Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Book Review: Cosm

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

I recently polished off Gegory Benford's Cosm.  Here's my review.

The Setup

The book follows  a particle physicist who has accidentally created a seemingly physics-defying macroscopic object during an accelerator experiment, as attempts to understand the object and maintain her possession of it.

What I Liked

  • The book seems to have a very strong basis in real physics and astronomy,* as you would expect from Benford, since he is a professor or astrophysics at the University of California, Irvine.
  • The depiction of scientific research and the lives of research scientists is quite realistic.
  • The plot moves along quickly.  I found the book to be a real page-turner.

What I Disliked

  • One or two plot developments were predictable.

Summary

Overall, I give this book 8.0 out of 10.  I recommend it to anyone to whom its premise sounds interesting.

* Amusingly, although the astrophysics in the book is very well researched, I did notice a factual error regarding the protagonist's Miata.  I think this observation says more about me that about the author.

Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta

Hey everyone! I thought I'd share the meal that we had for dinner tonight...it was SO GOOD. I'm still a little fixated on it and I want to eat more of it, so instead I'm going to write about it. I'm sure that will be JUST as satisfying, right?

Ahem.

OK, I basically adapted the recipe from this Emeril Lagasse recipe on the food network site. I know, right? It's really shocking that Michael would eat anything Emeril makes. However, it should be noted that by "adapted" I mean " pretty much totally copied except for I left out all the fatty cheese at the end". Aha! Mystery solved.

Ingredients:
  • approx 2.5 lbs cherry tomatoes, halved (note: Emeril's recipe called for various colors of tomatoes...yellow and heirloom green in addition to red. They were hard to find and I'm not that fancy. All red works great, too.)
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 Tblsp balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup chiffonade fresh basil leaves
  • 2 Tblsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano (Emeril's recipe calls for 1 tsp of fresh...I don't use oregano that often, so I elected to just use my dried oregano that I already had rather than buy expensive, fresh oregano of which I would use one tsp and then throw the rest away after I found it several weeks later all nasty in the bottom of my fridge.)
  • 1/2 package of Angel hair pasta (We use whole wheat...yum!)
Directions:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine tomatoes, garlic, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes in a large glass baking dish. Bake 40-45 mins.
  3. When the tomatoes are done baking, toss in the basil, parsley, and oregano.
  4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta and then toss with the tomatoes.
  5. EAT!
If you choose to check out the link above you'll see that the original recipe called for ricotta salata and pecorino cheeses as well as a bunch of toasted pine nuts. My version is probably less tasty, but on the upside I'll be able to wear my pants tomorrow. I sprinkled some grated parmesan on it and called it a day. If you add all the cheese, you might want to use the entire package of pasta as the original recipe calls for (the whole package ended up being too many noodles with just the tomatoes) and make sure your sweats are clean.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: Watchmen

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

As part of my recent resurgent interest in reading, I finally got around to tackling Watchmen.  I purchased this graphic novel, which is generally regarded as the most significant example of its kind ever published, at least 3 years ago.  I never actually read it until now, however, because I couldn't get past the art, which is, in some ways, rather poor. As I shall explain, I was foolish to be so put off by the artwork.

The Setup

Watchmen takes place in an alternate-reality America where the US soundly won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon is serving an unprecedented fifth term as the President.  The main story, the investigation of what appears to be the serial killing of masked heroes, occurs in October and November of 1985, but the book is laced with flashbacks reaching as far back as 1939.  Each of the 12 chapters---the  issues of the original limited run of the Watchmen comic---also features several pages on supplementary text.  This text is pulled from one character's autobiography, newspaper interviews with characters, documents from one character's history, and so on.

What I Liked
  • The main story, the investigation of the murders, is interesting, though it is not the most intriguing aspect of this book.
  • The extremely nonlinear way in which the story is told and in which the characters' history is slowly revealed is fascinating.
  • The characters themselves are interesting, especially Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan.  I think Rorschach is my favorite, though I wouldn't want to spend any time with him.  Or near him.  Or in the same city with him.
  • The composition of the comic panels is extremely well done.  Some examples:  the reader often must look through the foreground to see that the important content is in the background, some of the panels are echoed throughout the volume, many panels feature dual storylines that mirror each other, and the angles from which the panels are "shot" are carefully chosen to draw attention to elements within each panel.
  • The Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic-within-the-comic is an interesting idea, and it suggests that, in a world of masked adventurers, comics might not be about them.
  • The story is very realistic.  Only one of the "superheroes" in the book has any kind of powers, and the way society reacts to these vigilantes seems fairly believable to me.
  • Interpersonal relationships are a key part of the story, and they are well explored.
  • I enjoyed how the book explores the motivations and evolution of the masked adventurers

What I Disliked
  • As I said, I was turned off by the art when I first picked up the book The drawing is crude, at least by modern comic-cook standards, and the coloring is very flat and uniform.  (As I said before, though, the composition aspect of the art is excellent.)
  • The Tales of the Black Freighter, though an interesting premise, simply drags on too long, and mostly made me annoyed that I had to read that storyline before getting back to the "real" plot.
  • The exact mechanism by which the main antagonist intends to achieve his or her goal is, well, a little silly.

Summary

Overall, I give Watchmen 9.0 out of 10, one of the highest ratings I've ever given.  It's the best graphic novel and one of the best novels of any kind that I have read.  I encourage you to read this book.  You won't regret it.

I'm also looking forward to seeing the film based on this comic.  I'm worried about the movie version, though.  The extremely nonlinear means by which the story is told might confuse many viewers, so I'm not sure how much of it will be implemented for the film.  Additionally, since the book has far less "action" than the typical superhero movie, I'm concerned the the filmmakers will feel the need to punch up the flick with a bunch of choreographed fight sequences and explosions.  We shall see.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

BYOP

Alison and I hosted the fourth annual edition of the Team Grondul BYOP* Pumpkin-Carving Party about a week ago.  It went quite well:  we had our largest ever turnout, and I believe everyone had a good time.  So, I'd like to thank everyone who showed up and contributed to the festive mood.

* Bring Your Own Pumpkin, natch.

That's not an Intercooler. THAT's an Intercooler.

I installed a new intercooler into Mia today, with help from the Chesapeake Area Roadsters club.  The new intercooler has a volume about 1.8 times that of the puny stock unit, so I hope to see substantially less heat soak and more consistent boost when driving the car hard.

Shouldn't B7 be 40% Better than B5?

I've lately been watching the "classic" British science-fiction series Blake's 7.  So far---8 episodes in---I'm enjoying it.  Look for a review of the show in, oh, about 44 episodes.

Book Review: Helliconia Spring

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

I've been on a bit of a reading binge lately. The first in the batch of books I've read recently was Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss.  I remember seeing this book in my high-school library and intending to read it.  Somehow, I never got around to it.  Until that is, I found it in a used-book store a month or so ago.  My review follows.

The Setup

This book is the first in a 3-volume story that chronicles one "great year" on the planet Helliconia. The planet orbits its sun ever 1.6 Earth years or so.  That sun, in turn, follows an extremely elliptical orbit about another, brighter star every 1825 of these "small years."  One great year thus takes almost 3000 Earth years and is accompanied by extreme seasonal sapient species oh the planet.  As the seasons progress, dominance passes from the winter-adapted phagors to the heat-loving humans.

What I Liked
  • The setup is very compelling.
  • The world-building is very thorough, including plants, animals, and cultures evolved to survive on this planet.

What I Disliked
  • I found the plot, which follows few individual humans through a couple of generations, simply uninteresting.  I believe my lack of interest is an almost inevitable outcome of the setup.  The book can't simply recount the interesting quirks of Helliconia or the events of one great year;  if it did, it would read like an encyclopedia rather than a novel.  Instead, the plot must follow individual humans.  However, since a human lifespan is so small compared to a great year, and since the humans and phagors have competed for numerous great years, I couldn't help but feel that nothing that the humans---or phagors---do will matter in the long run.
Summary

Overall, I give this novel 6.0 out of 10.  It's an impressive example of world-building that is, nonetheless, not especially compelling.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Disasco: CFT

Well that was a fiaster. Or mabye a disasco.

Congrats, of Course

As expected, Alison has just been given permission to schedule her defense---we're hoping she can set the date for mid-December---so congratulations to her.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lessons Newton Taught Us: Goodness

Here's a very simple, but valuable, lesson I learned from our pup:
Dogs are good.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

PR: Row 5 km

Today, because of cold and darkness, I elected to row, rather than run, my 5-km workout.  I'm happy to report that I set a new personal record of 21:48.2, almost 62 seconds faster than my previous best.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Things to Do in Atlanta When You're Hungy: To Eat and Drink in the ATL

I've often said that Atlanta is a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.  I say this because Atlanta is indeed a pleasant city to inhabit---the climate is mild though a bit hot, there are many trees, the cost of living is low, there are numerous good restaurants, and so on---but there's very little to do as a tourist---after you visit the CNN Center and the Georgia Aquarium, you're done. 

Of course, my cute little assertion is only partly true.  On the one hand, Atlantans must cope with the traffic in that city, which is terrible.  On the other, even tourists can enjoy all the restaurant diversity, too.  Thus, I'd like to present a few distinctive restaurants that you might be interested in checking out if you visit the ATL, or even if you live there.

R. Thomas' Deluxe Grill  

Alison and I agree that R. Thomas' is our favorite restaurant in Atlanta, and possibly worldwide.  Apparently, we are not alone.  But be warned.  R. Thomas' is not for the culinarily conservative.

First, let's consider the structure itself, as well as its the decor.  Only the kitchen and restrooms are inside the building.  The dining room is under a tent.  Don't worry;  the tent is well sealed against the outside world and is climate controlled for your comfort.  The tent is decorated with pinwheels, whirlygigs, and other such paraphenalia, both inside and out. Additionally, there are beaded curtains, mirror balls, tiny fountains, and so on.   You cant' miss this place.  Oh, and there are birds.  Tropical birds, large and small, are caged inside the dining room and outside the building.  It seems that R. Thomas himself loves birds, and, if he's there, he may bring one by to show you its tricks.  I should mention that you will sit and dine on lawn furniture.  It seems that there is a minimum number of piercings and tattoos required of the waitstaff, but they don't look down on unmodified folks wearing khaki pants and button-up shirts.

The menu offers what I like to call kooky food.  There are plenty of meat substitutes for vegetarians, but numerous meat dishes are also offered.  You'll also find a large number of "alternative" grains, vegetables, and dairy products not often seen in the States:  quinoa, hiziki, other sea vegetables, kiefer, and so on.  You'll also see "normal" foods prepared in interesting ways.  The raw walnut and sunflower pate springs to mind as an example.  Don't be too worried if this all sounds a bit crazy;  there are several more mainstream dishes, too.  Alison loves the French toast---breakfast is served anytime---and I always enjoy the mini fajitas.

If this restaurant sounds interesting to you, I'd suggest you order a number of small dishes, so you can maximize the variety available to you.  In addition to the aforementioned fajitas and nut pate, I'd recommend the Crazy Trails salad, Dr Joe's mango salad, and the 4-vegetable plate, loaded up with curried quinoa, Dijon hiziki, sesame seawead salad, and the lil' bits of nori rolls. 
Plus, you simply must try the PBJ Plus smoothie, even if it is probably 800 kcal;  it's like drinking a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.  Mmmm.

The Flying Biscuit Cafe

The Biscuit, as locals call it, has several locations now, but I always go to the original location, just east of Little Five Points on McLendon.  The cuisine at the Biscuit is what you might call Southern ex-fusion.  By that, I mean it is Southern, but with influences from other cultures and cuisines.  For example, my usual order is the Southern-style vegan BBQ burrito.

The Candler Park location has some advantages associated with it.  You can check out the adjacent Flying Biscuit Bakery while you are there.  Also, if you are planning to have any holes installed in your body, you can simply stroll across McLendon to perhaps the best piercing facility in the Southeast, The Piercing Experience.  Just be sure not to try to go to the Candler Park location for lunch on Sunday;  it's always slammed at that time. 

Hmm.  It appears that the Biscuit has been bought, and there are plans to franchise it.  Can one franchise quirky?  I'm skeptical.

Madras Chettinaad

Madras Chettinaad is the latest location and evolution of Alison's favorite Indian restaurant.  It's also a favorite of her former roommates, Leah and Melinda, as well as the readers of The Loaf.  Madras is located in Decatur, and it offers South Indian cuisine, in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian incarnations.

Well, that's my list of the restaurants I think any visitor to Atlanta should try.  I hope those of you in the readership who've never lived there--perhaps 3 people---benefit from it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Does this Mean the Galactica Runs on the Mac OS?

It seems that humorist, author, corespondant, and personified PC John Hodgeman will be apper in one of the episodes of Battlestar Galactica to be broadcast in 2009.  I'll certianly keep and eye out for him

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fall Food

Mmm...now that it has gotten a little bit chilly outside, I'm starting to want to cook all my favorite fall foods. I am a nut for anything that has pumpkin in it and I really love making homemade soup when it starts to get chilly outside. Here are a couple of my favorite soups:

Barley and Roasted-vegetable Soup

  • I found this recipe on Epicurous.com and I really love it! I have made it both with and without the barley and I have never found dried porcini mushrooms, so I usually leave that part out. Also, if you use instant barley, you can sort of combine the last 2 steps into one and save yourself some time.
Alton Brown's Curried Split Pea Soup

  • This one is easy and yummy. The hardest part is chopping up the onion. I think it tastes great served with bread made using Alton's pizza crust recipe.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Internet Series Review: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

As I wrote my last entry, a review of another internet series starying Felicia Day, I realized that I had never posted a review of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.  So, here it is:

The Setup

You can read my version of this series' setup here.

What I Liked
  • The dialog is wonderfully Whedonesque.
  • The plot is perposterous but hilarious.
  • The acting is solid.
  • The main characters, with one exception, are interesting and well developed.
  • The songs are amusing and well performed.

What I Disliked
  • Penny's character is only poorly developed and serves only as a MacGuffin to motivate Dr. Horrible's and Captain Hammer's actions.  If it weren't for Whedon's established record of feminism, I'd feel compelled to point out that only male characters had anything to do.

Conclusion

Overall, I give Dr. Horrible 8.5 out of 10.  If you haven't yet seen it, I encourage you to do so. 

Internet Series Review: The Guild, Season 1

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

Alison and recently discovered the internet series The Guild, and we promptly watched its entire run.  Here's my review:

The Setup

The series was created by Felicia Day* based on her own experiences playing MMORPGs, and it follows addicted gamer Codex (Day) as her online life crosses over into her real life.  Season 1 consists of 10 episodes of about 3 to 6 minutes each.  Season 2 was supposed to hit the intertubes in September or October, so I'm unsure what its status is. 

What I Liked
  • All the characters are distinct, with unique personalities.  I particularly enjoyed Codex, Zaboo, and Vork.
  • The acting is sometimes pretty strong, and I especially enjoyed the actors filling the 3 roles I just mentioned.
  • The script is fairly amusing, most of the time.

What I Disliked
  • The acting is sometimes fairly weak, giving me the impression that I was watching actors reading lines, rather than characters saying what they felt.
  • The dialog can be a little stilted and artificial-sounding at times.

Conclusion

Overall, I give the first season of The Guild 7.0 out of 10.  If I were a MMORPGer, I'd probably give it a full point more.  I'm looking forward to seeing the second season, if it ever materializes.

* Day may be familiar to the Whedonites in the audience as Vi, a potential slayer from Buffy's final season, and as Penny, the laundromat girl, from Dr. Horrible.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

PR: Row 5 km

For various reasons---mostly my couple-day sickness---I chose not to do the prescribed workout of the day yesterday.  Instead, I elected to row 5 km on our Concept 2 rower.  The time I posted, 22:50.1, wasn't blistering, but it was a personal record, so I'm pleased with my performance.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Review: Yubnub

I'm still using Google's Chrome browser, even though it's just a beta release. In fact, I've added Yubnub, the "command line for the internet," to it. Here's my review of that little piece of software.

The Setup

Once installed, Yubnub lets you easily search different databases and search engines. For example, typing "gim miata" does a Google Image search for Miatas, and "wp wankel engine" does a Wikipedia search for Wankel engines. Yubnub does much more, too. It can use it as a reverse dictionary; look up a word given its definition. It can generate random numbers. It can break up strings and perform Boolean operations. If all that isn't enough, you can create your own command.

What I Like
  • It really is like a command line for the internet.

What I Don't Like
  • What's not to like?

Conclusion

Overall, I give Yubnub 9.0 out of 10. It's terribly useful and entirely free.

Team Grondul Powers, Activate! Form of a Blog!

I'm experimenting with a name change for this blog. I think the new name more accurately represents our content. Plus, the word "Grondul" almost doesn't exist outside of our little family, so the new name is more distinctive.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

TV Review: Life on Mars (UK)

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

A couple of nights ago, I finished watching the BBC's Life on Mars, and I thought I would post my review of the show.

The Setup

In 2006, Sam Tyler is a Detective Chief Inspector in the Manchester police force.  He's struck by a car, knocked unconscious, and wakes up in 1973 Manchester as a Detective Inspector.  He's confronted with casual racism and sexism, a lack of all modern police technology,  personality conflicts, and the question of whether he has really travelled back in time or lying in a coma.

The title of the series comes from the David Bowie song of the same name, which was playing on Sam's iPod when he was hit by the car and on his radio when he awakens.

The show, which ran for 2 seasons of 8 episodes each,  was quite a hit in the UK.  It even spawned a sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, which is based on essentially the same premise, features some of the same characters, takes place principally in 1981, and is also named after a Bowie.

Because of its popularity, Life on Mars is being adapted for American broadcast by ABC.  The first episode of the American version will air this Thursday.  US versions of British shows are often only pale imitations in my opinion, so I'm curious to see how the American Life on Mars compares to the original.

I should point out that this series contains a lot of profanity, some nudity, and fair number of racial and gender-based slurs, so it may not be appropriate for children.

What I Liked
  • All the characters, especially Sam and Gene Hunt, his DCI in 1973, are very interesting characters, and well performed.
  • I found the overarching storyline and the individual episode plots to be engaging.

What I Disliked
  • Well, I can't think of anything I strongly disliked.  

Summary

Overall, I give this show 7.5 out of 10.  It is interesting and entertaining, and I recommend you sample it.

Stately Whedon Manor

Those of you who know Alison and me in meatspace know that we are hoping to buy our first home in the middle of next year.* Sadly, I don't think we'll be able to muster up the cash to buy Joss Wedon's house, which has just gone up for sale. However, if you are a well-heeled Whedonite, you might want to point your realtor in that direction.

* Yes, the current credit crisis does have me worried.

Happy Birthday, Mickey

Today is my mother's birthday.  So, happy birthday Mom!  I hope you have a good one.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

TV Review: Primeval, Seasons 1 and 2

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

I recently completed watching the first 2 seasons of the ITV series Primeval, so I thought I'd post my review of the series.

The Setup

The series was created by the same people who made the Walking with... documentaries.  It follows a team of paleontologists and others who investigate temporal anomalies that appear, connecting the contemporary world with the distant past and the distant future.  Each episode consists of a self-contained plot revolving around the team's efforts to capture or kill prehistoric or future creatures that come through the anomalies or to return to the present from the far side.  Additionally there's an ongoing arc involving a contemporary human who travels though the anomalies, visiting the past and future before returning to make trouble in the present.  Other arcs include the activities of a mysterious organization, and the evolution of interpersonal relationships between the team members.

What I Liked
  • The creature-catching and stuck-in-the-past adventures are good, light-hearted fun.
  • The effects are pretty decent.
  • Several of the characters, particularly Nick Cutter, the team leader, are pretty interesting.
  • It's fun to see speculative creatures from the future, most notably the so-called future predator.
  • The series touches on some slightly more complex issues of time-travel, including changing the present while in the past, as well as issues of identity.
  • Accents are fun!

What I Disliked
  • The motivations of some characters, particularly Helen Cutter, are not thoroughly developed.
  • The more complex issues of time travel that I mentioned before aren't really addressed as much as I'd like.
  • At least twice in the first two seasons, the team encounters large multi-cellular organisms from the Precambrian supereon.  These animals are acknowledged as "previously unknown to science," or whatever, but there's no way creatures this large could have existed at that time.
  •  The Conner character is quite annoying.

Summary

Overall, I give this series 7.0 out 1o.  It's not great television, but it is quite enjoyable.  I'm looking forward to seeing the third season in January.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Graysons < The [BC]atwoman Hour

It seems that the CW is planning a series, entitled The Graysons, that would follow Dick Grayson before he became Robin. Think of it as a Boy Wonder analog of Smallville. As a person who believes that Robin is the weakest part of the Batman mythos, I have no interest in this potential show. I wouldn't mind seeing a series about Grayson's career as Nightwing, however, if only to see someone say "Bl├╝dhaven" with a straight face.

Of course, a show following the romantic exploits of the new Batwoman, interrupted occasionally by fights with Catwoman, would be most welcome. Mmmm...Catwoman.

Edit: The reader comments following this story at IO9 are pretty amusing. Much more entertaining than the show could ever be.