Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Our Farm by Michael J. Rosen

When I heard about this book I knew it would be special. I didn't live on a farm growing up, but many of my favorite times were spent visiting my grandparents' farms. Our Farm: Four Seasons with Five Kids on One Family's Farm, by Michael J. Rosen, gave me a chance to relive those good times and reminisce about the farms I still feel connected to.

Some of you out there haven't had much experience on a farm, but I know you're curious. I think it's still true that you can't live in Minnesota without hearing about "life on the farm" from someone you know. Growing up on a family farm is obviously a different lifestyle than many of us are used to. I have a lot of respect for those that have grown up on farms, and maybe I'm revealing a little jealousy, too. Kids that grow up on farms know that the quality you get in something is a direct result of the effort you put in. Kids that grow up on farms are natural problem solvers and improvisers. Kids that grow up on farms basically have a different appreciation of what's important in life.

In Michael J. Rosen's book, Our Farm, we get to meet the Bennett family-Mom, Dad, and the 5 kids. We get an inside look at what it's like to live on their farm, mostly from the kids' perspectives. I could only smile when the kids talked about jumping from the hay loft. I felt a tear form in my eye when their dog Angus crawled with his two good legs to their dad's feet to look at the cows one last time. And, I had to laugh out-loud when the kids describe how they tease the man that comes to their farm to artificially inseminate their breeding cows.

Reading, Our Farm, by Michael J. Rosen made we wish for a July afternoon to swing on the hammock that hangs just outside the Bennett farmhouse overlooking their pond stocked with walleye and panfish begging to be caught. Add the smell of fresh cut grassy hay into the air and I'd probably do more thinking than fishing. But, I can also imagine the Bennett kids taking one look at me and charging to see who could flip me over in the hammock first. They wouldn't do it just to be mean-they probably would do it so I'd get off my butt and help them bale more hay. What a life!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Digital Art: Painting with Pixels by Ron Miller

Digital Art: Painting with Pixels by Ron Miller

Do you enjoy drawing cartoons? Do you ever wonder how special effects in movies are created? Have you ever thought of becoming a digital artist for a hobby or career? If so, Ron Miller’s book, Digital Art: Painting with Pixels, is worth taking a look at.

In some ways this book makes digital art seem within anyone’s grasp. I like that the author introduces digital graphics concepts in a clear manner, much more clear than other books I’ve read on graphic arts. I like the depth of coverage on the topic as well. I was impressed that there was a chapter concerning fractals. Fractals reveal the hidden dimension in nature that can be represented mathematically. The idea of “self-similarity” is used to explain fractals. For example: if you look at a branch from a tree that has fallen off from a windstorm you’ll notice that the branch looks similar in shape and design to the whole tree. If you take a leaf off a fern plant, the leaf’s pattern or structure looks similar to the whole fern plant. This idea of repetition, or self-similarity, revealed in nature can be represented mathematically. So what? Well, computer generated imagery (CGI) you see in your favorite video games is generated on the principle of fractals. A game designer can use an equation involving fractals to design a natural looking environment in a computer game. The graphics look real because they are created by the same patterns found in nature.

I did find one error on page 42 (see if you can find it), but otherwise the book is a great way to get up to speed on concepts that game designers, special effects wizards, and graphic artists use every day. As I read I came up with a few ideas that our tech. club or anyone interested in digital art could start with immediately.

The author reveals how to take simple cartoons drawn with pen or pencil and shows how they are colorized and shaded on the computer by the professionals-yet any of us could use the same method as well. The book inspired me to think about this idea in a different way-how to take someone’s picture and change them into a cartoon:

Here’s one method (not found in the book, though). You have to know a little Photoshop to accomplish this. See what you come up with:

1. Take someone’s picture.
2. Import it into Photoshop.
3. Duplicate the layer.
4. Change the blend mode to color dodge.
5. Invert the image.
6. Apply the Gaussian Blur filter (choose a low number).
7. Create a new adjustment layer.
8. Choose Threshold.
9. Create a new layer.
10. Change the blend mode to multiply.
11. Select a color and a brush and start painting.
12. Finally, apply the half-tone filter.

I’d like to also recommend some of the author’s suggested websites listed below.

Related Websites:

Ron Miller's Site
How 3D Graphics Work
The Golden Ratio
Cool Math Fractals
PBS Nova: The Hidden Dimension (Fractals)
Make an online Spirograph
Full Sail (College that specializes in digital art and special effects)
Museum of Digital Art
Planet Photoshop (how to do digital art using Photoshop)
Difference between vector and raster graphics

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Percy Jackson & The Olymipians: The Demigod Files

While you're waiting for book 5 in the Percy Jackson series to come out (The Last Olympian), you can whet your appetite with The Demigod Files. Rick Riordan has written some short adventures involving Percy and the rest of the gang. I especially liked the story, Percy Jackson and the Sword of Hades.

(I haven't seen the movie trailer for Lightning Thief yet. I guess the movie doesn't come out until 2010.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Michael Phelps

I'm saddened by the recent events regarding Michael Phelps. I don't have all the facts, but it appears that we again have to witness a fallen hero. I'm also upset that we have to put up with so many evil temptations that try to pull us down in this society of ours.

I'm glad that a SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) group has started at our school. What happened to Michael Phelps serves as a reminder of how vulnerable all of us are. I'm not trying to make excuses for him, but none of us are perfect. Yet, Michael Phelps reputation and influence has been tarnished by what seems to be some very poor decision making.

All of us can blame others and the temptations that surround us, but we can consider what happened to Michael Phelps as a way to remember that we can control much of what we do by our own decision making. Even the mighty fall.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

For a change of pace, we will perform a play based on the beginning of Carl Hiassen's new book, Scat. For more information about the book or the fate of the Florida panther please visit the following links:

Related Sites:

Interview with Carl Hiaasen
Florida Panther

Emperor Qin's Terra Cotta Army by Michael Capek

Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army by Michael Capek

For hundreds of years near Xi’an in China, stories were passed down about ghosts and restless spirits that lived beneath the earth. In the early 1900’s, there was a story of a farmer who was digging in a field when the earth underneath him caved in. Next thing he knew, he was standing in an underground cave staring at a life-sized statue of a soldier made of stone. The terrified farmer thought he was standing in the presence of an evil spirit and immediately attacked it with his shovel. He then quickly closed the unintended entrance to the cave. Many years later, in 1974, some farmers made a discovery while digging a well. The field in which they were digging was next to a burial mound belonging to Qin Shi Huangdi [Ch'in-Shee-Wang], the first emperor of China. The name “China” comes from the Qin, or Ch'in, Dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of China when he succeeded in uniting the warring kingdoms competing for control of that area. His leadership yielded some important accomplishments. He unified the language and government of these kingdoms. He also began the first stage of the Great Wall of China. In addition his armies were some of the most technically advanced for that time period (approx. 200BC).

Yet, despite his accomplishments, Qin Shi Huang was at times cruel and ruthless. He forced some of his subjects to set out on impossible tasks (such as finding a potion for immortality-eternal life). If they weren’t successful, he had them executed. He also forced thousands to work on his burial tomb years before his death. When he later died, he had made arrangements for all those who had worked on the tomb (because they knew the secrets of his tomb)to be buried alive with him after his body was laid to rest.

Qin She Huang believed in an after-life. He also “believed that models of things or people in burial chambers became real after the dead person entered into the spirit world.” The emperor had obviously made many enemies during his lifetime. He probably felt the need for an army of soldiers to protect him in the after-life. That’s why he forced thousands of workers to construct an army of soldiers made of clay to later protect him in the spiritual world.

Thousands of clay soldiers and hundreds of clay horses were made for his immortal army of the after-life. (The type of clay that was used is called terra cotta.) Molds were used to make the limbs of each soldier, but each face was uniquely shaped. Many of the terra cotta soldiers wear uniquely detailed armor. One main underground pit has been discovered along with some other, but smaller, chambers. It is remarkable how much effort went into making thousands of these figures. More remarkable may be the effort underway to reconstruct each of these statues, many crushed into nearly indistinguishable fragments.

If take a close look at pictures of the terra cotta soldiers you will notice an arm out in front of the body with the hand curled into a holding position. Also, a number of metal pieces, probably thousands, were found laying in the midst of the broken terra cotta fragments. Can you guess any connection there might be between the metal pieces and what the terra cotta soldiers might have been holding? Here's a clue: part of what they held may have rotted over the last two thousand years, leaving just a remaining metal part.

An exhibition of the Terra Cotta Army will be visiting the United States in April. Unfortunately, it will not be coming to the Mpls. area, but you can still get a closer look for yourself by reading Michael Capek’s book, Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army.

Related Websites:

National Geographic
Terra Cotta Army Coming to US
NG Photogallery
World Heritage Site
Virtual Tour of Pit1

Bodies from the Ice by James M. Deem

Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past

Whether or not you believe in global warming, there can’t be any denial that glaciers around the world are shrinking. Many scientists are alarmed at the rate glaciers are melting. Shrinking glaciers are those that lose ice faster than they accumulate ice. However, many archeologists have benefitted from this phenomenon. To understand why, you need to know a few things about glaciers.

Glaciers are compacted masses of frozen ice that can move like giant slow-motion conveyor belts. Glaciers move debris trapped inside and gradually push the soil underneath farther downhill until the glacier loses its ice through melting. Not only has melting increased recently, but the rate at which glaciers are moving has also accelerated.

Glaciers can preserve objects that are made of wood, metal, and clothing. Even flesh and bone can be frozen in time by a glacier. (It seems like hair is especially resistant to decay when preserved in ice.)

The front of an advancing glacier is called the snout. It is unusual to find man-made objects, or even someone's remains deposited at a glacier's snout, but it is happening more frequently due to changing climate conditions. The snouts of glaciers occasionally reveal coins, artifacts, clothing and sometimes bones of hikers and explorers that tragically fell into a glacier's dangerous crevasses years ago. Typically, body parts or a person’s belongings will not show up again for decades, and possibly not even for hundreds of years.

Many secrets that a glacier would normally hide for hundreds of years are being revealed now on a much quicker timetable. One secret hidden by a glacier in Europe may never had been revealed except for the recent change in climate conditions. On the border of Austria and Italy, a couple of hikers discovered a body partially exposed in a glacier. Authorities expected the body to be a missing hiker from the early 20th century. The iceman (he was later called "Otzi") proved to have lived over five thousand years ago. He also may have been murdered. Another secret revealed by recent melting was that of a famous climber that died on Mount Everest. George Mallory may have been the first man to climb Mount Everest-not Sir Edmund Hilary, but Mallory's secret died with him on the mountain in 1924. An expedition in 1999 found his body which had been hidden by ice so many years.

If you are interested in examining the evidence for yourself, you may agree that foul play was involved in Otzi’s death. If you would like to explore other mysteries that have been revealed by other melting glaciers, then I would like to recommend, Bodies from the Ice, by James M. Deem.

Related Sites:
Author's Glacier Page
All About Glaciers
PBS-Nova-George Mallory
PBS-Nova-Iceman's Last Meal
Wikipedia Article on Otzi
PBS-Nova Science Now-Glaciers that might wreak havoc
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