Did All The Words Go?

Blogging seems to have taken a backseat of late; apart from the occasional “cute thing my kid did/said” post, there hasn’t been a whole lot going on ’round here. I do still talk (and sometimes write) about geek stuff over at The Secret Lair, but my personal site has been pretty quiet. For a while earlier this year I considered letting the domain name quietly expire, but then Laura reminded me that she has a blog here, too, so I renewed it for at least another year.

So where did all the words go? They’re not all on The Secret Lair—I don’t post anywhere near frequently enough there—nor have Facebook and Twitter claimed them all; I very rarely update my Facebook status and my tweeting is sporadic at best. Maybe all those words are still rattling around in my skull somewhere, or maybe they’re just not there anymore. I doubt it’s the latter; I think far too highly of my own capacity for clever turns-of-phrase and insightful opinion-rendering to believe the words just up and vanished. They’re just on hiatus for the moment; they’ll be back eventually.

What a tangled web we weave…

“Daddy, what’s that?” Kyle asked from the back seat of the minivan.

“What’s what?” I asked.

“That what I’m pointing at!”

“I can’t see what you’re pointing at when I’m driving,” I said.

“What about your eyes in the back of your head?” he asked.

Uh-oh. Mommies and daddies have eyes in the back of their heads, I told him a few weeks ago.

“Those eyes can only see you when you’re being bad,” I said, adding one more sticky strand to the web.

Unfinished: The Wonder Pets

If I have a superhuman ability, it is almost certainly an extremely high threshold for children’s television, particularly those shows geared toward preschool children: Franklin, Little Bear, Dora the Explorer, The Backyardigans and Wonder Pets, just to name a few. Some of these (Franklin) I merely tolerate, while others (The Backyardigans) I actually enjoy watching with my son.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that Kyle cycles through the shows he likes. His enjoyment of Blue’s Clues remains fairly constant, but whether he likes The Backyardigans one month and Wonder Pets another is entirely a matter of whim.

About a year ago, Kyle was on a Wonder Pets kick, and I was being exposed to a high level of guinea pig, duckling and turtle antics. Something inside me snapped; I began to consider an alternative explanation for the trio of helpful animals living in their little schoolhouse. What if, I thought, the whole thing is just the fever-dream of a guinea pig who is the test subject of a laboratory experiment?

The notion percolated in the back of my mind for a while and at some point I realized that, one way or another, I needed to get it out. So I sat down and wrote the beginning of a Linny (or Lynny, as it turns out) the guinea pig tale. Not long after I began, the winds of change blew through the International House of Johnson and Wonder Pets gave way to something else and without the regular exposure to Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too, my mind wandered elsewhere and the story was abandoned.

I have no plans to return to the beleaguered guinea pig, but I present the incomplete tale here as a cautionary tale: this is what can happen when the adult mind comes under the assault of children’s television.

03 MARCH, 2006

“The phone—”

“The phone is ringing,” Dr. Selig murmured. “I know, Walter; I can hear it. Unfortunately I’m a little occupied at the moment. As are you.” He tapped the side of the syringe a few times, then slowly depressed the plunger until a thin stream of clear liquid geysered from the tip of the hypodermic needle. “Besides, that’ll just be Nick calling to tell us they’ve decided to turn down our grant application. Again. Now, if you’ll move your finger just a little…yes, that’s excellent.”

The needle pierced the shaved skin at the base of the guinea pig’s skull and Dr. Selig injected what he suspected would be the final dose of the serum into the little mammal’s brain stem. A moment later, Walter returned the fidgeting rodent to its cage. Returned to the familiar bed of wood shavings, the guinea pig seemed content to sit motionless, peering out at the lab. It would have looked like any of a million other such animals living in similar cages in the bedrooms and living rooms of houses all across the country, were it not for the color-coded nodes that marked the location of nearly three dozen subdermal implants in the rodent’s head, spinal column and appendages.

Dr. Selig stripped off his latex gloves and dropped them into a nearby trash can. “Go ahead and run the connectivity check,” he said. “I’ll be back in an hour. I trust you want your usual?”

Walter nodded. “No celery this time,” he said.

Dr. Selig sighed. This conversation was becoming a tiresome ritual. “I’ll tell them,” he said, as he always did, “just like I’ve told them a hundred times before.”

“How hard is it for them to understand that some people like Buffalo wings without celery?” Walter asked, just as indignant today as he was last Friday when it was Dr. Selig’s turn to pick up lunch.

“I’ll tell them,” Dr. Selig said again. “You run the connectivity check.”

The lab ran a predictable lunch schedule, and there was no one more predictable about lunch than Walter. On Monday, everyone brought lunch from home and Walter ate his leftover lasagna cold. On Tuesday, Josh—the lab’s other intern—would run to Happy Burger and Walter would invariably order a bacon cheeseburger with no pickles. Wednesdays meant Dr. Oxley taking orders for Mexarito’s, Walter mangling the pronunciation of “quesadilla” when he ordered. Thursdays were the only days when Walter wasn’t likely to complain about a botched order, as it was his day to venture out to the House of Ming for Chinese food, and he always made sure there was plenty of duck sauce for his eggroll and that his General Tso’s chicken contained no vegetables. Vegetables as a rule were shunned by Walter, but green peppers especially he held in high contempt.

Later in the afternoon, when they sent someone to Dairy Queen for their weekly ice cream treats, Walter would order a turtle sundae with no pecans. Anyone daring to argue that a turtle sundae prepared without pecans was simply a caramel-and-chocolate sundae would be loudly rebuked by Walter, and everyone in the lab had long since learned that it was folly to argue with Walter where food was concerned.

Dr. Selig shrugged off his lab coat, then turned around to survey the lab. Dr. Oxley was out for the day, trying to drum up some more funding in the vain hope of keeping the lab running for another three months. Josh was multi-tasking, as usual, his phone cradled on his left shoulder while he wrote something on a yellow legal pad, pausing occasionally to run a finger over the touchpad on his laptop.

Walter was crouched in his chair, elbows on knees, peering into the guinea pig’s enclosure. Dr. Selig wondered briefly which of the two mammals—the placid guinea pig or the wide-eyed, neurotic intern—was more intelligent, then cleared his throat. “Walter,” he said, pointing to the computer terminal that processed the data feeds from the wireless sensors implanted beneath the guinea pig’s dermis. “Run the connectivity check.”

Walter swung the chair around and began tapping at the keyboard. Satisfied that the intern was following his directive, Dr. Selig left the laboratory, bound for Little Airplane Wings, an establishment that claimed to have “better Buffalo sauce than Buffalo!”


An hour later, the guinea pig was munching away at one of the unwanted celery sticks from Walter’s lunch. Though there was no outward indication, the chemical cocktail Dr. Selig had injected was working its magic: simultaneously inhibiting the rodent’s ErbB4 receptors and GABAergic interneurons. The former affected her cells’ ability to process Neuregulin-1, while the latter inhibited expression of parvalbumin, the combined upshot of which was severe, chemically-induced schizophrenia.

Her left eye twitched. An electric impulse was picked up by the sensor implanted near her left eye and a small packet of data was transmitted wirelessly to a nearby computer, where the strength and duration of the impulse were committed digitally to disc, along with thirty-three other data points that indicated other electrical impulses or lack thereof. Her left eye twitched again.


“She’s falling asleep,” Walter said, his face so close to the enclosure that his breath fogged up the glass. “Do you think she dreams, Dr. Selig?”

Dr. Selig wiped a dollop of barbecue sauce from the corner of his mouth with a napkin and considered the question for a moment before answering.

“There’s sufficient evidence to suggest that she does, Walter,” he said, reaching forward to tap one of the jagged lines marching across the LCD screen. “She’ll be entering her REM cycle shortly, just as you and I do every night. Her sleep patterns are similar enough to ours—including observable alterations in brain activity—that it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that she does, indeed, dream. But you can rest assured that her dreaming, or the fact that she does dream, has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.”

The answer seemed to satisfy Walter, who continued to stare at the guinea pig as he would do for what seemed like hours at a time if Dr. Selig didn’t find something else for him to do. This is what happens when you agree to hire your husband’s empty-headed younger brother, Dr. Selig thought, glancing ruefully over at Dr. Oxley’s empty chair and vowing for what must have been the ten-thousandth time to never again allow a colleague’s nepotism to supersede little things like talent and qualifications. Still, it was Friday, and in all likelihood they’d have to pack up the lab on Monday when Nick managed to deliver the bad news about the grant application and Dr. Oxley similarly reported her failure to find another backer, so where was the harm in letting Walter stare at a sleeping guinea pig all afternoon? It would certainly keep him out of Dr. Selig’s hair.


The guinea pig slept, unmindful of the voyeur looming beyond the glass, and she dreamed. On the nearby screen, unwatched by anyone in the lab, the lines that provided a visual indicator of the various electrical impulses in her brain grew more jagged as new neural pathways opened to compensate for those the chemicals had closed. The rodent’s brain behaved in ways no one in the laboratory had predicted. Neurotransmitters that had been disabled by previous variants of the experimental serum were activated again, while those that had been functioning normally only an hour before suddenly went quiet.


The alarm went off while Dr. Selig was in the restroom. Walter had no idea what it meant, nor what he should do. He looked to Josh, who was still on the phone. “I have to go,” Josh said quickly. “There’s an animal in trouble.” He fumbled the receiver onto its cradle and crossed to Walter’s workstation. “What’s going on?” he asked. “What’s the problem?”

Josh, unlike Walter, had been hired based on those two little things Dr. Selig felt were more important than nepotism: talent and qualifications. It took him only a quick glance at the EEG readouts on the monitor to realize that something was going horribly wrong in the guinea pig’s brain. He looked over at the animal’s enclosure; she was sleeping peacefully, the rapid in-out motion of her breathing the only indication that she was alive at all.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Josh said, frowning at the readout. “She should be wide awake and thrashing like an angry badger. When was the last time you calibrated these sensors?”

“Yesterday,” Dr. Selig said from the doorway. He crossed the lab quickly; if either intern noticed that the fly on his trousers was open they didn’t bother to point it out to him. “I heard the alarm. What’s going on?”

Walter stood mute while Josh explained that the guinea pig appeared to be having some sort of neuropathic seizure. “Except she’s not,” he said, confusion clear in the tone of his voice. “She’s just…sleeping.”

“Comatose seems more likely,” Dr. Selig replied, “though these readings certainly don’t suggest it.”

Walter stared at the guinea pig, as concerned about her welfare as anyone in the lab but utterly incapable of doing anything to affect it. He looked at the half-eaten piece of celery, then over to the discarded remains of his lunch, the corner of the styrofoam takeout box poking out of the trash can, more convinced then ever that the vile stalk was not to be trusted. He leaned in close to the enclosure again, oblivious to the conversation going on just a few feet away. He saw the guinea pig’s left eye twitch. Rapid eye movement, he thought, recalling his earlier conversation with Dr. Selig, and again wondered if she was dreaming.

A quick spelling lesson.

“Is there any F-R-O-S-T-I-E left in the freezer?” I asked Laura as dinner was winding down, unintentionally misspelling the name of the frozen dairy treat from Wendy’s.

I must have mumbled.

“Daddy?” Kyle asked. “What does T-I-T spell?”

It’s just a good thing I didn’t have food in my mouth.