Sunday, December 30, 2007

Auld Lang Syne

From Rosh Hashanah to Lessons and Carols, 100 posts. It’s the new year once again, in this syncopated rhythm of overlapping calendars. The winter turning of the year is necessarily full of work concerns: tax planning and royalty statements and such. But tomorrow evening that will all pause, and a few moments of peace will settle slowly over my world as the ball descends.

Thank you for reading, for commenting, for taking a few moments to be here over the past several months. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Photo by Michael

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Office progress

I may have finally found the new ceiling fan for my office. I’ve spent far too much time looking at ceiling fans on the web and in stores, and haven’t really been satisfied with any of the options. Lisa and I had just concluded that we should give up and look at new designs in 6 months, when one of the web sites I’d been perusing suddenly added a brand new line from The Period Arts Fan Company. And there was the Altus fan, which we both looked at and said “Ah!”

We’ve also selected a floor for my office: Mirage 3/4" solid wood yellow birch, select and better, matte finish, in a 3 1/4" width. The lengths will be shorter than I’d really prefer—that’s the nature of modern flooring. Much of it will have to be covered by a rug or a cork mat or something to protect it from the office chairs, but I’ll definitely feel better knowing that there is an actual wood floor in the room.

We learned from visiting my artist brother-in-law’s newly completed studio room that we should use an eggshell finish on the walls and a flat finish on the ceiling to reflect the light most gently (with the least glare). Soft chinchilla is a leading candidate for the wall color—it looks more green or more blue depending on the lighting, so it may be the right compromise between blue and green. It should contrast nicely with the white trim, and it should have enough gray in it to recede. We’ll have to get a test can and see how it looks.

Wrapping gifts: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. For gifts that you receive, do you care what they are wrapped in? Do you want them to be wrapped at all? Does tearing paper feel more fun or more satisfying than opening a cardboard box?


Photo by Michael

Sunday, December 23, 2007


As our global environment changes, so will our local environments. This can cause a profound sense of loss that Glenn Albrecht has termed solastalgia, “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’” The latest issue of Wired has a nice article by Clive Thompson on the topic. Our sense of place may be largely unexamined or even unacknowledged, but disruptions to that sense of place can still hurt.

One of my favorite books in the world is From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place, by Deborah Tall. I read her book shortly before leaving Ithaca, and it helped me realize how thoroughly I had connected to the local environment: the hills, the lake, the parks and waterfalls, the deer and ducks and seasonal rhythms had become a part of me, and I still miss them. My sense of Boston is much more fragmented, despite living here for much longer. Perhaps it’s because Boston is more urban, or because Boston is larger, or because I no longer have the time or vantage point to go eat lunch while staring at the lake several times a week. Perhaps we connect differently to places at different ages, or perhaps the difference is simply that I still live in Boston.

Clive Thompson claims that how deeply we are affected by losing our sense of place is related to whether we have chosen the change. Can we therefore inoculate ourselves against solastalgia by more actively claiming personal responsibility for the local effects of global climate change? Can vacations to warmer climes make the increase in tropical gardening in New England function as a pleasant souvenir that compensates for the loss of our local flora? Or in 10 years, will post-winter-solstice December rain like tonight’s mean popping another pill to ward off the memories of a time when such a rain would have been helping to melt the previous week’s accumulated snow and ice?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

That time of year

Food banks are struggling this year, and need our support. We give to the Greater Boston Food Bank, who distribute a staggering amount of food each year in Eastern Massachusetts.

In this wealthiest of countries, the scope of the hunger problem is hard to believe and is wrapped up in a host of related serious problems facing the poor and lower middle class. We desperately need better social policies and a more inclusive politics. We need housing assistance and fuel assistance, we need non-predatory banking and lending, we need short-term shelters and long-term shelters and a focus on health care rather than health insurance. But to those in our communities who are going to bed hungry every night and waking up hungry every morning, the food banks offer a lifeline.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dam ice

Rain fall on our roof, and the water runs down our roof to the front gutter. The front gutter diverts the water to downspouts on both ends, and the water runs down the downspouts and out onto the ground. Except when the gutter is not attached to the house, as it wasn’t until last year, so that the water actually runs down the roof, looks longingly at the gutter just out of reach, and plummets to its death rather than making the leap of faith across the gap and into the teasing gutter.

Now the gutter is attached to the house, and we have less water flowing across our fascia boards and less water falling onto our front steps. That seems good. In winter, as snow melts on our roof and turns into water running down the roof, the water does not form huge icicles in the gap between the roof and the gutter. That also seems good. Until the temperatures are such that the water in the gutter freezes, and builds up more and more ice, and eventually becomes a solid gutter-shaped ice sculpture. At that point, the water running down our roof cannot get past the gutter-shaped ice sculpture, and instead pools on the roof, finds its way under the shingles by going the wrong way (I blame that pernicious gravity interacting with properties of liquids), and starts to run around the wood supporting the front edge of the roof. Into our front porch. First in one spot, then in many spots. Around and through all the framing of our enclosed front porch that we just paid far too much money to have painted. I’m trying hard not to fall apart. I wish our house would try also.

The roof starts about 12 feet off the ground and goes up at a steep angle for another 40 feet or so, so even with the best roof rake we could only clear snow off of a small fraction of the roof. Still, whatever we can clear presumably won’t then melt and run into our house. A longer-term solution presumably rests with stopping the gutter from turning into an ice dam. We could remove the gutter (which can cause other problems), install some sort of heating element in the gutter and downspouts to prevent them from freezing (my instinct says this is a great way to set your house on fire), or possibly extend the front roof edge a bit and lower the gutter a bit (which might reduce the chances of the gutter-shaped ice sculpture acting as an ice dam, since melting water would then have more opportunity to run past the ice in the gutter).

I’d prefer to mount a secondary gutter system inside the roof somehow to channel away water that gets through the roof. Similar to what would happen if you built an addition onto a house, and left the original gutters attached between the original edge of the house and the addition. Sadly, that causes many other problems, according to the folks we talked to at a recent housewarming party who eventually discovered that particular treasure between their addition’s ceiling and their roof. Or we could get giant heat guns and personal hoverpacks. Time to do some more shopping on Amazon, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Without wireless Internet: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Having only intermittent wireless Internet service over the past couple of day has been like being on vacation in a remote location. A working vacation, where I play full-time tech support. Over 48 hours, I’ve lost the wireless side of my SMC router, forced the Apple Store to replace one of my two defective Airport Express routers (which get my vote for least reliable piece of hardware ever created), disassembled an original graphite Airport base station to see if the WaveLAN card inside it would be usable elsewhere, set up my MacBook to act as a temporary part-time router, ordered a new Linksys router (WRT54GL), and reconfigured the temporary network a whole lot of times. Next I’m going to see if I can use the spare 2 pairs in the house’s CAT-5 wiring as Ethernet cabling while leaving the other 2 pairs live as phone lines. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 14, 2007

French Toast Alert System in action

Photo by Michael

Universal Hub has created a brilliant French Toast Alert System, which inspired the sacrifice of my hot breakfast. The french toast was still pretty tasty even after taking a spill off the deck into a snowbank and getting partially frozen waiting for its glamour shot. I’m sure the fork will turn up by spring.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Public Transit?

Sometimes public transit doesn't involve much actual transit.

There was a little accident in the Boston subway this morning. Nothing major, just one train rear-ending another which closed down the green line for a couple of hours while they got the injured train back on the rails. So to get across town I had the choice of taking a train one stop to get to the bus which would take me to work, or I could walk. I walked.

This afternoon everyone got out of work early because of the snow. But the green line was only running its normal middle-of-the-day number of trains. The station was so packed I couldn't get down the stairs. I walked to the red line.

After a detour in the wrong direction in the hope of getting a seat (yay! I didn't have to walk to Somerville!), the red line happily delivered me to Davis. And there was a bus! My bus! Completely full. . . I walked home. (And didn't feel like a fool because during the 45 minute walk along the bus route, nary a bus went by going my direction.)

2.5 hours instead of the more usual 1 hour. Not so bad really given how hard it was snowing. It wasn't windy, or sleeting, or particularly slippery. I had proper boots. So really, not much to complain about, except for that lack of transit in the public transit I supposedly use for my commute.

I hope everyone else is safely home and out of the weather.

Home office, second post

I’ll have little Internet access for the coming several days as we finish clearing out my office so we can fix the walls. Textured wallpaper over badly patched 140-year-old bare horsehair plaster will soon be a memory. The vinyl tiles and plywood on the floor are already gone, revealing face-nailed painted barn boards. We’ll pry those up and see if we have to replace the subfloor. Which requires choosing a new floor, so we know what thickness of subfloor to install.

I’m trying out the decision to use real wood for the floor, with rugs to protect the floor from the office chairs. Cork is still tempting for its insulating and noise-reducing properties, as well as its environmental benefits, but I haven’t found one that looks appropriate for an office in an old home. And I’ve always loved wood floors. Maybe a wide plank, to follow the old tradition of using wider boards for upstairs rooms and narrower boards for downstairs rooms and to echo the old barn boards that were first used in the room. And a light color to keep the room feeling more open. It’s not my original plan of matching the oak strip flooring with a medium tone that we have on the first floor, but I know that I want to keep the room feeling fresh and modern rather than like a stuffy old library.

I love stuffy old libraries. One of the show rooms that I looked at yesterday was a stuffy old library, with wood paneling and dark shelving and heavy trim and a leather couch and a fireplace, and it was lovely. The elegant walnut strip flooring in the room was gorgeous, and I just wanted to settle in with a good book and a cup of cocoa, preferably while a snowstorm settled in outside. But that style doesn’t work as an office for me. I need lots of illumination, because a lot of my work is still looking at details on paper (which does not yet come with its own internal light source). And I work best in an environment where I feel like it’s ok to play music loudly sometimes, even if I mostly prefer to work in a quiet environment. I love the quiet of libraries, but that quiet is too salient to allow me to focus on work.

What I really want is for someone else to come in and choose a floor the room, and tell me to live with it. That would be great.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

8 nights

We study in secret, worship in secret, and wear our faith well-concealed. Is that not the foundation and history of our faith? The Lord heard us cry out from our suffering in Egypt and left us in slavery for 200 years more. Ten generations learned not to cry out.

When our ancestors furtively marked their doors and stayed inside to avoid the Angel of Death, they survived to escape Egypt. We told their story year after year so as not to forget a time of redemption, and claimed their story for our own. We tell that story still, and we tell ourselves we are free, but we tell that story at home with fewer outward signs than were dared by a people enslaved. They at least marked their doors as they stayed inside.

For 8 nights in midwinter, we light a menorah so that it is visible from the street. For 8 nights in midwinter, we celebrate the reclamation of a village, the reconsecration of our temple, the miracle of the lasting flame that should not have lasted, a representation of the lasting faith that should not have lasted. For 8 nights in midwinter, we make a specifically outward sign. We may bet on when the candles will go out, but we know the faith will last. And maybe with more openness, we find more freedom.

That freedom is a difficult road is a Jewish story, but it is also a human story. So to all my readers, Jewish or not, Happy Chanukah.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


Federal bailouts can seem very unfair when you look at it from the perspective of a single family. We provide disaster assistance for large groups of people who have been affected, but not for individuals who have been similarly affected in isolation. So if 500 families lose their homes to a fire or flood, we offer each of those 500 families relief that we don’t offer to 1 family who loses their home. Yet if you’ve lost your home, you have the same needs as anyone else who has lost their home. Why do we only help some people in that situation and not everyone?

The reason is that as a society, we don’t really care about any of those families at all. We only care about the effect of the disaster on the rest of us. What if too many people are suddenly made homeless, or lose their jobs, or lose their investments? That can cause ripples of disruptions as economic effects spread. If a city block burns, the regional economy can absorb the effects. If a city burns, that’s a much larger problem for the regional economy, so we look to stop the effects from spreading by providing disaster assistance.

With disasters, we’ve decided that the way to stop those effects from spreading is to provide assistance to large groups of people. With the drug trade, we’ve decided that the way to stop those effects from spreading is to incarcerate large groups of people. These different approaches both have the common purpose of trying to maintain economic stability in the rest of society.

The current attempts to stop the foreclosure rate from accelerating beyond control are generating a lot of self-righteous complaints from people who are not facing rate resets and want to know why they aren’t being rewarded for having chosen a fixed-rate mortgage. They see some people benefiting from this attempt at disaster control and feel that it’s unfair. It is unfair, as are all federal bailouts. The surprising part of this bailout is that in the process of trying to maintain economic stability, we may actually help poor and minority populations since they are the ones who are most likely to face foreclosure otherwise. That would be a good outcome, and an unusual one. It also rouses two suspicions in my mind: first, that the mortgage bailout details will be arranged in such a way as to increase long-term debt for these poor and minority populations; second, that the reason some people are so willing to complain about the unfairness of this bailout is because of who may be helped.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Life in the lava field

Photo by Michael

Christmas means seeing: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, most people have some break in their routine because of the day. For me, Christmas used to mean going out to see a movie matinee. Now it means visiting Lisa’s family in Maine and maybe a trip to L.L. Bean.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Stay out of my way, Green Line!

When I moved to Boston, I learned that the MBTA bus drivers regularly won national bus driving competitions. These competitions involved slalom and obstacle courses, but nothing about actually stopping for passengers or learning a route. The power-mad dream of driving an MBTA bus around Boston pales in comparison to driving a snowplow around Boston, however. It would be better if there were pedestrians and cars as well in this little on-line game, though crashing your snowplow into Boston landmarks and the Green Line trolleys is pretty good.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

8 miles from Hilo

Photo by Michael

Sunday, December 2, 2007

My favorite sign in Hawaii

Photo by Michael

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Surfing in circles

I’m clearly misunderstanding how to use various web tools at my disposal. I use Google Reader for a number of news sites and blogs, and I mark interesting posts by clicking the star. I’m gradually creating a fun personal library that I can rummage through, but I don’t know how to add other random web pages to it.

How do I keep track of the odd web site One Cold Hand? Or the occasional bit of moving writing about writing on a political blog that I don’t subscribe to? I want to put them in my personal library, without doing all of my web surfing through Google Reader. I suppose I could mention them in my blog, and subscribe to my blog, but that seems rather roundabout.

Lead in the duck

A local public library offered lead testing today with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) meter. Much more accurate than the swab kits that they sell in the stores. All of the “Made in China” toys that we brought tested fine, but the “Made in Taiwan” rubber ducky has a lot of lead in it. I should probably stop chewing on it.

A current Ikea playset of little metal pots and pans (Duktig) that someone else brought also tested high for lead. It’s really a charming set, beautifully executed, and apparently quite popular with little kids. Ikea is still selling that one, so I figured I’d call them. It took about an hour total, three phone calls and hold time and several transfers, to finally leave them a message saying that they should test that product because the XRF meter said the lead level was high.

We need a wiki-style database with photos and tags and descriptions of products along with test results for all of these little testing sessions that are going on around the country. I’d like to type in some keywords or attributes and see whether someone’s already gotten hard numbers on the product. I can tell you that the white Polar soda polar bear that they were handing out two summers ago in Copley Square doesn’t have any lead in it, but I’d rather tell the database. And I’d rather someone else deal with Ikea’s phone tree next time.

Death on the deck

The sparrow’s life was simple. Fly around, eat, drink, sleep, fly around some more. She had learned to avoid the occasional appearance of the greyhound, figured out which air conditioner to sleep under, and had found all the great dryer vents in the neighborhood (a marvelous source of heat and humidity in this suddenly-frigid weather). The chain link fences were built for sparrows, clear views from a set of perches set at regular intervals. Fly, eat, drink, sleep. Maybe chirp a little. It was a good enough life. The sparrow’s mother had explained all about blue jays, and hawks, and that greyhound. What she hadn’t been warned of was the Giant Flying Mum.

We don’t know exactly what happened. The mum used to be 20 feet away, around a corner, secure on a hook. Now it’s lying on the deck outside our dining room doors, with the poor sparrow an apparent casualty of the mum’s sudden aerial journey. And I keep imagining the fleeting final surprise in the sparrow’s head: I didn’t know that thing could fly!