I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 35 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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I think one metaphor accurately reflects the way software is built in the real world: flail around randomly and pray you succeed by force of pure dumb luck. Sometimes it even works. Not very often, but just enough to confuse people who should know better into thinking they're smart, when what they really were is lucky.

Jeff Atwood


<June 2024>



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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 5:44 AM Pacific

  02:36 PM

Here's a keen thing I learned about from a Vox article: a Chrome extension named Library Extension that adds library information when you're viewing books on Amazon or Goodreads. The extension tells you whether the book you're interested in is available in one or more library systems.

Let's say you're interested in the book The ABC of How We Learn, so you look it up on Amazon. In the bar at the top of the page, the library extension icon lights up to tell you that you're on an enabled site:

On the actual page where you're viewing book information, the extension displays library information:

If you want to get the book from the library, you click the Borrow button. This sends you to the library site with the book preloaded.

To configure the extension—for example, to tell it which libraries you want to look in—you click the icon in the toolbar, then click Options:

In the options dialog, you find the library you're interested in, then click the add (+) button:

I just started using this, so I don't know whether I'll end up liking it. It seems a bit intrusive to actually inject information into the page, instead of optionally displaying that information in a dialog or something. I also don't know how robust it is. Does the extension rely on Amazon APIs? Does it scrape information from the page? (A strategy known to be fragile.) How reliable will it be in terms of interacting with library sites?

But I like the concept just fine, since it reflects something I do a lot anyway—namely, look up books, then see if I can get them at the library. I'm curious whether others use this extension, or something like it, and what they think.

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  11:20 AM

Recently I finished The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson, which is a book about the English scientist Joseph Priestley, who is best known as the discoverer of oxygen. Johnson shows how Priestley had a strong influence on both science and politics (he was a close friend Jefferson and Franklin). But Priestley also sat at a historical confluence that was conducive to, basically, Enlightenment thinking, and Johnson ties together many threads in a way reminiscent of James Burke: coffeehouses and efficient postal delivery, which fostered open and fast communication; innovations in scientific technology, which let Priestley engage in the experiments he did; the wealth of the industrial age, which indirectly provided Priestley with the time to do research; and so on.

At times the chains of connections go quite far indeed -- for example, from Priestley's simple experiment with a mint plant all the way to the field of planetary ecology. A continuing theme is energy: sunlight to feed plants, coffee to feed scientific minds, oxygen to feed animals, coal to feed the industrial revoltuion, and so on. To discuss these last two, Johnson takes a side trip way back in Earth history to the Carboniferous era, where he tells the following story.

Many of the fossils that Brongniart uncovered shared a defining characteristic: compared to their modern equivalents, they were massive. He discovered ferns the size of oak trees, and flies as big as birds. In 1880 he unearthed his most startling find: a monster dragonfly (Meganeura) with a wingspan of 63 centimeters [2 feet]. Subsequent fossils have been discovered with a wingspan of more than 75 centimeters.

Meganeura was not alone. Paleontologists worldwide soon discovered that giantism was a prevailing trend between 350 and 300 million B.C., a period now called the Carboniferous era. Like some strange Brobdingnagian natural history exhibit, the landscape of the Carboniferous was populated by foot-long spiders and millipedes, and water scorpions the size of a small boy. The plant life was even more spectacular. Club mosses growing in damp forests towered above the swampland below, reaching heights of 130 feet, five hundred times taller than their modern descendants. Horsetails and rushes that now top out at around four feet regularly reached the height of a five-story building. Early conifers sprouted leaves that were more than three feet long.

The planetary fad for giantism didn’t last. The dinosaurs evolved immense body plans in the coming ages, of course, but by 250 million B.C., the rest of the biosphere had largely retreated back to the scale we now see on earth. But that pattern was distinct enough that it presented a tantalizing mystery: just as the Cambrian explosion raised the question of why life suddenly grew so diverse, the Carboniferous age raised the question of why life suddenly grew so big and how it managed to survive with such exaggerated proportions. Meganeura shouldn’t have been able to fly, given its size. The respiratory systems of modern insects and reptiles wouldn’t be able to generate enough energy to support a body plan that was ten times their current size. And yet somehow the giants of the Carboniferous managed to thrive in that exaggerated state for a hundred million years.


The "natural" level of oxygen on Earth was less than 1 percent; the 20.7 percent levels we enjoy as respiring mammals was an artificial state, engineered by the evolutionary breakthrough that began with cyanobacteria billions of years ago. [i.e., photosynthesis] The scarcity of oxygen before the evolution of plant life suggested one follow-up question: why had oxygen levels stabilized at around 20 percent for so many millions of years? Were it to drop to 10 percent, most of aerobic life would suffocate; were it to double, the combustion reactions of oxygen would engulf the planet in a worldwide inferno. So what mechanism allowed the atmosphere to regulate itself with such precision?

[Robert Berner and Donald Canfield researched atmospheric oxygen levels going back 600 million years.]

[Their data showed that] oxygen levels had been relatively stable for the last 200 million years. But the most startling finding came before that long equilibrium. The data showed a dramatic spike in oxygen levels, reaching as high as 35 percent around 300 million B.C., followed by a plunge to the borderline asphyxia of 15 percent in the Triassic era, 100 million years later. The oxygen pulse overlapped exactly with Meganeura and other giants of the Carboniferous.

Since then, dozens of paper have explored the connection between increased oxygen content and giantism, and the growing consensus is that higher oxygen concentration would support larger body plans in reptiles and insects. And the increase in atmospheric pressure that accompanies 35 percent oxygen levels would even alter the aerodynamics enough to allow Meganeura to take flight.

Where did all that oxygen come from? From plants, of course. First, the plants invented the photosynthetic engine that created an oxygen-rich atmosphere billions of years ago. But at some point near the end of the Devonian age, the plants evolved the ability to generate a sturdy molecule called lignin that gave them newfound structural support, allowing them to grow to sizes never seen before on Earth. Larger plants alone might have led to an oxygen increase, but lignin may also have had a more indirect role in the spike. One popular but unproven theory argues that lignin confounded the microbial recyclers responsible for the decomposition of organic matters. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through photosynthesis; decomposition plays that tape backward, as bacteria and other animals use up oxygen in breaking down the plant debris, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Lignin may have disrupted that cycle, because the recyclers had not yet evolved the capacity to break down the molecule, creating what the paleoclimatologist David Beerling calls an episode of "global indigestion." With the decomposers handicapped by lignin’s novelty, immense stockpiles of undecomposed biomass filled the swamplands and the forest floor, and the oxygen levels climbed even higher. Oxygen would not return to the 21 percent plateau until the microbes cracked the lignin code, millions of years later.

But the debris accumulated during the age of Meganeura did not disappear from the geologic record. It simply went underground. When it ultimately resurfaced, it would transform human history every bit as dramatically as it transformed natural history the first time around.

Update 2 Nov 2010: Interesting post on the Wired blog about how some biologists raised larger-than-normal dragonflies by keeping them in an oxygen-rich environement.

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  06:38 PM

Among people I know, the discussion for the most part is not whether a kid will go to college, but how this college business is going to be paid for. People start college funds for their toddlers. A college degree is seen as the minimum entry point to a career, or was back when people still talked about careers.

But between the mania for outsourcing that started in the 90s (or thereabouts) and the current economic downturn, the golden ticket of a college degree is looking a little tarnished.[1] A person with a pessimistic POV might wonder why we're training all these kids to jump into a job pool that, at least for the moment, seems to be drying up.

Assuming I'm reading trends correctly, we therefore seem to be undergoing a little bit of a, um, adjustment in how we view the skilled trades. Back in March, the NPR correspondent Adam Davidson appeared on the radio program "This American Life." His mission, he said, was "to save his cousin DJ's life, to make his life better." Save it how? Cousin DJ had dropped out of college. By dropping out of college, Davidson maintained, you are making a conscious decision "to not partake in the economic growth and possibilities of the coming decade." The program then featured a three-way conversation between Davidson, his cousin DJ, and the economist Pietra Rivoli, whom Davidson had enlisted to help him convince cousin DJ of his folly.

You can probably see where this is going. Dr. Rivoli sided with DJ; specifically, she sided with him because DJ has job experience and skills that pay decently, that are in essential trades, and most importantly, that cannot be outsourced. In contrast, as a journalist, Davidson himself, Mr. College, could easily be out of a job any time. (You can listen to the podcast; look for episode #350 on the 2009 program archive page. This segment starts at 8:29.)

This last weekend, I had the interesting experience of having a tree guy come over with his massive stump-grinder machine and chew up a huge stump. He came at 10:00 AM; we were the second of five appointments he had that day. He doesn't like stump grinding, he said (his weekday work involves comparatively tamer work with a chainsaw), but he can pick up $1000 in a day with his big chomper. If this weekend was typical for him, he's sure not hurting for work. And even if work slows down, he's not going to get laid off -- he owns his own business.

In an article "The Case for Working With Your Hands" in this week's New York Times magazine, Matthew Crawford makes the same point again:
This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars; they are fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair — more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”
Crawford goes on to describe the satisfaction he derives from repairing motorcycles, especially in contrast to the type of white-collar work he did before. He explicitly addresses some assumptions about manual work:
When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options.


A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.


The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.
The emphasis in Crawford's article, as well as in Dr. Rivoli's conclusion, is on skilled trades. Cousin DJ has an array of construction skills, including framing and cabinet-making. Crawford is a doctor of the mechanical world, and in our day and age, the skills of a good mechanic can sometimes seem as essential as those of a good G.P.

It's hard for me at this stage of life to imagine what it might have been like to be, say, an electrician instead. But it's not something I shudder to think about, or that I would panic about if one of my children unaccountably developed a career goal that involved the trades. I am happy that I went to college, and am happy that that's what my kids are doing. But it's clear enough to me that success does not start only when you pick up your diploma.

[1] Preemptive clarification: I know that gold does not tarnish. Metaphoric references here should not be interpreted as misunderstandings of metallurgical facts.

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  01:17 AM

A short while ago, a guy strolled into the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., which is one of the, or the, preeminent repository of Shakespearean stuff. He wanted to know if the First Folio he was carrying was the real item. As it happens, it was; it was a volume that had been stolen 10 years ago from the University of Durham in England. The dude is currently a guest of the state in the UK while they sort out the story.

The First Folio is an edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, plus some other plays. That the First Folio exists at all is unusually good luck; that we have so many copies, doubly so. Much of the work of other Elizabethan playwrights has vanished, since their work was either never written down, or written down and not printed, or printed but lost. As Bill Bryson points out in his Shakespeare Lite study:
Only about 230 plays survive from the period of Shakespeare’s life, of which the First Folio represents some 15 percent, so Heminges and Condell saved for the world not only half the plays of William Shakespeare, but an appreciable portion of all Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
The First Folio was printed after Shakespeare’s death, but it was assembled by people who had worked with him. This gives you an idea of what we might have had:
To aid recollection, they had much valuable material to work with—-prompt books, foul papers (as rough drafts or original copies were known) in Shakespeare’s own hand, and the company’s own fair copies.
To which he adds "all now lost." There had been previous printings of Shakespeare’s plays; some editions were good, but others ... not so much. The latter, for example, might be "versions set down from memory (often very bad memory, it seems) by fellow actors or scribes employed to attend a play and create as good a transcription as they could manage."

Aware of these less-than-stellar editions, the compilers of the First Folio sought to create definitive ("True Originall") versions of the plays. Had they not done so, we would likely not know about 18 plays of Shakeaspeare's for which we have no other source.

And yet. It was not just Elizabethan spelling that seemed to lend itself to only the most casual discipline; printing was not subject to the most rigorous QA. Bryson explains:
In fact, the First Folio was a decidedly erratic piece of work.

Even to an inexpert eye its typographical curiosities are striking. Stray words appear in odd places—-a large and eminently superfluous "THE" stands near the bottom of page 38, for instance—-page numbering is wildly inconsistent, and there are many notable misprints. In one section, pages 81 and 82 appear twice, but pages 77-78, 101-108, and 157-256 don’t appear at all. In Much Ado About Nothing the lines of Dogberry and Verges abrupty cease being prefixed by the characters’ names and instead become prefixed by "Will" and "Richard," the names of the actors who took the parts in the original production.

The plays are sometimes divided into acts and scenes but sometimes not; in Hamlet the practice of scene division is abaondoned halfway through. Character lists are sometimes at the front of plays, sometimes at the back, and sometimes missing altogether. Stage directions are sometimes comprehensive and at other times almost entirely absent. A crucial line of dialog in King Lear is preceded by the abbreviated character name "Cor.," but it is impossible to know whether "Cor." refers to Cornwall or Cordelia. Either one works, but each gives a differ shading to the play. The issue has troubled directors ever since.
What these guys needed, of course, was the services of a good editor.

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  07:18 PM

Where I live, a homeowners association keeps tabs on your groundskeeping.[1]. They don't insist that you have a lawn, but if you do, you have to make sure that it's looked after.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the lawn, its history, its upkeep, and its possible future. Such interesting things we learn.

The stereotypical suburban lawn is a product of entirely unnatural horticulture. None of the grasses used for lawns are native to the US. If left alone, grass goes through a natural life cycle in which it develops seeds. We thwart this natural lifecycle in various ways. One is to mow:
Mowing turfgrass quite literally cuts off the option of sexual reproduction. From the gardener’s perspective, the result is a denser, thicker mat of green. From the grasses’ point of view, the result is a perpetual state of vegetable adolescence. With every successive trim, the plants are forcibly rejuvenated.
Grass also goes dormant when conditions are not favorable. In its dormant state, it gets brown. People don't like that, so we have a way to prevent that. One is to pour hundreds of millions of gallons of water onto the lawn. Another is to use chemicals:
[...] repeated applications of synthetic fertilizer could counteract turfgrasses’ seasonal cycle by, in effect, tricking the plants into putting out new growth. Sensing a potential bonanza, lawn-care companies began marketing the idea of an ever-green green. The Scotts Company recommended that customers apply its fertilizer, Turf Builder, no fewer than five times a year.
Fertilizer is non-discriminating; it will happily feed grass, weeds, whatever--in short, anything that can use nitrogen. But wait; we want grass, but we don't want "weeds". (Further) better living through chemistry:
With the advent of herbicides, in the nineteen-forties, still tighter control became possible. The new herbicides allowed gardeners to kill off plants that they didn’t care for with a single spraying. One of the most popular herbicides was—and continues to be—2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4-D, as it is commonly known, a major ingredient in Agent Orange. Regrettably, 2,4-D killed not only dandelions but also plants that were beneficial to lawns, like nitrogen-fixing clover.
Oops. Well, if you can't solve the problem, redefine it:
To cover up this loss, any plant that the chemical eradicated was redefined as an enemy. “Once considered the ultimate in fine turf, a clover lawn is looked upon today by most authorities as not much better than a weed patch” is how one guidebook explained the change.
Ah, at last: a beautiful, unsullied carpet of green grass. Alas, you're not done yet:
The greener, purer lawns that the chemical treatments made possible were, as monocultures, more vulnerable to pests. The answer to this chemically induced problem was to apply more chemicals. [...] the first pesticide popularly spread on lawns was lead arsenate. Next in line were DDT and chlordane. Once they were shown to be toxic, pesticides like diazinon and chlorpyrifos. The insecticide carbaryl, which is marketed under the trade name Sevin, is still broadly applied to lawns; it is toxic to tadpoles, salamanders, and honeybees. In “American Green” (2006), Ted Steinberg, compares the lawn to “a nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs.”
Your pristine green lawn is poisoning you, your kids, and your pets. But it doesn't end there:
Rain and irrigation carry synthetic fertilizers into streams and lakes, where the excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms that, in turn, produce aquatic “dead zones.” A 2002 report found traces of thirty-seven pesticides in streams feeding into the Croton River Watershed. A few years ago, Toronto banned the use of virtually all lawn pesticides and herbicides, including 2,4-D and carbaryl, on the ground that they pose a health risk, especially to children.
Or in the case of the Northwest, a health risk to, among others, salmon, which spawn in small streams that are the first to get runoff.

I used to have neighbors who kept an immaculate lawn and garden. One of their secrets, so to speak, was periodic visits from a company that unblushingly named itself ChemLawn. (Since acquired by the more benign-sounding TruGreen.)

In case you're wondering, I do have a lawn. In our 1/4-acre plot, we have 600 square feet of grass. I cut it, but I don't water it or feed it. Nonetheless, like my fellow Americans, I like the look of a neat clipped lawn. There you go.

I wonder whether we will see a cultural change in our attitudes toward lawns. If so, it will take a while ... several generations have grown up believing in the aesthetic -- yea, verily, moral[2] -- superiority of a perfect lawn.

[1] Less vigilantly, it seems now (based on the evidence of various neighbors' yards), than it did 30 years ago when the houses were all new.

[2] Also from the article: "The appearance of a lawn bespeaks the personal values of the resident," a group called the Lawn Institute declared. "Some feel that a person who keeps the lawn perfectly clipped is a person who can be trusted."

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  10:42 AM

I've been reading The Canon by Natalie Angier, which she calls a "whirligig" tour of science. It's not 100% clear to me what she means by whirligig, but I might go with "giddy" (#). Angier has a style that features a lot of wordplay; think, dunno, Anthony Lane, maybe, but about science, not movies. The book tours physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy—the usual suspects. It's an exuberant piece of writing, although I'm not sure I'd hand it out as an introductory textbook.[1]

I didn't want to let the book slip back to the library unmentioned, and as an inducement for you to check it out, I wanted to set something down. In the chapter on biology, I learned something that I had never thought about and that I found quite surprising. Here 'tis. (I'll note that this is an unusually subdued bit out of the book, but it was one of the more remarkable things I learned.)
Nucleated or not, cells consist of three defining ingredients, and it so happens that one type of bioentity that fulfills the criteria is the egg. An egg has an outer membrane, a viscous cytoplasm that in the edible egg we call the yolk, and a set of genes —only half the number of genes needed to spawn an offspring, and half the number of genes found in other body cells of the egg bearer, but a gene set nonetheless. An egg, then, before it merges its DNA with a gene set supplied by a sperm and starts developing into an embryo, is a single cell, and that goes for the egg you can see well enough to scramble. Yes, believe it or not, an unfertilized chicken egg of the kind you buy at the grocery store is a single cell, although strictly speaking it’s the cheery, marmalade-colored yolk of the egg that is bounded by the plasma membrane and thus qualifies as the cell proper. The translucent, whippable, protein-rich "egg white," the hard outer shell of calcium chloride, and the thin, slippery membrane lining the shell are all bonus coats added on later, as the yolk makes its way down the mother’s cloaca. Still, chicken yolks are no joke, and they keep getting ever more jumbo even as we fret over the wisdom of eating any eggs at all.

Did you know that? Not me, man. Angier continues with a Fun Fact:
The largest egg in the world, and thus the largest cell in the world, is the ostrich egg, which measures about eight by five inches and weighs three pounds with this extracellular shell, two pounds without. (Interestingly, the ostrich egg is also the smallest bird egg relative to the size of its mother, amounting to only 1 percent of the female ostrich’s body mass. The she-birds most deserving of every mother’s pity are the kiwis and hummingbirds, which lay eggs that are 25 percent as big as they are—the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a thirty-pound baby.)

[1] The use of humor and wordplay in technical writing is, of course, the subject of endless debate. (example, example)

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  07:54 AM

I promised (myself, anyway) a while back that I’d find some more fun cites from David Owen’s book Sheetrock & Shellac. If you’re just joining us[1], Owen is a writer who bought a 200-year-old house, and in the course of maintaining and improving the house, has learned and written a lot about home improvement. That is, specifically from the perspective of a guy who writes for a living as opposed to, you know, doing construction. As noted before, the book Sheetrock & Shellac is an enjoyably wandering tour through Owen’s adventures in building (having someone build him) a cabin.

So. With summer nearly here (except in Seattle, it appears), one’s thoughts turn to things like vacations. Are you thinking of going away this summer? Sounds like fun. But maybe you dread the hassle of packing everyone and everything up and spending hours in the car. Let alone the sharp pain you know you’ll feel when you refill the gas tank.

Here’s a novel feature of David Owen’s cabin: it’s in the same town where he and his family live. That’s right; their vacation home is something like 20 minutes away from their normal home. Owen observes the following:
I know a number of people who own or rent second homes, and many of those people eventually reach a point where getting away becomes something they yearn to get away from. Often that happens when their kids have grown old enough to formulate weekend plans of their own. It also happens when the thrill of mere novelty has faded—as always happens, since novelty is evanescent by definition. Fifteen years ago, some neighbors of ours bought a cabin in the mountains in another state. They visited faithfully, for a while. Then, gradually, the commute became irksome. Do we have to go to our wonderful, expensive place in the mountains again? their kids would whine. Summers were worse, because then the kids wanted to stay home, near their friends, and the parents were left to brood about wasted property taxes and mortgage payments. After a few years of increasingly reluctant visits, our neighbors sold their cabin to someone else, and good riddance.
Hmmm. Maybe hauling the nuclears to a distant location isn’t really as much fun as it seemed. In addition to having seen the downside of having every family vacation perpetually tied to a distant investment property, Owen had had an experience that convinced him that the location for his cabin might be ideal:
Experiencing a therapeutic change of scene requires less actual travel than most people generally assume. One weekend when I was ten, my parents and some of their friends took my sister and me and some of our friends to a Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn was just on the other side of town, maybe ten miles away. None of us kids had a chance to get bored or cranky in the car on the way there; fifteen minutes after leaving home, we were splashing in the pool. We played miniature golf. We ran around. The grown-ups made cocktails and glanced toward the pool occasionally, to make sure we hadn’t drowned. We stayed less than twenty-four hours, but by the time I got home I felt as though I’d had a real vacation. It was the change, not the distance, that was significant.
Perhaps you balk at the idea of a vacation home that you can bicycle to. But you might at least consider whether the weekend getaway has to be all that away. Consider the conveniences of a vacation where you could, for example, run home to pick up the mail and walk the dogs. I can see the appeal. In fact, I might go check out Holiday Inns right now.

[1] As Terri Gross says about 4 times during every episode of NPR’s Fresh Air: "If you’re just joining us, I’m talking to ...". The editor in me says--every time, no fooling--"If we’re not just joining you, who are you talking to?"

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  08:29 AM

David Owen, an author I particularly like (and an alum of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harpers, and Golf Digest[1]), years ago wrote an article on sheetrock (that is, Sheetrock[2]), which he expanded into the book The Walls Around Us, accurately subtitled "The Thinking Person's Guide to How a House Works." I've read the book multiple times, and I've pressed copies of it onto every homeowner I know (not always with the success of an appreciative recipient, alas). Even with the Great Purging of Books 'round here, I still have, like, three copies of it on the shelf.

Owen's interest in houses and home improvement did not end with that book, and he expanded some subsequent writings about houses into the book Sheetrock and Shellac[3]. This book describes, among other things, his adventures in building a cabin, a topic of some interest to me at the moment.

David Owen is the writer I'd like to be when I grow up. On every page I find stuff that makes me poke the person closest by and read out loud to them. At the moment, you're that person. Listen to this, a story that I'll pick up in medias res:
Replacing the pump and controller, and adding a "lightning arrester" to the well, cost roughly a thousand dollars, a sum I soon began to think of, in connection with home-repair disasters, as a "unit." A unit was a depressingly large amount of money to surrender to solve a problem that I hadn't known I needed to worry about, yet a unit, I noticed, seemed to be pretty much the minimum charge for anything that went wrong with a house. If, the day before the well disaster, my closest friend had asked to borrow a thousand dollars to pay for emergency medical care for his child, I would have explained, in desolation, that I just didn't have the money. Yet here I was, giving that same thousand dollars to a plumber. Our house was somehow able to find money we didn't know we had, and suck it from its hiding place before we'd had a chance to recognize it as ours. You buy a house for more than you can afford; then, almost immediately, the house forces you to spend even more money, generally on parts of it you didn't know it had. As my friend Jim, who also owns an old house, once told me, "If I'd known I could afford to spend this much on a house, I'd have bought a nice one to begin with."
When the mom and I bought our first house in 1985, we tootled to the home-improvement store constantly[4], of course, and soon concluded that the house was costing us, on average, $100 every weekend. We didn't actually spend $100 each week; sometimes we dribbled, but we made up for that with the occasional cash hemorrhage. These days, it's more like $300 per weekend.

More Owen coming soon. I'm only on Chapter 1.

[1] Truly.

[2] E (8th grader) asked the other day with a vaguely peeved tone, "Is it true that 'Dumpster' is capitalized?" True.

[3] I am apparently in an etymologically footnoting mood. Shellac is a natural substance: "Shellac is a brittle or flaky secretion of the lac insect Kerria lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand." (#) Just so you know.

[4] For you olde-tyme Seattle folks, that was mostly Ernst, which along with Lamont's, was the "anchor store" for the sad old version of Westwood Village. :-)

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  08:49 AM

I realized belatedly that as of last Thursday, I've officially been an editor for three years. Unofficially, of course, it's more like 40 years.

How to read the New Yorker in 10 Easy Steps. Much-needed advice on how to keep up. [via grow-a-brain]

(Some) Computer Technicians Are Creepy. Leon Bambrick, author of TimeSnapper, a logging program, discovers what's been happening on his computer while it's in the shop. Yikes.

On the crossword. Michael Covarrubias on linguistic tactics for solving crosswords.

Algebra, Geometry, Functions: At 38, Taking the SAT Is Tough. How do you think you'd score on the SAT today, 20 (or 30, or 35) years later? This is sort of topical for us at home, coz we've been looking at GRE study materials. The math stuff has long since evaporated, and a surprising amount of the English seems more ambiguous and open to interpretation than it did in (ahem) 1978.

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  02:04 PM

Reading history has many rewards. One is learning things that you either didn't know, or as often happens to me, that you thought you knew but ain't necessarily so. Another reward is that history writers can be an unexpectedly entertaining lot. For example, consider this informative passage from Inventing a Nation by Gore Vidal:
A month before Second Continental Congress assembled [in May 1775], British troops fired, at Lexington in Massachusetts, on some American armed "minute men." Although eight Americans were killed, the British discovered to their no doubt horror, that American farmers and backwoodsmen did not fight fair. Instead of wearing bright red uniforms, visible for miles around, they tended to hide behind trees, bushes, and rocks, and, if nothing else, America was extraordinarily rich in these rustic objects. Where British soldiers strutted into battle in well-drilled ranks, the Americans slouched from bush to protecting wall and then, invisibly, fired at will. They were like ... well, no other word for it, indians.
Dang. This put in motion some events that ultimately had a profound effect on American history, altho not in the way that was initially intended.
This sickening discovery was swiftly relayed back to London. King George III, who had made the monumental mistake of learning English, was very much the head of the war party, and so, more in anger than in sorrow, he dropped the mask of Mr. Nice Guy.[1] He would now use his indians, some thirty thousand German soldiers, mostly from Hesse, a Rhineland province bordering his family's Hanoverian place of origin. The Hessians turned out to be more generally effective than the American or, indeed, the British troops.
There's a whole story on why Germany was such a rich source of mercenaries, which we won't get into here. (This is alluded to in the opera The Marriage of Figaro, believe it or not.) And let us not pass up the opportunity to point out that the so-called House of Windsor (now) was originally the Hanoverians, and had -- as noted -- only in the generation of George III gotten around to learning the language of their subjects. Now an interesting twist.
They [the Hessians] were also considered uncommonly attractive by American girls, who found the homegrown lads a bit on the scrawny, sallow side, later to be caricatured as "Uncle Sam." By the end of the Revolution, a great many Hessians had married American girls and settled down as contented farmers in the German sections of Pennsylvania and Delaware, their lubricious descendants to this day magically peopling the novels of Mr. John Updike.
Ooh, isn't that a nice little jab at the end?

And what of all this? Well, if you had the same education that I did (and as I've noted before), you generally think of the US as essentially an English colony, and Americans as mostly British descendants, with a smattering of immigrants to come along later and do all the dirty work until they could move to the suburbs. Not so. According to 2000 census data (and before that), the largest "ancestry group" in the US -- 17% -- is German. Not all of those Germans (of which I am one, in fact, on one side) derive from those good-looking Hessians -- there was a huge influx during the unrest of the so-called Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But the next time you partake of such "American" culinary institutions as wieners, frankfurters, bratwurst, hamburgers, and potato salad, or of course "lite" beer, think about where those all came from. and maybe have a little re-think on what you know about American history.

[1] Ironically intended, I assume. At no point in the history around the American rebellion was George III ever "Mr Nice Guy."

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