Thursday, May 13, 2021


I have tinnitus. I've pretty much always had tinnitus, apparently: there's always been these tones ringing when there's no external sound. I assumed everyone heard them, since people talk about what they hear in an anechoic chamber, and there's always been this folk idea of sound just naturally generated by your neurons working or whatever.

My father has tinnitus, a relic of his military service, so to me it was always something that kept you from hearing the beeping of a watch alarm. Nothing dramatic has ever happened to my hearing: no habits of over-loud concerts or headphones, no heedless use of firearms. When I was in grade school, on July 4th down at the beach, I was standing maybe 20 or 30 feet from a detonating M-80 firecracker; while it's given me a lifelong healthy respect for the power of explosions, I don't recall my hearing changing. I had constant awful earaches as a kid, so maybe that's related to the tones? There's also a bunch of somatic stuff that comes with my package of brain wiring, and I'm just learning it still, so this could be in there.

Then, a couple years back, a new, lower tone appeared. Well, says me, that's never happened before. I should go get my hearing checked! The doctor said my ears looked fine, and passed me on to the audio technician for a detailed test.

Now, tinnitus is kind of a shitty phenomenon, because unless you've got one of a sparse handful of uncommon medical conditions, the treatment is basically to deploy coping strategies so it doesn't bother you so much. It would sometimes be maddening as a kid, because I couldn't get away from it. Telling this story to my therapist the other day, I realized that's probably where I developed the habit of falling asleep to music or a tape of old radio shows (Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen were favorites). It gives my attention something to focus on outside my head, which is pretty much the standard of treatment anyway. Meditation let me further adjust my cognitive response, so when a new tone pops up–there's a type that comes and then fades eventually–I can sort of...embrace and absorb it, I guess. Really, I have no idea what's going on.

Except for the mental experience of it, I don't think the tones have affected my daily life. They don't obviously mask sounds in the environment, or hinder my musicianship, even on instruments like voice and violin, where you can only tune by ear. It mostly comes up when I'm trying to pinpoint a faint sound, and I have to decide if I'm actually hearing the faint sound, or if it's just the tones, or some other auditory hallucination.

You know what plays a bunch of faint sounds for you and tells you to signal if you hear one? Yep. A hearing test.

I was driving the poor woman nuts, I think. I'd be trying to distinguish if there was a sound in the headphones, and she'd say things like "Just press the button if you hear a tone," and my explanation didn't make any sense to her. When it was finally done, she showed me the graph showing the ordinary hearing loss for someone my age. Somewhere in there, she said I had tinnitus.

I looked at her blankly, and said, "Really? I thought I just had those tones."

She stared at me like I was an idiot (which happens less often than one might reasonably expect), and said, slowly, "If you hear a sound. Which is not coming from the environment. That. Is tinnitus."

And people wonder why I never go to the doctor.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Ironically, I can talk a lot about listening.

I don't really enjoy poetry any more than the average modern American (which is very little indeed), but the Zen teacher Ryushin Paul Haller read this one by Mary Oliver at a retreat long ago, and it stuck:


It doesn't have to be the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

To listen is to change. We take in words or actions, we try to understand them, we evaluate them. Another person's expression becomes part of our world, our memory. Ourselves. Many times, when we have a hard time listening, we are having a hard time changing. We may not even recognize that there's something in ourselves that we want to stay frozen in place.

Maybe another's words light a fire inside us, sparking zealotry or passion or determination. Or they rub us the wrong way, and our mind rises up in opposition. Maybe our opinion or viewpoint changes as we make space for the ideas and feelings of others.

The most sparse and bare outcome of listening is just to update our understanding of the speaker. Part of being human is that we have a shorthand model of everything and everyone we encounter. It helps us navigate the world. We can get stuck if we forget that the people in our head is not real. Anna and J and I know each other exceptionally well, but we are full of surprises.

Speak, and you change in the telling. Listen, and you change in the hearing.

The changing is the important part.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

sometimes archaic technology is fine.

By default, the bowed strings use the same string attachment/adjustment design that every stringed instrument in human history used, until the Industrial Revolution: simple friction pegs, stuck in holes and turned as needed. I imagine this must have been quite an art before precision tools; now you can easily buy a reamer (for the holes) and a...peg...shaving...thing. It's like a pencil sharpener, but shapes the peg's barrel to match the shape the reamer makes in the hole.

Instruments like the guitar and bass quickly converged on geared tuners, because of their greater string tension, but the violin, viola, and cello have kept their friction pegs, on the grounds of being simple, functional, predictable, and lightweight, and being a safe baseline condition for these amazing instruments which can easily last hundreds of years with some care. Attempts at improvement have mostly failed for being too heavy––for the violin and viola, that weight falls at the end of your outstretched arm, like a see-saw, and the extra mass can sometimes inhibit vibration in undesirable ways––or requiring some kind of permanent alteration, like bigger holes, or gluing some kind of bushing into the hole. In the 1800s, you could do that (and more!) to your 300-year old Italian violin and probably no one would care; over time, violins, including almost every Stradivarius, had their neck extended to accommodate changing musical needs. 

(There is exactly one Strad in original condition, called the Messiah, and it lives a sheltered life in the Ashmolean Museum. It gets brought out every so often for virtuosi to play, because sufficiently powerful instruments, for lack of a better term, get crabby and temperamental when they're not played. I've played violins in their crabby state. My acoustic guitar probably qualifies, also.)

Of course, with modern technology, people set to work and designed things that look like regular friction pegs, but actually have complex gearing inside. They're non-invasive to install, and seem to just work. They're in use on at least one Stradivarius. I don't have them, because I'm not proud and I just have fine-tuners on the strings, because the orthodox use of tuning pegs hurts my hand, and heterodox use is just annoying.


I was thinking maybe it's time to change the strings, because I've been playing on them non-stop for about 9 months. I've never changed a violin string on a nice instrument before. Easy enough, I look for instructions.

The Internet reminded me that friction pegs do not do their work efficiently without a coating, because they have to do two opposite things:

  1. Turn smoothly, with minimal friction, when pulled away from the pegbox.
  2. Refuse to turn at all, using the friction between the peg and its holes, when pushed into the pegbox.
The homemade way to do this is with a coating of classroom chalk and a coating of soap (or maybe the other way around), but the most venerable option is W.E. Hill Peg Compound, which has this mind-bending list of ingredients:
  • Graphite powder (lubricant)
  • Petroleum Jelly (lubricant)
  • China clay (sticky)
  • Talc (lubricant and sometimes sticky)
  • Red Iron Oxide (fancy name for rust: rough and granular)
That's...interesting. The instrument does need it, or at least mine does. I replaced the middle string first, then had to re-do it later, not just because it's the middle string and blocks access to other strings, but I only put the peg dope on one of the two contact surfaces (each peg has one for each wall of the pegbox) and it wouldn't stay remotely in tune.

The effort was worth it, since the violin is now singing and ringing the way it first was, which, I'd mostly forgotten, might be a bit much.

There are, of course, more difficult things to tune:

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

home, improved.

We reduced our mortgage payment considerably, just in time for the house to need some more professional attention. Long-awaited foundation work has come due, exacerbated by the weight of the solar panels and the new attic storage space. Naturally, the floor joist running the length of the house–most definitely load-bearing–has no piers under it. Construction in 1938 had a certain YOLO vibe to it, although in fact that arrangement has been Mostly Kind Of Okay™ all this time.

All that unused space under the load-bearing center floor joist was practically an invitation to install the furnace and ductwork there. In defense of contractors past, they knew enough not to cut into the joist, instead installing the shower drain backwards to compensate. (Our first plumber gave us a steep discount, saying "Don't worry about it. I'll be back.") The furnace is about due for a replacement, and the ducting is old and probably contributing to my allergies, sooooo maybe it makes sense to tear it all out. California passed some mighty restrictions on gas appliances; can we even replace the furnace with another gas furnace? What then, electric? What poor sod gets to make that work with the fresh electrical stuff from the solar panel install?

This is what the computing world calls a "yak shave."

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

(I'm not really sure who took the Yak Shaving idea from Ren & Stimpy and applied to computer programming, but now even American Express people use it.)

This is in addition to replacing the rotting fencing, adding gates to/from the neighbors' yards (they're lovely people, we like them), and finally creating a huge private space with GIANT GATES (and a human-size gate) across the driveway. It turns out that 20% of the property has been wasted all this time, and we barely know what do with it all. (Except to not build a small studio apartment: the permits were finally approved after 5 years, but jeez.)

The Fig Tree is untouched; we'd be happy to say goodbye to the Weird Apple Tree and the World's Worst Ornamental Pomegranate, but they're probably impossible to kill. For all I know, they share the same unholy root system as the Zombie Rose.

(Before our first summer here, we asked our professional plant guy friend to identify the trees. He said it was an Ornamental Pomegranate, that wouldn't produce much fruit. While he is great at his job, this is not remotely true of that tree, for which generations of opossums are grateful.)

Anna had the contractors move and level her tiny house trailer in the side yard, whereupon it emerged that the Thorny Lemon Tree over there had decided it wasn't done living, and had a respectable 2-foot-high revenant flourishing underneath the trailer, in the 18 inches of vertical space, closely surrounded on three sides by fences and structures from 7 to 15 feet tall. The fourth side gets maybe 30 minutes of dappled sunlight in the morning, peeking through the picket fence. The actually quite poor growing soil on our property appears to be like Pet Sematary for plants, because the Thorny Lemon, like its cousin the Zombie Rose, was actually dug up. Out of the ground. In 2013. Which is enough to kill most plants. But not ours.

And PG&E finally inspected the leased solar installation, so the house is 80-100% solar-powered on most days so far, because we live in a desert and also got the house-battery option. The phone app shows soothing animations of the power flowing one way and another, and tracks how much we use from each source. The lease arrangement provides a predictable price for electricity for the term...twenty years, maybe? With an option to renew. It may already be cheaper than PG&E, and it's sure to be so very soon. And more reliable, as PG&E escalates its "If you're just going to be angry when our lack of maintenance causes historic lethal wildfires, then we'll just turn off power to more and more people" strategy. (Last year their response to people who medically rely on electricity to live was, paraphrased, "Go fuck yourselves," and they're expected to steadily extend this policy into major metro areas.) 

It's Anna who really makes this sort of thing possible; I pay for stuff, occasionally lift heavy objects, and make sure the wifi works, and the rest is her doing. I mean, I'm exceptionally good at paying for stuff and making sure the wifi works, don't get me wrong. But her determination and project-management skills for this stuff are both waaaaaay better than mine. Not even in the same ballpark. Or playing the same sport.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

stupid instrument.

I enjoy complaining about the violin, partly because it's like shooting fish in a barrel, but the truth is I'm pretty good at it, which is not so incredible, once you start grading on a curve. It's the same way a native English speaker like me with 3 years of studying French under their belt will be much more capable than the same person would be after 3 years of studying any form of Chinese.

(Unless you're Anna, whose natural aptitude with languages exceeds my natural and rarely-mentioned aptitude with weapons.)

Any teacher loves a student who wants to learn and will put the effort into it, and my teacher is no exception. It turned out we have a lot of tastes in common, particularly fiddle traditions, up to and including Scandinavian music, which is not for everyone––even I much prefer playing it to listening to most of it.

(Recall that the difference between a violin and a fiddle is that no one minds if you spill beer on a fiddle.)

And Baroque music, so I can play through a small Vivaldi concerto, and I was a bit off in the weeds being determined to play this Bach keyboard invention, so now I can play through it, too:

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

He does love a ton of standard violin repertoire that I don't, and I'll end up learning some of it anyway because that's what one does. I expect it will, again, be much more fun to play than to listen to.

Even though my 5-string covers the viola range, I've been eyeing violas for some time. Physics means my violin's 14" air chamber cannot produce the same sort of tone or volume as that of a viola. Apparently violas aren't acoustically perfect either, because if they were, they'd be too long to play.

(I've seen websites where builders complain about this, citing their own frustrations in arguing that 5-strings are pointless, which seems pretty obviously untrue. In particular, they vent about how the low G on a violin barely sounds okay, and the low C on a viola of any size is even less okay. It's worth noting that building a violin is not exactly easier than playing one, though I'm sure it's a quick transition once you've been building cabinets for a decade.)

Maybe we can blame Anders Hall, of Nordic Fiddlers Bloc and SVER, who makes folk viola look awesome. Anyway, I bought a starter viola––probably smaller than his, but who knows. (Violin sizes are standardized, if nonsensically named according to fractions having no relationship to any of the instrument's dimensions. Violas are categorized by body length, in half-inch increments.)

It arrives tomorrow! So we'll see.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

stretched thin.

Back when my people were younger, we would often(-ish) go out to all-night electronic music parties of various stripes. I mostly stuck to and helped put on Chill Parties, but went to no few Dance Parties, and even more Campout Parties, and especially Campout Chill Parties. They customarily ended around dawn, so we'd help with cleanup, go home, and shower before going out to breakfast, followed by a day of watching TV.

(Nickelodeon launched a new satellite channel at the time, and its initial programming was literally nothing but Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and 3-2-1 Contact, a glorious undemanding parade of amusing nostalgia, perfect for being full of pancakes after being awake for 24 hours.)

The human body, even in our 20s, is not actually meant to be out partying until dawn, sober or not, so spending the day staring at Sesame Street is what we call "cracked out." I don't know where the term came from, but that's where I've been at this week.

I don't think I've ever been on a job search with this many conversations before, but the context-switching between companies, remembering who I've spoken to, when, and what I told them, is wearing me down. It doesn't help that all but one of these companies has around 10-25 engineers, all reporting directly to one of those two founders who are white or Asian guys with PhDs. Generally folks are pretty forgiving, but even so, you don't want to get the names wrong. The whole process has out-run my historical way of managing the notes and meetings of a job search.

I've been mostly angling to lead and build a whole Engineering department, to get some of the responsibility I want, without grinding my way through a larger company. PhDs have generally never hired people-leaders, so it's an exercise in mutual education: this past week, two companies who I'm pretty sure had taken that role off the table decided to put it back on. (I mean, sure, I'll be the only manager, call me a Director and we'll pretend I'm not running the thing.) For one of them, this manifested by passing me over to an executive search recruiter they'd retained after first talking to me. I had a great laugh with them about the context-switch thing, since of course they're dealing with even more companies at once than I am.

It's a good problem to have, but my stamina is running down, and I think I need to accept an offer before the end of the month, and in the meantime I'm just going to not respond to email for a few days.

Friday, February 26, 2021

eventful weeks.

I meant to take a photo of all the empty space on our lot: the garage looked nicer as a debris pile than it had as a garage, and yet it's even better now that it's all gone, and better still since our neighbors (who we're friends with) took down the shared fence. Even once we give them back the 8"-12" the old fence stole from their property, there's so much space to work with: not just the 19'x19' building, but the 6' wide Shed of Doom on the far side, and the metal-roofed, low-ceilinged, termite-ridden shade structure over the patio. There's so much space for things that are...not ugly! Someone on Nextdoor even wants the old well pump from 1955 or whenever.

In an improbable coincidence, the garage was demolished and then suddenly our permit to demolish+rebuild–which permit has been stalled for, no joke, 2 years–was approved. Not that any of us have the bandwidth for that, whether it's the project management, or the construction noise that we can't get away from because...there's nowhere to go. Instead, we'll put up a nicer shade structure, and a couple of sheds for secure bike and tool storage, and big gates across the driveway to screen everything from the street. It's gonna be awesome.

One thing startups don't like to tell young engineers is that any given startup, no matter how carefully they think they've chosen, is almost certainly not going to be the kind of success that will let them retire in luxury at 27. Silicon Valley relies on that heady brew of intelligence, optimism, ignorance, and heedless energy. Many of us keep working at startups even when we no longer have all of those things, because the money's good enough (depending on your lifestyle) and we don't like working at big companies. And there's a place for us, too. Or we hope so, as we get older.

This is not to say that companies don't find a way to "exit," as we say. The venture capitalists funding your startups are VCs because they're good at making money, for themselves and others. They know all the other VCs, who are also good at making money, and so it's not remarkably difficult for VCs to make money for each other–at the very least, to get their investment back–by buying each other's companies. If you own millions of shares, this can be a hefty down payment on your new Learjet; if you're an engineer who was employee #40, it will likely come out somewhere between "a weekend at the Four Seasons" and "buy a new Volvo." I've worked at a lot of startups–I think a dozen?–and all but the single most idiotic managed to fumble their way into a half-assed demise of being bought by Microsoft or Facebook or something. As a rule, VCs are good at getting paid.

I did manage to extract some real, non-hypothetical money from this last one, which means reserving money for taxes, paying off a lot of debt, and buying more musical instruments I've been eyeing for months or years. And probably adding to the list, since that is the way of things.

I've been mostly enjoying this round of job searching, which is new. I was a people-manager for 4 years at a name-brand company that everyone in tech recognizes, so I just have to talk fluently and convincingly about people and teams and organizations and relationships, which I can do easily, unlike programming interviews, which I can't. I'd already been unemployed for 3 months when the comically awful January struck, I'm pretty ready to stop looking and start working. I've been talking to so many companies, this week especially, that it's been hard to keep them straight, as I give similar answers to the same questions from different small companies on the same day. I'm happy to find places that value emotional intelligence (or would like to), and I'm expecting two or three offers to land next week, though, and then I can get busy hiring my Army of Dread Software Minions.

For my birthday I bought my first truly nice violin bow. It's carbon fiber, so far the only material to really compete with the incredibly problematic high-quality pernambuco wood that is still the musical standard. (Pernambuco is as messed up as any other tropical hardwood, and also it's even more wasteful than ebony, which is saying something.) This one has a funky kind of design and balance, which they suggest is for "high-octane" performances, perhaps well-suited to unusual instruments like my 5-string violin.

I love it. But I don't really understand why. I've measured and weighed and checked the balance points among the 3 very different bows I have: the carbon fiber, a yellow sandalwood, and a "hybrid" which is wood over a carbon fiber core. The differences don't look so big on paper, but our human power of honing our perceptions make these things matter. There's a story of an Olympic-level fencing match, where one fencer stops and accuses his opponent of cheating via a longer weapon. Sure enough, Mr. Cheaterpants's weapon was...1/16" too long. I don't think this is exaggerated: in aikido, I adjust my timing by fractions of a blink, maybe 50-150 milliseconds objectively. Get the timing wrong and your technique won't work.

So the new bow bounces "right," and seems to draw the right sound out of the instrument, including the low C string. I dunno. I just like it.