Diary: Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Maybe ten years later than my last eye exam I had one a few weeks ago. My eye health was fine, but my prescription had shifted — and in a strange way, not just an adjustment of the focal point, but the other numbers had not just changed but swapped — they used to be zero on the right, non-zero on the left, now they were reversed. That had me a little nervous about doing what I usually do, ordering glasses online — was I misreading the prescription?

The glasses arrived Friday (one of the few purchases anymore that take a couple of weeks to fulfill) and they are fine, more than fine really — both distance vision and reading vision (through the bifocal lenses) are much sharper, and the astigmatism correction seems right, so I guess my eyeballs really did shift in their misshapen-ness. And, best of all, the computer-glasses prescription I asked for is exactly right. So now that I had almost broken the habit of wanting to switch glasses as I sit down to or move away from the computer, I need to re-habituate myself to that.


As a reward for working my way through the first season of The Wire, I moved on to the blissfully limited six-episode series The Plot Against America … and it is exactly what I want in a short, golden-age-of-TV series. Great acting, by actors I knew (Winona Ryder, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro) and actors I didn’t. Rich, thick portrayal of a culture, in this case a Jewish enclave of Newark NJ in 1940 — the accents are especially delightful, heavy but not caricatures. And the set design! Everything is accurate to the period, but in a heightened manner, what the 1940s aspired to be and almost certainly fell short of — similar to the portrayal of the 1960s in The Queen’s Gambit, another short series I loved.

Maybe my favorite aspect (of the first two episodes, as far as I’ve gotten) is the wholesomeness of it all, at least in contrast to modern day. This is not moony-eyed nostalgia, there’s plenty of realism in how family and community life is portrayed. But it cuts both ways, there’s no anachronistic importing of modern day issues or characters behaving in unrealistically enlightened ways. Families are home for dinner, adult children take care of cranky older parents, an entire neighborhood gathers in the evening on their suburban street to gab and visit, and in this case to hash out the meaning of a looming social threat to their culture (encroaching fascism, in the form of Charles Lindbergh as he runs for and wins the presidency from Franklin Roosevelt). This is life, at least as lived in the foreign country of the past, and I’m pleased to immerse myself in it.

Irony alert: the series is an adaptation of the novel by Philip Roth, written by David Simon and Ed Harris … the same two writers who created The Wire twenty years earlier. I like this new one much better! (Though I should note that the one strength of The Wire for me was its portrayal of Black life in the Baltimore projects — probably 80% of the first season was focused on that, and everything else — the police procedural, the cop-on-the-street action, the legal maneuverings, the backstories of characters not from the projects — was a waste of time by comparison.)

Diary: Monday, 7 June 2021

Most of the past week was spent combing through technical material, ramping up for the long-term software projects I’m currently investigating. And by “ramping up” I mostly mean “dusting off” — if a project would require mastering new material and developing new skills it’s very unlikely to interest me. So I’m reminding myself how to do basic organizational tasks in various contexts — editing and debugging and testing and extending stay basically the same wherever you are, but the details change along with the programming language and associated infrastructure.

This is not a complaint! It’s a part of software development I enjoy very much. Perhaps too much — often I find myself immersing myself in tutorials and sample projects and introductory articles, only to lose interest once that is done and the only thing left is to go off and do some novel work at more than a basic level. Still, that attraction towards learning something new has served me well over the years, I have a broad if superficial knowledge of the possibilities, can keep up with a lot of stuff without having to invest a lot of time, and when a specific need comes up I usually know what the options are for addressing it and can even weigh them against one another.


My attention to organization has ebbed over the past six weeks or so, partly intentionally — I want my motivation in that area to be organic, not artificial, so that it finds its own proper level, no time wasted on playing with shiny gadgets just because they’re shiny. And as usual a disorganized stretch gives rise to a growing itch to think through how I’m spending my time and what I could be doing better.

So I took my tablet with the one-page cover sheet, tore off that sheet, and rewrote it. A couple of things had been done, some priorities had shifted, and a few new ideas needed to be added. Right now there are three areas: to do (specific tasks that are “the next thing” for some project), projects (things I am building or topics I am studying), and priorities (areas of interest that enclose and inspire current and future projects).

to do:

(rephrased from the notepad for intelligibility)

  • Take a snapshot of Chris’s Drive on Wood website (a backup that can be restored in case some of my upcoming changes go wrong)
  • Move member-contributed photo files from local limited disk storage to external, unlimited cloud storage
  • Install Ghost, WordPress-like software which supports paid memberships — the paid member library files will be moved here from the old software
  • Create a fresh set of data files for Logseq, make initial entries for recording progress with ongoing projects
  • Write this diary entry

projects:

  • Write a book: Live for Others
  • Study: Clojure(script)
  • Study: Logseq
  • Participate in Logseq community
  • Move paid Drive on Wood library to Ghost
  • Expert website: How to Do Things
  • Expert website: This is Water
  • Study Notes: Adam Curtis
  • Study Notes: Ivan Illich
  • Study Notes: Austin Kleon books

The priorities section is broken into three subsections:

  • seeking: areas where I am actively working to expand and deepen my understanding
  • maintaining: active work is done, now just collecting and filing relevant knowledge as it goes past me in the stream
  • done with: satisfied with what I know, actively filtering out stuff in these areas so as to not waste time

The seeking category is important because it guides my looking — there are infinite threads I could potentially follow, so I want to focus my time on a small set that was thoughtfully selected. Having a done with category is helpful because otherwise thoughtless inertia can lead me down time-wasting rabbit trails, pursuing them only because they are the kinds of trails I used to profitably pursue, and even though the pursuit may be good in itself, it is no longer useful to me for one of several reasons — perhaps I’ve learned what I need to learn, or I’ve lost interest, or the knowledge is no longer relevant due to changed circumstances, or I am better off spending my limited remaining time in other ways, or I’ve decided the topic is best avoided. The maintaining category is less a guide than a list of things to keep an eye on, checking back regularly to see if any need to be shifted to the done with list.

seeking:

  • Notes and note taking
  • Clojure(script)
  • Contributing to open source projects
  • Creating expert sites and related communities

maintaining:

  • Writing
  • Character
  • Mindfulness
  • Eating
  • Exercise
  • Health
  • History of everyday life

done with:

  • Music (study, performance)
  • Business practices
  • Current events
  • Spirituality
  • Doctrine (Christian and otherwise)
  • Pop psychology
  • Pop sociology

These lists are not anywhere near complete, they only include items I was able to think of in fifteen minutes of reflection after not having thought about them much lately. But creating and refining them pays me back many times over. This past week, for example, I abandoned a pop psychology book (Weird by Olga Khazan) and decided not to buy one even though the price was good and the author one I’ve read and benefited greatly from (Business Made Simple by Donald Miller) because of my done with list. There were times in the past when I would have read either one profitably and enjoyably — and that is exactly the reason I need a filter that tells me quickly and reliably “don’t spend your time on this.”


Since I have HBO and was short on must-watch television options, I decided to try out The Wire. I’ve seen the first 13-episode season so far. My reaction was mixed, basically lukewarm — it was good and enjoyable, but didn’t come anywhere near the heights of TV series that came a few years later, shows that it paved the way for. There are four more seasons, and I’m not champing at the bit to get on with them. Sometime down the road, probably.

I think that much of the praise for the program must be due to the tradition it came out of, 90s-era police procedurals. From that perspective I can see how groundbreaking the show was in many ways, the grittiness, the moral ambiguity, the less-than-pat story arc and resolution. But I was never steeped in that tradition, and mostly what I see is the lingering conventional story structure and TV-level production values that were completely abandoned by the shows I really like (Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Better Caul Saul, The Leftovers, Mr Robot, Watchmen). I suppose I should also take a look at The Sopranos, from about the same time as The Wire, to see if it really is a matter of being transitional television.

But for now I need a break. And fortunately I ran across a reminder of an HBO six episode series that gets high ratings from AV Club, a site I mostly trust — The Plot Against America, from the Philip Roth novel. The high ratings are important, but it’s the six episodes that seals the deal for me, I’m just not interested right now in investing myself in something longer.

Diary: Monday, 31 May 2021

It’s Memorial Day, but as a holiday from work that has never meant much to us. It’s been twenty years since I worked for an organization that kept a holiday schedule, since then we’ve worked or played as was best in the moment. Today I’m continuing my undifferentiated retirement routine (weeks and weekends blend together), Peter is doing school, and Benjamin and Jerry would be doing school as well if they weren’t off with Chris on another install project (the stores are open of course, so no reason not to work today).


One of the ways I’d thought about filling my golden hours is working on open source software, finding a project I could join. perhaps by contributing code but possibly just identifying bugs and their fixes, or improving the documentation, or serving as someone knowledgeable about how to use the software. That thought resurfaced as I was using and enjoying Obsidian, and thinking about making it a key tool in another golden hours project, serious note taking. The community surrounding it is small but lively. But it isn’t ideal, not being open source. I could identify bugs, document, and be knowlegeable, and there is a way (plugins) where people can write software utilities that extend Obsidian’s capabilities. But no digging into the core code itself.

And now I discover an alternative to Obsidian, called Logseq, which is fully open source. A bit younger than Obsidian (which itself is quite young), and so the community is even smaller — constrained partly by being written in Clojure, a relatively obscure programming language (a successor to LISP) which has been threatening to catch on for forty years now but has yet to find the right vehicle. Which excites me in a major way, since I began my programming career writing production-quality code in LISP in the 80s, and have always tried to keep my hand in — several times when I’ve had complete control over a project I came so close to using LISP or Clojure as the language, only to decide that it would make it way too difficult to find someone who could take over the project from me.

So now we have a fully open source note taking program written in Clojure, and it’s pretty good! The objective of the core team is to make it competitive with other similar programs being developed right now (this sub-area has really grabbed the attention of early adopters lately, and so there’s a lot of energy being spent on building the latest and greatest), so I don’t risk losing much by adopting it as my default tool. Plus Logseq and Obsidian are largely interoperable, by which I mean that I can open up a Logseq file collection in Obsidian and work with it with almost no restrictions. So there’s no danger that adopting Logseq will lock in the file collections I create to only that program.

I haven’t made any decisions yet, way too early, but I’m proceeding with setting things up in order to do the work, looking for stumbling blocks. And it’s overwhelming, but in an exhilarating way if you’re technically minded. The best is always to create your own program, or at least large piece of a much larger program, from scratch. Second best is to be handed the keys to a large, well-crafted program and plunge into finding one’s way around. Lots of capabilities to familiarize myself with, and I’m very curious to see how they did it. And since I am a very good LISP/Clojure programmer, I’m part of a small pool of people who could provide valuable help at some point.


Last Thursday I ventured out to my first group gathering since the pandemic began, a weekly men’s lunch at the downtown Anglican church we attended for awhile some years back. I’ve stayed in touch with the pastor, and though I hadn’t heard from him in maybe a year he emailed that morning to invite me. I’m fully vaccinated now, so I thought it would be good to live out my convictions regarding what that means (can’t get it, can’t give it). And as things wind down for me it would be way too easy, both through circumstances and inclination, to become a hermit, so I need to grab any opportunity to counteract that trend. So I went. Although this first time I ate my huge salad beforehand, not knowing how it might fit in. I’ll go again, and I’ll take the salad from now on.

It’s always good practice for me to be in a church setting, socializing with people that I disagree with on many, many fundamental points — but none of which should really bear on our ability to relate. There’s a comfortableness in the in-group socializing that allows folks to speak more freely than they might out in the world, which is when the different beliefs surface, and I constantly need to decide whether to nod and ignore, or make broad or ambiguous replies which don’t challenge and yet are still true, or ask questions that prod folks to think more deeply about what they said, or (rarely) state my disagreement. I used to place a much higher priority on being up front about my disagreements, but found that it just wasn’t loving — no one has ever been prompted to rethink their position simply because I disagree, nobody at all likes it when I proceed to pick apart their own thinking, and the disagreements themselves almost always fall into the “disagree without being disagreeable” bucket — but not many remember or ever learned how to behave that way, so it’s easier not to put the matter on the table in the first place.

So I’ll continue attending as long as they’ll have me and as long as there’s potential for human connection. You don’t need to dig very deeply beneath the surface opinions to find normal, everyday people who are confronted with the true challenges of life, ones they rarely discuss because they don’t really know how life works and don’t have the vocabulary for or practice with talking about such matters. And the surface opinions often serve to paper over that shortcoming … though not very well. If and when I find a time to chime in, I will. Otherwise I’ll have the pleasure of the company of good, decent people, nothing to sneeze at.


That lunch may have cost me, though! Or it may have been the second batch of fermented pickles (the one I ate was very mushy), or something else entirely. But late Friday night I was hit with some sort of bug which gave me fever and severe diarrhea. I wasn’t in major distress, and my usual response to fever is to sleep it off. Boy, did I sleep! I didn’t want to be more than a few feet from the bathroom, so I asked Debbie to pick up the groceries Saturday and Sunday, while Saturday I just slept and slept and slept, laying in a recliner, meaning to close my eyes and waking up three hours later, only to decide I could rest a bit more and then gone for another three. I thought for sure I would be unable to sleep that night, but instead it was akin to a moderately restless night. And then Sunday I was still dozy, though nowhere near as bad. Nothing at all eaten on Saturday, just a minimal amount of water, but on Sunday I felt like Friday’s food was still there in my stomach. I did manage half-rations on Sunday, and today I am trying to eat normally. The fever is gone, the diarrhea has improved but still lingers.

All in all, not life threatening, not even distressful, but still unpleasant and inconvenient. No clue as to the culprit. At this point in my life it isn’t something I’d try to protect against by limiting social contact, but as I get older and frailer it might be prudent.


I watched the final episode of Mare of Easttown. Not being a mystery aficionado myself, I can’t say how someone watching primarily for the mystery would react. I’m guessing they would be disappointed. There is a last minute twist in the plot which isn’t unfair, but wasn’t really telegraphed — I have no idea how even a careful watcher would have guessed it, and I think that’s one of the rules of mystery. But it allowed certain things to happen as a result, and I found those very satisfying.

Really, this was a a soap opera at heart, but a gritty one, and first class. The final episode was structured to bring that out — a “solution” to the mystery comes at the very beginning, followed by more than 30 minutes of denoument, where we see the impact of the “solution” on the lives of the characters — and then comes the twist, and a whole other level of catharsis proceeds from that. More clever writing might have set up the twist as an acceptable mystery, but the mystery wasn’t really the point of the series, more like what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin (Wikipedia: “object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself”). This story needed a device to throw everyone into crisis, and though the writer chose a mystery and maybe could have done a better job at constructing it, it was the characters’ behavior under pressure that I was there for, and that was just fine.

Diary: Wednesday, 26 May 2021

I’m gone for hardly a day, and look what happens …

This morning when I got to my email reader I found maybe 80 new emails waiting for me. This for a guy who thought his incoming traffic had dropped to just a trickle. And it was nothing unusual, just what had accumulated over slightly less than 24 hours. Turns out it wasn’t so much that email had been trickling in, but rather that I had been handling it all immediately, and so at any given moment I had nothing backed up.

Probably a third of those messages were just notifications, advertisements and announcements and such, and were quick work — I unsubscribed from the ones that no longer interested me and glanced at the rest as I cleared them away. The second third were more transactional, receipts and automated reports and reminders and delivery notices and such, which took a little more time to work through but not even enough to be tedious — I made mental notes, then either archived or deleted as appropriate.

Of the remaining third, only a few were things that needed actual attention and interaction from me — a request from a friend, some information I had to supply for a mortgage refinancing, etc.

The remaining 25 or so … well, those were my info feed, things I needed to read — newsletters, news digests, blog posts, essays. Again, they come in over the course of the day and my habit is to read them when they show up, so I only now saw how much reading it added up to (and this evening I’m still catching up, since stuff was streaming in today as well).

Not a problem, really, it’s just that now I know better why I would come to the end of the day and feel like a few hours had gone missing. I found the hours! That’s how long it takes to work through my daily feed. Which is OK, looking over yesterday’s reading all at once in my inbox made me think, this is all worth reading, and as long as I have the hours to devote to it I’m not wasting my time. And it also feels to me like a secret cache reserve of hours — if I ever find myself in need of more hours in the day to focus on a certain project, I could easily find them just by cutting off the feed for as long as necessary — all the stuff I read is good but virtually none of it is time sensitive, and none of it does anything but enrich my understanding of the world — a worthy project, but one that can be put on the shelf indefinitely when circumstances dictate.


I’m reviving a useful habit — when I read an intriguing review of a forthcoming book I’ll check our local library website to see if they’ve ordered it, and if so I’ll put it on hold. I’m always first in line, and when I get a notice that the book is in I’ll decide whether I actually want to read it (I usually do). Books on hold live on a shelf just inside the entrance, so I can make the 5 minute drive downtown, pop inside to grab the book and use the automated checkout, then head home, all in 15 minutes.

Today’s book is Weird by Olga Khazan, which I grabbed solely because I have read and enjoyed her writings in The Atlantic. Turns out the book is about conformity, sort of — what makes for conformity, and how people who don’t naturally conform to their circumstances (found or chosen) deal with it. An unusual topic, not anything I recall being addressed directly, and one she is approaching in a very personal manner. But it’s light reading and very well written, so I’m reading it quickly and with no expectations of profundities — I know I’ll enjoy the ride, and I may or may not learn a few things along the way.

I also usually take a couple of minutes to scan the New Arrivals shelves, and today I spotted a book called A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. I picked it up because (a) it’s 220 pages and the type is large, (b) I know of Jeff Hawkins as the inventor of the Palm Pilot, the first successful PDA device (you could take notes with a stylus), which I owned and loved, at least in theory, and (c) I’ve come to believe that one aspect of consciousness is the presence of multiple minds and the interaction between them — I haven’t identified more than a few in myself, but I’m open to the idea that there are on the order of a thousand.

One reason I like to pick up library books is because they are time-limited, as opposed to the physical books I buy or (especially) the ones I load onto my Kindle. They have to be returned in three weeks, which makes it a priority to actually get them read, which means getting away from the computer and (usually, since these are generally lighter reading) into an armchair.


One of the things that showed up in my inbox yesterday was this, from Austin Kleon. Please go visit his site, or at least the web version of this post, so I don’t feel so guilty about reproducing it in full. Which I will do either way, because I just love it. Can you imagine doing something like this for your own child? I can imagine in a stretch, but I am struck hard by the flavor of “This is just a thing we do around here regularly, things that bring a little pleasure into a child’s day.” I know it’s extra cool because it is the work of a thoughtful dad with mad art skills, and I very well may have my own habits that contribute to my own children’s happiness in ways specific to me and our family … but still, THIS is so cool!

A zine about Miles

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

In the Before Times, I would occasionally make a mini zine to put in my son’s sack lunch before he went to school. Here’s a zine I made for him about Miles Davis. (It’s Davis’s birthday.) I am struck often by how when you make things for others, they wind up speaking to you.

Diary: Monday, 24 May 2021

Chris has to make a quick (!) trip to Youngstown OH tomorrow, to follow up on work he and the boys did at a couple of stores there. The work itself will only take a few minutes, but the drive up and back is long, so I offered to keep him company.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a family episode to him, something that happened in his early teen years, and found out he knew nothing of the backstory. No surprise, since I had never told him, and it wasn’t something a kid needed to know or would have been interested in. But it occurred to me that there’s a lot of family history I needed to fill him in on, and a long car ride would be just the time to do it. So that is how we will be spending a good part of the drive.


I’d been checking the AT&T website regularly to see if fiber internet service was now available. You’ll recall that it showed up that way once, I had someone out to hook everything up and install the equipment, only to find that they hadn’t actually finished wiring the neighborhood. So they suspended the order, and the website started reporting “not available.” That went on for a month, but in the past week I started to notice AT&T trucks around.

And Friday a postcard showed up saying fiber was now available. So I called, and got the order restarted, and someone was out Saturday morning, and things almost worked but not quite, so he put in a work order, and someone else came out that afternoon, who said he didn’t think he would be able to get it working, but he submitted another work order. And then late afternoon the modem indicator light started flashing a different color, and twenty minutes later things were working.

Our service was already pretty good, so even though on paper the new service is much better I can’t point to any obvious improvements — well, uploads are now 100x as quick, very nice, but that isn’t needed all that often. Oh, I guess it is needed when someone else (Chris or Maggie) want to stream videos from the media server here. And Chris did confirm that he can now stream in high quality with no stuttering, and can jump around in the video stream without pauses.

The best part is that the new service with 10x better download speeds and 100x better upload is roughly the same price as our old service, AND they throw in HBO Max for free. That’s a win!


And now that I’ve looked over what HBO Max has to offer, I think we’ll be able to drop our Netflix subscription. It served us well for many years, but after the recent binge on Nordic noir shows there doesn’t seem to be much else I want to watch there.

Meanwhile, I just started in on an HBO program, Mare of Easttown, which scratches exactly that itch — police procedurals where town and family life are the real story, with great acting — I knew who Kate Winslet was but don’t think I’ve ever seen a film of hers, so I’m late to the game, but wow, she’s excellent. And I think I know what appeals to me in shows like this — a strong sense of place, inhabited by people who have lived there forever. In this case, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. It’s been a delight to get a strong feel for a very different (to me) place.

I made a quick tour of the HBO offerings and found quite a few movies for my watchlist. And after that there’s The Wire and The Sopranos, neither of which I’ve ever seen … so perhaps it’s time.


This morning I had an eye exam, first in ten years. Nothing precipitated it besides age — my distance vision isn’t quite as sharp as I remember, and my close in focal point seems to have shifted, but I’ve compensated for those — mainly I thought it was worth having an optometrist check for things that come along when you get old, cataracts and glaucoma and such. She looked for all that and gave me a clean bill of health, said she saw the first signs of cataracts but would have been shocked if she didn’t, nothing to act on at this time.

I asked her to write prescriptions for both the usual bifocals and also a pair of computer glasses, lenses that would focus at 18-24 inches or so. Then I placed an order this afternoon with my usual supplier, Zenni Optical, only $40 for both pair. They should be here in 2-3 weeks.

Diary: Monday, 17 May 2021

My previous post here was last Monday, perhaps this will become a weekly ritual. Even now I don’t have a lot to write about, but letting a week go by provides a bit of a prod to write … something.


I see that last Monday I started keeping daily notes in my note-keeping utility, Obsidian. It was an idea I ran across while reading Austin Kleon, who carries a small notebook in which he simply jots down the things he does on a given day, places he visits and people he converses with. He said it was useful for jogging his memory at times, and also an encouragement when he needs one, to go back and quickly review the activities that fill his days.

I tried it with a physical notebook, but after a couple of days decided it would be more reliable for me to make the notes on a computer. As well as producing more accessible notes. And, probably most important, it would be a way of touching Obsidian a few times a day, keeping it from fading into the background, hopefully sparking my interest in making other more useful notes. (This has led to a couple, but nothing earth-shaking yet.)


I spend some of my time studying how people with an internet presence go about establishing and building one. Not that I’m trying to figure out how to create my own — I’m happy enough without one, and don’t have a compelling need (like extra income) for one — but if there’s a sweet spot that I can fill where I’m comfortable with the work it would take, I’m open to the idea.

One such person I follow is Jonathan Stark, who I admire for his thoughtful, deliberate, and generous approach to building his own presence. He’s the “Hourly Billing is Nuts” guy, and has built a very successful business around the idea — but he has lots of related ideas, and has structured his internet presence so that he can give away practically all his ideas in a way that both benefits his audience and increases his reputation, and thus his income.

Stark sends out an email every day, and has for many years. Almost all of them are devoted to useful information for his readers, and none of them overstay their welcome. Here’s one he sent last week that I particularly liked:

People often ask me: “How do you find the time to write for your mailing list every single day?!”

This is like asking me how I find the time to hug my kids every single day.

I love doing it, so I automatically find the time.

It’s not a chore.

I genuinely look forward to it.

How is this possible?

It’s possible because I see marketing as helping people for free at scale.

If helping people doesn’t sound like fun to you, maybe running a service business isn’t your calling.

Diary: Monday, 10 May 2021

Being fully vaccinated I’m now comfortable venturing into supermarkets, at least for a short while. But I’m also quite pleasantly used to letting other people do the shopping for me. So I’ve been compromising by using curbside pickup, then going in afterward to buy the very few things I’d prefer to choose myself, mainly produce. I’ve also been making a short mid-week run for produce, so that it doesn’t need to last an entire week.

Yesterday as I was getting cucumbers and green onions and mushrooms, I noticed that fresh raspberry pints were on sale for $1.50, so on a whim I picked one up for an afternoon snack. Which I ate that afternoon with a generous helping of heavy cream and fake sugar (erythritol). Not exactly in response to a craving, but it was good! And I don’t think it risks creating a craving, I liked it but I’m not scheming to get my next does. And, maybe best, I almost went ahead and ate the large pickle I had originally planned for the afternoon, but after checking in internally I recognized that I wasn’t actually hungry for it at all, and so I skipped it. Which is a major thing for me, quite often in the past I would eat something just because I had planned to eat it, not because I was hungry or even wanted it.


Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video (been doing a lot of that lately, not sure yet if it’s time to worry) by Ali Abdaal, a junior doctor in the UK who kind of stumbled into an internet presence while a medical student and struck gold — literally, he made over $1 million last year in YouTube royalties alone. The money isn’t why I watch him, I started because he uses some note-taking tools I am interested in, and continued because he is an engaging, likeable fellow with an unusual (for YouTube) style of presentation.

Anyway, he happened to mention that one of his changed-my-life inspirations for building an internet presence was a book by Austin Kleon, an artist and writer I’ve mentioned before. I had the book — all three of Kleon’s books, actually — but realized that I hadn’t actually read them, since I’ll often buy someone’s stuff as a way of supporting their work, even if I don’t plan to use it right away (or at all). The books are short, and designed to be light and easy reading, so I decided it was time to take a look. I started in on the first, Steal Like an Artist.

I’m sorry I waited so long, it’s way better than I expected — I mean, I expected the content to be pretty good, and it is, but Kleon’s style of presentation was eye-opening for me, relaxed and concise while still profound. I thought at first I should start highlighting it heavily, then decided no, these books are so short, a couple of hours to read at most, that I am going to re-read them a few times before deciding how to dissect them further.

And maybe the most important insight for me came right up front, a one-page preface of sorts, which I will quote in its entirety:

All Advice is Autobiographical

It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.

These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others—I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.

These ideas apply to anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)

In other words: This book is for you. Whoever you are, whatever you make.

Let’s get started.

This was important to me because I remembered it partway through the book, when I was reading a bit of “You should” advice from Kleon and suddenly wondered, why doesn’t this bother me, normally I get very suspicious when a writer tells me what I should do since so many try but so few are wise enough to be trusted. So suspicious that in my own writing I will avoid “you should” constructions like the plague — and then end up avoiding a topic altogether because I didn’t know how else to phrase it.

But Kleon seemed to have hit a sweet spot where he could write “you should” without imposing any sort of obligation on the reader, it comes off more like “Please consider this possibility”. Which is the sort of gentleness in which you might couch advice you would give to your ten-year-younger self, if you had a proper perspective regarding how young and foolish and yet well-intentioned and full of potential that younger self was.

So for fun and my own benefit I am going to spend an extended stretch dissecting Kleon’s books, not only for their content but for his mode of presentation, to see if I can learn something that will break the logjam for me in writing down my own wisdom. Hopefully it will result in posting one or more detailed summaries of his books, but no promises.

Diary: Friday, 7 May 2021

Is this thing still on?


Sometimes I astonish myself with how shallow my understanding is of a topic I not only think I know well, but regularly do a lot of work in. Recently it was some reformatting work on a website for a friend.

The initial work was tedious because I had to get familiar with some technical stuff where my understanding was shallow and I knew it — in this case, the way that pieces of a WordPress theme fit together so that you can customize one without breaking everything. But that was fine, enjoyable in an after-the-fact manner, it was something I wanted to understand better and in fact didn’t understand well–only in theory, not in practice, because I had avoided putting in the work. So I put in the work, not enjoyable in itself, but now I not only know how to do it but have actually done it (once, anyway) — much more satisfying.

That opened up the door to the reformatting itself, something I’m very familiar with and was able to do in short order. Except for one mystery bit — a piece of content which in certain contexts wasn’t being sized as I expected. Which revealed to me that I really didn’t understand a certain fundamental thing about how elements are sized in a browser. Well, highlighted really, I was already vaguely aware that I didn’t understand, and didn’t care much since in nearly all cases the browser behaved according to my naive, imperfect mental model.

But hey, these are the days, right? What in times gone by would have been an irritating obstacle to getting the job done is now an opportunity to take a deep dive that can’t really be justified except by the fact that I’d like to know more. So I’m spending a lot of time tracking down and digesting the documents that explain what goes on in browser layout at the lowest levels. Not that I’ll ever build one of these things, but learning about the issues and working through the solutions has its pleasures. And when I’m done I should be able to solve my own small issue in a properly elegant manner, rather than manhandling my way towards something barely acceptable.


Long-time readers will be aware that “trying to understand” has been a key theme in my life. Plenty of sharp turns — converting to Christianity, changing churches, joining an intentional Christian community, buying a farm, leaving a farm, changing jobs — have been occasioned by a sudden need to understand something by living into it. Other sharp turns have come when I’ve drained something dry and decided to leave it behind.

I think the sharp turns are done — just about everything I’m exploring at this point is open-ended, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll pick up anything new, these days I’m all about paring down. Just last weekend I was telling Chris I had decided to stop looking for new work. If something new comes my way I’ll consider it, but I’m getting more comfortable with a very leisurely pace, and with the family finances settled I don’t need to bring in additional income.

So even though trying to understand will always play a role, and there will always be projects that help me translate head knowledge into visceral knowledge, I am (tentatively) planning to give up on timetables. Unless that ends up not working, in which case … time to try something else!


I’ve said many times I’d like a deeper understanding of medieval history, and I continue to work on that. Another area whereI’d like to deepen my knowledge (wouldn’t take much!) is late antiquity, the period where the Roman empire began transitioning to Christendom. My curiosity first stemmed from wanting to know more about what pagan Rome found attractive in early Christianity, to the point that it replaced paganism as the state religion. Robert Wilken’s book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, recommended by Servetus, was a big help here.

That plus other encounters in my reading helped me to appreciate what it must have felt like to be a pagan, and got me wondering what it must have felt like to see one’s religion decline and then fall when confronted by a new, very different way of looking at the world. There are books specifically about this — The Final Pagan Generation by Edward Watts is one — and I may actively dig into this one day.

In the meantime, I try to progressively fill in the gaps as I notice them, so I bought a copy of Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction, only 160 pages, which I hope will sketch out the period for me in very broad outlines.

(This Very Short Introduction series is something Oxford University Press started twenty years ago, and there are now 539 entries! I need to sit down and scan the titles, I’ll bet there are others in there I’d find helpful.)


I’m a lot more knowledgeable about modern history — cultural, anyway, the politics is something I know only incidentally — and I don’t yet foresee any end to my efforts to understand. Perhaps it’s a vain hope, but I’d like to have at least a dim understanding of exactly where we’re at right now, as opposed to the (often imaginary) places that parties with vested interests are trying to convince me are our home.

Sometimes they will benefit greatly if they can convince me. Sometimes they themselves are victims of looking under the wrong streetlamp. But in either case I’ve discovered it’s best not to put your trust in the visions of others. You’ve got to do the work yourself.

(One way to track my deeper interests is to look at the domain names I’ve registered over the years. One of them is thisiswater.net, a nod to my hope one day to create an informational website called This is Water, a collection of all the different narratives I’ve investigated that strike me as viable alternative explanations of how we got here, I like to think of them as “secret histories.” The name This is Water is stolen directly from the well-known David Foster Wallace commencement speech, which begins with this old joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

and ends with this exhortation:

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

The job of a lifetime, indeed.)

Anyway, over the years I’ve built up enough scaffolding in this area that quite often I will come across a history which supplies some key pieces, that fall into place for me chunk – chunk – chunk. The latest of those is Stuart Ewen’s book PR!: A Social History of Spin, which I initially bought expecting just a light, informative cultural survey but which turns out to be a solid, deeply researched account of the evolution of the concept of public opinion.

Ewen chronicles the shift as it took place in the early 20th century, identifying the players, their thinking, and the changes they managed to effect. The story ties together many, many trends I was familiar with at a more superficial level. It’s not the stuff of conspiracy theorizing (though it could be!) but more a reminder that people in power never have your best interests at heart, even if that’s exactly what they think.


Since we last spoke I’ve put up a jar of pickles and two jars of sauerkraut, one using conventional cabbage and one organic — I’m hoping the conventional turns out OK since on sale it’s about 1/3 the price, but if the organic is significantly better I’ll go with that. The sauerkraut is about ten days old and needs another week before I’ll test it.

But the pickles — oh, my! I first tried them on Monday, seven days in, and they were excellent, crisp and lots of complex flavor. I may have gone a bit heavy on the red pepper flakes, but the garlic was about right. I used lots of fresh dill, but since I don’t eat anything flavored with dill except pickles I haven’t made an effort to separate out that flavor in my mind, and so I don’t know if more or less would have been any better — I just used the entire package because I had no other place to use it.

I tried them again on Thursday — more flavorful, but also softer. I’ll test again next Monday, after two weeks, just to see how they fare, and then I’ll refrigerate them to stop the fermentation. But right now I’m guessing that seven days is a good place to stop — some sources say that these would be called “half-sour” pickles, but I’m not yet sophisticated enough about pickles to know for sure. All I know is that they were good, and having them after only seven days of waiting is a delight.


I still plan to write about eating, but I think now that I will do it in a single long piece, partly because I’ve never written a long piece, mostly because that will make it easy to ignore for those who aren’t interested (and perhaps easy to find for those who are).


I watched another 1980s movie that was big when it came out but I had somehow never seen, Midnight Run with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. It had a very 80s feel to it, underwritten and under-produced — if the top-flight TV writers of today had reworked the script it would have been glorious, but instead it was pretty good with occasional moments where it rose above the material, e.g. a sequence with a car being chased through the mountains by a helicopter with a guy with a machine gun was tritely structured … but then there was the occasional well-choreographed shot, or a surprisingly funny comment from one of guys being chased. Was the 1980s a particularly bad time for movies, or have things just improved that much in the past 40 years? I don’t know.

The best part of the movie was a surprising chemistry between Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. This was one of DeNiro’s earliest comedy/action roles, coming off a long series of “serious” films made by directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and it was good to see him funny without being hammy. Grodin put me off at first, but I warmed up to him as he turned out to be perfect for the role, in an Albert Brooks sort of way.

So anyway, highly recommended, as long as you aren’t bothered by a bunch of gratuitous profanity — not that profanity bothers me, but there did seem to be a stretch back then (which lives on through HBO!) where it was crammed in everywhere in a show-offy way, even in otherwise lighthearted fare. Not embarrassing, just grating.

Diary: Sunday, 25 April 2021

Today started out gloomy/foggy but ended sunny and cool, fine weather for grilling hamburgers for supper. Grilled hamburgers are maybe my favorite way to eat beef, perhaps even preferable to steak — especially when I’m footing the bill!


Chris and Benjamin came home last evening from a long week in South Carolina, the second and final week on this particular project. They didn’t enjoy it much, but it was profitable, and they’ll be taking the coming week off. Then Jerry will join them for two more weeks on the previous project, and that one will be done. Beyond that there will be other projects, but they aren’t settled at the moment.


I took groceries to Chris this morning, and as usual we spent an hour in his driveway discussing the ways of the world. The talk helped me clear up some things in my mind, and I plan to try a few adjustments in how I’m allocating my time.

Most important, I’m more comfortable with the idea that working to improve the family situation is plenty worthy of my time — I don’t need to go looking for worthwhile, significant work outside that limit. Of course, if work outside that limit comes looking for me I’ll consider it, particularly if it would benefit friends. But I don’t need to find important work to justify my continued existence, the things I actually want to do, would enjoy doing, are maybe not of general significance but they are worthy enough.

In particular, I’m going to turn my attention to a project (an informational website, details to come later) which may or may not make a dent in the infosphere but will have some value, at least as a free resource, and as a foundation for some things we want to do as a family. It’ll allow me to keep working with web technology, and also to do some writing.

That will be a prime focus, but not a 100% focus, it’s a long-term priority that will give way at times to short-term needs, e.g. giving Chris help that I’m particularly well suited to provide, or advising friends, or pitching in when it’s not feasible to hire a certain piece of work done. But we thankfully don’t need paying work anymore, so I will stop seeking out that sort of thing and be picky about agreeing to any work which comes to me.

And the note-taking project will now receive a lower priority. Not that it’s going on the back burner, but I won’t feel bad at all if higher priority work crowds it out for long spells. Note-taking has the potential to become the top priority project, but not just yet, I need to explore more and let my thoughts on how to proceed marinate a bit longer.

AND these diary entries will go from daily to occasional. Hopefully not too occasional, I do enjoy writing them when I have something to report.