Janitors

A species of ant in my kitchen likes kimchi-fried rice. By Tuesday morning they’d found Monday’s unwashed dishes. A bucket brigade from the colony marched between the caulk and the window frame, down the counter, around the sink, through the pile of dishes, to their picnic. I watched throughout the week; their labor was so fascinating. Fewer workers are on the job this morning, just the handful needed to tidy up. All that remains of the rice is a thin skin of starch and cellulose pebbles.

ants eating rice

This army of miniature janitors cleaned up my mess.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Yesterday I spotted a valiant, optimistic beauty in my lawn.

The crocus uses what time it has, when it can. It must. Today it still reached for the sun.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. [Matthew 6:34 (ESV)]

Sabbathday

Sun shining over the hill and through my window, slowly climbs down the wall. The calico sleeps and purrs after breakfast, half on the book I was reading. There’s a feeling of possibility.

This spaciousness and calm I miss during the week. In conversation with Joan Halifax, Krista Tippett remarked, “We experience time as such a bully.” The clock, she meant, the calendar; how we use our days against ourselves, letting them be so demanding, a treadmill.

Which bird sings outside his courtship song? Sparrow, cardinal, chickadee? Titmouse?

I am so ignorant of so much in this world.

Slippery When Wet

This weekend I drove a 2006 Toyota Prius into a ditch.

The snow began falling around 11:00. About an inch inch lay on the road, atop ice. The first few flakes had melted and frozen, or perhaps a drizzle of rain had come before the snow. I wasn’t entirely aware of the conditions before setting out in search of lunch. And I certainly wasn’t aware of how a Prius performs in the snow. That is to say, it doesn’t handle as expected.

The hazards of driving in snow are in turning and in controlling speed, both applications of a loss of friction. Without traction, hills present a particular difficulty. To control speed going down a hill, one usually, in dry conditions, slows the turning of the wheels by impeding the movement of the wheel with the disc brakes. On snow (or ice or water or wet leaves) this causes the car to slip, so it’s something to be avoided. Alternately, one downshifts to a lower gear and uses the engine to brake. This method is not possible in a Prius, unless you read the manual. Thirdly, one may use gravity to reduce momentum as one reaches the crest of a hill, in order to minimize peak velocity on the descent. There may be other techniques of which I’m not aware. Conversely, the momentum of descending the hill is needed, again because of the lack of traction, to ascend a hill.

Turns complicate this.

In the movie Cars (2006) a race car encounters impossible situations. He drives down a dark road at night, by the light of the moon because he has no headlights. He falls of a cliff cornering on a dirt track. He pulls a paving machine. He tips tractor cows. (C’mon! One can suspend disbelief only so far.) The missing headlights are a mechanical design decision: he doesn’t have them because the chance he’ll need them is so improbable. They aren’t necessary. But he fell off a cliff because he doesn’t know how to drive on a sliding surface. He has to learn.

The story is that a Toyota engineer drove a Siena minivan through all 50 states to get a sense of how it was used and the conditions one might expect. This resulted in features such as the ability to lay a 4×8 sheet of plywood flat in the back, all-wheel drive, and passenger windows which opened. (Though why it took until 2003 for vans to let their passengers breathe is beyond my comprehension. Did no automotive engineer ever suffocate in the heat of the back seat as a child?) Given the poorly functioning windshield defroster, one might suspect that the Prius was only tested in southern California, but it does have an anti-skid feature which, as far as I could tell at the time, consists of flashing a light and beeping at you — and slowing the rotation of the wheels. Along with traction control, it’s intended to keep you on the road and in control of your vehicle. Mostly. The computer is to assist in handling the skid; actually handling it is up to the driver.

It’s said that experience is the best teacher. I’m not a fan of Mario Kart and other racing games. I’m inexperienced, uncomfortable driving with my eyes my only sense. I lose control and crash. In a car there’s gravity. You can feel the weight shifting and move in concert. There’s more to the road than the speed limit, the angle of the curve, the pitch of the pavement. Cars 3 (2016) is a lecture on the limits of simulator design. There’s more to racing than going fast in a circle for a long time: You will encounter unexpected situations and must adapt to them. Though perhaps even the best simulation, limited only by a lack of imagination, cannot adequately prepare you for the Real Thing. One becomes accustomed to the simulation, prepared for the apparently probable and unable to adapt to the unlikely. In this context, the news that DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero taught itself chess is important and disturbing: it learns; it adapts. After the novelty of autonomous automobile racing wears off, NASCAR fans may dress up in fancy hats and fondly recall the storied heritage of the sport.

But can they drive in the snow?

Maybe.

Researchers at Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab noticed something.

[T]hey solved a sliding problem when going around corners at high speed by using data gleaned from the minds of racing drivers.

“We discovered that for the drivers it was an automatic reaction that kicked in as soon as the car started to slide,” [Joe Funke] said, “They knew what to do from experience and just did it.

“The car, on the other hand, used a stabilizing algorithm. When we changed it so that it had a set automatic command when it started to slide it definitely seemed to work.’

They encoded the practice that racing drivers had done.

Number One Daughter (17) has been driving, carefully, for almost a year. But she hasn’t encountered a skid yet. Watching videos on how to correct a skid is useful, but it doesn’t replace experience: the correction for a skid is not like linear driving. Where can human drivers get more experience in edge conditions? Why aren’t these techniques taught to new drivers? Why don’t we teach more than the bare minimum needed to operate a vehicle? For that matter, why don’t we teach high school physics on race tracks? Why is it easier to teach a robot?

First World Problems

Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is possible to use adverbs on road signs. Drive Slow*ly*

This month’s additional practice is to not like anything on the Internet. To aid that practice, I’ve removed Facebook and Twitter from my mobile device. Apple’s iOS 11 then helpfully removed the ability to share things to those sites from outside of the apps. It’s like I’ve returned to the dark ages!

I’m somewhat amused by folks burying their noses in their devices while waiting instead of twiddling their thumbs or chatting with their neighbors, because I’ve done this since I learned to read: I carry a book with me. For some reason though, the meaning of reading a book in public has been one of intentionally ignoring one’s surroundings, while reading the Internet has not been — except in very worried articles on Internet usage. Perhaps this is because observers can’t tell whether one is reading War and Peace, looking at pr0n, catching up on the latest debacle in Washington, or exchanging longing emoji with one’s lover.

What I’m not amused by is the effect on posture. I’d love to know a way to read a book that’s easy, comfortable, and doesn’t lead to back and neck problems. A lectern, perhaps? Seems a bit bulky to carry in my pocket.

In other news, I’m changing how I link to books. I’ve been an Amazon affiliate since the program started, though in that time I’ve made a grand total of $0.00, because no one reads this website or buys books after clicking on the links. If I’m not getting a percentage from these linkages, then why should I link to Amazon instead of another bookseller? The initial choice of Amazon was made because I like their catalog — they had previews so you could skim the book before buying — and I buy from them. Also, they made it easier than other options. Going forward I plan to link to Indiebound or WorldCat. Not because I don’t like Amazon, but because I do like Pawling’s Book Cove and I do like libraries. We’ll see how this goes.

Also, I’m peeved that I haven’t located my hardcover copy of Connie Willis‘s Doomsday Book.

Short Circuit

This.

a person at a party, alone in a crowd, awake, walking, happy in the forest

When I first saw this cartoon by Tom Fonder, I thought, “That seems nice, to leave the party and go to the woods.” Parties are nice and all, seeing friends and family, but they can feel intense, exhausting, draining. Time alone, quiet, is needed to recover.

When lifting weights, or with any practice, improvement comes not during the lifting, but after, as your body recovers and builds new muscle and new myelin. Next time will be easier. The path becomes well-trodden.

If you practice.

What if you don’t? Or, more precisely, what if you practice a maladaptation? Suppose you sacrifice form to make a personal record. You can make the one-rep max, sure, but you also reinforced a movement pattern. What are the consequences? Down that path lies easy injury.

This year I didn’t drink anything at Thanksgiving, and haven’t for some months now. It changes your perspective to avoid that haze. Now when I look at this cartoon I see something else: panels two and three. The party has moved from drinks with dinner to raucous laughter to oblivion. How many others need a social lubricant? Who found the quick way?

There are others at the party who are like this man who has left to go to the wood. He is not alone.

For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. [Matthew 7:13]

Inky Fingers

There’s something about the smell of fresh ink. Each time I enter a bookstore, I pick a book from the shelf, riffle the pages, and bury my nose in it. Ink is the smell of hope and wonder.

You can get it delivered daily with a newspaper.

Down the alleyway from our house, past the county courthouse and jail, was the newspaper office and print shop. The publisher didn’t much care for my hanging about, but he did tolerate me enough to print a couple of book reviews. I don’t recall talking to anyone much, just standing there, inhaling the ink, and dreaming over the supplies in the front cabinet — though there was that one time when I asked for an estimate on a print run for a fanzine. I may have asked for a job once, but no help was needed. The Recorder is still there; the press is not. The offices no longer smell of ink.

I have in my library a pile of newspapers, mostly unread, collected from places I’ve been. Not quite sure how I picked up the habit, but I tend to snag the local paper when I travel. Some places offer choices: perhaps a free weekly in addition to a daily, or one from the Big City somewhat further away. Cincinnati offered the Enquirer and the Post when we were in Loveland; one set of grandparents read The Inter-Mountain, the other read the News Leader during the week, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday. The Really Big City papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, weren’t available everywhere, only in airports and near those cities. Maybe most people don’t feel that so many papers available and news-stands virtually everywhere is the one of the more exciting things about New York, so I’ll accept that I might be little odd.

But it was a bit of a shock to find that London, England, had even more. I gathered up The Times, The Sunday Times (found out that they were different), The Independent, The Observer, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, and more! That was a fun week in 1992.

Why does London have more papers than New York? Does it have more interesting newspapermen?

I worked in a print shop for a while, one which had a four-color offset press. But the Benjamin Franklin printing office in Philadelphia screamed out ink in louder, bolder type.

 

Now If I Could Just Think of a Title….

Hi, I’m Will. I suffer from word count envy.

I marvel over the seeming quickness of pen and flow of words of prolific authors, and envy that apparent ease. How could so much ink be spilled so quickly?

It’s been a mere 23 days since I started this daily writing practice, one with a publishing deadline. (My longhand journal entries tend to vary with anger and melancholy, and rarely record anything but, leaving blank pages on the calendar.) And in that short time I’ve felt the writing become easier, more fluent, so that I almost feel like two or more pieces a day is not inconceivable.

Hey! Maybe this practice thing actually works. 🙂

Hi, I’m Will. I have word count envy.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Netflix noticed something strange and unexpected among users of their video streaming service: they would watch all of the available episodes of a series before starting a new show, and they would watch for hours on end. They called this consumption pattern binge-watching. What explained this novel behavior? What did it mean, not only for Netflix’s business, but for everyone in theater?

But this behavior is not novel, and should have been expected, if the industry had not confused the limits of their production and scheduling processes with customer preferences. Any librarian or bookseller worth her salt could predict this. What do their clients ask for when they find a good book? More of the same. Even Hollywood moguls know this. Applying this knowledge is what they, still, have trouble with. Streaming video services, the medium formerly known as television, should remember to take this customer preference for more into account. Attempting to stretch a product over time through artificial limits such as the gradual release of episodes may inadvertently lead to lost viewership and reduced profitability.

The summer of 1981, I bought Lord Foul’s Bane at The Little Professor Book Center in Montgomery, Ohio. I remember this because it was the first book I bought on my own. I picked it out from the shelf. I smelled the fresh ink. I ruffled the pages. I complained about sales tax. After I read it, I went right back out — at my parents’ convenience — and bought The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves. But The Wounded Land was only available in hardcover, so I read that at the library. And that’s when I discovered that The One Tree would not be available for another year!

image of the first edition U. S. paperback covers of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

One year?!

Well, by the time it arrived, I had forgotten a bit of the earlier book. I read The One Tree — one must finish a series, y’know — but without the enthusiasm I’d pursued the previous volumes. I eventually read White Gold Wielder. I think. I’m not quite sure.

Storytellers have quite a few tricks, “narrative techniques,” to capture the attention of their audience. Cliffhangers, for instance, are quite effective. But their enemy is time. Will the audience come back after intermission?

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Everyone Sang,” Siegfried Sasson (November 1918)

There is such joy and hope in this poem, by some accounts written moments after hearing the news on the day of the Armistice.

Compare to “In Flanders Fields,” more commonly associated with the war, at least by this schoolboy.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields,” John McCrae (2 May 1915)

Written after the death of a friend in the Second Battle of Ypres, here the countless dead beg the living to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, and throw good money, or lives in this case, after bad. In 1915 the war was still not entirely hopeless.

Sassoon addressed the waste of war in other poems. Whether “Everyone Sang” is a hymn in response to the peace or not, there’s a moment of hope, of life breaking out in joy.

Hear Siegfied Sassoon read “Everyone Sang” at the Poetry Archive.

Some Days

Chilly. On mornings like this I’m encouraged to stay in bed by warm blankets, warm cats, and the cold air. Funny how the summer’s heat encourages the same. I do like my cozy bed. But I’ll pad to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. The flock of robins on the bare branches of the maple next door, black against the grey sky, chatters about their plans for the day.

I found another wonderful thing on the Internet: the weather maps by The Dark Sky Company. Click on that link. I’ll wait.

Continue reading “Some Days”

But I Get Up Again

I didn’t hit publish on my latest until after midnight, so it looks like I missed two days, not one. I could fudge the record by back-dating posts, but I’d rather not. Instead those gaps in the calendar stand as an example, assuming I continue writing.

Everyone stumbles and falls. Some get up and keep going.

How we approach failure matters. Even in this one sentence, this one paragraph, I keep writing even though I’m not quite sure how best to say what I’m thinking. I could wrestle over each individual word used before I put pen to paper, and do — that’s how I normally approach the page — but when I do that two things happen: I forget what I was trying to say, and I don’t write. Why would I even do this to begin with? I’m not producing permanent etchings on rock; I can change words as I go along, or come back later and revise whole sections — and that’s just on paper. Digital ink is even more flexible. But I’ve done this for decades; I stopped writing in a journal when I was 11: my scribblings were defacing the beautiful book.

I recall some author attempting to make the case that these specific lines in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” were proof that they were a Satanic band, because you can’t get to Heaven on the highway to Hell:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by / but in the long run / there’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Which is funny because this point is made several times in the Gospels: there’s still time to change. We are all sinners, redeemed by the grace of God. As Paul argues in Romans, because God has forgiven you, refrain from continuing to sin, and instead walk in the path of righteousness.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:1-4 (ESV)

(Now that I think about it, that commentary on Led Zeppelin hides a temptation. Shall we despair and continue to sin because there is no hope?)

Let not your sins be a heavy burden, but get up and walk with God, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” That attitude applies not just to grievous faults, but to every little mistake we make. As the Zen Buddhists say in teaching mindfulness, and the yogis in teaching yoga, approach with beginner’s mind. Return to the breath if your attention wanders. It is still there. Observe that thought passing through, how you are not your thoughts. Begin again.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

We carry the mistakes of the past with us, as lessons: The bee may sting if you try to pet it. What lesson will we learn? What will we teach? If we do not risk failure, if we win without effort, is that success? Each moment, this moment, is new. Pick up the pen and write.

The Darker Half of the Year

I don’t believe in ghosts or demons from the deep. Then again, I don’t not believe in them either. There’s insufficient evidence for canals on Mars. But I would like if All Hallow’s Eve were more hallowed, if Samhain were a thinning between the worlds, and not a confectioner’s gimmick. These days the closest we come to fear and wonder is paranoia over pedophiles and madmen next door poisoning the Baby Ruth or slipping razor blades in apples. Though, come to think of it, that’s not all that different from the Faeries leaving a changeling for a baby, or being caught up in the Wild Hunt.

Perhaps it’s the missing sense of reverence that no longer attends Halloween, and for some has gone from Christmas and Easter, that I desire. There’s nothing particularly special about those days other than that we’ve set them apart as holidays — and then imbue that day with no significance other than market day. We do the same with somber national holidays like Memorial Day. Thanksgiving we’ve left alone because there’s still Friday to shop. It’s as if shopping is the holiest thing we could possibly do.

What is it I’m looking for, exactly? Something experiential? An ecstatic moment? An imaginary romantic ideal? The annihilation of advertising? Longing for years gone by? Not year-old candy, that’s certain.

Pictures of It Didn’t Happen

Twitter and smartphones have changed the art of citation on the Internet. It’s not enough to quote something and to link. A picture must also be included of the source with the quoted text highlighted. (Then the link and attribution are forgotten.) Perhaps this practice arose because the sources are easily deleted or altered. But everything digital is malleable. Pictures can be fabricated.

This is not a tweet by Donald J. Trump.

The question arises, what can we trust? Photographs, of the non-digital variety, have been the subject of manipulation since the invention of the medium, whether for monetary fraud, such as spirit photography, or for political, like the memory hole. Some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, adopted strict usage practices around photo manipulation to ensure trustworthiness. Other publications are less concerned about objectivity in the pursuit of their art. We made the distinction: is this a representational work with a claim to objectivity? Or is it art, potentially with a claim to so-called truth? What helps guide us now?

TED Radio Hour talked the other day about our understanding of memory and new techniques for altering it. We’ve known our experience is plastic for some time: lawyers lead the witness. But these medical techniques of memory alteration are the premise of Philip K. Dick‘s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” frequently remembered as the motion picture Total Recall (1990), and pose a quandary: Should we? What is real if we can remember a fictitious vacation on Mars? No wonder some people think Apollo 11 landed in Arizona.

Funny how the Big Questions of Life have indefinite answers, if any. What is Real? What is Illusion? What is True? The same questions troubling us long ago bother us today. Is there anything there outside of our senses? Our sight grows old and dim. Our memory lies. We forget. Perhaps the Ancient Greek word for truth is intentionally precise: not forgotten.

What’s to be believed? Our dementiaThe treachery of images?

Morning Mood

The camera can not capture what I see.

Pouring rain outside, slow and steady and constant. Leaves surfing the light breeze. The slower drip of water from the branches. A beautiful wet day, its damp chill asking for a fire. I took some pictures, but a still image doesn’t see the rain. It only exists as motion.

Perhaps this is a lack of skill on my part, less a failing of the camera than an inability to express the experience in this medium. But there is art that conveys the sense of a rainy Fall day: a more accurate, as it were, representation, a prompt for the imagination.

I’ve taken my glasses off so I can write. The visible world shrinks to my hands and pen and page; the frames lying idly by. The red of the barn and sumac define their shapes against Andrew Wyeth’s grey sky.

The gas rushes to heat water for my tea. Rain bounces on the leaves. Overhead, a plane interrupts. Even the loud noises of the world are quiet and still.

The tea is ready.

Would You Rather

I say this every time because it’s true: the pain I can deal with. It’s the vision loss that bothers me.

There’s a question — I think of it as part of a child’s game from when I was young for some reason — which body part would you rather lose? Which sense? For me it’s always been my eyes.

I cannot remember ever having seen clearly. I have sharp memories from when I was very young, before kindergarten; I don’t remember blurs. It was in elementary school that I got my first pair of glasses, and realized that the world was not painted by Monet.

For years after LASIK surgery in late 2000, I woke seeing but still groping for my glasses. The effects have since worn  off and I have glasses again, and the onset of presbyopia. The distances at which things come into focus are no longer so clear and well-defined. Ben Franklin, I understand, had  a similar problem.

First the pain. It starts as a dull ache, usually behind my left eye, enough to give warning, not that I can do anything about it. Waves at the periphery are next, and sometimes it stops there, with just the pain and the sense that the corners of my eyes are underwater. Then numbness in my tongue and left shoulder. By this time it’s best not to have plans for the day. It could get worse. Once I lost words.

Worse, the darkness closes in, right eye first, then both until I’m alone, blind. Then the agony starts.

Not today, I think. Today’s feels like it will stop here: with vague sight, numb tongue, and a constant ache to ignore.

What Are You Here For?

I have, since I found out about it, wanted to go to space.

I remember, vividly, watching Star Trek in color in the basement of a friend who had television and shag carpet. I was young: older than five and younger than eight.

(I remember, vividly, watching all of Star Trek in one weekend at St. John’s. But that’s another story.)

I consumed all of the LIFE Science Library and every mention of space in the National Geographic.

I devoured all stories of the stars I could find, all of which made it seem possible. I despaired when Skylab crashed in the Australian desert. I gobbled up the news that NASA would launch a space shuttle. We were on our way again!

Or not.

Still, the first job I wanted — and failed to apply for — was an internship with NASA at Wallops Island, Virginia. That was the first time I decided I wasn’t good enough; I hadn’t enough experience. I was too young.

Yesterday, Elon Musk announced the plans his company SpaceX has to develop an infrastructure to get one million people to Mars, with first launch in 2022.

I’m so excited! I want to be part of this! Why do all the open positions at the company have to be in California?!

Now I’m too old.

Go West, Young Man! Ad astra per aspera.