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September 2007
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November 2007

Book Review: Stories to Solve

Stories to Solve is generally sold as a young reader's book, and appropriately so, especially if you want a book that you and the youngster can both enjoy. The premise of the book is that each short story (very short, a page or two at most) presents a mystery wherein all the clues have been given in the text, or can be surmised using basic logic.

storiestosolve.jpgThere are 14 stories in all, and while you might have heard of one or two of them, they're drawn from worldwide sources, so there's almost certain to be something new for you to discover. For young readers, I think most of them will be completely new. The illustrations are charming, and sometimes the solutions are illustrated in a way that really adds to the presentation. However, the solutions are given immediately following the story, so you'll have to exercise some restraint to not steal a peek before you've solved it yourself.

This book will surely stimulate some discussion if you read it with someone else, but it's fine for an adult, solo reader too. It's perfect for a short flight, or to keep in your bag or car to pass a few minutes that might otherwise be spent frivolously. A fun and educational bargain, what more could you ask?


Book Review: Monster guides

Two mini-reviews of seasonally-appropriate books:

monsterbook1.jpgThe Monster Hunter's Handbook is organized like a field guide, and if you're looking for a book that will look great on your coffee table during your Hallowe'en party, this is the one to get. The cover and binding are perfectly executed, it looks exactly like a well-used, ancient reference book. Unfortunately, it's also a great example of old adage "don't judge a book by its cover." Inside, the book is a complete let-down. The design and illustrations don't evoke the same feeling and era as the cover, and the content is lacking in depth and personality. Consider this book if you need a prop, but not if you're seeking a spooky or entertaining read.

monsterbook2.jpgIn contrast, Monster Spotter's Guide to North America is all about entertainment and fun. It's also a field guide, but is organized so that you can use it as a travel guide. The monsters are cataloged by location, and the book includes interesting illustrations and a U.S. map that shows key monster-sighting locations. You'll discover lots of creatures you've never heard of, such as the Bear Lake Monster in Northeastern Utah, which exemplifies the obvious research that went into the book. But, the tone is light, so you unfortunately you won't find enough specific information to direct deeper exploration. Instead, you'll just have to hit the road and see if you can uncover the truth for yourself.

You can't go completely wrong with either choice, and since they've been simultaneously released, they serve as an interesting contrast in how the same topic can be treated in different ways, and how the total package really impacts the final product.


Convection Wall Heater: Revisited

About a year ago I wrote about the convection wall heaters that I installed in my home's "Three Season Room." That piece has generated a lot of views and email, so I thought I'd follow-up with the latest information. You can read the original post here: Convection Wall Heater

The heaters performed well all last winter, and were left on almost every day, all day, for the whole winter. I didn't notice a change in my electrical bill, other than the usual increase that comes from having to run the furnace. Whatever it cost me to run the heaters, it was lost amongst the larger charges.

Without the heaters, the air temperature in the unheated, uninsulated room is usually about 10 degrees above the outside temperature. With the heaters turned on, I found that the room was about 20-25 degrees higher than outdoors. So, unscientifically, I'd say the heaters added about 10-15 degrees of heat.

I'm satisfied with that, it meant the room was usable, but not especially warm, for most of the Chicago winter. However, I still had to be careful about storing freezable items out there on days when the temperature was 15F or lower.


Rediscovering real popcorn

The article Popcorn becomes a horror show describes how microwave popcorn might be harmful to your health.

It also might be harmful to your tasting ability. The commercial success of microwave popcorn can't be denied--it surely accounts for the vast majority of popcorn sales--but we've become accustomed to its dried-out, chemical-laden taste. (I blame the start of the demise on hot-air popcorn poppers. Surely an invention of the devil himself.)

Seriously, real popcorn tastes so much better. The reason that many don't bother to make is inconvenience and nutrition. The latter is a myth, however. According to Calorie King, oil-popped popcorn, which doesn't need butter, has less fat than some brands of faux-buttered microwave popcorn. When you make your own popcorn, you're also able to control the sodium level, which is very important for some people.

whirlypop.jpgThat leaves the so-called inconvenience of real popcorn, but thanks to a relatively new invention this is also no longer true. I've been using a WhirlyPop popcorn popper for several months now and couldn't be happier with the results. It makes perfect popcorn, and clean-up is a breeze. I just use one tablespoon of corn oil, a half-cup of kernels (which costs pennies, another advantage over microwave popcorn), and in about 5 minutes I'm ready to serve hot, delicious popcorn. There's really no comparison when it comes to taste. And yield is better too, thanks to the clever rotating crank (which you don't have to turn until the popping starts) there are very few unpopped kernels ("old maids").

If you've forgotten what real popcorn tastes like, or if you remember but have denied yourself its pleasure, give the Whirlypop a try. I think you'll like the results.