Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Read This

      An interesting post on "Activism" over at Sebastian's.  Worth reading -- and it's worth seeing all the wheel-spinning and infighting in the comments, too.

      The American Revolution succeeded because of a focus on what the States had in common; the Constitution was adopted because the drafters focused on the shared interests of States, to the point of making terrible compromises with one another so that a mutually acceptable Federal government could be put in place.

      If you want to move forward -- or even just not move backwards -- better stop carping and sniping over side issues and fealty to personalities, and zero in on the issues.

      And for pity's sake, calling politicians cutesy names and entertaining paranoid fantasies may well be all kinds of fun, but they don't move the pointer.  Maybe take up needlepoint instead?

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Not Much Faith In Spring

      The weather this Spring has been typical of Indiana, a day of lovely sunshine and temperatures anywhere from warm to chilly followed by a day or two of clouds and rain, on the cold side moe often than not.

      Usually, I greet Spring with joy, delighting in the return of green growth and warmth.  This year?  I'm not so happy.  I don't trust it.  Events have let me down -- the promise of 2020 became ashes before that Spring and turned ever more bitter as the year wore on, protests and unrest kept growing, and people turned away from science and facts in favor of whatever nonsense they found most comforting.

      That trend is continuing.  A substantial minority of Americans are avoiding coronavirus vaccines for reasons that vary from mistaken through spurious to risible.  They will serve as a pool of infection and mutation that preserves the threat, especially if they stop social distancing and stop wearing masks for face-to-face interaction.  Okay, government is a hammer, even if the problem is swatting flies or threading needles -- but it is the sharpest hammer we have, and the pointy end consists of thousands of your fellow citizens working hard to the stem the tide of infection, not eeeevil Bill Gates chortling like a silent-movie villain.

      In the first part of this month, I wrote that another wave of infections was likely.  It is now underway.  I'm sick and tired of staying six feet or more away from people and limiting individual interactions to fifteen minutes or less.  I'm tired of wearing a mask and more than irked that over the past year, I have only been to work (alone 99 percent of the time), the grocery store (not more than once a week), my doctor and dentist (twice each) and the home-improvement store (three times, early on).  Everything else except one outdoor meal last Fall has been delivery, drive-up or virtual.  I want this to be over -- but wanting does not make it so.  It's not over until it's over, and that's not just yet.

      The world keeps on getting greener out there, and the flowers keep unfurling and looking towards the sun.  I keep hoping I'll find some reason to think things will get better.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Monday Morning Round-Up

      In which I write about multiple things.

      Late word this morning is that they're making progress.  The stuck cargo ship is at least partially freed and facing in the right direction.  Traffic may be moving in the canal by the end of the day or tomorrow.

      Stop for a minute and consider the level of embarrassment: these are the descendants of the people who built the Pyramids, inheritors of the legacy of a culture that set up huge statues and grand temples...and they were struggling to free a stuck ship.   They are not going to stop until that thing is on the move.

      I'm not going to discuss the pros and cons of various laws politicians, at least ostensibly, enact to make sure elections are fair, free of cheating, and equally accessible.  People's honest opinions and perceptions vary widely.

      I am going to address the foolhardiness of sticking in mean-spirited "gotcha!" jabs like Georgia's prohibition on bringing water (or food or any other drink) to people waiting in line to vote.  Looking at the wording, it appears to have been tacked on to an uncontroversial ban on bribing or otherwise attempting to influence people as they wait to vote.  Adding the water ban was a stupid move, one that will result in stronger and better-organized opposition to the law -- and it wouldn't make a bit of difference if every other provision in the law was logical, necessary and wise.

      Georgia's GOP-dominated legislature has shot themselves in the foot, making the Republicans look bad and giving the Democrats a powerful issue to get voters to polls.  Whatever else it may be, the law as written was inept realpolitik and this part of it will have unintended consequences.

     Politicians, it's 2021.  People will read your legislation, no matter how dull, and they will look for loopholes and weak points.  Don't be jerks.  It will come back on you.

      I have been increasingly clumsy recently, possibly due to seasonal allergies ramping up and affecting my balance.  Or maybe it's just age.  Last night, I went to check the back door before bedtime and slipped on the three steep steps that lead from the kitchen to the door landing.  I overbalanced, reached out for the door handle, missed, and stabbed my right thumb and thumbnail into the hard metal with much of my weight behind it.  It raised a big blood blister on the tip of my thumb and under the end of the nail almost immediately.

      I iced my thumb for an hour, but an hour after that, it was throbbing and so tender that I had to scrub up, sterilize a needle, and lance the blister.  My thumb is still very tender this morning and it is interfering with activities.  At least the injury is not on the side of my thumb, so I can still work the spacebar.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Cats And Their Ways

      Cats are quirky creatures.  I have been fortunate to have shared my life with many who wanted to be with me.  Huck will nearly always come to snooze on my shins when I lay down to sleep; Rannie Wu came to prefer sleeping next to me or even cradled in my arms.  Years ago, I had a cat named Janie (sister to Charlotte and Emily.  Tommy was their brother) who would come rushing from wherever she was to lay on me whenever I went to bed, singing happy burbles as she scurried.

      Holden Wu burbles, too, and he likes to spend time with me.  While he sleeps in my bed some nights, he prefers to snooze with Tamara.  But during the day, he has a favorite spot with me whenever I'm on the desktop computer: the right-side typewriter shelf of my desk.

      Holden normally makes happy sounds as he gathers himself to leap.  That's good, because for many years, I have put my breakfast plate on that shelf.  A few seconds of warning is nearly always sufficient for me to get my plate clear.  He lands with amazing lightness for a fifteen-pound cat, and settles himself quite happily.  If he gets bored, he'll try to gnaw on my wrist, though he is learning it is Not A Good Idea.

      Occasionally, he doesn't make a sound beforehand.  This morning, I had settled down with eggs poached in chili* when he tootled and leaped so quickly that I barely had time to get the bowl out of the way!

      I've made a new spot to the left of my keyboard for breakfast.  A lap full of chili and a surprised cat might be a bit much.
* This is remarkably good, a Tex-Mex take on eggs pomodoro.  This morning I used canned chili instead of leftover home-made and had to go with the organic stuff after discovering the last can of mild Hormel chili had lost its seal.  Still pretty good, despite the tofu -- and  more evidence of the value of keeping a well-stocked pantry.

Saturday, March 27, 2021


      It was a beautiful day today.  I goofed off -- did a little laundry, started up my motor scooter just to make sure it would run, and made latkes for breakfast.

     They're not as easy as they look; I'd made a try at them in the past and wasn't very happy with the result.  But I had a big potato and a new recipe, so why not try again?

     You begin by grating the potato -- I use an old-fashioned "All-In-One" grater, so I cut the potato into quarters longways, and grated it into a bowl. (If you're using fresh onion, grate in about a quarter of one.  I cheated and added onion powder.)   Then you squeeze as much moisture as you can from it, push it to the sides of the bowl, and beat an egg in the open space.

     You're going to want an eighth to a quarter-inch of hot oil in the bottom of a large skillet, so start that, using your preferred oil.

     Mix a quarter-cup of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, a half-teaspoon of coarse salt and a quarter-teaspoon of freshly ground pepper.  I went ahead and mixed the egg and potatoes, then added the flour and other ingredients a little at a time while stirring.  I added onion powder to the flour, a bit more than a teaspoon, and I could have used more.  Once everything's been absorbed, drop heaping tablespoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil and flatten with the spoon.  Fry them five minutes or until golden-brown, flip, flatten with the spatula, and give them five more.  (If any of them aren't not cooked enough, give them more time.)
     I was happy with how they turned out.  They're traditionally served with applesauce or sour cream.  I used a little truffle-infused hot sauce instead.
     You can scale up from the quantities I have given for one baking-size potato, which makes enough for two people.

Friday, March 26, 2021

And In Florida, They're....

      They're what, in Florida?  Dying in the streets?  Booming economically?  Florida's approach to the pandemic has been criticized and praised, and right now they're trying to keep Spring Break from becoming too broken without sending all those high-spending students back to their dorms -- but the real story is a lot more nuanced than the simplistic narratives of Left and Right. 

     A writer at The Atlantic dug into it.  He found a lot to chew on.  It's worth reading, though nobody's preferred narrative holds up.  That last statement probably deserves to be inside a fortune cookie.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Semi-Smart Machine

      We -- by which I mean our Facilities guy and his subcontractor -- installed one of those big, portable air-conditioners at the North Campus earlier this week, to help an ailing cooling system limp along for a few more months before we have to take it out behind the barn and do it mercy.

      The hulking gadget ran for two days and then shut itself down, displaying an incomprehensible glyph where it should show the temperature setting, plus a red indicator next to a legend reading "TANK FULL."

      While I did spend a wild moment wondering if it meant our Sherman had a full compliment of personnel aboard, in short order it dawned on me that the thing was trying to tell me that it was waterlogged.

      This was a mystery.  Facilities (et al) had carefully attached a long hose to the proper fitting, and routed it through the labyrinth to the basement sump fifty feet away and over a dozen feet lower.  Being of an investigative mind, I fetched a five-gallon pail and started to pry the drain hose from the barb.

      It started dribbling out grayish water long before the hose came free.  I had sudden doubts about the wisdom of  uncorking an unknown volume of water in a room filled with electrical machinery, shoved the hose back in place, sent a couple of e-mails to my boss and Facilities, fetched a lot of paper toweling and returned to the machine.

      Once the hose was off, it shot a jet of water mostly into the bucket (and the rest on me, yech), maybe a quart total, and began blowing out cold air like it was supposed to.  It even had the right temperature reading.  I put the hose back on, checked my e-mail, and discovered Facilities was en route and had asked me to do what I just did.

      I tried taking a wet-vac to the drain hose at the sump.  Nope!  Blocked.

      Back to the air-conditioner, which had shut down again.  Facilities showed up, and we eventually found a hidden blockage in the drain hose and cleared it.

      Those huge air-conditioners have a very small tank for water that condenses on the cooling coils and runs off.  Once it fills up, a pump empties it (permanently-installed systems usually just have a gravity feed, but portables may have to make water run uphill).  If the level gets too high or the pump sees too much back pressure, the cooling shuts off.  Oops!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Your AI Said What?

      "AI," my rear end; they're chatbots and related utilities.  Very sophisticated, neural-network-driven chatbots, but they don't quite pass the Turing test, not yet.  Thery may be able to sort your socks, but they stumble trying to sort your photographs  And there's been an off-and-on flap, because when you release a chatbot into the wild  -- or into the neticulture of the U.S. and European-dominated Internet -- it tends to come back sounding and behaving more than a little racist.  It comes back able to tell white people from one another with ease, but struggles with women and non-white people, and if you're in both categories, well, good luck.

      Chatbots (etc.) don't have a conscience; they don't know right from wrong and they can't read subtext or social cues.  They don't know the difference between fourteen-year-old punks talking big and a symposium (ancient Greek for "drinking party," BTW) of Methodist pastors.  Most normal people are aware of this, and aware that social media is dominated by the biggest mouths with the greatest amount of free time.  Chatbots do not.  They also don't know demographics; the general collection of software engineers is younger, whiter and more male than the general population, and it's very easy for them to write software and provide data sets that reflect the lab and not the country or the world and not notice.

      Of course this has become politicized -- hasn't everything?  The New York Times ran an article about it on 15 March (you're on your own with their paywall, kids, just know there is a way) and, predictably, the more conspiracy-theory-inclined pro-Trump crowd* has decided if The Times is agin it, they will be fer it -- and therefore, according to them, if the AI says an all-Black population is problematic, it must be true.

      There are a number of defects to this, starting with the assumption that the NYT has less chance of being right than a blind sow does of finding an ear of corn.  (I figure they're at least as lucky as an average female hog.)  Then there's "The computer must be right," a flashback to attitudes of the late 1950s or early '60s when the machines were tantamount to magic for many people.  They weren't then and they aren't now; at best, they're only as clever as the people who write the code that runs on them and no less subject to bias.  But best of all, let's talk about The Bahamas: one of the richest countries in the Western hemisphere, right up there with the U. S. and Canada; they've got 95% literacy...and the population is 90% Black.  Nope, sorry; it only takes a single example to demolish the assumption.  The AI's wrong -- and so are you, if you agreed with it.

      We can build fair-minded AI.  Even a random sample of Silicon Valley software engineers, an overwhelmingly young, Caucasian, nerdy and male group, can do so -- if they're aware of the need for it and make the effort.  If they don't write lazy code.  If they pick their input data to model the general population, and not themselves and their co-workers.

      It's not a culture war.  It's good program-writing.

      Hello, world.
* Which is to say, "Q-adjacent," analogous to the "...but they sure had kewl tanks!" fanboys of WW II Germany or Stalin's USSR.  I'm not impressed.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Well, That Was...

    Fun?  Holden Wu went to the vet for his yearly checkup this morning.  I worked from home before and after and then--

     A headache had been creeping up on me.  I stood up to go to the kitchen and take my usual acetaminophen and aspirin, and nearly fell over.  It was far worse than I had realized.

     I have been more or less vegetating for the past three hours.  Took my drugs but I'm still shaky. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Corned Beef And Cabbage, A Photo Essay

      Last Monday, our neighborhood market had fresh corned beef again.  So I bought one and froze it for the weekend, to try the method I used for a recent Sunday roast and add some turnips and cabbage.

     (All photos by Tamara Keel.)

     A lot of turnips and cabbage.  So much so it needed an overwrap to close up the roasting pan.

     It cooked down well.

     The corned beef was nice.

     With the cabbage set into a covered dish, the remainder of the vegetables are revealed: potatoes on the bottom with turnips, carrots and celery on top of them, followed by little sweet peppers and exotic mushrooms.

     It plated up nicely!

     It turned out every bit as good as I had hoped.  About an hour in, I was worried the beef was getting a little too done.  Adding a little water with balsamic vinegar in it solved that -- a neat trick, though it's very much a matter of experience and informed guesswork.

     It cooked for three hours total.  All of the vegetables except the cabbage wedges and mushrooms went in with a little over an hour left; and they were added with 45 minutes to go.  I could have probably added them all right at one hour or just under.  Seasoning was what comes with the corned beef, plus a couple of bay leaves.  You don't add salt to this; there's plenty in the corned beef and it does the job on the vegetables.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Oh, We're All Idiots

      A commenter who will not be published left a single sentence in response to my joking post-vaccine piece, to inform me that I was an idiot.

      Imagine, if you will, my surprise.  There I was, thinking I was quite clever and had All The Answers™, only to learn that a random stranger on the Internet had determined that I was an idiot.

      Just why he had decided that was unclear; he provided no details.  Was it my flippant joke about the vaccine and the foolish fears of some people?  Was it for getting vaccinated at all?  (Look, pal, next time you can be the sixtyish woman in less than ideal health, and we'll see how quickly you go for a vaccine.)  Was it for being extremely unenthusiastic about President Trump (who I was no fan of from the outset -- you can go back and check; you'll also see I was even less pleased with Secretary Clinton and I'm not exactly jumping for joy over President Biden*) and his effects on what used to be a reliable party whose worst impulses were slightly easier to curb or avoid than those of the other big party?

      I don't know.  It doesn't matter.  What I do know is we're all making our way through life by guessing.  Sometimes we make very well-informed guesses; sometimes it's a leap in the dark.  But ultimately, there's very little we know with absolute certainty -- and some of those things, we're wrong about.  Against a vast and impersonal universe, we're all idiots, nearly all the time.

      So get over it, make your own choices, and move on.
* Five hundred and thirty-five seats in all of congress, fifty state governors, at least a dozen more really well-known politicians, and yet the candidate pool is a disappointment to me, year after year.  Okay, it's a horrible job and no matter who you are about half of the citizenry will loathe you, but still....

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Ferfectly Pine

      So, I pfgot the vaccine yesterday -- the Pfizer one -- and I pfave expfizened nothing pfworse than a pfore arm. 

     Otherwipfize, I pfeel pfine.  Ia!  Ia!  Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!  Cthulhu fhtagn! Ia!


Friday, March 19, 2021

Going For The Jab

      Barring the unforeseen, I'll get my first vaccine shot today.  Watch this space for any signs of mutation -- I can be the canary in this coal mine.

      For the record, I gave up on Donald Trump's GOP quite some time ago (still decades later than I did the Dems), and made my disdain public in the wake of the storming of the U. S. Capitol on 6 January.  I've been a libertarian (small-l variety) since I encountered the idea in Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress when I read it while in High School.  So you can't blame that on the vaccine.

      Internet connectivity is coming and going this morning, as it did all day yesterday,* so I'll stop here.
* We're on copper back to the local switch, old-fashioned dialtone-and-DC phone service with Internet riding atop it.   AT&T loathes metallic pairs and would love to drop them -- but they can't; they're stuck with them thanks to regulations.  So they maintain the lines only after failure, and hope customers will give up.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

2034: A Novel Of Technological Illiteracy

      They ought to know better.  The novelist of the two men who wrote 2034: A Novel of the Next World War has Masters degrees in literature and international affairs; he was a Marine officer* in places where they shoot at you for real and did semi-spooky stuff attached to the CIA.  The retired career officer spent 37 years in the Navy, much of it in genuine seagoing commands and/or at various hot spots and has a chest full of ribbons that includes things that matter.

     I'm sure Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis know more about international politics and the military use of force than I ever will.  Based on the excerpt from 2034... published in Wired, they write well, with strong and believable characters.

     One problem is they don't appear to know much about radio; they don't know much about how radio-type jobs are organized in the Navy, nor about the care and feeding of the hardware, especially the older types.  They don't know much about the U. S. power grid, or the havoc that "bumping" the whole thing for a minute would create.  They're unaware of present trends in international short-wave broadcasting (there's less and less of it,  and the trend is continuing).  In the excerpt, the book treats cyberwar measures as if they were magic, with implausible effects and no justification for them.

     It ruins the story for me.  Which is a pity; it's an entertaining cautionary tale on the order of the nuclear war and after-the-Bomb novels of the 1950s through 80s.  But radio operation, maintenance and crypto are three different jobs, for outstandingly good reasons that include compatibility of skill sets and security, and if you're going to condense them to a couple of pulp-character guys (and throw in avionics for good measure), be prepared to prop it up.†  (Also, protip: soldering irons do not "smoke" unless you're melting solder with them.)

     My last paragraph points to another problem: 2034's military officers and White House staffers are fully-rounded; their various opposite numbers are about as good.  In the portions of the book Wired has published, Ackerman and Stavridis don't have much of an eye or ear for the "little people," and while that's about what we expect of an officer in wartime, it's not at all what we want from writers of fiction.

     I'll probably take another look after it comes out in paperback or the hardcovers show up used; I want to see if they ever try to explain the cybermagic (even logical-sounding handwavium would do).  They do use the flashpoints I would expect.  Nevertheless, I'm not expecting Hector Bywater-level prediction from this book.

     Maybe next time.  And whoever writes the next one?  The R-390A is your friend, and if crypto's not behind a locked door, it'd better be a black, black box.
* Wikipedia and his own website are silent on the matter of rank.  Or as the Brits say, "Too tall for Dick and too short for Richard."
† If you detect some personal interest in that, you're right: I am one of the "supporting characters" in my job, not the big brass or someone publicly visible. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

American Gods, Revisited

      After nearly all of three seasons -- and a few bobbles, nothing major -- I was a little disappointed in episode eight of the third season. 

      Oh, I can see what they're doing; there are four or five character arcs in progress.  One of them features a background character who is due a little closure, and gets it, in a kind of counterpoint to the turmoil, uncertainty and possible betrayal that The Technical Boy, Laura Moon, Shadow Moon and even Mr. Wednesday experience.  This is the kind of contrast that makes for good drama.

      Unfortunately, the script goes about it in an unnecessarily heavy-handed way, with an "orgy" scene set up, cast, staged and shot with a pretentiousness that teeters on the edge of silly (if not over it) and which left me wondering if the script had run short and needed padding to reach a full hour.*

      If you're a big ol' culture warrior,† this episode is probably where you turn the TV off and throw the remote across the room, if you hadn't done so much earlier.  If you're me, you are reminded once again that the Beast With Two (or n) Backs is kind of goofy looking most of the time, no matter who's dancing.  The script needed a very light touch from the director.  It didn't get it.

      The episode chugged along, with several good dramatic scenes that left the next episode nicely set up.  The director and screenwriter for this episode are both one-and-done in the series, so I'm hoping American Gods can avoid another stumble as the story wraps up.
* Sure, a series following pagan gods buys a lot of leeway in that direction.  But it's no excuse for making mediocre art while the storytelling stalls.
† The culture war is over.  Everyone lost -- and everybody won, too, especially if they have the price of a cheap ticket to some place that suits their inclinations.  Greyhound and Amtrak aren't going to stop running, voters and civic culture in Idaho, California, New Hampshire and Vermont aren't gonna change much or quickly, so relax and try to get along, willya?

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Antikythera Mechanism: It's A Mirror

      The gadget was found in an an ancient Greek shipwreck, a corroded lump of brass that was pretty obviously a complex mechanism, chock full of gears in a complex arrangement.

      It took a long time for historians and archaeologists to decided what it was probably for, and longer still for them to start figuring out how it worked.  A few dedicated professionals and amateurs have even built their own versions, with logic and guesswork to cover the gaps where the found pieces don't fit.  It's a job for a small-scale machinist or horologist, and that has raised even more questions: how did the Ancient Greeks manage such precise work?

      Through the decades, interpretations of the Antikythera mechanism have been something of a mirror of those who have studied it and their times:
    Complicated device found on a seagoing vessel?  It must be for navigation!  Well, maybe, but in that case, shouldn't we be finding more of them?
     It's too complicated to have been made at the time claimed?  It's a hoax -- or alien technology!  Yeah, nope.
      The gears seem to map and model years and Lunar months: it was used to predict eclipses! Perhaps; but the Babylonians had been doing that trick on their fingers and with observing instruments made of masonry, millennia earlier.  While conveniently predicting an eclipse has been a trope for "civilized man wows the unsophisticated" probably even before Mark Twain and H. Rider Haggard* used it in the late 19th Century, it takes a lot fewer gears.
      It tracks the motions of the planets?  It must be for casting horoscopes!  Yeah, maybe; astrology and astronomy didn't stop sleeping together until about the 18th Century and they both use fancy tools -- and only a cynic would suspect any astrologer with sufficient resources to obtain an analog computer would have made sure to include some way of directly affecting the outcome.

      On and on the speculations go, and every new set of high-tech images of the device shows greater complexity and inspires more guesses.  It's Ancient Greek tech, all right -- the way shafts are pinned and the triangular gear teeth are typical of their work.  But the experts are puzzled: modern versions take a lathe to build, and there's no evidence the Greeks had metal lathes.

      Yeah, about that--  The Ancient Greeks were no slouches when it came to geometry, and they did have wood lathes; a treadle-driven pole lathe is among the simplest and oldest of "power tools;" bow and strap lathes are even earlier.  A lathe and tools that can work hardwood can work brass -- and the kind used for clockmaking are essentially desktop.  So that's not implausible.  But hand powered tools are slow, much slower than power-driven ones, and the simple toolrest used with such lathes means precise work is incredibly demanding, more art than skilled craft.  A machine like the Antikythera mechanism represents months or more of highly-talented labor.  Nor was brass cheap or common; it was usually salvaged and re-used, as were most metals.  It's a wonder that we have found even one example.

      In one of the linked articles, an expert wonders why the Ancient Greeks didn't build clocks.  Of course, they did, but lacking a better power source, they were water-powered.   Without a true escapement, regulation was problematic: an actual clock was a finicky, large-scale machine, requiring expert attention.  Mechanical, 24-hour clocks were a one-per-city sort of thing -- and it took a pretty well-off city to build and maintain one.

      The Antikythera mechanism isn't a pocket watch or an iPad.  It's not even a Lamborghini; it's a one-off luxury item.  Were there more like it?  Almost certainly -- but they were wonders, each one.
* In A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court and King Solomon's Mines, respectively.  Highly recommended, by the way.

Monday, March 15, 2021

American Gods

      The TV series is based on a Neil Gaiman book of the same title, and it's not exactly family fare.  Gaiman's work doesn't pass anyone's political "purity test," either.  --But thus forewarned, it's excellent stuff.  He's a good writer and delights in using (and sometimes subverting) archetypes, so a tale that pits American incarnations of the pagan gods and goddesses of the past against a pantheon of uniquely home-grown ones is exactly his sort of thing.

      The casting is pitch-perfect, the effects are first-rate, and the frequent use of historical vignettes to open each episode is a nice touch.  The soundtrack is stunning as well, generally unexpectedly-right choices for setting and tone.

      The story follows an orphaned ex-con, who gets hired by a con artist with a glass eye who turns out to be none other than Odin.  Plot complications soon follow, unfolding as we -- and the lead character -- learn more and more about what's going on.

      The production has not been without conflict and controversy, and here's a little inside tip: when a book or shorter tale gets turned into a film or TV series, the author's generally on the outside, waving a nice check and looking in.  Sometimes he or she joins the "writer's room" (and gets a bit more money!) but in visual media, the writer doesn't have the last word about plot, casting, or anything else.

      It's good entertainment.  Or at least we've found it to be.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Thumb On The Scales?

      Words mean things.  Sometimes words mean a lot of things.  When you read blogs, opinion pieces and news stories, when you post things on social media, when you quote other people, look very closely at the words and ask yourself:
      - Am I (or was the original writer) weaseling?
      - Were the words slanted to get a result I liked better (or less) than what a plain description would imply?
      - Was there exaggeration to make a point more clearly -- and if so, did it change the meaning of actions or events?

      Case in point: when a bunch of people supporting ideas you favor carry signs and flags on 1x1s and metal poles, they're protesters; when they're supporting ideas of which you disapprove, they're a dangerous mob -- and when they chase you down, wielding those sticks and poles like clubs and pikes, they're an armed rabble.  On the other hand, if they chase after people you don't much like, suddenly "armed" only counts if they're carrying guns.

      Step back and read your words as a stranger would.  Read the words of others with skepticism.  Distrust "terms of art."  Shorthand like "a good shoot" for a shooting found to be lawful self-defense plays very differently to your neighbors than it does to the guys down at the gun range.

      Invidiousness is the order of the day.  We live in fraught times.  We live in a time of very glib tongues on TV and social media, on every side of every issue, and most of them are not after your carefully considered thoughts, they want to hit your emotions -- and if you're not braced for it, they'll bowl you over.

      Don't be a puppet.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Filed My Income Taxes...

      ...I hope.  These electronic online filings, it looks like it works but I'm always nervous until the Feds hand me back a little of my money.

     It's not a low-stress activity for me -- I managed to get audited once, years ago, when I moved out of a duplex I owned and lost money trying to rent out both sides. When I couldn't (little matter of a long-term bridge outage*), I  ended up making a deal with a former co-worker to live there at a very low rent and keep the heat on: I'd've done better leaving it empty, running ads, and making a serious effort to get it rented at or above market rates and deducting those costs, except I couldn't afford to front the money.  (I was buying the house on contract and ended up handing it back to the seller after that: it was too expensive to own.)

     So....I owed the Internal Revenue Service a fairly large amount of money for nearly ten years, did not have it, could not get it and therefore I handed over every refund until some windfall killer overtime allowed me to finally clear the debt.  Protip: if you own nothing of real value (a used beater car and 6,000 used science fiction paperbacks don't count), the IRS can't do much to you.  Downside, you're not gonna be doin' much, either.

     Nevertheless, the experience left a mark.  There's damn-all for wiggle room with the IRS.
* The duplex was in a medium-sized town with a fairly big river: there was one bridge between the neighborhood and a large state college.  It was a short walk or bike ride between the two when the bridge was there -- and a much longer drive without it.  Economics: there are a lot of interconnections.

Friday, March 12, 2021

...And We're Back! Plus, Reading

      One of us has a headache and a bad case of general clumsiness this morning,  It's not you.  Well, I hope it's not you, too.
*  *  *
      I recently read and enjoyed There Is No Antimemetics Division, a connected series of tales that finds new ground at the intersection of science fiction and cosmic horror.  It's also a website -- or part of a website, which readers may find of interest.  What's an antimeme?  Well, that's difficult to keep in mind or share....

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Annual Review

      It's annoying.  No, more than that: it's a source of stress.

      In my line of work, the Annual Review is a feature of working in the big time.  Smaller outfits, your "review" is every day, and the results arrive every payday: did you get paid?  Good.  Did you get fired?  Bad.

      It was pretty immediate feedback; there was none of this saving up a year's worth of failures, omissions and -- if you're lucky! -- one of two shining moments of triumph.  Back then, if your boss invited you to a meeting to discuss your job performance, you were in deep trouble.*  Anyone coming from that background dreads annual reviews.

      The modern employer has now added Choose Your Mode Of Death: you have to propose your own projects for the coming year, with deadlines and performance goals -- even if you're an hourly employee working a combination of routine tasks and on-demand repair.  Time well spent, especially since the projects are required to be blue-sky stuff, not a part of your core duties.

      This is enforced thinking outside the box -- and what's outside the box is mostly panic.  But, hey, the hourly rate is the same, no matter if it's a useful core task or drafting a proposal to create a corporate center for the housing, feeding and equitable redistribution of owls.  Predatory Nightfowl Central, here we come!

      Or not.  Either way, I have to go dress like a grown-up and practice smiling.
* Such a meeting was when (years ago and at at a different job) I learned the downside of my habit of concealing all the wiring and ensuring that operating controls remained where the people who did the operating were used to finding them, unless they were unhappy with the arrangement, and leaving the setup usable and safe at the end of every shift: I had done a significant and lengthy rebuild of a control room that resulted in measurable improvement, but if you gave it a glance as you walked by, nothing seemed to have changed.  This led my boss to assume I'd spent a month goofing off.  Yeah, bad plan, and a lot of fast talking and hands-on demonstration to avoid being fired...for doing my job.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I've Checked

      Watched the local and national news this morning, looked at F---b--k, heard from Tam about what she's seeing on social media, and yep, as expected: People are still crazy.  Most of them appear to think reality is a choose-your-own-adventure game, and I am not talking about kayaking down a mountain stream or streaking through a tough neighborhood at 11:30 of a Friday night, smeared in gold dust and shrieking insults.  Nope, people are believing six preposterous things before breakfast, and they're mad as hell if you don't go along.

      You don't need me to blog that for you.  Go outside and enjoy some sunshine, if you've got any -- and today, in most of the U.S., you probably do.  Liable to be a little breezy, so hold onto your hat and enjoy!

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Leftovers, Right?

      Ms. Tamara having made other plans, I was on my own for dinner last night -- alone in the house with the remainder of Sunday's corned beef.

      There was one thick slice and one lumpy end, with a strata of fat running through both.  Plenty of meat for a sandwich but awkwardly shaped.  Distinctly sub-optimal, in fact.  And yet there I was, with rye bread, Swiss cheese and high hopes....

      Sometimes you have to take things as they are, only more so.  I trimmed away the excess fat and then diced the meat.  I diced up a small yellow sweet pepper, too, then melted a little butter in a non-stick skillet.

      A slice of bread, a slice of Swiss cheese, a nice thick layer of diced corned beef and sweet pepper, another slice of cheese and bread.  Drop that into the pan for about three minutes and (carefully!) flip for two and a half more, and what happens is the cheese melts and embeds the meat in a nice matrix while sticking the entire assembly together, leaving you with a convenient, tasty sandwich.  There was enough left over to make a half-sandwich on a slice of bread cut in half, so I did.

      With fresh veggies on the side, it was a fine dinner for one.

      (P.S.: Diced corned beef is also a great ingredient to add to fried rice in place of bacon.  Try it, you'll like it.)

Monday, March 08, 2021

Sunday Roast

      Our corner market had corned beef brisket on sale last week.  I bought one and put it in the freezer for the weekend.

      Traditionally, it's supposed to be simmered in water for a long time.  And that works, but modern corned beef can come out a little bland.  You can wrap it up in foil and roast it, but it's pretty salty.

      There's another way, one involving that most useful of vegetables, the potato:

      I rinse off the corned beef and put it fat side down in a covered roasting pan on the grill, with the included seasonings and an extra bay leaf or two.  Give it an hour per pound, indirect heat.

      Prepare the vegetables and add them when there's an hour or a little more to go.  I used two big red potatoes (three would not have been remiss), a smallish onion, a half-dozen "baby" carrots, three stalks of celery,  three small sweet peppers and three shishito peppers, all cut into "chunks," plus oyster mushrooms.  I added a level teaspoon of capers on impulse, and that worked well.  (I thought I had a turnip, too, but it had gone soft.)  The potatoes should be the bottom layer in the pan -- trust me on this.

      Add, cover, and cook the remaining hour:

      Looks good -- and needs no seasoning at all.

      It tasted great.  The potatoes were amazing, having cooked for an hour in the meat juices, and the meat was tender and moist.

  And the cooking consists mainly of building a charcoal fire, setting the pan on the grill, and ignoring it!  Gotta like that.  Cleanup, well, the pan does take some scrubbing.  But it's worth it.

          Served with Brussels sprouts, as a kind of nod to the usual cabbage.

     (All photos by Tamara Keel)

Sunday, March 07, 2021

"Once More Unto The Breeches Dear Friends..."

      "...Once more after the quilts and towels; or close the laundry-room up with our Lata Riparian* dead. In peace there's nothing so becomes a homeowner as modest stillness and humility:  But when the blast of Spring cleaning blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise lazy nature with hard-favour'd work...."

      As the Bard did not write; but as I must, in fact, do, alternating between home office and basement laundry today, with a quick shower early and a side-trip to the grocer along about midday. 

      "For there is none of you so mean and base,
      "That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
      "I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
      "Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:†
      "Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

      Once more, with feeling -- though I actually managed to wash all my dungarees yesterday, so check off "breeches" and a bad pun.  That still leaves the quilts and so on....
* This would be dog-Latin for "Broad Ripplite."
† Show of hands, who didn't catch that Sherlock Holmes was quoting Shakespeare's Henry V when he said that to Dr. Watson?

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Hey, Sisyphus, When's Lunch?

      I have spent most of this day trying to sort out the heap and piles of piles and heaps of papers on my desk.  (With ongoing laundry as a background task.

      It has been a dance of a step or two back for every step forward, of task-dependencies stacked or nested five and six deep.  I think I have made some progress today, but it's difficult to tell.

      The irradiated dime did turn up, so that's kewl.  A 1945 mercury-head that got neutron-zapped at the AEC's Museum of Atomic Energy, some time in the latter half of the previous century; it's probably ticked down to just about nothing now -- by deliberate choice of material, most of the radioactivity (from a minute amount of Ag-110 and even less Ag-108) had decayed by the time a visitor to the museum had walked back to their car.  What's left?  A smidge of cadmium!  Still, it got zapped and transmuted, or it probably did -- mine isn't the sealed version, so someone might have swapped out the silver dime in mine for one that never saw gamma rays.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Thanks, Politicians

     I used to think most people had at least a little backbone and a good, solid reservoir of common sense.  Our elected officials in general seem bound and determined to disabuse me of this notion.  Yeah, gee, thanks for nothing.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

It's A Sunny Day

      Sunny today, and seasonably warm: a predicted high of fifty degrees as opposed to yesterday's unseasonable sixty.

      I intend to enjoy it.  I got my car's oil changed yesterday, the first time in more than a year (a year of even less driving than usual), which is one small worry off my back.

      I'm scheduled to receive the first of (probably) two vaccine shots on the 19th, which helps with another worry -- and unlike many of the measures to help control the virus that were individual inconveniences in the aid of community health, vaccination helps the vaccinated person directly and the good it does the community around them is an added benefit.  Call me callous if you want to but I am pleased to be able to do something that will improve the odds for me.

      Here's hoping for a better 2021.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Alas, Blogroll

      It's getting to be time to trim my blogroll again.  I was hoping that at least some of the ones that had gone haring after crazy conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and/or the Presidential election might quietly return to a more-normal attitude towards science, the sweeping (in)competence and venality of all politicians and TV reality stars, and the actual objective world, but it is increasingly evident that this is not to be.

      People who I thought were fairly clever and alert have been sucked down (or leapt into) the maw of grifters, hucksters and cynical old men peddling blatant fantasies.  In the process, they've managed to make the slightly-more-mainstream fuzzy thinking and bad ideas across the aisle look a bit more reasonable, which I am finding difficult to forgive: not content with mere personal idiocy, they spread it to their friends and made opposite-leaning foolishness attractive to the people trying to oppose the trend.

      Hey, I get it, reality sucks, no matter which way you slice it -- but it's still real.  And living in reality is precious to me.  I don't take it for granted.

      I spent large parts of my childhood haunted by stress reactions; I was a fragile, fey child, and after a lengthy bout of rheumatic fever had left me bedfast and in excruciating pain for most of a year, I was socially isolated -- precociously educated thanks to Captain Kangaroo and a mother who read to me widely and often, but enormously lacking in social skills.  Get me around too many people, especially a shopping mall at Christmastime or in the stands at a crowded sporting event and I'd panic, with an eroding sense of self and gripped by a terrifying conviction that nothing was real, just a crowded nightmare of empty, humanoid automatons.  Getting back out of that state could take days and a monumental effort.  And as I grew older, it persisted, returning in crowded hallways, at church services, on the school bus.  (Pep rallies were a nightmare.)  It took a lot of paying attention to reality, embracing the physical world of sunlight and grass and water running reliably downhill.  When I was very young, I used to fear there was no way back, that the feeling would never end, that I was trapped in the nightmare.*

      This "alternate reality" stuff scares me spitless.  Making up your own "truth" because you don't like the observable facts is a road to nowhere good.  I refuse to encourage or support it.  It's not diversity of viewpoints, it's insanity.
* I had night terrors, too, where you wake up trapped in your own body, unable to move.  I didn't know what they were until I was in my thirties and stumbled over a mention of the simple physiological phenomena that your voluntary muscles are disconnected when you sleep -- and sometimes you wake up before the connection is reestablished.  Until that time, it was a horror, and one I never told anyone about: who would believe it?

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Another Wave?

      Successful prediction is often a downer.  TV news this morning is reporting that the CDC is concerned we may be in for another wave.   The decline in new infections in the U. S. had slowed, stalled -- and is starting to climb.

      Tam can tell you that I was thinking we'd see another peak; I told her a couple a weeks ago that there was a race on between vaccination (and overall immunity), the new and more communicable strains of the virus, and springtime impatience.

      Even in a year not haunted by a pandemic, many people greet the end of winter with renewed activity -- and after a stunted holiday season, with plummeting infection rates and mass vaccination underway, what normal person wouldn't be optimistic?  When we extrapolate from past events-- you, me or popular media pundits -- we do so linearly: "if this keeps on--"  And the graph looked good.

      It didn't keep on.  It's a lagging indicator in an under-damped feedback loop.*  When the winter storm stalled vaccine deliveries, when approval of Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine kept on being "right around the corner" for weeks, we fell behind in the race against mutations.†

      So I'm betting on another peak.  How tall, for how long -- I've no idea.  By now, most people have seen this thing wax and wane; many people have lost friends and family, or friends of friends, and are less inclined to shrug it off.  Others are frustrated.  A growing proportion of us are immune (how immune and for how long, we don't know).  How will it play out? 

      I don't know.  Here's hoping for the best.  The fourth wave of the 1917 - 20 influenza epidemic had significantly lower infection and mortality rates than the second and third.  We adapt.  We learn.
* Most complex systems with behavior controlled in part by past output act like a phase-locked loop.  Your home thermostat and furnace is a simple PLL.  They "hunt" to stability; the temperature in your house varies up and down a few degrees during heating or cooling season, with the thermostat turning the heating or cooling on and off.  A good system has only a little variation; it is "critically damped."  The furnace has to be well-sized for the load: too small a furnace, and it runs all the time and falls behind ("overdamped") -- too powerful, and you alternately sweat and shiver as it clicks on, dumps in too much heat too quickly, and switches off, over and over.  The latter case is "underdamped."  And our species-wide response to many kinds of threats is underdamped -- en masse, we keep dancing right up to the edge and a little too far, then back way off. Rinse, lather, repeat.  With a week or two between exposure and full-on illness and a death rate lagging a week or two behind that, this virus inherently creates an underdamped response: by the time we have a good, clear sign of trouble, we're already behind the curve.
† What self-respecting SF writer can type that phrase in earnest and not blink?

Monday, March 01, 2021

Sunday Dinner

      Monday last, the corner grocer had some nice-looking beef brisket, and the price looked nice, too; I bought one and stashed it in the freezer for later.

      The week had warm days here and there, but the snow was late going away.  Along about Wednesday, I grilled a couple of steaks by turning the grill so I could stand on the sidewalk, and not in a small snowdrift.

     By Sunday, several bouts of rain had washed all but a few grim chunks of gray ice away. Saturday, I'd moved the brisket to the refrigerator to thaw.  So I made my weekly grocery trip early and picked up a few extras.

      I got the closed-top grill started while the brisket sat out (but away from the cats!) with salt, pepper and some Japanese fish sauce on it -- no, it's not actually fishy-tasting; aged in whiskey barrels, it's distantly akin to Worcestershire sauce but milder and mellower, with plenty of umami.  It's one of the closer approximations you can find to the old Roman garum (and priced like it, too) -- and I should have used more.

      Be that as it may, I got the grill arranged, loaded the brisket into my graniteware roasting pan (fat side down, with a strip of bacon on top), and ignored it got about an hour and a half, while I made up a vegetable mix:
      One large apple, peeled and cut in twelfths (a "Cosmic Crisp," which Tam and I sampled -- really tasty!)
      One large turnip, treated likewise (We did not sample it; raw turnips are interesting but not as tempting.)
      A couple of small Russet potatoes, cut in sixths
     A large onion, very coarsely chopped
      Ten small, peeled carrot sections -- the stuff sold in bags.  It's handy, easier to keep, and tastes the same.
      A couple of large stalks of celery, cut in about half-inch sections
     Four cherry tomatoes -- these look like miniature Romas.
      That all goes in a bowl with some more fish sauce over it.
     I loaded up small bowl with a dozen fresh mushrooms, left whole, halved or quartered depending on size --- you want them about bite-sized.

      At some point in this prep, it started to drizzle, so I improvised a "rain hood" for the grill from a couple of sheets of aluminum foil, crimped together to make one double-wide sheet, bent into an inverted U with the ends crimped between the lid and body of the grill and leaving several inches of clearance over the vent at the top of the grill.

      At about the ninety-minute mark, I opened up the grill and roasting pan, packed the apple and vegetables in closed it all back up.  Smelled pretty good already!

      A half-hour later, I added the mushrooms and had a look at the pan -- I guessed another thirty minutes would be sufficient.

      I guessed right.  Carried it inside and found the vegetables were soft and fragrant and the meat was nicely done.  I spooned most of the veggies into a bowl, let the brisket rest a bit and then sliced it.  Served with the pan juices -- and there were plenty -- it made a fine meal.

      Lessons learned:
     - The brisket was a little more chewy than I prefer.  I probably should have marinated it for a few hours before cooking, maybe in a mixture of fish sauce and balsamic vinegar.
      - Fat down is the way to go on my grill.  Fat side up, the meat gets overdone on the bottom.
      - The apple worked out really well.  I was tempted to throw in a handful of raisins and some olives, too.
      - A bay leaf would not have hurt.  Neither would a little garlic.
      - I had been avoiding the fish sauce.  Tam bought it awhile back and I was concerned it would be too fishy or too overwhelming to use in cooking.  It's great stuff!  I should have tried it earlier.