Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Wounded Tigers

The Detroit Tigers are just plain getting chewed up this season!

Carlos Guillen just left tonight's game with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with a groin strain. Nate Robertson hurt his back pitching tonight as well. Brandon Inge broke his toe last night and Placido Polanco has an oblique strain, missing a few days this past weekend. All of this is following Kenny Rogers' shoulder surgery, Vance Wilson's elbow surgery, Joel Zumaya's ruptured tendon in his middle finger, and Fernando Rodney's shoulder issues. What's next??

I guess I should be grateful that they are only 1.5 games behind Cleveland, as beat up as they are. The Tigers have already had more games missed from injury this year than they had all of last year and we're only 52 games into the 162-game season.

Introduction to Computing

I'm taking a class at Indiana University South Bend called Introduction to Computing. For someone whose first computer was a TRS-80 Model IV, it's really interesting. I've always enjoyed computing, and my first major in college was computer systems engineering. But when my first lab in EE 250 (electrical engineering) bored me nearly to sleep, I changed majors to something easier: Math.

As it turns out, I would have been well-served changing majors to computer science, which dealt more with the programming side than the hardware side. In our class we have discussed wide-ranging topics such as how a CD player (and a CD itself) actually works, and how one can use powerful computers to map the interior of the human body. I've never been one to worry about the inner workings of the computer but I do use them an awful lot as tools, for digital photography, art, spreadsheets to analyze school data, PowerPoint presentations for instruction, and maintaining a web presence, such as updating this blog. So when we learn how a dot matrix printer works I get really interested, especially when it makes sense as to why my DMP-107 always made such a horrendous racket.

Isn't it ironic, by the way, that my computer, the TRS-80, with its powerful 64 KB of RAM was often called the "TRaSh-80?" It caused me to call my printer the "DuMP-107." They seemed to go so well together, trash and dump.

Last night in class our professor, Dr. James Wolfer, had us make a basic web page, and one of the characteristics it needed to have was an external link. I linked to this site. So, Dr. Wolfer, if you're reading this, the link works!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Take My Love, Take My Land...

...Take me where I cannot stand.
I don't care, I'm still free.
You can't take the sky from me.

For the uninitiated, these are the opening lyrics for the title theme of the 2001 television series, "Firefly." Every night before Sera goes to bed, we watch a video together. Right now we're watching this great space western on DVD.

Never heard of "Firefly?" Not surprising, since Fox canceled it before the 13 existing episodes even finished airing. Not only did they not show all the episodes, but the ones that they did show were shown out of order. That means the full-length two-hour pilot wasn't shown until several episodes into the run. It's kind of helpful knowing who all the characters are and where they came from before the show gets too far into its season, right?

I didn't learn about "Firefly" until I read a friend's blog, where he described going to the premiere of "Serenity," the motion picture made from the series. Now, you probably wouldn't think that anyone would invest in a movie made from a short-lived TV series, especially one that didn't even get a full season, but apparently the DVD sales were so high that Universal decided to gamble on it.

I went to the store and picked up the DVD set two years ago, and I've probably watched the series a dozen times. In the commentary, series creator Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) described his inspiration for Firefly as coming from his reading of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels is historical fiction set around the battle of Gettysburg, and Joss Whedon combined that idea with Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. How could he miss with that?

The series revolves around the crew of Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship used to do salvage and hauling operations throughout a solar system terraformed and inhabited by new pioneers from Earth. The government of this new solar system is called the Alliance and it is essentially an amalgam of the US and Chinese governments. The Alliance's interference with the settlers of these new planets brought about an uprising by the Independents, and allegory for the Confederacy but without the slavery. After the Independents lost the war following the battle of Serenity Valley, Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds bought a ship and began working for those who could pay. Along with his first officer Zoe, Reynolds' crew is rounded out by the pilot, Wash, who is Zoe's Hawaiian-shirt clad husband; Kaylee, the 20-something mechanic who has an affinity for engines; and my favorite, Jayne Cobb, a mercenary whose lack of wit is only matched by his greed. Jayne's lines are almost always the funniest, even though the character is not trying to be funny. The rest of the crew come aboard in the pilot. I don't want to give away their particulars, since they are integral to the plot.

The setting is one of the most interesting parts of the series. The planets and moons that the people inhabit are frontier-like, with evidence of high technology, but with livestock and farms as well. These people have a way of speaking that is just charming. There is a mix of good old fashioned country talk right alongside Mandarin phrases, which are used when swearing would be appropriate. They have their cute science fiction euphemisms as well. "Ain't no ruttin' way" is an example, as is "Did a piece just fall off my gorram ship?"

There are so many memorable moments in this show that I would love to list them all. But I don't want to spoil them for you. Just trust in what I say by this example: When was the last time you saw cattle being smuggled in a space ship?

We bought DVD sets of the show two years ago for Christmas presents and gave them to our entire family. They all loved the show too.

It's late now and I have to work in the morning. I'll be in my bunk.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Long Time Ago...

I am what you might call a Star Wars purist. When I say that, I want you to know exactly what I mean. When I saw Star Wars for the first time at the impressionable age of 12, it was not Episode IV of anything and it most certainly was not subtitled, “A New Hope.”

My aunt told me in the summer of 1977 that there was a great new movie out that she thought I would be interested to see, so I went along. My father and I had just completed our move to Mesick, Michigan and I was about to start 7th grade in a school I had left when I was in elementary. Little League was over, and it was a few weeks before school was to start, and I had spent the better part of a week (or a year, adjusted for 12-year old inflation) just sitting around. So, we went. I didn’t know that the movie was Star Wars.

I was one of those kids who always read books of movies, so I could replay it in my head. You have to remember that back then there were no VCRs or DVD players. If you were going to relive a movie, you had to go to the theater and see it again. I had bought the novelization of Star Wars before the movie had even come out. I tried not to read it before I saw the movie, but I just couldn’t resist. I didn’t think much of the writing; “Servomotors whined in protest” was a phrase that appeared no less than three times in Alan Dean Foster’s book, credited to George Lucas. The story, though, sounded too good to be true. It was like a fairy tale told in space.

I had seen the movie trailer; I had seen a clip from the movie on the Today Show. You know, back when Tom Brokaw was the host along with Jane Pauley. Those were the days.

When we got to the theater, and I stopped shaking in anticipation, we found out that the movie had already started and was about an hour in. My aunt asked me what I wanted to do, and I suggested that we just go in. She had already seen it and I had already read the book. I knew what was going to happen, or so I thought. As we sat down with our popcorn I was hypnotized. It was during the trash compactor scene, when Han fires his blaster, only to watch it ricochet inside the magnetically sealed walls. I had never seen an effect like that! I was used to slow-moving animated phaser beams from Star Trek reruns. I think my jaw dropped into my popcorn.

The movie just got better and better as it went, and the space battle and lightsaber duel really got my attention. When it was over, we stayed and watched it again. I would have watched it a third time, but we had to get home. I spent an hour trying to describe the movie and its effects to my grandparents, who humored me by watching me try to mime the lightsaber duel. When my dad got home, I told him we had to go see it right away. We saw it at the nearby drive-in the next weekend. When I started school, I wore a blue t-shirt that read, “May the Force Be With You.”

All of that said, I thought the sequels got weaker as they went. I know where I was 26 years ago today. I was at the theater seeing ‘The Empire Strikes Back” at age 15. When we walked out of the theater, I was still in shock, not believing that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. I couldn’t believe that Obi-Wan Kenobi had lied to Luke. Yes, I know it’s true “from a certain point of view.” Poodoo, I say. From that certain point of view, Darth Vader was a title and a name, not a name and a name. That’s why Obi-Wan called him “Darth” in Star Wars, and not Vader, right? Remember the line, “Only a master of evil, Darth.” It was his first name, for crying out loud!! I saw Return of the Jedi the week after I graduated from high school. It was literally the first movie that I attended myself. I was working nights, so I went to a matinee. I saw it twice more the same week, just for the lightsaber fights. By that time, I was starting to see the weakness of the plots, but I didn’t care.

There are so many contradictions in the sequels and prequels that followed Star Wars that I can hardly watch the first one anymore without catching them in a continuity error in one of the subsequently made movies. I’m sure you can scour a message board somewhere and find a list longer than my arm. That’s not what I’m about.

I still recall the effect that the movie had on me at that time. I still have a movie magazine that covered Star Wars, 2001, and Forbidden Planet, arguably the best sci-fi (or SF, as Starlog magazine insisted it be called) movies of the past three decades. I became a regular reader of Starlog, and scanned the newspapers every day for hints of a sequel or a TV series. Logan’s Run had just been picked up as a series, so why not Star Wars, right? Well, Logan’s Run didn’t turn out to be very good as a series, so it’s probably just as well. I bought the MAD magazine and Cracked parodies. I bought trading cards and put them in story order. I would play Meco’s Star Wars disco record whenever I saw it in a jukebox. I may have become the slightest bit obsessive. Those who know me are not shocked to read this, I’m sure. The next year, when Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye came out, I was all over it. Same thing with Han Solo at Star’s End, by Brian Daley. I could not resist anything that had the Star Wars logo on it. I still remember getting the four Star Wars glasses at Burger King. I can still see my dad and myself drinking Coke at the Burger King in front of Cherryland Mall in Traverse City, just so I could get more glasses.

That Christmas, I received a puzzle of this image, which I put together at least five times:

The magic of Star Wars wasn’t the merchandising or the endless inferior sequels and prequels. Star Wars made me interested in film, one of my key interests even today. It introduced me to classical music, with John Williams’s amazing score. You couldn’t avoid hearing a marching band playing it for the next two years whenever and wherever there was a parade. Williams won the Academy Award the next year, when he was up against himself for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I guess it increases your odds when you are two of the five nominees. I joined band, playing baritone and then tuba, the very next year. I discovered radio drama because NPR played the radio serial once a week, complete with the Williams soundtrack and Ben Burtt’s Oscar-winning sound effects.

Star Wars ignited my imagination, leading me to fill page after page of drawings about Luke Skywalker and his friends. I even started doing woodwork in my grandfather’s garage. I built a two-foot long Star Destroyer out of plywood so that my die-cast X-Wing fighter would have something to fight besides TIE fighters. I made lightsabers so that my dad and I could duel. His was red, because evidently red was the color for bad guys. I made a Han Solo blaster, learning how to use the power sander to round the edges of the magazine. I used the belt clip from a tape measure to attach it to my pocket because I didn’t have the low-slung holster rig yet. When I got too old for the toys, I gave them all to my brother and bought him more besides, whenever I got the chance. Even if I was too old for them, I could still buy them for others!

As an adult, I can still appreciate what the film has done not only for me, but for generations of others. My brother-in-law works for Industrial Light and Magic, the company formed to create the special effects for Star Wars, and a few years ago Magi and I got to actually visit Skywalker Ranch in the hills outside San Francisco. It was really a great experience, and Jeremy didn’t stop there. Last year for Christmas he got me a coffee table book about the prequels and had anyone at ILM who was willing, to sign it for me over the parts of the movie that they had worked on. Now that is a cool gift!

Although as a middle school teacher, I am faced every day with kids who are so jaded that they think that Star Wars is lame or too “old school” to be entertaining, I have to explain to them the history of filmmaking and how things changed when Star Wars hit the screens. I just sit back and wonder, though, at what will inspire them because in their world of entertainment, I just don’t see them getting as excited about anything as I got from one simple movie in the lazy summer of 1977.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

I got up early this morning and prepared French Toast for my family for Mother's Day. It's my wife's first Mother's Day and she's been waiting an awfully long time for it, so I wanted it to be special. I usually make breakfast on the weekends, but French Toast with powdered sugar and real maple syrup just seemed like the right thing to do for a special day. Sera loves French Toast, by the way. But then again, she likes pretty much everything!

When my wife suggested that we go to a baseball game today for her first Mother's Day I thought I was having audible hallucinations. When I asked her why, she said that it was a nice way to spend the afternoon outside where we could all be together. Not being a fool, I quickly agreed.

What a nice afternoon it was. The South Bend Silverhawks are our local low-A minor league team. They are affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Several of the current Diamondbacks are former Silverhawks, as are many other players around the major leagues. Diamondback players include Brandon Webb, Miguel Montero, Chad Tracy, and Scott Hairston. Other teams' former Silverhawks include David Dellucci (Cleveland), Brad Penny (LA Dodgers), Chris Capuano (Milwaukee), Dan Uggla (Florida) and Lyle Overbay (Toronto) just to name a few.

The weather was very nice, with sunshine to make up for slightly brisk temperatures, and the Silverhawks pounded the Lansing Lugnuts 7-1. Sera made it through all nine innings this time, having the time of her life being passed back and forth between us. Magi received a pink Silverhawks cap just for being there.

Sera also received a little gift as the Silverhawks' mascot Swoop tossed her a stuffed Aflac duck.

Swoop was probably trying to make up for Sera's last encounter with him when the big, mangy bird terrified her. But then if you looked like this, wouldn't you scare a one-year old? Heck, I'm 42 and he frightens me!

Well, I just wanted to take this opportunity to wish my wife a very special first Mother's Day. I can't imagine a better mother for Sera than she has been already in this very short time!

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Best Year of My Life (So Far), Part I

My new year doesn’t begin on January 1. As a teacher my year begins in August, when we teachers stroll in to school wearing shorts and sandals for our new year activities. We get a new list of students, we meet our new staff members and we catch up with each other, many of us having been apart for nine weeks. The new hires bring their youth and enthusiasm in, infecting us all, and we dive headlong into another cycle of teaching and learning. And we have a cookout in the courtyard of our school. That part doesn’t hurt, either.

With the school year winding down, I have to look back and say that it’s been pretty good for me. In fact, I’d say it’s been the best year of my life.

Comerica Park in Detroit is one of my favorite places on the planet.
In fact, it’s in the top five. I have been a Tigers fan my whole life, but for the 13 years previous to 2006 there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about. During that period the Tigers never finished above .500. In 2006 they started out on an absolute tear, taking everyone by surprise. So in the fall, with school just starting I was taking the opportunity to go to Detroit whenever I got the chance to see the Tigers at home. I went once in August, once in mid-September, and then got tickets for the last two home games of the season against the Kansas City Royals. All the Tigers had to do was beat Kansas City one of the two remaining games and they would have won the American League Central Division title. I was disappointed when the Tigers got swept at home, giving up the title to Minnesota, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that it was the best possible thing that could have happened for me.

We were lucky in the first place to have a friend looking out for us who didn’t work for our school system. You see, our school system has a strict internet usage policy which doesn’t allow teachers to purchase things online. So when the playoff tickets went on sale, we thought we were completely out of the running. But our friend Ann, who is a retired teacher, got tickets for us we were at first ecstatic, then disappointed as we realized that we probably wouldn’t be able to go to the playoffs since they would have started on Wednesday night. With our international adoption upcoming in the same school year, I couldn’t take personal days off to see the Tigers in the playoffs. If the Tigers had won that last game in Kansas City, they would have begun the playoffs at home during midweek and I would have missed them. As it was, because the Tigers lost the division title and entered the playoffs as the Wild Card, they started their home games on Friday night. I was able to go!

I can only begin to describe the excitement of these games and the emotional moments as the Tigers beat the power lineup of the Yankees in the ALDS. My wife and I were moved to tears by the swell of 43,000 fans behind the Tigers in the games. There was a palpable feeling that we were all in the games together. After Craig Monroe hit a home run in game four, he returned to his position in left field in the top of the next inning to an ovation he couldn’t help but respond to. We let him know how much he meant to us, and he let us know that he felt the same way.

Craig's Home Run

His reaction to the ovation.

Placido Polanco throws to Sean Casey for the final out.

When the final out came, the stadium exploded in cheers. It was probably the most special night of the playoffs, because something nearly unprecedented happened. After the initial celebration on the field, the Tigers went into the clubhouse, but no one in the crowd moved. They just cheered more and more loudly. In just a few minutes, the team came back out and celebrated on the field with us fans, spraying champagne into the crowd and circling Comerica Park. Those who saw it on TV thought it was great; those of us who were there were forever touched by the emotion of the players and the fans around us.

From left to right: Curtis Granderson, Joel Zumaya, Alexis Gomez, Neifi Perez, and Marcus Thames.

When the next weekend rolled around, the Tigers were returning home with a 2-0 lead over the A’s in the best of four series. More on that next time!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

She Called Me "Dada!"

The most touching moment for a new father has to be when his daughter calls him by name for the very first time. Yesterday after I got home from work I picked up Sera, who had been sleeping, and sat in the recliner in the living room. As the grogginess slowly left her she started to come out of her post-nap trance. She finally realized who was holding her and she yelled, "Dada!" and then head-butted me in the lower lip. I didn't even feel the head-butt; I was in shock. I asked Magi if she had heard it too, and she had. My daughter had addressed me by name! As if she could understand my uncertainty, she said it again and tapped my chest, just like we have been teaching her. How can this be possible? Each day with her is better than the last and each day is just about the happiest day of my life.