Tuesday, January 26, 2021

reading: the steerswoman (series)

These are by Rosemary Kirstein, and available as e-books on Smashwords:

  • The Steerswoman
  • The Outskirter’s Secret
  • The Lost Steersman
  • The Language of Power

I came across these by way of a blog post by Sumana Harihareswara, I think with my ambient sense that I should read them enhanced by a review by Russ Allbery and a blurb from Jo Walton.

On first inspection, The Steerswoman is a particular and familiar sort of fantasy with one or two mildly interesting conceits. It quickly becomes something deeper than that, and after working through all four in the space of a couple of weeks, I’d rank them with the classics of their genre.

This is an unfinished series, the first of which was published in 1989, with a whole lot of unresolved questions. I normally try not to encourage people to take up this kind of thing; most readers of speculative fiction have been burned by some long-running series or another by now. I’ll make an exception for this one: I eagerly await the concluding volumes, but even if they’re never published, the first four are all worth the time.

p1k3 / 2021 / 1 / 26
tags: topics/books, topics/reading, topics/rosemary-kirstein, topics/sfnal, topics/the-steerswoman

wednesday, january 20, 2021

somewhere a little after 10pm
a mandolin, amplified loud enough for
most of town to hear it
plays a triumphant instrumental.
and then a single firework

p1k3 / 2021 / 1 / 20

Monday, January 4, 2021

keeping a log: 9 months / ~1k entries in

Previously: org mode, vimwiki, timeslice.

Mechanisms inspired directly by: A demo & talk from Lars Wirzenius on his ikiwiki-based external brain and journal; fediverse discussion of the Org mode agenda; and possibly too much reading about the Zettelkasten.

Back in March, in the throes of a bunch of rabbitholing about note-taking, I roughed out a system for keeping short, granular log entries in my VimWiki. I agonized for quite a while about how to do this before deciding to start with the stupidest thing that could possibly work.

The short version is that I have a hotkey to create datestamped files in a log/ directory, like these:


A new entry opens with a template like the following:

%date 2021-01-04 21:46:40.056011313-07:00

I then give the entry a human-readable title, links to relevant topics, and as much text description as seems useful. A typical entry looks something like:

%date 2020-12-11 16:49:51.356943342-07:00
%title Configuring digiKam again

[[/configuration]] [[/photos]] [[/digikam]]

Digging around in the guts of an old `digikam4.db`.  Changed the album root to
point to the new path in `~/workspace/photos`.

Then, when I’m viewing a topic page like digikam or photos, I can press another hotkey to pull up a window with any linked log entries. When I’m viewing the diary page for a given day, a bit of shell boilerplate shows me all the log entries for that date.

I’ve elaborated on this all a bit since March, but the underpinnings are still just a few hundred lines of hacky scripting and Vim configuration. Before I put any work into cleaning it up, I thought I’d try to outline some stuff I’ve learned.

I’ll use the time-honored form of “answers to questions no one has actually asked me”:

Why a log? Because in taking notes, I’m worried about two dimensions: Subject matter and time. A single flat wiki namespace can be workable for navigating the who/what/where, but it’s lousy for navigating the when.

I’ve also spent a lot of my life keeping logbooks, looking at logfiles on computers, writing a journal, and publishing a datestamped blog. At Wikimedia, I’ve been particularly impressed by how useful the server admin logs are, and I pretty much live and die by command-line history and bookmarks. It’s a notion with an overwhelming amount of precedent in my life.

What distinguishes a log entry from any other wiki page? Its placement in the log/ namespace and a handful of formatting conventions.

Was this actually a good way to approach the problem? Yeah, I think so, with caveats.

Is the implementation sound? Not by miles, but it holds up better than I expected. Eventually the flat directory structure will get cumbersome in the shell, and grepping through files like I’m doing some places might get less practical.

How are the ergonomics? Not that bad, but there should be as few keystrokes as possible involved in writing a new entry, and this doesn’t quite cut it.

What’s a good fit for this kind of log entry? Finding a new piece of software, writing a letter, taking notes on a meeting, setting up or decommissioning a piece of gear, finishing a book, garden/yard work, house and vehicle maintenance, phone calls, general life events, sysadmin work, etc.

What’s not? The single thing I’ve done the most of that probably makes the least sense in this format is logging individual expenses and financial transactions. This has been useful enough to convince me that tracking what I’m doing with money is a good idea, but clunky enough that I’ve learned stuff like “paid the mortgage” and “bought groceries” should be structured, query-able data. The most that I have to bash out with a keyboard in that context should be an annotation on a specific record or group of records. That’s not to say I’m thrilled at the prospect of keeping a rigorous double-entry ledger that balances out for every transaction in my life, but I can see the appeal in a way I couldn’t really before.

This generalizes I guess: A lot of the history I care about lives in structured, formal-ish systems like version control, banking, various databases — and other parts of it should. Like sometimes I log specific weather events, but usually when I want to know about weather in the past, what I’d really like is a way to quickly aggregate a bunch of data points.

That points at two categories of “log entry”: The loosely-typed human-readable kind that make sense as wiki pages, and the granular, highly-structured and repetitive kind that make more sense in something like a database table. Then there’s a third that doesn’t quite fit in either box. Sometimes I paste a lengthy shell transcript into a log entry, for example, and while that’s more or less fine, it points at a gap in the tools I use. It would be way nicer just to push a button when I’m doing something in the terminal that it’s important to remember exactly, and then it can record until I tell it to stop and let me add some tags and a summary to the session.

So what next? Well, I’ve arrived at something I’m going to keep using. I’d miss it if I quit, and it’s easy to accumulate a useful record this way. I might clean up the mess a bit and package its components as a VimWiki addon. After that, I’m going to spackle more stupidest-things-that-could-possibly-work on top to augment it, and think about more ways to surface and integrate other parts of the meta-log that are scattered all over the systems I use.

p1k3 / 2021 / 1 / 4
tags: topics/data, topics/logging, topics/notes, topics/technical, topics/vimwiki

Saturday, January 2, 2021

reading in 2020 (books edition)

As I look over the set of books I’ve piled up in my house, the other thing that strikes me is that, in the years these books have been accumulating, both the relationship of books to the culture and the nature of reading itself have been rearranged. Like I wrote three years ago:

Because really what I read in 2017, in most of the last several years, was the internet. Not even, in any real sense that registers, individual documents hosted on the network, or the work of authors I can clearly identify. Just the endless scroll.

…it’s like that but more so, now.

The last book I read in 2020 was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which has this bit (chapter 30):

So how you feel about your time is partly or even largely a result of that time’s structure of feeling. When time passes and that structure changes, how you feel will also change— both in your body and in how you understand it as a meaning. Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. The obvious contradictions in this list might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately, if we are not mistaken. Or put it this way; it feels that way to us. But a little contemplation of history will reveal that this feeling too will not last for long. Unless of course the feeling of things falling apart is itself massively entrenched, to the point of being the eternal or eternally recurrent individual human’s reaction to history. Which may just mean the reinscription of the biological onto the historical, for we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all.

The moment’s structure of feeling has changed, and you can tell it in just about every text you encounter. It’s also pretty hard to stop encountering texts even if you want to. The stuff is inescapable and much of it has a quality of self-replicating churn that makes me feel kind of queasy about the entire enterprise of human thought.

I wonder if it felt something like this when literacy really took off as a technology in the first place.

Anyhow, what booklike objects did I read this past year?

February: I ordered a copy of Sönke Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes. Note-taking was on my mind a lot over the course of the year, and I spent too much time reading other people’s ideas about it. By July I managed to post some notes on the idea of the Zettelkasten that serves as a partial review / summary of Smart Notes and related things.

May: I binged my way through Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries. Popcorn SF, socially anxious heart-of-gold protagonist. I started The Elephant in the Cornfield: The Politics of Agriculture and Climate Change, by Chris Clayton, which I should probably revisit.

October: Meghan O'Gieblyn’s Interior States (essays), Vanessa Veselka’s The Great Offshore Grounds (a novel), Ron Chernow’s Grant (biography). The first two were quite good and I still haven’t finished the Grant biography.

November: Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, first of a trilogy. The first two of a trilogy by Eden Robinson: Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift. All recommended.

December: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse. I liked some characters and scenes and ideas in this, and didn’t exactly love it as a novel. Mileage might vary.

And then The Ministry for the Future. Near future SF, barely a novel at all for a lot of its length. A book that seems more deliberately pitched to be read right now than a lot of short-shelf-life fiction is just by accident. Among other things, it’s partly an argument that the end of ecocidal capitalism is achievable, partly a claim that eco-terrorist violence is likely (and quite possibly necessary) as the climate struggle intensifies, and partly a fantasy that cryptocurrency might have some kind of pro-social role to play in engineering a survivable economy. I will be thinking about this one for a while.

p1k3 / 2021 / 1 / 2
tags: topics/books, topics/climate, topics/murderbot, topics/reading, topics/sfnal

Friday, January 1, 2021


I rearranged my office back in mid-December. This is always tricky because we have more stuff (hand-me-down furniture, old computers, bins full of electronics) than we really have house to put it in. As per usual one thing led to another and I wound up moving all of my books.

I’ve finally got just enough room to shelve most of them again, thanks to secondhand bookshelves and a partner who went on a building spree for her own collection over the summer. It’s been a couple of houses since they were anything like organized, though. Half of them have been trapped behind a cat tree and an armchair for years.

I went for alpha-by-author ordering, with a handful of category exceptions: Poetry, reference works, religious texts, computer stuff, a bottom shelf for the oversized volumes. It’s a mess because I’m doubling up to fit everything and the books are wildly different sizes. I can see one of the flimsier sets of shelves coming apart under the load as I type this, and the U–Z stacks are still sitting on the bedroom floor because I ran out of space.

So it’s imperfect, but it’s also really the first comprehensive view I’ve had of this set of books since I was 6 or 7 years younger and it was a much smaller set. It’s kind of a strange experience.

From the time I started reading on my own until pretty far into college, I lived in books. As a kid I read and re-read my dad’s pile of genre paperbacks, thrived on trips to the library, spent hours arranging things on shelves, was always in the process of reading something. Once my friends and I could drive, it meant I could go to B. Dalton and Waldenbooks before we saw whatever the movie was that week. Eventually the internet started to tell me about writers and my personal canon expanded slowly outward, one novel-length trip at a time. It felt so weird to leave a book unfinished that until at least my early 20s I could remember everything I’d ever bailed on (a Hardy Boys mystery with a scene containing a skeleton that wigged me out, the copy of Cujo that my mom got banned from the school library after I accidentally left it where she could find it, …).

The books I have physically to hand in middle adulthood are a different kind of animal. There are, sure, beloved volumes from childhood, things that have changed how I think, the kinds of books I go to for solace and perspective. But looking at the whole spread, I’m honestly not sure I’ve even read more than half of this stuff.

Some of it I read but hated, or liked fine but never actually finished. There must be 30 lbs of assigned reading I’ve been lugging around since college. A dozen literary relics of relationships (romantic or otherwise) that have been defunct for many multiples of the brief time they existed. Detritus like the copy of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos that I bought used and hate-read for reasons that now escape me but must surely reflect poorly on my character. Books about math that I own because I liked the idea of being a person who would read them. Poets who just leave me with a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. Things that looked mildly interesting on the book swap shelf at a coffeeshop I frequented in 2003, but which are in fact bad. I have a copy of Battlefield Earth for some reason. (It was probably on the free table at SparkFun.)

There’s at least as much dross in this collection as there is gold waiting to be found, and then it’s funny how much of it belongs to some now-distant idea of who I was — or wanted to be — as a reader or a thinker or a person in general.

I suppose all of that’s pretty normal for a stack of books sitting around going into one’s 5th decade. If you hold still for very long in this culture, stuff accumulates around you, and plenty of it outlasts the parts of your life that it attached to in the first place. A library is a kind of memory and an index to memory, but what it remembers can often be strangely fractured and unevenly focused across time. Not unlike the way things actually go in a given life I guess.

Still and all: I haven’t let go of the idea of a personal library, and I doubt I will.

Putting this stuff on shelves makes me think of what it was like at 10 or 12 years of age, crouching on the floor halfway through reordering a stack of paperbacks, accidentally caught up in reading The Green Hills of Earth or The Call of the Wild over again. It also reminds me of what it was like at 21, wandering deep in the stacks of a big university research library: All those weird pathways and strange wonders. Outcroppings of the sublime or the sturdily useful in the most unexpected places, amidst treacherous pools of boredom and fossilized nonsense. All the times I intersected with some decades-old choice in curation and bounced off of it as a slightly different person.

I think a library should be a refuge, but it should also be something with the capacity to surprise and unsettle you. Maybe a personal one should serve as a reservoir of things you used to think and things you still might.

p1k3 / 2021 / 1 / 1
tags: topics/books, topics/libraries