"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare." -Mark Twain
Welcome to a new feature here at RobOHara.com I’m calling “Star Wars Wednesday,” in which I talk about a Star Wars item from my personal collection each Wednesday. (Okay, so the column title isn’t going to win any awards for originality…)
This week’s featured items are a pair of The Empire Strikes Back mugs, released by Deka in 1980. Deka released a series of plastic mugs and breakfast bowls for all three Star Wars films. Four different mugs were released for Empire: one with R2-D2, C-3P0 and Chewbacca; one with Yoda; one with Boba Fett and Darth Vader, and this one featuring Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. A cereal bowl featuring several characters from the film was also produced. Deka also released cups and bowls for Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, many of which can be seen on this seller’s page.
As you can see (specifically in Leia’s face on the top photo), the mugs often faded and changed colors after repeated washings. These are the original mugs I had as a kid and they definitely held their share of chocolate milk!
Star Wars wasn’t Deka’s only line of plastic mugs; they also produced mugs and cups for Strawberry Shortcake, the Smurfs, The Planet fo the Apes, Care Bears, the GoBots, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, Pac-Man, E.T., Popeye, Punky Brewster, the Muppets, and even for the 1976 remake of King Kong! If kids loved it, chances were Deka had a mug available for it.
While it appears their website is no longer available, the earliest trademark for Deka Plastics, Inc of Elizabeth, NJ, I could find was in 1960, and the last one I could find was in 1992. If you’re interested, you can still find tons of these mugs and cups for sale cheap on Etsy and eBay.
Posted at 6:00 am by Rob in Main
Less than two weeks ago I had never watched a Harry Potter film. I wish I had a legitimate excuse for that. I’m not offended by movies about magic, nor to I dislike mystical, fantasy movies. The first film in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released less than a month before Mason was born in 2001 and Susan and I were pretty busy. Soon the second movie was released and I couldn’t watch that one before I watched the first one, and then it seems like I turned around and there were eight films and I gave up on watching them.
If anything at all turned me off of the films it was the common statement that the films were “this generation’s Star Wars.” My generation’s Star Wars IS Star Wars, thank you very much!
As a “40-something” I don’t talk to a lot of “20-somethings,” but I recently learned if you want to talk to “20-somethings” about the art of writing fiction, you need to be able to speak the language of Harry Potter.
And so roughly two weeks ago I watched 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Saturday night I watched the final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2) and in between I watched all the others. With a background deeply rooted in Star Wars it was impossible for me to watch the films without noting similarities between the two. As I worked my way through the films I made jokes to myself about the adventures of Harry Skywalker and his friends Ron Solo and Princess Hermione Organa as they sought to do battle with the mystical Dark Lord Darth Voldemort using their magic light wands, with help from the wise elder Dumbledore Kenobi, the magical Yodobby, the ghosts of loved ones who have passed… and Warwick Davis.
— SPOILERS BELOW —
All kidding aside, I did enjoy the movies. The “chosen one” plot device is a common one (see: Star Wars, the Matrix, Ender’s Game, The Lord of the Rings, The Sword in the Stone, Conan, etc.), but there’s a reason it works as kids and adults alike like to wonder “what if…” Although the stars of the film were pretty young in the early films, as they aged I could tell they were going to have to deal with the love triangle between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. In Star Wars I learned that the hero (Luke) saves the day and the sidekick (Han) gets the girl, which is what I expected to happen in the end here as well.
Watching all the movies in such a short period of time allows you to not only appreciate them as individual films, but as a single piece of work as well. I liked how the series began and ended at Hogwart’s, with Harry’s adventure beginning and ending at the train station. By watching the films one after another it was obvious how far special effects advanced during the series’ ten year span. The computer animated snake in the first film was borderline atrocious, and by the last film we had not only animated snakes but entire CGI armies fighting one another. (For what it’s worth I’ve yet to feel any emotion while watching CGI armies fight, be it orcs or stormtroopers.)
Knowing almost nothing about the films I was genuinely shocked when a few of the characters died, although from a story perspective most of them were pretty predictable. I didn’t know that Snape was going to even have a story arc, but based on the ending of the sixth movie (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) it was obvious that Snape would either be killed or save the day (or, perhaps in a broader view, both). The most dangerous thing to the story was the introduction of time travel; once that Pandora’s Box has been opened it’s hard to close it, and makes viewers wonder why they didn’t use it continually for every single encounter.
The only real complaint I had with the films was the actors’ British accent. While I understand it was an intentional choice, it made it hard for me to make out a lot of the dialog. If I ever have more time to go back and revisit the films, I’ll do it with the subtitles on.
In response to everybody who’s about to suggest “the books are better,” I’m sure you’re right. The movies are what I had time for right now. If my queue gets low, I’ll add these to it.
I was a little disappointed by the very end of the series as I assumed Harry and his friends would be the next generation of professors working at Hogwart’s. I read somewhere that the main trio went on to work for the Ministry of Magic, but I didn’t get that from the film.
Last year while on vacation in California we visited the Warner Bros. studio tour and got to see their entire area of props from the Harry Potter films. You can view the Harry Potter items here, and (obviously) things like the giant spider, the fireplace full of letters and the hat Mason is wearing in the below picture make more sense now.
And now with words like muggles, death eaters and horcrux added to my vocabulary, I bid adieu to the chosen one and his magical friends and move on the other next thing!
Posted at 6:05 pm by Rob in Writing
Anyone who has ever written pseudo code using Microsoft Word and pasted it somewhere else knows the pain of the “smart quote,” those curly quotation marks that authors love and programmers hate. From experience I can tell you that WordPress hates them, or at least is inconsistent in the way it handles them. Even when they appear correctly within my blog, WordPress mucks them up when passing headlines off to Facebook and Twitter.
So far, the easiest way I’ve found to deal with smart quotes is to turn them off. I disabled them in the WordPress editor, and because I write so many blog drafts in Google Docs, I turned them off there too. For a long time, this has worked.
But now I’m back in school, writing short stories that require very a specific format. That includes paragraph tabs, spacing issues, and yes — smart quotes. After spending the past couple of weeks working on a short story, I cut the text from Google Docs and pasted it into Microsoft Word only to find a complete mess. I searched Google and found a few tricks to help me convert all the quotation marks, apostrophes, and dashes back into their “smart” counterparts, but it was still more work than I want to do every time I write a story. I love the portability that Google Docs affords me and hate the idea of writing things in a single Word file (I worked on my last short story via three different computers), but I hate having to reformat all my work even more.
What I wish is that Google Docs had a button that would allow you to “swap” between two different sets of settings. I don’t know if that’s possible or not. If that’s not possible, the next best thing would be some way to load and save settings — things like spacing and, yes, turning on and off smart quotes. The best solution I’ve found so far is creating two different documents, changing the settings to the way I want them, and then making a copy of that empty document and writing in that copy. Surely that’s not the best solution, is it?
Posted at 10:00 pm by Rob in Main
I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to the things I love. When I first discovered and subsequently fell in love with podcasting, I started a few podcasts and joined a few others until I was recording multiple shows a week. When I fall in love with television shows like Lost or Breaking Bad or Parks and Recreation, I’ll binge watch episode after episode and season after season until I’ve consumed the entire pie — quite possibly while consuming an entire pie. When I decided to collect arcade cabinets, I bought 30 of them. I’ve watched five Harry Potter films over the past seven days. It’s just who I am.
I recently re-enrolled in college. I’m only taking one class this semester: “Writing the Short Story,” a prerequisite required for starting the Masters of Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. Despite the fact that I’m only taking one class, the time invested is not inconsequential. Twice a week I leave my house at 6 a.m., drive for an hour to an off-campus parking lot, and catch a bus there that takes me to the campus. After arriving there I set up my laptop and work for two hours before attending class. After two hours of class I check my e-mail and voice mail before driving back to work. (Work has been extremely accommodating by allowing me to shift my work schedule around and still work 40 hours while attending this class.)
This of course does not include the time I’ve spent outside of class reading, writing, and, believe it or not, watching films. Over the past three and a half weeks I’ve watched a total of ten films: five recommended to us by our professor as examples of films with character-driven plots (mostly from the 1940s), and the five aforementioned Harry Potter films. The Potter films were not assigned to us, but they’ve been referred to so many times in class that I’m missing out on conversations about story plot and pacing. By next Tuesday, I expect I will have seen all eight films. In addition to film watching, I’ve started reading a collection of Agatha Christie’s short stories along with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (which has been referred to me dozens of times by my friends, readers, and listeners). I’m also listening to podcasts about writing (including #) during the four hours I spend driving to and from college each week.
The upside of obsession is that you get stuff done. I am getting stuff done. I am reading and writing more than I’ve done in the past couple of years. That’s great! The downside is that I’m starting to get poked by friends and fans and family wondering where I’ve been. So that’s where I’ve been. I’m here, just a little distracted at the minute by reading and writing and consuming media.
I’m on the fifth draft of my short story for class, getting ready to start on the sixth after the debates end tonight. I’ll have time to sleep when I’m dead. Until then… G’night, Harry.
Posted at 3:00 pm by Rob in Main
I can tell you everybody I knew who had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985: my neighbor Doug, my buddy Jason’s little brother Adam, my buddy Jeff’s aunt and uncle, and not long after that, Jeff’s family. At each one of those houses I remember playing Super Mario Bros.
I got my Commodore 64 in 1985, the best game playing home computer at the time. The Commodore 64 had great sound, great graphics, and many, many great games… but it didn’t have Super Mario Bros., something some of my Nintendo-owning friends reminded me of on more than one occasion.
Like all platform games, the goal of Super Mario Bros. is to move the player’s character — in this game, Mario or his brother Luigi — from the beginning of the level to the end of the level without getting him killed. There are a few ways to get killed: you can run into an enemy, fall through a pit, or get shot. Beating the first level isn’t that difficult and most people were able to master it pretty quickly.
Then you started finding the secrets.
While most of the pipes were simply part of the level’s structure, there were a few you could enter that led to secret rooms filled with coins! The mushrooms made you big! The flowers gave you the ability to shoot fireballs! 100 coins gave you an extra life!
Those weren’t even the good secrets. On the game’s second level, my neighbor showed me how you could trap a turtle and jump on him indefinitely, giving you hundreds of extra lives. There were hidden bricks; secrets, hidden within the levels that did magical things. Before long the game wasn’t about getting from the beginning of the level to the end at all — it was about finding all the little secrets hidden within. This was long before secrets spread at the speed of light across the internet — you either read them in a book or a magazine, learned them from a friend, or discovered them on your own.
Eventually, we Commodore owners did get our own Super Mario Bros. — kind of. In 1987 Rainbow Arts released The Great Giana Sisters (itself a close copy of Super Mario Bros.), which was soon modified to look like Super Mario Bros. As far as games go it was pretty good, but it wasn’t the Nintendo version.
There aren’t a lot of pack-in games that people have such fond memories of. Few people point to Combat or Pole Position II as their favorite games for the Atari 2600 or 7800 (respectively), but Super Mario Bros. was an instant classic — so much so that, 30 years later, here I am still writing about it. (Find someone who wrote 500 words about Pole Position II on its 30th anniversary, I dare ya.) Not only did it launch Nintendo into the stratosphere, but it created a long running series of games that continues today and turned Mario into one of the most iconic video game characters of all time. Nobody you know dressed up as Pole Position II for Halloween last year.
Not only did Super Mario Bros. add the words Goomba, Koopa Troopa, Piranha Plant and Hammer Brother to the vocabulary of children everywhere, but it permanently raised the bar of video games. No longer were we content with safely guiding characters from Point A to Point B. Not only did we want more out of our games; suddenly, we expected it.
Happy 30th birthday, Super Mario Bros. May you eat a thousand magic mushrooms and still be able to fit into your overalls.
Posted at 12:00 pm by Rob in Main
I’m a big believer in preventative maintenance on cars. I rarely do it, but I believe in it.
We paid off my 2006 Chevy Avalanche in 2009, so I’ve been driving a payment-free truck for six years. My Avalanche currently has 130,000 miles (which is amazing considering how many states it has visited) and I plan on driving a payment-free truck for many more years. Of course payment-free doesn’t mean cost-free. I drove right past the 100,000 mile tune up and scheduled both the 100,000 and 120,000 mile checkups at the same time. Back when I had one my truck payment was $500 a month, so my theory is that if I pay less than $500 in maintenance on any particular month, I’ve come out ahead.
Over the past week, Susan and I scheduled the following work to be performed on my truck: two routine maintenance checkups, an alignment, a windshield replacement, and a stereo upgrade. The maintenance and alignment were $900 combined. The windshield was $300. Coincidentally, immediately after those two things were performed, my rear window stopped rolling up or down (and would not stay closed). That was another $300. The icing on the cake was the stereo I purchased from Best Buy. Cost of the stereo in the store? $149. Total amount spent after having it installed? Roughly $450.
In the long run I came out ahead — we’re talking four months of car payments after not having made one for six years — but man does it hurt to spend that kind of money to (except for the stereo) just keep things running properly. I’m now driving the truck to Norman twice a week for school so hopefully this maintenance will keep things running. And now I can listen to podcasts on my Bluetooth-capable stereo during the commute.
Posted at 6:00 pm by Rob in Main
And, we’re back to blue. An errant php call to an apparently depreciated function (looks like they dropped the reference to e-links/blog roll) was causing WordPress to hang. After commenting out one line at a time 500 times, I finally found the offending line.
Long story short, after days of work, I finally have everything back to where we started. Good? Good.
Posted at 12:00 pm by Rob in Main
Things certainly look… orange.
With my old web server (running Windows Server 2003) beginning to show its age, I decided it was time for an upgrade. I built a new Windows Server 2012 virtual server (using Hyper-V instead of VMWare for the first time) and spent the past few days migrating my sites over. For WordPress sites this includes migrating databases, locking down permissions, and all kinds of boring tasks. Unfortunately I didn’t have a good way to test how things were working without doing a few quick “live” tests and so that’s what I did. After everything was moved over I found two three things weren’t working: my old WordPress theme for RobOHara.com,a bunch of custom webcode I had written, and my forum theme. Ugh.
I solved the forum problem by picking a different theme. I wasn’t deeply attached to the one I was using. Easy win.
The custom code problem was perplexing. I broke the golden rule of changing multiple variables all at once — a new operating system, a new version of PHP, a WordPress upgrade — so tracking down the problem was a pain in the ass. After an hour of troubleshooting and narrowing down where things were failing I discovered that some of my old code contained shortcuts beginning blocks of PHP code (I didn’t have the word “PHP” following the question mark). It worked on the old server and doesn’t work on the new server — not sure why, but once I nailed down what was failing, updating the code was simple.
I never did figure out why my old WordPress theme was failing — it simply displays the header and then hangs. I searched Google and found a thousand people having that problem with a thousand different solutions. As midnight approached I decided the simplest solution for the time being was to implement another theme (thus all the “orange”). I loved that old theme and may work more on getting it to work in the future, but either way we’re back up and running for the time being.
Posted at 8:10 am by Rob in Main
I got my first Lego set back in 1977 and things were different back then. Prior to 1978, most Lego sets didn’t come with many specialized pieces — mostly you got bricks, wheels, fences, arches, and little sloping pieces that were good for building ramps and roofs. Bricks came in black, white, red, yellow, and blue and you had green plates and trees and that was that.
In 1978 Lego released the Lego minifigure (aka the “minifig”). Before that we had weird bubble-headed people with interlocking pieces for arms and no body or legs (you had to build those yourself), and non-poseable figures that didn’t have printed faces. Everything changed with the release of the minifig. Suddenly instead of balloon-headed family members or generic townsfolk we had real people: soldiers, firemen, police officers, and my favorite figures, the spacemen.
Normally this is where you would expect me to launch into “old man” mode and talk about how things were before that, but not this time. These new little Lego people in their new little sets were fantastic. My favorite set at that time was the Yellow Castle, which came with yellow bricks (thus the name), a working drawbridge, and a whopping 14 medieval minifigs. At the same time, Lego was also releasing their new space line. Between the two, I was in Lego Heaven.
When you only have a few Legos you can store them in something small like a shoe box. Eventually I acquired so many that my mom gave me a square Tupperware container to put them in. I kept my Legos in that tub for a long time before I eventually needed a larger tub.
I don’t remember exactly when I quit playing with Lego blocks but it would have been around the time most other kids did. I wasn’t one of those kids that kept building things long after everyone else had moved on to other things. I built things, I played with with, and eventually I put them out in the garage.
Now one time when Mason was real young, like maybe three or four years old, I went to a garage and found a large tub of Lego bricks for sale. We’re talking about a ten gallon plastic tub full of Lego bricks — at current prices, well over a thousand dollars worth of blocks. The guy was asking $200 and ended up taking $100. By the time I combined those Lego bricks with the ones I already owned I had enough to fill a twenty gallon tub.
Shortly before Mason turned four, Lego Star Wars was released. Mason played with Lego bricks for a while but by the time he was old enough to use a game controller he was playing the electronic version.
We’ve pulled the tub of Lego bricks out once or twice for nostalgia’s sake (mine, not theirs), but for the most part they’ve been collecting dust. Over the past few weeks my friend Ben Langberg has been visiting the past by building some of those old classic space sets and posting pictures of them on Facebook.
Now one thing Ben does is he sorts his Lego bricks into different tubs by color. It’s something I always wanted to do but never had the time or motivation to do. Seeing all of Ben’s work on Facebook inspired me to drag the giant tub of bricks out of the closet, purchase some smaller tubs from Big Lots, and begin sorting.
I balanced the large tub of bricks on top of a milk crate in front of me, scattered the smaller empty tubs around, and started sorting. Over time the larger blocks work their way to the top while the little ones settle down toward the bottom, which makes sorting go quickly at first.
Despite what you think, you can’t hold that many Lego bricks in one hand. After about eight or nine I found that with each new block I picked up, another one fell back into the tub. I also discovered that throwing handfuls of Lego bricks into tubs is not the most accurate delivery system. Occasionally I would miss and occasionally I would forget which color I was holding, adding just a dash of yellow to the red tub.
I had no system in regards to which color to sort first. I simply leaned my head inside the tub and started picking for whichever color I saw the most of. After picking a handful or two of red bricks I’d shift to blue, and then yellow, and then white — again in no order whatsoever.
Over the past three days I’ve spent roughly six hours sorting Lego bricks. In the evenings or when idle I put on a podcast to listen to and then throw my head into the tub. Sticking with my original unit of measurement, of the twenty gallons of bricks I started with I’d say I’m down to two — however, these two may be the most time consuming of all to sort. They are the little bits, the tiny 1×1 blocks that have wormed their way to the bottom of the bucket and seemingly multiplied when I wasn’t looking. Hundreds and hundreds of them in every color, waiting to be touched. As the blocks continued to shrink the more my hands began to cramp as the dexterity required to pluck each little brick out of a sea of of blocks became more and more precise.
I don’t mean to make it sound like like sorting Lego blocks is brain surgery; on the contrary, it’s a pretty relaxing little exercise, one in which your mind can relax and wander and listen to things and really think. It’s very soothing.
When I’m all done I’m thinking about dumping them all back into the big tub and starting all over again.
Posted at 12:00 pm by Rob in Main
High speed internet gives me the ability to select and watch movies without having to put on pants. It offers more than that, of course — I use it to check my email, to browse the internet, and perform other online activities — but I did all of those things years ago when I had dial-up internet. I can rent movies from Red Box or Family Video, but those places require pants. If I were to draw a Venn Diagram of the two (“Things high speed internet allows me to do without putting on pants” and “Places to rent movies”), the overlap would be my living room.
When we purchased this house almost four years ago I called the cable company had the cable modem installed before we moved in. When I met the installer he asked me where I wanted the jack installed. I showed him a very specific spot; not “somewhere on this wall,” but “right here.” The man went into the attic alone and a few minutes later a drill bit poked through the wall nowhere near where we had agreed upon. Later when I asked the man why he had asked me in the first place where I wanted the jack installed, he laughed and then handed me the bill.
If high speed internet allows me to watch movies in my home, wireless internet allows me to watch them anywhere within my home. Unfortunately due to the location of my cable modem jack my wireless router sits in an upstairs bedroom, which is great if you happen to be watching movies in the upstairs linen closet or while in the bathroom, but not so great downstairs (which is where we spend the majority of our family time). Wireless internet still works downstairs mind you, and the difference in speed is hard to tell, but the little icon on my phone that shows four bars when I’m standing next to my wireless router only shows two bars when I’m downstairs. This can all be filed under First World Problems, but it really pisses me off.
I don’t know how to run wires in between the walls of a two story house. In our old house, it was easy — I just climbed up in the attic, drilled a hole, and fed some cable down in between the walls. In this house I can’t even access the attic above my living room. A friend of mine suggested I call the cable company and have them add another access port downstairs. Calling the cable company to have them put a new jack in the wall because they put the last jack in the wall in the wrong place seems counter intuitive.
This is where the TP-Link Wi-Fi Range Extender comes in.
The TP-Link is a network-expanding device that comes with two modules. The first module gets plugged in to your wireless router. The second module gets connected to any other power outlet in your home. This somehow allows network traffic to traverse across the electrical wiring inside your walls. As a kid I always wondered how aspirin knew where to go in your body to stop the pain; apparently it uses the same method of traversal as the TP-Link. It sounds a little like black magic, and a lot like “too good to be true.” (Spoiler alert…)
As we all remember from grade school, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In the world of networking, this translates to a single network cable. The most efficient path between two devices is a single network cable. The TP-Link is almost like the opposite of that, a device that blasts network traffic into the electrical wiring of your home. It doesn’t sound terribly efficient and based on my short experience with the device, it isn’t. The idea reminds me of those old network hubs that broadcast traffic to every single port, except in this instance the hub is your entire house.
The TP-Link comes with two modules, a master and a slave. Both devices need to be plugged into wall sockets (and not extension cords or power strips), and the master has to physically connect to your router. In my house, that meant plugging the one half of the TP-Link to my wireless router upstairs, and the other half downstairs in the living room. The second module offers both wired and wireless connections. With the second module installed in the outlet next to my downstairs television I planned on using a short ethernet cable to connect the device to my television, allowing me to stream movies across the network. The wireless signal in the downstairs living room is good enough for streaming most movies, but everything grinds to a halt whenever I stream high definition videos. My hope was that the TP-Link would solve this problem.
Physically installing the modules was simple. Once both modules have been plugged into the wall, you have to push a button on the slave module that advertises its existence (“Here I am!”) followed by a button on the master module to finish the connection (“Here I come!”) If you’ve been paying attention, in my house this meant running downstairs to press one button and then back upstairs to press the other. Once the network connection has been established you can log into the system using your computer and make changes to the configuration. After you make changes you must reboot the device, which breaks the connection. Each time the connection breaks you have to go back to the slave module and press the button and then back to the master module and press the other button. I also found that if your power flickers (ours does a couple of times a week) that also resets the connection, which means another trip downstairs and another trip upstairs. In the 24 hours I tried using the TP-Link I had to do this six times.
So let’s get down to the brass tacks, shall we? Let’s say that the speed of my internet while plugged in directly to the upstairs router is 10/10, and a wireless connection while standing in the same room is a 9/10. My wireless internet connection prior to hooking up the TP-Link in the downstairs living room was probably a 6.5/10. With a physical network cable connecting the slave TP-Link to the television, I would say the rate was approximately 3/10, and wireless speeds were 1/10. The connection was so slow that for a while I was convinced it wasn’t working at all.
I’d like to put this in perspective for just a moment. Imagine sunglasses that actually magnified the sun’s rays instead of shielding your eyes from them, or a winter coat that makes you feel colder rather than warmer in the winter. I’m not talking about a product that doesn’t do anything; I’m talking about a product that actually makes things worse, a product that does the opposite of what it advertises. This isn’t a case of being confused about how a product is supposed to work, or having trouble configuring it. This is a case of a product not delivering on a promise.
After deciding my wireless wasn’t all that bad in the first place, I tossed the TP-Link thing in the garbage.