Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Alternate Zodiacs

I don't personally believe in the zodiac, but I'm trying to be more tolerant of different religions.

Millions of people worldwide look to the stars to help make decisions and run their lives.  However, many don't know there are different astrological systems from around the world and are depriving themselves of alternative sources of truth.  For those who want to know more about themselves, I've compiled all the major, modern systems below.

Astrological Zodiac
Astrological signs come from ancient Chaldea and is based upon the date of ones' birth.

Practical, prudent
Friendly, humanitarian
Imaginative, sensitive
Adventurous, energetic
Patient, reliable
Adaptable, versatile
Emotional, loving
Generous, warmhearted
Modest, shy
Diplomatic, urbane
Determined, forceful
Optimistic, jovial

Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese Zodiac comes from (you guessed it!) China, and is based on the year of ones' birth.

Popular, inventive
Dependable, calm
Brave, contemplative
Talkative, trustworthy
Healthy, energetic
Bookish, lucky
Popular, cheerful
Artistic, questioning
Funny, problem solvers
Hard workers, talented
Loyal, worried
Studious, brave

Pomaceous Zodiac
The Pomaceous Zodiac comes from the ancient art of determining the genome from various cultivars.

Bright, artistic
Commanding, watery
Selfish, green
Short, hairy-footed
Chubby, feminine
Collector, overblown
Pink Lady
Tart, crunchy
Sweet, inexpensive
Red Delicious
Mushy, flavorless
Dead, haunted
Got the wrong list
Granny Smith
Sour, painful

Ikea Zodiac
You can learn a lot about people by what they do when shopping for cheap furniture.

Favors cheap over quality
Goes there for the food
Kicked out of kids department
Can't find parking
Likes tiny homes
Sits in the carts
Can't follow the arrows
Uses the childcare
Can't assemble squat
Never saw Fight Club
College student
Not smart enough to realize I put this in twice

Geek Zodiac
Science has determined the best way of learning more about a person is to see what that person does as a hobby.

Loves lost causes
Final Fantasy
Named a kid Sephiroth
Why isn't the game called Link?
Raspberry Pi
Covered with solder buns
Burning Man
Part camel
Owns too many tools
Has no self-esteem
Got the wrong list
Babylon 5
Brilliant, discerning
Not a geek

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On the Star Wars 40th Anniversary

Dear Mr. Lucas,

I'd just turned seven when Star Wars came out, and I was very clear to my parents about one thing: I would not go see it.  Science fiction films weren't my thing.  Now that I'm an adult, I can appreciate 2001, Silent Running, and Westworld, but as a child they left me cold and uncomfortable.  I yearned for something more, but I couldn't find anything and gave up.

So when my parents tried to take me to your film, I dug in my heels and refused to go.

I'm now the father of two boys.  When my eldest was three, I made him his first ice cream.  As he sometimes did with food he didn't recognize, he clamped his mouth shut and turned his head away.  After wheedling and pleading with him to try it ("It's a dessert!"), I finally got some into his mouth.  His face lit up, and he quickly became an ice cream enthusiast.

My parents had the same experience taking me to Star Wars.

Like everyone else, I went nuts over the film.  I saw it over and over again in theaters.  I was obsessed with the toys to the point where my parents used Star Wars action figures as rewards for learning to multiply (I still have the Jawa I got for learning my 7s).

Running out of Star Wars things to spend money on, I dove into the library, tearing it apart for something similar, something more.  I studied science and space travel.  I learned about narrative structure, tension, and character development.  I read about mythology and history.

I began to write.

And now I'm a science fiction author.

Sometimes, when I write, I realize how much your work affected me.  I try to make my worlds varied and mysterious.  I create fights in the framework you created for the duel between Vader and Kenobi.  I see characters, action, and dialogue all differently because of your movies.

So, thank you for Star Wars, Mr. Lucas.  Your work changed my life.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

47th Birthday, Part 5: Blacksmithing

Dorath grinned. His eyes went to Taran's belt.  "You carry a fair blade," he said. "It will be mine."

"Dallben my master gave me this blade, the first that was truly mine and the first of my manhood.  The one I love girded it on me with her own hands. No, Dorath, I do not bargain with my sword."

Dorath threw back his head and laughed.

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Update: After four weeks of blogging about how hard it was to find the school and how sweaty I was, I'm finally going to tell you about the actual blacksmithing part of blacksmithing class.

Quick Precis: Blacksmithing involves hitting things very hard.

The class I took was three hours a day for a week.  During that time, I created (in order) a hook to hang coats on, a letter opener, a spoon and a two-pronged fork.  Each day, the teacher demonstrated making each piece.

He also had these examples so you could see all the steps.
I grabbed a piece of metal and started hammering.

Note the sexy shoe covers.
 And hammering.

Note the sexy humpback.
 And hammering and hammering and...

At some point, I got the hook into a hook shape.  I had to twist it, but twisted it the wrong number of times, so the hook was on the wrong side.  I then twisted back, ending with this weird wave in the middle.
I meant to do that.
Next I had to brush the scale off.  Scale is a thin, flaky layer of impurities that works its way to the surface when you heat metal.  You have to brush it off while it's hot, so it's important to wear the eye shields.  You really don't want to get flakes of yellow-hot metal in your eyes.

After the scale is removed, you have to take it over to a bucket of vegetable oil and dip it in and take it out quickly.  That way, you bake in a protective layer of oil so it won't rust.  If you do it right, you pull out a flaming piece of metal that looks good on your blog.  If you do it wrong, if you drop it into the bucket, you have to bake it on the edge of your furnace, which looks bad on your blog.  Guess which I did.

At the end of the day, I ended up with this twisted, awkward, hook thingy you might put on a wall if you wanted to make sure nobody hung a coat in your house ever again.

On the positive side, I got to reenact a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:
"You don't need that. I'll tell you everything."
"Oh, yes. I know you will."
Day two was a letter opener made from rebar.  Scary thing I learned about rebar: it can be made of anything as long as it has a minimum strength.  Most of it comes from foreign countries which accept our castoff lead, make the rebar, and send it back.  The reason we made letter openers instead of knives?  You didn't want lead in your food.

Anyway, my reason for taking a blacksmithing class was to make a sword.  As a letter opener was as close to a sword as I was going to get, I made mine a bit larger than my classmates'.

My cosplay: Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible, fused with Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, wearing Michaelangelo's headband, after forty years of  a sedentary lifestyle.
 Just kidding.  That was one the teachers did for fun.  Here's my letter opener.

 Fun quiz: What's this?

Is it the Loch Ness Monster?

No, it's the end of my letter opener (my camera can't focus that close up).  I made the metal too thin and it curled over.  Now I can open folded envelopes.

[Hevydd, the blacksmith's] eye fell on Taran's empty scabbard.  "Once, it would seem you bore a blade."

"Once I did," Taran answered. "But it is long gone, and now I journey weaponless."

"Then you shall make a sword," commanded Hevydd.

The blade he shaped seemed to him ugly, dinted, and scarred, without the fair proportions of the old one, and he would have cast it aside had not the smith ordered him to finish it.

He flung out a burly arm toward a wooden block in a corner of the forge. "Strike hard," Hevydd commanded.  "The flat, the edge, and the point."

Taran strode to the block and raised the sword.  Doing his best to shatter the ungraceful weapon, he brought it down with all his strength. The blade rang like a bell.  The block split in two.

"Now," said Hevydd quietly, "that's a blade worth bearing."

"It's not a noble weapon, and thus it suits me all the more," Taran laughed.

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

I spent the next two days making a spoon.  Spoons are wider on one end, so you have to do something called "upsetting."  ("And it's very upsetting," the teacher said.) You put the metal perpendicular to the anvil and hammer on the top to squish it down like hitting a nail.  It's a pretty complicated process to do right. Within a couple minutes you have to:
  1. Get the metal out of the furnace with big tongs.
  2. Switch to a pair of tiny tongs so you can hold it by the end.
  3. Dip it in water up to a very specific point so only the end is malleable.
  4. Switch back to the big tongs, holding it in the middle.
  5. Put it on the anvil and hammer the shit out of it.
  6. Adjust the shape of the end so it won't squish in the wrong direction next time.
When you finally get the metal to about the right thickness (about 20-30 repetitions), you hammer it perfectly flat with hours of careful work.  Or you just let the teacher hit it with the autohammer.  Guess which I did.

Then you shape it some more, quenching as you go.

Taking care not to drop it to the bottom of the very deep bucket of water.
Then you quench your hand because you weren't paying attention to how hot metal can be when it's not glowing.
Teacher: Leave it in there a long time. Sometimes there's still hot metal burning you from the inside.
Here's my finished spoon.
Works pretty well if you only eat a tiny amount of soup.
Meanwhile, figuring I had extra time (ha), I got to work making my son a dragon as a toy.

The teacher put in rivet in to hold the wings in place.
The final day we made the fork, which was cool because I got to latch it to the anvil and whack it with a fucking axe to split the two tines. I was falling behind (I still had to finish my spoon, dragon, and letter opener).  This was as far as I got with the fork.

A lost verse from The Mikado describes making convicted gluttons eat with this fork.
On the last day, the teacher (ignoring how poorly my work ended up) told me what I'd cover in Blacksmithing 2.  After Blacksmithing 2, I'd be able to take Bladesmithing .  After Bladesmithing, I could make a sword.

I really wanted to make a sword, but looking at my finished projects, I decided to stop.  Everything I made was lumpy, awkward, black and pitted.  Although, having a lumpy, black sword with a straight, shiny edge would be really cool.


With a mocking laugh Dorath raised his weapon, and Taran saw the blade that once had been his own glint sharply as Dorath swung it down with all his strength.  Taran saw his death upon him and flung up his sword in a last attempt to ward against the blow.

The blades met with a grating, ringing clash.  Taran's weapon shuddered in his hand, the shock threw him to earth.  Yet his blade held.  The sword of Dorath shattered on it.

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Thursday, June 1, 2017

47th Birthday, Part 4 - Sweat

I shatter Swords and splinter spears;
None stands to Shieldbreaker.
My point's the fount of orphans' tears,
My edge the widowmaker.
The First Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen

Recap: I took a blacksmithing class.  After getting there waaaay too early and wandering through a dangerous neighborhood looking for Pokemon, I was ready to begin.

There's one thing they don't tell you about blacksmithing when you get started: you sweat a lot.  Yeah, yeah, I know you're thinking you understand sweat.  You've run marathons. You've spent a week in Death Valley.  You taught your kid how to drive a car.

The face of Hell.
This is a blacksmithing furnace.  It burns at several thousand degrees.  You can only open it this far before the heat sets fire to your face.  No, that's not a joke.

Crucible's blacksmithing classroom has three of them going.  Sure, there's a fan, but it doesn't do much when you spend several hours right next to one of the furnaces.
Lord Vulcan, patron god of freaking heavy tools.
This is a rack of blacksmithing tools. Notice most of them are enormous fucking hammers.

I feel a strong urge to drop this on Wile E. Coyote.
Blacksmithing involves a great deal of whacking the hell out of things that don't like being whacked.  So, by the end of class, the teacher will come over to you and say things like "Put your whole body into it!" or "You need to hit it really hard!" or "Get up off the ground!  You still have two unbroken fingers."

So, you wear protective gear:

  • To protect your eyes from the flying bits of burning metal, you wear eye shields.
  • To protect your hand from the heat from the furnace, you wear a glove.  (Just one glove; it's for your tongs hand so you can shake it off when your skin starts to burn.)
  • To protect your feet from burning metal turning your nylon shoes into flaming plastic death traps, you wear these pieces of heavy cloth like spats.
  • To keep the sweat out of your eyes, you wear a fluorescent headband.
  • To keep your undies from turning into a wading pool, you stick a washcloth between your buttcheeks.

Let me reiterate: In blacksmithing, you stand next to several blisteringly hot furnaces, while exercising until your muscles fail, while blanketed in extra clothing.  After three hours, you look like Samwise Gamgee at the end of The Return of the King.

So, yeah, you don't know from sweaty.

One day a photographer came in and took pictures of everyone in the class but me.  I can't imagine why.  I look dead sexy.
Perhaps it was the smell of my buttcheek towel around my neck.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

47th Birthday, Part 3 - Easy Targets

"Renewed shall be the blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king."
The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkein

Recap: As part of my annual birthday exploration of new things, I took a blacksmithing class in Oakland.  Due to an error originating at the highest levels of Google (curse you, Larry Page!) I found myself two hours early for class in an unfamiliar city.

In every work of modern literature (usually around chapter 3) the author diverts from the main storyline to introduce a subplot involving Pokemon Go.  If you're not familiar with Pokemon Go, it's a game where you play the part of an illegal animal trapper.  You walk around in the real world, catching wild creatures, and forcing them to fight in cage matches until they are beaten unconscious.  When you find more vicious monsters, you can send them away to be turned into candy the others eat to grow strong.

You know, a standard kids game. I play Pokemon Go for my son.  He likes to see what I catch.
I just manage the Pokedex and walk to incubate new monsters.  I also make sure I catch one monster and visit one Pokestop a day to get the bonus.  Sometimes I rush off in the middle of writing to catch new Pokemon.  Sometimes I rush off during meals to catch new ones.  Sometimes I rush off when hanging out with friends, or seeing movies, or during invasive medical procedures.

I let my son evolve the monsters I catch into a new form. I don't do it myself, because I play for him.  I wait until he's out of school (sometimes for hours) to find out he doesn't appreciate that I waited for him.  I mean I was the one who rushed over to a park to catch enough Chikoritas to evolve our Bayleef, and all he had to do was tap the evolve button, but he's the one who gets to name the damn thing, and what kind of name is Basil Buttface for a Bayleef? I mean if anything it should be called Bay Laurel Buttface.

The day I was going to start my blacksmithing class, I realized I had a bunch of eggs that were going to hatch at the same time, giving me a bunch of experience.  I was also going to get my big bonus for visiting Pokestops and catching Pokemon seven days in a row.  I also had a bunch of monsters to evolve: more experience.  And I also had a free Lucky Egg, an item that lets you double your experience for a short time.

So, I was sitting around at The Crucible for two hours with nothing to do in downtown Oakland and a whole dump of experience I could get.  So, I I turned on the GPS and (after half an hour of arguing with it) started off on the two mile walk to the closest Peet's.  Holding out my phone out in front of me, I activated the Lucky Egg.

I evolved 10 Pokemon.
I passed by this campsite.

I hatched six Pokemon.
I passed by this building.

I got a latte.
I got the 7 day bonus for catching a Pokemon and the 7 day bonus for visiting a Pokestop.
I headed back to the school.
I saw some of this kind of art.

In the end, I got enough experience to go up a level. 

All in all, I had a good walking experience.  I returned to The Crucible and waited for the teacher.
He showed us around the facility ("Here's TIG welding." "Here's neon." "Never go in this room." "Here's the bathroom."), and explained how to be safe while blacksmithing ("Point the hot metal down when you walk." "Stop, drop, and roll." "Touch someone on the shoulder while passing from behind.").  Finally, he gave one vital piece of advice:

"We're in The Hood, here.  Be careful when you're outside.  Lock your car doors.  Keep your money hidden.  Above all, don't walk around your phone out in front of you; that just makes you an easy target."

I laughed.  "Ha. Ha. Ha.  What idiot would do that?  Ha. Ha."

Then I ran down the block to catch a rare, "shiny" Pikachu.  You know, for my son.

Friday, May 19, 2017

47th Birthday, Part 2 - GPS

Recap: The night before I was to start my blacksmithing class, I realized it was in Oakland.  As I live far away, I figured the drive would be long, but not the two hours Google Maps said.

I arranged with my (disgruntled) wife for her to pick up and drop off the kids; if I was gone from dawn to dusk, I wouldn't be able to take them to school and other appointments.  I packed a lunch and a water bottle and snacks.

I grabbed Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls.  If I was going to put in 30 hours of driving, I needed something to entertain me besides NPR pledge breaks and road accidents. David Sedaris would enthrall me with fanciful tales of his fatty tumors.

I headed towards the highway, started the audiobook, and turned on my phone's GPS.

Me: Navigate to The Crucible, Oakland.
GPS: You will reach your destination in two and a half hours.
Me: Fabulous.  Let's go.
GPS: Do not get on the highway.
Me: Oh, is there an accident?
David Sedaris: French doctors are weird.
GPS: Go around the bay.
Me: Around the bay?  The bay is this big...  Lake-like thingy.
GPS: It's a broad inlet.
Me: They could just call it a lake.  I don't know why we have so many different words for water and the land that's near it: bay, peninsula, isthmus, spit.  Makes me wonder if cartographers get paid by the word.
David Sedaris: "There's a story behind this," the man said, handing me the severed arm...
GPS: I said to go around the bay.
Me: You're wrong.  The bay is huge.  That's why California built three bridges over it.  It'll take forever to go around it.
GPS: One of us is in constant contact with supercomputers and satellites to figure out the quickest route.  That one is not you.  Go around the bay.
David Sedaris: My father once half-strangled a small child in front of me.  I love my family.
Me: Are you sure you're using the right preposition?  In 9th grade, Mrs. Bengtson made us memorize a list of prepositions in alphabetical order.
GPS: I know what "about" means.
Me: I can still recite them.
GPS: Please don't.
Me: About above across after against along among around butt by before between beneath beyond-
GPS: Butt?
Me: Not sure where that came from.
David Sedaris: Obama!!!
GPS: Now, take the Central Expressway.
Me: What?!
GPS: You don't have to yell at me.
Me: That'll take me in the entirely wrong direction!
GPS: It's the only way to go if we're avoiding highways.
David Sedaris: Then my father beat me with his belt for singing too loud.  I love my family.
Me: I'm sorry, what?
GPS: We have to take Central Expressway if we're avoiding highways.
Me: Why would we avoid highways?
GPS: You told me to.
Me: I did not.
GPS: Sure you did.  Saturday, when you were driving through San Francisco and wanted to avoid traffic.  You set me to "Avoid highways."
Me: How long will it take me to get there if I took highways?
GPS: 45 minutes.
Me: I'm putting you on mute now.
David Sedaris: Now that gays were able to marry, I shot my wife and pregnant daughter.

I arrived at The Crucible two hours early.  I immediately started my Pokemon Go/homeless camp experience, which we'll have to cover next week.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

47th Birthday, Part 1 - Decisions and Maps

"Gendry was only spared because smiths, even apprentice smiths, were too valuable to kill."

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

I have a list of things I'd like to do on my birthdays.  Every year, I go through each item on the list one by one.  I think about the pros and cons until I find the experience I liked best.  This year, I went through the list like this:

  • Make movie
    "Meh, sounds like a lot of work.  And I don't know a lot of actors."
  • Learn cooking
    "It'd be nice to see what I have in the kitchen and improvise something great.  Oh, wait.  I have children.  Children hate food with flavor."
  • Get Tattoo
    "Pretty sure the Tattoo is dead."
  • Forge sword
    "I've always wanted to make a sword.  I mean, I have a shield.  It doesn't mean anything without a cool sword you made yourself.  Plus, there's the badass factor."
See, I'm not making this up.
I've never made it to full badass-level.

I know how to fence and shoot a gun.  I've trained in Muay Thai, Tae Kwan Do, Boxing, Judo, and Hapkido.  I've gone on quests to battle monsters and protect fair maidens.  I've jumped off a plane.  I've had my hair bleached without succumbing to the pain.

The beginning of Dune where the main character gets blonde highlights.
But I was still not a badass.  It was decided.

I would find a master who would teach me the art of swordcrafting.  Then, like Sokka in Avatar: the Last Airbender, I would go from being the quirky, comic relief to a dashing hero with a rapier (wit).

The first step was to find a master.

When I was in San Jose a year ago, I heard about a place where you could learn blacksmithing called The Crucible.  I went online and reserved a spot in the Blacksmithing I class.  I would study several hours a day for a week, then I would take Blacksmithing II, and then I would take Bladesmithing.

Then I would be a Real Man.

The day before the class, I looked up the address of the school.  Then I rubbed my eyes and looked it up again.  Then I checked a few websites and looked it up again. 

Then I had a panic attack.

I'd made a small error.  The Crucible wasn't in San Jose; it was in Oakland.  It wouldn't take me 20 minutes to get to class each day.

It would take me nearly three hours.

Next week: my ingenious solution to the problem of having to pick up and drop off kids from school while doing nearly six hours of driving a day and having three hours of class.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

I Suck at Vacations

When we go on family vacations, everybody has a job.

My father makes plane and hotel reservations.  My brother finds things for the family to do.  My mother anticipates problems and solves them before they happen.  My wife packs.

I complain.

I've never liked vacations.  I never "got" them.  I don't get why you'd spend money on a vacation.  I don't get why you'd go through all the effort to pack your clothes up and wake up early to fly somewhere and stay in a hotel.

Most of all, I don't get what's so great about the places people go.

Why do people like to beaches?  Is it the sand?  I can buy it in bags and spread it around on the back porch?  Is it the water?  We have a bathtub.  Is it the miles of screaming kids and overweight guys in tiny swimsuits?  I'll put on my Speedo and sit next to you and make annoying noises.

Why do people like camping?  Nobody actually chops down trees to make firewood, fishes for dinner, and shoots a bear for a blanket to keep warm at night.  You know what you do camping?  You sit.  You don't cut down trees for firewood.  Heck, you can't even collect fallen branches; there are signs everywhere that say not to.  You can't fish for food, because that's bad for the environment (and time consuming).  You can't shoot a bear because they get mad.  And, again, you're surrounded by fat guys not wearing enough clothes.

If I'm going to be forced to go on vacations, at least I want to do something.  Go on a ride on a submarine, see rare snakes, plot the downfall of fascism, rescue an ancient artifact, shoot a guy with a sword, steal a Nazi uniform.

Okay, that's Indiana Jones, but at least he would take me on a fun trip.  Also, there's only one fat guy and at least he doesn't wear a Speedo.