Friday, January 30

I just spent $26 acquiring this used Old Timer on eBay.

I may regret this decision, but I have been looking for approximately this knife since I lost mine two or three years ago. It turns out that the American Schrade factory closed some time in 2004, and Old Timer knives, which in the days of my childhood seemed to occupy a display case near or under the counter at every small-town hardware store, are now manufactured by Taylor in China.

(I imagine this is a tale not unlike that of Vise-Grip pliers, which is especially sad if you've ever hung out in DeWitt.)

I don't know if there's any difference in quality. They seemed like big-ticket items when I was a kid, but I suspect these were never exactly high-end products. I certainly don't harbor any particular feeling that Chinese factories are intrinsically worse at making mass-produced goods than American ones, though I do tend to assume that they run on the crystallized tears of small children, which might partially explain my feeling that, god dammit, I did not want a Chinese-made Old Timer pocket knife.

The other thing I did not want is most of what's currently offered up as a pocket knife. Most Americans can probably remember a grandfather, father, uncle, or aunt carrying an unobtrusive, useful, and sharpenable folding knife in one of a few basic patterns. These models seem mostly to have vanished. The market is presently flooded with badly-designed knockoffs of the Leatherman multi-tool (most built so poorly as to be useless) and knives situated firmly in the X-treme! School of Design.

Look at the Google image results for pocket knife and it's all there: Ridiculous curves, notches, and perforations. Unnecessarily serrated blades. Useless knobs and clips. Plastic. Garish colors. Elaborate grips with rubberized bits. The kind of low-rent quasi-military / industrial aesthetic that seems calculated to appeal to suburban mall thugs, frat boys, and 17-year-olds who watch a lot of Hollywood Action Product.

It's probably not fair to judge an entire culture by the junk it carries in its pockets, but sometimes I can't help it.

Thursday, January 29

work

Back when SparkFun had about half as much space as it does now, I shared an office with Lara Boudreaux, who is a remarkably talented illustrator. I notice she just posted some of her stuff to flickr. You should check it out.

aspirations

Danny Yee's review of A Natural History of Conifers:

Aljos Farjon has produced a broad and engaging account of conifers, covering their systematics, paleobotany, ecology, biogeography, human uses and conservation. The science stays central to his presentation, but he includes anecdotes and stories from his experiences studying conifers all over the world.

...

A Natural History of Conifers is illustrated with a superb array of photographs, which are integrated into the text except for the decorative double-page spreads at the beginning of each section (which unfortunately lack captions). There are also some excellent line drawings of both trees and details. The result is a handsome as well as informative volume, which should command a wide audience.

I want to be like Danny Yee when I grow up.

Tuesday, January 27

Listening to The Three EPs in more-or-less its entirety for the first time in some years, staring at pages full of incomprehensible code, fingers resting on the sweatstained keys of a Model M, I am briefly overwhelmed by the atmosphere of 215 Morey Hall, Wayne State College, Wayne, America.

Eight years down. What the hell happened?

Sunday, January 25

Animals were a running theme. One night during the run, when Muriel Smith showed up with a bedraggled cat she had just rescued off the street, Audrey immediately adopted the thing.

“We called the cat Tomorrow, at Audrey's suggestion,” says Monkhouse. “It was rather a rude joke, stemming from the fact that [it was] a male cat that had been castrated, and you know what they say about tomorrow never coming.”

Audrey Hepburn, Barry Paris, p. 46

Saturday, January 25

I've been reading some of the Vim help files lately. They're imperfect — you don't always know what exists, and the English can be a little rough around the edges — but there's a lot of text, and it is full of potentially useful stuff.

I've been getting interested in Vim's built-in scripting language. Most of the commentary I've read indicates that it's sort of weird and clunky. As near as I can tell, it is definitely weird, but it's also surprisingly featureful, in a somewhat ad hoc way. For example, one of its built-in types is a dictionary, more or less corresponding to a Perl-style hash (but with optional dict.whatever notation for accessing elements), and another is a function reference. If you want to stuff function references into dictionaries, you can get syntactic sugar whereby functions can use self to refer to the containing dictionary. You can even do this with anonymous functions. Presto, instant objects. Kind of, at least.

Less surprisingly, Vim also has a more sophisticated model of variable scope than languages I frequently use it to write, such as PHP. Here's a table, adapted a bit from the text of :help vim-script-intro:

There are several name spaces for variables. Which one is to be used is specified by what is prepended:

(nothing) In a function: local to a function; otherwise: global
b: Local to the current buffer.
w: Local to the current window.
t: Local to the current tab page.
g: Global.
l: Local to a function.
s: Local to a :source'ed Vim script.
a: Function argument (only inside a function).
v: Global, predefined by Vim.
 
& Option, local if possible.
&g: Global option.
&l: Local option.
$ Environment variable.
@ Register.

Well, at least it's explicit and granular. You can also do the equivalent of array slices, map(), and various kinds of regex matching. The devil, as always, is in the details, and I need to play with this, but I start to suspect that it's more capable than scripting environments I've used heavily in the past.

Anyway. There's an important takeaway here: It's 11:56 on Saturday night, and I'm sitting at home in my bathrobe drinking 90 Shilling and going over the documentation for a text editor.

Easy, ladies. There's plenty to go around.

Friday, January 23

another loosely connected series of observations

You and your bike will become intimate with the topography in a way that you and your car don't even have to think about.

Inclines kill.

People have a knack for systematizing. This will generally be the opposite of making your life as a programmer any easier.

Radical perspectives don't necessitate a blindness to meaningful distinctions between less radical alternatives, they just make it easier.

Monday, January 19

i got your civil discourse right here

Mark Hemingway:

Over at the Weekly Standard, John McCormack notes that will.i.am bowlderized the verse of the song where he compares the CIA to the KKK. Thank God for small favors.

I'll grant you a straight-up comparison is hardly fair. After all, how many million more deaths has the CIA been responsible for? The Klan weren't/aren't much like the CIA - they're like the organizations it sponsors.

'course, what the original apparently, actually said was this:

But we still got terrorists here livin'
In the USA, the big CIA,
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK.

But I forget myself. In the moral universe of people who are big enough assholes to be blogging at the National Review Online, state terrorism is by definition committed by governments other than that of the United States of America.

Sunday, January 18

hey nerds

Are you reading Trivium? You should be.

Friday, January 16

on the bus

Loud Guy Who Says Fuck a Lot: What's in the case?

Really Patient Guy: My knives.

It turns out that Really Patient Guy is a chef. After a while, I find the only available audio file on my computer, a copy of the Most Unwanted song. In line with the song's title, I don't actually want to listen to it right now, but I want desperately not to hear any more of LGWSFaL's cretinous, repetitively aggressive half-shouted diatribe about employment and the economy and the vast depths of his experience. If I am not careful, he will detect my barely-suppressed misanthropic rage and turn his attentions my direction. As it stands, I can only make the volume loud enough to cut out about two thirds of the conversation, but it's enough.

Headphones may be a great social corrosive, but sometimes I suspect they're the only thing preventing me from being involved in the kind of public confrontation that ends with assault charges.

at home

I listen to the mix CD she made for Christmas.

we collapse a lot of meaning into the word home

It's like the distance between gratis and libre. Between the places you've kept clothes for a while and the places you could find your way with just a hand on the wall at midnight during a moonless snowstorm blackout. Where you're going alone after the bar closes and where they'd scatter your ashes if you had any say in the matter.

I like to imagine that this means something.

Wednesday, January 14

I'm sitting in a bus station, trying to get wireless. It isn't working. Mike Huckabee is interviewing Ann Coulter about her new book on Fox News. A guy named Daniel asks if he can use my phone. He's clearly stoned out of his gourd. After he calls his dad, he asks me if I play any instruments and we talk for a while. Actually, pretty much he talks, but although I'm always at least a little nervous at the prospect of talking to some random dude in a Greyhound station (because, let's be honest, these places are freakshows, and before you know it some guy will be trying to sell you bad coke and/or encouraging you to join him in his personal relationship to Jesus) I don't really discourage it. CA, who has been talking to an old metalhead named David on the bus, arrives from Nebraska and we depart.

The next morning it is Monday and I'm laying in bed snooze-buttoning through these dreams of disaster and trying to decide if I should bike in when my boss calls to tell me it's a snow day.

Casey calls from work, where he rode on his bike and suggests that we should go play in the snow, it being a snow day. He seriously proposes to ride down 75th to Louisville. I drive in to pick him up instead, and we go to Boulder to smoke the hookah and walk up the path into Settlers Park.

Tuesday night it's 9:30 and I'm at war with a comically broken technical process of little actual consequence and nearly cosmic stupidity. I kick things. I jump up and down. I swear unimaginatively and at great length. The implacable void does not care. Neither does Microsoft.

Then it is today. I'm driving home from work and some guy on KGNU is talking about the CIA in Greece, the CIA in Guatemala, the CIA with rivers of blood on its hands, which in some way are our hands, which is all the stuff of madness and delirious conspiracy except that it appears to be basically, horribly true.

At home I make a pan of mac & cheese (a brand designed to appeal to granola crunchers: rabbit on the box, cardboard-colored pasta, bland cheese powder) and mix it with the leftovers of last night's mushroom + black bean + bell pepper + pineapple thing. It could be worse. Cayenne and soy sauce will cover a multitude of sins.

I decide to read a recent Spenser novel. It doesn't really matter which one: Parker must have this formula down so cold by now that he could run one off in his sleep with both hands tied behind his back, just dictate it all the way through, no edits.

Susan is beautiful. She is in fact a beautiful sexy older Jewish shrink lady who dresses impeccably and doesn't eat much. Pearl is a dog. Hawk is the ludicrously competent tough scary black dude with hidden depths. Spenser is more competent and tougher than everyone who isn't Hawk. Both of them are laconically/ironically aware of these things. Someone walks into Spenser's office and Spenser is a wiseass about it, but he gets involved anyway. There's a hot woman who's confused about life. At this stage in the series, probably she is 40 or 50 and married. There are a gazillion recurring characters, like Vinnie who is definitely a bad man but reliable, and Belson who is a cop. There are other characters who establish Spenser's quietly sensitive hardass Boston liberal bona fides. Spenser name-drops some brands (it used to be Rolling Rock and New Balance, which had some credibility, but these days it varies and you wonder if Parker isn't getting a big fat product placement check or something, I mean for chrissake in this one it is Blue Moon of all things). Things are not quite as they seem and someone gets shot. Innocents suffer. Spenser could walk away, but he doesn't because someone needs to even things up. Spenser and Hawk work out at that one gym. Mention is made of former boxing careers, probably in the context of someone noticing that Spenser is a badass who has had his nose broken. Spenser watches girls walk past his window, reads the comics, and thinks about sex. Scotch is consumed. Noxious yuppies, stupid hippies, and/or misguided academics with cringe-tastic lines may drift through a portion of the narrative. The events of one or more of the other 34 novels are referenced with degrees of subtlety ranging from "I might know what the hell you're talking about if I'd read it last week" to "please, please stop beating me over the head with it already". Some guy thinks he can fight because he's large, and is wrong. Observations are made about the physical condition and attire of many individuals, some of whom are women who'd be hot if they just put on makeup and a better outfit. Spenser and Susan discuss their respective feelings, and how being a P.I. is or is not like being a shrink. Pearl wants to be fed. Later they have sex (Spenser and Susan I mean; Pearl gets kicked out of the room). There is a Confrontation. People get the living crap beat out of them, or possibly are shot full of holes. Spenser and Hawk are still tougher than anyone else alive. Robert B. Parker sells about half a gazillion copies of the paperback.

At this point, I could almost write one of these, except that I don't know anything about any of: Boston, how to describe clothes and firearms, the mechanics of a fistfight, the algorithm for generating laconic badass banter.

Saturday, January 10

Hey, I came home drunk and exhausted to an empty apartment at 3 in the morning. What do you expect? Chicken Soup for the Childishly Disaffected Soul?

So I was listening to Weird Tales again this morning. (Where by "morning" I mean "early afternoon".) You know, the 1998 Golden Smog album with the bat-suit girl on the cover?

What a great record.

with my friends I used to follow
nearly everybody's daughter
that's until you came along
in a bar room, patrons singing
but I just sat there drinking
that's until you came along

These are the kind of songs that really should be crowded barroom sing-alongs, but I suppose that's not altogether likely.

friday, january 9

for the most part,
love is fucking meaningless

wanting to fuck is equally without
significance
although it's at least an either/or
proposition of sorts
or anyway a matter of tangible degrees
are we or aren't we? did we or didn't we?
there are circumstances where you might not remember
and sometimes you don't know what's coming next
but there's a physical fact somewhere in there

mind-altering substances, likewise,
make you ridiculous
it's possible to argue that what
they really do is nullify some
collection of checks and balances
which prevents your true underlying
ridiculosity from emerging
but that assumes some kind
of core selfhood

which is the thing that when
you go looking for it is always
around some bend, under some other
layer, in some corner of your eye
making like a bob dylan biopic title:

don't look back
i'm not there
no direction home.

Thursday, January 8

i wanna believe / in the mercy of the world again

Here is a video of Tom Waits doing "Make It Rain" on Letterman. "Make It Rain" is from Real Gone, which is a pretty great album.

Tuesday, January 6

continuity

I guess this could be construed as cheating, but I finished a poem for the 23rd of December.

nerdcore

Here is a brief list of interesting things in the GNU coreutils that I did not know about until recently:

  • od dumps files in octal and other formats.
  • shuf randomly shuffles its input.
  • seq prints a sequence of numbers. No, really, I didn't know this existed.
  • ptx produces a permuted index of a file. Try this on a text of some length. It's especially interesting on verse or lyrics. For example, here's its output for the 23rd's poem, and here's what it does with the lyrics to "California Stars" (source).

more: california_stars.txt wooden_matches.txt

Monday, January 5

Kepler's Equation: 2009 Edition - I don't understand this at all, but it is an enjoyable piece of writing.

Saturday, January 3

The morning of New Year's, I went over to Casey's place on the Hill so he could tune my new (used) bicycle a little.

The bicycle is a beautiful thing, when you really look at it. In its modern incarnation, it's that rare product of industrial technology that doesn't appear to be poisoning the world. A mechanism which makes things more humane rather than less. Even in terms of manufacture, though there are surely problems, it requires vastly less in the way of energy and materials than any other practical vehicle I can think of. (Leaving aside items like skateboards, which seem to fall into a different category.)

In the realm of transit, if the "mid-sized" American Sport Utility Vehicle is a cheap inkjet printer with a mostly empty cartridge, then the bicycle is a fountain pen with a built-in reservoir.

When I was home over Christmas, I got to thinking about the garden cart my parents have had around the place since I was a kid. It consists of two wheels, four pieces of plywood, and some metal tubing + trim. Its construction is far less complex than that of most bicycles. It's easy to load, capacious, and surprisingly sturdy. The wheels are positioned so that the cart seems almost to lift itself when you tug upwards on the handle. It moves easily over broken ground. It stands square on one end for dumping or storage. It's hauled firewood, seed corn, salt, concrete, compost, dirt, garbage, straw, drywall, shingles, sheet metal, tools, chainsaws, an air compressor, lumber, furniture, small children, and nearly every kind of garden-related utensil, product, or refuse.

My bicycle and my parents' garden cart share a lot of basic properties: Simple in form, they also represent millennia of engineering, and benefit immeasurably from standardized tooling. Despite all this iterative history, their specific instances represent individual acts of design and craft. They serve as direct mechanical extensions of the human body's existing powers, don't require any additional fuel, and can generally be maintained by their users with simple hand tools.1 Though each is the result of industrial fabrication and supply chains, it's at least possible to envision handmade models built on the same principles out of local materials.

These are appealing technical properties, but it also seems to me that if there are useful judgments to be made about the moral + ethical content of technology, then they are especially good reference points. Good places to start asking questions, at least.

 

I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've been a hopeless nerd for most of my life, and I was going through an impressionable age at the manic height of the network-as-revolution 1990s. It's hardly surprising, though regrettable, that I put my friends through at least one phase of vapid claims about how "all social problems are essentially technological". In an important sense, of course, I was right. You can't find a human society without technological foundations, even if a pointed stick doesn't look much like a Macbook.2 I still didn't know what the hell I was talking about, and somebody probably should have slapped me for getting so excited about such a cheap insight.

Some years later, I have a minor role in the technocracy, but I've pretty well lapsed and drifted my way out of the technocratic faith. What I'm left with is a feeling that technology, like geography and climate, exercises a vast influence on the conditions of human life - and in much the same way: In the sphere of technology, there are no incidentals, and the products of immediate intentions aren't necessarily more significant than the products of happenstance, accumulation, and drift. Nor are they necessarily less significant, but it pays to remember that all but a minute fraction of consequences are unintended.3

 

If this all sounds a bit deterministic, that's probably because it is.

BUT, I'm not trying to suggest that decisions about tech don't matter, or that the work of designers, engineers, hackers, & technical folk in general is just noise. Quite the contrary. I just think that conversations about technology and civilization generally could use a much larger dose of broad context and humility, a bigger and less category-bound sense of how things get shaped the way they do.

So back to two-wheeled utility. The last thing I want is to become an Ideological Cyclist Type. People who will tell you that no one in America has an excuse to be driving a car might be more obnoxious than people who will corner you at keg parties to rant about TV and Wal-Mart.4 What I'd like, by the time I do drift back into the territory of norms and judgments, is to know why tech like the bicycle seems so unusual. I have this suspicion that you could get at a lot of the same things by asking why everyone watches so much shitty television, but possibly I'll do better with happy exceptions than with depressing standards.

 

A tiny bibliography:

Witold Rybczynski, One good turn: a natural history of the screwdriver and the screw (Scribner, 2000).

Henry Petroski, The evolution of useful things (A. Knopf, 1992).

 

1. Ursula K. Le Guin, in A Rant About "Technology", handles this pretty well.

2. A point I'm stealing directly from Casey.

3. And explicit intentions are scarcely a reliable guide to outcomes anyway. Erik Winn, a friend and colleague of mine, is fond of the observation that the real purpose of computers is to keep people occupied. There's a compatible aphorism in cybernetics, coined by the fantastically named Stafford Beer,3a that "the purpose of the system is what it does". I wish I could remember where I first came across that one, but it was likely the programming subreddit or a blog entry by someone a lot smarter than I am.

3a. I would bet money that at least one third of all the other people who have ever mentioned Stafford Beer in writing use some variant of this tired formula.

4. Does this still happen? I was thinking about it, and apparently I don't go to parties any more or I'd know.

Friday, January 2

Ted Nelson has a new book.

I haven't seen Revolutionary Road, and I'm not really planning on it. That said, "Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs?", Lee Siegel's review of same, would be more interesting if it bothered to grapple with its own question in terms of whether all those angry arty types have a point.