Tuesday, November 08, 2011


Outdoing myself is now an annual thing. The only thing I can say in my defense is, if I had found all my carving tools, it would be even more complicated. I take some comfort in the fact that wild pumpkin carving is now a much more common thing, so I'm not so far out of the ordinary anymore. Yay. Rats.

You may or may not be aware of steampunk, a genre of sci-fi/fantasy (or, more properly now, speculative fiction) commonly set in the steam-powered Victorian England, which has taken on its own unique sense of style — lots of brass, gears, filigree, corsets, and heavy doses of "what if?" I confess my fascination with the visual theme, even if the fiction itself doesn't seem all that magnificent.

Of course, if you can get away with something punny, like crossing "steampunk" and "pumpkin," why, then, the gourds practically carve themselves:

Hey, I didn't take all those mechanical engineering classes for nothi.... OK, OK, I never took any!

This is also the first year that I went out to the shed and broke out the power tools in order to speed up the process. It made all those itty-bitty holes easier, but it feels like some kind of line has been crossed.

I didn't set out to do it this way — but this counter-weighted wheel, with the light, looks like cast iron being poured out. Unintentional, but I like it.

Of course, I wasn't the only one carving, so I tried to leave mine towards the end, and help the kids with theirs first. Aiden chose his theme, and we worked it out on paper. Fiona drew hers, and Deborah helped her carve it. Risanna got to scoop seeds out of hers.

Mine, Paul's Triforce-and-Master-Sword (which more people reconized than I would have thought), Risanna's bear.

Fiona's dragon.

Aiden's (pumpkin) cherry bomb, and Deborah's Nightmare Before Christmas-inspired Jack Skellington.

So, what did you make this year?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

...and that's another way to solve the problem!

Let me get you in on a dirty little secret. It's something I've learned after years of working in publishing and web design.

People don't read.

You might find this an ironic observation, given that I work for an academic publisher, but I tell you it's true, and it's especially true of academics — people don't read.

I have my theories. They may all be wrong, I don't know. But I have them anyway. One is, people don't read because it's too easy. Most literate people can't help but read something; you see it, it registers as a word instantly, and — this is the critical part — then you decide whether or not to pay attention. In our information-rich, give me your attention please society, we're surrounded by words . . . and we ignore most of them.

Don't believe me? Stop and take a look around for a moment. Words, words, words. If your desk looks like mine, I'm willing to bet that, without turning your head, and without counting these words here, you can see around 500–1000 words. You're ignoring all of them (including the ten sticky notes that you wrote and put in prominent places in order to remember things.)

That's just you and me. Enter the academic, stage left, with his nose in a book. He is, obviously, reading. Or is he? My answer is, probably not. Remember the last term paper you wrote? Did you read every source, cover to cover? Of course not. You skimmed it until you found what you were looking for. You noted it, cited it, wrote your paper, you kept moving. The only difference is that the academic has gotten good enough at this to do it for a living. Their term papers get published.

And so we come to the relevant question: how do you alert someone like this to something they aren't expecting?

Case in point: each year, my employer attends and displays at a major conference. We're one of the bigger players in our market (big fish, little pond) and we generally try to get about six booth spaces to display our wares. In order to keep such a space all within easy reach, we typically reserve two sides of an aisle — books to the left, books to the right, and three booths' worth of books across the aisle.

Now, this creates two problems. One is the person who finds the booth staff first, and asks, "Where are the books?" It's easy enough to point out the stacks to them. The second is the person who finds the books first, but doesn't know to look to the other side of the aisle to find the checkout desk. This is harder.

The easy answer is, of course, to put up a sign saying that the checkout is on the other side. But people aren't looking for such signs — they're looking for a cash register (does anyone use these anymore at conferences?) or a person (there are plenty of those around) or . . . what?

Our solution? Make a sign they can't help but read.

Specifically, we made them in Sumerian, Neo-Assyrian (both use cuneiform), Egyptian, and bet-you've-never-heard-of-it Hieroglyphic Luwian. Can you read it? I can't — but we have customers who can. Customers who are quite proud of that ability, actually, and who happily contributed their expertise into making the top halves of each sign.

Why does it work? Well, for the customers that can read it, there's the unexpected, proud rush of being able to use their skills in an everyday setting. For the ones that can't read it, there's what Chip and Dan Heath call a "knowledge gap" that invites them to learn more — and gets them down to the English translation near the bottom.

The added bonus is that it's also marketing: We get it. Our target market is ancient Near Eastern studies; we want people who can read this stuff. There's nothing like showing them that we literally speak their language. Outsiders, at the very least, get a memorable introduction to what we do.

My part in all of this was quite fun. I got to take the handwritten samples (or in the case of the cuneiform, PDF) and either typeset or convert each one into a format I could use.

My biggest barrier was learning to typeset Egyptian, but once I got into it, it was surprisingly easy to do. Having the transliteration below helped a lot.

Next, I wrangled the various pieces out of Photoshop, InDesign, and JSEsh, and got them into Illustrator, where I cleaned up the paths and got them ready to send out to Ponoko. (I don't get paid to promote Ponoko. I promote them anyway. Although if they're reading this. . . .) Most of the programs used for creating these languages aren't at the same level of development as other software (wonder why?) so there was a lot of cleanup involved.

A few weeks later, I got my expected package, and I got an excuse to get crafty.

It's silly, but I love this tag on the boxes. I really do feel this way when I get a package with something I've designed!.

I was a bit concerned about how I was going to get white engraving to show up on white plastic, until someone pointed out that the protective paper they apply to the acrylic forms a perfect, precision mask.

A little masking tape and a spraycan later, and that problem was solved.

All that was left was to wear my fingernails down to stubs peeling off the protective paper and revealing the final product.

Why stop at the "obvious" solution to a problem when you can have this much fun with it?

Several people have now asked who supplied the various texts for this project. Gary Greig (University of Chicago) supplied the Egyptian; Annick Payne (Freie Universität Berlin) contributed the Hieroglyphic Luwian; Simo Parpola (University of Helsinki) sent in the Sumerian; and repeat co-conspirator Bob Whiting (also of the University of Helsinki) gave us the Neo-Assyrian text.

Friday, July 29, 2011

You've got to start somewhere

We were looking through some pictures on the camera, when we came across a few that neither Deborah nor I remember taking. Looks like Risanna is getting an early start on photography!

Welcome, my dear, to a fascinating, maddening hobby. My your frames be free of camera straps, and your grip be steady and true. It gets better from here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fiona Joins the Glasses Club

Next up, braces? Hmmm.

Fiona's first grade teacher and the school nurse had been after us for a while to get Fiona's eyes checked. It didn't make sense to us, though, because the could obviously see very well at both a distance ("Look Daddy, there's a rabbit on the other side of the field!") and up close ("Look Daddy, this tiny bug has claws like a lobster!") but finally, we gave in and took her. Turns out one eye was doing great — well enough that the other eye was just taking a break and goofing off. So now Fiona has joined that grand Kerr tradition of being bespectacled.

Of course, now we have new problems. Now think, Fiona, do you remember where you took them off...?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Not Complaining

One, two, three, four. That's the number of large band-aids I see on my abdomen, each tender to the touch, each with a a much deeper echo of unease below it. Comfortable? No, but I'm certainly not in agony, either.

I had hernia surgery Tuesday.

It all seems unreal. That morning, feeling fine, I went into the hospital, where I was shaved, scrubbed, knocked unconscious, inflated with CO2, stabbed four times (six if you count the IVs), patched with mesh and dissolving screws, and here I am typing like it's no big deal.

In my father's time, you'd have been lucky to be standing upright at the end of the week, not gently sanding the drywall in the back room as I was this afternoon. (My father also assured me I'd still be able to father children afterwards — I hadn't realized that was a even a question, but the surgeon also asked me if I was done having kids — Deborah anticipated the question and told me to say no. All these people know something I don't.)

So even though I'm mostly feeling fine, I'm wondering what hurdles (not literal ones, I hope...) I have to clear to be approved to return to work. Obviously, I can sit at a computer, which is what I do for a living — well, that, and unload trucks, but I think I'm excused from that for a while, given that's what got me into this trouble in the first place. I'm guessing the main criteria will involve insuring that I can survive the drive there and back, and won't burst open if I go over a bump. (Sorry to be graphic. It's a real concern.)

In the meantime, people have supplied me with a surprising number of things that they'd like me to get done while I'm convalescing. I've got two websites that want attention, a two-hour speaking engagement to plan, a room to drywall and paint, and any number of other things. A get-well card from my co-workers came pre-printed with 20 things to do while getting better; they added 8 of their own! But for now, I'm doing a lot of something I've neglected over the past seven years: sleep. It's wonderful stuff. Not sure how I've gone so long while ignoring it.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Yeah, that's about right

Frilly pink dresses, butterfly wings, and an ATV. That's what little girls are made of.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I didn't need to walk anyway

When I was a kid, I remember frequently enjoying a ride on my dad's foot. Now, my kids enjoy it, too. This is a bit ridiculous, though:

Three kids, two legs!

I can eventually trudge over to a doorway, and hang on to the jamb while I swing my legs (and their passengers!) to a little tune I made up:

Swing Fiona, back and forth!
Swing Fiona, drop her on the floorth!

Swing Fiona, to and fro!
Swing Fiona, don't let go!

Swing Fiona, up and down!
Swing Fiona, drop her on the ground!

The kids rarely make it through all three verses before they're lying on the ground, laughing their heads off.

Walk? Who needs to walk?

Monday, April 11, 2011


There's an acronym that runs through my head, usually during a hurried commute along the lake's edge, when my eyes are fighting between staying on the road, and wandering off to the horizon. It's a mocking reminder for me to appreciate the things I have, and a lament that I can't stop and appreciate them more.


It's usually said with a little sigh, and then perhaps a tired, wry smile. Who am I kidding? It's a fleeting moment, one that's almost hopeless to try to preserve. It's something you have to be there, and enjoy it while it lasts.

When I first got to Winona Lake, I landed my first job — yearbook photographer — while I was standing in line to register for classes. It was a job I took rather seriously (until the second year, when I got distracted by some girl I met on the internet, and eventually married.) I was rarely seen without a camera around my neck.

The first week of classes were done, and I took my Sunday sack supper for a ride through the quiet streets of Winona Lake, until I wound up at Winona Lake park, where several other Gracies had congregated with the same idea.

Tammy, Rachel, Joelle, and Joanna. (One of the great advantages of being yearbook photographer is that someone goes through and identifies all your photos for you.)

Joanna, Carrie (a.k.a. "Cake"), Jon, and Sunny, who is trying to catch ducks with popcorn.

As the sun crept down over the lake, conversation slowed, and someone — Joelle, I think — shushed everyone. "I want to watch this." I turned around at the picnic table to look out across the lake. "What am I watching here?" I asked, bemused. "The sunset," said someone as if it was obvious. It looked perfectly dull as far as sunsets go. "What, they don't have sunsets where you come from?" I joked, still puzzled. "No," said several voices in unison. Apparently, in the hills of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, you don't get sunsets. The sun disappears behind the hills, and then it's dark. Sunsets were a rare treat for them.

Apparently, out-of-town college students aren't the only ones to be entranced by a Winona Lake sunset. A well known hymn, "Beyond the Sunset," was written not far from where I sat that evening, and a blind man saw it best:

The song "Beyond the Sunset" was born at the dinner table of the Brocks' home one night in 1936. Before dinner, text author Virgil Brock and his composer-wife Blanche watched a very unusual sunset at Winona Lake, Indiana, with a blind guest Horace Burr and his wife, Grace. Burr was Brock's cousin. A large area of the water appeared ablaze with the glory of God, yet there were storm clouds threatening gathered overhead.

Upon return to his home, at dinner, they still talked about the unusual spectacle they had earlier witnessed. What was amazing was what their blind guest excitedly commented, that he had never seen a more beautiful sunset.

The blind Horace's reply was simple and touching: "I see through other people's eyes, and I think I often see more; I see beyond the sunset."

The striking inflection in his blind cousin's voice forcibly deeply moved Brock. He began to write the first few measures of what is now "Beyond the Sunset" at the same time he started singing with his coined words. A spot-on inspiration.

His wife loved it, they went to the piano, and enhanced the first verse. The blind Horace Burr strongly urged that a verse about the storm clouds be added. A third verse was further added. Before dinner ended, all four stanzas had been completed and sang by them.

Words by Virgil P. Brock — Music by Blanche Kerr Brock
© Word Music, Inc

Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning,
When with our Savior heav'n is begun;
Earth's toiling ended, O glorious dawning,
Beyond the sunset when day is done.

Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather,
No storms will threaten, no fears annoy;
O day of gladness, O day unending,
Beyond the sunset eternal joy!

Beyond the sunset, a hand will guide me
To God the Father whom I adore;
His glorious presence, His words of welcome,
Will be my portion on that fair shore.

Beyond the sunset, O glad reunion,
With our dear loved ones who've gone before;
In that fair homeland we'll know no parting,
Beyond the sunset forever more!

Oddly enough, this wasn't the first time I'd run across this hymn. I first came across it in Germany, while I was looking through an old hymnal for something else entirely. Oh, this is nice, I thought, you can sing this at my funeral. Not so much because it's a nice song (it is) or because it's common at funerals (as I learned later) but because of something I asked God for.

After I die, have my funeral in the late afternoon. Bring a lawn chair. Bring a whole picnic. Don't be formal on my account. Sit out on the grass, or in the sand at the edge of the water, wherever you like, and watch the sunset. I asked God if I could paint it that day. And He said yes. Forget that my body is over there. I'm up here, in the sky, burning down the heavens, whooping my way across the horizon in a roar of oranges and purples. And maybe, if I can manage it, a little bit of green.

It might be spectacular. It might be... just another Winona Lake sunset.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Race Day 2011

Want to guess what my favorite part of a pinewood derby is? Nope, it's not the thrill of speed. Not the joy of victory. Not the agony of defeat. Not even the cool gadgets timing things down to ten-thousandths of a second.

It's not even the cake. Although that's quite good, too.

Give up?

It's the creativity.

OK, case in point: Normally, if you go to a car race, you'd expect to see people racing cars, right? Not here. On race day in a pinewood derby, your car might be matched up against...

A tank!

A shoe!

A gymnast on a balance beam! A UPS truck!

A rocket-powered pizza delivery wagon! Rocket Barbie, whose pink ship has been hit by a silver meteor! (Seriously. I asked.)

A pirate ship!

....not to mention dragons, of course. But you already knew about that.

CREATIVE WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Write a short story involving a tank, a gymnast, a shoe, a dragon, and your choice of Rocket Barbie, a supersonic delivery guy, and/or a pirate ship. Send it to kerr at kconline dot com. I'll publish the best ones here. You have 10 minutes. Go!

Of course, I enjoyed the racing, too.

We were seeded 12th out of 31 this year, at 4.3262 seconds — a big improvement over last year's performance of 4.5771. Yeah, two tenths of a second is huge in this world.

OK, confession time. After last year's third-from-the-bottom performance, I was secretly quite pleased to find ourselves in the ranks of the "sorta-fast." While I'd let Fiona have free reign over the shape and design of the car, this year the wheels and axles were mine. Oh, the tools I got into. There were pipe cleaners. Files. Drills. Jeweler's rouge. Dad gave me a book of pinecar speed secrets for Christmas, and I used as many of the tips as I had time and tools for. It wasn't so much an overt competition with the other dads (there was enough of that going on without me getting involved, most of it pretty friendly) — it was more to see if I could do it, too. Granted, that's complicated by the fact that one has to compete to see if one measures up....

Wanna know why those other cars were so fast? There'a s dragon behind them! Yeah! You'd run, too!

On the whole though, there was good fun to be had from the start of the track...

At the starting pin.

...to the end of it.

Racers get a prime spot right at the finish line. Remarkably, Fiona is actually in contact with the ground here.

We didn't win any prizes this year. I knew I hadn't done enough rocket science to win on speed, and our car really wasn't a replica of anything. I thought we had a chance on "best of show" (craftsmanship) or creativity, but those passed us by, as well. But all that's OK.

I won my prize two weeks earlier.

Fiona and were out in the shed together, huddled in our jackets, and sanding away happily at our little wedge. "So, Fiona," I asked, "Whose car is this? Yours, or mine?" She looked thoughtful. "It's your car and my car. And the time that we're working on it is, like, special you-and-me time."

What prize could be better?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Client

The client.

1 year before deadline: Client starts talking to designer about a project they've got coming up in a year. Designer commits to helping the client achieve her goals. Client and designer discuss concepts leisurely, with no real hurry.

3 months before deadline: Client starts developing concepts and models in earnest.

Left to Right: Fire F, Cactus F, Ice F, Sun F. If you look really hard, you can also see the Dragon F, Bunny F (my favorite), Cat F (Deborah's favorite), and the Frog F.

1 month before deadline: Designer asks client what she has decided on. Client produces design brief, detailing her project.

"This is probably the best Dragon F I've ever made. Make my pine car like this one."

Designer balks, and suggests design alternatives.

Client sticks to her vision.

Designer wonders how in the world he's going to make this.

3 weeks before deadline: Designer gets inspired during a sermon in church. Unbeknownst to the pastor, it's not inspiration concerning the sermon. Designer sketches designs on back of bulletin:

Hey, I could make this thing in layers...

Client approves concept sketch. Production work begins.

Gotta love Ponoko. They make something as complicated as CNC laser cutting and engraving easy as just choosing the right colors for your design.

2 weeks before deadline: Designer presents first proof to the client. Client marks up the master copy with corrections.

She was very adamant that the texture be dots — not scales, not checks, not zigzags, not crosshatching, dots. And the eyebrow has to be straight. Get it right, Daddy!

10 days before deadline: Client approves final proof; files are sent out for production.

Confident that all is well, client and designer turn their attention to producing supporting material.

The car body is painted blue, then covered in painter's tape; the client is given a marker and, after practicing on a separate sheet of paper, makes the design she wants...

which is then cut out, peeled, and painted over...

then cut and peeled again...

to reveal just what the client wanted:

8 days before deadline: Designer, checking daily, starts to wonder what's taking so long. The file has been approved at the plant, but has not entered production yet.

Designer does some digging, and finds that the projected completion date is in two weeks.

Designer panics. Briefly.

Designer assures client that all will be well, even if not everything is together on time. Meantime, designer scrambles to find a local supplier who can work on very short notice.

6 days before deadline: Designer finds a shop that will do the work in a single day. Relief is palpable. Tells shop that production will start as soon as first order is canceled.

Client discovers provision for cancellation fee at first shop. It's more than the job was worth to begin with. Shop agrees to slip this job in, a week ahead of schedule, if Designer will pay the shipping upgrade to get it there on time. The design spends 15 minutes on a laser cutter, and is packaged up and makes the last pickup of the day by less than 5 minutes.

5 days before deadline: Designer discovers that the deadline isn't Saturday. It's Wednesday. The same day the parts are supposed to arrive.

Designer arranges for time off from work on Wednesday.

8 hours before deadline: The parts arrive.

There's something very oddly satisfying about popping out laser-cut parts.

Test fitting. Everything lines up the way it should. Good.

5 hours before deadline: Designer picks up client from school. They spend a leisurely afternoon together, decorating and assembling the final product.

My favorite part? The eyes follow you.

3 hours before deadline: Client leaves for Kids' Club. Designer stays behind to finish putting the project together. Saws, blowtorches (plural, both out of fuel), lead, drills, and very large hammers are used. Carefully, of course.

90 minutes before deadline: Designer packs up the Product carefully in an old shirt and Amazon box, and roars off towards church on his motorcycle, with a small sledgehammer, balls of lead, and a tube of superglue in his backpack.

1 hour before deadline: The final product takes its first trial run on the track. It flies off and breaks a wing. Designer does not swear. He is, after all, in a church gymnasium.

From previous research, Designer knows that superglue will leave a large white area on the acrylic. Appearances matter here.

45 minutes before deadline: Wing is mended with acrylic fingernail glue.

30 minutes before deadline: Weight is added and subtracted, to get the car up to the 5 oz. maximum. The weight of the drops of superglue attaching the weights to the car puts the car over the weight limit. Twice.

5 minutes before deadline: Client cheerfully presents her car for weigh-in. It comes in at 5.00 ounces exactly, and is cleared to race on Saturday. She christens it "Fiona's Fiery F."