Exhausted

Sunday came and went without us attempting much of any consequence. I felt used up. Alice and I had had a very busy week of social events; there was even some drama at our workplaces so we got no respite there.

A year ago the situation was much the opposite, at least for me: I wasn't getting out much, and certainly never needed a break from it. I made a conscious effort in 2008 to be more social. Well: mission accomplished. I may actually have gone too far, and now I find I need to develop the skill of knowing when to leave before the party's over, and when to not come out at all.

I am pleasantly surprised and a little proud. Major voluntary life changes don't come easy. Old dog, new tricks, etc etc.

Business in the front, party in the back

The Chinese are going to take over the world, and here's the evidence: a combination pen and bottle opener. ON A LANYARD. You can sign things and open beers all night, and it will still be around your neck when you wake up in the gutter.

ISI (or maybe ISSI) is a brand of beer in China. I got this as a promotional freebie at a restaurant - the deal was that if you ordered 100 yen of food (about $14 at the time) you got all the beer you could drink, free.

FREE BEER. My American mind reeled. They had two pallets of beer parked in the middle of the restaurant, and girls to serve it. The four of us drank twenty bottles of 20 ounces each. Hey, they also gave me a lighter. Where is that thing? You can tell safety isn't a high priority in China, lord knows how many drunk guys set things on fire that night.

...

One of my favorite travel stories, actually, is that I got attacked by my dinner there. It was a "hot pot" place--roughly speaking, Chinese fondue. They gave us a big pot of broth and a bunch of meat and vegetables on sticks. I'll give you the short version: the shrimp (impaled on sticks, mind you) were still alive. They didn't like the hot water and splashed it on my arm. I ate them anyway.

The battle for my name, one month on

A while back I decided to try to take control of my Internet presence. The results are in: Google doesn't care.

Most of the first 10 Google results for "jeff hershberger" haven't changed since early November. Thankfully, the LinkedIn entry now goes directly to my page.

Oh, and the Jeff Hershberger of Wisconsin--the one who reviews D&D books--didn't answer my email. Well, FINE. *snif*

Tophat tree topper

So here it is:We topped our fake plastic tree with a tophat (borrowed, thanks Gina). Now it's actually cool.

Why does meetup.com work so well in Cleveland?

I've posted about meetup.com before. Several times I've been surprised at how it thrives here, but now I think I know why.

At first I attributed its high attendance to the skill and energy of a couple of group organizers, but on Monday I went to an event where no less than four different meetup groups came together in the same place. That's groups organized by four different people. Were all those organizers gifted? It's too much to be a coincidence.

Monday's meetup took place at a happy hour. The restaurant could have put a sign on the sidewalk reading HALF PRICE SUSHI AND MARTINIS and people would have come in with their friends. But there's a crucial missing piece of information: HALF PRICE SUSHI AND MARTINIS AND PEOPLE WHO WILL TALK TO YOU EVEN THOUGH THEY DON'T KNOW YOU.

That's what meetup.com does. It provides a filter, putting all the people who want to meet new people in one place.

Our first year here, Alice and I hung out in public places trying to chat people up and were repeatedly rebuffed. This town is full of social networks - people who went to the same schools, who work together or worship together - but they're hard to break into. Meetup is an open network, one you can choose. All these kinds of networks exist everywhere, but in most cities, you can just go out in public and meet new people; native Clevelanders don't seem to have an appetite for that. That makes meetup.com's function necessary, and it makes it thrive.

I probably sound like I'm griping. It was hard to be lonely here. The skills we'd developed elsewhere for making friends didn't work here. We had to adapt, and it took a lot of trial and error; I didn't expect electronically mediated relationships (not just meetup) to be the key to face-to-face ones. We're at peace with it now.

Clothes make the man ... different

I wore a jacket to work today so I'd look good for the LinkedIn event tonight. It made a big difference in the way I feel. Usually I dress like a bum for work, and I'm tired of it.

I get filthy kneeling in the dust and working in a basement full of oily garbage that sticks out into the aisles. So I mostly wear jeans and flannel. That's casual, but put them on every day and you begin to expect people to call you Cletus. Over the weekend I noticed that my brother wears tweed jackets everywhere and I started thinking I could do that. I have a few dress jackets, and a red velvet one for when I want to get my swank on, but nothing in between.

So here's my solution: wear a nice jacket and trade it for the lab coat when I hit the dungeon. This makes it much easier to go out after work. And it makes me stand up straighter.

LinkedIn Linked Cleveland group meetup tonight

I'm heading to Rock Bottom tonight for the LinkedIn gathering. The posted time is 5:30-8:30 ... join the Linked Cleveland group and RSVP. See you there!

Sushi at the Sunset Lounge on West 9th

Had sushi last night at the Sunset Lounge, as part of a gathering of several meetup.com groups. Boy, what a mixed experience.

They had a happy hour menu of martinis available for $4, and the ones I had were good. Most of the sushi was half price, and it was good too. (Alice ordered this scallop thing that turned out to be just finely chopped scallops mixed with a thick sauce. It looked like cat vomit but tasted exquisite.)

The server, however, seemed to have just rolled out of bed when we got there. Alice arrived at 5:15 and her food didn't show up until well after 7--by which time the tango lessons she came for had started up in the back room. I saw the server carrying around everyone's orders in a stack--and shuffling them, forgetting who ordered first.

So all told, I'd go back and pay full price. Wait, did I just say that?

...

I spent the weekend visiting my brother in Detroit. I had some of the best sushi I've had in the last few years at Sakana. People say Detroit is even more beat up than Cleveland, but it didn't look that way from the suburbs.

Guacamole, revisited

Some folks at the Social Media Club get-together last night (beautiful house, Dave) asked for my guacamole recipe. I actually made a variation on the one I posted before. I added garlic and ground cumin, and I made it in a food processor instead of mashing it by hand.

I started by trimming two bunches of green onions, seeding two jalapenos, and cutting the stems off of most of a bunch of cilantro. I processed that until it was what I'd call finely chopped, then removed it from the food processor. Then I put the meats of three avocados in the processor and blended them until smooth. I added some olive oil in this step, but not as much as usual.

Then I squeezed several cloves of garlic in a garlic press and sort of smeared them back and forth with the flat of a knife on a cutting board to break up the lumps. I put the avocado, greens, and garlic together in a bowl and started tasting it. I think I put in about a teaspoon and a half of salt and a tablespoon of cumin. Oh yes, and lime juice - about three tablespoons, which I thought was a bit much.

Also, the guacamole rested in the refrigerator for about ten hours instead of being served immediately; I think it got stronger. Enjoy!

Fake Plastic Trees


Alice has been bugging me for a white Christmas tree for years. I've always resisted, because I love the smell of pine. When the budget didn't allow a real tree, we put up a fake green one, but a white tree just seemed like an affront to authenticity. Well, I gave in.

On the day after Thanksgiving Wal-Mart (I haven't set foot in one in years) had them on sale for $20. Somehow that became $135 after the sale ended and ornaments (also plastic), garland, and other frippery were included. The end result isn't offensive, mainly because it's so obviously fake - black and silver ornaments, not my grandmother's blown glass ones, make it just another decoration. Besides, it's not the main tree.

If we can find a black tophat at a costume store to put on top of the tree, then it will actually be cool.

The newspapers are dying. Shame about that

Rob at Extraordinary Observations blogged about the generation gap in newspaper readership. His first few words after quoting Andrew Sullivan were:
A huge chunk of blame is placed on the internet
I'm sorry ... "blame"?

Because I am a bastard, I say let 'em die. When I was a kid, being an environmentalist meant putting your newspaper in the recycling bin instead of the trash. We're way beyond that now. Getting your news from dead trees is downright carbon-hostile. A huge amount of energy is used to make the pulp and ink, run the printer, and drive the papers to your door. Even after you consider that the process starts with KILLING TREES which SEQUESTER CARBON. There should be a clause in the Kyoto treaty placing a "bullheadedness tax" on every newspaper, by weight.

...

When we moved to Cleveland we had a hard time finding things to do, so I subscribed to the weekend Plain Dealer, basically to get the Friday entertainment insert. (Somehow, in newspaper math, the weekend is not two days but four - Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday. Go figure.) That was useful for a while, but eventually I found the right sites on the Internet. When I called to cancel my subscription, I anticipated being asked why. I wasn't really looking forward to telling the nice lady her product was irrelevant, so on the spot I lied and said I was moving out of town.
"Oh? Where to?"
"Chicago. We have friends there."
"Oh, good for yooouuuuuu!"
And once again, Cleveland's inferiority complex rears its ugly head. Every time somebody trash-talks this town, however obliquely, it makes me angry, because I chose to live here. I don't want my decision ridiculed by the people that should be congratulating and thanking me.

Cleveland's not the only town that's down in the dumps. Berlin has an inferiority complex too. Berlin Bites is written (in English) by rock historian Ed Ward, who has just moved out of Berlin after living there for 15 years. I've been sharing an online community with Ed for a few years and he's a terrific writer.

Mazda full of firewood

Yesterday I brought home a load of firewood in my Mazda3. And it's not a hatchback. Yes, I'm too stupid to borrow somebody's truck, but everybody got a good laugh out of it.Above: half a face cord (half a "rick" to you native Ohioans) of wood in the trunk and back seat of my car. Yes, the car with the busted shocks. It was full to the windowsills, but there was plenty of space. The load capacity was another matter - you can see it sitting pretty low on the rear springs. I took the highways home to avoid bumps.

This is another triumph of Craigslist. What a great resource - I was sick of paying $5 for a little bundle of wood at the supermarket. I paid $40 for all this. Please note - there is an Emerald Ash Borer quarantine in NEO, so if you live in one of the counties that's outside the quarantine zone, don't buy your firewood inside the zone. That's bad news. My city just cut down a whole boulevard full of mature ash trees that weren't even sick yet, just to head off the disease.

I won something!


Mark at eating cleveland sent me a gift box of Penzey's herbs for that contest he held a month ago. I smell some homemade red sauce in my near future!

On a related note, yesterday I went to the 25th Street Market for some vegetables. (I'm making fresh guacamole for the Cleveland Social Media Club get-together.) I was stunned - it's like winter just doesn't happen in there. The aisles were bursting with vegetables and fruit. I got three of the biggest perfectly ripe avocados I've ever seen ... for a dollar each. Then I got grapes for a buck a pound. I always thought the market was seasonal, but I just discovered they're there year-round! I've been in the habit of going there for cheese and special meats, but the utility of the produce selection escaped me until now.

Back in the saddle

I got back on the exercise bike this morning. It had been three weeks ... three weeks of having a house full of guests, of rearranged furniture, three weeks of upheaval, of relatives and friends, of fights and makeups, of dissolution and hangovers, of doubt and pain and throbbing joy. Of very little blogging ... I didn't know what to say.

I think things are back to normal, if normal means an everyday struggle to be myself in spite of a deep urge to be nothing. It means exercising instead of being lazy. So: another 30 minutes, another 400 calories. Back in the saddle.

Time to rake the leaves.

You ever rake leaves in the snow? With a head cold?Winter got the jump on us East Siders this year. Sometime in November I was thinking "the lawn needs to be mowed one last time and once the leaves stop falling...." Then it snowed. If the leaves stayed on the grass until spring, there would be big dead patches in the lawn. Hence the pathetic spectacle of a bundled, sniffling man raking frozen clumps of maple leaves and dogshit off his yard in a gentle snowfall.

Goodbye, Jon

A friend of mine has passed away. I met Jon earlier this year, shortly before the shit hit the fan in my personal life, and he and I became good friends quickly. I talked to him about my problems, and despite his limited life experience, his analytical perspective was a great help to me. He talked to me about his problems too, but in retrospect, he kept it pretty general. I like to think I helped him, but I can't be sure, because he's gone now.

Jon and I became friends at a time when new possibilities were opening up for both of us. I'm still running with it, though Jon fell behind. I'm not sure how best to memorialize him. I'll start by living a good life, continuing the project we began.

Rest in peace, Jon.

Music and slowness

I'm in pain today, and feeling compelled to listen to music. I'm also smoking pipe tobacco and drinking bourbon at 3:30 PM, but that's beside the point. Anything for comfort is what I told myself. But maybe it isn't comfort. Maybe it's distraction. Maybe that wasn't beside the point after all.

Milan Kundera wrote a book called Slowness. It's a thin book and it was some years ago - Kundera is getting slow himself. But the point of the novel was that people increase the speed of their lives to escape pain. For me it's a very concrete analogy: to drive fast, you have to concentrate on the road. That leaves no room in your mind for what's bothering you. The book left me thinking that a lot of modern life must be optimized to minimize mindfulness. (Hi, Jack.)

To return to my earlier train of thought, this is where I admit that for a guy who professes to love music, I don't listen to nearly as much of it as I could. In other times music was my constant companion. I measured tasks - washing the dishes, lovemaking - by how many album sides they they occupied. Not any more; I might be sitting right in front of my computer for hours and not put anything on. It seems too much trouble to pick something, and often too distracting when I do.

Distracting. There's that word again. Here I am, distracting myself, for a change.

The point of this post, besides the comfort I get from writing it, is that music is escape. It's something to concentrate on, it's permission to feel about something without thinking too pointedly about it. I speak only for myself, of course. However slow the music might be, life needs to be slower to be lived.

Now playing: Cruiser, by Red House Painters, from the album Old Ramon.

Christening the house

We had a party at our house last night - our first since we moved here two years ago. Forty internet winos came by to celebrate a year of meetups. It might be appropriate considering that meetup.com is how we've met most of our friends in Cleveland.
Nothing went wrong at all, really, and our guests were terrific. We had a blast despite being busy with hostly duties. A few people stayed late, and we had help from friends to set up and the next morning to clean up.

I guess I want to say thanks. Thanks for coming, and thanks for making it a good day, and a good year.

Old soul objects

Someone told me recently that I'm an 'old soul' and I laughed a little. I hadn't heard the phrase since college, when everyone claimed to be one; had there been enough souls back in the old days to recycle into all these students?

But what they meant was that I have an affinity for the old tools of civilized life. I'm anachronistic, maybe. These objects, like stationery and tobacco pipes, are signifiers of class, connoisseurship, and refinement. (But why?)

Here are some of the things I surround myself with and take pride in. Many are just old, like my house. Or they're for older people, because the siblings I looked up to were older than I. These are the elements of my personal style.

* My watch, issued to a Marine during the Korean War.

* Bourbon, scotch, and wine: acquired tastes all, they reward connoisseurs.

* Quality minimalist stationery, for when only a written letter will do. I use Crane's, with a fleur-de-lis pattern lining the envelopes.

* A stereo. A real one, with two speakers and not five, pointed directly at a chair.

* Pipe tobacco, for when I really want to poison myself. If you've never done it, you wouldn't believe how complicated pipe smoking is. Those guys in movies always look tranquil, almost immobile - I don't know how they do it. Editing, I guess. Maybe I just like keeping my hands busy while I'm drinking scotch and listening to music.

* Wool coats. Puffy vinyl shells full of fiberglass might keep you warm, but they make you look like Neil Armstrong. Not Lance Armstrong.

* Eyeglasses - not contact lenses. It's not that I'm not vain; oh, I am. I just want to look smart.

* My wok and cast iron frypan. I've had both for 20 years. They are utterly utilitarian manual tools for sustenance. No electronics, no nonstick coatings, no obsolescence.

* Calling cards, for a more personal touch than your business card can give. Mine has this blog's address on the front.

What's the unifying theme here? Is each of these things just a technology that's one step behind current? Are they old because they require effort and upkeep? Does that make them more contemplative? Or am I just being anticonformist? Is it inherently more elegant to tell time by an analog watch rather than a cell phone? Does the fact that it's a watch matter at all - or is the medium the message?

Bailout or bankruptcy?

Should the auto industry be bailed out or allowed to go bankrupt? The industry has argued that bankruptcy will result in the loss of millions of jobs from the OEMs and their suppliers. I call bullshit.

The number of new cars needed per year in America will not change. It is not economical to scale up overseas manufacturing and import all those cars ... especially when U.S. plants can be bought cheaply. Manufacturing workers and parts suppliers here won't lose their jobs. If Japanese and German companies buy the plants, they could retool them for their own (proven profitable) designs or continue to build selected U.S. designs. They would probably do some of each, retooling only the plants that have been building cars they choose to discontinue. The parts suppliers must follow suit either way.

So I say let the big 3 go bankrupt. Let their stock become worthless - anyone who's been betting it would have value deserves to lose. Let their pensions be taken over by the government. Let them renegotiate union contracts - the unions know what the risks are now. Let them stop building old makes without penalty from their dealer networks - Toyota has only three (Toyota, Lexus, Scion) and nobody misses Plymouth. Let them eliminate redundant marketing costs for essentially identical vehicles. Make them fire their management. The new management should be drawn from other industries.

I like cars. Of the dozens of models built by the Big 3, I can think of only one that I wouldn't sell if the keys were handed to me. I'm hoping for a new era in the American auto industry, one that begins by admitting to a vast failure. The average car on the road will be safer, more reliable, and cheaper. I don't know what it will be called, and I don't know where the profits will go, but I know it will be made in America.

Rebellious Facial Hair

How come no group has ever taken up asymmetrical facial hair as a symbol of defiance of authority? From jazz to rock and roll to mods and rockers to grunge and on and on, kids are always trying to distance themselves from their parents' music and style. Here's your chance - there are limitless possibilities. Hey, it's Mo-vember, grow half a moustache. And I don't mean the bottom half. Grow one sideburn, or the left side of a Lincoln. Why not? Because people will think you're mentally ill? (Don't you want them to?)

This is another Niven idea. I never went to the sci-fi conventions, but I hear he kept threatening to show up with half a beard. It'd be disturbing.

Me, I shaved off my beard during my divorce 10 years ago and I never looked back. I've always said, show me a guy with a full beard, and I'll show you a guy who's either over 45 or under 30.

East 55th Street Jeans

The Citizen Cope concert was pretty low-key, but I had a great time with the friends I went with. One of them was wearing jeans with holes, which I thought was novel. They were small neat holes and I joked that they could have been made by bullets.

Instead of having dedicated craftsmen hand-bleach and abrade your denim before sale, we could market a line of clothing finished at the firing range. (I'm just full of recipes for street cred.) We'd have to sell pants with crotch holes as seconds, of course.

Optionally, the buyer could choose to be wearing them at the time the holes are made. Because I am a cruel bastard, I proposed calling this boutique clothing line "East 55th Street Jeans". Many people tolerate and find uses for Cleveland's East 55th street, but nobody loves it. I choose to make fun of it. But then, I am a bad person.

Citizen Cope at the House of Ugly

Monday night I saw Citizen Cope at the House of Blues. You might know his song "Let the Drummer Kick", which was used on So You Think You Can Dance - or maybe that's just me, because Alice replayed the episode endlessly.

It was an 18-and-older show. We stood near the back, and a few paces in front of us was a tall gangly kid of probably 18 with his mom, dancing his heart out through the whole show. Dancing ... unconventionally, the way I did in high school.

Between us and him were two girls. Every once in a while I would see one of them laugh behind his back and pantomime one of his moves. At one point they had a passerby take a picture of them with him. Then the mocking began in earnest. They flailed along behind him, fell down laughing, and carried on, and I got angrier and angrier.

Now, Alice and I indulge in a catty little game where we make up stories about people - along the lines of What Not To Wear - but we keep it to ourselves. Before I met Alice, I was really uptight about not disrespecting people's idiosyncracies (lord knows I was picked on enough), but then I realized that it doesn't hurt anybody if it's private.

Let me make my feelings perfectly clear: publicly mocking people's nonconformisms is the most poisonous form of hipsterism. Hipsters are joyless accountants of cool, and they contribute nothing more to raising the level of culture than a turd does to the level of a punchbowl. Conformists don't allow anyone to have fun, conventionally--whatever that is--or otherwise.

So, ladies: fuck off.

T-Shirts I'd Like to Make

Places like cafepress will let you upload a jpeg and have it printed on a T-shirt. For example, Alice and I have a matched pair. Mine says "My girl is dirtier than your truck" and hers says "dirtier than your truck". (Monster trucks are a midwest thing.) It can be less than $20, which is a small price to pay to market your personal brand. (Sorry.)

Sooner or later I'll get around to photoshopping up these:

* Don't blame me, it was on fire when I got here
* No user-serviceable parts inside
* ORM-D
* To be removed only by consumer
* I Invented A Time Machine And All It Did Was Beam Me This Lousy T-Shirt From The Future
* Mostly Harmless
* test page
* It Wasn't Classy
* I live to serve (small text: french fries)
* Grand Theft Motto
* Human Beep Box
* Wine E. Coyote (with silhouette - I keep thinking of the Social Distortion skeleton)

And lastly, one for Alice:

* Take Once Daily to Reduce Swelling

Plans made based on experiences elsewhere...

I'm headed to Albuquerque tomorrow. I've heard the concentration of Ph.D.s there is higher than anywhere else in America. This creates certain problems. I can relate - I know having a Ph.D. sometimes causes problems with my concentration.

As a result, to paraphrase former governor Lew Wallace, plans made based on experiences elsewhere regularly fail in New Mexico. I love this expression. I think it's highly versatile and I'd like to try adapting it to some other circumstances.

- plans made based on experiences elsewhere regularly fail in times of crisis.

- plans made based on experiences elsewhere regularly fail in Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

- plans made based on experiences elsewhere regularly fail in embarrassing ways.

- plans made based on experiences elsewhere regularly fail in bed.

- plans made based on experiences elsewhere regularly fail invisibly.

Even A Stolen Amp Couldn't Make Me Punk

A car drove drove past my friend's house in the country, stopped, then continued on. My friend and his brother went for a walk and found a small Peavey Rage guitar amplifier sitting on the shoulder. He took it home. An hour later a different car drove slowly down the road, then drove back and forth a few more times, and finally left. Clearly, my friend had intercepted a drop-off for a fence.

I paid Mac $60 for that amplifier, so I didn't steal it personally, but I liked to think it gave me some punk cred. Instead, every time I played my cheap Washburn through it, my grandmother's silver tea service tarnished itself in misery.

I tried to sound like David Gilmour because I couldn't imagine myself sounding like Robert Fripp. I made noise for about five minutes every six months until I sold the guitar a decade later. Clearly it wasn't the creative outlet for me. Twenty years on, do I sound anything like Larry Niven?

Recent eMusic Downloads

My monthly eMusic downloads are always a roll of the dice. I use it to take risks. This month's tracks range from old favorites (Bach) to completely unfamiliar (Wye Oak).

Scorn - Gyral. Long ago, probably in my Trance phase, I heard something off this album and wrote down the name. It's a thudding, repetitive after-midnight thing with a lot of off-kilter highlights. Not club music, but more of a creepy soundtrack.

Steve Reich - Drumming. Recommended to me many times, I finally got it. Overlapping rapid polyrhythms dance circles around each other here. It reminds me of the nominal third Ambient album produced by Brian Eno, the Laraaji "Day of Radiance" piece. Though the influence was surely the other way around.

Bach Preludes and Fugues. In my late teens I inherited a boxed set of three vinyl LPs of Bach's preludes and fugues. I love the atmosphere they give. It's music for Halloween, a soundtrack to a bent man pounding away in the night, his white hair flying. Actually, I'm not as thrilled with this download as I was with the original.

Wye Oak - If Children. Every month I check out my "neighbor recommendations", where eMusic compares your downloads to others' and finds artists you might like. The drawback is that it only uses tracks you've purchased; there's no way to tell it what you already own. Maybe that serves to keep it in tune with your current tastes. Anyway, this was one of those. There's a lot of variety here, from quiet acoustic to noisy electric, from accessible to strange. It is pointedly not electronic. Some of the vocals remind me of Cat Power. I'm enjoying it.

The Mystery of Steel

This thrills my inner metallurgist. Over at Dinosaurs & Robots, they've blogged about a limited number of cars built with stainless steel bodies. They've been shiny for 70 years.

People don't think much about steel. Steel kicked off the industrial revolution in the late 1800s by allowing control over the balance between strength (resistance to permanent bending) and toughness (resistance to fracture). And that's plain carbon steel - stainless came later.

By the way, Mr. Jalopy over at D&R is a bit of a kindred spirit for me. He is, basically, ten.

Overheard at work, 2

...a tinny rendition of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'. Cut off and followed by a voice: "hello?"

It was somebody's ringtone for their ex.

Secret club

When I was in college, a girl I briefly dated said something I've never forgotten. We were having a Deep Conversation and she was trying to convince me of something. She said:

"You're one of us, you know. You don't just go through life, you live it."

I froze like a lynx. Suddenly I felt conspicuous and exposed. I knew exactly what she was referring to: the examined life, self-improvement. Not too many people I'd met then were capable of talking about that, and nobody had ever put it in those terms. My inner life was one of relentless analysis.

It was us and them. The poets and the dead inside. And then the lust rose in me as I held, in my mind, this invitation to join a secret club. I'd been in it for years without knowing any of the other members.

The rest is all a blur. She played with my mind and slept with all my friends. I aged and the borders between us and them blurred. Some people I met could talk a little bit about what they learned from their experiences, and some people were so busy navelgazing that they weren't open to new experiences.

How did I get here? Sometimes I feel like I'm in a Talking Heads song. Did I fall asleep? This is no place for cruise control.

Plans change

A coworker and I were talking about how our work plans get changed by orders from higher up. Then we have to run around and prepare or undo things. We do our best to anticipate and work efficiently, but clearly somewhere above us somebody knows things are going to change and isn't saying. I joked that I wanted to know at what level ignorance gives way to deceit.

I don't mean to disparage my company. It's not that bad, and actually this state of affairs feels pretty normal. At the time, I shrugged and thought to myself that I doubt there's any other way for a corporation to work - many plans have to be kept secret at some level.

But my next thought was, really? Is it impossible to have a transparent organization, where everybody can see plans coming from the same distance? It sounds like a fairy tale--one of the modern ones where nobody gets eaten--but what would that look like? I wonder. I'm not naive, I know strategic plans have to be kept out of the competition's hands. But is this something to work towards? And how?

Runner's high

I was talking with some fellow-exercisers recently and the subject of runner's high came up--those natural endorphins from exercise. Everybody else at the table said they got it. I never do. I don't think I ever have, even in high school when I'd bike 20 miles without sitting down. (Whatever my other faults, I had a pretty good ass back then.) One of the guys I was talking to was puzzled and said, so you just power through your workout?

I guess I do. I exercise at 5:30 AM. Now that I think about it, that's pretty much the low-energy point of my day. I like the sensation of muscle fatigue I get later in the day, but it doesn't feel good while I'm exercising. Another guy I work with loves to eat pizza for lunch because the carbs let him go home after work and lift harder.

What's up with that? Should I be doing something differently to get that high?

Overheard at work

Overheard at work:

"I figured out why I'm so busy. I end every conversation with 'let me know if you need help with that.' From now on, I'm changing my catchphrase to 'I hope that works out for you.'

Do you have snow tires?

I noticed the fluff of snow on the garbage can this morning as I brought the dogs back in from their walk. First I was surprised that it was below freezing. Then I realized that soon it'll be time to put the snow tires on the car.

When I bought this car, it had brand new all-season tires on it. When the snow started sticking to the ground, I noticed they didn't have much grip, but the point was driven home one morning next to a bus at a stoplight. The light turned green and I gave it as much gas as I could without the tires spinning ... and the bus accelerated past me.

I bought a spare set of rims--cheap steel ones from Tire Rack--and had my winter tires mounted on them. The difference is night and day. I do the installation myself: I have a hydraulic jack, a click-type torque wrench, and a 24V cordless impact wrench with lugnut sockets. Oh yeah, and a compressor. Keep your tires inflated to the right pressure, folks.

Taking control of my online identity

I just googled myself for the first time in a long time. The following results came up:

* A profile on Amazon.com for a guy who posts extremely long reviews of Dungeons & Dragons books from Madison, WI
* My resume, circa the year 2000, at a long-neglected Argonne National Lab page
* My LinkedIn page--no, wait, it's Jeff Hershberger of Madison, WI. Aaaaargh
* A Facebook page for some other Jeff Hershberger (I'm not on Facebook)
* Some other junk
* My profile on the Cleveland Weblogger Meetup Group
* A profile for a photographer on photo.net, whose home page is listed as shagfinger.com (which, thank god, is inactive)
* A Classmates.com profile for Jeff Hershberger of Stevens Point, WI

Back in the late '90s and early 2000s, I always came up first in google searches. Having your name in a .gov page can have that effect. Not any more. It's an unusual name, but I didn't even have it to myself in the scientific literature. There was a rather prolific biologist that always came up when people searched for my articles.

This is harder than it sounded. Think I'll email that guy in Madison.

UPDATE: I just claimed a custom LinkedIn public profile page. So, guy in Madison, if you follow the old link in my email dotsig, it's broken.

Meetup.com, the self-obviating site

Obviate, n., to render unnecessary. Meetup.com is a social networking site for arranging face-to-face meetings; if it works well enough, people don't need it anymore. They meet new people automatically.

http://www.meetup.com/members/7453708/

My use of meetup.com goes back to the first days of this blog. I started a blog because I wanted to write, and then I went looking for other bloggers nearby, you know, geographically. Oddly, Google and blogger.com were not much help, but when I found one particular blog--I could swear it was Brewed Fresh Daily--there was a link there to the Cleveland Weblogger Meetup Group. I joined. And it snowballed.

Alice and I moved to Cleveland in late 2006 knowing almost no one. Meeting people wasn't easy either. But two groups on meetup.com made a huge difference. The webloggers meetup is frankly an intellectual riot; I come home jazzed every time. It's become the core of one of my social networks. The wine meetup is well-hosted and enthusiastic, and introduced us to several people who have become friends. And we've become friends with their friends.

That's how it happens. A seed is planted, and it branches out. Roots get put down. Honestly I didn't feel like I had roots here at the end of 2007, but now I do.

Diction and the thesaurus

I am beginning to suspect that using a thesaurus is actually bad for my diction. It seems to prevent me from pulling the right word out of my brain.

As I was typing the previous post about LinkedIn, I was struggling for a word to replace "populations" in the first line. I was thinking of something that probably starts with an "m" and has three or so syllables. Not coming up with it, I went to thesaurus.com and searched for "population". From there I went to "community" and then to "association". The "m" word wasn't in any of the lists. I gave up.

But the interesting thing is that the longer I searched, the more I lost that it's-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue feeling. The feeling that I would recognize the "m" word when I saw it. Reading and processing all those synonyms watered down my own impression of what I wanted to convey. I was trying to connect with a meaning that had formed, but not revealed itself, in the back of my mind. The impostor ideas hid it like a zebra in a herd.

It's entirely possible that "demographic" was the word I was searching for. I no longer know.

EDIT

I think Panlexicon would serve me better. It's a tag-cloud-based analog to a thesaurus. If the underlying database was an actual thesaurus, so much the better. Though in this case it still hasn't given me the right answer ... and it doesn't recognize the word "demographic".

LinkedIn

There seem to be three major populations on LinkedIn:
1. High-powered executives
2. HR people, recruiters, and others in the employment industry
3. IT people and related technologists

For the past week or so I've been fleshing out my presence there, and I'm a little surprised at the big holes in the membership:
1. Scientists. I used to work at Argonne National Lab, which employs about 900 Ph.D.'s. And yet the majority of users who turn up under the search term "argonne" are in the IT department. Of the dozens of scientists whose email addresses I still have, only two were on LinkedIn. (And they haven't answered my requests!)
2. Sales. These people are consummate networkers ... why aren't they here?
3. Almost everybody else. Technical professionals, managers, the lot.

It's an odd sort of trimodal demographic.

Election 2008

The national bowel movement has begun. It's more uplifting than I can remember in a long time.

Give us your tired, your poor, your freshly breakfasted. Your veterans, your power-tied, your bullet-headed. Give us your suspicious, your guardedly optimistic, your wide-eyed. Your huddled masses yearning to believe.

No matter who wins, with every free and fair election in America, the terrorists lose.

Out in the open

Well, I took the plunge and de-anonymized this blog.

I blog for pretty simple reasons: it's a creative outlet and it keeps me sharp. Larry Niven wrote that if you can't explain your idea to someone without confusing them, then you haven't thought it through enough. (Does it surprise you that Niven was one of my favorite authors?) Posting here forces me to finish my thoughts, and leaves me with clearer memories down the road. It creates narratives.

Since I started this, anonymity was an unasked question. All else being equal, I wanted to preserve the option of secrecy. If the subject matter was deeply personal, I didn't want it thrown at me in another context.

But all else is not equal. My friends George and Jack, who happen to be published authors on the subject of community building, convinced me by example that there was more to gain by being myself here. The same me I would be in person, with all the accountability and reward that comes with it. I acknowledge that I have a public online presence, and I'm taking control of it.

So: hello, my name is Jeff Hershberger, and I blog. You can get to my LinkedIn page from my Blogger profile (click my name in the "contributors" section in the right hand column).

The power of names

I've been running a little experiment lately. I call people by their names instead of just saying "good morning" or "hey". The results have been interesting.

I used to say that I'm lousy with names. A lot of people say this. A while ago I decided to try to change that because I felt it was a failing. I remarked to some friends that when you call someone by name, a switch flips inside their head. For them, you move from a bin of people for whom they do not exist to a bin of people for whom they do exist. You acknowledge their specific existence. To never use someone's name is subtly, subliminally dehumanizing.

I was surprised at how many people's names I actually did know. I've made special effort for those people that always call me by name (that's you, Jauan). In one case, a slightly nervous fellow relaxed so much when I used his name that we ended up having a couple of extended conversations. I learned a lot.

Maybe it's my imagination, but I think people are looking at me differently. I prefer to believe they are.

Communication Breakdown

Communication breakdown:
60% Non-Verbal
33% Tone of Voice
7% Words

This kind of makes empirical rationalism and objectivity difficult, doesn't it?

There are all kinds of influences on our judgements - even a scientist evaluating the technical merits of a proposed project is influenced by the presenter's appearance. In something like politics, the effect is much more obvious. Actually, in political campaigns, I'd say that words count for almost nothing, unless fault can be found with them.

Objectivity takes constant effort. It requires attention to one's subconscious reactions to anything other than words and observed events. One must consciously push those reactions aside and keep the facts foremost in mind. Only then can nature be predicted and understood.

This can be taken too far, of course. I've trained my whole life to do this and I'm good at it, but at the cost of insensitivity to tone and nonverbal cues. Now I have to train myself to do both, to know which to use when, and to be able to choose between them.

It's all about being a better man.

Penzeys Spices

I've posted a few recipes here already, so I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you about Penzeys Spices, my favorite place to buy, well, spices. They started in Madison, Wisconsin, and expanded to many brick-and-mortar stores in the Midwest as well as a thriving online store. Penzey's stuff is always super fresh and top quality.

Eatingcleveland is currently running a giveaway of a gift box of 8 herbs and herb blends. Hence this post. I buy fresh herbs from Penzeys every year--the green stuff like basil that goes bad quickly. Spices (seeds) last longer but the leaves are better fresh.Yeah, we're Penzeys customers. (There's overflow in a second drawer and a box.)

Halloween 2008

AWESOME.

Alice and I spent the night with some rogues named Daniel, Antony, Janice (née Absentina), A-The-Attorney, Stacy, Jessica, and various blurry others.

Daniel the Priest:Alice the French Maid:And that, my friends, is my wife's personal brand. Rock on, Alice.

Daniel and Alice (Bless you my child, for you are sinning):Your humble narrator, Beaker the Muppet:It's hard to tell, but I'm actually wearing a lab coat. And drinking beer out of a beaker. They didn't do that on the Muppets so much.

A-The-Attorney and Alice:Rowr!

It was the best Halloween since college. Woo-hoo!

Impractical Fashion

I was putting something together in the lab today and dropped a screw. I never heard the "tick" of it hitting the floor, and after a few minutes of searching, I found it in the cuff of my pants:
I guess that should tell me not to assemble things while wearing dress pants.

I used to work with liquid nitrogen. This stuff is almost always boiling (though it's extremely cold) so it splashes all over the place. One day I was wearing loafers, the kind with the stitched lip around the edge of the toe, and I looked down to see a puddle of gently bubbling LN2 on the top of my shoe. Hmm.

Truisms, 3

Never trust someone who says "trust me".

Gifts are symbols. They represent you when you're not physically there.*

Jerking off for sex is like fighting for peace. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but sometimes it helps.

A rationalist is never satisfied to be correct accidentally.

*I stole this from one of those little books next to the cash register in a bookstore.

And lastly, my personal motto:
Teach a man a fact, and you can agree with him once. Teach him to think, and you can respect his conclusions forever.

The Octopus Project at The Grog Shop

Last night I saw The Octopus Project at the Grog Shop. Well, that's not true. I saw three opening acts and left at 11PM because I had to work today. I'm a feeb, but at least I heard some live music.

The first act wasn't even named on the program. It was a one-man band who got up on stage and humped his synthesizer. He had some interesting sounds sampled, but it had no groove. I suspect that's true of almost all electronic music--the rhythm section is always on the beat, never before or behind--but this was really dry.

I seem to recall that the second act made noise. Gradually escalating levels of noise, followed by silence and applause, then starting up again. I'm not going to dignify them with a link.

The third band was a German techno group, Jeans Team, on a brief American tour. They looked ridiculous but I have to say they rocked it out. Looks like they've been together for over 10 years.

I learned about Octopus Project from eMusic. I downloaded Hello, Avalanche and I like it quite a bit. It's instrumental and mostly electronic, though the drums sound real. High energy stuff, I recommend it.

As much as I hate having to lay out cash every month ($12 for 30 songs is my current plan), eMusic has been a pretty good way to take risks in discovering music. I found Octopus Project through the "neighbor recommendations" function, where your downloads are compared to others'. That's how I got Evil Nine's album You can be special too.

Anyway, I sense another tangent coming on. More later.

Truisms, 2

Common sense feels like genius after you've done without it for a long time.

Corollary (the "Dopeler effect"): The faster a dumb idea comes at you, the smarter it seems.

Truisms

When deciding what to keep and what to throw away, we would do well to remember this:

Expensive is not the same thing as valuable.

...

Also, here's another minor irony for today:

Analog clocks are anachronistic.

Reality TV Shows I'd Like To See

Get Lost
So You Think You Can Shoplift
American, Idle
Hell's Kuchen
The Crocodile Blunder
Query for the Straight Guy
COPSE
Extreme Takeover
Pimp My Hide
The Biggest Boozer
Kathy Griffin: My Life in the D-Cups
Candide Camera
This Is Your Life, Jackass
The Molé
Meal Or No Meal

Further inspiration here. Please continue in the comments....

First World Problems

Elsewhere in the world, people spend all their energy getting enough to eat. We spend money to get exercise at gyms. This is ironic. It is also what they call a first world problem - the kind of thing that only western modernity could produce.

Road rage, invasive species, substance abuse, this is the bed we've made and we're laying in it. I think it's particularly insidious because there's a frisson of shame that comes along with fighting a battle no caveman could understand. To die in a bar fight is poetry (if only bathroom wall poetry), but to eat oneself to death is pathetic.

Watch out for them. Keep your mind clear. That's all I'm saying.

Americano at One Bratenahl Place

Americano is a restaurant which is, oddly, behind a fence with a guardhouse. There are to my knowledge no nuclear weapons there, but the guard hangs around anyway. Tell them you're there for the restaurant and they'll wave you right through.

I've had the espresso-rubbed steak twice and it was excellent both times. Surprisingly, the best thing about it was that the meat was cooked perfectly, as well as at any steak house. Too often elsewhere I get a mediocre cut of beef with fancy sauce.

We hold the blogger meetups there. Last time, a couple people ordered a mushroom-based soup that was sublime. I'm not much of a soup guy, but it was impressive.

Chef V has a blog, and he seems to be posting more often now. I hear there are plans to corner him with a videocamera. Keep your eyes open.

Featurephilia: the dull throb of consumerism

Do you remember ever getting a new computer and exploring every menu option, port, and drive, just because you were excited to find out what it could do? Have you ever noticed that your phone's printed manual is heavier than your phone itself?

My phone plays music. It is not, however, an iPod. So when a friend gave me an extended mix to listen to while driving, I wanted a way to note which songs I liked. But my phone has no "favorites" or "stars" function. I felt frustrated by this, and then I immediately felt the absurdity of the situation. What vanishingly tiny fraction of my wellbeing is represented by the ability to grade the quality of my entertainment options while moving at 70mph?

I think Moore's Law has accustomed us to having every electronic feature we need, and about three times as many that we don't need. And by "need" I mean the geek definition, which is roughly "remembered and used at least once after the first week of ownership". When we actually want a feature that isn't there, we feel slightly shocked and indignant.

But a music player's favorites function is completely unnecessary. Food is necessary; shelter and safety are necessities. Music is just nice. Having so much music that you can't remember which songs you liked is really an embarrassment of riches. A first world problem.

At this point maybe I should launch into an anti-consumerist tirade, or postulate that this excess spoils us for simple pleasures. But I'm tired. I've been ground down to a nub of enamel, bone, and tattered flesh by forces I can't even name. Maybe it's all the attention I pay to unnecessary things.

Bad Idea Baby Names

Girls:
Hirsutia
Inebrielle
Yomomma
Hyena-Anne
Hornèe
Ashtraigh
Annageddon
Kmartia
Zeusette
Oblivia

Boys:
Nintendo
Dingo
Remy St.-John de la Fucktard
Dude
Lookitthat
Perp
Seed
Beelzebob

A joke I may have misremembered

A woman gave birth to twins but, due to complications, was unconscious after delivery. Unfortunately, state law required that all newborns be given a name, by a relative on the premises, within 24 hours of birth, or the hospital would provide names for them. Names like "23AFF7." The woman's husband was away on a business trip, so the only relative available was his not-very-bright brother. The woman called her anxious husband when she awoke. "Great news honey! We have a little girl and a little boy!" "Wonderful! What did my brother name the girl?" "Laniece." "That's not too bad. What about the boy?" "Dude."

Wino Jackpot

Yesterday I bought six cases of wine. That probably sounds insane, but there are several other insane facts that make this perfectly reasonable:
(a) I already had about 100 bottles in the house.
(b) We'll drink it.
(c) I got it for 40% off retail prices, from a restaurant that's going out of business.

I won't name the restaurant, as I'm sure they'd rather not meet every stubbly, panting bargain-hunter within fifty miles, but I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity. I even asked about the shelving.

How did I end up with 100 bottles of wine? Alice and I take wine vacations. Two years ago we had our anniversary in Sonoma. This year, Alice joined me at a conference in Oregon, and we stocked up on pinot noir. Next year's conference is near Alsace, France.

I love to pair food and wine. It's one of those things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By contrast, I spoke with some wine afficionados recently who said they only drink red wine. I can respect that preference, but what do they drink with tilapia? Ginger ale? I was a little sad when I realized that they probably only drink wine by itself, not with food. Well, to each his own.

Cooking to impress chicks: salsa and guacamole

Women love to see a guy in the kitchen, chopping away. Here's a recipe that will make you look seriously talented. It also tastes awesome and it's good for you. It takes some time, but you can use that time to showcase yourself, in the kitchen, chopping away while your lady sips margaritas and looks on lovingly.

Ingredients
Three medium very ripe tomatoes (soft)
Two avocados (not hard, should yield to firm pressure)
Cilantro (about a cup, finely chopped)
Green onions, at least one bunch. Thinly slice all the white parts and some of the green parts.
Two fresh jalapenos, finely diced, with or without seeds depending on how hot you want it
Olive oil
Salt
Lime juice, preferably fresh, but bottled is OK

Salsa
Core and then finely chop the tomatoes.
Mix tomatoes with half the cilantro, half the onions, half the jalapenos, and some salt and lime juice. Adjust proportions to taste. As the salsa sits, some of the liquid will come out of the tomatoes; stir it up occasionally.

Fresh Guacamole
Peel and seed the avocados. Mash them, making them not completely smooth; I chop them up first to make it easier and then use a fork to mash them. Taste them, then add olive oil and keep tasting until you like it. I often add one or two tablespoons. Mix in the rest of the cilantro, onions, and jalapenos, then add salt to taste.

Ironies

I once worked in a building full of lubrication scientists. All the door hinges squeaked.

I now work in a building full of heat transfer engineers. The lunch refrigerator freezes everything.

Our bank's stock is worth less than two dollars a share.

When I was in college, one of the course catalogs was printed with "MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERISTY" on the cover.

My heroes: Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote had a major influence on my decision to become an engineer.

He had a very DIY ethic. He kept getting those crates of hardware from Acme and building machines to help him eat the roadrunner. My favorite might be the catapult cartoon, where the intractable machine smashes him (instead of the roadrunner) in at least a half-dozen ways. I'm laughing just thinking about it, and I haven't seen it in decades.

It's a brilliant commentary on physics--Wile standing there scratching his head, and the rock just sliding off the giant flyswatter onto him, or the rock standing absolutely still while the whole wooden frame flips over and smacks him--and it probably bent my young mind into a deep skepticism against expecting things to behave in a certain way.

If I got a tattoo (I'm the last surviving GenXer without one), it would be Wile. Maybe the picture above, with the subtitle "ENGINEER".

What do you like in a car, and how can you get it for cheap?

The recent series of posts about the Mazda's suspension got me thinking. A lot of people are kind of allergic to customization. Consumerism teaches us that we define ourselves to the world by what we choose to buy: our car, clothes, personal electronics, etc. To customize anything is unnecessary and gauche in this view.

But there's a whole segment of society for whom personal style *is* customization. Here in Cleveland, probably half the cars I see are lowered or have huge rims or wide exhausts. In fact, a lot of them are 1970s-1980s Detroit iron, beautifully restored and then modified. Children understand this. If you gave a child a laptop, they would cover it with stickers. They put tassels on their bicycles.

I have slightly unusual tastes in cars. I like tight handling. Really tight. I think the best handling car I ever had was a 1993 Civic, which weighed 2300 pounds. I could get handling like that today if I bought a Subaru Impreza WRX, a Mazdaspeed3, or, moving upscale, a Porsche Boxster or a BMW M3. The problem with all those cars is that they have way more horsepower than I need or want. I know myself well enough to know that having a faster car would just make me more of an asshole. Also, these cars cost a lot to buy and to insure.

Certain lines of cars are sold with a wide range of prices and performance levels. I've already mentioned the Mazda3, Impreza, and BMW 3 series. The Mitsubishi Lancer qualifies, as does the Civic. There are plenty others. So I can pick a car for appearance, features, and price, and then customize the suspension so it feels the way I want it to. Putting WRX shocks, springs, and wheels on an Impreza would get me a terrific all-season car (I could even put winter tires on the smaller Impreza rims) for much less than an actual WRX.

Do you like straight-line power? Get an Impreza and put the WRX engine in it. Or a Civic ... there's been a huge community of Civic modders out there for years. Do you like comfort? Find a Cadillac DeVille with high miles and a small engine, have the shock absorbers replaced with new stock parts, and check the reviews at Tire Rack for the most comfortable tires that will fit it.

You can have what you want. You don't have to pay to have it delivered in a package full of stuff you don't care about. With time and research, you can make it suit your tastes.

Go cheap or personalize it?

The mechanic said he had trouble finding replacement shock absorbers for my Mazda, but he could get them from the dealer and do all four corners for about $850. This is not completely insane (my fear was $1500 for the front alone) even considering that the dealer is charging a huge markup for the parts.

I can replace all four shocks/struts (a strut is basically a shock absorber plus its housing, in cases where they come as a kit). The OEM parts are about $300. I could get better shocks for sportier handling. There are a couple of third-party offerings, for example from Koni, for about $600 and up. I could also get the parts they put into the Mazdaspeed3 for $500. The speed3 is a hot car with great handling, though I certainly don't need the horsepower.

Wait a minute ... they're going to take the suspension off the car ... and then put it all back on with some new parts ... why not change out more parts ... and get the car I really want ... a mazdaspeed3 with less power and cheaper insurance. Various third-party springs are $200 for the set....

Money is tight and I'm a practical guy. I've been described as the king of self-denial. But the things I've posted in this blog, about the new way I'm trying to run my life, they tell me that I should make it my own. Maybe if I do, I'll keep the car longer - the fastest way to waste money on cars is to get a different one every two years. I am strongly tempted.

Bikepsycho, strike 3

I was strapping on my helmet when the bike tire blew. It sounded like a gunshot.

Truly, I am cursed with respect to all aspects of transportation.

At least I wasn't, you know, on it at the time, going 20mph around a curve. I broke my collarbone that way one time. But this is the third innertube this bike has destroyed, each time forcing me to drive home from the trailhead without exercise. I'm not a superstitious man, but after the embarrassment of bringing Alice the first two times, I thought if I snuck up on the occasion instead of planning it, Fate would be caught by surprise and not thwart me.

That didn't work, but you'd forgive me for imagining that Mercury or some other classical deity has got it in for me. Do you know anyone who, in twenty years of driving:
* has been in four collisions in 36 months, none of which were his fault,
* has suffered seven tire blowouts while moving,
* has required three suspension repairs on two cars in 24 months,
* has suffered repeated warped brake rotors on one car and repeated siezed calipers on another, and
* Once had a car's exhaust system fall off while he was in it, having a conversation about trading it in?

If you do know such a person, please comment. I'd love to feel like someone's got it worse.

My Alarm Clock Loves Me

My alarm clock waits with bated breath for permission to sing to me. Its big hoarse voice rings with joy and it sinks back, spent, when I press "snooze".

My phone cheerfully informs me, be-doop, that I have unplugged it. The microwave reassures me by acknowledging every keystroke, and heralds my oatmeal with the pride of a job well done. I fail to retrieve the bowl, and after a long moment it plaintively asks, beep, if I am displeased with it. My phone calls out a cascading melody on the occasion of another successful hotsync.

I turn on all the alerts, asking that the phone keep me abreast of network conditions and text messages. Scooping the basement litterbox, the thinness of the ether there is communicated to my left leg by chimes and vibrations. With every incoming email, my laptop sends a resounding chord through the kitchen speakers. I smile, and the Toshiba trembles with excitement. Thank you for letting me speak, master!

I have a slow leak in one rear tire, and Red chimes an urgent appeal to me from his tire pressure management system. He is worried about me. About himself, too, but he would gladly be mashed into a steel and aluminum cube to protect me, if he had to. I peel the square of black electrical tape off the speedometer to reveal the yellow exclamation point, and spend a moment fine tuning every control and adjustment on the dashboard. Even the clock, which blinks in surprise at being awakened.

I plug my phone into its FM transmitter and the transmitter into the cigarette lighter, and I turn on the radio. Red's speakers gasp, and a symphony of electronic joy springs forth, gladdening circuits all the way from a flash memory card to eight voice coils quivering in union. We love you! Thank you for letting us serve you today!

Bad Car Karma, round 2

A few days ago the back end of my car began making a BONK noise when I went over potholes. Sigh. The mechanic says that the springs attach to the frame through a big block of rubber, which absorbs vibration; on my car, one of the rubber blocks is broken. So when the wheel goes down into a pothole, the spring momentarily falls away from the frame, then clangs back into place.

A couple months ago I spent $900 to have my front wheel bearings replaced.

A year and a half ago I spent $1500 to have the rear axles of my last car, which was AWD, replaced.

I am looking for a smoother commute. So far my choices are (1) eight miles each way at good speed, over roads that do $1000 worth of damage to my car every nine months. Or (2) twenty miles each way on a smooth highway. Or (3) ten miles each way on smooth surface streets, with a stoplight every block and police cameras that issue tickets automatically.

Did I neglect to mention that my wife cracked an alloy wheel recently?

And did I mention that the front end of my car bounces like a basketball after every bump, because the shock absorbers are worn out? I've been resolutely ignoring that.

Cleveland: rocks.

Pencil and paper vs. computers

BoingBoing doesn't exactly need a shout-out from me, but this post is timely. Could it be that challenging yourself by working without assistance makes you smarter and, yes, faster in the long run?

As a child my main toys were paper and pencils. Colored pencils, yes, but you get the idea. We were poor, and I didn't have many of the kinds of toys that played with themselves. Now I'm a scientist. Anecdote, perhaps, but still.

Even today I find that I get lost when I'm out driving to places where I've been a half-dozen times ... if I'd been using directions or Alice had been telling me which way to go. If I have to work out the route myself once or twice, on the fly, I remember it. And as an added bonus, I remember the landmarks better instead of just driving past them looking for the next scheduled turn.

Sometimes we become slaves to our crutches.

Intermittent Fasting for the soul


Intermittent Fasting...

Recently Art of Manliness posted a guest post describing, among other things, "intermittent fasting". As a paraphrase of the idea, I'll quote from Mike O'Donnell's post on AofM:
Integrate your own periods of feast and famine. What does that mean? Maybe you need to take some days off with lighter eating through out the day (less calories). Or you could also fast some days skipping breakfast or longer, but always eating at some point later in the day (this is called IF, or intermittent fasting). It’s also important to add in the feast part and have larger meals (like at dinner) when you have the famine part, as it’s not about starvation. Whatever you choose, your body best responds to a continually changing environment. Optimally you want your largest meals in the hours after your main resistance training workouts for the week, when your body is primed to maximally take in nutrients. Remember if you want to lose weight it still boils down to insulin control and calorie deficit, not how many meals you eat.
Mike is talking about the relationship between (1) how much and when you eat and (2) your weight and muscle capability. If you fast intermittently, you keep your metabolism flexible in terms of what it does with the calories you take in. If you vary your exercise similarly (not mentioned in the above quote), your muscles will be able to do a wider variety of things.

This makes some sense to me. I started working out for the first time this year, and I've gradually added exercises and watched my body get used to the old ones. At first my legs would feel worked-out any day I did a cardio routine on the bike trainer. Now they don't, even if my heartrate gets to the same level it used to. But if I change from the nearly constant resistance of the cardio program to the rapidly changing resistance of the "hills" program on the bike, it kicks my ass. At least for now.

...For the Soul

For a long time I've been pondering how to keep myself flexible on a personal level - my relationships, my interests and habits. After a long period without change, I realized there were problems, and I abandoned all my habits. I changed everything, frantically. I've been searching for a middle ground. I think that intermittently stressing myself may be the answer.

I think it works with people's brains. If you get out of school and then never take any kind of formal training or classwork, you'll lose your mental flexibility. It will become more difficult for you to solve problems, even problems that aren't far outside your established learning. If you do push yourself a little, even with something like a personal hobby that requires you to figure things out, you'll do better.

I think--I hope--that it works for relationships too. I've let myself be way too lazy. I've stuck with the same old friends, and even failed to do my part to keep up those friendships. I have to build new friendships to remind myself how it works, what it needs, why it's important, why it's fun. I've stuck with the same old habits and activities, and let myself stay in a comfort zone that didn't challenge me. Those old activities just became rituals; they lost their luster and I didn't even notice. I need new pastimes, new interests. Something as simple as taking a different route to work can force me to be more present, to be more aware of my surroundings. It's less safe, but that's the point.

Welcome to my future past. There is no plan. I want to live, and life is risk. Everything in moderation--including moderation.

Tortilla Soup

Tortilla soup is a hearty tomato-based vegetarian dish with a kick. The source of this recipe is lost in the mists of time. Maybe it fell out of a library book or I found it stuck to my shoe or something. Anyway, I didn't make it up, but a large part of being able to cook is being able to pick a gem out of the mountain of recipes we see. I've made only minor modifications.

Olive oil
6 6" corn tortillas, cut into 1/4" strips
8 scallions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
3 cups chicken broth
3 large ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 8oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 cup (or more) chopped cilantro
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
Corn kernels, 1-2 ears worth, cut off the ears
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
Finely shredded cheese (optional)

Sautee the garlic, jalapenos, and green onions until fragrant and soft, maybe a minute or two. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken stock, cilantro, cumin, salt, and corn. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, heat a couple tablespoons olive oil at a time in a frying pan and fry the tortilla strips. Be careful not to smoke the oil. When each batch is crispy, lay it on a couple layers of paper towel. You will use a fair amount of oil to get them crispy without burning them.

Once the soup is done simmering, add the lime juice and stir. Ladle into bowls and top with tortilla strips. If you like, you can also top the soup with finely shredded cheese, maybe cheddar. Not too much or you'll get "french onion soup syndrome" where you have to cut through the cheese layer to get to the soup.

Jalapenos freeze well, so you can have them "fresh" (not pickled or canned) all year long. Here's how to do it. Wash your jalapenos, cut off the stems, and halve them. Dip the halves in water and place them, cut side down and not touching, on a foil covered cookie sheet. Put them in the freezer. When done, they'll release easily from the foil; put them in baggies and keep them in the freezer.

Local food: Fresh Fork Market

I'd like to give a shout-out to Fresh Fork Market, a local business embodying a great idea. They're essentially distributors, acting as go-betweens to connect small local food growers with restaurants that are in search of the freshest ingredients.

There are several benefits to this arrangement. First, and most personal for me as a foodie, fresher vegetables taste better. One reason is that the varietals we're sold in supermarkets have been bred for durability in shipping, not for taste or nutrition. If you've ever tasted a tomato that you personally brushed the dirt off of, then you know that today's reddish softballs are literally a pale imitation of the real thing. Are you going to make tortilla soup with that?

I had a garden at my last house. I tried growing all kinds of stuff with varying degrees of success. The tomatoes went crazy:The brussels sprouts never got bigger than my thumbnail and the green beans didn't bear much. But the jalapeno plants groaned with fruit; the broccoli tasted like the very definition of broccoli. A neighbor became so smitten with our cucumbers that he took home bushels of them and ate salads all summer. But I digress.

Second, buying locally keeps your money in the northeast ohio economy. Fresh Fork will tell you that NEO spends a staggering amount of money on food that comes from other places. The region earns all it can by offering manufacturing, engineering, and other goods and services to other regions; let's keep expenses down by not mail-ordering food.

Third, it's a very effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. Getting your celery from Chile burns an awful lot of dinosaur juice. You can do your part against global warming, and make the region less dependent on transportation, by buying locally.

Fourth, you'll taste things you didn't know existed. I was introduced to Fresh Fork at an event at Molinari's (excellent restaurant, with wine only $5 over retail). They served us ground cherries, which taste exotic and unearthly and brilliant, and come in a neat little puffy wrapper. There are heritage pears, berries, and all kinds of stuff here that will shake up your taste buds.

Fifth, resist acricultural monocultures. This region might be a great place to grow corn, but covering Ohio with a single strain of it carries a multitude of dangers. The economy is vulnerable to damage if a disease hits that strain. It flogs the soil relentlessly by depleting it of the same nutrients again and again. Lots of other things grow well here, albeit not perfectly. Eat them!

My contact at Fresh Fork is Bob Gavlak. His email is bob at freshforkmarket dot com. Spread the word!

The professionalization of entertainment

Alice was talking to a coworker recently about dancing (specifically, why he refused to). He said when he's on the dance floor, he feels like everybody's looking at him, thinking he's not good enough and he should stop. I have to admit I feel much the same way when it comes to the dances where you're actually supposed to be coordinated with your partner, as opposed to just getting exercise with music. Alice asked her coworker if he'd be embarrassed to stand in front of everybody and try, and fail, to hit a baseball. He said no. Why?

Is it something about masculinity - that baseball is a manly pursuit and it's OK for any guy to try it, but dancing isn't?

Here's my theory. When someone sings in public, it's common to cringe a little and wish they'd stop. You're embarrassed for them because they don't sound as good as the artists we hear on the radio. Mediocre dancing arouses the same feelings: the cringe, the embarrassment. Do we compare ordinary couples' dancing to some kind of professional ideal?

Our mastery over nature - our technologies, the specialization of our skills - is a blessing and a curse. It fixes a lot of problems (disease, malnutrition) but robs us of some subtle pleasures. Once we know what a Snickers bar tastes like, eating a ripe apple is practically a chore. We won't cook because the salt, fat, and refined sugar we've succeeded in putting in processed food makes our own dining rooms dreary. We won't sing because we don't have pitch correction software in our throats.

Participatory culture is a popular blogging topic. Doing it yourself, whether it's painting portraits or painting walls, is the opposite of the sterile consumerist transaction. It makes you feel alive. You learn by doing - you learn nothing by buying.

I say this, but I'm still too self-conscious to dance salsa. It's easier said than done.

Metals trivia of the day: tungsten darts

Maybe you've thrown darts before. It's an old sport, and technology doesn't have much to offer it, unlike, say, bicycling or Formula One racing. Traditionally, darts have been made of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) and weigh 20 grams. However, more expensive darts are made mostly of tungsten. If darts can't weigh more than 20 grams in a tournament ... why make them out of a material that weighs more?The photo above shows a brass dart and a tungsten dart. The tungsten dart's barrel is smaller; its 20 grams weight takes up less space. Aha, you say: less aerodynamic drag. But no. If you're really accurate--better than I am--then you might be able to get two darts into a very small space ... like the bullseye.

And there's your metals trivia of the day.

Songs that haunt you

In the first 30 years of my life I had maybe two or three of these songs--they were the ones that I suddenly heard echoing in my head when I was sad, or under stress, and sometimes even when I was happy. Eventually I came up with a theory about it.

When I took my seat on the Hormone Rollercoaster in high school, I had just discovered Pink Floyd, and 'Wish You Were Here' became my invisible friend. Because of the timing of my first hearing the song, I had always associated it with my first real girlfriend in high school, and the way we broke up. I'd made an ass of myself hounding after her, and I thought the song was a simple analogy to unrequited love.

But ten years later the song was still with me, through many changes in my surroundings and circumstances, visiting me when I was working late yet again, floating past when I felt rejected. I didn't need to play the song--though I often chose to soon after it came to me. I came to realize that I didn't always think of that old girlfriend with the song. It was about something else.

Gradually, its presence in my life receded. The song lost some of its power over me, too. Another song started to haunt me--oddly, one I'd bought years before and listened to regularly. It's Paul Simon's 'The Cool, Cool River' from The Rhythm of the Saints. I find myself singing this passage:
I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours, I feel sure.
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edges of a thunderstorm
And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother's restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run
Who says: Hard times?
I'm used to them
The speeding planet burns
I'm used to that
My life's so common it disappears
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears
One day my curiosity overcame me, and instead of letting my brain do what came naturally, I actually looked up the lyrics in the CD booklet. When I saw these:
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edge of a thunderstorm
And these old hopes and fears
Still at my side
I recognized something:
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year
Running over the same old ground, what have we found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
How about that? Old fears. It wasn't any girlfriend, it was the whole package of psychological abuse most of us took in high school--the ridicule and backstabbing and exclusion. I guess I still hadn't recovered. But at least I understood a little better.

In recent years there have been others. The Talking Heads' "Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)" - a strange choice, but then, I didn't choose it; it chose me. Sun Kil Moon's "Duk Koo Kim", which I posted about recently. Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Life By The Drop", too.

Do you have any songs that come to you uninvited? I'm not asking for psychoanalysis. But I think it would be interesting to talk about what songs we find ourselves thinking about, and when.

Duk Koo Kim

Duk Koo Kim is a song by Sun Kil Moon (aka Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters). I'll put the lyrics at the end of this post. I wrote about this elsewhere some time ago, but since I'm on a music tangent, I'll repost it.

In the lyrics, the chronological order of events in the first three stanzas is reversed. First (in the third stanza), he describes having watched a movie where a boxer named Duk Koo Kim died; an angel observed but didn't save him. The narrator switches from past tense to present tense, and he says, you could die any day. In the second stanza he says that night he'd had a nightmare about dying in a war, but an angel saved him. Back in present tense again, he thinks, *I* could die any day--and I'd rather die than not improve my life. In the first stanza, he describes the final events: after waking up from the dream, he'd looked out the window and seen the storm that prevented him from leaving his lover. He thinks, I still don't want to leave yet.

Then the sound of the song changes, the distorted guitars go away and the feel becomes very open and airy. Some of the lyrics are happy and some sad, but it's all more abstract than the beginning.

For a while this song would play itself in my head even when other music was playing on the radio. It's incredibly powerful. Lyrically I think it's as interesting a construction as many short stories I've read, but I'll let you be the judge.


Duk Koo Kim
Looking out on my roof last night
woken up from a dream
I saw a typhoon coming in close
bringing the clouds down to the sea
Making the world look gray and alone
taking all light from my view
keeping everyone in
and keeping me here with you

Around you now, i can't sleep no more baby
Around you still, don't want to leave yet

Woken up from a dream last night
somewhere lost in war
I couldn't feel my feet or hands
I didn't feel right anymore
I knew there I'd die alone
with no one to reach to
But an angel came down
and brought me back to you

I'd rather leave this world forever baby
than let life go the way it's going

Watching an old fight film last night
Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim
The boy from Seoul was hanging in good
but the pounding took to him
And there in the square he lay alone
without face without crown
And the angel who looked upon
never came down

You never know what day could pick you baby
out of the air, out of nowhere

Come to me once more my love
Show me love I've never known
Sing to me once more my love
Words from your younger years
Sing to me once more my love
Songs that i love to hear

Birds gather 'round my window
Fly with everything i love about the day
Flowers, blue and gold and orange
Rise with everything i love about the day

Walk with me down these strange streets
How have we come to be here
So kind are all these people
How have we come to know them

The 25 Worst Possible Rock Band Names

The Abominable Showmen
Carnation Instant Breakdance
Garage a Trois
Need-To-Know Bassist
Male Pattern Badness
Gig Reflex
Refraining Order
Stormtroopers of Indifference
Dismissal Silo
Apocalypsync
Twisted Sysop
The Merchant of Menace
The Heavy Metal Parking Lot All-Stars
Mutually Assured Distraction
The Kings of Anarchy
Italica
Minivan Halen
Misled Zeppelin
The Preoccupied Pipers
Forsaking Profundities For Shaking Pro-Fun Ditties
Shake Your Moneylender
The Simpletones
Lipschtick
Brother, Can You Paradigm?
Donuts Is Why

It's been years and this list never fails to crack me up. I winnowed it down to 25 from, I kid you not, over 25,000. It was several years of posts on an internet forum full of hilarious, demented people. Ahh, I miss that.

Peacetime is the greatest enemy

The title of this post is a paradox I've understood since I was pretty young. I always related it to the challenges of being in a relationship, but it has some applciation to an individual's life as well.

It's pretty simple, really. When a couple is working together towards a goal or trying to fight a common battle, they're a team. They support each other, thank and congratulate each other. They are focused on externalities. But when there are no externalities, there is nothing to fight but each other. There are no goals but their own individual ones. They become competitors. There is nothing to blame for their unhappiness but each other. An external conflict masks an internal void.

For an individual, it's similar. A life of misfortune - starvation, armed conflict - seems to teach people to focus on the good. It suggests that the very contrast between beauty and wretchedness makes beauty all the more powerful. A person with every advantage has no such touchstones. They can only blame whatever discontent they feel, whether large or small, on themselves. In this case, though, I want to say that an external conflict fills an internal void, letting in both the good and the bad, making a home for the whole world inside a person.

To feel love is to feel pain, perhaps.

If you can handle peace, I think you can handle anything.

Drive-By Truckers, "World of Hurt", at KEXP

The song starts with guitars, bass, and drums, a walking rhythm with nondescript jangling laid over it. Then a man begins to slowly speak.
I was 27 years old when I figured out that blowing my brains out wasn't the answer
So I set out to find a way to make this mean old world work out for me
And my good friend Paul was 83 years old when he told me "To love is to feel pain"
I thought about that a lot back then and I think about that again and again
He's not singing, but the drums line up with the important syllables. It's like being talked to by a friend, a friend who figured something out and wants to save you the trouble.
No, it's a wonderful world, if you can put aside the sadness and hang on to every ounce of beauty upon you
Better take the time to know it there ain't no way around it
If you feel anything at all
This is a poetry reading set to music. This is a singer deciding that notes are beside the point.
So if what you've got is working for you or you think it might stand a reasonable chance
If what's broke seems fixable (ain't nothing lasts forever)
If you still look at each other and you smile before you remember how screwed up it's gotten or maybe you still dream of a time less rotten
Remember, it ain't too late to take a deep breath and throw yourself into it with everything you got
When I heard this, I cried. When I played it for my wife, she cried. I've heard the song twice now.
It's really great to be alive
It's really great to be alive
It's really great to be alive
It's really great to be alive
Emily Dickinson said, "if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." This song made me feel physically like my chest had been opened up. My heart struggled for freedom.

Kudos, guys.

Take me out to the ballgame


I'm not a huge sports fan. (Actually, I like watching the Red Wings when they're good. That's a safe way for a geek to lay claim to some man-cred, because he'll never be challenged on it. America has forgotten hockey exists.) I don't make time to watch sports on TV and I've never been tempted to go to games in person. In fact, I went to two Big Ten schools without ever going to one of their football games.

Fast forward 20 years. I've recently been to professional hockey (Chicago Blackhawks), basketball (Cleveland Cavaliers), and baseball games (Cleveland Indians). I'm beginning to see the appeal. At last night's Indians game, the weather was cool and clear, the stands were full enough to feel like you had company but not so full that you couldn't move, and people were relaxed and in a good mood. I could hear conversations all around me and I had an unobstructed view of pretty much everything. I felt, in a word, connected.

One of the walking vendors had a loud schtick that went like this: "Beer guy. Ice cold beer. Beer guy. Ice cold beer. Bottled water. Beer guy. Ice cold beer. Beer guy. Ice cold beer." He did this enough times for it to become familiar. Just when I was beginning to tune him out, he said: "Not the mail guy. Not the tax guy. Not the police guy. The beer guy." That got some laughs. Everybody for two sections around turned to look at the guy. The little boys behind us thought it was hysterical. For the rest of the game, they faked his craggy voice and once in a while I'd hear them croaking, "not the business guy..." It was funnier than most SNL skits.

The game was boring. The Twins got a total of maybe four hits, and didn't score until a fluke homer with the bases empty in their second-to-last out. The Indians were better but still not particularly good. On TV, baseball is as boring as Congress. But it wasn't about the game. In the ballpark, there are cheerleaders, prizes being tossed into the stands, cameras showing the fans up on the big screen ... it works. There are all kinds of people there, there's enough room and time to interact, and all kinds of distractions to talk about. It's public.