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Any technology,
sufficiently advanced,
is indistinguishable
from magic.

It’s been a busy, busy start to the new year, filled with terribly mundane things—buying/selling vehicles, gathering data for financial advisors, dealing with benefits coordinators—but while I’ve been working on all of these quotidian chores, I’ve been thinking about magic.

I’ve always thought Arthur C. Clarke’s classic quotation* (paraphrased above) was pretty spot on, but now I think it needs a slight modification. For the word “advanced,” I would instead use “opaque.”

For most of my life, I never saw this quotation play out, but in my father’s last years, I got an inkling of how it worked. My dad hated computers; he never used one, hated having one in the house, and after my mom died, the computer simply gathered dust. The main reason for his distaste was not only that he didn’t understand how they worked, he didn’t understand how they could possibly work. To him, the functionality of a computer was indistinguishable from magic.

Having a rudimentary knowledge of the processes inside computers, I tried to explain to him the basics of binary code and processors and data transmission, but I quickly hit a wall; he not only didn’t understand how they could work, he didn’t want to know how they could work.  His curiosity on this topic was nil, and he returned to earth happily never having touched a computer keyboard.

This all seemed quaint and quirky and undeniably “Dad,” but recently I was surprised when I discovered that I harbored similar attitudes about some things.

Specifically, textiles.

Textiles?” I hear you say. “What’s so technologically advanced about textiles?”

To which I’d answer “Basically? Not much,” but then I’d refer you upward to where I want to replace “advanced” with “opaque.”

Like my father, I know there’s no magic involved in weaving cloth, but there are parts of it that I simply do not understand. More to the point, I can’t even visualize how they work†. However, unlike my father, I do want to understand. I know these mysteries are only born of my own ignorance, and that the mechanism is definitely within my capacity to comprehend.

This was all brought top-of-mind by a book I’m reading, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. In it, Barber takes us through the history of textiles, from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age. While reading, I was struck by the vast importance of the invention of string, was fascinated to learn how string became twine and rope, how weaving got its earliest start, how looms evolved, and how a 3,000-year old piece of cloth was made of sufficient string to stretch from Seattle to Portland. All this was perfectly understandable and clear in my mind—loom, warp, weft, shuttle, bobbin, I can see the fabric being woven in my mind’s eye—but then the mystery crept in: how does the weaver make the different colors, patterns, and textures in the cloth?

Barber makes reference to these elements, giving examples of some of the earliest colored patterns in Neolithic cloth fragments and discussing patterns in linens from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, but she doesn’t show the how of it. And when my mind rushes forward from these relatively simple fabrics to the intricate silks of the Far East and the jacquards of the West, the creation of these textiles soars beyond the limits of my ignorance and enters the realm of magic. Perceived magic, anyway.

It struck me at that moment that we all probably have something along these lines. Questions about basic things that we know work, but don’t know how they work. Even the simplest things, like, “How does a knife cut things?” I mean, does it separate things at a cellular level or a molecular level, and how? “How does humidity work?” We know it means there’s water in the air, but how does that work, and why is it worse in summer than in winter? “DNA is the ‘building block’ of life, but how does it know to make eyes green or hair curly?” Four molecules of acid woven together in a microscopic tapestry are somehow able to “instruct” the multifarious builds that make up living creatures. “How does a vinyl record create sound?” “How does a battery store electricity?”

Or maybe it’s just me.

For my part, though, having recognize these black pools of ignorance in my own mind, I know I’m going to explore them. In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet that I’m going to build myself a small table loom and play around with it. And thinking ahead, I think it’s also a safe bet that I’ll spend a large part of my retirement exploring similar pockets of How.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably be giving away tea towels and scarves for a while.

k

——————

* As an aside, regarding Clarke’s quotation: I always liked the fact that you could interpret it as having, embedded in the logic, a tacit belief in the existence of magic. If magic doesn’t exist, we can’t compare anything to it, can we. Yes, yes, you could say that Clarke means that tech is indistinguishable from our idea of magic, what we think magic would be like, but he doesn’t, does he?

† And don’t even get me started on sewing machines. I cannot fathom how you connect (repeatedly) two unbroken lengths of string/thread/rope. And every visualization I’ve seen (3D and otherwise) has not answered that question.

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Last week’s post got me thinking about my time in the kitchen.

My father encouraged his kids to learn to cook, by deed—he always cooked Sunday breakfast, manned the grill on cookouts, and was the go-to guy for fried chicken—as well as by word. The fact that my stepmother was, shall we say, not inspired in the ways of food preparation, was additional encouragement for us to learn how to feed ourselves. The lessons didn’t really “take” with my younger brothers, but with my sister and me, they definitely took root.

My first forays into the kitchen were, naturally enough, in supportive roles. Chopping, measuring, mincing, tending. This was useful as it taught me good knife skills, the benefit of mise en place, how to follow a recipe (and when to improvise), and how to accommodate different cooking times for disparate ingredients.

My first solo flight in the kitchen wasn’t a meal, though; it was a dessert, and the result inducted me into the realm of family legend. I was maybe twelve years old, home alone (for some reason) with hours to occupy myself, and being twelve, I wanted something to eat, something sweet, so I decided to make my favorite cake: Angel Food.

Checking the recipe, I made sure we had what I needed. With three growing boys in the house, a dozen eggs was only about half the supply in our pantry, and sugar, flour, and vanilla were also staples close at hand. I’d seen cakes baked before, so I knew the basics. Mix everything together, pour the batter into a form, bake, and a beautifully risen cake comes out. (Old hands will already see the flawed assumption here.)

Working diligently, I separated the dozen eggs, added some cream of tartar, dumped in the sugar, pulled out the French whisk, and started whipping. “Whip until soft peaks form” was the phrase in the recipe. Not having dealt with egg whites before, this was a bit of a puzzle, but I figured it’d become clear in time. I whipped and whipped. I switched hands when cramps set in. I kept whipping. A sense that I was missing something began to bloom in my sous-chef-heart, a vague feeling of being out of my depth. I switched back to my right hand, added a dash of fervor to my motions, and just as my shoulder started to seize up, I saw the mixture begin to change. It began to get foamy. Aha! My courage was renewed and I kept on whipping as the bubbles multiplied, gathered, grew smaller. But “soft peaks?” What did that really mean? Then, I saw what was happening. The foam began to achieve a structure, and the little bubbles would leave a tiny “peak” when I pulled the whisk up. I whipped more, but not too much, as the recipe also warned against achieving “stiff peaks.”

It didn’t look like any cake batter I’d ever seen—yellow, translucent, with a layer of foam across the surface—but (I reasoned) Angel Food cake didn’t look or feel like any other cake, so I was probably okay. When I poured the result into the cake form, it didn’t fill much of it. But (I again reasoned) all cakes rise in the oven, so this one would, too, rising up to fill the form. So, into the preheated oven it went.

My family arrived home just about the time it was ready to come out of the oven. The house smelled like heaven, and everyone was surprised and eager to try my first culinary attempt.

I pulled the form out of the oven and . . . looked down into its depths. The cake hadn’t risen. Not one millimeter. It was no taller than it was when it went in. If anything, it was shorter. Taken out of the form, it was a horror, a ring of translucent yellowish rubber reminiscent of jaundiced aspic. I stared at it. My kid brothers thought it the funniest thing of the year but, being boys, they cut a few “slices” and we tasted it. It was delicious; all the divine sweetness of Angel Food cake, now in a convenient compressed form. It was Angel Food jerky.

It went down in the annals as “Angel Food Flop.”

I learned a lot about cooking that day, one of which is: I’m not a great baker. Baking (to me) is too much like chemistry, where everything needs to be perfect before applying heat. That turned out not to be my style. My style is “cook a bit, taste a bit, correct” helped along by a healthy adaptability when faced with missing ingredients. I rarely cook anything the same way twice; each time I’ll try a tweak or decide that I want a slightly different mix of herbs this time.

Luckily (or not, depending on whether I’m counting calories), I married a woman who is a great baker, and one who can do with baking what I do with entrees: improvise. She gets the craft, knows it intuitively. She knows the arcane characteristics of baking powder, cream of tartar, sugars, egg whites. She measures by sight, rarely uses a recipe, and makes the best damned banana bread I’ve ever had.

I’m grateful for my dad’s encouragement. It taught me the importance of independence and adaptability, and kept me fed during my impoverished young adulthood. It also taught me the generous love language of spending hours in the kitchen and serving up a savory stew to beloved friends and family.

And I will always remember with love those Sunday mornings, a pitcher of orange juice on the table, KSFO on the radio, Dad crooning along with Mel Torme as he made pancakes, eggs, sausage, whatever his kids wanted for breakfast, while Mom slept in a bit longer.

It was his love language, too.

k

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I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. However, as someone who’s been developing software for thirty-five years, I am one for retrospective reviews, and just like deploying a new app to a production environment, hanging up a new calendar on the kitchen wall has always seemed an appropriate time for retrospection. After all, by this time the holiday hubbub has dissipated, the gardens are still asleep, kids are back in school, the days are short, the nights cold and lengthy. What better time to look back with an eye toward the future?

But, rather than setting goals, I look at trends in my past behavior and decide whether I’m on the right path, or want to implement a course correction.

For instance, last year I read a pitifully small number of books, less than one a month. Looking further, I see that this is a downward trend, and I want to correct it. But why did I read fewer books in ’22? The simple fact is, I was busy. With all the renovations and events and projects I had on my plate, I simply did not have enough time to sit back and relax with a book. Also, ’21 was COVID Lockdown year, with nothing in it by way of travel, family events, or DIY, so I had plenty of time then.

Unfortunately, this year is going to be a busy one, too. We’re still consolidating parts of our life, still fixing up the house, the gardens need upkeep. And I have to get serious about my coming retirement, figuring out what I need to do with Medicare, talk to our financial advisors, and wade through tons of info from HR. We’re also taking care of some medical stuff while we still have top-grade insurance.

So, seeing all that ahead, am I going to make a resolution to read a book (or more) a month? No. That’s setting myself up for failure, as too much can happen that might devour my free time. However, I am going to try to correct that trend, which means I need to apply a bit more discipline as regards my unstructured time.

This will seem silly to some, and as serious anal-retentive overkill to others. I don’t mind, though, because another trendline I’m fostering is not giving a damn about the opinion of others. It works for me, and I’m the only one for whom this needs to work.

Despite what Yoda says, I think trying is a worthy endeavor because life is rarely binary, and incremental progress is still progress. So while I’m not going to “resolve” to lose weight, learn Italian, or give up playing video games, I am going to encourage myself in certain directions, to wit:

  • Continue to Improve
    • Weight loss program
    • Healthier food choices
    • Regular exercise (workouts or garden)
    • Household improvements
    • Writing letters closer to monthly than quarterly
  • Course Corrections
    • Read more books
    • Read less news
    • Employ more social media “fasts”
    • Visit more with people IRL

May the new year bring you all much happiness.

Onward.

k

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There is something we share;
it is an idea, a thought,
a dream.

We call it a nation.

We dream that it is as real
as the earth beneath our feet,
as eternal as the stars.

We recall histories of its birth,
tell sagas of its darker days,
make plans for its future.

We believe that as it is now,
so shall it always be.

It is the same with
other peoples,
other dreams.

But we are wrong.
All of us are wrong.

These dreams are fragile, ephemeral,
dew-dazzled hopes of gossamer.

These dreams can break, vanish,
burnt by cruel suns, torn by raging winds.

All it takes is another’s dream, another’s will.

One person’s dream of power can destroy
an entire people’s dream of peace.

If we let it.

If we let it.

 

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First, in Colorado, a woman wanted to expand her web-design business to include wedding websites, but she didn’t want to create websites for same-sex couples, as doing so would (somehow) be counter to her religious beliefs, so she sued her state and the case now sits before the SCOTUS. 

Then, in Virginia, a restaurant refused service to an organization that actively lobbies against women’s reproductive rights and LBTGQ+ rights.

And thus, predictably, many people began drawing an equivalency, leveling charges of hypocrisy and double-standards on the one side, and cheerily wagging the “What’s good for the goose . . . ” banner from the other.

Both, of course, are wrong. These are not equivalents.

I know, they seem like they are, but they aren’t. If they were, it would definitely be hypocritical to complain of the one whilst cheering for the other.

But they’re not.

Here’s the difference: The web designer wants to deny service to an entire class of people because of who they are, while the restaurant wants to deny service to a specific organization because of what they do.

The web designer wants to discriminate against a protected class of people, and that is contrary to federal and state law. She’s claiming that her personal religious beliefs trump the rights of an entire protected class. She’s not said how she would be materially damaged, were she to comply, and insofar as she hasn’t actually expanded her activities into the Wild World of Wedding Websites, she’s unable to show any damages beyond a preemptive fretfulness. 

What would we think if she wanted to deny service to another protected class, say people of color, or folks over 55? (I’m sure we could find some whackadoodle religion that looks with disdain upon interracial marriages or marriage for purposes other than procreation. What? Oh, yeah, right, we don’t have to look far, do we?) Would we be having this discussion if she wanted to turn those people away? 

The restaurant, on the other hand, has taken issue with the activities of a specific lobbying and activist organization. You might disagree with their decision to cancel the reservation, but not because lobbyists are a protected class of people (they’re not, trust me on this one). The restaurant owners aren’t turning away the group because they’re Christians, but because they’re activists who lobby against the rights and protections that many of the restaurant employees depend on (not to mention women and LGBTQ+ folks across the nation).

Now, if the restaurant said it was refusing service to all Christians, then yes, you’d have an equivalency, and I’d hold the door while you went to town on them. But they didn’t, so I won’t.

Take the case of Twitter and He-of-the-Ever-Shrinking-Moniker, KanyeWest/Kanye/Ye. Mr. West was recently suspended from Twitter (again). He wasn’t suspended because he is Black. If Twitter suspended all Black folks, there’d be riots in the streets. He wasn’t even suspended because he is an anti-semite. They didn’t even suspend him because of the anti-semitic comments he made elsewhere. They suspended him because he posted his anti-semitic trash on Twitter.

Twitter doesn’t ban anti-semites, as long as they adhere to the site’s rules of conduct. Mr. West didn’t, so he got put in a time-out. It’s the old “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule of private business.

I find it frustratingly predictable that the camp which for decades has embraced the whole “no shirt, no shoes, no service” mantra has such a massive hissy-fit when someone applies that same rule to them. I also find it supremely irritating when the self-professed “progressive” camp so encourages what they (incorrectly) see as the same bad practices of the opposition.

And so, the saga of the American public’s consistent misinterpretation of both the First and Second Amendments continues, and judging from the arguments presented to the SCOTUS (not to mention the oh-so-helpful questions posed by the conservative claque, er, justices), we will pretty soon have a precedent that will erode the entire class of civil rights, where all you have to say is that God told you to do it and you’re good to go.

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir here (no pun intended), and that my dozen or so regular readers got the gist of things several paragraphs ago. And, sadly, I do not have a solution.

Some will chalk my opinions up to standard liberal nuance, and that’s fine with me, because I don’t think nuance is a bad thing. Life is complicated and chaotic, and we need to be kind and try to understand each other as much as we can. Nuance can help us do that, because nuance blends the black-and-white dichotomy favored by our binary brains into shades of grey, where our differences are not as distinct, and our commonalities become more apparent.

Thanks for reading.

Onward.

k

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This weekend is my Beatle Birthday.

I had my “LP” Birthday in 1992, my “Single” Birthday in 2003—and if you’re old enough to get those references, I see you—but they went by relatively (or completely) unnoticed, unmarked, unremembered. (My “78” Birthday, in 2036, might be the same, and I hope I’m lucky enough to reach it.)

Since 1967, though, I’ve thought fondly of this coming milestone, despite the fact that I was convinced I’d never reach such an “advanced” age. The song pretty much nailed what I looked forward to in my elder years (sans grandkids, of course; never wanted kids, much less grandkids), with its images of puttering in the gardens, fixing things about the house, taking a month at the seaside in summertime.

I mentioned last time that my retirement is finally visible on the horizon, and this birthday, routinely imagined for the past 55 years, is a time to stop, look around, and evaluate.

Some of my friends have already retired. Some have put their all into new ventures. Some hopped on a plane on Day One and began (or continued) to travel the world. Some, sadly, took ill, beginning entirely unplanned journeys. I admit, I compared the image in my head with how they began their Third Act, and felt the old report card put-down of “Not performing up to his potential.”

It’s not as though I plan never to travel. It’s not as though I plan not to try new things, learn new things. It’s not as though I plan to spend my entire retirement digging the weeds and fixing fuses. It’s just that, in my heart, after decades of pushing, learning, wrangling, fretting, struggling, planning, pacing, saving, working, I merely want to slow down and enjoy the ticking of the clock, the crackle of the fire, perhaps the crash of waves on the shore, and the settling of ice in a dram of whisky.

And, of course, I hope that she will still need me, that she will still feed me, when I’m sixty-four.

k

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In 500 days, I will retire. In more ways than one.

I will retire, as in leave the job I have held for lo these decades past.
I will also, for a time, retire, as in go to bed and sleep (I hope) for more than 5 hours at a shot.
I may also retire, in that I may allow my naturally reticent nature may be more the norm.

Either way, in 500 days I will have, for the first time ever, a long stretch of time where I do not have a day job.

I began working in my teens. During my college years I had to hold down a job. Even when I was studying in Jerusalem, I cleaned flats and played in the symphony for extra cash. After I dropped out and returned home, at age 21 or so, I began to work full-time. Vacations, if I had them, for the first decade or so were at most one week long. In the late 90s, I had enough seniority to afford my first two-week vacation and, in the early “oughts,” I had my first  three-week vacation (I’ve only had one other, in the mid-2010s). I’ve had a full-time job for over forty years, and have been at my current company for over three decades.

I’ve been lucky. I lucked into a good profession for which I had no schooling at a time when learning “on the job” was still a thing and aptitude combined with hard work carried enough weight to balance out the lack of a degree. I got lucky with a spouse who is good with money, contented more by daily kindnesses than by flashy acquisitions, and who truly is a life partner in every sense. As a result of these lucky breaks (and my perseverance), I can retire in my mid-60s, rather than having to work until I’m in my mid-70s.

Advice on making the transition from work-a-day-monkey-boy to curmudgeonly-semi-hermit is plentiful (although perhaps not that specifically tailored to my expectations). I have friends and relatives who’ve made the transition, have seen a shift in my news- and article-feeds toward the topic, and am in contact with professional advisors on how to handle the various mechanical and financial aspects of it.

More to the point, though, I’ve begun to mentally prepare. Work takes up a large chunk of my waking life (and a not insubstantial chunk of my sleep). What time that’s left over is usually spent with chores, errands, time with my spouse, with slivers left over to spend with friends, books, and this blog (really my only writing outlet, these days). When I get back that chunk of work-time, I know I will have to apply a level of discipline to my schedule that is currently handled by my desire to receive a paycheck. Not everything will change, but a lot will, and knowing that ahead of time seems crucial to a smooth phase-shift.

But there are some questions that cannot be answered before I reach the promised land. Currently, I am a morning person, but this is primarily because at 4AM, my brain often clicks into gear in order to prepare for the work-day. Absent that impetus, will I still be a morning person? Or will I join my wife in her night-owlishness? And what of reading time? I’m not a fast reader, but part of that is because my mind is distracted and focus is often difficult to achieve. Will that change when I don’t have on-call duties or inter-office politics niggling at my attention span?

Naturally, one thing I plan on doing more of is writing, but what shall I write? A while ago I turned my hand to a mainstream/literary novel, but it’s been a struggle; is that what I really want to write? I have other ideas for series and sequels in genre fiction, and I think they might be fun to write. I have also been enjoying experiments in poetry (though the drive to create them comes and goes like a tide). So, will I finish the work-in-progress, or just move on to other projects?

I feel that it must be better to recognize these “known unknowns” than to get blindsided by them. I’m sure there are plenty of “unknown unknowns” out there, lying in wait like tigers in the bush. Best to have my head in the game.

I’ll be spending these next 500 days in preparation: downsizing expenses; selling off the unused, unneeded, unnecessary aspects of our life; learning about what needs to be done, and by when. I’ll be listening to my friends who’ve “gone before,” and reading those dry-as-dust articles about asset allocation and required minimum distribution strategies. All exciting stuff, to be sure (not).

Onward.

k

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