Recent Enjoyments

An acquaintance asked for recent books or movies I liked. This is what I wrote.

We enjoyed watching an effortlessly charming little BBC comedy called The Detectorists; series 1 and the Christmas special are best, with series 2 and 3 good but not as new and blooming wonderful as series 1. Small people, small ambitions, small stakes, all of the characters leaving no traces in history but trying — very, very hard — to enjoy themselves while they're at it.

I'm reading Tom King's graphic novel Vision: The Complete Series, about the Avengers android moving his synthetic family to the suburbs. Tragedy is seeded in the first issue alongside the whimsy. I sit down each night to read a chapter with anticipation and dread.

Also: The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann. The graphic novel bio of forgotten travel writer William Seabrook was overlong but interesting; Seabrook created or popularized the word "zombie" and for a time succeeded as a gonzo adventurer/writer in the early 20th century; he achieved some small fame and notoriety that he could not maintain.

Two good movies: Submarine, a coming-of-age movie (based on a novel) directed by Richard Ayoade (best known as Moss from the brilliant BBC comedy The IT Crowd); a blend of sodden Welsh gloom and dark humor with some quirky storytelling techniques that add to the fun without overshadowing the story.

Also, a great little documentary called Seth's Dominion, about the Canadian cartoonist/artist/book designer Seth. There's a companion book/DVD. Set this portrait of an artist creating his own self-sustaining and fully imagined world against the Seabrook bio and discuss.

Shopper's Dilemma: Technology

Daniel Lemire ponders whether to take advantage of today’s technology or wait till the technology improves.

He postulates that people who buy now are actually betting against the future (your smartphone won’t get any smarter) whereas technophiles may be best served by delaying their purchases since they believe the future will be better (look at all the new things my smartphone can do).

Liz and I existed with Tracfone cell service and cheap flip phones for years until 2017 when I bought my first (and so far, only) iPhone, with Liz following suit a few months later. By that time, many of our friends were texting and sending photos back and forth; with our phones, we could now join in the conversation. Neither of us scratch the surface of the iPhone’s capabilities.

I will likely hold on to my iPhone SE till it makes sense for me to spend gobs of money on a new one. I held on to my used cars for years before my first-ever new car, my beloved 2007 Honda Fit (Blaze Orange Metallic!). I bought the Fit in the summer of 2006 as a special order, before it invaded our shores. I’m still driving it today. The car will have to cost more in repairs and inconvenience before I think of upgrading.

"Nasty character traits need an outlet"

Time passes slowly at the old folks home in Amsterdam.

If you don’t have anything special to do all day long, a molehill can turn into a mountain. A person’s time must be filled with something; one’s attention has to have a focus. Nasty character traits need an outlet. In contrast to what you’d expect, narrow-mindedness increases and tolerance lessens with the onset of old age. “Old and wise” is the exception rather than the rule.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen by Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans (Translator) (Amazon US)

Hendrik Groen’s diary is Adrian Mole for the grey generation.

Hunger or Craving?

Michael Graziano rather persuasively argues that the body’s mechanisms for managing hunger work just fine. Eating high-carbohydrate food products, calorie-counting, snacking, etc. mess up the body’s default mechanisms and lead to obesity.

Graziano makes the case that hunger, for many people, is a psychological state. The hunger mood can make a small plate of food look like either not-enough or not-now-I’m-full. A successful strategy for managing hunger would work with the body’s hunger mechanisms and avoid the use of will power.

He does not lay out a 10-step plan or techniques to deploy in the article. Each person has to find their own path. In his case, that meant a low-carb, slightly higher-fat diet and the permission to eat as much as he wanted at any meal. His essay goes into more depth on his reasons for adopting an ultimately successful eating plan.

For myself, I prefer eating one-meal-a-day and that has proven to be a low-effort strategy for me. But I do get plagued around 2-4pm by hankerings for whatever is in the snack machine at work.

Here’s a technique I found years ago that helps me in the moment. Whenever I feel prompted to raid the snack machine, I stand up, take a deep breath, put my hands on my stomach, and ask “Is this hunger or craving?” Before I’m done asking the question, I know that it’s usually craving. At that point, I get water or coffee, walk around outside, or socialize — anything that gets me physically moving and uses the large muscles of the body or in some way distracts my attention.

The Magic of Utility, the Utility of Magic

Wonderful summing-up final paragraph from Stefany Anne Golberg’s essay on The Long Lost Friend

There’s a mood of disorientation and longing in The Long Lost Friend ’s title that strikes a different note than the confident claims to be found inside. Maybe this is the book’s “Long-Hidden” message, its essence, and the essence of all the self-help books that would follow it. The self-help book, via The Long Lost Friend, is an appeal to the American still wandering in the wilderness, curious about everything, needing nothing, wanting it all but not knowing how to get it, believing in the magic of utility, and the utility of magic.

A Colossal Self-Satisfaction

Walt Whitman:

It does a man good to turn himself inside out once in a while: to sort of turn the tables on himself: to look at himself through other eyes—especially skeptical eyes, if he can. It takes a good deal of resolution to do it: yet it should be done—no one is safe until he can give himself such a drubbing: until he can shock himself out of his complacency. Think how we go on believing in ourselves—which in the main is all right (what could we ever do if we didn’t believe in ourselves?)—a colossal self-satisfaction, which is worse for a man than being a damned scoundrel.

See also

Dream-child

Walt Whitman tells a story:

A woman I knew once asked a man to give her a child: she was greatly in love with him: it was not done: he did not care that much for her: he said to her, “all children should be love children”: then he thought she might repent if the thing was done: after his refusal she said: “Now I suppose you despise me.” He said: “Despise you? no: I respect you: I feel that you have conferred the highest honor on me.” Years after, he met her again. She was married—had children. But she said to him: “I still love my dream-child best.”

My Overcast Settings & Smart Playlists

Back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, I used to listen to Audible.com pre-podcast-era “podcasts” presented by Robin Williams and Susie Bright. I listened to them while commuting or walking or doing housework, and that’s still how I consume podcasts today. In those days, I listened to maybe two or three half-hour episodes a week before going back to the audiobooks.

But the rise of podcasts and other forms of audio media mean I now spend as much time trying to keep up with my podcast feeds as I do email, RSS feeds, etc. What used to be diversions and snacks have now become the main course.

As problems go, I can’t complain.

I use Overcast as my player of choice. I like its flexibility and features: for example, I’m able to set custom speeds for some podcasts. For slow-talking podcasts, I jack up the speed to 1.4 or even 1.8; for fast-talking podcasts, I keep it at 1.0. Smart Speed — which reduces pauses and long silences — is almost always turned on.

App Settings

  • Continuous Play is On.

  • New Episodes download on wifi only.

  • Delete played episode after 24 hours. (Played episodes are not replayed, but they’re available if you want to go back and listen to a specific passage again. I waffle between deleting immediately and keeping them around for a day.)

  • Nitpicky Details: Seek Back By 30 seconds, Seek Forward By 60 seconds. (This helps me skip through ads; if I overshoot, then I need go back only a little ways. Also useful if I’m listening to something boring.)

  • Nitpicky Details: Smart Resume is On. Love this setting.

  • Nitpicky Details: One-Tap Play is On.

  • Nitpicky Details: Play Next By Priority is On. As it says on the tin: “When an episode in a playlist ends, play the topmost unplayed episode next instead of the following one.” If you keep episodes for 24 hours, this is good; the next unplayed episode will always be next.

  • Nitpicky Details: Icon Badge Number is On. I like to guilt myself.

  • Nitpicky Details: Remote Episode Skip is On. I use this constantly with my Bluetooth headsets and Kinovo receiver in my car.

  • No notifications set for new episodes of any podcast.

  • Keep all unplayed episodes.

My Smart Playlists

I prefer Smart Playlists because they filter by Podcast Name. Manual playlists filter by individual episode, which is not interesting to me; with so many backlogged episodes, that’s a lot of decision-making, scrolling, and tapping.

  • All Episodes. Sorted Newest to Oldest. I exclude 5 podcasts for now (described below), but generally this list includes everything I subscribe to. Here’s where the Play Next By Priority setting does its thing. With it set to On, I’m always listening to the most recent podcast that appears at the top of the list. So if staying current is important to me, that’s good.

  • 1. Sorted Oldest to Newest. All my Doctor Who podcast feeds, which are also included in All Episodes. This list is convenient when new episodes of a series are released. I want to catch all the buzz and comment before going on to my other podcasts.

  • 2. Sorted Oldest to Newest; excluded from All Episodes. My Sleep With Me podcast feed. I don’t listen to Sleep With Me every night, but I listen to it often; since I’m playing it or selecting episodes in the dead of night, I like for this feed to live in its own list. I use Overcast’s Sleep Timer to play an episode for 20 or 30 minutes, depending on how sleepy I feel. I prune this list a lot, since Scoots may recap episodes of The Good Place I haven’t seen yet.

  • 3. Sorted Oldest to Newest; excluded from All Episodes; Smart Speed turned Off. My ambient music podcast feeds, mostly fed from links in Warren Ellis’ newsletter. I’ve taken to listening to them at work when I need to focus on writing or research.

  • 4. Sorted Oldest to Newest. This is a new list I’m auditioning; I’m calling it my “binge list.” I went through a period where I got behind on lots of podcasts: You Must Remember This (now on hiatus), Gilbert Gottfried, Marc Maron’s WTF, Great Lives, Criminal, The Next Track, and others. So for this playlist, I will select one of those podcasts with a large backlog and start listening.

    Another way to do this would be to select the podcast from Overcast’s home screen and play the episodes from there; but that means scrolling, getting distracted by other podcasts, etc. Putting those episodes in a playlist of their own at the top of the list will, I hope, make the choice easier of what to listen to next.

Why do I use numbers to designate my playlists instead of words? I read a study from my information science days of librarians categorizing music scores. They tended to categorize more quickly and have more confidence in their judgments when the categories were numeric rather than semantic. Numbers, while perhaps showing hierarchy, tended not to have the emotional associations and nuances that words did; they quibbled with themselves less often when categorizing the scores by number.

I could certainly name my lists “Doctor Who,” “Sleep With Me,” “Ambient,” and so on. That would work since they’re just for me. But I like the cleanness and simplicity of the numbers.

Wound-Up Opera

Woundup Opera album cover - front

In sorting through the old vinyl, I run across several “what was I thinking??” purchases. Curiosity, no doubt; the desire to hear “something different.”

This album is one such item (I’m conflating lots of subtitles to make a longer one): Wound-Up Opera: Great Hits From the Opera Played on Rare Antique Music Boxes From the Rita Ford Collection.

The liner notes, which include a brief history of music boxes, contains this warning to the listener about the odd noises at the start of side 2:

… for it is simply the sound of a music box being wound up [before playing] an unforgettable rendition of the Toreador Song from “Carmen,” the principal melody of which is played by the cylinder while a counter melody is chirped by an extraordinary mechanical bird right inside the box!

YouTube user “fountainhead” found a copy of the album in a thrift store and uploaded a digital recording of it, with a video both quaint and unsettling. Skip to 20:50 to hear the box being wound up, the Toreador Song, and the mechanical bird.

Discogs has an entry on this record with a track listing. According to the stats on that page, at the time of this posting, there are 34 users who “Have” a copy, 23 who are selling, and only one who wants a copy.

Albums and music boxes: insert clever yet warm-hearted comparison here.