Year: 2017

2017 in review

NYE2017-windows

See other year in review posts.

This is the view from my New Year’s Eve. Since I can count the number of degrees it is outside on one hand, I decided to stay in this morning to look back at my 2017 calendar and remember the notable events, trips, and people that made up my year. In chronological order:

  • The Packers beating the Giants and the Cowboys in the playoffs.
  • Going down to Florida for my cousin’s funeral was the definition of bittersweet: horrible reason for being there, but good opportunity to see family we don’t see very often.
  • Sold two typewriters for more than I bought them for. It’s a seller’s market out there.
  • Went to Ann Arbor, MI, for the first time for a baby shower and hung out with far flung friends.
  • Starting a two-person book club with my friend Josh, where we get together to eat and discuss the book, along with politics, religion, and everything under the sun. I call them our “save the world” sessions because we sort through the miasma of current events and decide on the proper way to fix them. If only D.C. would listen in!
  • Bar trivia with Jenny and her cousins. Weren’t close to winning, but reminded me I should do bar trivia more.
  • Had neighbors over for dinner, which reminded me we should have neighbors over for dinner more.
  • Saw my grandma the day before she died. Though by that time she was unresponsive, the timing was fortuitous.
  • Long weekend trip to the Twin Cities to visit friends. Hung out with their awesome kids and gallivanted around town.
  • Hosted a marriage proposal in our apartment by people who used to live in it.
  • Saw Sandra McCracken at The Union with Jenny, three of my favorite things.
  • Got quoted in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, then hosted a discussion about the book at a local potluck.
  • Went to Durham, NC, for a wedding and loved it.
  • Continued playing ultimate frisbee Sunday afternoons when I was able, and loving the feeling of a perfectly thrown touchdown.
  • Got to facilitate two dozen very cute interviews between 3rd graders for a local history project at my library.
  • Saw the Cubs lose to the Brewers at Wrigley Field on a cold and rainy day. Highlights within that include seeing two of Jenny’s cousins there, and Nick Offerman walking directly past us after singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.
  • Went to my first local ward meeting, in a post-election effort to become more civically engaged.
  • Had a quick and haphazard solo recording session of some of my songs. Won’t be able to use most of it, but it reminded me of the agony and ecstasy of recording.
  • Took several quick trips to Jenny’s family cottage in Michigan, including over Independence Day weekend.
  • Celebrated two years of marriage to my bride, who supports my weird hobbies and makes me want to be a better person.
  • Went to ALA 2017 in Chicago. Seeing the Librarian of Congress was a highlight.
  • Called or hung out with several friends, new and old, to catch up and get to know each other, all of which I appreciate.
  • Drove to Toronto for a family wedding. The 8-hour drive wasn’t so great, but being there for the first time was.
  • Convened with family in Cape May, NJ, for a reunion of sorts, then caravanned to Elkins, WV, for grandma’s memorial service. Saw lots of extended family for the first time and got to hang with my cousins’ kids, who grow too fast.
  • Played golf for the first time in at least 15 years in Elkins the morning of the memorial. Grateful for my cousin’s husband’s caddying and encouragement the whole rushed 9. Sank one sweet putt and had one great approach shot, otherwise: A for effort.
  • My sister visited to see Billy Joel at Wrigley Field. We were planning to just listen from outside the ballpark as I did years ago with a friend for Paul McCartney, but on a whim we checked the box office for tickets and decided to jump on them as an early birthday present to me. Awesome show.
  • Saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, California Typewriter, and Columbus at the Music Box Theater.
  • Hosted several friends and family overnight on our pullout couch-bed, having each of them leave a note in our guest book.
  • Went to college homecoming for the first time since graduating, and got an alumni discount on a t-shirt as a reward.
  • Got an advance copy of Tom Hanks’ typewriter book, which I reviewed, then photographed with one of my typers, which got on the news. Then got a letter from the man himself.
  • Met up with friends in Asheville, NC, which was gorgeous and fun.
  • Wrote a post a day for #Novemblog2017 instead of trying and failing to write a novel I wouldn’t enjoy doing anyway. Some favorites: This is my alarm clockWant to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader, Google Past, and In praise of wedding reception air drumming.
  • Got invited to a Friendsgiving and tried to build a gingerbread house with a kid who was super stoked about it.
  • Welcomed long-awaited nephew Olin Charles into the world, and began taking pictures of him immediately.
  • Got some books, a Merriam-Webster t-shirt, a banjo capo, and other fun little things for Christmas.
  • Encountered lots of great books, movies, and music, and wrote more entries in Cool Civil War Names and Refer Madness.

2017: Not Bad!

Cmd + Ctrl: towards smarter searching and dumber devices

Let me echo Austin Kleon’s ode to the search box:

Maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.

I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.

Besides text messages and Snapchat pictures of my new nephew, I don’t get notifications on my phone and haven’t for a long time. I can’t imagine how people with news or social media apps subject themselves to the onslaught of Fresh Hell in their pockets all day.

In Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, Cory Doctorow writes about the need to be protected from computers as they burrow further into our lives and bodies:

I want to be sure that it is designed to take orders from its user, and to hide nothing.

Take orders and hide nothing. Command and control. Pull rather than push. Make Computers Dumb Again.

Relatedly, at Mashable, “Stop reading what Facebook tells you to read” calls for consumers to break out of Facebook’s detention center walled garden and use a web browser to find things:

By choosing to be a reader of websites whose voices and ideas you’re fundamentally interested in and care about, you’re taking control. And by doing that, you’ll chip away at the incentive publishers have to create headlines and stories weaponized for the purpose of sharing on social media. You’ll be stripping away at the motivation for websites everywhere (including this one) to make dumb hollow mindgarbage. At the same time, you’ll increase the incentive for these websites to be (if nothing else) more consistent and less desperate for your attention.

See also: Just don’t look.

Here’s to smarter searching and clicking by everyone in 2018.

Paper: the once and future king

Richard Polt has an interesting post about the assumption of paper in speculative fiction from the past:

Apparently, a mere 40 years ago it still didn’t occur to some science fiction novelists that paper would become a second-class citizen to glass screens studded with millions of tiny pixels.

Note that the word “paper” does not actually appear in any of these passages. That’s the way it is with things we take for granted: they’re as invisible as the air we breathe.

I expect that our own speculative futures will look just as ridiculous 40 years from now. What developments are we failing to imagine?

(This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” briefing, which actually establishes a helpful framework for analysis, and Chuck Klosterman’s great book But What If We’re Wrong?, which interrogates the assumptions we’ve turned into self-evident conclusions.)

The question of paper’s place in a digital society popped into my life today at a doctor’s office. I had to fill out an intake form as usual, but with a twist: it was the first time the form was digital. It was on a PhreesiaPad, a touchscreen encased by a clunky orange plastic shell that made it look like a kid’s toy. The opening screen said “Paper Is So 20th Century”.

PhreesiaPad

Paper’s fearsome competitor.

I assume these devices help speed up information processing in clinics and contribute to the all-encompassing idol goal of Efficiency in businesses. But if I had to bet on whether the PhreesiaPad or paper will still be around in 10 years, even 5 years, it’s paper all the way. I’ll be surprised if all those cheaply made tablets and their ilk make it to next year before getting disrupted into obsolescence by the Next Big Thing.

Paper is so 20th century. And 19th. And 18th. And 17th. And 16th. And 15th. And so on for a long, long time. So long that you can count paper’s age in millennia. Silicon Valley startups and speculative fiction authors have a lot of intriguing ideas about what the future will look like, but until they figure out how to close in on paper’s 2,000-year head start I won’t be worried about its fate.

Libraries = Internet IRL but better

American Libraries magazine’s “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet”  is some grade-A, top choice librarian bait. Excerpts:

Libraries are safer spaces. The internet brings people together, often in enjoyable and productive ways, such as over shared interests (pop culture blogs, fanfic sites) or common challenges (online support groups). But cyberbullying and trolling can leave people reluctant to engage with folks they disagree with or to share their ideas in the first place. Libraries are places where people can gather constructively and all are welcome.

Libraries respect history. Web pages are ephemeral, and link rot is a real problem. The content of library collections is much more stable. Printed materials are generally published on acid-free paper, which will not disintegrate. And librarians are leading the way to bring similar stability to the web through services like the Internet Archive and perma.cc.

Librarians do not track your reading or search history to sell you things.  Amazon’s book purchase recommendation feature is useful for learning about new books. But this usefulness comes at the expense of your privacy because your reading data is valuable business intelligence for Amazon. The same is true for your web searching history, which is why you often see ads for a product for weeks after searching for it just once. Librarians value and protect your privacy.

The last one is my personal favorite. Though modern library catalogs provide the option to record your checkout history, it is opt-in and the data it collects isn’t sold to anyone.

If I could add one more to the original list:

Libraries are local. Though most libraries are in a consortium or resource-sharing system of some kind and have a lot of the same materials, no one library is the same, and each is the product of its community. I marvel at how true this is when someone asks in a listserv about how other libraries do something and each response is something different.

Highlights from #XmasMusicBinge2017

As I near the end of my annual Christmas music binge, a few songs have stuck out. Check them out while the mood is right and the spirit’s up:

“Mvmt II: Begin and Never Cease” by The Oh Hellos, The Oh Hellos Family Christmas Album. You really ought to listen through the whole (short) album in one go, which is like one long medley, but the second movement’s ecstatic exuberance echoes Mumford & Sons mixed with Anathallo.

“Snow” by Sleeping At Last, Christmas Collection. O’Neal explains on a recent episodes of his podcast that it’s heavily inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life but also about the concept of home during the holidays.

“Silent Night” by Rosie Thomas, A Very Rosie Christmas. Rosie’s bouncy original “Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year” is always a fun listen, but don’t sleep on the rest of the album’s dreamy, riverine covers like this one. Great for a cozy nights staring at a twinkling Christmas tree.

“All I Need Is Love” by CeeLo Green & The Muppets. For successfully turning “Mahna Mahna” into a Christmas song.

“First Snowfall” by Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Leave it to OTR to capture a different kind of Christmas, ramshackle and real, far from the Norman Rockwell scenes traditional Christmas songs paint.

“12 Days of Christmas” by Relient K, Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer. There aren’t a lot of great versions of this song because it’s such a pain to make 12 repetitive verses interesting. But Relient K pulls it off with verve.

Entertaining ‘Angels’: which ‘Home Alone’ fake gangster film is the filthiest?

home_alone_filthy_animal-1

Here’s an important question for the Christmas season: which is better, Angels with Filthy Souls or Angels with Even Filthier Souls?

Both share a template: character walks in, gets threatened/insulted by Johnny, gets blown away by Johnny, and gets a memorable kicker. Kevin McCallister also enjoys a smorgasbord while watching both of them, and gets scared by the violence (which is ironic given his casual sadism toward the Wet/Sticky Bandits later in the films). Let’s dig into them to decide:

Angels with Filthy Souls

From Home Alone, it features Johnny and Snakes, who wants his money for “the stuff”:

(Vanity Fair wrote a cool feature on the making of this one.)

Johnny’s Threat/Insult: “I’m gonna give you to the count of 10, to get your ugly, yella, no-good keister off my property, before I pump your guts full of lead!”

Tagline: “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”

Angels with Even Filthier Souls

From Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, it has Johnny confronting Carlotta, his two-timing smoocher of a gal:

Johnny’s Threat/Insult: “I’m gonna give ya ’til the count of 3 to get your lousy, lyin’, low-down, 4-flushin’ carcass out my door!”

Tagline: “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal. And a Happy New Year.”

Verdict:

I gotta go with the original. While I like the seasonal application of the latter tagline and reference to four flushing, the threat/insult and tagline in Filthy are perfect ersatz gangster noir lines. I also like how Johnny jumps right from 2 to 10 and that he has a typewriter at his desk.

Tipsy temperance titles

Here’s a Christmas gift idea for the alcoholics in your life:

Working at a museum archives dedicated to the temperance and prohibition movements means I see books, pamphlets, posters, and other promotional/educational material like this all the time. I could put together an entire exhibit of temperance titles that are a) trying to be funny and hip in the youth pastor kind of way, or b) actually funny like this one.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

new-analog

“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

What’s your number?

Not sure when I learned about the Enneagram, but almost immediately after I did I knew I was a Five.  However flawed and subjective it is, I’ve found it to be a good model for understanding human nature as an individual and in relationship with others. Plus it’s easier to remember than the Myers-Briggs.

Discovering the Enneagram podcast Typology reignited my interest in it. (I’ve liked the episodes with Rob Bell, Shauna & Aaron Niequist, and the panel of Fives especially.)

It was through the podcast I learned Ryan O’Neal of the band Sleeping At Last is writing a song about every Enneagram number, as part of his ambitious Atlas project. He’s done One and Two thus far, and they are exceptionally beautiful.

Say hi to Mosul Eye

The AP has an incredible story about an Iraqi man named Omar Mohammed who courageously chronicled the savagery of the Islamic State as an undercover blogger, using the moniker Mosul Eye:

For nearly two years, he’d wandered the streets of occupied Mosul, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by IS. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear the killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

He wasn’t a spy. He was an undercover historian and blogger. As IS turned the Iraqi city he loved into a fundamentalist bastion, he decided he would show the world how the extremists had distorted its true nature, how they were trying to rewrite the past and forge a brutal Sunni-only future for a city that had once welcomed many faiths.

Working at Mosul University when the city fell in June 2014 to the extremists, he decided to start gathering information:

By day, he chatted with Islamic State fighters and vendors, and observed. Always observed. By night, he wrote in his native Arabic and fluent English on a WordPress blog and later on Facebook and Twitter. The city turned dark, and Mosul Eye became one of the outside world’s main sources of news about the Islamic State fighters, their atrocities and their transformation of the city into a grotesque shadow of itself. The things IS wanted kept secret went to the heart of its brutal rule.

As you’d imagine, the IS thugs weren’t too happy about the Mosul Eye:

When the only Mosul residents left were fellow Sunnis, they too were not spared, according to the catalog of horrors that is Mosul Eye’s daily report. He detailed the deaths and whippings, for spying and apostasy, for failing to attend prayers, for overdue taxes. The blog attracted the attention of the fanatics, who posted death threats in the comments section.

Spoiler: he makes it out OK, but read the whole story to learn about a modern hero.