Hockey Stick

How will the future treat the year 2020? Here in the middle of it we see a wannabe dictator trying to usurp the world’s largest economy, we see hundreds of thousands dying from the novel coronavirus, and we see marginalized people shouting for reforms that actually mean something.

Big things. Things I am passionate about. But honestly, I think fifty years from now the human race will look back on 2020 as the hockey stick year. I knew this year was coming, but I hoped I would be old enough that I would not have to witness the aftermath. It seems I am not so lucky.

The Hockey Stick. It’s a reference to a graph of global temperature that gets gradually worse until a threshold is crossed and things get really bad really quickly. The graph looks like a hockey stick.

This is the year “Fire Tornado” was added to my vocabulary. Vast swaths of forest are being converted to atmospheric carbon dioxide, in a feedback loop of disastrous consequence. “But forest mismanagement…” you say. Fine. But the fucking tundra is on fire. Permafrost is melting, and Putin’s pipelines are rupturing.

The only way through this is with strong leadership and a full-on investment in adaptation. Our planet is heating up, there’s no getting around that now. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Important to note here, that Putin and Trump’s other “friends” make their money from oil. Apparently they don’t give a fuck about their children. Or your children. Or anyone under the age of 60. Because those rich bastards are woking really hard to live like kings now and screw the consequences. Apres moi, la deluge. In the case of Florida, it’s far more literal this time.

Here we are. Forests burning, hurricanes wailing, rivers flooding. Glaciers sliding into the sea faster than ever before. Not unpredicted. Our coastal cities will do what they can to suffer the sea level rise, but the storm surges will destroy them. I said, after Katerina, (quietly, to myself, or maybe in this blog), that we should not bother rebuilding that city. It is lost, like Miami, like much of Manhattan. Dead cities.

It is time to stop playing what-if games and understand that humanity is facing its most grave challenge ever. It is a challenge many human civilizations have failed before, but this time the peril is global. The planet we got comfy on is gone. It is time to suck up petty nonsense and accept that our only way out of this mess is forward.

1

Idiot

I spent the evening poking at the keyboard, trying to wrangle a new Tin Can story, the first in that series for years. But I couldn’t get my head in the game. First it was sports, then it was politics. Scandal broke around the president today (again), but it was a scandal he could easily have avoided were he not a narcissistic idiot. It was Bob Woodward, for crying out loud.

So I was trying to get my head to a creative place. After being distracted by the surprisingly-compelling Tour de France coverage of stage 12 (kid from Switzerland taking his first ever TDF stage and looking like a beast in the process — he was zooming down narrow, poorly-paved roads fast enough to challenge the lead car, only to mash up the next hill, while the Big Names launched futile attacks and fell farther behind), I turned off the television and set to writing.

And checking the news. It seems that our Stable Genius President sat down with Bob Woodward, a journalist instrumental in bringing down Nixon. They didn’t talk just once, oh no. Not five times. Eighteen times Donald Trump talked to this guy. And our President went on to tell this Journalist, on the record, a bunch of astonishing things.

I will not go into the astonishing things here. Mostly it’s stuff we already knew, but this time it came directly out of Trump’s mouth.

Instead, let’s discuss what a monumental idiot our fearless leader was to have the interviews in the first place. I imagine a conversation somewhat like this:

Bob: Hello, Donnie?
Donnie: Yeah, that’s me. [Donnie doesn’t ask who Bob is, because if Donnie doesn’t know who he is already, the guy is not important]
Bob: I’m writing a book about you!
Donnie: That’s great! Beautiful! All the best writers want to do a book about me. When will you be done?
Bob: Well, that’s the thing, Donnie — if we want the book to be awesome, it needs more of you in it. I need to talk to you. Get inside your head. Really feel the genius.
Donnie: Call me any time. Except when I’m golfing.

Jared or Ivanka could have stopped him; they didn’t. They just let him spend hours talking to Bob “Watergate” Woodward about whatever crossed his mind at the moment. And Bob, bless his heart, was not hostile. He actually tried to guide Donnie around the worst land mines, to give Donnie an escape hatch. Donnie would have none of that.

This episode shows a new and different kind of stupid for our president. Sure, he’s always been a sucker for flattery and a racist and a liar and honestly pretty stupid, but before he’s at least shown enough intelligence to not spill his guts to a man who has already brought down a president. This isn’t Entertainment Tonight.

3

Camera Lenses by the Numbers

The Official Sweetie of MR&HBI has been getting behind the camera quite a bit lately and is starting to get a feel for it. She knows, for instance, that when the f-stop is lower, the picture is brighter. She knows that the 85mm lens is zoomed in closer than the 12mm lens is. But why? What do the numbers actually mean?

It’s all about pinholes.

As a thought experiment, imagine poking a pencil through a piece of paper, then holding the paper up to your eye. When you hold the paper far from your eye, you can only see a little tiny bit of what is beyond. As you move the hole closer, you can see more. A “wider angle”, you might say. That distance from the hole to your eye corresponds to the focal length of the lens. A lens with a short focal length will show a wider angle of the world beyond it, while a long focal length will just show a tiny detail.

So far, so good. Perhaps the most mystifying number in photography is f-stop. I think the “stop” part of the term comes from the mechanics of early cameras, and doesn’t help matters. Let’s get back to the pinholes.

Let’s say your pinhole camera was built around a really, really big pin. In fact, let’s say your hole is a whole damn mile across. Obviously that’s going to let a lot of light through. You’ll overexpose your shot for sure!

Unless your mile-wide pinhole is 100 miles away. Suddenly that hole doesn’t seem so big, and the amount of light hitting your sensor is actually pretty small. In fact, your f-number is 100 – tiny tight. To get f-50 you could either double the diameter of the hole, or move the hole so it’s only 50 miles away. Either way, four times as much light will reach your sensor – the apparent diameter of the hole is doubled, but the amount of light is a function of the area of the circle. The f-number is a simple ratio, aperture/distance, and each integer you go down quadruples the amount of light that reaches the sensor.

A more reasonable pinhole camera would be a 0.3mm aperture at 50mm distance, or f-166. Light is slowly leaking through. To take a picture with a pinhole, you have to be ready to wait for a while.

Knowing where those numbers come from, we can appreciate the glass in our lenses all the more. Here at Muddled Central we have in our stable several (well, four) lenses that can go to f-numbers 2 or below. To accomplish that with a pinhole camera is simply preposterous. A “pinhole” 25mm across, mounted 50mm from the camera just wouldn’t work. Imagine holding a card with a hole the size of a quarter two inches from a white piece of paper. Do you see an image? You do not. But with glass we can make a lens that acts as if it were a 25mm pinhole 50mm from the sensor, and that’s pretty damn awesome.

Similarly, we can create lenses that don’t physically change in length, at lest not all that much, but with a twist of a ring act as if they could be stretched from, say, 24 to 105mm, the way my favorite Swiss-knife lens does.

What the glass in the lenses allows us to do is virtually create a huge pinhole and focus that light on the sensor.

As if has a sweet spot. In modern SLR’s the back element of the lens is about 45mm from the sensor, give or take. That means for those cameras it’s easier to create a lens with a focal length in the neighborhood of 45mm — there’s less magic to do.

In general, the creators of modern lenses choose to provide flexibility in one of the two measurements: They will create a lens that can cover a wide range of focal lengths (a zoom lens), or they will create a lens fixed at one focal length that has a wide range of apertures (often called a “fast” lens because it can let in enough light to allow faster shutter speeds, but Sigma has starting calling them “bright” lenses, which I like better).

Finally, and critically, there is a side effect of aperture that can turn you from a snapshot-taker into an artist*. I learned it as “depth of focus”, but others call it “depth of field”, and I might like that term better. Here’s an oversimplification: The more different ways light from a thing that’s out of focus has to get to the sensor, the blurrier it will be. When you close down the aperture, you reduce the “wrong” paths the light can take from the object to the sensor, so it is less blurry. When you open things up, objects even just a tiny bit out of the focal plane start to smear all over the place.

That observation ties us to the math of the photographer’s intent. The photographer who did my brother’s wedding had that mastered. In every shot there was no doubt who the subject was. I watched him for a while at that event, as he moved around, ghostlike, his camera in a sound-suppressing enclosure.

Not everyone has that luxury. When a lens is wide open, it lets in more light. That means you can shoot with a faster shutter, but your depth of field is reduced. What if you’re a sideline photographer at a sports event? You need the fast shutter to freeze the action, but you also need to capture all the action; usually you’re not trying to isolate one athlete in a blurry, confused world. For these people, even the most expensive lenses can only do so much.

That leads to the third leg of the exposure triangle that I’ve been dancing around (the first two being aperture and shutter speed). If you open up the lens, you get more light, but you get a shallower depth of field. If you need to stop action, you have to have a short time your shutter is open. So if you can’t take a long exposure, and you can’t open up the aperture too much, what are you going to do?

If you distill the question, you see that it really asks. “How can I take a good picture with less light?” We are asking our cameras to build a picture with less input, which to them means less information. This is the biggest difference between digital and film photography (other than the film). With film, you choose the tradeoff between quality and expedience before you even loaded your camera — you could choose a high ISO film that sacrificed image detail for speed, or you could choose film that would take abundant light and really reward it. If conditions change in the middle of your roll, you’re out of luck, Bunky. With digital, you just push a few buttons.

On the other hand, back then if you needed yet higher sensitivity you didn’t have to buy a new camera to get it. Before, light sensitivity was intrinsic to the film, now it’s intrinsic to the camera’s sensor.

Almost all digital cameras have an ISO adjustment — the name not accurate but harkening back to the ratings of film sensitivity. And super-high ISO (that doesn’t suck) is a little corner where camera manufacturers really throw down. “I can make that picture with three photons!” For a while Nikon really had the pixels but Canon had the ISO and then Nikon jumped ahead and then Sony said “hey guys, we’ll be waiting at the finish line.” It will never end.

Mostly, I just use lights.

I hope this was useful to someone. There is math in photography; it is a convergence of art and technology, as Steve Jobs used to say. You won’t be doing algebra on your shoot, but understanding the math and the fundamental tradeoffs can inform your decisions when you’re in the shoot, and provides new opportunities to make something great.

___

* In my early days in Prague, I walked around a sprawling cemetery while it snowed, and took a lot of pictures. Reviewing the results, I lamented that I could not isolate the subjects of my shots from the tangled trees in the background. Had I only understood!

3

I Once Hit a Squirrel — or, should I say, He Once Hit Me

I was riding my bicycle along a very pleasant path, winding between shade trees, when I heard rustling in a bush next to the path. Suddenly, even as I was passing by, an orange-brown ball of fur shot from the underbrush, headed right for me.

“Whoa! Hey buddy!” I shouted even as the rodent went into my spokes. The impact knocked him up and away from the wheel, to glance off my shoe. By the time I was stabilized enough to turn around, the squirrel was gone.

I was not far from here when I first wrote in this blog about the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult, back in 2004. (It is an episode worth revisiting, if only for the comments.) Now they are throwing themselves at passing bicycles as well.

I see a pattern among squirrels, a rule that goes something like, “whatever side of the path you are on, it is safer on the other side, and there is no limit to the risk required to justify getting over there.”

One stretch when I saw no squirrels today was when I was 20 miles into the ride and the shadow of a large bird of prey fell in next to me as I pedaled, and followed me for a while. I suspect it was one of the larger hawk varieties, but I had seen a buzzard on the ground earlier in my ride. Hopefully I wasn’t looking like the bird’s next meal, but rather something that might cause a rodent to do something stupid. Because they will.

Also on my ride today I saw a large number of water fowl, doing water fowl stuff, and chickens, raised by a homeless family between the creek and a golf course. Then there was the Caballero riding his dancing horse. He was an older gentleman, with ramrod-straight posture, plaid shirt over blue jeans, a white straw caballero hat protecting him from the sun. The horse was a big bay with a light step and plenty of moves.

At the southernmost point of my ride, I was debating whether to turn back or push on a little farther. That was decided by a friendly park ranger who told me that the path was closed, due to fire risk and some “hazard trees”. I’m assuming those are trees at risk of lighting up due to sparks. He told me that I could take the road and rejoin the trail a few miles south in Morgan Hill; I just laughed and turned around for home.

It’s not unusual to have a story after a ride, but today had Extra Story Density.

2

Sweet-o-Meter Fixed!

There is a lot of shit code in this world. This blog uses some of it. I have fixed one aspect of the shittiness, so now you can once again voice your appreciation for words well-spoken. I will look into the problem with the comment upvote thingie… later. It could also use a face-lift, I think, so people even notice it’s there.

1

Rule 6

In a bike-related email thread at work, titled “A Cautionary Tale”, I first learned of the Velominati. I was first introduced to Rule 64: Cornering confidence increases with time and experience. The rule goes on to note “This pattern continues until it falls sharply and suddenly.”

Curious what the other rules might be, I moseyed over to Velominati.com to take a look. Needless to say, not many of the rules apply to plodding commuters who can’t even decide if they’re riding a mountain bike or a road bike. (Commuter bikes are sort of a hybrid, with the posture and drive train of a mountain bike but narrower tires for the road.) And many of the rules were far too worried about the appearance of riders for my taste.

But there were quite a few rules that I thought applied universally, and there was a lot of fun to be found. There is Rule 9: If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. I actually enjoy riding in the rain, and when it’s cold in the morning that first mile is uncomfortable, but then it’s all good. So, every once in a while, I’m a badass even to these semi-pro riders.

One of my favorites (that doesn’t even remotely apply to me) is Rule 42: A bike race shall never be preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run. There is further expansion of the rule, and if you allow me, I’ll just paste it here: “If it’s preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run, it is not called a bike race, it is called duathlon or a triathlon. Neither of which is a bike race. Also keep in mind that one should only swim in order to prevent drowning, and should only run if being chased. And even then, one should only run fast enough to prevent capture.” I might amend that rule to say “… one should be the second-slowest runner involved.”

Beer makes an appearance in several rules. Rule 47 recognizes the importance of beer with no shortage of wit, and can be paraphrased, “don’t drink shit beer.” And there are the two cornerstone rules, Rule 5: Harden the fuck up, and Rule 10: It never gets easier, you just go faster. The second of those is a quote from Greg LeMond, one of cycling’s greats. Rule 5 (sometimes written Rule V) is the core ethic of the Velominati.

For me, those rules apply (although I would substitute “farther” for “faster”), especially since I’m so soft that sneezing will harden me up (although I’m noticing definition returning to my calves!), but the best rule of all is Rule 6: Free your mind and your legs will follow. At its heart this is the rule I need more than any other. Plan, prepare, then ride. “Your mind is your worst enemy. Do all your thinking before you start riding your bike.  Once the pedals start to turn, wrap yourself in the sensations of the ride – the smell of the air, the sound of the tires, the feeling of flight as the bicycle rolls over the road.”

When I achieve that, I always have a great ride. I get home tired but mentally refreshed, my brain even more a beneficiary of the ride than my legs, heart, and lungs were. Yesterday, after a gnarly weekend, I told myself before I started that I was taking a Rule 6 ride. It was, as the kids say, just what the doctor ordered.

So here’s to Rule 6. A rule written for over-thinkers like me. And while my definition of “feeling of flight” might not be the same as the feeling the authors of the rules experience, it still applies.

Perspective

I think, as the death toll crosses a politically-minimized 150,000, that we have to accept that the horror we felt when we watched the towers fall was about the buildings, not the people.

Well, THAT was a Month.

July, we hardly knew ye. It was a pretty big month, but you wouldn’t know that based on the cone of silence that has descended on this humble blog. In fact, one and a half Very Big Things happened.

First was summer camp. For three weeks I spent much more time writing fiction than writing code. I hung out with a bunch of talented people from all over the world, learned a few things, got encouragement, and generally worked on my craft.

To be honest, I feel a little presumptuous these days calling what I do “craft”, but it gave me the right chance with the right people to go back and find structure for my very favorite project. I have about 150K words for my 80K story, but now I can see which of those words fit together into a story. Much of the rest is pretty much self-fanfic (without apologies — that’s fun to do), and enough ideas to carry into sequels. It’s the kind of story where a publisher will be happy to hear that there are sequels, should the first book succeed.

Often I travel to Kansas for Summer Camp, but of course this year it was all remote. While I absolutely missed the chance encounters that lead to great discussions, the late-night movie gatherings, and the nights where we read our work for each other, the remote version had some surprising dividends. Naturally, there’s the refreshing absence of “why can’t people clean up after themselves?” type of frustration that one finds when sharing a kitchen.

But there were other benefits as well. People who live far away could be with us. Successful writers and busy editors added a depth of experience, enthusiasm, and shared dread. One woman actually went through an absolutely hellish book launch while summer camp was happening. (Hellish because of the people involved, not the book.)

And because of the nature of this summer camp, unbound by geography, when it was over… it didn’t end. As I have typed this, messages from campers have gone by in little bubbles at the top-right of my screen.

I haven’t participated in those conversations very much, though. The great feelings and strong ideas I came out of summer camp with ran directly into work. But that leads me to the other Exciting Half-Thing!

Five years ago, I picked up a project that someone else had already been working on. Maybe six years ago by now. When you see the code now, you would never imagine the long and winding road that is also a car wash and you’re in a convertible and there are random naked electrical lines dangling down I have been through. Here’s a brief synopsis of what the writing community calls a try-fail cycle:

  • Helpful Tech Person: This is how you do this.
  • Jerry struggles to do this, calls in help from all over the company, costing everyone time. After a few weeks he ALMOST succeeds, but then the underlying rules change.
  • Helpful Tech Person: Why aren’t you doing this the easy way?

There’s one guy at my company that it’s probably just as well I didn’t know where his workstation is. It would not have ended well.

I have to say that one reason I’m finally so close to finishing is because I’m working with someone on the other side of the api who is both knowledgeable and invested in my success. I need to figure out the right gift to send him when this goes live. It’s tricky now, because it should be something he can share with his team, but, well…

But that’s the other half-thing, a thing that will someday soon become a fucking huge thing. This whole goddam mess will be going live soon. I have told my boss that for a few days after that happens, I may be hard to reach. The last of my 18-year-aged Scotch will be consumed in celebration. And I’ll renew my Summer Camp connections, and get my novel moving forward again, and hey, maybe take a few photos as well. Summer Camp opened up a lot of the creativity that work and current events had crushed. It’s time to get back in the saddle.

1

Anger in the Air

It is late dusk, the Fourth of July, 2020. There is everywhere, all around me, the rumble and pop of fireworks. It has been going on for a while, now.

I don’t honestly remember any Independence Day being quite like this one.

But of course in my lifetime there has not been a day like this one. I hope there is never a day like this again. We are celebrating the moment we became a nation built on principle, and simultaneously we are revolting against a regime that has abandoned principle.

Around me is a nearly constant drumbeat of noise, near and distant, sharp with proximity or heavy with distant force. The soundscape is frothing, rolling and popping, unceasing. It has not been like this before.

But of course it hasn’t. Nothing has been like this before. This noise is coming from Americans, the true proud-to-be sort, even the earned-my-right-to-be sort, but it is certain the noise is not coming from people happy about the way things have been going around here.

As I type this the background has become a steady roar. You can take that as a metaphor if you want.

Gilly

About two years ago, we welcomed into our house a little asshole we named Gilfoyle. He is at least in part a Lancashire Heeler, a very small dog designed to move large animals. You want to succeed at that job, you better be an asshole.

Gilly sleeping with eyes open. Because the world is full of danger.

Right now he is under my desk, sleeping on my foot, snoring a little bit. Wherever I sit down to work, he will always be close by. He loves Mommy more, but I stay still.

In the evenings, there is a routine. After a few minutes of snacks and training the dogs and the humans take their places on the couch. Gilly (after sniffing the outside air, drinking water, and rubbing his face on the floor) jumps up on the couch (with a tiny, tiny bit of assistance) and takes his place against my left thigh.

Sometimes, if the Official Sweetie and I are still snacking, some tiny treats will also reach the canine elements of our pack. Last night we were eating chips, and now and then a tiny piece of chip would find its way to the pups. They do likes them some chips.

But then I offered Gilfoyle a chip and he went totally fuckin’ nuts. He bit my finger and then went after any part of my body he could reach, barking and flashing teeth and… I dunno, fighting for his life?

I should have been more ready. I had been sipping Tequila, and I’ve seen plenty of times before that when I’m drinking liquor Gilly is much more volatile.

It breaks my heart. I don’t know Gilfoyle’s history, but I can make a few guesses. When Dad’s been drinking, prepare to fight for your life. I will never erase that impulse. I can never love this dog so hard that those scars go away. But Gilfoyle, my friend, my foot warmer, I will never hurt you. I promise.

Dogs and Tennis

I’ll admit it, yesterday I snuck over to Facebook to see what people have been saying about my more recent episodes (I probably log in to Facebook as often as once a month these days). In response to my recent episode about getting creative with sports, Candace Reedy said, “I always thought golf and tennis would be greatly improved by retrieving dogs…”

I agree wholeheartedly. And dogs and tennis balls? It’s as natural as beer on Friday. I once wrote somewhere in the million-plus words of this blog, that if dogs could raise a statue, it would be to honor the person who invented the tennis ball.

The Round Mound of Hound in intensive training.

So — dogs and tennis. Obviously a good idea. But how, exactly, would it work? I’m here to help make that real. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Overall, I think dogs would add two things to the game: chaos and slobber.

Let’s think about slobber. You’re going to have wet-ball players and dry-ball players. When you serve a ball that is sodden with dog drool, it will feel like you’re hitting a lead weight. If you serve with the usual overhead motion, you will be launching a slug and while it might not get over the net quickly, when it touches the surface on the other side, it will drop flatter than a biological slug. The ultimate dream of topspin players to keep the ball low to the surface on the bounce; with a drool-ball there will hardly be a bounce at all.

But when you toss that saturated ball over your head, dog spittle spinning off, droplets shining in the sun, your opponent will know what is coming, and rush the net. So what do you do instead? The lob-serve. Hit it deep, keep it squishy, and your opponent will be forced to hit it on the volley rather than let it “bounce” – a relatively tough shot.

But here’s were things could get tedious. Your opponent is just as restricted as you are concerting shot options. She will be sending a lob right back. Not exactly the recipe for excitement.

Except, of course, there are dogs on the court! And the right dog for this game will be expert at shagging lobs. But then what happens? Simple: If the dog catches the ball on the volley, it’s a point for the dog’s team. If the dog catches it on the first bounce, no points for either side, a do-over. The dog can enjoy the ball for a limited time, juicing it up, but when her teammate says “drop”, the ball is returned to play.

Imagine you’re Roger Federer, able to serve a thousand miles an hour, give or take. You’re a dry-ball player. Your dog is an Australian Cattle Dog, nimble as all get-out and filled with energy, but is well-trained to give the ball back before it is too sodden. Your dog’s name is something like “Ace.” 

Today you’re facing an up-and-coming dog-tennis player named Casey, a scrambler in the Michael Chang mold, and his canine teammate Luna, a youngster of uncertain parentage with strong legs and an almost limitless supply of drool. Casey is good at deflecting hard serves so that Luna can have a shot at them, and Casey’s scrambling style will eat you alive once things get sloppy. A classic wet/dry showdown!

Stuff like that is what sport is all about.

One of My Favorite Stories has Changed

Harken back with me, to 1985, the year I turned 21. In our mighty nation, it is an obligation to celebrate this momentous birthday with alcohol. There was a catch, however. My Most Significant Birthday Anniversary fell on a Sunday, and in 1985 in New Mexico, Sundays were no-booze days.

However, as a physics major I was able to count, and I realized that to have a boozy party on Sunday, I would need to buy the supplies the day before. It was a bullet-proof plan.

Except that Saturday night at New Mexico Tech is a time of madness, and friends came by and word of booze leaked out and so forth… and we drank it all. My roommate and I awoke Sunday morning, having promised a party that night, and having no alcohol.

I put out some feelers to see if I could scrounge the booze, but no dice. That left only one choice: Arizona. I can tell you now that it is 156 miles by Alfa Romeo odometer from my dorm room in Socorro to the closest booze store in Springerville, Arizona.

But highway 60 is a joy to drive, up through Magdalena, past the VLA, though Datil and Quemado, and over the continental divide at Pie Town. It was cold, but I had the top down and my friend Jane in the passenger seat, the heater was roaring, and the Alfa was feeling frisky that day.

I was driving just a tad over the posted speed limit. By “tad” I mean roughly 60% over the speed limit when the cop topped the hill right in front of me. Busted. I pulled over, and waited while the officer drove to a place where he could turn around safely, and returned to have a conversation with me.

There are tactics he used, which I have since learned are Standard Lies Cops Tell to Get Their Way. He said I’d have to follow him back to the station if I didn’t let him search my vehicle. I could have responded with “Am I under arrest?” but I was a dumb kid and I didn’t have anything to hide.* So I helped him search my car. It turns out I did have something to hide, but the guy just chuckled at the brick of bottle rockets in the glove box.

Without the heater it was pretty chilly at that altitude in early spring, and my co-pilot and I were stomping our feet and blowing into our hands. The cop laughed at that as well. “I remember when I was young and stupid,” he said, looking at the top-down sports car. He never actually finished searching the car.

Eventually he wrote me a ticket, and we continued on to Springerville at a much more sedate pace. We found the liquor store, and bought one of everything. Home we went, to a birthday party that had not a single female guest. So it goes.

It’s a good story. I especially like the “young and stupid” bit. The search was likely because highway 60 had become a major drug conduit from El Paso to Los Angeles. But the cop and I had even shared a chuckle, despite my flaying of the speed limit. And for many years after, I have enjoyed telling that story.

But you could change one thing about that whole encounter, and everything would have been different. You could add pigment to my skin. If I were black, or even brown, there would have been no chuckles. I would have been lying face-down in the prickly weeds on the side of the road, backup troopers watching over me, while my car was systematically dismantled. Before I could re-assemble it, the Alfa would have been towed, the impound fee more than the car was worth. The bottle rockets would have put me in jail overnight.

Fun story, right?

___

* “I don’t have anything to hide” sounds great until you’ve established the assumption that resisting search is implicitly an admission that you have something to hide.

Getting Creative with Sports

I’m writing a story with a lot of swimming in it — specifically swimming under water. It got me to thinking about things that have nothing to do with the story, about swimming and sports and whatnot. I knew some competitive swimmers back in the day, and I remember watching one of those guys traverse nearly the entire length of the pool without breaking the surface. That was a long time ago.

Less long ago, I read that in swimming competitions the rule makers now mandate that swimmers have to come to the surface a specified distance after they dive in or after they turn. Why? Because all that splashing on the surface slows you down. Underwater is faster.

The Swimming Czars put rules into effect because swimmers will otherwise exploit the limited size of the swimming pool and spend half their time submerged. Understandable, but… you want to know who does the butterfly fastest? Put them in a nice, calm lake and point to a buoy.

Maybe this has already happened, but I think swimming can learn from the biker kids over at the velodrome. I went to a few events when I lived in San Diego, and those bicyclists have some crazy competitions (motorcycles on the course, unknown race length, slingshot your team mate, it goes on). If there’s a way to cheat, the riders at the velodrome will have a competition to see who does it best. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch, even if you don’t understand everything that’s going on.

If the lords of the swimmin’ hole adopted that ethic, there would have to be a competition that disallows breaking the surface except on turns. I think that would be hugely entertaining. You have the best conditions for world-record times, but swimmers only get to take a breath once every fifty meters. Mess up your turn and don’t get a full fresh lungful, and you’re in a world of hurt for the next fifty.

I encourage the ruling bodies of every sport to consider events like this. Body-checking in a marathon? Making sounds in golf? Team bowling? We could revolutionize sport itself!

The Devil, the Pandemic, and Me

I am imagining right now sitting in a quiet place, drinking beer, and realizing that the devil is there as well, hunched over his own brewski.

Chances are Old Nick doesn’t want to be bothered, but eventually I would have to say something. I can’t help it. “Hey,” I would say, “If I could point to one person and you made him sick, you could make me sick, too.”

The devil, I imagine, would ponder this for a moment before shaking his head. “Nah. The guy you’re thinking of sends me a lot of business.”

Where There’s Smoke…

I was pondering this morning how I could best describe for y’all the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad five miles that were the end of my bike ride a couple of days ago. Today’s plan was to get a happier ride in before it got too hot, then have a beer or two and regale you with my story of (rather mild) heat stroke.

I have been craving protein since that ride and I was in the kitchen piling up turkey and cheese on my sandwich when The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas said, loudly, “Jerry! Come here RIGHT NOW!” In our many years together, I had never been summoned that way before. I dropped the mustard and hurried to find her. I rounded the corner to see the laundry room filling with white smoke.

Both the washer and the dryer were running, and I unplugged them both as one smoke detector after another began to tell us what we already knew. For one heart-stopping moment it seemed that the smoke was actually coming from the garage, but eventually we opened things up and while the dogs cowered from the terrible noise we vented the smoke and things calmed down.

It wasn’t clear at first which appliance had been smoking; but when we opened the dryer smoke came rolling out. “Can you fix it?” Official Sweetie asked, and after some thought I figured I probably could. Fundamentally, dryers aren’t that complicated.

Eventually we restarted the washer and very quickly realized what the problem was. “It’s never made that sound before,” OSMR&HBI said. Our washer was toast. The dryer had filled with smoke as it pulled air in.

Washers like ours have a complex gear box that, when driven by an electric motor, can move the tub and the agitator thingie in a complex motion. My best diagnosis is that the gearbox seized up, and the motor was burning itself up trying to turn it. Time to find some new parts.

This quest was made more difficult because the number on the cover of the manual wasn’t the model number of the washer, but was in fact the part number of the manual itself. Because that’s obviously the most important piece of information a customer might want to know. For a while it seemed that there were no parts for this washer anywhere.

It took me a while to find the actual model number of the washer, first because the plate with that information was well-hidden behind the lid, and second because there was no way to read that information while the lid was open. It took several tries with my phone camera to get a shot from inside the tub while the lid was mostly closed that captured the model number legibly.

Armed at last with the right model number, I was able to look up the parts. Gearbox for sure, and given the amount of electrical insulation that had been turned into a toxic cloud, it seemed a fair bet that the motor would need replacing as well. Cost of parts: $350 after I shopped around a bit. (The gearbox replacement part was an update to the version in our washer, and is used by literally dozens of washers from all the major brands.) Add to that cost a few hours of cursing and bloody knuckles.

New washer: $550-ish. The Official Sweetie set to shopping.

I don’t know if you guys have heard about this Pandemic Thing, but it leads to a lot of uncertainty about just when a product you buy might reach your doorstep. There is no uncertainty at all about whether the product will be brought inside the house. Availability of washers ranged from weeks to months, the delay inversely proportional to the desirability of the machine.

We discussed for a bit whether to get “good enough” sooner, or order what we really wanted and deal with not having a washer for a while. We agreed that waiting for the right machine was better than spending the next few years with a washer we didn’t really like. (“We” in the previous sentence is only 15% me.) Official Sweetie found the right machine online at Lowe’s, but there was no indication when it would be delivered until after the purchase was made. “If it’s too long, we’ll cancel,” OS said.

It’s being delivered tomorrow.

That in itself was a shock, and ultimately a happy surprise, but it took some adjusting to. Specifically, we will have to get the old washer to the street, and haul the new one up our front steps and into the house. This sudden need for logistics and heavy lifting was as much an emotional hill to climb as it was a hassle. Not for the first time, I wished we had a good hand truck.

I’d estimate I ask, “do we know anyone with a dolly?” about twice a year — often enough that I decided it was time to buy one. Back to the Lowe’s Web site for a preorder. Subsequently I set foot in a retail store for the first time in months to snag a Milwaukee with big, stair-friendly wheels. (Even this was not entirely without challenge, as the preorder had not been filled yet when I got there. I went to pull the item myself, and I was told it was on aisle 39. I marched along, 35, 36, 37… and then the wall of the store. There is a 38 and 39, they’re just… looped back around over there.)

Home, carefully washed so I could accept the welcome of the pack, I pulled out the (not-really-that-) old washer and we rolled it to wait by the front door.

I have a few people now encouraging me to ride my bike regularly. I’m hoping “my washer caught on fire” will earn me slack for one day, at least.