Letting Go Of The Sable

My old Mercury Sable, no virgin when it came to riding on the back of a flatbed truck, took its last such journey this afternoon: it left my driveway for good at around 2 PM. She carried me faithfully and reliably for over 90,000 miles until a few years ago, when those three jerks at two separate garages told me the front suspension could one day collapse while taking an offramp at speed. Or some other such nonsense.

The Sable was my Dad’s car. That’s probably why I kept it for so long after I took off the plates.

(Well, that, plus I didn’t have to shovel that part of the driveway for a couple of years. Also, the oil and coolant stains it had left on the driveway over the years were much harder to see with the car parked over them.)

Every time I’d arrive home and see “his” car in my driveway, I’d think “Oh! Dad’s come to visit!” Even though, of course, Dad only ever saw my driveway in pictures and videos. I bought it from his estate after his stroke, when he’d moved to the care facility where he died a year or two later.

Dad’s car helped me heal. I felt pride in taking as good care of “his” car as he would have. Through careful driving, and regular maintenance, I rolled its odometer to nearly 180,000 miles and the engine was healthy right to the end. During that time, the only damage it ever incurred was due to a careless parker (broken mirror, deep crease to driver’s side door and front fender) and a lady who merged into my lane without looking (more damage to the front fender, including front headlight).

(Plus: lots and lots of rust to the frame. Because, New England.)

There was a certain correctness, too, in the fact that (as a journalist who works out of a home office) the only period of my life when I had a long, regular commute and I truly needed a car was when Dad was in that care facility. It was about a ninety minute drive from my house and I made that roundtrip two to five times a week for more than a year. I was still processing my Mom’s death during Dad’s illness. Dad’s stroke had left me with plenty to process on its own. I did a lot of thinking about my parents during those commutes. It was ages before I even chose to move any of Dad’s stuff from the back seat or trunk.

I suppose it’s now safe to admit that during the week when we knew that Dad was in his final days on this earth and we were spending every hour either in his room or in the lounge across the hall, I set a career-best land speed record in the Sable. At a certain point I desperately needed to go home for a shower and a change of clothes, you see. I zipped home and zipped right back, praying all the while that I wouldn’t miss anything horrible while I was gone. I-95 was totally deserted at 2 AM and I felt like I wasn’t endangering myself or others. I also figured that if worse came to worst, the excuse I was carrying was strong enough to convince a state trooper to end our roadside transaction with a scolding and a ticket instead of Miranda rights and handcuffs.

If I’m honest, I also needed to blow off some of the week’s tension. Suffice to say that the speedometer needle went places that I’d never taken it before; after rotating past a certain point, the needle began creaking like the spine of a brand-new book being opened. It indicated just how much tension I’d accumulated after three days in a room with my family, keeping myself together while supporting my sole remaining parent’s transition into death.

I loved Dad’s Sable. Alas, two or three years ago, I saw the writing on the wall. As well as the writing on the report from its final, failed safety inspection, parts of which had been underscored urgently in ballpoint.

Still, its sentimental connection to Dad forced me to at least think about fixing its rusty suspension. The old car had already surprised me by starting up and running reliably even after 175,000 miles, even after a week in an airport parking lot at subfreezing temps. And, thanks to some new driving techniques I picked up after installing a dashboard fuel economy meter, that old Sable consistently got 25 to 30 MPG…well above what the factory sticker promised. What a coup if it made it to 200,000 miles!

But…that would’ve been the second time I’d kept the Sable going by phoning around junkyards to locate an old part that my bless-his-soul mechanic couldn’t find in any conventional inventory or catalog. All of the bits of the Sable that were meant to be replaced every 75,000 and 100,000 miles had already been replaced at least once and were probably going to fail again soon. The underbody rust wasn’t limited to just that one part of the suspension, either. No, it was time for the Sable to go. And it was time for me to let it go.

Of course, if I’d let it go within a year of parking it, before its quarter tank of remaining gas had turned to shellac and its engine compartment had become a winter shelter for various neighborhood critters, I probably could have gotten at least five times as much money for it. But it’s not as if I didn’t get any joy out of the Sable during its final two or three years as a driveway art installation.

Today, I watched it go. I felt a deep sense of nostalgia, but no sadness.

I’ll use this check to buy opera tickets. I’ll wear one of Dad’s ties when I go.

Right at this moment, writing that sentence, I realized that the production I want to see is running right around the week of Dad’s birthday, too.

Flogrolling In Our Time: “Andy Wants A 4K HDR TV” Edition

Well! Yesterday I had the prototypical Thanksgivin’ Dinner That Couldn’t Be Beat. This time it was with my family and it was up there with the greatest.

Holidays are a teensy bit weird when you have lots of siblings and then both of your parents have passed away. We grow up, we move out, we start our own families, but the folks remain the sun around which our planets orbit. On holidays, Mom and Dad become like the Olympic site selection committee. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or National Poached Egg On A Waffle Day, the house where they choose to spend the holiday becomes the location of The Family Holiday.

So what happens when that center goes away? Do the planets spin off in directions that take them farther and farther away from each other? Does one of them become the new center?

It’s been several years since we lost our parents, and we seem to have settled into a good system: “it’ll all work out.” There are plenty of siblings to go around and nobody feels pressured into getting locked into a non-negotiable tradition, whether as a host or as a guest. This year, I spent Thanksgiving with two sisters and their accompanying retinues of spouses and kids. I was looking forward to it and the experience delivered. Other years, I’ve done Thanksgiving with friends, or even spent it alone, and the siblings never interpreted it as a middle finger extended heartily in their direction, no more than I did when they had plans that didn’t include Andy at the table.

(Note: Your Mileage May Vary. Some of you are saddled with families that play those kind of games. And some of you have made the choice that if absence doesn’t precisely make the heart grow fonder, it at least prevents you from heeding that little voice that says “Do it. At most they can charge you with misdemeanor battery and holy cow, does your brother deserve it after what he just said about you.”)

(Note(2): If you’ve never done “Thanksgiving alone/Thanksgiving with just your partner” oh wow yes try it at least once. It’s never been a sad and lonely experience for me. On the contrary! I get to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner with all of the sides and desserts, exactly the way I like them. I get to stay in my pajamas. I can take seconds and thirds without doing that bit of polite math about how many rolls are left in the basket and how far it’s gone around the table so far. If I want to eat a bit later, I can eat a bit later. And all the while, I’ve got my iPad at hand, enjoying friends’ and family’s Thanksgiving in something akin to realtime.)

Overall, I have the luxury of making my own choices for the holidays. I know that not everybody has that kind of freedom and I’m grateful for it.

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Is it appropriate to say “Happy Black Friday”? Probably not. Big business has done what it does best: they’ve taken a tradition that grew organically out of a collective semi-pleasurable desire, and turned it into a giant Nerf gun of stress-darts.

Before Black Friday became a thing, my own tradition was to head to the big mall at 6 or 7 AM — hours before any of the stores were open — and get a great parking space. Sure, I’d spend the day Christmas shopping, but the best part of the day was always walking out with my bags, immediately attracting a long line of cars trailing me to what would be the only available parking space within five acres of Radio Shack, tossing my bags in the trunk…

…And then closing the trunk and returning to the mall.

I was younger and much less mature.

Also, Massachusetts has strict gun laws.

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Anyway, I’ve a new Black Friday tradition: I tweet out links to Amazon deals I find for products I can recommend, and I do it like a madman.

Yes, I have an affiliate account on Amazon. Every time someone clicks on one of those links and buys something — anything, not even the thing I linked to — I get a little kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. I never use affiliate links for tech items. I don’t think it’s unethical to use affiliate links that way. The Wirecutter has done that since the beginning, and there’s no reviews/recommendations site that I respect more.

I just don’t think it’s the right choice for me. I’m not a website with a whole editorial board and other staff. I’m just this one guy, and I’m trying to do good tech journalism and reviews in a world where (and I wish I was kidding about this) a guy on a YouTube tech site gets a freebie $800 video gadget and he’s so grateful and so excited about how superawesomesaucewonderful the thing is that he licks it.

In such an environment, it pleases me if I’ve given my readers/listeners as few reasons as possible to suspect my motives. And not accepting affiliate money for anything tech-related falls under that umbrella.

(Which isn’t to say that my hands are as clean as they could possibly be. That would mean buying everything I write about, just for starters. But at least everything I do goes through a basic smell test. “Would I be comfortable defending this choice in public, in person?” cuts to the heart of the matter quickly, I find.)

But books? Movies? Music? The awesome razor I bought a few years ago that I utterly love? Sure! Fair game.

So I apologize to anybody who (correctly) thinks that my Twitter feed is cluttered with material goods for the next week or so.

Would it help if I told you that it’s all towards a higher purpose?

Yes: an awesome new TV for my living room.

(Oh, sorry: I bet you thought I was going to say something like “Puerto Rico hurricane relief.” No. But that’s still a great cause. Maria hit the island months ago and your fellow Americans are still soldiering on to rebuild. Charity Navigator can help you find honest charities that put the most of your money to the best use. Operation USA has received four stars and they do great work, spending more than 96% of the money they raise on their actual charitable mission as opposed to salaries, offices, and the cost of fundraising.)

See, usually, my Amazon Affiliates bucks don’t amount to much. It’s not a business. I don’t even consider it a sideline. Generally speaking, the monthly credits mean that if a book or a movie catches my eye, I don’t have to think too much about buying it. But in January, when the Black Friday credits are applied to my account…YAHOOO CLEMENTINE!!!! IT’S BISCUITS AND GRAVY FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!!!!!

(ahem.)

(smoothing hair back into place as I put the chair I was sitting in back on its legs.)

(continuing.)

When I need a new laptop, I spend the money and don’t think twice. It’s a tool I need for my livelihood. But when (say) the backlighting on the good TV in the living room is starting to go south and “Blade Runner” looks like it’s had a not-good Instagram filter applied to every frame…well, I mean, it’s still working, right? It’s in 1080 HD and color, isn’t it? Is it smart to blow a lot of cash on a new one?

And so it goes. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking “if it’s still annoying me at the end of the year, then that’s what I’ll buy with my holiday Amazon associate credits in January or February.”

Yeah, it’s still annoying me. I want a new TV.

And I want one that will serve the role of “The Good TV In the Living Room” for close to ten years, as this one did. Which means: 4K! HDR! A wireless remote control! The whole nine yards.

I’m sorry and not sorry for having so many Amazon links in my Twitter feed. If it helps, imagine me in a few months, watching a movie that you deeply approve of, on a bitchin’ cinema screen without a grey halo around it for the first time in almost a whole year.

If you’ve been moved to tears by the tale of this poor orphan boy, here’s an Amazon link to one of my favorite books. Anything you buy after clicking that link will count toward Andy’s Bitchin’ TV Amazon Kickback Fund.

#MeToo

I’m going to put this here, for all of my Twitter and Facebook friends:

I’ve been reading your #MeToo posts. This is one of a great many situations in which the standard set of social media buttons seem glib and inadequate. I’m Sad that this the reality of your industry and your society. I’m Angry on your behalf. I Like (support) that you posted your truth. I also 100% respect anyone who’s had one or more experiences on this horrible spectrum from Harassment to Criminal and has decided that, for them, keeping such things private is the right choice.

And any adult with any level of awareness would have foreseen that there’d be too many of these posts for me to respond uniquely to each one. My intellectual and emotional reactions are sincere, and I can’t find enough words for each of you. Each of you deserves the strongest expression of support I can summon.

Over the term of my adulthood, I’ve been graced by the generosity of women and men who’ve helped me to glimpse how large the world is, beyond the claustrophobia of my personal experiences. I entered adulthood with only a nodding understanding of the crap that women are forced to contend with. But that was nothing compared to the stories that friends have shared with me in response to the simple question “So how are things at work?” Well, Andy, a huge percentage of things at work are needlessly horrible. And they’ve been horrible since long before you started asking the question. These stories are so shocking that Teenage Andy wouldn’t have believed them without additional corroboration. They’ve come so frequently that Grownup Andy has almost lost the ability to be shocked by them. “Surprised” went away before I turned 30.

A while ago, I began to appreciate how different my world is. Two incidents from my childhood stand out. A carload of teens ambushed me on a dark road late one night, and they would’ve beaten me nearly to death if the amount of beer they’d drank plus my intimacy with the dense forest near that road hadn’t let me blaze a path to safety that they couldn’t follow. But I never felt like I lived in a world where strangers wanted to beat me up just because of who and what I am. And there was a Creepy Scoutmaster whom I steered well clear of, thanks to a mysterious gut instinct that I would later learn was spot-on. But I never felt like I lived in a world where “what if someone I trust tries to assault me?” needed to be a foreground process.

I don’t feel a trace of guilt for being a White Dude who (as of this writing) has exclusively dug women.

BUT.

I fully appreciate that the backpack of daily burdens I was made to wear when I began my tour of duty on this world contained far fewer bricks than the one issued to the women. It was far lighter than the one given to the men and the women for whom a relationship-appropriate wedding cake topper was not commercially available until very recently. It was lighter than the backpack issued to the men and the women who are transgender; and the one given to the people who aren’t white; and the one given to anyone who doesn’t mutter an instinctive refrain whenever they hear the words “May the Lord be with you…”; and…it’s a very long list.

So, to all of the women and men who posted #MeToo, and to everyone who might have but couldn’t: this is why I’m not clicking those Like buttons on Twitter and Facebook.

But please know that I respect you, and I believe you, and I will be deeply disappointed in myself if I should ever fail to be an active ally when you need one.

“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Twitter Question: Favorite Phone Tripod Mount?

Matt Bushby asks:

I love, love, LOVE the RetiCAM. I love it so much I own two or three copies.

It has two features that no other phone tripod mount I’ve seen can touch. Its jaws are wide enough to hold any phone, not just whatever the current iPhone was when this thing was designed in China. And more importantly, it grabs the hell out of your phone.

That’s the fail point of almost all of the others. They’re usually made like little spring clamps and their philosophical mode is to just keep the phone there on the tripod, as opposed to holding it securely. Not this one. The phone slides into a V-shaped channel and then you turn a thumbscrew until its padded jaws are locked around the thing. It is not coming out until you undo the screw.

I’m so confident about the safety of my phone in a RetiCAM that I sometimes even wear my phone on a sling, like an SLR:

A post shared by Andy Ihnatko (@ihnatko) on

…Which is super-handy when I’m at a conference or at a press event and I don’t want to keep holstering and un-holstering my phone, or worry that I’m going to set my phone down somewhere to free my hands for something else and then someone says hi and by the time I look down again, it’s gone.

Anyway. With the RetiCAM, I can slap the phone on a tripod, sure, but I also feel confident enough to stick it on the end of a monopod and wave it over the side of a bridge at an angle that might be described as “irresponsibly jaunty” given the cost of a phone that (a) retails at $800 and (b) I’m supposed to return to the manufacturer at the end of 30 days.

Question from Instagram: Roadcasting

I posted this to Instagram on Tuesday morning, as I awaited my train to New York City. I was heading in for a press event and then heading home after an early dinner with a friend. I’ve done previous trips like this one carrying what’s basically a small purse: a bag just big enough to hold an iPad Mini and a compact keyboard. But Tuesday is MacBreak Weekly show day, so I needed to lug around podcasting gear all day.

@loose_ship wants to know what I was carrying.

First off, I could have carried a lot less. All I need for MacBreak is a computer that can run Skype, a camera, and some kind of external mic. I participated  in the live coverage of Apple’s intro of the iPad Pro using just my phone and the mic built into my earbuds, but that was only because I’d chosen to spend that afternoon on Broadway waiting to get in to see Steven Colbert’s second “Late Night.”

More realistically, I could have just plugged a USB mic into my iPad Mini and called it a day. But choosing hardware for podcasting with video away from my studio navigates two variables:

  1. How good do I want the video and audio to be?
  2. What kind of risks are acceptable?

With a show like MacBreak, which records from a professional studio with two other hosts who’ll be recording from well-kitted-out home studios of their own, I’ll look like a dope if I try to cut corners. Also, though I’d lined up a quite office in midtown to record in, I wanted to board my train knowing that I’d solved any possible connection or quality issue before I’d even left the house.

Hence, the following armaments:

A real laptop. My MacBook Pro. I’m writing this blog post with a Lenovo Carbon laptop that I’ve been trying out for a few weeks, and I considered taking it instead. My MacBook is my primary desktop, and it was tethered to all kinds of screens and drives. But I’ve never run Skype on it or plugged a mic in. I doubt it would have been any kind of issue. But I quickly recognized that I could reduce “a slight chance” of failure to “zero chance” through just five minutes of inconvenience. So out came the MacBook.

A decent USB mic. My current weapon of choice is Blue’s “Raspberry” mic. It’s the right balance between “compact” and “great sound.” It runs off of USB (and it even works with an iPad) and folds into a nice, non-lumpy bundle. Another nice touch: its folding stand attaches through a standard tripod screw. I can attach it to any tripod I own.

An external camera. The ability to place the camera where you need it to be is a subtle thing that makes a livestream look professional. Using the FaceTime camera on my MacBook means either video aimed straight up my nose, or having to rummage around the room for a little trash can or something that I can perch my MacBook on top of…which itself would cost me access to the keyboard and the ability to navigate my notes during the show. If I throw my usual Logitech C920 into a drawstring bag, all problems go away. It’s doesn’t fold or flatten for travel, but it’s worth the bulk.

Tripods for both. I have a Joby Gorillapod for the mic and the camera is supported by some kind of 1970s telescoping travel tripod I bought at the MIT Flea Market eons ago. They’re annoyingly bulky but they bring peace of mind: I know there’ll be no need whatsoever to jury-rig a solution. My microphone is inches from my mouth and the camera is where it needs to be. Problems solved.

Power stuff. Obviously I’m not going to risk running the MacBook on battery. But I also need my power brick’s long, heavy-duty power cord, or an extension cord. Otherwise I’ll have to record from a six-foot radius of a wall outlet.

Networking stuff. When I’m not podcasting from my office, I’ll take whatever broadband I can get, so long as it’s STABLE and reasonably fast. Wifi is far from ideal, though, so I’m carrying a gigabit Ethernet dongle and at least six meters of CAT6 cable. As with the power cord, I don’t want my seating choices to be limited to a six-foot radius of a wall jack.

All of these things add up. And I haven’t mentioned the USB battery and other things I normally have in my bag whenever I leave the house.

It’s tempting to bring some sort of video light. I have a few battery-operated ones, ranging from the size of a large marshmallow to that of a small book. They don’t help out enough to justify their bulk. Even the smallest one would require another tabletop tripod.

The bag is a Tenba that isn’t being made any more. I chose the color so that I can say “The orange one” to the people who manage bag check rooms. It’s bigger than what I strictly needed for this trip, actually. But the extra space is a big time saver when I’m rummaging around looking for a cable…I don’t have to take things out to get to something else.

We all dream of owning the One True Bag To Rule Them All. I’m old enough to know that it’s a fantasy. I have maybe a half-dozen bags in routine service, and I choose the right one for each job (often after initially choosing the wrong one, and then repacking everything). This big Tenba bag is WAY too heavy to carry on my shoulder all day when it’s stuffed with hardware. I usually reserve it for all-day adventures where the weather keeps changing and I need to deposit and withdraw layers as needed.

Via Twitter: What about the Mac Mini?

I get lots of interesting questions via Twitter and I want to try to remember to answer them here, too.

I love the quick interactivity of Twitter. Sure, I could enable comments here on the blog. But over the years I’ve found that my brain doesn’t work that way. When I write in a format longer than 140 characters, it’s with the idea that I’ve said what I wanted to say and I just want to move to something new; I feel as if the time I spent responding to comments is time I should have spent writing something new.

(Plus: jerks using comment systems to game Google search results.)

I’ve just had another one of those “I ought to take this to the blog” moments and, probably because I’ve just finished a big ol’ hunk of perfectly-cooked red meat, I’m actually doing something with that thought instead of just moving on.

KEVIN asks:

I honestly have no idea. Mentions of the Mini have been alarmingly absent, even as Apple has been reassuring us all that the largely indifferent upgrades that should have been applied to other machines in the Mac line years ago are coming soon, they promise, for real.

A year or two ago, I would have followed this up with “But I’d be surprised if Apple discontinued the MacMini. It’s not a big revenue-maker, but it’s an important part of the Mac line that keeps the whole ecosystem relevant.

Today? Those things are still true. But Apple’s attitude towards the Mac has DEF-in-itely changed. At this point, I don’t think anyone should count on anything.

It’s weird how quickly some things can change, isn’t it? If Tim Cook were to respond in an interview that “We’ve got WONDERFUL plans for the Mac Mini,” it’d send a chill racing from my brain to my butt. In the past few years, this has meant that they’re doing something radical that totally changes the traditional mission of a Mac and to my eye, it’s never been for the better.

The mission of the Mac Mini has always been to be boring, affordable, and practical. The fact that my Mac Mini is all three of those things instead of just one or two makes it a great computer. If Apple tampers with it, they’ll be cutting off one of the three legs of the stool I sit on.

What It Feels Like, Sometimes

I’m making a ham and cheese sandwich. I finish by squeezing a little hot mustard on it. Bottle just beeps and flashes a numerical code on the label. I take my phone out of my pocket and Google the error code. “Bottle cannot dispense mustard until it connects to a Gulden’s server.” I have no idea why it needs to connect to the Internet to perform such a simple, non-Internet-needing task, but whatever. I check the Wifi. The wifi is down. I fix the wifi. Mustard bottle still won’t dispense, online troubleshooting suggests I perform a soft-reset. I hold down the cap for five seconds until the mustard bottle reboots. Now it needs me to re-authenticate. I set up this mustard bottle ages ago so I don’t remember the password. I fetch it from 1Pass. Bottle authenticates successfully, but it notes that my password hasn’t been changed in a long time and for the safety of my mustard, the bottle won’t allow me to proceed until I create a new one. I create a new password. The bottle completes its startup process, notices there’s a system update, downloads it, installs it, and reboots. Because of the new OS, it needs to authenticate again. I’ve been just standing here the whole time and I can’t remember the password that I created in anger twenty minutes ago. I tap a link on the label to reset my password. I go to my Mac to open the verification email, click the link, and create ANOTHER new password, which I write down this time. I return to the kitchen, the new password fails a few times because the servers’ databases needed five or ten minutes to update each other. Finally, the bottle of mustard completes its startup process and dispenses mustard…all over the kitchen cabinets, because that’s where the bottle happened to be pointed when the firmware discovered a cache file in the system from before the OS update, and processed the leftover “dispense mustard” command that was sitting there.

Frustrated beyond measure, I clean the mess and that’s when I wonder where the ham and cheese sandwich I made an hour ago went. I look outside the window and see a raccoon pushing the last corner of it into its mouth, staring back at me with the expression of someone bingewatching a show they don’t really understand but which they nonetheless find engrossing.

This story is WAY more entertaining than the story of how my morning actually went. But yes, blow by blow, that was the jist.

This is the name of my pain. I want to do something bang-on-simple that ought to take maybe a minute. But it seems like step one of anything is always “diagnose and fix a problem that has inexplicably disabled something that was working fine yesterday, and then solve the problems created by what had to be done to solve the previous problem in the chain.”

It occasionally makes me question why I ever even try to watch something on TV, or write something, or put mustard on anything, ever.

The Doggie Poop Emotional Maturity Test

God  is wise. God knows that it can’t just call us in for a routine performance evaluation because we’d be scared spitless. We wouldn’t show up, unless maybe our job had called an all-morning, all-staff meeting for that day and we needed an excuse.

So instead, He or She or Whatever does these little spot checks on us without warning us in advance. It’s not judgment, H/S/W would like to know how the hardware and software are performing in the real world (which, need I remind, H/S/W also created. God’s Q/A operation alone is a bigger single line-item than Hell’s entire operating budget).

Essentially: if Andy’s goal is to achieve contentment and inner peace through ongoing spiritual refinement, then what level has Andy reached thus far? Continue reading

Pivoting the Groundhog

The backyard groundhogs are back! Or, at least, we begin that part of the year where they choose to dine al fresco. It’s never so many of them as to cause the word “infestation” to float through my consciousness and I would like to think that the neighborhood groundhog community respects my integrity too much to ever worry that I’ll pander for votes by railing against the property’s loose borders and promising mass-deportations.

Yesterday I spotted a young adult, in fine fettle, from my kitchen window. Those are the ones who turn into aerodynamic little ground-hugging torpedoes when they run. The youngsters haven’t nailed that movement technique and the oldsters’ hips and shoulders force them to rumble a bit. A groundhog at the peak or his or her powers, however, tracks a straight line and moves like a duck, with all of the frenzied legwork completely hidden under a shell of placid resolve and emphatic velocity.

Perhaps this points to a successful 21st-century rebranding for groundhog? The “ground” part plays, no worries there. But I don’t see the connection between the hog and the creature I see through my office windows. Hogs are snowplow-like in build and method, and Porky Pig is the only one I’ve ever seen raise himself up on his hind legs. Hogs don’t seem alert enough to invest in situational awareness, anyway.

Whereas yesterday, my merely turning on the kitchen faucet from behind a closed window caused the aforementioned specimen to stop what it was doing, raise periscope, and then decide that the treeline represented the better part of valor.

So how did we wind up with “groundhog?” Surely, “Land Duck” is closer to the mark.

If nothing else, a flashy renaming campaign will get marmota monax a burst of fresh publicity. At the top end of expectations, it could encourage people to toss them food and offer them welcome sanctuary in public parks. That’d be a real boon for economically-stressed communities who have parks, but can no longer afford the upkeep on their water features.

I wonder who’s handling their PR? Are they happy with their current representation?

Tom & Dori

I don’t think I ever bought one of Tom Negrino’s books. The law of averages suggests that I must have, solely due to how many of the things he wrote.

(I’ve just gone to my analog library to double-check. Sure enough: one of his introductory JavaScript books. Of course.)

I always envied that kind of skill. His books are bloody good; not a bad apple in the whole barrel. Being a productive and consistently-good tech book author requires a special kind of discipline and focus. It requires good instincts, confidence in your skills, an intuitive understanding of how to deliver the greatest amount of value to a reader, and (oh, damn it, Tom) the ability to write well and not slow down the project by being oh-so-precious.

Tom has those talents in spadefuls. I have them in…

I’m stuck for a way to express the opposite of a spadeful.

Spoonful? Or would I be better off sticking with the spade and persuing the digging angle? “Tom writes as efficiently as a man digging a trench through soft loam, while I seem to approach every page as though I’m sure I must have lost a dime somewhere in all this dirt, and I’m terrified that I’ll just re-bury it unless I proceed with the utmost care and caution”?

Well. There you have it. I imagine Tom would have written “I’m a fast writer. Andy isn’t.” and then boom…on to the next clear, well-written sentence.

Books aren’t my user interface to Tom, anyway. I’ve been lucky enough to know him personally. He’s part of a big extended family of people whom I love dearly and will miss when they’re gone. He’s among the two or three dozen people I looked forward to seeing two or three times a year at Macworld Expo and, post-Macworld, at the many other watering holes where members of our tribe of nerds tend to gather.

Honest, I feel closer to Tom than some members of my actual legal family. I wouldn’t always know ahead of time that Tom would be attending a certain conference, but I always knew it was likely. One of the other members of the family would tell me “Oh, yeah, Tom and Dori are here. I said hi to them in the press room about an hour ago.” And then the ten-year-old kid in me would shout YAYYYY!!! Tom is like the cousin whose presence (and backpack full of Star Wars action figures) makes a boring grownup’s party bearable.

I simply enjoy Tom’s presence. I enjoy catching up with him. I enjoy being at a table in a restaurant with him. I enjoy the simple mutual understanding that this life is naught but a vale of tears and that humankind was born unto trouble just as surely as sparks fly upward, doubly so if one is a book author. I enjoy the shared history and the gentle reminders of the time when Mac users were all considered a slightly odd demographic, and the mild stigma bonded us into a distinct community. If I knew you were a Mac user, I knew that you were at least 80% cool. Tom and Dori are, combined, about 280%.

I also dig “Tom and Dori.” A lot. It’s not a given that two excellent, successful  writers can maintain any kind of relationship, let alone the titanic bond of warmth and mutual admiration that those two have. The phrase “peas and carrots” comes to mind. Their bond has been obvious every time I’ve seen them together and only slightly less so when I’ve seen them separately.

Tom “went public” with his terminal cancer diagnosis in a blog post last year. That’s when I learned that he was born with spina bifida. I think he’s wise enough to have leaned on friends for help and support as needed (and Lord knows he has many friends who’d do anything for him). But part of the grind of a chronic illness, I imagine, is that it’s simply a part of one’s life…part of What Must Be Handled If One Wants To Get On With It. I have the luxury of wallowing in a three-day flu. I know it’ll be completely behind me soon. So it’s a dandy excuse to knock off work and sleep for 52 hours. A person with a chronic illness, however, learns early on to Just Deal. Spina bifida is incompatible with a fulfilling, ambitious, successful, and easy life…so, Tom just got on with it, and had a fulfilling, ambitious, successful life in which his backpack contained several extra bricks that aren’t in yours or mine.

I wonder if that sort of stamina helps him as a writer? “Yes, this sucks. Yes, this is hard. Let’s just deal with it and move forward.” Whereas (and I can’t overstress this point) I’m the sort of writer who pictures himself struggling with his Muse every single moment of every single day. In my mind, I toil away in a freezing garret, alone and unknown, my only luxury a single white lily, which reminds me of the Truth and Beauty which I must achieve with each word, certain that my genius will never be understood or appreciated within my lifetime. That’s rich. Because in reality I am on the sofa with my MacBook on my lap, a remote control in my hand, snack crackers ever at the ready, and the knowledge that the next thing I write will definitely be read by a lot of people and I’ll probably get paid for it.

(The part about the single perfect lily was accurate, however. O beauty! Eternal, yet so fragile! [shed single tear] Why must I be cursed with the ability to understand it in such painful detail, even as pale, tart ugliness is lauded by those around me! Et cetera. By the time I get bored with this line of thought, all of my editors have gone home for the day and there’s not even much of a point to my starting work.)

You might have read that Tom will likely no longer be with us a week from now. As he wrote on his blog, his health has been declining precipitously, with no rescue realistically in sight. He’s decided to end his life on his own terms, and he and Dori have picked a date.

My tendency to overthink things and be oh-so-precious with words is nudging me to speak of Tom’s life as his greatest creative work. “…And now, true to form, Tom is wrapping things up, ending the project when he’s sure it’s complete. He’s content to close the back cover.”

But that’s glib. He’s ending his life because after living with cancer for a long time, his health has declined past the point where the powers of determination, family support, and medical science can push back. His choice isn’t based on “quality of life.” Tom’s life will end soon no matter what he chooses.

I’m pleased for Tom, because he’s clearly made the right choice for himself. I’m grateful that he wrote that blog post; it was a generous gift to his friends and fans. Tom has made his thoughts clear.

I can only speak for myself. It feels like Tom is choosing to “be there” when he dies. Both of my parents died from terminal illnesses. I was present during that final week or two when it was clear that their life forces were slowly tapering down to zero. They were heavily medicated to keep them out of pain.

I don’t fear death as much as I fear the idea of my death being taken out of my hands. I’d hate to die before I can tell everyone I love how much they meant to me. Or without making it clear that certain tasks, goals, principles, and even specific material objects were important and might even have defined me.

(Or without secure-erasing my browser history. Okay. Yes. Fine.)

I’m even more worried about existing as a mere memento of myself…to have a pulse and an active EEG, but little else. Once I’ve lost everything that defines me, plus the potential or the interest to define myself anew, aren’t I just hanging around the fairground after the tents and rides have been packed up and trucked away?

Willy Wonka said (in the good movie) that he wasn’t going to live forever and he didn’t want to, either. This is the man who invented lickable wallpaper. Suffice to say he’s a man of great wisdom.

I seem to be fishtailing around my emotions right now. I regret that Tom won’t be popping up in my life any more. I don’t regret Tom’s decision. I’m saddened that he’s leaving us too soon. I wish I had written and posted this earlier.

But I’m tremendously grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to tell Tom that I treasure him. It’s much more pleasant than writing a eulogy that he’ll never hear.

I feel an evening of deep sighs coming on.

I will pivot this ending with a formal declaration. If I’m hit by a bus or something and my family (not just the legally-recognized ones) has gathered around my bed in the ICU and is wondering if I’m even still in there, here’s what I want you to do:

Play either “America” from the Broadway score to “West Side Story,” or “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops. Or, in a pinch, the theme song from “Friends.”

If I don’t even try to do the hand claps…look, I’m sorry, but clearly I’m gone and nothing can bring me back. Start divvying up my body parts and my comic books. And please, someone delete my browser history.

 

 

 

An Idler In San Francisco

Gate-fold

You can attempt to divide by zero or take the square root of a negative number. It’s adorable that you’d even try, because it’s impossible, of course.

“Getting from downtown San Francisco to Cupertino without any fuss” is the divide by zero of Bay area logistics. It can’t be done. It’s doubly-frustrating because I’m not battering my head against eternal principles of mathematics but against lousy urban planning.

Why, yes! I am on a southbound Caltrain! How perceptive of you! Continue reading

The Official Position Of The Ihnatko.com Editorial Board On Nazi-Punching

…Is as follows:

  1. If you’re a hero on the cover of a vintage comic book: always acceptable, even desireable;
  2. When the Nazi is either physically assaulting you or is clearly prepating to physically assault you: always acceptable, even necessary;

And that’s as far as I’ve got.

Each of us is an innocent civilian in the war between our Emotional and Intellectual selves. The Emotional self says “It would feel so good if we did this…” while the Intellectual self responds “Yes, but hang on: what if…” Continue reading

VOTES FOR WOMEN!

Vintage newspaper photo of suffragettes holding
I wonder what goes on inside Trump’s head. I wonder about this with the same befuddlement with which I wonder how snakes can move without any legs, how that guy I once saw on I-95 managed to get this far without the state police pulling him over for operating a vehicle with three tires and one bare rim, and vector calculus in general.

Trump’s brain is an alien thing to me. I’ve made so many mistakes over the past couple of years due to the fact that I’ve been trying to interpret the man’s statements and strategy with the same software I’ve used every day since I received the “Comprehend The Humans Instead Of Just Being Alarmed By Them All The TIme” system update. But Trump is an edge case, for sure. Continue reading

Paul Ryan 1970-20?? HOLD IN CMS

It’s no secret that people in the news game maintain an inventory of obituaries of prominent, not dead, not even sick citizens. It’s the responsible choice. Murphy’s Law dictates that if Betty White is even capable of dying, it’s sure to happen when we’re recovering from a two-day bender and are incapable of giving this fine lady the sendoff that she deserves.

So the fact that I wrote House Speaker Paul Ryan’s obituary today should in no way be taken as some sort of wishful thinking. I sincerely hope that the man lives a long, long life and expires in a state of peace, surrounded by the many people who love him.

Seriously. If anything, I’m writing this now because I’m certain that the Speaker is going to outlive me. I mean, just look at him. Even the worst photo of him ever taken indicates a man brimming with health, committed to daily exercise and a regular diet.

Whereas I, as I write this, have just eaten a carrot cake donut and am halfway through a twenty ounce bottle of Diet Dr Pepper. Continue reading

Congress repeals access to free public school education

Of course they didn’t. But imagine it. New Congress and their first order of business is to pass legislation that dismantles the public education system. Children are no longer guaranteed access to K-12 for free. Actually, they’re not even guaranteed access to K-12. Not as a fundamental right.

All schools in America have the right to refuse to accept any child for any reason. All schools in America can expel any child for any reason. And all of these schools will be sharing information between themselves freely, so if Billy or Jane got kicked out of third grade because their school didn’t feel like accommodating their food allergy or their disability, that could disqualify them from ever getting educated anywhere. Continue reading