Sunday, March 26, 2023

Second Prize

      Saturday morning, I learned a short story that I had entered in a local literary magazine's fiction contest back in November had won second place.

      Under a thousand words (and hastily edited to get under the limit for the contest), it's a "rural fantasy" set in a world busily falling apart rather than in my fictional Hidden Frontier.  Winning even second place means a lot to me, since I am largely self-educated.  I joke about working on a "bathtub MFA" by buying used books about writing and reading them while soaking in the tub or otherwise occupied in the smallest room but it's not really a joke.  I'm trying to get better at writing.

      There was a point a few years back when I realized I wasn't telling the stories I wanted to tell nearly as well as I wanted to tell them.  One of the things I did was take a break and teach myself to touch-type -- not terribly well, but better and faster than the mostly two-finger method I had been using.  And the other thing was to start finding quality instruction: a few classes at the Indiana Writer's Center and as many books on the subject as I could find. 

      It's how I learned electronics.  In the process, I learned there were a lot of books full of information and the only way to find the ones that "clicked" for me was to dig and and work my way through.  From Alfred P. Morgan's books for young people to ARRL Handbooks to Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill's The Art of Electronics, I accumulated a lot, discarded the dross, and manage to achieve a fair education in a decade or so.*  Writing turns out to be similar; there's a lot of flash and hype, but there are also dedicated instructors sharing what they know and a generous handful of really good texts, both academic and popular.

      Managing to write a prize-winning story is an indication that the effort may not have been in vain.  While stories entered in the competition were anonymized (I removed the metadata myself!), the judge was not.  She's someone who has taught classes I have taken; I've read her writing and I think she's got a keen eye for what works.

      Looking back at my story yesterday, I see things I'd still like to change to improve it, but I think it's pretty good.  And that's the biggest reward.  There's a Half-Price Books gift certificate, too -- about enough to pay for the stack of writing books I've bought there over the past few years.
* Stay in school, kids, or you, too can pick up in a mere fifteen-plus years of spare time what a high school graduate can manage in four to six years of college -- and you won't even have a degree to show for it!

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Successful Failure

      On the third try, Relativity Space's mostly 3-D printed rocket took off yesterday -- and failed to reach orbit.  They're cheering nevertheless: nobody's managed to be first-time-lucky making orbit yet, and the first stage, the part that does the really heavy lifting, worked fine, all the way through the worst part of the launch.

      Stage two, not so much.  Something went wrong and it fizzled.

      It was a success anyway: first 3-D printed rocket engines, one of the first methane-fueled rockets (China launched one in 2022, which also failed in the second stage), and presumably a lot of good data collected.

      Here's hoping they do better next time.  There's not a lot of news on their next step; they're working on a larger rocket and testing may proceed in parallel with the smaller one they launched Wednesday.  The company's plan is to reuse first and second stages along with the payload fairing.  Every bit that can be reused is a significant reduction in cost and one more step towards affordable space travel.

      Having grown up near a part of the country that experienced the U.S.'s first large-scale exploitation of natural gas, I do have to wonder what those 19th-Century tech moguls would have thought about the use we're making of the stuff they treated so cavalierly. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

For Pity's Sake

      Can't we just agree to end the sideshow, perhaps by limiting coverage of politicians to those actively holding office or running for office, with the latter limited to, say, six months before the earliest primary through Inauguration Day for whatever office was up for grabs?

      I don't give a damn about most of Donald Trump's legal troubles one way or another, any more than I do about any other person charged with the same kinds of white-collar crime, where everyone dresses nicely, speaks in hushed tones and it's mostly about lawyers handing pieces of paper to one another and quarreling over what they mean.  Ditto the friends and family of any politician.  Get back to me when you catch 'em dead drunk at the wheel, bloody-handed or with actual illegal narcotics, which might be worth thirty seconds on the evening news or a couple of column-inches in the paper.  I don't want to hear about rumors or guesses, just actual stuff that actually, verifiably happened.

      It'd be different if there were actual charges of some substance on any of 'em -- it's clear that Presidents, Veeps and high-ranking Congressthings generally have been treating classified info in a very casual way for far too long, for instance, and that needs harsh correction, which it may yet get.  Or if some President (I'm not naming names) is formally charged with illegally meddling in elections, inciting a riot and/or trying to screw with the normal operations of government, yeah, that rates some coverage.  But not until it happens; getting spun up about maybes and what-ifs is a stupid game to play.

      All the rest of it?  Sorry; it's just tiresome.  Charge them or don't, plea bargain or bring 'em to trial, and get back to me when there's a verdict.  Fine 'em or lock 'em up, whatever the law requires and the judge and/or jury decides, just like it was me with a parking ticket or a kid caught with a joint or a bank robber.  That's the system we've got and all I want really to get from the news is that a rich man can't weasel out of it and a poor woman won't get hit any harder by it due to her socioeconomic status.  If we can't manage that level of fairness, then things are screwed up and we should have voted better in the past and damned well ought to in the future, but it's no more an indication of deep, conspiratorial wheels within wheels within wheels than is the sun rising every morning or the way the toast always falls butter side down.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Saturday, March 18, 2023


      In recent weeks, I haven't been blogging as much as I once did.  Blame it on current events.

      Politics was always a sideshow.  Snake handlers, fire-breathers, knife throwers, rubber-limbed contortionists, 500-pound marvels and the occasional dog-faced boy: take a gander at Congress and the White House and see the amazing, unusual people!  It was entertaining and, give or take the odd war and domestic spying, almost harmless as central governments go.  The Legislative branch would debate themselves to a standstill on everything but the most essential work while the Executive faffed around and the High Court mostly doddered along.  It had everything except the bearded lady and trained dogs, and they were working on that.   It has become something far uglier -- and so has the electorate.

      As such, it's not as easy to mock.  There is no political party that "just wants to leave people alone" any more.  There's one that will mostly hector you (for a given value of "you") but pushes the occasional bad law with nary a blink, and one that mostly pushes bad laws but is more than happy to hector you, too (again, for given values of "you") and both sides have their more-or-less affiliated cheerleaders and mobs.  (Indeed, one of the more appealing things about centrist Democrats is that there are enough of them that the violent Left puts in effort to disparage them, while on the Right, the gap between the majority of office-holders and their direct-action loonies appears to be shrinking.)

      I could spend a lot of time pointing out the worst excesses of this mess in wide-eyed horror, but that's tiresome and, as it happens, neither side welcomes it.  The Libertarian Party, once pretty much in the middle and, as a whole, pretty wacky, seems to have gone clean off the rails and not in a good way -- again, tiresome to deal with and not useful.

      So mostly I just watch and think about which direction to jump.  If the nastier outcomes begin to loom -- religious or ancestry-based nationalism, reactionary socialism, chaos or "Great Divorce,"* then I'll learn to speak Canadian in a hurry.  Living in a blue(ish) county in a red state, if one or the other goes especially dangerous, I've got a chance to dodge, and there are bluer and redder states adjacent or not too far away.  This is tolerable; it's a big country and harder to break than many people believe.  But the situation doesn't fuel poking good-natured fun at politicians and institutions, not worth a darn.

      And I'm not going to stoke the culture-war fires.  Screw that noise.  There are blogs in my sidebar that have come to glory in it, with a commentariat that daily encourages one another to become more and more extreme, the host blogger and his or her fans alike apparently unaware of the ugly rat hole they're chasing themselves down.  I'd like to say, "How could you...?" but the answer is "Easily!" and they're loving every minute of it.  Those chickens eventually come home to roost and they're well-rotted when they do, but people who are high on the moment rarely notice until it is too late.

      I've got better things to do than yell at the tides, starting with keeping my own personal toes as dry as possible.
* Here's the thing: divorces are never "great."  Some are tolerable, others aren't, but there's no balm whatsoever in that Gilead and a pair of Mexico-sized countries (or a couple of 4x Canadas) are not the same as one superpower.  Don't think for a moment that China or Russia will ignore it.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Waiting For Spring

     March is always a slow slog toward warmer weather.  So far this year, it's been colder than a lot of February was.  I'm not enjoying it.  I'm just trying to get through, hoping to see more than hopeful flowers braving the occasional freeze.

     I'm looking forward to sitting in the warm sunlight.  Every year, by the time it returns, I have about forgotten what it felt like.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Pi Day

      I was hoping for apple, but I had to make do with humble pi instead, when a resource everyone thought existed turned out to be much thinner than expected.  At least it wasn't for my department (despite having been stored in our area), but it was a disappointment nevertheless.

      Also, and relatedly, it's a darned smart idea to label boxes when you pack stuff up -- not for yourself so much as for the people who will be digging through it when you are long retired, expecting a film library that stretches back to 1957 and instead finding nothing older than 1976.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Leftovers: Hoppin' John, Pork Roast

      Last week, I was a bit burned out, so I got lazy about supper:

      Monday was basic Hoppin' John: diced ham, some Andouille sausage, white onion, one red and one green bell pepper diced, a can of mild green chilis, crushed tomatoes and a mostly-drained can of black-eyed peas.  The meat gets browned with a little Cajun seasoning and pushed to the sides of the pan, the onion and peppers are sauteed, and then you add the chilis, tomatoes and black-eyed peas, along with a couple of bay leaves and perhaps some basil, and let the whole thing simmer for half an hour or so.  Serve it plain, over rice or with crackers.

      The leftovers split into a pair of one-gallon freezer bags.

      Tuesday, I was dreading a big meal effort and reviewing what I had available.  I sauteed fresh carrots and celery from the fridge while one of the bags of Hoppin' John was thawing in the microwave, added a small can of corn to the pot, and that made a pretty good meal.

      Wednesday, I made something different.  Thursday is "trash night," emptying all the wastebaskets and cleaning out the fridge for the Friday trash pickup.  We order out for dinner. 

      Friday was a cold and mostly-dark day.  Chili would be nice.  I picked up three-quarters of a pound of ground beef on the way home along with a couple of cups of the supermarket's own "pico de gallo:" diced red onion, tomato, jalapeno pepper, cilantro* and garlic.  It may sound crazy, but the stuff is an excellent addition to chili.  I browned the ground beef with plenty of chili powder (and drained it) while the other bag of Hoppin' John was defrosting, sauteed the pico de gallo, and put the whole thing together in the pan with a little more chili powder (and a couple of bay leaves again -- if you're not using them in your chili, you're missing out).  I added another small can of green chilis for luck, and it was excellent chili, or at least "red stew."

      For the weekend, I'd picked up a nice pork roast.  Saturday, I marinated it for several hours in balsamic vinegar (and a little white vinegar to increase the acidity), soy sauce, ginger, garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a little this and that.  That gets poured off, and I browned it and roasted it with diced apple, turnips, potatoes, carrots, celery and onion.  After everything was pretty well roasted, I added a small can of chicken broth and let it simmer for three hours.  That made a nice evening meal and left a bag of leftovers.  I cut up the meat, mostly so it would freeze well.

      Sunday, I defrosted the pork roast leftovers while I sauteed some diced fresh mushrooms with celery, then added a small can of plain tomato sauce and some Italian-mix seasoning and extra basil.  The pork roast turned into a tasty stew.

      Two main dishes, five days of suppers and nearly all of it was eaten.  If you're really sneaky, you can interleave them on alternate days.  The big roasts with their long cooking time are weekend fare -- but if you slice the meat, they freeze well for later.
* The thing to know about cilantro is that our response to it is genetic: either it tastes unpleasantly soapy to you or it tastes good, and there's no changing that.  So check before adding it to a dish!

Saturday, March 11, 2023


      Slight disagreements are normal, even among friends.  I expect them to happen.

      There are, however, things that will make me hit the "unfriend" button on social media.

      Memes featuring a certain neo-fascist frog, for example, stopped being innocent fun quite some time ago, even as irony.  'Tain't funny, for broken-teeth values of unfunniness.

      Playing dumb about the attack on the U. S, Capitol, which did well-documented damage to people and the building is another ticket to goodbye: sure, the day had some less-violent interludes, but the general thrust of events was unmistakably an attack on the normal function of our Federal government and the people involved in it.  That's not a thing that can be retconned out of existence or swept under the rug.  Go argue with the broken windows.

      If you want to debate the degree to which then-President Trump was directly or indirectly responsible for the events of that day?  Fine, though barring the sudden testimony of time-travelling mind-readers or a set of White House tapes more detailed than anything from Presidents Nixon or Johnson (don't hold your breath waiting), there's no way to be entirely certain at present.  It's not something I'll let rage on for long in my comments section here or elsewhere but the lack of proof and (so far) absent a trial and judgement leaves room for honest disagreement. 

      Likewise, the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election is not in in any doubt, despite the frothing stew of nonsense about it.  You're welcome to your feelings about the desirability of the outcome -- this is, after all, the entire point of holding Presidential elections -- but zany fantasies about a thumb on the scales have been tested and come up short, time and again.  We hold these contests every four years and so far, the process has proven resilient against anyone seeking to interfere before, during or after.  Yeah, there have been some ugly counts (1824, 1876, 2000) but 2020 wasn't one of them and I'm tired of sore-loser whining.

      As for the J6 Committee, you might not like the committee, or feel it wasn't fair some of the GOP's picks were excluded due to their involvement in or denial of the events, but if you're ignoring the sworn testimony of Republican former members of the Trump Administration and recorded video of violent, unlawful events of that day, I'm not interested in being your friend. 

      "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" was amusing as a line in a Marx Brothers film but it's far less so in real life.  There comes a time to stop smoking your own bathwater -- or, even worse, some self-serving politician or pundit's bathwater.  Dump out that bong and stand up straight!

      The Earth isn't flat, we went to the Moon and returned safely (and then stopped going after a few more trips), and Donald Trump lost in 2020.  Live in the real world.  Don't like it?  Yeah, well, I'm unhappy there isn't a Hilton on the Moon, too.  But there isn't; I look up at night and there's not a single damned artificial light on our nearest celestial neighbor.  Not even one.  There's a new Presidential election every four years and different sets of fools jostling avidly for the office; I've been waiting my whole life for somebody to go back to the Moon.

Friday, March 10, 2023

What's The Collective Noun For Headaches?

      A thunderation, perhaps.  A perturbation?  Maybe.

      A succession of headaches, migraines with visual effects, has made my life increasingly unpleasant.  I spent most of yesterday in bed and this morning, I felt less rested than the day before.

      No telling what's caused it but it's frustrating and embarrassing to be laid so low by something with no visible symptoms.  At least a broken leg shows up in an x-ray image!  It would be nice to lay the blame for them on our increasingly self-lobotomized political discourse, but that's far too easy.  I'd even blame it on my frustration with some aspects of my job, but it's been worse and most of what's wrong there now is wrong everywhere. 

      I get headaches.  I've done so for years and (after a fruitless multi-year hunt for a cause and cure) mostly I gripe about it and take an OTC pain reliever.  Sometimes that's not enough.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

New Lies, Old Lies, Melting Clocks

      I watched the event in real time.  6 January 2021, I was spending about half of each day working from home and that morning, I was running late.  Mr. Trump was still claiming he'd been snookered out of the Presidency and Congress was going to sit down and made an official count of the Electoral College vote.  I figured I'd stay home until the counting was done; surely even Donald Trump would accept the official result and politics could return to normal.  Memory persists.  Amid ongoing pandemic-related weirdness, that day marks the end of "normal" for me.

      TV coverage of the Trump-aligned rally on the Ellipse was ongoing.  Coming up on one p.m., then-President Trump told the attendees, "...And after this, we're going to walk down, and I'll be there with you, we're going to walk down, we're going to walk down.  Anyone you want, but I think right here, we're going to walk down to the Capitol, and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them.  Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong...."*

      Things started to go off the rails about that time, as violence began to break out.  Live TV coverage of a large and growing crowd at the U. S. Capital climbing steps and walls, moving aside barricades with varying levels of conflict with police, beginning to force doors and break windows.

      Sergei Eisenstein has much to answer for with his dramatized version of the Soviet storming of the Winter Palace, all blood, thunder, explosions and smoke.  An armed and essentially military operation, the actual event was not nearly as exciting.  Nevertheless, the official Soviet version is what lingers in popular imagination, the foundation for what we think an insurrection or armed coup must look like.

      Once the January 6 mob was inside the Capitol, they did everything from break doors and clash with police to mill around in a more or less peaceful manner; camera shots available to the TV networks at the time showed the confusion.  Eisenstein it was not.  Pick the right set of images, ignore that the rioters had broken into a closed building and put Congress to flight and hey, there are periods in which they do look mostly like tourists, give or take flags, signs, a few helmets and other bits of military-looking or frankly bizarre kit.

      That does not change what happened.  Commentators on Fox can stitch together carefully selected snippets of video and show whatever they want, but the damage to people, institutions and the building remains.  The harm is real.  Intervals of peaceful-looking behavior once their intended victims are out of reach left a lot of scope for violence, and violence was indeed done.  Senators, Representatives, the Vice-President, their staffs, Secret Service and Capitol Police were threatened and some were harmed.  The process of Constitutional government was halted.

      At the time, I was concerned that the insurrection would spread, that this gang of yahoos and nitwits had managed to screw up Federal government so badly that some kind of civil war would follow.  I realized that I was on the side of the Federal government.  Despite all of its flaws and failings -- and they are many -- it's better than the alternative.  If you want to know what "Burn it all down" looks like, go look up how things were in Russia after the October Revolution, especially during the six years of civil war that followed.

      Let's not do that.  Especially let's not do so based on the efforts of a second-rate TV commentator to keep his ratings high, or so a spineless Speaker of the House can try to maintain flimsy control of a fickle, fractious and thin majority.
* He was, in fact, not with them.  He's all over the place in the speech, everything from urging listeners to "peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard," to telling them, "We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."  You can take from that anything you like, from a suggestion to have a lovely sit-in to exhortation for armed and violent riot.  And you can read the whole speech for yourself.