Monday, December 24, 2007

Start Your Reindeer!

Four hours until Norad Tracks Santa 2007 officially kicks off the Santa tracking for the year. I'll probably catch up with the trackers in the morning. All the interesting things are happening when I'm asleep lately, but since I all but hibernate through the winter, that doesn't take much.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Solstice

I'm a little late on the Solstice well-wishing, but only because I was asleep at 1:08 a.m. EST today. Hooray for more daylight! It's all uphill until June.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Just how dumb do shoe saleswomen think I am?

Thanks in part to my new daily walking regimen (more on that some other time), I found myself in need of new daily-wear shoes. Being as I am taller than average, I have correspondingly larger-than-average feet. Being as I am of Swedish heritage, those larger-than-average feet can be called "boat-like." Both of those add up to it being easier for me to find sneakers in the men's department, but that is neither here nor there in this instance. In short order, I had found a pair to replace my worn out ones, and headed to the checkout counter. The saleswoman rang up my purchase, and I swear, actually said, "That will be $24.99. Are you sure that will be all? If you spend $35, you can get $7 off."

Let's gloss over for a moment, as my brain did, the fact that I had actually managed to find a comfortable and not entirely ugly pair of sneakers in under 5 minutes and had settled on purchasing them in almost record time. In fact, my brain was so busy glossing over that tidbit that it failed to catch the next thought, which actually made it out of my mouth, "Spend $10 more to get $7 off? The math just doesn't add up there."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Plea for Fruit Related Help

I have recently developed a taste for grapefruit. However, I failed to concurrently develop an innate knowledge of grapefruit-eating technique, and online instructions to "scoop out the sections with a spoon" are not as helpful as they may seem (for instance, do you scoop from the membrane side or the peel side of the section?). I started off trying to scoop the sections out of a halved grapefruit with a teaspoon. This was almost as effective as using a citrus reamer, so I switched to an iced tea spoon, which is narrower with a shallower bowl. I've managed to work into a technique of forcibly digging out one section, tearing the membrane between the missing section and the adjacent section, then working the spoon around the point of that section and wedging it off the peel. This, too, has given unsatisfactory results, unless one of the unsung benefits of grapefruit juice is as an eyeglass cleaner. Around the time I proved that it is, in fact, anatomically impossible to lick grapefruit juice off one's own elbow, I remembered that there exists a utensil helpfully called a "grapefruit spoon," and I procured a set of two. These do not come with instructions.

So, I am asking for help. I know at least two of my readers have extensive grapefruit eating experience. Does someone want to step up with some detailed instructions?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

International Animal News

British trout make a run for the border.

Having realized that, to predators, they are the proverbial fish in a barrel (or just following their natural mating instincts), farm-raised trout in the UK have been photographed leaping out of their farm pond into a narrow culvert supplying the pond with fresh water. From the Big Leap, the trout have a 30-foot swim against the current before they get to the watercress fields on the other side, where apparently there are otters who see the opportunity to get both the fish and salad courses in one fell swoop. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Penguinal Synchronicity

We stopped in the craft store today to pick up one quick item. The second display that greeted us on the way in the store was a wall of these

The image is a tad on the small side, so to save everyone from squinting, it is a decorate-your-own cookie jar, and the one on the box is decorated to say "I (heart) Mom, Love, Janet."

In the words of Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory, "This is one of those events that people unfamiliar with the law of large numbers would call a coincidence."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Universe to Solar System: Get Bent

Voyager 2 made its way past the solar system's termination shock--the beginning of the end of the solar system--some time back in August, and NASA has finally crunched enough of the numbers to discover that the solar system is bent.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

How Geeky Am I?

This is the opening of my new favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory (and if the WGA and the AMPTP can come to a mutually acceptable agreement, I can subsist on more than 8 episodes of it).



Now, the fact that this is my favorite TV show might make me slightly geeky. Really, watch the show--8:30 p.m. Mondays on CBS. Stepping up on the geek ladder, I TiVo the program. That leads inexorably to using the TiVo's frame-by-frame advancement feature to go through the flashing montage of images, and once I did that, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to indexing them. The full opening sequence is 20 seconds long, 13 seconds once the zoom through the solar system to Earth is done. In those remaining 13 seconds, 108 images flash. I was only completely baffled by 9 of them.

  1. Cells undergoing mitosis
  2. Two-cell stage zygote
  3. micro-organism, type unknown
  4. Volcanoes
  5. Plant, large palm
  6. The emergence onto land
  7. Rocky coastline, possibly with seals
  8. Dinosaur
  9. Stegosaurus and apatosaurus
  10. Mammoth
  11. Chimpanzee
  12. The Neanderthal part of The Evolution of Man
  13. Stone wheel
  14. Cave painting of hunters with deer-like game
  15. Stonehenge
  16. Moai, aka Easter Island statues
  17. Stone carving of face, possibly South American
  18. Machu Picchu
  19. Olmec statue
  20. Mayan pyramid
  21. Giza plateau
  22. The Sphinx
  23. Hindu goddess in high relief
  24. Mosaic of face
  25. ????
  26. Statue of Zeus
  27. The Parthenon
  28. Jesus with crown of thorns
  29. ????
  30. Great wall of China
  31. Notre Dame de Paris
  32. The Taj Mahal
  33. The Leaning Tower of Pisa
  34. Statue by Michelangelo (maybe the David?)
  35. Da Vinci's “Vitruvian Man” (the genitals have been removed)
  36. Old map, not sure of where
  37. Viking Longboat
  38. Crusader
  39. The purchase of Manhattan
  40. Joan of Arc
  41. Napoleon charging
  42. Pilgrims landing
  43. Boston tea party
  44. Great Seal of the United States
  45. Declaration of Independence
  46. Abraham Lincoln
  47. George Washington
  48. The Constitution of the United States
  49. Presidential portrait of Grant
  50. General U.S. Grant on horseback
  51. ????
  52. Covered Wagon
  53. Photo of a Civil War amputation
  54. Locomotive
  55. Old West newspaper office
  56. Man panning gold
  57. ????
  58. ????
  59. A Russian cathedral
  60. Parade float for Prohibition
  61. ????
  62. Lightbulb
  63. London Bridge
  64. Eiffel Tower
  65. Statue of Liberty
  66. Four women on farm equipment
  67. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  68. ????
  69. Horse, with a man on some sort of horse-drawn transportation
  70. 6 people in an early automobile
  71. ????
  72. Teddy Roosevelt
  73. Biplane
  74. Mount Rushmore
  75. WWI soldier
  76. Einstein
  77. Group of 6 P-51 Mustangs
  78. “E=mc2” on a chalkboard
  79. Dribbled paint painting, possibly Jackson Pollack
  80. Aerial view of a subdivision
  81. Wood-paneled soft top convertible, postwar vintage
  82. Two people at a jukebox
  83. Astronaut on a spacewalk
  84. Space Shuttle liftoff
  85. Pack of birth control pills
  86. Surgeons in a modern operating room
  87. Computer chip
  88. Bank of magnetic tape computers
  89. 3.5 inch floppy
  90. ????
  91. Subway train
  92. Hollywood street sign
  93. Martin Luther King, Jr. illustration
  94. Disco ball
  95. Rollerskates
  96. Sony Discman
  97. Computers with 5.25 drives
  98. ????
  99. Old cellular phone
  100. Satellite Dish
  101. Guy on a skateboard
  102. Berlin Wall
  103. Bullet train
  104. Guy on Snowboard
  105. Kids playing with the original Playstation
  106. Oil pump
  107. Digital camera display with a picture of a woman
  108. Fireworks

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Houseguests: Consider Yourself Warned

This is the Rookery's new toilet paper holder (for those keeping track, this is the third one I've had in the upstairs bathroom). We saw it at the comic book convention today and couldn't resist. I challenge anyone to look at a scary-looking toilet paper dispenser and not think, even for just a fleeting moment, "Well, if I'm going to scare the crap out of people, might as well do it while they're on the pot."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Turkey Time Trouble

Thanksgiving is upon us, and I have once again been bitten in the rump roast by the Law of Inverse Thawing: The more time you give a turkey to thaw, the less time it will take. I got a 15 pound bird--because, as counterintuitive as it may be, a 15-pound turkey was cheaper than the 4-pound boneless turkey roast I've been making for years--and set it in the fridge to thaw. Two days later, it's ready. Of course, had I given it only the recommended one-day-per-four-pounds, on Thursday morning, it would still have been a turkey-shaped block of ice.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Today's Lessons

I spent much of today at a leadership/motivation seminar, where I learned three things:

1. Football apparently is rife with lessons in motivation, thus providing me with yet another reason I won't watch football.

2. I'm back to having respect for Colin Powell. Hearing him was one of the reasons I sat through the blatant pitch for $6,000 stock-timing software that paid for the good parts of the seminar. His talk on what leadership means--complete with what may or may not have been veiled references to a decided lack thereof in his former boss when he was Secretary of State--had an interesting take on the subject.

3. White middle-managers from the upper midwest should not, I repeat should not "put your hands in the air and wave them like you just don't care." That's not being motivated. That's looking like an idiot.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Portal Cake Recipe

Emp. Peng. and I just finished playing Portal (I solve the puzzles, he controls). At a couple of points in the game, the malevolent computer gives a list of ingredients--presumably for cake, since the running gag of the game is there will be cake at the end. I couldn't resist seeing what happened if you actually made a cake using the in-game recipe. Except it's not exactly a recipe. It's just a list of ingredients and quantities, and even that doesn't make a whole lot of sense at first:

1 (18.25 oz) package chocolate cake mix
1 can prepared coconut frosting
3/4 cups vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
2/3 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cups cocoa
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cups water
1 to 2 (6 oz each) vanilla frosting

I stared at the list for a while, trying to make heads or tails of it, before I noticed that the first four ingredients on the list are more or less what you need to make a cake from a boxed mix. The remaining are essentially the ingredients for a chocolate cake from scratch, although most cake recipes have more sugar and leavening agent. It's not a cake recipe. It's two cake recipes: the easy way and the hard way. I've made cake from a mix before, so I decided to disregard the first four ingredients and start making my cake with #5, the chocolate chips. Here's all the ingredients, laid out left-to-right in the order listed in the game:

The game doesn't give any indication of how the cake goes together, so I broke out my trusty Betty Crocker Complete Cookbook for some guidance and started winging it.

1. Preheat oven to 350F, and grease and flour a cake pan. (SPOILER ALERT!)The cake seen at the end of the game (garnished in a way inconsistent with the garnish list provided for the recipe, which contains several elements that are not, technically, edible) is a standard round layer cake, which would use two 8-inch round cake pans. (END SPOILER ALERT) I used a bundt cake pan because it is shaped a little like a portal and I don't get a chance to use my bundt cake pan very often.
2. Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
3. Beat the butter with an electric mixer until fluffy.
4. Add the sugar to the butter and beat until it congeals into a single mass.
5. Knock the butter/sugar mass off the beaters and add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
6. Beat cocoa (unsweetened cocoa powder) and vanilla into egg-sugar-butter mix.
7. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave and beat the melted chocolate into the batter.
8. Beat in the flour mixture, a little at a time, alternating with a little bit of the water. At this point in the process, it became clear that the recipe as listed does not produce a batter-like consistency. I ended up using about 1 cup water to achieve a consistency that could be poured into a pan. This was the only deviation from the in-game ingredient list.
9. Pour batter into prepared pan(s)
10. Bake at 350F until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. For the Bundt cake pan, this was about 35 minutes.
11. Cool and frost with vanilla frosting

This is what the Portal Cake Recipe yields (that's homemade frosting, which always ends up a tad runny when I make it, but I didn't feel like running to the store for frosting):


The Portal Cake is not particularly sweet, but it is VERY chocolatey and the frosting makes up for the lack of sweetness in the cake. The texture is somewhat dense and chewy, probably because of the small quantity of leavening agents. All in all, though, the recipe (with the additional water) makes quite a delicious cake. The cake is not a lie!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bradbury Challenge Update

I mentioned in a comment to another post that I'm not doing National Novel Writing Month this year. Instead, I've decided to give the month of November over to a Bradbury Challenge. Ray Bradbury's semi-famous writing schedule is "a story a week." A Bradbury Challenge is to see if you can pull off the same feat. I'm not giving myself a daily word count (the Grand Master does 1,000-2,000 wpd), but I am aiming for one completed short story submitted to a paying market every week for the month of November. Who knows, maybe even beyond that. But we'll start with November.

I submitted the first story to Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine on Monday. It came in around 4,100 words, and I'm fairly happy with it. It was not written entirely within the confines of the month of November, but since this is my thing, I get to make up the rules and I say it's OK, since the first week in November had some October in it, anyway.

I've hashed out the idea for story #2 and started putting words to page yesterday. I think I'm developing a workable schedule for this. Saturday starts the "come up with an idea" phase, which seems to take most of the weekend. By Monday, I have a good idea of what the general gist of the story will be, and Monday and Tuesday are spent hammering out details like the plot, which are passed by my First Reader (Emp. Peng.--I keep this in-house) to screen for things like overall stupidity or the fact that I have just independently come up with the plot of Star Trek III. Wednesday-Friday are the heavy writing days, and by Friday evening, I have a finished draft that goes to my First Reader to point out parts that could use tweaking. Saturday and Sunday, while I'm coming up with the next idea, I do the necessary revisions, pick a market, and run the revisions past Emp. Peng. Monday, after a final spell/grammar check, the story gets sent out. Lather, rinse, repeat. Bradbury has done this since The Great Depression, so a month should be nothing.

Bonus Recommended Reading, for anyone who is now, has been, or will be in a middle school English class: Here's Ray Bradbury himself saying that your English teacher is/was/will be wrong; Fahrenheit 451 is not about government censorship. It's about the declining importance of books in the age of television, and you should note that, in the novel, the government didn't start burning books until the people themselves had eviscerated them and stopped reading on their own.

Bad Headline Writing

From the Associated Press: Abstinence Not Curbing Teen Sex

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

If You Need Instructions...

I procured a new 2-quart Crock Pot recently. I love my 4-quart one, probably more than someone who considers Creamette's spaghetti a convenience food should, and wanted something smaller for making cheese dip.

Surprisingly, Rival did not put any excessively stupid warnings in the "Important Safeguards" section (except maybe warning #7--why would you use a Crock Pot outdoors?). However, on page 4 of the manual, Rival has deemed it necessary to provide assembly instructions, which I will now reproduce in their entirety:
1. Place stoneware into the heating base.
2. Lower the lid horizontally down onto the stoneware.

If you are reading this, you have obviously not spent the last 40 years living under a rock, so I probably don't need to tell you that a Crock Pot only has three parts, and there is only one configuration where they all fit together. If someone needs assembly instructions for a Crock Pot, it is possible that they shouldn't be using one.

Monday, November 05, 2007

This Saddens Me

I'm all in favor of writers getting paid for any and all uses of what they write (big surprise there). So, that part of me totally supports the WGA striking to get a decent deal on new media uses of the TV programs and movies they write. The other part of me wonders why this had to happen during the best new TV season in recent memory. For the first time I can remember, there is more than one new TV show I like in the new Fall lineup. I even went so far as to develop a rabid fangirliness for a sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which was picked up for a full season just before the strike. Now, a day into picketing, my new favorite show has been put on hiatus. So help me, if it doesn't come back off hiatus when the dust settles from this labor dispute, I will weep.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's that time of year again

So help me, if I hear or read about "an extra hour of daylight" on Halloween one more time...

We've got 10 1/2 hours of daylight today (at least at my latitude), and it will be 10 1/2 hours of daylight no matter how you slice it. The fact that you're awake to see it does not mean that it wasn't there before.

And while we're at it, if we're really serious about messing with the clocks to save energy, we'd be skewing the available daylight as late into the evening hours as possible around this time of year. Arranging the clocks so the sun sets around 11 p.m. would be ideal. That way, we cut back on the number of hours people have those ginormous, energy-hogging Christmas light displays lit.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Today's Dose of Irony

The nudie bar down the street is holding a costume contest for Halloween.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From the Headlines

Bank of America to Eliminate 3,000 Jobs

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like any of them are the people who keep calling me to try to get me to tack on new "services" and "insurance" to my credit card account.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Non-Recommended Reading

In light (so to speak) of the wildfires currently incinerating parts of California, time.com has an article up, "Why Californians Don't Leave." I'll save you a few minutes of reading. The article lays the blame on our brains' faulty risk assessment. Apparently, we believe that, even though an obvious hazard for major disaster is right outside our doors, we convince ourselves that disaster will never actually befall us personally. Our neighbors, sure, but not us.

Hooey. The real reason we live in disaster-prone places is that we have to live somewhere.

I was born in California: drought, wildfire and earthquake territory. When I was young, we moved briefly to Washington and lived for a few months within view of a very-recently-erupted (at the time) volcano. I spent most of my growing-up years in Oregon, where I got to experience floods and a very memorable earthquake, plus the periodic warnings that the volcanoes may be waking up. Oh, and the nuclear power plant was just on the other side of the hills, although that got shut down eventually. In college, I moved to Nebraska, where the two basic seasons are "blizzard" and "tornado." Now we live in Ohio, where, in addition to the occasional tornado, I'm back to flooding. Though I haven't experienced it yet, I understand earthquakes are not unheard of.

Nowhere on the planet is completely immune to natural and not-so-natural disasters. Some locations are more prone to more predictable disasters than other locations, but every spot has it's own buffet of potential catastrophe. The reason we choose to live in the paths of wildfire, earthquake, drought, and flood is not that we underestimate the threat; we just have an inertial preference for the devil we know.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

All Hail the Emp. Peng.

I upgraded my laptop's operating system to Ubuntu 7.10, Gutsy Gibbon (as a rabid penguinophile, of course I use Linux). I'll blame user stupidity rather than the penguin for the installation problems. Something in the initial download and install failed, leaving me with a computer that would not boot. Worst of all, it was a computer that wouldn't boot and contained all of my recent work. I've learned my lesson and will never go mucking around the operating system without backing up the data again.

I spent the better part of Friday desperate to get the laptop to boot again. I made two live boot disks (for the less geeky readers, a live boot disk allows you to boot the computer from a CD without touching the existing operating system, or in my case, lack of existing operating system). Both of my boot disks failed, owing to human error in the burn process since burning a boot disk is somewhat more complicated than burning a music or data backup CD. I was at the point of considering what I would need to break open the laptop, pull the drive and hitch it to a working computer. As I told one person, "I don't care if the laptop breathes again; I just need my files."

Emp. Peng. to the rescue. He was away overnight for business when this happened, and called 12 hours into my ordeal. Using his new iPhone somewhere near the Appalachians, he found the appropriate Unix command-line code to burn the boot CD properly and walked me through the correct burn process. That got me a functional boot CD, but I still spent the next three hours in a fruitless and increasingly desperate search for my files while Emp. Peng. was on his way home to rescue his penguin in distress.

I should explain that Emp. Peng., computer guru though he may be, doesn't spend a lot of time around Linux. Going Penguin was my thing, and it is so far confined to my laptop here at the Rookery. Emp. Peng. has rarely had the occasion to get into my laptop. Still, when he got home, and found me still distraught over the missing files, he took a crack at my laptop to see if he could track them down. I handed him the laptop that had caused me most of a full day's consternation. Twenty seconds later, he had my files pulled up.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

About Colbert

How bad is it that, if Stephen Colbert is serious, I actually would consider voting for a comedy persona above any of the other candidates? Emp. Peng. explains it as, "You know the level of screw if he's screwing with us."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Well, This Explains It

Next time, I'll look before I call something "inexplicable." The graphic designer responsible for the breast cancer penguin has something of a penguin theme going on. In fact, she's got an entire penguin shop of clothes, mugs, bumper stickers and throw pillows with various penguin designs, thus earning the website, www.jgoodedesigns.com, a shameless commerce plug. Shopping for me just got that much easier.

Inexplicable Penguin Promo


Someone posted the above image to a message board I'm on. First, let me say I'm all in favor of penguins, like you didn't know that. I am also generally opposed to cancer of any kind, so anything we can do to save lives and body parts is a good thing. However, I'm left wondering...why a penguin? Penguins are birds, and as such lack what one would traditionally call "breasts"--except for white meat, but that is really more pectoral muscle than breast. Wouldn't a better choice for a breast cancer awareness mascot be, say, anything from the class mammalia? Y'know, something that comes equipped with mammaries?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Today's Entertainment Thought

One of my favorite blogs, News From ME, posits a hypothesis that the home video market exists for the purpose of seeing how many times they can get him to buy the movie Goldfinger (somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 at last count). Time was, the home entertainment industry would at least go to the trouble of developing a new, supposedly superior, media format to get us to re-purchase movies and shows we already owned. Now, they don't even do that. They just slap new "bonus features" on the DVD, use some foil stamping on the box and call it the Ultimate Collector's Edition.

What they don't seem to realize is that the Ultimate Collectors are the people who have been lining up on Tuesdays during the entire run of the series to get the individual seasons of the TV show on the day they come out. Or, for those of us in the boonies where Tuesday releases hit the stores somewhere around the following Thursday, we pre-order from Amazon and tear the package out of the UPS guy's hands before he can finish scanning it. These Ultimate Collector's Editions are really starting to cheese us off.

I have spent six years collecting the complete series of Stargate SG-1 (seasons 1-8 anyway...the series could have done without seasons 9 and 10) on DVD. I have devoted a full two feet of DVD shelf space to this series, since I couldn't wait for the Thinpak edition that would have taken up less than a foot. I don't remember just how much cash is sunk into this collection, but if one buys all 10 seasons individually at list price, that's only 50 cents shy of $500; even Amazon's discounting only brings the total down to $363.50. We can assume my figure is closer to the latter. I camped out at Comic-Con to get a seat (not a good seat, just a seat) at the SG-1 panel. How does MGM reward this kind of fan loyalty? Tomorrow, they are releasing Stargate: SG-1 The Complete Series box set with all 10 seasons plus four disks of bonus features not found on my individually-compiled set, list price of $329.98 (Amazon pre-order $230.99).

I don't know if these TV studios think that the fans are suckers, but I'm certainly starting to feel like one. I spent more to get less--unless you count packaging volume--than fans-come-lately to the series who waited until the show's run ended before they sunk any cash into the DVDs. Fans have begun to realize that buying the first release of a TV show on home video is a sucker's game. The first release will be followed in a few months by a better edition. If we just wait, we'll be able to get even more of the bonus features that make buying DVDs worth it; were it not for the bonus features and removal of the ads, we would just hook up the DVD recorder to the TiVo. Except here is the Catch-22 of the whole thing: if we buy the first iteration, a better one comes out. If we don't buy the first iteration, the studio decides it's not worth releasing the rest of the series at all, so not only do we not get the better edition, we don't even get Season 2 of the crappy edition.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

TiVo is in My Head!

The latest commercial for TiVo HD shows off the listings search function with the search term "Penguin."

Whale Tale

California is having some trouble disposing of a dead whale's carcass. They towed it 10 miles offshore about a week ago, and it found its way back. So they've towed it out to sea again.

At least they are remembering a lesson from their neighbors to the north: a half ton of dynamite is NOT a good way to solve this problem. This video never gets old.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Recommended Reading

Today's Thomas Friedman column. I'm recommending it to everyone. I think it ought to be required reading for all politicians, and tattooed on the corneas of most of the presidential candidates until the message soaks through their auto-response mechanisms and into their brains:
9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.

Friday, September 28, 2007

State of the Penguins

A while back, I alluded to the decline of penguinal dominance of pop culture. To whit, my Swiss Colony catalog arrived yesterday, and I went for my annual eye-binge of overpriced sweets and meat/cheese packs. There was exactly ONE penguin in the entire catalog, and that was on a tin of sugar free butter toffee popcorn. Two years ago, they had gummy penguins, chocolate penguins, penguin jammies (yes, I bought a set), and more penguin gift tins than you could shake a tailfeather at. This year, the sole penguin is relegated to the sugar free section, which, considering this is the Swiss Colony catalog, exists solely for the benefit of people who do all of their gift giving from the Swiss Colony catalog but still need a token item to send to the diabetic relatives.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Note the The History Channel

I realize the documentary is titled "Hillbilly: The Real Story" and as such, we should expect a certain amount of backwoodsiness in the narration. However, at least one person on the production crew ought to be non-hillbilly enough to realize that having Pentecostals and "upwards of eighty separate Baptist faiths" does not count as religious diversity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Amusing Plant Picture of the Day

This has been my first year of serious, in-the-ground vegetable gardening, and I've learned a few things. One, that no matter what the seed packet says about "days to harvest," vegetables will be ripe whenever they darned well please, so don't plan on them being ready at any particular time. Two, that vegetables are very good at hiding on the plants. Particularly if that plant is in a vine formation. For example:
Possible you may recognize the green striped thing as a watermelon. For scale, the melon is about a foot in diameter, to the extent that it has a diameter. It's hard to tell, what with the melon wedged between the generator, the concrete pad the generator sits on, and part of the generator's natural gas feed pipe and all. I've been checking my veggie patch daily, and this is the first I've seen of this guy. I had to cut it into three pieces to get it out.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Almost forgot

Happy belated equinox. I'm about an hour late. Autumn has officially hit the northern hemisphere.

Counter Intuitive

I came into possession of a decent quantity of Concord grapes recently, and did what anyone would do with two sinkfuls of the 'nummiest seeded grapes on the planet: I made juice. Concord grapes make the most mouth-wateringly delicious juice ever to grace a glass. They also make purple blotches on the counter everywhere a drip lands and sits for more than half a nanosecond. The color itself is an improvement over the current yellow and generally quite pleasant. In fact, the only thing keeping me from getting a couple gallons of Welches and dying all of my countertops purple is that I would have to repaint the kitchen. Which brings me to the question: does anyone out there know how to get grape juice out of Formica? The counters don't fit in the washing machine.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fair Trade

We just got back from Emp. Peng.'s first experience with a county fair. His community band was playing, and--mercifully--most of the concert was upwind of the livestock exhibits. The wind shifted during the Porgy and Bess Suite.

I've been to many a county fair in my time, and they don't seem to have changed much in the dozen years since my last trip to one. There is still the bison burger stand, examples of the domestic arts, purveyors of everything fried on a stick and the aforementioned livestock. I'm still trying to figure out if it was marketing genius or just plain wrong, having the steak-on-a-stick stand next to the cattle exhibition barn.

I have a more pressing fair question, though: should we have noticed the elephants before we all but walked straight into them?

Gotta Know...

Whose brilliant idea was it to make pie plates round? I just tried my hand at making homemade piecrust, and I am convinced that dough would make every other shape before it rolled out into anything resembling a circle. I fully expect it would make an irregular dodecahedron and a geodesic dome before it consented to being rolled into a circle.

Weird Science Headline

Mars "Pregnancy Test" Orbits Earth
A new experiment similar to a pregnancy test but designed to search for signs of life on Mars is now exposed to the vacuum of space above Earth.
It's a lab-on-a-chip style experiment to pick up traces of compounds necessary for life. As to why it is orbiting Earth, where we are fairly confident of the presence of life, rather than any other planet in the solar system, where that question is still up in the air--the scientists want to make sure that space won't barbecue the cosmic EPT en route. No word yet on how they intend to get an entire planet to pee on a stick.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Adventures in the Land of Interminable Hold

I've been on hold with a web hosting company for an hour now. Every...

My goodness, they're actually answering the phone! 63 minutes into listening to the same 5 minute loop of music, I'm less than two sentences into ranting about how a company should not be allowed to remind me that "my call is very important" if it is not important enough for them to actually answer in less time than it takes to roast a chicken, they finally answer the freakin' phone. I suppose this is the technology age's version of the repairman arriving the minute you give up on him and go drop trou.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Cool Tech

Emp. Peng.'s cell phone has never gotten terrific reception at home, but it has only been recently that the service started roaming in our living room. The oh-so-lovely folks at the Verizon Store with the handy computerized queuing system (which would work so much better if the inputs were not done by people who would have done Ellis Island clerks proud) suggested we might want to upgrade his phone if the software reset she performed failed to improve the situation. It didn't, so we did. While we upgraded the phone, we upgraded our carrier, too. Possibly, the carrier is just a lateral move. At any rate, it could hardly be worse.

On Wednesday, Apple dropped the price on the iPhone down to a slightly less insane level. And since we were in the market for both a new cell phone provider and a slightly belated birthday present to Emp. Peng., we went down to the Apple Store today and got what is by all indications the last 4GB iPhone in Ohio.

Once in a while, I come across technology that is so sci-fi, I have to double check that I wasn't zapped through time. Technology that is so sexy, so simultaneously ahead of its time and should have been invented earlier, that one just has to stop and think, "Wow." No, not the iPhone, although that is at least three different kinds of cool. I'm talking about what the sales folks at the Apple Store have. We went in, poked around the newest Apple offerings, and were pounced on in short order by a sales guy who is infinitely more helpful than the folks at the Verizon store. He fetched the iPhone from the back and helped Emp. Peng. pick out a case and a few other accessories. Then, he pulled out a doodad about the size of a brick from a holster on his belt and proceeded to scan the items and run Emp. Peng.'s card. He got the signature verification on the brick, and asked what I am sure is going to be the new millennium's "Paper or plastic?": Would you like your receipt printed or emailed to you?

That, I must say, is customer service. Forget going to the register. Each salesperson is a walking POS terminal, able to complete transactions from anywhere in the store. Printed or emailed? That, that is the future knocking on your glass-faced touch sensitive pocket computer and communicator.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Lesson Learned the Hard Way (and for once, not by me)

If you are going to attempt to restore the population of the endangered greenback cutthroat trout, it really helps to stock the streams with greenback cutthroat trout. Adding other, non-endangered, species of trout to the waterways is not really providing a material improvement in the endangered trout's situation. In a word: oops.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Today's Political Thought: Goose and Gander Edition

Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, pled guilty to disorderly conduct in connection with allegedly trawling for sex in an airport men's room (where, it might be noted, there is a decided lack of women to be trawled). In spite of pleading guilty to a misdemeanor stemming from what any objective definition would consider at least a prelude to homosexual conduct, the senator is maintaining the position that his is not, in fact, homosexual. Once news got out of the incident, Craig issued a statement that read, in part, "In hindsight, I should not have pled guilty." To whit, he has engaged lawyers in an apparent bid to have the guilty plea tossed out. Further, over the weekend, Senator Craig announced his intention to resign from the senate effective September 30. This morning, word from more of his lawyers is that he is reconsidering his resignation.

In sum: the distinguished gentleman from Idaho allegedly solicits gay sex in a men's room and decides he is not gay. He pleads guilty, then changes his mind and gets lawyers to try to make him un-guilty. He resigns from the Senate, and three days later changes his mind and decides he might stay after all. Now, my memory of the 2004 election cycle is a bit hazy, but wasn't there a term the Republicans themselves used to describe someone with this sort of history of changing one's stance? Except, of course, that the original target of that term changed his views over the course of years, not days.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Less Important Wars Being Fought In the Wrong Arena

With a few real wars going on, I don't expect many of you out there are paying attention to the hyped battles over the up-and-coming home entertainment technology. There is the "Format War" pitting Sony's Blu-Ray vs. Toshiba's HD-DVD over who will eventually get us to re-purchase our entire movie collection yet again. So far, on that one, it looks like they didn't wait long enough for people to forget about getting scorched siding with Betamax during the last Format War; the overwhelming consumer response has been "You pick one, then we'll consider buying movies we already own yet again."

The "Battle For the Living Room" has an ever-changing array of gaming and internet companies vying to get out of the computer hutch and into the entertainment center. The idea being, I suppose, that the living room is where the respectable amusement happens. One of the things these companies seem to be overlooking is that less and less of any sort of entertainment is happening in the living room anymore. The real prime real estate is not the entertainment center anymore. With people on the move all the time, the truly prime entertainment real estate is the pocket.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Friday, August 31, 2007

Not Enough Air Freshener in the World

In yet another new homeowner experience, we had our septic tank pumped this morning. I've smelled some rather rank things in my time, but I think the combination of 2 years of human effluent and diesel exhaust takes the cake. It also wafts in through the air conditioner. Mercifully, my septic guys say I have three years until I have to experience it again. I think the smell may be gone by then.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Instructional WTF

The Rookery took delivery this morning of a new washer and dryer (thanks again, EPM!). I am continually amused by the precautions in the owners' manuals for appliances and home electronics, and Frigidaire has not disappointed me. Some choice excerpts from Page 2: Important Safety Instructions:

  • Do not add gasoline, cleaning solvents or other flammable or explosive substances to the wash water.
  • HYDROGEN GAS IS EXPLOSIVE
  • [My personal favorite] Never ground the washer to a gas pipe

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Neither Rain Nor Sleet Nor Snow My Hindquarters!

Apparently, enough rain will, in fact keep the post office from its appointed rounds, if it submerges the post office. My mail is in there somewhere.

Attack of the Killer Split Level

The Rookery does not like houseguests. It's not us; we don't mind having family over for a weekend now and again. It's the house itself, and it is quite insistent on that point. My parents tried to visit shortly after we moved in, and I don't even remember all of the things that added up to it taking nearly a year and a half for that trip to happen. SuperDad planned a stopover on the last leg of a trip, only to have one of his in-laws die while he was on the first leg, cutting the travel plans abruptly short. Emp. Peng.'s mom had to have emergency quadruple bypass surgery a week after buying a plane ticket to see us last April. She has re-booked her travel plans for this week. As near as I can tell, the house has decided that homicide and attempted homicide is no longer an effective deterrent, so it is changing tactics and going suicidal.

Yesterday, my first glance out of the window in the morning showed that the back yard was a bit boggy in places. Given the amount of rain we've had lately, that did not surprise me much. I took my coffee downstairs to get a closer look at the state of the yard through the bathroom window. About three feet from the wall was where I discovered the leak--with my feet. T-minus 52 hours until mother-in-law, and the carpet was squishing between my toes. Water was also seeping into the utility room, too, but that is all concrete, so it dries quickly enough. Carpet, on the other hand, is slow to dry, especially when all you have to work with is newspaper and a travel hair dryer propped up in a broken mason jar.

But wait. It gets better. The new knob on the other bathroom door now resolutely refuses to latch if the strike plate is fastened on. When we came back from noontime errands yesterday, the garage door opener decided now would be a good time to stop closing. While I was up there having the gear box fall off in my hand, I happened to notice that a 2-foot by 1-foot chunk of my garage ceiling is no longer, in the strictest sense of the word, attached to my ceiling.

Leaving the ceiling for another day, after we get the chimney flashing fixed, I headed out to the garage door shop to find out how much of the garage door opener needed replaced and when I could get the parts. The parts will be in Thursday, and for a while there on the way home, it seemed like that would be about how long it would take me to get the 5 miles from the shop back to the Rookery. Seems I'm not alone in experiencing some water-related woes. At least three feet of water covered parts of every possible route from the shop back home, unless I wanted to drive home by way of Indiana. The one road that wasn't under water is under construction. Nothing quite like having every single bit of traffic in the city funneled through one lane.

We are now at approximately t-minus 20 hours until Emp. Peng. Mom. The carpet is down to being merely damp, but I think I may have discovered just how long a travel hair dryer can go before it gives up. The bathroom door still won't latch and EPM will definitely beat the garage door parts here. If anyone else gets finalized travel plans out here, I'll be sure to post a warning so you all can stock up on nonperishables to get you through the apocalypse that will surely follow.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reverse SpacePenguin News

I've recently found a nice site for continual updates on the Reverse SpacePenguin, aka the space shuttle, as well as any other space travel news. I can't say much for the layout at www.nasaspaceflight.com, but the information is up-to-the-minute and comprehensive, including not only NASA, but other space-faring countries' space programs and private space flight.

At the moment, the site is posting breaking details on whether or not the Mission
Management Team on the current Endeavour* mission is going to recommend breaking out the Space Spackle (STA-54) or not.

*-don't get too used to the "proper" spelling, Nimrod. We only kept the "u" because it is named after the HMS Bark Endeavour. NASA doesn't even get it right all the time.

Trash Talk

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting op-ed on garbage, specifically reducing the amount of it we throw away. Their stance is that when trash collection costs are hidden in tax bills, we tend not to think about how much we chuck out. When it's a matter of whatever is at the curb disappears on trash day, we don't pay attention to what we haul out to the end of the driveway on a weekly basis. Their solution: pay as you throw. Provide an economic incentive to not create so much solid waste by uncoupling trash pickup from the municipal tax bill and making people pay by the bag for pickup.

Not a bad idea, really. It works nicely here at the Rookery, where there is no municipal trash collection available, so all trash collection is handled by a robustly competitive group of private companies who have a vested financial interest in getting people to throw away less. The less people throw out, the more households the company can service on a single truckload, and the lower their expenses. To that end, they offer multiple tiers of service, and the more bags a household wants to throw out, the more they have to pay for trash service. We are on the 4-bags-per-week plan with our trash company, only because that is as low as they go. I rarely put out more than 2 bags. Because of this, my trash bill each month is less than the folks down the street who put out 3-4 overflowing cans each trash day.

Since I almost never use the full allotment of 4 bags, I would not say that my trash bill has been a big motivator to decrease my trash production (having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I have eco-guilt to take care of that). However, if, instead of paying $11 per month for 4 bags a week, I could pay $5 for 2 bags, you can bet your sweet bippy I would find ways to not produce more than 2 bags of trash a week.

There is one tiny caveat to the pay-by-the-bag system. It encourages people to consolidate their trash into one larger bag. When I first got my trash service, I called them to clarify what exactly constituted a "bag," since with a big enough bag, anyone can cut down to one bag a week. Their answer was that as long as it weighed less than 50 pounds, they didn't have a size limit. The representative encouraged putting multiple 13-gallon kitchen trash bags and smaller bags from the other wastebaskets into one 33-gallon trash bag for collection. This leads to the slightly perverse scenario wherein I actually throw away more plastic bags than I would if they didn't have a bag number limit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Addendum

Almost forgot the corollary lesson to point #2: not only is there water in the pipe, the water is bleepin' COLD.

Revenge of the Plumbing Fairies

Once, just once, I'd like a home repair to go smoothly, according to plan (note to my house: this does not mean I want something else to break).

For about the last month and a half, the well pump has been switching off at random. My very helpful water softener guy, who knows more about this house's plumbing idiosyncrasies than anyone, mentioned that it looked like the cause was a short in the pump switch. No big deal. Certainly less of a big deal than replacing the entire well pump. For a while, we were content to toggle the breaker whenever the water shut off, and all was fine. Last night, for the second time, the switch shut off while the water softener was recharging, so I decided it was time to bite the bullet. My water softener guy said the switch was a $40 part, and I would just need to get my plumber to come install it.

He was wrong about the part. That was $22. He may have been right about the plumber. The part looked easy enough. Four wire connections plus a ground wire are well within my electrical capabilities. The bottom part had a nut-looking thing that screwed onto the spot where the old one was. No sweat.

Usually, I thoroughly research how to fix things before I attempt the repair. But this one looked just so darned easy, I skipped that. Had I done the research, I probably would have discovered two very important details:

1. The thing that the bottom of the part screws into is a water pipe.
and
2. Even if you turn off the power to the well pump, there is still water in that pipe, under pressure.

At this point, I would like to direct everyone slapping their forehead or muttering "Who didn't know that?" to the Where Were You An Hour Ago When That Information Could Have Been Useful, Before I Power-Washed My Face And The Utility Room Ceiling Department. And be careful; the floor is a bit slippery when wet.

Using techniques gleaned from watching many a submarine movie (in which, during the obligatory "take her below crush depth" scene, a pipe or rivet always bursts and the crew has to patch a hole that is spewing water at high pressure), I managed to get the new part on the pipe and securely tightened down. Reconnecting the wires was the breeze that I thought the whole job would be. And yes, I remembered to dry the part out before I turned the juice back on (note to PengDad: unlike the water, the smoke stayed in). Surveying the results, it doesn't look like there was as much water as I originally thought. I suppose it just seems like a lot when you've got Satan's Water-Pik clearing out your sinuses the hard way.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Weather Update

Here are some pics (not taken by me) of what passed over the Rookery today. I briefly considered getting the camera, but decided that I would rather continue making sure I did not need to kiss my ass goodbye on short notice. As it turns out, my description of it was not too far off. The semi-technical term for what I saw is "Mothership mesocyclone."

End of the World?

You know how, in the alien invasion movies, there is the ominous cloud that descends above the city and dissipates to reveal the mothership? That's what it looks like outside my window right now, minus the mothership, which I expect at any moment. I swear, the lead cloud actually skimmed the locust tree in the front yard on it's way through. I am comforted by the fact that any alien smart enough to pilot a mothership here is smart enough to invade places other than the middle of Ohio first.

According to NOAA (which, I still maintain, is the most unintentionally hilarious government acronym, particularly when, as they are now, they are issuing a flood warning) this is not aliens, rather it is
A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM CAPABLE OF PRODUCING PENNY SIZE HAIL...AND DAMAGING WINDS IN EXCESS OF 60 MPH... THIS IS A DANGEROUS STORM. IF YOU ARE IN ITS PATH...PREPARE IMMEDIATELY FOR DAMAGING WINDS...DESTRUCTIVE HAIL...AND DEADLY CLOUD TO GROUND LIGHTNING. PEOPLE OUTSIDE SHOULD MOVE TO A SHELTER...PREFERABLY INSIDE A STRONG BUILDING BUT AWAY FROM WINDOWS
Yes, I'm indoors. No, I haven't seen the hail yet.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

What's With the European Squirrels?

First we had the rampaging squirrel in Germany that injured three before he got taken down. Now, there is a klepto squirrel in Finland who, not content with raiding the "squirrel proof" bird feeders, has taking to going into a grocery store twice a day and helping himself to a chocolate. The squirrel's reported favorite contains a toy, and the squirrel unwraps the candy, eats it, and carries off the toy, leaving the wrapper. Which, now that I think about it, makes him a klepto litterbug squirrel.

We'll forgo the obvious jokes about him squirreling away the toys.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

And the Promised Photo of Item #3

The guy to the left is the corsetier. I darned near threw up when they let me out.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Marmota Watch, Con Edition

In keeping with my convention tradition of having the most outlandish conversations with famous and important people, on Sunday I spent several minutes talking marmota with Chuck Rozanski, owner of the country's largest comic retail operation, Mile High Comics. The Mile High mascot is Captain Woodchuck, defender of marmots and pikas throughout the world (although he is technically a yellow bellied marmot, not a woodchuck), so it was only natural that we would start talking rodents. OK, perhaps other people would have taken that time to discuss the comics industry and how he manages to keep a successful comics retailer going when so many comic shops are going under. Me, I decide to go with woodchuck-human relations.

Dreaming of Con Freebies

I've just about finished unpacking. We ended up with 19 books, 15 of which we got free. Total cover price for the free books is $5.01 more than we paid to get into the convention.

One of the not-so-freebie books we acquired over the weekend is The Android's Dream by John Scalzi. This is the first time I have ever plunked down money for the hardcover edition of a novel, based solely on the dust jacket. Until I saw the dust jacket laying on a table 8 months ago, sans book, I had never even heard of John Scalzi. I read the inside flap copy and decided then and there I had to read this. The blurb is that good. The first three chapters--as far as I got before I had to put it aside momentarily for some semi-professional reading--are even better. Really. Go buy it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Back From Con

The trip back was largely uneventful, except for an hour spent on the tarmac in Charlotte while the crew tried to figure out why, in spite of all indications to the contrary in their system, we did not in fact have a co-pilot present.

We're still unpacking, but an incomplete list of the freebies acquired includes 14 books (we paid for 4 others), 6 t-shirts, 1 baseball cap, two squishy balls, and an undetermined number of temporary tattoos, buttons, posters, and tote bags. Oh, and Cliff Simon's autograph on my program book. We had an interesting, if brief chat. He has the same t-shirt I was wearing, and we both have difficulties finding appropriate venues to wear it. Lots of folks don't see the humor in a t-shirt reading "Bow before me, I am your god.--The Goa'uld" even after one explains that it is from a TV show, and they're the bad guys. Cliff Simon plays one of the deities in question, which, one imagines, makes it that much more interesting for him to explain.

Look here in the near future for a review of the state of penguins in pop culture.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Real Comic Con

Yesterday, I discussed what a comic con is not. Today, allow me to give you a taste of what a comic con is.

9 a.m.--find a perch in the panel before the panel we really wanted to see, so we could camp out and get a good seat for the panel afterward. The panel we camped at turned out to be a preview of the pilot to an ABC comedy slated to air this fall. Pushing Daisies is scheduled for Wednesdays at 8/7c. I can't vouch for how well the rest of the series will work out, but the pilot is funny as heck. The preview is followed by a Q&A session with producers and cast, including Barry Sonnenfeld and Kristen Chenowith.

10:15 a.m.--Move up a few rows to the front and say hi to some email buddies who are saving seats for some others.

10:30 a.m.--Quickdraw. This is an hour and a half divided between art improv and a variant of Pictionary played with professional cartoonists. One of the sheets, filled (and I mean filled) with sketches by Sergio Aragones, was auctioned off on site for charity. It finally went for $325.00

11:00 a.m. -- Emp. Peng. ducks out for a few minutes and returns with two free paperback books.

12:00 p.m. -- We have a break, so I take a quick run around the exhibit hall. In the space of half an hour, I got the Peanuts Free Button of the Day, went fangirl on not one but two actresses from my favorite TV show, and grabbed a free tote bag and poster.

1:00 p.m. -- A panel discussion with Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, and five other sci-fi authors about the role of technology and science in their writing.

4:00 p.m. -- Sitting in on a discussion with Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen.

5:00 p.m. -- Another cruise through the exhibit hall, this time netting a pair of free t-shirts, a free CD and free book, and a purchased emperor penguin chick plushie toy. The same booth with the penguin also had figurines of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian ibis-headed writing deity.

You don't hear about anything like this in the news coverage, but it is by far the more typical con experience.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Friday Con Moment

Coming back from dinner tonight, we had a nice, normal two-block walk (incredibly normal if you believe the news coverage of the convention). We crossed the trolley tracks while chatting up another fan who had just recently seen the movie referenced on my t-shirt, and I turned to the right to see four people standing on the corner with ads for a gaming convention playing on LCD monitors in their shirts. I turned away from that to see the movie Blade Runner playing on giant TV screens fitted into the sides of a van rolling down the street. I had to check my watch to make sure I hadn't teleported into the future in the last block and a half. Now, of course, it occurs to me that the time/space continuum might not reset my watch if I had, in fact, teleported. The things one thinks of after the fact.

A word about the media coverage of Comic Con

The New York Times has a writeup of a comic convention in San Diego this weekend. I thought I was at the only one here in San Diego this weekend, but apparently not, since the NYT piece clearly depicts a different convention than the one I'm at. Take, for example, their depiction of the scene at the entrance:
On the promenade outside, sweaty waves of nerds, kimono girls and Obi-Wan Kenobis walked alongside thousands of Kevin Smith look-alikes.
First off, we're not nerds. We're geeks, and it's San Diego in July--everyone is sweaty. Secondly, the kimono girls are up on the third floor in the anime pavilion. Third, and perhaps most important, there were maybe a dozen Kevin Smith look-alikes among 100,000+ con-goers. Most of the Stormtroopers are part of the Fighting 501st, a group that makes a hobby of going not just to cons, but to children's hospitals and other places where folks could use a smile. The costumed folks who dominate the news coverage of Comic Con, and any comic and sci-fi convention for that matter, make up maybe 10% of the attendees, 15% tops. Most of us are dressed in shorts, t-shirts and comfy shoes. Add in the backpack to hold necessities like program books, breath spray, bottled water and snacks, and we look more like a mass of tall 5th graders than the Halloween party shown on TV. I was borderline weird in my attire today when I started attaching freebie pins into my braid when my badge lanyard got full.

The New York Times piece makes it sound like Comic Con is a giant movie preview. The movie studios and TV channels have a chunk of the middle of the exhibit hall, amounting to less than half the floor space. That chunk is an absolute circus, but it is a small part of the overall convention. Most of the panels aren't about the movies. Most of the floor space is small booths with artists, writers, illustrators, small press, large book publishers, fan groups, comic retailers, toy vendors...there was even an insurance agent. If media covered sports events like they cover comic cons, you'd think everyone with a favorite sports team showed up to a game with messages painted on their bellies.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thursday Late Afternoon Con Blogging

Today's episode: what would you do for a tote bag. I bought a $25 hardcover book, just so I could get the tote bag. The book was autographed, although at the moment I couldn't tell you by whom, and the tote bag is from Penguin Classic. Elie nearly got crushed in the quest for a tote bag. WB is handing out some nice, huge canvas totes advertising Smallville. When I say "huge," I mean you could easily fit three or four toddlers in this bag. They (the bags, not the toddlers) are among the more popular swag here, and the rush to get them is a barely-contained riot. That was as close to being crushed to death against the stage as I ever care to come.

Preview Night Con Blogging

We're at Comic Con International in San Diego this weekend. Picture cramming the entire population of three good-sized towns into one convention center, and you're getting close. At least three quarters of the 123,000 con attendees have as their sole convention-going purpose to obtain as many freebies as possible. Me, I'm a little more varied in my con interest. Preview night is a three hour rush to see as much of the exhibit hall as possible (by way of comparison, we waited in line for three hours, spanning two buildings, to get into this three hour spree). Some of the highlights:

  1. Procuring a free Stargate SG-1 t-shirt within the first two minutes of entering the hall
  2. Buying a USB hub cleverly disguised as a TARDIS. It has sound effects.
  3. Getting strapped into a corset over my Groo t-shirt
  4. Meeting Q (John De Lancie). I almost didn't recognize him. He has great hair people on set. They apparently did not come with him.
  5. Asking the science officer of the Starship Voyager if he would like some tape to hold together the booth where he and the aforementioned omnipotent Q were signing autographs.
Yes, I will be posting a photo of item 3 as soon as we get home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Better Late...

Don't get me wrong. I really appreciate UPS calling me in advance to tell me that there would be a package delivery from Amazon.com requiring a signature the next day. However, it is not overly helpful to say that the delivery will occur sometime between 8 a.m. and Tuesday. Not to mention that, although I do a substantial amount of shopping on Amazon.com, I do not currently have any outstanding orders. Rather boggled the mind what they might be sending me.

Given that I had some pressing errands to get done in two hours of the nine hour delivery window, it was inevitable that I would miss the truck. Fortunately, according to the friendly automated computer lady at UPS, I had called to make delivery arrangements early enough that I could pick up the box at the UPS center between 7:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. The friendly automated computer lady is blissfully unaware that the customer service office of our UPS center closed at 6:30 p.m. A small sign directs customers like me, led astray by friendly automated computer ladies, to poke our heads into the employee entrance and pick up our boxes.

The package from Amazon turned out to be the home theater system I had won. Apparently, Panasonic was OK with a three week response time, and must have had my package all but waiting to be shipped out--from Amazon.

I was, of course, far too excited about the new toy to wait until Emp. Peng. to come home and apply his generous knowledge of what the heck some of those components might be and how they fit together. Two hours of RTFM-ing, and I managed to get the new system together and more or less set up, with no parts left over. That is also, incidentally, almost as long as it took to figure out how to get the 5-disc changer to spit out the test DVD. The system came in 29 pieces, none of which has an "eject" button.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I May Already Be A Winner

I was definitely a winner three weeks ago. Now, I'm not quite so sure. Last month, G4TV held a sweepstakes rather uncreatively named "Free Stuff." Basic premise was they would show off new gizmos on a half-hour TV show, viewers would enter online to win the gizmos in a random drawing. The catch, of course, was that you had to watch the program live--no TiVo--and the passcodes to enter were shown during the commercial breaks, so you had to watch live and watch the ads. At the end of each half hour, the winners would be listed onscreen.

I spent 20 hours or so in June shuffling between the TV and the laptop to enter passcodes, and never saw my name come up, so I thought nothing more of it until a couple of days ago when I checked a seldom-used email address that I had given on the sweepstakes entry form. Apparently, I had missed something on the list of winners on June 22, when, it turns out, won a rather sweet sound system and DVD player. Sure enough, if you go to this page listing the winners and scroll down to 6/22/07 6:30 p.m., and look next to the Panasonic SCPT 950 Home Theater System you'll see "Janet H., OH." That would be me.

That's the good news. The slightly less good news comes about halfway through the small print of section 5 of the contest rules:
Failure by the Selected Entrant to respond to such notification within a reasonable time frame, as determined by Sponsor in its absolute and sole discretion, may result in disqualification of the Selected Entrant,
I responded within 5 minutes of receiving the notification, which was, rather unfortunately, about 3 weeks after it was sent. Now, I am waiting on the edge of my seat to find out if 3 weeks is "reasonable" according to Panasonic's absolute and sole discretion.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

iPhone--iLike

Emp. Peng. and I headed down to the Apple Store to ogle the new iPhone. To sum up: niiiiiiiiice. If Apple hadn't made it exclusive to the cell phone company with some of the suckier reception in our area, and if we were insane enough to spend $600 on a phone, we would have bought one right then and there.

The interface really is as intuitive as they say it is. I picked one up off the cradle and had it down pat in 20 seconds flat. The tipping to switch from portrait to landscape is nifty. Web browsing is, as reported elsewhere, a bit pokey but still faster than dialup. The keypad was much more accurate than I thought it would be with my fat-fingered keying.

The thing that amazed me the most about the phone: it worked. Apple made the display models (or at least the second one from the left on the island to the right of the Genius Bar in Columbus, Ohio) fully functional, and I mean fully functional. When was the last time you went to a cell phone retailer that actually let you check out how the phone worked as a phone? Apple did. One of the phones had been left on the phone keypad screen, so, on a lark, I turned my cell on and dialed. Yes, I called my own pocket. I'm still a bit stunned that it rang, from an unlisted number in San Jose. The test might have been biased, considering I was calling three feet, but the call quality was excellent. If nothing else from the iPhone bleeds into the rest of the cell phone industry, I hope the practice of letting customers actually try out the product catches on.

Penguin News

Fish and Wildlife Service Considers Penguin Protection

The Fish and Wildlife Service is planning full reviews on the status of 10 penguin species, to see if they warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. This would have more of a benefit to the penguins if any of them lived wild under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it is something.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eco-modding the Rookery

I tried out my new solar-powered, carbon-neutral clothes dryer today. My foremothers may know it as a clothesline. The house came with the steel T-posts, but I'd only recently gotten around to stringing up lines on them. Except for a brief episode of chasing my shorts across the grass, I think the solar powered dryer worked out remarkably well. I'm hoping that, with experience, I'll get faster at it. The first few t-shirts were dry by the time I got the socks up. If my foremothers took as long to hang their washing out as I did today, it's a wonder I have any more recent generations of foremothers.

As a side note, I think I figured out where my laundromat got the idea of combining laundry and tanning facilities.

Monday, July 09, 2007

After a brief hiatus worrying that the squirrels were the next biggest wildlife menace, we're back to the lobsters. Maine hatcheries are putting more of them out there into the wild. Mark my words: no good comes of this, particularly not for Wisconsin (honestly, if you were a rampaging lobster, wouldn't your first target be sources of drawn butter?).

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Ninth Doctor Is In

For your amusement, here is a nicely edited video mixing Doctor Who clips--with my favorite , the Ninth Doctor--over a song from the Series 2-3 Christmas special. Warning: the song is particularly catchy.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Driveway Blogging, Tape-Delayed Blooper Reel

I almost forgot to mention the most amusing part of the whole driveway paving experience. The entire process required one front end loader, one asphalt spreader, two dump trucks (one for debris and one for bringing the crushed limestone and asphalt to the site), and two asphalt rollers. The dump trucks were parked in the westbound lane of the road I live on, since shoulders are about nonexistent on the road, leaving a gap between them that created a protected work area for maneuvering the smaller pieces of equipment. This gap was where they left the smaller roller, safely parked, while they found ways to use up the last front-end-loader-scoopful of asphalt.

After they had deposited most of that last scoop in front of my and my across-the-street-neighbors' mailboxes so that my mail carrier doesn't have to drive into the ditch anymore, the crew found the road littered with tiny specks of asphalt. The easiest way to clean that up was to scrape it with the front end loader, so the guy driving the loader backed it up to get a good shot at the scraps. Like all construction equipment, it has that loud, obnoxious beep alarm when the loader is in reverse. The flaw in those alarms is that the only work if the thing you are backing up into has ears. Small asphalt rollers that were parked in a protected spot away from traffic do not, as far as I can tell, have ears. The very same asphalt roller that was having such difficulty earlier got a front end loader full force to its own front end. It almost didn't start when they went to put it back on the flatbed.

After...

Before...

Live Driveway Blogging, Finale

We have Pavement!

Live Driveway Blogging V

OK, now here comes the asphalt.

Live Driveway Blogging IV

My mistake there. They have just left to get the asphalt.

Live Driveway Blogging III

Here comes the asphalt!

Live Driveway Blogging II

The gravel is compacted. I think their roller may have imploded. They are looking intently at the engine, which (and I am no expert here) looks like it is smoking more than normal.

LiveBlogging the driveway

The pavers arrived at 7:30 this morning. By 7:45, they were tearing out old driveway and re-grading parts. Now, they are spreading 14 tons of crushed limestone base.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Slightly Weird Sign of Summer

One of the surest signs of summer, after the solstice and the onset of crepuscular bioluminescence, is when the classic cars come out to play. Today, we got the start of summer with a vengeance. You know it is going to be an interesting classic car viewing day when seeing a replica of the 1966 Batmobile cruising down the main shopping drag is not the weirdest classic car experience of the day.

Nope, weird car experience of the day goes to what happened when I exited Barnes and Noble. Parked next to my car was a banana yellow Triumph Spitfire, a car uncommon enough that the only other banana yellow Triumph Spitfire I have ever seen is the one my father owns.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Set Your Clocks

18:06 Universal Time today (that's 2:06 p.m. EDT, 11:06 a.m. PDT, 19:06 BST), summer officially begins. Happy Solstice, everyone!

As a special bonus, here's a link to Phil Plait explaining why you don't need to leave perfectly good raw eggs on the counter today. Unless you are really into that sort of thing, but in that case, you'll still be fine if you wait for the weekend.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hammy Goes Nuts

Did I not say that the rampaging German squirrel was going to give other squirrels ideas? This afternoon, I caught Hammy, as he has been christened (with my dishwater, but we're getting to that) taking a romp on the deck. My yard has been a squirrel-free zone for two years now, and not a week after the German Squirrel Rampage, one not only moves into the yard, but decides to test the waters for moving into the house. About 10 minutes after seeing Hammy romping around my deck rails, I rounded the corner into the kitchen to find Hammy throwing himself at the kitchen window--from the inside. This was a troubling development not only because I had a member of a recently-rampaging species running wild over my coffeemaker while I was wearing nothing more squirrel-proof than a skirt and a bikini top, but also because I had not opened any doors between the on-deck sighting and finding Hammy panicking in my sink. Lucky for me, Hammy kept it together long enough to eventually go out the way he came in, so tomorrow, I will be sealing what is apparently a gap behind the siding.

The squirrels have put us on notice.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Father's Day

And on behalf of offspring the world over, I would like to say thanks for holding off on the vasectomy.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Time for Crepuscular Bioluminescence...

...and a $20 phrase to describe it. "Crepuscular" meaning "active at twilight," and "bioluminescent" meaning "what firefly butts do." Tonight was the first firefly sighting of the summer. Sigh. Firefly season gives Marmota Watch a run for its money.

Wildlife Gone Wild

Squirrel Goes on Rampage, Injures 3

The squirrel rampage was finally brought to an end when a 72-year-old man beat the squirrel to death with his crutch. At first, one might be tempted to think that a squirrel that can be taken down by an elderly man with at least one bad leg should not be considered much of a threat, but bear in mind that the squirrel got good bites in on three people first. More importantly, the news will spread through squirreldom, and once they get it into their rodent heads that they can pull something like this off, they won't be content with the nuts we leave in the bird feeders.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Easy Way, Hard Way, and My Way

The task was presented as a simple one. There were 8 PDF files on Emp. Peng.'s laptop that needed to be printed out and collated while he was off tending to other obligations this evening. However, tasks delegated to me are never quite as easy as the delegator intends, owing to my uncanny ability to find the most difficult way humanly possible to accomplish any given task. In a stunning display of efficiency, or at least what passes as efficiency when I am involved, I went through Plans A through D in just 20 minutes before achieving success with Plan E.

Plan A: Plug printer into laptop. Plan A failed when the laptop repeatedly failed to make a connection to the printer. An hour and a half and four plans later, Emp. Peng. pointed out that the laptop was trying to make a connection to a different printer. This revelation came too late to be useful.

Plan B: Save files to jump drive and print the files from the jump drive through the desktop. Plan B failed because I could not figure out which, if any, of the USB peripherals could be unplugged without sacrificing functionality vital to the task or the parallel task I had started (calling PengMom on the VOIP phone). The printer was also necessary, as were the mouse and the external hard drive containing the Windows side of the desktop. I might have done without the outboard speakers, but there was the slight problem of figuring out which plug went to the speakers.

Plan C: Combine plans A and B, taking the files saved to the jump drive and attach my laptop directly to the printer. Plan C failed because my laptop, recently upgraded to Ubuntu Feisty Fawn, was being fussy and not wanting to open PDF documents.

Plan D: Since the jump drive was already in my laptop, I would email the PDF files to myself, check email on the desktop, and print the attachments from there. This plan was discarded without trying it, in a rare instance of me discerning that it was unnecessarily complicated and stupid, even for a plan I came up with.

Plan E: Unplug the printer, plug the jump drive into the USB port formerly occupied by the printer, copy the files onto the desktop, remove the jump drive, reattach the printer, and print. Success! Please, no emails from smartypantses who would have tried Plan E closer to Plan A or B.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fun While It Lasted

So much for penguins' cinematic heyday. Surf's Up got soundly trounced at the box office over the weekend, proving that one needs more than just penguins for movie success. For starters, a plot that doesn't make people say "WTF?!" during the trailers would be nice. IMDB summarizes the plot as
A stylistically daring CGI feature, "Surf's Up" is based on the groundbreaking revelation that surfing was actually invented by penguins. In the film, a documentary crew will take audiences behind the scenes and onto the waves during the most competitive, heartbreaking and dangerous display of surfing known to man, the Penguin World Surfing Championship.
I really can't blame the penguins for that movie, though, even if it dooms other, better penguin feature presentations. Someone at Sony had to say, "An animated mockumentary about pudgy, ice-dwelling flightless birds having invented a quintessentially warm-water sport? Sure, let's throw a few million dollars at that idea!" I can only hope that person is scraping guano at Sea World.

Now, I am a certifiable penguin person, and even I looked at that trailer and said, "I don't think so." How certifiably penguin am I? I actually switched my laptop's operating system so I could Go Penguin, so getting me to say "no thanks" to anything penguin-related is quite the feat. In the case of Surf's Up, it was a battle between the penguinophile in me and my innate desire to not have something in my brain pop and start leaking out my ears after 85 minutes of cognitive dissonance.

Penguins...surfing...penguins...surfing...TILT!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Father-in-law Knows Best?

So, they found the guy who flew out of the country and back in all while carrying a particularly drug-resistant strain of TB. Actually, if I read the story right, he flew out and snuck back in by way of Canada, figuring (rightly) that in our current state of Holy Crap Mode vis a vis airline passengers, he would not manage to get on a plane with his passport tagging him as a potential biohazard. Lucky for him, Homeland Security can't be in Holy Crap Mode in all places at all times. Since so far, no terrorists have mounted a successful attack by automobile from Canada, there is still a way to sneak a virulent pathogen into the country.

In all fairness, the TB patient said he didn't know he had the extra-dangerous variety of TB until he was already in Greece for his wedding. He thought he only had the normal tuberculosis. When he was told otherwise, he thought he would die without treatment back in the U.S. The obvious course of action when one thinks one has an infectious disease that will require some of the better health care available on the planet is to seal oneself into the cabin of an aircraft and share your recycled exhalations with a couple hundred people for hours on end.

Anyway, it didn't take long for someone to figure out who TB Guy was once a few details were made public in the effort to find people he might have breathed on. Turns out that this man is pretty near the top of the list of People Who Really Ought To Have Known Better. He's a personal injury lawyer. But wait. It gets better. Remember how I said he was in Greece for his wedding? Turns out, he was marrying the daughter of a CDC microbiologist who specializes in TB (who, unlike this guy, know how to keep their drug-resistant TB under wraps). I'm guessing that is going to be a bit of an awkward visit with the in-laws once he gets out of quarantine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

'Splain this...

A while back, our old 23-inch CRT television set spontaneously decided to remove red from the spectrum. Since there is a reason TV in shades of green never took off, and I like to take things apart to see how they work, I dissected the TV, leaving me with a plastic case and a TV picture tube with a few random TV guts attached. The latter item is somewhat tricky to dispose of, since it contains non-trivial amounts of lead and is under a vacuum that tends to make it go BOOM when the glass breaks. I left the tube in the utility room and conveniently forgot to call the trash company for several months about getting rid of it.

Well, tonight, I finally got around to calling them to see what sort of precautions I might need to take to dispose of it. Turns out, they can't dispose of a CRT tube alone, and couldn't find anywhere on the hazardous materials dropoff calendar that would fit that particular item. However, they can dispose of CRT television sets. So--and I asked specifically to clarify this--if I leave the dangerous part out at the curb, they can't do anything about it, but if I put the dangerous part back into the inert case, they will be happy to take it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stuck in my Craw

If the US Postal Service wants to increase revenue, or at least remain a relevant service for items other than applications for pre-approved credit cards that no sane bank would actually issue to me, they may want to consider the merits of not making the new postal rates completely incomprehensible.

The old rates were easy: 39 cents for the first ounce, and slap on a 24 cent stamp for each additional ounce up to 16 ounces, and if you can stick a full pound of paper into an envelope, more power to you. I spent half an hour this morning trying to figure out the new rates for multi-ounce #10 business sized envelopes. Near as I can figure, it is 41 cents for the first ounce, 17 additional cents for the second, third, and third-and-a-half ounces, then after 3.5 ounces, one must switch to the "retail flat" table, that starts at 80 cents for the first ounce and 17 cents for each additional, so that a 3 ounce letter is $1.14, four ounces is $1.31. I'm still not entirely clear on how much a 3.75 ounce package costs.

If the post office spent as much time sorting the actual mail as they do sorting out rate regulations, I might not get my neighbor's Visa bill every other month.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Life Imitates Warner Brothers Cartoon

In spite of it being released on DVD at least three times, Warner Brothers' 1950 classic cartoon "8-Ball Bunny" is not available on YouTube for me to link to, but you know the plot. Bugs finds a penguin far outside normal penguin range, and hilarity ensues when Bugs tries to return the penguin to his native Antarctica. Well, once again, the penguins have managed to re-enact their mid-century celluloid antics, albeit without the Humphrey Bogart impressions. A Magellanic penguin strayed 3,000 miles off course and ended up in Peru.

Thanks to SuperDad for the link.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pass The Stuffing

We spent Mother's Day at Emp. Peng.'s grandmother's house, which backs up to an area home to several wild turkeys. One particularly handsome tom took exception to the "other" turkey that apparently lives in the front bumper of our rental car. The above is a photograph of him beaking the crap out of a rented Pontiac. We did not get a photo of me spit-buffing beak marks out of the paint, shortly after I threatened him with a pot of boiling water and some bread crumbs. Lucky for me, the folks at Alamo return counter at Logan were backed up and didn't notice a bit of turkey damage. I have posted the picture so you all won't think I've been getting a little too far into the Wild Turkey.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

3.1415927

I'm trying my hand at homemade pecan pie. I really hope it comes out of the oven looking better than it went in, because it went in filled with what looked like nuts floating in beige phlegm.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Still a Few Bugs in the System

The concept is sheer automotive anti-theft genius. A car senses that someone is trying to steal it and automatically initiates an error message that triggers a lockdown sequence to immobilize itself. Deep in the bowels of the car's onboard computer, where the would-be auto thieves can't see, it takes its own fuel pump offline, mimicking engine failure that would make it an unattractive target for the thieves who would be more interested in moving the car than diagnosing the mechanical problem. Basically, the car sees that it is under attack and plays possum until the bad guys lose interest. Very sci-fi.

Emp. Peng.'s Volvo apparently has had this feature since 2001. We learned this week that, however cool the idea is on paper, there are still a few bugs in the system as it exists in today's reality. Principally, a 2001 Volvo, while an advanced piece of engineering, is not quite smart enough to tell the difference between thugs attempting to commit grand theft auto and Volvo-certified technicians attempting to replace part of the throttle. Humans, on the other hand, are generally smart enough to know whether they are felons or Volvo technicians (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive), but in our case, the humans failed to compensate for the weakness in the mechanical system by clearing out the onboard computer's memory when they finished replacing said throttle part.

Unbeknown to anyone, the shop sent me home Wednesday with a car that thought it was being carjacked, and the error message triggered the next time Emp. Peng. tried to start it, Friday morning. Now we know what the Blue Screen of Death looks like on a computer system that does not have a display; it is the Blue Volvo of Immobility. Unfortunately, in addition to not having a monitor to turn all blue, the car also lacks a user-operable Control-Alt-Delete.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

About that last one...

Rosa Brooks of the LA Times says most of what I meant in that last post, and says it better than I did. She also says it a little more tactfully that Christopher Hitchens. Thanks to ME for the link, even if it came to him secondhand.

Glad to see someone has said it

Christopher Hitchens has the cajones to say what should have become patently obvious by now: we are not one. We are not united in grief. Bad things can happen in the world without affecting us personally.
What, for instance, is this dismal rush to lower the national colors all the damned time? At times of real crisis and genuine emergency, such as the assault on our society that was mounted almost six years ago, some emotion could be pardoned. But even then, the signs of sickliness and foolishness were incipient.... If we did this every time, the flag would spend its entire time drooping.
He goes on to point out a quandary now faced by, of all people, the Russian trade mission, which lowered its flag after the Virginia Tech incident, only to have former Russian President Boris Yeltsin die in the middle of their solidarity. Oops. Bad timing on Yeltsin's part, dying within a week of a random violent act.

When my grandfather died, I noted here that it seemed obscene that the world kept on going, but that is one of the great lessons of grief: life has to go on in spite of any personal pain. Nothing teaches you that you are not the center of the universe quite like having everything go on like nothing is wrong while you are devastated. Our increasingly constant orgy of grief, moving from one tragedy to another, commemorating anniversaries and locations until time and space is one giant, constant memorial, robs people of this important demonstration of their place in the cosmos, while cheapening the grief we are supposed to be sharing.

Astronomers may have found E.T.'s home world

From what astronomers can tell, 581 c is a nice little planet, probably around half again as big around as Earth, a bit more gravity, temperatures amenable to liquid water and in fact not so different from the midwest (between freezing and 104 Fahrenheit). The orbital period is 13 days, so you get birthday cake every two weeks. Most important, it is there. For the first time, we found a planet outside our own solar system that fits our assumptions of what conditions are amenable to producing and supporting life.

581 c is the first extrasolar planet humans have found that falls into the range of being "hospitable to life"--a category which also contains Mars, so don't pack the space bikini yet. It is around Gliese 581, a dim star 20.5 light years away, in the constellation Libra. At Warp 1, that gives you a couple of decades to get into swimsuit shape, not counting the time it takes to develop warp drive.

As with so many scientific discoveries that sneak up on us, the first potentially habitable planet was not where we were looking for it. Gliese 581 is smaller, dimmer and cooler than the sun, and while plenty of extrasolar planets have been found around stars like Gliese 581--including one the size of Neptune around Gliese 581--planet hunters looking for earthlike planets tended to concentrate their efforts around stars like our sun. In the project that discovered 581 c, about 90% of the telescope time went to sun-like stars. The new planet was found in the other 10%. Makes me wonder what else we have been missing because we assume it can't be there.