Monday, January 28, 2008
I know how you all enjoy hearing about my kids' theme birthday parties. On the weekend, my #2 Son and I hosted a medieval party.
Throughout, all of us in the family said to each other over and over: "Why have we never done this theme before?" It seems like such a natural for a birthday theme.
We launched the party with a Royal Proclamation calling for a tournament of knights to prove their valour so that the king (me) could assemble a company to fight a dragon. The invitations were written in a medieval-style font on faux-parchment coloured paper that was attached to and wrapped around a toy arrow.
As usual, we held the party at a local church hall to give us plenty of runnin' around room. The hall was festooned with cheap dollar-store table runners (meant to look like medieval tapestries and banners) and print-outs of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Codex Mannesse.
We had two further pieces of decorating luck: the Sunday school at the church hall had an old refrigerator box decorated like a castle tower; and one of Mrs. Mentok's teaching colleagues had a bunch of hand-painted murals used for teaching medieval and fantasy literature units.
This same teacher-friend also had a pair of hand-sewn faux-ermine lined capes which Mrs. Mentok and I used for our costumes. My costume was fleshed out with: a long white sheet of fabric with a hole for my head; a belt; a real sword I happen to own; a medieval crest printed out onto adhesive paper; some dress-trim material that looks like metal mesh (which I applied in various places to look like chain mail) and a cheap plastic dollar-store "gold" crown.
(Remember this formula next time you're invited to a medieval feast. Except for the cape and sword, the above cost me maybe $5 to assemble, versus the $50-$100 /day that costume rental places charge.)
As the kids arrived, my oldest son, playing the role of herald and sergeant-at-arms, announced each guest. During the arrival/warm up stage, we enjoyed a pop-n-chips "feast".
I had this terrible moment of dread during the warm-up that the 10-11 year old guests were too old for a make-believe party. But the kids were mainly long-time friends of #2 Son who had enjoyed many previous parties and were more than happy to play along. In any case, there is a huge difference between 11 and 12.
Festivities began with decorating their gear. Everyone got grey hoodies (local thrift store, $4 ea.) to serve as chain mail. Then they decorated their tunics (long white sheets of fabric with head-holes) and shields (corplast) with medieval-style symbols... or anything they liked, really. The outfits were then all sinched up with studded belts (3 for $1 at Liquidation World).
Once properly outfitted, the guests went through a knighting ceremony and issued foam swords. Then we had a big chaotic sword fight tournament.
Next up, riding lessons. After some build-up (#1 son, behind the scenes, making loud whinnying and neighing sounds), we unveiled a tray of coconut shells. Those, I tell ya, were a royal pain to get together. We bought fresh coconuts, drained them, put them through a band saw to ensure an even cut and then baked them so that the meat would shrivel and pop out "easily" ... or at least more easily than working with fresh coconut meat.
But it was well worth it. Several of the kids had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and said, "Whoa! Cool! Just like Monty Python!" right away. As for everyone else, it turns out that bashing coconut shells together is just a whole lot of fun no matter how old you are or how cool you think you are.
After just running around with coconuts for awhile, we staged a jousting match. The kids had to hold pool noodles steady under their arms while continuing to bash the coconut shells together with their hands. The whole exercise was whacky, awkward and, therefore, laugh generating.
Our last tournament event was archery, using cheapie dollar-store toy bow-and-arrow kits. The toy archery sets worked well when you used them right, but it was a bit tricky to hold the arrow just right. This only added to the fun, since most kids totally shanked their first arrow, which made them all the more determined to practice until they got it right.
After that, we mounted our "steeds" and set off in search of the dragon. #1 Son, hidden behind a curtain, did a masterful job of making the dragon seem very large and fierce. Of course, it turned out just to be a pinata, which got a lot of laughs.
Man, they sure make those damn pinatas hard to break. After we got it down, the kids stomped on it and I bashed at it with my real sword, but is still took a long time to crack it open.
To celebrate our victory over the dragon, we had a grand feast featuring tray after tray of all sorts of finger food. There is, after all, no surer way to a tweenager boy's heart than with food.
After the feast, cake and presents, we had about 20 minutes left before pick-up time. That is more open time than I normally like, but in this case it worked out great. All the boys worked up a sweat chasing each other around with the foam swords and pool noodles. Afterwards, #2 Son said he felt that was the best part of the whole event.
As usual at our parties, we didn't have treat bags per se, but the guests all went home with virtually everything they had touched: their hoodies, tunics, belts, shields, swords, pool noodles, archery sets, coconut shells, goblets and, of course, their share of the "dragon treasure".
The whole family had worked very hard to make the event a success. #1 Son sucked up his teenager cynicism and was a great right-hand man for me; #3 Son did an outstanding job as court jester; and my lovely Queen went above and beyond with decoration procurement, food preparation and professional (teacher-grade) kid-wrangling.
Sadly, this will probably be #2 Son's last make-believe theme party. That will leave me with just one event per year for the next four years, and then no more after that. It's scary how the time goes, eh?
posted by Mentok @ 10:09 AM, ,
Monday, January 21, 2008
A rare treat for you, dear readers: a sample of my "real" writing. Here's a link to a PDF of a magazine article I recently wrote about local robotics research.
The part I want you to notice, near the end of the article, is the virtual reality research, which isn't really robotics at all be I'll get back to it. What these guys have whipped up is a holodeck-style set-up in which you can walk in place, never leaving the same spot in the real world but feeling as though you are walking in a 3-D virtual reality world. Pretty cool.
But wait, there's more. Here's a link to a recent news article about American and Japanese researchers working on, essentially, remote mind-control of robot parts. They implanted electrodes into the area of a monkey's brain that controls walking. Then they put the monkey on a treadmill. The signals were then transmitted to a facility in Japan that had a set of robot legs hooked up to a treadmill. Result: the robot legs moved at the same time and the same pace as the monkey's.
The ultimate goal of this research is to develop exo-skeletal robot legs to allow paraplegics to walk. They figure they should have a working prototype within a year.
A year! Paraplegia (or, at least, paraplegic wheelchairs) could be on the road to being a thing of the past within a year.
But now add these two bits together. It stands to reason that, now that they've got the whole electrode-mind-control technology worked out, everything else from there is just a function of engineering. So it shouldn't be too long before they can build complete robot avatars for people.
Imagine this: you're getting old and can't get around much. So, just hook yourself up to a virtual reality headset, boot up your robot "self" and head out for a stroll to the corner store.
Imagine how it could revolutionize work places. Just leave a robot version of yourself at the office and you can remote control him from home in your 'jammies.
Or tourism. Want to see Paris but can't afford the airfare? Just plunk down $50 at your local VirtualTourist booth and you can take a real-time, 3-D stroll down the Champs Elysees on your way home from work. You can even go shopping and have it shipped to yourself at home.
The possibilities are endless and mind-boggling.
I suppose the brain surgery to get all those electrodes implanted would be a bugger, but I'm sure they're working on that too.
posted by Mentok @ 11:18 AM, ,
Monday, January 14, 2008
With all the concern these days about the scaled-down Golden Globes and whether the Oscars will proceed this year, no one paid much attention to the fact that the Adult Entertainment Awards went ahead without a hitch.
(No, I'm not putting up any pictures to accompany this piece. I once put up a picture of a fully-clothed Jenna Jameson for a fake news bit. It drove my traffic way, way up, but it wasn't good traffic to put it mildly.)
So, anyway, I was wondering:
Do ya figger the porn industry is suffering from the writers' strike at all? How exactly would we know if the quality of porn scripts started to decline?
Just curious, just throwing that out there for discussion.
posted by Mentok @ 10:42 AM, ,
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
With all the hype about Arkansas governor cum presidential candidate Mike Huckabee these days, I couldn't resist reposting this nugget from back in this blog's fake news comedy days.
I originally wrote the piece just to tease now-departed blogger Ash Chairiet, who hails from the great state of Arkansas. But today's headlines give this piece a whole new meaning, n'est-ce pas?
Arkansas Gov to Push "Guzintas"
|Arkansas Gov. Huckabee|
(right) sets sights on math
Huckabee said that he would like to see guzintas awareness become a state-wide activity, in the same way that former governor and former President Bill Clinton's now-legendary times-bys program captured the state's imagination.
"There is not much that former Governor Clinton and I agree on, but I give him credit for The Great Arkansas Times-Bys Challenge," Huckabee said. [see sidebar]
|Governor Clinton's Great |
|"Billy's family wants to go to|
a peanut boil 26 miles away.
Billy has 4 brothers, 3 sisters
and 26 cousins, each of whom has 6 children. All together, the family has 102 dogs, of which 47 are bitches, all of whom are pregnant. The family has 5 trucks between them. If welfare checks come out on Wednesday and the peanut boil is on Saturday, how many of Billy's family will make it to the peanut boil?"
To craft his guzintas challenge, Governor Huckabee will be drawing on the skills of Professor Michael Cash, head of the University of Arkansas Department of Ciphering and Figuring.
"Many Arkansans are unaware of the importance of guzintas in their daily lives. For example, suppose you have a gallon of some sort of medicinal liquid and you want to siphon it off into 12 ounce bottles. How many bottles can you get? Sure, you can try to dope it out using your times-bys, but guzintas make it much quicker," said Professor Cash.
"Give you another example. Suppose you're at the video store and you have a $20 bill. Well, how many copies of The Dukes of Hazzard can you rent? With guzintas, you can figure that out right away," Cash added.
posted by Mentok @ 9:46 AM, ,
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
And we're back!
How was your holiday? Mine was exceptionally good. In fact, given how scroogey I was earlier in the season, my transformation as the holiday progressed was positively Dickensian. Among the reasons: just before the start of the break, my boss did something really nice for me; I had a couple surprise presents lined up that had their desired effects (it really is better to give than receive); and I gorged out on no less than three turkey suppers, including one I helped prepare with my favourite stocking stuffer, a new meat injector.
Da missus and I had a traditional New Year's: went out, got smashed (me not her) then nursed a traditional New Year's Day hangover while traditionally watching the Rose Bowl Parade.
I've always liked the Rose Bowl Parade. There's something very soothing about it. What struck me about it this year is what a tremendous example it is of nation-building.
Now, as you've read here before, I think that the whole idea of nationalism is a fraud. As much as I like my little country of Canada, I have no illusions that it or any other country has any sort of divine right to exist. The whole idea that you can find one easily identifiable set of traits to unify a whole bunch of people is patently absurd in my view.
Still, we live in the era of nation-states, so that's what we have to live with. Since the notion is so false, countries must work constantly to convince their subjects that this sense of "nation" exists.
America's job of spinning nationality is not unique in the world, but it is certainly one of the more complex examples. The powers-that-be in America must constantly convince people in Texas, Maine, California, New York City, Hawaii, Arkansas and Miami (to name but a few) that, somehow or other, they all belong to a single, unified community.
Rene Levesque, the deceased grand-daddy of Quebec separatist nationalism, used to say that Canadians and Americans weren't really nationalist but rather practiced mapism. We all believe we belong to the same country because we all have the same maps. But, as Levesque himself demonstrated, mapism isn't always enough to hold a country together.
In many countries - maybe most countries - unity is enforced through the barrel of a gun. Once upon a time this was true of America too. But these days, what do the Yanks use to promote unity? A big, kitschy parade!
Behold the Rose Bowl Parade and wonder. Cities, companies and other organizations invest millions to get those outrageous floats into the parade. But never mind that. The real nationalist strength of the parade is in the marching bands, those 200-300 member high school bands that the Yanks seem to do so well.
You have all these bands from all over the country that compete for the chance to get into the parade. The lucky ones then become completely consumed in preparation. For over a year in advance, the students, their schools, their parents, the whole community must focus relentlessly on rehearsals, fundraising and travel plans.
The patriotic programming goes even further once these impressionable teens get to the parade. Imagine how much partying goes on. For a couple of super-intense days, these kids get to encounter thousands of their peers from all over the country. How many of these band nerds get drunk or get laid for the first time at the parade? After just a couple of days like that, how could any of these ambitious young people ever feel any doubt about America or its grand purpose in the world?
Magnificent! And how effective. Thanks to this and other similar tools of soft-side unity propaganda, America hasn't had a serious separatist movement in over a century. How many other countries can say that? Are there any?
It's big and silly and garish, no doubt, but the world could learn a lot from the Rose Bowl Parade. If there were more parades like that and fewer Soviet/Chinese-style May Day parades, the world would be a better place, don't you think?
posted by Mentok @ 10:01 AM, ,