Saturday, September 23, 2006

My Day at the Big E 

I'd have to say that one of the best kept secrets of western Massachusetts is The Eastern States Exposition (aka the Big E). It is kind of like a state fair, but involving six states and lots of different activities, making it the biggest in the northeast. It is one of those traditions I've had with my Mom since I was a little kid, but we hadn't been able to visit for a couple of years. And the last couple of times we went, our health wasn't the best. This year the health/money situation was doing well, Friday's weather looked good, and took the day off from work. Was very glad that I did!

It ended up being a great day, seeing many great sights and buying some fun stuff, so here's a quick overview.

Arrived at around 9am. It's nice to get there early since you can check out the vendors before things start to get too busy.

At 11, we watch a performance of the Peking Acrobats on the small stage. I think it was worth the price of admission just for that! There was about ten performers, split between male and female, doing a half-hour show. It was a very solid show with acrobatics, jumping through stacked hoops, balancing, contortion, plate spinning (one of the more extensive examples I've seen), unicycles, juggling, etc. They managed to pull off quite a bit on that little stage.

Went off to the State Houses for lunch. The Avenue of States is pretty unique to the Big E, with a bunch of large buildings (looking almost like old churches or schoolhouses) that act as embassies to six northeast states, with each state actually owning the land for their building. If you're looking for Cod Cakes, maple goodies, apple dumplings, pumpkin ice cream, fried dough, cider, cider donuts, baked potatoes, pancakes, etc these are the places to go to.

There's also lots of interesting stuff to buy from each state. I ended up buying two wooden yo-yos from the Maine house, which work pretty well.

After eating most of previous list, went off exploring more of the fair. Got to see the Budweiser Clydesdale horses up close (both in their cages and in a parade) which are amazing animals. Their shoulder is 6 feet tall, so I couldn't even see over the body, and they weight over 2000 pounds! They are just massive. I couldn't help thinking that Death Dealer would ride one..

One cool experience was seeing a little Circus Museum they have set up, with the focus on a model replica of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. It is truly amazing, with the big tent having 10,000 inch high figures in it, most of them setting on folding chairs that really fold! It also had all the train cars and some buttons to make certain things move. The man that created it was there and so it was amazing to hear about his past experiences in circuses/carnivals and the creation of the miniature circus.

Also flitted around the Better Living Center, getting out with just a plant stacking thing and some Coolattas. Back in the outside booths, I managed to avoid buying any t-shirts, but did grab a new wallet (monogrammed no less!). The weird thing is that about two hours after buying it, the zipper on my old wallet broke! Mom grabbed a hat and a key-chain (it was weird how hard it was to find key-chains).

Around this time, the parade came by, with some local marching bands, cars, Budweiser wagon and Clydesdales (it was funny how there was a cleaning car after any horses), and misc things. Couple of baton twirlers and flaggers mixed in there too.

We next went to Storrowtown Village, which is kind of a mini Sturbridge Village, with people demonstrating old New England life. Who knew that the "Peter picked a pickled pepper" tongue twister was originally used to help teach English? Was also more booths in that area, where I picked up a Harmonica and a Bamboo flute. I'd actually bought a flute from them 10 years ago or so, but I'd never gotten around to using it and it eventually cracked. This time I'm going to make more of an effort to learn it!

While in this area, it happened that Nuttin' But Stringz started to perform. This is a pretty unusual act, involving two brothers who play the violin on top of hip-hop beats (and some rap here and there). The result worked out really well and it was great to see a big audience of people from many ages and backgrounds totally into it. In fact, when they ran a little late and were going to stop a song short, the crowd booed hard enough that they got to do one more song. Ended up buying their single Thunder and getting it signed. It sounds like they have a full album out soon, so that should be cool.

By this time it was around 7pm and we were getting hungry again. We gravitated back to the State Houses and ended up getting some chili dogs and sodas, topped off with a cider donut. Also got to listen a bit to a band in that area. We also happened to see the mini-Mardi Gras parade and get some beads.

We wandered around a bit more and eventually crossed through the midway on our way out, catching a bit of the main stage musical performance as we passed. We were both pretty exhausted at this point so didn't end up doing anything (not sure if I could have convinced Mom go to on the Ferris Wheel anyway, but maybe next time.. heh).

So, we finally got out at about 9:30pm, so 12 and a half hours at the Big E! The weather was great and it seemed like we saw almost everything there was to see without even trying that hard. Bought some fun stuff (but not too much) and ate lots. It's just as well that I didn't bring a camera, since I would have spent way too much time shooting instead of just experiencing it. I feel really lucky to have something like this in the area. I'd say it is definitely work the trek if you're anywhere near this area.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Free Sleater-Kinney concert download 

While I'm bummed to hear that Sleater-Kinney is going on "indefinite hiatus," I was glad to be pointed to NPR : Sleater-Kinney in Concert. Their full concert from August 3rd in Washington is available for streaming or download.

I've listened to half of it so far and it is good stuff. Just keep in mind that it seems like they were still getting warmed up during the first song. One Beat is a song that probably isn't to the taste of many anyway (though I love it), but it seems weak here. After that, things start cooking though.

Sleater-Kinney is one of the bands that started me on the indie music journey. All Hands On The Bad One was being played in a used record shop (Turn It Up! in Northampton) and I loved it. I googled some lyrics I remembered and grabbed a couple of mp3s from their official site. Then when joining eMusic a little while later, they were one of my first downloads.

Speaking of Turn It Up, I grabbed the original Vampire Hunter D movie for $5 at a recent sidewalk sale. I've been meaning to check it out for a while.

(link via CaptWiffle on eMusic's board)

Monday, July 31, 2006

Comic Shop Conversations 

Here's how you know your comic book shop is one of the good ones. When you walk in, you immediately notice two things:

1. The layout has been changed and in good way.

2. The owner and an employee are discussing a political treaty (a treaty pertaining to the actual real world).

Then later on, they talk about ways to further improve the layout of the store by avoiding "traffic jams" and keeping things from "looking cheesy". I mean, they even have some boxes of Jumbo Pockey! I feel pretty lucky to have Modern Myths in this area.

So, what'd I pick up? Monster #3. You must check it out if you haven't already!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

How I Lost Weight 

After being heavy for many years, it finally came to a head around the beginning of 2002 for me. I was 220 pounds (I was actually 235 at one point), wearing XXL shirts and enough was enough. Over the course of a year, I managed drop down to 145, a total of 75 pounds lost, coming out to around 6 pounds a month. It was a great experience for me, raising my self-esteem, making clothing easier to find, etc.

Three years later, I've gained about 30 pounds back. While I wouldn't consider 175 all that overweight for me (I'm about 5"9'), some of my shorts are starting to get a bit tight. In revisiting in my head what worked for me before, I thought it'd be nice to write it out in the spirit of life hacking.

Instead of some sort of radical change in behavior (aka Cold Turkey), I eased into some subtle life changes, and that made all the difference. I have to preface this by saying that I never had any actual eating disorders that I know of. Just a relatively sedantary person (I work at a computer and most of my non-work is spent there as well) whose eating wasn't amazingly healthy but not totally horrible either. I was also in my 20s, though that didn't keep my stomach from never totally going away. ;) But hopefully this can be helpful to most people that just need a push in the right direction.

The first thing you have to understand is that food is not the enemy! Food is what gives you life and eating should be an enjoyable part of life. Setting up eating as some sort of battle puts you into bad mindset that I'd think is the sort of thing that leads to eating disorders. If your main idea of food is denial, you're setting yourself up for failure, since humans hate denying themselves things. The trick is to change your habits and expectations so that denying yourself only happens occationally in extreme circumstances.

For me, I think the biggest single thing was learning to eat slower. It may sound silly, but I found it incredibly important. Too many of us get into the habit of eating until we're full instead of eating until we're not hungry anymore. That is a very important distinction and it is easy lose sight of it if you aren't paying attention. Eating too fast makes it worse since there's a lag time for your body to catch up with what you ate.

Try to purposefully slow down. Chew more than you normally would and try to really taste each bit of food. Maybe pause for a minute and then continue eating. As an experiment you can time yourself eating normally, then the next time you have that meal, try to take twice as long to eat the food. When you eat slower and also pay more attention to eating, you'll likely find that the food seems like a bigger meal than it used to be. You may even find yourself enjoying the food more.

Now you can combine the above with smaller portions. Don't suddenly cut your meals in half! If you're eating a grinder, maybe take off a third of it. If you usually have six pieces (like the little sqare pieces) of pizza from the local shop, try having five pieces, maybe use a couple less noodles in your spaghetti. But eat it slower and more carefully so it takes time similar time to eat as it used to. In this way you can slowly work your portion size down, changing what seems "normal" to your mind and body.

Don't be afraid to throw food away! Many have had parents who have told them to finish their plate. That they're lucky they aren't starving children in Africa. This is meant well, but I think it becomes destructive later in life, especially when you're paying for food and don't want to "waste it". But you have re-orient your mind. Eating food when you aren't hungry is even more of a waste! Unless something is artificially depressing your appetite (medicine, depression, etc), eating when you're not hungry is incredibly wasteful. Not only do you not need the food, but it is going to become fat that you'll have to get rid of later.

Consider this: you buy a grinder and eat two thirds of it. You no longer really feel hungry, but you figure you should eat the last third. This is exactly the kind of thing that can build up over time and cause you to gain weight. If you're not hungry, either take the rest home to eat later or just throw it away. If you find yourself consistantly having too much left over and it isn't something you like to warm up later (like a hamburger), that's a clear sign that you're buying too much food! Instead of large, get a medium, or even a small. Many places will try to manipulate you: "It's only 50 cents extra for twice as much food!" But if it's too much food, then not only are you eating too much, you're also paying 50 cents too much.

The only time to go for the big portion is if you're going to have leftovers. In fact, a great benefit to eating smaller portions is saving money. The foot-long grinder you used to wolf down now becomes two meals, a savings of 50%! My Mom and I had both lowered our portion sizes at the same time and when we went out to eat at a restaurant, we found that most of the time we could buy one meal and that was plenty of food for both of us.

You'll probably notice that I haven't even started talking about food choices yet. That is deliberate, because it is what people always focus on, but is only a part of it. When I lost weight, I still ate plenty of pizza (though mostly home-made), spaghetti, and ate out. Never feel like you have to eat only "healthy" food to lose weight. Still, I did try to steer away from the worst case offenders.

I think if you drink a lot of soda, you should probably try to wean yourself off of it. I hate the taste of diet soda, so that wasn't an option for me. Try some juice, iced tea, milk, water. If you can't get off of soda, try to at least to make the portions smaller. But for me, I found that after getting away from soda for a while, it isn't really something I miss that much and I don't drink it that often anymore.

For snacks, I'd try to get away from cookies and go more toward things like pretzels. And if you're a person that tends to snack every night while watching TV, trying to break that cycle can help things. But how? And what about things like when a co-worker brings in left-over cake? There is certainly some sort of denial that has to come in somewhere. For me, instead of focusing on the food, I'd try to think about what I was trying to achieve. Sure eating a piece of cake is fun, but only last a couple of minutes. If you weigh less, you'll likely feel better all the time.

If you can avoid not eating it for the time that it's around, then it'll be gone and you don't have to worry about it anymore. Relating to that, try not to have temptation around you. If there's cake left from a party, bring it into work or give it to someone else (or even throw it away) so that you won't have the temptation constantly there. It takes a whole lot more work to go out and buy something than it is to eat something already in the house. If you can convince yourself not to buy a snack while you're shopping (and try to food shop right after eating a meal if possible, so you're not hungry while buying) then you're a lot less likely to run into problems.

If you can't break the habit of snacking while watching TV, besides trying healthier snacks (stuff like mini-carrots can be fun), there's other techniques. Like don't bring the box into the room with the TV. Instead, put some in a bowl and take it with you. If you have to actually get up to get more food, you're less likely eat mindlessly, and it'll also slow you down. Also, a lot of it is just keeping your hands busy (like how smokers get used to fussing with the cigarettes). If you're just watching random TV to pass time, you could try some other hobby involving your hands. Or you could do word puzzles while watching TV or something.

But don't feel like you can't ever snack or even have something like ice cream or cookies or cake. Just don't do it all the time, try to have smaller portions when you do, and experiment with less fattening versions (frozen yogurt, etc).

Last is exercise. Exercise definitely helps speed things along, or at the very least tip the balance if you're on the edge of losing weight. Obviously, it also helps out your body, giving you more energy and helping you do basic tasks (go up the stairs easier!). When I lost weight, I was pretty conservative on the exercise front. I did start off with a stationary bike, which helped me to kickstart things, though it was hard to keep up with it. Eventually, I found what worked best was taking a walk during my lunch break. This got me out into fresh air and I could also indulge in some photography.

Lately, I have a new exercise friend called Dance Dance Revolution, the dancing video game. I got a cheap pad from Toys R Us, a Playstation to USB converter from online, the free Stepmania software, and songs (through methods I won't get into!), and I was off and running. If you have a playstation or xbox around, it'll be easier just to buy an official game and go from there. The nice thing is that not only are you exercising, but there's variety and a challenge (both mental and physical).

Riding a stationary bike is incredibly boring, but there's always something new to try and learn with a dancing game. You could even get into the social aspect at arcades if you wanted to. Similarly, you could get some inline skates or rollerskates and go to a local rink. Or get dance instruction or even try to skateboard. For me anyway, I get distracted too easily to be able to keep up with normal exercise. If I feel like I'm learning and challenging myself, that makes it much easier for me to stay motivated.

I did keep a daily weight journal (be sure to weight yourself right in the morning after bathroom, since you weigh more later in the day), which helped me keep track of progress. But be carefull! Weight fluctuates due to how much water you're retaining and all kinds of other factors, so look at the general trend of the last weeks instead of freaking out if you go up a pound one day.

Also, if you do a lot of exercise after having done none, you'll get those cool things called muscles, which have weight! If you find your weight not dropping much, but your body thinning out, then you are probably fine. And even just having muscle will burn more fat in and of itself. It may not be a bad idea to measure yourself occationally to keep things in perspective. As in all of the rest, try to take a measured realistic approach to things.

In the last three years, I got kind of complacent and let my portion sizes creep up, snacking too often, stopped walking (though started up the DDR lately). But even that only comes out to gaining less than one pound a month versus the six a month I was losing. I have the confidence that I can adjust things back without too much pain and start losing again, which is a powerful feeling in and of itself!

Virtual Reality and Gaming 

On a recent trip to the library, I'd happened to pick up a book called Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castronova on "the business and culture of online games." I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but it has a fascinating appendix called A Digression on Virtual Reality.
In that essay, Castronova talks about how he feels most early virtual reality researchers and theorists were on the wrong track. The focus has been generally on achieving a sensory experience as close to reality as possible. Goggles to beam light directly into your eyes, full-body suits to control your virtual self and give feedback to your body. There was a feeling in the 90s that Virtual Reality was around the corner, but it didn't happen. In fact the term even feels a bit antiquated now after the dot com boom.

However, Castronova points out that virtual reality is alive and well in a completely different form, in online gaming worlds. Instead of trying to make a perfect sensory experience like the Holodeck or Dream Park (a great book), gaming pioneers focused on what the users do and how they interact with other people. From text MUDs to Ultima Online to present day games like Everquest, people are immersed by interaction and story, not by photorealism. And this immersion came from people a world away from VR researchers, using regular monitors, keyboards and mice.

Also, even with a perfect sensory immersion, if the subject isn't engaging, your suspension of disbelief probably won't kick in. You might be standing in a perfect virtual room, but still aware of the fact that you're really standing in an offline room wearing a bunch of gear.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. You can look at a perfectly rendered painting, but if it doesn't really capture your mind, you're still be aware that you're standing in a gallery looking at a wall. At the same time, a novel you're wrapped up in can take you to a far-off world, making you lose track of the hours. Text on a page is about as unrealistic a display technology as it gets.

There's so much going on nowadays that I'm frankly a bit frightened to go too deeply involved into any of them. I know from playing MUDs years ago how much time can get sucked into massive multiplayer online games. Even from my somewhat distant perch, I can see massive things like Second Life rising up. Even Golf is getting pretty interesting lately.

For me, a lot of my virtual world now, has to do with the yo-yo community. There's a lot of chatting in IRC and IM, reading and posting to message boards, watching and creating videos. But it comes back to real physical skills and real offline people, and one of highlights is going to the local club or a contest somewhere. This sort of virtual experience grounded in reality has actually brought me closer to the world.

Talking to someone in Quatar or the Czech Republic, finding out about the Hyphy movement from across the US, discussing the American version of Shonen Jump with people from Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan (happened at the World Yo-yo Contest last year), having a simple gettogethers and sleep-overs with groups of people of different ages and backgrounds. All that and much more has happened to me because of a hobby and the internet.

I find it interesting that for someone who grew up with BBSs and then the Internet, instead of going off into more and more fantasy, I ended up pulling back a bit and exploring further into the real world instead. Then again, I do think "reality" is subjective and some people are able to delude themselves in much more destructive ways offline than being a hero of an MMORPG.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Day in the life of a Shuttle booster rocket 

If you haven't seen it yet, you must watch this view from the Space Shuttle's booster rocket. I have to say it one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time. You get to see the earth hurtling away, the separation, the rocket spinning around, the parachute descent, and finally the splashdown. It is amazing to see the texture of the ocean slowly become more distinct until you can finally see individual waves.

There's footage from other areas of the Shuttle on NASA's site, including in quicktime if you can't view the streaming windows media.

--Thanks to Bad Astronomy for the head's up.

Also, if you want to try simulating stuff like this (and much more) yourself, I can't recommend Celestia highly enough. Truly one of the top open source programs in my opinion. If you're interested in space, it is a must have. Stellarium is very well done as well.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mad As Hell 2: Unreality TV and Yo-yos 

So, last time I talked about the movie Network and the frightening prospect that our current state of television seems to be trying its best to live up to that dark comedy. Here's something a bit related to that and a bit related to my yo-yo hobby.

Recently there aired an episode of the show Master of Champions, in which people skilled in various.. umm skills are pitted against each other. Along with semi-celebrity ex-sporting judges and TV voters and all of that. It is pretty badly done all-around IMO and I much prefer what I've seen of America's Got Talent.

Still, this latest episode had a segment with six yo-yo players, split into two teams. If you missed it, you can watch the yo-yo section below:

First, I do have to say that it is nice to have some yo-yoing on television. I'm glad that the opportunity presented itself and I think Doc and Dave and the rest did a great job under the circumstances. Hopefully it gives some people more of a sense of the current tricks and encourages some people to take it up that never thought about it before.

Where does the "unreality" of the title come in then? The answer comes on Doctor Popular's Blog where he discusses what went on behind the scenes and how much the producers of the show decided to mess with things. He also talked about it on the last episode of Yo-yos Coast to Coast, the podcast of which will be up next monday. Dave's also weighed in. What it boils down to is the producers removing any real drama and replacing it with their own.

For the card thrower, he had a bad day, so they edited multiple takes for it to look cleaner. But he got the finale on the first try, so they edited in misses to highten the drama. Aparantly he even cut the lady on the wheel three times (I didn't see that segment so not sure what was left in).

For our yo-yo players, a non-existant rivalry was attempted to be played up. They pressured Doc to have him say he was the best. During the "greet your opponent" section they removed the handshake and inserted footage of them waiting for mics to be put on. Footage of Dave smiling for most of Doc's routine is not used, but some random blank stare is. I mean these people are all good friends with each other. And while the Bazan crew work together, Doc's "team" wasn't even a real time. Just a couple friends who used the College for the Easily Amused mantle to try to get attention toward those clubs (which Doc started but doesn't run anymore).

There was no rehersals during the day of filming. The music wasn't used, making synched routines almost pointless. No blacklight was used for Dave's team as planned. No darkness for the glow stuff in Doc's routine. And Doc actually went first instead of last in the finale challenge!

I don't mind stuff like goofy comments from the judges or commentary like "look at the offstring" when offstring had been cut out. Stuff like that seems like par for the course. But substituting footage to play up conflicts that aren't there and totally editing performances to suit their needs (putting Doc last has a different emotional reaction) is just too much for me to be comfortable with.

And this was a case where the participents were regular people trying their best to be themselves. Can you imagine the "reality" shows that people go on mostly to get as famous as possible? Though I'm not a huge watcher of pro wrestling, at least stuff like that is so over the top that it is easy to take it for what it is. It is the more subtle distortions of reality that you have to be careful of. As always, don't believe what you see on TV!

Monday, July 10, 2006

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore! 

Well, a stop to a library I don't usually get to visit, and out I came with a ton of DVDs and graphics novels. It's a shame that I haven't been blogging, because plenty of stuff has been going on. But if Dirk Deppy can somehow return to blogging, I should be able to post SOMETHING now and then right?

So, my first thing to try out was the movie Network, which I'd been meaning to see for quite some time and am glad that I finally did. Even if you haven't actually seen (or even heard of) the movie, you've probably heard someone quote "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" before, which comes from a pivotal scene in the movie.

Network is a dark comedy involving a newscaster on an ailing TV netowork, who is fired due to low ratings and subsequently goes crazy. But this craziness ends up being so good for ratings that he is actually kept on and encouraged in his ways. As it continues, things spiral more and more out of control, with trash being put above all else for the sake of ratings.

Lots of good acting, from Peter Finch who plays the insane newscaster who speaks more truth than most. William Holden plays his friend and former news department head, a flawed man who is having a middle-aged crisis, but still very sympathetic. Most interesting perhaps is Faye Dunaway's character, who brainstorms up most of the changes to the network. She is strikingly immoral in a number of ways and is basically the embodyment of what is wrong with TV and society in general, but she has just enough humanity to make the character more tragic than a simple characture.

What is really most frightening is just how much has come to pass since the movie was made in 1976. The nightly news on the major networks may still be relatively sane, but what about shows like Jerry Springer? Also, look at this conversation, a non-serious musing from early in the film:

Max Schumacher: We could make a series of it. "Suicide of the Week." Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? "Execution of the Week."
Howard Beale: "Terrorist of the Week."
Max Schumacher: I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: "The Death Hour." A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It'd wipe that fuckin' Disney right off the air.

As a reviewer on IMDB mentioned, this sounds pretty familiar:
A few years back some network put exactly such a show - "Eye Witness Videos" - on the air. On Sunday night. In prime time.

It's always a bad sign when reality starts to conform to the vision of a black comedy from the past. While some parts of it will feel dated (fashion, technology, tv references, etc), I think it is really worth watching this movie. Almost all of us now were raised with "the tube" as a constant presence, and it is good to have something pointing out just how crazy things have become.

What else did I grab from the library? For DVDs, I Heart Huckabees, an Ansel Adams documentary, Pom Poko (one of the few Ghibli films I haven't seen yet), and the first Full Metal Alchemist DVD (have heard good things about this series).

For GNs, I got Swan #2 (I looove this series!), Dramacon #1, Runaways #1, Flight #2, WE3, Dungeon #1, Fray, and The Red Star #1. I've heard good things about all of these, so it should be a great couple of weeks as I burn through this stuff. I'll try to get some little reviews too.

Also, I'll have some more words on the unreality of TV relating to a recent appearance of yo-yos on TV.. It feels good to blog again, even if no one is reading anymore. Maybe this will help sort my thoughts out a bit.. :)

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