Half a page of scribbled lines

Sun Apr 06, 2014 23:35 (UTC -7)

This is pretty much my other birthday: It’s The World of Stuff’s birthday. Today the site is 11 years old. It seems like yesterday I was here writing about how it was turning 10 years old, but now the background has gone through a full cycle of colors. A year seems like a shorter and shorter length of time. Who knew?*

(And that’s why I haven’t posted any old screenshots of the site yet. Uh, yeah, that’s why. I will at some point. I don’t even have any for the first incarnation, except for the tiny thumbnails you can see in this early post. You can also check out the site on the Wayback Machine if you don’t mind that sometimes the formatting is messed up. [And yes, I'm aware that someone owned the domain name in 2001.])

As you may remember from reading one of my previous posts, I was super jazzed that my sister and my brother-in-law were moving here to Seattle. On the Ides of March, they arrived. They had sent me to check out an apartment and to take photos, and they liked what they saw. So they stayed with me for two weeks while they were buying furniture for their new place.

“Is it far away?” you ask. What an opportune question. No, it is not—it’s just a short walk down the street from my apartment. (I was there today, in fact.) We’ve met up to enjoy my sister’s home-cooked meals together, and to eat at restaurants in the area, quite a few times already. A new routine is beginning. I’m not a big fan of change, but I like this one. It’s good to be close to family again.

*The many billions of people who were born before I was. Also, you.

Snow problem

Mon Mar 31, 2014 23:57 (UTC -7)

Most of my friends like to ski. This winter, they went almost every weekend, and usually they asked me if I wanted to come along. It just seemed dangerous to me, but since they seemed to be having such a good time, I finally said yes six or eight weeks ago.

I borrowed some gear and bought a few things that I wouldn’t be able to rent. We woke up very early, and it was mid-morning by the time we got to the mountain. They waited for me as I went to rent skis, boots, a helmet—pretty much everything—and to pay for a lesson and a lift ticket. Then they went off while I stayed at the bottom of the mountain for a group lesson.

The instructor was nice, at first. There were five or six of us, plus him, and most of us had never skied before. A gap in ability quickly became apparent. Compared to everyone else, I had a hard time getting my ski boots into my skis. I had a hard time going straight. I took the longest out of anyone to walk sideways up the slope, turn 90 degrees, and slide down. And even when I did that, it took an incredible amount of effort, and I couldn’t turn as I went downhill.

The instructor was patient and even encouraging for a while, but he started to see that I wasn’t getting it, so he showed me what I was doing wrong and pretty much wanted to hear me say that I understood. That didn’t make things much better, because everything was exhausting. I’m not and have never been in shape, and after 90 minutes of a really basic skiing lesson, I was sweating. Which was weird to me because it was snowing.

I also had a feeling that I don’t get very much, an intense feeling of wanting to get away at any cost. At that point it was time to go up the bunny slope, which isn’t a demeaning name at all. I told the instructor that I felt like I should have more practice, which was true. I think the group was a little bigger than the ones they usually have, and everything seemed kind of rushed. So I decided to stay behind. I knew my day was over.

I did try to ski around a bit in an area off to the side, but there were still people around that I had to avoid. So mostly I just stood there and waited. After what seemed like forever, the instructor came down with the other students, and the lesson was over. He had a few words with me: shouldn’t be afraid to fall; practice, practice, practice; stuff like that.

I met up with the rest of my friends for lunch. They went back out while I stayed in the lodge, or whatever it’s called, till they were done for the day.

So, I didn’t actually ski at all, but I’ve been asked whether I would try again. I wouldn’t rule it out, although right now I’m not too enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, I feel content in a way. Everyone expects me to be good at everything I do. It’s not realistic. I would rather focus on what I’m actually good at, or at least interested in, and not worry about how to do something else if I don’t have it in me.

Twenty-four and a half

Fri Feb 28, 2014 19:31 (UTC -8)

We’re not that far into the year, are we?

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect for my New Year’s party. Only a few people came over to ring in 2012, and for 2013 I was in Russia.

But it turned out just fine. A bunch of people came over, and we had a good view of the fireworks show at the Space Needle. It was starting to get foggy around midnight, and soon we couldn’t actually see the fireworks, but they lit up the fog like colorful lightning.

I had a bottle of hard eggnog that my parents had bought for me when I was in Florida. I was concerned that no one would touch it and I’d end up having to drink all of it by myself. But surprisingly, it was a hit. And I’m pretty sure I ended up with more beer than I started with.

I should have parties more often.

So, if you’ll recall, I said I was going to talk New Year’s resolutions. I tend to get contemplative around New Year’s, and the fact didn’t escape me that I’ll be turning 25 this year. That led me to think that I’d like to be in a relationship by the year’s end. It’s not a resolution; I would rather fail at it than get with the wrong person for the sake of checking off a box. It’s just a thought.

I’d probably have to get out more to achieve this whatever it is. Fortunately, spring isn’t far away—it’s even been warm the past few days. Of course, it’s going to get cold again soon, but eventually it’ll be warm again.

Bill Nye’s debate with Ken Ham over creationism was a surprisingly big story this month. A Slate blogger answered questions from creationists who weren’t convinced.

Hi-lites from Obama’s 5th

Thu Jan 30, 2014 08:45 (UTC -8)

For the first post of the year, I give you a guest post from my high-school friend, Em Faerman.

“It is your citizens which make our Union strong,” he rebukes the legislators in opening. Not you, he does not add, doesn’t not need to add. This; a country where the son of a barkeep is Speaker of the House.

Then the rhetorical riffing which has become his trademark, the returned to themes, a call to nostalgia: “We have to be able to look our great grandchildren in the eye and say ‘yes we did,’” do all we can to keep the lead out of the earth, the carbon from the air, the poison from the water. Yes We Can.

But are we? Can we?

“This year let’s all come together…businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.” (Cheers, applause.)

Wallstreet and Mainstreet, a phrase from before the gray hairs, from before the worry wrinkles pulling at the edges of the eyes, the top of the upper lip (it’s a known fact the president indulges in an occasional smoke).

But what of Joe-the-Plumber, another stock character from the yellow brick road of the campaign trail? What he and the lady will one day refer to as “the early days”.

Here, he is cast as Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. A tenth deployment, a road side bomb, found face down in a canal, shrapnel in the brain. So much had changed. At this point in the narrative, many must be weeping. This a man who has been broken and repaired many times, like so many Joes. Broken and repaired, broken and repaired. This a man who has had to relearn the task of living. He is recognized by mass applause, the stirring of hearts and minds. Though 10,000 troops is still 10,000 troops. Even if not for combat, still 10,000 troops! A significant number.

“God Bless America,” he ends his 5th, exiting the chamber to meet his wife in the east wing beside the presidential bed. Remembering the applause as she had entered the chamber’s balcony — perhaps it has another name, an official name (the canopy?) — as he had praised her efforts in her station as the First Lady. Relentless, the applause. Unlike for him.

There, beside the bed, he’ll remove the extra bulk of her formality. Then after: He’ll smoke a(n occasional) cigarette.

Em Faerman holds B.A.s in English Literature and Philosophy from Florida Atlantic University. She has been previously published in The Easiest Best Thing is Be Kind and Literally, Darling and was recently highlighted in The Missouri Review’s Working Writer Series. She is currently working as an engineering technician in Southeast Florida and dabbles a bit in scribbling.

2013: The Year in Review

Tue Dec 31, 2013 15:36 (UTC -8)

Just as you were expecting, here’s my 11th annual (?!) Year in Review. Was 2013 a year to remember? What were the highlights? Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Let’s find out!

I started this year in the same place that I ended the last one: in St. Petersburg. Katya and I went out a bit too late to see the fireworks, but we did get to see Russia’s second city celebrate its biggest holiday. Then I said goodbye to her, hoping to see her again someday.

In April, The World of Stuff celebrated its 10th birthday with a new design that features the Seattle skyline.

In July, my family came to visit, and in August, I went to Canada for Natasha’s wedding.

Also in August, an artist who lived in my apartment building was selling a bunch of his work because he was moving out. I saw something that I liked: a sort of collage of found materials (vinyl flooring and wood) called Attitude. So I bought it, and the artist even helped me hang it up over the fireplace in my living room.

"Attitude" hanging in my living room

I stayed in Seattle for Thanksgiving, but I spent almost two weeks with my family in Florida for Christmas. I just got back yesterday, and today I’m getting ready to host a party. I’ll have a great view of the fireworks from my place, as I did the last time I was here for New Year’s, two years ago.

So, what’s the verdict on 2013? Not much noteworthy happened that I didn’t write about. During my stay in Florida, I had a lot of time reflect on that and think about New Year’s resolutions.

But I’ll leave that discussion for later; right now I have a party to get ready for.

Stream of consciousness XI

Sat Nov 30, 2013 23:28 (UTC -8)

Haven’t done one of these in a while. In fact, I haven’t written very much in a while, which is a funny thing. Occasionally I’ll have an idea for something to write about, and then when it gets to be so long and I haven’t written anything, I blank out. Some people keep a sketchbook or notepad around to keep track of their ideas; that might have to be something I try.

Thanksgiving was Thursday, and most of my friends were out of town. I met up with a friend and had dinner at my favorite restaurant, the Five Point Cafe, one of the relatively few restaurants that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s been my Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years, but I’ll be glad for it to change as my sister moves here in the next few months.

And it’s the holidays. I’m fortunate to be living in a place that doesn’t get much snow—it doesn’t sound very pleasant to have to live in. You know, being buried in it and all. Maybe literally. But anyway, I can’t say that it feels like the holiday season just yet, maybe because it’s still November (although just barely). The Christmas lights are up on the Space Needle, and it might actually snow on Monday, so that might be enough.

I don’t know what it is—it could be the long nights, or the lack of people around, but I feel kind of bored. I would love to meet up with people who have common interests, and I am subscribed to some Meetup groups, but I never go to them. It seems that most of the groups aren’t for me, and the ones that might be for me probably aren’t very interesting. Maybe I need to stop making excuses and show up at one of them once, but I can’t decide which one or ones to go to.

But I have the holidays to look forward to. I haven’t been to my beloved Florida in almost a year, and I’ll be going there again for Christmas. How I miss it. Really, it’ll be good to have a vacation and relax and all that good stuff. I don’t even know what I’m going to do since I’ll be there for almost two weeks, but I guess that’s part of the fun. And I’ll be with my family, so whatever happens, I’ll have a good time.

And then, after the holidays, the days will be getting longer again. The thing about Seattle weather is that it never lasts very long. The chilliness lasts long, but I get used to it. Very hot and very cold temperatures are fleeting; summer is over before you know it, and the dog days especially so. One day you want to buy an air conditioner, and the next, you’ve forgotten about it, and you’ll keep forgetting about it until that one hot day next year. The long days don’t last long, and neither do the long nights.

And, as I alluded to earlier, my sister and her husband will be here soon. That’ll shake things up pretty considerably. A lot of people joke that they’re twins, but we’re literally twins. We’re like this. And by the way, she’s about to graduate from grad school, making her a double-grad, so congratulations, sis! Congratulations in advance.

For the adventurous travelers: The 25 Least Visited Countries in the World. (Via Kottke)

Food FUD

Thu Oct 31, 2013 23:55 (UTC -7)

“The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” —Isaac Asimov

Hey, it’s (the very, very end of) October, and that means it’s almost election season.

I’ve only lived here in Washington state a few years, but during that time there have been a number of notable ballot initiatives. Two years ago, voters privatized alcohol sales. Last year, we legalized marijuana and same-sex marriage. This year, the most controversial initiative is about whether to label “genetically modified” foods.

I used quotes there, so you may be able to tell what’s coming. Still, it seems that not all voters in Washington get this, so I’ll make it clear. Everything we eat has been genetically modified by humans. If you’ve ever had a banana or an orange carrot, you’ve eaten something that didn’t exist before people started this whole agriculture thing. And in fact, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale are all genetically modified versions of the same plant, Brassica oleracea. Modifying genes can give us some pretty cool stuff.

The proponents of this initiative are trying to make a distinction between food that’s been genetically modified by traditional means and food that’s been genetically modified with modern technology. Even with a lack of evidence that the latter is harmful (or different, really), they want producers to segregate the two during production in addition to labeling the latter kind. I’ve heard that 70% of products would carry the label. Yes, you’ve eaten that much “genetically modified” food every day for years, and yet you do not die.

The local news coverage I’ve seen has been biased: “Do you have the right to know what’s in your food?” But nothing different is in your food. It’s not the “what” that’s the issue, it’s the “how,” especially since modern genetic engineering techniques are often just used to make crops easier to grow. We don’t make farmers tell us what kind of machinery they use. As we say in the software biz, that’s an implementation detail. The FDA and the USDA can make sure the food is safe; that’s what we pay them for, and that’s what they’ve been doing for a long time.

I think the people who are behind the initiative know all this. Their main arguments, namely “You should have the right to know” and “Other countries are doing it,” should each make us ask: Why? There are no rational answers. A traditionally genetically modified tomato and a modern genetically modified tomato could have the same genes, and neither you, nor I, nor the tomatoes, nor a scientist with a microscope would be able to tell the two apart.

No, this initiative lies on a foundation of fear, uncertainty, and doubt; it’s FUD all the way down. And I won’t pay extra at the grocery store because some people are afraid of science. People who really worry about this can already buy products advertised as having only traditionally genetically modified ingredients. But I don’t expect those to be around forever. Eventually, we’ll all have realized that the GMO monster under the bed is nothing to be afraid of.

Any colour you like

Thu Sep 19, 2013 23:05 (UTC -7)

Back in April, on The World of Stuff’s 10th anniversary, I wrote that

I’ve given the site a new design. It is a work in progress, and I hope to polish it a bit over the coming weeks. By then you’ll probably have found the surprises that it holds.

Remember how, back then, the background was kinda purplish, and now it’s kinda greenish?

As you’ve probably figured out, in the background is a photo of the Seattle skyline. Every day (Seattle time), the background colors change a little bit according to the season. (Only seeing one color? You’re probably using Internet Explorer 8. Upgrade your browser!)

If you’ve been here quite a bit, you’ll have seen that there’s rain in the background on some days. As in the real Seattle, it rains less in the summer and more in the winter. About 40% of days have rain, which is very close to the actual percentage (41%).

Whenever I redesign the site, I like to include something dynamic and fun, and this is my favorite little gimmick so far. I hope I don’t get tired of it in six months.

Speaking of things that come in weird colors, here’s an oddly detailed article about the genesis of Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos. Apparently they represent quite a feat of engineering.

No security anymore?

Mon Sep 16, 2013 22:53 (UTC -7)

The revelations of the NSA’s underhanded activities have been mind-blowing in number and in scope. I was deeply disturbed by them even before they had a direct effect on me.

The day before I left for Canada, the email service I’d been using for several years shut down for good. Turns out that Edward Snowden was also a Lavabit user, and our government approached Lavabit’s owner with a secret order that he bravely refused to comply with.

When I returned home, I searched for a replacement from this list of Privacy-Conscious Email Services. I ended up choosing Neomailbox because I can use my domain name with their service and because they seem willing and able to protect their users’ privacy. They keep only limited logs, strip IP addresses from outgoing messages, and have up-to-date SSL support; also, they’re outside the US and the EU in a country with strong privacy laws (Switzerland).

Aside: At the same time, I decided to see whether IMAP was right for me, since people are fond of hating on POP. (Don’t believe me? One pro-IMAP site portrays POP users as subhuman.) I had a heck of a time trying to make my email client download messages from an IMAP server and delete them from said server—in other words, to make it behave just like POP. As everyone ought to know, and as that anti-POP site reluctantly admits, there is no advantage of IMAP that can be expressed without the phrase “all of your devices.” Since I typically read and send emails on only one computer, which I back up regularly, I’m the ideal POP user. More to the point of security, I don’t want my messages to stay on someone else’s server forever. I want to own my data.

In addition, I’ve once again started using PGP (read all about it in a previous post). I’ve used encryption with every PGP user I’ve written to (which is no one so far). I’m also signing each outgoing email, so that the recipient can verify that it was (probably) written by me and hasn’t been tampered with. In case anyone is interested, my new PGP key’s fingerprint is 1528 6D07 192A 0F45 D6D6 72FD A6E7 1F37 4940 7812 (or 49407812 for short).

I hear a lot of people saying that caring about their privacy is a waste of time, that they have nothing to hide. I invite these people to send me all of their saved emails and phone records for me to analyze and keep indefinitely.

Others realize that what the NSA is doing is wrong, but say there’s nothing we can do about it. “We can’t do anything about it” is not a resolution, it’s a problem that must be solved. If “we can’t do anything about it,” our democracy is broken.

Encrypting our communications and using services based outside the US will make it a little harder for us to be targets of mass surveillance, but they don’t prevent it from happening in the first place. For that, I’m not aware of what we can do besides donating to organizations that are fighting for our rights (such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and, of course, contacting our representatives.

The last time I was sitting around in an airport waiting for a flight, I wondered if anyone had come up with an optimal way to get people onto an airplane. Now Wired delivers: Airlines Still Trying to Make Passenger Boarding Less Annoying.

By the wings of a gentle wind

Thu Sep 12, 2013 23:53 (UTC -7)

I spent late December and early January in Russia, but I haven’t written about it except in passing. Here’s what happened.

Katya and I had broken up, but we remained friends and wanted to see each other again. The last time I had visited her, two years earlier, she was staying with her parents in her hometown, hours away from St. Petersburg (and anywhere, really). But this time, she was housesitting at a friend’s apartment in St. Petersburg, so I stayed with her there.

Not surprisingly, when I arrived in Russia a few days after Christmas, it was bitterly cold. Katya and her friend Volodya picked me up at the airport. In the darkness, we rode down the wide, snowy boulevards toward an endless sea of apartment buildings as big as ships. And that’s what they were nicknamed, actually—the fact that they had lots of tiny apartments added to the perception.

We stayed inside a lot. Katya cooked hearty Russian meals that I never got tired of. We spent time watching movies and, of course, internetting. There was other entertainment, though: Katya was taking care of her friends’ cat and kittens. I’ve always been apprehensive around cats because my family had some mean ones when I was growing up. But I had nothing to worry about; the kittens played a lot and were fun to watch. And none of them tried to kill me.

We rang in the New Year the Russian way, by eating tangerines. It’s also a tradition to put on (and, optionally, listen to) the President’s speech, but we weren’t able to stream it. I like that the idea that everyone just tunes in to it because it’s what they’ve always done, and no one really cares about what he says. I have a feeling that there’s an American tradition that’s very similar, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Russians take New Year’s Eve much more seriously than Americans do. So much so that St. Petersburg’s fireworks show started several hours after midnight. I guess that was to give everyone time to come out and watch it after celebrating at home.

We walked to the nearest subway station and crammed into a train along with everyone else. People were laughing and shouting. One guy on the subway was drinking whiskey out of the bottle. When we got to our station, people were chanting, “S Novym Godom!“—”Happy New Year!” I’m quite used to the idea of people having a good time at New Year’s parties, but it was really unusual to see a horde of people just amped up about New Year’s in general.

We missed most of the fireworks, but we checked in on a concert in front of the Winter Palace and strolled around the city center. Walking down Nevsky Prospect (in the actual street, not on the sidewalk), I watched out for broken glass. And on the icy sidewalks I walked carefully, trying not to slip, although I did a few times. My general awkwardness must have made me look out of place, because at one point a passerby said “Happy New Year,” specifically to me, in English.

A few days later, Katya’s parents and sister were visiting, so we had a bit of a day out with them. We had some food and tea and did some sightseeing. They were nice to me, and I wished I could talk to them a bit more. I was glad they knew a little English.

Toward the end of my stay, Katya showed me some subway stations that had opened recently (very recently, as in, while I was there), in addition to some of her old favorites. For me, the notable ones were Pushkinskaya, with its statue of Pushkin; Narvskaya, with its hammers-and-sickles and reliefs of heroic-looking proletarians; Avtovo, which may be one of the most ornate subway stations in the world; and Bukharestskaya, which, despite being named after the capital of another formerly communist country, was one of the brand new ones. Apparently they had started working on it in the 1980s and found it more practical to keep the name they’d been using.

I got to spend a lot of time with Katya, but eventually, my time was up. Early one morning, she went with me to the airport. It was hard to say goodbye because I didn’t know when I’d see her again. But it was just something I had to get through.

In the months since, we’ve been in touch as ever. So, in a way, things haven’t changed much, and she’s still one of my best friends and very much a part of my life.

This post comes on Katya’s birthday—it’s already the 13th where she is. Katya, I hope your birthday is the best ever, and that you have a wonderful time. I wish I could be there.