I’ll give you a dollar to buy a toy…

There was a pre-WalMart, WalMart-type store in my town when I was a boy way back in the seventies, and it was a child’s entertainment mecca. Why?

First and foremost, when a youthful patron (myself) entered the establishment, an immediate left turn took him straight to the toy department, the back wall of which was covered for its entire length and for a height of about six feet with…fish tanks. Cue the calliope music!

Fish of all kinds! All shapes! All sizes! Oh, the countless hours of entertainment to be had observing the cornucopia of marine life from the air side of a ten gallon tank! To watch their little life cycles from the roe drifting around, to the half-eaten skeletons of the very recently dearly-departed drifting around…practically a private glimpse into Davy Jones’ Locker to a seven year old boy! There just had to be sharks in there…

Once one grew weary of this feast of flesh (about five minutes), an about-face brought one intimately in touch with Christmas in July. Aisle upon aisle of toys of all kinds…more varieties than the fish, even! And so the traditional cadence would begin, once I had relocated Mom in this fantasyland of pleasure: “Mama, can I have a toy? Mama, can I have a toy? Mama, can I have a toy?” Guantanamo had nothing on me.

Wearily, digging through the limitless nether regions of her purse, Mom would usually (if I had otherwise been pretty good) come forth with a dollar. A dollar! Willy Wonka never printed a more valuable ticket to ecstasy. With eyes larger than the fifty cent pieces everyone spent like nickels back then, I would grasp my prize and head back into the heathen pleasure house to make my mark upon the world of childhood treasure hunting.

I remember Tonka trucks and little green army men and all the plastic weapons they could use. Cowboys and Indians and books of punch-out fold-ups that would turn into city buildings and police cars and smiling happy citizens. I even snagged a goldfish or three over the years.

Ah, so many wonderful toys to a child! A mere pittance to an adult but a wonderland of fun to a youngster! But do you know what was my favorite favorite favorite toy as a youth? Actually, there were two, but in my mind their disparate forms were as integrated as peanut butter and jelly. I never thought of one without the other.

The most fun I ever had was with my magnet and my magnifying glass.

You give a kid those two items and they’ll create and manipulate and destroy whole worlds. Such simple machines bring out the creator and the destroyer in anybody under puberty who wields them. How is this so? Oh, it’s joyously simple.

To you and I a magnet is something we hang homework on the fridge with. To a child it’s a tractor beam. It’s a repulsor field. It’s an anti-gravity machine.

To me and you a magnifying glass is something our eyes need as we get older in order to finish the Sunday crossword. To that same child it’s God’s wrath on the puny denizens of a puny world known as an anthill. It’s a nuclear Armageddon to Paperville. It’s Jim Kirk’s phaser. It’s Luke Skywalker’s light saber (after a few second’s work on a weed stem). Alderaan? This Alderaan you speak of is a cloud of cosmic dust now, Princess.

They wielded the power of the Force in a tangible way to me, and Hollywood has still not come close to the special effects those two little playthings caused my mind to generate to support my imaginings.

Thanks for the dollar, Ma.


ChromeOS Freed Me!

ImageA couple years ago I bought my first android tablet, a Coby MID7122. It’s a 7″ unit, and my idea was to get something I could read ebooks on, but also be useful on the internet when out and about since at that time I didn’t have a smartphone. I had looked at Kindles and Nooks and other big-name e-readers, but as nice as they were for actually reading, I wanted to do a lot more that they just couldn’t accommodate. I may have thought differently if I’d known about rooting and such.

Shortly after I got the tablet, I found a neat little combination keyboard and case for it that I reasoned would allow me to do what I’m doing right now, blogging, a whole lot easier. I ended up with mixed feelings about that particular purchase.

I’ve discovered that no matter how those case/keyboards are marketed, no matter what brand or price point, they were all basically the same, and on closer inspection appeared to be identical, other than for colors or little cosmetic details like leather stitching. Meh. FYI, I saw prices on the same unit from less than ten dollars to over fifty.

Once I had the piece and actually used it, I knew that it would NOT be the answer I was looking for. Basically I wanted to transform my tablet into a netbook, but using that clunky, ill-designed Chinese keyboard was more akin to texting with a phone number pad. It could be done, but it was mistake-prone and very, very slow.

Not too long after that the keyboard actually stopped working. First it had begun to randomly stop, and I’d unplug it from the tablet, plug it back in, and it would go back to working. Then one day nothing would fix it. So at that point I just had a rather thick tablet case. Not long after that, my wife changed phone contracts.

I’d been using a pay-as-you-go phone, with Terra and the kids on a family plan with other family members. When one of those contracts was due to expire, Terra decided it was time we had our own contract so we could control things more, so she and the kids went to the AT&T store and signed up.

She got a slider keypad phone, my daughter Kara got an LG P870 Escape android phone, and Cody got an iPhone. The full spectrum! I was happy with my PAYG phone, an LG900, which was Blackberry-ish in appearance, though it was by no means a blogging device. I wasn’t interested in a smartphone at that time, but one night I idly asked the kids to let me mess around with theirs for a while, and suddenly the usefulness of 24-hour internet access in my pocket really hit me.

I had some preconceived notions about the iPhone from talking to people and reading reviews and I really didn’t think it would be for me because of the very closed environment Apple forces on users. Same reason I don’t live in Beijing. On the contrary, Kara’s Escape seemed to bring everything I wanted to the table: customizable the way I wanted it to be, a much bigger screen than the Apple for these tired old eyes, and a side benefit of having an sd slot and removable battery. So two weeks into their contract, I got myself added on and got an LG for myself.

The phone came with a 4GB microsd which I soon replaced with a 32GB, the maximum usable size. A while later I upgraded the stock battery to one which was the same physical dimensions (no large camel hump on the back of the phone!) but which had 50% more power reserves. Rooting the phone made me absolutely free.

The phone has been great, and by using it I’ve learned IMMENSELY about Android and “the way things are done” within that ecosystem. It’s been a LOT of fun. I enjoy trying apps of all kinds. I’ve loaded and tried out so many that I couldn’t begin to list them all. But the problem still remained…it’s not a good blogging solution. At least for me.

A side note here to clarify future statements: Over the last several years I’ve been a browser junkie. At one point I had ten or twelve different browsers on my desktop and just as many on my phone. Why? Because someone is always coming out with THE NEXT BIG THING, and I loved being able to instantly compare new features as they rolled out. Over time my desktop preferences slowly wound down to the point where I only have IE, Firefox and Chrome now. On my phone I have Chrome, Boat and Dolphin. I’d have Dolphin on my desktop too if it were available…it’s awesome.

Because of my interest in browsers, I noticed when Google came out with ChromeOS a couple years ago. I didn’t really get into it much, but I did like the concept of a machine stripped down of its software to only the browser to perform all day-by-day functions in the fastest way possible. Recently I saw a picture of a Samsung Chromebook and I was intrigued. No vents. No noise. Very thin. So different from the 17″ Acer laptop I bought July 4th before last to do…you guessed it…mobile blogging, which I quickly found to be far too bulky and short-lived for daily outings.

What hesitance I had toward actually buying a Chromebook was come by honestly. A few years ago we’d given Cody an EEE-PC netbook for Christmas. It was a Windows machine, based on XP, and it was tortuously slow. It had a ten inch screen which probably contributed to my needing reading glasses. It was terrible. And that’s all I could see as I looked at the pretty picture.

But…I kept reading reviews. I discovered that there are many Chromebooks from many different companies, so I examined each one. And I saw the Acer C710. Now, when you look at price comparison charts you’ll see that the specs for the C710 are very similar to most all other Chromebooks. It uses an Intel Celeron chipset, has a 16GB SSD and an 11.6″ screen. What immediately jumped out at me was that its keyboard is a standard PC layout keyboard.

See, most vendors have adopted what’s become known as the “ChromeOS layout” keyboard, where certain keys like the DEL key and the CAPS LOCK key are gone, along with the function keys. With their units you have to use two-step keyboard shortcuts to perform the function that one key used to do. Wha? That’s a shortcut???

That was the clincher for me right there. Other things that drew me toward Acer was the easy upgradeability. One screw underneath and you can upgrade the RAM (officially to 4GB, but I’ve read on forums that at least one person is running 16GB) and the hard drive. Oh, and by the way, the Acer is the least expensive CB also. $199.

So I did it. Two weeks ago I drove forty miles to the nearest Walmart that stocks them and bought one. I HAVE LOVED IT! I finally found my perfect blogging machine. I bought that $199 wonder, and since it comes with just 2GB of ram, I will soon upgrade it to a much larger amount. More ram means more tabs open at the same time.

The only, and I mean ONLY, limitation that can’t be changed is that it’s wifi with no data connection. There are some units out there that have 3G and even 4G, but guess what? That means a cell plan. Since I have wifi at home and there’s a gazillion wifi points out in the wild, why would anyone need data? A netbook isn’t like your phone…you’re not going to whip it out on the subway or while walking in the park to check some obscure reference on the net. You’re generally going to be using it for a larger purpose when you use it, so you’ll probably have no issue with going to where the wifi is.

The great thing is that developers all over are recognizing the cloud method of computing, and are designing great apps that run in ChromeOS. Soon there will be literally nothing you can’t do on your Chromebook. At moments like this I always see Mel Gibson in Braveheart attire, raising an arm and yelling, “FREEEEEEEEEDOM!!!”

Because that’s what it is.

Even the best machines have breakdowns

the human machineWell…little scare yesterday. Deviating from the primary topic of this blog, mechanical things, I still manage to speak of the most amazing mechanical thing on Earth…the human body. I have a case of cellulitis in my right leg today, and it’s a bothersome, scary thing.

When I was eighteen I joined the National Guard, and the summer after high school graduation I arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery, for all you fellow sufferers out there, lol). Somewhere around the seventh week my company was out one night doing the “Baptism by Fire” stage of training where the troops have to make their way in the dark across hazardous terrain while live ammunition thurumps by overhead. At some point out there I cut my knee on something, probably a rock, and even with me cleaning it up later, infection had set in and I contracted a staph infection.

So near to the end of basic training, when our final running/pushups/situps tests were going to decide if we graduated or failed, I elected to stick it out before going on sick call. Reporting an injury then would have meant doing all of my tests alone when I returned to duty later, since all of the other boys would have completed theirs while I was absent. And all while surrounded by seven drill sergeants. Ugh! So, I ended up running the best time I ever had because I was so scared I would fail, even though by then I couldn’t bend my left leg more than a few degrees. It was red and inflamed from my foot to my hip.

As I finished the run, I went up to my Senior Drill, pulled up my sweat pants leg and told him I needed to go on sick call. He hustled me over there, and the physician, an Army Major, told me if I’d waited another day or two they’d have had to amputate my leg due to nerve damage. He lanced my knee, and putting his hands around my leg, squeezed out the infection. I remember how amazingly good it felt after that when I stood up and could bend my leg. It felt almost as good as new! But it wasn’t over. Nine days later I finally left Fort Leonard Wood General Hospital after constant I.V. drips of antibiotics. So that’s how it all began.

Flash forward to about three years ago, and I had ended up in the hospital after a night of body aches and three horrible fevers rising and breaking. I was so dehydrated the nurses almost couldn’t get an I.V. in, and after three days they released me without any sort of official diagnosis. But there was a large red patch on my leg, which finally faded and I got better.

Spring of last year I got very sick, and went to the local Urgent Care. At first they thought I had the flu, but when I pointed out the hot red area on my leg (in exactly the same place as the previous breakout), they decided it was cellulitis, and began a round of antibiotics treatments. I got two painful rump shots that day, and had to go back out there every day for a total of eight shots, but it finally knocked the infection out.

Now…I’m sleeping night before last. Feeling good. Suddenly at about 4:15 a.m. I woke up with chills. Hard chills. Began shaking so hard I was shaking the bed. Soon I began feeling the usual precursors to my body going through the process of breaking a bad fever…lightheadedness and severe nausea. Eventually I broke a small fever and dozed back off. I woke up before too much longer, feeling bad again, and went to the couch in my living room. My wife Terra was up, and we had decided I may as well go to the hospital because of the similarity to what had happened the last time.

She was telling me she was going to go get dressed and all, and I was looking at her and listening and then she was fading out on me. It was no different than when I go to sleep normally, and I do remember thinking how tired I felt, and I began to dream. Suddenly from far off I could hear her screaming at me, and something suddenly pushed me back into consciousness. She was calling my name and crying and my daughter Kara was on the telephone. They said I was sitting there when my eyes suddenly rolled back in my head and I went out. Terra couldn’t get me to respond. No movement. She couldn’t tell that I was breathing. She called for Kara, and Kara called 9-1-1 for an ambulance.

They say that after a couple minutes I suddenly sneezed and coughed and came around, and for all of that I really felt pretty good. Terra didn’t want to wait on the ambulance, so Kara cancelled that and they loaded me up and we left. On the way, Kara’s fiancee, who works for the ambulance company, told her he’d like to at least look me over before I made the fifty mile trip to the hospital to where we were going. They left it up to me.

Terra didn’t want to stop and be delayed. But I had this gut feeling I ought to take that ride, so we did. James came around to my side of the car and as I worked to swing my legs out I suddenly felt it all coming over me again. He said, “You really don’t look good at all. You need to ride in the ambulance”. I didn’t even hesitate. I said, “Let’s go”, and they loaded me up and we were on the way. I had a couple of bad moments in the ambulance, so I’m really glad I took the ride.

They got me to the hospital, and I got put on an I.V. for dehydration. They took me for a C.T. scan on my brain to see if I may have had a seizure. They ruled out a stroke, the C.T. came back clean, and they gave me an I.V. antibiotic for the cellulitis. He finally sent me home with a prescription, but it was only for amoxicillan, so I’m not really confident that’s going to knock this stuff out. I’ve got a call in to my primary physician to get a referral to a specialist. We’ll see how things go.

The human body is an amazing machine, but I’m always more amazed at how quickly it can shift from all systems go to total breakdown. What bothers me is that the Keflex antibiotic that wiped out the infection when I was eighteen won’t even touch it today. The bug is mutating, and there are reports all over the web of staph “superbugs” in the hospitals now. So I have to wonder…will I ever be free of this millstone?

It’s all about steam, punk!

Steampunk intrigues me. If you haven’t delved into this fork of science fiction already, it means taking a given piece of technology, and reimagining how it might have been developed back in the days when steam was the primary heavy power source.

For authentic steampunkiness, a prerequisite seems to be to encase everything in some sort of brasswork, give each and every dial and indicator some sort of antiquated curly-que treatment, and put a rivet on every single exposed surface.

And the outfits. Competitions revolve around the level of enthusiasm and detail invested in each participant’s ensemble, and as expected, the more extreme the better.

The end result in what you’re presented with in steampunk is machinery that is at once very industrial, yet very sophisticated in appearance, always leaving me with a sense of, “Gee…maybe it could have really happened that way if only this one little development had taken place”.

Perhaps the greatest forerunner and best role model of the entire steampunk phenomenon is Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and his Nautilus. I see the work as an inspiration of a way of presenting advanced devices under the cloak of antiquity. The same might be said of some of Verne’s other works, like, “From the Earth to the Moon”. A distinctly Edwardian atmosphere with high-tech accoutrements.

For those of you who were watching television in March and April of 1982, you might remember an interesting but short-lived show called, Q.E.D., which you can learn about here and here. As the Wikipedia article states, “the series had a smattering of what would later be called steampunk”. I actually remember thinking in my twelve-year-old mind that the ramifications of modern tech in Edwardian England could be a treasure box of story material.

But getting back to Verne, could he be considered the father of steampunk? In my mind he just might be. What do you think? Comments welcome.

Welcome to my world

As one among thousands and thousands of blogs, this little island in the big sea of cyberspace isn’t of much consequence to anyone out there tonight, but it’s serving a vital purpose for me. See, I love mechanical things, and I really love talking about them. Discussing them. Dissecting them.

It’s a cliché nowadays to have a blog, so I shan’t numb you with self-importance. This is simply a place for me to air my thoughts and ideas, whether anyone ever stops in or not. Call it therapy, if you like, but it works. And it’s existence highlights my purpose very clearly.

My point being that the whole reason I’m able to have a platform here is because of something very mechanical and almost alive…the internet. At no other point in history has mankind been able to touch so many other minds so incredibly easily. We are literally completely unfettered in the scope of our interaction with others. I see the beginnings of a hazy sort of hive mind.

But what do you think? How has the internet affected…how is it affecting your life? I’d like to hear from you.

I’ll let that simmer for now. Later on I’ll let you into my head a little more. We’ve got so much to talk about.