Just write on the walls

Sometimes you just need to scribble on the walls. In recent weeks, I’ve fallen off of a morning exercise habit—long story. Just takes a few seconds for me to scribble out a calendar grid so I can begin a “don’t break the chain” reboot.

We have three of these chalk boards in our house now. It’s simply paint, (it actually has a lot of blue in it, as real slate does,) and you can probably find labeled-as “chalk board” paint anywhere you buy paint. The trick that no one mentions is that you have to sand the wall with fine sandpaper—chalk boards are smooth, and walls are actually not very. Then a few feet of what’s called “brick mould” cross drilled and screwed to the wall, and finally a few sticks of sidewalk chalk.

Oh, one more trick: If you look closely at the image, midway down on the left, there’s a tiny, smooth, rounded nail head barely visible. I drove that fully into the wall, before I painted the chalk board. It enables me to stick magnets to the wall in a few places, so it’s easy to tack up pieces of paper with little magnets too.

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Old dog

I don’t think that anymore. Those fantasies are silly really. As the character Judge Smails played by Ted Knight in Caddyshack so aptly put it, “The world needs ditch diggers too.” … Accepting the fact that you are a contributor to a larger community as opposed to being a Demi-God uberman is not just humbling…it’s a huge relief.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2014/10/old-dog-new-tricks-2/

But my biggest challenge is the closely-related problem of continuously thinking about all the things I “should” do. Where, “should,” is a self-evaluated judgement that arises from my thinking about all the things I could do. …and HFS I could do all sorts of things.

Having happily set down all the Big Picture “shoulds,” I’m currently trying to pick off all the true “shoulds.” I’ve learned to stop looking to the stars, and to instead set my sights on the next hilltop. I should put the finishing touches on the garden we built last year. I should get that tree trimmed professionally so it’s good for another 10 years. …those aren’t so bad. But some: I should finish going through all this photography. I should find a home for this pool table. …I’ve been trying to get done for like 10 years.

Overall, there’s a pretty big list, but importantly, the list has not been growing in recent years. On the other hand, it weighs on my mind none the less.

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Soap works best

Because soap really does work best, we continue to hear the medical profession instructing we wash our hands with warm water and soap.

But how can your grandmother’s soap—that ancient and simple human technology—work so well?

What is a lipid? A lipid is a substance that repels water, the way a great raincoat repels water. Fats—all of the types of fat you can think of—are lipids. Lipids stick together and make impenetrable stuff like you find baked onto your casserole dish.

What’s in soap? Some of the molecules in soap are surfactants. Surfactants are certain molecules which actively separate lipids. Surfactants separate lipids the way bouncers break up bar fights: They forcefully insert themselves and separate the individual lipids. That’s why soaking your casserole dish in soap and water magically turns the impossibly-baked-on gunk into easily-rinsed-away gunk.

How are lipids relevant to viruses? Viruses have an outer envelope—imagine a rain coat shaped into a beach ball—that surrounds and protects the contents of the virus. That outer envelope is made from lipids. It’s tough like the baked-on-gunk on a casserole dish is tough.

What’s inside a virus particle? Viruses contain a long string of instructions. Your cells contain your personal set of instructions, called your DNA. Viruses contain a set of instructions similar enough that your cells can follow those instructions. When a virus’s instructions get into your cell, the cell is duped into making more viruses rather doing whatever it normally would do.

What does soap do to the lipid envelope of a virus? It does the same thing soap and warm water do to the crud stuck on your casserole disk. Soap makes the lipid envelope fall apart, exposing the virus’ payload of instructions.

What happens to the virus’ instructions without the protective lipid envelope? The instructions are quickly damaged and made useless. The instructions in the virus are extremely delicate. Exposure to oxygen, (1/5 of our atmosphere is Oxygen,) or light, (we have a lot of that too,) or several things found in soap, will quickly destroy the instructions. The DNA in your cells is just as delicate, but your cells have structures and processes to protect and repair your DNA. But unlike your cells, viruses are very simple; all they have protecting their instructions is a lipid envelope wrapped around the outside.

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Diet. Diet? Diet!?

Overall I am ending this research more confused than when I started it. I think the most likely dietary change I make is to try to avoid foods with soybean, corn, or safflower oil, since this is probably a good stand-in for “foods processed enough that they count as processed foods and you should avoid them”. I don’t think the evidence is good for avoiding fish oil and olive oil, and there’s enough evidence from elsewhere that these foods are healthy that I’m going to keep trying to eat them. I don’t think the evidence is good for saturated fats being especially good, and there seems to be at least equally strong evidence that they’re bad, so although I’m not going to work too hard to avoid them I’m definitely not going to optimize my diet for getting as many of them as possible.

~ Scott Alexander from, https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/03/10/for-then-against-high-saturated-fat-diets/

That’s the very last paragraph from a not-overly long piece from Alexander. Overall, yes I agree, I am more confused than when I started trying to sort out my eating.

Which is rather depressing; ~100 years of nutritional science and all we have are a lot of questions. I’ve put a lot of time into trying to figure out what works best for me—for maintaining a healthy weight—and I still am unable to control my weight to a degree that I’d like.

I can say for certain, (n=1, my anecdote, ymmv, etc.,) that there are interlocking causes which I am unable to control. I’ve spent 15 years working very hard, and while I have some ideas of what works, I do not have control.

If you want to read a terrific book that will expand your diet knowledge in some new directions, check out S. Guyenet’s, The Hungry Brain.

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Urgency

This is a topic I revisit often in my personal reflection. When I write, I sometimes remember to search my own site to see what else I’ve written on the topic at hand. Lose no time, is exactly as useful to me—hint: incredibly—as when I first wrote it.

I find that things go well once I’m heads-down tinkering away on some specific task. I’ve also learned, but relatively recently in my journey if I’m being honest, to enjoy myself at a relaxed pace in the times leading up to important things; that phone call in an hour, the doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning, etc. In those two cases where it quite clearly could, the urgency demon does not actually come knocking on my door.

As you’re expecting, I’m going to say that there is a third case where the urgency demon does show up, bites off my head, and dances on my chest: When I’m thinking. A thought drifts through the living room of my mind; “that’s a good point, I should do such-and-so about that.” Another thought arrives on the stoop and rings the bell; “oh, yeah that’s probably important and if I just nip it in the bud…” And another thought slips in with the second thought when I open the front door; “actually, I busted my ass on that and now I’m stuck waiting on…” Those three thoughts, now in my living room, realize it’s a party, they each message three friends, and nine new thoughts arrive; “I thought I had all this stuff under control [you should see my systems!] how are there a dozen of you partying in my house? …who brought music?!” Another thought streaks through unbidden; “hey wait, I totally know I had that sorted out, and you agreed to wear clothing…” The pizza delivery guy arrives to feed all the thoughts. Ride-shares queue up my block to pick up the drunken revelers barfing on my lawn. The cops do a second slow-roll after the third noise complaint. And how is there a bonfire in the yard?!

I eventually panic, and flee to food or distraction.

It’s not quite splitting; I sometimes do that, but knowing what it is makes it pretty easy to avoid. It’s not quite catastrophizing; again, been there, know what that is. I think it’s simply mental overload—in the sense of physical exhaustion combined with some feedback looping. The sure sign, for me at least, is when everything starts to seem urgent. When everything seems urgent, (and none of the things are actually urgent in the way choking or a heart attack are urgent,) that’s a sure sign to call, “bullshit!” and to walk—not run—to something other than thinking. Rather than wait until I panic and flee to negative distractions, I’m working on throwing my hands up much sooner at that party: “Well, this is clearly going to get out of hand. I’m outta’ here.”

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Motivation versus validation

A great number of bits are dedicated to discussing motivation. In particular, it’s well-covered that my motivation should spring from within. I should do whatever-it-is because I value the work or the self-transformation. Far too many people are externally motivated and so those bits are well-deployed.

But validation? I don’t hear about that so much.

Engineering, (think bridges and airplanes,) we all agree should be validated. Implicitly we know that means externally validated. We know that engineering done in a filter-bubble is not truly validated, and that ends badly.

But eveyone seems to toss the baby with the bath water: “I’m not doing engineering or hard science, therefore, as a principle, I don’t need external validation.“

But, that’s right only as a corrective term in our lives. “Holy shit our society is too externally motivated, so let’s stop with the external motivation.” Yes, please.

But once you figure out how to do your work from a place of kindness and internal motivation, you next need to put it out there. Put a price tag on it… Ask for feedback… Does the book sell… Do the people who follow your advice go on to do nicer or better things… In short, are you efficacious?

Yes yes yes art for arts’ sake is not what I’m talking about. Paint just for yourself and die an undiscovered master—that’s internal motivation for the win. (not sarcasm)

But if, you know, what you’re doing is supposed to be True, (however that’s defined for whatever it is you’re doing,) then you better put yourself out there and get some external validation. Yes, you’re going to need thick skin, and certainly don’t go alone, but go you must.

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Slight interest with a dash of surprise

There’s a special kind of slightly-surprised magic which you can reliably determine has occurred when someone makes the sound, hunh.

My grandmother was a sought-after seamstress who handmade custom draperies. Think custom home decor and hotel lobbies. As her eyesight diminished year-by-year, she eventually asked my dad to add a small attachment to her sewing machine: a clever little mechanism that is able to pull the thread through the eye of the sewing needle. Yes, there really is such a thing. It’s a brilliant little device. It works like magic and is strikingly-obvious once you see it in action. She hands my dad a few German-made sewing-machine parts; tiny little parts… a single tiny screw, a little doomathingus, and this third whatchamacallit. There are no instructions though. So my dad—an accomplished mechanic by trade—puts on his glasses and sits down with her Pfaff sewing machine, thinking, “how hard can it be to add these two parts to this sewing machine using this one screw?” I don’t know how long he actually spent trying. That detail was always suspiciously omitted whenever he told this story.

Eventually he gives up in failure and lugs the machine to the Pfaff sewing machine dealer. The dealer is old-school—located in a 100-year-old sewing mill building, with a little front-shop and with the real workshop in the back. My dad sets the machine and parts on the counter. This story is set in the 80’s, and although it was never mentioned in the telling of the story, I’m assuming the machine came from that shop 30 years earlier. I’d also bet that my grandmother called them [on her rotary phone] to order the clever little needle-threading-thingy from there too.

So the scene is set: One wizened, male mechanic with a sewing machine and some parts. Another wizened, male mechanic jaded by a century of stoopid sewing machine problems and questions.

“Hello, how can I help you?”

“I can’t get this attachment to… well… attach.”

“It’s easy. You just use that screw to attach that thingus and that whatsit to the arm right there where the sewing needle…”

“No, sorry, it’s not actually possible.”

It’s a classic show-down. In fact, you know it well. You’ve had this show-down yourself at the auto mechanic, in the grocery store, or on the phone with your Internet tech support.

The shop owner looks at my dad like he’s an imbecile and with a flicker of an eye-roll, starts to pick up the machine and the parts to go in the back…

“…wait! No don’t take it in the back. Let me see you do it.”

At this point it’s still a battle: My dad with a problem, and the sewing machine guy not truly interested in helping. The guy grudgingly gets his glasses and starts. …and the little whatsit falls out. …the little screw won’t quite stay in. Maybe if he moves his light this way, and tries reaching in from the other side… nope. Another try. …and a fourth try.

And then, “hunh.”

“…ok, now you can take it in the back.”

The moral is that any time you have a problem, and you have someone whose help you want, there is before-the-hunh and after-the-hunh. No one will truly help you—no one will truly own your problem—before they say, “hunh.”

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Slight surprise with a dash of interest

There are, I think, several reasons Hollywood movies often don’t get as much science input as they should. The first is that movie-makers usually just aren’t sensitive to the “science texture” of their movies. They can tell if things are out of whack at a human level, but they typically can’t tell if something is scientifically off. Sometimes they’ll get as far as calling a local university for help, but too often they’re sent to a hyper-specialized academic who’ll not-very-usefully tell them their whole story is wrong. Of course, to be fair, science content usually doesn’t make or break movies. But I think having good science content—like, say, good set design—can help elevate a good movie to greatness.

~ Stephen Wolfram from, https://writings.stephenwolfram.com/2016/11/quick-how-might-the-alien-spacecraft-work/

But first, how exactly does one represent in written from, that sound one makes upon encountering something both slightly surprising and interesting? “Huh,” seems more like the sound one makes upon hearing something about which one is incredulous. For example: “Your Goldfish is escaping on foot!” “Huh?” Instead, I feel I need a word with a little touch of an ‘n’ in it to downplay the puzzlement by making the word less punchy; “That spaceship hangs in the air much in the way bricks don’t.” “Hunh.” That reads better, yes? Obviously, this is easily resolved via inflection when spoken, but there’s no clear written convention. So, okay, I’ll go with “hunh” to express slight surprise with a dash of interest.

hunh. I stumbled over the movie Arrival in Netflix back in 2018, and sort of enjoyed it.

Say what you will about Stephen Wolfram. I’m not referring to the fact that he was directly involved as being a point for, or against, the movie. Rather, I’m interested in his point—which I’m loosely reshaping here—that people who have a good feel for people make good movies about people. Given that the vast majority of people are bad at science, then most people who make movies would make bad movies about science.

Ironically, I’d argue that Arrival is a good science fiction movie, but not a good movie about people.

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And yet

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis.

~ James Rhodes from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2014/02/find-what-you-love-and-let-it-kill-you/

Know what I love most about having my own blog? Being able to pull-quote really random-ass stuff like this just because I liked it.

And yet I don’t play the piano. Never played as a kid, but did mess around with it—including having a real piano teacher—around 30, got to advanced beginner and then ran out of time to practice when I finally had a house that would actually have been the first time I had room for a real piano. Sorry, I digress.

And yet for some random-ass reason I completely feel as if I understand what this apparently bat-shit crazy concert pianist is talking about. …maybe it’s the parallel of piano keys and computer keyboard keys? …maybe it’s the parallel of pouring countless hours—I paused here and started actually trying to estimate how many hours, straight-up paniced at how large the number was getting to be and decided to just move along—into tapping away at computers creating something that was, is and always will be, “just” good enough? Seriously I am not an artist. I certainly don’t think of myself as an artist. I always felt like an engineer sorting out, and building, systems of various forms.

And yet

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