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Life’s Too Short to Wear Underwear You Don’t Love

I recently read that most adult males keep pairs of underwear for, on average, seven years.

When I look at the underwear in my drawers it’s hard to remember how long I’ve owned them. Unlike larger purchases like houses and cars, I don’t think most people — or at least I don’t — have a good frame of reference as to when any particular pair was purchased. They don’t change models each year.

I didn’t keep the receipt.

I’m pretty sure all the underwear I currently own I also owned in our previous house. Some of them I owned in the house before that, which we purchased in 1998. If that seven-year average is to be believed, there must be people out there who wear their underwear once and then throw them away.

About three months ago, Susan bought me a three-pack of Hanes boxers. According to the package, they contain advanced wicking technology designed to keep my butt cooler and less sweaty. The thought of my underwear containing advanced technology of any sort entertains me. Somewhere at work we have an infrared thermometer gun and I have considered setting up a controlled comparison to see if the latest breakthrough in wicking technology is measurable.

My weakness is that I frequently choose quantity over quality. I swore that after I added three new pairs of underwear to my wardrobe, I would get rid of the three oldest ones. It’s not tough to tell which are the oldest. They’re literally falling apart. But I didn’t throw them away, because 13 pairs are better than 10, even if you don’t wear most of them.

Last week while Susan was out of town I went online in search of more underwear. I made a pact with myself — if I bought enough of them, I would get rid of the old ones. After an hour of searching online, I found the exact same ones Susan had purchased. It was easy to confirm they were the same ones Susan had purchased. They’re black, they’re Hayes, and they come with advanced wicking technology.

They’re also roughly $17 per 3/pack. I ordered three packs of three packs. Nine new pair of underwear, for close to $50. At first that sounded ridiculous, but then I did the math. If I keep each pair for seven years, they’ll cost me $0.0023 per day. Based on past history, I’m liable to keep them even longer.

I pulled all the old ones out of my drawer and intended to throw them away, but I didn’t. Instead I put them on the bed in a pile. I considered donating them to a thrift store, but I can’t imagine anyone would want them. I don’t want them, and I own them! When Susan came home from her trip, she put them back in the laundry. As they come through this time, I’ll toss them out.

I must say, the new pairs of underwear is very enjoyable. I own the only black boxers in the house, so spotting them as they come through the laundry is very simple. They don’t have any holes in them that didn’t come from the manufacturer, so that’s nice.

Life’s too short to wear underwear you don’t love.

Next month, I’m going to treat myself to some new socks.

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A Guide to (Many) NES Alternatives

Big Lots is already consolidating their Halloween shelves to make room for incoming Christmas-themed items. (Yes, in September.) One hot item for retrogamers this holiday season will be Nintendo’s official NES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that comes with 30 games built-in and goes on sale on November 11, 2016.. If the last video game system you owned was an original NES, you may not be familiar with all the ways you can play those old NES games, which vary greatly in both quality and price.

In this post I’ll be discussing all of the methods I’m familiar with when it comes to playing old NES games: original hardware, emulation, Famiclones, FPGAs, plus a couple of systems that don’t fall into any of those categories. For many of you, you are excused — come back tomorrow!

ORIGINAL HARDWARE

Nintendo originally introduced the NES to North Americans in October of 1985. It was the holiday hit of the season, and if you are still reading, it’s possible you spent the following year (along with millions of other people) playing Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and other classic early Nintendo titles.

Millions of NES units have survived the test of time, and it is still possible to pick them up today in video game stores and on Craigslist. The one part most prone to fail are the internal pins where cartridges connect. If the cartridge doesn’t make a good connection, the screen will simply flash when the system is powered on. Replacement pins are available and sometimes they can be bent back into place, but just know if you are seeing these symptoms, the NES most likely needs some minor repair.

Additionally, the NES uses old school A/V (composite) video cables and only provides mono sound. The video signal looks great on old CRT (tube) televisions, but not so much on modern flat screen HDTVs. A later hardware revision solves the cartridge loading problem by moving the slot to the top, but only provides coax (cable) video output. Unfortunately, these “top loaders” are even more coveted by collectors, and the price reflects it.

Summary: While the original hardware provides a 100% accurate experience, expect to buy a few adapters to get this old system to connect to your modern television.

EMULATION

Emulators are programs that run on a computer (or tablet, or phone) that emulate the experience of playing old games. The key is “emulate” and not “simulate” — emulators are often very good if not great at emulating old games, however those looking for a pixel-perfect experience may find minor imperfections to squabble about.

The best thing about emulation is that it’s free. Emulators like FCEUX and NEStopia are free to download. Obtaining ROMs (software dumps of the original games) to play on the emulators is a gray area at best, although archives containing every known NES ROM are not difficult to find.

If emulation is free, why isn’t it the only (or preferred) solution? For starters, setting up most emulators takes more technical know-how than connecting a gaming system to a television. Some people prefer what I call the “living room experience” of inserting physical cartridges into a console and playing the games from their couch. You can simulate this experience by connecting a computer to your living room television. They even sell USB adapters that allow you to connect vintage NES controllers to your computer! These are obviously the exception to the norm. Most people play emulated NES games while sitting in from of their computer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the Raspberry Pi, a $35 mini-computer that does a tremendous job of playing NES games through emulation. With HDMI output adding a USB joystick, you can be up and running in no time by following any of the easy-to-follow installation guides available through Google.

Summary: Not the most authentic NES experience, but definitely the free’est.

FAMICLONES

In Japan, the NES was known as the Famicom (short for “family computer”). Any unofficial system that plays NES games is called a Famiclone. There are three major categories of Famiclones and literally hundreds of different clones on the market, all of which have different games, features, and quality. The three major categories of Famiclones include the “All-in-One,” the cartridge-based Famiclone, and the Multi-system Famiclone.

The “All-in-One” Famiclones do not include a cartridge slot. These were really popular in flea markets about five years ago, advertising “10,000 games in 1” (and sometimes more). According to Wikipedia there were a total of 713 licensed NES games (826 if you include unlicensed games), To get 10,000 games, these developers cheat in many ways; some of the “games” are simply levels from other games, some of them are games with the graphics modified, and in the cheapest of these units, the menu simply repeats after 100 or so games. The build quality on these all-in-one systems are often shoddy (at best) and the emulation quality isn’t much better. Kids who have never seen an original NES game in their life may still complain about the quality.

Summary: Toys for kids. Fun until they break, which will be soon.

Cartridge-based Famiclone systems allow gamers to use original NES cartridges, but run their emulation from what has been dubbed a “Nintendo on a Chip” (NOAC). The problem with these systems is that they are a dime a dozen, and quality (both build and emulation) varies greatly. The NEX (released in 2005 by Messiah) drew great ire from classic gamers when they learned it played most games pretty well and a few poorly or not at all. Famiclones have mostly been replaced by multi game system Famiclones.

Summary: Tough to know what you’re getting until you get it.

Multi-systems, like the RetroN 5, have largely replaced the original Famiclones. The RetroN 5 has 5 cartridge slots that allow it to accept not only NES but Super Nintendo (SNES), Sega Genesis, and all the Gameboy (original, Color, and Advance) cartridges. The RetroN 5 includes HDMI video, supports cheat codes, and allows vintage controllers to be used. All of these features don’t come cheap, as the RetroN 5 currently sells for $180 on Amazon. It’s a little tough to categorize the RetroN 5 as technically under the hood it’s running an Android emulator, but without removing the case, it’s hard to tell. The older model (RetroN 3) along with other competitors like the Super Retro Trio and FC3 are also still available and cost much less. These systems are all better than generic Famiclones (and leaps and bounds beyond those cheap All-in-One alternatives), but they’re definitely not perfect.

Summary: The best of the Famiclones. It’s still emulation, but it’s better than older models.

FPGA

FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, and explaining how it’s different from emulation (and why that’s important) can be difficult. Here’s how someone explained it to me, and while it’s not 100% technically accurate, it helps clarify the difference.

Pretend the original NES was an abacus — one of those ancient devices that allowed you to perform math by sliding beads back and forth on a series of rails. An emulator would be like a series of memorized math facts — let’s say the single-digital multiplication table. We know 3×4 is 12 and 6×9 is 54 because we memorized those answers. Note that we don’t need any understanding of multiplication properties to provide these answers; we simply memorized them. If someone asks us what 12×13 is, we don’t know, because that wasn’t on our memorized chart. An FPGA is a chip that has been reprogrammed to perform like an abacus. It doesn’t just provide math facts it has memorized. Because it is acting as an abacus, it acts exactly how an abacus does.

If this doesn’t sound cheap, you’re right. My MiST FPGA computer cost roughly $250 (US). The cool thing about it is it can be programmed with cores to simulate lots of different 8-bit and 16-bit systems. It is also very accurate in the way it does this. The bad thing is, emulators are also pretty good at doing the same thing, and they are free. Lengthy, vitriolic arguments have taken place over which solution is better, and why.

For $250 you can do what I did; purchase a MiST FPGA and play all those old NES games in pure VGA glory. But wait; there’s more.

Last week, RetroUSB announced their all new AVS, an FPGA-based NES console. With FPGA guts, the company is promising 100% compatibility and accuracy. The HDMI connector outputs 720p video (perfect for modern televisions) and it uses the original NES controllers. It uses vintage NES cartridges, supports Game Genie and Pro Action Replay cheat codes, can simulate scan lines, and even connects to some sort of proprietary online scoreboard for tracking high scores. MSRP is $185, cheaper than a MiST and, is probably the best modern hardware implementation of an NES we’re likely to see (at least this week).

Summary: That person in your life who has a hundred NES cartridges and balks at watching movies on a non-HD television will own one of these.

MISCELLANEOUS

For completion’s sake I’ll mention the Analogue NT, a yet-to-be released NES console that combines original vintage NES chips with a new case, multiple video outputs, and some options for configuring and tweaking games. I won’t go into details because, with HDMI output, this unit will cost more than $600 including shipping.

Summary: A unique and expensive solution to playing NES games that nobody you know will ever own.

Finally, to bring things around full circle, there’s Nintendo’s own addition to this already huge market: the NES Classic Edition. Unlike most of the consoles mentioned above, the NES Classic Edition does not use cartridges, nor can it be expanded. It comes with 30 built-in games. The final list of games to be included is:

Balloon Fight, Bubble Bobble, Castlevania 1 and 2, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Double Dragon II: The Revenge, Dr. Mario, Excitebike, Final Fantasy, Galaga, Ghosts’N Goblins, Gradius, Ice Climber, Kid Icarus, Kirby’s Adventure, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Pac-Man, Punch-Out!!, StarTropics, Super C, Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Tecmo Bowl, The Legend of Zelda, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Many of these games are classics. If these are the only 30 games you want to play, you’re in luck! If there’s one NES game you want to play that’s not on this list, you’re out of luck.

Summary: Great solution for casual NES fans who want a taste of nostalgia.

SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

I’ve presented a ton of options, solutions and choices in this article for playing NES games. Which one is right for you?

– Emulation ($0): If you’re technically minded and haven’t done so already, give emulation a chance. Along with the NES, almost every 32-bit and earlier video game console (and computer) has been emulated. A $35 Raspberry Pi combined with a USB joystick and an afternoon’s worth of configuration is worth the investment!

– NES Classic Edition ($59.95): If you’re looking for a living room solution that plays some common NES games and you don’t own any NES cartridges (nor do you plan on buying any), the NES Classic Edition would be a nice solution, especially for those with little kids.

– RetroUSB AVS ($185): If you’re looking for a modern replacement for the original NES, based on what I have read, I believe this is the best solution. Keep in mind that $185 doesn’t include any game cartridges, but if you’re willing to drop almost $200 on one of these, I suspect you may already own some.

– RetroN 5 ($180): Inside this is running an Android emulator, so as far as quality goes you would get the same from a $35 Raspberry Pi. What you do get is the ability to use vintage joysticks and vintage cartridges. If I were only interested in playing NES games I would go with the RetroUSB AVS listed above; if I also wanted to play Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Gameboy games and had limited space to dedicated to consoles in my game room, I’d consider the RetroN 5.

– Original NES ($100+): Prices go up around the holidays, and based on what I’ve seen on my local Craigslist, are already beginning to do so. An original NES won’t look great on a modern flatscreen television, and may require some minor repairs if someone hasn’t already refurbished it. If you’re not dying to own an original piece of history, there are better options.

– Cheap Famiclones ($20-?): You get what you pay for.
– Analogue NT ($500-$600): I like the $400-cheaper Retro AVS better.

Whatever solution you pick, I hope your children (or you) look like this.

I AM THE SOLDERING KING

In high school, Jeff was my only classmate who knew how to solder. What little I know today about soldering I learned from looking over his shoulder, and talking to my dad, who used to do electronic repair in the Air Force.

I cut my soldering teeth while attaching modchips to PlayStations back in the late 90s. The earliest modchips only required four wires to be soldered to the console’s motherboard, and the contact points were large and isolated from other components. I can’t imagine anything easier to work on. By the time the PlayStation 2 was released, modchips required 30 wires to be soldered to teeny tiny spots all over the place, and I was out.

I have two or three soldering irons out in the garage and they are all junk. The handle on one is broken. The other one takes ten minutes to warm up. I haven’t done much soldering lately so it hasn’t been an issue, but recently I’ve had a couple of projects pop up that needed some work done. My friend Delf graciously lent a hand repairing my MiST when it needed some solder work, but I really want to be able to fix some of these things on my own in the future, so for my birthday this year, I asked for a small soldering station. I got one.

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There are probably better ones out there, but I know for a fact there are worse ones because I own them. This soldering station heats up in seconds and has everything I need.

The first project I’ve had sitting around for years is this joystick.

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This Kraft joystick is the one I used on my Commodore 64 for almost a decade back in the 1980s. I don’t mean I used one like this one, I mean this is the one I used. Much to my dismay, years ago the “up” direction quit working. I assumed (correctly) that one of the wires inside had broken or fallen off. This seemed like a simple project and a good way to test out the new soldering iron.

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After removing two screws, I confirmed what I had suspected. That little wire I’m holding is supposed to connect to that contact point. As you can see… it doesn’t.

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I didn’t know what temperature to use so, like our toaster, I just pressed the middle setting and hoped for the best. The middle setting turned out to be 680 degrees, and the soldering iron took only a few seconds to warm up to that temperature. There was enough solder left on the contact that all I had to do was heat it up and reconnect the wire.

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Success! A quick round of Impossible Mission confirmed that the joystick works just as good as it used to.

Now, what else needs repairing around here…

Awkward Questions from the Geneticist

“Let me ask you an odd question. Is there any chance your parents are blood relatives?”

Last week, I visited the Dean McGee Eye Institute again, this time to meet with a geneticist. I don’t claim to know anything about genetic testing or genetics in general (other than the fact that teachers would always get upset with me when we filled out those charts in school showing dominant and recessive genes and mine had one brown eye and one green eye…), but here’s what I understand.

There’s currently no treatment for Stargardt’s Disease, but by doing genetic testing now, I gain three things. First, if the test works, I may discover which gene of mine is mutated. If they ever have a clinical trial for Stargardt’s patients, I would have to know which of my genes are mutated. Right now they know of fifteen different genes related to Stargardt’s, so it could be any of them. Because the test takes months to perform, by getting it done now, I would at least be ahead of the pack. Second, because my variation of Stargardt’s Disease (only affecting one eye… for now!) is apparently very rare, my genetic mutations would be added to the national database for other testers to compare against.

And, third, it gives me something geeky to blog about.

One concern the doctor had was that because my eyes are different colors, I have two different genetic codes. By taking a blood sample for testing, it’s possible that they could only get one kind of code (the good eye) or the other kind (the bad one). Hopefully, both kinds will show up on the test.

So, after a brief session with the geneticist in which I was asked lots of questions (including the one above about the potential that my parents were blood relatives) I was sent over to OU Children’s Hospital to have blood taken. Apparently some gene research can be done with a cheek swab, but this one requires blood. It can also be done “with a biopsy sample from the affected area,” which sounds like fun to no one involved.

The geneticist has to fill out an application by hand and manually request a test for me. Once the sample is mailed off it will take months to get any information back, so if this topic bores you to death, good news!

I have read that some people have to pay as much as $5,000 out of pocket for this test and the doctor said multiple tests have run people $10k. Our insurance only requires a $100 payment.

Now all there is to do is wait for the results and see! (That’s a vision joke.)

Star Wednesday: Star Wars Chess

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The first electronic version of Chess I ever saw was Video Chess, released for the Atari 2600 in 1979. It still amazes me that the code to Video Chess program was 4 kilobytes in size — that’s less characters than this post contains, and that includes all the graphics and eight difficulty levels contained within the cartridge. On the easiest setting, the console was limited to ten seconds of thinking between moves. On the most difficult level, the Atari could spend up to ten hours between moves. You could almost smell the smoke at that point.

As computers began invading people’s homes in the 1980s, hundreds of programmers tried their hand at creating electronic versions of classic games such as checkers, backgammon, and chess. As computers gained speed and memory, chess programs also became better, as their ability to weigh moves and their outcomes (to “think” — or at least simulate it) could be processed more quickly.

Sargon, originally released in 1979 for the TRS-80 and quickly ported to the Apple II, set the new standard for computers by playing a quick and challenging game of Chess. The next groundbreaking computer-based Chess game was Chessmaster 2000, released in 1986 by Software Toolworks.

As computer graphics improved, so did the graphics of chess programs. The first major breakthrough was Battle Chess. For the first time, chess pieces came alive and actually battled one another for position. The rules of chess remained the same (unlike games like Archon, in which players took control of pieces and physically battled for position), but new animations, sound and music introduced the world to what I refer to as “animated chess.”

Battle Chess inspired many impersonators (including MicroProse’s hilarious National Lampoon’s Chess Maniac 5 Billion and 1), and many companies learned that they could add updated graphics and sound to their already developed chess engine to effectively “reskin” their engine and create a new game.

All of that brings us to The Software Toolworks’ Star Wars Chess.

Under the hood, Star Wars Chess runs on the Chessmaster 3000 engine. The only difference between this game and that one is the Star Wars “skin” that has been applied.

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Although the front of the box says “486 Recommended,” the minimum system requirements were a 386/33 PC with 1 Megabyte of RAM, DOS 5.0, VGA, and 40 Megabytes of hard drive space. A mouse and sound card are highly recommended. The version I purchased came with 8 installation floppy disks (later versions were released on CD). I purchased the DOS version. It was re-released for Windows 3.x, with requirements boosted to 4MB of memory and SVGA, and it also appeared on the Sega CD. The back of the box boasts that Star Wars Chess “is the largest animated chess program ever,” with “over 5,000 frames of pain stakingly [sic] hand drawn cel animation” and “72 unique capture animations, twice the competition’s.”

The game’s graphics are undeniably Star Wars. As expected, the game pits members of the Rebellion against the evil Empire. One problem Star Wars Chess shares with all other chess games with custom pieces suffers from is that once the pieces begin to move about the board, you’ll spend lots of time trying to remember which character relates to which traditional chess piece. The easiest to forget is Darth Vader, who serves as the dark side’s Queen, but others, such as Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Tusken Raiders and Yoda, are easy to confuse, too.

The game’s audio also contains digitized sound and audio tracks from the movies — a big deal back then. As different pieces move, recognizable snippets from the film’s soundtrack play and add to the overall Star Wars theme.

The charm comes in the game’s hand drawn animation. Various characters from the Star Wars universe come alive as they shuffle, roll, and march around the board. When one piece takes another (again, following the traditional rules of chess), gamers are treated to an animated sequence. Some of them become repetitive quickly. Each time a Stormtrooper (dark pawn) takes R2-D2 (light pawn), an animation lasting between 15-20 seconds is displayed, and that happens a lot. Fortunately, most of the other animations are 5-10 seconds in length and don’t happen quite so frequently. And because there are so many possible combinations due to the fact that there different pieces for each side, it’s possible it will take you several games to see them all.

My copy of Star Wars Chess still has its original price tag on the bottom of the box of $14.97. The game was originally released in 1993, and during the time I worked at Best Buy (1994-1995) I purchased a lot of discount bargain bin software titles from both there and (our competitor and neighbor) CompUSA. It’s possible I didn’t pay the full $14.97 price, although it still would have been a good bargain; the game originally retailed for $69.99.

By the early-to-mid 90s, for many Star Wars collectors, it felt like the days of buying, collecting, and displaying toys were over (if only we knew!). It was around this time that I began expanding my interests to Star Wars books and games. Unlike toys, which often remain unopened and go straight to display shelves, I opened and played Star Wars Chess many times. Again, the graphics and sounds are movie-authentic and fun, but by recycling the Chessmaster 3000 chess engine, Software Toolworks managed to deliver a competent chess-playing game, too.

A New Day

After my annual eye checkup at the Dean McGee Eye Institute last week (nothing’s changed), my doctor recommended I see a geneticist for further testing. Because Stargardt’s Disease is just one of many similar vision conditions, they can’t definitively diagnose it without performing genetic testing. Part of me thinks that because there’s no cure or treatment there’s not much point in having the test performed, but if or when a treatment is ever developed, a person would need to have already had genetic testing performed. In terms of how this may eventually help my prognosis, I put it up there with having my head cryogenically frozen on the slim chance that they can cure Stargardt’s Disease in the future. (Hopefully the same surgeon will have pity and reattach my noggin to a slimmer donor as well.)

As we were preparing to leave I checked my phone and found a voice message informing me that the geneticist rescheduled for next week. This gave us a little free time before our next planned stop: Gage’s bell ringing ceremony.

Our very good friends Tim and Dawn have kids close in age to our own. Three years ago, their 10-year-old son, Gage, was diagnosed with leukemia. The sadness I felt was, I’m sure, one-millionth the amount of sadness they felt, and I felt a ton. Tim and Dawn, along with Dawn’s mom, Carol, are some of the nicest people we know. We’ve known the three of them for 20 years now. We even went on vacation to Las Vegas a few years ago with Tim and Dawn. When I was younger, I imagined my friends and I having kids the same age and growing up as friends, too. This is something I didn’t imagine.

Between chemo and blood transfusions and everything else I lost track of how many times Gage visited the hospital over the past three years. It’s more times than everybody in my family has gone in their lives, combined. For a while it seemed like Gage was getting sicker and sicker, and then he started getting better and better. His hair fell out, and then it came back — longer, this time. A couple of years ago when I saw him, no one was allowed to touch him without thoroughly washing their hands first. Today, he seems as normal as any other rascally kid.

Today was Gage’s bell ringing ceremony. After three long years (almost a third of his life), the doctors say his cancer is in full remission and he has survived both the cancer and the treatment. With all of his classmates, family, and local friends gathered, Gage grabbed the rope and rang the bell three times, symbolizing both an end and a beginning.

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The ceremony took place on the 10th floor of OU Children’s Health Center. Ten feet from where I stood was another small child being treated for cancer. As people gathered the kid put on his headphones to drown out the noise and began playing a game on his phone. When I mentioned I felt bad for disturbing this child, I was informed that the bell ringing ceremony is actually good for them — a sign of success, a ringing of hope.

Gage hugged and high-fived everyone as we made our way downstairs to share some cookies before heading out our next doctor’s appointment. Susan took a picture of Gage and Mason together and I’ll tell you what, if the worst thing that ever happens in our family is that I go blind in one eye, I’ll never complain again.

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Back to School

Last Thursday, Mason and Morgan went back to school. Today, it was my turn.

This semester I’ll be taking three graduate classes: Commercial Nonfiction, Graduate Tutorial in Writing, and Epublishing, for a total of eight credit hours. I suppose it’s not very cool to admit that I am looking forward to each of these classes. (I’m okay with that.)

In Commercial Nonfiction Book, we’ll be going through the process of planning, writing, pitching and marketing a nonfiction book. I know there are things I could have done to make Commodork and Invading Spaces better, and with other nonfiction books in the hopper, I am greatly looking forward to gleaning useful information from this class.

Epublishing takes place over three days and is only one credit hour, but I have no doubt that this class will help me with future projects.

Finally, there’s Graduate Tutorial in Writing. This “class” is actually a weekly one-on-one session with a professor in the professional writing program who has published roughly 40 novels! During our sessions my professor will review submitted writing samples, critique them, and help me with story plotting. My goal for this class is to produce a marketable novel by the end of the semester. I have a great idea for a novel I’ve been massaging over the summer, and I’m really looking forward to turning it into a book.

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Beginning yesterday, I changed my work hours to 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I’m not a huge fan of early mornings, but it works well with my afternoon school schedule. I’ve taken afternoon naps the past two days (a habit I need to break) and still find my way to bed by 10 p.m., unusually early for me. Early mornings wear me out.

It took me 45 minutes to drive to Norman today from work and 90 minutes to get home. For years I’ve heard that the city of Norman loves to tear up every road surrounding the University of Oklahoma and schedules this construction as inconveniently as possible, but for the third semester in a row, I’ve had the opportunity to experience it first hand. This semester the city has torn up both the Lindsey exit from I-35 and the same street closer to the school. I’ve found alternate routes, but city streets combined with school traffic and 5 o’clock madness makes for a long drive home. It’s time to work out a different route and load my phone up with new podcasts.

After this semester I’ll have 17 credit hours left — three semesters, tops. But the great thing about this program is, I’m learning things in every class, every day, that are making me a better writer. I won’t be waiting three semesters to start applying these lessons. I’ve already started, in fact.

21 and 43

Last Friday, my wife and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. Yesterday, I turned 43-years-old.

For our anniversary, Susan and I took a few hours off from work and drove out to Norman to run a couple of last minute errands before the spring semester begins. While in Norman I picked up my parking pass, and gave Susan a tour of every part of the OU campus I am familiar with: the Gaylord Building, and the parking garage that sits across from it. Before we left, we took a selfie from the top of the parking garage, with some of the campus (and Norman, beyond that) behind us.

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On Saturday Susan asked me what kind of birthday cake I wanted and jokingly I told her a McDonald’s cake like the ones we used to have at birthday parties when we were kids. Susan made a few calls and it turns out if you know the right people at the right McDonald’s, they will still sell you one. The cake was as dry and crumbly as I remembered. I loved it!

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If you recall, earlier this month Susan and I cut up all my old t-shirts I’ve been saving for 20 years and mailed them off to have them turned into a quilt. The quilt arrived, and looks magnificent! It’s even better than I had imagined. The top feels smooth (I had imagined there would be rough borders in between the shirts for some reason) and the bottom is fuzzy and warm. Second only to my sailboat quilt (a quilt my grandma made for me when I was tiny), this is my new favorite quilt! I can’t wait to sleep under the likes of Slayer, Metallica, and Spam!

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Sunday night my mom and her husband took my family and I out to a Japanese steak house, and Monday my dad took Susan and I out to Outback Steakhouse for lunch. My tummy is so very full of steak and sushi and my heart is full of joy. I had a great birthday this year — thanks, everyone!

Goodbye, Rio Olympics!

Yesterday over dinner my mother asked me how much of the 2016 Rio Olympics I had watched over the past two weeks. My response? “Every minute of them.”

Obviously, that wasn’t entirely possible. Over the past two weeks there have been times when Olympic events were being broadcast on up to four different cable channels. With events on two channels and that “last channel watched” button on my remote control, I was able to flip back and forth and keep up. When they were broadcasting events on three channels simultaneously, I had to pick and choose — and when there were four going, forget about it. Fortunately they seem to have dedicated one channel to golf coverage, so I was able to rule that out entirely. Still, that left me with two and sometimes three channels of nonstop Olympic coverage.

The older I get, the more I enjoy the Olympics. I love the spirit of competition and the patriotism on display, and not just from our country’s participants. I always enjoy the back stories behind the competitors. Vanderlei de Lima, the marathon runner who was tackled by a protester during a marathon in 2004 (and still managed to win the bronze medal), lit the Olympic cauldron this year. And then there was David Rudisha, the runner from Kenya who took the spirit of the Olympics back home and convinced the fellow members of his Maasai tribe that running, and not killing lions, was a better way to show who was the strongest member of the tribe (and best-qualified suitor). In my opinion, there weren’t nearly enough of these features.

When I think of the Summer Olympics I think of people running and people swimming, but I forget about all the other fantastic events. For two weeks I watched the best in the world compete in volleyball, archery, tennis, BMX racing, ping-pong, cycling, and even badminton.

Four years is enough time for me to forget almost anything, but within a few days of the opening ceremonies I had regained my crown as our home’s self-appointed expert Olympic judge. On every event. I frequently shouted “tenth of a point!” any time a gymnast faltered on the balance beam, and was able to instantly determine the number of degrees off center every single Olympic diver entered the water. I called every out-of-bounds volley correctly, and was able to quickly determine who scored first in each fencing match. If the Olympic committee doesn’t select me to be a head judge in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, or at least to fire the starting gun before the running events — or every event, for that matter — I will be quite surprised.

Like every great adventure there were tales of victory and defeat, exhilaration and heartbreak. When 21-year-old French runner Wilhem Belocian was disqualified for a false start in the men’s 110m, he collapsed to the field in tears, devastated. It was Belocian’s first trip to the Olympics, and he was disqualified from his only race. It was hard to watch, even from thousands of miles away.

I can’t remember how old I was when I learned that not all other countries love America and Americans, but after some of the behavior that a few of our athletes displayed over the past two weeks, it’s easy to see why. The first two stories I read about our Olympic basketball team were US Olympic Basketball Team to Stay on Cruise Ship, followed by US Basketball Players leave Opening Ceremonies, Visit Local Brothel (on “accident”). For a few days it looked like American gymnast Gabby Douglas was going to be labeled the biggest spoiled brat of the Olympics as she pouted, didn’t cheer on her teammates, and didn’t salute the flag during the award ceremonies. Incredulously, Ryan Lochte’s ugly display of drunken frat boy antics while he was representing our country in the Olympics managed to upstage her. (Earlier today, both Speedo and Ralph Lauren broke sponsorship ties with Lochte.)

While I will remember those moments, I refuse to let them define my memories of the 2016 Olympics. When I remember them, I want to remember Michael Phelps’ and Katie Ledecky’s amazing performances in the water. I’ll remember watching Usain Bolt’s last three races, and watching him pull ahead from his competitors as if they were standing still. I’ll remember Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, standing hand in hand with their arms raised in victory after securing gold and silver medals. I’ll remember 20-year-old Simone Manuel, the first American black female swimmer to win medal in the Olympics. And I’ll remember Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino, the runners who collided mid-race and helped one another to the finish line. I’ll remember for every dummy who only thinks of themselves and the gold, there are many others that not only remember the spirit of the Olympic Games, but demonstrate them for the world to see. And that’s pretty cool.

(Okay, sure — I’ll also remember the green water.)

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And now, I’m off to badminton class. See you in 2020, Toyko!

Star Wednesday: Kenny Baker’s Autograph

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I don’t own many autographed items. I have one Atari 2600 cartridge signed by the programmer (Yars’ Revenge, by Howard Scott Warshaw), a show brochure I had autographed by David Copperfield in the mid-1980s, and three books signed by their respective authors: hacker Kevin Mitnick, magicians Penn and Teller, and my writing professor, Deborah Chester.

The only other autographs that I have belong to people who appeared in Star Wars films. I have five action figures autographed by the people who played them in the films: David Prowse (Darth Vader), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), and Kenny Baker (R2-D2).

The one thing all of these actors have in common is that they are primarily known for playing characters that wear masks. Several of them have cameos and appear as other characters within the films without their masks on (see Anthony Daniels below as Dannl Faytonni, who appeared on screen for just a few seconds in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones).

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For some, however, it was easier to find them unmasked outside the Star Wars universe. When Darth Vader was finally unmasked at the end of Return of the Jedi, it wasn’t David Prowse but rather Sebastian Shaw’s face that appeared. Shaw,not Prowse, also played Anakin Skywalker’s ghost at the end of the unedited original film. It wasn’t until I saw Clockwork Orange that I got my first glimpse of David Prowse acting without his mask and cape on (he plays the bodybuilding bodyguard that appears in the film).

When I was little I thought R2-D2 and C-3P0 were real robots, but it didn’t take long to figure out that C-3P0 — being the same shape and size as an average adult human — probably had a person inside that metal costume. But it didn’t dawn on me for years that there was a little person crouched down inside R2-D2 as well. I owned a remote controlled car as a kid and always assumed that R2-D2 was remote controlled, too. Over the years they’ve experimented with CGI versions and robotic versions of the droid, but looking back, you can see that the man inside that little blue and white astromech droid was actually performing.

It wasn’t until 1981’s Time Bandits that I got to see Kenny Baker actually perform without a silver dome covering his head. Here he is on the far left, standing proudly with a colander on his head… which, now that I think about it, looks a lot like a silver dome covering his head.

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In Flash Gordon and The Elephant Man, Kenny Baker simply played characters named “Dwarf,” but in Time Bandits, he was Fidgit, one of the bandits avoiding both the Supreme Being and evil incarnate as they traveled through time, robbing the rich to feed themselves.

From the moment I saw Kenny Baker in Time Bandits, I always thought of him every time I saw R2-D2 rolling around. I have no idea if he was cramped inside the droid’s body or how much he could see through the costume, but surely rolling around in the desert and on hot sets wasn’t comfortable.

You’re not likely to run into Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher at a run-of-the-mill sci-fi convention, but that’s exactly what brought Kenny Baker to Oklahoma City back in June of 2001: the Sci-Fi Expo and Toy Show.

I think I already had my C-3P0 card signed prior to meeting Baker, so it seemed like the thing to do would be to stick with signed figures rather than 8×10 glossies or posters. I don’t recall what (if anything) the two of us said to one another as he signed my action figure. There were a lot of people in line in front of me and even more behind me. What I do remember is that he smiled, and was kind.

Kenny Baker passed away this past weekend, just a couple of weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. He is the second main cast member to pass away, following Sir Alec “Obi-Wan Kenobi” Guinness who passed away in 2000 at the age of 86.

Sometimes when watching films we see characters and sometimes we see the actors who portray them. It’s hard to watch Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or O.J. Simpson in The Naked Gun and not think about their real life troubles. Even though we can’t see his face when R2’s dome spins or he emits an excited series of beeps and boops, I plan to make a point to think about Kenny Baker each time I see R2-D2 from now on, and I’ll keep this autographed figure hanging on the wall to remind me of him, too.