sun, 24-jun-2007, 14:35

Tow rope around the tank

Tow rope around the tank

Winching an oil tank

Winching an oil tank

The oil tank that feeds our furnace sits under the deck on a wooden sled. Over the years the tank has slid downhill to the point that the tubing was starting to bend and kink and I was worried it might actually slide all the way off it’s supports. So it needed to be pulled back up the slope and secured.

The tricky part is that there’s nothing solid enough under the deck to attach a jack or winch to, and the tank is heavy: it’s a 300 gallon tank about two-thirds full. What’s the saying about moving the moon with a long enough lever and a place to stand?

I used a tow rope around the tank, some chain to join the rope to my two-ton winch, and attached the winch to the trailer hitch on the back of the pickup truck. Worked like a charm. I’d fully tension the chain with the winch until the truck just started to move, go under the deck and rock the tank back and forth, causing it to move forward an inch or so. Re-tension the winch and repeat.

I moved the tank about a foot uphill in less than an hour, and blocked the end of the sled so it can’t slide down any more. (Those are our basil plants on the deck in the bottom photo.)


tags: Dakota  house  oil tank  winch 
wed, 13-jun-2007, 16:46

Baffler 17

The Baffler, No. 17

I got my first Baffler in the mail yesterday from dusty groove america, Issue No. 17, Superslayer Storybook. The cover shows an armored guy standing over another decapitated guy. Strange.

Then I started reading it, beginning with The Gilded Mean by Thomas Frank. It’s an indictment of the centrist philosophy that has strangled the Democratic Party (no, not the Democrat Party you nitwit) since Reagan was in office. Here’s a fantastic section, taken from his review of David Harvey’s Brief Review of Neoliberalism:

His new book achieves the effect it does through the simple device of speaking plainly about the momentous economic and political change that, beginning in the seventies, swept over America and then the rest of the industrialized world.

It is a story we all know instinctively, and it’s not a very centrist affair. We have loosed the forces of the market, and this is what the market has done to the United States: It has destroyed manufacturing and enthroned finance; beaten organized labor almost to death; demanded round after round of tax cuts; defunded public services while raising the price of education and health care to inaccessible levels; decoupled wages from productivity, allowing wages to erode to a level lower today than in the early seventies despite all the advances in worker efficiency. We are often told that we live in a time of otherworldly prosperity, but what has changed the most, Harvey tells us, is distribution, not production. Our new economy is a banker’s triumph, not an engineer’s. Today the nation’s affluent areas glitter, it’s blue-collar neighborhoods crumble, and its rich people are richer, as measured by their percentage of the national income, than they have been since the twenties. The class divide has returned with a vengeance, with one class consistently getting what it wants while another just as consistently loses out. (Page 7)

Damn!

I haven’t read much of the second essay yet, but it’s equally strong-worded and honest about how screwed up industrialized society is today:

Consider this single fact: It took ten years, almost all of the nineties, for the median family income to get back to the same level that it was, in real terms, in 1989. But in 1999, when we got to the same income level we had in 1989, this same “median” family had to work…six more weeks a year. (Page 14)

I think I’m really going to enjoy (and really not enjoy, if you know what I mean) reading this magazine.

wed, 13-jun-2007, 05:37

Glass Album Cover

Philip Glass Cover

Yesterday I found myself with 43 eMusic downloads available and my refresh date approaching quickly. I’ve got quite a few records in my queue, and choosing among them to exactly consume my available downloads is difficult to do by hand. So I wrote a program to do it.

It’s a Python script, so it’ll run any any platform. Click this link to download it: choose_albums.py

To use it, you’ll need to create a separate file that contains a list of the albums you’re interested in and the number of tracks on each album. Here’s the file I was working with yesterday, called queue:

clientele 14
rosebuds 9
okkervil river 11
stravinsky 19
saint-saens violin 3 8
mapmaker 12
of montreal 5
long blondes 14
glass #4 7
widor #5&9 9
bonnie billy 13

Each line contains an album name, a space, and the lines end with the number of tracks on the album.

To run the program, call it and pass the name of your file and the number of downloads you’ve got left:

$ ./choose_albums.py queue 43
glass #4, saint-saens violin 3, stravinsky, widor #5&9: 43

This is one (of many) ways to use up my 43 downloads. The script chooses albums randomly, so if you want to see all the possibilities, you’ll need to run it a lot. I wrote a very simple shell script to do that:

#! /bin/sh

tracks=$@

for i in `seq 1 100`; do ./choose_albums.py queue $tracks; done | sort | uniq

You can download it here: doit.sh

Depending on how large your queue is, you may need to increase the number of times it runs the script. Because it’s random and not deterministic, it can take a lot of runs to find all possible options (in fact, with 25 albums in the queue and 90 tracks available, there are more than 40,000 possible combinations, so this script is best at choosing from a small set of options, unless a random choice is what you're after). You’ll also need to change the name of your queue file if it’s not called queue.

Here’s what I did yesterday:

$ ./doit.sh 43 | grep blonde | grep glass
bonnie billy, glass #4, long blondes, rosebuds: 43
bonnie billy, glass #4, long blondes, widor #5&9: 43
clientele, glass #4, long blondes, saint-saens violin 3: 43
glass #4, long blondes, of montreal, rosebuds, saint-saens violin 3: 43
glass #4, long blondes, of montreal, saint-saens violin 3, widor #5&9: 43

The two grep commands were included because I knew I wanted to include the new Long Blondes album and Philip Glass’s Fourth Symphony in my selections. I wound up going with the second choice, adding Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s The Letting Go and Widor’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.

One final note: if after 1,000 tries, the script doesn’t find a set of choices that uses up all your downloads, it’ll report the last set of albums it found and the number of tracks used up. Be sure that the final number reported matches the number you passed in or you won’t be using all your downloads for the month. The script isn’t smart enough to find the “best” solution in this situation, so if this happens, you’ll need to run it a bunch of times to maximize the number you’re downloading (or better, add more items to the queue file and run it again).

tags: eMusic  music  programming  python 
wed, 06-jun-2007, 14:32
fedex scan

Apparently, FedEx is using some sort of new math where the word “second” is equivalent to three.

Here’s what Apple’s email said when our order was shipped:

Order Date:
MAY 31, 2007

*Shipment Information*

Shipment Date:
JUN 01, 2007

Delivers by:
JUN 05, 2007

If you look at the FedEx tracking image you can see that the package was received on the first (day zero), and was in Fairbanks on the fourth (day number one because Saturday and Sunday don’t count). Then it sat around on the day it was supposed to be delivered (the second day), and it’s out for delivery today.

tags: Alaska  Apple  FedEx 
sun, 03-jun-2007, 14:33

the omnivore’s dilemma

the omnivore’s dilemma, michael pollan

Books Acquired

Books Read

I got a lot of books this month. My reading has slowed a bit now that we’ve got more than twenty hours of daylight and there’s lots of projects to get done outside (vegetable garden, dog yard cleanup, etc.). But that doesn’t stop me from reading the book blogs and literary magazines, adding to the queue, and taking BookBurro over to AbeBooks for a used copy of what’s what. In addition to getting some real bargains at AbeBooks, I’ve also frequented the local new and used bookstore for some stuff (I had no idea King Arthur Flour published a whole grain baking book until I saw it at Guiliver’s—woo hoo!), and even picked up some things from Barnes & Noble when I couldn’t find them anywhere else. Sometimes you really do want a giant-size selection.

Here They Come

Another in McSweeney’s Rectangular’s series, the book looks good and is well made. It’s a slice of life story (that freshman-year writing class is really paying dividends) told from the perspective of a thirteen year old girl living in abject poverty in New York City. Their apartment is filled with garbage bags and rotting refuse because they can’t pay for trash pickup, the toilet water freezes at night, and their father has abandoned them to live with a woman referred to throughout as “the slut.” Sounds depressing, I know, but the girl narrating seems to be completely open to the world and the full variety of experiences it offers without being upset about the particular hand she’s been dealt.

Not much happens, despite taking place over at least a year, but all the details and neighborhood characters in the novel really bring it to life, and the narrator is a fantastic and unyielding observer of the world around her. The result is a very rich, rewarding and emotional book that sort of sneaks up on you because of it’s apparent simplicity.

This was one of the books considered by the litblog co-op in Spring 2006 (note that the posts at that link are in reverse chronological order, so start at the bottom if you're reading it). The author participated and had this to say about the book and how she views her fiction:

I’m one of those writers who really believes that you can “show” rather than “tell” a story and you’re right, a lot of writers out there are busying themselves with telling conventional stories with conventional plots and because of it they are missing out on all the other ways there are of being on the page and of sounding on the page. A lot of writers think it’s their responsibility to instruct or entertain the reader, whereas I believe it’s more important to witness – I think it was Michael Ondaatje who said, “a writer should be like a mirror walking down the road” and that’s how I try and think while I’m writing.

I think that’s why I came away somewhat amazed by the book, despite nothing really happening and a lack of a normal plot. Many foreign films appear to have little or no plot when compared to American films, and yet, by the end, you've come away with something more than the story being told. What’s interesting to think about in is why this is so rare in fiction, even though for most of us, our lives really don’t conform to a classic storyline plot, at least not at the scales at which most novels operate. Sure, I was born, grew up, went to college, had some relationships, and now I’m married with six dogs, a cat, and a job sitting in a cubicle staring at a pair of computer screens. But take almost any year out of that life and it’s pretty plotless. Maybe it’s just too hard to write a novel that people will want to read that is as mundane as a real life. It’s a credit to Yannick Murphy that she was able to do it with Here They Come.

Thinking with Type

This one came highly recommended, although I can’t remember where. It’s a really good looking book, and it’s worth the cover price for how well put together it is, and for all the examples inside. It’s not particularly good as a style guide, though. For that, I’d recommend Robert Bringhurt’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It’s much more concerned with proper typsetting, and the rules of producing a document or book that looks good. I think the books really complement each other, and this is a case where Amazon’s “Better Together” section really does make the right “Buy this book with…” suggestion.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Wow!

I’ve read previous books by Pollan, as well as many of the pieces he’s written for The New York Times Magazine, but this book is a real tour de force of personal experience and investigative journalism about our food system and how screwed up it is. Pollan starts with the omnivore’s dilemma, which can be expressed simply as “what should we eat today?” It’s a very complex question, especially in today’s world, because our food system has been drastically manipulated by science and politics, and at the same time, we’re living in bodies designed for a vastly different eating environment.

As an attempt to explain the dilemma in his own life, he considers four meals: a fast food meal (Industrial / Corn) eaten in the car, a meal prepared from foods purchased at a local Whole Foods Market (Big Organic), a meal prepared from local foods grown on sustainable farms (Pastoral / Grass), and a meal from foods he collected and killed (The Perfect Meal / The Forest). You can tell from the chapter titles how he feels about each of these meals, but as you travel the path with him and actually see where the food he’s eating comes from, it’s hard not to agree with his conclusions.

This is one of those books like Fast Food Nation where you shouldn’t pick it up unless you’re willing to evaluate what you eat and the consequences of your choices. I came away from Fast Food Nation never wanting to eat fast food again (short of In and Out Burger, maybe). I was already familiar with most of the arguments in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the volume of evidence in the book makes those arguments hard to refute. In our own life, we’re trying: we bought a side of beef from a local beef producer, we’re trying to buy as much produce from the Farmer’s Market as we can, and we’re spending a lot of time and effort in our vegetable garden this year. I may spend more time in the outdoors this summer both hunting game, and down in Chitina filling my personal harvest quota of salmon.

That’s the sort of commitment Pollan’s writing can inspire.

Easy Guide to Sewing Pants

It turns out that this particular book (and, frustratingly, an awful lot of sewing books in general) is specific to sewing women’s pants. Luckily, the book has lots of material on getting a proper fit for almost any female body type, and I expect that with the exception of a certain piece of external anatomy that women lack, there are women whose lower half is shaped enough like mine to fit a pair of pants. It’s been a very long time since I’ve sewed anything complex (I don’t think dog beds count), so I don’t think I’m going to start my efforts with pants. After I’ve made a few simple shirts I may move on to pants and hopefully this book will help with getting a proper fit.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel The Dictionary of Popular Yiddish Words, Phrases, and Proverbs

You’d be hard pressed to avoid hearing or reading something about this novel. His previous novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so expectations were high. The novel is a detective story, set in an alternate reality where Sitka Alaska is a temporary Jewish homeland, soon to revert back to Alaskan control, and where Yiddish and “American” are spoken alongside each other. Despite the confining nature of the detective genre (the hard drinking, divorced cop; shady figures controlled by some darker agent; occasionally gunplay; etc.) Chabon tells an entertaining story filled with the atmosphere of a Yiddish community in southeastern Alaska. And the writing is fantastic.

One of the excellent riffs from the novel. Page 290:

The brake and gas were rigged to suit a man of his stature, and he handled them like Horowitz sailing through a storm of Liszt.

When I first read that I did a double-take, read it again, laughed, and felt compelled to put on Horowitz in Moscow. The book is filled with intelligent references like that one. The sort of thing that’s probably missing from lowbrow pulp detective fiction, but which fits right in here.

I can’t say that Chabon was completely successful, though. I liked Kavalier & Clay better, mostly because I didn’t think the story moved along fast enough or had enough of the twists and turns one might expect from this sort of genre, but I think it’s better have tried something new and interesting, than to just keep writing the same books over and over again. Chabon has demonstrated that he can write gloriously in a wide range of different literary forms, and even if each book isn’t the “perfect” novel, I’ll keep reading because I know it’ll be an interesting ride. What more should we ask for?

I saw the Yiddish Dictionary in the remainders pile at Barnes and Noble, and decided it might help with some of the Yiddish words in Chabon’s novel. As it turns out, you don’t need any special understanding of Yiddish because Chabon is careful to put the words in enough context that it’s easy to figure out what he’s talking about. And unless the Dictionary is really, really bad, Chabon isn’t really writing straight Yiddish anyway since most of the words that appear in the novel aren’t in the Dictionary.

Whole Grain Baking

I got this book at the end of the month so I’ve only had a chance to make one recipe from it (Dark Sourdough Rye), but the bread came out very good. My initial impressions of the book are very favorable. It’s got weights along with volumetric measurements for all ingredients (I do all my bread baking by weight), includes sections on breakfast foods, cookies, cakes, quick breads, sourdoughs, rye breads and normal yeasted breads. Since I already know how to make bread, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time reading the introductory sections on technique and ingredients, but there is a fair amount of this material so even a beginner would find the book useful. It is the sort of book where you’ll probably need to plan a trip to the store before attempting a new recipe. In contrast to some of my other favorite baking books (Hamelman’s Bread, Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible), this one has lots of recipes with ingredients not often on hand in my kitchen. That’s a good thing, I think, because it complements my other books well, but you can’t just get up on Sunday morning hoping to make a new recipe without some foresight.

Think UNIX

I read this book when it first came out in 2000 and it’s always the first book I recommend when people ask me what book they should get if they’re interested in learning Unix. It’s main advantage over the other books you’ll find is that it’s not a command manual or a tutorial, it’s a book that discusses both why and how Unix is different from other operating systems. For example, a tutorial-style manual might discuss pipes and how you use them, but I think it’s useful to know that the reason you’re using a pipe is because one of the philosophies of Unix is that it’s a large set of small, fast, single-purpose tools; rather than a small set of large, slow, multi-purpose tools like Microsoft Windows offers. Learning to use Unix isn’t just about learning the commands, it requires re-thinking the way you’ve probably been doing things for a long time under on other systems.

I got my copy for $6 at AbeBooks, but it’s back in print again, so if you want a new copy, click the link above.

Voyage Along the Horizon

A tale within a tale, written in an wry, early 20th century style, this book tells the entertaining story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica gone wrong. I enjoyed the style and atmosphere, but the book never comes to any satisfying conclusion.

At the end of the book there’s a brief interview with Marías where they ask him about the ending of the book. He says:

…the end of a novel isn’t usually very important. In fact, people never seem to remember the endings of novels (most especially crime novels—that’s what makes them so re-readable) and movies (especially, once again, thrillers and whodunits). Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant—and disappointing—parts of a novel. What counts the most—and what we remember the most—is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours of a few days while reading a novel or watching a movie. What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon–in other words, the journey that never ends.

I don’t think I entirely agree, and it matters in the context of this book, because at the conclusion, I was left thinking, “that wasn’t a very good ending.” So I didn’t like the way the book ended, but I really did enjoy the things he says are most important (style, atmosphere, etc.). I think the best books are those which have it all. Why restrict yourself to style and atmosphere, when you can have that, plus good characters, an entertaining plot, and a fantastic ending (see Icelander)?

tags: books  review 

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