I miss my bar, Pt. III: Two years of this

In which I commemorate the second anniversary of my Last Normal Day, and wax doomy about the state of the pandemic. But nothing lasts forever.

So it turns out getting back into the blogging habit is harder than I thought — failing at my attempt to quit Twitter didn’t help — but here I go trying again. The pandemic has, as I think for many people, scrambled my sense of time anyway. It feels like it must somehow still be 2020, but also like it’s been a lifetime since what used to be “normal”.

It’s March 14th, 2022, the second anniversary of what I think of as my Last Normal Day, when I walked to the barbershop and had my last professional haircut. I’ve been making do at home with clippers and my partner’s assistance, but in a fit of likely-premature optimism, I did book an appointment for this week, so I’ll see my barber again for the first time since then. Still masked, of course; I’ll stick to trimming my beard at home for a while longer, that’s much easier to do anyway.

Pretty much every jurisdiction in the US has dropped mask mandates now, as far as I know, though they’re still requiring them on planes and trains for another month (I’m sure compliance will be even worse than before). In Massachusetts, the average test positivity rate is down around 1.5%, which is great compared to the peak of the Omicron wave (officially 23% in early January, a figure well past the “we cannot possibly accurately measure how much of this shit is out there” threshold) but not great at all compared to last June’s low point of below 0.3%. I miss my bar, but for a glorious couple of weeks there, before even Delta, let alone Omicron, I felt like it was safe enough to go back a few times.

But if letting our collective guard down last summer when case rates were so much lower, because we figured the Alpha wave was done, left us so vulnerable to the worse variants to come, it seems flatly insane to be ending all mitigation measures even though the rates are higher and the new variants are more transmissible. Not to mention insisting on the importance of “getting back to the office” and proclaiming COVID “endemic”, as though the bare assertion would make that true despite over a thousand deaths a day in the US alone. As I said on Twitter a few days ago, it’s like deciding we’re tired of putting out a fire and we need to get back to stacking oily rags everywhere, and those smoldering embers in the corner are probably just going to quietly go out on their own, so we need to just learn to live with constant smoke inhalation.

Medical consensus is growing that somewhere in the range of 10 to 30% of COVID cases result in “Long COVID” chronic post-viral illness, which can be debilitating for some; it also appears that even mild cases can cause physical damage to brain tissue that is visible on scans. The risks of both scenarios are probably reduced by vaccination, but public health officials insisting that it’s silly to try to reduce cases to zero makes me feel like either they’re completely detached from reality, or I am.

What a happy note to end on! I suppose this was always going to be a gloomy anniversary, but I will try to get back to posting a couple times a week. I have other things I’d like to talk about. Keep wearing the highest quality, best fitting masks you can afford whenever you might be indoors with other people outside your own home, use rapid tests (and get your second set of free tests from covidtests.gov, if you haven’t — or your first and second, if you haven’t gotten either! — a measly eight tests per household is wildly inadequate but they won’t do more if there’s not even a demand for this) if you think you may have been exposed, get a PCR test if a rapid test is positive or you have symptoms, get vaxed and boosted if you haven’t, and try to protect the unvaccinated and vulnerable people in your life, since the government has decided that’s just not really their job.

I said up top that my sense of time is scrambled, and I have that Groundhog Day-like feeling that it’s both been forever and no time since the world changed, but a while ago a friend said something I’m holding on to: “Nothing has ever lasted forever before.” Everything ends, and the pandemic will too, but it hasn’t yet; and the more we act like it’s still a real danger, the sooner it will be over.

Enough rambling for now. Maybe next time I’ll talk about guitars. In the meantime, here’s a picture of my cat.

Moss, a small black long-haired cat, sitting in a sunbeam on a rug. A guitar amplifier is in the background.
This reminds me I really need to vacuum the living room rug.

I miss my bar, Pt. II: A year of this

It’s the Ides of March (by the way, check out Dessa’s Ides project — a new single each 15th, for the first six months of the year — so far “Rome”, “Bombs Away”, and today’s drop, “Life on Land”) and the weekend was full of musings about the anniversary of the pandemic “becoming real” for most Americans. Here’s mine.

A year ago this just-past Saturday was Friday, March 13th, 2020. That was the last time I sat and drank a beer at a bar, chatting with the bartenders and fellow patrons, a weekly social activity I feel the lack of very keenly; over the summer I did occasionally go back to have a pint at the outdoor tables one of my regular spots set up, but it’s not the same. I haven’t been to my other regular joint at all, save to pick up a to-go Easter dinner last year.

A year ago Sunday, on Saturday, March 14th, 2020, was the last time I had a professional haircut. I bought some cheap electric clippers and with my partner’s assistance have been able to manage an adequate job, especially since hardly anyone sees me without a bulky headset on anymore, anyway.

Daylight Saving Time also just kicked in over the weekend, so I’m in that awkward period of adjusting to the missing hour. (My Senator is trying to do something about that, at least.) I’ll spend the rest of my life, I guess, adjusting to this missing year, and I know I’m one of the luckiest ones — I’m only missing the year, not my health, not any loved ones. I have friends who did get COVID, and who are still unsure whether or how badly or how permanently they’ll have any of the long-term symptoms that seem commonly associated with the disease, but all of them survived it. Over half a million in the US (well over, as the official tallies are known to be drastic undercounts) did not, mainly because of the actions of the federal and state governments over the course of 2020.

How, as a society, do we recover from something like this? “Carefully,” as the dad-joke goes, I suppose, but we won’t even fully understand all the harms we’ve suffered for years, if ever. Trauma can settle, like varicella zoster in the nerves of the spine, where we don’t really notice it, and produce unexpected effects long after the event.

I’m not going anywhere with this, I don’t have a conclusion, other than “things didn’t have to be this way,” but that’s true of everything. It just seemed worthwhile to mark the anniversary of my Last Normal Day.

[Update: I failed to link to Emily Hauser’s vital pieces, from October and from February, which get at this issue far better than I can. They say the worst thing a movie can do is remind you of a better movie you could be watching instead, and Emily’s a better writer than I am, but I didn’t link to her until the end of the post, so you had to read my thing anyway. So there!]

I miss my bar

Well, lots of us do, what with the ongoing Panasonic. But also, I recently encountered a very clever website called I Miss My Bar, which is a very simple idea, cleanly executed: several toggleable and volume-adjustable channels of distinct sorts of bar-sounds ambience (conversations, the clink of glasses, street noises outside, rain on the windows) plus an embedded Spotify playlist of the sort of music a bar might be playing. You toggle the different sounds on or off, and adjust their relative volumes, to get a mix that approximates the background noise of your own favorite local spot, and it’s really surprisingly soothing.

It got me thinking, somehow, about Bernband and about Shamus Young’s Pixel City, and about the good old days of fanciful WinAmp audio visualizers like MilkDrop. I have an HDMI cable running from my desktop to the office TV, which I usually use to watch games on WNBA League Pass, but I can also put a browser window pointed to I Miss My Bar over on the TV and have its ambient audio piped through the attached Sonos; but then the screen itself is just showing the static web page.

It would be nice to have a more appropriate, and more dynamic, visual on the TV to go with those sounds.

More on that later, maybe.

Shtory update; also, audio

Sometimes things take longer, but also sometimes I get distracted.

Well, I said “by the end of the month,” but technically I didn’t say which month.

Anyway I’m continuing to work on Shtory. I’ve had my usual struggle to balance “drilling down into tiny details instead of looking at the whole picture” with “drawing high-level block diagrams and blithely assuming the implementation will be trivial” and also with “just plunging ahead writing code without much plan, in the hopes that it will somehow come together.”

I’ve realized I need to add join and quit commands, and that I need to try to get all this PlantUML/Graphviz business working, and sort out the VSCode plugin situation, so that I can write myself out some sequence diagrams for how things are supposed to communicate over the sockets.

Also, because who can just keep their attention on one project at a time, I’ve gotten interested in DIY audio electronics — specifically guitar amps, which I dabbled in about a million years ago, and associated stuff. I used to hang out on the Solid State Guitar hobbyist forums, and I got an email recently that the guy who runs them had launched a Kickstarter for a 9V-battery amp kit of his own design, based, like my previous efforts, on the venerable and ubiquitous LM386 amplifier IC. The “Honey” amp kit has beaten its funding goal, so I’m looking forward to receiving my kit once those get shipped out; and in the meantime it’s stirred up a bunch of ideas from the dusty corners of my brain.

The first one is that I should repair the old Ruby circuit I housed in that Balvenie packing tube, and the second one is that I should actually do something with the components I still have lying around — including a pretty nice 10″ Jensen speaker, a big transformer, and an LM3886 chip —that I once meant to build a ~40-watt amp from.

The third one is that I could build a cabinet to house that speaker — quarter sheet of 1/2″ plywood with a nice hardwood veneer, splined miter corner joints with internal corner braces, 14″x14″ face plus 2″ high instrument panel, 8″ deep, yes I’ve already sketched out the cut list — but wire the speaker to a jack, and use the combo cab as a modular platform for trying out different amplifier circuits with different power supplies, features, etc. Even the little ~1/2-watt Ruby can drive a proper full-size speaker, so as long as all the amp circuits are designed for an 8Ω speaker (and don’t put out more than 50W) that should pose no problem. I’d also like to try building another Ruby or similar design, but add in some extras like an effects loop or two, the recommended bass-boost circuitry (perhaps with a bypass switch), a headphone jack, etc. Ideally I could design the cabinet so that swapping in my original Ruby board, the Honey, such a modified Ruby, or even the big LM3886-based design if I ever get around to making that work, would be quick and easy.

“But Scott,” you might ask, “are you actually any good at playing guitar?”

Ha! You’re funny. No, of course I’m not.

I listen to too many podcasts

I wasn’t getting through episodes fast enough to even keep up with new releases, let alone approach the present.

At some point I became one of those people who listens to podcasts on 2x-speed, because I’d subscribed to so many — and in many cases they had long backlogs I wanted to catch up on — that I wasn’t getting through episodes at normal speed fast enough to even keep up with the new releases, let alone asymptotically approach the present.

We’re in something of a Podcast Era now, and have been since the early 2010s. Long ago, before I even started my first blog (remember blogs?), there was a First Podcast Era, which began shortly before Ben Hammersley named them “podcasts” in 2004. (Before that, of course, there had been “internet radio” — mp3 streams, which we called shoutcasts after the popular server software produced by Nullsoft; listened to at 96 or even a luxurious 128kbps in Nullsoft’s ubiquitous Winamp media player; and which, as I recall, consisted mostly of European ambient and techno — but you had to be at your desktop computer for those, because in 1998 the iPod was still three years away.) Back in the First Podcast Era, of course there was no Spotify to offer far-right bigots a hundred million dollars, so you had to have a podcatcher app, or eventually iTunes, and figure out how to copy and paste an RSS URL into it. And there was no Patreon to funnel millions a year to “far-left” bigots, and as I recall not much in the way of podcast networks or available sponsorships, so most podcasts had what we would now consider fairly amateurish production, and were strictly side gigs.

Anyway, I used to listen to a lot of podcasts in 2005–2007 or thereabouts, but I sort of fell out of the habit, and by the time the Second Podcast Era got started in earnest around 2012–2013, I didn’t consider myself “a podcast guy”. But eventually I had friends who were doing podcasts, and I wanted to support my friends, and one thing led to another, so here I am with a paid Pocket Casts account and, uh…76 subscribed feeds.

Some of them have been limited runs, or have just ended, the way things sometimes do, without having had a planned ending; or work on a seasonal schedule and are between seasons currently; or are just on some kind of hiatus; so only about two-thirds of those are still releasing new episodes with any kind of frequency, but it’s still a lot to keep up with.

All this woolgathering was by way of establishing why I’m only just getting to the fourth season, “Twilight Mirage”, of Friends at the Table, an “actual play” (i.e. episodes are recordings of gameplay sessions of what we used to call a “pencil-and-paper role-playing game”) podcast that I believe is one of the best of the genre. FatT alternates (roughly) fantasy with (roughly) science fiction, so Twilight Mirage is the second sci-fi season, and the last episode I listened to was the post-mortem Q&A for “Winter in Hieron” and its prequel “Marielda,” which formed the second fantasy season.

The, I suppose, impresario (and also gamemaster) of Friends at the Table is Austin Walker, a critic and author, the former EIC of Vice‘s former Waypoint games vertical (now reduced to “Vice Gaming” because corporate decided there was too much individuality, though the podcast — remember podcasts? — Waypoint Radio lives on with Austin as host). Austin is a genuinely brilliant person, and Disney even let him write some Star Wars stories, and his talents as a GM are matched only by the FatT cast, and in particular Jack de Quidt’s stunning work composing the scores for each season. So when, around the midpoint of the Marielda/Winter postmortem, I heard Austin describe the season 2 (“COUNTER/Weight”) episode “An Animal Out of Context” as “the best thing I’ve ever made”, I decided, well, I remember that being great, but I should go listen to it again.

I don’t know if that episode, which intersperses small vignettes with the other main characters among longer stretches of Jack and Austin playing a GM-less, two-player storytelling game of their own design, recontextualized for the COUNTER/Weight setting, would have the same impact for someone who hadn’t followed the story up to that point, so I hesitate to recommend listening to just that episode alone. But there’s a moment, three-quarters or a little more of the way through, where in one of those side vignettes, Art Martinez-Tebbel mentions casually that “an animal out of context” (in a future zoo, as it happened) is a hard thing to understand — giving, presumably unknowingly in the moment, the episode its title and also perfectly summarizing the alienation Jack’s character feels. I had to pause and take a breath when I heard that again, because it crystallizes a lot of what I think is so great about FatT: that Austin and Jack were telling such a powerful story; that Art, separately, got at such a crucial idea in a different (as it were) context; that Austin and Alicia Acampora, the producer and also a cast member, caught that brief phrase and realized how well it evoked the episode’s themes.

This is a very rambly weekend post, but the short of it is, I’m glad that, in this Second Podcast Era, it can be feasible for a show like Friends at the Table to run for over six years, and if you think a collaborative longform fiction radio show “focused on critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends” sounds interesting, you should try giving it a listen.

A Brief History of C

Over at Ars, Richard Jensen has a great article on how the C programming language came to be. I love dives like this into the various particulars and contingencies involved in the development of things we now think of as more-or-less having “always been there”. It’s easier to do with computer technology than many other things, too, because a lot of the people who were directly involved are still alive, and can talk about why they made one decision or another.

It’s a good reminder, too, that very little of how we generally think “the world is” was inevitable—or is immutable. On the other hand, of course, the longer particular arrangements are accepted as the default without examination of their roots, the more inertia they have, and the more effort it takes to make change.

Just think: we might have ended up with 10-, 12-, even 18-bit “bytes” as the basis for our computing technology; or even trinary logic circuitry, with a three-state “trit” as the smallest unit (after all, at the circuit level, a “0” just means there’s currently 0 volts on the line, and a “1” means there’s 5 volts, but there’s no rule that says other signal levels couldn’t exist).