Friday, September 28, 2007

I am defeated

In my entire life to this point, I can only remember one time when I have started a book that I was not able to finish (Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason). It is time to add another book to that list, however: Benjamin Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. The basic theory that the author posits (that when economic growth is stronger, the classic liberal idea of the 'moral society' is also stronger) seems sound on its face, but what has defeated me is the 400+ pages of 8-point historical evidence to back the theory. Almost 200 pages in, and we have finally left the American Experience to delve into the British one. At this point I just can't take any more, so I'm reading Dragonlance, instead.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Economist Debate Series

The Economist, my favorite news magazine, has started a new online initiative, a debate series. Normally this would prove to be a rather dull affair, but I was intrigued when the notice I received indicated that the debate would be in the Oxford Style, which was written in such a way that I got the impression I was just supposed to know what that means. American high school education, you have failed me again! It turns out that in such a thing, all questions from the audience go through a moderator, who decides which questions are actually relevant. This has its pros and cons, of course, but it has to be a sight better than the often-asinine YouTube debate with the Democratic presidential candidates a few months back. When you have a snowman asking questions about global warming, you know that things have gone too far.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Strange Brew

You may recall that in August I received a present from my brother, Mark, of a do-it-yourself root beer kit. Well, last weekend I decided to break it out and try to make my own root beer. I figured that, at the least, it would be good for a few laughs. It turns that making your own root beer produces a product that is different from store-bought product in some noticeable ways. For instance, store-bought root beer is generally force-injected with carbon gas to produce the carbonation. Home-brewed root boot, on the other hand (at least, the stuff made from the Mr. Root Beer kit), is carbonated through natural fermentation of the sugar in the brew. See, you put yeast in it. Yes, yeast. And many of you will naturally figure out that the fermentation means that you are making alcohol. Yes, mom and dad, I am making alcoholic beer in the basement. Granted, the alcohol content will generally come out to 0.5%, which is essentially nothing, but I still found that kind of fascinating.

Actually, I should state that my root beer should have had 0.5% alcohol, but I think I did something wrong, because I am not really seeing much carbonation forming. Granted, I did have problems getting all of the ingredients to properly dissolve, and I don't think the water I used was hot enough to get the process started right. This doesn't mean that my root beer is bad, mind you; it's just really flat. Like what happens if you leave an opened 2-liter in your fridge for 2 weeks. It still makes a decent root beer float, though.

Next time (I have enough materials to make another gallon of beer), rather than mixing the yeast into the entire mixing bowl, I think I will quarter the amount and not add it until the bottles have been filled. This way I can make sure that the amount of yeast in each quart bottle is equal, as I think that might be the problem I had the first time around. One bottle seems to be fine (nice gas pressure build up), while the others show no carbonation activity at all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sporting Roundup

I know that I don't usually write about sports other than hockey, but some big things have been happening that I feel a need to comment on.

1. With their 3-1 victory over hapless Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, Arsenal has claimed the top spot in the League table. I like to think that they can win the Premier League this year, but time will tell. Liverpool is looking scary, so we'll see what happens when they meet for the first time.

2. The St. Louis Cardinals are committing suicide, deciding that they really don't feel like winning any games the rest of the year. They will make games exciting, sure, but they won't win. The local pundits aren't writing off the season, yet, but let's be honest; the defending champions are done.

3. On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the St. Louis Rams in what can only be described as a painful fashion, at least if you are a Rams fan. I'm a life-long Niners man, though, so I thought the game was fantastic, especially Gore's 4th and 1 run for a touchdown. Someone needs to go back to tackling school! The local fans have the knives out for coach Linehan already, and it looks like Marc Bulger might not make it through 5 games, the way the offensive line is letting people hit him at will.

4. This morning, the US Women's national soccer team won against Nigeria to advance to the next round of the World Cup. Considering last year's embarrassing performance by our men, it is good to see that somebody around here still knows how to play the game.

5. The Blues started their pre-season on Sunday, losing to Hotlanta 3-1. I can't get upset about it, since the preseason is where you use lots of minor-league players to see how they handle the big-time pressures. The good thing is that this means that we are only 3 weeks away from the regular season, at which time regular life will stop for the next 6 months. You have been warned.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Back Home

Yesterday evening Mark and I returned to St. Louis. We had a roughly 3 hour drive from Fresno to Sacramento, and then we flew back through Denver. We got home about 9:00 PM, so it ate up the entire day. The previous two days were spent in King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, doing lots of hiking and enjoying the view of sequoia trees (which have to be seen to be believed) and the Sierra mountains. Over those two days I hiked close to 20 miles, which is a lot more walking than I usually do, or at least so my right hip was telling me yesterday when it would hurt with every step. Another sign of age, I guess.

So, now that I am back home, I am able to settle into my standard routine, again. The day was filled with buying food, doing laundry, and cleaning the basement, all pretty normal stuff. There was one new thing, though; tonight was the first night of my Japanese conversation class. Yes, I am heading down that path again. I learned that the self-paced stuff I tried a few years ago wouldn't work for me, because I need an underlying reason to learn the stuff. Being in a class means that I know have the underlying reason of not looking like a fool, which is a very good reason, in my book. So we will have to see how that goes. I was very surprised at the number of people in the class (over half) were learning Japanese because their son had married a Japanese woman and they wanted to be able to talk to their in laws. It was always a son marrying a Japanese woman, and never the other way around. That seems odd to me, but there you go.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

King's Canyon

Greetings from King's Canyon National Park, about 60 miles east of Fresno, CA. Yes, the internet extends out to even here. This also marks the first time that my wireless card in my laptop has agreed to work in the last two days, which is why there was no blog post yesterday.

On Thursday Mark and I drove down to Big Sur, on the central California coast, and did around 7 miles of hiking. We got to see some great scenery, and one trail that we took peaked on a bluff overlooking the ocean. It would have been even cooler if it wasn't so hazy, but such is life. We also took a small trail to see a place where a waterfall dumps out onto a beach, which was pretty cool. We capped it off with dinner at Denny's, and then crashed.

Yesterday was the day of the whale-watching trip, and we were successful, getting to watch a pair of humpback whales for a little under an hour. We couldn't see the entire animal, of course, but one of them did poke its head out of the water once and we got dozens of views of them breathing and showing their tails. We also got to see a school of over 20 dolphins, a bunch of sea lions, a sea otter, jellyfish, and a bunch of birds. It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it. We then spent the rest of the day driving east to get to King's Canyon. We took the "scenic" back route, which involved lots of windy mountain roads. It was a lot of driving, but we finally got here. We are staying in a 2-bed cabin in the park, close to the market store, lodge, and restaurant. I'm sure Mark would rather be camping, but I want the warm bed at night to sleep on.

Today and tomorrow are all about hiking and looking at giant sequoia trees.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Monterey Aquarium

Today, Mark and I stayed within the Monterey Peninsula. The day started pretty lazy, with a late start due to lots of sleeping. Then we headed down to old Cannery Row and we spent about 4 hours at the aquarium, which was pretty cool. We saw lots of fish and jellyfish and otters (both sea and river). We also saw one of the ugliest fish ever, the sunfish. Seriously, the picture in no way does it justice.

After that we lazily drove out to Carmel, where we found a great candy shop, saw lots of great beaches and million dollar houses (just about every single house in the town), and we found the nicest super market in the entire world. It was a Safeway, but a top-end gourment Safeway. it was very nice. We then capped the day with too much "I Love the '70s" on VH1, which can't be good for our mental state.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On the Way to Monterey

Today my brother and I took to the road to get down to Monterey, where we are spending about 3 days. First we hiked up to a cliff overlooking the bay, hoping to get a view of the Golden Gate bridge, but so much fog had rolled in off the ocean that we couldn't see anything. We did get to check out some old gun emplacements (with the guns long removed), though.

After that we drove over the Golden Gate bridge and then had lunch in Chinatown at some random Chinese restaurant which shall remain nameless because it wasn't all that great. After that we hit highway 1 down the cost towards Monterey. Once we got away from the clouds the view of the ocean was gorgeous. Mark and I found one spot where we could look out over the ocean for along way on either side, and we took a trial down to the beach where I found a nice shell I took with me and I got to touch the ocean. Very cool. I had forgotten how deep blue the ocean can be.

After that we finally got to Monterey, where we crashed in the hotel for a while before heading out to find dinner. It turned out that there was a street festival of some kind taking place down by the pier. We both got some lamb wraps for dinner, and I got to try this one guy's homemade root beer. Oh, and I gave my change to some homeless guy. All told, a successful day. Tomorrow, we hit the aquarium.

The Golden Gate

Greetings from the Marin Headlands, outside of Sausalito, CA, four miles north of the Golden Gate bridge. Yes, the journey into California has been successful, so far. On Sunday we flew into Sacramento with no problems and then drove to the Napa Valley, where we saw dozens of wineries (including a couple I had actually heard of before), and then we drove into Santa Ana where I promptly crashed at the hotel. I fell asleep before 8PM, which is unheard of for me, but I did wake up at 2AM Pacific time to catch my flight, so that most likely had something to do with it.

Yesterday we drove west from Santa Ana to catch California highway 1, which runs along the Pacific coast. We stopped at an overlook on the ocean and got to drink in the cold, windy Pacific coast that I remember so well from childhood. We also got to see a bank of fog roll in, so thick that the rocks off the coast were no longer visible. After that we had lunch in some small town along that coast that was packed with Labor Day tourists, and then we drove out to a a campground north of the Muir national monument and hiked down the hill to the Muir visitors center, and then hiked up back to the campground. Luckily, my right foot (with the tendinitis) survived that OK.

Last night we stayed at the Marin Headlands hostel. This is my first experience staying at a hostel, and it kind of feels like college. The room had four bunkbeds for a total of 8 beds, and there were four people staying in the room last night. There are communal bathrooms. But there is wireless internet, so I get to actually make a blog post. That, and my wireless is actually working today. :)

Later this morning we will drive over the Golden Gate bridge into San Fran and then make our way south to Monterey, where we will be having base camp over the next few days. Hopefully the Labor Day crowds will have dissipated and there won't be hordes of people there to deal with.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

California or Bust

Things have been pretty quiet lately for me. There is work, and playing games with friends, and then more of both. Tomorrow, however, I get on a plane to fly out to California with my brother, Mark, for an eight-day tour of the central part of the state. We will start in Sacramento, head west north of San Francisco, head south to Monterey, and then head east past Fresno, before finally hauling tail next Monday morning to get back to Sacramento in time for our flight back to St. Louis. It should be lots of fun. There is a lot of hiking planned, as well as a whale watching trip into the Pacific from Monterey. In fact, the only day that isn't planned is tomorrow. We arrive in Sacramento at 10 AM, and then we have all day to meander our way out to Santa Clara. That should work out for us, though, as we will have time to reset our internal clocks to Pacific time and to buy food and stuff. I might not get to blog during the trip, but if not I'll give you a rundown once I get back.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard, 2003, Ballantine Books

Even though I have liked heroic fantasy for years, I was very late to the game when it comes to the Conan stories. In fact, before I read this book, I had never read an original Conan story by Howard himself. I had heard a lot about them, of course, and I had read some comic book adaptations and a short story written in more modern times by a different author, but nothing by the original creator. However, last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Howard's Soloman Kane collection (also by Ballantine), so I figured it was time to give Conan a try.

After finishing this book, I have to say that I am impressed. Howard writes with a certain unique drive that just pulls you in and compels you to keep reading. I also appreciate how Conan is the hero of the stories but is generally not shown as a nice guy. He is a mean, tough barbarian who kills people without second thought and really does not fit in with civilized society at all. The only thing that bugged me about this collection, and this is a minor gripe, is the fact that the Conan stories don't really fit into any overall timeline. The way that the stories were handled really struck me like the way the TV show "Seinfeld" was written. Specifically, you have your set characters, and then they get involved in various schemes and have to deal with it. At the end of the story, everything resets back to the beginning. So, in one story, Conan will be a king, in another story he will be a pirate, and in a third story he will be a mercenary. There isn't really anything to tie all of the stories together. As I said, that is a minor gripe, but I figured I should point it out.

As far as this specific collection goes, I have no complaints. Printed in the large-form trade paperback format, the book contains excellent artwork to accompany the stories, and the text is superbly edited and typeset. The book also contains extras such as maps of the land, an original history of the Hyborian Age written by Howard, and early drafts of numerous stories, for those who are interested in how stories changed over time. Overall, this is a fine collection that any fan of fantasy fiction would be proud to own.