Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Thrifting: Books

I love going to thrift stores. This is a hobby I've had all of my life, starting with garage sales when I was a kid. I have a lot of thoughts about it; too much to put in one post, so I'll break it up into different topics that suit my fancy.

I also have a passion for reading. It astounds me that there are so many bookstores, since I rarely see a) anyone in them buying books and b) anyone out in the world reading books. I know there are readers out there, and perhaps they just do it in the privacy of their own home, but it still strikes me as odd that Barnes & Noble is able to stay in business.

Especially when you look at the cost of a new book! New paperbacks are $7.00! Here's where thrift stores are a godsend. I can't remember the last time I spent more than $3 on a book (and that was for illustrated hard-bound editions of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen's Tales published in 1945). Of course, it's not just about the money. I could easily (and often do) pick up books from the local library. There's more to it than that.

The Thrill of the Chase

The best places to find cheap books are not necessarily the well-known places like Goodwill or Salvation Army (although they often have good selections). I much prefer the small, local church or community based thrift stores. They usually have many more books coming in, and often price books much less-- paperbacks for fifty cents, hardbacks for a dollar.

And that's where the fun comes in. If I want a particular book, I'll go to the library. But thrift stores are all about serendipity, patience, and the luck of the draw. You never know what you might find. I like to think I read a pretty wide variety of books, so I'm open to just about anything. Kon Tiki for 25 cents? I've heard of that, why not? Just yesterday I picked up The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman's autobiography. Would I ever have thought to look for that in the library? Doubtful. Would I think to ask for it as a gift? Never. But to find it there for a buck was fantastic! I can't wait to read it. With it I also picked up Jude the Obscure, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and some goofy Star Wars book that I never would have paid more than 50 cents for.

The Mystery of Mysteries

The stores with the largest selections are usually very helpful and sort their books by subject: fiction, non-fiction, self-help, romance, and mysteries. Some have more categories, some have less, but all of them contain that last one. Those first few may seem self-explanatory, but let me explain what the thrift stores mean by "Mystery"-- everything else. Does it look serious or have the Oprah sticker on it? Fiction. Was it written by Tolkein or have "Star" in the title? Science Fiction. Other than that, it gets shelved in Mystery. Dan Brown? Mystery. Tom Clancy, Ken Follett? Mystery, mystery. Stephen King? Well, that's a tough one. Usually, it's in the "Stephen King" section, but if there isn't room, put it in Mystery. In order to overcome this Screwy Decimal System, you have to develop additional skills.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

After a while, you start to recognize patterns in books. I bet I could tell you the type of book, genre, and year of publication (within five years) just by looking at the spine. Big block letters? That's pop fiction, some sort of thriller. Soft cursive against a soothing background? That's "women's fiction." It's easy, really.

There are also books that are staples of every thrift store I've been to. And I'm not talking about the easy ones like some huge mass-market paperback that was printed a billion times. For example, I have yet to visit a book section that didn't have Franzen's The Corrections (a good book, by the way). Nine out of ten of them have Gutterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. What's with that?

On a different note, I have frequently seen book buzzards. I don't know what else to call them. These people must be reselling the books online or something. They come to the book section armed with some sort of hand-held scanning device, then proceed to pull every book off the shelf and scan the barcode. After looking at the results, they either toss it back or into their cart. This bothers me for a number of reasons. Obviously, they're taking advantage of the system and profiting from a charitable organization. Clearly, they aren't really readers. But lastly, it's the thought that my knowledge and skill at finding good or valuable books has been reduced to some piece of electronic equipment.

Take and Give

One last benefit of buying books at thrift stores is the ease of disposal. My wife liked to check books out at the library. Every time, she racked up a few dollars-worth of late charges because she didn't return them on time. I kept telling her I could have bought it for her for less. She's finally taken me up on that, and is now a convert. She give me a list of authors/titles to look out for, and it usually isn't long before I find it. She almost bought Deep End of the Ocean one day when I was with her, but I told her I saw it all the time. Two days later and one buck lighter, it was hers.

But my point is, with a used book you bought for a buck, you don't worry about things. If you spill beer or coffee on it (one is far more likely for me than the other), who cares? You won't have to pay the library anything. Did you start reading it and decide you hate it? No problem. Donate it back. You're only out a buck, and you gave to charity twice. I love to give books to my friends if I think they'll like them, and this way I never expect them back. Sometimes if I have a big enough stack of better than average books, I'll sell them at the Half-Price Bookstore and feel like I either made back my investment or earned some extra change.

I buy a lot more books than I'll likely have time to read, but that's a good thing as well. I have a strange private library of books that caught my eye. It's nice to know that when I'm in the mood for something different, I have a lot to choose from at the tip of my fingers.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Games Weekend

Well, I had hoped to post periodic updates throughout the weekend, but alas, the hotel only gave me free wi-fi for one day. That seems silly to me, since it's probably one of the cheapest amenities they offer. I'd rather have that than cable any day. Oh well.

Anyway, over the past weekend I made a quick jaunt to California to visit with friends and play games all day. It has been an annual tradition for me since a little before I moved back to Texas. Unfortunately, since I no longer get the free vouchers from my sister, flying out for a weekend trip is not as economical as it used to be. Next time, I'll bring my wife and we'll stay a full week.

Most of my friends at this get-together compile a "dance card," which is just a list of the games they want to play. I rarely do this, just because my interests are usually not so specific. This year, I just wanted to play "games I've never played before" and "heavier" games, since those are types I don't always get to play at home. I succeeded pretty well at the former, but the latter was a little lacking. This time, it seemed that most people were more interested in playing much lighter fare. I won't bother listing all the games, but I will point out a few highlights.

Keltis: Der Weg der Steine - This was a quick, sort of random game based on Knizia's Keltis/Lost Cities boardgame. I liked the ease of play and how short the game was. Seemed to play well with any number.

Finito! - I actually didn't care for this one that much, but everyone else did so I played it a lot. It reminded me of Take It Easy!, another game that didn't go over well with my home group. Players each have their own board on which they are competing to place pieces in numerical order. Random draws determine which pieces, while a roll of the draw determines the spaces they can be placed. It was quick and easy, but not as engaging as I had hoped.

Liberté - This one certainly wasn't new, but it was definitely heavy. I was glad to give it another play, since it had been so long. The rules can be a little obtuse, but we managed to get through okay. The game itself isn't too hard, but seeing a winning strategy can be difficult. The game is set during the French revolution, and players make victory points by backing any of the three different factions. Your loyalties can switch at any moment (and can often contradict), allowing for a very dynamic game. I ended up winning by a single point, but I was just as surprised as everyone else.

Pandemic: On the Brink - This is an expansion to Pandemic, a game I really enjoy. I'm always leery of expansions because they so often add time and complication to a game without adding any fun. I tried this one on the recommendation of my friends, and it became an instant "must buy" for me. Although it does add complication, it didn't feel like it added any time. It allows for more players, as well as several different modifications to the original that can be mixed and matched to suit your mood. Best of all, it comes with little plastic petri dishes in which to store the virus cubes. How cool is that!?

Overall, I had a really good time and I'm glad I went. In addition to the games, I was able to record a podcast and visit In N Out Burger, which definitely made it worthwhile.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Games Weekend: Friday

Great to be back in California, even if for a little while. Detailed recaps will follow when I return, but for now, here's a list:
Keltis: Der Weg der Steine
Power Grid: Portugal
Tumblin' Dice

Not a huge list, but several "new to me."

Today I'll be recording an episode of the BGTG podcast with Mark Johnson, then a bunch more games!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod Touch

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Father's Health, Part 3: Urology

So, my Dad's health has improved steadily since he was released from the hospital. He is slowly getting his strength back, and is able to walk (short distances) with the aid of a cane. His mental facilities are gradually improving as well, although he still has trouble remembering what day it is.

Last week I accompanied him and my Mom to the urologist's office for a check up. A great deal of the work he had done over his extended stay in December and January was due to his bladder.

For a quick lay-person's explanation, think of the bladder like a balloon. As it fills with urine, it expands. After a while, the muscled walls of the bladder contract to expel the excess fluid. Unfortunately for my Dad, his wasn't quite working right.

Many years ago, he had his prostate removed due to cancer. It's very common for men of a certain age to get prostate cancer. Some say that all men get it, it's just that something else kills them first. Anyway, after having it removed, they later went back and did some radiation treatment to make sure the cancer was gone. This is something I've recently learned that they no longer do. Good thing, since that procedure seems to be what caused all of my father's problems.

His bladder had stop expelling fluid. After an exploratory surgery (December), they discovered a large amount of blood clots in the bladder. It seams that the radiation had residual effects which caused the scarring and clotting in his bladder. As this built up, his bladder continued to stretch out, but had trouble restricting again. So, a surgeon went in, literally scooped out the blood clots, and sewed his bladder back shut.

Sadly, he didn't do a very good job. A week or so later, my Dad is in a different (better) hospital repeating the surgery. There were other errors as well, but I won't digress into them now. The point is, my Dad's bladder was finally cleaned out, urine was flowing as expected, but the "balloon" had been stretched out so much, it would likely never function properly again.

So, if you don't have a functioning bladder, how do you get rid of the fluid? I'm glad you asked! Boys and girls, let me introduce you to a word: catheter. Doesn't sound so bad-- like kitty cat, but with a soft ending. Basically, a catheter is a very benign object. It's simply a tube inserted through an orifice to drain or insert fluids. My Dad has a catheter in his torso to facilitate dialysis. But there are types of catheters. For example, be on the look out for the "Foley" catheter. That doesn't sound too bad. Dave Foley, the guy from Kids in the Hall, right? Sadly, no. A Foley catheter is inserted up one's urethra directly to the bladder to allow it to drain. Except the urethra is in a man's penis. I apologize if this is too graphic, but I assume we're all adults here.

My Dad has had to endure several Foley catheters. For that alone he deserves respect. This time, however, they were going to do something different: a supra-pubic catheter. This one is a minor surgery that makes an incision in your lower abdomen and sticks a tube straight into the bladder. No muss, no fuss, just a tube going down your pants leg leading to a bag of pee.

And finally, we're caught up to the present day. Since leaving the hospital, my Dad has had this tube and bag contraption attached to his abdomen. He was scheduled for a follow up to see if they could remove it, but it so happens that the night before his appointment, he accidentally pulled it out during the night.

Now, to me, this is inconceivable. How could anyone with a tube sticking directly in an organ through a hole in your flesh, pull it out? And not be bleeding, crying, screaming, killing your way to the hospital? But, I guess I just don't understand.

Anyway, we go to the urology doctor to talk about it. We were expecting it to be removed about now anyway, so maybe this is normal. Doc says, "Sure, no problem. The hole seems to have closed properly, let's just go back to a Foley." I'm sure all men reading this can imagine the look produced on both my and my Dad's face at the sound of that.

So the doctor tries to put in a Foley. Right there. In the office. Dad is very, very uncomfortable, but far too polite to use the sailor language I was formulating. The doctor stops. "Hmm," he says, "that's odd. Let's take a look." This is always fun, because doctors have so many ways to "look" at things.

First, they do a sonogram. Don't try the "Is it a boy or a girl" routine here, guys. They've heard it and don't appreciate it. So, using radar to look at the bladder, they see that it is full, but not too full; meaning-- no emergency.

Next, they decide to do a scope (I don't remember the technical term), where they'll insert a camera and take a look at his urethra. A camera! In his pee pee! I ask the nurse if I should wait outside, and she says, and I quote: "No, it's really cool. It's just like a big balloon. You should stay and watch."

As a quick aside, I have to say that I've been blessed with not being squeamish about blood, guts, the human body, or any of that sort of stuff. This is basically the complete opposite of my older brother, who passes out at the mere thought of blood.

So, of course, I'm in.

The doctor and nurse do the necessary preparatory work. My Mom was kind of hoping to leave, but since I was staying she did too. My Dad was just beside himself, wishing it were all over, and regretting his decision to return to the doctor.

So, there it is. Live on a closed-circuit TV in crisp color, my Dad's urethra. Now, understand, I haven't seen the inside of my Dad's penis in almost 43 years, so my memory of it is pretty hazy. But basically, it's just a tube. As we try to reach the bladder, we hit a road block. Literally. It seems that since my Dad's surgery (and other issues), the scar tissue in his urethra has completely closed it off. That is why the Foley wasn't working.

This means that he has to get another supra-pubic. This means that he has to go to the hospital. Because of delays and wanting to keep him under observation, this means another overnight stay. This leads to more sundowning craziness, during which he pulls the catheters out (again) and requires another surgery, and another night in the hospital. So, what we thought was going to be a routine check up ended up being a three-day weekend stay at the hospital. I suppose it could have been worse, but that was bad enough.

He's home now, and better for it. He still has the tube running down his leg leading to a bag of urine, which isn't exactly "sporty." But we're hoping to get a different type of bag that is like a long tube that hides in the pants leg. Part of the problem is that my Dad's organs just won't commit to either working or quitting. Usually, when you experience kidney failure, you produce little to no urine and that is taken care of by dialysis. My Dad is producing some urine, but not a lot. On the positive side, that means there is still a chance his kidneys may regain functionality. On the bad side, he has to carry around a bag full of his own pee.

It is times like these that make you ponder what medical treatments will be available in 20 years. Will I have to have tubes and a bag of pee? Or will they just take a tissue sample and grow me a new bladder? Let's hope I live long enough to find out.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New vs. Old vs. Then vs. Now

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." -Anonymous


"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." -Ecclesiastes 1:9

The observation that movies and television recycle and reuse ideas is so well-known as to be a cliche itself. Some would argue that stories themselves can be broken down to 12 (or is it 9? I forget) basic narratives, but that's a topic for another day perhaps. I'll just accept it as a given that Hollywood is redundant. But what other observations can we make?

LOST vs. Gilligan's Island

I am by far not the first to make this comparison. As a matter of fact, here's an amusing little link to someone who spent too much time thinking about it already. It's made even more entertaining by the fact that it was written somewhere along Season 2. What other comparisons could be made now?

My real point with this comparison is the idea of episodic versus serialized storytelling. As a kid, I loved Gilligan's Island unabashedly. It was a daily afterschool rerun ritual. I loved the first season of Lost as well (I still watch it, but it is a vastly different show now). But in GI, every show was independent. You could watch them in any order. You knew everything you needed to know from the opening credits. You also knew that no matter what, everything would return to status quo by the end of the show. Lost made a deliberate effort against both of those statements.

Of course, it's patently unfair to compare a 60's sitcom with a 00's drama. Sure, the desert island theme is pretty timeless (especially in Lost), but other than that, they really have next to nothing in common.

BSG vs. Battlestar Galactica

The original was loosely serial. You still had the opening narration that let you know who the players were, what was at stake, why it was happening. But between each show, was there really any continuity? Did it really matter in what order they were watched?

The more recent incarnation was quite rigid. It's another show that I loved at the beginning, but gradually came to dislike. The essential problem with serialized narratives seems to come from the conflicting goals of story and commerce. Characters need to grow and change; some may even need to die, if the story dictates it. But fans, producers, actors, and advertisers like to have reliable sameness. "You can't kill off, Starbuck, she's the most popular character!" When characters who are expected to die don't, or worse, come back, I think it cheapens the story and deserves the derogatory comparison to soap operas.

Lost did a great job with this the first season. Most of the actors were relatively unknown (re: expendable), so the writers could get away with killing anyone. As the show grew in popularity, they had to bring in new people so they'd have someone to kill. This last season, they actually killed Locke, but brought him back as the Anti-Jacob just so Terry O'Quinn could keep collecting a paycheck.

Star Trek vs. Star Trek

The older I get, the more I love the original series (TOS). The plots were thought-provoking, yet simple. It dealt with ideas and concepts more than technology. The solutions were always understandable. You could watch them in any order, of course, and the relationships never changed.

Then look at Next Generation (TNG). Let's just ignore the first couple of dreadful seasons. They still tried to keep it the same every time, but it just wouldn't work after a while. Two-part episodes turned into minor themes or even season-long "arcs." Character choices often didn't make sense ("We've pulled out the captain's chair for Riker three times; he just won't sit down!"), except to maintain the status quo.

All the later Trek shows continued and expanded on this serial narrative. Deep Space Nine actually transforms itself through out it's run. Anyone watching the final episode without having an understanding of the whole narrative would be confounded (like I was).

Jon & Kate plus 8 vs. The Brady Bunch

Some would say that serialized storytelling is more like real life. Characters, just like the actors who play them, get older. Life changes things. People develop and grow, relationships come and go. One could even say that reality shows are a natural extension of the trend towards serialization. The spontaneity makes it fresh and (supposedly) unpredictable. Things change. Stuff happens that really matters. But with all the footage taken and edited down into an hour episode, is that really accurate? Besides, I think the reality shows aren't much different from live television variety shows from the early days, except they have less talented performers.

Law & Order = Dragnet

Thankfully for me, episodic television has not died completely yet. There are still plenty of shows that you can appreciate without ever having seen an episode.

Sadly, the whole point of this post when I conceived it was to talk about why that narrative shift may have occurred, and instead I spent all this time babbling about everything else. Oh well. Next time, perhaps.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Future of Traffic Law Enforcement

For a couple of years now, Houston has had "red light cameras" that take pictures of cars running red lights. Based on the license plate number, the driver is then mailed a citation and expected to pay the fine. I don't know how prevalent or numerous these devices are in other cities (and I really don't feel like doing any research), but I find the concept fascinating.

Obviously, a lot of people don't favor them. I suppose they believe that if an actual police officer didn't catch them in the act, then they should be allowed to get away with it. That's a very interesting ethical position to take: if I wasn't caught, then it wasn't wrong, basically. I could go on for paragraphs on just this aspect alone, but I won't.

But traffic law, for the most part, is pretty cut and dried, black and white. The light was red; you entered the intersection; you get a ticket. So the use of computers and automated cameras makes a lot of sense here. I'm sure there are plenty who still fight the tickets, but they're fighting against solid evidence and can really only make appeals based on "just cause."

Believe it or not (surprising even to me), I really like this concept and think it should (and will) be expanded. I've often seen digital speed limit signs equipped with radar to show you how fast you're really going. They're always temporary, I guess just to remind drivers that the police do know what you're doing. But why couldn't these signs have cameras as well? It doesn't seem like it would be too difficult to set up a system for stop signs as well. I think this is an inventive use of modern technology. Fifty years ago, it would have been impossible, but now you could have an automated post measure your speed (radar), take your picture (digitally, no film), time and date stamp it (computer), and send it to a central police hub (wireless Internet). That's impressive.

Will this happen? I think so. In the next five years, probably not. Ten? Probably.

But this idea can be taken even further, which is what I really like thinking about. How many cars today are equipped with rear-view video cameras? Some even have little radar sensors to tell you when you are nearing an object. And these aren't super luxury or concept car features; these were on the Ford Focus I drove a few months ago.

So, why not have driver-controlled cameras to report the bad/illegal behavior of other drivers? How many times have you seen someone driving recklessly on the freeway, too fast, weaving in and out of cars, and wished that they got caught. "Why isn't there ever a cop when you need one?"

But if you could report him yourself? Just move a joystick and take a snap, which is instantly transmitted to the police, maybe even including your geo-tracked location. This is all possible now. Sure, there are some kinks to work out. You'd have to make sure it isn't too dangerous/distracting to take the picture. There would have to be officers whose job would be to sift the reports to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that wouldn't be too hard. If you get five reports from five different vehicles in the same area at the same time, I think you should look into it. I think it might even cut down on road rage, in a passive-aggressive way. Don't like the guy tailgating you? Just take a picture and report him. He pays a fine and you feel good about yourself. That's much better than slamming on your breaks and risking gunfire.

In small tribal communities, they don't have police. That doesn't mean they don't have crime or wrong-doers, but just that it isn't the job of one person to correct it. The community as a whole upholds the group ethic. If someone steals, rapes, or murders, everyone knows it. That person is most often shunned and/or kicked out of the community. As a community gets larger and wealthier, it can afford to have people whose job is more specific or abstract. Perhaps, as our society gets larger and communication gets so much easier, it will become more like the smaller communities. If we all police ourselves/each other for traffic violations, it frees the actual police to do the specialized work they are trained to do. If people knew that by cutting ahead in a long line of cars at an off-ramp they would get a dozen pictures sent and have to pay a fine, maybe they'd be more hesitant to do it.

It all sounds very Orwellian, and that fascinates me as well. The oppression in 1984 came from the government, of course, but it was enforced by the people. Big Brother wasn't so much the camera as the person looking through the lens.

Anyway, I think it's coming. Probably not in ten years, but in twenty? Thirty? Who knows.

Monday, March 1, 2010


So, I haven't posted for a while, but unlike usual, it wasn't due to laziness.

Two weeks ago, a very close and dear friend of the family passed away quite unexpectedly. Fred Griesbach was 80 years old, but he was in better shape than most men 20 years younger. He was full of life, extremely kind, and a friend to all who knew him. I've known him almost all of my life, and I will certainly miss him.

I was hesitant to write anything about his passing. I was worried that my tongue-in-cheek (but 100% true) eulogy for my Jeep would cheapen anything else I wrote here. In truth, he probably would have laughed in support over that post. He was one of the first to console me for my loss.

Yesterday I was visiting with my family. I had a big bottle of St. Bernardus Abt. 12 that I had bought specifically to share with Fred (we shared a passion for beer). Instead, I poured it among my family and offered a toast. Not five minutes later, Fred's daughter Sally called. We immediately invited her over to share our lunch, and again we toasted her father. It was a good day. We ate barbecue outside, my father got some exercise and sunshine, and we all laughed and shared stories of Mr. Griesbach. I think that's exactly how he would have wanted it.

Ich möchte einen Toast auf Frederick Griesbach ausbringen!

Dem Leben sind Grenzen gesetzt, die Liebe ist grenzenlos.


© New Blogger Templates | Webtalks