Blog 5-19-17 – Catching Back Up (and dates)

I can’t believe it’s already May! Normally I am not in agreement with people when they say “time flies” or “man, this year is going by quick”. But this last year has been an exception. I’m still trying to catch up, but that’s always a harder proposition than it seems. Hopefully, you’ve been able to see some of the fruits of tquichis labor this month, though. Of course, I’ll try to continue to keep up some semblance of this output and if all goes well, I’ll prevail.

In any case, I’ve begun work on comics again (my favorite and least viewed part of the website) after some time of debating with myself how to do it. I have been keeping track of how many I’ve missed during my hiatus (as I have with my written projects) and I intend to catch up. But I will be posting them on an “as-made” schedule and it will still be some time before I get back to the old schedule. But there won’t be any backdating and pretending in the future I didn’t go on hiatus (even if that would make it look nicer).

I use the term “hopefully” a lot in these update blogs, and things do never turn out as well as I would “hope”. But things are moving forward, falling into place, and getting better. There’s more of the old stuff and lots of cool new stuff in the works around here and it may take me a while to get to it but it’s coming. And I hope that some people out there can get the chance to enjoy them as much as I do.

-Austin

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Review – Apsara Extra Dark Triangle Pencil

I’ve been looking at a lot of international pencils recently, and these are no exception. While Apsara pencils aren’t necessarily “hard” to come across in the US, these particular pencils, the Extra Dark Triangular, are virtually nowhere to be found. Are these Indian pencils worth getting your hands on, or nothing special?

The pencil almost couldn’t be simpler. They have a rounded triangular body coated in yellow paint. The back end is also rounded off and capped with a thin amount of shiny black material. Most of your necessary information is stamped on the side and filled in with black paint, though in lieu of a hardness number (they’re 2B by the way) there is instead the vague “Extra Dark”.

They are darker than the average #2 pencil, and quite soft/smooth, losing their point very quickly. I wouldn’t call them “extra dark” but you could certainly get away with it. And it’s nice for sketching or filling in scantron bubbles. The wood that the main body is made of is very light and cheap, with paint that is shoddily applied (it isn’t a nice, even coat, and you can see through it in places) but the triangular shape is comfortable and there’s enough friction to keep it in your hand nicely.

It’s far from the king of all pencils, but it’s comfortable, doesn’t like to roll off tables, and feels like nothing when holding it. It’s a decent test-taking tool (though it lacks an eraser) and an inexpensive* way to get those darker lines when sketching. Personally, the darker lines and triangular shape aren’t my style, but if that interests you and you find one out in the wild you might want to take a serious look. But I wouldn’t go seeking them out until they become more widely available.

*I assume

Book Review – Are You My Mother? (By: Alison Bechdel)

I was very surprised upon finding a copy that I hadn’t heard of Alison Bechdel’s follow-up to the outstanding graphic novel Fun Home back when I was getting more in to comics. Certainly Are You My Mother? had been published by the time I was reading its predecessor and looking up its author. But this “sequel” just slipped through the cracks, it seems. While the original got awards and a musical adaptation, this book didn’t quite seem to find its audience (at least as far as one can tell from the footprint it left). But is that deserved or is Are You My Mother? an overlooked treasure?

Are You My Mother? is (perhaps in a limiting capacity) linked very closely to Fun Home. Indeed the events and creation of Fun Home are mentioned throughout Are You My Mother?, and I suspect that if one reads the second without the context of the first they will get less out of it. Whereas Fun Home was a memoir half about Alison and half about her father, this memoir is half about her mother (surprisingly). The focus is a lot more on the present than the past, and a surprisingly large chunk is taken up by the few years between the release of Fun Home and this book’s creation. There are also large chunks dedicated to Alison’s dreams, both relating and interpreting them, and her therapy sessions. At many moments is seems to be less than half about (or indeed “about” as it supposedly is) her mother and more about her.

That isn’t necessarily a problem, even if it would mean the title is misleading. But a few chapters in, with the pages filled by enough text to write a novel (if she hand-lettered everything that is an amazing feat in and of itself), lots of allusions to famous works/people, and more than one would expect about the (psycho)analysis of dreams (something I personally find… well, “suspect” would be the nicest way to put it) and I start to understand why maybe this one wasn’t as well read as its ancestor. Similar “faults” were present in Fun Home: it was a wordy graphic novel and perhaps a bit “pompous” in its allusion to grander works. But it was much more “readable”. There is quite a lot more packed onto a page this go around and I can’t help but think Alison wanted to just keep going and going. That packing of information didn’t really stop me from reading, though, and the work is presented in a way that makes the reader want to keep going. I’m a sucker for graphic novels anyway, and this one took about an average time to read: less than 3 days, and I even gave up my nightly novel-reading-time as I got engrossed.

And the writing and illustration are engrossing. The level of artistry (upgraded this time in detailed renderings of scenes that force you to extract information from them as if it was real life) is still incredible in how expressive, understandable, and atmospheric it is. The fact that the only color is red(/pink in its various tints and shades), as opposed to green in the first book really puts you in a different mindset than Fun Home and is expertly rendered to influence the feeling of a page. The writing, likewise, is compelling and human. Alison is understandable (if not-at-all understandable) and while I could never “understand” myself making several decisions (like cheating on a partner {ha! partner…} or attempting to analyze my dreams) I can “understand” her well enough to comprehend why she made those decisions and what they meant in the small amount of her life contained in this book. I’m trying to say that the encapsulation of thoughts and feeling into words is as well rendered as the illustration.

But it just never quite gets up to the level it wants to be at. It’s trying very hard to get to the same resonant place that made Fun Home so successful (and I assume cathartic) but there isn’t as much to draw on, and it’s weighed down by length accounts of Virginia Wolff and Dr. Winnicott. It plateaus just below the breakthrough of its older sister(?) and wanders around distantly. Though I suppose that does capture Bechdel’s relationship with her mother fairly well, and maybe the first was more popular (with me and the masses) because her father’s story was more excitingly tragic.

I feel very strange having mentioned another book so many times in this review. But it seems appropriate that if one knows of both works the two can’t really be separated, especially with the success of the first. I’m sure there’s someone out there that has only read Are You My Mother? (potentially the children’s book and neither of the books I’ve been talking about) but it is a very unlikely scenario, and the stories intertwine so much that catering to such a person seems silly (though I don’t know why they would be reading this review). Together the two books form a whole. But it is a whole you can read the first half of and be relatively okay.

At one point I found a fairly pristine copy of Fun Home in a second-hand store and then put it in my “cart” before I even knew who I was going to give it to, but I knew there “was” someone I knew who I could give it to. Are you My Mother? unfortunately doesn’t make it up quite that high, and I can’t imagine myself recommending it to anyone who hasn’t read Fun Home. It’s a bit pretentious and it attempts to find correlation and causation where there is none, but it is tremendously well crafted, artistically inspiring with a story that is well told and meaningful to people in a myriad of difficult situations.

Book Review – Jonathan Livingston Seagull (By: Richard Bach)

This book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was handed to me as a thing I should have on my shelf because it “was big in the 70’s” and I might want to look at it. Why I decided to read it so soon with so many other classics has to do mostly with the fact that it was short, but also because it was supposed to be “positive” and I had just finished reading something that was on the whole quite “negative”. I knew that it was “related” to the whole “power of positive thinking” movement and that there were a lot of pictures of seagulls in it, but otherwise I pretty much dove in blind.

I don’t know how I always get the edition with the hard to find cover.

And I was… surprised? I mean, with no expectations it’s hard to be surprised, but reading was a very strange experience. On the back of my copy Ray Bradbury says this book “gives me flight”, which was tantalizing but not up my alley. There are moments where I feel I am flying for just a moment and then I get run right into the ground. There is a story, surprisingly enough (it says so on the cover), and it focuses on Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull who desires to fly for the sake of flying and not as a means to flail and fight for food. As a result of learning how to fly faster, higher and with more control he breaks seagull law and is ostracized from the group. From there he begins a spiritual journey or something.

My first problem is that I can’t find myself agreeing with the central point of the book (though, to its credit, it is short enough that I had finished it before this doubt had fully-formed in my mind). While it may be personally fulfilling to master an art, I’m not sure that stepping out of the “rat-race” for food to do that mastering will lead to anything but death. It turns out you can’t transcend reality (which does happen, he goes to a higher plane of existence) by being a Buddhist or really good at flying. In the real world, if you don’t eat you die, not escape to a higher plane of reality by virtue of the fact you love to do something you’re good at. And I do understand that it is a story meant to inspire, but it comes off like a snake-oil salesman who every once in a while stops to give you a bunch of numbers.

And that is my second problem (fortunately I only really have two and a half problems with this book); every once in a while, in what is supposed to be an immersive flying experience, Bach just starts listing a bunch of numbers and technical terms that really take me out of the whole thing, and towards the end I just started skipping sentences that had numbers in them. Not only does it break the immersion and flow by being very technical in a spiritual story, but it’s also very wrong. It never gets to that goya (not in reference to the painter*) moment. I do understand he’s supposed to be breaking records of seagull flight-speed here, but seagulls aren’t meant to go terminal velocity, and at such speeds most anything they could do would probably kill them.

I get that it’s just not a book that was written for me (maybe the spine on my copy literally snapping halfway through was a bad omen). I don’t need an uplifting “religion without religion” story to teach me to think outside of the box and find personal happiness or something. And I’ve very skeptical of people who try to “sell” that to me, though I’m sure there was no malicious attempt on Bach’s part there. I just can’t dig it. I can’t suspend my disbelief and pretend I’m flying, soaring to another reality. The layers just don’t make sense to me. And that’s not the writings fault, as, other than the numbers, it’s pretty good. It’s readable, understandable, and emotive. The only nitpick I have is a few times he does that thing where he “says” someone spoke for a while, but summarizes it in one sentence and then has another character speak as if only that sentence was said. And that’s just a very specific thing that bothers me when a writer wants a character to have an inspirational speech but can’t actually think of an inspirational speech. But that and the numbers are few and far between in this relatively short book that reads very quickly and does leave a good feeling in your stomach (heart) if not my head.

So, despite a book about spiritual teleporting seagulls in seagull heaven not really being the one for me, is it a good book? And the answer to that is “probably”. I don’t think I’ll be recommending it to anyone, but I think it is appropriate for many people at a certain time in their life. It’s like a child’s version of a Zen master/student spiritual uplifting thing, and there are simple empowering messages behind it. I wouldn’t blame anyone for liking it or thinking it was good. And there are quite a few pictures of seagulls in it, which, while not the most attractive birds, evoke the ocean in a pleasant way.

*As in the Urdu word

 

Book Review – Haw! (By: Ivan Brunetti)

Haw! is a collection of “horrible, horrible (“indeed terrible”) cartoons” by Ivan Brunetti, a relatively influential person in the comic scene. I’ve read several anthologies (edited) by him in the past (though I couldn’t have told you that without looking it up first). This collection is a set of cartoons done in a similar style (they could almost be considered a “strip” if anyone had been crazy enough to publish it) done in Brunetti’s youth when he was “more angry”. So are they worth reading now?

No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book. There’s no reason to read this book, there’s nothing insightful, artistically relevant, or particularly moving. Indeed, it is just a collection of terrible, tasteless cartoons that should never really be shared with anyone (even worse than puns {that might be more funny if you read the book}). But they were funny, in the strict “a joke is leading the mind down a path and unexpectedly changing that path” sort of way. It’s the kind of book where I have to keep justifying the fact that I read it and wasn’t disgusted with it. I get the anger and the cynicism, and perhaps Brunetti goes over the line with the delivery with how explicit and graphic it is (certainly equally funny jokes have been told in more friendly ways) but it just becomes a parody of itself after a few panels.

I can’t really make a case for the existence of this book (though obviously I’m against getting rid of things because they’re uncomfortable, so I don’t have a justification to destroy it, either) and I’m not going to make the case for anyone to go out and buy it. The artistic style is interesting, but nothing terribly special, and the humor is like the good times in Cards Against Humanity (being like the jokes they cut up to put in the game so that most of the time you get garbled junk but sometimes you put the pieces back together and it’s funny). And there are even profuse apologies within the introduction and copyright pages to warn you the book might not be something you’d want. But if you were looking into reading you probably knew about those and ignored them anyway.

Basically you probably don’t want to buy it, unless you already knew what it was about and were looking into it, in which case make your own decisions.

Review – Simple Pencil Extender

Pencil extenders are something I haven’t looked into very much. I am able to “comfortably” use a pencil well into a stub, and would just as soon have that stub as a backup and get a new pencil when it gets smaller (and now I’ve mostly swapped to mechanical pencils). But that does mean I have quite a few stubs lying around, and maybe with some inexpensive “Chinese” (don’t know for sure, but it seems likely) pencil extenders I can breathe new life into them.

This one is a bit of an anomaly to me as I didn’t get it myself (it was a gift), it has no identifying markings, and I can’t seem to find it specifically online anywhere. I have found an eBay listing that highly resembles it, but I don’t quite know about it. Still, it is strikingly close to other, more hexagonally shaped versions that can be found all over the place and likely use the same collet.

The device is immensely simple: a rounded wooden dowel is crimped to a tube of metal with a slit near one end and a separate metal band wrapped around it. When a pencil is inserted into the metal tube the band can be slid down to tighten and secure the pencil stub in place. It’s basically a collet that slides instead of screws, and while it works there are some problems. For example, the pencil stubs that can be used must be of a very specific size. Standard hexagonal pencils fit (think Paper:Mate Americans) but the larger art pencils and every round pencil I’ve found (including all colored pencils) have been too big. In general it seems a coat of paint is all the difference it takes between fitting and not.

And even when a pencil does fit it isn’t held very securely. Sliding the metal collar does clamp the collet tube down a bit but a good tug and the pencil comes free, though it is held in well enough that typical shakes don’t knock it loose. And the metal tube itself isn’t very well fitted to the wooden body and the two can easily be persuaded to part ways.

Still, with the cost seemingly being almost nothing, it does a tolerable job. The pencil is held securely enough to write with, and can be used comfortably as long as there is still pencil to grip (the collet is not a nice bit to hold on to). It is fairly lightweight, which is good for portability but bad if you really want your pencil to feel the same as it did when it was longer. And even though the construction is shoddy they cost about as little as a pencil or two so if they help you finish a couple they’ll’ve been worth it.

Ann Coulter Doll – In the Collection

If you had asked me to give you a list of strange ideas that make very little sense, there would be a non-zero chance that if the list got long enough I would have written down something like “ an Ann Coulter Barbie”. And the fact that something very similar to that exists, (and is a thing that I now own) is one of those things that makes the real world so surreal.

With very little attempt made to actually look like Ann Coulter (as opposed to a generic, blonde, doll-lady) and a voicebox installed (that now makes sounds like some insane person mumbling because I haven’t replaced the batteries) the doll comes in a “try-me” box, through which you can press a button to hear her “catchphrases”. On the box is info about how to replace the batteries and other standard box stuff no one looks at. Flipping over to the back, there is a photo of Ann over a blurry US constitution and a synopsis of her career. Strangely lacking is a justification for this item’s existence.

These photos are so pixelated I can’t believe someone proofed it.

The line of “toys” (dolls? collectables?) that this doll/action-figure-thing is a part of is the “America’s Real Action Heros/Talking Presidents” series, which had such other notable figures as Dennis Miller, Dr. Laura, Laura Bush, Uncle Sam (who, as you may know, is not actually a real person), Bill Clinton, and 4 versions of George W. Bush. Bush is, of course, the best of the line, because one version comes in a fighter-pilot uniform so he at least somewhat blends in with your GI Joes, unlike the super-adventure-having-terrorist-defeating-squad of Bill Clinton, Uncle Sam, and Ann Coulter.

Despite having a great idea (talking president dolls), and super marketable characters (like, they couldn’t do Roosevelt, or Reagan, or Kennedy, or someone cool… maybe keep with the whole “presidents” theme, I guess it would’ve been harder to get their voices) it seems that the company has disappeared. Indeed their website, talkingpresidents.com, leads (me) to a healthcare website and nothing remotely close to a weird collectable doll website.

I don’t know how to feel about this one. I can’t really talk about it as a toy since I haven’t taken it out of the box and it obviously wasn’t really meant to be a “plaything” (I’ll bet the articulation is terrible). I’m still just sort of in shock that it exists. It’s like that time William “The Refrigerator” Perry became a member of the GI Joe team, except without the sledgehammer, or the interest. It just feels like it’s something from another dimension sitting on my shelf, and as a conversation starter that’s not bad.

Review – Stabilo No. 288 Exam Grade Pencils

Every time my brother goes on an international adventure, I get to reap the rewards by looking at writing utensils from another country without the hassle of actually having to visit that country. Now, Stabilo is a company with many products available in the US or easily shipped there, and the subject of this review, the Exam Grade No. 288 2B pencil, can be found and purchased here, but when you compare prices and availability it’s obvious it’s really meant for foreign markets (mine cost 36 {probably less} Thai Baht {or a dollar and 3 cents} for three pencils when compared to $3-7 on eBay or Amazon plus shipping). Is there a reason to chase them across the world or are they just Paper:Mate equivalents?

Most of the information on the package is in Thai, a language that I unfortunately don’t speak or read but have enough objects displaying it around my house that I can instantly recognize it. The pencils themselves are all in English, though, so for someone like me identification and re-ordering would be an easy thing to do. They’re a standard wooden hexagonal design with a black matte finish until the final ¾”, where there’s a glossy white band followed by a glossy red “cap” of paint. No eraser is affixed; instead, a separate eraser is included in the package. On two opposing facets of the body all of the necessary information is printed (poorly) in a silver ink and ever-so-slightly stamped (there’s also a barcode in white).

Performance is pretty par. Supposedly, these are pencils meant to take school tests with, and I would say they do a good job of that. The wood isn’t great quality, but it’s light and sharpens easily. The graphite is on the darker side being a 2B (an unusual but not unheard-of hardness for US school pencils). It looseits point quickly but makes a darker mark, something I’m not a fan of, but is good for filling in bubbles on a scantron (or something similar). The black eraser comes in a card sleeve where all of the information is also in English. Supposedly it’s “specifically designed to erase scan sheets cleanly with minimal eraser mess” (and a bit of paraphrasing). And it’s not bad. Light marks are erased easily and darker marks passably, and the eraser shavings do clump up to create less mess. It also doesn’t seem to disappear right before your eyes as you use it. It’s far from a perfect eraser, but it (the 1191) is at least comparable to the standard pink erases that are so easily found.

As far as quality is concerned I’m not going to be running off to Thailand anytime soon to track down a lifetime supply. They’re competent but not excellent everyday/school pencils that are inexpensive and usable with a few subtle changes when compared to their counterparts in the west. If you should ever find yourself in Thailand or any area that sells them (perhaps you live there) they can easily be used for most daily tasks, but they’re nothing to write home about.

Russian “Space Battle” Battleship in Space Board Game – In the Collection (космический бой)

I’ve got about as many board games as I would ever need (let’s see that stop me) including most of the classic ones that immediately come to mind when “board games” are mentioned, like: Life, Monopoly, Uno, Scrabble, and Battleship. Most of those are pretty common; though, even in the middle of southwest Texas you can find those and some “designer” board games like Catan and 7 Wonders, but one of the strangest things I’ve ever found out there in the middle of nowhere is a Russian re-implementation of Battleship called космический бой.

Typing that into Google Translate will get you “Space Battle” or “Space Combat”, which is pretty accurate as the game is Battleship with the titular water-based vessels replaced with spaceships. There are a few variations: the largest ship is only 4 spaces, and there are a few 1-space “fighters”. I don’t have instructions (I say squinting at the back of the box) and can’t read Russian anyway, so I don’t know if there are any rule changes to compensate for what seem to be some annoying additions. There are some rule changes/additions in other countries and regions (Russia included) that make the game in general more playable (less boring than totally random guessing), and hopefully they had the sense to implement them here.

But other than it being obviously Battleship with everything changed slightly (the case, the ships, the pegs) I can’t give you much information about it since I can’t read Russian (or any Cyrillic language). I did find a shop listing for the game after a little internet searching, and running it through the translator doesn’t produce much clarification, though it does acknowledge that the game is a variation on Battleship, making me wonder how the copyright for the game works there (or even here, I don’t really know much about its history), and it offers a vague “Ships on the need to touch each other, the minimum distance – a single cell” that could be an answer to my rules question above. But in any case, we know from the side of the box that anyone can enjoy the game… as long as they are less than 100 years old.

Review – Vinifan Bicolor Colored Pencils (Triangular)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly have memories of being fascinated by double-ended colored pencils. I actually might still have my first one around somewhere because, even though I ended up with a couple different ones in my pencil pile™, there just wasn’t much use I could find specifically for a double-ended colored pencil. But the box for the one I’m looking at today, the Vivifan Bicolor, has (as best I can make out since I don’t read Spanish fluently) listed uses for each side of the blue and red pencil. The blue side is for “writing” and the red side is for “correcting” (escribir y corregir respectivamente), but is that really a good use scenario?

Like a few other Peruvian writing implements I’ve reviewed recently, the Bicolor has a rounded, triangular body that helps with grip and prevents it from easily rolling off the table. It’s painted red and blue on the sides corresponding with the color of the lead, coming together in the middle at a surprisingly straight line (I don’t know if that line exactly corresponds to the leads, though). Near the center, stamped in gold letters, are “Vivifan” and “Bicolor” which is enough, but I would’ve liked some more information.

In the package, the points are very cheaply made with 3 flat cuts, but they are usable (though the points were broken or blunted on some of mine during the trip from Peru to the USA). The writing has a more-or-less standard, waxy colored pencil feeling. Coverage is pretty good when bearing down (the blue covers slightly less completely than the red), and at normal writing pressure they are darker than the average colored pencil. But, in my experience, they become unsightly and uncomfortable after only a few words. The fire-engine red and navy blue colors are unspectacular and almost non-differentiate-able from Crayola orange-red and blue pencils, but they get the job done. Both the waxy-ness and the not-good-for-art colors provided help lead to the very standard problem with inexpensive colored pencils of them not blending very well, but the packages says they’re for writing so that’s less of a concern.

I’m still not really sure what I would use this for. The red side is good for marking corrections to be made, but the blue side is not good for writing. The color set is too limited for most artistic applications and the difficulty there is compounded by the inexpensive waxy-ness. Still, if you’re looking for a space-saving or easier-to-keep-track-of way to have both a blue and red colored pencil with you, this would be a perfectly adequate (and comfortably designed) way to do that.