How I Blog

Back in the beginning of the pandemic, sitting at my computer with my third or fourth inferior German beer, doing Home Office in our apartment cul-de-sac at the ass-end of the Deutsche Bahn, the world burning down, I finally decided to start a blog. I know, blogs are not much of a thing any more, but G+ is long dead, I dropped Facebook the nth time they added a new privacy violation, and I have no interest in any of the social media sites (I still don’t know what to do on LinkedIn). What I enjoy, social-media-wise, is writing short blurbs for an imagined, though real, audience. For writing practice and for the feeling that I am organizing my thoughts.

I started with elaborate ideas about creating an authoritative document from which I would create the official post and ancillary web-tidbits I could use for promotion. However, my technique quickly evolved from elaborate to quick as I learned just how long it took to create even a single post. Thus: somehow I get a topic idea. I pull up an A4 document with 2 cm margins. The title is centered 18 pt Optima Bold (I want to optimize, and am kind of bold), and the body text is justified 12 pt Lucida Bright (I want to be clear, and technically, I am a “Bright”). After free associating for a while, I save, often just a single crappy paragraph. One recent post was started the same day I decided to start a blog. Others have taken less than a week.

Once I have about a page of material, I start to get serious. More than a page feels like too much, but less than a page is not enough for me to complete my little story. My typographic settings constrain my writing like rhyme scheme and scansion constrain a poem. I easily go beyond a single page, but with judicious cutting I get back down to exactly one, simultaneously improving the text. If you want to “be like” me in this regard, go to extra effort in your writing to cut, cut, cut. It seldom hurts and usually helps. Either you streamline with fewer and more elegant words, or you eliminate the extraneous. I repeatedly re-read my page-or-so, adding and cutting, until it is saying just what I want it to. I put it away, then work on it again a few days or weeks later. Invariably there is a bunch of previously invisible awkwardness, easily (usually) cleaned up by, you guessed it, adding and cutting.

To post, I select all, copy, and paste. I have a collection of potential header images in my Drafts folder, one or more of which may seem post-relevant, or I may go searching through my thousands of photos for one that seems right. I upload the chosen image, then preview my post. Revisions are always needed. My WordPress theme is not typographically identical to my word processing theme, and changing the typography and pagination somehow reveals previously invisible errors. Over the next several days, I preview the post several more times, revising again and again. Here I limit myself to spelling and punctuation errors, and missing or incorrect words. At this point I also add and check any hyperlinks, and then schedule the post. I continue to preview even after scheduling, revising again when necessary. Even after the post has been published, I will still correct typos and missing/wrong words if they are bad enough, although often I simply leave errors alone once published.

That is my blogging method for now. I am sure it will evolve, as I am not completely satisfied with it. Furthermore, I expect to eventually have plans for future changes to my overall blog concept that will likely be incompatible with my current technique. But for now, it works.

Finicky Foodie

I’m a finicky eater. Yogurt, sour cream, vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise: I can barely stand to be in the same room with them. Fortunately, it’s a different story if you cook them to death. Chicken tikka masala (cooked in a yogurt-based sauce), certain moist pastries (dependent on sour cream), Ketchup (vinegar), Mustard-crusted rack of lamb: yum! If there is some dish with fried mayonnaise I would probably like that too. Alas, these horrific ingredients are often not cooked to death. At a restaurant or as a guest I must suffer the indignity and embarrassment of sharing my disgust when salad dressing or various toppings manifest. I don’t even like wine.

What I do enjoy is “meat and potatoes”. Here I am being metaphorical, although the literal interpretation is well and true. Any tasty umami mass in a glistening sauce or gravy with some rib sticking carbs is culinary perfection. Yes, I am aware of various health issues with my preferred diet, and I’ve been adapting. With my various aversions, adaptation is not easy, forcing me to become an able cook in order to transform stuff I don’t crave into stuff that at least doesn’t prompt menu fatigue. I aim to use a small amount of a tasty meat sauce to flavor lots of veggies (I’m still pretty much a fructiphobe, though I do enjoy dried figs). This goal improves my carbon footprint as well. Chicken-fried steak and eggs with home fries is but an occasional indulgence.

Over the decades I’ve managed to add some previously abhorrent foods to my diet, and now I either like or at least don’t reject mushrooms, oranges, and various vegetables. Unfortunately, there’s something in Brussels sprouts that makes them shoot right back up once I’ve tried to swallow them down, but do I try them at least once a year (maybe I’m still evolving). I’m not a “supertaster”, I am fine with broccoli (an unctuous cheese sauce is helpful here, but just steamed is also OK) and other brassicas. There may be some kind of aceto-lacto-malo- something going on with the vinegar and yogurt/sour cream/wine situation.

Anyway, with my need to cook well, I have become, if not a foodie, at least foodie-adjacent. I love cooking, whether simple or elaborate, a single dish or half of Thanksgiving. The renowned “knows everybody” Jon Singer turned me on to “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine in the late 90’s, launching my cooking prowess, although the need to use nearly every pot, pan, and utensil to make their best version of certain dishes is a bit of a hassle. I typically try to follow their recipe (or any recipe) as exactly as possible the first few times. Usually I do additional research, looking at similar recipes, such as in The Joy of Cooking, and reviewing relevant pages of McGee’s On Food and Cooking. Then I adapt the recipe to my personal techniques.

One pertinent example is their “Best Vegan Chili” recipe. I make chili powder from dried chiles (being blessed with a local mercado having a great chile selection) rather than laboriously roasting fresh pods, letting them steam, then peeling the skins. I use scissors to cut off the stems, then scrape away the seeds and cut the dried flesh and skin into small bits before toasting them in a cast iron pan. Then I pulverize them in a coffee whacker (not a grinder!). I have had to insist that indeed no animal products were used in the preparation of that chili, it is so tasty and umami-laden.

Mundane Space Opera

My first specific memory of reading science fiction is from one Christmas in Seattle, when we traveled there for the big family gathering that used to happen at my dad’s parents’ (Nanny and Pop) home in rural Oregon. I think this must have been after Pop died. We stayed with Dad’s sister (the aunt who later turned me on to the book Sugar Blues, by William Dufty), whose several children had moved out and started families of their own. I can’t quite remember how old I was, probably between ten and twelve. Evidently at least one of Aunt Mickey’s children, I’d guess Uncle Mike or Uncle Robin (we called them uncles although they were technically cousins; my brother and I were the late offspring of the youngest of three siblings; our cousins on that side were by then grownups with children only slightly younger than we were), had read some science fiction in their youth and left some of their collection behind when leaving home. Somewhere around the house I found a copy of Rocket Jockey by Lester del Ray and loved it. I recall having the feeling that, bored by all the adult stuff and not very gregarious even around children my own age, I had been specifically hunting for the kinds of books that I knew I liked, so I must have already been exposed to the genre. However, I don’t recall specific prior instances. Possibly Narnia or something in a collection of stories for children.

Once we got back home I began frequenting the local bookstore, and started spending some of my allowance and eventually paper route money on the used (and sometimes new) science fiction I found there. In seventh grade a friend turned me on to the Heinlein juveniles, and I discovered Tolkien. I knew already I wanted to be a scientist or technical person, having discovered in fourth or fifth grade a series of books in the library entitled “So you want to be a …”, filling in “Chemist”, “Astronomer”, “Doctor”, etc. I even had a chemistry set (the kind you can’t get any more, supplemented by garage sale purchases of additional components made available when older kids in my town lost interest or moved on to college; thank goodness our parents had no idea!). I can’t decide whether science fiction led me to science, or science led me to science fiction, or I approached both simultaneously. A few years later Uncle Mike gave me a copy of Dune at another Seattle Christmas. It took me a couple of tries to get into it, but when I finally did my mind was blown (I had the same experience many years later with the – non-science fiction – Sometimes A Great Notion).

In high school a new friend hooked me on Dungeons and Dragons (possibly the very first day of my freshman year, in Theatre Arts class); we were joined by many of the other nerds during those four years. My recreational reading then was a tissue of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Lin Carter, “Doc” Smith, Andre Norton, and many others. I would get home from school and read in “my” easy chair in the front room until called for dinner, at which point I would reluctantly teleport from vivid, rich worlds of heroes, allotropic iron and soul-sucking swords to the dusty, dreary world of chores, succotash and hamburger casserole. On some occasions the transition was palpable and depressing. I was listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind in those years.

In my youth I didn’t find fantasies of magic and faster-than-light travel totally unrealistic, but with maturity, my credulity began to wane. Nowadays, although I can still appreciate fantasy – I mean, check out the work of of China Miéville, Philip Pullman, or Lev Grossman – I prefer it to be overt. Science fiction with conceits of time travel or psionics or other magic has to carefully justify its transgressions, and I now prefer my extrapolations to be highly constrained. The term of art for my favored genre is “mundane space opera”, “mundane” not meaning “boring”, but that any fantasy conceits be convincingly justified. The TV series “The Expanse”, Charlie Stross’s Freyaverse novels, and Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars stories and Aurora are some recent examples of the kind of science fiction I am most fond of these days.

Fractals, Chaos, and All That

During the Baloney years we did a lot of cool cerebral stuff that I’m still hooked on, including Mandelbrot zooming, Conway’s Game of Life in 3D, iterated function systems, etc. Recently I helped crowdfund the Mandelmap Poster. However, despite their beauty (dare I call it stark?), there always seems to be something harsh and sterile in fractal images, with anything soft or biological missing or contrived. I have the feeling that to represent physical reality with this kind of math, each point in space and time should dictate not only the seed value for the iteration, but the formula as well. At any given scale and location I imagine you’d have a richer, smoother, looser landscape of possibilities, while as you zoomed in or out, particular self-similar shapes would persist for only a few orders of magnitude, giving prominence to different emergent ontologies (e.g. “Seahorse Valley”, “Main Cardioid”, “Spleenwort Fern”) at different scales. In my grandiose fantasies, an alternative scheme for representing physical reality could be developed from this kind of perspective.

Take iterated affine transforms sensu Barnsley. The idea would be that there might be hundreds or thousands (perhaps an infinity!) of transforms in a given mapping, but rather than apply them all according to a fixed set of probabilities, you’d vary the probabilities as a function of coordinate location or iteration count or something, with some transforms dropping out entirely and new ones coming in to replace them. Perhaps emotionally satisfying images could emerge from this kind of conceptual expansion of fractal algorithms. But can that kind of art inform science? In a sense, the universe is already an iterated function system or cellular automaton, with the next state of each Plank-voxel being computed by some mapping that we currently understand as obeying the Standard Model and/or Relativity. Perhaps some kind of deep computing project could identify patterns in images or datasets generated by my approach that resemble patterns in physics, thus revealing some kind of basis settings for further exploration.

It turns out that just as I was beginning to draft this post, Wolfram and colleagues released work that supplants his A New Kind of Science, purporting to potentially contain the seeds to a unification of relativity and quantum mechanics. I read ANKoS when it came out, and I would say I have (actually, already had, having been familiar with some of Wolfram’s published work in the area and done my own computational experiments) a pretty good understanding of the material, but this new work definitely supersedes it. ANKoS wrings out just about everything that could be interesting about one specific class of ultra-simple cellular automaton, including the tantalizing notion that, because Turing-complete computation can emerge from such simple abstract constructs, simple physical systems could potentially accidentally implement them, leading to an inevitable evolution of complex algorithms (e.g. life itself) from utterly basic substrates and inputs. The new work recapitulates much of ANKoS, but starts with even simpler constructs – so simple that to model even his simple cellular automata, a rather complex arrangement needs to be implemented using the new parts list. Wolfram et al. invite us to help, SETI-at-home style, by buying a copy of Mathematica and running his group’s free notebooks. I’m darned busy right now, so I am meticulously avoiding this sort of distraction. “Know thyself”: I am quite easily addicted to or distracted by dopamine micro-reward providers like certain kinds of computer games and puzzle-like recreations. “Nothing to excess”: best for me to simply not dip my toes in that stream, as the slightest exposure could well be too much, and I have Responsibilities.

My aim, were I to venture into this realm once again, would be to seek parallels to the Taylor-Couette flow demonstration that inspired some of David Bohm’s work, (skip to 13:25 if you’d rather not watch the entire video) and which he begins algebraic development of with Basil Hiley in The Undivided Universe. I would be unable to resist attempting to cast everything I did into some kind of coordinate system based on n-dimensional aperiodic tilings (essentially, derivatives of Penrose Tilings), and attempting to link philosophy (is it pointless to consider determinism vs. non-determinism?) to basic physics. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but a grandiose one. I am nothing if not grandiose. I won’t claim to not be a fool.

House of Baloney

Early in my first attempt at college (at the UW in Seattle), I moved from my too-expensive studio apartment on Capitol Hill into a shared house in Wallingford. The new place was within easy walking distance of campus and right across the street from Dick’s Drive-in (which I think I patronized exactly once – I don’t hate fast food per se, but I’m finicky and I don’t think they did custom orders. I am not one for special sauce). One of my new housemates was part of a community of environmentalists, and I started hanging out with them, partly as a fellow traveler, partly as a socially reticent person presented with a ready-made in-group, but mostly because of the general partying. Note that although I am an environmentalist, this is not from a spiritual orientation, but from a hard science orientation: physics, biology, and systems theory.

The downside of my hanging out with these folks is that they were mostly not fully informed about, shall we say, the more factual aspects of various situations. After some egregious (and probably drunken and/or stoned) pontification by one of these unwitting yet self-righteous folks, I felt that I must Do Something, although not necessarily in the context of that particular group. I owned a collection of most of the Omni magazines at that time, which I had transported to Seattle when I moved for college. I recalled a letter to the editor inviting readers to check out something called the “L5 Society”, a kind of club of spaceflight fanatics, and after some digging, found it and wrote to the advertised address. Shortly thereafter I received contact information and found myself attending monthly meetings of one of their Seattle chapters (there were actually two at the time) at the board room of the Pacific Science Center. Non-characteristically, I then took action to form a third chapter, “Husky L5”. There are many stories to be told about those times, but the main one is that I moved again, to different shared housing closer to campus, and attracted a group of friends more like myself in many ways, many of whom were members of something called the “Telecommunication Users Group”, or TUG. These folks were participants in a nascent computer networking hobby, made possible by the availability of personal computers and modems, and I fit right in. After yet another move I and several others were living in a house (this time in Maple Leaf, near the “Safeway is Death” house) with four phone lines and no phone (well, there was a handset that could be plugged in if a voice caller shouted over a carrier signal and actually got noticed).

The several years of this era were characterized by regular weekend parties, differing in attendance mainly by whether actual announcements were distributed. One of our frequent visitors, let us call him “The Agent”, actually moved in a few houses up from us. Notorious! The Agent was kind of a shadowy figure, so we didn’t really notice, when it happened, that he had disappeared, but one day his wife stomped through the back door of the house screaming for us, clearly upset about something. It’s hard to think of her as not embodying a stereotype (of what, I don’t know – short, plump, fond of high heels, an immigrant with a strong accent; perhaps the defining instance of a later stereotype). Anyway, once she had our attention she made it clear that The Agent hadn’t been seen for several weeks, and that we must somehow be to blame. As it turns out, we weren’t. Rather, he had been, to our surprise and as we learned later, AWOL from the military, and was being held in the brig. Notorious! Eventually The Agent’s wife stomped away in her heels, furious, denigrating us with shrill cries of “Full of Drugs! Full of Baloney!”.

One of our other frequent weekend guests soon learned of the brig situation and sprung The Agent via an open window and a drive-by pick-up. While partying with him afterwards, perhaps that very night (prior to his continued evasion; he did ultimately reconcile), we related the tale of his wife’s visit. The Agent then revealed one of his many gifts, that of naming things, and we became known thereafter as the “House of Baloney”. We eventually moved to larger quarters much closer to the University, maintaining our momentum for another couple of years, but the second House of Baloney was the last, as relationships and careers finally carried each of us into independent trajectories. Nevertheless, we are, decades later, still known as The Baloneys.