Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This is what August is supposed to feel like.

Enough of that pre-autumn, that cool breeze, that chill. If I'd wanted to be reminded of impending Winter I'd have spent the Springtime in Australia.

Lazy hazy days with a great excuse for jumping into the pond. Sitting still and sweating. Watching smoke rise vertically from a pipe. Dogs passed out in the sun like a couple of solar panels, soaking it up.

I got my run in before 10 AM this morning, 4.5 miles, facing down the rising sun on the power lines. Flushed and glowing like a furnace. I'm used to sweating through my shirt, but I think this is the first time I've ever sweat through my shorts. 

And gosh did it feel great. 

Man, I have got to move someplace warmer.

I've got about two months to figure out where, and how.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Classical Orchestra performing Aphix Twin

Gosh, there’s a lot of great musical performance available on YouTube, isn’t there?

If you’d told me there was a classical orchestra performing the hyper-kinetic electronic work of Aphix Twin, I would have said it couldn’t be done and probably shouldn’t.

But hot damn, if this isn’t the most fun I’ve ever had watching an orchestra.

There’s several great performances of this orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, posted to Youtube. I know, because I just lost a few pleasant hours to them.

If you feel compelled to explore more Aphix Twin, start with Drukqs. There’s some great fusion of electronic and traditional sounds in that album, and it’s the work I keep going back to as I try to explore his other stuff and discover it might just be a little too hardcore for these innocent ears.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Windows 8: Metro Masochism

You know, I rather wanted to like the Windows 8 interface. Maybe it's just because I can't resist tinkering with new gadgets. Or maybe it's just stubbornness. I've got no love for Microsoft, but after seeing how much hate was poured on this new OS I just felt compelled to give it a chance.

I needed a new laptop so I got one with a touchscreen. I'd read that for Windows 8 to be tolerable, you'd need one. And Lenovo had one that wasn't more expensive than the comparable non-touchscreen models.

After a couple of hours of playing with the "modern" or "metro" or whatever-they-call-it interface I had a pretty good idea what Microsoft was going for with it. This is a super-minimal interface, insisting on childlike simplicity. Controls are tucked off the edge of the screen as "charms", and the nature of these charms are unified between applications. Rather than creating a unified experience, though, it's just confusing. Tapping the "settings" charm for one app isn't going to bring up the same menu as another, and I'm still not clear on when it's supposed to bring up system-wide settings instead.

The layout does seem rather over-simplistic for a large laptop screen (as opposed to, say, the phones they're trying to unify with). But at the same time I'm one for reducing distractions whenever possible. So I kind-of liked the zen, one thing at a time, one-focus approach of it.

Plus, sweeping your hand across from the left side of the screen to switch between a text editor and a music player felt kind of cool. For a couple of days.

It's just that they've gone too minimal with this interface. They've out-Appled Apple--and as anyone who's looked for a delete key on an apple keyboard can attest, there's not much else you could cut from a Mac without losing functionality. I've spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to preform the simplest things in this interface. Like, how do I find out what folder an application is saving my files in? How do I change the display size of my text? And what fucking time is it?

(I've discovered the clock is just a swipe away, but c'mon. Would it have killed them to leave it in the corner of the screen?)

And then there's the quality of the apps. They're terrible. All of them.

"Evernote Touch's" simplified interface just about kills the feature of sorting and classifying your information--the main strength of the desktop application.  And it's buggy. Every time it syncs with the server it kicks the cursor down to the bottom of the page and seems to switch you from an editing to a read-only mode. And forget about preserving font settings between the Evernote Touch and Evernote for the desktop. It'll sync the notes, but switching between the versions wreaks havoc with font choices and even between-paragraph line spacing.

Video watching applications are loaded up with ads that clutter the screen and counter-intuitive controls. Granted I used the free apps, but why should I pay for something I can do on the desktop with VLC for free?

The Xbox music player (installed by default) worked fine at first, but when it realized I was missing a couple tracks off a particular album, it went online and streamed them. Then, because it was playing a song I didn't own, it blasted advertising at deafening volume through my headphones. I guess it's pretty cool that you can type in any song and hear it immediately for free, but the way it just went and did it without notifying me felt intrusive.

Finally, one of the core functions computers perform is opening, editing, and saving files. But here, every app's interface for doing this is different, counterintuitive, and frustrating. Again, the impulse to keep the interface childishly simple just doesn't work when you have to navigate a computer chock-full of files. There's no easy way for selecting groups of files on a touchscreen, either.

So I've found myself switching over to the standard desktop again and again, until I realized I hadn't worked in the Metro interface at all in weeks. Why would I, when standard, free open source desktop applications did every single job so easily.

The laptop works great, and by ignoring all that new stuff it's given me just what I wanted: a nimble PC that doesn't get bogged down by today's crap-happy internet. But as for Windows' grand experiment with this new interface, nothing "just works." It's extra maddening because the feel of the setup makes it seem like it should. I gave it another try today with a couple more apps from the store, a Youtube viewer-downloader and an e-book reader. They installed in seconds, but both required multiple launches after crashing. Then the downloader said it was saving a file in one format when it really used another. On the other hand, it did allow me to grab an mp3 of one of my favorite artists, eventually. Finding the file after saving it was the usual hassle, and involved leaving the app and performing a search from the desktop. The eBook reader somehow adhered to the minimalist design aesthetic while providing one of the ugliest interfaces around for navigating books. And while it displayed the text in a nice, distraction free layout, it anti-aliased it in weird fuzzy waves across the screen that had me checking my glasses.

Seriously, I haven't used consumer software this rough since the early 90s. It's like the developers just don't care.

So I'm wondering, is anyone else out there still giving the Metro interface a chance? And is anyone still developing for it? Microsoft still claims this is their future, and they’re not backing down—their latest update keeps the start menu off the desktop so you’re forced to pop back to Metro for lots of functions. But shopping through the app store feels like picking through a bargain bin of beat up old misfit toys. How are they planning on selling a system that nobody’s writing quality applications for?

What’s going on here?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Musical Find of the Week: Paul Hindemith

There is so much good music out there that I don’t even know about yet. The last century was a particularly rich one for music, with a lot of experimentation going on. Markets don’t have the room for this sort of innovation, anymore.

This music, it feels like being a child again, and looking into unfamiliar rooms. Going through a long-forgotten attic. Encountering ancient family artefacts for the first time. Turning them over, rubbing off the dust, puzzling at the function. What is this old tool? Who did this belong to? A grandfather, great-aunt, distant family friend? What images does this antique camera contain? To what would you attach these brittle rubber hoses? It might have been a horror or a salve. It might be trying to forget its stories.

It’s been a long while since I’ve had the patience to just listen to music for it's own sake. Hindemith has broken me out of that funk. There are new harmonies that are unsettling as they are brilliant. Meditative spaces.

Use good headphones.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Loading Zone

I like the colors, contrasts, and angles of this loading zone, like an interrupted lesson in perspective… 


And the retro-technical implications of this water-meter complex, begrudgingly counting flow.


Grey clapboard and concrete cannot hold back such a brilliant sky.


Nor can the symphony of these angles delay the onslaught of light and time.


Sometimes all we can do is wait.


Even if the spaces were not built for us and do not want to hold us.


We’ll pass through nonetheless, in submission and defiance.


[All pictures taken with a $15 LG900 phone. It was all I had in my pocket.]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I Don’t Understand People: Exercise Edition

Had a lovely run today. A bit over four miles, down a back-road, past some cranberry bogs, a long stretch of power lines that wound past kettle ponds, a wooded path through some tall grass, and then back along an historic highway graciously edged by a sidewalk, with trees arching overhead and antique houses alongside. It was cloudy and the air was dry—perfect running weather. I was concerned that I might have picked up some ticks in the run through the woods, so I finished it off by jumping in a lake and swimming across and back.

So much lovely scenery and fresh air. I ended up feeling energized, relaxed, and a little euphoric.

Also, a little bit confused. See, where today’s trail came out of the woods it led past the local YMCA. This is a rather dismal blocky structure surrounded by weedy dirt fields and a massive parking lot. It’s the low point of the run, architecturally speaking. I haven’t been past it in years, and I think the only time I’ve been inside was for a classmates pool-party birthday in Middle School.

And behold: up there on the second floor, in front of some plate-glass windows overlooking this sprawling parking lot, there was a line of treadmills occupied by folks pounding over empty miles and standing in one place.

They were indoors, staring at a parking lot, on a day like today. Even stranger, the corner of that parking lot contained the entrance to the trail I’d just emerged from, and all the wonderful stuff I’d just run past. They could have parked their cars in the same place, run down that trail, and they could have done it for free.

But the grass on that trail was so high it was obvious nobody ever did this.

Now, I like the fitness aspect of running. Since I returned to it a little over a year ago I’ve shed some pounds, toned my legs, and ended up in what’s probably the best shape of my life.

But fitness is not why I run. I run for the scenery, the challenge of different terrain and weather, and the satisfaction of going a little farther every time. I run because it’s both a great mood enhancer and my frivolous indulgence. I run because it’s a comfortable way to be alone and an opportunity to listen to new music with an open mind. I run because there’s nothing like the freedom of knowing you can travel seven miles in an hour, uphill or down or both, with nothing more than a decent pair of shoes.

I guess I’m mostly running these days because I can’t help myself.

But running on a treadmill? Paying money to join a gym? Burning gas and driving to a facility for the pleasure of staring out a window?

If that’s what running was, I’d never buy another pair of sneakers.

Not that I’m complaining. It just means more empty trails for me.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hard Drive Replacement in Macbook Pro

A friend of mine had a secondhand 2007 MacBook pro that the hard drive crapped out on. She bought a new hard drive from Best Buy for $40 and took it to one of those "Mac Express" places that litter the malls to ask how much it would cost to have it installed. They told her, "We only use our own hardware. The drive we'd put in would be $120 and it would cost around $150 for labor." The saleslady then added, in an attempt at mock solidarity, "I'm trying to think of someone around here who might be able to do that for you for cheaper, but I just can't come up with anything."

This is disingenuous on too many levels to count. I know she makes her living by selling services--why be timid about it?

Anyway, I love pulling apart computer hardware and sometimes I’m even able to put it back together. And I've replaced a couple of hard drives in my time. So I took her computer home with the promise that I'd have a look at it, and wouldn't break anything I wasn't confident I couldn't fix.

I'd never done surgery on a Mac before. I found a great guide to the hard-drive replacement procedure on line. It mentioned I'd need a Torx T6 screwdriver. What the hell is that? And what's wrong with a Phillips?

Strangely enough, the local hardware store had a set of tiny precision screwdrivers for sale right on their impulse display which included a selection of Torx bits. Armed with this, I set to the task of taking out screws. And more screws. Most were Phillips. Some Were Torx. Some flat, some pointy.

Good lord, Apple uses a lot of screws.

Organization was key.

After they’d used so many screws, you wouldn't think they'd have to use so much glue. But they glue down all kinds of stuff in there—especially the paper-thin ribbon cables which needed such delicate removal.

This is where I got nervous about keeping my promise not to break anything. These cables are cheap and shabby, and it looks like you could tear them with a fingernail. I used a guitar pick and lots of patience to pry them up and work the adhesive off of the back, just hoping that I wasn't straining something at the molecular level that would disconnect this precious chain of copper atoms.

Here's the monster open, with the keyboard and the hard drive removed. When you get a Mac apart you can really get a feel for how cheap and shabby their build quality is.

You can see the pesky ribbon cable on the left.

Putting the new drive in and doing the reassembly was fairly easy after this. Forcing the keyboard panel back onto the base was tricky because the clips didn’t want to re-engage. Again, the cheap plastic around the DVD drive wanted to collapse when I pushed on it, so I had to hold the slot open with a couple of credit cards while pressing down.

Putting the operating system back on there was the next challenge. I had a scare when I turned the computer back on and it didn't detect her Snow Leopard installation disk. It turns out you have to hold the "option key" to boot to the DVD drive. Then, the installation wizard didn't see the new hard drive. Had I severed the cable with my guitar pick? No, it turns out you have to use the disk utility on the install disk before it will see a new drive.You'd think Apple could offer to do this for you, rather than sending you to hunt through menus. Thank goodness for the OS install walkthrough I found here.

I feel like Apple was fighting me every step of the way, here. Which of course they were. Why would they want my friend to fix this old computer when she might be persuaded to just buy a new one?

But once the install got going it was simply a matter of clicking a few menus and walking away for an hour. The computer actually ran great after that. It didn’t in any way feel like it was six years old. It booted in 20 seconds, connected to wifi, did its thing, and felt just as fast as any other PC I've tinkered around with lately.

Good for another 3000 miles or another six years, I hope.

First Mow of the Season and Other Improvements

 We've had gorgeous weather around here, finally. I got a bit of a sunburn on my arms. The other day we cleared out a couple of poorly looking shrubs in the front yard. Fired up the lawnmower for the first time this season. It took a while to rouse it from its slumber but it got the job done.

While I was working on that, The Wife was putting up fence panels to re-define the yard and open up some of our limited space. Then she made this garden pond/fountain/seating spot.

And because it wouldn't be this blog without at least one photo of a woodpile...

In all we've got two cords stacked up around the place, more than half of which is timber that fell on our quarter acre or at my mother's place. I'm working out a deal with a co-worker for some coal she wants removed from her property. So it looks like our heating needs for next winter will be all attended to.

Hey, it's nice to know we can plan ahead for some things around here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Valentina Lisitsa plays Rachmaninoff Sonata No 1

The fluidity, the strength, the precision of those hands.

It's as if a tornado passed through a field and erected a cathedral.

And to think that this morning I never even heard of this pianist. There are days that I absolutely love the Internet.

Typewriter Sighting at the Center of the Tardis

Anyone else catch the treasure in the latest episode of Doctor Who: Journey to the Center of the Tardis?

And no, I'm not talking about the pretty lady.

It looks like a Remington to me, quite similar to one I've got hanging around in my collection. But I could be mistaken. It's only on camera for a second and a half.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Back to Linux for Good?

I probably spend more time tinkering with the operating systems on my old computers than I spend tinkering with my typewriters (and lord forgive me but there isn't a heck of a lot of time left for actually writing anything after all this tinkering).

For the last seven or eight years I've been going back and forth between Windows and Linux. Sometimes I use dual-boot configurations. More often I just wipe one OS and switch to the other whenever I got particularly frustrated by some failing.

For a while Windows will draw me in with its officially sanctioned, up-to-date video drivers and the vast collections of software (including games) available for purchase. But then some malware or virus brings the system to a halt, or the anti-virus software starts slowing it down. One time I got an obnoxious notification across my monitors that my copy of Windows was not Genuine. Turns out this happened to millions of customers whether their copies were genuine or not.

So, with that bad taste in my mouth I'll download some recent Linux ISO and burn it to a disc. I've given all the Ubuntu flavors a spin (Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu) plus Linux Mint, Bodhi Linux, and of course the adorable Puppy (for my ancient Sony Viao, circa 2000, maxed out with 256 MB of RAM). I'll spend a few months marvel at the array of free software available, and the ease with which I can install software and configure my system. There's a software center built right in, which is kind of like an app-store, except that everything is free. But if you know the name of the software packages you're looking for, you only have to open a terminal and type sudo apt-get install xyz... and you'll have a new office suite, photo editing program, 3D rendering package, or game in minutes.

But then a friend will want me to play some Windows only networked game with them. Or I'll miss the facility of organizing my thoughts with the Windows-only Evernote, or I'll have a day where tinkering on the command line to try to get a printer working just isn't what I'm in the mood for, and it'll be be back to Windows for six months or so.

(This is why I store all my documents and media on a separate hard drive from my operating system. It makes wiping the OS and switching the system to a new one ever so much easier. Plus, if I ever do get a new PC, I can just pop the spare drive into an empty bay, rather than copying files over a chunk at a time.)

One fun side-effect of all this switching is that it feels like I get a new computer every six months, when in truth I haven't bought one in four years (and that one was used). Anyway, every time I make the switch back to Linux, I find myself spending more time there. I opted for Linux Mint on the latest install,  because I'd used it before with good results, and because its developers don't try to re-invent the wheel by getting fancy with the desktop. While Windows 8 has gone all sketchy with their "Metro" interface, forgetting that the whole point of Windows was to have, you know, multiple windows open on your desktop, and Ubuntu has decided to confuse their desktop with some equally confusing, tablet-driven sidebar business, Mint seems content to provide your classic panel-on-the-bottom-with-a-menu-when-you-need-it which has been serving us perfectly well since 1995.

There weren't any obvious changes since the last time I'd been in Linux Mint, but as soon as I started installing and configuring stuff I was struck by how much easier this was now than in the past. Wireless networking, sound, printing, and the first monitor came right up from the get-go. There was a little hiccough getting my second monitor to work, but before I could really get frustrated about it, a notification popped up suggesting I update my proprietary video drivers. A quick reboot later and I had both screens glowing politely at me.

And the selection of applications is getting better. In the past, I'd used an interface program called WINE to run the two Windows programs I couldn't live without: Scrivener, for writing fiction, and the aforementioned Evernote. It worked, but loading up all those Windows DLLs always put a strain on the system, and for some reason Windows programs inside Linux just looked bloody awful, with jagged blocky fonts and impossible to manage text-sizes. Given that these were my two go-to programs for getting things done, it was just frustrating that I had to spend so much time working with software that just looked so terrible, because their developers couldn't be bothered to port a native Linux version of their code.

So I was thrilled to discover that Scrivener had a Linux version available now. There was a warning attached that it was in beta, but I've used it for a couple of weeks now without any trouble (while making regular backups) and it doesn't seem to be lacking any of the features that I'm used to. There really is nothing like it for organizing and planning fiction, or even longer nonfiction projects. More in praise of Scrivener in some future post, no doubt, but suffice it to say that my eyes have been rejoicing to have an integrated and well-rendered version of my favorite software to use within Linux.

Evernote still seems to be holding out on a Native Linux version, but some volunteers have provided a third party client, called Nixnote. It doesn't have the full functionality of Evernote running in Windows. Notably, the handy screen capture utility is missing. But it syncs to the same Evernote account, and it imported all of my notes without a hitch. Again, it looks smooth and elegant--no more of those jagged microscopic fonts. And the interface matches the rest of the Operating System.

WINE is a handy way of getting things done with Windows software in Linux when you have to. It's just not polite about it, and it seems better to do without it whenever possible.

Surprisingly, gaming on Linux seems to be coming along, too. I'm guilty of indulging in the occasional Minecraft marathon (it's a surprisingly social experience when you play a networked game) but performance in Linux was always abysmal compared to the same game running in Windows. Not this time. It must be the update to the video drivers that is making 3D rendering much better all of a sudden.

Pressure for this change might be coming from Valve software and their Steam content delivery platform--which recently became available on Linux for the first time. My amazement at this development was a little diminished by the limited number of titles that were available through the platform (you can buy Half Life 1 for Linux now, but not Half Life 2 or Portal), but still, it's a huge step in the right direction. It felt surreal, and strangely wonderful, to install the Steam platform with a sudo apt-get install steam command.

And better yet, my seven year old computer with its budget video card can actually play a bunch of the games.

So this time, I think I may be hanging around in Linux for good. I know I've said that before, but... Well, most of the reasons that sent me scampering back to Windows in the past just don't exist any more. And there's enough new and exciting stuff happening in Linux now to make up for the few frustrations that remain with running what used to feel like a hobbyist OS.

Now the big question is whether the next laptop I buy will be able to run Linux at all. It looks like Microsoft might be set on locking up the machines that carry their latest travesty of an OS. And I've even read a report of a Linux install bricking (ruining) new Samsung laptops. I've been saving nickels for a new laptop for about a year, but now that I'm close to a purchase it looks like I may be waiting a good deal longer--and doing a lot more research.

Because what's the point of buying a new machine if it doesn't run the software that I love?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Running the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach

We sure are blessed with having some lovely places to go running around here.

One place I haven't taken nearly enough advantage of is the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach. The north side is a fairly typical six mile stretch of stony Cape Cod sand. Folks are allowed to take their all-wheel drive vehicles out there, provided there are no Piping Plovers nesting along the shore. Because the beach only has one access point, a plover nest at the first mile shuts down the last five miles of beach to vehicles. This has caused a great deal of tension in the community, as environmentalists and beach use advocates go head to head. We've even had nests of Plover eggs smashed so that the rangers would have no excuse for keeping big stretches of it closed.

Personally, I'm more fascinated by the southern side of the barrier beach, which has a winding trail between the salt marsh and the beach. There's seven miles of  constantly changing nature back there worthy of a zen garden. I did a lot of work out there with a biology teacher during high school. In addition to the plovers, they've also studied deer, coyotes, crows, diamondback terrapins, and honeybees all along this route.

There's also a scattering of cottages, most of which went up during the Great Depression and which pass to the builders' descendants through some kind of eminent domain arrangement. The way I understand it, the owners are very limited in the repairs the are allowed to make, and new construction is forbidden. No one is allowed to drive on these trails except for cottage owners and rangers. Although the biologists I worked with did have a pass to drive here--as well as a publicly held research station that's used for overnights with students. I spent a couple of nights there myself, in-between days tracking coyote trails and homing into the signals broadcast by radio-collared deer.

It's been years since I've been all the way out to the end, and then it was only once or twice. The stretches of loose sand alternating with packed dirt and gravel make for a vigorous workout whether one walks or runs. But it was a crystal clear day today, with a cool north wind, and recent rainfall has left the sand a little more firmly packed than it would be otherwise, so it seemed like a good day to take my new runner's legs out for a prolonged drive.

So many vistas, treasures, and surprises.

Like around mile five, I came across...hello what's this?

Let's go in for a closer look. Could it be...

Yep. It is. Just about the nicest writer's retreat someone could ask for. I'm tempted to strap the Olivetti Lettera to my back and spend a day out here tapping away on the porch. Or maybe my Remington student model, which has no bell and therefore would make for quieter jogging. Maybe if I left a politely worded note I could work out a rental arrangement. Me and the spirit of EB White, in a shed.

Not today, though. Today I had my heart set on jogging all the way to the end of the beach. (Plus, no typewriter.) Around mile six I passed a hiker going the other way. He took in my plodding gait and the half-empty water bottle in my hand and said, "I'm exhausted just looking at you." Strangely enough, I was still feeling pretty damn vigorous at the time.

The thing about getting to the end is, you're only halfway there. All that sand is a lot harder to run through on the way back.

Round trip was 14.3 miles according to my magic GPS phone. This is a record for me, more than a half-marathon, and in sand. And I have some pretty gnarly blisters on my toes to show for it.

The body is tired but the soul is restored.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Watching the Shore at Evening

I haven't written a sonnet in years, but lately I've been feeling the urge to rhyme and meter. Form gives meaning to words they wouldn't take otherwise, the currents of language bringing you to destinations you never set out to reach.

Plus, I had an hour to kill with no connectivity, and the restraints of a smart-phone actually lend themselves pretty perfectly to writing short bursts of poetry.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Me and My Chainsaw

Because this blog is now exclusively about cutting and gathering wood, apparently.

The other day I worked the split shift and thought I'd save some gas by hanging around at mom's place (closer to work) through the middle of the day. I planned to cut and split some swamp maple that fell during Hurricane Sandy. My sister is minding the place while the folks are gallivanting down in Florida for the winter. I brought my chainsaw and a change of clothes but forgot to take working shoes. Carrying the saw to the car in the morning, I got a drop of dirty bar oil on my new Bucks and so will likely be looking at a black circle on my toe for the next 18 months, unless this pair wears out quicker than the last one.

I found a pair of The Captain's boots in the basement, only four sizes too big, and used those to tromp around the yard. The physical discomfort was nothing compared to the irony of being literally unable to fill my stepfather's shoes.

Looking around the place I found the two huge pines that had fallen from our yard across the neighbor's path during blizzard Irene. I know the folks don't get along with those neighbors too well; they're unhappy with the barking dogs and the two 30' + boats parked in the yard, and they complained when The Captain built a shed 15' from their property line. This led him to hoist the shed up on some logs and roll it across to the other side of the house, pulling it behind his truck. He's pretty spry for a man in his 70s, and he'll be helping us with our roof in a few weeks. It didn't seem right to leave him with this extra task when he got home if I didn't have to.

My sister was nervous about the fact that the neighbors had made some early attempts to trim off some branches so they could duck under the tree and make it to the pond. She was convinced they'd come pounding on the door, doing their best to make her uncomfortable. "But don't go cutting it up," she said. "You'll wear yourself out."

Sounded like a challenge to me.

After my sister left for work, the oil-delivery man came. He watched me studying the tree. "I'm trying to decide if these are safe enough for us to tackle or if they need a professional," I told him.

"You can do that," he said. "It's pine, so it'll cut easy." But his eyebrows went up when he saw me bringing round an electric chainsaw. Electric powered chainsaws are for lightweights, apparently. "Oh I get it. It's for conservation," he said, referring to the fact that agents of the conservation commission tend to come running when they hear a gas-powered chainsaw running anywhere close to wetlands.

There's a real cloak-and-dagger aspect to yard maintenance around here.

I brought The Captain's big stepladder over from beneath his boat, trying to decide if I could cut it from above without it knocking me over. But as I thought about it, it started to feel like too much extra work and danger. So I ended up starting at the base. The bigger trunk was over 20" across, quite a bit longer than my saw blade, so I went at it from one side and then the other, stopping when I heard the weight start to pull it apart. I was lucky the stump didn't spring up and hit me in the face. Eventually the trunk fell and landed across the stone-wall, at a height I could cut at from the ground.

But it's dangerous cutting at a tree from the base, with all that weight bearing down on you from above. Better to chop up a tree, even a fallen one, from the top down. But there was a lot to that top, extending far into the neighbor's swamp, and I knew I wouldn't have the time or the energy to take care of all of it. I just wanted to clear the path and do my part for neighborly relations. So I made the best judgments I could, at first alarmed when I felt the bar of the saw start to bind in the wood, then approaching more carefully when I realized what was happening, and the forces of all that weight bearing down.

The whole process had the element of danger to it, which made it all the more satisfying--like a Sudoku puzzle that could crush you if you put in the wrong number. I love tasks that are safe when you think about them, but deadly if you get stupid, like sailing and flying. If I ever get more than a little money set aside I'll be doing both of those again.

At one point the tree collapsed into my cut. Thousands of pounds pinched together, bringing the saw to an instant stop. There was no way I was going to get it out. So I fetched mom's smaller saw from the garage, an even lighter-weight model, really just meant for limbs and brush. I tried to take care of some of the branches that were holding up the top of the tree. The middle was lying across another tree-stump, and I hoped that if I could make the top of the tree fall away by taking out its support, the halves would separate apart and free my saw. But then the weight of one of those branches collapsed onto that saw, and I was left scratching my head and looking at two trapped chainsaws. Rehearsing my phone-call. "Yeah, mom, I was trying to do you a favor but..."

Then I found a hatchet in the garage and went to work with that.

Hacking at a tree with a small axe is hard work, but at least an axe isn't likely to get trapped in the wood the way a saw-blade will. Eventually I was able to knock the branch off of the smaller saw, and then there was a good hour of further consideration and cutting before I got the main trunk of the tree to fall and free mine. It took another hour after that before I could get it into big pieces that would roll free of the stone-wall and that stump. Cutting big vee-shaped wedges from the top and bottom seemed to help. I did the bottom cuts first, so that I didn't have to be underneath the tree when it finally let go. And now that I understood the forces I was dealing with, I was always quick to back out of any cut as soon as I felt the pressure of the tree threatening to trap the saw again.

After that it was a matter of cutting the trunks into sections light enough to lug over the stone wall to our own yard. "Light enough" is, of course, a matter of perspective. I got most of them out of there, leaving just two segments that were too thick to cut through, at least with the energy I had left at the time.

A sensible man would have taken a nap after that, but I was mentally fired up and so I brought my equipment around the house to the wood-pile of maple I had actually planned on tackling when I woke up that day, and set to work cutting it up into lengths suitable for our tiny wood-stove. I wheeled the electric wood-splitter out of the shed. Mom's had that Craftsman splitter through 30 years and three partners, and fortunately The Captain has done a nice job of keeping it well greased up.

Good thing, too. There's no way I'd have the arm-strength left to swing a maul at that point.

It's just as much fun to use that splitter now as it was when I was a kid. You put logs on one end against a stationary wedge. Throw a lever and an iron pusher bar forces the log against the wedge until it splits. When it's half-way across you can put a log against the wedge on the other end, and when the bar's all the way across you throw the lever in the other direction. What a satisfying gadget! I worked straight through my nap-time, and got through three quarters of the pile before it was time to wash up and head back to work.

It had been a high-drama day at the office, apparently. Mis-communications trickling down through all levels, fowled projects, grumpy customers and low morale. Fortunately I was too tired to give a crap. I felt like the guy in Fight Club, who goes into work all beat up and discovers that the volume of the usual bullsh*t around him has dropped to near inaudibility.

It's a perfect state to let people vent it and forget it.

Maybe someday I can buy a little wood-lot somewhere, and treat it as my personal fight club. Or I'll get a truck and advertise a small-scale wood-clearing service. It's good therapy.

Clearing and gathering firewood is like going to a gym that pays you.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Balmorhea: Traditional Instruments making Ambient Music

Balmorhea is another gem of a band I stumbled upon thanks to that massive torrent of music made available by the South by Southwest folks. I like playing minimalist/ambient music when I’m working on other things. Unique harmonies can set a mood and simple melodies can enhance it; without too much to distract and especially without words, music can be one of the best mind-altering cognitive enhancers there is.

Often I fill this need with electronic music, provided the beat isn’t too heavy and the “instrumentation” too “experimental”. Orchestral stuff can work too—some of Phillip Glass’s less obtrusive stuff is brilliant. And of course keyboards. Glenn Gould playing Bach is about the most exquisite background music there is. But until now I’ve never found this same satisfaction from plucked and bowed strings. But this combination of sparely plucked banjos over haunting strings is brilliant.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Agent Ribbons Reporting Typewriter Sighting

Many thanks to Eclectic Ephemera for the Antique Pop post with the links to some new renditions of vintage music. As a result, The Wife and I have found some new things to enjoy. (And that’s what this whole internet-community-typosphere-vintage-gabfest is all about, isn’t it?)

Here’s another music video, with a typewriter sighting! Agent Ribbons has a great 1960s vintage glam-rock feel to it, and I love the style, energy, and sheer joy of these girls. Plus, did I mention there are typewriters in it (briefly, at 3:10).

I wonder what town this is?

I stumbled across Agent Ribbons in the massive torrent of music made available by the South by Southwest folks, and the sound struck me as intriguing enough to follow it up with a visit to Youtube.

There’s over 45 GB of freely available music behind that link, by the way. Turns out lots of artists want you to share their material via BitTorrent. I can’t say I like every one of the songs I’ve heard, but with 9000 songs to choose from I’m bound to find a decent measure of bliss.

Musicians wanting to be heard, who would have thought of that? Turns out file-sharing isn’t just for pirates and scofflaws after all.

Why not fire up the BitTorrent client of your choice and join me?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sharpened, Cut, Split, Stacked

I finally got that chainsaw blade sharpened. Turned out it was easier than I expected. A little round file, fits right in the groove, ten or twenty strokes and you can see a new edge shining. The chain for the 16” bar on my Remington Electric Chainsaw had about 20 teeth to sharpen, so I was done in half an hour. And the instructions for doing this were on the back of a package of chainsaw-blade sharpening files, available from Harbor Freight for $6.99.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you read the directions.


Thus armed, I was able to chop up that tree-top that fell during the winter storm. Thank God for that sharp blade. The tree turned out to be about 20” in diameter near the break, so that I had to come at it from one side, roll it over, and then cut again. Locust wood is remarkably hard, but the saw made its way through steady diligence.

Fortunately the wood is as brittle as it is hard, which makes chopping it much easier than I expected. My mother has an electric splitter at her place, but so long as I was having luck it seemed more satisfying to do it the old-fashioned way, swinging a maul.

TrimmedTree A few days later (today) I took down a few branches that The Wife has wanted cleared out of the way. Four from a massive maple tree in the back yard, and the bottom branch from another locust out front. This last I was a little nervous about, as the tree is close to the main street’s power lines, and our house service passes through some of the upper branches. But after a great deal of care, inspection, consideration, and planning, I was confident that this one would fall clear of all wires and went ahead, notching the bottom of the branch first so that it could make a clean fall straight down.


Should have taken more pictures of the process, but I’m awful about taking time out for photography once I’m on a task, so my pictures are usually results-only.


So, there will be a little more sun falling on the garden out front this year, and we’ll have a much brighter back yard as well. Plus, all of this fallen timber has come to well over half a cord so far, which means we’ve saved about $200 on next winter’s heating costs. I got the locust all stacked up for curing (although I understand that it doesn’t require much) and the Maple will follow shortly.

It’s hard work and my back is sore, but there are few tasks out there more satisfying. And I’m sure I’ll be sleeping well tonight.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Friday, February 8, 2013

Angry Skies and Best Laid Plans

 storm_skylight storm_bagcaststorm_neighbors

I rather like the look of the IBM Selectric typing across a paper bag. It’s a vibrant contrast of the precise over the rustic. Strangely, I’m finding I get better results from photographing my typecasts than scanning them. The scanner seems to reflect white light around the indentation of the letters, which wreaks havoc on my post-processing efforts to increase the contrast and make them more legible.

There are times when the whole process strikes me as silly. And yet I keep doing it.


Ha! Just heard that they’re shutting down public transportation in Boston at 3 PM today. I suppose we could have spent the whole storm in the Hilton’s hot tub and swimming pool—but I’d rather save that luxury for a time when we can also go outside and enjoy the city.


While I was writing this, a ladybug started walking across the top of my monitor. In February!

What a world!