Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Sunday

Last night I took the kids out to see a movie, Paddington 2. It’s a costly and challenging thing, to take the whole family to a single movie. It costs almost $75. It was quite cold last night, about 10 degrees, so no one was excited to go get in the car. Benjamin has difficulty sitting through a full-length movie, even a movie about a talking bear. He spent much of the show playing with the settings of his lounger seat and, at one point, sitting on it upside-down with his head on the seat and his feet in the air (I did make him sit more or less upright, at that point). And I hate to get to movies late, and we were late—-even though there must have been twenty minutes of trailers, we missed a few minutes of the movie.

Despite all this, I had a good time. Paddington 2 is really very funny. Hugh Grant is great, but the supporting cast is great, too. They have less flamboyant, more ordinary characters, and so the comedy of the background characters is entirely situational. They have to play these roles seriously, deadpan, and every joke is about the situation and the comic timing. There are magical realist and fantasy elements breaking out all over the place, but the movie is still anchored in a simple plot, places that seem real, and easy-to-understand relationships. The movie avoids, almost entirely, dumb fart jokes and other talking animal movie gags. It’s really a treasure in an age of animated films which are often painfully uninteresting and feel like they are designed to delight an infant while leaving a parent’s eyeballs bleeding.

After the movie we baked a giant pot pie from Costco. They have changed their recipe, it seems, and the instructions. You’re now supposed to bake them for 90 minutes at 375. The new one seemed to be a little less soupy and more meaty than the previous ones. Grace was happy because it doesn’t seem to have as much salt as before. The Costco pot pie is one of the few prepared dishes Costco sells that will actually make a meal for our whole family of eight—-with some left over for lunch on Sunday, even!

I did some overdue IT stuff. Apparently our internet speed has been upgraded, so I had to reboot the cable modem. While I was at it, I updated the firmware on the Wi-Fi router and updated all the passwords. I initally was trying to control it using this new ThinkPad 460s with a wired connection. It was odd—-the lights on the Ethernet socket on the side of the laptop would come on, one solid green and one flashing yellow, and the light indicating activity on the router’s Ethernet port would turn yellow, then white, and flicker showing traffic. But Windows kept reporting that the Ethernet port was disabled. I’d tell Windows to enable it, and it would report that there was no cable connected and tell me what an Ethernet cable looked like. I tried a second cable. There was nothing wrong with the cable. The link was up and running at a lower level, but the system would not talk over the link. I finally tried doing a driver update, and it started working. Why the laptop as it arrived just a month ago didn’t have a working Ethernet driver, I can’t begin to understand.

Having solved a few issues, I decided to try to run a full suite of updates on the laptop, both the Microsoft update and the separate Lenovo management tool. That turned into a very frustrating couple of hours that kept me up until almost 2 a.m. It’s 2018 and Microsoft’s software update process is still unbelievably bad. In Windows 10 it doesn’t look like you can just disable automatic updating and run it manually when you want to do it. It’s the uncomfortable sensation that you can’t actually take charge of your own computer. And apparently updates still fail routinely with routine error codes, and sometimes you can’t find a help page for a given update without using Google. Update KB4056892 i particular seems to be disastrous. Apparently I’m fortunate that this update didn’t brick my computer, but Microsoft’s page still says:

Even though the update was successfully installed, Windows Update incorrectly reports that the update failed to install. To verify the installation, select Check for Updates to confirm that there are no additional updates available.

See: (https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4056892/windows–10-update-kb4056892)[https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4056892/windows–10-update-kb4056892]

And the real pain of it is that several updates were stuck and failing. I’ve tried downloading the individual installers, with mixed results. I’ve tried several different troubleshooters, which supposedly fixed some problems (does anyone in the real world have a PC running Windows that doesn’t have some kind of corrupt, failed, or confused software update history? I seriously doubt such a thing exists, or can exist.)

I still have a situation where I reboot, the control panel tells me that all updates were installed successfully, and then a few seconds later I get a notification in the message center saying that updates did not install successfully. The UX (user experience) for dealing with these updates is hot garbage.

Lenovo’s Vantage application (which apparently is the replacement for the previous Lenovo application which the computer arrived with a month ago, and which Lenovo’s application now tells me is obsolete and can be uninstalled), keeps telling me that there is an Intel Wireless LAN driver that urgently needs to be installed because it is a “critical update.” This driver, it says, is a 94 megabyte download and uses 267.1 megabytes of hard disk space (that’s no moon, that’s a space station). I’ve successfully installed the same driver, same version, three times. The installation log say “Intel Wireless LAN Driver - 10 [64] V.20.10.2, Successfully installed on 14-Jan–18 at 1:35 AM, Package Size: 94MB, Release Date: 21-Dec–17.” So I also tried updating the driver through Device Manager (now apparently a buried feature in Windows 10). That wasted a few minutes but produced no positive results (first it timed out after a few minutes, then it told me “the best drivers for this device are already installed.”

Device manager says that driver is version 20.10.1.3. So it looks like perhaps Lenovo’s tool can’t handle it when a later version of a driver is installed by Microsoft’s software update? I don’t know. This must mean the Lenovo updater is actually not installing a driver, but not reporting any problem.

As long as the thing is not actually crashing with the blue screen of death, or whatever color it is now, I guess I should be content, but I think it’s just going to keep trying and failing to update drivers, and notifying me about its failures, until Microsoft and Lenovo enventually patch the patches, or maybe the patchers.

Monday

Yesterday turned out to be a decent day, although challenging. I was up early for a Sunday—-up making tea at 8:00. After quite a bit of time cleaning up the kitchen, that morphed into cooking a lot of GFS bacon (not that good—-we will go back to the thick cut Applewood-smoked bacon from Costco next time), then frying some pancakes in the bacon fat, loading each pancake with blueberries. This technique makes pancakes that are almost deep-fried in bacon fat. You only need one. They’re probably over a thousand calories each. Near-paleo pancakes?

Following more cleanup and a shower, Grace and I got out to a Huron Valley DSA meetup at the Cultivate Coffee and Tap House in downtown Ypsilanti. Grace drove my car, because she still knows her way around Ypsilanti a lot better than I do. It was a two-hour meet up and we got there more than an hour late, which I always find frustrating, but we had some good conversation. Grace split off for a while to join another group, an affordable housing meet-up. I wound up in conversation with a few folks. We didn’t talk politics much but it was a good chat anyway. I get extraverted out quickly, though. (My preference is to spell it the way Jung spelled it: see https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-difference-between-extraversion-and-extroversion/).

Errands

We made a couple stops after that. We went to Once Upon a Child, the used clothing store Grace goes to sometimes. I had never been in there. It’s kind of amazing—-I think the building has more clothing under one roof than any clothing store I’ve ever seen. Aisles and aisles of used children’s clothes. It reeks of Tide, though, which my lungs don’t like, so I bailed out early and waited outside while Grace finished up. We were looking for a snowsuit for Elanor that was thin enough to allow her to fit properly into her car seat. They had little Columbia fleece baby bunting outfits, but wanted $40 for them. Grace pointed out that they had similar new ones on closeout on the Columbia web site for under $20 (I just confirmed: the “Snowtop II Bunting—-Infant” is 40% off at $17.90 with free shipping). Columbia stuff is nice (two of my favorite winter coats have been Columbia), but they were selling a used outfit for more than list price of the similar new item ($29.99), I guess on the theory that Columbia brand clothes are for the 1% and so they can charge whatever you want. We got it for $20 which still seems high, but we wanted it to use this week.

We made one more stop—-to check out the Fresh Thyme market in Ypsi. It is sort of like Whole Foods was before it metastatized and started erecting giant, ridiculous “temples of food” that Grace and I pretty much refuse to walk into anymore. Fresh Thyme has a pretty high markup on almost everything, but their bulk food was more reasonable. Their meat counter was nothing special. We might use them for one or two hard-to-find items (not everyone has fresh turmeric root, for example), but probably not much else. I am planning to start cooking some simple Indian dinners and I need to pick up some ingredients, but for those I’ll be going to a real Indian grocery (where prices are actually very reasonable on spices).

When we got home, Veronica informed us that Elanor had been up and playing, but only for a short time, and had then gone back to sleep. It seems baby Elanor probably has a virus whe is fighting off. So we just fed her and nursed her and let her sleep, much of the afternoon and evening.

Lost and Found

I was able to sit down with Grace for a while yesterday and discuss podcast topics. Our deadline for restarting the show after a hiatus is fast approaching. I had all kinds of things I wanted to get done—-writing, production, etc. I may be about to get an intro and outro segment recorded and mixed, but it’s a bit uncertain. We also sat down and paid a bunch of bills—-co-pays, the last bill from Early Bird Lawn Services in Saginaw, a car license renewal fee. We’re in a bit of a cash flow crunch after the holidays. A number of bills hit unexpectedly in December including a $1500 car repair on the Tahoe. We will squeak through but things in February are going to be tight and we will have to dip into savings. I just hope that there aren’t too many other unpleasant surprises over the next two weeks.

Grace went through some boxes in the storage room in the basement and made a very welcome discovery. She found my lost Reloop DJ mixer. It is a “Reloop Mixage Controller Edition,” the “limited edition white” version with reddish LEDs. This is a control surface for use with DJ software like Traktor. It’s basically a box of knobs and simulated platters to cue and scratch tracks like a turntable. It’s a lot of fun to play with. This version is a controller only—-it does not have a built-in “sound card” (no digital-to-analog converters, and no audio outputs). I actually ordered mine specially from the UK quite a few years ago.

I was afraid this item was lost, and was unhappy about that. I thought that I remembered packing it, but after going through almost every box in the storage room, I had not been able to find it. I have been formulating theories—-did I leave a box in my unlocked car while I was loading boxes, and the whole box was stolen? Was it in the garage? And even “did I sell that mixer on eBay years ago to try to get a little money, back when I was unemployed, and forget that I did it?”

I was missing it recently because I wanted to use it. I had the idea that I could use Traktor and this controller to remix, live, the backing music tracks for a re-recorded version of The Boats of the Glen Carrig.

I don’t remember exactly how I recorded the original, using an old program called DSP Quattro. I am not sure exactly why I don’t have separate “stem” mixed music tracks saved for each chapter (but limited storage space is the likely reason). I don’t remember exactly how I made the original, but I made it with a program called DSP Quattro. If I recall correctly, it wouldn’t work to bounce the mix, and it didn’t have mixer automation. I think I may have had to set up the music on multiple tracks and then do virtual fader moves in real time, while recording each mixed chapter to the hard drive. And so that means that the final audio file for each chapter of Boats was partly a live performance that can’t be exactly repeated.

I thought maybe I could use the current version of DSP Quattro to open the old project files and generate a clean music track without narration, but the old DSP Quattro I used back in 2006 was for MacOS 9 on PowerPC. There have been updated versions since then, but I recently tried the demo version, and it did not play audio on my Mac Pro correctly at all. I think it crackled and even locked up. Maybe I should try it again, or maybe I should try running it on my Mac Mini, but it really seemed like DSP Quattro is a dead product and I should leave it buried. At some point, and I’ve been in this boat (lifeboat?) lots of times, your carefully saved files aren’t usable any more not because they are corrupted or lost, but because the application that created them can no longer be made to work without heroic effort.

I started kicking around the idea that maybe, instead of trying to get DSP Quattro working again, I could use my DJ mixer to mix a new version of the music track for each chapter with a similar live feel, and so that idea has been kicking around in the back of my mind—-except for the fact that the mixer went missing.

I also was missing two portable hard drives—-the drives that I used to back up the Mac Mini. I knew that if I bought replacements for them that I would probably find the originals soon after, and it turns out that happened. Although it will not necessarily be a bad thing to have spare backup drives.

Anyway, Grace found the mixer and the drives. They were carefully wrapped in bubble wrap, but they were in a box that contained mostly clothing, one of the larger boxes that I used for clothes rather than heavier stuff. This particular box was completely unlabeled, and a clothing-type box, and I had put it on the shelf with the other clothing boxes, so I thought it contained only clothing.

It isn’t like me to mix up stuff, but looking back on my notes, I may have packed this particular box at the end of a three-day packing binge last summer when I was exhausted and feverish and desperate to be done. To quote myself from June:

That Monday, despite pounding glasses of water, and an iced coffee, and despite the fact that it wasn’t that warm in the upstairs, I was sweating like crazy all afternoon, and felt dizzy. My back ached, which I attributed to carrying heavy boxes and being 49 years old and far too sedentary. But then everything started to ache. In the car on the way home, so much hurt inside my rib cage, pain signals coming from various vague places, that I began to wonder if I was having some kind of mild heart attack, or some kind of problem with my kidneys or liver. Even my fingers and toes hurt.

I was sick for quite a while—-right through Elanor’s baptism. That was the virus where green goo was shooting out of my eyes. Yeah, that was horrible. So maybe I should not criticize myself too harshly for failing to label some boxes while desperately trying to finish up packing the office, when I was both exhausted and sick.

And Not Yet Found

We got the Fiestaware boxed up and put away in the storage room downstairs, to await the coming of better times (or at least more space to display it).

I also solved the mystery of book box 87. There is a box missing from the stacks, and so I haven’t been able to stack them up in number order like they used to be. I kept thinking there was a box 87 missing somewhere in the basement. But it looks like I emptied out box 87 and marked it in the database as “recycled box” with no books listed for box 87. I must have emptied it and taken the books upstairs. So I need to make a new box 87. It will probably get some of the books I read in 2017, such as the first five volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

This is just one of a lot of routine organizing tasks that I need to work on. I put so much careful work into packing—-until the very end. And so there is a lot of jumbled stuff down there that needs attention.

I confessed to Grace yesterday that I was relieved to have her come downstairs with me. It has become demoralizing for me to go downstairs and work on things there by myself during the winter. With all the messes and fragile things down there, I have not wanted the kids down there (see the incident earlier this year with my damaged subwoofer—-I just can’t handle them breaking more things). During the winter months it is quite simply cold and lonely down there, even thought it is not a damp, nasty basement but a dry one with good lighting, and so I’ve been avoiding it.

I also got through (well, most of the way through) a small project that has been waiting for attention. In our old house, as I found when packing, I had batteries stashed all over the place. In my home office I used a lot of batteries. A lot of music gear, including my digital recorders, uses batteries. I had a number of small embedded projects that used batteries, sometimes with homemade power adapter boards that I built. So there were hundreds of batteries, alkaline and lithium, ranging from brand new and unused to stone dead and leaking electrolyte. I own a little battery tester device, so I scooped up all the loose batteries and went through them and got rid of all the batteries that didn’t pass muster. The kids helped.

At least half of them were usable. We threw away the dead alkalines, but I now have a bag of dead non-rechargeable lithium batteries as well as a number of dead rechargeable batteries of various types, including a very old ThinkPad battery. I will get these to a recycling center. There are also a couple of older nickel metal hydride rechargeable packs that came out of broken cordless phones. Does anyone recycle those?

I am happy to have this project done, as the box downstairs contained a lot of mixed batteries of various types, some leaking. It made me just a little uncomfortable as there is a small, but non-zero, chance of old rechargeable lithium batteries blowing up. There may be a small chance of non-rechargeable batteries blowing up too—-I don’t know. I’d like to store the unused lithium batteries upstairs, where we are likely to notice a fire much sooner, and in some kind of a fireproof box.

I was also searching my computer, and Grace was searching our paper files, for the paperwork from back when we bought her current cell phone, looking for the PIN to allow us to change our plan. I think I kept it specifically so we would have the PIN if necessary. We had no luck finding it. It may be possible for me to reset it online, but I’m not sure about that.

Since I was searching e-mail, I also pulled several years of old messages down from the DreamHost server to the local mailbox on my Mac Pro, and ran backups. In my mind, I clean out and archive my e-mail every year. But in practice, it looks like the last time I cleaned out my “old-messages” folder was 2013.

Grace’s old mail is all on the Mac Mini. I tried to bring that fully up to date, too. There is some kind of problem that has plagued that machine for a long time. When I’m logged in as Grace, using her account, and trying to get her e-mail, I can provide her password and it works fine, but the Mail application constantly asks me to give the password to unlock the keychain. And when it does, it stops whatever it is doing. Usually it asks three times, then I hit cancel three times, then a few seconds later it asks three more times, then I hit cancel three more times, then it runs for a while, but eventually it asks again and brings everything to a halt.

I have tried to clean out the keychain, but even as myself, using my account with administrator privileges, it seems like I don’t have the right password to satisfy the keychain utility. So I’m not sure what to do. I’ll be Googling that problem and trying yet again to figure out how to fix it. I’ll probably have to look at console logs. It may be one of those things that will get fixed only when I can eventually replacing the Mac Mini with a new machine running a fresh operating system configuration.

Now that’s got me wondering if I can move Grace’s whole old account to my Mac Pro, or to another computer. Supposedly Migration Assistant can do this. Can it do it with a backup from a considerably older version of MacOS X? But it will have to wait until I have a bigger system drive on the Mac Pro. I’m hoping to get that done soon. So much to do. I want to set up a computer upstairs that Sam and Veronica can use for programming, too, but it will probably have to not have a network connection.

With everything we did manage to get done, there is one thing I regret that we didn’t get done. We didn’t make it to Mass. I regret that. We try to get so much done. I guess a sick baby is a reasonable excuse, but still, we should have gone.

Reading

Last night’s story was chapter 5 of The Hobbit, called “Riddles in the Dark.” It’s a great chapter, with lots of riddles and lots of Gollum’s lines to read in Gollum’s voice. Unfortunately my voice gave out before the end of the chapter, but Joshua is getting good enough at reading out loud that he took over for me and finished the chapter.

This morning I read a couple dozen more pages of one of the books I didn’t finish in 2017, The Compleat Enchanter. I’m almost done with it. I have had trouble staying interested in the third novella. I’m honestly not sure if I can give the third novella a fair review, since I’ve been sick and tired, and sometimes when I try to read something while I’m not at my best, I just can’t concentrate on it. But it seems that if the novella was really interesting, I wouldn’t be having to force myself to finish it—-something about it would have kept my interest and I would have made it a priority to finish reading it.

My overall impression is that the third novella is not quite as engaging as the first two. And the novella’s depictions of Arab culture—-well, they aren’t as bigoted as they could be, but going right for a magic carpet gag seems a little lazy, and the magic wasn’t as interesting this time. You might have a different reaction, but I’d say if you take a chance on The Compleat Enchanter, don’t be surprised if the third novella feels a little long and disappointing compared to the first two. Overall, I’m just not sure the three offer that much in the way of rewards to a contemporary fantasy fan. It could be that our age just isn’t emotionally compatible with relatively lightweight and genteel escapism on offer here. I think we demand darker, more cathartic tales in darker times.

And More Snow

And so begins a new work week. There is snow coming down today, and it is strangely foggy. Grace may be driving the kids to go see the Henry Ford Museum, as they have free admission today (Martin Luther King day). We’ll see how that goes.

I just got the news that Dolores O’Riordan, the singer for the Cranberries, is dead at 46.

Tuesday

Grace tried in vain yesterday to get the kids to work through their regular daily chores and schoolwork, so that she could take them to the Henry Ford Museum. But apparently they completely blew it.

Similarly, I was planning to read them another chapter of The Hobbit as a bedtime story, but they had to do a few dinner cleanup chores, get their teeth brushed, and get pajamas on. After they procrastinated for about 45 minutes, we decided it was too late for a story. Instead of a story they got a lecture about staying on track so that we can all do the things we want to do.

This morning’s reading, over breakfast at the Harvest Moon Café, was a few more pages from David Brin’s Existence.

Work is a little strange right now because it is not clear whether my top-priority project will actually happen. So, suddenly a number of weeks of development work looks like it may not wind up contributing to a product. That’s not good, and demoralizing. It happens, but the key is to try to make sure it doesn’t happen too often.

Wednesday

Yesterday I skimmed through a whole slew of articles from Apple’s tech support site, and elsewhere, on how to fix problems with the Mac keychain. Last night I tried to put some of them in practice. However, the version of MacOS X on my Mac Mini is older, and so some of the suggestions don’t seem to apply. There is a keychain “first aid” function that seemed to help the situation with the Mac Mail application demanding that I unlock the keychain over and over again, even though it is unlocked. It doesn’t seem to prevent the message from showing up at all, but it now doesn’t show up over and over again. I was able to get more of Grace’s old mail synchronized. It does still seem to behave a little bizarrely, though. For example, I don’t even have the option to lock the “Local Items” keychain while I’m signed into Grace’s account, so I can’t test whether I can unlock it.

Last night we watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation from season 4, called “The Wounded.” We’re still working our way through the viewing guide. This one is pretty good, about a Star Fleet captain, Maxwell, who has gone renegade. We meet the Cardassians, who of course figure prominently in Deep Space Nine. Early on they had some deeply goofy headgear. Here’s one of Tor’s “rewatch” articles about the episode: https://www.tor.com/2012/03/30/star-trek-the-next-generation-rewatch-qthe-woundedq/.

Maxwell has developed an obsession with the Cardassians and can’t believe the war is over. In fact he commits atrocities, killing hundreds of Cardassians in cold blood. This is a war crime and he must face justice for these acts. But he is not just a madman. The Cardassians really are re-arming:

Picard has one last conversation with Macet, revealing that Maxwell was right. The station he destroyed was a weapons outpost, the supply ships were running with subspace fields to prevent their cargo being scanned. When Macet asks why Picard didn’t board the supply ship as Maxwell asked, he replies that his mission was to keep the peace. If he had boarded the ship, both sides would be arming for war, and he was trying to avoid that. But now the Federation knows what the Cardassians are up to—-and they’ll be watching.

Picard seems to be wiser, because he knows that short of blatant treaty violations, the Cardassians have the same rights to arm themselves that the Federation does. Bob Gunton does a nice job here as Maxwell. The episode is a good one in part because it allows moral ambiguity:

The Cardassians are also permitted to have depth. On the one hand, we have Telle to represent Cardassians who are less than honorable by trying to read things he shouldn’t on the computer. On the other, we have Daro and his conversation with O’Brien in Ten-Forward. And then there’s Macet. In the end, you don’t know if he’s truly as honorable as he seems when he tells Picard that he wants peace as much as Picard does, or if he’s complicit in the hiding of weapons. Or maybe both. Either way, though, his justified anger at Maxwell’s murder of almost 700 Cardassians is palpable.

There are also some funny moments between the recently married O’Brien and Keiko, as they try to adjust to each other’s tastes in food. (Apparently Keiko is the equivalent of a vegan, eating sad-looking vegetarian food (“kelp buds, plankton loaf, and sea berries”), while O’Brien wistfully says “Sweetheart, I’m not a fish” (he prefers to breakfast on muffins, oatmeal, corned beef, and eggs).

These days I’m mostly with O’Brien, although I might skip the high-sugar muffins, and we are bringing some semi-vegetarian dinners into our rotation. (For example, chana masala, and brown rice with cashews, although the rice is usually cooked in chicken broth). O’Brien wants to introduce “scalloped potatoes, mutton shanks, oxtails, and cabbage.” Keiko thinks that sounds “kind of heavy.” To me it is actually the “plankton loaf” that seems “heavy” to me—-I’d probably need a nap after eating any kind of “loaf.” Oxtail stew is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever eaten. I spent most of my younger years avoiding eggs and grew up on skim milk and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I’m not sorry at all, and it has only improved my health, to eat all the eggs I care to, and indeed some mornings to drink bulletproof coffee (press pot-brewed coffee blended with butter, coconut oil, and the way I make it, dark chocolate).

There’s a moment of shock and wide-eyed fascination as Keiko realizes that O’Brien’s mother was a real cook who cooked real food, including meat, made from once-living animals:

O’BRIEN: Oh, you’ll love it, I promise. I can still remember the aromas when my mother was cooking.
KEIKO: She cooked?
O’BRIEN: She didn’t believe in a replicator. She thought real food was more nutritious.
KEIKO: She handled real meat? She touched it and cut it?

In this scene, Rosalind Chao looks both slightly appalled and hugely fascinated, as she has apparently never eaten meat cut from an animal. It’s pitch-perfect. She seems to regard this as both a barbaric folkway and perhaps something she’d love to try, at least once. I love these interactions, although I also wonder why they don’t just set the replicator to make two different breakfasts. But I guess that would deprive the writers of some mild conflict that they can use to explore the characters, and it seems to be the norm in these settings that couples should choose to share the same meal. Beverly Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard have trouble agreeing on breakfast until he admits that he really only ever wanted a minimalist breakfast of coffee and croissant.

My own breakfasts during the work week tend to be a bit catch-as-catch-can. If Grace is up when I’m up and getting ready, I’ll usually have coffee with her, and maybe a couple of eggs, avocado, and some toasted bread or an English muffin, if the kids haven’t eaten them all. If she’s not up and I don’t feel that I have time for cooking, it depends on how much time I have, and whether it seems like there is any extra money in our budget.

If I have no time, I’ll go to work and have some trail mix and tea there. If I have fifteen minutes extra, I’ll stop at Biggby’s Coffee and get a coconut milk mocha (although, really, I should go with something less sugary), and maybe a toasted bagel. If I have thirty to forty minutes, I’ll go to Harvest Moon Café, and have some of their good coffee and a breakfast BLT sandwich (fried egg, bacon, lettuce, and tomato on multi-grain toast). If I have over an hour, I might go to Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Harvest Moon can usually get me out the door in thirty minutes, if everything goes smoothly and the kitchen and waitstaff are running efficiently. Zingerman’s Roadhouse is all over the map. They are much more efficient early, but slow down dramatically after the 9:00 hour. Sometimes it can take 90 minutes. I rarely have that much time in the morning and so I haven’t been back there for a couple of months, although their food is excellent, and if you stick to the breakfast special, reasonable value for the money. (Wander elsewhere on the menu at your own risk). If Harvest Moon had slightly better food, and had some fruit available, so that I could get a side of fresh fruit, I might very well never go back to the Roadhouse for breakfast.

A Meatier Meteor

Last night there was apparently a big meteorite over Michigan, and some of my co-workers saw it or felt the buildings shake:

http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/01/10thingstoknowabouttheme.html

I’ve seen very brilliant, bright green, and loud “bolide” meteorites before, but I’m sorry to say that I missed this one entirely and heard about it only from the news. It flashed through the atmosphere at about 8:10 p.m. I had just gotten home and was probably just catching up with Grace on the events of the day. With six children across a wide age range it isn’t uncommon for us to hear loud noises or for the house to shake, so I probably just tuned it out.

One of Those Weeks

I keep thinking it’s a day later than it is. It’s only Wednesday. But on the positive side, the days are getting very noticeably longer. This is the first morning so far this year when I remember seeing daylight starting to come in my bedroom window at the moment when my alarm went off, at 7:30 a.m. Had I not been woken up quite so many times during the night, I might even have gotten up then. But sadly I was still feeling exhausted and clinging to sleep like a limpet, so I snoozed for another thirty minutes. It was quite cold last night, about five degrees, but more of those trademark wild temperature swings are coming, and it is supposed to get into the forties this weekend. Maybe my car windshield sprayer will start working again.

I took a long lunch because it was sunny and bright out. It turns out that my windshield sprayer was working again. So it seems indisputable that the problem was due to freeze-up of the wiper fluid. The rear windshield sprayer hasn’t worked in a long time (I’m not sure I remember it ever working since I got the car in 2015).

I picked up a book that I’ve had my eyes on: The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger. This is a short older poetic work by Tolkien, published back in 1945 and out of print since then.

It’s probably more of interest to Tolkien collectors and fans of antique forms of poetry than to the average fan of The Lord of the Rings, but having collected all twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth and enjoyed reading parts of them, I could not resist. Over the last few years I’ve also acquired most of the posthumously published Tolkien books including The Children of Húrin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrén, The Fall of Arthur, The Story of Kullervo, and The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, so I couldn’t really pass this up. I can’t really call myself a hardcore Tolkien collector, though, since outside of Beowulf: a Translation and Commentary, I have not tried to collect his academic works. And I have to confess that most of the recently published Tolkien books are largely just serving as very pretty shelf-candy at present (at least they would if they were on my shelves, instead of in boxes). The only one of these recent books that I have completely finished is The Children of Húrin. That material was a little more familiar to me since I had already read some parts of the story, in incomplete versions, in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The Book of Lost Tales; The Children of Húrin_ makes these fragmentary stories into a complete arc.

I also picked up a paperback copy of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth Harry Potter book. I’ve read this before, but did not have a copy, and got this copy to use for bedtime reading. I also want to note that The Quibbler podcast has just restarted after a hiatus for the holidays, and they are beginning with Order of the Phoenix, so if you are interested in a Harry Potter re-read, this would be a good time to start with Phoenix, and follow along with the podcast. The Quibbler can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/quibblerpodcast.

And, finally, I came across a book of essays by Jonathan Lethem called More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers. It contains introductions and and other short essays he’s written about specific books and writers including some pieces about the works of Philip K. Dick. As he was a co-editor of The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, it was a no-brainer for me to pick up this collection. I also have read and enjoyed some of the essays in his previous collection, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. I have only given this book a quick skim so far, but it seems disappointing. The material on Dick is quite scanty, and I’ve read some of it before, for example in an introduction to one of the reprint volumes of Dick’s collected stories. The Dick material in this volume represents leftovers, and isn’t Lethem’s best writing on Dick. The material on other writers, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, also seems like it must be, largely, Lethem’s less-interesting, less-detailed writing on the subjects.

Readers might find Lethem’s essay “You Don’t Know Dick” to be of more interest, because it speaks harsh but important truths about Dick’s ouvre: http://www.bookforum.com/archive/sum_02/lethem.html. (The text on the web site is a bit screwed up; it looks like a bad OCR job. I have tried to fix some problems in my quotes, below).

By now nobody needs persuading that Dick is some kind of important figure, but anyone who has cracked one of the books knows he presents problems, foremost in the disastrous unevenness of his prose, even within the space of a given page.

Lethem outlines the experience of trying to read all of Dick, and what a confusing turn-off that can be. His experience almost perfectly describes my experience; I tracked down, with considerable effort, almost every single published Dick novel in battered original paperback:

When I was fifteen and sixteen I scoured Brooklyn’s used-book stores and thrift shops for the hardest-to-find Dick titles, trying to complete a shelf of the thirty-seven-odd published works. This was 1979 and ’80, before Dick published his last three novels and died, and before the posthumous publication of a dozen or so manuscripts. Locating Vulcan’s Hammer was a notable triumph. I’ll always remember dowsing it from a crate of moldering paperbacks that had been pushed beneath a shelf, dusting off its hideous cover (Dick’s biographer Lawrence Sutin describes it as occupying a “deserved purgatory as half of a 1960 Ace Double”), and more or less pinching myself in disbelief: Vulcan’s fucking Hammer! I’d found it! Of course, then I had to go and read the damn thing. The irony is that out-of-printness served the purposes of exploring the oeuvre nicely: The easiest books to find and therefore the first I’d read were mostly masterpieces (Castle, Ubik, Stigmata, Androids), and they’d received many reprintings, whereas the dreck was always the rarest essence. Nowadays, Vintage’s uniformly prestigious shelf of clean, authoritative editions disguises the natural hierarchy absolutely.

At some point around 1999 or 2000 I was unemployed for a time and running short on money, so I wound up selling all my Philip K. Dick pulps. I have since bought some of them back in the form of modern editions, and some of them in the form of old editions, but not all of them. In particular I have not re-purchased or re-read most of the “realist” novels:

…the market was flooded with outré material just reaching first light in expensive small-press hardcovers: Ubik: The Screenplay, The Dark Haired Girl (essays), Nick and the Glimmung (a children’s book), five volumes of Selected Letters, and enough previously unpublished realist novels from Dick’s thwarted “mainstream” efforts of the ’50s to make up another writer’s whole career: Mary and the Giant, The Broken Bubble, Gather Yourselves Together, In Milton Lumky Territory, The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, and Puttering About in a Small Land.

Yeah, I had all those (well, except for the Selected Letters, which were too costly for my blood, and are now extremely hard to find). I had them all in, as he describes, “expensive small-press hardcovers.” And I paid collector prices for most of them, but mostly because I wanted to read them. And, mostly, they weren’t that memorable. As Lethem says:

It’s hard to make a case for the realist novels.

And after rattling off his best-of list, he concludes:

Perhaps I fear that if I ever finish this list—-the making of which is an extension of my obsessive searching in bookstores for Dick’s books even after having found them all—-I will die. Or grow up. Similarly, this is probably the right place to admit that I’ve never actually read Gather Yourselves Together. I suppose the truth is that I’m saving it.

I wonder if Lethem is deliberately making a jokey John Irving reference? In his essay “The King of the Novel,” an introduction to Great Expectations, Irving writes:

My fondness for Dickens extends to an eccentricity I have not duplicated in the case of any other writer I admire—-namely, I have left one Dickens novel unread. I am saving Our Mutual Friend for a rainy day, as they say; it is the last novel Dickens completed, and I have long imagined that it is the last novel I want to read. Of course this is madness: I am thinking of a 19th-century deathbed scene, where I am given proper warning that the end is near, and thus I am permitted to surround myself with friends and family—-and I’ll have just enough time remaining to read Our Mutual Friend.

But whether Lethem imagines he will read Gather Yourselves Together on his deathbed, or not—-and I think if he did, his dying sensations would be disappointment and frustration—-I feel his obsession. I am still re-reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I’ve read it at least five times. I am still writing about that book. I’ve read Ubik over and over. These works are mad and brilliant. Dick died too young and he suffered, and made others suffer, far too much.

Dick died at 53. Lethem is now 53. I’m 50. Both of us would so, so dearly love to stumble across some other brilliant lost work of Dick’s, and be able to experience again that giddy sense of recognition that we are reading a work of genius. But the truth is that any remaining work of Dick’s, even if some of his lost work was found, is not up to the quality of his best work. Also, both Lethem and I will die. Although I’m not entirely convinced that either of us really has to grow up; only the death part is a hard requirement of living.

Lethem went on to edit the Library of America’s three-volume set of Philip K. Dick novels, comprising thirteen novels. One can quibble about the edge cases; there might be two or three more of the novels that are really worth reading, but mostly I think he did a pretty good job of picking the most worthwhile of Dick’s novels. I think he did the same in editing Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. And I haven’t read Gather Yourselves Together either—-in fact, I’ve started to read it, twice, and given up, twice; it just doesn’t seem that good.

And life’s too short. Read Dickens—-and Dick—-now.

Thursday

Last night was pretty uneventful. The kids did a pretty good job of staying on track with their chores, and so we had a great dinner without a lot of delay. We had pork medallions from Costco, I made Grace laugh by saying “pork medallions were a popular form of jewelry during the disco era, worn by male chauvinist pigs.” We also had leftover pumpkin soup from Thanksgiving (still very good), brown rice, wilted greens, and charoset. Veronica kept baby Elanor busy while Grace and I worked on the dishes (she dried).

Joshua has been asking to read some Stephen King. He wanted to read It, but it’s a huge book, and not very child-friendly. I considered getting him a copy of Firestarter, which is the first Stephen King novel I read, but decided that I might as well start him on The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger, since I have the Dark Tower novels in a box downstairs. We’ll see if he makes it through the first one. The copy I’ve got has the revised text from 2003.

After the kids got ready for bed (sluggishly, but without too much angst), I read them chapter 6 of The Hobbit, “Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire.” (In my edition, there is no word “and,” nor any punctuation, between those phrases). It’s a good chapter, exciting, and before the end I get to sing a couple of songs (or at least chants) by the goblins. I made it almost to the end without coughing fits, but the songs for some reason trigger the coughing. That’s the thing, actually, that I resent the most about being ill, besides feeling tired—-I can’t quite do some of the things I want to do, like read stories to my kids without either coughing or feeling like I need to cough. And it’s been interfering with my podcasts, and my work, too, since if you are constantly having coughing fits at work, at some point folks start to notice.

Again, it’s better than it was; much better compared to Thanksgiving. But I want it to be gone completely.

At work today I got some chips in from Adafruit to try to use for a small breadboard project. Unfortunately after I built the breadboard I had a discussion with one of my co-workers and realized that I can’t use these chips. So we ordered some other parts, but it means more delay.

Grace and I were debating whether or not to attend the Huron Valley DSA monthly meeting, which is happening tonight at the Friends Meeting House in downtown Ann Arbor. We debated by text message and then by phone call for a bit and finally decided that meeting downtown, which involves getting six kids into the car, is just too difficult, for a “school night.” So for now we’re going to stick to events on weekends.

I ordered some “LightDims”—-they are stickers, made with a material designed to dim LED lights. My cable modem, router, and Vonage phone adapter are all in my bedroom, and their LEDs are very bright. I think they interfere with good sleep. I could block them completely with black tape or the “blackout edition” stickers, but I thought I’d try the regular ones first. We’ll see how it goes. Apparently my address still appears by default in PayPal orders as my old shipping address, even though it I try to change my PayPal settings, it shows only one address, my current, correct address. I had to send the LightDims folks an e-mail asking them to send to the correct address, and I sent PayPal a message asking how I can keep my obsolete address from showing up as the default shipping address.

Grace managed to get her PIN changed for her T-Mobile phone. So now we have both PINs, and we should be able to go to the T-Mobile store and maybe get our accounts set up so we spend less on cell phone service.

If we fix this, the only big annoying money-related thing that remains unfinished is figuring out how to get back the money that MCI (Verizon) still owes me.

That, and our upcoming taxes. And of course the seemingly-intractable situation with the old house.

At work I listened to the “Silmarillion Seminar 1” episode of The Tolkien Professor’s podcast. It’s long and rambling, and sounds like it was recorded on a conference phone or a Skype call, but there is some good stuff in there, so I’ll check out some other episodes.

Thursday night and this morning, I made a little more progress in Existence, but it’s a really long book.

Friday

Well, it was a difficult evening and morning. Grace was very upset because she got confirmation from my father that while he was in Saginaw helping us clean out the old house, he threw out a damaged chair. It was one of a number of chairs that Grace inherited from her parents, one of the dining room chairs she grew up with. It was indeed badly damaged (the kids had torn up the seat), but it was repairable, and it had been our plan for years to eventually get all of them repaired by the furniture company in Connecticut that made them. She is certainly entitled to feel upset. I don’t know what I can do to help.

Dinner was a bit of a mess. Grace roasted two chickens in our giant cast iron pan. The idea was to roast them initially at a high temperature then turn the oven down and let them bake for another hour to become fully cooked. It seems like somehow either she accidentally shut the oven off or the kids shut it off, so when we pulled it out to eat, the chicken was browned on top and looked beautiful, but it was not really fully cooked. The joints were still firmly attached, the dark meat was very tough, and the vegetables under it were still hard. So we put it all back in the pan and put it in the oven for another 45 minutes or so while we watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“The Drumhead”

The episode next on our list was “The Drumhead.” This episode features Jean Simmons as Admiral Norah Satie. It seems to have received mixed reviews. In my opinion it is a pretty strong episode, although a little bit unsubtle. Subtlety is really not often the strong suit of Star Trek. Jonathan Frakes directed this episode and honestly I could find no real fault with the direction. The plot unfolds a bit slowly. There is a spy on board, J’Dan, a Klingon participant in the officer exchange program. It appears initially that he has stolen some engine schematics and that this is connected to sabotage of the engines. Satie arrives to help investigate and immediately starts to ingratiate herself with Picard, leaving us wondering why she is being so complimentary. Then gradually her investigation starts to go off the rails. Using a Betazoid aide, she starts grilling crew members that had any contact with J’Dan, and she discovers that an enlisted medical technician, Simon Tarses, is nervous and seems to be hiding something. Spencer Garrett does a nice job as Tarses in these scenes.

We eventually learn that Tarses, who has slightly pointy ears and supposedly has a Vulcan grandfather, actually has a Romulan grandfather. This strains credibility a bit. Spock was a relatively rare half-human, and the Romulans are a recently discovered race, and the Federation has been uneasy with them. But we’re supposed to accept that this crew member’s human grandmother got busy with a Romulan two generations ago. Where? Did they have a liaison in the Neutral Zone?

There’s a discussion on Reddit that takes on this topic. See https://www.reddit.com/r/DaystromInstitute/comments/6kt3cm/howdoessimontarseshavearomulan_grandfather/ in which Redditor “foxwilliam” writes:

let’s put his father’s age at 30 at the time of his birth. That would mean his father (the one with the Romulan parent) was born in 2317.

So, my question is, how did this happen? The events in Balance of Terror happened in 2266 (51 years earlier), and it was stated in that episode that no human had ever seen a Romulan despite them fighting a war decades earlier. Memory-Alpha states that the Treaty of Algeron was signed in 2311 (six years earlier).

While the treaty established the terms of peace between Romulans and the Federation, at least based on what we see in TNG, it doesn’t appear to have created normalized relations such that there would be Romulans commonly living among Federation people.

It’s a good question. The most credible answers suggest that the grandfather in question may have been a refugee.

The details don’t really matter, of course, except that the circumstances would have been so unusual that the story demands they be given some explanation. The screenplay wouldn’t even have to solve all the mysteries for the audience; we don’t need details. It would have been sufficient to just “lampshade” the situation. Picard, in his interview with Tarses, could say something about what a rare, unusual occurrence this must be. That at least would reassure the audience that they aren’t wrong for thinking that this is a highly unusual situation.

Picard also doesn’t seem to be very helpful to Tarses. He could have mentioned how in the current political climate, it is somewhat understandable that Tarses was afraid of revealing his ancestry. He could have said that while it is a serious rules violation to lie on a Star Fleet application form, he would be happy to write a letter of commendation for the young crewman’s file. There are lots of things he could have said, but we don’t see him saying any of them. This feels surprising; Picard is pretty much your ultimate SJW, after all, a staunch defender of underdogs and those unfairly treated, even by his own beloved Star Fleet. But Picard says nothing reassuring, which seems out of character for him, and we aren’t left with any sense of what might happen to Tarses.

The best part of the episode comes when Satie starts to lose it and becomes convinced that just about everyone on the Enterprise must be involved in a criminal conspiracy. She starts attacking Picard in a public trial. Picard takes a very wise course of action here and does not actually get into the weeds with her, trying to defend himself against his specific violations of the Prime Directive. He mentions the moving words of her famous father, which triggers Satie to start an unhinged rant, embarrasing herself in front of everyone present, including Admiral Henry. The scene where Satie realizes she has made herself look like a raving lunatic is probably controversial. I thought it was well-acted, but if you aren’t getting along well with this episode, you might see it as overwrought. I see some nice subtleties in the direction here. In his earlier grilling, Tarses covers his face with his hands in shame. In this scene, Picard does the same thing, although he is doing it to feign nervousness and humiliation, basically making it look like there is blood in the water, so that Satie will be unable to resist moving in for what she thinks is the kill.

In the Tor “re-watch” article here: (https://www.tor.com/2012/05/04/star-trek-the-next-generation-the-drumhead/)[https://www.tor.com/2012/05/04/star-trek-the-next-generation-the-drumhead/], Keith DeCandido writes:

Jean Simmons has always been a great actor, though you’d never know it from the one-dimensional performance she gives here.

I think this is a bit unfair to Simmons. She probably played the character exactly as she was directed to play the character. Her meltdown was perhaps a little unrealistically dramatic, but tell me again how Star Trek has always been a place where the acting is highly naturalistic and convincing, the Law and Order or Hill Street Blues of science fiction. Go on, I’m listening.

If there’s one regular character who I think is given the short end of the stick in this episode, it’s Worf. As DeCandido writes:

Worf takes to McCarthyism like a duck to water, though it’s also his own investigation that exposes J’Dan.

Yes—-Worf comes across as all too ready to participate in the witch hunt, even getting up in Picard’s face about how the Federation is riddled with enemies. That seems a little out of character for the Season Four Worf, who at this point in the series is showing a lot of reserve and experience.

DeCandido is right, in my opinion, when he points out the big weakness in the story arc of this episode:

That’s not the worst part, though: in the end, we get this strong-willed, powerful, respected woman who is bound and determined to save the Federation at all costs—-that is, until Picard quotes her father, at which point she turns into a crazed, blubbering mess. And then, all of a sudden, it’s over.

Yes. That’s mostly a function of the screenplay, though, and not the acting. To make this arc convincing it needed to be written with a little more subtlety and slow build-up. But it is still worth watching (or re-watching).

Poultry Part Deux

After Star Trek the chicken was nicely done, so we ate it, and did the cleanup, and then it was pretty much time for bed. Instead of a story, we took a few minutes to talk about how our respective days went, what we were grateful for, and what things we hoped to improve.

Grace and I are due to record a Pottscast this weekend and I’m getting worried about it. I feel very out of practice; I’ve not made any progress on new intro and outro material.

Saturday

I’m writing this Saturday evening. Today has been a bit difficult but we got a number of things done. I felt pretty sluggish yesterday; apparently the kids are working their way through yet another virus. On the drive home I was listening to Terry Gross interview Joe Frank. See:

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/19/579097081/remembering-peabody-award-winning-radio-artist-joe-frank

I really want to track down some of Joe Frank’s work; I wasn’t familiar with it, but it seemed amazing. Sadly the reason that this segment was running on Fresh Air is because he just died.

Anwyay, I was apparently a bit too deeply engaged in the conversation and I stopped on Crane Road to get our mail before I turned down our little unnamed driveway. Somehow I stepped out of the car, failed to put it in park, and slid on the snow, since it had warmed up so much that the snow was melting and had a slick layer of water on top of it. So I was falling, and the car was starting to drive away from me. I managed to catch myself and jump back into the car and get my foot on the brake before it took off. In the process I managed to apply torque to my right knee in a very painful way. In fact last night it was sore and swollen enough that I suspect I may have caused a small fracture or sprain. I iced it with a bag of frozen edamame and decided I would probably know more in the morning.

This morning it actually was a bit better, so I’m pretty sure there is no fracture or sprain, but just some touchy tendons that got yanked hard in directions they weren’t prepared to go. It was also clear this morning that the twisting to my body affected everything from my right leg up to my left shoulder and into my neck.

So I woke up in some pain. Grace left early for a hair appointment. I soaked in a hot bathtub for a while and read more Existence, and made breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, and toasted everything bagels and the last of the multi-grain bread. When Grace got home I asked her to work over my upper back and neck for a while. That helped. I’m going to ask her to work it over a couple more times and we’ll see how it feels tomorrow. I don’t think there is anything that actually requires medical attention, though it is sore. In years past, for this sort of thing I would go see Ed Clark and he would generally fix me up in one intense session of massage, popping everything back into place. I think he is retired now, although I’m not 100% sure. If this is still bothering me into next week I’ll see if I can find someone to do what he used to do. Some of the pain might be body ache pain associated with the virus the kids are fighting (and which I’m probably fighting now, too). The kids-as-virus-vectors thing is getting old.

After Grace got home, we managed to get everyone into the car and to Marsh View Meadows park where we’ve walked before. It was over 40 degrees and sunny and we have not managed to get the family out for a walk for a number of weeks now. Benjamin was very impatient and argumentative but we managed to walk for about an hour.

After that we drove to the Recycle Ann Arbor Drop-Off Station to try to get rid of a bag of dead batteries: mostly single-use Eveready lithium batteries, a few dead rechargeable lithium batteries including an old ThinkPad battery, and a couple of small nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries from cordless phones that the kids have destroyed. They don’t make it easy. It’s $3.00 to get in, and for batteries you drive into the big building, a metal shed with a dirt floor. On their web site they claim that they take all lithium batteries, but the employee that helped us didn’t think they took single-use lithium batteries. He was advising me to put them in our regular trash pickup.

That’s a really bad idea, and I said so. He had to consult with his supervisor. They finally took them, by which I mean they told me to leave my bag of batteries sitting on a palette with some other miscellaneous electronic junk. I can’t say that I’m filled with confidence that they will all be recycled properly.

It should not be like this. Single use lithium batteries have been on the market for a number of years now. The producers should actually have a program to buy them back when they are dead, like returnable bottles and cans. And recycling stations should have flameproof containers designated for handling them.

After dropping off the batteries, we drove to Target. Grace, Elanor, Sam, and Benjamin stayed in the car while I went in with Veronica, Joshua, and Pippin. We were looking for a few things we couldn’t get at Costco: Dr. Bronner’s bar soap, travel-size toothpaste, California Olive Ranch olive oil, and unscented dishwasher pods. I made the mistake of letting the kids look at their video section.

I was considering coming home with a DVD of Paddington, the first movie, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, both on sale. But that turned into a fight when Veronica really wanted to buy a season of Ninjago instead. That turned into a lecture from me about how, when I buy the kids a particular movie, it’s because I’m endorsing that movie for them — I think it’s OK for them to watch, maybe even educational, or maybe with some redeeming artistic or moral value (yes, even Star Trek: The Next Generations allows us to have conversations about politics and values). I had no interest in Ninjago. They begged me for The Lego Ninjago Movie and I bought it for them, and it’s a deeply dumb movie. I regret buying it. Anyway, I wound up putting back both movies I had chosen, which were on sale, rather than fight about all that.

We also wanted to return some cans, which is strangely painful at Target. They don’t have sorting machines. You have to take them to the customer service desk and wait in line. So several of my errands today involved returning and recycling, but increasingly I feel like I’m an odd man out for even attempting to do this. Is recycling obsolete, something only old people like me do now?

After Target, we drove to St. Francis church for Mass. Benjamin made it through most of it before he needed to rush to the bathroom. He was wearing a snowsuit and boots. Let’s just say it was a close call. Afterwards communion was started and I did not want to walk him back through the sanctuary, so he had a meltdown, and then I had to drag him outside and walk around the church with him a couple of times until he calmed down. We drove through the drive through of Bear Claw Coffee and got some donuts and scones, so everyone had a snack to try to forestall further meltdowns while we got dinner ready (we knew that we were going to bake a pot pie from Costco, which takes 90 minutes). It was too little too late; as I started today’s writing there was some kind of fistfight over a DVD in the family room. So they had to put away all the videos for tonight.

When we were getting out of the car, we carefully instructed Sam to rush inside and get the oven heating up for our pot pie. We were very specific about the temperature: 375 degrees. We said it several times. But now we’re sitting here staring at a badly burned pot pie that baked for over an hour at 475 degrees.

Then, as we were considering taking the crust off to see if the inside was edible, Sam was setting the table, and dropped a glass on the table, which shattered, spraying bits of glass all over the pot pie. So now we have to figure out if we’re going to try eating it at all.

I’m going to wind things up there. Working with kids can be… difficult.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • Paddington 2
  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt
  • Existence by David Brin
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King (2003 text)
  • The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling
  • More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers by Jonathan Lethem.
  • The Lego Ninjago Movie

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, January 13th, 2018

Monday

I didn’t get anything written yesterday, so here’s what happened yesterday. I slept late. Grace and I got up and I was going to make bacon and pancakes, but the kids had already made an oven full of fish sticks because they got sick of waiting. So we had words about that—that was another dinner planned for this week that they ate up. I wound up doing some kitchen cleanup and then making the bacon and pancakes anyway. As the kids get bigger we are constantly having to adjust to how much food they want to eat. Our budget says we have to eat our planned meals, but their appetites say differently. And then there’s the arguments about foods, when we make a nice planned dinner and two of the kids won’t eat any of it and want to eat something else. This is all parenting 101 stuff but with six at home we keep going through the same things.

Grace and I managed to get out for a while, with baby Elanor, to a Democratic Socialists of America meetup at the Common Cup Café on central campus. We met some friendly folks and tried to get a sense for what the Huron Valley chapter of the DSA is up to, and whether we might want to join with them and participate in some of their activities. I was also just looking to network, particularly for the purpose of finding guests for the podcast. I’m not naturally good at networking, but I’m trying. So we had back-to-back networking and organizing meetings on Saturday and Sunday.

As planned, after that Grace took Veronica and Joshua, the kids who were getting most stir-crazy, and drove back to our friend’s house to pick up the Fiestaware haul. She brought home over 100 pieces!

This is an incredible haul. Of course we don’t need this many, but the big benefit is that there are a lot of duplicate pieces, so we can feel better about actually using the Fiestaware for everyday meals with the kids. We have had some in the past, but it was put away, because the kids were breaking so many pieces it felt like they were really blowing through a substantial amount of money. I think at one point Veronica was carrying a stack and they slipped from her hands, and so she broke 3 pieces at once. That may have been the incident that triggered us to put them away in boxes.

They are mostly the usual plates and bowls, but there was a butter dish with a broken top, a broken cup, and an undamaged sugar and creamer set, and a spoon rest. I have glued the top back on the butter dish and glued the handle of the broken cup, and they are drying. I am a bit doubtful if they will hold up to actual use, but we’ll see.

All of these pieces are, we’re pretty sure, “modern” Fiestaware, that is, lead-free (and uranium-free). I think they are all post–1985, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Almost everything is stamped “lead free.” (Per some articles I’ve read, that means they are all dated to 1992 or later). There were some vintage pieces including the old “ivory” color that we were not so sure about, including some with no visible maker’s mark at all (which I think may have been Fiestaware knock-offs, although I am not 100% sure of that). We left those behind. Grace’s favorite color is “peacock,” a rich blue color. I don’t have a single favorite but I am very partial to the one they call “claret.” That was apparently only introduced in 2016. There are some other retired colors, including “persimmon” and “plum.” There were so many pieces that just running them all through the dishwasher took two and a half loads.

For now they are going into storage downstairs with our existing (recently purchased) Fiestaware (a much smaller number of pieces). There is not room for them in the kitchen cabinets. But at some point we will get our kitchen/dining room shelving needs sorted out, and we’ll figure out which colors to put into circulation. Personally if I’m setting a table, I like to mix them up, making color combinations that some might not consider “tasteful” or even “sane,” but that’s just me.

So far, we have not made an attempt to date and catalog every piece but I’ve been taking pictures as we wash and sort them, so we’ll have a de facto inventory.

We had pork chops and steamed cauliflower for dinner last night and managed to make it to the latest possible Mass in the area, at St. Mary’s student parish. We stayed up way too late, but that’s what happens when we try to get so much done on a weekend. The kitchen is kind of trashed. For our bedtime story, I finished re-reading the first chapter of The Hobbit. My throat is still a little touchy and I have to stop periodically to cough, but I seem to be coughing up less gunk.

Breakfast was black coffee, two fried eggs, and some leftover mushrooms and onions. It has warmed up dramatically, and is now over the freezing point. It is supposed to break fifty degrees on Thursday. My windshield washer pump started working again. It was apparently frozen up. That shouldn’t have happened—the wiper fluid is supposed to be good down to well below zero, and the half-used bottle I had stored in my car did not freeze. My best guess is that maybe the repair shop refilled my washer fluid with something that wasn’t resistant to freezing. Grace had the same problem with her wiper fluid, and both cars were serviced in the same shop shortly before Christmas.

I see my doctor again this evening.

Tuesday

I went back to the doctor. I seem to be doing gradually better. Overall I’m coughing up less gunk, but it has been a very a gradual improvement. I still have brief coughing fits during the day, and they sometimes involve “whooping” sounds. I still have discomfort in my chest, which varies from day to day, but it still feels tight, and it is difficult to fully exhale, and trying to exhale fully brings on coughing.

Since I’ve turned fifty, I got a prostate exam, and my doctor ordered a PSA test. I got a flu shot, too. So last night my asshole was greasy and my arm was aching. (Sounds like I just got back from quite the party, eh?)

Fiesta!

Yesterday during the day Grace brought up from the basement all our existing Fiestaware and we put our existing pieces together with the stuff we brought home on Sunday. Wow, it is a lot. The combined collection is an embarrassment of riches, honestly. We could have packed them up, but we left them all sitting out organized by color. It’s somehow just very fun to have all these extra colors in the house for us to look at. They just aren’t colors one sees every day, and especially in January, it is both soothing and stimulating to have this extra color in the house, if that makes sense. It’s an optical antidepressant!

I’ve never been really into the visual arts all that much, and I usually try to spend as little time as possible thinking about things like the color of my clothes or paint colors; my work environments are mostly pretty neutral in tone. But I have to say that I love these colors and I look forward to the day we can have them on display in our kitchen or dining room, and set our table with them frequently.

I know just a little bit about ceramics because my mother taught ceramics as an occupational therapist, and I made some pieces as a child. I remember how the glazes I would paint onto the partially-fired pieces were grayish and dull, and how startling it is to see these dull glazes after they are changed into their final brilliant colors by the heat of firing. I know just enough to realize it must be quite challenging to get these beautiful colors to turn out consistent from batch to batch. I know it was often the case that pieces my mother made would surprise her when the glazes didn’t turn out quite as expected.

There must be people who work for the Homer Laughlin company whose jobs are all about achieving this amazing consistency and vibrancy of color. Some of the processes developed are probably trade secrets. The pigmenting elements used in in ceramics include aluminum, cadmium, calcium, boron, selenium, platinum, copper, iron, chromium, cobalt, tin, cesium, manganese, zirconium, titanium, zinc, vanadium, antimony, nickel, tungsten, yttrium, and even silver and gold—oxides, salts, borates, carbonates, halogenides, colloids, etc.—all kinds of compounds which are very sensitive to firing conditions. And not all of these are actually food-safe, so there must be many beautiful colors that aren’t suitable for dinnerware.

I think the factory tour would be très cool. Maybe we can do that someday.

I don’t have a really strong favorite, but I am partial to the new color (introduced in 2016) they call “claret” (see http://blog.fiestafactorydirect.com/2016/03/05/fiestaclaret/)—it’s a very rich reddish color, like an aged red wine. Grace really loves the color they call evergreen, produced from 2007 to 2010. Initially she thought it was “peacock,” but it turns out that peacock (2005–2015) is a much brighter blue, almost a robin’s egg blue. Juniper (1999–2001) is very close to evergreen. Apparently the parsing of fine variations between all the historic Fiesta colors is a deep, deep online rabbit hole, and I don’t really want to go that far down it, but damn, these colors are beautiful. The Homer Laughlin company does not seem to have pictures of the whole spectrum of Fiesta colors on their web site. It looks like they have left that madness to the fan and collector sites. The closest thing I found online to a complete color chart, including all their historic colors, is this page from Texas Cooking: http://www.texascooking.com/fiestaware/colorchart.htm. This page has thumbnails of all the colors introduced since the company’s 1986 revival: http://www.texascooking.com/fiestaware/.

All together, when we combined our existing dishes and the estate sale haul from this weekend, we found that we have 19 modern colors. There are two single pieces in our collection that seemed like they did not quite match any of the modern colors, although it was hard to tell under the LED lighting in our kitchen. But this morning in daylight, the colors were much more distinct—and the difference daylight makes is quite dramatic. We’ve got three modern shades of green (lemongrass, chartreuse, and shamrock) that are quite distinct, and an older yellow-green gravy boat that is a distinct color from any of these other greens. The gravy boat is the vintage chartreuse (1951–1959): http://www.texascooking.com/fiestaware/vintage-chartreuse-fiestaware.htm. We’ve got a number of blue shades, including cobalt, periwinkle, turquoise, and sea mist— http://www.texascooking.com/fiestaware/sea-mist-green-fiestaware.htm (really I think sea mist could be called either a green or a blue as it is right on the line, and whether it looks more bluish or more greenish depends a lot on the what kind of lighting you have). We’ve also got a single creamer that does not match any of them, and its color is vintage turqoise (1939–1969): http://www.texascooking.com/fiestaware/vintage-turquoise-fiestaware.htm.

Disclaimer: looking at the names and pictures of the different colors online, they seem to vary a lot—color reproduction on the web, on a typical computer and with a huge variety of digital cameras in the chain, is just not as precise as one might like. So I should admit I am not entirely sure I have them right. After all, the plates and bowls don’t have the name of the color printed on them. But after picking through a lot of pictures online, I think we have determined that we have the following colors, all modern, post–1986 revival colors except for two vintage colors:

  1. peacock
  2. claret
  3. cobalt
  4. rose
  5. apricot
  6. tangerine
  7. sunflower
  8. daffodil
  9. marigold
  10. persimmon
  11. lemongrass
  12. chartreuse
  13. shamrock
  14. periwinkle
  15. turquoise
  16. sea mist
  17. vintage chartreuse (one vintage piece)
  18. vintage turquoise (one vintage piece)
  19. scarlet
  20. plum
  21. evergreen

While they are almost all “modern,” quite a few of the colors are “retired,” including rose, apricot, persimmon, chartreuse, and peacock. With my naked eye, by daylight, the colors are pretty distinct, but when I take a picture of them next to each other, it seems like in the resulting picture on my iPad or cell phone the distinction is not as clear. And some of the colors in the pictures look very noticeably shifted from what the eye sees, especially the red tones (film photography also has difficulties with some red tones). There are a few more colors I’d like to have, eventually, like chocolate (2008–2012) and the rich blue sapphire and lapis colors, but I’m not in any hurry.

Finally, I should point out that no, none of the red pieces in our collection are the beautiful orange-red colors that contained radioactive uranium or depleted uranium oxides—although I would love some of those pieces to keep behind glass on display, or to use for science class. But people get collectible prices for those pieces now, and the whole point of this estate sale haul was to take home a big trove of beautiful colored dinnerware for a bargain price.

Even some of the colors other than orange-red, such as ivory, contained uranium. We decided to err on the side of caution and leave some vintage ivory pieces behind, when sorting through the estate pieces, because some of the old colors could leach uranium or lead when used. There are still plenty of very pretty colors that can be achieved without using uranium in the glaze, although those vintage uranium-based colors really are gorgeous. And finally, Fiesta was not the only brand to contain uranium oxides in their glazes—not by a long shot.

Backups

Somehow during the move, I seem to have lost a few items. I am not sure exactly what happened, but I think it is possible a box was taken from my car while I was loading boxes in Saginaw. The items I’m missing include two small external hard drives that I was using to backup the Mac Mini. That Mac Mini is the machine that I am currently using for recording podcasts. I wouldn’t be all that concerned, because the podcast recordings wind up copied to another computer, but the Mac Mini also holds Grace’s old account, migrated from her long-retired white MacBook. This includes a lot of old files and her entire old e-mail archive, so I want it backed up in at least two places.

To fix this I wound up ordering a Voyager S3 hard drive dock and three 500 megabyte 2.5-inch hard drives from Other World Computing (also known as macsales.com). These drives are quite slow and they would not be my first choice for backing up my Mac Pro, but the Mac Mini has only a 320 megabyte internal hard drive, so I think I can get away with these smaller, slower, and cheaper drives intended for laptops (they were only $40 each). In this context I don’t really care if it takes a whole night to run the backup, as long as it gets done. Hopefully nothing has gone wrong with the drive’s file system since the last snapshot, taken a year ago, might be irretrievably lost.

I should look into cloud backups, I guess, although I’m still basically uncomfortable with the implications and would rather keep hard drives off-site and rotate them periodically.

If things go ironically, though, as they often do, I’ll now discover that the original drives aren’t lost at all but were just misplaced in a box buried in the garage or basement. Then I’ll have more backup drives than I can use, but that’s better than not enough. Maybe I’ll find my missing Reloop DJ controller. It would be fun to get that going again. I had hoped to use it to mix music tracks for my audiobook projects.

T-Mobile

Grace and I were looking into changing our cell phones from a pay-as-we-go plan to a monthly plan, but apparently I need to find our PIN numbers for both our accounts. I think I may have gotten them back in 2000. This could be a little difficult, although I’m told there is an option to change them online. So I’ll try to get that straightened out one way or the other as well.

Story Time

Last night’s story was chapter 2 of The Hobbit. Before breakfast I made a little progress in Borne, then at breakfast I started Existence by David Brin. Existence is a line-jumper—I have so many books lined up, but I came across this one in a box downstairs, while I was looking for something by Ballard, and realized I had bought it quite some time ago (probably in 2013 when the paperback first came out). I think I’m looking for something a little bit escapist amidst all the heavy politics, economics, and climate stuff. Although if I know Brin, it’s probably got… heavy politics, economics, and climate stuff. Oh, well. At least the very fact that it is set 40 years in the future suggests that the human species will still be around and doing reasonably well then. To me that counts as optimism.

Wednesday

When I got home from work last night, the kids had apparently made cookies just an hour or two earlier, and eaten them, so no one there was very hungry for dinner, except me. I didn’t need a lot, so Grace just put some sweet potatoes in the oven to bake. Grace had packed most of the Fiestaware pieces, but left out plates representing each color, and so we sorted through them while looking at web sites and debating just which colors they were. Grace did not feel great yesterday—she is fighting a virus, it seems, like I was on Saturday, when I took an extra nap. I brought up a bottle of Glenfarclas 12 scotch whisky from the basement and we drank some fine scotch while we debated the plate colors (although the bottle has been open too long, so the flavors have faded a bit, and the cork broke in half and fell into the whisky). We ate sweet potatoes with butter for dinner.

Bedtime was unusually difficult for some reason. I read chapter 3 of The Hobbit (called “A Short Rest”). There are some interesting details that I’m noticing in this re-read. It’s interesting that Tolkien describes the elves both as full of “nonsense,” but also mentions that thinking them foolish “is a very foolish thing to think.” There is some wording about Elrond as “elf-friend,” and the story mentions “the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North,” but it is not mentioned that Elrond is half-elven (he is the grandson of human Beren and elf Lúthien, which sets the stage for his daughter Arwen’s romance with Aragorn). Did Tolkien conceive of Elrond as more than half human, at the time he wrote The Hobbit? I’m not really certain. Elrond also doesn’t know what Durin’s Day is. Thorin says:

We still call it Durin’s Day when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together. But this will not help us much, I fear, for it passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again.

I would expect that Elrond knows enough astronomy to make this calculation, or at least to look it up in a book, but he says nothing, leaving a response to Gandalf, who replies only “that remains to be seen.” Does this mean that Gandalf knows the date of Durin’s Day, and can’t figure it out? But later in chapter 4, we read:

They had thought of coming to the secret door in the Lonely Mountain, perhaps that very next last moon of Autumn—“and perhaps it will be Durin’s Day” they had said. Only Gandalf had shaken his head and said nothing.

Gandalf is skeptical because he knows that many things can still go wrong on their journey, and it is a fraught business to try to predict what might happen. But of course the party actually will happen to be in exactly the right place to see the keyhole illuminated by the last ray of sun on Durin’s Day.

One can get deep down a rabbit hole about lunar and solar calendars and whether astronomy works in Middle Earth exactly as it works in our world today, but I’ll leave that to you. See: http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/d/durinsday.html. The salient point seems to be that the Dwarves used a lunar calendar, but to avoid it drifting away from the solar calendar, since the lunar year is only 354 days long, they reset it each year, choosing to restart the year at a point when they can match up the calendars (the “first day of the last moon of Autumn,” where Autumn is determined by the solar calendar). Thus Durin’s Day would vary from year to year, but it seems like someone rich in elf-lore should know all about it and be able to predict the date.

The phrase “Durin’s Day” is also used to mean “back in the days when Durin was alive,” although that also is a bit confusing—because there were a whole lot of Durins. That’s a whole other rabbit hole. In the lore, these Durins may in some sense be the first Durin, either reincarnated in new bodies, or even the first Durin himself, in the flesh, restored from death. I’ll stop there except to say that Tolkien’s whole Legendarium rewards study much more deeply than the work of just about any other author.

Anyway, after the story, Benjamin wanted to make things difficult for us—he wanted to stay up and watch movies. Elanor, also, was unusually rambunctious, and did not want to nurse and go to sleep, but wanted to climb and wrestle with us instead. Finally we got Benjamin to go to sleep by stuffing him in bed with us. Four in the bed is never comfortable. He didn’t go to sleep quickly, but spent quite some time kicking and shoving me. So it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, which means it wasn’t the best morning. I overslept, and was quite late for work, but tried to make the morning a bit better by making myself even later and blending up bulletproof coffee for me and for Grace.

Thursday

Every morning I think “maybe this is the day I’m finally done with this coughing.” I haven’t been coughing up green goo for a few days so I dared to hope maybe the green go was gone. Nope. There was fresh green goo this morning. Not a huge amount, but it’s discouraging that it is coming back. My energy level seems a bit better, though, and the general discomfort in my chest is less today than it was Monday and Tuesday.

Last night was pretty uneventful. There wasn’t even much in the way of tantrums and screaming. The bedtime story was chapter 4 of The Hobbit, “Over Hill and Under Hill,” in which the title makes a hill out of the mountains, and the party is waylaid by goblins. At the end of the chapter Bilbo falls from the dwarf Dori’s back and hits his head, and is left unconscious in the dark. If all goes well, tonight I will read the famous chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark.”

Friday

Yesterday afternoon I started to get some real leverage in refactoring part of the code for the Thorlabs MX family of instruments. The hunk of code in question is the code that handles all the analog-to-digital (ADC) converters. The motherboards for these instruments use a combination of built-in converters and external converters (separate chips). Some signals are multiplexed (in the business, attached to a “mux,”). This allows the code to sample one physical input channel to a converter, which is switched to a number of different sources, so once converter channel can give us up to eight readings. We have multiple muxes.

All together, we currently read 78 different voltage levels, taking over a thousand readings a second (we could run it faster than that, but this seems sufficient, and leaves more time for other tasks to run). We read all of these voltages in order, round-robin style, starting over again with voltage 1 immediately after finishing with voltage 78, at different sample rates, using multiple communication protocols and multiple data formats, handling a number of different interrupts, and averaging multiple readings over time to get smooth values.

This hunk of code is one of the more complex pieces of code in the application, although far from the most complex. It is hard to come up with a single metric to rate complexity. The file containing the ADC code is under 2,000 lines long, with comments and generous whitespace, and many of other files in the application are much longer. It uses only a single task, which is simpler than many of the modules. It uses several different interrupt handlers, but so do many of the modules. What’s complex about this module is not the code itself, but the data structures.

When writing something like this, there’s always the danger of making it hard to understand, either for yourself or for a future maintainer. I have very detailed comments in the code, but comments can only do so much. Ideally the code itself should be a model of clarity. One tries various strategies. For code that represents a complex process, sometimes rather than just writing a main function that is very long, one might decide that the main function should essentially become an interpreter, and run a program. Then one tries to make the program explain what is going on, as clearly as possible.

In this case the program is not in any text format, but it is a big data structure, a table of actions to take in a specific order. The table is heavily commented and it is arranged the way it is so that everything happens in the most efficient order possible: the muxes are always set in advance of reading them, the various pins that control the ADC chips are always set the way we want them before the next reading is taken, every voltage is sampled as often as possible so that the readings this module makes available to other modules have low latency, but yet are averaged to be reasonably well-smoothed, etc.

This means the main action table has to be able to specify a number of different kinds of things to do. So it becomes a table that refers to entries in another table, which refer to entries in yet other tables. For type safety, we want everything to be as specific as possible. For example, if I want a table to refer to a second table containing four entries, I use a type that specifies that it has four entries of a specific entry type. That way, if I accidentally make a mistake and refer to a second table containing two entries, the compiler can say “hey, this is the wrong type.” The C programming language is not very safe, as languages go, but if you use very specific types, modern C compilers can help. It’s not Ada, or Pascal, but there is some type-safety to be had, if you work at programming in that style.

The challenge this week was to figure out how to support a second motherboard design.

The fact that the original code is driven by tables makes it possible, in theory, to just provide a second table. Then at startup, one could tell the ADC module which hardware version it is running on, and the code would start running a second “program,” the table that describes what to do on the second motherboard design. My decision to use a table-driven design makes this possible.

But in practice, it was not quite as flexible as one might want it. A few things were hard-coded for the initial motherboard design, because in embedded programming one goes to war with the hardware one has, or thinks one might have in the foreseeable future. One picks certain points of abstraction and avoids becoming an “architecture astronaut,” and doesn’t necessarily design for a view from low earth orbit. One doesn’t necessarily waste time writing code that will support any hypothetical future hardware, but focuses on the hardware at hand or near at hand. Getting a product finished and working reliably is just about always more important than making it easy to support future versions of the product.

The hardware is changing, and so some of the data structures are going to change. Some assumptions made in the original code are now wrong, and so the code has to sprout some new options. Data structures that were designed for the old hardware may have to change. Tables may need to have different lengths, or need to have some different members. This means that the types I originally used to provide some type-safety are now too “tight.” So I have to loosen them up. In some languages, such as Dylan, I could say “this table must be of type A or type B,” and the runtime system would enforce that. But the C programming language is low-level, designed for maximum efficiency, and not that flexible. You usually have to either be very specific with your types, or allow genericity—using union types, with your own run-time typing, or void types, which means casting pointers based on your own run-time typing. In either case, you’d better be sure that you have the type you expect, at all times.

So the code has to become slightly less safe, in the interest of flexibility. It’s my job to know where to make certain trade-offs between flexibility and safety, and where to avoid them.

In that rush to get the product out the door, things often come up late in the process. When working under deadline to add features, a programmer doesn’t always get the luxury of optimizing the design for each required set of changes. Things can get a bit cluttered, and grow a few hacks, or workarounds. This is called “technical debt”—the programmer has borrowed a little time from his future self, or from the next maintainer—for the sake of expediency. When it comes time to create version 2—well, that’s usually when one has to pay back the loan.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week: changing my code to support a major hardware revision, and also paying back the technical debt. This kind of programming, fixing and improving existing code, often called “maintenance programming,” is, I believe, the kind of work that separates the truly experienced from the less experienced. But even to an experienced programmer, it is often not very easy. One has to get one’s head back into a piece of code written years ago. After a year or two, the fact that I wrote most of the original code doesn’t necessarily make it all that much easier. I have to understand, in detail, the how and why of each little design hack. It’s time to figure out how to remove them and make the design work without them. That’s not always easy. If there had been an easy way to make the code work without the little hacks, they probably wouldn’t have been stuck in there in the first place.

So, this week I’ve had my headphones on, and my head down, making pages of notes, paying back my technical debt and trying to refactor the code in places, so that the design is clear, clean, and flexible again. I have found the best way to do this is to break very small, selected pieces of the code in ways that will make the compiler complain—for example, rename a type or a data structure, and then you can easily find every place that is used.

Last night I was close to a minor design breakthrough. One’s understanding of the code while doing this sort of work doesn’t always increase in a linear way. This tends to be the point when an eight-hour work schedule breaks down a bit. I knew last night that I was very close to being able to remove one of the most confusing hacks, and finish paying back most of the technical debt. I had to stay pretty late to do it. (At fifty, I don’t work 16-hour days any more, but a 12-hour day is not unheard of). Fortunately, I managed to nail it. Thirty-some years of programming in C can pay off at times. It’s fixed, and it worked. Since I have been breaking only small pieces of the code at a time, making small refactorings and fixing things as I break them, and checking changes into Github every time I got a set of changes working, there was no “big bang” required. But my family did have to eat dinner without me.

Fortunately they left a plate out for me. But we had no story last night. Dinner was some kind of hash made out of various vegetables, shredded, stir fried with some egg, and served on top of brown rice with cashews and a little sriracha sauce.

Today at work I will try to finish a few more small refactorings and fixes, and test the ADC code as best as I can. The new hardware will not be ready to test for some time, but I’m trying to be as ready for it as I can.

The Freeze-Up

Yesterday in Ypsilanti it was 59 degrees, with a low of 48 (average high and low are 30 and 16, so a pretty significant deviation). Today, suddenly, the weather is seasonal again. It’s 21 degrees now. We had rain overnight, freezing up, and so driving is dangerous today. I get paid on Fridays, and it’s also my day to go get a load of groceries at Costco on the way home. But we’ll see—if the roads seem very bad, I might just drive home through downtown, instead. Slowly. And maybe we’ll get groceries tomorrow.

I don’t have an ambitious agenda for the weekend, but I am hoping to make some progress on organizing the basement. At a minimum, I want to help Grace finish packing up the Fiesta dinnerware and get that secured in the storage room. I’m also hoping we’ll get some time to work on future podcast episodes, since we’re supposed to have a new episode up on January 21st. Our little hiatus has gone by much too fast!

I didn’t sleep very well last night, worrying a bit about the weather and listening to the freezing rain come down. Also, Grace’s phone kept waking up, as she got Facebook notifications, and the screen would light up, and light the room enough to wake me up. So it was not a great morning. I did not eat breakfast or even get a cup of coffee at home. Instead I left late, drove slowly, and stopped at Biggby’s coffee on Jackson to grab a large coconut milk mocha and a couple of bagels with butter. I realize this is not the most exciting news.

Friday Night

Because I stayed late Thursday, and got some code finished, I did something I rarely do—I left work early (before 4 p.m.) I wanted to try to get to Costco for our groceries and then home, hopefully avoiding heavy traffic, worsening road conditions as the air temperature dropped, and darkness. I managed to get to Costco before traffic was heavy. I was hoping to get a shopping list from Grace via text message, but she didn’t get back to me until I was in the checkout line. I wound up buying some snacks to take to work, and a few extra treats to celebrate going home early, including some bagged popcorn and a box of Godiva chocolate to eat after dinner. We ate our usual Friday dinner entree, Costco’s ready-to-cook salmon milano. We usually make a pot of rice, but instead we added frozen edamame.

It’s 9:00 and we’re watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We’re just finishing up the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” which forms the end of season 3 and beginning of season 4. We’ve been following the episode guide here:

https://medium.com/maxistentialism-blog/star-trek-the-next-generation-in–40-hours-c4a6762cbd3

Saturday

We finished several Next Generation episodes including “Family” and “Data’s Day.” I had forgotten how much I enjoy some of these episodes. There are a lot of bad and mediocre shows in Next Generation, but these are some of the good ones. In “Family,” the relationship portrayed between Picard and his Earth-bound brother is terrifically complex and ambiguous. The two end up having a fistfight in the mud among the grapevines, then getting drunk together on vintage wine left by their father. “Data’s Day” is a little more uneven, pitch-wise, cutting between serious and light-hearted plot lines, but it has a lot of nice little little touches. When Dr. Crusher has to leave Data to finish his dance lesson without her, he conjures a holographic dance partner who isn’t played by Denise Crosby, but looks eerily like Tasha Yar.

There are a number of funny little easter eggs, things going on in the background as we follow Data around. In the barbershop there is a strange alien we’ve never seen, with a strangely shaped head and elaborate ’do, getting some kind of high-tech dye job with something that looks like a medical scanner. In another scene someone is working on a replicator and what looks like a giant stuffed rabbit materializes. Is that the Enterprise gift shop?

It’s just a nice series of hints that there are things we have never seen before going on aboard the Enterprise, on any given day. I imagine the producers had a fun time coming up with them and the actors playing these small supportive roles had a good time trying to distract the main cast (and the audience).

I made breakfast this morning: press pot coffee with canned coconut milk, toasted English muffins and multi-grain bread, some fried eggs, and some scrambled eggs. I add some pre-made guacamole and butter and make a fried egg sandwich. Pippin won’t eat eggs, so he had only bread for breakfast. We’re not quite sure what to do with that kid.

It has stopped snowing but it is quite cold today, about 17 degrees. There is no wind, so we were considering going out for a hike, but it is also overcast. I think it would be nice for a walk if sunny, but without the sun it will feel cold. So I’m not sure what we’re going to do today. We might stay here and work on chores, even though the kids are going a little stir-crazy. They were playing Set, the card game, on the dining table for a while. Benjamin tore apart one of Grace’s vintage beaded Christmas ornaments. She’s quite unhappy about that. It’s unfortunately typical of Benjamin.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Weeek

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Existence by David Brin
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, January 13th, 2018