It is still 2 minutes to midnight

This new abnormal is a pernicious and dangerous departure from the time when the United States sought a leadership role in designing and supporting global agreements that advanced a safer and healthier planet. The new abnormal describes a moment in which fact is becoming indistinguishable from fiction, undermining our very abilities to develop and apply solutions to the big problems of our time. The new abnormal risks emboldening autocrats and lulling citizens around the world into a dangerous sense of anomie and political paralysis.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Introducing Hacienda de la Tortuga

My move to California meant giving up an old house by the sea in favor of modern apartment living. And while apartments have much to recommend them, I missed living in (and owning, and DIYing) my own house. (This mostly manifest in the form of nightly binges of home improvement and woodworking videos on YouTube.)

After getting married in June, Katy and I decided to start looking for a more permanent residence. We stuck to the Pasadena area — which is overflowing with charming Craftsmans — and the surrounding cities. Alas, none of them were in our price range, but after much looking and some stressful negotiations we were able to acquire a cute little bungalow in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

Our new home is a single-story stucco structure with a flat roof trimmed in clay tile. The lot is a flat 1/4 acre on a quiet street within walking distance of restaurants, a grocery store, and several Armenian bakeries. There is a single car detached garage that is just perfect for a small workshop. And best of all, the house came with a reptilian occupant — a 25 year old, 65 pound sulcata tortoise named Kip!

The previous homeowners adopted Kip after he was found abandoned at the nearby Huntington Library in 2004. He seems pretty active on warm days and more pokey on the cold ones. We’ve been feeding him lots of leafy greens and vegetables and he seems content.

We are planning a few major projects that involve professionals, like replacing outdated sewer systems and old windows, as well as lots of small projects that we can tackle on our own. Katy has managed much of the unpacking and organizing while I’ve been installing new locks, shower curtains, smoke detectors, speakers, and the like.

Surprisingly all of the YouTubing seems to have paid off a bit, or maybe it’s the benefit of all my experience in Hull over the years, plus a bit more patience and planning. So far I haven’t put any holes in walls that weren’t intended, haven’t electrocuted myself, and haven’t needed to make unexpected hardware store visits. I seem to be getting marginally better at patching walls, fishing wires, and adjusting stuck doors.

Our first night here was rough — we felt unsettled, we were surrounded by boxes, there were swarms of ants everywhere, and none of the light switches did what we expected. A week later we are starting to feel more settled and more at home, as well as more confident that this wasn’t a huge mistake.

We are working on coming up with a silly house name, and I’m advocating for Hacienda de la Tortuga. Hacienda for the home’s Spanish heritage and our plans to make it a homestead with vegetable gardens, chickens, and who knows what else. Tortuga for obvious reasons. But Katy would like to incorporate our gatos into the name as well. I guess we’ll keep thinking about it. We plan to be here for a while, so there is no rush, and in the meantime there is so much else to do!

The Myth of the Wealthy Welder

Dissecting a conservative myth that contends middle-America tradespeople can be as or more successful than college-educated city dwellers in the modern economy. In reality trades are rarely lucrative, and the underfunding of public education means that trade schools leave students deeply indebted even as they face a lack of opportunity.

Politicizing the weather

Trump’s Sharpie vs. reality

As all levels of government are subverted and corrupted at a pace few would have thought possible, even something as fact-based on weather predictions are subject to the lies and whims of a whiny and narcissistic chief executive:

“It makes me speechless that the leadership would put [Trump’s] feelings and ego ahead of putting out weather information accurately,” said Michael Halpern, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we’re politicizing the weather what is there left to politicize?”

NOAA staff warned in Sept. 1 directive against contradicting Trump“, Washington Post

The corruption of any notion of objective, agreed-upon reality is the point. The breakdown of social cohesion is the point. Once even the weather is a political opinion, the fabric of society is so ripped asunder that unity and common purpose may never again be achievable.

★★★★★
Review

Ragtime

Ragtime book cover

Ragtime is my favorite musical. Re-reading the original E.L. Doctorow novel recently, I found it impossible to disentangle it from my feelings about the show.

I first read the novel around the same time as I saw the original production. My grandfather gave it to me and I struggled through it. I found the narrative style jarring and the story disjointed. When I told him this, he laughed and marveled that such a good show could come from such a mess of a book. Apparently he gave me the reading assignment as a form of torture!

Re-reading it now, I love the narrative structure, the simultaneous richness and sparseness of the prose, the seamless blending of real historic figures and imaginary characters. It truly is a rich tapestry of an era. And I still agree with grandpa, it is remarkable that a novel with such construction could be so expertly adapted into a riveting stage musical.

Automated pancake robot

Pancake robot doing it's thing
From batter to nearly inedible finished pancake in only 60 seconds.

I can’t stop thinking about the engineering effort, time, testing, and sheet ingenuity that went into making this $4,000 machine that spits out the worst pancakes I have ever tasted.

Encountered at the Heathrow Airport Doubletree Hotel on our layover coming home from Greece. This was also my first time experiencing manufactured fried eggs that were simply re-heated on site. Each one looked exactly the same and tasted only vaguely like the real thing. Progress!

How Game of Thrones Lost Its Way as a Political Drama

I’ve spent the entire last week being upset about this epic television show’s finale, indeed the entire final season. I’ve read dozens of articles, tweetstorms, memes, and hot takes, discussed it with many people. There is a lot I could say, but I’ll just post this one article that sums up some of my key frustrations, and leave it at that.

A statement of principles

It’s been over two years now of “shock and awe” tactics aimed at destroying the foundations of American democracy. Equivocating is not an option. Mincing words is not an option. It’s hard to stay focused as each new atrocity becomes normalized. So here is my list, Arya Stark style, of what I believe is most important:

  • Climate change, because There Is No Planet B
  • Gun violence, we should Protect Kids, Not Guns
  • Police brutality: Black Lives Matter
  • Women’s rights: Abortion Is A Civil Right
  • Immigration and asylum: Abolish ICE

Unlike Joe Biden, I see no middle ground on these issues, not anymore. There is right and there is wrong. I refuse to compromise with monsters.

★★☆☆☆
Review

The Clockmaker’s Daughter

I’m not sure the genre of this book, but it is a time-spanning tale centered on a house, a murder, and various people connected by their interest in both. The nexus is a visit to said stately country manor in a summer in the 1860s. A crime takes place, a treasure goes missing. There is a ghost doing some of the narrating; presumably she was involved in said excitement.

There are also various third-person omniscient sections, primarily centered around various occupants of the house over the decades, but not always. I guess the disconnected prose is meant to pull the reader deeper into the mystery that is this Very Interesting House. Unfortunately, the various characters one meets along the way are often mere sketches, or the time spent with them is sufficiently limited that it is not clear a reader should care much about them at all.

As the book drags on, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the different people straight. The non-linear structure succeeds in adding confusion but not in illuminating any significance new details or perspectives. Some of this is perhaps intentional, giving people slightly odd nicknames or limited backstories so that when their connections to other characters become clear it is an “exciting” surprise.

In the end, the central mysteries, such as they are, are “solved,” to the extent that a relatively banal and heavily foreshadowed conclusion is finally stated plainly to the reader. And then it is over, and the dozen different characters poof into dust with no discernible reason for existing. A disappointing journey that meandered without direction or destination.

Chasing cannoli

As former Boston residents, Katy and I come down on opposite sides in the whole Mike’s vs Modern debate. So on a recent trip back East, I decided to enlist a cadre of tasters in a cannoli test panel to put this controversy to rest. The results were not at all what I expected.

We ventured to the North End on a Friday night and braved the lines to acquire half a dozen cannoli each from Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry. Awkwardly, we reconvened at Modern for our taste test.

Modern has a more traditional assortment with fewer varieties. I asked for a mixed batch and received two each plain, chocolate, and vanilla. I was given the choice of powered sugar dusting, or not. The cannoli were filled to order and neatly packed in a small box tied with the trademark string.

My compatriots at Mike’s were offered a plethora of flavors to choose from, all pre-filled and on display behind glass. Their six selections ran the gamut, including one with chocolate peanut butter filling and one with a florentine shell. Unfortunately due to Mike’s messy packing strategy, it was impossible to get a picture of all six cannoli in their boxed glory.

The product from Mike’s cost a bit more but are also substantially larger. Testers enjoyed the chocolate chips, which were not offered at Modern. On the whole, everyone preferred the variety of flavor options at Mike’s over Modern’s more traditional selection.

The real test is on taste, and this is where things got a bit more complicated. The panel universally found the Modern Pastry shells crisper and more satisfying. The Mike’s Pastry shells were denser and tasted slightly stale in comparison. But when it came to filling, Mike’s plain and chocolate fillings were universally lauded as lighter and more pleasing, while Modern’s more custardy fillings were felt to be inappropriate in this type of pastry. Some of us enjoyed the creaminess of the Modern filling, but we all agreed that the filling from Mike’s was a better overall fit.

Surprisingly, there was near universal agreement on the overall winning cannoli, and it turned out to be the florentine. This is, of course, non-traditional in the extreme, but it was undeniably delicious, and, at the end of the day, that is what really matters.

The choice of cannoli is a deeply personal one, and I wouldn’t claim to have resolved this never-ending debate. In conclusion, cannoli are delicious and sharing them with others only adds to the experience.

★★★☆☆
Review

A Gentleman In Moscow

An aristocrat of Tsarist Russia finds a place for himself within the confines of house arrest under Bolshevik rule as Moscow changes outside his window. This novel is a charming bit of storytelling, a nice palette cleanser after my recent diet of distressing news and heavier fiction. It discusses atrocities and suffering only glancingly. Count Rostoff is preternaturally upbeat, charming, and resourceful. The antics are delightful, the friendships and interactions uplifting. But it is hard to shake the feeling that the American author is appropriating a foreign culture’s pain and suffering for our amusement, and in the end the novel does not sit well with me.

Is a carbon-restricted future really impossible?

The “Green New Deal” is a blanket term for an amorphous set of ideas about restructuring American society to address the coming climate crisis. If it does nothing else concrete, the Green New Deal has ignited long-overdue discussion about the destructive effects of climate change and practical solutions for mitigating the worst impacts.

In some ways, the climate crisis seems hopeless. What is required is massive, wholesale societal change, yet what has been most frequently proposed up to this point is tiny individual changes, such as eating less meat.

There is justified concern that larger changes to consumption, commodity pricing, and distribution models would be anathema to the citizenry, and thus unobtainable. But as I think about programs implemented in the past few decades, I think there is reason to be hopeful and optimistic about some of the changes required.

In the mid 1980s, California introduced a 5¢ fee on beverage containers, which could be recovered through recycling. Over time, an entire infrastructure sprung up around this market-based recycling approach. I fondly recall smashing soda cans in the garage as a kid, and then bringing a big bag of them to a recycling center near our supermarket in exchange for a voucher we could redeem for groceries. Recently this program has struggled as the result of a global shift in how recycling is processed, but even still 80% of beverage containers in California end up being recycled.

Starting in 2017, California banned single-use plastic shopping bags statewide. While there are a variety of exceptions, on the whole the entire state has shifted to reusable bags. This may feel like a large burden, but carrying reusable bags quickly becomes an ingrained behavior, and before long it feels completely normal:

For the most part, Californians took in stride the sudden absence of some 13 billion bags that in previous years were handed out at grocery checkout counters and by other retailers of all sorts. Maybe a few grumbled at first about the inconvenience. But most adjusted quickly, perhaps because they intuited that something was not right about all those plastic bags hanging from trees, caught up in storm drains, clumped by the sides of freeways and floating in the ocean.

Los Angeles Times

How do plastic bags and soda cans relate to the Green New Deal? Changes to our food distribution system will be critical to achieving the necessary carbon reduction targets. Taxes, caps, subsidies, or whatever other approach is chosen, at the end of the day, certain types of foods and transportation will become more expensive, and certain types of packaging will need to change.

Think about everything that comes from a grocery store, and just how much single-use packaging is involved. Every single-serving yogurt, granola bar, bag of chips, tub of hummus, frozen dinner, and clamshell case of strawberries is made up of single-use packaging that is devilishly difficult to recycle, if we even try.

On the other hand, glass, aluminum, cardboard? Pretty easy (assuming the packages are clean). The future I envision is more like Sprouts or Whole Foods than Ralphs and Safeway. More prepared foods made in-store, distributed in reusable plastic or aluminum trays that come with a redemption value attached. More large bins of bulk items — coffee, nuts, grains, snacks — that are distributed in reusable bags and tubs that we simple get used to bringing with us every time we shop.

A lot of the innovations in packaging in the last few decades have been around making products last longer in transport and on shelves. We have made the tradeoff of reducing food waste in exchange for distributing food in increasingly complex packaging that is impossible to recycle. This is an energy-intensive and petroleum-heavy endeavor, and I think the trend will need to shift the other way.

We will be faced with some level of reduced choice as the cost of carbon-heavy packaging and long-distance transportation rises, driving up the prices of foods that are distributed that way. Some of the biggest names in food production and distribution will not be able to adapt, and will go out of business. But we will shift towards more local production, more buying in bulk, and more local preparation.

It is not just transportation and packaging that needs a drastic change, it is also how we choose to subsidize food production. Right now we dramatically subsidize the cost of meat, dairy, snacks, and sugary beverages through our subsidies of sugarcane, soybeans, and corn. On the one hand this helps to prevent food shortages and ensures that high-caloric food is affordable. But more sustainable would be to shift in the opposite direction, towards foods that are inherently calorie-dense (and healthier) without many levels of processing and intermediate steps.

Source: http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/shrink-your-food-footprint

Will this raise the price of meat, cheese, and snacks? Sure it will. But if we can have a corresponding drop in the price of grains, fruits, and vegetables that are local and in season, consumption habits will adapt. Before long, our new food system will be the new normal.

The food system, including agriculture, packaging, and distribution is incredibly complex, and the shifts and changes will be far more consequential, difficult, and expensive than simply reducing plastic bag waste. But programs like the plastic bag ban, can recycling, and others like subsidies for solar panels and electric cars show that we do have the tools at the policy and economic level to address these problems in a systemic way. And they show that, done sensitively and carefully, such changes need not result in widespread suffering or anger.

I am not optimistic about our changes against the forces of nature and the impacts of over 100 year of industrialization, but I do believe there is a path forward. The fact that we have started talking about solutions — FINALLY! — gives me a little big of hope.