Recommended Reading/Listening: “LizardFoot” by John Jasper Owens

A cappella Zoo 3: “LizardFoot,” by John Jasper Owens – A cappella Zoo
If there’s something not to like about this story, I frankly can’t imagine it–and the audio version is *even better.*

Please accept my resignation as Grand White Pharaoh of the Order of Racial Purity, and the return on these here robes (enclosed) which have been patched by Missy-Bee before she run off, and dry-cleaned all the way up in Shilohville by authentic Koreans.
As y’all know, I never quite fit in with The Order. I have nothing special against black people (except for Highsmith Jones, who beat me out for running back when we were in school, and that was more of a personal thing). Plus, I have never actually seen a Jew, but if they do control all media, I remain angry with them for taking Katie Couric off of the before-shift television, where she was good-looking to wake up to, and putting her on nights, where I have had enough of women by then.
I have long suspected anyway I was only invited to join The Order on account of my Kingfisher pontoon, on which we all can get on to go fishing, and my extra large hog pit for barbeques. And likewise for being hitched to Missy-Bee, who has long spoke out against racial intermixing, and is Super-Grand White Squid of Paladuck County Ezekiel’s sister, and second runner-up for homecoming queen, and well-liked.
Well I suppose y’all are wondering why I am resigning, on account of y’all have not been mean to me lately in any serious way. Well, it is the direct result of our LizardFoot con introduced in order to make money from Yankees.
As y’all know, Yankees are stupid. . . .

RECOMMENDED GAME: “Pipe Trouble”

Spoiler Alert: I don’t believe in Good Guys and Bad Guys, and don’t really believe in the narrative necessity of antagonists and protagonists or the centrality of Conflict. Stories, to me, are about Problems, and the most interesting Problems are the ones that arise when everyone thinks they are basically the Good Guy Doing the Right Thing. Subsequently, most video games bore or frustrate me. That said, I’m loving Pipe Trouble, the newest new-media thingy from affable pop-culture gadfly Jim Munroe.

I dig games that 1) interestingly model real-world conundrums (however abstractly) and 2) force the player to balance competing interests in a Universe where there is never (or rarely) a zero-loss win-win. Add in adorable high-rez 8-bit graphics, interestingly quasi-narrative faux CBC radio clips between scenes, and reasonably ramping difficulty (I’m crappy at most traditional video games, so you kinda gotta take it easy on me), and this is just a perfect-fit game for dave-o.
Added bonus: Playing this game with my 6-year-old catalyzed a great conversation about 1) how to balance the stress of being challenged with the enjoyment of playing (levels get steadily harder and faster, which mega wigs both me and my kid out), 2) balancing economic development and environmental conservation in energy policy, and 3) how competing interests aren’t generally ones of “good guys” vs. “bad guys,” but situations where various groups are disagreeing because they have different visions of what constitutes the Best of All Possible Worlds, and their actions–no matter how destructive–come out of a good-faith effort to Do the Right Thing.
You can play a trial version online for free before buying–but I’m telling you, this is worth the price of a decent cup of coffee. Go get it for iPad or Android thingy.

RECOMMENDED READING: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman is a really enjoyable read, both as a literary novel and as a low-grade mystery/crime thriller. About 60% into the book you suddenly realize that the crime has been solved and all loose ends secured–which leaves one to wonder what the hell is going to occupy the remaining pages. At this point, though, the investigator tracks backward through his solved mystery (not temporally, just in terms if the relationships of cause and effect), and unwinds a whole second layer to it all. So, right there, it would be a great piece of mystery writing, wonderfully managing expectations and non-cheating reveals (a la the best of Christie or Doyle). Throughout, it’s also great crime writing, showing the way that ordinary folks can resolve–without cognitive dissonance–the mismatches between their external and internal lives (I think of Price’s Clockers as being the epitome at this aspect of crime fiction). This is all pinned against an almost classic SF backdrop: Impending meteor strike is gonna end the world on a known date. Everything that means for workaday humans–including this fair-and-square regular-joe cop who’s found himself suddenly bumped up to detective–brings these “lowly” genre pieces up a notch. It’s fine *craft* being used to explore the poignant humanity of Kobayashi Maru, which is basically the thing we mean when we say “art,” right?
Takeway: Read this. It’s a quick one and worth your time.

(DISCLOSURE Those are indeed Amazon affiliate links to the book; if you click on them and buy it, I’ll get some minuscule percentage. Also, the book itself was a gift from my mom; all of these factors may have swayed my opinion. I’m only human.)

RECOMMENDED BUY: LEGO Brick Separator Tool

I don’t know how this ended up in our possession, but at some point on our Holiday Season Travels (which included many LEGO gifts for and purchases by our first-grader, and many hours of LEGO building for all, both in new sets and sifting through the decades-old bins of LEGO at various relatives homes) my son acquired one of these little guys:


That’s a “LEGO Brick Separator Tool” and it’s worth its weight in gold. I remember many a nail bent back and tooth chipped trying to separate bricks and plates when I was a boy–but such enhanced interrogation and freelance orthodontics are a thing of the past. Just attach this little fella to the pesky LEGO (either from above or below), and you can lever it off with ease–even if you are only endowed with the scrawny musculature and soft hands of an American first grader. The added bonus on this model LEGO tool is the little poky-axle on top, which helps dislodge short rods, axles, and pins from Technic wheels and gears. As soon as it entered our house this tool reduced the calls of “Daaaaaadeeeeee: I need help getting these LEGOs apart!” by a solid 90 percent. *Bliss!*
LEGO tools currently sell new at Amazon for about $7, although I’ve seen older style tools online (ones without the axle/pin pusher on top) for as little as $2–even at the higher price, this thing is *so worth it.*

RECOMMENDED READING: Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike by Grant Peterson

Although this is framed as a manifesto by a former bike-racer-turned-designer/bike-populist, railing against what “racer mentality” has done to the otherwise universal American pastime of “riding bikes,” I’m *manically* recommending it to anyone who likes to pedal. It’s a great, great book: a quick, fun read composed of short, tightly focused practical articles. the book is *packed* with excellent advice on fitness, maintenance, bike fitting, and riding techniques. E.g., this was the first I’d heard about using your hips to assist cornering, and it’s *changed my life.* I disagree with him about helmets (since I started riding daily in a city full of drivers-from-elsewhere, I’m *deeply* committed to my relationship with my brain bucket), but his points about how to own a slightly larger slice of the road by giving the *impression* that you’re an incompetent rider has been revelatory.
I’ve never been tainted by the bike-racing headspace (I’m *waaaaaay* to lazy to be into competitive *anything*), but I read this book in a single day, and have been going back to it frequently since, applying Peterson’s tips to my bike, diet, and exercise regimen. Get a copy, read it, and keep it close at hand.

Recommended Kit: Back to the Roots Oyster Mushroom Kit

My family gave me one of these Back to the Roots oyster mushroom kits for Father’s Day this year. I was not initially impressed: I babied the damn thing for a month, and got *nothing*; not a single damned filament of mycoprotein. Pissed off, I ditched it onto on my office desk down in the basement with the conviction to write a *very scathing* letter to the manufacturers. Then I got distracted for a month, and neglected both the kit and the letter writing. When I came home from the first day Maker Faire Detroit I discovered this:

Which, in just 24-hours, developed to this:

Which was *delicious* (as promised). So, I kept neglecting the kit. It’s three months later, and the kit just put out its *fourth* batch of mushrooms (i.e., twice as many as it’s supposed to). Yes, each batch is diminished in size from that first, but seeing as how I was only promised two, this strikes me as solid performance. I rate this a *Buy.*

UPDATE: About a week after this post went up I get an email out of the blue from one of the mushroom farmers at Back to the Roots, thanking me for my sticktoitiveness. Stand up folks all around, and clearly pretty responsive to customer concerns. I score this as another point in their favor.

Recommended Reading: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins

If you’ve enjoyed the “Electro-Skiffle Band” projects in SNIP, BURN, SOLDER, SHRED–or dug my Droid Voicebox talk at Maker Faire Detroit 2012–then you really, really need to check out Nic Collins’s Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. I give it multiple shout-outs in the book, but I’m being emphatic here: It’s impossible to overstate how inspiring and fun his book and projects are. I’m hugely indebted to Nic for having written it, and then revised it (the newest edition includes a DVD of audio and video examples, making it even awesomer than what my library had to offer when I first stumbled across this gem).

Also worth checking out is Nicolas Collins’s web site, which includes video tutorials and some great new circuits.

Recommended Buy: “Stop Motion Studio” for iPhone–Make Animated Films in Minutes with Your iThing!

Still hyped by a late coffee and this earlier post on iPhone stop-motion animation, I dropped 99-cents on Stop Motion Studio after dinner tonight. Elapsed time between downloading the app and uploading our finished video: *Literally* five minutes (including having to muck around with the App Store’s new “security questions” BS)–and that included poking around to figure out the controls, composing and shooting the frames, doing a little light editing to remove a totally botched shot, rendering, and adding the soundtrack (with foley work by my kid). The video and sound editing make this a total *steal*; it’s easily worth 10 times the current price, as it allows for a full end-to-end production all in one app (which is *great* if you need to work within a kindergarten attention span).
PRO TIP: Turn on both the “Grid” and “Overlay” options; they make lining up shots and maintaining frame continuity (i.e., the two most frustrating things about shooting stop-motion) a total breeze.
Seriously, *Buy This NOW*. You’ll make the investment back before bedtime.

Recommended Buy: LEGO Heroica Game

For the first time since having kids I had a solid Toys R’ Us win on Saturday, and it’s this:

BACKSTORY: My five-year-old and I go to the same dentist. Because I’m an adult man and skipped going to the dentist for about a half decade when I had no dental insurance, my visits to the dentist are persuasively unpleasant (i.e., Guess who had six cavities and a 1.5 hour deep clean after his first return-visit to the dentist? Guess who flosses daily–or more–now?) But, this is a cunning dentist who works his *ass* off to make sure that kids *love* going to the dentist. In addition to the cheap-plastic-from-China toy bin and a big ole goody bag of flossers and colorful cartoon toothbrushes and *krazy flavvvvorz-funtime adventure toothpaste!!!* and whatever, he also gives every cavity-free child a $10 gift card to Toys R’ Us–which represents a huge portion of my son’s annual income. Coupled with his $1 per week allowance (he feeds the pets) and occasional boons on birthdays and holidays, he periodically has a fair amount of buying power–provided he goes to Toys R’ Us (which itself is sort of a *grrrrrr* situation but, you know, I’m not gonna look a gift-card in the mouth).
After many delays (we’ve got a new baby), the boy and I finally made it out to the store on Saturday. He had long planned to purchase “Sensei Wu” from LEGO’s Ninjago line. I *hate* this line, because it is a totally rip-off: The Ninjago packages are basically a fighting-tops/Pokemon hybrid, cost $15-ish, and include one (1) specialized LEGO minifig that stands on one (1) weighted dreidel and can hold his many little specialized (and easily lost) swords. There’s nothing to build, and they aren’t fun to play with, but they have excellent marketing (including trade-style comic books my son reads over and over and over), and all the kids talk about them, and thus all the kids want them–so goes the world.
Fortunately, my local Toys R’ Us was out of Sensei Wu (suck it, Sensei Wu!) Our 5yo brave-faced it, but was clearly bummed as he wandered the aisles looking for a stray Wu tucked among the Technics sets and Space Police (or whatever they call that line). Then, while looking for breast-pump parts, I stumbled across an ill-situated end-cap of LEGO games marked down 30%.

I’m on record as being more than a little disappointed in the LEGO corporate trajectory–with its growing reliance on marketing tie-ins, uselessly hyper-specialized bricks, gendering, and violence-based problem solving–but I *love* the games they’ve been producing. As build kits they’re at least moderately entertaining, and the games themselves are balanced and playable by a *wide* age-range. A few weeks ago we’d been introduced to these LEGO games at my sister’s house, where my 10-year-old nephew, 5-year-old son, 66-year-old mother, and I all happily played MINOTAURUS–and were evenly matched. CREATIONARY is likewise a delight (and, thank Gott in Himmel, bounced the curséd Candy Land from the mix).

Not only do these have the cachet of being for older kids, but my son has also recently gotten into D&D (in the form of DnDish–more on that in a future post), which made HEROICA: CAVERNS OF NATHUZ an especially easy sell. The HEROICA series (which includes four games, all under the same rule set, which can either be played independently or linked together into one epic campaign) is basically a boiled-down version of the movement/combat system from the old red-boxed Basic Dungeons & Dragons box from the 1980s.

The rules are simple enough that a precocious 5-year-old can grasp them (although the game is marketed for 7+), but complicated enough that it preserves that *lots can happen* and *many monkeywrenches* feel of dice-based RPGs. There isn’t really a narrative built-in–or mandated–but it’s easy to add a narrative layer (and, in our situation, kind of inevitable).
So, for the price of one goddamn Ninjago dude my kid got an entire game that he spent a happy hour *building*, and we then spent an enjoyable half-hour playing as a family (wife and new baby even enjoyed it, and neither of them are paper-and-pencil RPG people), and are already inventing new rules and scenarios for.
Plus Toys R’ Us actually had the breast-pump parts and organic diapers I needed. Critical hit!