Quotidian: Interestingness | Week of November 17 -23, 2019

More links from my week on the web. I do enjoy the notion of being a digital magpie, this being the place I bring my shiny scraps and sparkles found to feather the nest.

Recommended Reading

Joe Bidden struggles with, and has mostly overcome, a stutter. I had no idea. A sympathetic, insightful article that shouldn’t change your mind about the 2020 election, but maybe it can inject a little more kindness into my own social media takes about gaffe prone Joe.

Eyes and Ears (videos/podcasts)

“It’s Been 50 Years Since Apollo 12 Landed On The Moon” by Geoff Brumfiel. NPR Morning Edition. (Listen time: 3 minutes)

The heroics and success of the Apollo 12 moon mission were overshadowed by the Vietnam War and other geopolitical events. Apollo 12 sounds like the most “Guardians of the Galaxy” space mission ever.

Nicole Hemmer traces how Republican politics, since the 1990’s, increasingly operate in isolation from popular opinion, making the Nixon impeachment hearings an unlikely proxy for the current proceedings.

Songs That Found Me

Quotidian: Interestingness | Week of November 11 – 17, 2019

I’ve become something like a digital magpie, forever gathering links from across the far-flung reaches of the web. Sharing is caring, so I’m giving you a few of my favorites from the past week.

Recommended Reading

I’m still trying to digest this article, which offers a long, somewhat heavy, examination of liberalism in American politics. I read Duesterberg to say that the political philosophy of liberalism offers an insistence on the value of individuals and, if individuals are allowed to live in conditions that favor their ability to self-improve then, ultimately, society itself will improve. Inherent tension between the insistence on self and the importance of shared community is the creative tension that drives the American experiment. That experiment is currently at risk. It has been at risk before. The risk keeps it going but there’s no guarantee it will keep going indefinitely.

Eyes and Ears (videos/podcasts)

Our monsters reveal uncomfortable truths about the things we dread. Our monsters are proxies for the things we need desperately to talk about but can’t. So what’s up with all the zombie stuff happening in pop culture in recent years? This episode of Throughline does a deep dive into the historical, cultural and sociological roots of the Undead. Fascinating.
I usually hate the cute kid approach to digesting a complicated news story for a broad audience, but I really like this kid, Leo. He asks smart questions. You may not learn anything new from this conversation, but I love the way the reporters reward this kid’s curiosity with respect and sincerity. They talk with Leo and never talk down.

Songs That Found Me

Not the Nerdiest Thing

I recently told a friend that posting an annotated bibliography of the interesting things I have read, heard and watched in a week is the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. That’s not true.

I used to update a monthly spreadsheet of how many times I had listened to each song in my iTunes library so I could track which songs were charting faster in my personal faves.

I also used to keep a monthly spreadsheet of Twitter stats — how many tweets, how many followers, how many followed.

I still keep spreadsheets of how many words I write each day, how many pages I read in a year, and how many miles I run, but everybody should do that. That’s just plain good sense.

I rate books, movies and beers. I rate the books I have read on GoodReads. I rate the movies I’ve seen on MovieLens. I rate the beers I drink in Untappd.

I once had a small nervous breakdown because I set a daily reading goal for myself that I couldn’t complete. I had to take a temporary break from reading until I could figure out how to enjoy it again.

When I was in middle school, a friend tried to show me his porn collection but I was unimpressed, having created a much richer, more vibrant inner fantasy life involving renegade robot sluts and killer alien sex queens. They frequently enslaved my GI Joes and made them commit unspeakable acts.

So, no. Posting an annotated bibliography of the interesting things I have read, heard and watched in a week is not the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done.

Birthday Greetings

Today is my birthday. I’m 44. I don’t feel 44. I don’t feel any particular age at all. I suppose I’ve reached the part of life they call Middle Age. Half the people I know think I’m still pretty young but the other half think I’m pretty old so Middle Age probably describes the situation pretty well.

I had a good day. I took the day off. I played Words with Friends while drinking my morning coffee. I wrote and read. I went for a run. I spent time just hanging out with my wife. We picked the kiddo up from school and got ice cream. We ran a few errands. I practiced piano. I walked the dog. We had dinner with my mom and dad and grandmother.

At 44, I don’t need a lot to make me happy. I don’t need gifts or parties or crazy midlife adventures. Each passing year, just being here still is a source of joy. I think that might be the secret of aging well.

I do enjoy the messages. Birthday greetings arrive by Facebook, text and email all through the day. I am grateful. I have a good life that I enjoy. Thanks for being part of this good life with me.

Make the Neighborhood Great Again

After living in my neighborhood for almost three years, I discovered  tonight that I know people down the street. My dentist lives just down the road a short piece. Parents of a high school friend live next door to him. I found this out in idle chat with Mr. Robert — retired Navy, robust frog pond, puts out salt for the deer. Our backyards share a fence. I went over to ask if he minded my wife planting morning glories along our shared fence. Some people don’t like morning glories because they spread quickly and take over. He was delighted.

He was more delighted at the opportunity to stand in his driveway and chat for a few minutes. “Nobody ever comes to talk. There’s good people here, but you never see anybody outside.”

That’s true. I had noticed the same. My family spends a lot of time outside. Gardening, playing ball, moving stuff around. We don’t see people often. We wave at our neighbors when we see them. Occasionally, we spend a few minutes chatting about something growing in an unexpected place or the heavy rain that swelled the creek last week. Less frequent, the conversation about what makes truly great bourbon and an enthusiastic preview of upcoming BaconFest (this is a real thing).

We have made our homes into self-contained, air-conditioned, entertainment palaces and rarely leave them. When we must leave it is only through the air lock of the garage through which we pass ourselves into the private confines of our vehicles. We live most of our lives encapsulated.

After the election, I have been thinking a lot about what’s actually broken in our country. I don’t think it is lost military dominance or a lack of ambition to do big things. It isn’t the Affordable Care Act or a rising influx of non-Western immigrants. The thing that is broken is our neighborhoods. The fact that we don’t know each other and what each of us is about.

After the election, we all collectively freaked out to find ourselves trapped inside media bubbles that distorted our views of each other and our shared reality. I tried to fix the situation by tweaking my news feed, following a few more conservative blogs and news outlets. It didn’t help.

Realizing that my dentist lives nearby and parents of a good high school friend live even closer, I wonder how much I am missing inside my own neighborhood. Perhaps exploring the neighborhood is the right next step. Taking walks. Stopping to say hello. Talking about bourbon and BaconFest and whatever other random things come up. We can start knowing each other as full people with interesting, difficult, wonderful lives. We can call each other my name and know the hobbies and curiosities that go along with us.

This may be more than just being neighborly. This may become a radical political action. This may just make our neighborhoods great again.

The Belly of the Beast

I drove home yesterday through the worst weather I have ever experienced. I left my office in Harriman, TN just a few minutes after 5pm, hoping to get ahead of the gathering gloom of storm clouds. Five minutes later, the sky split open and chaos spilled out.

The traffic on I-40 East slowed to 40 then 30 then 20 miles per hour as walls of rain fell with punishing force. 5pm in June is supposed to be daylight but the sky was a formless, abysmal gray. Driving along the corridor of the interstate, visibility narrowed into a long, gray flannel sleeve. The wind pressed in from both sides. Leaves flew from the trees in a spew of black, jagged bird-like shadows, circling my car from all directions. And then I noticed the wind was pressing the trees in from both sides of the interstate, reaching in with gnarled, nasty arms grasping blindly for whatever hapless traveler they could snarl.

Slowing to 25 miles per hour, I tried to comprehend the physics of the moment, to have wind pressing in toward you from all directions. And then, I realized I was traveling inside a swirl of leaves, branches and water.

The drive was careful and tedious. My hands clutched the steering wheel, fingers gripped to keep my car level on the road. The wind pushed me to the left then to the right. Puddles leapt up like fountains. Lighting ripped the air.

And yet, everything was quiet. I expected a torrent of sound, the brash locomotive wheeze of a train engine, the gale force banshee screech that is sometimes the last sound on earth. I heard none of it. I can’t swear it wasn’t happening. I may have been so totally focused on the road that my brain didn’t process the sound of it all.

I drove on in this slow, careful way for about 10 miles and then, exiting the interstate, found myself quite suddenly outside from the belly of the beast.

I made my way home carefully, still hindered by heavy rain and standing water. Even at slow speed, my tires left the road several times.

When I got into town, my city was littered with broken, twisted tree trunks, fallen branches, dangling power lines. Power was out in areas all across town.

It was quite simply the most intense, fascinating weather experience I have ever had.

My mom called earlier this evening to let me know that the weather service had officially registered a class F-0 tornado in the area I was driving yesterday.

Turns out, I drove straight through a mild tornado without realizing. This writing doesn’t capture how utterly strange and fascinating the entire experience was. I’m glad I didn’t realize I was driving through a tornado because on the stretch of road I was driving there is no good place to hide.

Now that it is over and, to an extent while it was happening, my reaction was split between a vague disquiet and complete fascination. I drove through the belly of the beast. I am grateful the beast was small and relatively tame. No one got hurt and I got to experience something I never thought I would get to see.

My Nerd Quest for an Automated Daily Journal

Be warned! This post is about to get really nerdy. If you know me and have built a mental model of me as a cool, relaxed, not-at-all nerdy person, you should stop reading. This post is going to ruin things for both of us.

I like to keep track of things. I like to make lists of things that don’t matter much to most people. I make lists of the books I read. I manage lists that count the number of times I have listened to songs in music library. I actually track the number of tweets I send each month along with the number of followers and people I follow because you can create interesting ratio games with that information.

I also like to keep track of how I spend my time. Ever since I was 8, I’ve had this idea that my future biographers (Don’t laugh. It could happen.) would need an accurate accounting of my life to use as raw data for their analysis of my accomplishments and how daily events correlate to my creative success.

I’m not talking about a diary or journal. I have one of those. I’m talking about an accurate, daily accountant-style ledger of what I did with my day. It isn’t a narrative of thoughts, ideas or insights. It is a list of things I did, places I went and when I did them. The details aren’t very exciting. I do pretty much the same stuff every day. But I love to look back at what I was doing one, two or more years ago on this very day and see what memories are sparked or how events compare. More often than not, I find that the events are very similar and that my life is more or less locked into a pattern of routine places and things. I often look back to find that I ate at the same restaurant, shopped at the same store or did the same errands exactly one year before and one year before that. That kind of redundancy is both reassuring and frightening.

I used to keep all this in paper records. I had a notebook and kept my daily log on lined notebook paper, filling in the progression of daily details from memory at the end of each day. The paper log was limited because it grew unwieldy and was very difficult to search. As the log grew, it took more and more time to page through to visit the past. Worse, my memory was imperfect and I found myself skipping details on entries or getting things out of order. I knew I needed to automate.

I wanted a daily event log that I could carry with me and update in real time with automatic time stamps securely affixed to each event.

Enter Momento. Momento is an iPhone app that allows quick, easy entries of short moments as you move through the day. The daily view allows easy editing with a calendar view for quick time travel possibilities. Momento integrates with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other RSS feeds (like this blog) so I could keep a record of all my post activities along with my daily events. I kept up with this for a few months in late 2012/early 2013 and then stopped because I didn’t like the redundancy of getting the same posts from mutliple social sites and also didn’t particularly care about link posts. I just wanted to sync original posts that somehow documented my state of mind at a time.

A few weeks ago, I tried Kennedy, another iPhone app, which lets you post easily by tapping the screen and making an entry. Text you add is supplemented by location, weather and a headline from the national and world news. The developers are striving for a tool that ties personal experience to larger world news to create a richer context. The name comes from the famous question, “Where were you when you found out Kennedy was shot?” The problem with the Kennedy app  became readily apparent. The app is very easy to update but gives you entries like: “”Grey evening in Oak Ridge. Dinner at Aubrey’s. Four dead in Manila airport shooting” or “Drizzley afternoon in Oak Ridge. Christmas party with cousins. Turkish ministers’ son charged.”

Every update felt weird and super depressing. I moved on to Heyday.

Heyday is a location-based journal iPhone app that uses GPS to automatically tag every location at which you stop. You can add entries directly. The app also sweeps up pictures from your camera roll and organizes them into an interesting collage of daily images to supplement the text and geotag entries. It is a good concept but failed quickly. The constant GPS ran down my battery. I felt like my phone was spying on me and, worse, not spying very well. When I stopped at a red light for a full minute, it registered a visit to The Sun Tan Shop. The false tags would be humorous years from now. I’m sure but my future biographers would be perplexed by my suddenly erratic and eclectic habits.

I’m back to Momento. I use Foursquare to check-in and just ignore the duplicate posts from other social platforms. You can filter those out, anyway.

Okay. So there it is. I’m a nerd. I keep detailed records of things nobody cares about and I stress out about the best way to get it done, keep it accurate and make it searchable.

I feel like I’m in good company. After all, isn’t this what Captain Jean-Luc Picard does at the end of each Star Trek: Next Generation episode? Actually, that’s pretty much what I’m after. A voice recorder that transcribes my life for the future benefit of star fleet. There are surely mysteries that can be solved, interstellar crises averted, if only future generations have access to the tremendously dull, repetitive data of my everyday life.

It isn’t a journal. Its a daily inventory of people, places and things. So, I”m wondering, does anybody else keep a daily account like this? Am I really that weird? I mean, I can’t be that weird. People are developing apps for this. That makes me pretty much normal. This is pretty normal behavior. Right?

39 Years: The State of Things

Tomorrow I will be 39. I’m not sure how this happened. I still feel like a kid, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In medieval times, I would be a village elder. 39 was ancient.  39 deserved reverence. 39 bespoke hard-won wisdom. Back then, it was probably worth listening to the words of a guy who hadn’t gotten eaten by a bear, fallen from a tree or been bashed in the head during battle. At least, that is my scholarly opinion of the matter after reading 4 books into the Game of Thrones.

Age is a funny thing. Age perception is funnier. In my head, I think of myself as being 23. That was 16 years ago. I remember being 16. It felt like it took me a long time to become 16. The 16 years from 23 to 39 happened quickly.

I like my life. I have a strong, happy marriage to the girl I first met when I was 15 years old. We’ve been through a lot together. We still laugh.

I’m a dad. This suites me very well. My daughter is kind, creative, funny and smart. At five years old, she already challenges me. She will help me a keep a keen, crisp edge.

I have a job I enjoy very much, doing work that matters to people. I feel passionate about what I do and am grateful to work in a place where people take me seriously and let me have ideas and let me try those ideas. Sometimes those ideas work  out. Sometimes they don’t.

I still walk around with the feeling that something really amazing is about to happen. I’ve had this feeling since I was 15. It still carries me forward today.

I don’t carry many specific memories around with me. I have memories but when pushed to recall a specific thing that happened, I usually get fuzzy on details. This actually bothers me quite a bit at times. I can’t picture a specific childhood home or recall details of a favorite family vacation or call to mind details of a really great conversation I had with my best friends. These things are all in my head. I glimpse them from time to time, but I generally cannot call them to mind. Memories come to me. I cannot go to them.

I’m not sure what this weakness of memory means, and I don’t really intend to dwell on it here. I just want to say that some people’s lives are enriched by their past. Others have found the habit of mindful presence in the present moment. I am future-oriented, for good and for bad.

I am 39 years old and, still, I believe that something incredible is about to happen. I believe it because it is true. Everyday there is some astounding, astonishing new thing. Sometimes it is a small thing. Sometimes it is a big thing. If I am ready, it is there for me everyday.

This is how I have lived for 39 years, swinging from vine to vine. I am grateful for the days, months and years behind me. I am grateful for today and this moment. I am grateful for tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next.

Information (sharing) is power: Notes from Vint Cerf

I am a few years late to the podcast party, but I am here now and completely hooked. I drive an hour and 15 minutes every day and have found a well-chosen podcast to be a funner, more informative, more entertaining companion than music or the news. I follow quite a few in rotation but my heavy favorites are The Nerdist, Radiolab and, as of today, DecodeDC.

DecodeDC is a new project by NPR’s Andrea Seabrook. It is smart, focused and fun.

Sometime this week you will have a free 24 minutes and 34 seconds. In that free time, you need to listen to Seabrook’s interview with Vint Cerf  (Cerfing the Net) about intellectual property law, the copy-machine nature of the web and the coming Internet of Things. Cerf is the main founder of the World Wide Web, which is, as he says, the crucial human tool of the 21st century. The Web underlies everything. We are accustomed to hearing people say that “information is power.”  Cerf says this is wrong. Instead, information sharing is power.

The Internet has become so essential so quickly because it is a catalyst that allows people to share ideas efficiently. The problems and challenges we face are immense. The solutions require everyone’s best ideas and honest conversations. The internet makes this conversation possible.

Cerf tackles the adage “Information wants to be free”. This is true, he says, in the sense that information wants to be freely accessible. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be able to charge for access to valuable information and cultural products. Just that the information should not be hidden, undiscoverable behind pay walls. Current intellectual property law favors corporations and the descendants on culture creators at the expense of the people who would use that culture to create new art, solve problems and move everyone forward. We are losing access to our own tools of cultural creation.

Cerf also talks about the need to talk more about new business models to support cultural creation rather than focus on new restrictions designed to perpetuate old, non-functional models. He offers the notion of subscribing to a film producer or a television screenwriter as a way to support and reward work. The idea is that through subscription-based models, patrons would continually support an artist’s next work of art rather than their last work.

Lots of challenging, interesting ideas here. And a brief riff on Angry Birds.

The interview is short, fun and accessible. If you are at all interested in how the internet works and why the internet matters, this 24 minutes will make you smile.

Where Your Eyes Don’t Go

There is a place in your house so sinister, so terrifying, so mind-bendingly awful that dark fates befall anyone who goes there. Few are foolish enough to go there. Those foolish few are seldom seen again. Promise me that you wíll never go there. If you must go there, tells others where you are going, turn on all the lights and tie a rope to your ankles lest you be engulfed and disappear down the throat of madness.

I am speaking, of course, about that massive tangle of cables and wires behind your television. You have one. I have one. Every home in America has one — this writhing den of copper snakes, this mad tangle of serpents sheathed in white, yellow and blue vinyl.


It starts out innocently enough. You plug a TV into the wall. You attach a VHS player, then a DVD player. Next, a game console. Perhaps you have stereo components or surround sound. A BlueRay player and DVR. Your TV is connected to a cable for satellite. Your internet comes through here on a cable to your modem which is, in turn, tethered to your router, which is, ironically enough, the source of your wireless lifestyle.

How easily we forget the many miles of wire supporting our wireless lifestyles. I was reminded this weekend when replacing my modem. I got a new router for Christmas and then bought the modem with Amazon gift credit. The router installed easily in about 10 minutes the weekend prior. Last weekend, I installed the new modem.

Nightmare. I hooked up the modem, called the ISP with the new modem MAC address and then watched the lights on my modem steadily disappear. The next six hours were a progression of disconnecting modem, connecting router, reconnecting modem. Waiting for lights to turn amber, blink amber, then turn green, blink green then hopefully steady blue. It never worked. I tethered my laptop to the mess and gave the router my IP address, my router MAC address, my modem MAC address and an endless dance of other 8 digit codes. I called the router company twice. They spent 2 hours troubleshooting an insane sequence of plug, unplug, replug, unplug, plug. We never got it fixed. The router is somehow defective and won’t talk to the modem.

I spent six hours of my Sunday entangled by a frightening coil of wires that wanted my life and my sanity. I gave it both.

While working in this frightening mess, I recalled the conversation I had a few weeks earlier with the satellite TV installer. I asked if every house had such an obscene tangle of cords and cables. “I’ve seen much worse,” he told me. I think he was being nice.

Then, I asked the question I really wanted to ask. “Do you have such crazy pile of wire behind your TV? You probably have your wires organized nice and neat. Do you think I should spend the time organizing mine?”

He smiled. “It would take a mad scientist to unravel the wad of wires hiding in my house.”

For a moment, I felt better about myself. Then, I started thinking about the kind of mad scientist who might undertake such a thing. I got really, really scared.

Has anybody out there tamed the beast? Have you bothered organizing the wires behind your TV set? Better yet, anybody actually label those wires so you can easily tell which device they power?

Maybe I don’t want to know. The beast in my house is cleverly hidden where eyes do not go. Stay out of that corner. Do not go back there. Ever.

You have been warned.