Monthly Archives: May 2009

We Have PhDs in Nerdiness

I admit it: I am in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today. And occasionally we have very geeky conversations there.

Me: Five kids in the house = combinatoric explosion. No wonder interactive fiction authors avoid NPCs.

Glen: I just recently did that problem. Complexity scales as the number of pair interactions, plus a linear term in the number of children. Therefore two kids is three times as complicated as one; three is six times; four is ten times. I think the general formula is 1 + 2 + … + N for N kids.

Oh, and good luck. Having that many rugrats running around is pretty complicated!

Jeff: But aren’t some kids more complicated than others?

Glen: In a word, no. The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

For bonus points, should this series have higher-order terms? Why or why not?

Gender in “Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!”

Eli and Liza are addicted to Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, a kid’s show on Nickelodeon — and with reason. The art direction’s fabulous and the stories are fun. One of the characters, Widget, is always making the something-or-other 3000, a habit that Eli has picked up. “Look, dad!” he says, brandishing a tinkertoy creation. “My Robot Walker 3000!”

It’s possible I’ve become addicted to it, too, because I’ve found myself thinking about it far more than I probably should. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the show handles gender.

Take a look at the first season’s theme.

Walden, Wubbzy, and Widget

As shown in this picture, there are three main characters: Walden, Wubbzy, and Widget. Walden reads as male, with his deeper semi-Australian voice and his ties and all. Widget is clearly female, which is awesome — she’s a tinkerer and a builder, and plays against the male engineer stereotype.

Wubbzy is more ambiguous. He’s identified in the theme song as a he, and he does like kickety-kick ball, but he’s not overtly color-coded like Walden and Widget. He mainly reads as a young kid, though everyone undoubtedly defaults to thinking of him as male.

Now here’s the theme for Season 2.

You may have noticed Daizy has been shoehorned into the theme.

Daizy from Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!

Daizy likes to grow flowers. She’s often en pointe. She enjoys dressing up and sewing. Her favorite phrase is “lavender lollipops!” In one episode she finds a uni-horn whom she names Princess.

She could not be more of a stereotypical little girl if she spent every episode playing with dolls.

I couldn’t find any information about why Daizy was added to the lineup, so what follows is rampant speculation. But I imagine the creators or the network wanted to add a character that they thought young girls would identify more strongly with. Widget, despite being super-awesome, comes across as more of an adult than Wubbzy, and Wubbzy, by virtue of our society’s defaults, is male. So they added a character “for girls”.

So why is she a girl turned up to 11? Wubbzy doesn’t embody every boy stereotype; why must Daizy be a super girly girl? This strikes me as being along the same lines as Marvel’s attempts to pitch comic books to women. “Chicks like dress-up, right? And ponies? We’ve got to have a pony in there.”

Liza and Eli won’t notice any of this, not overtly. But they’ll absorb it, and it’ll got woven into their default view of the world. How excited should Liza be that Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! has created a character for her to identify with, only to barely squeeze her into the opening theme and to make her Wubbzy’s sidekick who, oh yes, happens to really like him?

Advanta Screws 1 Million People Over

Misty’s had an Advanta small business credit card for her graphic design business when she first opened it. She’s been happy with it, though of late Advanta has taken to doing things like raising interest rates on balances from 8% to, oh, say, 30%.

I guess that should have warned us not only that Advanta is in trouble, but also that customer service isn’t its first priority. And indeed, it turns out Advanta’s shutting down its 1 million small business credit card accounts.

They quietly announced back around May 11 they’d shut down the accounts on June 10th. Not that they told us! We didn’t find out until they sent an email yesterday telling us they were closing accounts on May 30th.

Look, I understand you’re in trouble. Your customers defaulted at a rate of over 20 percent last month. But you only now officially told cardholders! You didn’t put up an announcement on your website until today! That is, as they say at Harvard Business School, a dick move. You’ve left a lot of small businesses scrambling to replace your credit cards in fewer than five days. What if Misty had employees who were using the card and were traveling, as happened to one of the Consumerist commenters?

This is a minor inconvenience for us, but it underscores just why a lot of people would be happy to see banks like Advanta dissolve like a Toon in Dip.

In Memoriam

Both of my grandfathers were in the military.

Both of Misty’s grandfathers were.

Both of our fathers served.

All lived.

Today, pause and remember those who did not.

Had I Only Known the Disappointment I Was In For

Hey, guess where we were ten years ago.

You know, I hadn’t meant to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on opening night, but it just kind of happened. In fact, I wrote about our experience of waiting in line for Star Wars a decade ago and posted it to a school website. What the heck, I might as well re-publish it here.

We hadn’t planned on seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace the first night it opened, I swear.

Granted, I’m a nerd. It comes with being a physicist — in fact, it’s almost a requirement. We’d offer classes on being a science nerd alongside the standard E&M and quantum classes, but there’s really no need, it’s so instinctual. Also granted, I’m a fan of Star Wars. Even though I was only four years old when the first movie came out I managed to see it over and over in the theatre. I had very understanding parents.

Still, the hype and excitement surrounding the release of the first Star Wars movie in some sixteen years was more than I wanted to deal with just to see the movie. Stand in line for a day, maybe more, for tickets to the midnight premiere? Wait with folks decked out in Ben Kenobi robes and stormtrooper uniforms, just so I could say I saw it first? Forget that. Like any sensible person[1] I was going to wait a few days for the first wave of fandom to crash against the theatres before I braved the lines.

Imagine my surprise when my wife Misty called me a week before SW:TPM opened and told me that we had tickets. Our conversation, as best I can recall, went something like this:

MISTY: How would you like tickets to the midnight premiere of Star Wars? Because we have tickets.

ME: You are lying.

MISTY: Nope. I have two tickets to the midnight show.

ME: You are lying.

MISTY: I’m not lying. (away from the phone) He thinks I’m lying to him. (sound of phone being handed off to someone else)

ANDY: She’s not lying. We’ve all got tickets.

It turned out that her co-worker Andy and several others took turns waiting in line for tickets, and that Misty was able to wheedle two of them because “they’d be a great anniversary present.” Yes, the tickets were an anniversary present from her to me. Does she know how to be married to a science fiction fan or what?

So it was that on Tuesday night after work I found myself headed to a theatre in near-by Cary, NC. The theater, appropriately enough, was named “The Imperial.” Misty had managed to snatch two more tickets when two of her friends were unable to make it to the show, so I was accompanied by Mike and Wendy, friends of ours. Misty worked in Cary, so she was meeting us there and holding our place in whatever line might have formed by 6:00 P.M.

We arrived around 7:00. No one was in line. Misty was sitting in our car, reading a book. “No one’s here, and there’s no line yet.” She had already eaten, but Mike, Wendy and I had not, so we all went to a fast food joint. On the way there, Misty told us of her conversation with a guy in the theatre’s ticket booth. “Where will the line for the Star Wars movie be?” she asked.

“Oh, there’s not going to be a line,” the guy responded.

“Uh, there’s not?”

“No. We’ll be letting people into the lobby at 11:00 and then into the theatre shortly before 12:00.”

Right. No line for the Star Wars movie. There were going to be hundreds of restless fans milling about in a theatre lobby, but the theatre wasn’t going to have us form a line. This guy’s grasp on reality obviously lacked opposable thumbs.

We got back to the theatre shortly before 8:00. Still no line. Wendy had brought one of her birthday presents, a tiny TV with an active matrix screen and an antenna. We watched “King of the Hill” and “Futurama” while we waited in the car and marveled over how good the picture looked.

Finally, around 9:00, two people began a line outside the theatre. “Better make that line official,” Mike said, so we ambled over to extend the line. It was a good decision, as Andy and several of his friends showed up right after that. They brought snacks, drinks, and, most importantly, Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.

We spent the next ninety minutes asking each other questions from the game. Who became Admiral at the end of The Empire Strikes Back? How many droids did the jawas display in front of their sand crawler in the first[2] movie? One of the people waiting in line had a collection of Star Wars fruit snacks. “Eat a battle droid?” he asked me. I declined.

Sometime during then, we discovered that the midnight show wasn’t sold out. Oh, sure, every showing from Wednesday night through Friday night was already sold out, but for some reason people hadn’t wanted to brave a midnight showing. Wusses. We called another friend, Dan, who said that he most certainly did want to join us if another ticket was available.

So there we were: three physicists, a biomedical engineer, and a graphic designer, answering Star Wars trivia questions with several other people. By the way, if you ever play this game and are asked a question involving an Imperial officer in The Empire Strikes Back and you don’t know the answer, “Admiral Ozzel” is a good guess. He was often the answer in the batch of questions we went through.

The crowd in line was remarkably restrained. There was only one person with a lightsaber, and few people were dressed up. One woman just behind us had brought her young son. They were both fans, even though he was born nearly a decade after Return of the Jedi.

10:30 rolled around. Now we were getting impatient. Our boredom was relieved somewhat when two of the theatre workers, both teenage girls, came out for some advice. “See,” said one, “everyone’s got Star Wars names but me.”

“Yeah,” her companion said, “I’m Beck-2 D2.”

“And I was thinking that y’all could come up with something for me. I’m Sarah Thackery.”

Someone suggested “Admiral Thackbar,” but Sarah didn’t like that for some reason. After a few minutes and some false starts (someone suggested “Saralacc Pit”), we were able to come up with a name she did like: “Saracious B. Crumb.”[3] She went inside to change her name tag.

After that, every once in a while we’d see Saracious stick her head out of the door of the theatre and look in our direction, then vanish back inside. Fifteen minutes later, the manager of the theatre came outside to talk to some of the guys behind me. It turned out that Saracious, who was seventeen and had just graduated from high school, was kind of interested in a couple of them. Since the guys were all in their mid-twenties and one had a child, they decided not to ask Saracious out on a date.

the ticket stubThis whole issue of Star Wars names reminded Misty of something she had heard on the radio that morning about what your name would be if you were a Star Wars character. You take the first three characters of your first name and add the name of your car to make your Star Wars name, and you are from a planet whose name is that of the last prescription drug you took. For instance, I’m “Ste Camry from Guaifenesin.” After we all revealed our Star Wars name, we decided that Dan’s name was best, as he was “Dan Corolla.” Unfortunately, he was from the planet “Tylenol Three With Codeine.” We also decided that incorporating drugs into your name might not be a good idea. What do you do if you run across someone from the planet “Mycelex-7,” or “Crack”?

This led to discussion of what your name would be if you were a porn star. Your porn star name is the name of your first pet followed by your mom’s maiden name. Again Dan won. His porn name was “Sugar Vest,” which brought the reply from someone, “I think I used to rent your videos.”

About that time they opened the theatre doors. We filed in in eager anticipation. After a couple of hours of waiting in line, we were about to see what we had all been waiting for.

Ticket stub from when we saw Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

[1] The definition of “sensible” I’m using here is rather specialized, referring as it does to slightly-rabid fans only and not the general populace at large.

[2] Or fourth, depending on your pedantic leanings.

[3] If you figure out why Sarah would rather be named for a cackling muppet who sat on Jabba’s tail than for the admiral of the Rebel fleet, please let me know.

The Cutest Zombies You’ll Ever Blow to Pieces Using Peas

Here’s what amazes me about PopCap Games: they regularly come late to a videogame genre and make it their own through ridiculously high production values for casual games, very sticky gameplay, and a great sense of the absurd. Now they’ve taken on tower defense games such as Desktop Tower Defense and made a crazy addictive version that’s far more accessible than most examples of the genre.

Tower defense games involve you trying to stop enemies from getting across the screen. PopCap’s game involves zombies, whom you must stop with plants.

It’s got the usual tower defense elements. Wave after wave of enemies try to make it across the screen. You spend a limited but replenishing resource to build your defenses. But in this case it’s all slathered in a coat of cute. From the sunflowers that bob their heads back and forth to the zombies wearing a bucket on their head for protection, it’s all disgustingly cute.

The game has a gentle learning curve. At first zombies only arrive down one strip of lawn, then three, before moving to the full five. Instead of difficulty increasing mainly by throwing more zombies at you, the game introduces new variants of them, from those wearing some kind of armor to a full crew of zombies driving a zamboni. In addition, you get new plants to make your life easier, but you can only have seven of them available for any given level.

Plants vs. Zombies screenshot

One of the things that used to drive me crazy in tower defense games was how, if you died on level 47, you got to start over. Plants vs. Zombies doesn’t force you to do that, thank goodness. And the game mixes it up throughout, with daytime and nighttime levels, zombie bowling levels, and even zombie-themed mini-games like Beghouled.

Really, though, a lot of the fun is seeing what new pun or joke will come up next. Cherry bombs that explode? Notes from the zombies signed “Mom (not the zombies)”? Mining zombies? It’s all in there, along with your neighbor Crazy Dave.

It won’t challenge hard-core gamers, the kind of gamers who think Desert Bus is too easy, but for $20 (or $10 on Steam if you’re so inclined), it’s got a lot of value packed in there.

Plus there’s a music video.

To Liza on Her Second Birthday

You turned two this week, roughly five weeks and a day after you turned one. It probably went by so quickly because you’re always in motion. I only thought you were fast when you were one. These days we can track whether you’re coming or going by the Doppler shift of your voice.

You have so many different ways of moving now. Your stiff-legged gait has turned into a flat-out run, your limbs moving as if they all want to go in different directions. You jump around, reaching heights of one or two inches. You sway back and forth as if auditioning for one of Jodie Foster’s old roles. You dance — oh, how you dance. One time I showed you how you could stand on my feet and we could dance together. Now you’ll come over and stare up at me, arms lifted. “Dance?” you’ll ask.

Liza dancing on my feet

That’s all part and parcel of my assigned role of jungle gym. You love riding on my shoulders, even if occasionally you lean over and lick the top of my head. If I sit on the floor, that’s your cue to push me over and climb on top of me, hopping up and down enthusiastically. If I sit in my chair, that’s a different matter. That means it’s time to read.

Not all of your motion is so delightful. You’ve decided that tantrums are often the order of the day. I don’t know why, since they don’t work. You stomp and huff and shriek, staring at your feet like the singer of a bad indie band, and your mom and I just shrug. Tantrums are slightly more effective than The Secret for getting you what you want.

Thankfully you can now tell us what you’re thinking, and your speech is full of marvelous toddlerisms. Your brother taught me that you’ll be speaking plainly before I know it, so I’m treasuring the moments when you smile sweetly and say, “AAAAAAHHHHH! CAAAAAAAKE!” Feel free to substitute “milkshake” for “cake” in that last sentence, given that all of your meals would be cake and milkshakes if we’d let them. Eli may be addicted to carbohydrates, but you’ve learned the pleasures of simple syrup and Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Liza and her birthday cupcake

We’re past your worst sleep issues, thank goodness. There was a time when I would have happily picked someone off the street and given them you, a gunny sack, and directions to the nearest river if it meant we could have five hours of uninterrupted sleep. These days you go to bed willingly and happily. The first time I was rocking you after read you a story and you said, “I go inna bed,” and pointed at your crib, I double-checked to make sure you were still Liza. You even pick who gets the privelege of taking you to bed. “I want daddy put you a bed,” you say with a toddler’s loose grasp of subject and object. Colds still greatly affect your sleep schedule, as do the sixty-seven new teeth you’ve cut. We’ve got lots of experience dealing with you when you’re tired and cranky. Maybe you have some shark in you and are developing several rows of teeth.

You’ve already well-versed at focusing on what interests you. You draw and draw, scribbling crayon or pencil across pages and onto your little Ikea table, which already looks like it lost a war against markers. You pick up books and stare intently at them, attempting to ferret out the story that you know is in there somewhere. You love stealing Eli’s little cars and driving them around the house making quiet “beep! beep!” noises.

Liza peeking past some felt curtains

The funniest is how you play dress-up. I don’t know if this is really something girls instinctively do or not, but you’re a big fan of dragging everything out of your drawers and putting them on. It doesn’t even have to be your clothes. One morning I turned around and you’d taken a pair of shorts I’d worn yesterday and draped them around your neck.

You’re a big fan of animals, even if some of them do scare you a bit. You’re fascinated by dogs, so long as they don’t move or bark or breathe. If we ask you what a butterfly says, you’ll obligingly flap your hands and say, “Lop lop lop.” It’s especially great to hear you greet insects. “Beeee!” you’ll say excitedly. “Beeeee! Hiiiii beeee!” Last week you found a dead spider in our bathroom. “Hiiiiiii, spidah!” you said, waving at him. “Hiii! Hiiii spidah!” Then you picked him up. “I carry him. I carry him. Hi, spidah.” Mom told you to throw him away, but on your way to the trash can you decided to toss him in the toilet instead. “He swimming,” you told us. “He swimming now.”

Liza and the bug

Your relationship with Eli is coming along nicely. As an older brother myself, I knew what Eli would do, and he’s fulfilled my predictions nicely: he wants you to pay attention to him except when he doesn’t, and he wants whatever toys you have. You love Eli unconditionally. When he’s not around you wander the house calling him. That doesn’t stop you from not wanting him to take your toys. I now know the exact pitch of your shriek that means, “Hey, Eli, give me that back!” Your first words may have been “mommy” and “daddy”, but not long after you were saying “Eli’s”. I didn’t realize how quickly you’d learn about possessive nouns.

Liza and Eli mugging for the camera

Right now you’re an odd mix of bravery and caution. Socially you’re cautious around new people, but physically you’re extremely brave. Two months ago you were jumping on Eli’s bed and fell face-first into the headboard. Your nose and cheeks swelled up while blood trickled down your face. You cried so long and so hard that I was afraid you’d be unable to breathe. This happpened, of course, right before bedtime, so I called our pediatrician’s answering service to find out if he thought you’d broken your nose. While I waited for him to call back, you calmed down. Then you tried to climb on one of Eli’s big bouncy balls and jump up and down on it.

That mix of caution and bravery, of motion and sound, is part of what makes you you. I am so excited and privileged to get to know you and see what kind of person you become. I love to play with you, taking part in the pretend play you’ve started doing. When you fall off the slide and come running to me, I pick you up and comfort you. But I know that won’t last long, and indeed you quickly demand to be put down so you can run back to the slide, tears still streaming from your eyes.

Tonight Pop was pushing you in your swing. Higher and higher you went, shrieking and laughing. “SWING ME! SWING ME!” you told him, and as I watched, I wondered just how high you would go.

Liza and me

I Like Fish!

I like fish!

I! Like! Fish!

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

This, in fact, is one of the songs Liza sings every once in a while.

The whole thing is from the TV show Yo Gabba Gabba. It’s astoundingly awesome, but it’s also clearly the kind of kids’ show that college students in 2025 will stream so they can giggle at it while they get high.

You Should Get Hungry Monkey

Hey, look, we got our friend Matthew Amster-Burton’s new book, “Hungry Monkey”!

Eli holding a copy of Hungry Monkey

Matthew’s a food writer whose daughter, Iris, is about three months older than Eli. His book combines helpful guidance, recipes, and awesomely funny writing while avoiding that strident, chiding tone so common to books that have anything to do with parenting. I’ve seen the book filed under “child care”, but calling “Hungry Monkey” a parenting book is like calling “Travels with Charley” a travel guide. “Hungry Monkey” is more a collection of entertaining essays about the travails of trying to feed a young kid. Here’s Matthew on why he didn’t feed Iris baby cereal when she started eating solid foods.

Some people deplore baby cereal, saying it gives kids an appetite for bland carbohydrates. These people presumably hang out with the mom who thinks she can keep her son away from pictures of breasts. We had a much better reason for rejecting baby cereal: everyone else starts with baby cereal, and we didn’t want to be like everyone else. I swear this sounded like a good reason at the time.

Unlike books such as “Super Baby Food”, “Hungry Monkey” is light on the kind of advice that should be accompanied by a wagging finger. Matthew’s thesis is simple: there is no such thing as baby food. It’s fine to let them try what you’re eating, and you don’t have to be crazy anxious about feeding your kid.

Matthew changed how we fed Eli and Liza. We started Eli on bland cereal, then began working our way through numbered Gerber baby food as if they were a counting book. In contrast, Liza’s eaten what we eat since she could grab it from our plates and shove it in her mouth. At nine months she was scarfing down spicy potatoes and tofu. Her face turned red and she coughed until we thought she’d pass out, but she kept eating it and demanding more. And she’s lived to be two so far!

I was especially pleased with how Matthew includes science with his advice. Where the science is lacking, Matthew falls back on the fact that your taste buds are smart; listen to them.

Eli eating a copy of Hungry Monkey

For me, the book’s real strength is that it recognizes how frustrating and hard feeding kids can be without giving in to parental despair, even if your kid eats frozen pizzas without waiting for you to cook them.

Feeding a young child is stressful and unpredictable, you do whatever it takes to make it work, and the job is never done. But you could say the same thing about snowboarding or touring with the Rolling Stones. “Stressful and unpredictable” doesn’t preclude fun.

And this book is fun. It’s got great recipes and funny stories. Don’t take my word for it, though. Matthew has the first three chapters up on his book’s website. Read those, then go buy the book. You’ll have a great time with it.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m in the acknowledgments.