Saturday, September 9, 2017

The End of Summer

Today is Monday, August 28th, 2017. (Well, that was the date when I started writing this piece — but it has been taking me increasingly longer to finish these little essays, and so here I am on September 5th, and I haven’t come close to capturing everything on my mind this week).

Summer in Michigan is not like summer in Ohio. After hot weeks in July I still find myself gritting my teeth waiting for things to really heat up in August — but then, it mostly doesn’t happen. And by the end of August, it is often time to break out long-sleeved shirts and some extra blankets to throw on in the middle of the night. Google tells me that the summer temperatures peak, on average, on July 19th.

As I write this, the stalled-out Tropical Storm Harvey, previously known as Hurricane Harvey, is flooding parts of Texas. Today sites like Weather Underground are reporting that “total rainfall could reach 50 inches in Texas.” That’s terrifying, and it is not finished. Long-term, this kind of massive horizontal build-out, across hundreds of square miles of concrete and soils with poor drainage, in hurricane zones, is simply not going to be sustainable. Whether you believe in anthropogenic global warming or not, internally displaced “climate refugees” are already a real phenomenon, and the number will increase every year for the rest of your life.

Closer to home, our new house in the woods south of Ypsilanti is serving us admirably. The kids can play in the woods. We have not really furnished it much yet, so we’re lacking a lot of things, like a couch in the family room. We don’t have a television, although we occasionally watch a TV show such as Doctor Who on my iPad or on a laptop. I find that I really like it this way, living with a sort of minimalism, although we are planning to have a couch eventually. It’s a bit like being on vacation in the woods, every evening and weekend. I don’t love the amount we had to finance, to buy this home, but I do love the house, and I’m glad we held out in our house search until we finally found a place we could look forward to coming home to.

At long last, we’re getting very close to the end of our work at our old house in Saginaw. I’ve been making round trips each weekend to bring carloads of stuff, while Grace has been taking the kids up there during the week to work on cleaning things, out, sorting stuff, taking things to Goodwill, and packing. It’s been a real slog. I’ve tried to calculate the number of times I’ve made the drive between Saginaw and Washtenaw County, and it’s a very large number. I’ve put almost sixty thousand miles on the Element since June of 2015. It’s held up really well, fortunately. I think it helps that most of those miles have been freeway miles, although freeways in Michigan, with constant construction and potholes, can still be awfully hard on a car.

To help motivate myself to make the drive, on the last couple of trips I’ve taken a side trip to Russell’s Blueberry Farm and Book Barn, which I usually abbreviate in my head to just the “blueberry book barn.” It’s a you-pick blueberry farm with a used book store on the premises. They’ve got a pretty impressive collection of science fiction and fantasy books, although I have picked it over quite a bit over the last few years, and they don’t restock that often. As the building is not air-conditioned, unfortunately the books tend to suffer over time from too much exposure to humidity.

I’ve had to pass over a lot of books that I’d like to have, because they have mildew spotting and strong smells. I’ll take a book home if it is just a little musty. In my experience, after a few days in a dry environment, and maybe an hour or two in the sun, those books will dry out and smell better. If there are some bits of powdery mildew on the cover, those will generally wipe off with a damp cloth. But if the pages are stained or spotted, I pass them up.

I’ve got a particular weakness for Science Fiction Book Club editions. They are widely available and usually not considered highly collectible, and so you can often get them at reasonable prices. They aren’t really well-made hardcovers, though, so aren’t much more rugged than a paperback. In general, the older ones are better-constructed. I found an SFBC hardcover edition of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World bound together with The Wind from Nowhere, from 1965. Aside from a little bit of fading and browning on the edges of the dust jacket, it’s in quite good condition, and less fragile than many of the much newer SFBC editions that I own. I also found a copy of Radio Free Albemuth, which is particularly nostalgic for me because, if I recall correctly, I received this book from the SFBC back in 1985, when I had a membership. That copy is long-gone, but it’s nice to have it again.

I also found a copy of Galactic Pot-Healer, the book club edition from 1969. This copy is a little worse for wear, but still pretty clean. Back in the late 1980s through early 1990s, before Philip K. Dick’s novels were reprinted, the only way to read them all was to track down brittle old paperbacks. I owned pretty much every one of his novels in old editions, including some of the odder rarities like The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. I had to sell most of those years ago, during various periods of unemployment. But these days just about everything he wrote is in print, and with the forthcoming release of the Blade Runner sequel, his reputation seems secure.

Other authors are less secure, and harder to find these days. I love story collections, and I’ve brought home a number of them from the Blueberry Book Barn. I once found a copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty, which is a somewhat scarce book. I have been collecting books from Donald A. Wollheim’s Word’s Best Science Fiction series. Those aren’t particularly scarce. I also found a single-author collection, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, edited by J. J. Pierce, from 1975, and another, The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, edited by Frederick Pohl, from 1967.

When I skim through these books I’m inevitably happy to run across a story I remember reading before, usually decades ago. This time it was the story “The Little Black Bag,” by Kornbluth. Kornbluth was apparently a strange guy, and he died tragically of a heart attack at the age of 34, but his stories remain brilliant. I have no idea just when I first read “The Little Black Bag,” but it must have been back in my own “golden age of science fiction,” about age twelve. (The original jokey phrase, “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve,” is apparently (at least, according to Google’s algorithms) due to Peter Graham, but it has been widely quoted).

I was twelve in 1979–1980, and trawling through libraries. I don’t remember where I came across “The Little Black Bag,” but it was probably in an anthology. I also remember reading Kornbluth’s other famous story, “The Marching Morons,” which was published in Omni magazine in the October 1980 issue; I had a subscription, as proper nerds did.

I was pleased to find that “The Little Black Bag” has been turned into an episode of Escape Pod

The Grace and Paul Pottscast

Grace and I have been releasing a new podcast episode every Sunday for a few weeks, and hope to continue that schedule (although with six young kids at home, life does tend to intervene in our plans). I announce the podcast episodes on a blog, here. The blog posts have direct links to the MP3 files, or if you use a program like iTunes to manage your podcast listening, you can subscribe to the feed here.

In order to get episodes out more regularly, I’ve been working to make my production process easier and less time-consuming. To make this work well, I need to be able to go from a recording of our conversation to a finished podcast quickly, completing the production the same day we record. I’d like to be able to complete all the post-recording steps in under an hour, ideally, and that includes the time needed to transfer the audio file across the network, generate the completed audio file, convert it to MP3 format, and upload the MP3 file. The process should be simple enough to let me finish it without having to backtrack and fix technical mistakes even when I’m tired and distracted and rushing, late on a Sunday evening. I need to be able to drop the two-channel recording into a Logic Pro project, and export a finished audio file. I can’t take hours to edit the conversation, even if it cries out for editing; I just don’t typically have enough free time in a given week. It’s either get-it-done and shrug at the flaws, or wallow in my usual obsessive-compulsive perfectionism and don’t-get-it-done-at-all.

Once I’ve got a finished audio file (a WAV file), there are a lot of fiddly steps remaining. I need to convert it into an MP3 file. I need to tag the MP3 file, so that it shows up properly in iTunes or other programs that folks use to manage their podcasts. Then I need to upload that file to my web hosting company’s server.I need to write a description of the episode. I need to upload that file to my web hosting company’s server. I need to then create an entry in the podcast feed file. The feed file is in XML format. Links require Percent-encoding (also known as URL- or URI-encoding). The feed file entries require the file size in bytes, the running time in seconds, and the date and time in an RFC 2822-compliant format.

Then I also need to write a post on the podcast’s blog. Rather than write my blog posts directly on Blogger, I’ve developed the workflow of writing them in Markdown format and using the wonderful program Pandoc to turn it into HTML. This lets me edit my own files on my own computer in Markdown, which is much nicer for simple writing, while still getting nicely formatted HTML that lives up to my standards for typography, with proper accented characters and curly quotation marks.

A lot of the different pieces of text to assemble all the pieces — the file name, the MP3 file tags, the XML feed file entry fields, and the blog post — are identical, or similar. Typing out dates and file sizes and file durations and percent-encoded URIs is extremely tedious and prone to error. A typo in a link in the feed file or the blog post means that the podcast will not work right for a potential listener. So I’ve long wanted a nice clean way to automate this process as much as I reasonably can. I’d like to be able to write the title, short summary, and long description of each episode once and save it in a text file. I’d like to have everything else — all those other steps — happen pretty much automatically, by running a script.

I have finally put some work towards such a script. I have a BBEdit shell Worksheet for the podcast. The BBEdit shell worksheet is a wonderful invention — an homage to the user interface used in the old Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop (MPW). The worksheet is a text file that you can edit and save, but it is also a sort of interactive shell script. You can select lines from the file and press the Enter key, and they will be executed in the context of my shell, which is bash. The results will appear right in the worksheet. Long-running commands animate a little spinner in the status bar at the bottom of the window. So I’ve come up with commands I can run right in the worksheet to encode and tag the MP3 file exactly as I want, and generate the percent-encoded link, and create the properly formatted date and time. There’s a set of commands for each episode, and they are saved in the worksheet right along with the audio projects, so if I want to change the source files and re-generate everything, I can.

Here’s the section of the worksheet for Episode 13. Some of these lines are the commands, and some are their output:

# EPISODE 13: Dude, Do You Even Protest?

EPISODE_TITLE="Conversation #13: Dude, Do You Even Protest? (September 3, 2017)"
EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME="Conversation #13_ Dude, Do You Even Protest? (September 3, 2017).mp3"
EPISODE_SUBDIRECTORY="Conversation 13 - Dude, Do You Even Protest?"


EPISODE_SUMMARY="Grace and I discuss protest, using as a jumping-off point Nathan Heller's book review article from the August 21st issue of _The New Yorker_. We start off a bit incoherently, cherry-picking some points made and quotes included from the books Heller is reviewing, before settling on a real critique of the author's actual take on the issue, which is surprisingly vacuous. Nevertheless, questions of whether and how to protest, and whether it is effective in the modern era, still interest us, so we try to come to grips with them. Along the way Grace and I recount a little bit about our own histories of activism and dissent, in marches, on picket lines, and in our work, and try to answser the question 'you criticize a lot of other people about their politics -- but what are _you_ doing to make a difference?'"

EPISODE_SUBTITLE="Grace and I discuss the question of whether public protest is useful and meaningful today."
if [ ${#EPISODE_SUBTITLE} -ge 255 ]; then echo "subtitle field must be 255 characters or less"; else echo "subtitle field length ok"; fi

echo "File size in byes:"

File size in byes:

echo "Current date/time:"
php -r 'date_default_timezone_set("America/Detroit"); echo date(DateTime::RFC2822);'

Current date/time:
Mon, 04 Sep 2017 01:27:05 -0400

echo "File duration:"
ffmpeg -i "$PROJECT_PATH/MP3/$EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME" 2>&1 | grep "Duration" | cut -d ' ' -f 4 | sed s/,//

File duration:

echo "URI-encoded filename:"
ENCODED_FILENAME=$(php -r "echo rawurlencode(\"$EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME\");")

URI-encoded filename:

pandoc --ascii --smart --old-dashes -f markdown_strict -t html -o "$PROJECT_PATH/blog posts -- pottscast/generated_html/2017_09_04_conversation_13_dude_do_you_even_protest.html" "$PROJECT_PATH/blog posts -- pottscast/markdown_ascii_source_accented_entities/"

That’s a mess of different little tricks. For reporting the file size, I use the standard “stat” command. To get the date and time in the right format, I call out to execute a tiny program in PHP. To get the file duration, I use ffmpeg, and feed its output through grep and sed. Ideally it would round to the nearest second, but I can do that adjustment by hand. To get the URI-encoded filename I use a PHP one-liner again. Then as part of the same worksheet, I generate the HTML for the blog post.

It won’t yet upload the MP3 for me, or write the entry to the feed file and update the file on my web host, or publish the blog post. This is by design, since I want to make sure I get a good look at each of these things before I publish them. The next step is to generate the whole feed file entry that I can copy and paste into the feed file.

Because the process is so prone to error, I use two feed files. One is the “staging” feed. I add the podcast entry to the staging feed, and then tell iTunes to update my subscription to the staging version of the podcast. I verify that the new podcast entry shows up correctly in iTunes, that I can download and play it. I check that the MP3 file is complete, and that all the tags and metadata fields look just the way I want. Often I double-check the feed files using the free feed validator. And I frequently find errors — for example, apparently the subtitle field in my latest feed entry was too long (the limit for the itunes:subtitle field is apparently 255 characters, and I exceeded that). So I fixed that, and added a length check to my script to avoid running into that problem in the future. When it all looks good, I add the feed entry to the “official” feed file. All this is time-consuming but it avoids breaking the feed.

Like many standards that were originally designed when computers were more resource-constrained, the podcast feed format is archaic and ugly. This 2008 blog post from Coding Horror still applies today. It’s hard to write, and it’s hard to read. It’s increasingly hard for me as I get older and my eyes get worse. You can argue that files like this are meant to be machine-generated, but I think that’s a weak argument. It also imposes a burden on anyone writing code to generate this kind of file. And the standard is so fiddly and full of arbitrary limitations, like the 255-character limit I mentioned, that people do in fact often have to debug their feed files. A new simpler feed format would be a nice start, perhaps in JSON or YAML. But there’s a huge chicken-and-egg problem.

Many people apparently use tools for handling podcasts that just allow them to upload a source file, and handle all the rest. I’ve seen those feed files. They are horrible. The generated MP3 file podcast tags are horrible, too. I’ve been asked on several occasions for help un-fucking someone’s podcast feed because these tools make such a hash of it. I hear horror stories from podcasters all the time who use a service or web site, and when it does wrong they find out the hard way that without tight control of their feed, they are at the mercy of an indifferent hosting company. And so it’s 2017 and I’m doing it the hard way, because it seems to me like the hard way is still easier.

Oh, and there are gratuitous compatibility issues everywhere, even in 2017, even between programs that are the de facto standards for podcasting, LAME and iTunes. To make my new workflow generate files that are fully compatible with iTunes, I had to actually compile my own version of the LAME encoder. I describe how I did that in a blog post here.

As I get older, I’ve got less and less patience for this kind of thing; but at the same time, I want to do my work the way I want to do my work. And I’m cranky and persistent enough to plod along at solving the problems that stand in the way, even if they require ugly hacks… and they do.

Anyway. That’s a long, long explanation that nobody asked for. On to the books.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

I have mixed feelings about the work of Stephen Baxter. I love his Xeelee stories. I love many of his short stories and novellas. But he writes a lot of other books. Many of them show a basic competence and some imagination, but they just aren’t inspired. So when I first came across Proxima in bookstores, I did not jump on it. I waited a while. And then bought it in paperback.

Proxima is a planetary colonization and planetary exploration story in the mode of some of the old masters; think Clarke and Asimov. Baxter clearly has a lot of respect for the old school.

The premise of Proxima seems pretty convincing. A political prisoner named Yuri (not his real name) has been sent to Mars. He has gotten himself into some sort of trouble, and was put into cryogenic sleep. As the story opens, he’s just woken up, and finds himself on a ship carrying colonists to Proxima Centauri. There’s a space race and the powers that be need colonists. Even prisoners. Baxter makes a nice historical parallel with the colonization of Australia because one of Yuri’s fellow unwilling colonists is actually a crew member named Mardina, an aboriginal Australian forced to stay behind with the colonists at the last minute.

These seems like promising characters, but while Baxter does some nice things with Mardina’s character, he doesn’t seem to ever get around to giving Yuri much in the way of drives, or personality, or indeed, characteristics of any kind. Yuri has a vague drive to keep surviving and keep moving — to keep going through one door after another. And he’s curious. He never seems to enjoy Mardina’s company very much, nor does she enjoy his. But there’s a robot, which humorously references Robbie the Robot, and although Yuri is not very kind to him, together they learn a lot about the planet and the indigenous life. The life on Proxima is deeply strange. Baxter’s work here is excellent, and welcome. It fits into that Asimov/Clarke tradition, even channeling some practitioners of harder science fiction like Robert L. Forward and Hal Clement.

This all goes along in a pretty engaging manner, although Baxter glosses over an awful lot. The biochemistry on Proxima isn’t compatible with human biochemistry, but where Kim Stanley Robinson in Aurora makes this a critical plot driver, Baxter pretty much ignores it. He reserves a lot of thought for the role of artificial intelligences in this future. That part is quite fascinating, and quite dark. There’s an intelligent space probe that is vaguely reminiscent of Lieserl, the originally human AI sent to live inside the sun in Baxter’s novel Ring.

There’s also another technological MacGuffin, the “kernels,” discovered under the surface of mercury. These are tiny energy sources, perhaps wormholes of some kind. They seem to be artificial, planted there at some point in the solar system’s past. I would have like to see more development of the kernels, since Baxter is good at this sort of thing.

Where I start to lose interest in the story is, unfortunately, where I start to lose interest in several of Baxter’s stories: it’s the point where he gives up on any scientific plausibility and introduces magic. Or, if you prefer, it’s the point where he introduces such a “sufficiently advanced” technology that I lose my ability to maintain suspension of disbelief. This seems to be a pattern. He’s scrupulous about his technology — until he reaches the point in the story where suddenly, he isn’t. In some of his other books, it’s the introduction of ghosts from parallel universses. In this book, it’s the introduction of magical portals. Oh, and parallel universes. You can’t have portals without parallel universes. And then, as if Baxter doesn’t feel like he has enough of a story to tell, he decides to raise the stakes very, very high. And then we meet some ancient Romans, or something.

It’s all set up for a bang-up sequel, and it’s available — I could buy it and read it. I’d satisfy my curiousity as to how it all comes out. A few years ago I definitely would pressed on, to get that information. But you know what? I just don’t care very much. Baxter hasn’t given me a whole lot to care about in this book. It’s a little too epic, spinning out rather than in. So at least for now, I’ll skip it. The review on mentions Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. Maybe I’ll check that out. Or maybe I’ll order up a copy of Xeelee:Endurance. Meanwhile, if you’d like to read a much more character-oriented story that deconstructs the generation starship sub-genre, I recommend Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

Sometimes when I feel skeptical of new releases — and rightfully so, it seems — I just want to go back and read something I enjoyed before. So I dug into a box (most of my books are still packed, but catalogued so I can find them), and pulled out Redeption Ark, the next book in the Revelation Space series.

I’ll finish up this book in a day or two. It has been fun to refresh my memory about this story. We learn some interesting things about the deep history of the Conjoiners, and the Inhibitors. I just criticized Stephen Baxter for introducing science indistinguishable from magic into his story. Reynolds gets a little close to that at times. We learn that the Conjoiners have actually changed their future by sending information back through time. All I can say in my defense is really that I like the way Reynolds introduces magical technology a lot more than I like the way Baxter introduces it. In Reynolds’ work, it’s deeply scary stuff, even to his most badass characters who themselves are deeply scary like Skade.

In many ways, Reynolds’ space opera is very visual and very heavily influenced by the horror genre. There are several really grim and gruesome injuries and deaths in Redemption Ark. I don’t intend to point that out as a flaw, just an observation. These stories could give a person nightmares, although ultimately they are not nihilistic per se, and are even hopeful about the future. But getting there requires a pretty dark ride.

I can see the books translating pretty brilliantly to film — but telling the story arcs of the Revelation Space universe properly would require multiple films, and each would probably be monstrously expensive. It’s hard to imagine a project like that coming together anytime soon. But meanwhile I can still enjoy them on the IMAX screen inside my head. I’m reminded that while I’m re-reading Reynolds, I should definitely re-read his story collections, Galactic North and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days. They are terrific. I should also track down a copy of Deep Navigation, which I haven’t read yet.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Casting around for more books to read to my children at bedtime, I pulled out an omnibus edition of The Earthsea Trilogy. I had this trilogy as a child in a paperback boxed set. My father gave it to me, I believe. I’m not quite sure what age I was at the time. I don’t think I fully appreciated the quality of Le Guin’s writing at that age; I remember completing the books, but don’t recall that they were particular favorites. I appreciate this work much more now.

Those copies are long-gone, sadly. But I’ve been reading A Wizard of Earthsea to the three older children at home, ages 12, 10, and 8.

Their reaction is mixed. It’s a very vividly-described book, but in some chapters the protagnist, Ged, goes for many pages without much in the way of dialogue or action sequences. So I might be reading along enjoying the beautiful language myself, while they are yawning. But then Le Guin will abruptly — sometimes very abruptly — introduce something quite shocking:

The shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it bladed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face.

As I read that last sentence, the children actually screamed. So they were definitely paying attention.

The themes of the book are quite deep and quite dark. Le Guin doesn’t make a soft or cuddly world for younger readers. There is no reason why the Earthsea books shouldn’t be considered a major work of fantasy for readers of any age. The kids loved Ged’s encounter with the dragon:

No creature moved nor voice spoke for a long while on the island, but only the waves beat loudly on the shore. Then Ged was aware that the highest tower slowly changed its shape, bulging out on one side as if it grew an arm. He feared dragon-magic, for old dragons are very powerful and guileful in a sorcery like and unlike the sorcery of men: but a moment more and he saw this was no trick of the dragon, but of his own eyes. What he had taken for a part of the tower was the shoulder of the Dragon of Pendor as he uncurled his bulk and lifted himself slowly up.

When he was all afoot his scaled head, spikecrowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower’s height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below. His scales were grey-black, catching the daylight like broken stone. Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill. Ged stared in awe. There was no song or tale could prepare the mind for this sight. Almost he stared into the dragon’s eyes and was caught, for one cannot look into a dragon’s eyes. He glanced away from the oily green gaze that watched him, and held up before him his staff, that looked now like a splinter, like a twig.

Le Guin’s writing here is some of the most terse and beautiful I’ve ever read, in any genre. Really, I find it humbling to read. It does seem like she’s not quite as facile in world-building as one might hope; I find myself longing to know more about the setting. Earthsea doesn’t have a lot of gratuitous detail in it, at least not so far. But the deceptive minimalist music of the language itself, and the measured pace of the story itself, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

I had been reading bits of this to the kids, but I’m setting it aside. The themes are just a bit too mature for them. There’s infanticide, and attempted suicide, and the like. Maybe I’ll finish it myself, but for now I’m not going to continue reading it at bedtime.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

I’ve been trading off, reading chapters from A Wizard of Earthsea some nights, and chapters from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or at least half-chapters, since many of the chapters are very long) on other nights.

This Harry Potter book is really dragging. Reading it out loud reveals this; I read it years ago and don’t remember it as being so weak and scattered. There are fun episodes — for example, the scene with Potter in the Prefect’s bathroom, visited by Moaning Myrtle. But there are a lot of parts that feel muddled, and some scenes don’t make a lot of sense, with detail apparently pulled out of thin air and abandoned. For example, we learn that the village of Hogsmeade apparently is right next to an un-named, and previously un-mentioned, mountain. Rowling seems to have created this so she would have a place to put a cave, the cave where Sirius Black and Buckbeak are hiding out.

Rowling also describes a stile and I had to look that up, as I was initially imagining a turnstile. There’s not much sense of place. It’s just a location somewhere vaguely in space near Hogsmeade, sort of like when you walk past all the scenery in a video game.

Meanwhile the plot is dragging, and although there’s a vague sense of menace from the goings-on with Barty Crouch, Mad-Eye Moody, and Snape, it doesn’t seem to be taking us anywhere. This one really needed some more editing. It’s one of the episodes where the movie is actually better than the book.

I was mentioning something about The Goblet of Fire on Twitter and got a recommendation to listen to The Quibbler Podcast. The show’s description reads:

A Harry Potter book club for grownups. Heather Price-Wright and Alex Dalenberg make their way through the Harry Potter books, chapter by chapter. We analyze avada kedavra. We dissect Dumbledore. We question quidditch. And we hail Hermione. Join us as we go as deep as you’ve always wanted to into the books that defined our childhoods. Alohamora—the door is open.

I’ve listened to a couple of episodes. It’s two nerds having fun talking in excrutiating detail about the books, literally chapter-by-chapter — what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s an interesting reference or call-back. It’s well-produced. Interleaved with the discussion are clips from the audiobook. It just so happens that they’re releasing episodes now that correspond exactly to where I am in my re-reading of Goblet. I’d like to play some of the episodes for the kids, but they aren’t quite for kids. As the description says, these are for adults re-reading the books, who want to go deep down the rabbit hole.

I really admire the effort that the creators are putting into the podcast, but the truth is that I am just not quite a big enough fan of the originals to love this podcast the way it deserves to be loved. The Harry Potter books did not define my childhood. The first one wasn’t even published in the United States until I was thirty, and I don’t recall hearing about them at all until the start of the year 2000. As a result, I don’t love them uncritically; while I think the first one is unimpleachably a great, well-paced and fun book, I tend to look at the later ones with a pretty jaundiced eye. More’s the pity, honestly. I would love it if I had more books that I could simply love uncritically, but my mind doesn’t work that way, especially as I get older.

The Glen Carrig Remastered

Now that I have a reasonably good-sounding recording studio setup for podcasts, I’ve started to chip away at a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time: re-recording The Boats of the Glen Carrig. In 2006 I recorded a reading of Hodgson’s novel and mixed it with music that was available under a Creative Commons license. The original episodes are still available and you can read the blog post for the first chapter here.

I was never really happy with the audio quality I achieved in that project. I’ve written at exhausting length in the past about all the technical problems I had with various microphones, and I won’t rehash that all here. I do still like my choice of music and the atmospheric combination of music and narration I achieved back then. Listening in 2017, I know I should be able to do better, both in technical quality and in my performance.

So, I’ve started re-recording the narration. It’s hard. Here’s a little bit of the text:

We had gone a little way among the trees, when, suddenly, one who was with us cried out that he could see something away on our right, and we clutched everyone his weapon the more determinedly, and went towards it. Yet it proved to be but a seaman’s chest, and a space further off, we discovered another. And so, after a little walking, we found the camp; but there was small semblance of a camp about it; for the sail of which the tent had been formed, was all torn and stained, and lay muddy upon the ground. Yet the spring was all we had wished, clear and sweet, and so we knew we might dream of deliverance.

Hodgson uses a deliberately archaic style in the book, since the text it presents was supposedly written in 1757. His sentences are crazy. Try reading that out loud and getting all the pauses and breaks in the right place. How do you even pronounce “determinedly,” anyway?

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to complete this project anytime soon; after all, it took me months, back in 2006, and back then I had both more time to myself, and more stamina. But we’ll see.

On the Horizon

I’ve got a heap of books from the Blueberry Book Barn, including more story collections, and some Ballard. I also picked up a recent edition of E. R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian books: The Worm Ouroboros, Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and The Mezentian Gate. I have read The Worm Ouroboros before, and it’s an amazing book. I’ve long wanted to record it. A couple of nights ago I stayed up reading part of it to my wife, Grace. But although I’ve owned old copies of the other three books before, I’ve never really gotten a foothold on the so-called Zimiamvian Trilogy. It’s time to give it a shot.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
August 28th - September 9th, 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Read It, Late July 2017

Today is Thursday, August 3rd, 2017.

Elanor is back home, and doing well. She’s on a somewhat daunting regimen of different medications, delivered orally, in little eyedroppers. The regimen is complicated because some of them are supposed to be given every eight hours, but some can’t be given together. So she gets medications every four hours, and we are a little bit sleep-deprived. These are specially compounded pediatric formulations that are not available at your average pharmacy, and our insurer will only cover one of them if we buy it mail-order from the single source they approve. So we actually need to get Elanor’s medication from three different sources. We will be very glad if some of these can be dropped from her regimen. That will probably happen after another month or two.

It has been some time since I posted an update on what I’ve been reading, so it’s time.

My reading has unfortunately been a bit scattered. I have been trying to figure out what I might have to give up in order to free up time for recording projects, and unfortunately my reading might be on the list. In the past, like around 2006, I was able to record audiobooks like my version of The Boats of the Glenn Carrig by William Hope Hodgson. Unfortunately, to find quiet time for recording, I had to stay up very late, often doing my best recording between 1 and 3 a.m. I was a decade younger then and I had a shorter commute and fewer children. I don’t think I can do that now. I might be able to record first thing in the morning, before anyone else is up and making noise. I’ll have to do some experimentation. My voice (and brain) just may not be in working order that early. But I need to figure out something, if I’m going to work on any recording projects at all.

This also applies to the songwriting contests. I’d love to participate in those again, although blocking out time to work on songs was enormously difficult for me, and for my family. I’m hoping that by January 2018 I’ll have gotten back to playing guitar regularly and have a recording space set up and working, although I have to admit that there are a lot of things standing in the way right now.

Now that Elanor seems to be almost back to her old baby self and we are a bit less worried about her, we have been trying to turn our attention back to the Saginaw house. My parents contributed an enormous amount of work towards getting the house packed up and ready for sale, but there is more to do. There are several more carloads of loose things to sort, pack, and move, and a small truckload of furniture waiting. We’ve been pulling things out to have hauled away. Once again we’ve run up against the same kind of problem we always had in Saginaw. People just won’t show up to do the job they’ve agreed to do. I can’t take any more days off during my work weeks — I have no days left to take. And Grace has her hands full.

Last Saturday, I drove to the house in my car and Grace came later with the kids in her car. She ran over a small piece of plastic debris, a couple of inches across, probably left on the road after a fender-bender. This piece of plastic somehow tore right through one of the Tahoe’s tires — resulting in an instant flat, not just a small leak. Fortunately she had just gotten off the freeway, so wasn’t moving at high speed. If this happened at freeway speed, it could have been a rollover crash with Grace and six children all in the car. There was nothing wrong with the tires — they were only two years old, quality tires, recently rotated, and recently checked for inflation.

This is not our first breakdown on the road — when Grace was pregnant with Pippin, we had an awful day in which we got a flat, Grace’s water broke, I cut my scalp open trying to change a tire (don’t ask), we got the spare on, then the spare went flat — that was memorably bad. It all worked out eventually (Pippin will be eight this fall). But this flat is sobering and it has spooked us a little. It’s a reminder that despite our best efforts, a combination of crumbling infrastructure and bad luck could put an abrupt end to our plans. I think about this a lot — perhaps too much — during my daily commute on I–94.

We got everyone home safe on the spare, but in the confusion, we left one of Elanor’s medications in the house. Grace spent hours Saturday night and Sunday morning calling around, to see if we could get a refill of her specially compounded pediatric formulation. She was getting nowhere with this. While she continued to try, I finally just jumped in my car and made yet another round trip to Saginaw, driving 3 hours and 40 minutes on bad roads under construction to go pick up a damned bottle of medicine. One can have deep and abiding concern about carbon emissions and anthropogenic global warming but if your infant daughter’s heart is at risk, you’ll put Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago in the CD player, pound a coffee, and head out. There’s some kind of lesson in that, too.

For Emma, Forever Ago

For Emma is an amazing album. I’ve always heard about certain albums that inspired people to become musicians. Brian Eno famously said, of The Velvet Underground and Nico, that while it didn’t sell very many copies early on, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

I can’t trace my interest in playing and recording to one single point of inspiration like that, but a few, including Jonathan Coulton’s work, which convinced me that a geek like me really could take my long-standing interest in guitar, bass, and Chapman Stick — I played casually for many years and was well beyond the beginner stages, although I didn’t really know it — and become a performing, recording singer/songwriter.

I had never quite been able to make the leap from playing guitar and singing to playing guitar to accompany my own singing to perform a real song from beginning to end, before I started working on songs like Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and gradually it came together — I could sing, although not beautifully, and accompany myself. My guitar-playing is still far better than my singing, but I’ve worked on it. And the songwriting contests gave my efforts some shape that forced me to compose and record songs in a compressed time frame. The results have been mixed, but the stuff that came out well has been good enough to convince me that I should keep working on it.

For Emma is a strange album. Justin Vernon recorded the basic tracks in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin, in isolation. His recording setup was relatively primitive, and you can hear a great deal of room reflections and stray noise. From a technical, recording quality point of view, the album is terrible. There is some fascinating material written about the recording. Amanda Lewis wrote an essay called “Microphone Practice on Bon I’ver’s ‘Skinny Love’” and you can read it here:–2/

Lewis writes:

He recorded all but a few of the vocal and horn tracks which appear on FEFA using only a single Shure SM57 dynamic (moving coil) microphone, a Pro-Tools “Mbox” digital-audio interface, and a laptop computer loaded with the Pro Tools “Mpowered” DAW that comes bundled with the purchase of every new “Mbox” interface (ibid). Though all of his tracking choices ultimately influence FEFA’s overall sonic character, Vernon’s unconventional use of a single dynamic microphone to transduce all of his vocal and acoustic guitar tracks is of particular importance.

There’s a longer version of her paper available as a PDF file here:

But aside from the academic analysis, how does it sound? The answer is “strange and beautiful, and occasionally stunning.” One of my favorite moments starts about four minutes into “The Wolves (Act I and II).” While the guitars drone, a sort of crashing chaos of drums starts, and you hear Vernon start piling on falsetto vocals, forming a big chord, and the chaotic drums start to sound like the wheels of a speeding train, with the layered falsetto vocals forming the mournful sound of a train whistle sounding out across a lonely snow-covered lanscape late on a winter’s night. Then the tracks cut out, and we hear a disjointed, misaligned, gradual rebuilding of the vocal to a brief coda.

The tracks on “For Emma” often include the noises you “aren’t supposed” to record and are “supposed” to ruthlessly edit out — pick scrapes, squeaking chairs, the taps of a hand or arm on the guitar’s hollow top while Vernon keeps time, buzzing strings, distortion, a siren passing outside, and a lot of hiss and noise from a cheap preamplifier. The drums are indifferently recorded, with little clarity. Vocal and guitar tracks often don’t quite line up, popping in and out with a careless feel.

I’ve recorded some of my songs in an small attic room, with wood-paneled walls and a hardwood floor — literally inside a wooden box, and it sounded that way. At the time, I hated the sound of the room, and eventually was pleased when I could put up enough foam and acoustic panels to absorb most of the room reflections. Should I have instead tried to use the sound of the room? It wasn’t what I needed for some songs, but maybe for some songs? It’s certainly something to think about.

On some of my songs, I spent a lot of time using Logic’s Flex Time feature to adjust vocal phrases so that they align as closely as I can make them align. Was I misguided? I don’t think so. That was for a different kind of song — a song that started out with a click track, and got a drum track, and bass track, and because most of it is aligned to a strict beat, when tracks don’t align, they stand out like a sore thumb. I know from experience that recording multi-tracked parts on a song that has a rubato, or flowing and changing, beat is hard. Vernon’s amateur-sounding recording technique on this album really is harder to achieve than it might sound at first listen. But I can also feel it inspiring me, pushing me to be a little less of a technocrat and perfectionist, and a bit more of an experimentalist.

I could go back and re-record my earliest attempts. Vernon could have gone back and re-recorded the songs on “For Emma” in a pristine studio environment. The result would be a lot cleaner, a lot clearer, and more radio-friendly. But I think for either of us to do this would be a mistake. Vernon knew full well that it is far better for a musician to keep playing, to perform, to experiment, and to move forward, feeling his or her uncertain way towards his next moment of inspiration, than to try to re-create an old one.

Hodgson, Again

One fringe benefit of having almost all my books packed in boxes in the basement is that if I want to go pick out something to read, I have to do it consciously and deliberately. I’ll look it up in the database, figure out the box number, and find it. If it is buried deep in the tall, deep wall of boxes, I might just decide to do without it for a time.

I took the trouble to un-bury the box containing William Hope Hodgson’s collected fiction and over the last couple of evenings I’ve been reading my children some of his Carnacki stories. I thought I’d try “The House Among the Laurels” because I remembered it as being spooky and gross but, eventually revealing the haunting as a man-made, rather than supernatural, phenomenon.

These books are out of copyright and so you can get a taste of Hodgson’s writing; here’s the Project Gutenberg version:

I expected that the kids might be bored by the slow build of the story and the somewhat archaic language, but I was wrong. They loved it. It seems I’m constantly under-estimating what my children will enjoy hearing. In my reading, I was also amused to pick up on some subtleties that I didn’t notice before. Here’s a little gag about Catholics and Protestants:

…both he and Dennis the landlord of the inn, tried their best to persuade him not to go. For his ‘sowl’s sake,’ Irish Dennis begged him to do no such thing; and because of his ‘life’s sake,’ the Scotchman was equally in earnest.

The kids loved the scary bits:

The men were all standing now, holding their clubs, and crowded together. And no one said a word. Wentworth told me he felt positively ill with fright. I know the feeling. Then, suddenly, something splashed on to the back of his left hand. He lifted it, and looked. It was covered with a great splash of red that dripped from his fingers. An old Irishman near to him, saw it, and croaked out in a quavering voice:—‘The bhlood-dhrip!’ When the old man called out, they all looked, and in the same instant others felt it upon them. There were frightened cries of:—‘The bhlood-dhrip! The bhlood-dhrip!’ And then, about a dozen candles went out simultaneously, and the hall was suddenly dark. The dog let out a great, mournful howl, and there was a horrible little silence, with everyone standing rigid. Then the tension broke, and there was a mad rush for the main door. They wrenched it open, and tumbled out into the dark; but something slammed it with a crash after them, and shut the dog in; for Wentworth heard it howling as they raced down the drive. Yet no one had the pluck to go back to let it out, which does not surprise me.

I can’t really do the Irish accent justice, but I give it a try.

Hodgson reveals that he really can’t do math, when he describes the construction of a defensive magic circle:

I got my tape measure then, and measured out a circle thirty-three feet in diameter, and immediately chalked it out. The police and Wentworth were tremendously interested, and I took the opportunity to warn them that this was no piece of silly mumming on my part; but done with a definite intention of erecting a barrier between us and any ab-human thing that the night might show to us. I warned them that, as they valued their lives, and more than their lives it might be, no one must on any account whatsoever pass beyond the limits of the barrier that I was making.

After I had drawn the circle, I took a bunch of the garlic, and smudged it right ’round the chalk circle, a little outside of it. When this was complete, I called for candles from my stock of material. I set the police to lighting them, and as they were lit, I took them, and sealed them down on the floor, just within the chalk circle, five inches apart. As each candle measured approximately one inch in diameter, it took sixty-six candles to complete the circle; and I need hardly say that every number and measurement has a significance.

The circumference of a circle is pi times the diameter, so if the diameter is 33 feet, the circumference is about 104 feet, or about 1,244 inches. Candles an inch in diameter spaced five inches apart have their centers spaced six inches apart. It would take about 206 candles, not 66, to complete the circle.

When I read the original description, I didn’t come up with those precise numbers, but I have enough of a sense for numbers to know that his numbers were way off. How far off? Well, to arrange 66 candles in a circle with a diameter of 33 feet, they’d have to be spaced about 18 inches apart, not 6, so that their centers were spaced about 19 inches apart, so Hodgson got the center-to-center spacing between candles wrong by a factor of three.

It’s pretty clear that Hodgson probably meant to describe a circle “thirty-three feet in circumference.” Of course I believe the error must have been Hodgson’s, not Carnacki’s.

Last night I decided to read another Carnacki story, “The Thing Invisible.” This one was not quite as exciting, since Carnacki’s description of his night spent in vigil in the ancient chapel is over-long:

“An hour passed, of absolute silence. The time I knew by the far-off, faint chime of a clock that had been erected over the stables. I was beastly cold, for the whole place is without any kind of heating pipes or furnace, as I had noticed during my search, so that the temperature was sufficiently uncomfortable to suit my frame of mind. I felt like a kind of human periwinkle encased in boilerplate and frozen with cold and funk. And, you know, somehow the dark about me seemed to press coldly against my face. I cannot say whether any of you have ever had the feeling, but if you have, you will know just how disgustingly unnerving it is. And then, all at once, I had a horrible sense that something was moving in the place. It was not that I could hear anything but I had a kind of intuitive knowledge that something had stirred in the darkness. Can you imagine how I felt?

“Suddenly my courage went. I put up my mailed arms over my face. I wanted to protect it. I had got a sudden sickening feeling that something was hovering over me in the dark. Talk about fright! I could have shouted if I had not been afraid of the noise…. And then, abruptly, I heard something. Away up the aisle, there sounded a dull clang of metal, as it might be the tread of a mailed heel upon the stone of the aisle. I sat immovable. I was fighting with all my strength to get back my courage. I could not take my arms down from over my face, but I knew that I was getting hold of the gritty part of me again. And suddenly I made a mighty effort and lowered my arms. I held my face up in the darkness. And, I tell you, I respect myself for the act, because I thought truly at that moment that I was going to die. But I think, just then, by the slow revulsion of feeling which had assisted my effort, I was less sick, in that instant, at the thought of having to die, than at the knowledge of the utter weak cowardice that had so unexpectedly shaken me all to bits, for a time.

“Do I make myself clear? You understand, I feel sure, that the sense of respect, which I spoke of, is not really unhealthy egotism; because, you see, I am not blind to the state of mind which helped me. I mean that if I had uncovered my face by a sheer effort of will, unhelped by any revulsion of feeling, I should have done a thing much more worthy of mention. But, even as it was, there were elements in the act, worthy of respect. You follow me, don’t you?

“And, you know, nothing touched me, after all! So that, in a little while, I had got back a bit to my normal, and felt steady enough to go through with the business without any more funking.

Here the shifts in meanings (“funk” has a much different meaning now) renders this passage odd and slightly silly; Carnacki spends a lot of words narrating how he felt during his “dark night of the soul.” The deliberate self-deprecating humor of Carnacki wearing armor with his night-shirt over it (“I felt like a kind of human periwinkle encased in boilerplate and frozen with cold and funk”) gets buried a bit under his repetitive self-indulgent descriptions of how “disgusting” he felt. But there is in all this, still, the sketch of a very vivid, human, and quite funny, narrator character. Reading it again, I kept thinking how good it could be as a radio drama.

And in fact Big Finish Productions, best known for Doctor Who radio dramas, has produced six Carnacki stories, available for $18.00:—-the-ghost-finder–1416

I have not listened to them yet, but the trailer sounds very promising, and it makes me want to get back to my own recording projects.

One of the stories, “The Gateway of the Monster,” is available free of charge:–1465

Although you will need to create an account to download it. I have listened to this one, and it is quite well-done, although I think an adaptation into a full-cast production, rather than a simple reading with music might also be very effective.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My big reading news this time is that I’ve finished volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. This brings me completely up to date, until volume 6 is released in translation next year.

If you’ve started My Struggle and are having trouble with it, I want to offer some encouragement — it gets better, or rather “easier to read.” I still admire volume 1, but volumes 3 and 4 are more linear and flow with fewer interruptions. Volume 3 is about Knausgaard’s childhood years. This volume in particular contains many passages that are simply gorgeous. Things get darker in volumes 4 and 5. Young Knausgaard in these volumes has a serious problem with alcohol, like his father. This isn’t news, because he wrote about his drinking back in volume 3. He describes going out to a discotheque and finishing four or five bottles of wine in an evening. That’s an astounding amount of alcohol. What gets darker, though, is that he’s starting to act out while drunk, committing petty property crimes, and becoming violent.

Knausgaard is about my age. Although he grew up in Norway, our childhoods were in some ways very similar, and I identify with him quite a lot, especially his sensitivity, intellect, depressive moods, and difficulties in social situations. We loved many of the same bands. I never became a big drinker, fortunately.

Despite our differences, apparently our minds are similar enough that in completing the last few volumes, in which he faces at age 25 several crises about his identity and vocation, I felt myself falling into disturbing emotional and mental states — reading Knausgaard’s compelling account of his life, I found myself running his program, to an extent, holding the 25-year-old Knausgaard’s consciousness in mine as a sort of parallel awareness.

I started to feel his bouts of nihilism, and his self-destructive impulses; as I read about him working through his imposter syndrome, in which he felt like an inept failure at his writing, I also started to become obsessed with a sense of failure about my writing. As he worked through his sense of incompetence as a musician, I also started to feel incompetent as a musician. I’m twice his age, but I haven’t really completely resolved some of the contradictions in my life: I’m a sofware engineer, but I always wanted and hoped to do more writing for a living, and have for a number of years tried to work on side projects involving music and audio production, often to be frustrated because my daily responsibilities to my family take precedence.

The troubling part was that for several weeks, I wasn’t really aware of why I was starting to obsess so much about my choice of vocation, my sense of failure, my difficult relationship with my father, and other things Knausgaard wrestles with. But it became clear as I got to the end of volume 5 and these obsessions lifted, and I started to feel more like myself again — while, perhaps, still carrying a fragment of Knausgaard’s 25-year-old world view and personality.

I don’t know exactly what this means about Knausgaard, or about me. I think it means that my identity isn’t, and perhaps never has been, quite as rigid and impermeable as I might hope. I do have a tendency I’ve been aware of, since childhood. to take on other people’s “programs” as my own, absorbing bits of their personalities and belief structures. I suppose this could be called “gullibility” in some contexts, but I’d prefer to think about it as a form of susceptibility that I maintain, deliberately, in order to stay empathic. But I think it also says a lot about Knausgaard, and how convincing and compelling his story is, that I went into it so deeply. I wonder if other readers have felt themselves having the same response.

I don’t mean to imply that the books are, perhaps, as dark as I’ve made them out to be. Knausgaard himself starts to experience, at the end of volume 5, success in his career, with the publication of his first novel. His life seems to stabilize, and become something he can live more comfortably in, as mine has. But it’s still a fairly pessimistic story. It also struck me, again and again, how even an autobiographical novel running to thousands of pages could elide and gloss over so much of his life, but that’s exactly what it does. I’m sure with his writing ability and remarkable memory, Knausgaard could have many more engaging pages. So I am looking forward to volume six, which is rumored to run over a thousand pages.

More Reading

I’ve been doing more reading. I’m still reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to the kids, but I’m getting a little tired of reading these books aloud as they become longer and longer. The chapters are now so long that I can’t complete on chapter a night; I think they would take well over an hour to read, and that is a strain both on my voice and on the kids’ attention span. Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to try to read the rest of these out loud. I’ve maintained since first reading the whole series that Rowling needed to make much better use of an editor in the later volumes.

I’m also still somewhere in the midst of I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, and I need to get back to that one.

I’ve been reading the kids more stories from The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. These remain some of my absolute favorite short stories. Some of them are a bit difficult for children due to their degree of abstraction. For example, the story “A Sign in Space” is at a surface level about the narrator Qfwfq and his attempt to leave a marker in space so that he could mark off rotations of the galaxy. But it quickly turns into an extended metaphor about reading and the search for meaning and symbols in texts, as Qfwfq’s world piles up with things that may, or may not be, signs signifying other things. I feel that they “get” these stories on some level, but might get more out of them when they are older. They definitely get Calvino’s humorous account of the development of the universe, as in “Games Without End,” when Qfwfq played marbles with hydrogen atoms and complained that he would rather play with shiny, new atoms than old, dirty ones. The kids know enough about chemistry and physics to laugh hard at that.

A while back I finished reading Ted White’s Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White. In a previous post I wrote about how this book was significant to me as a child, in part because it was about an adolescent boy named Paul who gets to work in a space station. The story ends quite well. Paul is a little whiny, but the conclusion of the book gets fairly serious as the importance of what Paul has discovered becomes clear. It’s dated and sexist in the sense that roles for young women are in extremely short supply, but I think the story is interesting enough that it’s worth overlooking the fact that it won’t past the Bechdel test.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I read this in the form of an unabridged CD audiobook, read by the author. My friend recommended it when I wrote to him of my frustration with the sheer numbers of nearly-random things that we had to sort through to finish moving. I wrote back after finishing it:

I finished listening to Essentialism and found some useful advice in it. The author’s voice is generally appealing, and I appreciated his anecdotes about failing to properly prioritize. That is often me. It was occasionally strangely loaded with half-baked parallels, like casting Gandhi as “essentially” the same as a Stanford Business School graduate, and equating studying Dickens in your spare time with studying the Koran (both sola scriptura, I suppose?)

The author also seems to think that his audience is mostly just like him. So for example he gives an example of the executive who physically exhausts himself with international travel to the point of organ failure, and his solution is to get real about his limitations and spend a couple of years recovering with his family in the south of France. Maybe it’s meant to be aspirational — if you pare your life down to the essentials, you too can be a millionaire — but I am still scratching my head a bit at his tone-deafness towards any potential audience not in, or a graduate of, business school. No essentialism for the working class?

One of the Amazon reviewers wrote “this is a book about business, not about life. It’s not about downsizing, minimalism, downshifting, stepping back from capitalism and consumerism etc, it’s just about how to work more productively - something that doesn’t really interest me… it might be applicable to high earners in the tech industry, but its usefulness for a lowly wage slave or, say, a housewife, is hard to see. I LOVE the idea of talking back to your boss the way he suggests - try that on a zero-hours contract or if you work in fast food service or on a minimum wage! It’s quite entertainingly and wittily written, but I also found the constant focus on tech celebs very wearing, as if I should care what any of these people think.”

I think that is a valid criticism, although despite constantly mentioning people that work for Twitter, or Uber, or whatever, it isn’t so specific to business in general that I couldn’t think about how to apply it to other personal projects. It’s got me thinking about what I really need to give up in order to work on my creative projects.

There is more I’d like to write about. I have a backlog of audio files that I want to listen to, containing sketches of reviews. This summer there is a sort of slow-motion film festival in which our local theater is showing Studio Ghibli films, one per month. I took the kids to see My Neighbor Totoro, which is perhaps my favorite animated films, and indeed one of my favorite films of any kind. I have thoughts about it, but they will have to wait. In July Grace took the kids to see Kiki’s Delivery Service, a coming-of-age story that is her favorite film. In August they are showing Castle in the Sky, in September Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in October Spirited Away, and in November Howl’s Moving Castle. We have all of these on DVD or Blu-Ray, but there really is nothing like seeing them on a big screen. I’ve seen several of them on the big screen, but the one I really want to see in the theater is Nausicaä. I am constantly baffled and dismayed to find that these films aren’t better known in America.

And… Shaving (Really)

I have a small observation, or perhaps a “life hack” or “pro tip.” I’ve always had some difficulty settling on a good way to shave. For a few years, before I grew a beard, I used electric shavers. My favorite was the Braun Micron Vario 3, a beautifully designed device. At some point I started using Gillette products for shaving instead, for my neck and cheeks. I probably stared with the Sensor, and later started using the Mach 3. I’ve always had trouble with cutting myself, when using blades, especially on my neck. I had just become accustomed to scrapes and nicks.

At some point Gillette products just became too damned expensive. In most drugstores now a 10-pack of Mach 3 Turbo refills goes for $30.

I’d started reading the “wickededge" sub-Reddit [](]. It sounded like a traditional double-edged blade was, well, quite tricky to use correctly, and might be even more likely to hack up my face than the blades I’d used for years. So I hesitated.

The breaking point for me was when I tried a Harry’s product instead. Target stores have started carrying Harry’s shaving products, so I tried a set. They are quite a bit cheaper than the Gillette products, but the 5-blade Harry’s shaving heads really hacked my neck to bits, despite my best efforts at skin prep. I had terrible razor burn that lasted for days. I had to take a couple of weeks off to let my neck heal up before I was willing to try again.

Fed up with these expensive multi-blade disposable shaver heads, I bought a razor from Van Der Hagen, just a stainless steel safety razor and a set of blades and some soap in a tube.

This is a pretty basic razor and pretty basic blades and I’m sure there are better ones available, but it works great. I’ve shaved my neck with it a dozen times. I adjusted very quickly to the required light touch. I now shave with the grain and then against it, and get a pretty smooth, although not baby-bottom-smooth, shave.

Pretty smooth is good enough for me, if it doesn’t leave my neck red and bloody. In fact I haven’t drawn blood, even a tiny bit, even once. And my neck is far less irritated after shaving. I haven’t even changed blades yet, although I think the first one is getting a bit dull.

Double-edged razor blades cost considerably less than replacement blades for the Gillette products, and when they are too dull to use, I have to only a very small blade to dispose of, not an assembly of plastic and metal.

I don’t expect to ever use a Gillette product again, unless by chance I wind up buying their double-edged blade. I should have leanred to use a razor like this one years ago.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
July 21st - August 3rd, 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

You Should See the Other Guy

Today is Tuesday, July 18th, 2017.

You Should See the Other Guy

No book-related content this time — although as always, I have lots of reading to talk about. Maybe next time.

My wonderful daughter Elanor, also known to her siblings as Ellie Nellie, had open-heart surgery for a VSD (ventricular septal defect, or hole in her heart). This is the most common congenital heart defect. She also had a small ASD (atrial septal defect) as well, which her surgeon also closed. We’re told she now has a Gore-Tex™ patch sewn into the middle of her heart. I expect her to have a lifelong love of waterproof boots and jackets. Maybe she’ll hike the Appalachian Trail.

Her surgery was the morning of July 10th, and today we brought her back home. She shows every indication of having come through the surgery very well and is recovering nicely. The news is almost all very good. We have some slight concern about a little bit of pulmonary hypertension and maybe some reduced function in her left ventricle, but everything seemed to be moving in the right direction, so she was cleared to come home. She will have a detailed follow-up exam in under a week.

The surgery is quite amazing. On the one hand, it seems miraculous, an incredible mix of technological advancement and medical know-how. On the other hand, it seems horrifying and barbaric. The incision is large and the surgeon cut right through the sternum, which was then wired together. Honestly, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m reminded of Doctor McCoy’s reaction to twentieth-century medicine in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:

My God man, drilling holes in his head is not the answer! The artery must be repaired! Now, put away your butcher’s knives and let me save this patient before it’s too late!

And in The City on the Edge of Forever:

All the pain. They used to hand-cut and sew people like garments. Needles and sutures. Oh, the terrible pain!

Fortunately, as far as we can tell, Ellie Nellie didn’t experience a lot of pain. After a terrible night’s sleep last Sunday — Grace and I had trouble sleeping the night before they were to cut open our daughter, go figure — we arrived at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. I thought they would do some prep that might involve putting in IVs, but since they needed to anaesthetize her with gas anyway, they just gave her a quick exam and asked us a few questions, to verify that her stomach was empty. Then the anaethesiologist put her up on his shoulder and carried her off, and they began by giving her gas.

We then had a long morning of waiting around. A nurse practitioner came by periodically to give us an update. All the news was good, which was reassuring. They set her up in the pediatric intensive care unit, and after a little more waiting we were able to go there and see her. She had a frightening number of tubes and wires — two ports in her groin, a chest tube, a urinary catheter, pacing wires, and at least one IV — as well as a huge bandage and some visible bruising on her chest — but it was immediately apparent that she had come through the surgery quite well. Her color was good. She was initially on intravenous morphine, and so she was quite dopey, and slept most of the time. She didn’t open her eyes a whole lot, but when she did, she had this look of confused concern, like she was asking “what the hell happened to me?”

“Don’t worry, baby,” we told her. “You were in a knife fight. But you won! And you should see the other guy!”

With our baby in the ICU, we got a room in the Corporate McSponsor house right in the building, so we had an extra place to sleep. I got a nap for a while, then Grace got a nap, then I slept in the room while she slept in the fold-out chair in the ICU. Grace can sleep anywhere while I am a very light sleeper, so I generally just can’t get any sleep in a hospital room at all. I set my alarm for five hours and then was back in the ICU the next morning.

Ellie Nellie was improving so rapidly that she was moved to a part of the ICU designated for less critical patients, and then by the end of day two, was moved into a regular room. We didn’t get the room for a second night, since she was out of the ICU, so I went home to get a mostly normal night’s sleep. Grace continued to sleep by Elanor’s bedside, and in fact she didn’t really leave the hospital, except for a walk in the courtyard, until today, spending eight nights there.

We knew she was doing well when Grace woke up after a nap and found the bed empty. She stuck her head out in the hall and found that the nurses had rolled Ellie Nellie out to the nurse’s station and the nurses were gathered around cooing at her. They looked just a bit embarrassed when Grace got there — “oh, sorry,” they said, “we wanted to play with her.”

Elanor’s cardiologist had told us how things would most likely go — that there would probably be a number of minor concerns and “annoying things,” but that she would gradually get her tubes and wires out, and with each tube and wire removed, she’d be “closer to the door.” This happened surprisingly quickly. On Thursday she had her chest tube removed — I wasn’t there to see it, but it is surprisingly long, going right into the chest, and they pull the incision closed with one little stitch, and then stick on an ordinary adhesive bandage.

Besides all the complications from the surgery itself, the big risk is infection. We washed our hands pretty obsessively around her. They had some special infection protocols, and wiped her down with some sort of disinfectant solution. Hospital infections (“nosocomial” or “iatrogenic” are the technical terms) are no joke these days, with antibiotic-resistant organisms around. But so far she’s shown no sign of infection at all.

The “annoying” things included itching — apparently morphine made her face itchy, and she was constantly scratching at her face. She really hated her nasal cannula, which was delivering a little oxygen, so when we could, we’d take it off and give her “blow-by”, a little breeze of oxygen blowing past her face. This seemed to be enough to keep her blood oxygenation reading 91% or greater, although every once in a while it would drop a bit, especially when she was in deep sleep, and they would have to put the cannula back in. After she was taken off morphine, the itching went away. She had to get a little more morphine when her chest tube was removed, so it came back.

Another annoying issue was “extravasation” — when an intravenous fluid leaks into body tissues instead of going into the vein. This happened in her arm, and it blew up like a sausage. I met with her doctors at rounds and expressed my displeasure that this had happened, saying I didn’t think she neeeded this particular round of IV fluids. I did not raise my voice, but told them I was angry about this. It seemed to Grace that the night nurse had put in the IV because Grace wasn’t waking her up to nurse her as often as the nurse thought she should, and this triggered bad memories of arguing with night nurses about feedings — after basically every one of our children’s births.

One of her doctors explained that there can be a lot of fluid in the tissues that isn’t making it into the bloodstream. Elanor had been retaining some fluid and I guess they were concerned that she wasn’t urinating enough, although the tests were showing that her kidneys were fine. Since all I really know about medicine, I learned from watching M.A.S.H., I have to admit that I might have been wrong about the IV being unnecessary (although of course if the fluid was all going into her tissue, it didn’t actually do much to help her urinate). I was unhappy that she had been made uncomfortable by this particular intervention — and especially that it hadn’t been caught before there was very noticeable swelling. That fluid certainly didn’t help if it didn’t even make it into her bloodstream. Fortunately the swelling went down pretty quickly after they removed the IV, and the diuretics kicked in and she started soaking diapers. I also wonder if some of this was just because the catheter was hard on her tiny baby urethra, and her body needed to recover a bit before she felt comfortable peeing properly. But we couldn’t ask her that.

I took only three days off work — after days off for her birth in January, and days off for moving, and days off for more packing at the hold house, I have almost none left. So I went back to work last Thursday and Friday. I got a few things done, although I’d be lying if I said I was really at my optimum.

We thought we might be allowed to bring Elanor home on Monday, but they wanted to watch her a bit longer. She had developed a little bit of pulmonary hypterension — some fluid around the lungs. That improved pretty quickly. Her left ventricle function seemed to be down a bit, so she’s on a medication for that. Her cardiologist told her that it’s not uncommon for a heart just recently traumatized by surgery to show some reduction in functioning while it heals.

Speaking of healing, I just have to comment again how amazing it was to watch Ellie Nellie heal. Of course she isn’t done, but by day four, I think, she was off all IV pain medication, and was only getting some oral children’s Tylenol ™. She got her bandage off. She slept a lot, and often quite deeply, and during that deep sleep it was like her body was just magically repairing all the collateral damage. Amazing. If I had the same procedure, I really don’t think I’d recover nearly as fast as she did. Babies are amazing.

You know what else is amazing? The physicians and nursing staff at the PICU and elsewhere in Mott Children’s Hospital. They were so great. I really enjoyed chatting with them. It was actually a little frustrating that Ellie Nellie was recuperating so quickly, because as soon as I’d get to know a nurse, we’d be moving on.

You know what’s not amazing? Our system of for-profit medical insurance.

While she was in the hospital, we continued to get letters from our insurance provider, copies of letters sent to Elanor’s physicians, saying they could not approve the surgery without more documentation to show that it was medical necessary. (Hell no — we just slice open five-month-old babies for fun). We also had letters saying that the surgery was approved, even though Mott was out-of-network, because there was no nearby place to do it that was in-network. Elanor was also approved for a three-day hospital stay.

Three days? That’s nuts — that isn’t any reasonable standard of care. On day three, she still had a chest tube and was on a number of IV medications. Were we supposed to just toss her in the car seat and go?

I can’t imagine that any person of any age would be ready to leave the hospital on day three after open-heart surgery. Then our insurer called Grace to say that Elanor’s prescriptions were not covered — although I had put her on our insurance shortly after her birth in January. Apparently that was just a debating tactic. They are arguing whether some of her specific prescriptions are medically necessary. Grace has been patiently doing this dance, and making sure they get whatever documentation they want.

I’m pretty sure it will work out, and her care will be paid for somehow. If her insurer fights it, there is a Michigan program especially for children with congenital heart defects, and it is supposed to cover costs that regular insurance won’t cover. If those two forms of insurance together won’t cover most of it, and we’re left with a huge bill — well, I earn a good living, but like most Americans these days we don’t actually have much in the way of assets. I’m guessing the total cost of her care so far is probably well over a hundred thousand dollars. If we have to pay that, I think we’ll be looking at bankruptcy, which wouldn’t be the worst thing, as long as we can find a way to keep the house we are living in and a car so I can get to my job. But I think it won’t come to that.

If you’re the praying type, please pray for my baby girl — that she continues to recover, and has no long-term developmental troubles or issues arising from her heart defect and the surgery. If you’re the positive vibrations type, please send those too. I feel very fortunate. I was a little sleep-deprived for a few days, but it really wasn’t that bad. We had some great help with child care, and I’m grateful for that. Grace was a trooper. There are many, many very good reasons that I married her, and she really demonstrated those reasons this past week.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
July 18th, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Cooling-Off Period

Today is Friday, June 16th, 2017.

A Cooling-Off Period

I came home from work Monday evening to find that two of my family members were ill from heat exhaustion. I went back out for a 12-pack of Gatorade and sandwich fixings and they took cool baths and rehydrated and started feeling better. They had both been surprised by their own dramatic physical reactions to a short time spent outside. It was only 90-something, but the humidity in the woods was intense.

I took this as a teachable moment to talk to the kids, over dinner, about how the weather is becoming more unpredictable and dangerous, and how this trend is going to continue as they get older. They must respect the weather in ways that just weren’t often necessary for me, or my wife, when we were kids. This will include not just the increasing risk of heat exhaustion, but risk from flash floods, lightning, and high winds.

An EPA document from August, 2016, marked “EPA 430-F–16–024,” lays out some of the ways that anthropogenic global warming will affect Michigan:

Changing the climate is likely to increase the frequency of floods in Michigan. Over the last half century, average annual precipitation in most of the Midwest has increased by 5 to 10 percent. But rainfall during the four wettest day of the year has increased about 35 percent. During the next century, sprint rainfall and annual precipitation are likely to increase, and severe rainstorms are likely to intensify. Each of these factors will tend to further increase the risk of flooding.


Higher temperatures increase the formation of ground-level ozone, a pollutant that causes lung and heart problems. Ozone also harms plants. In some rural parts of Michigan, ozone levels are high enough to significantly reduce yields of soybeans and winter wheat.

Because I work indoors, in an air-conditioned building, and commute in an air-conditioned car, the only real misery I experienced this past week has been the effects of ozone, soot, pollen, and other particulates on my eyes, sinuses, throat, and lungs. I’ve been unable to read aloud much because the low-grade irritation of my throat will bring on coughing fits.

And, of course:

In recent decades, severe heat waves have killed hundreds of people across the Midwest. Heat stress is expected to increase as climate change brings hotter summer temperatures and more humidity. Certain pepole are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.

The heat was acutely uncomfortable in the afternoons this past week, but fortunately it cooled down enough each evening that we could sleep cool, which seems to allow the body to recuperate from heat stress and wake up refreshed. It gets really bad when it doesn’t drop below 80 degrees F or so in the evenings, and the body doesn’t have a chance to effectively recover. That’s likely to happen this summer. Keep in mind that it isn’t even officially summer yet.

I won’t link to the EPA document, because I think it is likely to disappear from government web sites, if it hasn’t already. But maybe you can find it archived, if you search for “EPA 430-F–16–024.” If you don’t live in Michigan, there is probably a similar document for your state. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. But if anything, I believe it is not nearly alarmist enough. Our children won’t thank us for leaving the planet in this condition, but maybe they will think slightly better of us, if we do what we can to prepare them for the warming that is already inevitable.

Fortunately, Michigan is supposed to cool off a bit over the next few days. The forecast claims that highs next week will be in the seventies, with lows in the fifties. But I don’t doubt that we will be hit hard by extreme heat this summer. It’s been my experience that recently the weather forecasts have become quite unreliable. I think the forecasting models just haven’t caught up with the facts in the atmosphere. So for several days now the highs have been higher than predicted, and the predicted rain has barely materialized. I have started to recently consider the weather forecast to be more aspirational than realistic.

I’d say that the weather, together with the very grim news from the Arctic, Antarctic, and global South, might be enough to push any remaining global warming deniers into a more realistic view. But from what I can see, as things get clearly and obviously worse, the true disbelievers are digging in and doubling down, and they will die, quite possibly of heat exhaustion or warming-amplified disease, still believing that it was all a hoax.

White Working Class

I finished White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C. Williams. I think this book is worth reading, because it brings up some ideas for further discussion. There is a certain amount of insight to be gained here. As a Sanders supporter, I feel like I was already thinking about many of the things she has to say. Her book might help to identify and formalize some of these things. But the negatives remain.

The book conflates much of the working class and middle class in a way that I don’t think is all that helpful, since there exist real and important differences between these groups. Yet even after warning about the dangers of Manichean black-and-white thinking, it creates a sharp distinction between these groups and the group she calls the “PME,” or Professional and Managerial Elite. It accuses the PME of class “callousness,” which I think is largely valid. But it fails, it seems to me, to explain that a large portion of the middle class finds this PME to be an aspirational model and so votes for the PME’s Democratic party, even when they themselves are well below the income level required to be part of the PME, won’t benefit much from the Democratic Party’s policies in practice, and might be more usefully understood as part of the great “precariat.”

This, I think, is a sort of parallel to the “why do working-class people vote against their own best interests?” insights in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which Williams denigrates as paternalistic. Williams doesn’t, it seems to me, talk much about the importance of real solidarity across class lines, but just a somewhat vague “compassion” and “understanding.” And so it is a bit short on prescriptions.

I think the compassion and understanding she preaches is valuable, but only to a certain point. She also, in her quest to get her readers to have greater understanding and compassion for the group she calls the white working class, fails to level any honest criticism against this population, and bends truth and morality to defend them. For example, she repeats the commonplace idea that Vietnam veterans returning to the United States were spat upon by protesters.

This is actually untrue, but to this day it is part of the working class’s mythology about itself, a slur that denigrates the anti-war movement and portrays those who fought overseas as victims of the culture wars. Jerry Lembcke debunks this myth in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, but I still hear it told to me all the time.

In fact, I had a conservative friend tell me that her husband, a former soldier doing IT work, was actually spat on in the white house by a Clinton staffer, who also called him a “baby-killer.” I’ve heard similar stories many times, but the details always mysteriously evaporate upon inquiry. There remain no contemporary accounts in newspaper or television media of any such incidents, except for a few cases in which the spit flew in the opposite direction.

Williams’ retelling of this myth is similar, in my view, to the Southern insistence that flying the Confederate battle flag is about “heritage, not hate” — it’s a form of self-serving historical revisionism which is “more true than the truth.” The flag was not actually widely flown, postbellum, in the South, until the South chose it as a symbol to show defiance against Federal orders to integrate schools.

When she is “truthy,” not truthful, I have to part ways with Williams. And when she bends over backwards to express compassion for Trump supporters, without holding them to account for the real consequences of their ongoing support, I have to part ways with her as well. She mentions that her WWC “folkways” must be seen as just as valid as the “folkways” of her PME. But when the “folkways” of both groups include lynching, slavery, gay-bashing, state violence, mass incarceration, and extreme environmental injustice, I think we need to talk more about our “folkways.”

I have compassion for Trump voters and those who remain Trump supporters. But you know what I value more than compassion? Real solidarity and justice. And I don’t believe we can have truth and reconciliation with those who voted “with their middle fingers,” and who continue to parrot lies, without truth, any more than I can reconcile with those who still believe and insist that there was no valid criticism of Clinton from the left.

Just yesterday the New York Times demonstrated a truly impressive spine-twisting yoga pose called “both sides,” when it published an editorial that suggested that Sanders supporters need to consider their culpability for the mass shooting carried out by James T. Hodgkinson. I won’t link to the editorial, as I don’t want to give them any ad revenue for such ridiculous posturing, but the author suggests that this was a “moment for liberals to figure out how to balance anger at Mr. Trump with inciting violence.”

Personally, I’m not sure just what Hodgkinson’s disease was, but in the real world one can scour Sanders’ speeches, tweets, writings, and interviews in vain looking for examples where he has incited violence. And also in the real world, one doesn’t have to look very hard to to find examples from the right. One might even start in the oval office.

Knausgaard Again

I just picked up a copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 5, which has just come out in paperback. And so I’m diving back in to the novel. I started book 3 a while back, but what with the frantic activity of the past year, I got distracted only a few pages in. It’s time to catch up.

The Pirate Planet

My voice is a little raw, but I’ve been reading bedtime stories as best I can. Last night I read more of Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet by Douglas Adams and James Goss. The story has picked up a bit by the end of part one, at almost the 100-page mark. But we have over three hundred pages to go, and it’s hard to believe that the payoff is going to be worth it. In adapting the screenplay, Goss really over-inflated the ball. The book is heavily padded with lots of telling sans showing. I find myself wishing there was an abridged audiobook version available. But no — the audiobook is unabridged, and ten hours long.

The kids — big Doctor Who fans — are doing the best they can, but finding themselves bored. We should probably just cut our losses and watch the original episodes. I have ordered a DVD of this story arc from an eBay seller. Even if it isn’t great — and I don’t doubt it won’t be (err, sorry about this sentence, it got away from me a little bit), it should be a good lead-in to a discussion about the dangers of adaptation.

Podcast News

In the midst of all this, Grace and I have felt compelled to start recording again. And so this is a sort of “pre-announcement announcement” — we’re going to be creating new episodes of the Grace and Paul Pottscast.

The web page will be a blog, like the blogs for my other podcasts:

So bookmark that page. There is nothing there yet except for a placeholder image of a kitty. I’m allergic to cats, so don’t blame me — Blogger put the image there. There will also be a Facebook page, but I have not created it yet.

The schedule for episodes is not clear to us yet. The exact contents of the first few episodes are not fully clear to us yet, atlhough we’ve been brainstorming and making some test recordings. My recording setup is working right now, but if it stops working, we may not have the money available to get it working again for a while. And we’re going to be pretty busy in July. Our baby girl will have open-heart surgery. That’s pretty terrifying. But maybe it will help to talk about it. I’ll do what I can to get some new content out there. And hopefully with my wonderful wife’s help, it will be better than the old stuff.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
June 16th, 2017