One week until we move, and we're homeless

We had chosen a home in Durham, NC.  The contract was signed, we sold furniture that wouldn't fit in a place with fewer bedrooms, we sold our house and arranged movers.  But the movers will be putting our possessions into storage, not our new home.  We had to back out of the contract.

The house had the right location and enough space, and it was affordable.  It even had character:  reclaimed doors and wood countertops, and artist-made railings.  But the inspector told us that under the surface, it was a mess.  From the shingles to the foundation, there were major structural issues that would cause the house to leak, sag, shift, and crack unless it was repaired under the supervision of a structural engineer.

To move forward with buying the house, we would have had to delay the transaction by who knows how many months while the current owners fixed it.  If we trusted them to fix it.  That's a big if, because some of the issues were created during renovation.  That means the fixes would be made by the same team that left issues in the first place.  And our dealings with the seller's agent were far from smooth:  it would be a fight every step of the way.  So when the inspection report came back, there was no question.  We walked.

I confess I'm a little relieved.  The transaction was a moshpit of incompatible personalities from the beginning.  On the one side, we have my wife and I.  Normally she is assertive about standing up for what she deserves; I often let others get away with things in order to keep the peace.  The second party was our real estate agent, a conflict-avoidant personality like me.  On the third hand, we had the seller's agent who also acted as the general contractor.  This individual was a charismatic pitch-man (which is great for a salesman) and a bully (which is common in construction but less so in real estate agents).  Putting these personalities together resulted in the seller's agent lying through his teeth and browbeating our agent into submission.  Then our agent repeatedly tried to convince us we were wrong about what we had heard the seller's agent say he would do, didn't advocate for us, and complained that we were attacking her when we stood up for ourselves.  That was how it went.  Even before the inspection report, we had all but stopped speaking with our own agent.  So I'm glad I don't have to finish the transaction with those people.

Have you ever told someone that since they work for you, they should go along with your recollection of events - and then had them respond 'I never told you you were wrong'?  It's pretty surreal.

I exaggerate a bit when I say we're homeless.  There's an apartment we can stay in.  So many people travel to my company's worksite that they rented an apartment for visitors instead of putting traveler after traveler up in a hotel.  But it'll take a long time to identify another house, negotiate an offer, and close on it.  We'll be living out of suitcases for at least a month.  But we won't be homeless.  I'm thankful for the safety net.

When in China, eat Chinese food

Eschew the "Spaghetti Bolognaise".  Venture not unto the "Russian Bortsch".  And under no circumstances sample the "Cheese Burger".  But get the "Beef Brisket Noodles In Soup" for $10 and you'll eat it all and order it again later.

I didn't need to be reminded of this, really, but in the past the Baolilai has done a damn fine steak.  Not this time.  It was gristly and gelatinous - on the cool side of rare when I'd requested medium rare - and cost $34 for an 8oz cut.  The revolving buffet restaurant on the 24th floor has slipped too.  When I was here in 2010 I gorged myself on the raw bar.  Shellfish, sushi, this is a port town and it was all pretty close to nature.  They still put out a half dozen kinds of small whole fish which they'll grill for you on the spot, and that's really lovely, but the raw selection has dwindled.

I've been eating lunch at my company's cantinas.  The system goes like this.  If you're a production worker, you live in the dormitories and you get an allowance for three meals a day at the cantinas.  If you're an office worker, you get one meal.  There are two cantinas; the downstairs one has spicy food and the upstairs one is less spicy.  Downstairs you get what a westerner might expect:  chunks that are more bone than meat; thin broth; lots of rice; and vegetables that are mostly preserved rather than fresh.  The upstairs cantina, though ... honestly if I got that food from a sit-down Chinese restaurant in the US, I'd be very happy.  When was the last time somebody made you fresh pasta in front of your eyes, starting with hand rolled noodles that had never been dried or frozen?  I was enjoying one of these lunches when I came to the realization that the food at the cantina was better than half of what the Baolilai offered.  My coworker was shocked when I told him so.  The production workers are a captive market, the food doesn't have to be this good, but it is.

So I've been eating a lot of tofu, and I don't mind at all.  In other news, it has been determined that if I had to eat with chopsticks for a week with no access to silverware, I wouldn't starve.  But it ain't easy to pick up wet noodles with polished metal sticks.

Chaos, stillness, labor

There's a peculiar stillness about an airport at 5:30AM. It's jittery, half-alert, empty of people but full of potential like the gray suction of the atmosphere before a thunderstorm.

I write from Newark airport, killing time through the first of two long waits. The second will be the flight to Hong Kong, 16 hours in a horizontal grain silo hurtling through oblivion at nearly the speed of sound.  In that purgatory it is not easy to lie to oneself. In Hong Kong, I will run the gauntlet of immigration, customs, car, and immigration again into Shenzhen. A car will pick me up at 8:30 to carry me to see face to face the coworkers I've been emailing since June, the last time I was there.

Yes, I've been silent here for a while. In October I agreed to relocate to Durham, NC, where my company has a site. Even before then, my travel schedule had ramped up until I was gone one week out of four, and then came the effort to sell the house. First repairs, then cleaning and cleaning and cleaning again, living in a theme park version of my house and periodically being shooed out for tourists.  Until finally, three weeks ago, negotiations. After that, a mad dash to Raleigh - Durham to tour other people's houses. A funeral. And a trip to China. Last week wasn't the most stressful week of my life, but it was close.

I would have liked to post about the many illuminating and infuriating things we went through to sell our house, but there was too much uncertainty. Now we have a contract to sell our house and (almost) a contract to buy another, so there is nothing left to do but execute plans.

There is a lot to execute. The current house needs repair to satisfy the city.  The next house is smaller by a third, which means trimming our belongings. After moving comes the settling in. And I have to move my lab as well - I thought I'd be able to leave some machines installed at the Cleveland lab, but the space has been promised to others.

So bear with me, please, as I deal. I do plan to continue to post, though I've handed the reins of the Lake Erie Moose Society blogger meetup group to my good friend, veteran Cleveland blogger Heidi Cool.  Watch this space. 

Hospital, interlude, blood

My day yesterday began with a routine checkup at my doctor's office, took a side trip to the hospital after I fainted at the sight of blood being drawn, and, after a brief interlude, ended with actual blood.

My employer gives me a discount on my health care premium if I get a yearly checkup from my doctor.  It's enough to motivate those not sensible enough to do it anyway.  I was in the examination room, a nurse drawing blood, while my doctor for some incomprehensible reason told me what happens to a baby boy's testicles during birth.  (I think we had been talking about hernias.)  But I had a rather brutal vasectomy in my history and I have a general aversion to needles.  I passed out.

Doctors, in my experience, take it very seriously when you pass out in their offices.  My general practitioner, bless his malpractice-insured heart, called 911.

I spent the next several hours in the emergency department at the Cleveland Clinic, my ass getting sore from their Buddhist-spec beds, my phone gradually dying, hungry and dehydrated because I'd fasted for the blood tests.  Eventually they decided that they (or the paint) had observed me long enough and they let me go.

I tried to have a normal day.  I worked, ate dinner, cleaned up the kitchen.  My hands were waterlogged and slippery with lotion.

Alice wanted me to grate some cheese.  Have you ever heard of a microplane?

Thankfully, the corner of my thumb that it dislodged went into the sink, not the cheese.  I gave up on the day and retired upstairs with a quarter inch of tape on my digit.


The two men sat across a table from each other, an incandescent bulb above, in an otherwise unlit room.  The younger man tapped the edge of a folder on the desk to tidy its loose contents and then laid it down.  "I'm going to show you some pictures, Hermann, and I'd like you to tell me stories about them."

The face of the man in the military uniform did not change.  He sniffed:  mildew.  They were supposed to be assessing his mental fitness to stand trial.  He might go mad from boredom in this place.  The cinderblock walls were unpainted, the lampshade metal, even the desk was gray.

"I'll give you an example.  Here's the Mona Lisa.  For centuries people have speculated about her smile.  What was she thinking?  Was she Leonardo's paramour?  Was she happy but simply tired of sitting?  Was she even Leonardo himself, painted in a mirror, with the lady's features on top and his sly smile peeking through?  But it's a very simple picture.  I'll give you some more interesting ones to work with."

The folder opened and a photographic print was passed across the table.  The subject was a rose garden, seen from a point some distance off the ground.  The rosebeds were thick and the paths narrow.  Some were dead ends.  In the upper right, a young man stood in the garden, looking to the right over the bushes.

He picked up the picture and examined it with a barely detectible sneer.  "What does this have to do with my trial?"

"Hermann, I hope you'll appreciate that the tools of the psychiatric profession are sometimes opaque.  I am trying to understand you, and this is my method."

"You needn't lecture me on the study of the mind, boy."  In fact, he was only ten years older than the man with the folder.  "I am one of its foremost practitioners.  All right then."  His hand stroked his chin, his fingers as uncalloused as a safecracker's.

"One day a young student was given a task.  He...."  Hermann looked over his glasses at the younger man.  "She was told to gather a collection of ambiguous photographs.  She is trying to imagine how this task will contribute to her thesis.  She fails, and decides at last that her academic advisor is simply doing what he wants to do without regard for her future, and as usual is simply using her as free labor.  But she has standards, so she passes over the photograph of the moodily lit tube of toothpaste."

The younger man blinked.  "No, you're missing the point.  Stories--well, here's another."  The photograph showed a gravel road with a crumbling rock wall on one side, a meadow behind it, and on the other side a field of freshly cut tree stumps and deep ruts.  The road forked ahead.

"A forest was cleared to make way for new homes.  The landowner photographed the process for legal purposes.  An artist, having no photography skills of his own, found the photo in a public archive and stole it for inclusion in an exhibition of his work.  This exhibition was seen by a professor of psychiatry--"  Exasperated, the analyst took the photo back.

"No, let's continue, this is fun."  With the speed of a pickpocket, he reached across the table and grabbed another from the folder.  It showed a bookcase, with titles from popular culture and from academia, and a near-empty snifter on top.  "Johan was desperate for a commission, but he had no work to show.  He had to build his portfolio, so he began photographing random things."  The analyst snapped the print out of his hands.

"Göring," said Rorschach, "you are on trial for murder on a scale that Vlad the Impaler would disavow. Do not take this process lightly."

They locked eyes. Rorschach: anger. Göring: tight contempt.

"Hermann Göring. Reichsmarschall. 0000021."

Ubiquitous cameras will make it hard to hide...your feelings

Nicholas Carr has written a nice tight piece of speculative futurism called "automating the feels".  The setup:  recently a company that produces corporate training materials came out with software that uses the computer's camera to make sure you're actually looking at their training videos.  Nick picks up that ball and runs with it - read his post.  But I got to thinking about what this kind of technology could tell us about ourselves.

Let's say, as Nick predicts, future communications will have a sort of side channel of emoticons automatically generated by the camera in your phone or computer.  Sort of like a soundtrack, but feelings.  You'd get emails about some project with running commentary about the sender:  "Bored.  Bored.  Bored.  Impatient." It would be impossible to lie about certain things; social niceties such as "looking forward to seeing you again" would come across very differently if the reader knew that while typing that, your expression was "disgusted".

Some people might learn things about themselves.  "The camera keeps telling me I'm angry whenever I text these people.  Come to think of it, it's right.  So why am I still hanging out with them?"  Or, "The computer kept telling me I'm happiest when I'm spellchecking.  Maybe I should have become an editor instead of an engineer."

Presumably it wouldn't be long before AI or fuzzy logic was used to fine tune these algorithms to individual users.  Then your phone would just know that you're annoyed all the time, and it wouldn't bother to say so unless it's, you know, worse.  But that might be doing a disservice to people you correspond with who have never met you.  And the algorithms will get subtler as time goes on.  At first they'll only be able to detect rage and glee, but eventually every emotional distinction there's a word for will be detectable.  And maybe more.  Maybe eventually we'll have to start coming up with new words for emotional states that our computers tell us about but we have no names for.

There are so many possibilities.  In many areas (such as lying), our society functions on an imbalance of available information.  People choose how much of themselves to reveal.  Throwing the covers off that imbalance would be pretty disruptive, the same way the internet disrupted retail markets by making it possible to instantly get the price of a product at every store that sells it worldwide.  Eventually we might have to wear a balaclava just to send a neutrally toned message.  But I'm sure the machines will have an emoticon for that!

The world ended a hundred years ago and somehow it's still ending.

I saw Ensemble HD, a classical music troupe, at the Happy Dog on December 5th, 2012. It might seem odd to review a musical performance that occurred nine months ago, but here I am, thinking about it.

Ensemble HD is members of the Cleveland Orchestra (and sometimes others), and they play classical music at the Happy Dog (and sometimes other places). On this particular night they played the music of World War I. It's worth noting that at the time of the war they didn't call it World War "1", but neither did they refer to it as simply such-and-such-a-war, either. For them, it was the war to end all wars. The music of the time reflected the cataclysmic outlook. Stravinsky wrote the Rites of Spring. Shit was fucked up. So the music that Ensemble HD played was atonal, random, and harsh. The composers and players strove to express the uncertainty of the age.

Most people hate that "modern" music. Rightly: it's not melodic and not euphonic. But that night, I felt the angst behind it. I put my head down in solidarity with my afflicted comrades of a century ago: I can feel the same today. The pace of change we deal with today is like a world war that never ends, it only accelerates.

And so it was that almost a year later, I was sitting in a bar hundreds of miles away and heard "Natural Beauty" by Neil Young. Now, Neil Young is a bozo, but he's a magnificent bozo. He plays guitar quietly and sings in a fragile, imprecise voice, and conveys emotions high and low that stubbly guys worldwide can cop to. He is a musical Kurt Vonnegut.

I had a bit of a moment. And I remembered World War I echoing down through the years to a hot dog bar on the west side of Cleveland. I felt sorry for all those poor bastards living through World War I thinking that was the end of everything, unable to imagine a future. All their strident fragility led to this moment. And to all others to come.