Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, February 24th, 2018


Yesterday is a bit of a blur. I made breakfast for the kids. We managed to get to H&R Block and got our taxes done. That was a bit complicated because I had not yet gotten one of three mortgage interest statements in the mail. So we had to go all the way home and all the way back. Wells Fargo’s online mortgage account claimed it was down for the whole weekend and customers would not be able to access their accounts until Monday(!) but for some reason I was able to download a PDF file containing my mortgage interest statement. The PDF file it generated was titled something like ACCOUNT_UNAVAILABLE_something-something.pdf. And the PDF file was formatted for some oddball paper, maybe legal, so that printing it on normal paper resulted in the top of the form being clipped off. But I managed to print an ugly, though readable, version of the form.

We paid a lot of mortgage interest. It was confusing because we had a statement from Mortgage 1 for the new house, and a statement from Neighborhood Mortgage Solutions (an entity of our Team One Credit Union) for the Saginaw house. But the Mortgage 1 statement showed only about $500 paid. I realized that this is because Mortgage 1 held our mortgage for only a week or two before they sold it to Wells Fargo. The Wells Fargo statement shows over $10,000 or mortgage interest. So with the Saginaw house added in, we paid something like $15,000 in mortgage interest in 2017. All together, that’s a lot we can deduct.

The state tax is still all screwed up, and we under-withheld. But we should get back enough from the Federal return to cover the state bill. The state is charging us penalties because we underpaid so much. I planned last year to adjust my state withholding and I left phone messages for our H&R Block tax person up in Saginaw a couple of times, but I never heard anything back. That person likely only worked for Block during tax season. Then things got very crazy with the move and trying to correct my state withholding slipped my mind. All I know is that if you follow the instructions or run the online calculator, the withholding they advise is very wrong. With six children I think I have the Federal set to 16 withholding allowances and I got a small amount back last year, a couple hundred dollars. That’s about how I want it; I won’t be penalized and the I. R. S. doesn’t get to hold a lot of my money. This year was different because we paid so much mortgage interest we could itemize, so we’re getting a lot more back. But setting the state withholding to use 16 allowances results in withholding much too little.

In the evening we recorded the podcast and that went reasonably well with one interruption that I was able to edit out. This afternoon I produced the files and got everything uploaded, which took forever. Now we’re trying to figure out which Mass to go to and what else we can possibly get done this evening. I just had to waste some time dealing with T-Mobile. We set up our account with them in person at a store last month. Grace was just getting text messages (that went to her, not me) saying that our payment, from our Team One checking account, did not go through. They have changed the way their web site handles usernames, so I had a lot of difficulty logging in. I finally got my password changed and authenticated with my phone and deleted and re-added the payment source and had it post the payment again, and it seemed to work this time. I should be able to see tomorrow, when the account information updates online, whether it has gone through. My best guess is that the people configuring the payment mis-typed a routing or account number, or my name as it appears on the account, or something like that. I really don’t know since it would not allow me to edit the old payment method.

Messing with music files, I realized (again) that I really should clean up my Bandcamp and get rid of everything that I don’t think is actually good-sounding, according to my current standards. That will result in deleting a lot of the music tracks up there, but so be it.


The End of Existence

This morning I finished reading David Brin’s Existence. As I suspected, the ending was disappointing. Most of the story arcs in the book, amounting to hundreds and hundreds of pages, do not connect to the ending. So this pile of pages, almost 900, ultimately doesn’t really even amount to a novel. The ending follows a couple of the characters into a future that jumps ahead a few decades, I think, and uses some of the ideas that had been percolating in the main “first contact” storyline, but overall, so many of the chapters just really don’t contribute in a meaningful way towards a unified story.

In his acknowledgments, Brin basically admits that this book doesn’t work very well and takes a kind of apologetic tone when he says:

I promise to write quicker, less exhausting books.

(That was 2012; he hasn’t; it seems like he’s worked mostly on non-fiction and anthology projects; maybe he’s been giving talks at corporate “futurist” events. Probably some TED talks, too).

(I just had a “ha ha, only serious” moment—I thought I was joking when I wrote that comment above about TED talks, but I just did a quick Google search, and it turns out… yes, TED talks, and he’s even contributed to a collection called Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. I only with this was a joke. We are definitely on the bad timeline. No, I’m not going to link to that anthology.)

And at the very end of the acknowledgments, there’s an explanation of why this book doesn’t work. Brin notes that some of the story parts appeared elsewhere in different forms. In other words, this novel has been inflated by making it into a “fix-up.” According to Wikipedia:

A fix-up (or fixup) is a novel created from several short fiction stories that may or may not have been initially related or previously published. The stories may be edited for consistency, and sometimes new connecting material, such as a frame story or other interstitial narration, is written for the new work.


The Martian Chronicles is technically a fix-up, although Bradbury’s writing is so beautiful that it hardly matters. There are plenty of other examples in the science fiction genre. Many of them are quite good, such as More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Some of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld books are fixed up from earlier stories. I really enjoyed those books back in the day despite their pulp-ish roots (or maybe because of them). I also really enjoyed reading Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard, Vacuum Diagrams by Stephen Baxter, and Accelerando by Charles Stross. Fix-ups can be very entertaining. They can work quite well and make a reasonably convincing novel, although if you look for the seams, you will probably find them. This one… is less good. This is a fix-up inflated into an enormously bloated, padded book, and I’m not even sure why. Maybe the title should be changed to Contractual Obligation Book, the way Monty Python entitled their last album Contractual Obligation Album.

It took me something like a month of my precious reading time to finish this bloated pile of pages. I don’t often find myself actually angry at an author. I know that writing is a business and inspiration and brilliance is not always available on a deadline. But I feel like if I ever meet David Brin, I want to give him a wedgie and put a “kick me” sign on his back for wasting my time. The frustrating part is that Existence is suggestive of a big, complex story spanning hundreds of years and featuring a dozen interesting characters.

But Brin didn’t actually write that book. He put together some of his less-good short stories and wrote a framework that is grotesquely bloated with infodumps. There are cool scenes. There are cool ideas. Brin could have turned parts of this into an Uplift novel, parts of it into a first contact novel, and parts of it (which remain tantalizingly unfinished) into a story about the future of autistic individuals (“auties”), and the “Basque Chimera,” a reconstructed Neanderthal. There are a lot of ideas that really deserved development, such as a hint that aliens (“cobblies”) are already among us, hiding out in our visual blind spots. This idea was used to great effect by Peter Watts in Blindsight. But Brin just abandoned it, along with many of the plot-lines.

My aggravation comes, in part, from a sense that Brin doesn’t seem to trust that his audience will get his “big ideas” unless he spells them out in the form of these endless infodumps, which later in the book take the form of actual e-mails sent into the void. He couldn’t even be bothered to put two characters into a room and have them talk to each other about these ideas, or even send written messages to each other (turning the book partly into an “epistolary novel.”) No, hundreds of pages of this book are just Brin expounding, which he decided that was apparently more important than telling a compelling story.

The ideas he’s expounding are somewhat interesting—but he’s just not the visionary he thinks he is, compared to authors like Watts and Baxter and Egan. And if you’re contracted to write a novel, write a damn novel. Much of the dialogue comprises disguised infodumps, in between undisguised infodumps. Even scenes in which characters are interacting are really not memorable; they have no emotional weight.

Brin believes that anger and indignation have created an epidemic of “self-doping,” people who become addicted to their own righteous indignation. He’s written about that here. In yet another plot line that goes nowhere, a character, a politician, is outed as someone who is addicted to his own adrenalin and habitually gets himself high by working himself into a lather on television. He outs himself, when someone slips him a chemical that breaks the cycle, and he goes on television and tries to get his usual hit of indignation-triggered endorphins, and it doesn’t come, so he works himself into a frenzy that out-does all his previous frenzies, to the point where it is obvious that something has gone deeply wrong with the man.

Brin writes, in the article:

I’m talking about the way that countless millions of humans either habitually or volitionally pursue druglike reinforcement cycles — either for pleasure or through cycles of withdrawal and insatiability that mimic addiction — purely as a function of entering an addictive frame of mind.

And a little later:

Rage is obviously another of these harmful patterns, that clearly have a chemical-reinforcement component. Many angry people report deriving addictive pleasure from fury, and this is one reason why they return to the state, again and again.

And a little later still:

I want to zoom down to a particular emotional and psychological pathology. The phenomenon known as self-righteous indignation.

Brin’s actually gaslighting you. Are you angry about the state of inequality? Poverty? Surveillance? Militarism? You’re wrong. You’re addicted to your own brain chemicals. He asks:

If we could show clearly, publicly, and decisively that self-righteousness is an addiction, might this help empower moderates in every political movement, so that negotiation and pragmatism would become more fashionable than dogmatic purity and outrage?

Sure, there’s no doubt that various media outlets and political groups are built on a sort of outrage addiction, and they combine with the creation of epistemic bubbles to produce whole cadres of people who aren’t capable of debating problems and solutions rationally. That’s not new.

But the “both sides are bad; it’s useless to get upset; let’s compromise” view is also gaslighting. It’s not a bad things to have principles. Sometimes it is a terrible thing to compromise. If you’re proposing compromises as your opening offer over issues that are life-and-death issues for vulnerable people—say, on health care, on guns, on war and peace, on immigration—you’ve lost out of the gate.

Brin talks a good game sometimes on his blog, writing about the middle class and rent-seeking. But he also seems to be full of admiration for silicon valley bazillionaires. And why wouldn’t he be? Brin gets paid to give talks to corporations. They eat this kind of optimistic neoliberal shit up, because hiring someone like Brin to make mouth noises on stage about how the dystopian world they are creating will be fine and wonderful makes them look smart and virtuous and not at all evil. Upton Sinclair wrote that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

It’s also not really a recipe for visionary science fiction, to be honest.

Just flipping back through the pages randomly and picking out a few real scenes with dialogue, I don’t remember reading most of them. This is because they aren’t emotionally memorable. No one is upset, no one is in danger, no one dies, no one is even injured. No one feels much, and if someone does have a feeling, we are told about it, and not shown it. I would say that these things are just the hallmarks of mediocre writing, but in Brin’s case I think it might be a manifestation of his world view—the idea that it wouldn’t do to have characters that got upset; they might become addicted to their own outrage. And of course having characters reacting in a perfectly sane and rational manner, to a dystopian future brought about by the “centrist,” “dogma-free,” but relentless, march of capitalism, might make his corporate sponsors nervous. And so, maybe, just maybe, this might explain why his portrayal of the “First Estate” is, one might say, deliberately “fair and balanced.” He tweaks them, but gently.

I’d better stop there; clearly I’m in danger of becoming addicted to my own self-righteous indignation. So I should probably stop exploring the idea that this is not just mediocre science fiction, but something actually pernicious, produced by a writer who has gotten too comfortable to empathize any longer with people who have genuine problems and perfectly justifiable fears of the future.

Existence is going on my give-away pile. Brin has won a lot of awards for some of his earlier books, so at some point I might try reading Startide Rising or even Sundiver, although honestly I just am not enthusiastic to read more stories about anthropomorphized animals. In general I’d much take my chances with a writer’s first novel, because while a first novel may be rough, you can be pretty confident that the author isn’t coasting, or resting on his laurels, or just banging out mediocre ideas without attempting to revise them into shape as part of a compelling story. Or maybe I’ll try reading Star Wars on Trial. That sounds much more fun.

Go read Blindsight if you haven’t already. And if you have, maybe read it again. And it should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it, that Watts is skeptical of some of Brin’s optimistic views about the future, especially about Brin’s belief that ubiquitous surveillance will lead to a positive “transparent society.” For more, read Peter’s blog here.

That’s something I am still scratching my head over, and need to unpack a bit more. In Existence, Brin postulates all kinds of catastrophic collapse scenarios, and through the book we see some characters struggling in various ways with sea level rise and terrorism. But this mostly seems to be backdrop, scenery for the real story arc, not the driver of any actual story arcs. It seems to me that perhaps Brin actually believes that this is how the future will play out—the collapse scenarios will just be window dressing to the march of humanity’s progress to the stars, in crystalline solid-state emulation.

It’s the kind of thing that Microsoft would pay a futurist to tell them, in reassuring tones. I don’t believe it for a hot minute. Maybe it’s time to see if Peter Watts will come on the podcast.

Back to Real Existence

Crane Road was icy this morning, although the temperatures were warming, so I expect it to melt as the day progresses. And apparently we’re supposed to have rain. A lot of rain. It sounds like today and tomorrow could be the biggest test so far of our new house’s drainage. There are flood warnings everywhere because frozen ground doesn’t soak up inches of rainwater very well. Per the National Weather Service:

Widespread rain will develop across the region today through Wednesday. Rainfall will be moderate in intensity at times. Rainfall amounts between 1 and 3 inches are expected with additional water added to runoff from the complete melting of the snowpack.

So, we’ve got that going for us.


It was a pretty good day at work, except for the coughing. I could not get anything out but a little white foam, but my throat was irritated all day. The albuterol inhaler didn’t seem to do much for me. I made it home just after 7 p.m. It was extremely foggy in the low-lying areas. It rained during the night and this morning and it is currently almost 60 degrees. It’s February 20th. It is clear that our gutters are not adequately set up. There is a right-angle join right in front of our porch, and the gutters here are slightly lower than they are at the corners of the house, so water backs up there and overtops the gutters. We need to get this rearranged somehow. Maybe a pillar there, with a separate pair of downspouts that run away from the house. Maybe we can get our rainwater catchment system going this summer, if money allows.

When I got home the dirty pots were still in the sink. I was hoping to have time last night to work on the podcast or maybe practice guitar, but I had to dive in and work on a dinner plan. Grace helped prep chana masala and rice with fried papadums. Elanor ate a lot of spicy papadum. She clearly was uncomfortable because of the spice but she kept going back for more. I’m not sure that she actually could figure out that the burning sensation in her mouth was a direct effect of the food. But we do want her to get accustomed to slightly spicy food. How do parents in other cultures do it?

We got the kitchen cleaned up pretty well by 10:00 p.m. Last night’s story was The Hobbit chapter 12, “Inside Information.” The kids love this chapter, because we hear Smaug speak. I read his words trying to imitate the voice of Richard Boone, who played Smaug in the 1977 animated film, which the kids love. In that film, Smaug’s lines quote liberally from the book. In its own way, this animated version of The Hobbit is much more respectful to Tolkien’s source material.

I wanted to finish the chapter, but I could not do it—it was just taking too long, and I was too tired, and my throat was too irritated. So we’ll have to finish this chapter another night.

I slept uneasily, as often happens, until the early hours of the morning. It seems like I’m getting my best sleep right before the alarm goes off. I went back to bed for almost an hour and a half. Grace finally nudged me out of bed a bit after 8:00. Oddly, after eating a lot of garlic and ginger in the chana masala, this morning my lungs were not crackling when I inhaled, and I was able to cough out some bright green goo. So clearly there is still infection going on. It seems like the garlic and onions (and maybe other things in the Indian dish?) helped me kill some of it and also seemed to reduce some of the irritation in my chest.

So I didn’t get coffee or breakfast at home, and didn’t get out the door until about a quarter to 9. I made some tea at work and had crackers and beef jerky for breakfast. I forgot to bring the leftover chana masala for lunch. How sad is that?

The charges for H&R Block tax preparation went through, $336.00. This just seems like so much money. I could do it with the H&R Block software, but last time I tried that, I screwed it up pretty badly. This way if Block screws it up (and that has happened, too), they will fix it and file an amended return free of charge.

At work, as soon as I walked in, I had some I. T. issues to work on. We had a file server fail in the Ann Arbor office. All the files are accessible from a server at Thorlabs headquarters in Newton, New Jersey. But none of the computers downstairs were configured to connect to the new network drive. So I had to run around and chat with I. T. folks and get drives mapped.


When I got home last night (about 8 p.m.) Grace and the kids had already had dinner, and already cleaned up almost everything! So I didn’t have hours of cleanup work!

On the exit ramp from 23 South to 12 I hit a pothole in the dark. There is no lighting on that exit. I was afraid that I might have really damaged my car. Past the pothole there were four vehicles pulled off on the shoulder, including a truck. They seemed to be other drivers who had either damaged their vehicles or were trying to determine if they had damaged their vehicles.

The potholes are really out of hand. This morning driving in, I could see that crews had been out putting hot patches down, and that helps some, but it means that there is tarry gravel spread everywhere, which sprays all over the cars.

The kids could not get their shit together as far as cleaning up the boys’ bedroom and getting ready for bed, so Grace and I had our own story. I read her the first chapter of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. This is a book that’s been waiting on my shelf for some time. Grace doesn’t really like fiction, so she was not impressed. I was impressed with the tone and characterization of the first chapter. The narrator is a disturbed young girl who is also afraid, and keeps imagining everyone in her town dead. She imagines getting through a set of errands (buying groceries, stopping at the coffee shop) as playing her way around a board game, in which rolling the dice can let her move a space or two forward, or might force her to go back, or lose a turn. I thought it was a really effective character study. It might come off as slightly silly because of her over-the-top murderous thoughts, maybe because I’ve been conditioned by exposure to the Addams family. I don’t know a lot about Jackson’s work, other than her famous short story “The Lottery,” but I’ve long been curious about it. I picked up this particular edition because it is one of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition trade paperbacks, with deckle-edge pages and great artwork. Here is the edition I’m reading. There’s a great review in the Guardian here.

I got a pretty good night’s sleep and Grace reheated some coffee for me, and fried some eggs. Traffic was backed up on I-94.

I got an e-mail from DTE Energy and apparently we have overspent our budget plan for the last year and owe over $500. So I guess I know where a large chunk of our tax refund is going.


Whoops, missed a day. So let me try to reconstruct what should have been Thursday’s notes.

The Invasion

On Wednesday night we ate our chicken pot pie and watched the first half of the fan edit of The Invasion, a Doctor Who serial from 1968, another one with Patrick Troughton. This is a partially-missing serial, with two of the eight episodes missing from the BBC archive. So there is some animated reconstruction. The drawings really do a great job of capturing the faces of the actors, so when we cut from a face we’ve seen only in animation to a face from the surviving footage, there’s no doubt at all who we are looking at.

UNIT is involved, and we see a very young Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart, recently promoted from Colonel to Brigadier. This was only the character’s second serial, the first being The Web of Fear, which I have not seen. Courtney of course went on to play this character for more than thirty years.

This serial shows an approach to The Doctor that is a little different. He’s more physically competent. He has a bit of a “British super-spy” feel. The Doctor and Jamie are presented more like action heroes. They escape up an elevator shaft. In one scene they climb a rope ladder into a helicopter while bad guys are shooting at them. In another scene, The Doctor is paddling a boat through a sewer system. The plot elements aren’t exactly intellectually demanding at this point, but the action sequences are fun.

Wikipedia says:

According to Frazer Hines in an interview on the audio CD of The Invasion, Sally Faulkner’s skirt kept getting blown up around her neck whilst climbing up the rope ladder to the helicopter. To avoid the same thing happening to his kilt, he remembered reading somewhere that The Queen had lead weights sewn into the hem of her skirt to stop this from happening to her. It so happened that Frazer’s dresser was a keen fisherman, who sewed some lead weights into his kilt.


There are some standout performances in this serial. Kevin Stoney is nice and creepy as Tobias Vaughn. We don’t get to see much of Professor Watkins, played by Edward Bunham, in the first part of the fan edit, but I’m hoping he has more to do in the second part.

There’s a some hilarious and dated fan service involving the companion Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury) and Isobel Watkins (Sally Faulkner). When the young women meet they immediately hit it off and do a little modeling, taking fashion photos of each other. Zoe’s feather boa even becomes a significant clue later in the serial. Of course it’s sexist, and this treatment objectifies the actresses, but I have to say that I always find it mostly funny when old episodes of Doctor Who try to portray elements of contemporary “youth culture,” going back to the very first episode, An Unearthly Child from 1963, in which Susan Foreman has her ear glued to a vintage transistor radio. A transistor radio also features prominently in this serial, and I can’t help but think this is a deliberate call-back.

I don’t have a verdict on the whole serial, but this one is pretty watchable so far, at least the fan edit version.


I drove home from work last night with two plans in mind. The first plan was to work with the boys to go through their boxes of books, the ones we brought from Saginaw a year ago, and get them sorted out and set up in their bedroom with bookends, retiring the cardboard boxes.

I had a list of which books were in which boxes, a year ago, so I wanted to update that, adding any new acquisitions to the database and tracking down the whereabouts of all the books.

It didn’t go all that well and there is more work to do. But we found most of the books, which remain mostly not too badly damaged. But there are a few missing and their room remains a mess. We found books stuffed into drawers and cupboards. And I need to go through Veronica’s inventory, too.

The second plan involved getting the kids’ laptops set up with restricted internet access. These laptops were provided by their online charter school. I’ve never tried to do any administration. The kids have a bad habit of wandering away from their schoolwork onto YouTube and other game sites. So last night I took a first look at what was going on, on one of these laptops.

Wow, it is a hot mess. There were literally dozens of adware, nagware, toolbars, and other pieces of unnecessary garbage running on these machines, plus a lot of needless audio and graphics control panels. I’m not sure how much the kids installed, and how much was there when we got the machine. It is especially painful because all this stuff is running on a Windows 7 box with only 2 gigabytes of RAM, so it was running incredibly slowly. The machine also hadn’t gotten any Windows updates installed since 2016.

Running Malwarebytes and un-installing a lot of programs by hand, and removing startup items, I got most of the crap removed, and updates installed, and the machine is running much faster. But it took hours and hours.

While Malwarebytes was running, I read the kids the rest of “Inside Information,” chapter 12 of The Hobbit, then we sent them off to bed.

I got to bed very late last night, after 1:30 a.m. Pippin came back a couple of times, having woken up complaining that his arm hurt around the elbow. He could not explain what happened to it. We palpated his arm. There was no noticeable swelling and so it didn’t seem like there was a fracture. There weren’t any spots where, when pressed, seemed to cause him pain. But he kept saying that it hurt, and he was unable to bend his elbow with any strength, compared to the other arm.

We did not think it was urgent enough to run him out to the ER at midnight so we tried to comfort him and sent him back to bed. He came back again, maybe an hour later. We examined it again, still couldn’t find anything wrong, iced it, gave him some children’s Tylenol, and sent him back to bed, intending to examine it more thoroughly this morning and maybe get him to the urgent care clinic. It occurs to me today that maybe it is “nursemaid’s elbow,” a dislocation. Maybe one of his siblings yanked on it. Grace and I are aware of this common injury and so we try to make a point never to yank the kids by the arms or wrists. They might do this to each other, though. I’m a little baffled.

Update: Grace tells me that today Pippin’s arm seems fine; he has normal strength in that arm and reports no pain. So I really don’t know what happened to him last night, except that my best guess is now that he slept on that arm, and woke up with it either numb, or tingling. But I don’t know for sure, and unless it happens again we may not ever know.

Tonight I’m going to see if I can configure the router so it will limit the children’s laptop, identified by MAC address, to access only the web domains they need for their class work. I don’t know if that will work, but I’ll try it.

I might also try a Linux live CD. If it will do everything they need to do, running Linux, I might just wipe the machine and make it boot Linux. I’m thinking an older laptop with a 32-bit Core Duo processor and only 2 gigabytes of RAM might run a lot faster on one of the lighter-weight Linux distributions. I might try Lubuntu. I think the hardware is commonplace enough that it should be fully supported, but I won’t know for sure until I test it.


Well, I made it through another week of work and that’s about all that I can celebrate. I stayed pretty late last night working on a customized version of the MX family instrument firmware for use at trade shows. This build is supposed to run without errors or warnings on boxes that are missing most of their hardware components and which were put together just for shows. That is a little tricky because the main microcontroller firmware and the LCD GUI firmware both go to great lengths to verify that things are working correctly and put up various warnings when, for example, there isn’t enough laser power for the attenuator or the modulator to work properly. So there are a number of workarounds to put in place. I was not able to get them all working correctly by the time I left on Friday, although I think I know what still needs to be fixed.

I went to Costco after work and managed to get through a relatively modest (for our family of eight) grocery run, 18 items, about $175.00. Mostly it was our usual items including eggs, fruits, veggies, and meats. They had the good sardines again (Season brand skinless and boneless sardines in olive oil, marked “product of Morocco.”). I’ll take the sardines to work. They make a pretty economical, reasonably healthy, high-protein lunch. I need some decent crackers. Usually when I get crackers at Costco, they taste rancid.

I did get one special treat: a cherry pie. Grace went to GFS to pick up a few things there that Costco doesn’t stock, and to Kroger for a few things that GFS doesn’t stock. She got soy sauce, green onions, and sesame oil, for a dish called “crack slaw” which is basically stir-fried cabbage with ground turkey. We made this in her carbon-steel wok. The kids loved it, somewhat to our surprise (it wasn’t bad, just didn’t have much flavor).

My cough has been in a “getting worse” stage after a few days in a “getting better” phase. It’s discouraging. I can’t figure out what causes it to get worse, except that missing sleep certainly doesn’t help. But the illness itself also seems to be making me tired. I got to bed at a reasonable time last night and did not even read the kids a story or watch a movie with them. But despite what should have been plenty of sleep, I felt quite tired this morning and so slept until 9:00, which was about as late as I could manage before the kids pretty much dragged me out of bed. I really needed some moral support from Grace this morning. She helped cook breakfast, which is something I’ve been doing as part of our weekend routine, and lunch as well. Breakfast was tea and oatmeal and oranges. She also took over from me to finish lunch, which was bacon and egg sandwiches.

It’s after 9:00 p.m. and I’ve spent almost all day working on home I. T. issues. I have successfully cleaned out all three of the kids’ loaner laptops. That has taken forever; almost 100 Windows updates alone were needed on each machine. I removed a lot of old software, ran Malwarebytes to clean out crap, reconfigured the mouse settings, cleaned up shortcuts and temp files, etc. I even changed the boot configuration so that they start up much faster; they had been configured originally to boot from a network server.

I was not able to configure my Netgear router to do what I wanted, which was to apply a set of web filtering rules to these three machines separately, based on their MAC addresses. So I tried installing open-source firmware from I was afraid of bricking the router. I figured I could unbrick it following some complicated HOWTO guides, which might involve a soldering iron, if I had to, but was also prepared to implement plan B, which was “go to Target and buy a new router, preferably one with better parental control options.”

Fortunately the firmware installed with no real difficulties at all. It seems to be lacking one feature the Netgear firmware has: after configuring the old router with this laptop connected to a wired Ethernet port, I could connect via WiFi using the address. I’m not quite sure how this was implemented, and I don’t really need to know, but it doesn’t work on the open-source firmware. There may be a way to configure it to accept administrator logins via WiFi, but it’s not really a high priority for me to figure that out, since for now I can plug in to a wired connection and use

The new firmware provides some extra options including creating a group of connected machines by specifying a set of MAC addresses, then applying some rules that should be applied to these machines. It doesn’t seem quite as flexible as I’d like. For example, I’d like to kick them off the network between midnight and 8:00 a.m. to discourage the kids from staying up all night on the computers. I’d also like to be able to set it up to allow connections on a whitelist-only basis during the time period when connections are allowed. It doesn’t seem to be flexible enough to allow that, at least not using the web interface to configure the permissions. For a group of machines, you can set a time period, and then specify what to do during that time period, but it seems to only allow you to specify either locking out the machines, or applying filter rules. The filter rules include blocking ports or blacklisting domains. There doesn’t seem to be a whitelist option.

The router is running Linux, and so I’m pretty sure there is probably a way to do what I want. But for now it seems like there isn’t an easy way to do it using the browser interface. It might require ssh and writing configuration files for router utilities. Maybe I can find a good example somewhere to start with. I have experience doing this kind of administration but I have to remind myself that I really should stay focused on the simplest way to achieve the results I want, because it is so easy to wind up wasting a whole afternoon or even a whole day doing this kind of thing, and really my goal is to free up time I can spend with the kids doing more basic things, not writing esoteric configuration files for open-source router utilities.

The third and final laptop is still installing updates, currently on 47 of 62. Grace is making pasta while I babysit this damned thing. After this set of updates goes in, it will need a couple of reboots and a dozen more updates and then, finally, it’ll have everything and I can fold it up and get back to the router configuration.

I’ve got nothing organized for the podcast tomorrow and I don’t think Grace has much ready either, so we may have to skip a week. It’ll be very disappointing if we can’t even finish the second half of The Invasion to talk about.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Existence by David Brin
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Invasion (1968 Doctor Who serial; note that the fan edit is called Invasion of the Cybermen)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, February 24th, 2018

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, February 17th, 2018


Yesterday was pretty exciting, and long—we were buried in deep snow. We managed to get the truck out of the driveway and made it to Mass (very late). Barely. We haven’t used the truck’s 4WD capabilities very much because it is fairly tricky to get it to shift between 4WD high, 4WD low, and 2WD modes. You have got get the thing going on a straight shot and put it in neutral, then switch mode. It has to be rolling, but it can’t be rolling too fast. So if you’re on the road and you know you are going to need to go into deep snow, or you’re leaving an area of deep snow, and want to change modes, you can’t do it easily, not at speed and certainly not in traffic. So part of the difficulty was finding a closed business with an empty parking lot where I could successfully get the truck into 2WD, which seems to work better than “Automatic 4WD” for mildly slippery roads, then doing something similar on the way back. We got the truck stuck in our own driveway, and right at the entrance to our driveway off of Crane Rd. Both times I managed to get it unstuck, but it was a near thing.

After Mass we drove to Bombay Grocers on Packard, and got a few ingredients we were lacking to make chana masala, as well as some papadam and Indian desserts.

We tried to go to Costco, but it was closed, so we went to Cost Plus World Market, where we found some licorice candy. I was no longer in the mood for allsorts, but we got some different kinds of black licorice including the “double salt” which is both kind of horrible and also strangely addictive. My personal favorites are the “salt herring” type in the shape of fish, “Katjes Salzige Heringe,” which is lightly salted, and the spicy “firetrucks” (the full name is “Gustav’s Dutch Licorice Hot Petter Fire Trucks”) which are kind of like the old Freshen Up gum with the liquid center, if it was designed to hurt you (in a good way).

Finally, we went to GFS and picked up some pasta, some frozen meatballs, some vegetables, some frozen stuffed cabbage rolls, some hot dogs, etc. Basically, we were trying to make sure we would have enough food for the week, and also thinking we were likely to be snowed in all day Sunday, and that it might still be hard to get out and drive anywhere on Monday.

The forecasts were all predicting another 2-4 inches of snow today, but it didn’t actually happen. Which we’re honestly happy about; with another few inches it seemed likely I wouldn’t be able to get my car out of the driveway to go to work tomorrow.

This afternoon Grace and I did some deep-cleaning in the kitchen and then we made the chana masala. Grace did almost all the prep and made the rice. I was extremely grateful for that as I was feeling kind of spaced out and scattered. It turned out to be quite a meal: chana masala over brown rice made with chicken broth, served with cumin seed-flavored papadam, two Indian pickles that were still patiently waiting in the basement for the next time we made Indian food, and then the sweets for dessert. I had been a little concerned that the kids would not eat it, but in fact they all did, and most of them loved it, although Benjamin and Pippin complained a bit about the spiciness (and I’ll just note for the record that we didn’t add the green chile peppers the recipe called for at all, opting instead to add a small amount of Grace’s homemade green chile sauce, and the result was not very hot).

It’s after 7:00 and Grace and I still have to prepare a podcast for the week. So I’m going to set up my laptop so the kids can watch some Doctor Who and then we’ll head down there.


Back at work. It was not easy to get my car out of the driveway, but I managed. I’m a little concerned about our gutters and roof. There’s a lot of ice building up on the gutters over the front door. I’m not sure how we could get that out of there safely. I’ll have to take a look at it tonight.

This morning was a good example of the drive time problem. I was leaving my driveway at 8:15. At this time of day it took me 45 minutes to make the drive to work, which takes 20 minutes if traffic is not an issue. That’s an extra 25 minutes sitting in traffic sucking up exhaust fumes, trickier, more dangerous merges, and overall a much higher likelihood of getting into a nasty traffic accident. If I leave a bit later, say 8:50, I can make the drive in 20 minutes, but I’ll arrive 10 minutes late.

I think those extra minutes, sitting in traffic, may be a significant source of my ongoing daily cough. I’m still coughing. This morning I was still coughing up green mucus. It’s certainly better than it was last fall, but it’s still a bit of a thing.

I got the podcast finished right about midnight, and came upstairs wanting desperately to get right to bed, because my alarm is set for 6:45. Instead we had Benjamin coming into our bedroom asking to sleep with us. Then he wandered off to use the bathroom, but I wasn’t hearing sounds indicating that he was using the bathroom. I went in to check on him. He had apparently taken some of the LED bulbs from our Christmas tree, put toothpaste on them, and was trying to use them to brush his teeth.

The mind boggles.

We took the LED bulbs away and got him to use the toilet. He then seemed to forget that he wanted to sleep with us and wandered off to bed. We managed to fall asleep again but then he came back and woke us up again, perhaps 30 minutes later.

Then Elanor had a difficult night. Every couple of hours she’d wake up and scream her head off for a minute or two for no discernable reason.

It wasn’t a great night’s sleep, in other words. I shut off my alarm and fell back asleep until 7:30, then got showered and dressed and made coffee with some honey and coconut milk, got the car warming up, and was out the door scraping the car. The coffee was breakfast and helped me manage to drive safely, but I needed a real breakfast. I’m tired.

We managed to squeak through, money-wise, but it was not good for our cash flow when I had to go to Costco Thursday night, before my paycheck went through. Things are just a lot tighter than we’d like. We need to get back to having more of a buffer to absorb unplanned expenses. We are headed in that direction; if we can get through a few months without a big unexpected expense, we’ll be back there. I’ve learned that there isn’t really much point in planning for optimistic scenarios; we will have unexpected expenses. Long-term our financial security depends on getting out from under the Saginaw house, which would free up some money each month. And I’m still terrified of what losing this job would do to us.

Grace and I are having some difficulty with the podcast. We both like recording it, and feel like the resulting shows have promise, even though they are rough and uneven. But we both know it would be better if we could put more time into it. We both feel like we can’t get that time, and so I’ve been hoping she will take the lead in developing some material for the show, and she’s been hoping I will do the same thing. So we’re in this frustrating situation. We’re talking about solutions that will help us do prep a few days in advance.


I left work pretty late, 8:15 or so. As often happens on Mondays I didn’t feel like I could get my brain fully engaged until late afternoon. So I wasn’t really making progress with my code until the office was quiet and almost everyone had gone home. Then once I was engaged and making progress without distractions, of course I didn’t want to leave until I had made some significant progress.

This is pretty much the pattern I’ve had, trying to work 8 to 5 or 9 to 6 jobs, for my whole career. There’s been a constant tension between my natural productive hours and my desire to get deep into the work, without distractions and interruptions, and the demands of an office with standard hours. It’s been like this not just since I was first working, but since I was a child, staying up late to read and write after everyone in the household was asleep.

I got a better night’s sleep last night, although because I was so tired, I wound up canceling my alarm and sleeping until 7:42. I jumped in the shower and was leaving the driveway by 8:15. I had breakfast at Harvest Moon (the “grand breakfast” with sausage, bacon, ham, eggs, and hash browns), and left there right at 9:00. With no traffic to speak of, I made it to my office at about 9:18.

So that’s another source of conflict, as I’ve mentioned before: I can have a 20 minute drive and get to work 20 minutes late, or a 45-minute drive and get to work on time.

My car seemed to be vibrating more than usual during the drive. I had noticed this in my drive home last night. My first thought was that a tire was going flat, but they look fine. I think it is possible I damaged something in the drive train while driving in deep ice and snow. It’s not noticeable at slow speeds.

No story last night. We had some hot dogs with brown rice and fried cabbage. I like to put raw cashews on the rice and add a little sriracha sauce. The kids have been watching Firefly. I haven’t watched those shows in a few years, which means that some of the kids have no memories of ever having seen the show before. The show is a little too adult for some of them (too violent, too suggestive), but it’s interesting to note how the younger kids tend to censor themselves by wandering away.

I think it’s time to re-evaluate Firefly and think again about whether it is actually good, or just pushes some comfortable genre buttons. Like I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched these stories. My recollection is that some of the screenplays are just great—for example, “Objects in Space.” In other episodes, I recall some clunky and unconvincing dialogue, and a somewhat laughable adversary, the Reavers. The Reavers are featured more clearly in the spinoff film, Serenity, but Grace and I are pretty clear that the movie is definitely too violent and dark to show the kids.

Existence, Continued

I’ve got only about 200 pages left to finish Existence. I read a couple of chapters during breakfast. I found my mind wandering. I want to talk a bit about Brin’s use of neologisms. He has created a whole bunch of words that use the letters “ai,” as an indication that a thing is enhanced with artificial intelligence. For example, an implant that fits in the eye and projects information on the visual field is called an “ai-patch.” Presumably the idea is that the characters would pronounce this as “ai eye patch,” to differentiate it from “eye patch.” There are a lot more examples that are dropped into speech. I should look up some of them. The difficulty is that many of them look clever on the page but seem unpronounceable. I find myself unable to believe that words that are very difficult to pronounce clearly would remain in use.

This is one set of neologisms; there are a lot more. The alien crystals, artifacts that contain emulated or uploaded alien intelligences, give us the neologism “artilens,” a mash-up of “artifact aliens.” This seems to be a word in common usage, but less than a year after the discovery of the artifacts. Again, that seems a little unconvincing. Neologisms take a while to propagate and catch on.

Like a lot of modern science fiction—too much, in fact—the story hinges on the idea of uploading, or emulating, the minds of organic entities in silicon (or some other computational equivalent). But Brin just does this entirely with hand-waving. It’s just assumed that this is possible and desirable. There is much better thinking out there, about this idea. For example, I recommend Greg Egan’s story “Transition Dreams.” That story is from 1993. If you’re not familiar with Egan, start with this article, “Why Isn’t Greg Egan a Superstar?”

It’s frustrating, because Brin does have some good ideas. I just read a scene in which a character’s “ai-patch” shot a blue-green laser out of his eye to establish a network connection with a communications buoy. There is difficulty getting a good connection through a window, so the ai-patch asks its owner to press his eyeball directly against the window. That’s a great bit—funny, with a bit of a squick factor, and also pretty plausible. I work for a company that makes laser instruments. In 2018 laser diodes are tiny. And air gaps between different optical media with different refractive indices cause a whole lot of different issues, impeding bandwidth and power. It seems like this kind of gritty, detail-oriented, realistic science fiction belongs in a different book, perhaps something by Bruce Sterling. It is scenes like this that keep me from abandoning this book. This is the kind of scene that can really glue together a science fiction story. But unfortunately this degree of “showing” only crops up occasionally, in this very long novel.

Can I complain about something completely different? Brin has a character named Tor, a heroic journalist. The book is published by Tor. Does this bother anyone else? Doesn’t it seem, to anyone else, like “kissing the hand that feeds you?” Too precious by half?


Elanor can stand unsupported now, for brief periods of time. She isn’t quite walking, but she’s “cruising” fairly well. She can get across floors and around rooms. This means I have to start putting things away. She’s been digging into my pile of old issues of the New York Review of Books and shredding them. She’s getting into piles of books and piles of clothes. Our networking gear is not very secure; there are dangling cables. We keep our dishes on low shelves. She hasn’t broken anything yet, fortunately. We’ve got to do some organizing.


I got home a bit earlier last night. Grace had gone out, after some struggles with the truck involving getting it back into the right four-wheel-drive mode, and gotten some paczki and candy to celebrate Fat Tuesday. For dinner we had chicken sausages and roast broccoli. The kids had the option of putting their sausages on a bun, but Grace and I were all carbed out and appreciated not having to eat any more bread.

Veronica decided to skip last night’s story, which was somewhat delayed while the kids dithered and argued about tooth-brushing. When we finally got settled down for the story, I picked up Peter Pan and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. This contains the unabridged, original text.

Peter Pan

I think I mentioned before that clearly I have never read Peter Pan, also published as Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan and Wendy (how confusing!), in the form of the 1911 text. It’s a very odd children’s book. The narrative is quite complex in structure, and it bobs and weaves, shifting between present and past events very rapidly. By the end of Chapter 2, in between funny bits, almost standup comedy-like, about the parents and the dog, it becomes clear that we are learning about the events that led up to the disappearance of the children, Wendy, John, and Michael.

As an adult it is kind of shocking to realize that Peter Pan is really part of a whole genre of fantasies about the afterlives of children who died young. In the early 20th century in London, death in childhood was still very common. Books like The Water Babies (1863) follow the transformation of children after their apparent deaths. William Hope Hodgson’s story “The Valley of Lost Children” has a similar theme, where after their premature deaths, children play forever in an afterlife tailored to children.

Mrs. Darling remembers:

…after thinking back into her childhood she just remembered a Peter Pan who was said to live with the fairies. There were odd stories about him, as that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened.

He represents a psychopomp, a being that introduces the newly deceased to the afterlife.

To put it bluntly, Peter Pan is creepy as hell. The first two chapters set up the idea that the parents have lost all three of their children, and they have been taken away by Peter Pan to an afterlife for children. The parents blame themselves for using the dog, Nana, as a nurse, presumably because this wasn’t sanitary and so they were exposed to a fatal disease. The parents will get the three children back—perhaps they were just deathly ill, and survived—but the setup is suggestive of their deaths. Peter Pan has even left behind his “shadow” as a calling card—the shadow of the valley of death.

I don’t remember him that way at all, probably because I was only ever exposed to derivative works that downplay the darker sides of the story, making it all about growing up, or refusing to grow up, and not about children who died young.

Apparently Peter Pan first appeared in the opening chapters of a book called The Little White Bird. After the success of the play, these opening chapters were later published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. In this story, Peter is an infant only seven days old. In the later novelization of the play, apparently he is still so young that he hasn’t lost any of his baby teeth yet. This usually starts happening around the age of six, although there is a lot of variation. This would make Peter Pan in the book much younger than he is usually portrayed in theatrical versions, but his behavior suggests he is older, a pre-teen. And apparently Barrie was quite deliberate in giving him a number of psychopathologies. There’s a recent book about this, Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness by Rosalind Ridley.

From an article in The Guardian:

According to Ridley, Barrie is here illustrating his observation and understanding of a fundamental stage of child development: having a “theory of mind”, or the ability to understand that one’s knowledge, beliefs and feelings may not be the same as someone else’s. This is learned naturally by most children around the age of three or four, but the term was not used until the late 1970s. In 1985, psychologists would show that failure to employ theory of mind is a symptom of autism, Asperger’s syndrome and some psychiatric conditions.


I’m looking forward to reading more.

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, and also Valentine’s Day. We celebrate the first but not the second. This coincidence of dates led to a long conversation of lunar and solar calendars and how the dates of holidays are established. (Spoiler: it’s quite confusing). This also means that Easter will be on April Fool’s Day. Apparently this has not happened for 73 years!

I’m planning to meet Grace and the kids at St. Francis for 7:00 Mass, and I hope they get there early. We’ll see how many people turn out on Valentine’s Day.

Existence, Prolonged

Hey, on page 658, two characters and their two storylines finally come together in a significant way!

And I realized that the bit I mentioned above, in which a character has to press his eyeball directly against a window, may be more not-very-well-thought-out nonsense. At least, it would not work for me. People no doubt have wide variation in the exact shape and profile of their heads and eyes, but I think for most people, their eyes are recessed far enough into a little cavern created by the nose, brow, and eye socket that it would be impossible to get the surface of your eyeball flush with a flat surface. Try it with your cell phone. But whatever. Maybe the character in question has protruding eyeballs, or maybe the window in question is convex. It’s just another clue that in this novel Brin has created, mostly, an enormous first draft. He’s written a lot, but clearly not taken the down time to think very hard about what he has written.


I left work about 6:25 and made it to a seat St. Francis about 6:50. Grace came in about 7:20, so missed part of Mass. She had to park blocks away; it was very crowded last night. Benjamin did not behave very well and kept attempting to wipe boogers on a woman sitting next to us. I held Elanor for a while so Grace could try to wrestle with Benjamin, but meanwhile Elanor would not settle and kept trying to fight her way free, which is awkward during communion.

Grace had prepped a large pot of cream of broccoli soup using some leftover steamed broccoli that got a bit overcooked. I stopped at Trader Joe’s and got some par-baked bread to eat with it. Two kinds, including their olive bread, which is quite tasty.

Last night’s story was chapter 3 of Peter Pan. Tinker Bell is saucier than I remember her. She’s described by the author as an actual tinker, someone whose job it is to mend pots and pans. She calls Peter a “silly ass,” which made my kids laugh uproariously. She’s described as “slightly inclined to embonpoint.” I had to look that up. It’s a word from Middle French that literally means “in good condition” but came to mean buxom or voluptuous. (Remember, this is a children’s book…) Wendy sews Peter’s shadow back on, apparently stitching it right to his feet. It’s, again, kind of dark. Peter tells Wendy that

“…every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”

Grace took Elanor to sleep upstairs, so I would have had the bed to myself, except that Benjamin insisted on sleeping with me. Fortunately he was not too bad a sleeper last night so I got a reasonable night’s sleep, although he was snorting and coughing a lot.

I think the broccoli had gone off slightly in the fridge, as I’m a little queasy this morning. I was standing in the tub coughing up a bit of green goo and started gagging and feeling like I might vomit. Normally first thing in the morning my stomach would be completely empty, but I think it might still be holding on to the soup.

I’m nervous that we’re going to bring the flu into our home. The flu season has been quite bad this year. After I got dressed, Grace came downstairs to have coffee with me. I was running late again in part because I was debating if I should even go to work, feeling queasy. I decided to sit at the kitchen table for a while and sip some coffee and see if my stomach settled. If I vomited, I told myself, or definitely felt worse, I would take a sick day, although it is so frustrating to lose possible vacation days, involuntarily, this way.

After sipping half my coffee, It didn’t feel any worse so I decided to go in to work. Traffic was slow in parts even after 9:00 a.m., which seems wrong. It was not slippery, just wet. I was leaving my driveway at 9:00 and in the office at 9:23. I just feel defeated, again.

I guess I should take it as a minor victory that I haven’t thrown up yet, although my stomach is still a bit touchy. Benjamin doesn’t have a fever, and I don’t have a fever. My joints were a little stiff but that happens when I eat a lot of bread. So I’m hoping that this is just a slight case of food poisoning and not the flu virus. (In the past when I’ve had the flu, it has come on fast and you know it; it doesn’t feel quite like anything else. Noroviruses will make you extremely sick, and tie your stomach and intestine in knots, but they don’t put your whole body in as much pain as a real flu virus that has overrun your barricades and gotten the better of you.


I had a pretty successful day at work yesterday and since I get paid early Friday morning, I think of making it to Thursday night as making it to another paycheck. The ground is covered with melting snow and it was in the forties, so all day yesterday it was gray and foggy. The drive home was difficult and spooky due to this poor visibility.

When I got home Grace was sitting in the dark in our bedroom. Her day with the kids had not gone very well and she feeling “defeated,” as she explained it. The kids had pretty much refused, all day, to make progress on their chores and schoolwork.

I was feeling pretty good despite my queasiness yesterday. because we had not spent any additional money on food this week. But it was pretty clear that everyone could benefit from getting out of the house. So I proposed we go to Harvest Moon for dinner, because it is a very short drive. Most of the kids just happily got shoes and coats on, but a couple dragged it out, and our problem child decided he wasn’t going anywhere. So he screamed the whole way there. So much for soothing everyone’s nerves by getting out of the house.

Dinner at Harvest Moon was not bad and our problem child settled down quite a bit. Grace wanted the beef tips special but it was gone, so she had meatloaf. Their meatloaf is apparently deep-fried, which is a big gross but pretty tasty. I had a club sandwich which came with American cheese, which is also a bit gross. But they had fries and bread and chicken fingers, so the kids had everything they could possibly want in life. Sam was the one who ordered something from the grown-up menu: shepherd’s pie.

The Ice Warriors

Anyway, dinner went reasonably smoothly and we got out and back home safely and with enough time to watch another Doctor Who fan edit, The Ice Warriors. This is a partly-missing serial, originally 6 episodes long (two and a half hours). The missing episodes were reconstructed with animation. The fan edit trims it down considerably, to less than half the original length, leaving behind a single show about 70 minutes long. Despite this, it still feels too long. The audio level is very low. We had it turned way up and I was still having trouble hearing all the dialogue. It doesn’t help that the original audio track was not all that well-recorded to begin with, and with a couple of episodes lost, who knows what audio source was used to fill in the soundtrack for the reconstructed episodes?

This show has its moments. The TARDIS materializes on a snow-covered planet, and lands on its side, sliding down a small hill. The Doctor and his companions have to climb out. That’s a pretty funny gag. The futuristic skin-tight costumes are truly head-scratching; they look like the scientists are dressed for Olympic speed-skating. There’s a talking “computer.” At one point the Doctor enters a chemical formula into it by using a rotary telephone dial. This provides one of the few actual funny bits in the show. The original Ice Warriors are pretty weird-looking, and we had a great classic Doctor Who childhood moment with Benjamin who watched them from behind a chair. (Insert GIF of Italian chef kissing his fingertips). Grace watched some of these terrifying scenes from behind her closed eyelids, while snoring gently, but I won’t judge.

This morning at work our Internet connection is down and our local file server is down too. It’s a Dell RAID server and it’s been throwing errors; drive 3 keeps failing, and we keep replacing the drive with new drives. It recently became clear a few days ago that this was a bit too much of a coincidence, and the RAID controller was failing. So the engineers who work pretty much entirely with files from our local server are milling around talking to the I. T. and tech support people.

I was coughing and a bit queasy again this morning, spitting up green goo yet again. I was running late, again, and did not even make coffee at home, just drove in. I poured a can of Café Bustelo into my mug and added a little water to top it off, and microwaved it. It’s not bad. It has some milk in it, though. I’ve got to avoid all dairy completely, it seems. Even that bit of is-it-even-real-cheese on my sandwich last night was enough to aggravate my sinuses.

None of my frozen pot pies are looking very appealing for breakfast. I need to pick up some more paleo-ish snacks to keep in the office, maybe some more jerky and rice crackers and nut bars.

Because the Internet is down I can’t sign in and verify that I got paid, and set up the transfers between accounts that I do every week.

I’ve made progress this week on code to calibrate the analog-to-digital converters in the MX family of instruments. I’ll work on that a little more today, but it seems like the code is almost finished. That probably deserves a full technical writeup at some point, but I’m not feeling up to it right now. I just want to get through this day, get some groceries, and start the weekend. I had hopes to do some prep work for the podcast in the evenings this week, but I’ve gotten almost nothing done.

Windows on my work laptop is handling things like loss of the local server and Internet access with its usual grace and aplomb. That is to say, Windows Explorer is crashing.

I have some Rosemary and Sea Salt Wasa Thins that don’t seem too unappealing, so I guess that’s breakfast today. I’ll probably go to the Coney Island for lunch, maybe lemon rice soup.

I saw an article yesterday that says the polar vortex has split into two lobes, and so we’re going to have very strange weather for the next couple of weeks, possibly getting up into the 70s in the Eastern United States. I haven’t seen confirmation from any other sources, though. I’m curious to see what the Weather Underground guys have to say about this.


It’s about 8:30 p.m. I went to Costco. It turned out to be a big grocery run including big bulk packs of diapers and toilet paper and a plastic bags. So the total was over $300.00. I also filled up my car with gas, $20. If I only drive to work and back, that’s about all I need to spend on gas in a week. Earlier today I transferred most of my paycheck to our Team One account to pay house-related expenses, and now we’ve spent the rest of it. It’s always a little disheartening to have the paycheck gone as soon as it arrives. But all our big expenses for the week are paid for and we have a week’s worth of food in the house. All that’s really left to cover is gas for Grace and any small contingencies. We have about $200.00 left in our shared account until my next paycheck and that isn’t much when filling the truck up with gas costs $50.00.

When I got home everyone was taking a nap and the kitchen was a mess, with stuff piled on every surface. That was a little disconcerting as I was on my way home with groceries to put away and dinner to cook. But now we’re baking the Costco salmon dish we often have for dinner and Grace is making a fruit smoothie out of a pineapple that sat on the counter a day or two longer than it should have. Maybe we’ll watch another old Doctor Who serial tonight. Grace seems to be feeling a little better than she did last night.


Last night we watched The Mind Robber, a Second Doctor serial. I have seen this one before, but it was much more fun watching the condensed fan edit.

This is a particularly strange Doctor Who story. We see the TARDIS menaced by a lava flow, which looks a lot like a toy being covered in soap suds. The TARDIS explodes into pieces, but what we see his the top and the walls coming off and the console popping out. I’m not sure what the stories had established about the TARDIS at this point—was it supposed to contain multiple rooms and corridors? In any case, what we see in this serial looks like a toy coming apart. Then things get really strange.

Gulliver, the Minotaur, Medusa, a Redcoat soldier, Lancelot, Cyrano de Bergerac, Rapunzel, and Blackbeard all make appearances. It’s low-budget as usual, but many of the scenes are arranged like pieces in a black box theater, without visible backgrounds or ceilings. This makes the cheapness of the settings much less intrusive.

Unsettling and surreal things happen; part of what makes this serial effective is that several times, the companions undergo surrealist transformations too. Jamie becomes a cardboard cutout, and then his face goes missing. The Doctor finds flat pieces of faces, and has to reassemble Jamie’s face, by choosing the right eyes, nose, and mouth. He gets it wrong, and so Jamie is briefly played by a different actor! Apparently there is a real-world reason for this: Frazer Hines developed chickenpox and had to be replaced for shooting episode 2. So even this story element was written in at the last moment, it is one of the more memorable elements of the episode. Later in the serial both Jamie and Zoe are squashed between the pages of a giant book and appear as altered versions of themselves, who can only say a handful of phrases. That’s also pretty creepy.

So what is the rationalization for all this strangeness? Apparently the TARDIS has materialized in the Land of Fiction, and everything the Doctor and his companions experience is being created, in real time, by “The Master,” apparently not directly connected to the Time Lord and the Doctor’s nemesis in later stories. The Master of the Land of Fiction wants to trap the Doctor in the land of fiction so that the Doctor can take over his job, and he can leave and return to his own time and place, Earth circa 1926.

All this could come across as entirely ridiculous, but it’s presented with such earnest good humor and disbelief on the part of the Doctor and his companions that it works pretty well. It reminds me a little bit of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which

the sorcerer Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using illusion and skillful manipulation. He conjures up a storm, the eponymous tempest, to cause his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit King Alonso of Naples to believe they are shipwrecked and marooned on the island.

See Wikipedia’s article about The Tempest.

I’m not really claiming that I think this Doctor Who serial is as timeless and classic a work as The Tempest, but I am claiming that both works explore the nature of fiction, and the relationships of the creator to the thing created. The “meta” nature of this Doctor Who story makes it quite a bit more interesting than a typical monster-of-the-week story.

So how did audiences at the time respond to this story? According to Wikipedia,

The BBC’s Audience Research Report showed a mostly negative reaction from viewers, with “just under a third” reacting favourably. The complaints mainly were around the story being more fantasy-oriented rather than the more dignified science fiction, making it seem “silly.” Others liked the concept, but felt it was too complicated for children.

I almost laughed out loud at the phrase “the more dignified science fiction.” Despite my lifelong fandom, I am hard-pressed to come up with a strict definition of science fiction, but I do know that science fiction is not a tone or even a style of story; it isn’t inherently “dignified” or “undignified” per se. You might call Dune dignified, or serious, in that it isn’t intentionally funny or campy at all (although the David Lynch film achieves unintentional campiness). But there is plenty of science fiction that is light-hearted and even deliberately funny, and much of it is British. There’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, of course, and Red Dwarf. There’s Snow Crash, and the Laundry Files novels of Charles Stross, the recent Red Shirts. Firefly likes to introduce very humorous situations in which violence and death can happen unexpectedly. There’s the weirdness of Farscape. And if you want to get meta, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And of course you can also go back to stuff that I read as a kid, like Sharon Webb’s The Adventures of Terra Tarkington, and Mike Resnick’s Tales of the Velvet Comet novels.

In fact, from the perspective of 2018 many of the best examples of stories that mix humor and science fiction are—wait for it—Doctor Who stories. Douglas Adams wrote a number of Doctor Who episodes. Recent episodes “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” and “The Husbands of River Song” are both quite funny. I think one could make an argument that Doctor Who is a big reason that science fiction writers in 2018 feel comfortable blending overt humor into their stories. And so in 2018 I find it pretty ironic that this unpopular serial is now considered one of the best of the older Doctor Who stories while viewers in 1968 feel that it lived up to the “dignity” of the genre. It illustrates, I think, the mental gymnastics and semantic contortions people go through to reassure themselves that they aren’t enjoying “trashy” genre media. Doctor Who is dignified science fiction, and Game of Thrones? Why, that’s not a somewhat pornographic fantasy series—it’s historical drama!

After we watched the Doctor Who serial, I read the kids chapter 11 of The Hobbit, called “On the Doorstep.” In this chapter the party finally finds the secret entrance into the Lonely Mountain. It’s interesting to note a few things in this chapter. Gandalf is not with the party, and has been away for some time. And when the “setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day [shines] upon the key-hole,” this happens:

A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face. The old thrush, who had been watching from a high perch with beady eyes and head cocked on one side, gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground.

This scene seems to turn what was portrayed as an astronomical site, configured to channel the light of the sun and moon at a specific day of the year, into a site that also involves magic. This seems like an unnecessary addition. Are we supposed to believe that the dwarves used magic to set up this site so that it would pop open the keyhole when the right astronomical events were observed by Thorin’s people? Or are we supposed to believe that the thrush has something to do with opening the keyhole?

In any case it seems like a needless complication. I guess Tolkien had written himself into a bit of a corner; the keyhole needed to be at a normal height in a door designed for dwarves. But the dwarves had already carefully examined and tapped on every square inch of the rock face. So for them to miss it would have impugned their powers of observation and their knowledge of dwarvish construction. Hence this bit of hand-waving. It seems like a seam is showing. It’s interesting to see this frayed edge in the work of an author that I usually think of as a master of convincing naturalistic depiction of a fantasy world that is high fantasy, not low; a thrush that can trill to open a magical door is something, it seems to me, out of lower fantasy, like a talking bear.

And also, I note that the movies, which take a lot of liberties with Tolkien, change the scene. In the second movie, the keyhole is revealed because the light—although moonlight, not sunlight—falls on it just so, while Bilbo is watching. I don’t like the way this takes liberties with the original text, but Durin’s Day is a tricky thing to pin down, astronomically speaking since it is defined by a combination of solar and lunar calendrical events. I’m not sure it is possible to configure an outdoor site to channel light from the moon only on one day a year, given the way the lunar calendar wanders against the solar calendar. But this scene has a certain magic to it. It’s magic in the same way that ancient astronomical sites are magic, not the way that Winnie-the-Pooh is magic. You can probably guess which kind of magic (and storytelling) I prefer.

Almost Done with Existence

This morning I made some more progress in Existence. Brin speeds up the storytelling considerably starting around page 700. By page 700, we’re at about chapter 70, which means we’ve averaged about ten pages per chapter. But there are only about 150 pages left in the novel, and there are 100 pages. I’m imagining that perhaps Brin’s editor started leaning on him at this point, or he started to feel the deadline looming. Because we’re now jumping forward in time by a few years. And as a result, it seems like a number of the characters and plot lines that ate up hundreds of pages earlier in the novel are now derelict. Any of these characters and plot lines that don’t have anything to contribute to the conclusion of the novel were never necessary and should have been cut. So I think it’s pretty inevitable at this point that the conclusion of the novel may be interesting, but will likely completely fail to justify the existence of most of the pages that came before it. In fact I’m going to predict that my final verdict will be that Existence doesn’t even deserve to be called a novel.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Peter Pan and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie (Arcturus paperback)
  • Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness by Rosalind Ridley
  • Serenity (TV Series)
  • Existence by David Brin
  • The Ice Warriors (1967 Doctor Who serial)
  • The Mind Robber (1968 Doctor Who serial)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, February 17th, 2018

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, February 10th, 2018


I didn’t write anything yesterday, but here’s a quick recap. For dinner Saturday night we baked a pot pie from Costco. Grace and I then went down into the basement to record this week’s podcast episode. We tried something new this time: a sponsor!

Yesterday, we all got up at a reasonable hour and I made pancakes for anyone who was awake to eat them. Joshua was a bit sick, and Merry was a bit sick. They both have what seems to be a viral infection of the gums. This may be related to Merry’s Fifth disease. I’m supposed to be resting my knee, and it started snowing hard. So I made the call yesterday to just make it a snow day and stay home, and let the sick kids rest.

I went down into the basement and worked on turning Saturday’s podcast audio into a show. I also put some work into my scripts. This is something I’ve been wanting to work on for a while, because it will save me time and hopefully reduce errors when I’m working on the podcasts. The idea is that I needed to spend a couple of hours working on the scripts in order to have scripts that would do more of the process of generating the podcast feed file entries. What I have now is basically a script template for each show. I can copy the template to make a new show, type in the title, and then select the lines of the script and execute them a few at a time in a BBEdit worksheet. If something goes wrong—say, for example the exported final audio file is not where it should be—I’ll see an error at that point in the script.

I’m not an expert in shell programming, so it takes me a while to get things done. In particular the rules for interpolating variables and escaping characters can be a little obscure, and it’s easy to get into the weeds. For example “this variable needs to be interpolated, but there’s an underscore immediately after the variable name, which is a valid character in a variable name, so for the parser to understand that the interpolated variable name is ending, I need to use dollar sign followed by the variable name in curly brackets.” And “this quoted string needs to have quotation marks in it, so the quotation marks must be preceded by a backslash.” And “this command result needs to be enclosed in tick marks.” The rules all make sense, but since I don’t do a lot of shell programming it can be hard to figure out which ones I need to use in context.

So far I’ve needed to dig into:

So, anyway, it took a while but I’ve got a working script. It probably could be written in better bash style. Bit it works, and I’m hoping it will save me up to thirty minutes a week when working on the podcast. Part of that time is because even scrutinizing my feed file entry, I usually make at least one typo, and so my test feed doesn’t work, and I have to make a correction and upload the test feed file again.

So it ought to be a no-brainer that putting in the up-front work is worth it, but setting aside the time to do the up-front work always means giving something else up.

Old Doctor Who

After finishing the podcast and my podcast scripts, I tried to sit still and unwind with the sick kids by watching some old(ish) episodes of Doctor Who.

The Seventh Doctor was never “my Doctor” in part because I never saw these shows back when they were new. In terms of episodes I watched at an impressionable age, in theory Tom Baker should be “my Doctor.” Tom Baker episodes were running PBS when I was about the right age to watch them. But I saw them only sporadically, and when I did, I found that while I wanted to enjoy the shows, I had a hard time doing it. The slow pace, cheesy sets, weak writing, and over-acting kind of killed my interest in the show. It’s hard to imagine that for a kid who grew up with reruns of the original Star Trek, I would be in any position to call Doctor Who “cheesy,” but it is, by comparison—yes, I hate to say it, but most episodes don’t even live up to the writing and production values of the old Star Trek, and some of the best old Star Trek episodes are much better than any of the Doctor Who serials from that era.

I enjoyed Sylvester McCoy in the recent trilogy of movies adapted from The Hobbit (in fact, he’s one of the more likeable things in those movies, which have a lot of problems). So I thought I’d check out some of his old work in Doctor Who. We started with Paradise Towers, from 1987.

Paradise Towers

Paradise Towers has a few good things going for it. It seems to have been inspired in part by J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise. That’s good source material to be inspired by. There are rival gangs of girls, the Kangs, grouped by color. They have names like “Bin Liner” and “Fire Escape” which is darkly dystopian—with access to the natural world, we name children things like “Rose,” “Heath,” and “Ruby,” but these girls have only ever known the inside of this giant apartment building. There are “caretakers” who roam the building, and elderly residents (“rezzies.”) The able-bodied men long ago went off to war. This all seems like perfectly good building material for a dystopian drama.

Of course, execution is everything. There are some good scenes early on. When The Doctor meets the Red Kangs, they conduct an elaborate greeting ritual, a sort of secret handshake. He watches everything they do, and then plays it back precisely. This brief scene says a lot about the character of this incarnation of The Doctor. Not so much that he can do this, but that he is interested enough to pay such close attention to these little rituals. But it isn’t long before we’re back in familiar Doctor Who territory, padding the episode with long scenes of running through corridors, and people screaming as they are menaced by off-screen monsters.

Oh, and the music is painfully dated. I love a nice Yamaha DX-7 sound—after all, I own one of these vintage synthesizers and love playing it—but the music in these shows is often just uninspired noodling on drum machine and DX-7. It sounds vaguely like Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice, only nowhere near as enjoyable.

I don’t think the failings in these episodes come down to Sylvester McCoy. Richard Briers is quite funny, in an over-the-top way, as the Chief Caretaker. Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce are creepy as Tabby and Tilda. I think that Neil Gaiman, writing Coraline, might have found Tabby and Tilda to be his inspiration for Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (played in the movie by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French).

It’s not really the performances that make this serial painful to watch. It really comes down to the fact that they tried to take maybe an hour’s worth of script, and stretch it out to four 25-minute shows. And so we are constantly cutting away to see what other characters are doing, which is usually “not much interesting.” In the first couple of minutes, we establish the idea that The Doctor and Mel are going to meet up on the roof where the swimming pool is. But it takes almost two hours to get there, and by the time they meet up, we’ve pretty much lost interest in why they are there.

The serial also has some story elements which, if you take a moment to think about them, are pretty disturbing. Pex, the young man who follows Mel around bragging what a tough fighter he is, has a pretty problematic ending. It turns out he’s supposedly a coward; he stayed behind when the other young men went off to fight some nonsensical off-screen war, and never came back. To me, that makes him rational, a sensible conscientious objector. But the Kangs bully him every time they see him for being a coward. They literally bully him into suicide. He “redeems” himself by throwing himself at the villain and falling through a doorway with him, to his death. Sure, he helps to defeat the villain with this act. But was this really his only option in life? Talk about your toxic masculinity…


Grace made a tasty dinner out of leftovers. Leftover steamed broccoli that is not so great to eat by itself makes a great cream of broccoli soup with the last of the Thanksgiving ham from the freezer. Then I worked on cleaning up the kitchen some more, and getting ready for this morning’s bulletproof coffee, and we turned our attention to another Sylvester McCoy serial, Battlefield.

This is apparently one of the better serials. I will say this: there is a lot going on here. We have a lot of outdoor scenes, and a lot of battle scenes, so it moves along pretty quickly. The Doctor gets his old car back, the yellow roadster used mainly by the Third Doctor, called “Bessie.” There are plenty of explosions, and sword-fights.

It has some genuinely weird and intriguing moments, such as the moment in which Ace and Shou Yuing protect themselves with a chalk circle. As they complete the circle, it is lit with a single spotlight. It’s a simple lighting effect but it works because of its simplicity, while some of the special effects (early video effects like the glowing dragon-like entity in the chamber under the lake, and the magical portal through which Morgaine escapes, haven’t held up as well). Jean Marsh is pretty great as Morgaine, and there are some real worthwhile moments in the script, such as the moment when Morgaine restores Elizabeth’s sight (Elizabeth is played by June Bland). But “The Destroyer” is almost as unconvincing a monster as most of the old rubber-mask monsters.

Overall I’d say this is one of the better old serials, and it could even be the best of Sylvester McCoy’s shows. The script is clever. The dialogue is snappy. McCoy has a lot of hilarious lines, some very funny silent slapstick moments, and even some genuinely touching moments with Morgaine and with his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. So it’s still full of cheese and silliness, but we had a good time with this one. By comparison, most of the old Doctor Who serials just don’t hold up nearly this well.


Mood: a bit down today. I keep trying to get my schedule working for earlier arrival at work. This morning I got out of bed immediately when my alarm went off at 7. It seemed like I was racing against time even to poop. I got a bath in, did not even try to do any reading, got dressed, did not even make coffee. Everything felt like it was taking forever. I got out of my driveway at 8:10 p.m. I thought maybe I’d just pick up a coffee Biggby Coffee near my office. But traffic was backed up down Carpenter, and even onto Textile. It took me ten minutes to drive the mile or so to US-12. It’s nominally a 4-minute drive. So instead of getting in line to get on 23 to 94, I went to Harvest Moon to get breakfast on my side of town. I got in and sat down at 8:20. They were quick, the waitress actually offered me my regular order right as I sat down. I was out the door in 25 minutes. Traffic was still backed up, and several times on I-94 I found myself sitting in completely stopped traffic.

Grace is unhappy because she’s been wanting time to talk about things. Not even major things, just things. But I am struggling to get enough sleep. I’m trying to recuperate from my injured knee, and my endless cough. (Still coughing up green goo every morning, but less, and still having mild coughing fits during the day, but it still seems to be improving—very, very slowly). Bedtime is still awful. Trying to get the kids to brush their teeth is awful. Joshua and Benjamin still have swollen gums and low-grade fevers.

About the time we get the kids into bed and I desperately want to go to sleep, she wants to get on the computer and check her e-mail and check in with everyone she follows on Facebook. So I’m literally lying there trying to start falling asleep, with my arm over my eyes, trying to make it so the brightness of the overhead light does not “reset” my tired feeling. (This happens if I get on the iPad or phone before bedtime; the blue light will drive away my sense that it is bedtime and then I’ll be unable to get to sleep quickly).

Grace is feeling neglected and I’m feeling… well, I don’t really know what I’m feeling. Weary. A sense that I’m literally wearing myself out over the long-term and I’m on a treadmill. A sense that trying to get eight hours of sleep, so that I’ll get healthier and I won’t feel so exhausted, and can reduce my caffeine intake a bit, means that I have to choose to neglect my wife and children.

Dinner last night was the ready-to-bake salmon from Costco. That was a fight with Veronica. Apparently she had wanted to put it on to bake at 6 p.m. I was getting ready to leave my office at 6:00 but my boss wanted to chat. I was feeling reasonably good about my progress on a thing that we agreed last Monday that I would work on, in lieu of some other projects that are still waiting for hardware. Last night he was saying he doesn’t think it is necessarily worthwhile for me to work on this. So, I sent Grace a text message at 6:30 telling her I was on my way home, then got in my car feeling useless and defeated. When I got home about 6:55, Grace asked Veronica if she would put the salmon in the oven. Veronica had some kind of meltdown and started ranting about how she had felt like putting it in the oven at 6:00, but she didn’t feel like doing it now.

We managed to get the kids to set the table, managed to get the salmon baked, managed to reheat some of the rice dish and steam some broccoli, and sat down to dinner by 7:30. By 8:00 I was almost done loading the dishwasher. It was trash and recycling night. Somehow waiting for the stragglers to finish eating, washing the last few things, and waiting for the kids to get the trash and recycling out ate up another hour. Feeling low-energy, I had proposed that we watch another old Doctor Who serial.

Who Can Take a Sunrise?

The serial we started to watch was The Happiness Patrol, with Sylvester McCoy. I was curious about The Kandyman. The “Best of the Seventh Doctor” collection available on iTunes includes Time and the Rani, The Happiness Patrol, Silver Nemesis, and Remembrance of the Daleks. So… it’s one of the best, right?

Some of the online reviews were positive. SciFiNow says “…it’s worth revisiting these gems from one of the most underrate periods in the show’s long history.”


Often dismissed as one of the sillier episodes, a relic of the previous incarnation of the show thanks to its surface whimsy and obvious studio-bound limitations—a city in a studio will only ever look like a city in a studio. An incredible, Thatcher-inspired performance from Sheila Hancock as Helen A, the ruler of the cheerily sinister colony of Terra Alpha where everyone is happy and sadness is a crime, sets the tone perfectly though—it’s darkly absurd and joyously unpleasant, with a Bertie Basset-like Kandyman (who wasn’t the subject of a lawsuit, despite legends to the contrary) who serves as the regime’s hangman and Python-like stab at the banality of evil that recalls Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and, of course, George Orwell’s 1984.

Well, that summary is more-or-less true, except that Brazil and 1984 are actually good and this… well, let’s just say that I’m coming to the conclusion that being “one of the best of the Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who serials” is like having a slightly better case of the flu. I’m told that Remebrance of the Daleks is the best serial from this era, and I have watched this one, and found it kind of slow and dull. Maybe we should give it another chance, but really, if Remembrance is the best one… well, you get the idea.

Honestly, most of these serials can only claim to be important because they have some significance in the history of the show. For example, according to this Nerdist article:

Battlefield is important because:

It’s the very last UNIT story in the classic series as well as the last appearance by Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart played as always by Nicholas Courtney.

And also:

Battlefield is the first story of season 26, making it the very last season premiere for sixteen years. Episode one of this story bears the dubious honor of having the lowest viewing figures ever for an episode of Doctor Who, coming in at an anemic 3.1 million viewers.

So, it’s important to watch… because… it was the start of the season that almost permanently killed the franchise and the first episode had the worst ratings ever recorded. Ummm.

Anyway, The Happiness Patrol has some good moments. I figured it must move along reasonably well, since it is only a 3-parter, instead of a 4-parter. I was wrong.

There are a few good scenes. There’s a moment where the Doctor is speaking to a guard and convinces him to lower his gun, emphasizing how easy it would be to take a life. That scene is very watchable. But there are lots of other things going on that feel unfinished. There’s something strange going on with the execution of what seems to be a gay man, and the seemingly random use of black harmonica-playing medical student Earl Sigma, who keeps wandering around, and Ace’s conversation with what seems to be a lesbian member of the Happiness Patrol, and the way the “secret agent” hangs out on park benches luring young people into incriminating conversation—several subtexts that would probably be worth unpacking, if more thought had been packed into them to start with. Oh, and the way they paint the TARDIS pink—huh? But as it stands, they just seem like half-baked ideas implemented in shorthand, where the writers couldn’t be bothered to make them convincing.

I will say this about it: the Kandy Man is really fun, although they don’t give him enough to say and do. He rants and raves a bit. The Doctor makes him stick to the floor, then un-sticks him, then sticks him to the floor again, in a way that makes no damned sense. The Kandy Man is creepier than I expected. Apparently he’s supposed to be a robot made entirely out of sweets. He’s kind of mesmerizing to watch. I found myself starting at his giant blue licorice allsorts head, apparently with spatulas for cheeks and disturbing little spinning spiral eyes, and wishing I could eat him. Because, licorice! The Kandy Man is reviled as one of the worst “monsters” in the old Doctor Who franchise, but I found him to be one of the most enjoyable, even if he is total nonsense.

But the show doesn’t even follow through with its own setups. That’s a big reason it is so disappointing. The Kandy Man threatens to feed The Doctor and Earl Sigma candy that is so delicious, it will kill them. The two of them are strapped into chairs and supplied with bibs. We have a funny setup for potentially dark and hilarious gags (perhaps literal gags). But it goes nowhere, probably because the writers realized that the Kandy Man couldn’t do anything in that costume.

I have to admit that I kind of like the Stigorax puppet (an evil-looking lapdog-like creature). But these pleasures are pretty few and far between. I’m really reaching for things to appreciate. An eye-candy villain, a nice setup for political satire, and a few good lines of dialogue can’t sustain this 3-parter. In fact I was so bored with it that I stopped it after the second episode, because it wasn’t doing enough to keep me awake and I figured we’d be better off getting an extra 25 minutes of sleep than we would finishing the show. Maybe we’ll finish it tonight. Maybe not.

It looks like the original Kandy Man costume recently sold at auction:

The description reads:

…of multi-material composition, with circuit board to chest, with internal circuits and wiring, height approximately 70 inches (178cm). FOOTNOTES: This particular costume has several condition issues relating to the deterioration of the foam latex (see illustration). Although originally a pristine costume from the Episode, its appearance now more closely resembles the destroyed version which appears in the show.

I’m not sure the auction page will be up there for long, but the suit does look a little worse for wear. Despite this, it sold for almost $3,000.00.

On my lunch break today I’m going to run out and get some licorice allsorts.

This experience makes me wonder if it might be worthwhile for a hard-core fan to make “fan edits” of some of these long, sluggishly-paced serials, and make them worth watching. Well, more worth watching. I’m probably not the guy to do it, but I’d be happy to beta-test the results.

Hmmm… it looks like there are fan edits:

But I’ll have to delve into those another time. They look like a step in the right direction, the edit of The Happiness Patrol clocks in at 53 minutes—cut by a third! Maybe even—dare I get my hopes up—watchable? At least slightly more watchable? Because, really, trying to watch these Seventh Doctor episodes is mostly just making me depressed, that so many people worked hard on them, and yet, the results were just… so… very… bad.

Update: I went to three different stores over lunch and couldn’t find any licorice allsorts. Hobnobs, Jaffa Cakes, VcVites chocolate digestives, Cadbury bars, BUT NO LICORICE ALLSORTS!

Stupid, sexy Kandy Man!


Last night after work I tried to find licorice allsorts at Plum Market, the Kroger on Washtenaw that used to be Hiller’s, the Kroger on Carpenter, and Target. Shaka, when the walls fell! Zinda, his face black, his eyes red! There are a few more places I might try. Busch’s, and maybe Arbor Farms. Maybe the Fresh Thyme market in downtown Ypsilanti. I asked Grace if she would call around and see if she can find any, before I waste any more gas.

Lots of places had soft Australian licorice. But is it just me, or didn’t it used to be pretty common to find licorice allsorts on the shelf, too? Even generic versions in bulk food sections, or even in gas station convenience store candy sections? I used to eat these pretty often and I don’t think I ever had to hunt down one particular store with a special imported candy section to find them.

When I got home, Grace was out picking up a couple of young house-guests. The table was set for dinner, and I was ready to sit down to eat with the kids, but they were bickering and fighting, and would not obey any orders, so I decided to boycott dinner and got ready for bed. So the kids ate dinner by themselves, continuing to fight and bicker.

When Grace got back home, we all had words. I got some food. We did kitchen cleanup, and I also gave haircuts to Pippin and Joshua. Joshua is always the drama king—he goes directly from “no, I don’t want a haircut!” to “shave it all off!” I used the clippers with the half-inch guard, which took off roughly half his hair, but left him enough to provide a little insulation (it is still winter, after all). It looks much better.

The idea is that the kids with the curliest hair—Joshua and Veronica especially—are heavily encouraged to either comb it out daily with various sprays or conditioners for super-curly hair, or keep it quite short so combing it out is a thirty-second affair that requires little or no painful yanking and tugging. Veronica has reached the age where she wants it long and mostly is taking care of it so that it is not a giant knot. Pippin and Joshua have decided that they want it short to avoid the pain and work. We just don’t have a miraculous solution for very curly hair. It’s sure super-cute when it is clean and picked out and not full of lint. Merry and Pippin have a little less curl and it’s a bit easier to comb out. Sam’s is more on the wavy side. The range of colors and textures is always kind of astounding to see.

I downloaded a couple of the Doctor Who fan edits to preview and wow, the video quality is impressive. And it looks like they have shortened a number of episodes by at least a third, sometimes even while adding back in some material from deleted scenes. The fan edit for The Happiness Patrol is actually rendered in black and white. The creator of the fan edit writes:

The Happiness Patrol is, in many ways, yer [sic] typical flawed production where the ambition of the writer outstripped the budget and various people made the wrong call. But I discovered that you can hide a lot of the story’s design flaws, like the flat, theatrical sets, by doing the whole bloody thing in Black & White. It’s amazing the difference going from colour to monochrome makes to this story, as the whole thing suddenly becomes more watchable, flat sets don’t look so flat, Fifi looks less like a puppet and the whole thing has a lot more atmosphere, like the Film Noir that’s struggling to surface from underneath the weight of dodgy design choices piled on top of it.

It does seem to improve the show, but rendering the whole serial in black and white makes it so the Kandy Man and all his lethal candy syrups are also shades of gray. That seems wrong. It would be cool if the Kandy Man could be rendered in color. Back when the show was made, they didn’t have the budget or technology to mix things up like that, but if they were making it in 2018, I think it would be quite possible to make the Kandy Man and his various syrups colorful. So you could have the execution scenes rendered in black and white with the actual strawberry fondant spraying on the victims in bright colors. That would be visually shocking and suggest that the residents live colorless lives right up to the point where they are killed. The patrol costumes could be in color too, and the painted TARDIS. That could be amazing—literally the only colorful things in that world would be the machinery of the Happiness Patrol and their mechanisms of coercion. Then perhaps at the end there could be a Wizard-of-Oz transition into color.

Anyway, for the fan edit, see:

Mirab, his sails unfurled!


Whoops, missed a day completely.

Thursday night’s story was the ninth chapter of The Hobbit, “Barrels Out of Bond.” This is not a bad chapter, but it is not very exciting for the younger kids, because there is a lot of description and not much action or dialogue. There are several notable differences between book and movie here: in the book, Thorin is imprisoned deep in a dungeon far from the other dwarves. And of course in the book there is no female elf who falls in love with Kili. Not all the changes are for the worse; for example, after seeing the movie and then going back and re-reading the book, it seems disappointing that Thrainduil, chief of the wood-elves in Mirkwood, is barely described and does not even have any lines.

I also forgot to report on another night’s story. I forget just which night it was, but we read a couple more stories from D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. We are getting close to finishing up that collection of stories.

We’ve been a little busy and distracted because we have a couple of adorable house guests. One of Grace’s friends is in the hospital for a birth, and we’re keeping her 1-year-old and 3-year-old girls. They seem to be having a good time for the most part, but the noise level is ramped up just a little bit higher than usual.

Last night I went to Costco a day early because there was a heavy snowstorm predicted. I got some extra food, paper towels, fizzy water, etc.

Early this morning the storm arrived. Here’s what I just posted on Facebook:

Well, that was an exciting and pointless drive to work. I was on the ramp from 23N to 94W. It was unplowed and very slippery. I wound up stopped completely in a line of trucks trying to get on 94W. Fire trucks and ambulances were getting on because and there was an accident ahead. I heard on the radio that all lanes of 94W were closed at Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. From the ramp we could see that traffic was not moving on 94W. So I gave up and got back on 23N. 23N was a little more passable but not really good. So I got off 23N at Washtenaw to text my boss and consider my options. It is possible I could have gotten to work by taking surface streets but we still have 6 more inches of snow falling today, and I was very concerned that when it came time to leave, I’d wind up stranded. I decided to take surface streets back home and then heard on the radio that 23N is now closed as well, at Washtenaw. Traffic on surface streets was not good, with lots of emergency vehicles around. It was taking me forever to get a few miles. I picked up some fire logs, and we’re having a snow day for everyone! But my Protestant Work Ethic™ is now telling me I should have been up and out at 6 a.m. because work is more important than everything else, while my Socialist Work Ethic™ is telling me I should be pissed that I have to surrender one of my very limited vacation days that I was hoping to use for, you know, an actual vacation.

I am unfortunately not set up to work from home at our new home, or I would have done that. I was thinking maybe I would go pick up my work laptop and debugger and bring it home so I would be able to work from home and would be less likely to get stranded on the far side of town but that didn’t really work out. I probably should have planned that out last night.

Anyway, it’s a snow day. I’m home. Right now some of the kids are outside. More snow is coming down. A lot more. We just had some chicken hot dogs for lunch and we’ve got fake logs in the fireplace, and I’m getting ready to have a little Doctor Who marathon.

Merry just came to us crying because he had stuck a Lego up his nose. It was wedged in there and bleeding and painful. We had to hold him down, Grace held his hands and I managed to work it out with the tine of a fork, along with some blood and snot.

After that Grace said “Don’t put Legos up your nose!”

Merry said “Why?”


It’s about 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s snowing more. Grace has taken our two little girl guests out to reunite them with their mom. I’m sure the driving conditions still aren’t very good. Here’s hoping she doesn’t get stuck or slide off the road.

It’s been a bit difficult. The incremental increase in the general level of noise and chaos is hard for me. I was up making breakfast this morning, bacon and blueberry pancakes, and did a whole round of kitchen cleanup again.

The Power of the Daleks

We tried to have a Doctor Who marathon last night, watching some more of the fan edits. We watched The Power of the Daleks, a Second Doctor serial (in fact, the first one). This serial does not survive at all in video form. There is no original film or video. So it’s been reconstructed in animated form. The original had six twenty-five minute episodes (two and a half hours total). The fan edit condenses it to just over an hour and a half, and reworks some of the music. I’m pleased and surprised to report that it’s really good. In fact, this might be the best old-school Doctor Who serial I’ve ever seen, at lease when viewed in fan edit form.

You can find the fan edit we viewed here:

The actual animation is pretty crude, but the artwork itself is very nice, if that makes sense. When characters have to walk or interact it looks clumsy and strange. Even the animation of their mouths is not great. But the backdrops and the characters, especially the Daleks, look great. In fact, the interiors that tend to look cheesy in the original look much more convincing in animated form, because a lot of the extraneous detail has been abstracted away. It’s the extraneous detail (flimsy textures, etc.) that keep giving you the visual hints that you’re looking at a low-budget show. That’s gone in the animated version.

It’s tragic that no original video or film exists, but somehow I think out of this weird “lost” state we now have a version of the original story which is, to put it quite bluntly, probably quite a bit more enjoyable to watch than the surviving original footage would be. A lot of credit is due to the folks making the fan edits who have figured out how to make the sluggish and padded original episodes snappy and dramatic.

It’s still snowing.

The Happiness Patrol, Again

We watched the second half of The Happiness Patrol fan edit. In fan edit form this serial is a lot more bearable. I’m not gonna say it’s actually good, but it has its points. The Kandy Man is still fun and weird. We finally had some licorice allsorts to eat while watching him, but unfortunately they were somewhat strange, from Walgreens. They didn’t have the blue round ones covered with nonpareils, or the yellow round ones with the licorice center. So we couldn’t really eat the Kandy Man’s head. And while I think the serial overall looks better in black and white, a monochromatic Kandy Man just doesn’t make me ravenous for licorice candies the way the polychrome version does.

It’s still snowing.

Scream of the Shalka

We also watched Scream of the Shalka, also in fan edit form. This is a bit of an oddball serial, in more ways than one. It’s animated, with a flat and angular style. It was originally presented in 6 parts online, in Flash format. The Doctor was is voiced by Richard E. Grant. He plays this incarnation of The Doctor as kind of fey and aloof—not very compassionate, or someone you’d like to befriend. In fact, when I first saw him I thought the story was setting up a revelation that he was actually a vampire. There’s a fair amount of innuendo in his dialogue. There are more gross-out moments in the visuals, and it feels a bit darker. Overall, it seems like this incarnation of the show was targeted at a somewhat older audience. It’s not bad, but after watching this, I’m not surprised he wasn’t featured in any more shows. Over the years the various Doctors have varied in personality, but it’s not an accident that the Sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker), who is the most prickly and seems the most psychopathic, is not remembered very fondly.

Richard E. Grant was designated the Ninth Doctor back in the day, but when the series was revived, Christopher Eccleston was also called the Ninth Doctor. So make of that what you will. There are other glitches in the official numbering; when the War Doctor was introduced, we now had a Doctor in between eight and nine. There are also other confusing continuity disputes. Does The Valeyard count for anything? How about Peter Cushing? How about the pre-First Doctor faces we see in The Brain of Morbius? A straightforward numbering doesn’t really seem to cover all this complex retroactive continuity changes. So this is one reason I tend to prefer to call the incarnations of The Doctor by the last names of the actors: Eccleston, Tenant, Smith, etc.

We tried to watch the Fifth Doctor’s serial, The Caves of Androzani, also in fan edit form, but had to give up because the kids were getting too bored and noisy. This serial is widely considered one of the best, but I wasn’t feeling it. We’ll have to give it another chance.

Last night’s story was the tenth chapter of The Hobbit, “A Warm Welcome.” This chapter is a good example of the ways in which the movie diverged hugely from the book. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but in the book this chapter is short and involves more telling than showing. The party is given, as the chapter name suggests, quite a warm welcome in Laketown. Bard is not mentioned; there is no secrecy and not much drama; they are not smuggled in. As far as I’m concerned, most of that drama from the movie doesn’t really add anything good to the story.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Hobbit (Peter Jackson film trilogy)
  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Paradise Towers (1987 Doctor Who Serial)
  • Battlefield (1989 Doctor Who Serial)
  • The Happiness Patrol (1988 Doctor Who serial)
  • The Power of the Daleks (1966 Doctor Who serial)
  • Scream of the Shalka (2003 animated Doctor Who serial)
  • The Caves of Androzani (1984 Doctor Who serial)
  • D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire
  • Existence by David Brin

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, February 10th, 2018