Thursday, November 29, 2012


More links.

I didn't realize anyone thought so, but it seems chemobrain isn't just in your mind.  Thanks to
Jay Lake for the link.

Bizarrely big black hole baffles.  Don't blame me for the title.  From the BBC.

More from the Beeb:
Bendy phones the next big thing?  Do I need to be able to roll my phone up like a burrito?
Where's the beef?  Growing up in Texas, when the wind blew a certain way we could smell the feedlot.  They're stinky and disgusting.  I think skinnier cows is a good thing.  And cattle ranchers may just have to consider a different income producer.  Cattle ranches are huge contributors to deforestation and global warming. 
Shrinking America.  Time to rethink the tax base.
Candlelight theatre.  Sigh.  I wish I could go.
Is this the end of planned obsolence?  What happens to our throw-away culture when we run out of resources to make new stuff instead of fixing the stuff we already have.
You can't buy happiness.  Believe me, I've tried.  And now putting the garbage out depresses me.  I can't help wondering why we can't recycle everything.
Welcome to Hinglish.  No wonder we can't understand the tech support folks from India, and they can't understand us.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What's It Worth?

I've been a fan for years of the program Antiques Roadshow, primarily the original UK version.  More recently I've come to enjoy some of the "reality" shows on cable that feature pawn shops.  It's amazing to me how many people who go into a pawn shop with something to sell either have no idea what they've got, or more often have a ridiculously inflated price in mind.  So here's some advice for anyone who's trying to sell an item they think might be a valuable antique or collectable.  Most of my friends already know this, but perhaps some random stranger might find it useful.

Say, for example, that you've got an old sword handed down through several generations of your family.  You believe it to be a Civil War cavalry saber.  Your grandfather told you that his grandfather told him it was given to Great-Great-Grandpa by none other than General Robert E. Lee.  It's valuable, right?

Not so fast.  Just because Grandpa said so doesn't make it true.  Family stories aren't necessarily accurate.  People make mistakes.  Memories are faulty.  Sometimes they even lie.  Suppose Great-Great-Grandpa actually told your grandfather that the sword was given to him by someone named Rodney Lee, but he told that story when your grandfather was eight years old.  By the time Grandpa was 78 years old and told you the story, somehow "Rodney" had metamorphosed into "Robert E".  Perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa really did say Robert E. Lee, but it was a joke to impress your grandfather.  Or possibly Great-Great-Grandpa told a tall tale to make himself sound more important.  Perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa didn't ever own the sword, and some other family member bought it in an antique shop and made up the whole story because "I bought it in an antique store" wasn't interesting enough.

Now you, believing it really is a Civil War saber, see a similar saber for sale on an online auction site for $20,000.  You're excited.  Great-Great-Grandpa's sword might be really valuable.  Hold on there.  Just because a similar sword is for sale for $20,000 doesn't mean you can get that much money for your sword, even if you can prove Robert E. Lee once owned it.  People can put any price they want on their merchandise on online auction sites.  Those prices don't have to be based in reality.  There are no pricing police on those websites.  Even if someone actually pays that price, it doesn't mean your sword is worth that much.  People who frequent online auction sites often pay exorbitant prices for things, just to prevent someone else from buying it.  People who aren't knowledgeable about what they're buying frequently overpay.  The fact that someone paid that price is no guarantee that you'll get the same amount for your item.  Even if  your item is a great collectable or antique, if there's no one interested in buying it at the time you put it up for sale, you're not going to make a lot of money.  High prices for items are a matter of supply and demand, and sometimes of luck.

Now let's suppose you have good reason to believe it really was General Lee's sword.  Great-Great-Grandpa wrote Great-Great-Grandma a letter telling her all about how he got it, and the letter has been preserved.  That's proof, right?  Not necessarily.  It's a lot better than a story told to you by your grandfather, but if you're hoping for big bucks for the sword, you'd do better to try to find even more provenance for the sword.  Get some documentation about where your great-great-grandfather served during the Civil War and how he might have come into contact with Lee.  Check Lee's biographies for corroboration.  Have facts, not stories.  No one's really going to believe Grandad's story but you. 

You've got provenance, you've got documents.  You've seen similar swords going for substantial prices.  What should your next step be?  Don't take it to a pawn shop!  Pawnbrokers won't give you anything like the retail price.  They're not antique dealers or auctioneers.  They're in it for a quick turnaround.  You're not going to get top dollar from a pawn shop.  If you really want top dollar, you need to find an antique dealer or collector specializing in Civil War items.  You can also take your item to a reputable auction house, but be sure it's an auction house that handles such items, not an auction house that just does estate sales.  And be aware that auction houses take a cut of the proceeds.  They're not doing this for free.  All of the other options are going to try to give you a lot less than the potential best price, because they have to resell the item. Unless you sell it directly to a collector who wants it for his personal collection, and he wants it so badly he's prepared to pay almost anything, you're probably not going to get the best price from anyone.

So what have we learned?  1) Know what you've got.  If you're not sure, find out.  2) Memory is fallible.  Don't rely on it. Get evidence.  3) Be reasonable.  Don't expect your item to make you a millionaire, even if it actually happened to someone else.   4) Take it to the right place to sell it, and be prepared for a lowball offer.

See, you can learn something from watching tv.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Linky Things

I've decided to start putting links and comments about them in my blog rather than on my Facebook page, as they tend to just get lost on FB's news feed.

#1 today is this link from the BBC about a Texas school district that is planning to give all students radio tracking ID badges so they can find out how many students are on campus daily and keep track of them, and what happened when one student refused to wear the badge. 

The above article provokes so many thoughts from me.  First is that the student's religious objection to the badge seems specious.  Why not just make a human rights objection?  Second is the ridiculous assertions by the representative of the civil rights organization.  Who seriously believes our government has the resources to constantly monitor every email, text and tweet of its citizens, in addition to keeping constant track of their whereabouts?  Even much more restrictive Communist countries aren't able to do that.  Contrary to popular opinion (and propaganda), China isn't able to monitor its citizens at that level of detail.

I'm also amused by the idea that we have any privacy now.  The only privacy anyone has currently is the privacy to be in your own home without anyone looking in the windows at you.  The idea that we can keep our electronic communications and personal activities private from government agencies or commercial interests is a fantasy.  My employer uses ID badges that can track when we use them, and also records keystrokes on our computers.  Why should a public school student have more privacy than me?

Next: The last ninja. , underground art in Paris - literally, and Not the Da Vinci Code.  The modern art of cryptography used on an 18th-century secret society's documents. Way more fun to read than a Dan Brown novel.

In other news, Jackie Chan announces that apparently he wasn't retired yet and is now retiring from acting.  We'll see how long that lasts.  Maybe he can do better at retirement than Jet Li did - Li's retirement lased for, what, a week?

My friend Anthony Pryor writes a very entertaining review of The Beastmaster on his Pit of Swords and Sorcery blog.

More links to come...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Food Frenzy (rant)

I'm not sure what led me to read a review of a restaurant I'll never visit, but I followed a link from Twitter and read this scathing review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar.  It got me thinking about some of my pet peeves about dining out.

My husband and I eat out a lot.  Almost every day, in fact.  Without going into how expensive and potentially unhealthy that can be, it has exposed me to a lot of different types of restaurants.  We like trying out new places and generally prefer locally-owned businesses to chain restaurants, though we're not restaurant snobs and are just as likely to eat at Denny's as at a local ethnic food bistro.  We also like watching cooking shows on Food Network, including Restaurant: Impossible, which features chef Robert Irvine giving failing restaurants a makeover. 

One of the changes commonly seen on Restaurant: Impossible is putting the menu on a weight-loss program.  I don't mean reducing the fat or calories of the food, but slimming down the number of items on the menu.  A lot of restaurants, especially chains, try to be everything to every potential customer.  By trying to satisfy too many different food preferences, these restaurants end up doing a lot of mediocre dishes instead of doing a smaller number really well.  I've noticed that lately restaurants in general seem to be buying into the menu-reduction philosophy; an old-school family restaurant near our home that used to specialize in a combo of traditional American dishes and Greek food recently gave their menu a big reduction.  They still feature Greek food, but it no longer gets lost in pages of burgers, steaks, pasta and seafood.  Even Denny's seems to have caught on to that idea; their menu is no longer made up of pages and pages of breakfast items. I heartily approve of this trend.  It makes it much easier for me to figure out what I'm going to eat, and I feel more confident that the food will be good when the chefs don't have to know how to make hundreds of different styles of dishes.

But there are other trends that seem to be spreading that I'm not too fond of.  One of the big ones is the proliferation of "sports restaurants", with televisions bombarding diners with sports events in the dining area.  The family diner I mentioned above has jumped on this bandwagon.  Not all of their TVs show sports, but if I want to watch tv while I eat, I'll get takeaway and eat at home on my sofa.  Last night we went to BJ's, a chain of "sports bar" style restaurants, and were subjected to our neighbor at the next table shouting at the tv overhead as he watched a football game, interrupting his conversation with his companion and annoying us (we're not sports fans).  If you want to watch the game, especially if you're going to yell directions at the players (they can't hear you, by the way), why don't you stay home? 

Even more irritating than the sports tv is the random unnecessary television in the restaurant.  Why do you need a tv in a Thai restaurant?  A neighborhood Thai restaurant in our area has a tv in the waiting area.  Fortunately they keep the sound off, but other than entertaining guests waiting for a table, there doesn't seem to be any reason for the presence of the television.  At least if you're going to put a tv in a Thai restaurant, show video of Thailand, not Judge Judy.

Noise is another peeve of mine in restaurants, especially in some of the chains like Applebee's or Red Robin.  Evidently restaurant designers don't believe in any kind of noise reduction.  Red Robin is the worst; it's often so noisy in their locations that we can hardly have a conversation.  I like their food, so it's frustrating to have to cope with the noise to enjoy something I like. Of course it would help if customers wouldn't all talk so loudly, but really the designers should take noise into account when they choose materials and floor plans of these places.

So many restaurants seem to be designed entirely for looks, not for any kind of patron comfort or server convenience.  Don't put a table right in front of the kitchen entrance. Don't make customers have to dodge servers when they want to get to the restrooms.  Make the booths big enough that adults can sit in them, but don't set the seats so far from the tables that customers can't sit back comfortably.  Choose chairs that won't squeal when people move them around on hard surfaces. Don't put carpet on the floor (ick!). Don't try to cram three restroom stalls into a space that will really only hold two - customers' bums should not touch the stall divider (I experienced that just a few days ago).  Don't put so many informational placards and condiments on the tables that there's no room for the food.  Maybe I should become a commercial space designer.  These things just seem obvious to me. Is anyone in the restaurant business listening?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

We Did It!

I got married a week ago.  That's right, we did it.  We managed to organize a wedding in a week, from acquiring the license to setting the time and place, finding an officiant and inviting all our friends.  It was a very happy day.  The only thing missing was more time to spend with our family and friends after the ceremony. 

We were very, very lucky.  When I approached the convention organizers to ask if they could spare us a room at the end of the convention, the response could have been a flat No.  But it wasn't.  The response was a cheerful willingness to accommodate us.  They let us have a big room, too, which turned out to have a lovely little courtyard outside.  It didn't rain that day, and we could look outside and admire the turning leaves on the trees - though I have to confess I didn't even notice the presence of the courtyard until after the ceremony was over.  It turned out to be a nice place for photos with our wedding party.  Almost everyone we invited was able to attend, so we had quite a crowd of guests.  I wish we could have taken more photos with all of them. 

I had planned to wear a pretty skirt and blouse from my regular wardrobe, but while browsing the Dealers Room at the convention, I had an idea.  I'd been admiring some Irish-style dresses at Celtic Moonlighting for several years, but they never had the right combination of size, color and price.  This time everything worked out perfectly for me.  They had a purple dress (my favorite color) with an ivory chemise for an excellent combo deal, and the dress even matched the purple Converse All-Stars I'd brought with me. I accessorized with a purple butterfly hair ornament that I picked up at the shopping mall across the street from the convention hotel, and with a silver chain loaned to me by my new mother-in-law.

My husband-to-be let me choose which of his Hawaiian shirts he would wear to be married in, so I selected one decorated with Chinese dragons on a ground that contained a complimentary shade of purple to match my dress.  Just to show his love for me, he cut his fingernails, which he usually allows to grow until they break off of their own accord.  I know he really loves me if he took the time to trim them to make me happy.

We wrote our vows separately, at the last minute.  He actually wrote his in the middle of the night.  I scribbled mine out a few hours before the ceremony.  His were better than mine, I think  In the midst of the vows he called on one of his groomsmen to hold a dice tray for him while he rolled a d20 and declared it a critical success.  I didn't know he was going to do that.  It was a nice bit of humor to break up the seriousness of the moment, which was good because by that point both of our voices were starting to break.

It's funny how serious it all became once it was actually happening.  We've been a couple for more than two decades.  Why should a brief ceremony be such a big deal?  But it was.  It was a very big deal for both of us.  We were excited and happy and nervous.  My knees went shaky during the vows, and once we were done I had to sit down.  It wasn't the absolute perfect day - I still wish we could have had a gathering of some kind afterward to spend more time with our friends - but we were so fortunate that everything worked out so well for us in such a short time.  I owe thanks to many, many people for making it possible:  The convention organizers who let us have the space, our friends who rearranged their schedules to attend, our officiant for volunteering to perform the ceremony on such short notice.  Everyone was awesome.  If you're reading this blog and you were at the wedding, I love you all.  I'm so lucky to have you in my life.