December 29, 2011

"December 1941" by Craig Shirley (Review)

I'm a revolutionary era history buff. I don't have a ton of facts that I rattle off in conversation, but the time period in American history is the most exciting to me. You have a host of smaller events that collectively set the tone for the entire nation. While it was less than 250 years ago, a relatively tiny stretch in history, it's amazing how many holes we still need to try and find pieces for to better know and understand life during that period.

World War II was a defining moment in American history sixty years ago. Because of the relative historical proximity and the technological advances that were made since the revolution, we have access to information from so many sources the difference is like night and day. Craig Shirley capitalizes on this in his solid, historical volume "December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World."

There are more than 550 pages in this thoroughly researched book. He provides a day by day account of that month of not only the advances in the war efforts, but also a sense of what life was like for everyday people. He provides an American daily life context and intermingles it with what was happening politically and militarily. This provides a unique balance for someone interested in history but isn't necessarily looking for military history.

The biggest strength of the book is the presentation of the thoroughly performed research using every day language. A high school student should be able to well-grasp all the material that Shirley has written. However, it does not have the polish of the Pulitzer Prize worthy book, and becomes unreadable at several points - not because of a "sit and let it marinate" sort of reader pondering, but because of the author's inability to provide clear transitions from the various topics covered.

I feel that this book had plenty of potential but it wasn't realized. Shirley should have let the book sit for six months in its current state and then turned it into a grade A masterpiece. Instead, it's like that college term paper that has a bunch of good research done but is cobbled together at the last minute. I wanted to like the book, but it ended up being sort of bleh.

Three stars (out of five.)

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Thomas Nelson.

December 23, 2011


In the past two weeks, I have started a new hobby - fish tanking! Fish keeping! Aquarium-izing! I don't know what the proper term might be, but I think fish tanking is a winner!

It all started supposed to be a gift for Leilani for Christmas. But then I realized that a good fish tank requires a lot of effort, I got carried away, so I sort of claimed it. Not that she wouldn't be enjoying it just the same as if it was for her, but it became more than "OK, let's getta a Betta fish and put it in a large jar with a plant on top."

I wanted to do a planted tank (one with a bunch of live plants). I was inspired by a bunch of stuff I found online. I learned that "aquascaping" is a thing - they have competitions. There are some amazing looking tanks out there.

I was looking to strike a balance between zero-effort and time consuming. I found what I was looking for: "a low-tech planted tank."

The legit pros would never do this, but so far I have purchased everything from the big box pet stores. I might reform depending on how things go, but the convenience of walking into a store, tracking down a store employee so they can assist you, and asking them for detailed information about aquatic life which they "have received no training on" is easier for me. For now.

Anyway, I bought some awesome, muddy substrate (Seachem Flourite) (which I apparently didn't rinse well) which led to some cloudy water early on, but it has since settled. I threw in my mystery aquatic plants (syngonium, dracaena, wisteria are known... I have three I have no clue about) and let the tank run for a week.

There is a nitrogen cycle that a new tank needs to have in place before a tank can be considered "cycled" or "established." If this hasn't happened, you get a bunch of dead fish.  There are many ways to do it, and many schools of thought on each (the "traditional" mode involves using live fish which many consider inhumane since it kills or severely damages the fish).

Since I had a bunch of plants in my tank, they actually help with the process, reducing the toxicity that might otherwise appear. After a week, the plants were doing well so I was ready to add a few, hearty small fish.

I found some cherry barbs at the store which fit the bill perfectly. They are really finely detailed and beautiful. The orange-red ones are male, and the yellow-brown ones are female. I didn't realize that the genders had such different coloration until after I brought the five males home.

I've had the fish for about 4 days now and they seem to be doing well. Swimming about energetically, happily eating their food when fed. The plants are doing well also, and get snacked on by my omnivorous fish. Cherry barbs like cucumbers and zucchini so I'll give mine some later today to see if they eat them.

If I make it to the two week mark with all of my guys alive, I will add some females to the mix and see what happens.

Here's a picture of the tank at week 1. I hope the plants grow out and I anticipate adding some shorter plants sometime in the next few weeks to add some variety. The barbs totally love the plants, swimming through stalks and leaves.

$100 Room Transformation Challenge

In the past few months, we've been working on making our condo market-ready. One corner of our home has been the most neglected. It was the last one that was furnished with non-bachelor pad gear (the table and chairs were passed down from my wife's late great aunt.)

After putting in the dining set about two years ago, the space sort of just sat. Used regularly, but was just an extension of the kitchen. While we added pillows, pictures, chairs, and books everywhere else, it perpetually lived on the "we'll do something to it someday" list.

However, that all changed this very week. I was tired of it simply being, and decided to embark upon the $100 Room Makeover Challenge (sounds like it's real, doesn't it?). For a relatively small cost, I hoped to transform the room so that it wasn't the "oh, yeah... that" section of the unit.

Here's a before picture of the nook:

Please note, however, the flash in the previous shot makes it deceptively bright looking. The ceiling light was (I'm quite sure) was the original fixture when it was built in the 1980's. The glass had yellowed through the years casting a dingy, gloomy light when the light was turned on. When other lights were turned on, it sort of offset it so we never kept it on by itself. (The cord on the left side of the wall connects to Christmas lights that currently circle the ceiling.)

Here's a shot of the light fixture in all it's glory. I replaced a smaller one just like it in the kitchen when we were re-doing that. That replacement dramatically changed the feel from gloomy to fresh and bright. I knew that at some point I'd replace it, and yesterday was the day. 

Here I am, with the lighting power off, removing the relic of a bygone era.

And what remained. The wiring in of the new light fixture was an adventure (at one point, the light worked but was controlled by a switch in the kitchen... true story), but was completed otherwise problem free.

For my $100 budget, I decided to start my journey at Pier 1. My goal was to buy a light fixture and a mirror and thought they might have a fun mirror on clearance. They didn't have anything that fit my budget or fit the space, but they did have an oil painting/print on sale. It's called "Two Hoots" (awww..) and set me back $19.99. It was regularly priced at $29.95. I liked it because it incorporated the yellow, green and brown we have happening in the kitchen, but brought in the red accents we have in the living room. If you look closely, the paint is over a canvas with printed text as a background. Printed text (from a dictionary) also serves as decoration elsewhere in the condo. 

After I blew 1/5 of the funds on an originally, non-priority item, I realized that I'd have to cut back elsewhere. Large framed mirrors tend to cost more than I think they should, so I wasn't sure what random piece I might find to stay within budget. There was a Big Lots near the Pier 1, so I thought I'd check to see if they had anything that would work. They had exactly one great, dark brown mirror that was $25.00. Adding it to the wall instantly helped make the tiny nook feel more spacious which which was exactly the goal.

And for the light fixture, I found a handmade bamboo lampshade created by a designer named Maria Vinka. She did her research in Vietnam in creating it. It ties in well with the bamboo floors we have throughout the condo. I got it in a marketplace, called Ikea, for $59.99. You should check them out. Help keep them in business.

For those of you keeping track, my $100 goal was exceeded. My total came to $104.98. Close enough, I say. Close enough. Here's the after picture. It has changed the feel of the room from "kitchen overflow" to its own, unique, intimate space. The light can stay on without any worries for any supplementation. The light is white and fresh, and has replaced the gloom with cheer.