My Visit to One of the Most Expensive Buildings in the World

Most of the top ten most expensive buildings in the world are opulent resorts or mighty skyscrapers. There is a nuclear power plant in the mix, and then there’s Apple Park. The new headquarters for my company doesn’t soar up to scrape the ionosphere’s belly, and it doesn’t drip with ridiculous lavishness. The cost came not from coating everything with gold but from building to design tolerances that the construction industry simply doesn’t do.

To make everything fit so tightly in earthquake country first meant resting the whole damn thing on shimmy-shake pads. Thinking about that puts the scale into perspective: The building is a ring; the whole of the new football stadium for the San Francisco 49’ers fits in the “garden” inside the ring.

When I first got through security and walked up to the building, the soft morning rain and the sun at my back produced a rainbow that seemed to emerge from the middle of the giant ring. One prone to symbolism might find that portentous. I took a picture, but I can’t show it to you. (I might have cheated but the picture’s not that great.)

Inside, it feels like the future. Like the fictional sets of many, many science fiction movies, but real, and… functioning. Considering that this whole thing was built on so many simulations, so many never-been-done-but-it-should-work-probably ideas, the whole thing has come together quite nicely.

I was on the third floor and I stepped out of the elevator to see the treetops of the cafeteria. The cafeteria was indoors at that moment (there are stunningly massive sliding glass doors — four stories tall — to open the cafeteria to the outside on good days), but it still felt arboreal.

One thing that enhanced that feeling was the near invisibility of the fence at the edge of the balcony looking down. Glass, clean, almost invisible, making me feel like I was floating over the space below. Happily, I am not prone to vertigo.

It is a building that glorifies glass. The stories you may have heard about distracted employees running into walls is true. Glass and pale cool stone define this quiet world.

I walked through the center of the ring, the path making satisfying crunching sounds beneath my feet. I saw places that had not been ready for the recent rains, standing water on top of newly-planted ground cover. And there is no place in the area built with Apple’s beer bashes in mind. (*WHAAT?*) Yet, there was a serenity in those rolling hills that I really enjoyed. I can imagine a monastery feeling that way.

When we started our stroll through the center of the ring the sky was offering a gentle sprinkle, but by the time we got to the path to the duck pond it was dumping rain and I was more inclined to get back inside. From the organic chaos of grass and trees and rain to the quiet, controlled world of glass and stone once more.

The people I was meeting with — now residents of this place — pointed out spots where trim was missing or small finishing tasks were incomplete. I imagine it will be a year or more before the miles-long to-do list is completed.

My group will not be moving to the new campus; even before ground was struck Apple had outgrown its new headquarters. It holds something like 13,000 people — similar to the Hewlett Packard campus that was razed to make room — but where the old buildings stood between parking lots, the Apple Campus leaves much of the real estate for parkland which I look forward to exploring. Apple was named for the local orchards; in part it was Apple’s success that destroyed them. Nice to see at least a few acres of them come back.

I may not work over there, but I will be finding excuses to visit.

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The Purpose of the Human Race

The other day, as I was riding home from work, I had an interesting thought. One thing about riding as slowly as I do — you get plenty of time to think about stuff.

Although, when the wind is at my back, pretty much the only thought in my head is “Whee!” and when the wind is in my face the cursing leaves no space for other thought. However, during the non-raining wind-from-the-side portions of my ride, I had time to chew on an interesting thought.

It started somewhere on Homestead Avenue, when it occurred to me that the Information Age was the inevitable consequence of being an organism that uses language. Our brains are built to interpret the world around us, breaking it down into the symbols that allow us to communicate abstract thoughts. We are biologically hard-wired to process symbols that represent the world; we are as hungry for information as we are for food.

But we didn’t stop at reducing the world into symbols, we began to recreate the world, using those same symbols as the building blocks. Early religions might be the first recorded attempts at building a symbolic world on top of the observable one, but any good story is a new world.

Facing a rainy headwind while I pushed down Park Avenue (a pleasant street), those thoughts were forgotten for a while, but by the time I reached Bird they had grown. We are now creating worlds entirely out of symbols. Worlds built purely out of language. World of Warcraft is an obvious example.

While WoW is crude compared to the (presumably) atom-based world we occupy most of the time, it’s easy to imagine that as we build ever-more eloquent languages (in this case programming languages and the frameworks that provide them vocabulary, which in turn express the desires of designers who communicate with more traditional languages) we will create more “real” worlds built solely with language.

By the time I’d huffed over the Curtner Hump and turned into the cemetery, I came down to a core question: Is this what we set out to do a million years ago?

Did we grow brains that had language so we could build better worlds, or was the ability to communicate mundane information twisted to introduce fiction? Are those cave paintings we know so well simply recording history, or are they expressing something larger that we all understand — the desire to build new worlds using the symbols we developed to understand the physical world?

What happens, then, when the world is entirely composed of symbols? What comes next? Are we finished?

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How Quickly they Change their Tune

Remember when Republicans were all saying “Extend the patriot Act! Strengthen it! The FBI needs to be able to go after the bad guys!” and the Democrats were all saying “No! We have to protect civil liberty! Approving all this surveillance damages our democracy!”

That wasn’t very long ago. And by the way, ceding more power to the government is not “conservative”. It’s just one of many places where Republicans have proven to be the exact opposite of conservative.

Now the same people who loudly trumpeted the need to expand the ability of the FBI to investigate US citizens are crying about how the FBI is abusing its surveillance powers. You made this bed, Republicans, now lie in it. (And the lying has commenced, indeed.)

If that weren’t bad enough, the Democrats, who are often mistaken for liberals, have switched sides, too, trying their best to defend the FBI’s use of the power congress gave it. They’re crying about not being allowed to use the same low tactics the Republicans used to make political hay from the Trump/Russia investigation.

Why can’t just ONE Democrat point out that the FBI’s new power is a separate issue that may ultimately be more important than having an evil President for a couple of years?

An Engineer’s Approach to Tax Reform

A few years ago Malcom Forbes (I think it was) proposed a 17% flat tax – the same rate for everyone, no loopholes. That proposal would actually have increased revenue. How is that possible? Lower rates for everyone, but higher revenue? Crazy! But true. The increase in revenue comes from what Forbes (I think) called “loopholes”.

“Loophole”, when applied to the tax code, is a conservative code word that the liberals have not deciphered. Because really, no one wants loopholes in the tax code. Loopholes allow the rich to get richer, at the expense of the little guy. Of course liberals hate loopholes.

But in this case, “loophole” actually means “policy”. There are essentially two ways for our government to fund a goal: collect money and then distribute it where needed, or not collect money from where it’s needed in the first place.

Ideally, the tax code would be about exactly one thing: collecting revenue. But it is MASSIVELY more efficient, especially with our terribly inefficient government, to not collect money than it is to collect it, filter it through the bureaucracy, and return a fraction of the amount to the point of need.

Our current tax code is a relatively simple set of rules for collecting revenue, and a gargantuan codex of exceptions. Many, perhaps even most, of those exceptions are defensible for the good they do. Food for hungry children. Incentives for businesses to reinvest in themselves. It’s all over the map.

There are also purely evil clauses in the tax code, carefully designed to benefit specific campaign donors. Actually, there’s quite a lot of those. Actual loopholes.

So: we can’t just wave our hand and sweep tax law clean of all “loopholes”. A lot of people would suffer, and finally we’d pass a bunch of other laws to fund those goals in a less-efficient manner. But somehow we have to weed out all that evil.

From an engineering standpoint, it’s simple. Break the one huge, incomprehensible law into maybe five hundred smaller laws.

First you have the tax revenue collection law. It’s a simple baseline describing brackets or whatever. How we bring the money IN.

Second you have a framework that allows separate laws for single, specific exceptions to that rule. Single. Specific. Each voted on by congress separately.

“Madness!” you cry. “My legislator could never understand 500 separate bills well enough to vote responsibly.” You’re probably right, but your legislator already cannot understand the 500 exceptions in the one tax bill she votes on now. At least she could abstain on policy decisions she couldn’t get to.

So much debating, so much deal-making… so much more work for our legislators. THAT’S THEIR JOB! And when the chips fall, we will have a list of who voted for each provision independently. We would have an exact list of the people who supported “cash for bankers” and who supported “breakfast for children”. There would still be deals, but the deals would be a lot more transparent. And I think that’s a good thing. Each provision of the code would have to stand on its own merits. It is exactly what our legislators DON’T want. It’s a lot harder to hide the fact that you’re in the pocket of a special interest when that vote sits out there on its own.

Implementing this plan would be bloody and painful. Cash cows would wither in the light of inspection (vampire cash cows?), political careers built on hiding shit in the tax code would end. On the downside, the turmoil would probably paralyze government for a year or two, and more than a few of the programs I deem worthy would not survive. People would suffer.

But honestly I think the pain would in the end be worth it. If every “loophole” were scrutinized separately, we could eliminate a lot of pork while making the government a much more efficient expression of the voice of the people.

Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.

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My Last Car

My faithful little Miata is getting long in the tooth; I purchased it new off the lot in the summer of 1999. Eighteen and a half years is pretty old for a car, but these days not exceptional.

Still, after spending the weekend replacing ignition components and discovering oil on my hands more than once, I have to admit that the car is not as mechanically tight as it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before it crosses the line from “reliable transportation” to “hobby”. I don’t need another hobby.

From time to time I peruse the Internet, fantasizing about the car that will replace the Miata. Convertible is an absolute requirement, two seats a preference. There are some pretty cool cars in this space, but the frontrunner remains the Mazda Miata. I could spend a lot more and get a somewhat more exciting car, but the Miata remains an excellent intersection between fun and economy, with no serious challengers.

But boy, that F-type purrs like a kitten. A tiger kitten.

As I consider the expected lifespan of my next car, the expected lifespan of me, and trends in technology, it occurred to me: It’s quite possible that this will be the last car I ever buy. Twenty years from now my driving skills will be degrading, and as long as I live in a town of any size, it’s entirely possible that self-driving on-demand cars will be significantly cheaper than car ownership, especially when you take into account how few miles I drive.

My last car. Wow. But…

I don’t really need to replace the Miata at all. There is almost never a time when both the family cars are out of the garage, and the few times it does happen could easily be handled with transport alternatives. I could rent a convertible for road trips. Perhaps I have already bought my last car. Wow.

Often, when I take the old girl out for a spin, I first have to remove the tool boxes and other items piled on top. Home repair and crafts projects lead me to pull items off the shelving next to the car and put them on the top or on the hood for access.

A typical look at the Miata

Perhaps the next four-wheeled item to occupy that slot in the garage will be something like this:

The next thing to live on the right side of the garage?

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Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

My 2018 Resolutions

Last year I made several ambitious-but-attainable resolutions. I failed at all of them.

For 2018, my goal is much simpler: do better at everything than I did in 2017. The bar is pretty low.

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Fun With NORAD

The United States has a massive array of detection equipment all around the world, watching with never-blinking (we hope) vigilance to detect attacks on the US or our allies. Each year that massive network is also put to the much-more-fun purpose of tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way around the world.

The official tracking site is here, and now sports a fun and interactive way to watch the jolly elf’s progress. What a great opportunity to sit down with youngsters over a globe or an atlas and find Santa’s current location, tracking him over places the kid has heard of but may not appreciate as actual places on Earth. What a fun way to have a little geography lesson!

While you’re at it, you might enjoy reading about how this all started. NPR has a short article about how the Continental Air Command got into the Santa-tracking business. It all started with a red phone ringing on the desk of a man whose job it was to be the first to know if we were under attack. A red phone whose number was top secret. It’s a fun story.

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Rober Mueller is Getting Slammed – Why?

Over the last couple of weeks, the Republicans in power have launched a massive campaign to discredit special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The Trump administration, the Republican establishment, and Fox News have started a non-stop “nothing to see here” feedback loop. The complaints they are throwing around are not new; Watergate and Whitewater investigators heard the same things.

The Democrats spent a year complaining about Kenneth Starr, and the complaints about Archibald Cox (Watergate) are even more similar to what we are hearing today. Neither party is above suppressing the truth for its own purposes. Notably, in both those examples impeachment proceedings followed.

So, maybe “Why?” is not the interesting question. Maybe it’s “Why now?” Why has the bashing been turned up to eleven? Mueller’s investigation is moving with historical quickness — after Manafort and Papadopolous turned, I thought we wouldn’t hear more before January, using past investigations as a guide. But even bigger news has followed, and things are now very close to the White House. So, “why now” might be because the Trump administration and their Republican apologists realize that there is something even bigger coming, and they want to get ahead of it, to rally the party faithful ahead of some damning news. If they already know impeachment is in the wind, getting the party to close around a few points of resistance makes sense.

Perhaps.

It’s also possible that Trump and his administration have nothing to hide. Perhaps they realize that their own hound dog, Kenneth Starr, was allowed to expand the Whitewater investigation into realms that had absolutely nothing to do with the original charges, fruitlessly looking under rock after rock, until they finally caught the president not wanting his wife to find out he’d gotten BJ’s in the oval office. Even then it wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but Slick Willy was too slick for his own good, and tried to play word games with his questioners.

When looking for infractions on that scale, you know that Trump — the pussy-grabber and philanderer and liar and serial bankruptcy artist — will trip over something.

So is the Republican message machine afraid of the truth, or are they afraid the Democrats are paying them back for Starr? My guess is that there is an ugly truth coming, and they are girding for a fight that threatens the very relevance of their party. But it may be they’re just about to reap what they have sown. Either way, I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for them.

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“I haven’t … since I got married.”

I had a quiet chuckle the other day when I thought to myself, “I haven’t showered since I got married.” Immediately I came up with several other personal-hygiene-related phrases I’d had a chance to use: “I haven’t brushed my teeth since I got married.”

But what of other parts of my life? It seems like there should be plenty of opportunities for a newlywed to find humor with the phrase. “I haven’t eaten since I got married” only lasted a short time for me, but would have been pretty good.

I get the feeling that I’m missing some pretty good ones. Any thoughts from the bloggcomm?

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So, I’m Married Now

Yep, my best friend in the whole world, my sweetie, my soul mate and I tied the knot today. I’m more than a little pleased by that.

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Journalistic Bias: Not What, but When

There is a curve when it comes to shocking news about a candidate for office. For a couple of weeks after the damning revelations come out, the candidate takes a hit. Then, gradually, the candidate’s numbers recover. We’re seeing that right now with Roy Moore in Alabama. Voters have had time to rationalize voting for someone they would never let near their own daughters.

We’ve seen the curve with candidates from both parties in the past, from a gleefully corrupt Democrat in Louisiana who had time to charm his way out of the doghouse to a presidential candidate who went down to perfectly-timed accusations.

I think this curve is pretty well-known by now. I’ve heard of it, and I’m the last to hear about anything.

So imagine you’re the editor of the Washington Post. You have an explosive story about a candidate in an election of great importance. That election is six weeks away. The story is ready to go — facts checked, sources cross-referenced and background-checked. It’s legit.

I think it’s safe to say the editors of the Washington Post are not big supporters of the Republican Party in its current incarnation. So if you are an editor at The Post who decides when to run this huge piece, there will be a natural temptation to run it at the most damaging time possible for Moore. There would be a temptation to sit on the story for a couple of weeks, to put the sweet spot of the damage curve right on election day.

The Washington Post did not do that. There’s no way to tell if the timing of the story was based on journalistic integrity or incompetence, but they did not time the story for maximum electoral impact. I think that means something.

5

Flat-Earthers are Punking You

99% of Flat-Earthers actually believe the Earth is round. They’re just being dicks.

They’re taking great pleasure as you prove seventeen different ways that the Earth is round, just to shake their heads afterward and say, “Nope, Earth is flat.” Your continued insistence on proving the Earth is round is just plain funny to them.

Welcome to the 4chan world. 4chan is a place where people will say anything if it pisses someone off. It’s “for the lulz.” 4chan is where gamer gate came from, and the place Bannon recruited at least one of his most poisonous people.

Now they are getting all kinds of attention just for saying the Earth is flat. Virtual high-fives were shared between moms’ basements when a few idiot celebrities jumped on board. Kinda like with vaccines. But here’s what you have to understand: Every attempt to expose them, every attempt to use science to show they are wrong, just feeds them. The better your argument, the more fun the “nope”.

Only an idiot would think the Earth is flat. These people aren’t idiots. They’re assholes.

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I Got To Use My Router Today

It was a big handyman day at Muddled Headquarters today. Relatively speaking.

For one task I needed to cut some grooves in a couple of pieces of wood. I have the perfect tool for that — a very nice router. The thing is, I haven’t used this machine in well over a decade. So a chore that would take an actual handyman maybe fifteen minutes start to finish took me closer to two hours, stretched over two days. First, I had to go to the store to get the correct bit (after searching for and failing to come up with the correct bit in my storage bins). The shopping trip took longer than necessary because I did self check-out wrong. By the time I got home it was dark, and my workshop is the back patio.

This morning(ish) I was right back at it. I have no idea how many trips I made between the garage and the patio — for instance to change the bit on the router I realized one needs a large wrench. Into the garage I went to grab my inch-based set of wrenches, only to discover that they’re all too small. Back into the garage I went to grab all my plus-sized wrenches from where they hang in an orderly row. That made two trips, just to put the right bit into the router. Then there were trips for clamps and shims and scrap-lumber guides, and a special trip for my ruler-square thingie. Then bizz-bang-buzz I was done.

Putting the router away, I pushed aside the guide attachment that would have rendered much of the other fiddling moot.

But I made the grooves. There is something deeply satisfying about a high-precision cut, the clean square groove at just the right location. Making the cut is almost an anticlimax; getting the cut right happens long before the motor of the power tool starts whirring. Carpentry is in the things you do before the blade touches the wood.

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