PRO-TIP: RadioShack “medium replacement headphone earpads” fit Sennheiser PX-100s

Mostly just posting this because I had to hunt a fair bit to sort this out. If the foam earpads on your Sennheiser PX-100s are shot, you can replace them with these guys from RadioShack (which are half the price of the replacements from Sennheiser):
RadioShack Replacement Foam Headphone Speaker Pads (Medium) : Headphones |
They won’t *look* like they’re going to fit, because the skirt on the back of the pad is tighter than what you’ll see on the blown-out foam earpads that came with your headphones. But, if you slip one edge of the RadioShack replacements on, and then work carefully around the perimeter (kind of like getting a bike tire back on the rim), the skirt will slide right into place. The RadioShack pads feel good as new, if not better.
Incidentally, the PX-100s are *excellent* headphones (I don’t know if they’re $100-excellent–that’s the current price on Amazon–but were certainly worth the $50 I paid for mine, like, a decade ago). They are light, easy on the ears, fold into their own case–and thus travel well in your computer bag–and the sound is really nicely balanced, with good bass and clarity. The surprisingly good sound is a consequence of having an open-backed design, which means they function more like stereo speakers than headphones (important, since most music is mixed with actual sound systems, not dinky headphones, in mind). Most headphones are locked into plastic housings, which constrains how much air the diaphragms of the speaker can move. This fundamentally dicks with how you are hearing the music (since that’s all about vibrations in the air); the fact that the music is mixed to be heard on actual speakers doesn’t help. The result tends to be dead bass and muddy sound. An open-air design better emulates a speaker situation, with the added benefit (in my opinion) that it *doesn’t* block as much ambient sound (being sealed inside my music tends to creep me out; I have issues). Also, in my experience, and open-air headphone speaker is easier on my inner ear and ear-drum, since it doesn’t focus a blast of pressure waves into my skull.

Jim Crace’s Harvest, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, the Hooptie-Jaguar Continuum, Moral Fiction, Grammarly, & Disclosures

(Disclosure: The publisher sent me a review copy of HARVEST because I *loved* Crace’s THE PESTHOUSE so much. HARVEST didn’t hit me nearly so squarely as PESTHOUSE–largely because of my inborn anti-Anglophilia bias–but is still a great read. Slow, yes, but tense and engaging. The language is taut, and the progress as steady and terrifying as watching those videos of the 2011 tsunami rolling into Fukushima.)

So, let’s broadly assume that a car more or less has two systems: The go-parts (engine, brakes, transmission, etc.) and the looky-parts (body shape, paint job, seats, handling, etc.) An ugly ass car with a solid engine–i.e., a “hooptie”– will get you places. You might be embarrassed to be seen in it, but it gets the job done, and in a pinch you are *always* grateful for the solid lil mule. A beautiful car with nothing reliable inside–e.g., my dad’s much mourned late-60s British-racing-green Jaguar–is lovely to look at, but frustrates you into rage when you actually try to get anything done.

In terms of books, something like HUNGER GAMES is a hooptie: It’s a chugging little story held together by duct tape, rust, wire coat hangers, and your inability to afford something better. A lot of the more literary-influenced speculative fiction that’s hot right now (Kameron Hurley’s GOD’S WAR, for example) is on the other end: Wonderful language, evocative worlds, interesting conceits, but 100 pages in I still can’t figure out where the hell I’m going–or if the car’s even moving. I mean, I sorta don’t care, ’cause it feels pretty rad to just *sit* in a ’60s Jaguar, but that’s the thing: You’re stuck just sitting in it. (FYI, I’m 90% sure I’ve swiped this car metaphor from Joe Hill, or maybe from his dad, or maybe even both of them on separate occasions. I’m the GONE IN 60 SECONDS of concept-plagiarism!)

Crace’s HARVEST is right in the middle–despite being pretty deep into the “literary” end of the spectrum. The language is restrained and lyric, the characters deep without being ponderous, the conceit interesting but simple–meanwhile, the story actually moves forward with grace and momentum. I never found myself up til 2am still turning pages (as I regularly do with our Lord and Savior, Stephen King–and did with Crace’s PESTHOUSE), but I was also never tempted to abandon the book. Even when I was called away for a few days (I’ve got a toddler who frequently sucks at sleeping), I was always able to drop right back into the story and characters, and glad to do so.

Like PESTHOUSE, this novel is *also* a post-apocalypse novel, just one that happens to be set in the historically accurate past. A few weeks back a filmmaking/photographing pal of mine wondered aloud (via Twitter) if rubble was *mandatory* to post-apocalyptic dystopias (subtly bemoaning, I think, the aesthetic stagnation in this vein of storytelling). Fortunately, I can point her to HARVEST, where Crace gives us a model of a dystopian future that isn’t rooted in Rust Belt Detroit rubble, or even in the future. The world, it seems, has already ended over and over and over again.

HARVEST is a workmanlike novel, and I say that with admiration–and the suspicion that, considering the topic and central ideas, this was a conscious choice, to craft a novel that is solid and reliable and workmanlike, as opposed to one which soars. That capacity to show the restraint due your subjects tips us off to how accomplished and masterly Crace is. All of which is to say that this book is, in a way, a sort of literary pool sharking. *Damn!* Mutherfucker played us for fools all along!

Carrying forward with our discussion of the “hooptie-Jaguar continuum” (i.e., poorly written tales with great engines vs. beautifully crafted tales that don’t go anywhere), John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR is a bit to the hooptie end of things. This is by no means an insult, because the story has a great little mule of an engine–it had me up late reading on many nights. Heck, it’s even a fairly good looking hooptie: the prose itself is solid and stays out of the way. It’s a Good Book(TM).

That said, there is *a lot* crammed in there–seemingly every notion Scalzi had about war and age and distance and loss–and so the impact of any one of his really interesting, possibly intricate ideas is sorta lost in the roar (part of the reason that the novel is three-star, rather than four). The shoehorning bummed me out, since it meant that we raced right past a lot of stuff that I really wanted to explore–and that brings me around to the other reason I’ve low-starred a book that, honestly, I really, really enjoyed:
What the Hell is this book saying about war?

Just to clarify, it isn’t that this book is saying something about war that I disagree with; plenty of books and stories and films I’ve liked a lot argue for the nobility and necessity of Violence. Even when I find it disagreeable, I can always live with a well-formed claim, attractively presented. My beef here is that whatever Young Scalzi’s ideas of war were, they aren’t on the page in any coherent way.

Part of the problem is that this *really* seemed like it was building towards being a statement about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I know that might sound nuts, but it seemed far from accidental that the army in the novel is the is the CDF (or “Colonial Defense Forces”)–a pretty obvious analogue (in my eyes) to the real-world Israeli army (the one every Israeli, male and female, is conscripted into), which is the “IDF” (“Israeli Defense Force”). More to the point, the position of Scalzi’s earthlings–humans as an embattled minority that needs to hack out a foothold in the Universe by any means necessary–is precisely the founding principal of the State of Israel. It just seemed too obvious a match.
But Young Scalzi appears to have next to nothing to say about war–not in the Mid-East in the 20th/21stC, or anywhere else at any time.

Ultimately, the most the book might be said to claim is something like “war is really bad and wasteful, but we have no alternative,” and that strikes me as nothing more than the sort of weak “giving air time to both sides” BS we see when journalists let a climate scientist speak for 5 minutes, then let a denier speak for 5 minutes, and act like the preponderance of evidence *doesn’t* all fall to one side.

I’m not saying war is such a clear cut case. But I am saying that Scalzi fails to attempt to articulate a solid claim about the utility of war. You might counter that maybe Scalzi didn’t *want* to argue about war. Leaving aside the fundamental question (Why would you want to write a war book with “WAR” in the title and *not* argue about war?), my reply is this: It was Scalzi’s responsibility to tell us, his readers, something about war. *That’s* what this needed to be a 4-star book. Again, it didn’t need to say what *I* wanted said about war, it just had to say *something* about war. I *totally* disagree with what DIE HARD says about the Redemptive Power of Violence, but that’s easily a 4-star piece of storytelling.
Here’s the brass tacks: If you write, and if you write well, then your stories–not history, or statistics, or day-to-day observations–are going to constitute the bulk of what forms your fellow citizens’ worldviews. Regardless of what they say, very few men and women enlist because they want to uphold the Constitution; they enlist because of TOP GUN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, “Dulce et decorum est . . .” and all that jazz.
Scalzi–even the Young Scalzi that wrote this debut novel–is such an able storyteller, and has become over time such a Lion for Justice, that his fundamental mealy-mouthedness in OLD MAN’S WAR sorely disappointed me. In the end, saying nothing in this way is a form of cowardice. At best, then, OLD MAN’S WAR’s statement about war is sort of an implied meta-statement cribbed from Yeats’s “Second Coming”:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Interestingly, this failure to stake a moral claim seems to become more pronounced as you move toward the “hooptie” end of the Hooptie-Jaguar Continuum. HUNGER GAMES, for example, likewise seems untroubled by its disinterest in examining the presumably accidental irony of denouncing state-sponsored violence while glorifying the Personally Redemptive Power of Violence. It’s as though–as is so often the case with an actual automotive hooptie–that we get so wrapped up in keeping the car moving that we totally lose track of why we’re going where we’re going, and if going there is a good idea to begin with.

That said, OLD MAN’S WAR left me eager to read more of Scalzi, eager to see if he’s grown more bold in staking out moral territory in his fiction–’cause that is the real battleground, brothers and sisters. Just like every writer who came before you, your op-eds and blog posts and “statements of belief” and whatever will be lost to time; it’s only the stories that’ll last, so the stories are the places where you need to make your argument.

FYI: I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because a pleasant young man flattered me, asked nicely, and offered me mild compensation in the form of an Amazon GC. Grammarly dinged me on 47(!!!) critical writing issues and gave me a failing grade (36 out of 100!) for this post. Check it out:

So, there’s your grains of salt. (In case it seems whack, the “Plagiarism” charge is reasonable, as this post draws heavily from two book reviews I previously published.)

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. . . .

Travelwide: An Ultralight Point-and-Shoot Large-Format Camera for Under $100

Wanderlust Cameras (aka Justin Lundquist and Ben Syverson–both are awesome photographers with some pretty tight 3D design and fabrication chops, and Lundquist is also my brother-in-law) are just wrapping up the Kickstarter campaign for their newest project: The Travelwide 4×5 Large-formate Point-and-Shoot.

“Large-format” cameras take pictures using *negatives* that are 4-by-5 *inches* or larger–which is pretty frickin’ huge, when you think about a traditional 35mm image (which is a bit bigger than a postage stamp) or the CCD sensors in a digital camera (which tend to be less than .5-inch square). A larger negative (or sensor) means higher image resolution and finer color gradation. Large-format is the way much professional photography is done, and is big with hobbyists–but it’s expensive (used large-format rigs start at a several hundred dollars and quickly climb into the thousands) and heavy (these are big hunks of steel).
Lundquist and Syverson have designed a super-light, precise, basically indestructible large-format camera body that accepts existing lenses (which can be bought used for pennies on the dollar). Since Lundquist and Syverson made their name producing the best pinhole “lens” available for Micro 4/3 mirrorless digital cameras (you can buy one here, or learn more about it from this article I wrote for issue 9 of The Magazine), they’ve also included a removable pinhole aperture for their Travelwide. Here’s a sample pinhole pic taken using that setup:

And here’s a little more background on their design and development process for this camera.
I’m not sure if the price will pop up once the Kickstarter campaign is through, but for the next 10 days you can lock in a $100 pre-order for this camera –which gets you what is, without a doubt, the most precise large-format pinhole camera on the market today, with the added bonus that you can easily swap in a pro lens, or mount after-market range-finders, flashes, tripods, and other accessories on the thing. Final bonus: The thing is 100% Made in the USA.
Light enough to drag around backcountry Brazil, tight enough to use for a pro-shoot, cheap enough to experiment out in the grit and the rain without constantly worrying that you’re gonna wreck the damn thing.


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 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.