Sunday, November 30, 2008

36 Rings

That tree that Al and I felled last week has been a real challenge to buck. It's far, far too heavy to move -- even a segment of it ten feet long weighs too much for me to budge in the slightest. So it's impossible to get it up onto something to cut.

If you've never worked a chainsaw before, you probably don't realize that the hardest part of it is not felling a tree but bucking the felled tree -- that is, cutting it up into appropriate length pieces (usually 16" or so). That's exhausting for some simple reasons. First, felling a tree is three cuts, but bucking a 50' tree into 16" sections is about thirty-six cuts, minimum. Second, those cuts are all done with a pair of muscles you probably don't even know you have, running down your forearms on the pinky side all the way to your elbow. A couple of hours of bucking and I'm still feeling energetic and ready to do more, except those two muscles, which are sore and painful; I had to ice them afterwards, in fact (which worked wonderfully).

But bucking isn't just tiring, it's also challenging. Felling has its challenges, the main one being the efforts to ensure the tree falls in the direction you want it to fall, plus the safety considerations. But bucking is also challenging because the main trick to using a chainsaw is ensuring that as the wood bends through the cut, it doesn't bend down onto the blade, pinching it. You never just cut through the wood the way you want it to cut, the way you would if you had a lightsabre (boy, that would be convenient). You always have to cut in such a way that as the cut finishes and the two parts of the wood start to move apart, they don't do so in a way that pinches the blade. If they do, the chain gets caught, the whole saw is trapped, and it's very likely the chain will bend the retaining pin and require a repair on the saw... once you manage to get it free, which isn't easy.

Consider a log which is lying with both ends supported by something like other logs or a rise in the land, so that the log is like a bridge. How can you make a cut through it? If you start at the top and cut down, as you get near the end of the cut, the point where you're cutting will want to sink downward, which means both sides of the log are now pinching in on the blade. That will stop your cutting and ruin your saw. The proper method is to cut down only about a third of the way, then put the blade under the log and cut up, so that as the two halves start to fall away from each other, they're also falling away from the blade. This is remarkably hard; for one thing, cutting up is a lot more of a strain, and it's often very difficult to even get the chainsaw under the log in the first place. It's an unnatural way to work muscles and so it becomes even more exhausting. And you still run the risk of pinching if the log moves the wrong way; and a single pinch is disastrous, it ends your work and can end your saw.

To make matters worse, there are different patterns for how you're supposed to cut if the log is supported on one end, or neither end, and if the cut is happening before or after the support. The ideal situation is where one end of the log is on the ground, the other end is in the air, and it rests on a fulcrum midway along, and you cut off pieces from the end in the air, since they naturally fall away from the blade as you cut down from the top. But if the log is too heavy to get into this configuration in the first place, you may have to buck it into pieces light enough to roll onto something.

That's what I spent most of my time doing, and in about two hours, I only bucked half of the log that way. Finding myself unable to do the cut-from-the-bottom technique I instead did a time-consuming tedious process involving cutting a notch out of the log from the top, little by little, so that as it moved to pinch it always had room to do so without catching the blade.

On a soft wood this extra work wouldn't be too bad, but this tree is remarkably hard and dense. The chainsaw goes through it so slowly, and requires so much force to be applied, it's just exhausting. The chain was getting so hot it would sizzle when I set it down on the snow. I kept having to stop to let it cool off, making the process that much slower.

Put all this together, and in two hours I made only a couple of dozen 16" rounds of surpassing density, so heavy they're hard to lift even though they're so short. Half the tree still waits to be cut.

I tried to split these rounds, but there was no splitting them. Even cutting into the top with the chainsaw to make a groove for the wedge to get started in, I couldn't get it to bite, the wood was far too dense. I'll just leave the rounds out where they fell all winter and spring, and during the summer they'll dry out, and hopefully they'll be splittable by next autumn. Then I can split and stack them, and they'll be ready to burn not next winter but the following.

I took one of the rounds into the house to count the rings, and I make it 36. If the tree died this year, that would mean it was born in 1972 (the same year as my sister). However, I think the tree has been dead since at least before we moved in four years ago (or if not dead, weak enough that it's not adding rings -- it didn't have bark on most of its trunk, after all), so it's probably closer to being the same age as me.

It's going to be some beautiful burning wood when I can finally use it, and doing all this work on it is really putting me through the paces of learning the art of woodcutting. I suppose in the dry air of memory, as I write this, it could seem disappointing that after two weekends I'm not even halfway through the process (fell, limb, buck, split, stack, and season) of handling a single (albeit mighty) tree.

But when I'm out there doing it, I'm immensely pleased at the progress and the sense of satisfaction at the work. I bet if I had to do it for a living, four hours at a stretch then lunch and another four hours, I would hate it. (And those muscles in my arms would be amazingly strong.) And if I had to do it to survive, or know my family would freeze to death, and balance it with all the other things a pioneer family had to do, it would be even worse. But from the comfort of my modern life, I'm quite able to appreciate it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Quantum of Solace

A week ago we went to see Quantum of Solace and it was definitely worth seeing, but it was also definitely not the equal of Casino Royale. Somehow it was less than the sum of its parts.

The story did a good job of continuing from the earlier story, unlike most Bond movies which start almost fresh every movie; but in the process, it somehow picked up some of the feel of that middle book or movie in a trilogy, which never feels as good as the others. The first story has that fresh newness, in which you get the joy of discovering everything. The last one has the grand sense of resolution. The middle act is the one where a lot of stuff happens that's necessary to the story, but less stuff happens that feels exciting: it's like the straight man in a comedy team, you need it for the whole to work but that doesn't mean it gets the applause. I don't know if the next movie will indeed pick up in a way that'll feel like a trilogy, mind you. I just feel like this movie came off as the middle, not the end, of a story. (Apparently, the makers aren't even decided whether this will turn out to be the middle of a trilogy or not.)

People talk about the "Bond babe" thing but in this incarnation of Bond I really think that's unfair to talk about. Sure, there's always a few sexy females in the movie, but that's not all that made the Bond babe phenomenon. There's always a few sexy females in any action movie. But Bond babes shared a few other traits in common which made them a distinct class. There has been one female role in each of the New Bond movies that sort of fits (Dmitri's wife in the first, Ms. Fields in the second) but in each case the role was very small. But by the standards of earlier Bonds, there's no way Vesper or Camille fits that category. They're really only being called Bond babes out of habit.

Camille has a fairly clichéd story but is nevertheless a strong character with solid motivations. Her story and Bond's in this movie pass each other and overlap at times but there's never any strong connection between them. Not that there has to be; but the connection is strong enough that one feels like it should have been stronger, like Camille's story takes up too much time for as secondary as it ends up being to Bond's story. Anyway, its resolution is a bit anticlimactic.

(As this comment is a bit of a minor spoiler, I'll put it through a rot13. Click it to see what it says. Jung'f jvgu gur tvey jub gur Trareny jnf nobhg gb encr, jub Pnzvyyr "erfphrq" ol xabpxvat ure nfvqr nf fur pnzr sbe gur Trareny, naq gura juvpu rirelbar rkprcg zr sbetbg nobhg? Jnf fur pnhtug va gur sver? Frrzf yvxryl, tvira gung fur jnf gehffrq hc naq znlor hapbafpvbhf. V sryg onq sbe ure nyernql, naq jbefr jura gurl yrsg ure gb ohea gb qrngu. Znlor gurer'yy or n qryrgrq fprar va juvpu gurl tbg ure bhg, gbb.)

On the subject of comparing the various Bonds, I think we must first establish that there are two main flavors of Bond: the Daniel Craig kind, and all the previous ones. Yes, there's a lot of difference between Sean Connery's Bond, and Pierce Brosnan's Bond, and Roger Moore's Bond. But they are all more alike to each other than any is to Daniel Craig's bond. They are all smug, smarmy, seductive, slick, and overly cartoonish: an exaggerated, even clichéd character who is intentionally over the top. And that's a valid and interesting style and genre, and furthermore, one that I think we needed to have before the New Bond could have worked. But it's also so different from the New Bond that it's almost unfair to compare them, except to the extent that you could also compare a flute solo against a piano concerto. And in that sense, I definitely like the New Bond better, though I still enjoy the Old Bond the same way I appreciate intentionally-corny genres like pulp or four-color comic books.

The title always felt clumsy despite it being the title of an Ian Fleming story (which has nothing in common with the movie). I was hoping the movie would make the title click, but it didn't really. I can only find forced explanations for the title, plus an off-the-cuff reference to an organization in the movie which can be easily missed. But by the time the movie came out, I was already used to the title enough that that didn't bother me. Daniel Craig has pointed out that Bond movie titles are often meaningless, but somehow this time it felt like it ought to mean something but it never quite did, not convincingly.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Anyone memorized Summon Electrician this morning?

Now that I'm doing okay on the Lumberjack branch of the Handyman skill tree, I've run into not one but two incidents of falling short on the Electrician branch. It's always something!

Water Pump and Generator
I bought a generator a few months ago. It's nowhere near a whole-house generator so I don't need it to be wired into the house mains; instead, it's only intended to be adequate to run the water pump. When we've had extended power outages in the past, even in the winter, we could have stayed home for days that way. We can use candles and a hurricane lamp for light, the woodstove for heat, our propane cookstove for cooking, and while we do a lot of electronics-based entertaining we certainly can pass days at a stretch on books, crosswords, and other things. The Achilles heel was always water pressure. You can live without showers for a few days, and drink bottled water, but you can't live without flushing the toilet. (Doubly so for people who've had gastric bypass surgery and thus whose digestive systems are a little eager.) And you can't possibly keep enough bottled water on hand to handle flushing the toilet with it. After a power outage we have enough water pressure for one, maybe two, good flushes per toilet, and then we're stuck. So our generator is adequate to run the water pump and a few other things (fridge and freezer, for instance) but not the house lights, let alone TVs and computers.

Spent a distressing amount of time getting the generator working; it was a refurb and proved reluctant to operate, though a lot of that was just that I didn't know stuff about how to start it which the directions didn't make clear. (My favorite instruction was "adjust choke as necessary". But no clues as to what adjustments it might need or why.) But now it's working.

Only problem is, the water pump is actually wired into power in a wall box, not with a plug in an outlet. I actually checked before buying the generator that it was plugged in, but I checked wrong, I was actually looking at the power for the water softener, not the water pump. To make matters worse, the box has three sets of wires coming into it: one goes to the pump, one goes to (I think) an outlet outside, and one comes from the mains. I'm not sure what it'll take to put in an outlet and a plug without screwing up the other wiring; it seems like it should be perfectly simple and well within my skills, but I'm also not sure where I'd mount the outlet (will that box fit one?) and that makes me wonder if I'm over my head.

Home Automation Four-Way Switches
When the house was built I bought a bunch of Z-Wave switches and had the electrician put them in instead of ordinary switches, to save me the trouble of replacing the switches later. Problem is, at the time, Z-Wave three-way and four-way switches hadn't been released yet, so a few key lights (most notably the overhead lights in the living room that are our primary light source there) are not controlled by my home automation system.

I've since purchased those switches (ZDW103 and AS101), but putting them in myself has proven beyond my abilities. The instructions are not very clear -- all they really offer is a wiring diagram -- but more importantly I can't tell which of the many many wires in those three wall boxes (each of which have other switches in them) are which of the things the diagrams refer to. None of them even has as many wires as the switches need! It's agonizing to think I'll probably have to spend a few hundred bucks paying someone to install some switches that themselves cost less than a hundred bucks, just because I can't figure out which wire is which, but I don't see a way around it. (Especially because, if I'd been able to get the switches in time, putting them in would have cost me nothing.) Posting on the HomeSeer forum has been, as usual, non-productive.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

On player-run evil organizations in roleplaying games

I'm going to inevitably be speaking from the viewpoint of my experiences in Lusternia here, and using it for examples, but the subject matter is more generally applicable than that, and informed by my experiences in a lot of other places too.

Most people are nowhere near as good as they think they are at separating in character (IC) from out of character (OOC). The division is also asymmetrical. People who are fairly good at avoiding having their characters act on information they only know from OOC sources are still often bad at having their character's IC experiences color their OOC feelings and decisions, even when those decisions in turn affect their IC decisions. And in virtually all cases, a person's natural proclivities -- including, nay especially, those they don't get to act on in real life -- come out in their character's actions, in their choices of a kind of character to play, and in their character's attitudes.

With this in mind, games in which the "bad guys" are a player organization (as opposed to NPCs) run a grave risk.

First, people are more likely to play a character in an evil organization if they have something inside themselves that draws them to it. It's hard to talk about this without sounding like you're making hugely unfair generalizations and accusations, but while none of this can be said with confidence about any specific player, it is nevertheless the case that for a larger number of people playing "evil" characters, at least one of these things will be true. They might have a frustration inside with their own powerlessness in life that expresses itself as a desire to make other people unhappy as a means of exercising control. They might feel anger which they're tired of having to suppress. They might dislike having to rein in their willingness to let the ends justify the means and be constrained by sometimes-abstract ethical principles. They might be drawn to a chance to act on darker impulses which their real life doesn't allow them to even admit having, maybe even to themselves.

Second, being involved in an organization which preaches cruelty, betrayal, hatred, backstabbing, and ruthlessness tends to make those concepts feel more comfortable. No matter how often the players protest that they're "not really evil" these ideas do tend to have an effect on making them more willing to engage in actions that hurt other people, even without much benefit to themselves, because the IC/OOC barrier is just not as good as people think. When one's character spends a lot of time rationalizing his actions and justifying them with arguments about how the other guy asked for it by becoming involved, the player starts to be persuaded too.

These tendencies can be kept at bay by a number of things, including the players reining themselves in and policing one another, the administration nudging them from time to time, and feedback in OOC areas like forum discussions. One important factor that has helped at times in Lusternia, though, is avoiding letting the evil organizations be entirely clichéd.

Don't get me wrong. Clichés are not all bad. The difference between a cliché and an archetype is that you like one and dislike the other. Embracing and working with clichés is a powerful way to make an experience compelling, and the most successful roleplaying games always do this. Lusternia is no exception: all its factions are built on a foundation of clichés.

But if you build an "evil" organization out of nothing but the usual clichés, you can easily run into a couple of problems. First, there's not really much survival value in being always eager to betray every trust you've built, nor in causing harm for its own sake without necessarily seeking benefit for yourself, nor to the pursuit of destruction of even that on which you depend. Second, it's not very compelling as a reason for doing things, as something you can defend in an argument and stand by, that you can build something up from, to just be evil. There needs to be something behind it, some method to the madness.

But more germane to the topic of this post is the fact that too clichéd a design for an evil organization tends to exacerbate the already-existing tendency for its players to spend too much time causing other players -- not just their characters but also the players -- to be miserable. That's a tendency that is always there, like a rock's drive to roll downhill, and the fact that one can oppose it doesn't change that it's always there. It's best to diminish the tendency as much as you can, too.

Lusternia's design of the evil organization lends it a very potent additional layer. They're not simply in support of evil for its own sake, in doing harm because they reject an ethos that says they shouldn't, in conquest because they want to have more stuff. They are also embracing a concept that a particular force -- the excreta of a Soulless God -- can be used to strengthen and transform.

It's tapping into an age-old dilemma: is a by-product of something bad always something bad? For instance, if someone does ethically wrong things that make decent folk recoil in horror, but as a result makes a discovery that could be put to beneficial use, should the discovery be thrown away? Will its use inevitably corrupt whatever good use it's put to? This is a theme that occurs a lot in fantasy, and Lusternia builds on it and provides a lot of fodder to allow the evil guys to be about something, something they can really defend and justify.

At some times in Lusternia's history, the people of most influence in Magnagora, the "evil" city, have taken this and run with it. But at other times, there's a backslide into a more cartoonish and simplistic evil, one which dwells on hatred and cruelty for its own sake. The problem with this isn't that it's clichéd; it's that it also tends towards making the players in Magnagora more geared towards causing other people to be miserable. And that in turn is self-perpetuating: those who feel that way rise in the ranks and become more active, while those who would prefer to have Magnagora be about something are discouraged and become less active. Unfortunately, this shift also affects everyone else, and tends to drag the game down.

This tendency isn't universal, nor is it unstoppable. During Lusternia's four years it's ebbed and flowed, because even though it's self-perpetuating, there are some things that'll change it, such as the sudden disappearance of an influential player (because he goes to another game, for instance, or stops playing MUDs). But when it happens, as it has been happening for the last few months (and perhaps as bad as, or worse than, it's ever been before), the game as a whole suffers.

Still, even if it got twice as bad as it's been lately, it wouldn't compare to what it was like in Aetolia, where cartoonishly shallow evil pretty much ran the game. (At least when I played. I don't know if it's still like that. It seems unlikely that poison rooted that deeply can be pulled out, but who knows? I'm certainly not interested in checking.) There's still enough room in Lusternia to work around the idiots even when they're mostly banded together, and even when their actions are starting to cause their opposites to adopt their inconsiderate disregard, there's room to avoid being colored by it.

Still, I hope the administration is planning some kind of event that will break the momentum of escalating retributive vindictiveness, or preparing to exert some influence away from the direction fo spite and malice. It's been a while and we're about due.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mordant's Need: The Mirror Of Her Dreams

Taking a break from the non-fiction shelves to re-read a fantasy novel. Well, it was written as one novel but published in two volumes: Mordant's Need by Stephen R. Donaldson (best known for the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant). As of this writing I'm nearing the end of the first volume The Mirror Of Her Dreams.

It's been a long enough time since I read this that I remember only general things, but the story is still suspenseful. And in fact, I'm enjoying it more this time than I remembered enjoying it last time.

You know how sometimes when you're watching a movie or a TV show or reading a book, you want to yell at the characters to do something, and they don't? That experience is very prominent in reading this book; at times, it happens so much it's positively frustrating and I wonder if I'm even enjoying the book. And yet I'm just as eager to turn the page, maybe even more so. I suppose for the author it's a dangerous line; frustrating us helps build suspense but push it too far and it becomes a turn-off. But if any fantasy author is comfortable with playing dangerous games with pushing his readers, it's Donaldson.

Sometimes I find myself skimming. It's a bad habit I must have picked up. I'll zero in on the dialogue and gloss over some of the descriptive text. I've been breaking myself of the habit, forcing myself to go back and read every word until I can picture it all. I don't have this problem with non-fiction, but I have it a lot with fiction. I wonder when I picked up this habit.

It's a very engaging story. I wonder if it would be a good setting for a roleplaying game. As with many fantasy worlds, the way things work is not spelled out with enough explicit detail and constraints for a GM to keep players from finding too-easy solutions and world-breaking implications. By the time you build up the rules clearly enough to let players loose, sometimes it ends up feeling like you've drained away what was so special about the world in the first place. Alternately, reserving the imprecise things (in this book, the magic of mirrors which is called Imagery) for NPCs to use as plot devices can also drain away the interest but in a different way. I think this is one of those worlds that will make you want to roleplay fantasy but which would not really make a good roleplaying world in practice. It needs a level of mystery that is incompatible with players, and depends too much on characters making the kind of bad decisions that might be realistic but that players almost never hobble themselves with.

Read the other half of this discussion.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

PS3 Games

In the last few weeks I've managed to set aside a few hours to play computer games on the Playstation 3 a few times. Which hardly seems newsworthy, but for me it's very unusual. I virtually always have other things I want to, or have to, do, that take priority over computer games. And really I'm not a big fan of computer games in general; most of my friends all my life have spent a lot more time on them than I have.

As someone who spends truly incredible amounts of time on MUDs, this is an odd thing to say. But to me a MUD is not a computer game. It's a game which happens to involve computers. But it's a game played between people, which uses a computer as mediator and facilitator. What appeals to me about it is the role that the people play in it, not the role that computers play in it. To some people this will come off as splitting hairs; but to me, the difference is huge. (Admittedly, I do a lot of things in Lusternia that aren't involving other people much if at all, but I do those in service of other things that do.)

One of the games I've played, the only one I actually purchased for the Playstation 3 (it's primarily just a Blu-ray movie player for us), is Echochrome. This is a dizzying (literally) abstract puzzle game involving three-dimensional spaces that have the same kind of paradoxical properties as Escher paintings. You have to not merely work around those paradoxes, but learn to use them, to solve the puzzles. It's an incredible idea for a game and it works. I've solved about a third of the puzzles so far.

I also dabbled in the demos of a few other games and one of them, to my surprise, has engaged my interest. It's a driving game called Stuntman: Ignition. Tongue firmly in cheek, the game puts you in the driver's seat of a stunt car filming an action sequence for an over-the-top action movie... or perhaps a parody of an action movie, it's hard to tell. You have to navigate an increasingly insane course at lunatic speeds pulling off complex stunts, ideally close together in sequence. It's also frustrating in that it's nearly impossible to even complete the course, let alone with a good score, so you just do it over and over and over. And yet somehow in spite of this I actually enjoyed it so much I decided to put it on my Christmas list.

I also tried out a few others that didn't do it for me. Resistance: Fall of Man was brutal and challenging, but offered no directions or explanation. I played a while before I even realized it wasn't a WW2 game (only by happening to see that the enemy corpse I walked past was an alien). There's no input on what you're supposed to be doing beyond "not dying" so you can just sit in one spot strafing all day without realizing the game won't advance until you reach a particular point that is not obviously different from any other particular point. When I finally did advance, the next step was the appearance of some creature or machine that was brutally efficient and unharmed by any of my weapons. After a long grind of trying to hit it in different spots and ways in hopes of finding some vulnerability (and coming back from scores of deaths to try again) I decided I just didn't care that much. Whoever made this demo should have included a cut scene explaining, at very least, the situation, your goal, and maybe the controls.

A few other driving games did better (I'm not normally a huge fan of driving games but the genres I used to like seem to have mostly died out so driving games are often the best available) but still not great. In one you have to drive a course while shooting other cars -- in theory. In practice, unless you are already an expert in the game on your first time at it, you will never catch up with those other cars, so you won't get to shoot them. You can instead play a free-for-all version with no race, but that just means six computer-controlled cars gang up on you and blow you up instantly. The game really needs an "easy mode" or a "first level" in which you can learn what you're doing -- and that should be part of the demo. Then again, I'm not their usual customer base, so maybe this is fine.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Local turkey

This year for Thanksgiving we're buying a local turkey from Gaylord Farm in Waitsfield. It'll be smaller than the usual bird but not by much.

We're primarily looking for the ecological advantages of buying local (most of the ecosystem costs, and a surprising amount of the financial costs, associated with food are in transporting it), but we're also exploring the question of whether it'll taste a lot better, being fresh and locally grown by a small rural farm.

Of course, it'll cost a lot more. Maybe we're not quite ready to spend three times as much on all our food, but we can certainly start with spending three times as much on a meal we have only once a year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More woodcutting

My friend Al came over today to help me cut the one tree that I'd started to fell, but stopped because I didn't think I was up to taking it down alone. This tree was a very hard hardwood -- I thought it might be maple based on the tips of the branches, but Al thought it wasn't based on the bark and he probably knows better than me -- but whatever it was, it's remarkably dense and hard. It was about the limit of what my saw can handle.

The felling was by the book: felling notch, then felling cut, then timber and it fell, with me running to the safe spot to watch. But of course it fell onto another tree and hung there. It took a while to bring it down from there -- time involving looping a rope around it using a roof rake, tying it to Al's SUV, and then him pulling it, tires slipping on the front lawn snow, until it finally came down.

I spent a solid hour limbing it before the cold and tiredness had soaked in enough that I had to stop. There's at least another hour of limbing and bucking just to get to where I can haul the pieces up to be sliced to size. Probably two hours of bucking and splitting, then stacking from there. But Al thinks it'll be at least half a cord, maybe a whole cord, of remarkably good quality hardwood.

Don't know if I'll finish it this year or if it'll sit out there until spring before I finish it. Depends on how the weather goes on the weekends, I suppose. But it's going to be great wood, burning a good long time.

We also stacked the third-of-a-cord previously cut (Al did most of the work in that), but didn't get started on stacking the cord of greenwood we just had delivered (at $230!). If I keep up this "hobby," though, maybe I won't need to buy more wood in future years.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Adventures in playwriting

So today I was finishing up a short avant-garde play script. (My character in Lusternia is a well-known playwright, so I have to produce plays every so often.) I was using a QuickPad Pro to write it: this is a handy little device that runs an ancient version of DOS with a word processor that only works in plain text, but it's perfectly suited to writing on the go since it is light, extremely portable, boots up instantly, and runs for weeks on AA batteries. I can use it in the car, like on the long drive to CostCo, or in other places, like while waiting for the movie to start in the theater. And indeed, waiting for the trailers, I finished the play, and was very happy with the result. I actually found myself crying as I wrote the last lines.

The play is very short, only four and a half pages printed, but it took a lot more work than you'd think because it's very avant-garde and experimental, and I kept going back to change my mind about how I wanted to handle roles, costumes, scene changes, etc.

After the movie, on the way home, I wanted to start going through it for a second draft, to clean things up. All my writing depends on lots of rewriting. Feeling like I needed to be sure I didn't lose anything, I went to copy the play first. But I didn't have the external data card with me, so I sought to make a copy in main memory.

Doing so, I got some partial error message, and then... the play was gone.


I spent about fifteen minutes trying to recover it, and being distraught; and then I set everything else aside and started rewriting it from memory. I didn't let any time pass, I just poured it out. And thankfully it went quickly. The just-under-an-hour trip down from the movie theater, I was typing the whole way, and I finished mere blocks from the house.

Sometimes when I have to rewrite in a situation like this, the second time never feels as good as the first did. But since it was short enough, and I did it quick enough, I think the second time came out just about as good as the first time would have been after my first pass of rewrites. So thankfully, no harm was done. What a relief too. Losing something I wrote, when it's happened before, has made me feel so heart-sick.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A very extended phenotype

I've written before on this blog about the fascinating case of Toxoplasma gondii infections being able to shape not only the personality of its host, but also, through varying rates in different parts of the world, influence the shape of entire cultures. Today, David Brin's blog referred to another article about this research, which clarified a few points and made it seem even more startling and amazing.

Toxoplasma gondii reproduces only in cats, but is carried in many other creatures. One noteworthy thing about it that has been known for a while is that, when it's found in mice and rats, it changes their behaviour, making them less fearful of felines and even in some cases attracted to them. This makes the rodents get eaten, and that in turn gives the parasite the chance to reproduce. This is a perfect example of Richard Dawkins's idea of the extended phenotype: a genetic adaptation, as it works towards the survival of genes, not organisms, may have its effects well beyond the boundaries of a particular organism. (Though in cases like this where it's a damaging parasitical effect, it's easier to see. The really slippery ones for Dawkins to convince us of are ones where it's neither beneficial nor harmful.)

This new article points out a few more interesting conclusions related to individual personality effects which remind me of another point I made on my blog a long time ago:
  • Infected men tended to have lower levels of intelligence, superego strength, and novelty-seeking.
  • Infected women exhibited higher levels of intelligence, superego strength, and warmth.
  • Infected people of both sexes tend to be susceptible to feelings of guilt.
  • Infected men are scored as more dominant and more masculine by female observers.
But it's in the ways that rates of infection in an entire culture may influence that culture that this study really wows. Rates of infection may influence:
  • how "neurotic" a culture is
  • whether it prefers stricter or looser laws
  • whether it values avoiding uncertainty
  • whether it values competitiveness and financial success over cooperation and relationship building
What this really makes one wonder is how many other biological effects like this are behind how many other aspects of culture, history, art, philosophy, and all other human endeavors.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A math proof

It's intuitively obvious that this is true, and it's probably trivial to prove it mathematically, but I am several decades out of practice at writing proofs so I can't quite figure out how to prove it.

If you have a sample of numbers and all you know is its average, not the individual values or how many; and then you add a bunch more numbers to the sample, and the new numbers have an average higher than the original sample's average, the new cumulative average must be higher.

As a word problem: If a sports player has an average on some statistic for his career, then next year, his average for that year is higher than his average for his career up to that year, his new career average must have increased.

In mathematical lingo:
Let A and B be a set of numbers, with at least one element each.
Let mA and mB be the averages of the values in these sets.
Let C be the union of sets A and B; then mC is the average of the values of the set C.
If mB > mA, it follows that mC > mA.

Trying to write a rigorous mathematical proof, I get nowhere. I start with tA/nA < tB/nB and try to do things to that inequation (adding things to both sides, for instance) in hopes of getting closer to (tA+tB)/(nA+nB) > tA/nA but I never get anywhere.

I suppose there's some small chance that this is one of those things where proving it is a lot harder than it seems intuitively, but more likely, it just means that in the twenty years since my college days, I have forgotten almost everything. Meh.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


In the past on this blog I have advocated the use of RSS feeds to read this blog and lots of other stuff, and specifically recommended SharpReader. However, SharpReader's development seems to have died. The author is not fixing bugs, let alone making improvements, nor is he responding to inquiries. I offered to take over development, and suggested open-sourcing it, but no reaction.

The bugs in SharpReader are not crippling, but they are annoying. The filter feature often causes SharpReader to crash for me, and there are some very simple features like hiding read articles which it lacks. It's still quite usable, but after finding its development dead-ended and its author non-responsive, I went out looking for what else is out there.

After trying a few free client-software RSS aggregators, I settled on FeedReader as the logical successor to SharpReader. It's very similar to SharpReader: it even retains a few of SharpReader's flaws, including an inability to remember from one session to the next that its window was left on the second monitor, and no smarts at identifying and removing/hiding duplicate articles. But it's familiar enough to be an easy transition, while bringing a lot of improvements. Notable ones:
  • The ability to hide read articles.
  • Intelliupdate figures out how often to poll feeds based on frequency of posts automatically.
  • Seems to use a lot less bandwidth on polling feeds.
  • SmartFeeds let you set up virtual feeds built from cherry-picked articles from other feeds, separated out by search criteria.
  • The ability to open an article in another window while keeping FeedReader in front.
  • A slightly slicker user interface.
About the only downsides I've run into are the lack of a keystroke to open an article in a new window, and the lack of a toggle button to show and hide unread messages.

It's a free download and I encourage anyone who reads blogs, the news, comics, or anything else with RSS feeds to try it out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ready for an implant computer

Hardly a day goes by when I wish computers wouldn't get around to being so small and ubiquitous that I could just have one implanted. The eventual dream is one that's built in so that its abilities are in essence my abilities. Displays overlaid over my eyesight (and integral with it), input from my thoughts, and always online. Seems pretty faraway but sufficient money could get similar functionality, with key limitations, in some ways. A cell-phone-sized computer on your belt, with a 3G wireless connection (in places other than Vermont, where such things are available), a Bluetooth connection to hi-res video goggles displaying a transparent HUD, voice recognition, and maybe a portable Bluetooth one-handed keyboard or just a Bluetooth roll-up keyboard.

A lot of people would react to the idea of an always-on, always-available computer as a further intrusion. You have heard this story before. The harried overworked executive complaining that he can't get away from the cell phone, the pager, the fax, the laptop. That he's expected to be working on the presentation on the plane, to take business calls in the evening, to go to dinner meetings when he's supposed to be at his son's birthday party. Technology is now making him have no time for himself and while he wishes his laptop were lighter and more portable, at the same time he dreads the day it is, because then they'll expect him to work even more.

I sympathize, really I do. But I think that he's placing the blame in the wrong place. The problem is in his employer for expecting him to do such ridiculous amounts of work, and looking to the short term of getting a better next quarter rather than keeping their workforce sustainably sane. The problem is in him for accepting a job like that, rather than taking something that pays less (so he can't afford that BMW) or demanding that the job respect his private life -- though it's hard for him to do both of those things, because maybe he lives in Manhattan, or has to put his kids through school, and it's not like jobs that pay that well grow on trees. The problem is in a capitalist culture that encourages everyone to do all of these things without regard for the well-being of the gears in its machine, making it hard for any single person or employer to break out of it without great sacrifice, if they can at all.

That said, I've been fortunate enough (and I subscribe to the idea that luck visits those who create chances for it to visit) to have a life where I can go home after work and 99% of the time not have to think about work until the next day. And I keep that by choosing not to advance. I could make 50% more money if I took a higher position within my current employer. I could make 100% more money if I worked for the private sector in a city. But I'd rather have what I have and time to have my own life after work, so I don't pursue such opportunities.

Blaming the cell phone and laptop for our hypothetical overworked executive's dilemma is a frequent theme in the history of technology. Technology makes possible something that maybe shouldn't be done, and never was done because it wasn't possible before. Someone does it, perhaps looking for quick profit, perhaps because they don't agree it shouldn't be done, perhaps because it's not obvious it shouldn't be done, perhaps merely out of a sense that it's possible. (That last option is usually the one blamed in anti-technology screeds, but it's rarely the actual reason.) Maybe doing it becomes the standard thing out of competitiveness. And when people object, they object not to the bad decision, but to the technology that made that decision possible. They do that especially when useful applications of the technology are not obvious (like an atomic bomb) but they do it just as fast when the technology -- as in the case of a cell phone -- could do a million things, many good, only one of which (causing some poor guy to be overworked) happens to be bad.

If I had more ubiquitous computing, I might allow a small increase in the incursion of my work life on my private life, though you can be sure my private life would not be neglected, and if I felt like it was, then I'd put a stop to it. Instead, I'd be better able to use time that is wasted in waiting, plus I'd be better able to capture ideas when they came to me and thus preserve more of them. Not to mention all the things I could do more efficiently and better. I'm absolutely ready. I know the first few generations will suck, but I'm ready anyway.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Leah Starfall

I have wanted to write in my blog about this for a few weeks but I always stopped because I didn't have much to say. And I still don't, so I'll make up for it with pictures.

A very dear friend of mine had a baby on November 1st. Her name is Leah Starfall, though her mother still refuses to make the "Starfall" part officially acknowledged.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Demon-Haunted World

Before reading A Sand County Almanac I had read The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. I think this is the only time I've ever been disappointed by any of Carl's works.

Certainly the world needs people like Carl to advocate sensible thinking and an appreciation for why science isn't "just another faith" but qualitatively different in meaningful ways. We don't need to be rid of things like astrology, creationism, and ghosts: they have a place in fiction and art. We just need not to be imagining them to be real and letting them guide decisions that matter. And Carl is perhaps the single strongest voice for the popularization of science in our generation. So the book just seems like a sure winner.

Somehow, though, the book falls flat. Too much of the time, Carl is grinding personal axes. Too often he succumbs to rhetorical methods too similar to those used by the people he's refuting, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to the people who most need this message -- i.e., not me, where he's preaching to the choir, but the people who actually fall for this stuff in the first place. And maybe the book works for them, in which case, more power to Carl for choosing that route. But for me, for every fascinating anecdote or cunning refutation, there was a passage which grated on me.

Foremost amongst the cheap rhetorical tricks was the one where you pose an argument as a question. Or more accurately, the lack of an argument. You see this one all the time in the news, especially neocon news. The trick is, just make someone consider something possible (because they can't be sure it isn't) and then they tend to accept it as true. It's all about shifting the burden of proof. That he's using this to defend things that actually are true does not excuse it or make it stop grating on me.

The book also feels uneven. He jumps from topic to topic a lot, but not consistently; sometimes he ties things together and sometimes they're just left lying around. There's just too much narrative connecting things to consider the sections separate or allow them to stand on their own, but not enough to actually connect everything.

There are certainly good things in the book. The collection of anecdotes about things that have fooled people are worth the price of admission alone. And some of his arguments are not only compelling but a good addition to the toolkit of any sensible skeptic. I suppose it's mostly that my expectations were so high that I felt let down; by another author the book might have felt strong to me, though I would probably have said, "I wish Carl Sagan would have written this instead, then it would have been so much stronger." Even so, it's a worthwhile read.

I'd really love to see whether anyone who wasn't a skeptic before reading it was convinced afterwards, because if so, all my reservations and criticisms go away. I absolutely agree that if this is what it takes to get through to the people who need this lesson, he should completely ignore making the book strong to me. I just wonder if that's the case.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A skin for MortPlayer

MortPlayer is a free MP3 player for Windows Mobile which I use on my phone along with Soyo Freestyler bluetooth stereo headphones to listen to music while I exercise. MortPlayer is a very feature-rich program with support for skins, but most of the skins available, even more so than with desktop MP3 players, sacrifice utility for "sexy". On a small handheld device in a program with a lot of features, this tends to mean you get a lot of clutter, and virtually no room for album art, which is my favorite source of "sexy" in an MP3 player anyway. So I decided to make my own skin, and I present it now for download.

Download CrystalWhite

Friday, November 14, 2008

Make room, make room!

At the root of the idea of wilderness elitism is a fundamental problem of how many people can be supported by an area, or a world. "Supported" can mean many things in many contexts, though.

First, consider Aldo Leopold, growing up around the beginning of the twentieth century. He lived in a lot of places, from the northern midwest through the western frontiers of Arizona and New Mexico and down into Mexico proper; and in many of these places, he worked and lived in areas where very few people went. As a cowboy he lived on the range, watching herds of beef cattle being driven through lands that could easily support their numbers... until more and more cattle were driven, and sought out the easiest grazing, and started to strip areas and cause soil loss. As a hunter and wilderness denizen he watched first the solitude of the remote places start to fade as people got closer to them, then saw the elimination of habitats and the erosion of predation change the distribution and numbers of animals in ways that caused plagues and deforestation. As a forester, he watched places whose sublime beauty engendered a deep appreciation for the natural world get lost to clear-cutting, soil erosion, strip-farming, recreational wilderness adventures becoming more superficial and more impactful on the land, and everywhere the steady progress of humanity's impact on the land.

When Leopold looks at a small parcel of pristine land, he sees many things. A preservation of unique species and ecosystems, a part of the cycle of life, an object lesson in the interrelatedness of things. Perhaps most important, but least obvious, is that being in that place, living there, seeing it over a long enough period of time to become acclimated to it, and thus becoming able to (as he put it) "think like a mountain", changes a person. Makes him able to appreciate the world and his place in it, and make more appropriate, sustainable choices.

Today, we hear often about questions of man's impact on the world around him. Topics that used to be all the rage, like strip-mining, deforestation, recycling, and pollution, are now absorbed into more current and broader topics, like global warming, biodiversity, and extinction. And other questions that might not seem immediately related, like social justice and poverty, hang over us. Though on closer examination these things turn out to be related: in much of the world, one of the biggest environmental problems is how to keep people from taking the quick way to wealth when their alternative is grinding poverty, for instance.

All of these issues bring up a central common theme: there's just too many of us. To be sure, the world is capable of feeding and housing us all, and will be for at least a few more generations, though unchecked geometric expansion guarantees that not only will we exceed any theoretical maximum eventually, it'll come sooner and faster than people generally expect. But the world isn't feeding and housing all of us, even today. Why not?

Every day we're learning more and more how much we depend on things in the natural world we never even realized we needed before. Two hundred years ago we didn't know we needed bees for our food crops. Today, we're becoming aware that we need "harmful" bacteria for our bodies to work. We're seeing unexpected impacts in things like the ozone layer, the life cycles of frogs, and the health of sea creatures we barely even know about. Tomorrow will surely reveal more unexpected ways in which previously innocuous things turn out to impact us.

Right now, we could probably feed and house everyone in the world, and do it in a way that preserved the health of the world well enough to preserve our own health, if we did everything worldwide in the wisest way we know how. Fact is, though, we can't even get a single family in a well-to-do nation to do things in those wise ways. Let alone the developing nations where the alternative is starvation. Let alone everyone.

So what would it take to get to where everyone understood how important it is to live in harmony with the world? Leopold would probably say that they all need to spend a few years living in the unbroken wilderness. Okay, so Leopold is a bit touchy-feely and unrealistically demanding, but he makes a good point. Long before the world can't support our numbers in absolute, mathematical precision, it can't support us in a way that lets that connection to the natural world become as personal as it was for Leopold's generation. By the time we're able to see the problem, we're already moving past the point where we can make six billion people each, individually, see the importance of the solution.

There are surely other ways to make people realize these things. I do not share Leopold's ultimately bleak elitist attitude (though I can't help wondering if I had a way to share his experiences, if I might come to the same conclusion he seems to come to, that people like me just can't really appreciate the world in the necessary way, even if we think we do, without those experiences. How can you be sure?).

But time and again, any time you look at the issue of the environment, the problem always boils down to how many people there are today, and how many people there will be tomorrow. Our numbers at once make it harder for us to unite in deciding to behave in the wisest way, and make it more and more important that we do unite that way. It's a catch-22. And it also suggests that one of (not the only, but one of) the most important things we can be doing to help the human race stop digging itself into a hole is to contain population growth, worldwide. Not merely to avoid hitting the absolute carrying capacity, not merely to reverse the geometric expansion into something more linear. But also to reduce our impacts on all the parts of the world that are valuable in themselves; and to reduce our impacts on all the parts of the world that we depend on, maybe without knowing it; and to preserve our ability to realize we need to do all of that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coming home to a place he'd never been before

My recent post about A Sand County Almanac talked about Leopold's elitism, and it put me in mind of my first exposure to that particular phenomenon: John Denver.

I like his music (though I can burn out on it easily), and I like his lyrics, but sometimes the contradictions drive me nuts. Most evident is in one of his most famous songs, "Rocky Mountain High". Most of the song is a celebration of a guy who wasn't born in the country, and discovered that was where he belonged when he visited there.
He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Coming home to a place he'd never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
The song goes on at some length about the transformative power of the wilderness on this man who discovered that this is where he always belonged. And yet, once this theme is very firmly established and very clearly positioned as a good thing, John concludes:
Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land
Hey John, guess what. Maybe the answer is in the whole rest of the song you just wrote. So make up your mind. Is it a bad thing to "bring in a couple more" or isn't it?

The least cynical answer I can think of, which is still very elitist, is "sure, but only if they're the right people, the people who will turn out to have belonged there all along." But how do you tell who those people are? Your song just explained that he had to go there and see it for himself to know.

A more cynical and probably more accurate answer is this: "they should let more people in until I get there, and then close the door, to preserve what I just got." And this seems to be the unspoken (sometimes spoken!) assumption behind so many of the elitist attitudes I see to "outsiders" coming into the wilderness.

The unavoidable fact is that the real problem is overpopulation. But that's too big a topic to put into this post.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My workshop

To continue my recent theme of domestic, rural life, I should mention my workshop. A few years ago after moving into my custom-built house, I made a workbench, but then I left the workshop incomplete for a couple of years. This year I finally finished it by setting up my pegboards, organizing all my tools, cleaning things up, and installing an overhead light. (I would have done that a long time ago except I got in my head that I would have needed an electrician to put in the box it would connect to, but sure enough, there are models that you can plug in.)

My workshop
(left side) - (right side)

Not seen in these pictures are the overhead light and the workbench vise, both of which I added after the picture was taken.

No, I'm not going to draw "chalk outlines" around my tools. The whole point of a pegboard is it's easy to reconfigure it when you need to. Drawing lines may make it easier for other people to return tools to the right place, but at the cost of giving up that advantage.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Sand County Almanac

Another book I read recently, and part of what got me thinking about woodcutting, is A Sand County Almanac, the seminal conservationist manifesto by Aldo Leopold.

I first read it, only partway through, during a class in college on the philosophy of science and technology; but having a heavy workload I was forced to cut it short. Somehow I never got back to it and made it all the way through it until now, which is odd as it's really not a hard read, it's quick and engaging.

The first third of the book is a series of pithy observations from Leopold from his life on a farm in the titular Sand County, and it's in this section that his style shines most clearly. He is evocative with beautiful prose bouncing comfortably between the most quotidian of details about the natural world, and the grandest of visions for how those details are part of a vision that spans millenia. He speaks eloquently of his relationship with the land and other living things, and his observations about them, and his stewardship of his part of the world.

The middle third is somewhat similar to the first, but more scattered, with a wider variety of unconnected images. In a way, it's like the first part, only more so. In the third part, he ventures into more prosaic writing, though there are still traces of his lyrical appreciation of the world around him, but this time embedded into more purposeful statements about policy and politics.

I must first speak of the negatives of the book, and here you'll see another matter that has been on my mind recently. Leopold lapses regularly into a sort of elitism that is entirely too comfortable for him. He was gifted with an upbringing in the wilderness, intimately connected with it. He farmed, he hunted, he fished, he cut wood, and he watched the land changing around him as the years passed, from a very young age, at his father's side. Thus, he can get away with sneering at the city-folk who had the misfortune of not being raised in this world, who are blind to the more subtle things going on in the world around them, and to be pitied for what they're missing.

To be sure he would like to see them learn. Yet every other page he is railing against their incursion into his precious wilderness. Sometimes he is upset that they come in with insufficient appreciation, wanting a quick weekend experience; but other times he objects to their mere presence, and their numbers. The wilderness just can't support their numbers without being changed, defeating the purpose. In the third part he makes some small concession to this problem, but too often he's just being smug about his right to be in the wilderness he was born to, and everyone else's lack of right to be there, and lack of understanding of what it's really like, which each reinforce and create the other.

Another element of this elitism is the simple fact that he can spend all his time on his farm. He has no day job other than writing the occasional scribbles and sketches for his book. He can get up at 3am and sit on his porch for three hours every day. He can spend days at a time standing in a creek waiting for a trout. He can dedicate a week to cutting trees in the back forty. He talks as if everyone has that kind of freedom, as if the responsibility to the land isn't just an important responsibility but the only one.

Setting this aside, though, his description of the land and his relationship to it is moving, beautiful, and inspiring. He is at his best when he talks about something tiny and everyday, then through its perspective, enfolds the entirety of the world. At the time (late 1940s) it must have been an amazingly fresh viewpoint; and even now, in an age of global awareness of environmental issues, it speaks persuasively not just of the issues and the urgency, but also of the humble beauty, which is inspiring in a different way than someone talking about the importance of our efforts.

I now have a copy of Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays which is on my reading list after the current series I'm working on.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cultural background

I was born and raised on Long Island in the suburbs, and my father was largely absent from my upbringing (he was a truck driver, not one much inclined to being more involved in my life than necessary, and he parted ways with my mother when I was 13). Lately, I've been more and more aware of the thousand tiny things, most of them too small for people to even notice them, that I never learned and that other people who live near me just take for granted.

There's a handful of little details that people learned without realizing they learned them, things that are too hard to explain or even notice, and harder still to realize need to be explained because they seem obvious. I've been running into many of these in the "handyman" category lately.

For instance, most boys born and raised in Vermont to old-time Vermonters learned things about woodcutting that I was never exposed to, and some are too small or subtle to be included in the manual that comes with a chainsaw. There are details about how small engines are maintained that I just can't quite pick up only because no one will show them to me the way they would to their own children, so it's a struggle for me just to tune up my own lawn tractor, let alone get a generator working when it won't quite start. I don't know how to stack wood, how to tell at a glance how much wood I have in a pile, and even some things about how to use a woodstove efficiently, let alone repair it. Even knowing the right questions to ask the guys at the hardware store requires a baseline knowledge of which mine is full of gaps.

Sometimes it's hard to get a neighbor to help or a friend to explain things because they've been burned too much by "flatlanders" -- the local term for someone from a suburban or urban place (or more generally, "not here") who has come to the area and settled down, with the connotation that they aren't here to be "a real Vermonter" but just to bring their suburban ways to the rural landscape, ruining both. I don't blame them. I've seen people who came to Vermont looking not for Vermont, but for their old home with a postcard behind it. They expect to be able to get sushi delivered at midnight, and have no interest in learning how to handle Vermont weather, let alone things like cutting their own wood. They want the idea of Vermont, not the reality. And old Vermonters are jaded from dealing with them being like that, and tend to look suspciously on anyone "not from around here" who doesn't know how to handle a snowblower or a chainsaw.

I think I can safely say that's not me. Sure, I was born and raised in Long Island, but as far as I'm concerned, that was a mere clerical error: I was misfiled. I want to live like a Vermonter. I want to learn all that stuff and I want to do my share, pull my weight. But how do they know that's true?

But it's easy to overstate this aspect of the issue. Most of the time, Vermonters are more than happy to give us flatlanders the benefit of the doubt and try to explain this stuff. The problem is that there's too much baseline knowledge which is too obvious, which people learned by mere exposure. Most of it, the old-time Vermonter doesn't even realize he learned; it just seems obvious. And what's left, they're probably reluctant to try to explain. Wouldn't it seem just wrong, patronizing maybe, to explain to a successful, respected man in his 40s something you would be teaching your five-year-old son? Especially when that man does indeed have some handyman chops in other areas, despite these big gaps in his knowledge?

So while they were learning obvious things about how to use a winch to guide a felled tree, or what the sounds of a gas engine mean about what's wrong with it, or even just what tools are used for these things, I was learning baseline suburbs skills that they would be lacking if they moved to Long Island, and would have a similar hard time picking up through the culture shock. Great. So I know how to read mall maps efficiently, how to keep my wits in three lanes of constantly shifting aggressive traffic, and how to avoid salesmen in stores. And a thousand other things that are too obvious to me for me even to think of them to list here, but which would bewilder the old-time Vermonter caught in Suffolk County staring at the menu in a small local pizzeria. Fat lot of good that does me.

Little by little I'm picking these things up that my dad never taught me, that my youth never exposed me to, that no one now realizes to explain. But at times it's frustratingly slow. And every time I have to ask a friend to come over and show me something basic to him, I wish I won't have to do that again soon, but every time, something else comes up almost immediately. I wish I could take a remedial course in this stuff.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Selfish Gene

For as many times as I've written about the selfish gene theory on this blog you'd think I'd be intimately familiar with the book of that name, by Richard Dawkins. However, I only just finished reading it. I started it once before, a few years ago, but then something came up and I had to set it aside, and by time I got back to it, so much time had passed that I felt I had to start over; and ended up deciding to start something else instead.

Now that I have read it, I've added a few more books by Dawkins to my wish list. I can't really overstate how much of an impression the book made on me. It's no exaggeration to say that I feel like, before this, I never really understood evolution. Even reading The Origin Of Species didn't really make me understand it. It just made me think I did.

To explain this I need to make a metaphor that references metaphors, so bear with me as this gets a little confusing.

Someone who understands quantum physics only by understanding the kind of metaphors used in popularizations of science to explain quantum physics, doesn't really understand quantum physics. She understands more than she would without the metaphor, certainly, and she can get a feel for what quantum physics is like, but she is also likely to mistake elements of the metaphor for elements of the actual thing, and certainly won't see the real ramifications of actual quantum physics.

What I used to understand as evolution wasn't exactly a popularization metaphor -- after all, some of it came from reading Darwin -- but it had the same sort of relationship to what evolution actually is. It was an approximation, almost like a metaphor, analogous to but not the same as evolution.

Dawkins showed not just how the real relationship between genes (immortal replicators) and organisms (their survival vehicles) turns evolution right-side-up, but then went on from there to explore the many ramifications of this more correct, more consistent view of evolution. Virtually every page of the book was an exploration of another implication of this view, or a fascinating anecode about animal or plant behavior previously inexplicable made perfectly logical by this understanding of evolution.

I cannot recommend the book enough for anyone interested in the natural sciences.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Woodcutting, part two

Went out for a couple more hours today to finish the last tree I planned to do this season, then to clean everything up and put everything away. Here's the final tally:

A season's woodcutting
Click the picture for the full sized version

I have no idea if that's a half-cord, or more, or less. It's a pretty impressive result for about seven hours total, though. (It looks like more in person than in the picture.)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Reacquiring a taste for hope

I was diabetic for 5½ years when I got a gastric bypass that cured it. A lot of foods that I had had to eschew for years were suddenly possible again, and it was an odd experience for a while. So many foods I had regretfully put onto the "never again" list and forgotten about. One by one I would think of them and have, all new each time, the realization: "hey, maybe I can have this again!" and the corresponding hope and excitement. It was like the new hope was made new again each time.

The same thing is happening now in a much different area of life.

Late Tuesday night as the election results were coming in my reaction was mostly just relief. There was a bit of hope but primarily that wasn't quite sinking in. But since then, periodically, I've had a sudden realization. "Hey, we might actually get out of Iraq." Or, "Hey, we might actually stop being a pariah on the international stage." Or, "Hey, we might actually take global warming semi-seriously." Or, "Hey, maybe we'll stop throwing away civil liberties." And so on. Make your own list.

Each individual idea was a separate blossoming of that almost-forgotten taste of hope, because each topic was something where I had long ago gotten used to the idea that these hopes were gone. After years and years of having stupidity rubbed in like ground glass, you get numb to it, you put away the hope. It becomes a litany, almost an anti-mantra of cynicism: "Obviously, we need to do X, but obviously, we're never going to, so let's just accept that and move on."

So the renaissance of hope in the United States that started Tuesday night is slowly sinking in not as a gradual awareness, but as a syncopated pizzicato of revelations. It's like rediscovering the taste of something I used to love but had to give up, and then a few hours later, rediscovering the taste of something else I also used to love but had to give up.

It's one thing to say "Yes, we can." It's another to slowly realize all the things that, now, yes, we can. One at a time.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


I've been thinking of a lot of stuff I haven't had anywhere to write or say, so maybe I'll revive this blog. But don't count this as a promise (as if there was anyone to be making the promise to); I might lapse into inactivity immediately again, if inspiration fails to continue visiting once I've vented all the backlogged stuff.

Recently I've developed an interest in woodcutting on my land, and I feel a need to explain why. Not that anyone's asking. It's just that there's more thought on it than might seem evident.

I suppose most people think of going out to fell trees with a chainsaw as something you do to get firewood. And we have a woodstove and we're trying to balance using it more (to contain heating costs) with keeping it comfortable in the house (the woodstove can sometimes make it too hot), so wood is valuable. And there's a strange, hard to explain satisfaction in felling, cutting, and splitting my own wood from my own land, and then burning it in the woodstove.

But in the end the wood is almost a by-product of the process. It's not what drew me to this. Instead, I have been feeling very strongly lately that my little almost-six-acres of Vermont is mine not as much in the sense of possession as in the sense of responsibility. I am its steward and caretaker, and it needs some caretaking. When we bought it four years ago it had not been tended in a while, and so it is now in dire need of tending plus four years.

Which begs the key question: does a piece of forest need tending? Forests were around for millions of years before the first human built the first axe. It's tempting, but superficial, to dismiss the idea of tending to one's woods as touchy-feely and ignorant of nature, but that is itself a reactionary idea.

Sure, forests can and do eventually rebuild themselves after disasters. Sure, nature doesn't have a preferred state of "healthy" in mind for a forest; whatever it changes into, that's nature. And yet, a chunk of six acres in the middle of Vermont is not part of a timeless forest unbroken in space or time, and it's ignorance to pretend so. Let's consider a few facts, not as a definitive list of how the forest needs tending, but rather as a representative example.
  1. 500 years ago, my piece of land was part of an old-growth forest in which softwoods (pine, for instance) were interspersed with hardwoods (maple, for instance). 100 years ago, it was, and probably had been for a long time, clear cut farmland. It's surprising to many people who've seen what Vermont looks like now, but 100 years ago it was pretty much all clear-cut. The return to forest changed things.

  2. When trees started to come back in, softwoods come in first because they grow fastest. They crowd out other kinds of trees and spread quickly. Hardwoods take far, far longer to move in, and at first they move in in segregated clusters. Today's sugar stands are clusters of maple; long ago, those maples would be more evenly distributed amongst the other trees.

  3. When a softwood puts down roots in an old-growth forest with interspersed hardwoods, in order for its roots to get enough of what the tree needs, they have to work down deeper since they're competing with other trees. The roots tend to grow along the same paths that the previous generation of pines followed, and end up deeply rooted. There's an underground ecology of competition in the roots. But when pines come into clear-cut, they form very shallow roots. Why work harder than you have to? Those old paths that the ancient pines blazed for the roots are lost.

  4. When we build roads and houses, we change the flow of water in fundamental ways. These changes encourage the trees to grow in different places and to put roots down in different ways. In effect, they further exacerbate the tendency towards shallow root systems.

  5. Roads and lawns also break what was an unbroken swath of forest hundreds, even thousands, of miles across, into little patches. This has a lot of effects but the most germane to this point: it causes root structures of trees to be inadequate to supporting those trees since the trees depend on their neighbors to help hold them up.
Put it all together and you find that the forest we have today is, due to human interference, far more fragile. Literally, a good wind can blow it over. This isn't good for me: it threatens my house, my water table, my access to my garage. But it also isn't good for the ecosystem of my six acres. It's bad for the animals and the plants. Yes, given a few hundred years, despite the continuing impact of roads and water diversion and pollution and global warming, the forest would regrow and eventually end up strong. But we can expect human interference to increase, not decrease. And in the meanwhile, everything that lives in the forest is far too vulnerable to fire, wind, ice, heavy rains, and simple bad luck.

I don't really have the choice to say "the forest doesn't need my help" while, at the same time, living in the middle of it, affecting it. If I'm touching it, if I'm changing it, it's my responsibility to make sure the net effect I have is neutral or positive. So that means I need to get in there and actively, proactively, tend it. Not as a garden per se, I'm not trying to maximize results of a particular species or anything, I'm not in this for the harvest (though the harvest will be used and appreciated), but for its own health.

Thus, while some fallen dead trees and even some standing dead trees are okay, too many is bad. Someday I may even have to fell living trees in order to encourage more growth, but for now, I have far more than enough higher-priority work to do, far more than I can keep up with. There's years, maybe decades, of neglect to catch up on; and I'm only one man in not-great shape, working alone, just learning how to use a chainsaw, only able to spare a weekend here or there to the work. I'll be lucky to even keep up with continued degredation for a long long time, let alone get ahead of it. But every bit I do is progress. It's satisfying.