Irish Proverb: You must crack the nuts before you can eat the kernel.

I don’t remember life before this toybox.

My dad made this toybox for me for Christmas in 1974, when I was still a year old. As far as toyboxes go it was quite large, especially considering the size of my room at the time. Our house at the time was 983 square feet. According to my mom, my bedroom was 8×10 (my sister’s was 8×9 and the master bedroom was 9×11). I distinctly remember being able to do a complete lap around my room — starting on the bed, crossing over to the dresser, climbing over to the toybox and leaping back onto the bed — without ever touching the floor.

The toybox was painted blue before it was moved into my bedroom. The top had two solid shelves, three if you included the top. I don’t remember ever climbing all the way up to the top. but I’m sure I must have tried. The bottom contained seemingly endless storage space. There were no tubs or any other types of organization down there, just one giant container for storing toys with two separate lids. For what it’s worth I don’t remember any of the toys in this photograph.

On occasion, when I was feeling lonely or sad or bored, I would climb inside those storage bins and sit and be alone. Sometimes I would hide from people in there and sometimes I wouldn’t be hiding from anybody. If I twisted and wiggled around long enough all my toys would fill in around me and I could sit there, inside a dark wooden box, surrounded by all my stuff, all alone.

I was four-years-old when we moved to the home I grew up in and (of course) the toybox came with me. This picture was taken in 1982, specifically to show off my Star Wars collection. The toybox did not always look this neat and organized. Most of the time, Star Wars toys filled the shelves while the cubbies below stored everything else, sometimes to the point where the lids wouldn’t even shut. Mostly the bins held toys, although occasionally they held books and dirty underwear and whatever else I tossed in there.

Eventually boys outgrow their toyboxes. This one was replaced by a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves. The toybox was moved out to the garage where my dad used it for storing tools for a while. I don’t remember what happened to it after that.

I wish I still had it.

There are days I would like to climb inside it again, wiggle around until my toys were all around me, and close the lid for just a little while.

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It’s a new year, and I know a lot of you (like myself) made resolutions to get organized. One of the things I want to get a better hold of this year is my digital photo collection. I have a lot of digital pictures. Like, a lot a lot. Like, 50,000+ pictures. I have very few physical photographs around the house (the ones I have are old). All of the pictures I’ve taken during vacations and holidays and of the kids are all digital. I read once that owning a tool but not being able to find it is the same as not owning the tool. I feel like this could also apply to pictures as well.

The hardest part about organizing your digital photos is coming up with an system. The second hardest part is sticking with it; if you do, things will get easier. Shortly after the New Year I pulled the pictures off of Susan’s phone and computer onto my server; the result was 15 GB worth of pictures, with names ranging from “s5000184.jpg” to “Photo_012906_007.jpg”. Ugh!

I’ll tell you up front — I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think my system necessarily works best for everyone. The key is finding a way to organize things that works for you and (again) sticking with it. While working on organizing Susan’s photos and incorporating them into my own collection, I wrote down some hints and tips on how I organize things. I also asked my friend Melissa Karlberg of Mel Karlberg Photography for any advice she might have to add. Melissa is a great photographer with great organizational skills. I’ve added her comments to this list as well.

Without further adieu and in no particular order…

Put your photos all in one place.

You will never be able to reliably search, sort, organize, or backup your photos until you have them all together in one place. For me, that’s a folder on my server named “Digital”. (It gets backed up nightly; more on that later.) I have a lot of folders underneath that one of course, but getting everything underneath that single folder makes it simple to backup your photos and search through them. If you have programs that are constantly putting things in different directories, you need to pick one and point everything else to it, whether that’s the “My Photos” folder in Windows or some other directory you’ve designated as being home to your digital photos.

Pick an organizational system and stick with it.

Let me start off by saying that there are two schools of thought when it comes to organizing digital photos: you can either organize your photo collection through file and folder names alone, or you can use software to help you organize your photos. Even if you use software, you’ll still want to do some organization of the files and folders (like getting them all in one place, as mentioned above).

Organizing using Files and Folders

I personally manage my photo collection through file and folder names for two reasons. One, because that’s the system I started with and I’m in too deep to start over without a really compelling reason to do so. The other reason is because I’m always afraid that whatever program I use to organize my photos might become incompatible or obsolete in the future. There are lots of free options out there and I’ll mentioning them, but… buyer beware.

If you’re going to use file and folder names to organize your photos, the key is to create a system that mentally makes sense to you. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking for that “one” photo you took five years ago and not being able to find it. My “Digital” folder has 592 sub-folders. Some of them are pretty specific: “4th of July Cookout (07.04.2006)”, for example. Others are less so: “Mason”, for example, has 250 random photos of my son. That’s not very helpful when you’re looking for a specific photo.

I have three types of folders: events, people, and things. Events, like the 4th of July example I listed above, are pretty specific. In the folder name, I try and include the event, the location, and the date. For people, I simply list the person’s name. These are more like “junk drawers” and it’s where things like selfies and random shots end up. The last folder type, “things,” are used when I’m shooting pictures of something specific. Many of these have sub-folders as well. I have a folder called “Cars” — underneath it I have folders for each car I’ve owned.

Some people prefer a date-based hierarchy for their folders. These people tend to make a folder for each year (“2015″), twelve folders underneath that folder representing each month (“01″, “02”, etc) and then folders underneath each of those folders. For some people, this works really well. For me personally, if I’m looking for pictures from that time the kids and I went to the zoo, I’d rather scroll down to “Z” than start clicking through random years. Again, there’s no right or wrong way to do any of this. The key is coming up with a system and sticking with it.

Whatever you do, do NOT rely on the builtiin Windows date and time stamps to track the age of your photos. Moving, editing, and restoring photos has a way of inadvertently changing those dates. Those dates also depend on having the date and time set correctly on your camera. When I sort my photos by date, the largest folder by far is the one for 01/01/2000…

Two bad habits I picked up over time are sorting photos by who took them, and sorting photos by what device took them. In my folder for our Alaska cruise, I have four sub-folders: Rob’s Camera, Rob’s Phone, Susan’s Camera, and Susan’s Phone. This made sense at the time when I was moving them over the PC. Two years later when I’m searching for a picture of an iceberg or a whale, it doesn’t much matter to me who took the picture or with what. I’m going to try and avoid doing this in the future and I might go back to some of my old folders and recombined them.

Organizing using Software

The other way to organize your digital photo collection is through the use of software. There are many programs designed to assist you with this, many of them free. Many of these programs actually modify your photos by adding what is called metadata to them. Using metadata, for example, you can add tags or names or locations to your photos, and that data is physically stored directly inside the file. In theory, other programs would also later be able to read that data. Other programs use an external database in which to store your data. This leaves the photos unmodified, but locks you in to that specific program to view your data. And if the author of that program goes out of business, or the program refuses to work with a future version of Windows… you’re screwed.

Free programs for organizing your photos include Google’s Picasa, Microsoft’s Windows Live Photo Gallery, and Apple’s iPhoto. A step up is Adobe Lightroom, which is not free, but very powerful.

From Melissa: “Figure out an organization system before you start editing a bunch of photos. Don’t be afraid to commit to a workflow and file system for fear you will want to change later. At least if you change later, you will be changing something organized. I import all of my photos directly into [Adobe] Lightroom. I have year and month folders already created and then I name the folder with a subject (such as “son’s first soccer game”). That works with how my brain files memories, so this system works for me.”

Limit your use of generic folders. I have two folders, one called “Incoming” and the other called “Misc” that tend to collect a lot of pictures that, for one reason or another, I don’t know where to put. These things are like the junk drawer in your kitchen that end up collecting things that don’t have a home. My rule for that incoming folder is I always empty it before I put more pictures inside it. The bad news is, often that means moving them to the “Misc” folder.

Edit and sort your photos as you copy them to your PC.

Sorting and organizing my wife’s 6,000 photos has proved to be both difficult and tiresome. Trying to figure out when and where a photo was taken 10 years prior can be difficult. It’s a lot easier to sort your pictures into folders as you’re copying them over from your phone or camera. While you’re at it, that’s also a good time to rotate the photos that need rotating. It’s also a good time to delete a few of those pictures, if you can stand to do so. If you took five pictures of a flower trying to get the perfect shot, you might consider deleting the four that didn’t turn out great.

Before moving pictures over, I try to come up with those folder names I mentioned before — “First Day of School (xx.xx.xxxx)” or something fairly logical. If the pictures lend themselves to it, I’ll rename them as well. That leads me to my next nugget.

A trick for renaming multiple files in Windows. If you want to rename a bunch of files in a series, do the following: select all the files, right-click the first file, and rename it “Whatever (1)”. Windows will automatically renumber all the files after the first one, as long as the number in parenthesis is the last thing in the file name. If you want to select all the files inside a folder, press CTRL-A. If you only want to rename some of the files, you can click on the first one and then Shift-Click on the last one. You can also hold down Control and select/deselect pictures one at a time.

To save, or not to save, your originals.

My digital camera (Pentax K-x) takes pictures at 12.4 megapixels — that’s 4,288 by 2,848 pixels. Each file is 5 megabytes. To save hard drive space, I tend to compress them. Even though the compressed file looks identical to the original on the computer, if you decide to print them out (especially a large copy), you can tell the difference. If you’re going to resize your photos for web use, you might want to make a copy first.

From Melissa: “Know how your editing program organizes and saves files. When I first started using Lightroom, I lost a huge chunk of files because I didn’t realize it was a database-driven software. Many people completely mess up their LR catalogs because they want to start playing with editing before organizing — bad idea.”

Backup, backup, backup.

I have had multiple people come to me with laptops that wouldn’t boot and hard drives that wouldn’t spin up, almost in tears over lost digital pictures. In some cases I was able to help these people and in others, I wasn’t. Don’t get in that position. Start backing up your photos today.

My suggestions, from worst to best, are: back up to DVDs, back up to a second physical hard drive, and back up to the cloud.

DVDs are cheap and hold a lot of data. I’ve personally seen them go bad, even properly stored ones, sometimes as quickly as five years. DVD-Rs are an okay backup solution but those discs will not last forever. A better solution is a second hard drive. This protects you both from file deletions and if your primary hard drive fails. In the unfortunate event that your house is destroyed, if those two hard drives are in the same physical location, chances are you’ll lose them both. A third solution is cloud backups. There are many to choose from, starting at $5/month. Even if your home were destroyed by fire, you would be able to retrieve your photos from the cloud at a later date.

Whichever method you choose, the best one is an automated scheduled task. I backup my pictures to another drive nightly in the middle of the night.

From Melissa: “Back up, back up, and then back up some more. I used to back up to DVDs and external hard drives and it seemed like every time I lost a session from a hard drive, that would be the one I didn’t back up to a DVD. Now I back up to a mirrored hard drive and then I have extra important stuff on yet another hard drive and I have an off site company called Crash Plan.”

That’s all I can think of for now. Now, go get those pictures organized (and backed up)!

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As a Star Wars kid growing up, it was impossible to avoid acquiring duplicate action figures. Owning duplicates of some figures made sense. Multiple stormtroopers came in handy to building armies, for example. And then there were figures that nobody really wanted one of, much less multiples. Hammerhead was one of those figures.

According to later lore, Hammerhead’s name was actually Momaw Nadon the Ithorian (“Hammerhead” is actually a derogatory term). To kids, Hammerhead was simply that big headed brown alien who we caught a split-second glimpse of in the Mos Eisley Cantina in the original Star Wars.

As you can see, Hammerhead came dressed in a light blue leotard, making him somehow even less cool. The figure came with a gun, but… c’mon. Just look at those eyes, permanently peeking to the left. How can he aim a blaster? Want to sneak up on Hammerhead? Just approach him from the right! Arming this guy is wishful thinking. His big ass head prevented him from fitting in most vehicles. The figure’s best feature? His giant three-toed feet help him stand up really well.

While most kids recognized Hammerhead as the buzzkill he was, adults loved him. I got at least one Hammerhead figure for every birthday growing up. I guess most adults figured kids already had Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, “but I’ll bet he doesn’t have this guy!” I have more vintage Hammerheads than any other figure. I think I have five of them now.

This isn’t about all five Hammerheads. It’s about the two pictured above.

In first or second grade, I loaned my Hammerhead figure (I only had one back then) to a neighborhood kid. Even though Hammerhead may have been one of my least favorite figures, I was still pretty particular about the condition of my toys. A few days later when Hammerhead returned home, I found this:

His hand had been chewed up! Now in Star Wars land all Hammerhead really did was hang out at the cantina and get drunk, something he could surely still do with only one gimpy hand. (Random fact: Hammerhead has two mouths, which might explain his drinking problem.) It wasn’t even his gun hand that got chewed up; it was his “hey, look at my manicure” hand. In real life this shouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but to me, as a weird Star Wars obsessed kid, it was. It lead to war, one that quickly escalated from “I will no longer play Star Wars with you” into “you are no longer allowed on my property!” (a punishment commonly issued in my neighborhood). I remember demanding many times that someone owed me a new Hammerhead figure! How could Hammerhead remain a Grade A cantina alcoholic with a mauled hand?

It’s been 35 years ago so the details escape me — maybe somebody’s mom called somebody else’s mom, I don’t know — but I remember checking our mailbox one day and finding a brand new Hammerhead figure (mint on the card) crammed inside. In retrospect I should have been more specific and just asked for the cash (I was really wanting Greedo by that point), but another Hammerhead it was, one with two perfect hands.

I don’t display all my figures (most of the dupes are packed away in a shoebox in the closet) but both of these guys remain on the shelf: “new” Hammerhead and “mauled hand Hammerhead.”

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On January 1st, 2015, I shut down my BBS.

(Yes, you read that date right. 2015, not 1995.)

I’ve been messing around with BBSes for almost 35 years now. When I was just a little kid, my dad and his friends ran multiple BBSes. There was PC-X (which ran on a PC XT), the Backdoor BBS (which ran on our PC Jr.), and many others. In the mid-80s, several of my friends ran Commodore 64 BBSes (I think Jeff even ran one after hours for a while).

My BBS, The Gas Chamber, didn’t go online until the 90s. It ran on a PC. It had tons of files available for download (including a six-disc CD-ROM changer!), great message boards, a few online games, and two phone lines (both of which were always busy). There was a time when I thought nothing could kill The Gas Chamber’s popularity. Then the internet came along and killed not only my BBS but the hobby in general. Things coexisted for a while, but when I realized I was constantly using the internet to pull down new files to put on the BBS just to entice callers, I knew the writing was on the wall.

With nostalgia removed from the equation, there’s not much that BBSes did better back then than the internet does today. Anyone who says spending hours downloading a file over a phone line (and hoping it didn’t arrive corrupted due to line noise) is better than grabbing a free game for their phone from the app store in a matter of seconds is full of shit. Back then, you might wait days for someone to call a BBS, read a message you had sent them, and respond. Today, if someone in another country doesn’t respond to a text message I send them on my phone within 10 seconds, I’m pissed.

There are still BBSes up and running today. It’s a niche thing, not unlike people who mess with short wave radios or CBs. Up until a couple of days ago, I was one of those people.

A couple of my friends still run BBSes (Icbrkr’s Particles BBS is one). Reeling with nostalgia, I decided to set up my own in 2012. I spent a lot of time configuring things and importing old graphic files from my original dial-up BBS. It was fun. In two years I had 40 users sign up. Of those, 33 never called back a second time. I suspect they called for the same reason I set it up — because it was neat and because it brought back old memories. But not because it technically offered anything the internet doesn’t offer.

My goal for 2015 is to focus like a laser on the projects I want to finish. Unfortunately, sometimes that means putting other ones to rest. The BBS was a fun experiment, and I greatly enjoyed it while it was up, but now it’s over. Here’s to regrouping and refocusing my time in 2015.

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Yesterday I posted on Gastric Steps about creating SMARTER goals and resolutions (a post you should totally read), but the basic rules to follow when it comes to resolutions include making make sure they’re measurable, making sure they’re obtainable, and making sure you read them once a day. That last part is key; if you can’t even remember what your resolutions were, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t succeed at them.

The fact that I can’t even find my list of resolutions I made for 2014 does not bode well. I did find my list of resolutions I made for 2013 however, and another list I made in 2009. Boy, was I lofty. Several of them even made me laugh.

My theme for my 2015 resolutions is all about self-improvement. (That’s a good theme, by the way; making resolutions for other people’s improvements is a bit presumptuous.) It’s about choosing the way I want to live my life. Here’s my list as it stands, sorted loosely by category:


In 2014 I proved to myself that I can lose weight through diet and exercise. In 2015 I plan on proving to myself that I can do it for a full year.

– Lose 2 pounds/week for a year.
– Walk five time a week, at least 30 minutes a day.
– Keep using RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal
– Limit drinks to water, coffee, iced-tea, diet cherry limeade and diet lemonade (no iced coffee!).


– Update three times a week.
– Update two times a week.
– Update VintageVideogameAds five times a week.
– Publish Gastric Steps (book) by 2/1/2015.
– Publish The Collector of Collections (book) by 7/1/2015.
– Write for at least 30 minutes every day before work.
– Record between 2 and 4 podcasts a month.


– Limit Facebook use to 30 minutes/day.
– Leave the house once a day.
– Plan something fun every weekend.
– Watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a new album once per week.
– Wear my seat belt.
– Get rid of 50% of my stuff.

(Yeah. We’ll be talking about that last one soon enough.)


– Read this list every single day.
– Do something on this list every single day.

I feel like I’m forgetting some things, so there’s a good chance this list could be revised in the near future. I have lots of things I want to do (like record music and some other podcasting shows) that I’m not committed to enough to add to this list. I have some other goals about helping out around the house with laundry and dishes and cleaning, but I haven’t been able to put them in quantifiable terms yet. Regardless, this is good list of things to start with. Now, to get started.

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People have said that the O’Haras are not happy unless they are busy. If that’s the case, our family stayed pretty happy in 2014. We did lots of things, went lots of places, and saw lots of stuff. Mason and Morgan turned thirteen and nine, while Susan and I both turned 41.

Last year we took four vacations: two long ones to California and Florida and two shorter ones to Austin, Texas and Denver, Colorado. I’m now down to about five states I haven’t visited. I ate so much good food this year. I ate shrimp and crayfish grits in New Orleans (the kids had pancakes the size of medium pizzas), my first Freebird Flying Burrito in Austin, fresh fish off Pier 39 in San Francisco, a bowl of chili at Billy Mitchell’s Rickey’s Family Restaurant, Mexican food with margaritas on a beach resort in Florida, and lots of delicious sushi right here at home. It was a good year for eating. I’ll have more about those trips with some photos below.

In the summer of 2014 I finished writing my third book, Gastric Steps. In preparation for its release in the spring of 2015 I established a Website, Facebook Page, and Twitter Account. Inspired by the book and some of our friends I began exercising, lost twenty pounds in the month of October, and kept the weight off during the holiday months. I’ll be restarting my weight loss plan on January 1st.

This year I launched my Vintage Videogame Ads project. I posted roughly 300 old ads to the collection and have another 5,000 to go. I also kept up with most of my podcasts (You Don’t Know Flack and Throwback Reviews), let one slide (Sprite Castle), started a new one (Rusted Metal), and made appearances on iGrewUpStarWars and Idle Chatter. I wrote the forward for my friend Rob Strangman’s book Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman and contributed articles to’s e-zine, and Videogame Collector Magazine among others.

It was a busy and wonderful year. Here are some of the highlights!

JANUARY: We added Mick Rib to the family. We also visited Dealey Plaza’s Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas.

FEBRUARY: February marked the end of both kids’ basketball seasons. It was also the month I launched Vintage Videogame Ads on Facebook.

MARCH: In March of 2014 we went on a 3,638 mile road trip to Florida and back. For the first time as a family we visited Disney World, visited a dolphin rescue park, and saw the southernmost point of the United States. We also spent some time in New Orleans, visiting Mardi Gras World and the famous St. Louis Cemetery.

APRIL: In April we visited the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma. We also attended the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Fan Appreciation Night for season ticket holders. I put down a small down payment on a three-wheeled Elio car. The last week of April I left for Las Vegas to attend a Microsoft Windows 2012 Bootcamp.

MAY: After a little more than two weeks in Vegas, I returned home with my Microsoft MCSA and MCSE certifications. We also attended the local Lawnmower Races. I also learned that my friend Rogmeister passed away at the age of 61.

JUNE: After visiting Florida in March, in June we decided to hit the other coast and visit California. On this vacation we visited Disneyland, Rancho Obi-Wan, the Computer History Museum, Alcatraz, Warner Bros. Studio, the Jelly Belly Factory, and Sequoia National Park, where we got to see the world’s largest living thing, the General Sherman tree. This was my first real trip to California.

JULY: I spent half of July traveling for work. I spent one week in Washington D.C. receiving an award for the work I did on our e-mail migration, and another week in Chicago loading servers. In between those two trips, our friend Jennifer Martin got married and Susan and I were honored to serve as her wedding photographers.

AUGUST: In August I turned 41 years old and Susan and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. I bought myself a Drone. Susan rappelled down Leadership Square.

SEPTEMBER: In September we visited Austin, Texas and crammed a ton of great experiences into a three day weekend. We saw roughly one million bats at the Congress Avenue Bridge Bats, played a ton of retro arcade and pinball games at Pinballz Arcade, had a splendid time at Austin’s Museum of the Weird (where, among other things, Morgan got to pull a nail out of a guy’s nose), and swam in Barton Springs, a naturally-fed spring pool that is 68 degrees year round. We also stopped by a museum and saw one of five existing copies of a Gutenberg Bible.

OCTOBER: In October we took our fourth and final vacation of the year and drove to Denver, Colorado to visit our friends the Martins. While there we met my friend Robb Sherwin for lunch at the 1-Up Arcade, visited Buffalo Bill’s grave site, ate at Casa Bonita (probably for the last time), went on a gold mining tour, went gold panning with the Martins, and climbed a freakin’ glacier. In between that I watched 31 horror movies throughout the month and wrote reviews of them.

NOVEMBER: In November we remodeled our front living room, a space that has largely gone unused since we purchased this house three years ago. We also made a trip down to visit my Uncle Kenny and Aunt Barbara, and hosted Thanksgiving dinner.

DECEMBER: In December my friend Justin visited us from Seattle. We also hosted Christmas. The kids got some weird stuff.

2014 has been one of the most amazing years ever. I can’t wait to see what 2015 brings.

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We have a pretty strict ban in my family about buying things for yourself that lasts from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, which prevents people from buying things for themselves that might already be wrapped up and hidden away in a closet.

Recently, Star Wars released a line of 18″ figures, and I’ve been waiting for Christmas to come and go so I can pick one or two of them up. I’m getting too old and too broke to collect them all anymore, but one of my favorite figures of all time is the Biker Scout.

Now I gotta tell ya, as far as characters from Star Wars go, the Biker Scout isn’t a great one to fall in love with. In Return of the Jedi, one Biker Scout lets himself get distracted by Wicket the Ewok, another couple allow an Ewok to steal their speeder bike, another group allow themselves to get ambushed by Han Solo and his team, and two others allow themselves to get manhandled and outmaneuvered by Luke and Leia while riding speeder bikes. Again, Luke and Leia — two people who don’t appear to have ever even ridden speeder bikes before — outmaneuver two Biker Scouts, whose job it is to ride speeder bikes.

Despite all that, I love the guys. I love their armor and their weird looking blaster. And over the years, I’ve collected quite a few of them.

Just some of my Biker Scouts I rounded up for this quick photo. On the back row there’s my original Return of the Jedi cardback from the 80s (the price tag says $3.49 from Hyde Drugs), a vintage Speeder Bike w/Biker Scout, a Power of the Force Speeder Bike w/Biker Scout from the 90s, a 3 3/4″ Black Series Biker Scount and the “not for resale” Star Wars Battlefront Biker Scout. Loose and up front there are vintage (80s) and newer Biker Scouts, a couple of LEGO Biker Scouts on Speeder Bikes, a loose Power of the Force Scout on his bike and the 6″ Star Wars Black Biker Scout on his bike.

This isn’t all the Biker Scouts they’ve made (this isn’t even all the ones I own), but it’s most of them. (I really need to track down the couple of 12″ ones I’m missing.)

I had to wait until after Christmas to buy it, but today while we were out I ended up picking the newest Biker Scout, the 18″ edition.

Here’s a shot of the newest addition to the collection, with a vintage 3 3/4″ Biker Scout in front for comparison. The large scale lets you see lots of details in the figure’s costume. I can only assume he’s still dumb as a box of hair and I wouldn’t loan him the keys to my motorcycle anytime soon, but I’m glad to add him to the collection nonetheless.

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I’ve made a few references to the digital Christmas slideshow I assemble each year, but I can’t seem to find one single blog entry that details the process so here’s a brief rundown of how the tradition started, how it has progressed, and where it stands today.

As far as I can remember there wasn’t any one specific thing that sparked the idea of the Christmas slideshow. Instead, I think it was a combination of three or four things. In the late 90s we began seeing the proliferation of those digital photo frames, so that technology probably sparked the idea. Around that same time (the late 90s) I got a laptop that happened to have a composite TV-out connection. This was long before televisions came standard with a VGA connection. That was also around the time I began amassing digital pictures. I had a flatbed scanner and a digital camera — nothing like the quality we take for granted today — but we had started converting all of our old photos into digital files and had just begun taking pictures digitally, so there was that. So somewhere between those digital picture frames, having a computer that would connect to a television, and scanning in all those old photographs, the idea of the Christmas slideshow came about.

In 2000, my Dad bought our nieces and nephew a basketball game for Christmas. In this picture you can see them playing on it. In the background, you can also see an old picture of me being displayed on the television. That was, I believe, the first year I did the slideshow. To put this picture in perspective, Dylan, the little boy on the right in the red jacket, is currently in college.

The goal of the slideshow is not to force people to sit down and watch it; it’s to have something on in the background that people can watch if they want. Some of our guests make it a point to sit in front of the television the entire evening and watch the show. Others catch pictures here and there as they make their way through the house. The show has no real beginning or end.

I’ve used LviewPro to display the pictures since day one. The version of LviewPro I use (1.D2/32) is very old. It has a copyright notice of 1993-1996 and is compatible with Windows 3.1, Windows NT 3.5, and Windows 95. Despite being 20 years old there are a few things it still does really well and really fast, like processing pictures in batches. It’s also great for quickly setting up slideshows. With three or four mouse clicks I can display an entire directory’s worth of photos in random order. Perfect for the slideshow.

The early days of the slideshow involved moving pictures to the laptop that connected to the television. That laptop predates USB and wireless networking, but I don’t remember moving them over via floppy, so I must have used an ethernet cable to connect the laptop to my network and then copied the files over before disconnecting it again and relocating the laptop to the living room. A couple of years after that I was ableo to copy the pictures over wirelessly. These days, I leave the pictures on my server and stream them across the network.

The pictures included vary from year to year. In the early years I didn’t have enough Christmas-specific pictures for a whole slideshow and so I simply threw tony of old photos. By the mid-2000s I had enough pictures where I could limit it to pictures from previous Christmases. These days I try to include all my previous holiday photos, plus pictures taken during out adventures throughout the year. I’ll include all the picture from that year’s Easter and Halloween, for example.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned over the years. The first is, I display my pictures longer than most websites recommend. For wedding slideshows, you’ll find most people tend to recommend displaying each picture for 5 seconds. What I found for my slideshows is that people will see a picture and then yell, “Oh my gosh, look at that!” At five seconds per photo, the image is always gone before the other person can look at (or sometimes, get to) the television. Also, most of my photos spawn memories and stories, so I like the pictures to stay up there a little bit longer so that people can comment on them or point out other people in the picture. I have experimented with times of 10 to 15 seconds in length. Ten seconds is sometimes still too fast if someone is trying to show someone else a photo or explain something, but fifteen seems too long if you are sitting in front of the slideshow waiting for the next picture to arrive.

I include way more pictures than anyone will ever see. At ten seconds per photo that’s six photos per minute, which works out to 720 photos for a two hour party. The pool of photos I used this year contained more than 3,500 pictures. The display order truly is random; in the end I have no idea what picture will display, or when. In that sense, the slideshow is as much of a surprise to me as it is to everyone else.

I have learned that people want to see pictures of themselves first, people they know second, and everything else is a distant third. You may have been really proud of the tinsel job you did on the tree a few years ago, but that’s a picture that’ll send ‘em out of the room to refill their eggnog. People like to see pictures of themselves and children when they were younger. People like to see kids opening specific Christmas gifts they remember. Hit them with too many pictures of food, or Christmas lights, or wrapped gifts under the tree, and you’ll lose ‘em.

Example of a bad picture. It’s food. Nobody cares.

Example of a good picture.

My intention is never to embarrass anyone with my pictures. If I find a particularly unflattering photo in the deck I’ll pull it. (Nobody wants to see a picture of themselves from the rear as they were bending over to pick up a gift.) That being said, there are always comments of “I was so fat,” “I was so skinny,” and “I can’t believe I dated that guy.” The goal of my slideshow is for everyone to enjoy it, so if I find pictures where I happened to catch someone from an unflattering angle, I’ll remove it.

While the slideshow runs I also play Christmas music. I give almost 0 thought into what music plays. In fact, most of the time I’ll fire up my mp3 player, point it to the Christmas directory, and let it play on random. This has backfired twice. The first time, much to my horror, I realized I had downloaded a bunch of x-adult Christmas albums (“Jingle Balls?”). I was able to quickly mute the stereo before anyone caught on. The other time, the mp3 player randomly picked the audio version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and began playing that. After about ten minutes of not hearing music I realized what had happened and simply skipped the track. Other than those two events, the music has gone off without a hitch — and, to be perfectly honest, the songs could be coming from digital cable or the radio or a CD for all I care. With music the slideshow seems more like a show; without it, it seems more like a Powerpoint presentation.

I have experimented with other ways of displaying the photos. Technically, I don’t even need a computer in order to show the slideshow these days. All of my televisions allow you to display photos from attached USB sticks, for example. And, all of my televisions have digital boxes attached (Boxee or WD Live) that have photo apps built in. The point isn’t the technology behind the slideshow.

On my hard drive I keep two folders: “Slideshow (Xmas)” and “Slideshow (YEAR)”. The first contains the pictures I include every year, like all the previous Christmas photos. The other folder contains pictures we took throughout the year on vacation. I combine those two into a third temporary folder, which is what I use for the slideshow. A few days later I delete the third (temporary) folder, move any pictures from the yearly folder over into the main folder, and delete everything inside the yearly folder.

One year, nothing worked. I couldn’t get the pictures to display and I was having network problems and so I didn’t do the slideshow. It was that year that everyone told me how much they looked forward to the show and how much they missed it. I’ve done it every year since. Some years I put more effort into it than others, but I’m always sure to have something up on display.

Do it right and you will have people gather around looking at old memories while making new ones.

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Each year for Christmas we exchange gifts three times with family over a 24 hour period. There’s a lot of moving people and parts and gifts and trash and I’m always a little worried that a gift card or small gift will end up hidden under a pile of discarded wrapping paper and accidentally get discarded.

You never know exact;y what gift (if any) is going to click with a kid on any given particular year. This year, Mason got half a dozen geeky/techy gifts, all of which he digs. He got an electronics kit that allows you to turn any real world object into a USB controller, a watch that tells time in binary, a starter Arduino kit, and several other gifts that have had his mind racing all day. He also got a small, blue, egg-shaped bluetooth speaker.

Like I said, you never know what’s going to be a hit, and within minutes of opening the speaker Mason had it paired to his phone and was walking around playing music for all to hear. The speaker has a suction cup on the end of it and before long Mason had it attached to his forehead. After reminding Mason about the time he stuck something else to his forehead and ended up with a hickey front and center for a week or so, he pulled the speaker off and put it… somewhere.

That was around 7 A.M.

Sometime later Christmas evening, Mason realized the speaker was missing. Telling a thirteen year old to “retrace his steps” for the past twelve hours on Christmas is kind of pointless. He remembered pulling it off his head and putting it somewhere. And unfortunately, he remembered turning it off (otherwise he could have just played some music and we could have followed the sounds).

Off and on, we searched the house for hours. We started by checking the easy places: the living room, his bedroom, the bathroom, and so on. With each new hint, the search posse would relocate. “It seems like I took it upstairs…” he said, shortly before we all migrated up there and poked around. “Or maybe it was downstairs…” he said, his eyes rolling upwards. Back down we came.

Once all the obvious places had been searched we had to escalate things. “Well, I sharpened a pencil,” he said. Great! I searched the armoire to no avail. “I sat on the couch once,” he offered. For fifteen minutes we took turns, with one of us rolling around on the floor with a flashlight looking underneath while the other plunged their hands deep into the couches crevices. Both of us came up empty handed. We looked under the tree. We looked in the laundry room. We looked in the bathtub, just in case.

As a last ditch effort, we went back through trash piles. First was the giant bag which only contained Christmas wrapping paper and boxes. That one wasn’t gross. When that one yielded nothing it was on to the one that contained some wrapping paper along with a lot of party snack leftovers. Yuck. Lots of waffles and syrup in there, no bluetooth speakers.

Then comes the part where you start searching the parts of the house that other people have already searched because you’re convinced the other people didn’t do a good job. So where I had searched Mason’s bedroom and Susan had searched the bathroom, now it was time for her to search his bedroom and me to search the bathroom.

Around 10 P.M. Mason walked into the living room and announced, “Oh, I found it. I forgot, I put it in the bottom of my school backpack.” And just like that, the search was over.

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Morgan and I are attending a cookie decorating class this evening. We actually set out looking for a cake decorating class, but ’tis the season for cookies (and the class had openings) so that’s what we signed up for.

For the class Morgan and I have to bring over a dozen different things, everything from wax paper and toothpicks to sugar and, of course, cookies. Susan got up extra early this morning to whip up a batch of sugar cookies for us to take to class. The class only covers decorating them. Cooking them is a different class, I guess.

Now, we own a pretty nice mixer. I don’t remember where it came from, but for somebody who only occasionally makes icing and mashed potatoes, it seems pretty nice. That’s why I was surprised this morning to see Susan mixing up cookie dough using this thing.

I’m not sure how old this mixer is, but it comes from a time when appliances were off-brown in color. It was also noticeably having trouble mixing the thick dough, something our regular mixer would have powered right through. So I had to ask, “What gives?”

Susan told me she spent a lot of time as a kid in her grandma’s kitchen, watching her and learning how to cook. When Susan was young (twelve maybe?) both of her grandparents passed away on the same night. Her grandfather died from a heart attack; her grandmother died trying to resuscitate him. Susan said they emptied out their home and sold most of their things in order to pay for the funerals. Susan got to keep two things — a green storage trunk that sits at the end of our bed, and that brown mixer.

It took about an hour to make the required amount of cookies for tonight’s class. Most of them are Christmas shaped but there are a few Star Wars-shaped ones here and there (of course). Tonight Morgan and I will take them to class and decorate them and maybe begin our own Christmas tradition.

And someday when Susan and I are dead Morgan can inherit the mixer. Wow. That took a left turn at the end there.

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