The Westing Game

“The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin
“The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin
One of my favorite books as a kid was Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. It was first read to me (or rather to my whole class) by my sixth grade teacher at Westland Elementary School, Mrs. Ashmore. I have gone back to it several times in the intervening 20+ years and it just gets better the older I get.

The Westing Game is a classic murder mystery, inspired, I am given to understand, by Agatha Christie’s novels, though intended for a younger audience. It has about a 6th-grade reading level, but if you’ve got a 10-year-old who’s into stuff like Harry Potter this will be right up their alley. No magic here, of course, but a crazy ensemble cast (think Clue), a classic “whodunit” setup, and plenty of red herrings, rabbit trails, sleight-of-hand, and misdirection.

Like the best Pixar movies, this book appeals to young and old alike, but each for different reasons. Kids will identify (at least I did) with main character Turtle Wexler, a clever and headstrong girl who kicks anyone in the shins who pulls her braids, and who seems to have the best chance at solving the mystery. Adults will appreciate the clever plot twists and witty plays on words littered throughout the book.

I dare you to read the opening paragraphs without feeling completely sucked in:

The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!

Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.

Then one day (it happened to be the Fourth of July), a most uncommon-looking delivery boy rode around town slipping letters under the doors of the chosen tenants-to-be. The letters were signed Barney Northrup.

The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup. . . .

Six letters were delivered, just six. Six appointments were made, and one by one, family by family, talk, talk, talk, Barney Northrup led the tours around and about Sunset Towers.

And the end of chapter one a few pages later:

Whoever, whatever else he was, Barney Northrup was a good salesman. In one day he had rented all of Sunset Towers to the people whose names were already printed on the mailboxes in an alcove off the lobby. . . .

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

As it turns out, the tenants of Sunset Towers were chosen to live there because they are all potential heirs to the $200 million fortune of the patriotic paper product tycoon Samuel “Uncle Sam” Westing. When he turns up dead in his house shortly after everyone moves in, they quickly find themselves caught up in a nutty game the eccentric old man had written into his will. The heirs are also the suspects, the dead man himself provides the clues, and whoever figures out the answer inherits the whole fortune.

This book is funny and smart, with emotional highs and lows. It will make you laugh on one page and tug at your heartstrings on the next. Maybe I hold a lot of nostalgia for this book because of the age at which I was introduced to it, but it did win a Newberry medal and even had a made-for-TV movie based on it, so it definitely made an impact. Pick it up. Young or old, I guarantee you will not be able to put it back down. 

“Blessings” by Laura Story

My new favorite Christian music track is “Blessings” by Laura Story. Here are the lyrics:

We pray for blessings,
We pray for peace,
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep.
We pray for healing, for prosperity,
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering.
All the while, You hear each spoken need,
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

We pray for wisdom,
Your voice to hear,
And we cry in anger when we cannot feel You near.
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love,
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough.
All the while, You hear each desperate plea,
And long that we’d have faith to believe.

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near?
And what if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

When friends betray us,
When darkness seems to win,
We know the pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home.
It’s not our home.

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
And what if trials of this life,
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights,
Are your mercies in disguise?

Firebug 1.0 beta

Firebug 1.0 beta

I downloaded the Firebug 1.0 beta the other day and I gotta say it’s fantastic. This is the coolest HTML and CSS debugging tool to come along since the Firefox Web Developer toolbar. In fact, my Web Developer toolbar hasn’t seen much use this past week since I’ve started using Firebug.

Basically, Firebug lets you inspect any element on a web page. Once you’ve selected an element to inspect, Firebug shows you where the element is in the source code and gives you a breakdown of all the style rules that apply to the element, including inherited rules. At any time you can make changes to the markup and the style and see those changes reflected immediately in the browser, just like the “Edit CSS” tool in the Web Developer toolbar.

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Seven

I’m writing this entry in Internet Explorer 7. Let me back up—I’m not sure you heard me correctly. I’m not writing this in Internet Explorer 7 Beta or even in the Internet Explorer 7 Release Candidate. I’m writing this post using the official release of Internet Explorer 7. The official release announcement was made this afternoon on IEBlog.

You can download Internet Explorer 7 now if you’d like, or if you’re not anxious you can wait a few weeks, as the new browser will be released as a high-priority automatic Windows update.

I for one am impressed with the new product and can whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone. As far as web standards support is concerned, I don’t think IE7 hits the nail quite on the head, but it’s a far cry closer than IE6 ever was. I have to give credit where credit is due, and the Internet Explorer team has earned my praise for taking huge strides in the right direction.

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee (Widescreen Edition)

My wife and I watched a wonderful movie a few days ago called Akeelah and the Bee. After watching it over a week ago, my wife’s Granny called it simply, “The best picture I’ve ever seen.” I couldn’t put it any better, myself.

When I was a kid, I read Charlotte’s Web probably a dozen times. Every time I read it I cried when I got to the page where the spider dies. I mention this only to illustrate that I’m quick to cry (and I’m not ashamed to admit it—all real men cry), and I tend to enjoy and return often to stories that bring tears to my eyes. Akeelah and the Bee has secured its place in my DVD collection by making me cry twice.

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The Weepies

Say I Am You

I confess. I’m addicted to The Weepies. I just bought their latest album, Say I Am You, on eMusic.com and can’t stop listening to it.

The group is fronted by singer-songwriter duo Deb Talan and Steve Tannen. They have a rustic folky sound that is in some places poppy but in other places pretty mellow. Their lyrics are playful, yet deeply poetic, and Deb’s beautiful alto voice (that has elsewhere been compared to Karen Carpenter’s) and Steve’s perfect harmonies give the album a rich character.

I first heard The Weepies in an NPR interview (click “Listen” just under the article title to hear the interview). Their personalities and their history together struck me as much as their music did, which prompted me to buy their album. I’m not a huge fan of the folk genre, but I pride myself in my eclectic taste in music, so it was inevitable that I would find some folk music I can really enjoy.

I’m pretty stingy with my five star ratings in iTunes. Most songs I like are marked three stars, the best songs are marked four stars, and I save five stars for those songs that are simply amazing. That said, I’ve marked no less than six songs on this album with five stars: “Take It From Me”, “Gotta Have You”, “World Spins Madly On”, “Painting By Chagall”, “Nobody Knows Me At All”, and “Living in Twilight”.

In short, buy this album. If you’re anything like me, you will not regret it.

Mozilla Firefox 1.5 RC1

Firefox 1.5 Beta 2 has come and gone without a word from me. To catch you up, all but two of my fifteen extensions are working now: ReloadEvery and Wikipedia. Someone on my earlier post mentioned they had a working copy of ReloadEvery, but I may just end up removing it from my extension list. I’ve survived without it for this long. Anyway, I didn’t start this post to talk about Beta 2.

I’m excited to announce that Firefox 1.5 Release Candidate 1 is available! If no glaring bugs are found in the release candidate, it should become the live release within a week or two.

I haven’t found anything really new in RC1. It’s pretty much just a cleaned up version of Betas 1 and 2. In case you didn’t read my last post, the new features include an improved options panel, faster back and forward navigation, a slick new auto-updater, shiny new error pages, a new “clear private data” dialog, and drag-n-drop browser tabs. I’m excited for this to be coming out of beta so I can recommend it to all my friends. It really is a marked improvement over the 1.0.x series.

Mozilla Firefox 1.5 Beta 1

It’s been long enough that I’ve forgotten how fun it is to upgrade my browser. Sure, we’ve had the security updates, but there’ve really been no new features for almost a year.

Mozilla Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 changes all that with a slew of new bells and whistles, including a super-simple “Clear Private Data” dialog, better popup blocking, drag and drop re-orderable tabs, quicker back and forward navigation, and a shiny new automatic update system.

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Konfabulator

There’s a lot of buzz on the internet lately about something called Konfabulator, so I downloaded it to check it out. Konfabulator used to cost a pretty penny, but was recently acquired by Yahoo! and is now free (as in free beer).

In a nutshell, Konfabulator is a framework upon which developers can create things called widgets. Widgets can be anything a developer wants them to be, but they’re generally simple objects like clocks, calendars, CPU load meters, and the like. I love the weather widget that comes pre-installed with Konfabulator and I’ve also found a simple desk calendar I like. You can also find remote controls for various media players and other programs.

I’ve enjoyed playing around with it today and would recommend it. It’s worth a quick look at least, considering it’s free.

Skype

I’ve installed Skype so my brother-in-law and I can voice-chat for free while he’s away this summer (he’s doing an internship with a big accounting firm in a different state). It’s a pretty slick little program, and the connection is clear as a bell (much better than MSN voice-chat).

I hate seeing an empty contact list, so if anyone else uses Skype, send me your screen name using my contact page and we’ll get in touch.