Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
First off, a profound thank you to all the folks who have subscribed and contributed over the past few months. Your support has been an enormous help.
Secondly, over there in the right sidebar is an ad for How Come?: Every Kid’s Science Questions Explained, the latest book by Kathy Wollard (to whom I am married). It’s a completely revised and rewritten selection of fascinating science questions and lively answers drawn from the previous three How Come? books. More than 400 pages long and full of amusing illustrations, it’s both rigorously researched and lucidly and entertainingly written. Trust me on this — I was there. Anyway, Amazon is selling both the paperback and the Kindle edition, but the paperback is much bigger, easier to read, much more fun, doesn’t need batteries and will still work after the cyber-apocalypse, so you should buy that version. Plus it doesn’t report what page you’re reading to Jeff Bezos. Anyway, check it out. (Note: the Amazon page is a bit confusing because they also list the first three How Come books (How Come?, How Come? Planet Earth, and How Come in the Neighborhood), but this 2014 edition, a compendium of the best of all three, is the one you want.)
Onward. I suppose you’ll be wanting to know what ever became of the February issue. Well, for starters, it got very cold. We didn’t have all the snow that NYC and points east and north got, but it got very cold here. Double-digits-below-zero cold, and that’s the real temperature, not that phony “wind chill” flapdoodle. And if your furnace is not functioning, living in a house built in the 1860s and insulated with horsehair becomes very unpleasant very quickly.
So it’s 4:30 am, a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature is eighteen degrees Fahren-freakin-heit below zero. I’m kneeling in the snow behind the house wearing fourteen layers of clothing, but I can’t cover my face because if I do my breath freezes up on my glasses and I can’t see. In my right hand is a long-handled vegetable brush with plastic bristles. I’m trying to scour ice off the grating on the air intake of our furnace so the damn thing will start working, but it’s slow going because my hand is numb. After I get most of the ice off, I have to search around for a twig I can use to poke the ice out of the holes in the grating. This is the second time tonight I’ve had to come out to do this, and I always seem to go through three or four twigs before I get it clear. The furnace quit about 15 minutes ago and it’s about 50 degrees in the house and falling fast.
The ice on the air intake didn’t get there because it’s snowing, raining or sleeting, because it’s not. The ice is there because the idiots hired by Sears several years ago to install the furnace arranged the exhaust and intake vents backwards, i.e., they put the air intake above the exhaust. So the hot exhaust forms fog, the warm fog rises (duh), and then condenses and freezes on the air intake. We didn’t discover that they had screwed this up until the furnace started cutting out this winter. This only happens in extremely cold weather, but the backwards arrangement also poses a danger of carbon monoxide being sucked into the air intake, so we’re in the process of getting this fixed. Then again, the last time I spoke to Sears Service Center, a weirdly belligerent clown there told me that what I was describing was “impossible,” suggested that we hadn’t actually bought the furnace from Sears Roebuck but from “some guy named Sears,” and hung up on me in mid-sentence.
Anyway, I had the February issue ready to go by early March, not bad considering the level of chaos around here, when the wheels started to come off daily life in a few dozen more ways too tedious to detail here (teeth, car, water softener and filter system, car again…). I promise to do better. Oh look, the grass is growing already! I wonder where I left the lawn tractor.
That’s it for now because there’s a huge thunderstorm* coming at us and I’ve had a thing about lightning ever since I was struck by it back in ought-six. Yeah, that’s how we talk out here in the boonies. Y’all come back soon, hear? And don’t forget to subscribe!
And now, on with the show…
* The power went out for about three hours just after this was written.
I noticed recently that parts of this site were not working properly (including the administrative interface). After some Googling and a bit of imagination, I realized that somewhere out there somebody had updated PHP (don’t ask) to be less tolerant of the coding errors riddling the ancient version of Word Press I was using, causing the poor thing to sputter and fail. Da noive of some people.
So I spent today backing up and installing the new version of Word Press (4.1.1), which is tons of fun when you can’t really see what you’re doing. Anyway, the site now works. Sort of. Unfortunately, some of the plugins I use to run the site are too old to work with this new version (Catch 22), and I haven’t yet found replacements.
Long story short, the “Subscriber Content” part of the site is not working at all. I am trying to fix it, but at the moment I’m stymied. Please stay tuned.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Welcome to January, land of enchantment, and by “enchantment,” I mean, of course, frozen mud.
So, did everyone have a nice Getstuffmas? Santa brought us a broken furnace. It didn’t actually break all at once, but started to die a few days earlier, just not coming on until it was way colder in here than the setting on the thermostat. Then it wouldn’t stay on quite long enough to get back up to “warm.” It took us a while to catch on that our own furnace was gaslighting us. Lather, rinse, repeat, and pretty soon it was 12/25 and freaking freezing in here. I hate holidays. Oddly enough, the guy who came to repair it was insanely good at his job and had it humming away in about 20 minutes. At $10 and change per minute. Oh well.
It dawned on me a few days ago that this year, 2015, marks the twentieth anniversary of this website, a fact that I find simultaneously impressive and deeply disorienting. There aren’t a whole lot of twenty-year old websites still around, and the web was a very different place in 1995; I actually had to go buy a couple of books on Unix and HTML to figure out how to get the site up and running. I wrote the first version of the site in Notepad.
A few months later I wrote one of the first general purpose mass-audience internet books, called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet (Random House), which was excerpted in the Washington Post and was a huge success, except it made me next to no money for some reason. Probably because my idiot publisher refused to believe it was selling as fast as it was and never printed enough copies, so it was constantly out of stock in bookstores. A couple of years later (1998), I revised the whole book from scratch for next to no money because I was naive and had a lousy agent. It’s still available on Amazon, but please don’t buy it, because it’s about twenty years out of date.
That book did fulfill one of every author’s primo fantasies for me: I got to hang out in a busy bookstore a few days before Christmas (Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side of NYC, in this case) and see dozens of people snatch up and buy multiple copies of my book. It was very cool, but also actually kinda creepy. Hard to explain.
Speaking of books about the internet, I recently read Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, which is very good. It’s much more than just another screed bemoaning the deleterious effects of the net; in many respects it’s not about the net at all, but the modern drive to seek solutions to things which may not, in fact, actually be problems at all. It’s a fascinating and very well-written book. Here is a somewhat long but very interesting interview with Morozov.
Elsewhere in the news, we sat down and watched Life Itself, the bio-pic about Roger Ebert, which I anticipated liking, because I liked Roger Ebert (although he liked a lot of absolute junk). Anyway, the more time passes after seeing the film, the more it strikes me as deeply unsatisfactory, a weirdly lumpy and half-baked effort in desperate need of a competent editor.
On the other hand, I was fully prepared to dislike Finding Vivian Maier because the thought of someone unearthing an artist’s work after the artist’s death and apparently profiting from it is inherently repulsive. But the film is absolutely fascinating, very well done, and shows a real commitment on the part of John Maloof, who bought several boxes of her negatives at an auction a few years ago, to both popularize her work and investigate her life story. I’ve always been a fan of street photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, etc., and Vivian Maier‘s work is at least at their level. She was a genuine genius with an extraordinary eye. She was also a deeply strange and troubled person, a paranoid hoarder with a definite “dark side.” Anyway, it’s a great film. Unfortunately Vivian Maier’s work may soon be withdrawn from public view due to a legal wrangle, which would be very sad.
I just noticed that Netflix is now pushing The Interview at me. I’m gonna pass and stick to P.G. Wodehouse. Meanwhile, please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to life here at Churchmouse Abbey, for we are as skint as our namesake.
And now, on with the show…