A Couple Random Things

This past weekend was the Wizard World Boston comic convention, held at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston, something that the New England Garrison has been planning for almost a year now. This has been quite the year for conventions for the group. We were at the Boston and Granite City Comic Cons earlier this year, then Celebration 5, and now this one, with SupermegaFest coming up.

Generally, I'm not a fan of conventions. I don't like standing around, waiting for people to take pictures of me with them. I never really feel that it's a good use of my time and so forth, but this one had a bunch of options to allow us to really interact with the general public: A Jabba the Hutt puppet that people could pose next to, and a shooting gallery, where we raised around $840 for Autism Speaks, a charity that the NEG works with closely.

The weekend was also Megan's first time at a con, along with the added bonus of getting to see some of the people from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I'm not a huge fan, but she and some of her friends enjoyed it – We inducted James Marsters into the 501st as an honorary member.) Adam West and Burt Ward (Batman and Robin - at $60, they were too expensive to really talk to), Doug Jones' Manager (Jones himself was talking to someone else when I was around) and Christopher Golden, who wrote the book Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, which I coincidentally picked up at the same con.

The opportunity to take part in the shooting gallery was definitely the highlight, because I could act out a bit and be really ridiculous with it. Kids, somewhat unsurprisingly, are really good shots with dart guns, and I was hit in the face and head a lot. Something about a Storm Trooper falling flat on his face seems to get people laughing, so that made it worth it. I've got a couple of pictures here.

I've been doing a bit more reading lately, and I've got a stack of really good books stacked up next to my bed. Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Other Stories is the book that I'm carrying around at the moment, which is a fantastic collection from a fantastic author, while I'm also reading the aforementioned Baltimore, which is proving to be a really cool read (and with some awesome illustrations from Mike Mignola), Cherie Priest's Dreadnought, which is proving to be fun (but not quite as much fun as her prior book Boneshaker, but better than Clementine), Masked, edited by Lou Anders, which is a fun, but somewhat dense anthology of superhero stories, and Nights of Villjamur, by Mark Charan Newton, which is proving to be a slow read, and unfortunately, not as good as I was led to believe. (It's interesting thus far though). I've got a couple of other books on the horizon that I really want to read before the end of the year: Ian McDonald's The Dervish House and China Mieville's Kraken.

I’m thrilled at this pile of books, and some of the other ones that I’ve read already this year - The City and the City (China Mieville), Pattern Recognition (William Gibson), Stories (edited by Neil Gaiman), Spellbound (Blake Charleton), How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu), Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemisin, and the River of Gods (Ian McDonald, just to name a few, because I've fallen into company in person and online that have pointed me to some fantastic books and I feel that I've learned and grown as a reader and writer because of them. There's been some duds of reads this year, but overall? I've been pulled into fantastic world after fantastic world.

Still, reading is something that I enjoy, and I've been finding that I really don't enjoy the entire book-blogger environment that I discovered. Too much drama, complaints about how SF/F isn't perceived as a legitimate genre, sucking up to authors and so many reviews a week / month that I can't believe that people can read and retain the contents of dozens of books a year. It's not for me, and I've found that I've got little patience and interest in it. I'll stick with my moderate pace and go from there.

John Scalzi posted up a fascinating essay earlier today, Today I Don't Have To Think About..., which fully and utterly puts one into one's place. After being amongst and listening to a number of coworkers, family members and friends complain about how things are going in their lives and the drama that ensues, this is a really good thing to read, because there are people who are a helluva lot worse off than me in the world. It's hard to remember that sometimes, but it's worth remembering. I've taken the essay and printed it out. One copy went onto my desk’s wall. I’m not sure where the other nine will end up, but they should be read.

Cidering Time

This past weekend, my parents, my brother and sister, along with their significant others, my Uncle Tom and Aunt Jan, myself and girlfriend and our dog gathered at home for what has a yearly tradition: cidering. It's become a time when we all gather (if able - this was the first time that I've been able to make it in a couple of years) and spend the day working to press a large amount of homemade apple cider for the next year.

When my family moved to Moretown in the early 1990s, we build a house on the remains of an old farmstead; the ancient foundation has largely crumbled away to a hole in the ground, but other parts remain: the barbed wire embedded in the trees in the woods, the remains of the fields that makes up our front yard, and a half dozen apple trees that line the road.

For the first decade of our living there, we didn't really pay attention to the trees: they were a curiosity, things that attracted the deer, and provided ammunition for my brother and I. (Armed with a long stick, you can hurl a fist sized apple several hundred feet in any direction) As my parents became satisfied with home improvements, and found that they had more time on their hands for new projects, my father stumbled on the idea of harvesting the apples for cider. Armed with some directions, we gathered that year's crops and armed with a couple of knives and a tiny food processer, we spent a ridiculous amount of time grinding the apples, eventually destroying the mixer. My dad, ever the inventor, put together a frame, a slab of polished granite and a car jack, and created a rudimentary press.

Several years on, the process has become a bit more refined, and takes just an afternoon. This past weekend, people began to arrive early in the morning, where we harvested several bushels of apples in crates and buckets. By the time Megan and I arrived, the next step was largely underway. My sister in law, sister's boyfriend and mother had set around a table with sharp knives and cut the apples into small pieces, loading them into buckets for the processing team.

Without trying to over think the entire weekend, I've come to appreciate the times that we come together for this, even if it's just the immediate family and a couple of others. In the past, family units in the United States were busy groups of people, working on a number of projects collaboratively in order to gain a collective result. Reading over old accounts and stories, it seems that this was a given fact of life, but that seems to be a value that's been lost in modern day society. To get a gallon of cider, all that we have to do here is drive to the grocery store and buy one. I'm not wholly convinced that the effort, time and money put into a gallon on demand is really worth the entire experience of seeing the family coming together and working for something that we'll reap the benefits of over the entire year.

Since destroying a mixer, Dad has sought out ways to better mash up apples, and build a top for the cart: a board with a garbage disposal in it. My uncle took on the apples, dumping them onto the flat surface, and pushing them towards my dad, who forced a steady stream of apples and water through the hole and disposal unit. A bucket, lined with a cloth sack, captured the mash the came out the other end. When the bag was full, we stopped the processor and removed the surface.

My task became the compressor: this method hasn't changed. The sack was then tied off, placed in a plastic bin to capture the juice, and covered with a polished granite slab, which was then pressed down by a car jack underneath a two by four. The pressure forced out the juice, and the tilt of the cart let it flow to the other end. After three rounds of compression, the jack and granite slab was removed, and we collected the newly-pressed apple cider into a large jug, where it's then allowed to settle, and individual containers were filled by my brother and my aunt.

The entire process runs until we're out of apples, and at the end of this weekend, we walked away with something like fifty or so gallons of the stuff, which has since been sealed and frozen. Afterwards, we collect back in the house, where we’ll talk over food and drinks, and generally relax after the day’s efforts.

Over the next year, we'll endure my father asking if we want another couple of gallons, because he'll want to turn off the freezer to conserve electricity over the winter. We'll roll our eyes and take a couple of gallons home at a time, where we'll share it with friends and enjoy it over the next year, until next autumn. In the time between that, we'll pick away at the trees, pruning away branches periodically, while the red frame rests until it's called back into service next year, when the family will gather once again and repeat the whole process. I for one, can’t wait for next year.

Organizing Libraries

I came across an interesting post on SF Signal earlier today, where several bloggers were asked how they organized their own personal libraries. The question is something that I find facinating, and allowed me a bit of reflection on the subject. As of today, I own seven hundred and seventy three books, all of which are stored in my apartment. I have been keeping track of my collection for almost three years now on a freeware program that I found called BookDB. The program seems to have been made for small libraries with small budgets, given it's simplicity and the fact that it was a freebie. The program allows for a user to imput s number of things about a book (author, publisher, title, year, page count, genre, and so on). It's a little clunky, but it works well for what I need. All of my books are entered into the system, and I mark my name in the upper interior corner of the front cover, and shelve it. The program is far better than the Excel spreadsheet that I used, and it provides a good way to list what I've got on the shelves, in case the unthinkable happens - a fire, or something else.

Now that I've got the books, they're spread out around my apartment. A couple reside in the kitchen, where they're useful, while three shelves are in the living room, another is in my bedroom and four are in the library/study that I've set up in the second bedroom. There, I've generally gotten the books sorted by genre. In the living room, the larger shelf is filled to the brim with history, military history, biography and a small section on space history. The other two shelves are fiction, what I lovingly call Geek Studies and science fiction and fantasy hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The bedroom has all of my SF/F mass markets. The study has a shelf and a half of Star Wars books (mass markets together, and hardcovers on another shelf), with reference, fiction, SF/F anthologies, and coffee table books.

Looking over my shelves, I see organization, and a bit of compulsion. I love books, for a number of reasons - I largely grew up reading, living in areas where we couldn't get cable, but it always served as a sort of outlet for me during my youth, and has continued as such. I love to learn, and take an immense sense of satisfaction in not only learning something new, but maintaining a place and the tools in which I can continue to learn, to connect and to simply escape into the pages of a book.

I keep the shelves ordered (my girlfriend and mother both delight in selecting a single book and flipping it upside down), by subject then author. Small white tabs underneath different books generally indicate that the book is something that I haven't gotten to yet - there are a lot of those, and every now and then, I'll pull a number of books down while I track down some elusive fact or paragraph.

When it comes to the books themselves, I would like to think that someone could easily figure out something about me from the titles on the shelves, from my interests to the care that I take of the books. I've often thought that my role in a fantasy story would be a librarian in a gothic house or castle, or that somehow, I'll someday need some obscure fact hidden away, and so the books stay.

My library is something that's going to stay with me for a long time, because they're a part of me, in a strange way. From a lot of my studies, I've found that I like small details filling into larger themes. In that regard, I'd like to think that my books represent a bit of who I am, with all of my interests and a desire to keep learning and teaching a little more.

RIP, Waldenbooks

On Tuesday, our local branch of the Waldenbooks franchise closed down for good. Undoubtedly, there will be a number of customers that will be coming to the mall in the next six to twelve months asking whoever rents out that spot where the bookstore went, but there you have it.

Borders, which owns Waldenbooks, decided late last year that they were going to close down 200 of the smaller mall locations around the country. Two in Vermont - Berlin (My store) and Rutland, were both on the cutting block, although the Borders express in South Burlington will remain open. I'm guessing that this is a bit of a complicated position for Borders - the recent financial crisis added to the already piling issues that brick and mortar face: declining sales in light of competition from online retailers, not to mention absolutely inefficient business practices on the part of how Borders runs their stores, something I've ranted about before.

Still, with all my issues about Borders aside, I will miss working there, and the store itself. I began work in the fall of 2006, where I worked at the Kiosk, and continued to work through the winter and next fall as a regular employee, before leaving to work at Norwich University. I returned late last year after a friend left, because I was hit with a bit of nostalgia for the store and working there. While that didn't last long, it was nice while it lasted. I've long been a customer at this particular branch, even before I went to work there. The selection for what I was looking for, mainly science fiction, was always top-notch, and when I began to work there, I met a number of people who I likely wouldn't have met normally, and like camp, I've managed to hold onto a good group of close friends.

Looking back at my time there, I've often told myself that if I'm ever going to be in a position to make a television show, I'll write something about here. There was endless problems with customers, other employees (there was always drama of some sort) and from all that, quite a lot of humor and laughter. Romance books were something that could easily be thrown across the store at an annoying co-worker, but also the slow times, after all of our duties were done, chatting with people for a couple hours in-between customers. There are a lot of good memories there, which I'll remember over the bad times that I've had there (and there were several). Hell, I'll even miss some of our crazy regular customers who were really out there.

Plus, the bookstore was a source of a lot of books for me. We made sure (when we could) that the comics and Science Fiction and Fantasy section was well stocked, special ordering books that we knew would move out the door, kept it well stocked and neat, and offered a good selection of other books as well. There's a bunch of stores in the area, such as Bear Pond Books, Rivendell Books and the Northfield Bookstore, but they just don't have the same selection. I'll stop in when I can, but I just won't make a point to stop by and browse, because my friends won't be there either, as I'd often do over the past couple of years.

So, farewell, bookstore. I'll miss giving you money in exchange for feeding my habit of books, and while my wallet and bookshelves won't thank you, I'll miss the fun times that never will be, and the friends that I made there.

The Brakes

I replaced the rear brakes on my car at the end of last week. It's been a long-standing issue that I've been waiting to fix for a little while now, and once you can hear the brakes working, it's generally a good indication that things need to be replaced. There's been a bunch of things that have gone wrong with my car since I've owned it, ranging from the more serious (transmission failure) to the incredibly minor, (windshield wipers needing replacement). When I've had the opportunity, I've opted to fix things myself. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it's much, much cheaper. The estimated cost of brake replacement for the Mini was somewhere in the $300-$350 range. That's doable, but it takes a huge chunk of cash away from me. Fixing the brakes myself does more than save me money, however; it gives me some time learning just how my car works. Pulling the tire away gives me a good view of the suspension, and while I'm unscrewing or removing something, it gives me some time to actually examine how this works. It also gives me a bit more ownership of the car, making it a bit more my pride and joy, in a way.

Still, waiting to do the brakes, while possibly not the smartest thing to do, has imparted me with some lessons that have affected my driving habits. Coupled with the mindset of trying to save gas, I've come to change my driving habits in a way that makes me a better driver overall, I think. At the very least, it's gotten me thinking about how I'm driving, which few people seem to be able to do.

With the brakes going, I've learned better how to avoid using them. This doesn't mean that I didn't use them, but used them more sparingly, and drove in a way that meant that I didn't have to use them to the extent that I did. This means driving at a bit of a slower pace in traffic, giving myself more space between myself and the car ahead of me. Instead, I'd coast, downshift the car and take my foot off the gas, which helps bring down the car's fuel consumption a bit.

And it's worked - driving carefully, I've noticed a slight uptick in my car's fuel mileage, which is good, but I've also been a better driver around people. In doing so, I've noticed other bad habits that I've seen people doing - braking constantly, riding their brakes, tailgating other cars, braking while going uphill and not paying attention to the road through a variety of means.

While I've taken ownership of my car and responsibility for its maintenance, I've found that I've become more interested in the road and my own driving habits. Hopefully, with fuel at high prices and people watching where they put their money, they will do the same things.