Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I know what I'm eating for breakfast tomorrow.

Some people like cupcakes better. I for one care less for them! 
Frank Zappa, "Muffin Man"

A few weeks ago, I saw this recipe for blueberry crumb muffins at Evil Shenanigans which is a very cool cooking site. I first discovered the site from a YouTube clip where the author prepared a king cake that Sandra Lee made on Semi Homemade Meals, with very different results.

Anyway, while her photos look great, because she knows how to pose the food, my muffins might not look quite as attractive, since they were just photographed on a cooling rack using a cell phone camera. But they taste great:

In an attempt to play around with it, I did some work with the free Photoshop clone. The name of that clone is The GNU Image Manipulating Program (because the sort of people who put out free programs think it's hilarious to say "I played with The GIMP today." GNU is a recursive acronym, which means GNU's not Unix, by the way.)

I have Photoshop at work, but won't spend hundreds of dollars to use it at home. When I tried the GNU Image Manipulation Program a few years ago, it was almost unusable. Now, it's a lot better, and almost as usable as Photoshop. This would be higher praise if Photoshop wasn't such a pain.

I didn't do anything too fancy. I just cropped an individual muffin, and then played with the lighting and colors to make it look more attractive. Strangely enough, the blueberry muffins looked too blue. Adding a touch of yellow really makes a difference.

Here's a close-up of the second muffin from the bottom right. Below is the same muffin with adjusted colors.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ares Express

He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar
David Bowie

Ares Express by Ian McDonald is pretty much a fantasy novel, even though it has science fiction trappings. If you like novels filled with wild imagery and strange characters, it's well worth checking out.
Despite its name, it takes 250 pages before it explicitly states the book is set on Mars, and the only scientific fact you really need to know is that a martian year is two earth years long -- since the characters all give their ages in Martian, and you need to know the heroine is a young adult, and not a nine-year-old.
That heroine is Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. The last two parts of Sweetness' name imply that she is the 12th generation of a family of engineers. On this futuristic Mars, trains that dot the surface are manned by the same families for centuries; they inherit jobs such as manning the fusion-reactor boilers, tending to the passengers, or what is (in the engineers' opinion) the creme de la creme, driving the locomotives around the world.

Sweetness is a proud, beautiful girl, and a little mysterious. Whenever they stop at a certain point along the train ride, she has conversations with her dead uncle, whose spirit merged with the planet after he was struck by lightning at a signal crossing. And when she looks in mirrors, she can see (and talk to) someone who looks just like her, but dressed in the clothes she wore yesterday. She calls this person Little Pretty One, and believes she's the ghost of her co-joined twin who didn't make it out of the womb, though we quickly learn Little Pretty One is actually much more than that.

Sweetness has a problem -- only men can become engineers, and her father is planning to turn the reins of the ship over to her younger brother. Worse yet, the family, according to tradition, plans to marry her off to a prominent family of stewards on another train. So she runs away with a boy she's just met who can see Little Pretty One out of his cataract.

This turns out to be a mistake; this boy worships Devastation Harx, a man who runs a mail-order cult out of a flying fortress that uses no computer technology. He's recognized that this isn't a ghost, but the goddess who controls the machines that keep the world safe. And Harx manages to kidnap Little Pretty One in a maze of mirrors, planning to use her power to destroy the world, then throws Sweetness out of the hovering fort.

The rest of the book is the story of Sweetness' attempt to save the world.

 As I said, this is a book you read for imagery. And it's chock full of vivid, fascinating scenes and characters. There's the card game where Sweetness' grandmother, Taal Chordant Joy-Of-May Asiim Engineer 10th, bets years of her life. There's the town which has been infected by a plague that stops people from dreaming, and they've imprisoned a man who has a machine that shares dreams of the evening news broadcasts. There are giant household items -- ironing boards, shoes, fireplace sets -- hundreds of feet tall, scattered around the landscape. There is a scene where Sweetness is angry, and begins swearing -- and McDonald takes two pages to list all the different types of oaths and profanities, of the different societies, that she knows.

It's certainly not a book for everyone. While a lot of exciting things happen, they seem more like backdrops to meet interesting characters, or ways to explore interesting ideas, than action-packed sequences. There are also a few points which annoyed me, but I feel describing them in detail would be giving too much away. If you enjoyed Gormenghast, a trilogy where the first novel only covers the first year of the hero's life, you'll probably like Ares Express.