Tuesday, August 26

A lot of the time, it feels to me like I’m thinking about things, but then I go to put thoughts into a text editor or on a page or into spoken sentences that carry meaning to other people, and everything seems to scatter all at once into a sort of probability cloud of thought-like motions. What I have are not so much ideas as they are concerns, worries, senses of the need or obligation or possibility that maybe something will become an idea.

Increasingly, it feels like if a thing isn’t written, I may as well not have thought about it at all. I can’t tell if this is a function of deteriorating memory and cognition, or just a product of a life with too many moving pieces. It turns out that even quiet lives of little consequence, like the one I’ve slowly accreted about me, can contain too many moving pieces to easily grasp any one of them for long.

It’s quiet in my mind right now. I’m at home with the front door open onto a late-summer night just after brief rain. Crickets and frogs are loud, cars occasional. There has been lately the unmistakable, irreducible scent and feel of fall in the edges of things - in the cold air that pools in the low places late at night, in the mid-morning temperature, in the angle of the afternoon light. Here and there a few patches of leaves on the few deciduous trees have already turned.

After a while I step out onto the wet stones of the patio and Chris is walking up the drive. Hey hey, he says. Hey, I say. I think I’m gonna crack a beer, he says. I cracked a bottle of wine a while ago, I say. And so we sit for a while, generally just bullshitting over the last drink of the day. The bluegrass jam across the street sounds halfway decent with the frogs. One of those mouse-sized wolf spiders that lives in the boonies around here crawls over my right foot.

Things are all right.

Saturday, August 23

a notes.txt / TODO file format

These days, I try to abstain from the cult of personal productivity systems the same way I avoid software methodology and exercise programs. Then again, I'm a little bit fascinated by the stuff all the same, and I do find some consistent utility in keeping checklists. I figured I'd document my system for that, such as it is.

I keep a lot of notes on paper. For stuff I want to do, I make lists with little square checkboxes next to invidual items. If I get something done, I put a checkbox in. If I move the item to another list, I draw a little circle in the box. If I decide it doesn't need done any more, I draw a line through the whole list item. At work I keep these under my keyboard on the biggest piece of printer paper I can find. Elsewhere I've usually got a notebook going. Every once in a while I go through the last couple sheets of paper and the most recent notebook, and make sure everything gets marked done, not-needed, or moved.

(I used to use index cards for this kind of thing, but I think I've realized that having hundreds of tiny unbound pieces of paper floating around is a good way to lose pieces of paper which contain useful information. Bookbinding is a really beautiful technology just on the pure pragmatics of the thing and should be warmly embraced.)

It's pretty easy to do the same thing with text files. Here's the format I use:

This is a general notes / scratch area.


  [ ] first thing
  [ ] second thing
  [x] a finished thing

  [ ] some other thing with sub-tasks

      - a note that isn't exactly a task
      - some other note

      [ ] a subtask
      [ ] another subtask
      [x] a finished subtask

a whole section for something else

  [ ] etc.


  [x] completed thing
  [x] other completed thing

I tend to have the stuff I'm working on right now up near the top. Once I don't need things to keep track of where I'm at in an ongoing project, I move them to the "done" section at the bottom. I keep a notes.txt like this in /home/brennen/notes/, which is also a good place to stash random work-in-progress files. A while ago I decided to keep this directory in git and make commits once in a while, which turns out to be cool because you can run git blame and see roughly when an item last changed.

If I were after more of a Proper System, I'd probably use a database, but I'm not really after metrics or scorekeeping or whatever. I'm just augmenting a really bad working memory.

Monday, August 11

Nebraska is uncannily, improbably green this August. The wettest summer on record, says my dad. It’s overcast and cool when I’d usually expect dead grass and a hundred degrees. The cicadas have started in and the lightning bugs are still going strong.

Wednesday, August 6

You listen to the radio. It tells you: The world is burning. You drift through the internet. It tells you: The world is burning, and you are at best a minor kind of accomplice. You occupy the web of consumer-economy transactions, and this vast network in which you are an incidental node, it transports the fuel and fans the flames.


Ok, bad start. Lemme try that over again.


There is a new Weezer song on the radio. I expect to hate it in the quiet, sad way that you hate trite bullshit produced by once-great artists, but in fact there’s something genuinely endearing about it and its direct, pseudo-bombastic, cheeseball narrative. It’s Weezer with none of the imagistic, free-association near-nonsense that reached such an elevated pitch in the years surrounding Nirvana, and the guitars are more like some kind of abstracted signifier pointing at the idea of bighearted pop rock music than they are like the things we used to sing along to. Still, somehow, I can imagine knowing the words to this at the kind of arena rock show I haven’t attended regularly in a decade, though I know it might well be terrible.

I don’t know what the hell happened to Weezer, but in parallel I also don’t know what the hell happened to me. My life is weirder than I imagined it being, and in the light of this knowledge I find that it was always weird.


Elsewhere in the world: Ebola, civil/sectarian war, coordinated violence which can reasonably be called genocidal in purpose, ramifying environmental calamity. Does the recital of horror deepen with time, or is this only an illusion brought on by slowly deepening memory? Am I gaining just enough perspective to be crippled by it?

Regardless: I’m tired of the apocalyptic consciousness that used to fascinate me.

Monday, August 4


I keep starting books I know I’m probably never going to finish.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz: I appreciate the author’s work in general — I think she writes intelligent stuff that doesn’t posture too much. This is a pretty good entry in the pop science field, which is a genre constellation I’ve always had kind of a shaky, occasionally-too-credulous relationship with.1 It’s what I’ll call a thesis book, the kind where you know the author is ostensibly staking territory around some kind of claim, here conveniently stated in the title. I don’t know how well it makes the argument, or for that matter how hard it tries, but the first 40 or 50 pages' stage-setting descriptions of earlier mass extinctions make for good reading.

A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger: Late Medieval whodunnit with a bunch of characters recognizable from history & lit classes. Kind of grimdark but believable, for historical fiction with a mystery slant. I find myself in that familiar place of liking characters and not really being sure I want to find out what happens to them.

Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, by Carolyn Renée Dupont. I saw this mentioned somewhere and figured I’d give it a shot. I can’t remember whether this one was a dissertation, but it feels like dissertations I’ve read. There’s obviously a ton of reading behind it, it hits the era from an angle I haven’t heard much about, and it changes my understanding of religion in the US. On the other hand, it does that history book thing where it has a lot of samey many-claused declarative sentences. I’m not sure I’ll pick it back up, but this is good material the same way Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right was good material: It situates some things and ideas I didn’t know needed situating.

I think I’m making my peace with leaving books unfinished. I’d rather read haphazardly than not at all.


I’ve just realized that, though I didn’t plan on letting the Kindle change me, I’ve started to treat Amazon as this kind of parallel slow web made out of e-books.

HAND 1: I think the web should out of logical necessity expand to include every book ever written publically that we can possibly digitize, and I like having some mechanism of compensating authors and publishers for their labor.

HAND 2: But, in no particular order: Libraries are a more civilized slow web. Rent-seeking by a single unchecked actor strikes me as way worse than certain kinds of inefficiency (like, say, bookstores). Amazon is ambiguously evil.2 It’s probably just about as terrifying that a single corporation is exercising such leverage over the ecosystem of long-form written culture as it is that Google & Facebook are eating the public web and extruding something straight out of the pipedreams of 1990s cable company executives.

1 I want to apologize to anyone who encountered me at any time during that whole regrettably drawn-out Steven Pinker phase. Especially if you are anyone I dated or wrote a paper for.

2 I'm working on a theoretical scale here. It goes: Unambiguously evil, ambiguously evil, ambiguous, ambiguously good, unambiguously good. It's kind of fuzzy; my thought is that it's more about the admixture of possibility than it is about absolute magnitude. The _how evil_ part is a separate axis. Nazis, the GOP, and David Brooks are all unambiguously evil, for example, even though the Nazis were obviously worse than Republicans most of the time and David Brooks is just some educated-sounding doorknob with an inexplicable full-time gig in the national political discourse. Paper documents are good because they've sustained civilization for centuries, but ambiguous for pretty much the same reason.

Under examination, Amazon seems to ride the evil side of the spectrum pretty hard: It's not so much a business as it's a kind of meta-technology for subsuming the infrastructure of the economy and ruthlessly exploiting the falling value of labor. Amazon is like if the falling rate of profit woke up one day and just decided to embody itself as this giant fucking company. Capitalism made manifest with a stupid logo and a web site that everybody uses while feeling pretty good about not going to Wal-Mart.

But of course the fact that Amazon is a technology fascinates as much as it inspires dread. Within its strange umbrella there is a good deal of competent engineering, and much of its suffocating reach is built on the way it extends the leverage of all that infrastructure to end-users and suppliers alike. There's a contradiction here, there's the possibility of gain, there's a vast set of lessons about a particular technological culture. So: Ambiguity.