Wednesday, April 27


~19:30: I’m on the California Zephyr, right about where the rail line intersects all that crazy refinery shit in Commerce City. More specifically, I’m in the bar car, drinking a beer, with my laptop charging and a comfortable seat and a big window in front of me.

The train system in the western part of this country has its pathologies. The main one is that it mostly doesn’t exist, and where it does exist, it mostly doesn’t work as a means of travel for human beings who need to participate in society. You want to spend airplane money to be in transit for two days and risk delays longer than the travel time involved in many entire trips? Take a train! (Maybe they’re getting better though. This one was in Denver a good 45 minutes before departure and left the station on time, miracle of miracles.)

Beyond that, well, I’d been here five minutes before I formed an opinion about which dude is most likely to get (more) grotesquely wasted and be kicked off the train in the middle of the night somewhere in Western Nebraska to sleep it off in a local drunk tank. Hanging out in this car is definitely going to get me into at least one awkward conversation tonight. Going back to my seat is likely to do the same.

~20:43: And ok, let us not bullshit one another: Transportation in America is broken in a series of important ways. As far as I can tell, with the very qualified exception of established rail corridors in coastal zones, trains are not going to save us from this fact, or even do much to mitigate it. At least not until “trains” are fleets of linked robot vans rolling down designated lanes on interstate or something.

With those things out of the way, I really love long-distance passenger rail. When this thing does work, it’s this glimpse of an America you could fall in love with if it were an enduring configuration of facts beyond the weird little windows of time-on-the-train.

This train is carrying young Amish (Old Order Mennonite? some plain-dressing Anabaptist modality) couples with babies, Black people from St. Louis and Chicago, white hippies with dreads, happy-go-lucky travel-addict retiree types, board game nerds, definite alcoholics and possible junkies, that inevitable pairing of some-kind-of-nebulously-religious person and attractive European tourist where you can’t tell if they ever met before the train but you can tell they’re going to wind up in bed within 24 hours, and a couple of people from Utah bound for a tobacco pipe convention. (I know about this last because I shared a table with them in the dining car and ate a steak dinner. And was it a good steak dinner? Well, it was at least marginally better than anything I ate in Las Vegas the last time I was stranded there, and it beat all hell out of the weird starchy potato crackers they give you on airplanes now.)

~21:07: It won’t surprise me if the Deadheads in the crowd break out an acoustic guitar and start pissing off the crew in earnest before long.

Anyway, my point is this: If somehow you’ve got the time to kill, Amtrak in America west of the Mississippi can be a pretty good time. Hell, even when it’s a bad time, which is not so far off from likely, it can be an experience you will come to value.

Tuesday, April 26

It’s some time well after midnight. There’s a storm rolling in over the mountains and up from the south. On the radar, the colored splotches are over Boulder now and not quite here. There’s that heavy feeling to the air and the smell of flowers. The thunder is almost continuous, and you can hear rain on the trees though it’s not exactly raining. I’m sitting in my back room with a window open so I can hear. Someone’s windchimes are making intermittent noise and there’s a breeze where there wasn’t one a few minutes ago.

First thunderstorm of the year: This is a milestone almost as subjective as “first robin of spring”. As a matter of ritual observance, the computers are unplugged and I’ve lit a candle, although once the main body of the storm hits this latter actually seems like a reasonable precaution. The electricity here hasn’t gone out in a while. We’re probably due one of these days.

There are computers scattered all over the house, along with little piles of media and drives and miscellaneous knots of cables and random peripherals. Earlier tonight I realized I’d deleted (accidentally or by way of a bug in some busted-ass photo management software) a bunch of pictures I still want. That problem still isn’t quite resolved, but it sent me on one of those tangents into old-machine spelunking where you find yourself squatting on the floor late at night, staring into the dusty guts of something that hasn’t booted in four or five years, poking listlessly at cables.

Eventually I settled on trying a Dell system1 with a known-good (well, known-good a couple of years ago) motherboard and optical drive. That plus a not-too-badly-scratched Debian Wheezy install disc from a pile of old work papers was enough to get me a chroot shell2 on the SATA hard drive I’d been trying to read.

Eventually I remembered that there probably hadn’t ever been a bootloader installed on the thing to begin with because of reasons.3 To my surprise, this got me a bootable system:

# grub-install /dev/sda

I meant to grab a handful of files and move on, but I probably spent an hour just poking around the running system.

One way or another, I’ve settled on continuity as one of the things I value most in a computing environment. I fiddle with the knobs, but it’s been years since I made genuinely radical adjustments to what I see when I log in to a personal client machine. There’s a little text-based task bar of sorts with a few workspace names and some monitoring text, a clock, a couple of tray widgets. I recently tried to change up the arrangement of workspaces I’ve had since maybe 2010, spent a couple of weeks tripping over myself trying to switch windows, and went back to the status quo.

It’s always weird, knowing this, to step back even a few years into some older environment. The wall hangings and the furniture might be more or less the same, but it’s usually still a different room somehow. The parts that are made of host OS and applications change, related complications become encrusted in files and workarounds.

It’s funny how often it seems like a better room in some essential way.

Since I first started knowing about them for a living, computers have objectively gotten much better in a variety of important ways. (In this, they’re something like cars, camping gear, and American coffee.)

They also exhibit a real and sort of disquieting trend towards the accumulation of bullshit.

1 An Optiplex 745 with 2 gigs of RAM and a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo. A corporate workhorse probably sold in the first place with Windows XP. Disappointingly, this one seems to have come without the 3.5" floppy drive, but I may have a working spare.

2 Wikipedia: A chroot on Unix operating systems is an operation that changes the apparent root directory for the current running process and its children. A program that is run in such a modified environment cannot name (and therefore normally cannot access) files outside the designated directory tree. The term "chroot" may refer to the chroot(2) system call or the chroot(8) wrapper program. The modified environment is called a "chroot jail".

3 I think, somewhat hazily, that I had another drive start to die and dropped this one in next to it, but (because of laziness, stupidity, or some weird hardware constraint I'm forgetting about) left the bootloader on the older drive.

Sunday, April 24

Purchased at the Friends of the Loveland Public Library Book Sale, for $5 in total:

  • Frontier Earth, Bruce Boxleitner. Possibly a sequel to something. Features the author in character as Babylon 5’s Captain John Sheridan on back cover.
  • The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard.
  • Cloud Cry, Sydney J. Van Scyoc. A Book Club edition. One of those 1970s small-format hardbacks with a dust jacket in terrible vague pastels. Sample sentence: “Aleida hunched in the dark mating bower.”
  • Fireship, Joan D. Vinge. Similar format to above. Cover art is less abstract: features some tape drives, a menacing bald guy, a a dude with some kind of implied brain implants and giant sunglasses, and a woman with a remarkably plunging neckline and unrealistic shoulders sitting in a bar or casino of some sort.
  • Commerce of the Prairies, Vol. II, Josiah Clegg. A facsimile edition in the “March of America Facsimile Series” published by University Microfilms, Inc., “A Subsidiary of Xerox Corporation”.
  • Went to Kansas, Mrs. Miriam (Davis) Colt. Same series as above.
  • The Gila: River of the Southwest, Edwin Corle, illustratd by Ross Santee. A Bison Books edition from 1967.
  • The Gold Cell, Sharon Olds. Poems.
  • Nebraska Moments: Glimpses of Nebraska’s Past, Donald R. Hickey.
  • The Great Crash, John Kenneth Galbraith. A paperback reissue from 1961 (I think) in remarkably good shape.

This is a reasonably good encapsulation of the experience of showing up at the end stage of a book sale, when you can fill a bag or box for pretty much no money. I rarely know why I bought half of what I did, or I know my reasons but they’re obviously bad. Then again, there’s usually something in the mix worth having anyway.

tuesday, april 19

i used to be obsessed with meaning
i remain so, of course
(it's intrinsic to the problem space)
but the totality of my subjective experience
for a while now has suggested that the question
tends to obscure the structure of what is
with the unstable materials of ideas about
oughtness and should-be-ness

Thursday, April 14

snippets in vim

There are a variety of plugins that let you get little “snippets” in Vim, which is to say little blobs of text with placeholders so that you can press a key and get a little template to fill in. The idea is that this is useful for things you wind up typing repeatedly.

DigitalOcean’s custom Markdown dialect contains a couple of things I wind up typing a lot. One of them is this:

some shell commands go here

I’ve gotten kind of tired of this and my wrists hurt a lot lately, so I went looking for a snippet plugin. After asking around, I settled on trying UltiSnips.

I added the following to my .vimrc, which is using Vundle to manage plugins:

" snippets
Plugin 'SirVer/ultisnips'
Plugin 'honza/vim-snippets'

" Trigger configuration. Do not use <tab> if you use
let g:UltiSnipsExpandTrigger="<tab>"
let g:UltiSnipsJumpForwardTrigger="<c-b>"
let g:UltiSnipsJumpBackwardTrigger="<c-z>"

" If you want :UltiSnipsEdit to split your window.
let g:UltiSnipsEditSplit="vertical"

And then ran:

$ vim +BundleInstall

After that I messed around in help files for a while and came up with the following, in ~/.vim/UltiSnips/markdown.snippets:

snippet ` "```command ... ```"

So now I can be in insert mode, and type `[Tab] and get:


…where commands is a placeholder and my cursor is waiting for input.

Actually pretty slick, and I felt for a minute like maybe I’d keep using it, but then the underlying Python started spewing errors and I realized that the big library of snippets takes a bunch of random mnemonics for everything that I was probably never going to learn.

Tuesday, April 12

Somewhere just before dark, I sit on my new front steps with a low-grade import beer that I don’t actually want much and listen to the frogs across the street. I want to hear the frogs quite a bit more than I want the beer. They’ve been noisy every night since I moved in, a jarring reminder of the organic world that I have been ignoring while looking at screens for so long. Later, writing this at the kitchen counter with the front door cracked and the heat leaking out into the mid-April night time chill, I can still hear them.

A frog is a terrifying little monster of an animal, if you are something small enough to fit inside its mouth. Frog behavior has always struck me as profoundly mechanistic. There’s maybe a kind of intelligence lurking in frog motions, but if so it’s the intelligence of some ruthlessly honed algorithm.

I’ll miss them a lot, if they go away.

Reading: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton.

It’s a small book, by layout and page count, but I’m not quite finished with it after a week. I bought it at City Lights in San Francisco and brought it back with me on the airplane. Even in the absence of other inputs, air travel gets me to thinking in spirals about our civilization as ruined and ruining, and about my own certain death. This is a book subtitled Reflections on the End of a Civilization, and it takes maybe all of 10 paragraphs before one starts with “We’re fucked.”

I guess I would say that it’s not the best choice of airplane reading for a compulsively catastrophizing, fear-riddled depressive. Every time my girlfriend has seen me reading it since, she’s hated the idea of me reading it with various degrees of audible disgust. This is because she thinks it will cause me to trip down a days- or weeks-long spiral of ruminating on the general fuckedness of basically everything.

The book’s early sections are, in fact, pretty bleak. They’re some of the only nonfiction prose I’ve read that really chimes with my own sense of how ugly the next decades and centuries are likely to become, if in fact the scary-case version of climate change turns out to be basically accurate.1 Or more generally my sense of what a deeply intractable technical and political problem is represented by the ecological impact of human civilization.

That out of the way, I think there’s something quite a bit more interesting here than straight-line despair, however well-articulated, though I’m not sure what I’ll think by the time I finish the last quarter or so. Its prescriptions for a kind of philosophical or humanistic intervention in the course of the looming apocalypse initially struck me as kind of thin, and yet.

Worth the time so far, at any rate.

1 A while ago, I wrote a text file about whether I know anything about this question. I don't, of course.

Tuesday, April 5

There's a new Elephant Revival album out.

I went over to Hygiene to drop off a key and talked to Tim about politics. Bernie might just do ok in Wisconsin. Chris is in Portugal, for some ineluctable if not entirely obvious reason. The weather has been perfect and I know that I should get on planting the garden or it will be too late. I think about seeing if the rototiller out in the shed will start, but I don't actually do anything about it.

friday, april 1

reality is n-dimensional,
as far as any one person
(any one discrete subjectivity-bearing unit of
relatively continuous experience)
is concerned

any imagined taxonomy of experience
must fail to contain itself, or indeed
the context of its production

maps are territories unto themselves
often inhabited long after the hills and rivers
they approximate have turned to ash and pottery shards

every leaf node on the tree of other persons
contains a tree of other persons
(at least in potential)

every perspective after the first
causing hairline fractures
in the easy alignment of answers and understandings