garote: (Default)
2017-07-20 11:44 pm

Good fences make good possum highways

Over this last winter, the fence around three sides of my house took a huge beating from the wind and rain. First the endless rain rotted the posts, then the wind shoved them over.

The previous owners of this place made some wonderful decisions about the layout, and some nice aesthetic decisions as well, but they must have been distracted when it came to the fence. The posts holding it up were all untreated wood hammered straight down into dirt. No cement footings. Not even gravel. In a relatively short amount of time, bugs ate so many holes in them that they just crumbled away.

Well, I knew a proper fence needed proper posts. I asked one of the local contractors how much it would cost to rebuild all the fences with cement and treated wood. He walked around with a measuring tape, thought for a little bit, and then said:

"About seven thousand dollars."

Holy crap-o-noley!! I talked to another contractor. He quoted me six thousand. That's still insane, but at least it's going in the right direction. I had a recommendation for a pair of handymen, so I called them up. It took them about six weeks to get back to me. They stalked around the fence, debated with each other like a Laurel-And-Hardy act about the best way to rebuild it, complete with waving arms and pacing in circles, and then said they'd get back to me with a quote.

Two months went by, during which my messages went unanswered, so I gave up on them. Perhaps I could do it myself?

I did some "research", in the form of ten YouTube videos and a bunch of web pages. It was technically possible, but a huge amount of labor. Some of the fence I could take apart and rebuild with better posts. Other parts of it, I would need to demolish and replace entirely, because the wood was too far gone. I made a list of tools, tried to research lumber prices, then got distracted by my day job.

When I came back to the task, it was because the rear fence was halfway collapsed into the neighbor's driveway, and the only way I could keep it upright was to rope it securely to a tree. It was time to confess:

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 6.21.32 PM

While I pondered my own imbecility, I had some tree-trimmers over to deal with the overgrown foliage in the back yard. They did very good work on an apricot tree that was overhanging the fence, and I complemented them on it, then said, "I don't suppose you know any people who are willing to rebuild a fence like this?"

Turns out, one of them knew a guy. Now I knew a guy who knew a guy. I got his number and called him that moment, while the arborists were still packing up their saws and mulching the leftover trimmings. He spoke fluent Spanish but only fragmented English. "Your cousin the arborist recommended you!" I said. "Can you rebuild a wooden privacy fence, with cement footings?"

He said he could. He came over the next morning and examined the fence while we chatted, then he took a bunch of measurements and said he'd consult about lumber prices and get back to me. Two days later he sent me an estimate: 3800 dollars.

Now, that's still a lot of money. But it's just about HALF of what the official contractor quoted me. I said, "Let's do it," and I cut him a check for 10% of the amount to get started.

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Here's what the back yard looks like with no fence. Weirdly exposed!

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Here is what a proper post-hole looks like. They dug each one two feet deep and tamped the soil down with large metal bars.

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They used thread to line up the postholes precisely. Turns out the old fence wasn't quite straight. They brought in a cement cutter and took a notch out of the neighbor's patio so they could reposition the hole, then repaired the cement after pouring the cement for the posthole beneath it.

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Hmmm, delicious concrete! Concrete is amazing stuff. It doesn't get wet and then "dry" like glue. It actually absorbs the water into itself, growing crystals that interlock with each other to make one solid object. This is why you can create concrete posts even underwater.

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Now that is a proper post.

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The next day, with the posts set, it was time to put the framing up and start rebuilding the fence. Check out all that fencing laying around!

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They used treated wood for the framing as well, and cut it onsite. They also cut custom pieces for the corner of the fence, interlocking it with the neighbor's fence on the other side to make one continuous structure. The whole thing was put together with screws, rather than nails, which is the more modern way of doing things.

In the end, I figured it was money well spent. The guy showed up on time, took exactly as long as he said he would, put all the dirt and plants back in their spots, hauled away the old fence, and even re-attached my irrigation pipes to the new fence without damaging them. If he had a "Yelp" page I would have given him 42 stars.

Now all I had to do was apply sealer to the whole thing:

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Warning: Applying sealer to a fence takes a very, very long time. My mistake was trying to do it with tools at hand, such as a paint tray and a roller. The smart way is to use a large spray bottle, which you pressurize with a hand pump. I switched to that partway through.

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That is a crapload of fence. It was a crapload of brushwork.

But now, I have a fence that will last 20 years, as long as I keep re-applying sealant to it every couple years. Yaaay! Another thing off the maintenance list.... For the time being.
garote: (wasteland priest)
2017-07-19 12:36 am

What the house needs, it gets, part ][

This picture is pretty self-explanatory:

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The question is, whatcha gonna do about it?

For a while, I explored the idea of replacing the carpet with laminate flooring. That exploration mostly consisted of trolling around YouTube for helpful videos:

Removing carpet and trim: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrULX2ofBZs
Installation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMDdYmReQw8
More installation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43b2P25CS7E
Undercutting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rGt6lxbMYk

The tools required seemed pretty simple. I already had a jigsaw. Just needed a special levered cutting instrument, sold specifically for laminate floor installation. Less than 20 bucks at any hardware store. I began looking at flooring samples:

Here's some dark laminate that sort of matches the upstairs... And here's an even closer match...
Here's the "underlayer" lining I'd need to install below the flooring, like pad under a carpet...
Here's a cheap installation kit...

Wow; I think I can actually do this!

Then I brought some samples home and placed them in the room and realized - they're all very dark, and they don't match the paint in the room, and a dark floor in a below-ground room would kind of look dirty anyway. All the lighter laminate flooring samples looked aggressively woody, so those didn't fit the room either. I wanted a subtle pattern, or no pattern at all.

The more I looked and researched, the more I realized it was also going to be a huge amount of labor to install that flooring myself, mostly cutting and fitting all those edge pieces. Why go through all that labor just to install something I wasn't thrilled about?

So I threw my hands in the air, and said, "bugger it; let's just get exactly the same thing." I cut a big scrap out of the nasty old carpet, and bicycled it over to a local carpet dealer.

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In a couple of weeks they arrived with a big work van.

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Then they tore up and removed the old carpet in less than five minutes. Look at that filthy stain on the underside! That's a spore factory for sure.

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This pad's not much better... It's practically turning into dirt and crumbs right there on the floor...

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Ten minutes later and they were laying down some nice new pad.

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And on top of that, some nice new carpet, stretched over the tacks with some weird tool that looks like spare parts from a vacuum cleaner factory.

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It was seven hundred bucks to do the whole room and the closet, replace the pad, and haul away the old carpet. That's a good chunk of money, for sure. But on the other hand, all the labor I had to put into it can be summed up like this:

1. Open the door and let the workers in.
2. Scrawl my John Hancock on a cheque.

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It's proof yet again that I am not above throwing money at a problem, and admitting this:

5172a3787d9728b5e124bc6c9821ac85173f541e3915fb351bf94c192c12df7a

Party on, dude!
garote: (bards tale garth pc)
2017-07-19 12:13 am

What the house needs, it gets

You ever had to replace a garbage disposal? Me neither. Turns out it's trivial: You just unscrew the metal rings from two pipes, pull a plug from a socket, and the whole thing comes out.

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There it is! One wrench to remove the connector pipe and set it aside, and you're ready for the new disposal.

Meantime, you can clean out the rest of the pipes. You'll probably find evidence of the last meal that finally killed the disposal off for good.

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Mmmm, delicious! I think that's ... avocado skins?? Or maybe someone murdered Shrek.

The one that broke, and the replacement, are both called "In-Sink-Erators". Har har.

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Here's some garbage disposal advice, straight from a repair technician I hired earlier this year to fix a dishwasher:

"Always run the water into the disposal when you're running it. You don't have to run it very long to chew everything up; usually just a couple of seconds will do it. There's no need to wait until it's full before you turn it on. If you want to keep the sink smelling good and clean the pipes, turn on the water, turn on the disposal, and squirt some dish soap in there. Let it run for about 10-15 seconds. Suds might come up from the drain on either side of the sink. That's good. Ordinary dish soap is fine but use Pine Sol if you want something tougher."

"A garbage disposal does not shred things, it just breaks them into chunks. I've seen people clog their pipes by putting all kinds of wrong stuff into a garbage disposal. Clothing, coffee filters, plastic or mesh bags, sponges, apricot pits, peanut shells... The general rule is, don't put anything down the garbage disposal that you wouldn't chew up with your own teeth."

"No bones. Would you chew up bones? Well, maybe you would if it was baked chicken and you were my grandma. She could eat a whole chicken down to like, a tiny pile of broken bones. But seriously, the bones people usually throw into a disposal aren't like that. Why make your disposal chop up bones, when you can just drop them in the trash? I dunno; people are weird."

"Don't put ice down a garbage disposal -- it doesn't sharpen the blades, contrary to what people on the internet say. That's like trying to sharpen your kitchen knives by putting them in a rock polisher; how's that gonna sharpen anything?"

THE MORE YOU KNOW (rainbow sound effects here)
garote: (maze)
2017-07-16 09:03 pm

Ilium and Olympos

I started these books quite a while ago, right around the time I got into the game Civilization V. It was part of a confluence of historical fiction and pop culture that planted strange ideas in my head, some of which are still simmering away and not ready for me to write about.

But this weekend I spent at least 12 hours applying sealant to a new fence - a very boring bit of manual labor - and I listened to some of Olympos to entertain myself. Afterwards I realized I'd never written any critique of these books at all. Not even as a brain-dump. So, when it got too dark to see the fence, I cracked open the laptop and started dumping. Spoilers ahead, and stuff.

The novel really can be boiled down to one word: Solipsism. The central idea here is that a work of genius in the arts can actually create and/or give access to an alternate universe based on that artistic work. In this case it's taken further because the fictional creations have their own agency -- for example, Cetebus busting in through the walls of an adjacent universe uninvited and unexpected.

The writer is clearly using Hockenberry as a surrogate not just for the audience, but for himself, as an aging, over-educated, but distinguished academic, thrust into a total wish-fulfillment situation where he gets to observe legendary historical events in close detail, describe and analyze them, and eventually interfere with them to suit his tastes, and engage in political intrigue - or just have sex with - the most prominent figures involved.

I wonder how much of that role was Dan Simmons just going, "wow, I'm in Troy, what would I do next? I know! I'd totally seduce Helen Of Troy! Time to arrange some wackadoo series of events to make that plausible..."

The second book - Olympos - was much more difficult reading than the first, for a number of reasons:

1. The critics are right: There aren't very many answers given for important questions, especially in the realm of science. The answers that are given, to explain central parts of the plot and the mechanics of the universe, are often dropped without comment into a single sentence, surrounded by acres of less informative or unrelated narration. If you stop the novel cold and chew on these little tidbits for a while, you can actually unravel a lot of the plot and history. If you don't catch them ... you're screwed.
2. An enormous plot point involving a far-future weapon of war - a post-nuclear submarine - poofs into existence at about the 85% mark. There is zero foreshadowing of it, and it gets only a few pages of context, but it turns out to be central in the motivations and destinies of at least seven of the major characters. It suddenly explains, in retrospect, about half of this entire very very long novel. Also, our friends the Moravecs spend 4/5 of the novel pursuing their own investigations on a trip to Earth, and then as soon as they blunder across this wrecked ship - by accident no less - they instantly abandon their business, without any discussion, and start dealing with the ship. While this happens, we are treated to page after page of dithering from Harman about the past and fate of humanity, straight from the sheep-shearing barn in Dan Simmons' head. What the hell?
3. The critics are right: Most of the action takes place in the last quarter of the novel. It's still fun getting there, but after spending so much time wondering "what the hell is going on?", suddenly everything is going on at once, and you have to just give up asking questions and roll with it.
4. The Moravecs provide great discussion, and by far the most color and humor in the novel, but they are ill-used. Their purpose in both Ilium and Olympos is to swoop in like robotic janitors and clean up whatever mess the humans get themselves into. They are Machina ex Deus acting as Deus ex Machina, whenever the plot gets too thick. After a while it creates the impression that they are crowbarred in from another novel - possibly a superior one - like The Fonz crashing into a Laverne And Shirley episode, jazzing things up, sucking all the attention out of the scene, collecting some applause, and then buggering off. The effect is that you want to follow them out the door and leave these stupid humans to flounder in the mud. I could listen to Mahnmut And Orphu Discuss The Classics for a thousand pages and not get bored. Pity it had to come woven into a turgid drama about some pathetic, clueless, almost entirely humorless teenagers slowly learning that there is more to life than dinner parties and breeding.

Setting aside things that are left totally unexplained, there are still lingering questions of plot. For such a long, long novel it's rather irritating that Simmons couldn't just toss us a single-sentence bone or two at the end. I can only conclude he meant to leave these questions unanswered. Where did Cetebus go? One moment he was there blasting thunderbolts at spaceships, the next moment he was gone. Did the beam at Delphi contain three million Earthlings - or not? Where the hell is Caliban? What happened to all the post-human gods, once Hephaestus took over? And what the hell is up with Odysseus and Circe?

Like I said, the keys to understanding huge parts of this novel are often tiny and scattered indifferently in acres of prose. I gathered what felt like many of them, but perhaps I missed even more, because I still have way too many unanswered questions.

If Caliban can free-fax (teleport anywhere at will) then how exactly was he "trapped" in orbit for so long? Wasn't there a better - and less grisly - way to feed him than moving all the medical pods there? (I can think of five better ways in less than a minute.)

There is one single instance where a character uses the Turin Cloth to actually interact with the Trojan war, not just observe it. Why mention that once, then never again? Why have the feature at all, given how easily one could disrupt the course of the war?

Why would Circe put the submarine into suspension, rather than just lifting it into space and chucking it into the sun? She clearly has the tools to do so. How in the bloody hell did Prospero know that Harman would enter the submarine? For that matter, why did he send him there in the first place? To teach him a lesson about Post-Human stupidity? Why the hell was the Atlantic Breach even there? Why would radiation poisoning slowly destroy all the proteins in Harman's body but miraculously leave his stores of vat-absorbed protein knowledge completely intact, for later transmission? That's just sloppy, Mr. Simmons. You talk up the storage capacity of DNA, then totally disregard the fact that it is incredibly sensitive to radiation.

Why were the Moravecs cruising through space in a pointlessly "steampunk"-derived spaceship, when they had far better technology just sitting around? Why would they turn their whole expedition around just to rescue one dying man in a fit of compassion, but rain fire down all around the Trojans and Greeks in their war with the gods?

Cetebus crawled through a huge doorway to get to Earth -- and since he/it can make those doorways at will, why didn't he consume the Earth thousands of years ago already? Is it because he was trapped on Mars by Prospero? If so, ... how? By big stone statues? How the hell did that work?

Also, why just Prospero and Cetebus? That's awfully arbitrary. Why isn't the universe crawling with other Shakespearean characters? Why isn't Loki running around, or Gandalf, or Sherlock Holmes, or Moses? There is some sense in the idea that Ariel and Prospero are emergent phenomenon, formed from the complexity of the engineered Earth the Post-Humans left behind. And okay, all the Greek gods flying around have a semi-comprehensible origin story, being Post-Humans who got a wild hare up their butts and decided to reform themselves into a pantheon and play in a sandbox. But ... Cetebus? Where the crap did Cetebus come from? Just ripped a hole in creation and came tumbling through? If you're gonna introduce a straight-up evil entity and declare it the villain, only to explain nothing about it, then yank it mysteriously away at the end of the novel without a fight or even an ending monologue like "I'll get you next time, Gadget, next time..." then why introduce it at all? No, seriously, just edit Cetebus right out of the novel. Hundreds of pages saved, and almost nothing lost.

Hey, don't get the wrong impression. Ilium and Olympos are still fine novels. For long stretches they are an absolute delight to read, and the weird veneer of semi-serious science over the fiction works better than you'd expect. Later on I'm sure I'll have more to say about the mental conflagration it was part of last year, but for now I guess the take-home is this: Greek mythology is a lot more interesting and influential than I thought. And: This could make a pretty good series of movies, if you cut out a whole lot of the boring Old-Style Human dithering.

Oh and one final thing: For a long time I had an old paperback sci-fi anthology sitting around my house. It was called "The Crystal Ship". Check out the cover art, and the summary of the first story, and tell me that isn't the direct inspiration for the orbital city in Ilium, including that crazy multi-seated transport platform visible in the corner of the cover!
garote: (Default)
2017-07-05 10:31 pm

Stuff San-Franciscans say:

"There’s so much more to do here than anywhere else."


"I worked so hard this year I only got to use my passport once."


"I won’t date anyone that contributes to gentrification."


"I’m re-doing my apartment Shabby Chic this summer."


"The dive bar right next to me has the best selection of craft beers on the entire West Coast."


"My poo smells really nice when I'm in the city."


"San Francisco is totally different since I moved here 5 years ago. All these new people ruined it."


"My Android phone makes me a better human being."


"F*&@$ your Android phone!"


"The Castro is really safe at night, since everyone there is gay."


"I call it Whole Paycheck."


"Oh, you watch TV? Wow. ... Okay."


"I’m vegan. This sushi is awesome!"


"I'm vegan. This milkshake is awesome!"


"I'm vegan. And my cat is vegan too."


"I'm vegan. That means no oral sex!"


"Wow, you live in Oakland? Sorry, we can't hang out. That's way too far away."


"Sorry, I have to skip pre-pre-compression this year. I'm going to de-de-compression that weekend.


"This city is the greatest! I'm never leaving! Oh, I'm pregnant - we need to get out of here, pronto."


"Gay bars are the best! I’m so tired of being hit on. ... Why isn’t anyone paying attention to me? I’m bored."

garote: (zelda bakery)
2017-07-05 10:16 pm

Notes on buying a steer from a rancher direct, i.e. how I spent my summer vacation:



The steer:

As an example, let's use an 1100-pound steer or heifer (female cow).

Cost: Something around $1200 to the rancher, and $550 to the meat preparer.
Results: About 450 pounds of grass-fed meat and 150 pounds of bones.
(The bones are valuable - almost as valuable as the meat - and are sought by foodies.)

Purchase of the steer:

Expect to pay the rancher in advance.
Expect to pay by wire transfer, or by mailing a check, or by bringing a check in person.
Ranchers are not guaranteed to have cell phones, not guaranteed to have email addresses, and will probably do their banking at a local bank rather than a large, interconnected one like Chase or Bank Of America.
Trust the rancher. Pay well in advance. If you don't trust the rancher, why are you even doing this?

Prepping the steer:

Let the rancher suggest a slaughter and prep place that is close to them. (If you think transporting meat is difficult, think about transporting a live steer.) It's likely they'll have a place they use personally and are familiar with.

Once you've arranged to have the steer brought to the locker, you need to call the locker up and tell them exactly how you want the meat cut and packaged. You'll need some knowledge of meat to do this.
For example:
How big should a roast be?
How many pounds of ground beef per package? (2lb is common.)
How thick should steaks be - 1/2 or 3/4 of an inch? (1/2-inch is common.)
Grass-fed steaks are best marinated a long time and cooked fairly fast.

Have the meat prepared at least three days in advance because it will need to sit in a freezer for three days in order to freeze completely solid. This is serious business: If you pick it up before it has had three full days to freeze, the meat locker will have you sign a waiver from the USDA declaring that you understand the risk.

It's up to you to transport and store all this meat once you pick it up from the locker / slaughterhouse.
You will need coolers, dry ice, and a large vehicle. A full-size truck or cargo van will do. Anything smaller is inadequate.

Coolers:

Four 150 quart coolers: $84 x 4 = ~$370 with taxes
Buy these from Costco or Walmart. Buy them in advance because it may be hard to find them on the road.

Dry ice:

If you pick up in Wyoming and deliver to California, you will need to drive at least 1000 miles. This is not possible in one day.
Dry ice for 2 days and 1 night of driving: $240, or, approx. $40 per cooler per full day

Almost all Safeway stores sell dry ice. They are the most reliable source. Chances are you'll find at least one in every large city you pass through.
The meat locker place may have advice on where to buy some at a discount locally, or they may not. Don't rely on it. Unpredictable weather can cause a run on the local dry ice supplier, leaving you with nothing when the day comes.

Dry ice will be sold to you as large chunks in plastic bags. A pair of gloves of any shape or size will be sufficient to handle the dry ice as long as it stays inside the bag. Never pick it up with your bare hands, especially when it's outside the bag.

Do not use regular ice! It's bulkier and will turn your meat into a soggy pile of bloody paper along the way, and create a very high risk of disease. Do not cheap out to save a hundred bucks on ice only to lose a $2000 investment.

Pick up:

The meat will be given to you as packages, mostly the size of a large burrito, wrapped in butcher paper and tape. There will be a lot of packages.
Load them into the coolers evenly, leaving about four inches of space at the top.
Place enough bags across the top of the meat to cover it. (Usually 4 bags per cooler.) Smash one of the bags with a wrench or hammer to make large chunks - this one will "melt" a little faster than the others. (Leave the bag sealed.)
Close the cooler, and if you like, you can tape the lid down or put a strap around it to hold it closed.

Handy tip: Crumple up some newspaper and pile it on top of the dry ice, to slightly slow the dispersion of the cold air through the lid.

Transport:

If you are using an enclosed vehicle like a cargo van (which I recommend), keep the air conditioner or vents on at all times. As dry ice "melts" it turns into carbon dioxide. You need to keep driving fresh air into your vehicle, around yourself, in order to counteract this or you may feel drowsy and sluggish even in the middle of the day. If you start feeling that way even a little, roll down the windows immediately.

Do not buy all the dry ice up front. You will need to buy more each day.
The reason is this: Your meat is already frozen solid, i.e. frozen below the point where water becomes ice. Dry ice is much colder than that. (Ice is 0 degrees C at minimum, and dry ice is -78.5 degrees C at minimum.)
As dry ice melts, it does not accumulate cold water at the bottom of the cooler - it becomes gas, which is pushed out through the lid of the cooler by pressure, and once that air is outside the cooler it is useless for cooling. If you buy all your dry ice at once, you will be pushing the temperature of your meat farther below freezing for a shorter period of time.
(That said, feel free to spend as much as you want on dry ice, and pack the coolers full at all times. You'll still come out ahead.)

Storage:

You will need a very large freestanding freezer. Probably two, located in the garage, or outside the house in the shade with a lock on them.
Kenmore 7.2 cubic foot chest freezer from Sears: $180 x 2 = $360
You can attempt to borrow one from a neighbor or co-buyer, or buy one used on Craigslist if you live in a large city.
Have these installed and cold when you return with the beef, and load them up. (Remember that every extra day you need dry ice is $160.)

Distribution:

If you're going in on this with friends and neighbors, it makes accounting sense to divide the meat into lots, each containing the same amount of the same cuts of meat. Then each of you can pay for one or more lots.
To get things exactly even you'll want to get a small scale.
If you want to cover your expenses, and possibly make a small profit on top, ask for something like seven bucks per pound per lot.
garote: (castlevania 3 sunset)
2017-06-12 10:24 pm

Comedy Wolf is undead, so it's no surprise she's returned:

I'm still done with Skyrim, but I've got quite a few Comedy Wolf comics sitting around half-finished. So I spent a little time on them today:













garote: (dragon quest guy)
2017-05-24 06:31 pm

Now get off my lawn!!

The internet makes all fame relative. As long as you step away from youth-oriented culture - the playground of billion-dollar corporations - you're a success.

Young people nowadays love artists I don't know and don't give a crap about. I don't know the difference between Rihanna, Beyoncé, Adele, Alicia Keys, Kehlani, Kygo, Quavo, Khalid, Gucci Mane, Kodie Shane, Kodak Black, Fetty Wap, Aminé, Shamwou, Goapele, G-Eazy, Tekno, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Drake, Daddy Yankee, Zayn, 2 Chainz, Ty Dolla $ign, Joey Bada$$, and Wiz Kalifa*.

Lately the best time I've had from musicians is the little 4-piece bluegrass band that plays at the Baja Taqueria on Mondays.

*Only one of those is a made up name. Can you guess which?
garote: (Default)
2017-05-22 12:05 am

Condensing books

I have an absurd amount of music, and it plays a gigantic role in my mental existence. I also have quite a lot of audiobooks, and those are often broken into lots of tiny little tracks that can overwhelm the database on an iPod. I want the best of both worlds (now that I'm using an iPod with a terabyte of storage) so I'm walking through my audiobook library and zipping all those little files together into big ones.

To verify that the files are joined in the right order, I need to listen to the middle of each book, for about 30 seconds at least. Every time, I want to keep listening longer and have to tear myself away. I've got a lot of interesting books to read.

... But I can't resist commenting on the book I just dropped into. It's "The Social Animal", by David Brooks. He just made two interesting points:

1. We often consider our lives to be at their best when we have a stable, safe home, and we get to make regular excursions outside of it.

I find it interesting that both a home and travel are fundamental components. No doubt one helps to characterize the other, as well. For all the fun and relaxing time I have at home, I still have a deep need to get outside and engage with things. Sometimes I catch myself in a ridiculous cycle where I dream about traveling when I'm at home, and I dream about being home when I'm traveling. Durrr.

I think that if I'd been raised in more threatening environment, or had a less stable home, I would be a lot less inclined to travel ... and probably a lot less able to relax at home, since I'd feel like it was constantly under threat. Truly this sense of stability is a gift. I also can't help but acknowledge the very weird sense of home that comes from a bicycle trip: The bicycle becomes a kind of mobile home. Not big enough to actually go inside, but big enough to carry all the supplies that would usually be in a house.

Then there's that strange, ironic feeling one gets, when one checks into a hotel for the night. It's four walls and a roof, and a bathroom and a bed, and usually dinner as well -- but it feels far from home, because it's not the seat of the bicycle. Sometimes the only way to combat this strange feeling is to wheel the bicycle into the room and sleep next to it, like it's the family dog!!

And here's David's second point:

2. The way parents engage in dialogue with their children does more for them developmentally than any amount of flashcards, books, tutors, travel, nutrition, freedom, or punishment. With that dialogue, they teach their children how to build their identity and navigate their own mental space, and how to send signals to - and read signals from - other people. The movement of the dialogue becomes the inner voice -- the tracks beneath the train of thought.

I think there's an awful lot of truth in that idea. Many of the formative events in my young life were conversations. One little example:

I had a CD of songs by Monty Python. I was playing it on the stereo one day, half-listening while doing some schoolwork I think, and the song "Oliver Cromwell" came up. My mother wandered into the living room. The song went:

"Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England (and his warts)
Born in 1599, died in 1658 (September)
But, alas (Oi Vay!), disagreement then broke out (between)
The Presbyterian Parliament and the military..."


My mother was intrigued. "What song is this?" she asked.

"Oh it's just some Monty Python song about a king of England," I probably said.

"Oliver Cromwell, that rings a bell," she said, and listened for a while.

"And Cromwell sent Colonel Pride
To purge the House of Commons of the Presbyterian Royalists,
Leaving behind only the Rump Parliament"


"The Rump Parliament?" she said.

"Yeah, I don't know what that is," I said.

"Hah! I bet we can figure it out," she said, and walked over to the bookcase and sat down. After a moment she said, "here we are -- European history," and she pulled out a large book with a tall black spine.

I was intrigued. I set my homework aside, and sat down next to her on the floor. She opened the book and guided me through the table of contents, then the index, then we scoured the page together. Eventually we found it, and she read aloud:

"The Rump Parliament was the English Parliament after Colonel Thomas Pride purged the Long Parliament, on 6 December 1648, ..."

We learned a little about that, and I asked some questions. I was excited to discover that a song I liked for the silly voices was actually making social commentary about real historical events. I restarted the song from the beginning, so my Mom and I could hear it together.

"The most interesting thing about King Charles the First,
Is that he was 5'6" at the start of his reign,
But only 4'8" tall at the end of it."


My Mom laughed.

"I don't get that," I said. "Why did he get shorter? Did he have some kind of disease?"

"No," she said, and laughed again. "He was beheaded."

"OOOOOh," I said.

We found a reference to that a few pages back. I was fascinated: It felt like Monty Python had somehow managed to sneak one of their skits right into the middle of an otherwise serious history book.

We chatted some more about Monty Python and eventually Mom put the book away, and I returned to my homework. But that little exchange has stuck with me for 28 years, as a template for action and interaction. It said: Curiosity about random things, and the desire to follow up that curiosity, is normal, and rewarding in itself. It said: Research tools are good for more than just school projects. It said: Curiosity can be shared, and finding answers together is more fun.

David Brooks is really on to something with point 2 there.

As an adult, I have had a strange flipside to this experience a number of times. Usually when talking to people younger than me who are having some kind of trouble. We talk, and the person calms down and starts to think, and if I've managed to make a good impression by saying something wise or helpful, the conversation enters this interesting semi-monologue state where I talk a few orbits around whatever wise thing I may have said, reenforcing it, giving it context, backing it up. I can sense that I have been given, for a brief time, the conductor's seat in their train of thought, and I am driving it for them, laying down different track than what they were on before ... so that much later when the conversation is just a dim memory they might run that track on their own.

I also remember being on the receiving end of this state when I was young and my parents or school counselors would speak to me. If they managed to get through, my perspective would be shifted. The storm clouds would be clearing, and their words would settle into my head like they were my own. I had made an emotional and subconscious decision to let them write part of my identity.

Human minds are so strange. But how does that quote go? "If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."

Oh by the way; here's an illustration of Cromwell dissolving the Rump Parliament:



What the hell is up with that owl in the lower right corner??

Anyway, back to my books.
garote: (zelda bakery)
2017-05-15 11:21 pm

I am tired of managing "stuff".

Since the beginning of this year, when I hatched a plan to divide the utility costs between the two halves of my duplex, I have been spending the majority of every day - when I'm not at work - managing "stuff". Physical possessions.

At least, it feels that way. If I go wading into the details I remember all the interesting things I've done this year that weren't stuff-oriented. I got to visit my sister for an extended time, and help with a science fair project. Got to participate in a "March For Science". Did fascinating tours of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Japantown, the Japanese Tea Gardens, and Cal Academy. Had a blast at a video arcade. Finished up two good music mixes, and my long-running Arthur C Clarke series. Ate a lot of great food. Read a lot of great books - mostly nonfiction - some of which inspired interesting thoughts I'd like to write down sometime. Went through a huge collection of old family photos and put them online -- something that feels very important to me.

But still, the idea persists. Why am I spending so much time managing "stuff", especially when I appear to have so little of it? In fact I've been concentrating on reducing the amount of "stuff" I own for what seems like forever, but here it all is. Heaped around me. Being stuffy.

Furniture, books, clothes, pots and pans, wires, bicycle parts, paperwork, candles, pictures, appliances, camping supplies, tools, more bicycle parts, spices, sporting equipment, musical instruments, posters, tupperware, rugs, cat toys, batteries, bags, even more bicycle parts, and more bicycle parts on top of those bicycle parts, packed away in cabinets or arranged in little piles for sorting or disposal or use in some ongoing project. It's like a Weird Al song in here. And I have to admit it's mostly just the everyday materials of middle-class living and I can't actually get rid of it all. Yes, I really do need cups. Yes I really do need clothes. No, I can't get rid of ALL of my clothing, though sometimes I am seized with the urge to just empty my closet out into the street. Most of this feeling probably comes from the fact that I've crammed my existence into a single room, in order to save money. The less space I occupy the more there is to rent out.

But I've been living for three years like this. I think I may have reached a minimum viable size for my possessions, and now it's just refusing to get any smaller without extreme measures, or some kind of fundamental attitude change. Mind you, it's been a pretty great three years. I've just been living a lot of it outside the house. I've also saved a boatload of money and am now in a much better position to consider my future and retirement. The duplex is actually managing to pay for itself at this point, or at least it would if I wasn't constantly maintaining or improving it. It certainly helps that I've refinanced my loan four times, ridding myself of mortgage insurance within the first year, then ridding myself of a home-equity line of credit, then ridding myself of most of a percentage point in interest. I ain't really complaining here. I'm just pointing out a condition I've picked up: I feel like I am constantly surrounded by "stuff" that needs dealing with in some way.

Now that I think of it, this feeling is almost entirely due to the house. Dividing the utilities in this place means installing a second electrical line, water line, gas line, water heater, and furnace, along with additional pipes and wiring in the walls. Getting estimates on that, deciding exactly how to do it, and following up with that project has been the biggest piece of "stuff" in my life. That project has also kicked off a whole family of related projects that have collectively dominated my free time. Actually, let me try to describe this whole demented family tree, so I can get it out in front of me.

Last week a utility inspector came out and told me that I had to clip some tree branches away from my electrical line before they could get to work. Their work is blocking the contractor's work, so this is top priority. I called the handful of landscape and tree specialists I knew, and they were all booked up for the next six weeks. I wasn't gonna wait that long. Since I'd already gathered estimates for trimming all the trees on the property, I knew that particular job would cost at least 100 bucks. I did some research and found the tool I need to do it myself: A sixteen-foot-long extendable pruning hook for 90 bucks. So I went out and bought that.

Standing in the driveway, with a big hat on my head, dancing around under this incredibly awkward device like the world's worst street performer, I realized that sixteen feet was still not long enough. So I opened the gate and backed my van into the driveway, then climbed up on the roof of the van and tried again. The jasmine vines threaded around the bay tree kept tangling in the blade, and I nearly dropped the contraption several times, but after an hour or so I had all the branches cut away from the power line. I smelled like a giant bay leaf afterwards and just about sneezed my face off, but the job was done.

Now my special house toolset includes a 16-foot pruning hook, propped against the shelf next to the bolt cutters, the hedge trimmers, the reciprocating saw, the sledgehammer, and the axe.

That stuff is all in the basement. That's bad, because I have to empty out the basement completely for the contractors to do their work, and after they've installed the furnace and water heater, there will be almost no room in there for tools. They also need a wide path to the basement, which means I need to empty out the garage. That's where I've been living - or at least keeping all my stuff - for the last three years.

So I've been feverishly reducing the stuff in the basement and the garage, with the knowledge that at some point I'll have to stuff it all in the bedroom next-door, and also sleep there while the work is being done. That will be grossly uncomfortable unless I get rid of everything I can. The good news is, "everything I can" is just about equivalent to "everything I should".

For example, I really don't need a gigantic beat-up faux leather armchair. Especially one that I bought used for 60 bucks. Nobody on Craigslist wanted to buy it, so now it's out on the curb. I really don't need a hideous glass-and-particleboard coffee table, either. That vanished weeks ago. I don't need a pile of hundreds of 35mm slides, sitting around inside a plastic bag, not useful or visible to anyone. So I scanned every single one of them, at very high resolution. It took weeks. Those are in a box, ready to be sent back to Roseburg, after I finish scanning the prints and yearbooks that accompany them. One less thing taking up space on a shelf.

The closet in the bedroom is much smaller than the closet in the garage, so I've culled my clothing mercilessly. All the pants that don't fit went to Goodwill. All the shirts that looked good went to my nephews. I don't need six sweaters; now I have three. I don't need five pairs of bike shorts; now I have one.

But wait, before I move anything, I need to take advantage of the bedroom next door being vacant. So, while I'm waiting for the contractors to be ready, I'm sprucing up the bedroom. That means repainting the walls and trim, replacing the crappy blinds, and replacing the carpet. At first I wanted laminate flooring, but after touring several stores and bringing samples home, I couldn't find a color or texture that suited the room. That was weeks of research, with nothing to show for it. I eventually decided to replace the carpet with newer carpet. But, it makes sense to do the painting first, of course, and once I'd settled on a color and bought supplies I realized that I should also repaint the rest of the rooms.

This has been an exhausting process, especially the prep-work. I had no idea it took so much time to apply painter's tape to trim and windowsills (and sockets and mirrors and lights). I'm done with the walls but now I need to purchase more paint and touch up the trim. But before that's done I need to get primer, to paint over the chunk of spackle I had to apply near the bathtub, to repair an ugly water stain that appeared last winter. Oh yeah, and speaking of the bathtub, I need to redo about a third of the grout, and all of the caulking as well. It looks grody.

Meanwhile, the trees in the back yard need trimming. I consulted with a couple of arborists, and along with the estimates, I got some advice. They both agreed that the cherry tree on the left side of the yard is just the wrong kind of tree for that spot. It's grown straight up, and started rudely poking at the eaves and windows of my house and the neighbor's house. It's only produces a handful of cherries each year, which makes sense because the temperature has to drop below freezing for a cherry tree to be inspired to fruit. Fat chance of that happening here in Oakland. So I decided to have the tree removed.

The estimate to do that was 400 bucks. That's serious bucks. Besides, I own an axe and I like chopping things. I couldn't handle the whole thing by myself though, so I had some folks over for a picnic in the back yard one weekend, including my pal Andy, and he brought his chainsaw, and we threw ropes over the top of the tree and cut a notch in the trunk and pulled the sucker down in two sections. Plus there was pizza thanks to Kerry, and chips and the board game Tak, thanks to Alex. And Andy's kids raked a whole bunch of leaves and earned ice cream from Fenton's for their work.

The chunks from the cherry tree have been going into the yard waste bin ever since. Probably three more weeks before it's all gone, along with the stuff from the front yard. That's just two trees dealt with -- but there's two more. The plum tree in the front yard needs pruning, and the apricot tree in the back yard is leaning heavily on my fence. Oh yeah, and the fence itself was knocked almost sideways by the stormy winds last month. Turns out it was built without proper cement footings. I've got to figure out how to add those, hopefully without rebuilding the entire fence. Maybe Andy can help, though he has plenty of projects of his own to attend to.

Oh and I totally forgot about the time the dishwasher broke, and I tried to fix it but couldn't, and eventually called a repairman. And the time the garbage disposal broke, and I replaced it myself. And all the hazardous old paint supplies I found in the basement from the previous owners. I had to take that stuff to a disposal center on the South side. I also massively reduced my camping supplies, rerouted the home network, rearranged the kitchen, and inspected the roof. That last item was pretty fun: I flew my drone up over the house.

I sold plenty of extra bicycling gear in a bunch of separate transactions, meeting strangers in coffee shops. A coffee maker I bought from a guy standing outside an apartment complex six years ago went to Goodwill. I only bought it because he included it with a blender I really wanted. (I'm keeping that.) I got rid of a huge mass of extra cables and gadgets by sending "care packages" to my nephews, who picked out what they liked and disposed of the rest. Somehow I ended up with an extra space heater. That went to Carlsbad. An air purifier I don't use went to Sacramento. A huge cooler I don't need went out to the sidewalk, and was gone after 20 minutes. For about a decade I've been hauling around a bunch of DVDs in binders. I've been copying those onto the RAID array and throwing them out. I think I've done about a hundred. There is one binder left, and it's half-full.

It feels like this sort of activity has been my life this year. I know it hasn't really, but it still feels that way.

Ugh. Just describing it all has overwhelmed me. I'm going to take a break from writing and go next door and remove more tape from the bathroom walls, and screw plates back onto electrical sockets for a while.

When will this chaos resolve itself into order? A nice, clean, low-maintenance household. That's worth pursuing. Why does the pursuit feel like a hamster wheel?

I wonder how much I could get for a hamster wheel on Craigslist...
garote: (Default)
2017-05-12 10:25 pm

Fake movie listings (a.k.a. bored in the chat console)

The Sword In The Stone: Sir Arthur Pendragon accidentally consumes too many edibles, and walks off the parapet at Camelot, believing he can fly. A young stablehand is maimed in the ensuing carnage. His mother vows revenge, and assassinates the Knights Of The Round Table one by one, via poison, forgery, and a series of appalling traps, until Merlin confronts her. (TV14+, 120 minutes)

Three out of five stars.

The Secret Of Nimh: A streetwise rat (Marlon Brando) confronts his circus-freak past, with help from the crime lord (Don Rickles) he was ordered to kill. Meanwhile, an officer from Health And Human Services (Jude Law) and a naïve young mouse (Chloe Moretz) fight in court to shut the circus down for excessive "butt-play". Directed by Tim Burton.

One out of five stars.

Flight Of The Navigator: A troubled teen sneaks inside gigantic EZ-bake oven and gets accosted by the lamp. Caged in with his own stink and hormones for a week, he hallucinates an epic journey. His parents find him in a cow pasture 300 miles away.

Two out of five stars.

Grease 3: A ragtag cluster of disgusting, musically-inclined perverts breaks into a theatre while a show is in progress, and holds the audience hostage. The cast of the show challenges them to a dance-off for their freedom. Starring Al Pacino, Harry Shearer, Kate Bosworth, and Common. (R, 80 minutes)

Zero stars.
garote: (ghostly gallery)
2017-04-17 10:08 pm

Halloween DnB Mix 2



The first Halloween mix was born from my effort to learn Ableton Live. Suddenly, beat matching was trivially easy! I had so much fun throwing samples on samples and trying weird things that it spawned a whole series of mixes, and with each new one I always promised myself I would get back to the Halloween theme. Well, it took eight years, but I finally got around to it. This mix has been waiting as unfinished pieces for about half that time, and the creative mojo to put it all together just hit me during this especially rainy spring season.

Back in 2009 I didn't understand Ableton's BPM settings very well, so I locked everything to 166BPM and rolled with it. This mix has more range. I got to throw in some old film scores, some classic industrial music, and even some hardcore punk! And of course there's the usual enormous pile of movie and TV and video game samples. If you only have half as much fun listening to it as I did making it, you'll still have a lot of fun.

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, in 24-bit, for all you audiophile types like me. (357mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (138mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (114mb)

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. I recommend that. :)

Happy sort-of-Halloween!
garote: (ultima 6 bedroom 1)
2017-04-16 11:09 pm

The non-100

There was a time, about 20 years ago, when internet connectivity was first spreading all over the world, where it seemed to me like humanity was on the edge of a cultural unification. Of course I would think that, since I was on the inside of it: The internet was unrolling around me like a carpet and as far as I could tell, the pattern was one I already knew, and the weave was flawless. It was just a matter of time before everyone realized that we had everything in common, and there wold be no more strangers, no more foreign devils, no more faceless enemies for patriots and zealots to declare war on. We would enter a new phase of civilization.

I based this naïve impression on what I knew: In the 1980s, as a young teenager in California, I'd connected to an IRC channel and talked with people from New York to Australia to Russia to Japan. Almost everyone was polite and intelligent, and impoliteness was punished with exclusion. With the internet spreading to every household on Earth, surely everyone would learn from the example of politeness online.

Well, we all know how hilariously wrong that prediction was, hmm?

Of course, I've had to acknowledge that my personal dream of the internet as the savior of humanity was just a product of my own human limitations. Worse yet, those very limitations are what made the dream impossible.

It's said that any given person only has enough space in their head for a hundred or so relationships at a time, and everyone else is just a mass of strangers. We navigate the strangers by assuming that they're like one or more of the people we know. Even if the internet could deliver us infinite variety -- allow us to connect to any other person we wanted -- our attention span would force us to narrow that variety to about a hundred people. Or, superficial fragments of a thousand people. Or, vague and easily manipulated impressions of a million people. In any case, we are also making decisions that exclude connection.

So, if you can potentially connect to a billion people, then that's 100 people you've decided to connect to, and 999,999,900 that you have decided to leave as strangers.

This kind of built-in limitation to the way humans work has been on my mind a lot lately. It has implications in politics and culture that I find very difficult to grasp. It boggles my mind that the same problems I have with seeing all the people around me clearly are also shared by everyone else. We are all half-blind, stumbling through our non-100 portion of humanity by making huge assumptions and applying them indiscriminately almost all the time, because it's impossible to function any other way.

Of course, sociologists have been examining this phenomenon since before "sociologist" was even a term. It's something humans have had to deal with ever since agriculture spawned the first cities, and it's why we have concepts like "the golden rule" - basically a "Newton's first law" for social etiquette. What's interesting to me is how this human limitation has run headlong into the internet, and rather than be changed by it one little bit, people are instead clamoring to reconfigure the internet.

Take the example of Facebook: As soon as your "newsfeed" grows beyond a few dozen active people, it becomes exhausting to follow. The developers of Facebook are constantly adding and tweaking features that chop it down to size. You are also presented with things that your friends have commented on, which exposes you to commentary from their friends, and so on. In a surprisingly short time the degree of separation is large enough to present you with an inflammatory comment made by a stranger - or perhaps just a comment that feels inflammatory to you.

And here's where the internet goes wrong: It's just words on a screen. There is no encompassing social context that helps us decide how to interpret them, or how to react.

We are hammering changes into the internet as fast as we can that make it more like in-person, on-location, real-time communication, because that context requires investment, and that investment compels people to behave. Nicknames become legal names. Blank icons become photos, which become video feeds. Everything gets a location. Things actually decay and vanish, by erasing encryption keys and revoking digital certificates. I suspect that a person's "digital persona" will eventually include some legal right to order companies to delete old correspondence from their communication platforms. Yes: The fact that the internet can store anything with perfect fidelity forever, is actually a problem that we need to solve!

But let me back up and point out an assumption I skipped over here:

In-person communication, and plenty of it, is the most satisfying way to conduct your social life, and the surest way to maintain or adapt that set of 100 intimate people.

Surely the internet has a role to play in socializing. But what if that role is a supporting one? What if you took an inventory of every way you communicate with people through the internet, and decided to reconfigure that communication so that it steered as quickly and as often as possible towards in-person communication?

What if you went through every person on your Facebook list and made the following choice:

1. Contact them right now and arrange a lunch date to catch up.
2. Drop them off the list forever.

What if you made a pledge that you would only read the internet for entertainment or news purposes if there was someone else in the room to bounce ideas off as you go?

What if you just approached face-to-face communication by degrees: The next time you start a text conversation with a friend, drop in "How about if I call you instead?" The next time you're on the phone with a friend, switch to video chat for the hell of it. Yes, I know we're all very busy, but there are ways to respect that and still add intimacy.

These are questions I'm asking myself. This is the direction my thinking has taken, now that I've accepted the foolishness of my earlier utopian dream. The internet is not going to remake civilization just by existing, but it can play a role in our efforts to navigate it. For example, it is a terrible substitute for in-person communication, but it is a remarkable tool for helping me choose whom to meet in person next!
garote: (castlevania 3 sunset)
2017-04-12 08:18 pm

Western Desert, parts 9-12



This is mix 3 of a musical triptych about starting over - searching for lost identity. (Mix one is here, and mix two is here.)


The idea for the particular sound came to me when I was bicycling through the high desert of eastern Oregon in 2009.

I was out by myself in a vast hot space, filled with clean air and shimmering light, with the epic scale of nature and geology laid bare around me. It was brutally inhospitable and deeply comforting and intimate at the same time, and an environment well-suited for self-assessment. It was also scattered with the detritus of older stories, of pioneering settlers and farmers, who engaged directly with this raw landscape to establish a new life and independence for themselves. Those stories wove into my personal thoughts as I traveled, making my little bike trip feel like its own epic expedition into the western frontier.

A few years later I wanted to return to that feeling, and began searching for a way to encapsulate it in music. It was very difficult to find things that were differentiated enough to have character, while still fitting within the mental space I had staked out. Eventually I ended up with a patchwork of heroic - and somewhat corny - Western movie soundtracks, hallucinatory ambient sounds, local background noise from wind and animals, and languid, seductive steel guitar. I wanted something long: A soundscape with different parts telling a loose story, each brief enough to have structure but also long enough to get lost in - to let the mind wander - and use it to meditate on a theme.

That theme is, succinctly: Starting over with nothing.

Parts 9-12 are combined into a one-hour mix:

Part 9: Canyons
Part 10: Settlement
Part 11: Third Oasis
Part 12: Epilogue

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, in 24-bit, for all you audiophile types like me. (735mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (171mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (131mb)

The cover photo was taken by my father during a trip down the Baja peninsula 38 years ago.

All three of these mixes were hard to make, but this last one was especially difficult. I tried to compress it into an hour, but even at 70 minutes it just barely had enough space to breathe while still going all the places I wanted it to. This should have probably been four mixes, not three, but I'm not going to unravel them and start over. I did what I set out to do, and I'm happy with the result.

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. :)
garote: (victory)
2017-04-06 04:21 pm

On space expansion and terraforming (I'm on a space/science kick these days!)

I'm gung-ho on colonizing Mars. Let's do this!! It would be an amazing adventure and a useful scientific endeavor. But there's something I really want us all to keep in mind as we do it. Colonizing - even terraforming - is not an "insurance policy."

It's tempting to think in terms of eggs and baskets. Earth is one big basket, and Mars is another, and the more baskets we can distribute our eggs to, the better our chances of survival - as a species - if one of those baskets breaks.

But on closer inspection, that metaphor just doesn't work, because Earth is not just any old basket. If we drop it, we are straight-up doomed. Fixing our problems on this planet is way, way, WAAAAYY more important than any terraforming effort of some other planet.

For the foreseeable future, any planet we terraform is guaranteed to be:

  1. way too hot or too cold,
  2. poisonous,
  3. radioactive,
  4. suffocating,
  5. too dry,
  6. much more difficult to mine for resources,
  7. far away from assistance,
  8. devoid of supporting life

That last item is the most pressing. To take one example, planet Earth has a nice coating of soil on it. Soil is astonishingly complicated. 94 percent of all the Earth's bacteria are in the soil subsurface. A teaspoon of farm soil contains tens of yards of fungi, and the same amount from a coniferous forest can hold tens of miles. Custom mixtures have evolved for custom environments all over the planet. And here, it is literally cheap as dirt. Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the solar system and if you placed it anywhere else in the solar system it would immediately die.

No soil, no food.

That makes Earth pretty freakin' essential, I'd say. We mess things up here, it is game over, man. Game over! There is no insurance policy big enough that covers it. Could we terraform Mars? I think so, yes. But if we can't keep the Earth intact at the same time, what's the point? This planet has been human habitable for a hundred million years at least, and that's just my own conservative estimate as a non-expert. Unlike anywhere else, it can remain so for another hundred million years, without our intervention. In fact, it's our intervention that is the only real threat! That's some harsh irony.

A hundred million years is an absurdly long span of time - longer than any of us can imagine, and time enough to accomplish amazing things - but we have to earn it, by self-organizing, by setting our priorities, and by figuring out how to curb our worst behaviors. As a bonus, if we can last long enough, we're bound to make contact with other intelligent life in the universe, via robotic probes or otherwise. In fact, living sustainably may be the cost of admission to a galactic community. Suppose we discover life in a distant solar system, and show up with the terraforming equivalent of dumptrucks and dynamite, and claim that we need a spare planet because we've screwed up our own beyond repair? For the sake of all other intelligent life everywhere, It would be a righteous act for those aliens to nuke us out of orbit, follow us home, and post guards all around the Earth to keep us contained until we sort ourselves out.

That's some of what's in play here: We are expansionistic apes with extremely short attention spans keen to build an incredibly frail and suspiciously symbolic outpost, because we believe deep within ourselves that our whole planet of origin could go up in smoke any moment - not from any external threat, which geologic history has shown to be very remote - but from our own careless nature. Or maybe just the careless nature of those other apes -- the ones with the different religion, or the suspiciously different fashion sense.

We evolved as nomadic wanderers, relying on other life to reset our damage after moving on to the next fresh area. Our self-organization has helped us move beyond that, but we need to leave it entirely behind, if we are going to earn our deep time on this planet.

An outpost, a colony, a terraforming effort - these are experiments, adventures, proving grounds. But they are not an insurance policy. Not a backup plan. We lose Earth, we lose it all.

garote: (conan pc)
2017-03-30 09:58 am

Evolution has a knack for answering seemingly unanswerable questions.

For example, why do most of the really infectious diseases travel so poorly and decompose so quickly? The answer is a brutal one: All the diseases that were highly infectious and very hardy lost in their competition for hosts, by thinning out their host populations too thoroughly. The long-term winners are diseases that dominate without destroying and spread slowly enough to avoid competing with too many of their co-evolving peers, and by that tactic, are consistently able to catch new species or populations by surprise.

Plant and animal life rose up from the sea of bacteria after potentially billions of years of trying and failing. Many kinds of multi-cellular organisms could have arisen and thrived for millions of years during that time, only to be exterminated in an instant by some plague, and then it's back to the drawing board. Eventually life hit upon a compromise form that could be attacked by bacterial invaders, and suffer, but could roll with the punches and never be entirely exterminated.

Based on this idea, and with no consideration for the current state of biotechnology, I suspect that humans will probably never accidentally evolve a disease that could kill all animal life, but they could probably construct one through complex artificial means that could have a pretty good shot at killing all human life. The only question is, are we dumb enough to try?
garote: (chips challenge eprom)
2017-03-06 02:56 pm

A sobering thought.

Traditional journalism pursued three things: 1. An impartial presentation, 2. From verified sources, 3. Of information that can be used to participate meaningfully in society. That third thing has a subjective element to it, and it is often what journalists spend the most time struggling with, because it's how they determine what to pursue, and what to ignore.

Needless to say, almost every single piece of "news" that crosses our path via the internet is none of those things.

We should keep that in mind, as we fritter away our time online getting "informed".

There is almost no such thing as mainstream or traditional media at this point. Sure, we've still got some good sources - off the top of my head, there's the Associated Press, chunks of CBS news, chunks of NPR - but these sources are separated from us by a massive filtering apparatus, made up of our friends and family, our peer group, and algorithms designed by corporations.

Because of this, what is the "mainstream media", to our current American society, from children to adults? When we are asked to identify the "mainstream media", where should we be pointing?

At ourselves.

Clickbait, editorializing, blog posts, "free" content wrapped in advertisements... For some reason, we assume that the information we feel most interested in consuming next should also be the most unbiased, truthful, and useful to us. Being highly-educated is no escape: It makes the assumption stronger. Even though the highly-educated might make fewer mistakes, their self-confidence leads them to cause much more damage when they do make a mistake. The problem goes deeper than lack of education.

Here's what I think happened: We all got collectively sick of sitting in a dull schoolhouse learning about civics and finance and history, so we got up and wandered over to the amusement park. Now years have passed, and we're complaining that the merry-go-round and the hall of mirrors haven't made us any smarter.

We know what's missing, but we're not willing to leave the amusement park.

How do we get out of here? Or, should we even be trying to leave, knowing that the dull schoolhouse will just make us pine for the amusement park again?
garote: (bedroom 1)
2017-02-28 01:47 pm

Top ten most influential: Movies 1

As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.

Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.

The first two: )
garote: (Default)
2017-02-17 03:18 pm

Arthur C Clarke Round 22: At The End Was The Wire

The Hammer Of God, 1992

This is a short story that Clarke turned into a full-length novel a year later. Astronomers spot a rock heading for Earth, and scientists launch a spaceship to intercept it and nudge it off its collision course. No relation to the short story of the same name by G. K. Chesterton, or the similarly-named-and-themed novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle from 1978.

I don't know why it took him so long to explore the scenario; he was writing about landing ships on comets over 30 years before he wrote this. On the other hand perhaps it only seems obvious in retrospect. In the 1980's, the idea of an impact killing off the dinosaurs had barely even gained traction in the scientific community, let alone for the general public. Plus, everyone was obsessed with the idea of nuclear destruction at the hands of the Soviets. Who had time to think about rocks from space?

Then, geologists found a layer of iridium sewn into the Earth's crust, and in the early 1990's they found forensic evidence of an impact crater big enough to do the job. And bingo, Clarke writes this story a year later, which uses a description of that impact as a framing device. I guess it was a blind spot for even the great "Grandmaster of Sci-Fi". He should have read Niven and Pournelle's book!

As a kid, I remember reading Orn, by Piers Anthony, and finding an "author's note" in the back of the book, confidently laying out a case for the dinosaurs dying due to temperature change, from continental drift*. I guess that was the state of the art in 1971, when Orn was written. Today that theory would be laughed at just as heartily as the impact theory was in the 80's. We've come a long way. I wonder what ideas there are today, on the fringe of science, that sound very reasonable with our present knowledge -- but will seem unworkable in ten or twenty years, after we make new discoveries that totally reframe the debate?

Here's a few I'm willing to put forward:

  1. By closely examining the DNA of a person, and the taxonomy of their gut bacteria, a computer program can predict their ideal diet, on a meal-by-meal basis. Seems sensible now; will seem childish in 10 years.
  2. The space elevator is a workable concept for Earth. Tantalizing now, will seem like a boondoggle in 20 years or less.
  3. Wormholes can be used as a means of travel or communication. Plausible now; will seem like a fairy story in 20-30 years.
  4. High-quality meat can be grown in vats, more cheaply and with less waste than well-managed pastoral farming. Seems like an any-day-now invention, but I reckon the closest we'll get will be a product of fermentation like tempeh. Not a bad outcome really, since tempeh is delicious.

It's always risky to pronounce things as wrong before they've been completely explored. I'll check back in a decade and see how I did. Terribly, I hope!

(*Now we call it "plate tectonics" of course.)

Reunion, 1971

A short one with a twist in the last four words. It's ham-handed and I might as well spoil it. An alien race makes contact, and claims that they are humans, and colonized Earth with humans ten million years ago. (Never mind our 99% of shared genes with apes, or our 50% of shared genes with all other cellular life on the planet. Did they know any of that back in 1971?) Most of the aliens abandoned the planet when the environment turned sour, leaving behind a handful of humans who had "descended to barbarism" because of a "genetic plague" that had broken out in the population and caused them shame and suspicion. The big twist: The "disease" is white skin, and the aliens are ready to "cure" it as soon as they return, so we can "join the society of the universe without shame".

This story is 45 years old, and it suffers for it. For every modern reader who would think "hah, that's a solid Take That against the white supremacists in my family!" -- there are two or even three readers who would say "Wow, you suck Clarke. The righteous response to racism is not bigger racism." And this is galactic-scale racism!!

On Golden Seas, 1986

A light-hearted mishmash about how the world governments would react to the idea of trying to pay their bills by extracting gold from seawater. Clarke gets a point for proposing that a future US President would be female. He loses that point for proposing that other world leaders would still happily make sexist jokes about her in the international media.

He keeps the tone playful here, and perhaps he is also making some clever commentary about global politics of the 80's but that commentary is lost on me now. Given how long the downtime has grown between his short stories in the 80's and 90's, I think he's actually become sick of the short-story format at this point and is using it to rid himself of half-baked ideas that he doesn't feel are worth a full-sized novel...

Improving The Neighborhood, 1999

In the introduction to this story Clarke proudly says it was the first piece of fiction to be published in Nature (which is usually restricted to very non-fictional scientific papers). He reckons it might have upset scientists who didn't know they were reading fiction.

I don't think so. The story is a dispassionate recounting of the history of a civilization of "large" "loud" beings that were so thirsty for energy to drive their machines that they accidentally blew up their entire planet, as well as its moon. Partway through it becomes clear that the narrator is actually on an alien world and the "large" "loud" beings in the story are us humans. Aside from a snide jab at how much we all love gas-guzzling vehicles, there isn't much emotion, structure, or even any real point to this story at all. Considering it was the last short story he ever published, I was hoping for something professional and clever -- something with zing to it.

Bummer!

The Wire Continuum, 1997

And here at last we come to the final story.

This is an episodic look at a technology similar to what Clarke wrote about in "Travel By Wire", except now we're hopping between two characters as they witness its long-haul development and integration into society. It offers an alternate history, branching off in the 1940's when we make the key discoveries, and transforming the future from there.

The basic technology - and the 'fiction' part of the 'science fiction' - is that humans and other objects can be "transported" by breaking them down into a digital signature and embedding that signature into materials at some distant place. Clarke and Baxter hand-wave the quantum mechanics and physics problems by the time-honored method of calling our attention to them, putting them all inside a black box, and then labeling the box by name-dropping a bunch of scientists and mathematicians that supposedly worked very hard on the contents and met with mysterious success. To take what should be a classic example, a "warp drive" engine is just like a regular engine, except somewhere in the traditional wiring diagram there is a large box called the "Einstein-Rosen-LaMarche-Baxter Box" that does all the currently impossible stuff. How does it work? It does that thing that Einstein, Rosen, LaMarche, and Baxter all talked about, very fast. Sounds classy and smart, right? You would be able to understand it, if only you were well-read enough to know what Einstein, Rosen, LaMarche, and Baxter all had in common. The author surely knows, which is why he name-dropped these specific people. (Not likely since I just made "LaMarche" up.)

Anyhoo, this story has Baxter's fingerprints all over it, since it's about the space-race and has turgid family drama very tightly knit into the narrative, as though there were something metaphorical going on that you can't quite grasp. When he integrates drama into his science it usually works out fine, and adds a very important element of human perspective to a story, but in this short form it proves a little squirrely for him. And it's clear that this is almost entirely Stephen Baxter's work. The stock Clarke characters are missing, the overt contempt for women is gone, and there isn't so much emotional distance between the narration and the protagonists. Clarke always did struggle with complex emotion in his stories, as perhaps he did in real life.

This story ends on a 2001-style note of an old man in bed, near death, encountering the future of humanity and the unknown all at once, and then doing something ambiguous that is ripe for interpretation. A pretty good story all told, and it pulls on other threads that Clarke and Baxter explored in "The Light Of Other Days," an absolute favorite of mine for its too-ambitious scope and surplus of ideas. I recommend this story, so I ain't spoiling it.

Also, I'm glad I got to this one last, because it's a good high note at the finish this project. And now that I've been through them all, I can ask some big picture questions.

Wrap-Up:

What was Clarke's best decade for short stories? I'd have to say it was the 60's, narrowly edging out the 50's. But the vast majority of his short story work was during those years, so that makes sense. How about a better question: What were his best two consecutive years?

I'm gonna say 1952, and 1953. In those years we get "The Parasite," which was the precursor to "The Light Of Other Days," "All The Time In The World," which was very smartly constructed and a fun read, and "Jupiter Five," which is enthralling and reads like a precursor to Rendezvous With Rama -- at least up to the point where Clarke rips us away from the interior of a spooky alien ship and makes the story about gravity shenanigans instead. And we also get "The Other Tiger," "Encounter In The Dawn," "The Possessed," and the whack-a-doo classic "The Nine Billion Names Of God" to round things out. Each hits on a very different theme.

Here's another question: Are there any I would consider good enough to read more than once? Yes, four of them:

  • Rescue Party (1946). It's so ancient it's turned Steampunk, and that makes it fun.
  • The Lion of Comarre (1949). Puzzling out the function of an ancient city is a premise that will grab me every time, and I've forgotten the details of this one.
  • All The Time In The World (1952). It's got a buildup like one of those dank Twilight Zone episodes. Fun to re-read knowing things in advance.
  • Before Eden (1961). The Venus that might-have-been, some chatty scientists doing their thing, and a nice twist as garnish. Worth another go-round.

Which story affected me - made me think - the most?

That's a hard one. I've been able to draw some interesting thoughts out of most of his tales. But if we're talking about influencing my worldview, or changing me, in a way that I can identity as important ... well, I don't know. I want to be able to point at one or two of these stories and go, "I am a changed person after reading that," like I can with "Rendezvous With Rama," or "The Light Of Other Days," each for their own reasons. But I can't. When I look back, it's just a pleasant blur, like that feeling you have after binge-watching a good - but not fantastic - television series. So, I have to fall back to the second level: What story made me think the most, even if it didn't change me?

That's probably The Songs Of Distant Earth, which gave me a lot to work with in the form of Clarke's ignorance - about future technology, about entomology, about civic planning, and about complex human relationships and romance. Clarke wrote this in 1958, which means he was 41 at the time -- coincidentally my own age now. I find that a little bit absurd. Not for any of the scientific inaccuracy, but because of his undercooked ideas about romance and sex. He writes about it like someone half his age.

I ranted a little bit about that in my original review, and I won't pick it back up here. Suffice to say that Clarke and I don't see eye to eye.

So hey, it took a little under SIX YEARS, but I actually went through every short story Arthur C Clarke wrote and gave each one some sort of review. I'm now much more familiar with his style. Also his flaws, and I have to admit that in spite of them, his title of "Grandmaster of Sci-Fi" is deserved. He may not know how to navigate a romance, but he sure knows how to build a story, and how to expand an idea at the corner of science, and on his best days he knows how to craft a great action scene and put you in the moment. I'm glad I went on this ride.

Thanks Arthur, wherever you are!

garote: (Default)
2017-02-02 03:26 pm

About the recent Berkeley protests

Kerry and I watched a live broadcast of it from some reporters standing in the midst of the protesters. It was a legit news channel though I forget which one. We heard the helicopters circling overhead, as our little house is only about a mile away from the Berkeley campus.

We were both more amused than anything. My reaction was, "hey alright, more authentic free speech!", as I cut farmer's market leeks into sections for the soup I was making, and Kerry fed the cat.

Most of the news organizations that reported it did a responsible thing - they pointed out that the demonstration was peaceful and orderly for hours up until a smaller group of individuals showed up, with covered faces and black clothing, and began tearing down the police barricades and throwing fireworks and flares. That group was clearly intent on causing such a disturbance that the whole event had to be cancelled. Not a move I would have made, but that's often the way it is with protest crowds. Less responsible people use them as cover. The same way wild-eyed vigilantes accumulate guns and training in the cover provided by hunters, patriots, and veterans.

The police also acted very responsibly here as well. Their attitude was "better a few tens of thousands of dollars in property damage than a million-plus dollars in medical attention and lawsuits against the city". They hung back and acted as protection - and a strong defense - for everyone there. No one from any side said a word against the police.

Of course, our dickhead in chief fanned the flames, and even floated the idea of defunding the lab system because of it. I mean wow, could he be any more utterly out of touch with American principles? What a dickhead. I never expected I could loathe him even more than I did last year, but boy oh boy, I do.

On the internet, of course, the whole thing is being discussed as though the students were devouring live babies and screaming "HAIL SATAN" and burning copies of the constitution in great heaps. This is by and large all anyone outside the city limits of Berkeley will hear of it ... and with fake-news editorials "covering" the incident with all the impartiality of a lynch mob, I expect the stink will be intense, and circle the Earth.

Raising hell when a well-established hatemonger tries to hold court in your home town, is not a "violation of free speech". Why would anyone claim that it is? Because they think they have a "right" to keep other people silent while they bloviate? The mind, it boggles.

So yes, comment boards all over are exploding with messages claiming that the entire city of Berkeley is "whiners" and "babies" and "against free speech" and "violent thugs" and so on and so on. But to me, these commenters are just angry, scared people, venting spleen from the safety of their dens. Lacking the sheer guts that the Berkeley people demonstrated by actually showing up, in person, and putting themselves in the situation. As I said before, and will keep saying, the only way to win is not to play.

This brouhaha will last about a week and they’ll move on to some other thing to spray down with misguided vitriol, and we’ll all carry on.

Hey! Spot poll! Who thinks Trump will actually be president for 4 years?

To tell you the truth, I’m actually getting a bit worried that in about a year he is going to start a war. North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, perhaps some kind of scuffle with China. And missiles will fly, and planes will start ramming buildings again. And of course it will all be more and more proof of how necessary the war is, and how the inhuman "other" must be exterminated, and we better not vote against a sitting president during wartime, because that would send the wrong message to The Enemy...

Ugh. I tried to stop watching internet news. I've already abandoned Facebook. Every time I lift the lid, nothing but hate comes screaming out. Is this the future of information warfare? Dump toxic waste in the community pool, so the effort of cleaning it out serves as a distraction, and you can move funds and pass laws while backs are turned?