Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Tuesday

I’m back at work. I took a half-day or so two Fridays ago, the last day I was in the office, and cleaned my whiteboard and dumped almost all the stacks of paper that were piled on and under my desk. That was tedious but it means I’m coming back to something that looks more like a clean slate and less like a mess of half-completed projects. Several projects are still half-completed, but maybe I can bring to them a perspective informed by thinking mostly about other things for the last ten days.

It was a good break. My chest still feels a bit funny and I’m still coughing a bit, but the improvement is real. Every morning and evening, and sometimes at random times during the day, I’ve had to cough and brought up nasty green gunk. There was no green gunk this morning, just a little white gunk.

2017 me should have stocked up the freezer so that 2018 me would have some food I could turn into a hot lunch, instead of assuming I’d be content eating some crackers and sardines on the grounds that it is “frugal.” 2017 me is kind of a jerk, to be honest. Tonight or tomorrow I’ll pick up some frozen burritos, or pot pies, or something similar.

I was chatting with Rich about Galactica 1980. My family and I finished watching the ten episodes over my Christmas break. My reaction:

Jesus Christ, I had forgotten how awful that final episode was. It’s mind-blowing how strange and stupid it was.

The show kept veering off in different directions. They had a time-travel plot, for a while, using a gag from the Superman movie. There’s a gag that references the TV show “CHiPs.” There’s a gang of cute kids. Then they nearly kill some of the cute kids, because the show just can’t find its tone, in a show about toxic waste, involving UFOs. It seems for a while like the show is trying to be like Escape to Witch Mountain (the 1975 film; actually a great kid’s movie, while the 1978 sequel is a good candidate for worst Disney film ever made). Then it’s The Bad News Bears. There’s an episode set in New York City and featuring Wolfman Jack—as himself—as a character. A Cylon is defeated by a microwave oven. It’s hard to overstate how truly boring and awful these shows are.

Here’s a quick plot summary of the final episode, “The Return of Starbuck.”

Doctor Zee has a dream and tells it to Adama. In the dream Starbuck’s ship was damaged in a fight with the Cylons, but the fleet had to leave him behind. He crash lands on a planet and the Cylon ship he was fighting crash lands, too. Starbuck has to survive on the planet. For water, he apparently has a well, but we never figure out where he gets any food.

After the crash the Cylons seem to be all “dead,” but Starbuck takes parts from 3 Cylons and builds one working Cylon to play poker with. He becomes friends with this Cylon, calling him “Cy.” Yes, Cy the Cylon.

One night Starbuck is whining that Cy is fine but what he really misses is female companionship. Cy storms off in a huff and a while later returns with a woman thrown over his shoulder. We never get an explanation where she came from. Oh, and she’s pregnant.

Starbuck manages to take parts from his ship and the Cylon ship and build a sort of escape pod with a “deep freeze.” The idea is that they’ll be able to shoot the baby into deep space, and some day it will catch up with the Galactica. I suppose that makes its chances of survival slightly higher than they would be if the child stayed on the planet.

More Cylons land and his buddy Cy rushes to defend Starbuck, shooting the invading Cylons, but is shot himself and fatally injured. Cy has a touching death scene. Starbuck puts the baby in the escape pod and shoots it into space. The woman seems to disappear (although I don’t think we see this on the screen), and Starbuck is left on the planet with no hope of rescue at all, but he seems to be OK with this fate. The baby is Doctor Zee, for some reason, somehow Starbuck’s “spiritual” son.

There are a few funny lines, and some hilarious unintentional science gaffes (at one point Cy is charging himself up by hand-cranking a generator), but overall this is just so poorly put together.

Here’s a compilation of original Cylon voices: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPL7QPCfVZc

In the DVD release, the voice of Cy is strange. You can hear the vocoded voice, but also the unprocessed voice of voice actor Gary Owens at about the same volume level. Give a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6n_btnabaJc

I’m honestly not sure if this is a mistake, or intentional. Did they leave the original vocal track audible to make Cy sound more human? Or did they just accidentally fail to mute one of the multi-track tape tracks when they were mastering the audio? Did it sound that way in the original broadcast?

This show is a perfect example of the great weakness of most episodic science fiction television. A show may have a great premise, likable characters, and nifty props. But if the writers can’t come up with anything interesting and convincing for those characters to do, you wind up with hack work that makes no sense and isn’t convincing or emotionally interesting.

Apparently Galactica 1980 was doomed from the beginning: the producers couldn’t get the original cast members back, they couldn’t get the budget they needed, they were ordered to change the show’s direction repeatedly, and it suffered from “too many cooks” syndrome; it was even supposed to, because of its time slot, be educational, and child-friendly. This web page, containing some notes on the history of the show, is far more entertaining (and educational) than the show itself: https://en.battlestarwikiclone.org/wiki/Galactica_1980.

The original Galactica was quite a bit darker than Galactica 1980. This seems to be in part because Galactica 1980 had to be kid-friendly in its Sunday 7 p.m. time slot. But as a result it couldn’t titillate or shock much. So you had screenwriting situations where an episode taking place during the Holocaust could show boxcars full of people ready to ship out to concentration camps, but it was also supposed to be suitable for children. The disconnect is kind of head-exploding, which led me to MST3K the show with tasteless Anne Frank jokes. The tasteless juxtapositioning had already been done; I was just commenting on it.

Wednesday

Into the Vortex

After I left work last night I drove to Meijer on Carpenter Road and stocked up on some various frozen pot pies, chana masala, pad thai, etc. These items were on sale for “buy one, get the second for 50% off.” I just left the bags in the back of my car overnight, since it was only a degree or two above zero last night. We are getting polar vortex weather again and the temperatures are very unusual for late December/early January. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground web site wrote:

I’ve endured more than 50 winters in Michigan, but the relentless, intense cold that has gripped the Great Lakes State since Christmas has been remarkable, and will enter epic territory late this week. My backyard PWS has seen lows below zero Fahrenheit an impressive six of the eight days since Christmas, with a notable minimums of –18°F and –19°F on December 27 and 28. Nearby Flint airport hit –18°F on December 28, which was their lowest temperature ever recorded in the month of December. The previous record was –14°F, set just the previous day.

What’s also remarkable is the extended duration of this cold wave. Both Detroit and Flint have failed to reach 20°F for eight consecutive days, going back to December 26. If current forecasts prove accurate, both cities will have streaks of 12 consecutive days with a high below 20°F by Saturday.

See https://www.wunderground.com/cat6/year-end-arctic-chill-persists-ice-and-snow-loom-florida-maine

During the week of Christmas, Erie, Pennsylvania got 64 inches of snow, which broke records and reminds me of the blizzard of 1977, which is one of the earliest weather events I clearly remember, along with an amazing ice storm.

I have heard anecdotally that in Kalamazoo, residents are being asked to leave water taps running slightly, because the ground has frozen so deep they are afraid of broken water mains.

Strangely, because the first three weeks of December were so unusually warm, the December average temperatures may still be ranked above normal. I think it is this combination of unusually warm, unfrozen Lake Erie with very cold air that led to the blizzard in Erie, although Lake Erie is freezing up now.

This is intense, but the recent weather is not as shocking as the event now known as the “Early 2014 North America cold wave.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early2014NorthAmericancold_wave

The sidewalks in my old neighborhood in downtown Saginaw, Michigan shattered overnight. They were stamped 1928. I was out walking and actually recording a podcast as a blizzard moved through. The initial temperature drop was the fastest temperature drop I think I’ve ever experienced. The National Weather Service reports that

Temperatures dropped by as much as 40–45 degrees from Sunday Jan 5th into Monday Jan 6th.

See: https://www.weather.gov/iwx/20140104–0107_snow and https://www.climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/wobbly-polar-vortex-triggers-extreme-cold-air-outbreak

But in the bigger picture, it’s still warming. Record snowstorms happen when cold air meets unusually warm air carrying an unusually high amount of moisture. In fact on December 29th, temperatures across most of the world were well above the 1979–2000 baseline. But with the destabilized jet stream, it seems like these extreme and abrupt temperature swings, as the “polar vortex” air wanders around, may be the new normal. Our infrastructure really isn’t ready.

Has Anyone Seen My Wife and Children?

Yesterday afternoon Grace and the kids drove to Lansing to visit her brother John, who is hospitalized. After they left Lansing, she drove up to Saginaw to visit friends. She did not let me know where she was going and when she was coming back, so I was left to guess. I noticed the transaction on our bank account when she paid at the hospital parking garage in Lansing, but figured she’d come home after that, maybe with some pit stops. But she was not home when I got home. I put on the original Battlestar Galactica movie-length and watched and listened to half of it while I cleaned up the kitchen a bit and cooked myself some eggs for dinner. Eventually I set her a text:

Are you secret? Are you safe?

(A reference to The Fellowship of the Rings).

Anyway, Grace did eventually text me back and told me that she was in Saginaw, and leaving shortly. I did not wait up for her. She had a cold drive, but the roads were clear. She got back about 1 a.m. The kids then had to roll the trash and recycling bins down to Crane Road in the cold (about zero). I hope they didn’t wake up the neighbors.

The Wrong Trousers

I think that I may have worn my wife’s jeans to work today. They were sorted into my clothes basket by mistake and so I folded them up and put them on my shelf, then put them on this morning. The odd thing is that they seem to fit reasonably well.

I’ve been reading I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, and it seems like the book does in fact pick up considerably when Tiffany Aching goes to Ankh-Morpork. Still, I don’t regret giving up on reading it to the kids as a bedtime story—it was just too dark and the themes too adult for them.

I had a soak in the tub this morning while reading, and tried to cough up some goo, but only could get a little foamy white stuff out. Then I took a hit from my Albuterol inhaler and got in the car to drive to work. The Albuterol seems to loosen things up and so halfway through my 20-minute drive I was gagging on foul-tasting green goo coming up from my chest. So I guess the green good is not gone, but can I dare hope that it’s almost gone? Although I’m still coughing, I’m coughing a lot less, overall, and I feel a bit more energetic, overall. But my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with ads for lung biopsy devices and new treatment options for lung cancer, which seems a little ominous.

I see the doctor again next Monday.

Mice

Oh, and we keep killing mice. They get into the stove somehow, from somewhere, and climb up inside the back of the stove, then run around on the counters, or sometimes on the floors, or sometimes inside the cabinet where we store cans. Last night I killed two using a couple of different types of trap: a plastic and wire version of the usual snap trap, and a black plastic “jaw” type. I try to get them into the trash before the kids see them, but it’s disturbing. Even if they are killed cleanly by the wire trap, it still takes them up to a minute or so to stop twitching. And sometimes they don’t come at the bait head-on but sideways, and aren’t caught cleanly across the neck. I’ve had to finish them off sometimes, and other times seen evidence that they lived for a while with the mousetrap wire clamped across their skull, or their snout. (Shudder). None of us feel really good about killing them like this, but having tried in the past to use the live traps, these are actually more humane. And we also don’t feel good about cleaning up mouse poop all over the stoves and counters.

But I can hear their inner monologues in my head.

Where’s mom? Where’s dad? Where’s my big brother? Hey, are you guys up here? I came to look for you! Hmmm… what’s this, then? Is that butter? I love butter! [Wire trap comes smashing down on snout] [Gasping] well, that could have gone better. Ouch. Yes, that’s painful, that is. Oh my. Oh, what a world, what a world. [Sprays a mist of blood from snout all over the trap] My life is flashing before my eyes. Hmmm… [Final gasp] hmmm… well, I have to say that was short. [Death rattle] Wait… I can feel myself leaving my body… oh, am I going to a better place? Oh look, there’s my little smashed mouse body. Oh, there’s a human coming to give me a decent burial, at least. My little feet are still twitching. Where’s he taking me? Wait… he’s dumping my poor broken little body into the trash can?*

Hardware

My line level shifters from Ebtech arrived today from Sweetwater and I may be able to test them tonight, to see if I can get decent-sounding audio into the channel 3 and 4 RCA inputs of my FA–66.

Unpacking them, I was reminded of another reason I wanted to buy these relatively expensive, separate hardware components: they are made in the United States, like another piece of gear I really like, my Cloud Microphones CL–2, also known as a “Cloudlifter.” It’s a simple but very useful little preamplifier. I use this to help boost the gain on my two Heil PR–40 microphones and it makes them great. Every time you listen to the podcast, you’re hearing the CL–2—it’s the first link in the signal chain after the microphones.

Thursday

Podcast Hardware and Software

Last night I tried out the line level shifters. They work quite nicely. There is definitely a reduction in audio quality between what I can hear on the headphone output of the US–2000, compared to the what I can hear if I send this signal out of XLR outputs 1 and 2, through the Ebtech line level shifters, into the FA–66 RCA inputs for inputs channels 3 and 4, then monitor the results on the FA–66 headphones. But that’s not a very “apples to apples” comparison. A more “apples to apples” comparison might be to compare what the FA–66 hears on inputs 1 and 2 using +4dBu balanced connections from the US–2000 channels 1 and 2, but I did not want to unplug and rearrange everything to set that up. The bottom line is that it seems to sound about as good as it is going to get using inputs 3 and 4, which is not great, but then the digital audio that comes out of Skype is pretty compromised to begin with.

I was a little baffled at first because I was hearing what sounded like severe phasing in midrange sounds like vocals. I messed with cables for a while to try to rule out a bad cable. Finally I realized that the FA–66 has a mix control and with the mix control centered, I was hearing an internal direct monitor of inputs 3 and 4 mixed with a delayed digital signal from inputs 3 and 4, coming from my Mac Mini and Logic. The latency (time difference) between these two signals was producing “comb filtering” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comb_filter). The fix for that was to set the monitor mix control so that I was listening only to FireWire outputs 1 and 2 with no signal mixed in from the built-in low-latency monitor mixer.

This is a bit embarrassing, since not only is there a schematic in the manual, but it is also printed on top of the unit. It’s one of those cases where, in order to make itself actually flexible and useful, with features like low-latency monitoring, a piece of “professional” or “prosumer” audio gear like this has to make it possible for you to do stupid things. The ability to blend low latency monitoring with FireWire audio output monitoring on different channels might useful—more useful than a simple switch that allows you to select either the mo, but it also allows you to create comb filtering and even feedback (easily achieved by accidentally looping an audio path within your DAW). Consumer gear tries to protect you from things like this, but I did eventually figure out what was happening, though.

A little latency on our headphone mix, or on the mix we send to Skype, isn’t going to be all that noticeable. I am still scratching my head a bit as to how to get the best sound using Skype. With our headphones on, we are hearing our own voices through the air and through the bones in our heads, followed a few milliseconds later by the panned and compressed sound of our voices in our headphones. With a Skype call active, it seems like Skype also returns your incoming voice to its audio output, which means there is a third version of our voices, low-resolution, somewhat distorted, and not panned. I’d like to not hear this, but if we don’t monitor the output from Skype, we can’t hear our guest.

I’ve been looking into whether any of the other services for conferencing might give us better sound. Is there anything better out there? Maybe we should even consider using a hardware phone device.

Anyway, I now have a reasonable “mix minus” setup for recording conversations using a third party over Skype. “Mix minus” means that we want to be able to send to Skype our control room mix without mixing in the audio from Skype, to avoid feedback.

I have it working using both the Roland FA–66 and Tascam US–2000 connected to the same Mac Mini. The Tascam doesn’t seem to show up at all as a straight-up USB CoreAudio device, which I found strange, and after installing the Mac driver for OS X 10.9 (Mavericks)—yeah, my Mac Mini is a bit behind, since 10.13 (High Sierra) is the latest—it worked, but it shows up, strangely, in the Audio MIDI Setup application as two separate devices. One is called “bit accurate,” and one is called “Core Audio.” Audio MIDI Setup does not seem to allow me to choose the “bit accurate” device for system sound. It also won’t let me set any levels (the GUI appears to let me set the master volume, but it always pops back to zero). This seems to be a bug, but the interface does seem to work fine. It just underscores for me how confusing and broken and poorly integrated this whole mess really is.

I could not get the Skype application to work anymore on the Mac Mini, even after updating the application—it would not sign in to Skype—but signing in through the web worked OK, after installing the Skype plug-in for Safari.

It should also be possible to drive US–2000 from my PC laptop, running Skype on the laptop. I still need to experiment, and see whether I might get better Wi-Fi bandwidth and so, possibly, better Skype audio, using a separate computer. If there is no audible advantage, I’ll just do it all on the Mac Mini.

I may also want to configure the Logic project to treat the Skype input and output as mono. I could make a mono version of the control room mix to send to Skype as the “mix minus.” In fact, maybe I only need to send and receive the left channel. I’m not sure of the best strategy here. If Skype really is strictly mono, I certainly don’t need to record two tracks.

With some experimentation, I also discovered that I could use 1/4" TRS cables from the channel 1 and 2 outputs of the FA–66 to drive the left and right 1/4" TRS inputs of the HeadAMP V. The manual is not really clear on whether these inputs handle balanced +4dBu connectors, but it seems to handle them just fine.

It is confusing, since the HeadAMP V “sell sheet” says :

The right 1/4" input will also accept a stereo TRS connector and stereo mix (tip = right, ring = left), such as the headphone output from a mixer."

and

The left 1/4" input will also accept a mono connector and mono mix.

The silk screen on the back labels the two 1/4" inputs as “RIGHT/MONO INPUT” and “LEFT/STEREO INPUT,” which seems to contradict the sell sheet, and the manual says:

If you are connecting the headphone output of a mixer, use a stereo shielded patch cable and plug into the Left/Stereo ¼ inch HeadAMP V input.

and

The Right 1/4 inch input will act as a mono input if the Left 1/4 inch input is not used. In this manner both channels will receive the same audio.

And also:

If you are connecting the separate L&R outputs of a mixer, use two shielded mono cables and plug them into the Right/Mono 1/4 inch output and Left/Stereo 1/4 inch input on the HeadAMP V.

This is all quite confusing because a 1/4" TRS plug carrying a balanced +4dBu signal is mono, but so is a 1/4" TS plug carrying an unbalanced –10dBV signal. So this is a case where a diagram of the different connection options would be helpful, specifying both the physical and electrical characteristics of the supported inputs.

In any case, it seems to work just fine with two separate left/right 1/4" TRS balanced +4dBu plugs, while using the stereo headphone out option is actually a bit flaky (very small movements of the cables, even the headphone cables plugged into the front of the unit, seem to short it to mono).

It seems like the sockets must use the contacts inside the jack so that different circuitry can be switched in or out accordingly based on whether both inputs are in use, and maybe even whether the plugs stuck into the sockets are TS or TRS. This seems to be touchy and error-prone in practice and confusing, poorly-worded documentation certainly does not help any. So I suspect I’ve discovered with the HeadAMP V is a discontinued product.

La Rentrée

We got a pretty good start to the week on Tuesday morning, but then Grace got out late and stayed out very late, throwing off my schedule. We tried again last night to get to bed at a reasonable time, but we’re just not quite there, which means I’m again struggling to get enough unbroken sleep to stay healthy. Transitions after a vacation are always hard. Fortunately the days are getting longer, so that should help.

Things are also picking up at work, with some new hardware designs in the works, which should help keep me engaged. Things are often a bit slow towards the holidays, in embedded software design, as no one wants to release a product right before Christmas.

Friday

Last night we had hash browns made with leftovers from our New Year’s pot roast. I think this is the last of it. It was still delicious. Then, I had a little more of it for breakfast.

This morning Grace wanted to talk again about how much we are spending on cell phone minutes and consider getting a plan. I am very skittish about plans—I really, really like “pay as we go” minutes. She talked about how she is sick of me blowing up at her for spending all her minutes.

It is true that I do that, but I reminded her that the times when I got angry were because she ran herself out of minutes, and then I could not get in touch with her. Sometimes she’d be out of town with the family and I couldn’t even get a text to her, or a text back from her, and I’d have no idea what she was doing, what she might be spending, or when she was coming back. That was the main source of my anger—losing track of my family.

Having her blow all her minutes with long conversations and text storms with her friends, when I’m trying every day to be as frugal as possible, eating sardines and crackers for lunch, was a secondary source of anger. And I reminded her that it goes way back to the last time we had cell phone plans. Shortly after we were planning to get married I got us “his and her” cell phones, and shortly after that she took hers on a trip to the East Coast and racked up something like $2,000 in roaming charges. We were actually sued by AT&T for that debt. I offered to settle for half, as I could not pay the whole thing, it went to collections, and we were actually sued for the debt and had to get our attorney involved to convince them to settle it.

So I have this visceral horror of anything other than buy minutes in advance, spend the minutes, and making sure there is no possibility that just using the phone can rack up a debt for us.

In her defense, Grace claims that she never gets notifications telling her she is running short on minutes. I’m not sure if that is true or not. But neither of our phones seem to be able to connect to T-Mobile using the built-in T-Mobile application which should show us how many minutes we have left at any given time. It always gives an error. Similarly, according to the T-Mobile support pages, I should be able to dial #999# to check minutes, but that doesn’t work reliably. I get some kind of “USDD error” message.

I went through the spreadsheets and credit card statements for 2017 and discovered that I spent $485 on minutes for the year, which turned into $523.60 with taxes and fees, averaging to $43.63 per month. It looks like she spent $960 on minutes for the year, which turned into $1035.98 with fees and taxes, which is about double my minutes.

I don’t think 2017 was typical, but it is true that she has need for more minutes than I do, given that she manages the kids’ medical appointments and most of our social life, such as it is. Her usage might come down in 2018, if things are more normal. But yeah, it’s probably true that we should figure out if maybe she could use a plan on her phone, and whether that could save us anything. It seems unlikely that there is a plan that would save me money given how much I tend to spend on minutes.

Anyway. It seems stupid that phone minutes are a big enough expense that it would trigger money stress. The same with books. They are quite a small expense in the overall budget. They are much smaller than our food expenses. But of course we are scrutinizing these small expenses because they are not fixed the way our our two mortgages and our two sets of energy bills are fixed, charging us a predictable amount each month. But the reality is that our fixed expenses cost us the bulk of my take-home pay, and the single biggest thing we could do, to drastically improve our cash flow, is to get out from under the monthly expenses related to the old house: the mortgage, the energy bills, the water bills, and the insurance, which add up to about $1800 a month or over $20,000 a year. So fixing that would certainly lower the priority of a debate over how to fix our out-of-control cell phone expenses of almost $1,600 for the year.

Anyway.

I got paid this morning. It’s not like I’ve ever failed to get paid, since starting this job, but it’s nonetheless nice to see it go through every week. Even if most of it is already spent.

Things are going to be tight in February due to the rather large car repair bills we had in December. We have a number of “carryover” bills—I haven’t finished paying for the lawn care and hauling expenses at the Saginaw house in 2017. I have to write some extra checks this month.

And we did have some extra expenses related to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. There were extra special bottles of wine, extra special food, and extra travel. There were some movies out. There were extra fire logs and a couple of meals out. Although these things were cheap compared to the car repairs.

But there was hardly any spent on Christmas presents per se. The kids got boxes of Thorlabs lab snacks, and they each got a specially chosen mug, which Grace chose from our friend Joy’s “first stop” used-merchandise store in Grand Rapids (but more about that project another time). That was it for presents. We went with “experiences over things,” so we watched movies together, hung out, made cookies, etc. I would have read them stories—a lot of stories—if not for the coughing.

Saturday

Stalker

Last night I stayed up with the family and we wached my Blu-Ray of Andre Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker. I’ve had this disc for a few months and been waiting for an opportunity for peace and quiet to watch it. The kids were falling asleep so I decided it was time, although Sam stayed up to watch the whole thing with me. I’ve read reviews, I’ve read about the movie, I’ve read Roadside Picnic a couple of times (in two different translations), and I’ve read a small book called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer. I was a fan of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and so I was excited to see this film, which some people consider his greatest.

I think it suffered from watching on a small screen, and perhaps I was just too tried and not in the best mood to appreciate it. But here’s what I wrote on Facebook:

Last night we watched a Blu-Ray of the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, which I’ve heard a lot about but never seen. I pride myself on having seen quite a few foreign films, classic films, and art films, and being pretty good at decoding symbols and references in films. I really like Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I have patience for slow moving, immersive movies like Wings of Desire.

But this movie, while visually very beautiful in places, I just couldn’t enjoy much. All the dialog seemed like improvised ranting about nothing coherent. So little happens that in hour three, when a phone rings, it’s a huge relief. We think “oh, the director is finally giving his actors some instructions. Maybe they will stop lying down in mud puddles and actually do something.” The whole middle third of this movie looks and sounds like being trapped in the tank of a badly leaking toilet for an hour. It was filmed in flooded industrial refinery buildings in Estonia and apparently everyone involved in the shoot died of cancer within a few years.

Then this morning Grace pureed a whole raw onion and smeared it on my chest and while my eyes were watering and I was trying to experience the respiratory benefits of breathing raw onion fumes, I kept thinking “Hey, at least I’m not still watching Stalker.”

I got so desperate for something to happen in the Zone that for awhile I was hoping that the Stalker would at least describe in detail something that happened on a previous trip so that even if the movie would not show it to me, I could imagine it myself.

I think reading the book was actually a disadvantage because in the book, there are all these interesting and potentially dangerous artifacts, and traps. People are killed, in fact. So I kept expecting them to find interesting or dangerous things, or even get killed—anything more than lying in mud puddles filled with used syringes and arguing.

There is one thing about the movie I really loved, though—the way the score blends with ambient sounds in certain scenes. The score is really cool. Way ahead of its time.

I should give it another chance on a big screen, someday, if I can. So many people seem to have a lot of respect for this film. I think there are things to respect, in the filmmaking, and it certainly maintains certain moods very well at times, but I just feel that the storytelling aspect of it is lacking. At the end there is a sequence in which the Stalker’s wife has a monologue, and she delivers it while staring at the camera. That’s an odd choice, to suddenly break the fourth wall like that. It sort of works because her performance is very convincing—in fact, all the performances in the film are very good, so good that it almost never seems like any of the actors are actually acting—but I’m still scratching my head a bit as to why a movie that had such a slow voyeuristic feel for so long suddenly switches a face-to-face confrontation with the audience.

There are a lot of odd tricks done in the editing and the mixing of sound effects with scene changes, that break up the sense of continuity and even the sense of geometry—the viewer often feels puzzled where the three main characters are, with respect to each other, and where they are going. This is not accidental but a series of deliberate choices done in editing to disorient the viewer. We’re supposed to feel, as the characters do, that the landscape of the Zone is very unnatural, and you can’t walk safely in a straight line from one place to another and expect to just arrive there after a few minutes of walking. But somehow that effect doesn’t seem to work very well on the small screen. The subtitles are small and often hard to read (light-colored letters on a light-colored background).

Anyway.

I also finished reading Terry Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight, the second-to-last Tiffany Aching novel. It picks up quite a bit as it moves on towards the end, and so I enjoyed reading the rest of it quite a bit more than I enjoyed the first fifty pages or so. In fact, as it winds up, I rate it one of the better of the Tiffany Aching books, which are a bit unevenly paced in general.

Unconference

Grace and I finally got out of the house—I wasn’t feeling very good this morning, perhaps fighting off a virus, and so went back to bed for a while—and yes, she really did smear a pureed onion on my chest, which seemed to help a bit, but perhaps not enough as a shot of albuterol. We went downtown to this Unconference event. I was there to do something I’m not very good at, which is to say, networking—trying to meet people who might like to collaborate with us on music projects, audio production projects, episodes of the podcast, or other things we haven’t even thought about yet. I met some nice folks, including some people involved in local government. It seems promising, although I think it is too early to say if anything really great will come of it. Still, I’m glad we went, and not just because they had sandwiches and chips.

After the conference we drove to the home of one of Grace’s friends who is having an estate sale. He is looking to get rid of a whole lot of Fiestaware. We have some Fiestaware sets and we used to use them for our daily table settings, but the kids broke quite a few of them, so we put them away and started using big stacks of cheap Corelle knock-off plates and bowls purchased for a dollar each at Ikea. This way, when a kid drops a bowl or a plate, we’re not truly upset, we just hand the kid a broom and dustpan. However, it looks like this might be a chance to score a lot of Fiestaware pieces. There are a few of the older, more collectible pieces, but we don’t actually want those; we only want the modern, lead-free pieces. If all goes well tomorrow we will be bringing home a lot of dishes to stock up our house. We don’t yet have a good place to put them, so they will probably be boxed up in the basement until we can set up some kind of shelving for them.

Finally, we picked up dinner for the kids on the way home. We tried to go to get Chinese food at San Fu, a place I often used to go when we lived in Ann Arbor. It looks like we missed it by about a year, though.

So instead we tried Blaze Pizza, a new pizza place on Washtenaw near Carpenter Road. It was pretty much on our way. We got four pizzas: a “meat eater,” a “red vine,” a “white top,” and a “simple pie.” We picked up some Fanta orange sodas in glass bottles for the kids and some slightly less sweet San Pellegrino blood orange sodas for the grownups. It is quite cold out tonight—it’s supposed to get below zero—so we warmed up the car and drove them straight home. I think it’s not even ten minutes from our house if we jump on 23 south. The pizzas arrived warm. They weren’t truly sublime, the way that a thin pizza can be truly sublime one minute out of a wood-fired oven, but they were pretty good, and everyone found a type of pizza they could enjoy. Everyone was satisfied. So we’ll probably go back there sometime.

That’s a week—I’m calling it! Time to go read the kids a bedtime story.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Weeek

  • Galactica 1980
  • Stalker
  • I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, January 6th, 2018

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