Ben Crowder

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Links #44

Tauri looks like an interesting lightweight alternative to Electron. Quill is the only Electron app I’m still actively using, but it’d still be nice to reduce its footprint a bit.

Ada Palmer on the Renaissance. Better than the Middle Ages? Doubtful. (Also, there was so much more plague over the centuries than I’d realized. Goodness.)

Robin Rendle on redesigning his personal site. The latter half of the post is what resonated most with me. Sometimes I feel like my site has gotten perhaps a bit too focused on smoothly delivering projects, at the cost of some character. I hope to restore some of that character over the next year.

Bartosz Ciechanowski explains internal combustion engines. His interactive diagrams are superb as always.

Donald G. McNeil, Jr., on the end of Covid. A fairly measured take, I thought. My wife and I are both fully vaccinated now, by the way, but we can’t unquarantine until the kids get their shots (mid-to-late fall is our current loose expectation on that).


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New artwork: Take up Thy Bed. (This was an attempt to go back to a style that I think isn’t as hard on my back.)


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Quick update on projects, or rather the general lack thereof these past few months.

Since messing up my back again in late February, I’ve seen a mild level of recovery, but I’m still far from where I used to be (which itself was far, far from normal, those good old days before I slipped on some ice and got spondylolisthesis). Some of the things I used to do (like art) now cause enough pain, whether immediate or delayed, that I have to avoid them.

I’ve also been dealing with some out-of-the-blue episodes of vertigo. So much fun, let me tell you. The worst seems to be over, but every time I turn my head things still get a little woozy for a couple seconds.

On top of my lovely collection of physical ailments, I’ve also been feeling mentally drained and exhausted after work each day. Not sure if it’s a side effect of the back and neck pain or if it’s 2020 finally catching up to me or if it’s the new job. (If it’s the job: my company just got acquired, so I’m effectively starting yet another new job. Exciting. I’ll write more about it soon.)

With all of that, I’ve effectively been taking a forced mini sabbatical from project work. Thus the prolonged silences.

The break has certainly been restful — lots of reading — but I do want to find a way forward with making things, even though it’s fairly unclear what that will mean. Whether I’ll ever get my back back to where it was. Whether the vertigo is a new long-term companion. Whether I’ll be able to keep doing the same types of projects. (Writing and programming are still fine, physically, so I expect more of both. Not sure about the rest.) Whether this begins the inevitable slowing down in life and what then follows. (Hopefully not yet!)

A quick endnote lest my somewhat bloodless portrayal of the situation keep humanity from seeping in (and to mix metaphors post-haste, I’m not casting my net to catch any pity here, just documenting what this experience is like in the hope that maybe somehow it’ll help someone someday): there have of course been many moments of frustration and anguish and discouragement. It’s devastating not being able to help out nearly as much at home. Not being able to roughhouse with my kids. A lot of time lying on my back trying to relieve the pain. (And a corresponding bump in the number of accidental naps. C’est la vie.)

The situation isn’t ideal, but situations rarely are. I’ll still keep trying to claw my way back up to better health, of course, but if this is my lot going forward, so be it. There’s not much use in pining after what’s unattainable. I’ve adjusted, and I’ll continue to adjust as necessary, and I’ll be fine.

Anyway, that’s the far too long explanation of why I’ve been mostly derelict in posting work here these past few months.


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New artwork: Let God Prevail.


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New artwork: Before the World Was III.


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Booknotes 1.6

Nonfiction

As far as A Distant Mirror goes, I spoke too soon. Mired in the uninteresting-to-me Battle of Poitiers, I ended up abandoning the book once more. I now expect this to be a tome I read over several years, a hundred pages here and a hundred there. Which is something I’ve come to terms with.

I just finished John Seabrook’s The Song Machine, which I read in the hope of learning more about the process behind creating hit songs — anthropologically, not as something I intend to try myself. The dissonance between the hits the book covered and my own taste in music (film scores, some Broadway, hymns), however, ended up being strong enough that I didn’t really care for the history. Probably should have bailed early on. People who like pop and rock and hip hop, though, would probably like this book. (I hate earworms. So. Much.)

And mere minutes ago I began Madeleine Albright’s Madam Secretary, about her time as U.S. Secretary of State. Memoirs sometimes irritate me — overall, I think I’ve found that I prefer biographies — but I’m hoping this one doesn’t veer in that direction. And apparently this is the curmudgeon post where I get all my kvetching in.

Fiction

Shimmerdark ended well. Enjoyed it.

After that, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The haunting Arthurian atmosphere was delicious, though I wish there had been more actual Arthurian elements. (Which just means I need to go find those sorts of books. This book doesn’t actually need to change.) Lovely prose, lovely character voices (or voice, rather — they all felt somewhat the same to me, but in a wonderful way that felt appropriate to the storytelling). And the boatman metaphor! Whew. I read The Remains of the Day just over a year ago and loved it, and I’m looking forward to Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun.

Lastly, I picked Cryptonomicon back up again and am now a third of the way through. Definitely earthy. Also, I knew that Stephenson is notorious for what you might call info dumps, but they’ve turned out to be fascinating, and the writing is so compelling and readable that I actually look forward to them almost as much as I do the story itself.


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New artwork: Keystone.


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Booknotes 1.5

The issue in which we drop the bullets. (In the lists, that is.)

Nonfiction

Eyes in the Sky was good but didn’t click with me as much as I’d hoped. I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in aerial surveillance, though. Or anyone who wants to be a little creeped out.

Next I read James Gleick’s Genius, a biography of Richard Feynman. A bit slow in places thanks to the physics details (which I should have expected if I’d thought about it at all), but overall I very much enjoyed it. History of science is my jam. (I should mention too that a few years ago I read and liked Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.) Looking forward to reading Gleick’s books on chaos and information theory.

After a six-month hiatus, I’ve again picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and it is deliciously good. Perhaps not the right choice of words given that the section I returned to was all about the Black Death, but in a bizarre plot twist the book now feels like a cozy comfort read. I do not understand myself. At any rate, what I’ve found lately is that A Distant Mirror rewards a slower, savoring pace, which I wasn’t prepared to commit to six months ago. With eight hundred pages left, I suspect I’ll be reading this one for months.

Fiction

The City of Brass was great — fantasy novels set in the djinn-haunted deserts of the Middle East are apparently my thing. I can’t remember if I’ve actually read any others (The Phoenix and the Carpet, maybe? I was a kid at the time and don’t remember anything about it except that there was a lot of sand), but I want more. Recommendations, please.

Next I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Quirky typographic pseudohistory is also very much my thing. Robin’s newsletters are always a delight, too. Looking forward to Sourdough.

I started Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon but shelved it after twenty or thirty pages because it was too similar in time period to Genius. It’s daunting because of its length, but I hope to get back to it soon.

After that I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. Bizarre postapocalyptic biotech with a three-story-tall murderous flying bear. Great writing. Weird as heck. (Which is refreshing once in a while. I particularly like it as a reminder that a string of words on page or screen can conjure incredible magic in the mind.)

Next: Will Wight’s Skysworn, fourth in the Cradle series. These have workmanlike, windowpane prose ala Sanderson, which lately does not spark much joy for me. But the action is compelling enough that here I am four books in and still planning to read the rest.

And now I’m just over halfway through Sarah Mensinga’s Shimmerdark, which came out a couple weeks ago and is great. It didn’t hook me until about a third of the way in, but then things got much, much more interesting in several ways. (Back in September I read Sarah’s novel Currently and really liked it. Shimmerdark is even better.)


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Links #43

Tyler Hobbs on color arrangement in generative art. I haven’t done much generative art lately (and don’t know how much I’ll end up actually doing in the future), but I like Tyler’s work and this is a good writeup.

Phil Plait on David Novick’s colored spheres optical illusion. Wow.

Shawn Wang on quality vs. consistency. Which is something I feel I could do much, much better at here on this site.

Matthias Ott about personal websites. A good thing to remember.

Jason Kottke linking to a map of the world’s lighthouses. Look at Norway!


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I used to use Fabric to deploy my personal apps, but I often ran into issues with it, so several months ago I switched over to simple shell scripts that use ssh. Much more resilient, and far easier to maintain (at least for me).

Here’s a sample of what one of these deploy scripts looks like for a Django app:

#!/bin/sh

git push

ssh myusername@myhost /bin/zsh << EOF
  cd /path/to/app/code/

  echo "- Pulling the code"
  git checkout main && git pull

  echo "- Restarting the app"
  supervisorctl restart myappname

  echo "- Running migrations"
  /path/to/venv/bin/python manage.py migrate

  echo "- Collecting static"
  /path/to/venv/bin/python manage.py collectstatic --noinput
EOF

I’ve thought about using a CD pipeline instead, but I’m not convinced that introducing an extra dependency — no matter how slick — is actually worth it for something small and personal like this. (CI/CD sure is nice at work, however.)


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