Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, April 21st, 2018

Sunday

State of Decay

I had some down time on Saturday afternoon, and watched part of State of Decay (the 1980 Doctor Who serial). This is a vampires-in-space story. It seems that perhaps the rationale for the “E-Space” (“Exo-Space-time continuum”) trilogy is to go into a pocket universe (not a full parallel universe, but a smaller universe) in order to free up the writers; nothing they do there has to fit well into the established continuity. They can introduce big threats, and if they don’t escape into the regular old universe, we can just breathe a sigh of relief and forget about them after the story ends.

E-Space is apparently a little green. It looks a little green on the viewscreen, but I thought maybe this was just because some of the film elements had aged badly before they were digitized. The TARDIS made its way to E-Space via a CVE, a “charged vacuum emboitment.” “Emboitment” (French: “emboîtement”) apparently refers to “The outdated hypothesis that all living things proceed from pre-existing germs, and that these encase the germs of all future living things, enclosed one within another,” and literally means “interlocking” or “stacking.” See also Preformationism.

I guess the idea here is that E-Space is a world that grew out of, and is somehow embedded within, N-Space, the universe we live in. But this conception of E-Space is not well-developed in the show; in Logopolis we learn how the CVE was created using “block transfer computations” (blockchain?) by the Logopolitans (were they mining bitcoin?) It’s complicated. (And a little silly).

And personally, I live in the universe of , Tolkien’s universe. Or is it Briah? (The universe of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle).

In this serial, the big threat is the “Great Vampire,” who drinks blood by the bucket-full and lives (if you can call it living) under a crashed spaceship that has been there for a long time, occupied by the original crew who have become the aristocratic rulers of a feudal society. They don’t age, you see, because they’ve become vampires.

The horror is pretty dumb. The dialogue is pretty dumb. Honestly it seems like the most interesting things in this serial are the sets and the guest stars. The sets are surprisingly well-done. The vampire guest stars (Rachel Davies, William Lindsay, and Emrys James) are pervy/creepy and their makeup, so completely over the top that it can’t even see the top any more, is great. Their scenery-chewing is entertaining. There is some nice banter between The Doctor and Romana, too. But these entertaining scenes and bits of dialogue can’t really elevate the sluggish show (sluggish even in fan edit form). Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) is in this one, but he doesn’t have a lot of lines. We learn that he has stowed away on the TARDIS, and he’s been captured by the vampire aristocrats.

I will note in passing that apparently Baker was apparently dating Lalla Ward (Romana) and married her, but their marriage lasted only eighteen months. But this might explain why their banter was more convincing than usual.

Here’s a review that is more positive than this one.

This Week’s Pottscast

We had a great podcast recording session with our friend Joy Pryor. You can find the show blog post here.

Grace spoke with Joy about her First Stop Shop, a thrift store concept that reminds me a bit of the “free store” as described in Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. There is more about free stores or “give-away shops” on Wikipedia here—the concept was implemented by the (contemporary) Diggers. I remember reading a more detailed explanation of the Free Store concept, decades ago, in what I recall as a book by Abbie Hoffman, but unfortunately I can’t remember where I read about it.

The weekend was quite strange. On Sunday morning, we woke to the aftermath of an ice storm. We must have lost power briefly during the night, since the boiler control had reset, but during the day on Sunday I only noticed a few little flickers. Still, I really need to get a second UPS for the basement, and a third for the networking equipment and computer in our bedroom.

The kids have been using their Kano. Mostly, they’ve just been playing Minecraft. They’ve also been on YouTube, because they are working around the proxy server. I need to fix that.

I’m hoping they will discover Adventure, which is some kind of a descendant of the grandfather of all text adventure games, the ur-text if you will, Colossal Cave Adventure. I’m not sure exactly which of many twisty little versions of Adventure this one is, but it doesn’t matter that much. I grew up with text adventure games: Radio Shack’s Haunted House, Scott Adams’ text adventures for the TRS-80, including his “Adventure Zero” (the introductory adventure), and then later Pyramid 2000, a cut-down version of Colossal Cave, and then later, most of the Infocom games. My favorites were the Zork games, but I also really enjoyed Planetfall, Enchanter, Starcross, Suspended, and a few others; I completed a number of them. The details are getting a little hazy in my memory, though. I think in my old notebooks, I may still have at least one or two of the maps I drew.

I’m not sure if I can get the kids interested in text adventures. They are used to visual storytelling on computers. But I can try. I think enjoying a game like Zork requires a certain skill that I acquired young, and which has proven invaluable to me: building a world out of words, and then “debugging” that world (that is, solving the problems it throws at me). And text adventures have the highest-resolution graphics of all: the ones in my mind.

I wonder if they’d make a fun bedtime story?

I wonder if I could get them interested in writing them?

A Wrinkle in Time

The kids have been asking me to read them A Wrinkle in Time. I did not want to derail our progress in The Fellowship of the Ring, but I did take their request into consideration and read them the first chapter.

I’ve done more than enough ranting about A Wrinkle in Time, the 2018 movie, for one lifetime, but reading this chapter reminded me all over again of things I didn’t like about the movie.

In the book, Meg has actually gotten into a fist-fight at school; she isn’t in trouble just for tossing a basketball at another student. That’s far more realistic to me; back in my day in high school, fights involved black eyes and split lips. In 2018 apparently high school fights are soft and, to me, unrealistically liberal. I don’t think kids have actually changed; they are violent. I guess in 2018 the black girl in high school knows that if she throws a punch, she will likely be taken down, and maybe injured or even killed, by the school resource officer. So they lower the stakes and make Meg’s crime a violation of sportsmanship, rather than a more realistic, and easy to relate to, act of violence by a tormented adolescent.

I also found myself steaming about the book’s description of Mrs. Whatsit. In the book, she was not frightening to the kids because she was elderly, and seemed like a harmless eccentric, maybe even a “bag lady” or homeless person. There’s a slapstick sequence in which her boots are full of water, and the kids struggle to help her pull off her boots and pour them out, then put them back on over her wet socks.

This portrayal is so much more silly and humane than the scene in the movie, and importantly, it sets up am impression of Mrs. Whatsit that gives her room to genuinely surprise them later, as she reveals herself to be a being of great power and beauty. In the movie, she’s already beautiful (even wrapped in a dress made from a bedsheet), elaborately coiffed and made up, and leaps right up over a garden wall.

One of the deep messages of the book is “don’t judge people (or creatures) by their superficial appearances.” This plays out in the scene with Aunt Beast, a terrifying-looking alien being who is gentle and compassionate to Meg. A good portion of the point of the witches, or “Misses,” is lost when they start out bristling with alien power and beauty. And one of the major lessons of the book is lost. L’Engle would have despised this change.

Monday

I’ve had some trouble getting feedback from Team One. I’ve asked them to verify that they will loan me $25,000, $5,000 more than I asked for previously. I got a note back saying “that should be fine,” but I’ve asked for something in writing. Their responses have been brief and a bit unclear.

We’ve gotten more addenda for the sales agreement and are trying to hash out, with the help of our realtor, which items should actually be written up and put in the signed agreement.

Grace has been struggling to get information back from various people about the house and our insurance claims. As her patience reached its low point for the day, she sent me a text message that simply read “pray for me.” And so I briefly thought she might be having a medical crisis. But no—she was just fed up.

After she told me all the different ways in which the insurance adjuster, inspector, and various contractors were making her life miserable, by refusing to get back to her, or refusing to do work already paid for, or refusing to even answer phone calls, or even having their phones shut off or e-mail addresses start bouncing messages back—I really can’t blame her. It’s been crazy stupid.

I have to remind myself that rust-best cities that are in economic free-fall are like this: the people who are really good at their jobs, who are qualified, and could compete and get paid better elsewhere, have in many cases left to do just that. What’s mostly left are the people stuck there: maybe they have family in the area, maybe they are attached to it because they’ve lived there all their lives, maybe they have a home they can’t sell. And they are barely scraping by, and so gradually the work merges into a sort of low-level con.

I know when we lived there and I was unemployed and broke, I couldn’t put money into the house, and it was a struggle not to feel like that represented personal failure. It’s the failure of a whole community.

Even friends aren’t immune to this. We paid a friend of a friend, not a professional contractor but allegedly a reasonably good handyman, a couple of hundred dollars to do a repair, including money for raw materials. He cashed the check immediately, but never did the job. It’s been a couple of months. Grace has been leaning on him, but we don’t really have much leverage; he’s not a professional, so he has no professional reputation to protect. It’s not much money, but the repair was important to us. So we’re still scratching our heads.

In fact, the professionals also don’t seem to have much interest in their reputation, either. I guess when things are bad, you can’t afford pride. And so maybe you start to take advantage of the desperation around you, because it helps you feel less desperate. Maybe you even feel a little successful, when you’ve been able to successfully cheat people.

You can probably tell that I’m floundering a bit here, trying to figure out how to stay in solidarity with people who don’t show much interest in maintaining solidarity with me and my family. I’m probably over-thinking it.

Maybe the low-level dishonesty and lack of diligence starts to feel justifiable, you’re in unending financial desperation yourself. I know that I tried to maintain the house, and would like to not feel as irresponsible as I do feel, when I lost consecutive jobs and spent several of our years up there in low-level financial desperation myself.

And we’re still trying to get out of that situation.

Tuesday

Last night Grace took our three older boys (Sam, Joshua, and Pippin) to stay with our friends the Martin family.

After work I put the Kano on our private network (strangely, the Kano listed it as available, even though it is supposedly configured to have its SSID hidden—I will have to look into that). I tried to get the Kano working with my proxy server, but didn’t have any success. I thought I could configure Chromium to use my proxy server, but it won’t show the proxy server setting and gives me a confusing message about using the system proxy server setting. So I tried configuring the proxy server using the Kano control panel. It didn’t work; it gives me a permission error.

I’m not sure what it’s actually doing, to verify the server. I mean, it’s the whole point of a proxy server to block some URLs, right? So maybe it really is working just fine. But it won’t apply the setting.

So I need to verify that the proxy server is working from another client. And maybe I need to whitelist whatever URL the Kano is trying to access to verify the proxy server (if, in fact, that is the source of the error).

It is quite hard for me to use the Kano; the screen is very high-resolution but it is just so small. The tiny keyboard is very difficult for me to use and I keep mis-typing passwords. The Kano Linux distribution hides a lot of the usual Debian configuration options that I’m used to, and wraps up the standard apps with various scripts. So it wasn’t so easy to figure out how, for example, I might pass a proxy server option to the desktop icon for Chromium.

I was not able to find a whole lot of good examples online, perhaps because the Kano Linus distribution is relatively new.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Last night I finished reading Chapter 3 of Fellowship to the kids. In chapter 3, we first meet the black riders. When they first show up in the book, they aren’t all that menacing. In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey writes about how Tolkien gradually “wrote his way into the story”—he didn’t know, yet, the full significant of the black riders, and how dangerous they were. And so at first they are creepy curiosities.

The movie makes them much more menancing from the get-go, while still maintaining some of the odd and creepy details from the book, such as the “sniffing:”

When it reached the tree and was level with Frodo the horse stopped. The riding figure sat quite still with its head bowed, as if listening. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent; the head turned from side to side of the road.

And, later, a black rider even crawls towards them. (In my mind’s eye, I imagine possessed Regan as she crawls backwards down the stairs in the famous deleted scene from The Exorcist).

These changes in the film are, I think, changes for the better; they establish a sense of danger, and it grows quickly and consistently. There’s another change that is fairly large: in the movie, Frodo and Sam watch a band of elves passing through the woods to the Grey Havens; they don’t speak to them. In the book, a black rider is apparently frightened away by a traveling band of elves that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin (Merry is not yet with them) meet on the road. Frodo speaks to their leader:

‘Who are you, and who is your lord?’ asked Frodo. ‘I am Gildor,’ answered their leader, the Elf who had first hailed him. ‘Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod. We are Exiles, and most of our kindred have long ago departed and we too are now only tarrying here a while, ere we return over the Great Sea. But some of our kinsfolk dwell still in peace in Rivendell. Come now, Frodo, tell us what you are doing? For we see that there is some shadow of fear upon you.’

In the book, the hobbits walk for a time with this band of elves, and dine with them, and even sleep in their encampment. It’s a beautiful scene, and they are the first elves that Sam has ever seen:

Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: ‘Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.’

This seems at first like it might a bit of a cop-out on Tolkien’s part, but I think it is actually designed to suggest Sam’s tendency to be a bit inarticulate about what he is experiencing; he’s not “learned,” although Bilbo “learnt him his letters.” Later, in Lothlorien, he will surprise us when he composes words in memory of Gandalf; and, of course, at the very end, the last pages of the Red Book were left for Sam.

We don’t learn exactly where the elves are from, or where they are going, or even who Gildor is. Wikipedia tells us that “Gildor’s ancestry appears to be a loose thread that Tolkien never properly tied up.”

Gildor speaks to Frodo about the black riders, and gives him some advice, but the advice is not surprising, or specific. This helps establish the way in which the elves tend to remain aloof from human affairs. And Gildor has no role in the unfolding story whatsoever, save one: as Frodo leaves Middle-Earth, with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Galadriel, Gildor and his band leaves with them.

And so this small plot digression doesn’t really advance the story much, except to add a little sense of depth to Tolkien’s created world, and creates a nice parallel; Gildor accompanies Frodo for a time as he leaves the Shire—twice.

In the movie, the producers decided to use the brief appearance of the elves as a way to explain that the elves are leaving Middle-Earth. The band of elves in the movie fit in nicely with Tolkien’s description; they seem to glow:

They passed slowly, and the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. They bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet.

This sets up events in the movie that play out later, in Arwen’s story. And so, in the movie, that brief sighting of anonymous elves actually does more to establish the story than Gildor and his band do, in the text.

In chapter 3, there’s also a song. You might recognize it, if you have watched the movie trilogy, because the producers adapted a walking song into the beautiful dirge that Pippin sings in Denethor’s halls:

Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread Through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight.

In the original, the song continues in an upbeat mode:

Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back to home and bed.

>Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
>Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
>Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
>And then to bed! And then to bed!

But in the movie, the producers cherry-picked some of Tolkien’s words to yield a much more melancholy song, deeply relevant to the oncoming war:

Mist and shadow Cloud and shade All shall fade All shall fade

It’s one of the most beautiful moments in the movies, and shows off one of the more brilliant bits of adaptation, in which the producers used Tolkien’s words, but in a different context. Tolkien uses the word “fade” many times in The Lord of the Rings, and with many slightly different meanings.

Wednesday

I had to set my phone’s alarm for 6:00 a.m., jump up and wake up Grace, and make a batch of bulletproof coffee. Grace had to shower, then get Veronica up. She took Veronica, Elanor, Benjamin, and our three guest children up to Saginaw so she could coördinate various plumbers, inspectors, and other repair folks who are working on the house and our insurance claims. I heard from her that she made it OK, and I heard that the plumber has gotten the main leak upstairs fixed, so that’s a minor victory—we can have the water on, so the potential buyer can complete her inspection.

After work I will drive to Grass Lake to pick up the boys.

Elysium Fire

I’ve finished nine chapters of this novel and it’s moving along nicely. It’s been a useful stress relief and distraction to spend a couple of hours in the Glitter Band.

Thursday

Last night after I left work, I drove to the home of our friends, who live in Grass Lake, to pick up three of our boys, who had stayed overnight. It’s a long, long drive. On the plus side, the section of I-94 from the West side of Ann Arbor to exit 150 is in a lot better shape than the part I use to commute every day. But on the minus side, the side roads are in terrible shape, riddled with potholes, and covered with patches that also have potholes.

One kid, who shall remain nameless, didn’t want to leave, and I’m sorry to report that I had to drag him out from under a bed by his shirt and carry him to the car. Then he screamed for much of the hour-long drive home. Then he refused to get out of the car once we were home.

So. Stressful night.

Grace came back late with Veronica and five babies. She had a long day. The plumber showed up as planned at the old house in Saginaw, and fixed a broken copper water supply pipe leading into the pink bathroom upstairs. This looks like a classic ruptured pipe due to freezing. We had the pipes drained when we turned off the water in the fall, but apparently the handyman we had on hand to do it didn’t really succeed.

So the water is on, which means the buyer should be able to complete more of the plumbing inspection.

He also found a number of small leaks, and we have to decide if we want to try to have those repaired, even if insurance won’t cover them. That’s about $1,000 more.

We also had an environmental inspector from Stanley Steemer out, and a furnace guy out, to get more reports for the insurance claim. We had to pay about $750 out of pocket yesterday, and it’s not clear if we’ll be able to get any of that back from our insurer.

It’s becoming difficult to manage with our house-guest’s schedule. We’re no longer eating dinners together, which puts us back where we started trying to manage two completely separate sets of meals. This is not workable in the long term and I’m struggling a bit to try to figure out how we can make our home work more like a cooperative under these scheduling constraints.

Friday

It’s been a difficult week. It always takes it out of us, when Grace has to travel with the kids up to Saginaw and back. We’ve been a bit sleep-deprived. Despite this, I managed to get some important code improvements done yesterday, all centered around rationalizing memory usage.

Last night we had a dinner of assorted leftovers, and so managed to eat most of them, although we did have to throw away a few things that were going off. This is another unfortunate side effect of a chaotic week when we have missed some of our usual sit-down meals together.

I’ve been frustrated this week. I haven’t been able to free up the time that I want to spend, the way I want to spend it, for various things: to spend with the kids; to practice guitar; to work on the podcast. Instead I’ve felt a lot of stress over various things: the money situation; the home sale; our current living situation; the kids’ computer situation.

Each evening seems, when I get home, to be already blown, as most of it will be taken up by dishes. Then I hope for a reasonable sequence of events at bedtime, with everyone pitching in to help do the final cleanup and getting ready, and a story, and instead it devolves into screaming babies, kids wandering away from every task, and a situation where I’m stuck herding cats until we don’t have enough time for a story. Then we try to have one anyway, and wind up getting to sleep well past midnight—and so I’ve been overly tired all week, and getting in to work later than I should.

I’m hoping for a better weekend, and a better week.

Finding a Happy Medium

At bedtime, I read the kids the second chapter of A Wrinkle in Time. In this chapter Meg has her encounter with principal Jenkins and hears again that she should find a “happy medium” in her approach to life. At this stage of the story, the meaning of this phrase is not entirely clear. She’s being asked to compromise—but between what two extremes? It seems to mean that she is being asked to spend more time doing what other people ask, even when she can’t see the point of things like studying the exports of Nicaragua, and also to demand less from others, and perhaps to demand less from life itself. One extreme might be the “going along to get along” extreme—don’t make waves, just keep your head down and do what everyone asks of you. And the other might be a sort of aggrieved entitlement, always saying “it’s not fair.”

Of course one must, especially in childhood and adolescence, accept the guidance and teaching of others. And to have the skills needed to navigate life yourself later, you need to sit through skills-building work which might seem pointless at the time. Learning to pass the “marshmallow tests” in life really is important. I found high school almost unbearably tedious, and even parts of my college education were a real slog. But much of what I was learning was, in retrospect, really just the endurance and patience to chip away at a long-term goal, even when the individual steps towards it were not always gratifying.

In later chapters she will actually find the “Happy Medium” in person. I am looking forward to re-reading that part and trying to understand what L’Engle is getting at with this literal manifestation of a cliché.

This raises in my mind the odd possibility that we are meant to doubt some of what Meg experiences. Are some of her later experiences created, or at least shaped, as manifestations of her real home life and school experiences? Are we to see some of the events of the story as either existing inside her head, or emerging from it? As we continue I will be looking for more examples of this. I don’t think L’Engle meant for us to believe that Meg’s experience took place in her own mind—after all, there are other people with her, and she rescues her father. But aspects of it seem to emerge from her life experience, either as manifestations of her inner world or as events somehow stage-manged for her edification.

This idea is present, in a way, in the movie: inside “The It,” Meg is forced to confront another version of herself—a version with straightened hair and tighter clothes, who lacks glasses, and has a blatantly insouciant sexuality about her. This version seems made up from her dark thoughts about what it would take to conform, and be popular. Meg banishes this vision because she has started to believe that she is not broken, and not a thing that needs to be re-shaped to fit anyone else’s expectations. But yet she does find her “happy medium” and does start to live up to the expectations and demands of others.

We also learn that Mrs. Who is using the stolen bedsheets to create “ghosts” for Mrs. Which (witch), props to scare anyone who might visit the “haunted house,” inhabited by the “witches.” There’s even a bubbling cauldron in the house, filled with something that smells like a chemistry experiment rather than food. I’m not sure we ever learn what the “witches” are cooking up. I do think it’s a bit of a loss that the producers of the film didn’t do anything to explore the crone stereotype, and subvert it, as L’Engle did. Instead, as I’ve pointed out in my review, we are shown a world in which women aren’t allowed to be old, as if this was somehow more empowering for them.

The Hobbit Revisited

I’ve been watching YouTube videos by Lindsay Ellis, particularly her three-part series on the recent trilogy of films based on The Hobbit. The three parts are:

Ellis says in the first segment “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is so good it makes me angry,” and I’m pretty much with her—I had quibbles here and there, but that film still holds up very well. Parts of that trilogy are still mind-blowing.

The Hobbit—well, not so much. Watch these videos to find out what went wrong, and more importantly, how and why. They’re a real education in the craft and business of filmmaking.

And… The Last Jedi

I liked The Last Jedi a lot, but I understand why a lot of Star Wars fans didn’t. So it was interesting to read this essay from Cinemablend, “I Was Wrong About Star Wars: The Last Jedi” by Sean O’Connell. He writes about seeing Rian Johnson’s vision more clearly on a second viewing.

It’s not a long essay, but I found it gratifying to read, because some of the Star Wars fans I know didn’t like The Last Jedi. They really didn’t like it.

I have not yet written a full review, but I did write a few notes, in this blog post. After watching it again on Blu-Ray, I don’t really feel the need to add anything.

Saturday

I’m not in a great mood.

Last night after work I made a Costco run and got food for the week, and we had a version of our usual Friday night dinner, salmon, salad, and some adorable little lemon meringue mini-pies. They were adorable, but the flavor was nothing to write home about. I love lemon meringue, but just about everyone makes it too sweet for my taste.

Things have become difficult with the number of kids running around and with Grace and I struggling to give some attention to other projects, including the house sale, dealing with insurance, etc. Fortunately our buyer seems to be pretty dedicated to actually closing the sale.

“The First Duty”

We managed to watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation after dinner, with the subtitles on so we could follow the story even when the kids got noisy. We watched “The First Duty” and “Cause and Effect.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “The First Duty” before. In this episode, Wesley Crusher is a cadet in Star Fleet and his squad of trainee pilots has a fatal accident. It’s one of the better episodes. Grace and I were debating what we think of Wil Wheaton’s acting in this episode: I said that I appreciated him under-playing the emotions, as it seemed to fit well with a character who was struggling to juggle conflicting loyalties. But on the down side, he doesn’t give much impression of being tormented by the situation; I think the viewer mostly has to imagine that he is. Ray Walston as Boothby is great. Robert Duncan MacNeill as Cadet Nicholas Locarno is good. I was a bit startled to realize that I was familiar with MacNeill as Tom Paris in Star Trek: Voyager.

The weaknesses of this episode stem mostly from the fact that we don’t really get to know any of the younger characters. Locano is not portrayed sympathetically and we don’t really get to see his character change; we only hear about, but don’t see, the consequences of his action. There is an interesting screenwriting choice: we are told that Locano defends his teammates and tells the investigators that the fatal accident was his fault, and that he bullied them into the fatal stunt. But we don’t get to see this happen. It would have been a great moment to show on screen, and some of the earlier conspiratorial scenes could have been trimmed to make room for such a scene. It would have shown the moment in which Locarno grew up and took responsibility for his action.

“Cause and Effect”

This is a really fun episode. Before the opening credits, the Enterprise blows up. So then we’ve got to find out what happened and how they get out of it. It’s a time-loop story. Grace is convinced that the recent Doctor Who episode called “Heaven Sent” must have been inspired by this story. We see the same actions occur over and over again, but watching closely, the viewer realizes the footage is not identical. The scenes were shot multiple times, with different readings and camera cuts. Even the explosion effects vary as the events repeat themselves. And there are a number of little jokes: for example, Beverly Crusher keeps knocking over and breaking her wineglass. In the last repeat we think “Hey! She didn’t break the glass!” because she’s not even in the scene; she’s on the intercom to Engineering. But then we hear the sound of breaking glass through the communication link.

This would go in my list of the top ten episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We even get a very quick cameo by Kelsey Grammer at the end.

Moby-Dick

I saw a post on Facebook by our friend Artur; he was talking about this edition of Moby-Dick, the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, the one with deckle-edged paper and a cool illustration on the wraps. It reminded me that I had been meaning to fix up a little recording I made a couple of years back. I had been reading Moby-Dick to the kids at bedtime, and trying to make it entertaining for them by voicing the characters. They were having a great time, so I made a recording of chapters 28-31, which are some of the strangest and funniest. There was a place where I missed an edit, and a line was repeated.

I fixed that, but then got bogged down in the details of trying to get a good-sounding audio clip: replacing the instance of Izotope Alloy I used in the original project with an instance of Renaissance Vox, getting the pre-gain right, getting an instance of Izotope Ozone to give me the compression I wanted, etc. I couldn’t figure out why the file was compressed but not full-volume. I finally realized the master volume slider was down, something I never usually touch. Then I couldn’t figure out why Logic would not bounce a mono file. And then I converted it to a mono MP3 file, but Safari would not play the MP3! And neither would QuickTime player! I’d get nothing but silence.

So that led me on a quest to try different MP3 encoder settings. Nothing seemed to work. I tried playing it with VLC media player. That program crashed, so I thought something must really be wrong with that MP3. Finally I realized that iTunes would play the file. I downloaded Chrome, and Chrome would play the file. I downloaded Firefox, and Firefox would play the file. There was nothing wrong with the file. The Safari web browser has bugs. QuickTime player has bugs. Apparently a mono MP3 file confuses both of them. At least this one does.

I don’t think anyone at Apple has any interest in fixing these bugs.

The MP3 file in question is here.

Kano

I’m trying to figure out how to get the Kano to use the proxy server like our other computers. I just sent Kano a request for support:

Hello,

I am trying to configure Kano system to work with a home proxy server. I use this for whitelist-based web filtering.

Initially I could not get the WiFi configuration to use the proxy server, because enabling it apparently makes a request to www.google.com for verification. One of the whole points of using the whitelist is to keep my kids away from Google tracking them, but I enabled www.google.com temporarily and was able to turn on the proxy server.

However, it doesn’t seem to work. The Chromium browser does not honor the system proxy settings (and it won’t let me specify a proxy server independent of the system settings). There’s an error message that suggests I provide a proxy server on the command line. I would attempt to edit the launcher for Chromium, but it uses a command wrapper of some kind and I’m not sure how to change it to specify a proxy server.

I’m looking for a way to prevent my kids from unfiltered internet access on their Kano the same way it works on our other computers in the house.

Thanks!

We’ll see if they come back with any sort of useful reply. I don’t like the simplified GUI for the proxy server. It has some bad user interface design. For one thing, when you try to turn it on, it tries to hit several web sites. The whole point of a proxy server is potentially to block web sites. So the way it generates errors when my proxy server is working the way I want is obnoxious and confusing.

I am also concerned, although I did not mention this my message, because I also saw the Kano making web requests to Facebook URLs (which the proxy server refused). I was not attempting to load Facebook. We have never signed in to Facebook from the Kano. The security and privace implications are honestly more than I feel like I can cope with at the moment. I’m not sure whether this is just something that happens normally where certain Kano pages run scripts that access Facebook URLs, or what. I know that Facebook likes to track you from site to site, but I guess I had higher hopes for the Kano ecosystem. I’ll have to look into it as a have time.

We’re going to be hard-pressed to record and produce a podcast this weekend.

I’m going to see if I can get one of the Chromebooks up and running with Linux. Maybe if there was another machine they could use, they would stop fighting over the Kano.

I’m pleased to see they haven’t broken it yet. It’s honestly better than the worst-case scenario I was planning for.

I haven’t timed it, but it seems like the Kano’s battery life is terrible. To be honest I mostly just expect to use the battery as a UPS and leave it plugged in most of the time. It’s supposed to last four hours, but I don’t think we’re getting that.

I did get a little reading time this morning and I’m almost done with Elysium Fire.

I’m feeling kind of demoralized because I totaled up the first quarter “what I’ve been reading” lists and it seems like I completed only four books in the first quarter of 2018. That’s terrible compared to 2016 and 2017. But on the other hand, I’ve been completing a weekly podcast and a daily journal for the whole year to date. I don’t manage to write every single day, but on the days I don’t manage, I try to go back and fill in what happened, a day or two later. I’ve been pretty successful. The number of words I’ve written so far this year is… large. I don’t even want to check, honestly. Maybe I’ll try it with a script.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

(I’m not listing some books that I only mention briefly; see previous or future blog posts for more detail).

  • State of Decay (1980 Doctor Who serial)
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds
  • Lindsay Ellis’s trilogy of videos about The Hobbit movie trilogy
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5, Episode 17, “The First Duty”
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5, Episode 18, “Cause and Effect”

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, April 21st, 2018

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, April 14th, 2018

Sunday

We had a great podcast recording session with our friend Chris Travers. You can find the show blog post here.

I finally got the audio setup working properly, but I wasted a lot of time screwing around with it. Apparently Google Hangouts, running on Safari, just won’t send audio out the FA-66 outputs when you set the FA-66 as its “speaker out.” It will send the audio through the the US-2000 outputs, or through the built-in headphone output on the computer. It will get audio in from the FA-66 inputs. Other software will send audio out the FA-66 outputs just fine. I have no explanation. So in desperation I set up a workaround, where the remote audio “mix minus” going to the Google Hangout is going out one output of the US-2000 into one input of the FA-66, but the remote audio from the Google Hangout is going from the headphone jack of the Mac Mini, into a Radial J-4 box (this box takes unbalanced stereo audio, boosts it, and changes it to +4dBu balanced outputs), with the left XLR output of the J-4 going into a mono TRS input of the US-2000 as the “from Google Hangout” audio.

This is so damned complicated… all because of the way you can’t arbitrarily select input and output channels for things like Google Groups audio. But it worked!

After sleeping on the problem, it occurs to me that I might be able to do it all with the US-2000, by using input and output 1 for the Google Hangout audio, leaving input and output 2 unused, and moving some channels around to free up inputs and outputs 1 and 2.

There was some kind of problem while recording where I was hearing an slight echo or doubling of my voice track, in the control room mix going through the headphone amplifier. This couldn’t have been caused by the input monitoring on the FA-66, since I wasn’t even using the FA-66 output 1. It was not audible on Grace’s input, and hers was set up the same as mine, just on an adjacent channel. So I have no idea what was going on. I just have to hope that after rearranging channels and rebooting everything again, it will go away.

The US-2000 has enough inputs to do what I need for the podcast, but I’m finding that the microphone inputs seem to clip really, really easily compared to the FA-66, and it’s not a soft clipping that I’m hearing. It’s a nasty digital clipping. But this is happening even though the signal level getting recorded is very low—nowhere near clipping. I have to have the preamps turned way down to avoid this. This means I have to add a lot of gain in post. How could that audio level be clipping anything?

Even if I hit them very softly, the inputs just don’t seem to sound quite as good as the FA-66 either. Even if I add a suitable amount of gain to the track before feeding it into the Renaissance Vox plug-in instances, they seem to sound slightly dull by comparison, lacking a little “air.”

One of the inputs is coming from my JDV direct box for electric guitar. The metering on the front panel of the US-2000, and in Logic, shows the level coming in as quite low. But transients seem to clip it like crazy, even when it doesn’t seem like they should be anywhere near loud enough.

I don’t have a good explanation for it, except that maybe the FA-66 and Ensemble were more tolerant, or had built-in limiting. Could this be a driver issue? Or do I have a unit with a hardware problem? (I did pick it up used). Maybe its internal power supply has capacitor rot, or something like that?

I haven’t really thought of the FA-66 as having great-sounding preamps, compared to the Ensemble, because they have more unpleasant noise when I turn the gain up high, but they do seem to sound noticeably better than the US-2000, and they seem much more forgiving. Maybe if I was using outboard preamps and compressors prior to hitting the US-2000 inputs, I could avoid clipping the inputs. But I just don’t have any budget to introduce more hardware into my little podcast studio at present. And if I had budget to start updating hardware, I’d get a better interface. (And it already takes eight devices plugged into AC power to record the podcast!)

After adding gain back in, in post-production, the resulting file doesn’t sound dramatically different, but I’ve gotten very used to how the FA-66 sounds, and so even if it’s not clipping, I’m inclined to hear any change in our recorded sound as a negative thing. Maybe I’ll get used to it.

It seems like I should be happy about the prospect of freeing up the FA-66, but unfortunately I can’t do much with it, since none of my other computers have FireWire.

Is there a version of the FA-66 with a lot more channels? (Nope.) Do I need to track down an old FireWire MOTU interface? (It seems ridiculous to buy FireWire interfaces in 2018…)

The Five Doctors

We finished watching the fan edit of The Five Doctors, the serial from 1983. This is one of the odder serials. The five doctors are Hartnell (played by Richard Hurndall, since Hartnell had died), Troughton, pertwee, Baker, and Davidson. There are puzzling “side quests” with Baker, which don’t make a lot of sense; he’s never in scenes with the other four. It turns out this is because he is “included” in the serial only because the producers used some footage from the unfinished serial Shada.

The Master is played by Anthony Ainley. It was a little weird watching Ainley’s version shortly after watching Terror of the Autons, since his face looks quite a bit different. The character doesn’t actually accomplish much in this show. And there are Cybermen, but they don’t seem to accomplish much either, other than geting blown up by the [Raston Warrior Robot](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Doctor_Who_robots#R].

It’s a bit confusing. It has some nice scenes, though. The “action figure doctors” are wonderfully strange. The scenes where the different companions interact are funny, and in some cases, where they appear as visions, and then disappear, their scenes are disturbing. The climactic scene at Rassilon’s tomb is also quite creepy, and helps a lot to make up for some of the duller scenes. But overall, even in the sped-up fan edit, it’s still pretty confusing and messy.

Monday

This morning at breakfast I read a bit more of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, but there’s not a lot that I feel strongly about; the book continues to be mostly as I’ve described it previously. There’s an essay examining whether Trump is “crazy like a fox” or “crazy like a crazy,” that discusses delusional disorder. Essays discuss cognitive impairment and the issue of mental incapacity, the 25th Amendment, James A. Herb’s lawsuit in Florida, and a claim that electors had a duty to be faithless. So these recent chapters focused on the idea that Trump is suffering from dementia, or some other form of incapacitation—but none of this really suggests much that readers can do, other than engage in more of this kind of speculation. I’ve finished part 1, so I’ll see if part 2, titled “The Trump Dilemma,” has anything more to offer.

I’m getting home quite late Monday night. We had a series of meetings at work today and so I never really was able to get my thoughts together until everyone went home. So it’s 9:15 p.m. and I’m still at work.

Tuesday

It’s been a difficult night and morning. I got home quite late last night. The kids had left the trash bins facing the wrong way. We had roast chicken and green bean casserole for dinner. Then I had to dive into kitchen cleanup, and although the kids had loaded the dishwasher, no one had started it, so we were backed up on dishes. Grace told me that she had scheduled the water turn-on for this morning, so needed to get out at about 8:00 a.m. So we struggled a bit to figure out just how we were going to do that.

The plan we finally settled on was to have me come home early so we didn’t need to leave kids in charge of kids. So that’s what I’m doing. This morning I discovered that the kids had left both the front and back doors of the garage ajar. This keeps happening, and I’ve begged them not to do it, since we really don’t want opossum or other animals nesting in our boxes of clothes. I discovered that Grace’s truck was very low on gas, and she was leaving it running to warm up. So that was stressing me out. I dug out the gas can and followed her to the gas station because I thought there was a very high likelihood she wouldn’t even make it that far. (She did).

In the drive in, I noticed that my tires seemed soft. I check them periodically, but they seemed even softer than usual. So when I got to the office parking lot, I checked them. They are supposed to be 32 psi in front and 34 psi in back. They were all 25 and under, and one was barely 20. So I took the Element to Discount Tire and got them topped off. One valve stem cap was missing. This makes me wonder if the kids were playing with my tires. Which made me wonder if they might have been playing with her tires as well. So I asked Grace to stop at Discount Tire in Saginaw too.

So, I came home about 12:30 and brought my work laptop, signed on to the VPN, and did a few more hours work at the dining table while the kids watched videos in the bedroom. Grace will not be back until late.

Tuesday Evening

OK, I have figured out how to make my podcast setup slightly simpler and stop using the FA-66 altogether. I thought I might have figured out a way to stop using the extra audio output from the Mac Mini as well, but no.

I first rearranged a few inputs. The TASCAM US-2000 now has the Rode NT-5 for acoustic guitar on input 3, with phantom power turned on for the 3/4 pair. The host microphones on inputs 5 and 6, with phantom power turned on for the 5/6 pair. The Radial JDV direct box for my electric guitar is on input 7, with phantom power turned off for the 7/8 pair. This is one of those times when it would be nice if I could turn phantom power on and off on each separate input. If I could do that, I could put everything into the back panel and leave the front panel inputs 7 and 8 unused.

Now I’ve freed up inputs 1 and 2, with phantom power turned off on the input 1/2 pair. With these inputs freed up, I can use them for the “microphone” audio going into the Google Hangout, and have the Google Hangout configured to use the US-2000 right alongside Logic.

I also moved the control room outputs (that go to the headphone mixer) from outputs 1 and 2 to outputs 3 and 4. This frees up outputs 1 and 2 so that the “speaker” audio coming out of the Google Hangout can go out these outputs.

I have to use inputs 1/2 and outputs 1/2 for Google Hangouts, because as with most Mac programs that let you route audio, all you can do is choose the audio interface to use. Sometimes you can choose separate interfaces to use for input and output (fortunately you can in Google Hangouts). But most programs just default to channels 1 and 2 as a stereo pair and there’s no option to change it. You could have a 512-channel interface and you’d still only be able to use the first two outputs.

Google Hangout audio is mono, which gave me an idea. If the Google Hangout only sent audio out channel 1 (the left channel) of the stereo pair, and only listened to audio coming in on the left channel, I could do some clever looping. I could “criss-cross” channels 1 and 2:

  • Output 2, not otherwise used, could carry the “mix minus” audio.
  • I could route this around to input 1, the “microphone input” for the Google Hangout.
  • Then, for the “speaker output” I could do the opposite: I could send output 1 to the not-otherwise-used input 2, where it would get routed into the control room mix.

Then I could just configure Google Hangouts to use the US-2000.

But this doesn’t work. It almost works, but because Google Hangouts sends audio out both channels, and mixes the left and right inputs, this approach leads to a gradual build-up of feedback. It’s “gradual” because the software does a pretty good job of eliminating some of it. But if I let it run for a while, it starts to build up.

If I had even one extra mono output on the US-2000, say an output 5, to use for the “mix minus” to send to the Hangouts “microphone” input, I could make this work. I could route output 5 to input 1, leaving input 2 unconnected. Then I could route output 1, the Hangouts “speaker” output, into my input 9, where I feed it into the control room mix so Grace and I can hear what our guests are saying (and avoid routing it back out to the Hangout). But I don’t have even one more. So the interface is a little lopsided. Six outputs would be great.

What I’m doing now is to use the Mac Mini headphone out for the Google Hangouts speaker output. That goes into a Radial J+4, then I run just the left channel (because the Hangout audio is mono anyway) into input 9, the “listen to the hangout” input. Then because the Hangout isn’t using output 1, I take over output 1 for the “mix minus” and send it to input 1, the Hangout “microphone input.”

If I have a chance to pick up a better-sounding USB interface with six outputs, I can get rid of the extra routing for the Google Hangout speaker audio. That would be nice.

This would probably be easier to explain with a drawing. It may be time to bust out the ASCII art.

I haven’t exactly solved the electric guitar level problem, but I determined that even with the preamp at its lowest setting, the JDV output can clip the input, unless I engage the pad. So, probably I should be using a line input instead of a microphone input. To do that properly I want an XLR female to TRS male cable of the appropriate length, so I don’t have to connect cables to cables or use cable adapters. So maybe I’ll order a couple of those. I still have spare inputs—remember that “lopsided” input and output configuration.

Last week I talked about my ideal audio interface for this application. If I give up the idea of routing digital audio into or out of the interface and focus entirely on the analog, that could simplify things. In the current setup, I’m using 3 microphones that actually need mic preamps. My input 1 doesn’t need it, but it doesn’t seem to hurt anything when turned all the way down; it is gained up a little bit, but it doesn’t clip.

I’m presently using a total of six inputs. Input 1 (the Google Hangout “mic input”) and input 7 (the JDV input) could just as well be line inputs. So it would be nice if a couple of these inputs used combo jacks and could be used as either mic or line inputs, as the mic inputs are configured on the FA-66. So let’s add that requirement.

  • 8 XLR (mic)/TRS (line input) combo inputs.
  • Phantom power available on each input, configurable independently.
  • Let’s just skip any guitar inputs; I’ll use a direct box.
  • 6 TRS outputs.

For this application, I don’t need anything else. This would let me leave 1/2 for the required Google Hangout left/right input, but not have to skip inputs for the 5 signals currently going in (3 mics, the JDV, and the Hangout monitoring). I’d still have a spare for another host or a second mic for acoustic instruments. So who makes this? Or the closest thing to it?

To examine further, later (enough for tonight!) I found the following interfaces on Sweetwater:

  • Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
  • Focusrite Clarett 8Pre USB 18x20
  • PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL
  • PreSonus Studio 1824
  • TASCAM US-16x08
  • TASCAM Celesonic US-20x20
  • Antelope Audio Discrete 8

Both Focusrite boxes only allow phantom power control per bank of four inputs.

The Presonus 1818VSL uses combo jacks in what looks to be a very useful way. But it has the same limitation on phantom power control.

The Presonus 1824 has one control for phantom power that affects all the microphone inputs. I really don’t like that. I might be able to work around it; currently the only actual microphones I’m using do require phantom power. For a couple of line-level inputs, I could probably get by using different cables that did not terminate in an XLR female connector. So I’d have to acquire some new cables. But if I ever wanted to use a ribbon mic alongside the others, I’d be in trouble, unless I added another Cloud Lifter or similar device. It just seems like a needless lack of flexibility.

The TASCAM US-16x08 is pretty similar to the US-2000 I have now. There are no combo jacks, but there are extra line inputs, and extra line outputs. This would do the job I can’t quite do now without using that extra output from the computer. This would probably be the simplest and least expensive “side-grade,” although I’m not sure it is any better at all, audio quality-wise, and might even be worse, than the US-2000.

The TASCAM Celesonic US-20x20 looks very usable but it’s a USB 3.0 device. And so I’m going to have to disquality it because it wouldn’t work with any of my older computers including the Mac Mini I’m now using for the podcast.

The Antelope Audio Discrete 8 looks pretty nice, but because of all the extra clocking and digital I/O on the back, the 8 line outputs are on a DB-25. I’d probably want to break them out to a racked patch bay. That would be inconvenient, but it’s not necessarily a deal breaker.

Wednesday

Full Circle

After dinner I watched a couple of old Doctor Who serials. I was curious about the origin story of Adric, so watched Full Circle. It’s really not that good, although there are some moments that achieve real creepiness and uncaniness. The plot in this story is quite complex. The degree of complexity is almost up there with an epic science fiction plot that covers centuries, like the Helliconia trilogy by Brian W. Aldiss. I’m not actually claiming that this show was written with the same degree of care in research and development that Aldiss put into that trilogy, but just that it has considerably more back-story and world-building than one usually sees in a Doctor Who story (or any television story of the era, honestly).

The net result is that I finished watching the show with the feeling that the story deserved to be a miniseries and it deserved a higher budget; it would benefit from a presentation that relied less on cheese horror tropes and more on dialogue. It doesn’t work all that well for Doctor Who because, for one reason, there’s not a clear villain; everyone has a back-story that makes them sympathetic to one degree or another. I’m reminded a bit of The Starlost, Harlan Ellison’s show which suffered greatly (the stuff of science fiction legend, really) in the transition from screenplay to screen.

You can read the whole plot summary here. As usual, we watched the fan edit. I’m sure that made it more watchable, but I think the editing might have obscured some of the world-building. This story is the first of a loose trilogy called the “E-Space trilogy.” The TARDIS has passed into a parallel universe. This involves some hand-waving and techno-babble. I’m honestly not really sure what the point of it is.

Logopolis

Then, we skipped right to the end of Tom Baker’s tenure as The Doctor, and watched Logopolis. This is quite a weird and fascinating Doctor Who story but I think I might want to watch it again before I try to fully review it. There’s a lot going on, good and bad, in this serial. This makes it, I think, quite fitting as Baker’s send-off story.

I’ve downloaded the fan edits of State of Decay (a 1980 Doctor Who serial, the second part of the “E-Space trilogy”) and Warriors Gate (a 1981 Doctor Who serial, the third part of the “E-Space trilogy”). I’ll watch those as time allows.

Thursday

I didn’t wind up anything at all on Thursday, so I’ll try to recall what happened. I got home about 7:30 and we had dinner guests. Grace had made stuffed shells, and they were very good. So we wound up socializing until after 10, and then it was mostly cleaning up dishes until I collapsed into bed.

Friday

Just like on Thursday, I wasn’t able to get anything written on Friday. It was an early morning and a busy work day. I got back from my Friday evening grocery shopping about 8:30, and the kitchen was a mess, so I had to do quite a bit of clean-up just to get the groceries put away and get dinner on. Dinner was our usual Friday evening salmon from Costco, and a salad kit.

The Kano computer kit I ordered the previous Friday arrived. So after dinner, I helped the kids put it together, and now they have a Kano Raspberry Pi-based computer up and running.

It’s supposed to be possible for kids to assemble it, but I discovered that the pieces don’t really fit together as cleanly and easily as billed. In several places the instructions talk about “snapping” the parts together, but they don’t “snap.” They are just press-fit.

Without tactile feedback it’s hard to figure out just how much force to apply. In some cases you have to push on printed circuit boards covered with parts. It is not necessarily that clear to a child where one can push safely without damaging parts. Also, there are a number of micro-USB plugs that don’t fit into the sockets quite as far as you might expect; they are designed to fit into the sockets when inserted through holes in a device’s case. When there is no case, it doesn’t seem like the plug is going far enough into the socket—but that’s as far as it will go without damaging it.

So it’s actually not at all hard to put together, but I think it’s a little optimistic to claim that a child can do it easily. Maybe an older child.

The Kano kit cost $250.00 and I have warned the kids that if they fight over it, or break it, that’s it. As I write this, Benjamin is throwing a screaming tantrum, so I have asked them to shut it down and bring me the device. It’s time to take a break.

The Kano hardware is a bit of a strange compromise. The clear plastic case seems quite robust. The innards are probably made just about as well as most consumer electronics hardware, whis is to say, it’s all made in China. There are no fussy, fragile ribbon cables. All the connectors are USB, 1/8" TRS, HDMI, or USB micro. These are all nice open standards. These are fine for the internal connectors, but I do wish that the external USB micro connection for the power adapter was something bigger and less fragile.

The whole file system is on a micro SD card. It comes with a customized Linux distribution. That’s really impressive, but I’m not sure a micro SD card is really a sturdy file system for Linux. A more robust setup might invove an external SSD.

The trackpad on the included keyboard is pretty awful, and the kids were complaining about it. So I loaned them one of my wireless mice. That worked immediately with no setup required, which was very nice. The keyboard itself is scaled down, which makes it bizarrely difficult for an adult to use. But they have not complained about it.

So far I have not gotten a chance to try out this distribution. But already it seems far more responsive and child-friendly than the vintage Windows 7 laptops the kids were using.

I have not yet figured out how to get this machine to use only the proxy server for HTTP. That might take some digging. It sort of figures that as soon as I got the Windows laptops working nicely with the proxy server, the kids managed to break the second and third ones and so we returned them all to their school. (To be fair to the kids, one or two of them may have just failed because of failing hard drives or other components; but they were certainly hard on the laptops).

Saturday

Elysium Fire

This morning I started reading Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds. This book is a sequel to The Prefect. Recent editions of The Prefect have been re-titled Aurora Rising. (Reynolds is perfect en-titled (hahaha) to do this, but I don’t see the point; I think it’s just an invitation to confusion).

The Prefect was set in the Revelation Space universe and it is basically a police procedural. I think these constraints on the storytelling actually had the effect of making it one of the tightest and most exciting of Reynolds’ novels. It’s one of my favorites, although I have to admit that it’s been a few years since I last read it, and I don’t remember the story all that clearly.

I read the first three chapters of Elysium Fire this morning and we’re diving right in to a fast-moving story. The character at the center of the story is Thalia Ng, from the previous book. Dreyfus and Aumonier are involved as well. There’s political plotting. There are ancient and powerful families. In style, it’s somewhat reminiscent of his standalone novel House of Suns. It looks like it’s gonna be a good one. In books like these Reynolds really does space opera very well. The only question, as far as I’m concerned, is whether you enjoy space opera. These stories may not be eternal classics, they may not be that deep or important, but they are damned entertaining, and ought to be ranked up there with the best mystery novels or detective novels.

It’s the Weekend and I’m Weakened

I wanted to be up cooking by 9:00 a.m., but just had too bad a night’s sleep. So I had to sleep a bit later. Then I took a bath and read those three chapters. Then, kitchen cleanup, and cooking. I made corned beef hash on the griddle. Grace helped clean up and prep eggs, and so we made a couple of frittatas (she doesn’t attempt omelettes anymore) with the leftover salmon. We put some English muffins slathered with pesto butter under the broiler and made a pot of coffee and a pot of tea.

I was just looking at my Facebook feed on this laptop, and it suddenly shut down. The battery isn’t dead. I powered it back on and it started up normally. There were no error messages after booting up, or the usual “Windows has shut down unexpectedly,” and no offer to report the problem to Microsoft.

I just paid off the computer on my credit card. I hope this isn’t a sign that it’s going to be unreliable. And I hope this isn’t just Windows 10’s approach to forcing me to install updates (which, as I’ve discussed before, are broken anyway!)

I accidentally left my reading glasses at work this weekend. So I’m squinting.

Tomorrow is looking like an extremely busy day, so if possible Grace and I will record and product the podcast tonight. I’m afraid that means it will not represent our best work. But sometimes we get lucky and a show that we weren’t able to plan very well turns out to be pretty good anyway.

There’s news about the old house. It’s complicated, but the upshot seems to be that it still might be possible to complete a sale in the next month or so, but I will need to borrow even more money ($25,000). I think that’s about my limit. If we can’t make it work by losing half the purchase price, it’s time to just hand over the kees to the bank and let them sue me, smash my credit rating, or whatever it is that they want to do; whatever it takes to get us out from under paying the mortgage, heat, water, and being on the hook for all repair expenses.

One aspect of our whole Saginaw adventure I’ve talked about before is just how hard it is to find reliable people to do any kind of work on the house. Not just contractors, but anyone. We paid a family friend to replace the door in the basement. He cashed our checks and never did the work. Grace is still trying to get him to follow through. This is just one example of many.

I’m going to wind this up and start trying to piece together the outline of a podcast. And then very soon we will need to start working on dinner.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

(I’m not listing some books that I only mention briefly; see previous or future blog posts for more detail).

  • The Prefect (now re-titled as Aurora Rising) by Alastair Reynolds
  • Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds
  • The Five Doctors (1983 Doctor Who serial)
  • Full Circle (1980 Doctor Who serial; first part of the “E-Space trilogy”)
  • Logopolis (1981 Doctor Who serial)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, April 14th, 2018

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, April 7th, 2018

Sunday

Everyone has been sick, so we did not even get out to Mass for Easter Sunday. That’s the first time this is happened to me and Grace for, I think, 18 years. I think the first time I went to Easter Vigil with Grace was in 2001. I don’t even remember what we cooked on Sunday. I practiced guitar a bit. Grace had a coughing baby who wanted to be held all day, so we did not get much time to prepare for a podcast. We were debating whether to even try. I brought my Olympus LS-10 portable recorder upstairs and we sat in the kitchen and tried to record a conversation, but of course the kids, who had been nice and quiet, immediately couldn’t control their noise. So I had to give up on that. We wound up taking Elanor downstairs and got on the microphones in the basement storage room for a relatively short discussion, about 40 minutes. Elanor, who has been feverish, actually seemed to appreciate how nice and cool it was in the basement—cold enough to be a little uncomfortable for me and for Grace, but soothing for a feverish baby.

About midnight, I wound up doing a brief live stream on Facebook, playing Billy Bragg’s song “Between the Wars” and accompanying myself on electric guitar. The audio sounded just awful; whatever filtering and compression Facebook Live applies, it does terrible things to chorused electric guitar. It may also have had something to do with the laptop mic using “beam-forming.” I really don’t know. If that is the case, an external microphone might sound a bit better, but it still probably going to be crushed pretty badly by the compression. I should compare it to Google Hangouts next time; I think Google Hangouts may yield better sound quality.

We had our story very late since the kids had all been sleeping on and off all day while trying to recuperate from their virus. So I think it was past midnight when I read some more of chapter 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring. I got through the middle third or so of the chapter, covering Bilbo’s party and the aftermath, from:

The next day more carts rolled up the Hill, and still more carts. There might have been some grumbling about ‘dealing locally’, but that very week orders began to pour out of Bag End for every kind of provision, commodity, or luxury that could be obtained in Hobbiton or Bywater or anywhere in the neighborhood.

to:

Gandalf remained for a while staring after him into the darkness. ‘Good-bye, my dear Bilbo — until our next meeting!’ he said softly and went back indoors.

I had a few comments on this part of the chapter. The Peter Jackson movie follows this chapter quite closely, with some strategic trimming to keep the story moving along at a good clip. There are a few changes: in the movie, Merry and Pippin steal Gandalf’s thunder, so to speak, by setting off the giant dragon firework, meant to be the finale of the display, prematurely: inside the tent. This change seems to exist to set up the mischievous natures of Merry and Pippin earlier in the story, and I don’t think it does any harm; it also sets up the funny scene where they apparently have to wash up all the dishes as punishment.

The movie elides a couple of interesting bits of the chapter that are about Bilbo’s class in Hobbiton. There’s a mention of “Bagshot Row,” 3 houses near Bag End that Bilbo presumably owns; they are “adjoining the field” where the party is held, and occupied by “three hobbit-families.” The text later mentions that Bilbo left gifts for them:

The poorer hobbits, and especially those of Bagshot Row, did very well. Old Gaffer Gamgee got two sacks of potatoes, a new spade, a woollen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints.

Are these families renters, so that Bilbo earns money as a landlord? Are they tenant farmers that farm some of his land? It’s not entirely clear, other than the Gamgee family, where father Old Gaffer Gamgee and son Samwise are the former and current gardener for Bag End.

There’s also a matter not shown in the movie: apparently Bilbo’s birthday party was segregated. There was a larger party that was pretty much open to everyone:

Practically everybody living near was invited. A very few were overlooked by accident, but as they turned up all the same, that did not matter.

But inside the “great pavilion” was the party of select hobbits who got to see Bilbo give his farewell remarks:

There was a splendid supper for everyone; for everyone, that is, except those invited to the special family dinner-party. This was held in the great pavilion with the tree. The invitations were limited to twelve dozen (a number also called by the hobbits one Gross, though the word was not considered proper to use of people); and the guests were selected from all the families to which Bilbo and Frodo were related, with the addition of a few special unrelated friends (such as Gandalf).

The segregated nature of this dinner party is not, I think, captured in the movie. I was a little bit startled, but reminded that in Tolkien’s time, it would have been stranger to have an egalitarian, “everyone is treated like family” gathering than to segregate the hobbits.

This chapter also has some of my favorite writing by Tolkien; he describes the fireworks using alliteration worthy of the unknown Beowulf poet. The result is quite literally pyrotechnical:

There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.

I love fireworks, and we were privileged in Saginaw to get up close and personal to a huge display every July 4th. But in Tolkien’s fantasy the fireworks go from an impressive show of noise and light to something magical.

Then there is a clear callback to the days of The Hobbit:

He took off his party clothes, folded up and wrapped in tissue-paper his embroidered silk waistcoat, and put it away. Then he put on quickly some old untidy garments, and fastened round his waist a worn leather belt. On it he hung a short sword in a battered black-leather scabbard. From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he took out an old cloak and hood. They had been locked up as if they were very precious, but they were so patched and weatherstained that their original colour could hardly be guessed: it might have been dark green. They were rather too large for him.

This is none other than the traveling cloak Bilbo wore as he set out more than sixty years earlier, although it might strain credulity a bit to believe that it is still in one piece. Bilbo borrowed it from Dwalin:

That’s how they all came to start, jogging off from the inn one fine morning just before May, on laden ponies; and Bilbo was wearing a dark green hood (a little weather-stained) and a dark-green cloak borrowed from Dwalin. They were too large for him, and he looked rather comic.

We later learn from Glóin that Dwalin is still alive; Frodo learns this in Rivendell. It’s a touching detail. According to Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, Dwalin died in the year 3112 of the Third Age, but the Third Age ended in 3021. If you assume that Tolkien meant 3112 to mean year 91 of the Fourth Age, this would make him 340, which would make him by far the longest-lived dwarf on record. It seems likely that Tolkien made an error here, as there is nothing else in his writing that commemorates or explains Dwalin’s unusually long life. By comparison, Balin, his older brother, was killed in Moria at the age of 231, and Glóin, who didn’t die in battle, lived to be 253.

Monday

Monday was a big day. I made an onion pesto omelette and toasted bagels and coffee, and Grace drove me to my appointment at Beaumont Medical Center in Sterling Heights. (The Beaumont facility seems to be right on the border between Troy and Sterling Heights, with some hospital buildings on the Troy side, and the medical center building on the Sterling Heights side—strange!)

We made it a bit early, early enough that we weren’t panicked, and got checked in. It’s over an hour from our home. I had a pulmonary function test, a strange procedure where I was made to breathe through a tube into a machine at different speeds: breathing normally, panting fast, inhaling deeply, exhaling as deeply as possible, etc. while the woman running the test acted as a drill instructor, “encouraging” me to get the best reading I could. This test is not actually painful but it is uncomfortable and a little disturbing. During the “pant hard and fast” part, the machine will suddenly close a valve which prevents the user from getting any air in or out at all; apparently it is testing how hard you can try to force it.

That’s a little disturbing, to have your air supply suddenly cut off, even if you are expecting it. I’m obviously being facetious, and don’t actually mean to make light of torture, but I came to think of this procedure as being “airboarded,” sort of a very mild version of being waterboarded. I only had to do this for a few minutes, but one can imagine what it could be like with the addition of a little duct tape and a more sadistic operator.

Anyway. I then gave a very thorough history to the nurse coördinator, and then we waited around for a while (but not too long, only about 30 minutes) to see the doctor. He was, I think, a bit puzzled that I was coming to see him, as he usually works with patients who are much sicker, many of whom have the full-blown alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency disease, with the genotypes “ZZ” or “SZ,” or some rarer genotype. As he put it, I had gone right from a “generalist” way up to not just a pulmonologist, but a pulmonologist who specializes in this kind of illness. But lacking any good information or advice other than that one piece of data, my “MZ” test result, I found his name on the Alpha-1 Foundation web site. That was the only thing I had to go on, to choose a specific pulmonologist, other than just picking a local one at random.

I didn’t have a lot to show him on Monday by way of symptoms. (Had he seen me back in November or December, I would have shown up with a horrible couhg, and probably wouldn’t have even been able to make it through the pulmonary function test at all due to the coughing). Grace was in the room to back me up—to help me describe my months of illness accurately, and to not forget to mention anything or ask any questions.

In the end, we were both pretty satisfied that he took my concerns seriously. He ordered some blood tests to look for immune response markers, to determine if my immune system is fighting off some active infection now. He is going to requisition my chest x-ray from December and see if it shows anything relevant. He didn’t prescribe anything, but advised me to try over-the-counter Prilosec, Flonase, and daily saline, as well as sticking with the Claritin and albuterol as needed.

He thinks that a lot of the inflammation, coughing, and pain I’ve been having might actually be related to chronic reflux and post-nasal drip rather than an active infection in my lungs or deterioration caused by low alpha-1. He said a few things I found surprising: one, that heartburn can cause coughing even when you never actually feel the usual burning sensation, or gas pressure. And two, that coughing up (or blowing out) brightly colored mucus was not a good indication of active (or even past) infection. That one is still puzzling me, because I’ve always thought that yellow or green mucus was literally tinted that way because it contained a lot of bacteria.

But apparently this isn’t actually the case. WebMD actually says:

You might have heard that yellow or green mucus is a clear sign that you have an infection, but despite that common misperception, the yellow or green hue isn’t due to bacteria.

Apparently the tint is because of a greenish-colored enzyme, and you can have a terrible bacterial infection with clear mucus.

I also was complaining that it seems in the last few months like the mucus in my throat is very thick, and hard to cough up, and that it seems to catch and hold crumbs from whatever I’ve been eating, which makes it more irritating, leaving this tickle in my throat as if I’ve got food stuck there.

So I’m not sure I fully understand exactly what creates the color, but this article suggests:

…[acute inflammation] releases various inflammatory mediators which attract the immune system to the area, including a class of cell called a neutrophil. These neutrophils have something called a respiratory burst. What that means is they produce enzymes which produce free radicals of oxygen and these free radicals of oxygen destroy the bacteria. But in the process, they can also kill the white blood cell. These myeloperoxidase enzymes — that make this respiratory burst — contain iron as a cofactor, and it’s the compounds of this iron, which are present in various oxidation states, that give the mucus its bright green colour.

I think this suggests that the green or yellow mucus might be more a marker of inflammation, rather than proof of infection. I think this means that the root cause might be infection, or it might not be. I think it might mean that there could be a secondary, opportunistic infection, but it’s relatively harmless and not the root cause.

So what’s the root cause? Well, we’re testing the theory that the root cause might be some combination of environmental irritants, allergies, and stress-related acid reflux. I think it might be that my relatively low alpha-1 antitrypsin level is making me more susceptible to the inflammation response. But maybe my “MZ” genotype is really not a contributing factor at all and the genetics I should worry about are the ones that make me prone to the irritation, allergies, and reflux. I will see him again in a few months.

So that’s the plan.

So far I feel at least tentatively confident that he’s looking at the right things. And I feel a bit encouraged. Maybe I haven’t actually damaged my lungs with these months of coughing. (If I’m lucky, I haven’t done much in the way of permanent damage to my esophagus with the reflux, either). And that’s where the pulmonary function test might be of use: I have a baseline, and if I come back for another test in a year, we can notice if things have gotten better or worse (taking into account that some decline happens naturally with age).

I called my brother after the appointment, and he told me something interesting—he said that he had a bad, long-lasting cough a while back, and that to his surprise his doctor recommended Prilosec, and that made it go away. So maybe that’s the more relevant genetic information.

The thing is, I’ve had bad reflux before—I was even hospitalized overnight once, at age 36, thinking I might be having some kind of heart attack. But they did a stress test with a dye injection, and my heart function looked absolutely fine. It was just reflux, just severe enough to cause surprisingly intense pain in my chest.

But back then I don’t think it ever made me cough, at all. So it’s all quite confusing. But I just want to get better. And I’ve clearly got to get back into some kind of exercise regimen, if I can figure out how.

Star Trek

We didn’t do all that much for the rest of the day; Grace and I didn’t get back home until late afternoon. Grace then had to pretty much spend the rest of the evening attending to our sick baby Elanor. I did more dishes. We watched a couple of old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In particular, “Disaster” and “The Game.” I recall seeing both of these before.

In “Disaster,” the Enterprise crashes into an invisible cosmic bugaboo (a piece of quantum yarn left over from the Great Unraveling, or something like that). The ship is badly damaged and there are a lot of casualties; but the script doesn’t really care much, because it isn’t anyone we know personally. The bridge is cut off from the rest of the ship, so Counselor Troi is in charge of the bridge for a while. There are some nice moments in this show: Troi has to stand up for herself against Ensign Ro Laren. Keiko gives birth to a surprisingly old baby. Worf as midwife is still pretty funny, as he tells her “you may now give birth.” He admits that the real thing differs quite a bit from the computer simulation he studied at the Academy.

In “The Game,” Oculus Rift has come to the Enterprise. Everyone gets hooked on it. Wesley Crusher is back to visit, and proves that the only thing that can interest a heterosexual teenage boy more than video games is a heterosexual teenage girl. The crew members’ O faces will haunt me until the end of my days. The mind-controlled crew, including Picard, disable Data and hunt down Wesley, by programming the sensors to detect the plume of Axe body spray. Wesley and his girlfriend are captured and eyeball-raped by a smiling Picard and Riker, and stain their nice polyester tunics, but fortunately Data saves the day, and there are apparently no hard feelings about all the assault and forcible stimulation of everyone’s pleasure center. (And why should there be? It was the happy-go-lucky eighties! Times were different! Or something.)

Tuesday

We have an offer on the house! Actually, three offers. One of them is close enough to what we owe that I may be able to simply borrow a chunk of money to put into the pot at closing, and make the numbers work out without resorting to a short sale, deed-in-lieu, or any of those things that are likely to put a huge dent in my credit.

I think this offer is contingent on a satisfactory inspection, and we’re waiting on that, but I am reopening the issue with my bank now that we have an offer on paper. We had an offer last fall but it was so low that I would have had to borrow a much larger amount. This offer is higher so I’d have to borrow considerably less to make it work.

If this goes through, it will mean we lost over $50,000 on the house. If you factor in the renovations we did on moving in: a complete new hardwood floor in the family room, and refinishing floors in other rooms—it will be more like $60,000. And I’ll still be paying for the house for another two to three years. But the monthly loan payments will at least be considerably less than what I was spending on mortgage, taxes, insurance, water, and energy, which is good—we’ll be a little more secure each month, financially.

And maybe as important or even more important, our future liability will be reduced to just this loan. Freeing up a little bit of money each month and making it so we’re no longer responsible for everything about the old house would go a long way towards reducing our stress level.

Lotho

I got home relatively late last night, ate some chicken pot pie, cleaned up some dishes, and read the kids the last part of chapter 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring. The last part of the chapter is mostly an account of the gifts Bilbo left for friends and relatives, as part of Bilbo’s post-departure “life-changing magic of tidying up.” Otho Sackville-Baggins feels aggrieved, and demands to see Bilbo’s will. Frodo obligingly lets him read it, and he is enraged to find that it looks to be entirely in order:

Otho would have been Bilbo’s heir, but for the adoption of Frodo. He read the will carefully and snorted. It was, unfortunately, very clear and correct (according to the legal customs of hobbits, which demand among other things seven signatures of witnesses in red ink).

‘Foiled again!’ he said to his wife. ‘And after waiting sixty years. Spoons? Fiddlesticks!’ He snapped his fingers under Frodo’s nose and stumped off. But Lobelia was not so easily got rid of. A little later Frodo came out of the study to see how things were going on, and found her still about the place, investigating nooks and corners, and tapping the floors. He escorted her firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.

We will see Lotho get his comeuppance, in the chapter called “The Scouring of the Shire,” but not for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

There’s not much left of the chapter, except for Gandalf’s warnings that Frodo keep the ring “secret” and “safe,” words echoed in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation. Gandalf then says goodbye. We are told that:

The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.

In the movie, this “long time” seems to be only a few weeks or months; in the book, it is many years.

  • Bilbo left the Shire with Thorin and company on the equivalent of our April 28th (according to this source, Third Age year 2941, about five months before his birthday, September 23rd.
  • Bilbo then leaves Hobbiton for good on his birthday in Third Age year 3001, about 60 years and five months later.
  • Gandalf then leaves the next day (I think).
  • Frodo does not see Gandalf again until 3008.
  • Frodo does not actually leave the shire until the day after the birthday he shares with Bilbo, 3018—seventeen years and a day after Bilbo’s secretive departure.

That’s a long time for Gandalf to harbor suspicion, but it makes a little more sense when we consider that Gandalf is not human, but an angelic figure. He existed for a long time before coming to Middle Earth, in ages that Tolkien did not precisely document in terms of human years; call it thousands or tens of thousands of years. He’s been knocking around Middle Earth for about 2,000 years. So perhaps time doesn’t have the same sense of urgency for him, until, suddenly, it does: in the films, Jackson has Gandalf say “three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time.” There’s not much to support that “300 lives of men” number in the books, but it’s certainly the case that Gandalf has been observing and arranging events for a long, long time, events which then come to fruition very quickly.

Peter Jackson clearly felt that it would be difficult to get a sense of urgency going in the movie, if the audience immediately had to think about a seventeen-year gap between Bilbo’s departure and Frodo’s departure. The book’s timeline would tend to deflate the sense of the menace of the ring that the movie sets up in the prologue. We would have needed a way to indicate the passage of time: maybe a montage of Frodo puttering around the shire, and growing older. We’d have to age Frodo, at least somewhat, although like Bilbo, he does not show a lot of outward signs of aging, because of his possession of the ring.

I think Jackson made the right choice for the movie. I am a hardcore Tolkien fan, but I don’t believe that the movies had to adapt the text literally in all respects, and as I’ve mentioned before, I think the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie, do a very good job of presenting the important elements of the first few chapters of the book. In some later chapters—well, I have some quibbles. But we’ll get there, like Gandalf, in our own time.

Wednesday

Harvest Moon Cafe for breakfast: breakfast BLT sandwich, hash browns cooked extra-crispy, and coffee.

Aaand I forgot to take the leftover chicken pot pie with me this morning for my lunch.

Trump, Again

Over breakfast, I read a few more chapters in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. As I’ve mentioned before, there isn’t a lot here that is new or of interest to me; Gail Sheehy’s essay in particular is disappointing, as it consists largely of alarmist hand-waving about Nixon and neo-McCarthyism. But there are a couple of concepts mentioned that I think are worth bringing up, in between examples of Godwin’s Law and bits on sociopathy:

  • Trump is described as a malignant narcissist, which is a narcissist who also engages in aggression, especially sadism.
  • The concept of “splitting” is mentioned, which I think is a significant aspect of Trump’s thinking; he clearly divides the world into loyal and disloyal people, and updates his lists frequently as events unfold. Per Wikipedia:

People matching the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defence mechanism. Most often narcissists do this as an attempt to stabilize their sense of self positivity in order to preserve their self-esteem, by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable and others who do not conform to their will or values as purely wicked or contemptible.

  • Hypomania is mentioned, which I think is also a useful tool for understanding Trump’s lack of sleep and his constant energetic attacks on others; it is associated with attention deficit disorder. I don’t have a lot of confidence in ADD as a diagnosis for children, but there’s no denying that Trump’s attention span is lacking.

So this stuff can be interesting, but it’s just not enough to make this volume really hold together as a book; for one thing, there’s too much redundancy between the contributed essays.

The chapters I read today don’t mention the concept of “flying monkeys” but I think it is also relevant:

They are people who act on behalf of a narcissist to a third party, usually for an abusive purpose.

I think this pretty much sums up Trump’s staff of enablers, including the justifiably reviled Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (and, recently, Ronna McDaniel, who tweeted that “Democrats hate our President more than they love our country,” which combines the worst aspects of nationalism, partisanship, and a claim to understand the hidden motives of one’s political opponents, all in one sentence).

Thursday

Well, Thursday was a bust. I woke up with a fever and a sore throat, so I called in sick. Again. We have a whole house full of kids who feel so bad that they will just sit in the bed coughing and crying their eyes out. I wasn’t able to get extra unbroken sleep, but I did nap a bit and Grace brought me tea and soup. By the end of the day I was feeling a little bit better. I sat in the bathtub with Elanor for a while so she would be able to inhale some steamy air, and that helped drain her nose a little bit. She fell asleep sprawled on my chest. I don’t think she’s dangrously ill, but her little honking cough and sobbing because of her packed sinuses is just heart-rending.

Grace went out to get us Chinese food from King Shing for dinner. It didn’t taste as good as I hoped. I think some of that is because my own head is pretty packed and I can’t smell things well. But also, it just seems like some of their fried rice and noodle dishes just aren’t very good. So we will tend to stick with their ribs and orange chicken and sesame balls and other items that have been consistently tasty.

Our guests are getting sick as well, which is not at all surprising, but I’m worried for the little baby boy staying with us.

Thursday night I read the kids the first part of chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, called “The Shadow of the Past.” I’ve already discussed the long timeline. There are a few interesting details that I noticed. In the scene where Gandalf puts the ring in the fire, he briefly holds it. There’s no dramatic reaction to him briefly touching the ring, or even getting his hand near it, as is suggested in the movie. But we do hear some more detail about what would happen to Bilbo (or Frodo) if they kept the ring for too long. Gandalf describes how they would “fade”—become invisible even when they weren’t wearing the ring. It’s suggested that this is what became of the ringwraiths.

In the book the menace of the ring escalates quite slowly. There’s no reason that Gandalf can’t touch it. It would be a significant risk if Frodo gave it to him, and he accepted it.

At this stage Frodo could presumably put the ring on and it isn’t clear that he would experience anything special (except for becoming invisible).

In the book, the ring seems to become gradually more hazardous as Frodo moves East, and as he is hunted. In the movie, there’s a pretty sudden escalation. Bilbo wears the ring on his birthday with no dramatic effects. And an unspecified (but not terribly long) time later, weeks or months at most, when Frodo puts on the ring at the Prancing Pony in Bree, he’s suddenly very dramatically present in the shadow realm, experiencing “shadow-vision,” and in grave danger of being seen by the ringwraiths and perhaps Sauron.

The escalation is fast, and not fully explained—what has changed? Is this just due to the presence of the ringwraiths? A day or two earlier, Frodo puts on the ring, with ringwraiths breathing down his neck, and the creepy-crawlies crawl out of their holes, and he looks a bit queasy, but he doesn’t experience “shadow-vision” (or if he does, we aren’t shown). So there’s some pretty wild inconsistency here. I wish it ramped up in a more explainable way, but I don’t wish that enough to wish that the movie stuck with the much longer timeline between Bilbo’s departure and Frodo’s departure. We’ll talk it over as we continue.

There’s also a mention, that I knew was there before, of ent-like beings somewhere in the Shire:

‘…what about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them? They do say that one bigger than a tree was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back.’

‘Who’s they ?’

‘My cousin Hal for one. He works for Mr. Boffin at Overhill and goes up to the Northfarthing for the hunting. He saw one.’

‘Says he did, perhaps. Your Hal’s always saying he’s seen things; and maybe he sees things that ain’t there.’

‘But this one was as big as an elm tree, and walking—walking seven yards to a stride, if it was an inch.’

There’s some debate over just what kind of creature Hal saw. In my opinion the two strongest possibilities are that it could have been an Ent—perhaps a different “branch” of Ents that lives this far West? Or perhaps it was a Huorn—a wild tree, maybe “off the reservation, escaped from Fangorn Forest, or possibly from the Old Forest. Treebeard suggests that some trees can become”Entish" and some Ents can become “tree-ish.” Maybe this creature is one of those in-between beings, rather than a true Huorn or Ent?

I’ve seen it suggested that this might have been one of the lost Entwives. This seems unlikely, because to me Treebeard’s sad story of the Entwives suggests to me that the male and female Ents actually diverged—almost undergoing a kind of speciation, becoming different, to the point where they may have even been unrecognizable to one another; it could be an allegory about the development of agriculture as it diverged from herding, or the development of culture and permanent settlements as it diverged from nomadic living.

In any case, I don’t think Tokien ever clearly stated his intention here. It’s one of several suggestive mysteries in his works that can’t be completely resolved.

Friday

After some debate with myself and another soak in the tub, I decided to go into work. I ought to be past the contagious stage (but then again, I thought that I had gotten off easy with only a brief illness, last weekend. So I really don’t know what is going on).

Grace made me a bulletproof coffee, some Dave’s Killer Bread toast, and a couple of fried eggs. Dave’s Killer Bread advertises itself as made by ex-cons so I have taken to calling it “murder bread.” We do like it, though; we tried it compared to several other whole wheat breads that Costco stocks and so far it is the best-tasting one.

I took my Prilosec, Claritin, and a chaser of albuterol. The hearturn is disappearing, and that’s very nice. The cough and phlegm is not and seems like it may be on an upwards part of the “cycle” again. That may be due to this virus, though, so it probably isn’t fair to judge. This is the first time I used the inhaler in about a week. It does seem to help a bit, but not dramatically. A little later today I will try the saline and the Flonase again, although it’s been hard to get my head clear enough to get a full dose in there. I’m trying to be compliant with the regimen my new doctor advised!

This week’s paycheck was a little bigger than last week. I have gotten a raise, and it was even retroactive to the start of March. So we have a small windfall. I paid off my black credit card which had a balance of a couple hundred dollars. That’s the remainder of the debt for my ThinkPad. So that’s paid off now. Grace is getting a small budget for clothes, largely because Veronica doesn’t get hand-me-downs.

There are some complications with the offer on the house. It is contingent on the buyer selling a currently owned home. So we are hoping for the best there. And it will get another inspection. We are hoping the buyer understands the condition the house pretty well from walking through it, understands already that it needs some improvements, has already taken those expenses into account in writing the offer, and won’t ask us to make too many more accommodations in the price, which would mean borrowing more, or to make repairs that we can’t afford to make.

We will get the water turned back on so the plumbing can get an inspection. We are also going to have some work done on the attic and heating ducts. It looks like insurance will cover some damage from bats. This should include some repairs to attic insulation and cleaning ducts. So we’re making arrangements with a contractor who will get paid by our insurance company. So this might help with some of the issues.

This is all kind of going on at once while the household full of kids is still mostly sick, so it’s all quite a challenge. And Grace’s car is having some issues, so I need to figure out how to pay for that as well.

Audio Production Notes

Grace has arranged a guest for the Pottscast. I just hope that we can record. I am considering recording a live song, if my voice isn’t too scratchy. Last night I spent some time messing with the recording setup. In order to accommodate more microphones, I switched from using the Roland FA-66 as my main recording interface, to using the Tascam US-2000. The FA-66 will be for remote callers. I messed around with this for some time. I could not figure out why I could hear inputs using the direct monitoring feature of the US-2000, but no audio would make it into Logic, or out of Logic. As far as I could tell, I had everything configured correctly. I tried quitting Logic and running it again. Nothing.

Then in desperation I rebooted the computer, and launched Logic again. Everything just started working exactly as expected.

That’s strange, and makes me nervous, because in my experience, Logic and CoreAudio will almost always let you reconfigure them on the fly and work fine. MacOS X should be able to restart the CoreAudio subsystem when you change parameters without having to reboot the entire OS. So if something is crashing or locking up undetectably, with no error messages that percolate up to the user, that’s bad.

I don’t have any way to diagnose the problem further without digging into logs, and I suspect that might not be very helpful. I just hope the US-2000 works as reliably under Logic as the FA-66 did, which is to say, almost perfectly. But we’ll see. I still need to verify that I can get the remote audio working correctly for the Google Hangout. Last time I tried it, I could not get anything working until I restarted Safari, although it had been working a few days earlier.

I’d like to replace this whole setup with a newer Mac Mini with an SSD, and current versions of MacOS X and Logic, and two new audio interfaces, to be determined. But I have no real assurance that a more recent software/hardware combination would actually be any more reliable than this old combination. I still miss Snow Leopard, which I still claim is the most reliable version of Mac OS X that I ever used for audio.

I’d still like to find a way to have my second audio interface consist entirely of a 2-in, 2-out box that uses optical S/PDIF (on TOSLINNK). That would mean the main interface would have this interface. It’s uncommon. I’d consider another digital standard. For example, the Tascam UH-7000 has digital in and out (AES/EBU on XLR female and male). The manual tells me it does 48kHz. Although, even scrutinizing the manual, it’s still not 100% clear to me whether I can configure it so that the digital inputs feed the computer as the device’s channel 1 and 2 input to the computer, and the device’s output from the computer feed the digital outputs. But that box also has preamps and analog inputs and outpus that I just don’t need for this purpose.

If I do upgrade everything, there’s also a good chance I might be able to get a software solution working, to supply the extra audio device necessary for Skype or Google Hangouts. That would be great. It really seems like something that the operating system should support itself, but unfortunately I don’t think I can expect any more innovation from Apple in the audio subsystem for MacOS X (pretty much ever).

The Zoom U-44 seems like it might be useful for this setup… maybe? It really depends on how the inputs and outputs can be mapped to the channels going to and from the computer. And the SPL Crimson 3 is very pretty, but as it has only two microphone preamps, it can’t replace the old US-2000 for this setup.

It doesn’t seem like TASCAM has a really good replacement for the US-2000. There’s the US-16x08, but it doesn’t have fine-grained control of which microphone inputs get phantom power. Ideally, I’d be able to turn it on and off on each input; the US-2000 lets you do it by pairs, which is good enough for my purposes; the US-16x08 only lets you turn it on and off for banks of four. That seems like a small backwards, although for this purpose I could live with it. I don’t really need the low-latency monitor mix built into the US-2000; I don’t really use it except for testing. And I certainly don’t need MIDI. And to be honest I don’t need the extra line inputs, 11-16, or the extra line outputs, 2-8. And this device doesn’t have front-panel metering.

My ideal rack-mount interface for this purpose would be a plain old USB 2.0 device. Lightning might be nice for a future computer connection but I don’t need it at present and don’t have anything to plug it into. It would have:

  • 6 XLR microphone inputs, with good preamps, on the front panel, with an input level knob and phantom power switch right there for each one. These should have plenty of gain. This would allow me to use my two PR-40s, add a third one for a guest, with an extra input for a condenser mic for an acoustic guitar, and a couple of spares.
  • Those two spares, inputs 5-6, could be Neutrik Combo jacks with a switch to make them instrument inputs. Although don’t bother, unless they sound as good as plugging my guitar into my Radial JDV and then into a good preamp and ADC. (So, in fact, maybe don’t even bother).
  • Then, I need 6 more TRS line inputs. (I’d usually use two, but if I added an iPad or live DJ mixer or something, that’s two more, and I can imagine needing two spares for something in the future). In general I don’t need these to be configurable to support consumer-level outputs, since I’d do that conversion externally using transformers or direct boxes that will give me better sound.
  • As for outputs, they can all be TRS, and I think 6 would do it.
  • Then, digital: I’d be in hog heaven if it had S/PDIF out on TOSLINK and RCA coaxial, like the Celesonic US-20x20. I only need 2 outputs and 2 inputs.

That’s really about it. I don’t need or want a second headphone jack. I don’t need or want a MIDI interface. I don’t need or want built-in DSP, or a mixer, or anything like it.

Then it would be great if I could buy another box like this one, another USB 2.0 device, powered by a regular AC power cable, except with only the 2 input channels and 2 output channels of digital I/O. It wouldn’t have to be rack-mountable since I’d imagine this could be quite small.

These both probably need word clock in/out and through, again like the Celesonic US-20x20, but so far I’ve been able to get reasonable results without having to mess with word clock.

Why isn’t someone making devices to these specs?

Do I need to go into business?

I notice that TASCAM has some new Dante devices like the ML-16D and I’d love to try these, but they are probably extreme overkill for what I actually want to do in my home studio. They may not be overkill for what I’d eventually like to do, though…

At this point Paul got a faraway look in his eyes, as he stared into space and began to imagine a live performance space with a short-throw projector and a motorized theater screen for movie nights, a separate podcasting studio, a separate mixing and mastering room, and mixers everywhere all capable of sending audio to and from one another, and he could be no longer reached for comment, so we’ll leave it there for now.

Back to the Box?

The new Sound Devices MixPre-10M looks promising.

Saturday

I spent a chunk of Saturday working on the podcast setup, practicing guitar, and attempting to get reasonably good sound into the TASCAM interface. I’m using my Radial JDV on electric guitar, and having a lot of trouble. The output from the JDV when I play is extremely dynamic. It will very easily clip the input on the TASCAM even when the preamp level is turned quite low (like the nine o’clock position). I can engage the 15 dB pad on the JDV, but that just seems to push the problem downstream. When I pad the signal or turn the TASCAM preamp level way down, I wind up with a very low level in my control room headphones, and I want it a lot higher. I might be able to compress it on a bus inside Logic but this is starting to get complicated for what should be a simple control room mix.

It just seems like the inputs on the TASCAM are easy to clip compared to my old and much-missed Apogee Ensemble. I don’t have the Ensemble anymore to do an A/B comparison, but I think it was more robust in this situation. It seems like I might need a hardware compressor on the output of the JDV before I can even feed it into the TASCAM. I don’t have a good hardware compressor handy so I’m not sure what I can do.

Overall I’m just not sure the TASCAM mic inputs sound as good as the Roland FA-66 inputs, and that’s disappointing. I’ve been using the FA-66 since rebooting the Pottscast last summer and between the PR-40s, the Cloud Lifter, and the FA-66, and the Renaissance Vox plug-in I use in post-processing, this chain has been giving us a certain characteristic voiceover sound that I like. I am not sure I can get something that sounds comparably good with the TASCAM.

Also, I’ve been having a lot of problems getting remote audio working for the podcast Google hangout. The hardware connections seem to work fine. I can play a track from the computer out of the output of the FA-66, into an input of the US-2000. The Google hangout will hear audio that goes into the “mix minus” and out from an output of the US-2000 into the input of the FA-66. So the hangout can “hear” the audio from our microphones. But for some reason the hangout doesn’t seem like it will send audio back into the control room mix. That input of the US-2000 just remains silent while the hangout is up and running. I have no idea why. I got it to work last time, when we did our interview with Julie, but I don’t know exactly how. I think I just restarted Safari enough times and it started working. That’s nerve-wracking. This is our podcast infrastructure and it’s just way too fragile. And I am not confident that just updating all the hardware and software would help this problem.

Boromir and Isildur

We have made a bit more progress in Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo has heard Gandalf tell him the story of Gollum. It’s interesting—Gandalf is working with a very few actual facts here, but he weaves them into a story in which he puts feelings and motivations in Gollum, and makes him a sympathetic (although very disturbed) character.

Gandalf has also told Frodo a bit more of the history of the ring. There’s a passage in which he describes how the ring betrayed Isildur, by slipping off his finger, rendering him visible in a critical moment:

‘…Isildur was marching north along the east banks of the River, and near the Gladden Fields he was waylaid by the Orcs of the Mountains, and almost all his folk were slain. He leaped into the waters, but the Ring slipped from his finger as he swam, and then the Orcs saw him and killed him with arrows.’

This is an example of a time when the ring showed agency. I was reminded this time of Boromir’s death, at the end of Fellowship. The ring betrays Boromir, in a sense; his heart is tainted by a lust to take the ring from Frodo and wield it. In the logic of the story, because Boromir’s heart has become impure, the perimeter of his virtue breached, his body is vulnerable, and so he too dies pierced by Orc arrows.

There’s another passage where Gandalf says something interesting about how he believes there may be another power, another agency at work to create the slightly unbelievable chain of coincidences that led to Bilbo’s discovery of the ring. In part I think this is a bit of “lampshading,” but it also hints at the larger context, the way this story of the Third Age of Middle-earth fits into the larger Legendarium, which goes all the way back to the creation of the world, and describes the beings behind it.

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’

Gandalf does not tell Frodo that “God” meant for Bilbo to find the ring. There’s no evidence that the hobbits used a term like that. But he is suggesting that Eru Ilúvatar set up this outcome, in the Music of the Ainur, and may have intervened directly to make it happen. I don’t have Tolkien’s published letters on hand, but apparently Tolkien confirmed this in his letter 192. According to Wikipedia:

Tolkien indicates in Letter 192 that “the One” does intervene actively in the world, pointing to Gandalf’s remark to Frodo that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker”, and to the eventual destruction of the Ring even though Frodo himself failed to complete the task.

It sounds like I really should get hold of Tolkien’s letters, and study them. Maybe I’ll track down one of the books that collect them. I have not read a lot of biographical material about Tolkien, other than Tom Shippey’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (which is a nice introduction and a quick read—I recommend it as a good first book on Tolkien.

Private Government

I ordered a copy of Elizabeth Anderson’s book Private Government How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) via Nicola’s Books (my favorite locally owned bookstore), http://www.nicolasbooks.com/. Nicola’s often doesn’t have certain political books in stock—they have a huge children’s books and a big literature section, but their sections on politics and current events are not that large—but they get special orders in quite quickly. I stopped in to order the book last Tuesday and it was in the store on Thursday. So Grace and I have it in our hot little hands and we will be talking about it on an upcoming Pottscast.

There are other books piling up on me. On the shelf I’ve still got Unspeakable by Chris Hedges, which is a quick read, and I keep meaning to finish it. I keep picking at The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (see last week’s post), although it isn’t terribly good or terribly interesting; I’m sort of “data mining” it for interesting ideas (and not finding a lot, but a few).

Earthshock

I forgot to mention this back when we watched it. I think it might have been Monday or Tuesday night. We watched the fan edit of Earthshock, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davidson) serial from 1982. This is one of the better stories from the 1980s Doctor Who (and there isn’t a lot of competition; most of the eighties serials are pretty awful, to be honest). This one has some good stuff going on, and the fan edit cleans up this serial nicely. It features an explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs, and shows what became of the young companion Adric. Adric isn’t considered one of the more likeable companion characters, but I think he’s a pretty great character in this show. He’s described as:

With a brilliant mathematical mind and wearing a star-shaped badge for mathematical excellence, Adric is well aware of his own intelligence. This, coupled with his relative immaturity, leads to a personality that is abrasive and occasionally crosses over into arrogance. As a result, Adric is one of the least popular, or even “most hated”, of the Doctor’s companions among fans of the programme.

Maybe that’s why I like him; I kind of identify with him! I should track down some the other serials that feature Adric and see if any of them are watchable. Maybe we could even watch them in order. (There are many ways to try to approach the mountain of old Doctor Who serials; we’ve gone through Cyberman stories, Dalek stories, best-reviewed stories; why not follow the arc of a companion?)

Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump by Asad Haider

This book is coming out soon and I am going to pre-order a copy. So I don’t actually have anything to say about it yet.

It seems like it may be the critique of identity politics—or, rather, the cynical manipulation of identity politics—that I’ve been hoping for. Other recent books on the subject have seemed lacking to me, especially Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

Recently on Twitter, there’s been a shitstorm of bot, and human bot, posts dog-piling on Sanders again for his invited remarks on Martin Luther King Day. (From what I can tell via Facebook and Twitter, I was never exposed to Russian election-influencing bot posts, but I sure as hell was and still am exposed to Democratic bot and troll-army posts). A lot of the shitstorm this time has been from black women going on about Sanders’ racism. In some cases they are specifically attacking him on the grounds of his comments about class. I’m trying to understand their arguments, and not having a lot of success, in part because they are incoherent—but there does seem to be some kind of critique going on there, and I’m hoping this book might help me understand it.

I get that they would prefer that an older white Jewish man not speak for them, and I think that’s fine, although I detect a constant whiff of ageism and anti-Semitism in their strange attacks; for example, I keep hearing the claim that Sanders doesn’t have enough experience as an administrator to be president, or enough understanding of foreign policy. In my view his 32 years of experience in elected offices would make him one of the most politically experienced presidents we’ve ever had. His extensive committee work suggests plenty of administrative experience.

He has not been Secretary of State, but he did give an interesting address on foreign policy. While someone might listen to that address and legitimately claim they disagree with his thoughts on foreign policy, what I see instead is a claim that he is completely naïve on foreign policy, suggesting he has no thoughts on the subject, or only uninformed or childish thoughts. No, they are thinking of Trump.

Personally I think Sanders probably is getting too old to be a great presidential candidate. So I’ve got that ageism, I suppose, although I see it as a realistic assessment of his capabilities in office as he approaches eighty. It is a bit early to be endorsing a candidate, but personally I’m favorably impressed with Nina Turner. In fact at this point she’s the only figure that seems to show any of my ideals and a minimum of corruption by campaign money. But there are many wearying months to go before the next election, and my assessment today is that we’re looking at another Democratic failure with a significant third-party presence, and another cycle in which “centrist” Democrats become even less distinguishable from moderate Republicans and even more vitriolic towards anyone expressing even the slightest traditional leftist critique of their radical neoliberalism.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

(I’m not listing some books that I only mention briefly; see previous or future blog posts for more detail).

  • “Disaster” (Star Trek: The Next Generation season 5, episode 5)
  • “The Game” (Star Trek: The Next Generation season 5, episode 6)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (the 1954 novel by J. R. R. Tolkien)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (the 2001 Peter Jackson film)
  • Earthshock (1982 Doctor Who serial)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, April 7th, 2018