Saturday, July 30, 2022

Deep Magic From Before The Dawn Of Time

Maybe a little bit more than most projects, the metal shop has been a yak shave. I knew roughly fuck-all about machine tools, beyond the many YouTube channels which are amazing, but not really aimed at beginners. The smallest lathes and mills are made by Sherline, and while they have been around forever, and I think they make good stuff, they're limited in the size, shape, and material of the parts you can make with them. People often run them happily enough on a table in their house.

I am confident in saying there is no other machine tool that will run happily on a table in your house. My lathe weighs 120 pounds.  

Anyway, it's been a journey, one which involved getting another 120-pound tool (a mill) to make some stuff so I could satisfactorily use the first 120-pound tool (the lathe). And I have some work for the lathe to do so I can use the mill more easily.

This is the thing about machining as a hobby: I don't need to have something in mind that I want to make. It generates its own problems. Need a hammer to tap parts into place? I can make a hammer, out of metal (probably not steel), with knurling and everything. Yes, ideally everyone gets some kind of machined thing for Christmas this year, but the path from here to there involves a lot of very shiny mistakes.

(You want a tiny brass hammer, right?)

One thing I need for the lathe is a thinger to use a cordless drill or driver to drive the different slides that move the cutting tool. (I also need those slides to move more easily, but one thing at a time.) So I go into the shop, confident I know what I want to do.

Well...that turns out not to be true. Sure, I can write down measurements, but how do I write them so they make sense? How do I plan the order of operations so I don't fritter away my precious aluminum stock on failed parts.

(Large hunks of aluminum are expensive!)

I need...a technical drawing. This sucks, because these days, that implies a program like Fusion 360 or TinkerCAD, which are free, but the actual problem is that I really resist using computers for my hobbies. Because I use computers all day. Hobbies are the things I'm not using computers for. (A notable exception is MuseScore, because otherwise music notation is so difficult for me that I simply won't do it.) So I haven't learned a CAD app, and maybe won't until I need to 3-D print something.

This project—just the first of many!—is stalled without the right picture.

Luckily, I know how to do old-school, pencil-and-paper, T-squares and eraser shields, drafting. Amidst the appalling violence and terror of middle school, we had vocational things that I think were more or less randomly assigned. If I remember right, I pulled 2 semesters of cooking, 1 of sewing, and 1 of drafting. I was very good at the paper sort; there was a computer there, a text screen switchable between green, white, and amber, and it had software on it, but I never particularly tried. But paper! Making pictures without needing to be visually creative! Another form of communication. Not that I'm not grateful to have a throw pillow embroidered with far too many lines from Masefield's "Sea-Fever" to be done well, but drafting has always been the exact sort of arcane but interesting skill that is my cognitive cat-nip.

In college I was good at it again, in my theater tech work: lines, templates, architects' rulers, protractors, more lines. It was always very satisfying, and I'm looking forward to picking it up again.

...and then I'll have a drawing of the thing to make on the will which will make the lathe better...

Sunday, July 24, 2022

the privilege of enjoying a job.

I am having a ton of fun at the "new" job (if that still applies after ten weeks or so). Having a boss hire me to do what I'm best at is just magical. And unlike the last job, I haven't had to convince anyone that we actually should all be communicating and cooperating; I get to skip the much more fun step of interpersonal work. Busy people, and engineers, are rightfully leery of meetings.

I don't enjoy wasteful meetings any more than the next person. For this project, I make small meetings and mark everyone optional; sometimes there's a planned agenda, sometimes not, but right now there's such a communication debt that it almost doesn't matter who shows up, because there will be something that will benefit. And, of course, if it's not useful, we should all ditch it and go for a walk, or refill our coffee.

Since I joined, the Giant Company-Wide Project has gone from "stalled for several months" to "making headway and shipping in the foreseeable future," which I am more than happy to take credit for. An even broader scope beckons, involving more teams and projects and features, and expanding further into the future. My local scope—my team and surrounding environs—so far looks like nobody is trying to do anything demonstrably insane, so I can look up and find the people who would like to do something demonstrably insane, and probably would, if I didn't work there.

I live with a certain amount of anxiety about having to get a "real" job someday, by which I get I mean physical; I'm not sure how well my current skillset of keeping people organized and talking would transfer outside the realm of modern knowledge work.

I'm still working remote, of course, as I have since 2014, and has turned out to be a gift for all of us here, since it's nice to see each other so much, I'm around to pick up some kid-related stuff, and then it turns out I have always loathed offices, finding them acutely anxiety-provoking, and every inch toward open-plan setups has been one more inch of deadened productivity.

Thursday, June 30, 2022


When a company IPOs, those of us who own mere Cattle Class shares pre-IPO get to wait out a 180-day "lockup" period before we can transfer shares to a different owner, whether in exchange for money—what the finance geeks call "selling"—or just because we feel like it. In theory, the intention here is to prevent current and former employees from dumping all our stock the moment we can, so the price doesn't crash. You might think this is a giveaway to privileged investors, who get to cash in at the stock's opening price of $50/share, instead of 6 months later at $20/share, and you would be correct.

I've already mentioned my experience with the Hapless Stock Guys, who bought most of my stock in advance, but fat-fingered their valuation of the company by 100%, thus paying me double what they intended to. As it turns out, they would have lost money on the deal anyway, just...considerably less. And really, I would have done better if I'd just unloaded everything (or more like) at the time, but without knowing when the IPO would be, or anything, I just didn't. Except for needing money to pay taxes, it's all intuited guesswork.

So the lockup just ended. I transferred the stock to them—contractually forgiving 100% of the loan and its interest I borrowed from them last year, which is amusing—so now that deal is concluded, and they can move on past what has probably been among the crappiest of their years. The tightly-wound one of the pair actually apologized for his aggressive behavior back in November, and said he's really taken it as a moment to reflect and learn some life lessons. I didn't inquire further, but emotional responsibility isn't super common among Finance Guys, and I really appreciated it (and told him so).

I don't know what happened to the other guy, the mellow one who went to my private school, and who contacted me initially. He was pretty chill back in November, and I would not be surprised to learn he's backstopped by generational wealth, and/or he's been stoned this whole time.

It's a nice moment to stop, and feel at least one item drop off the long mental list. It's not a long moment, but it's there.

Monday, May 23, 2022

economics of the moment.

The world is a little hinky. There's a nationwide housing...thing, which I was somewhat skeptical about, until I saw that houses in my ancestral village, a New York Rust Belt hamlet which is convenient to absolutely nothing, has seen house prices double in the past couple years. Our house, where we've been for 9 years, is definitely much nicer than when we moved in; is it 170% nicer? Well, to live in, yes, but from a tax appraisal perspective, we haven't changed anything.

(The rat-infested garage is gone and replaced with a gorgeous new concrete pad; the house is surrounded by an alligator-filled moat lovely fencing. All but two windows replaced. Foundation brought up to date. The shed is ≤ 120 square feet and technically movable, and the shop is a trailer, so the official square footage/bedrooms/bathrooms are the same.)

I have struggled to understand the economics of being a landlord. Using a typical example, not even in the Bay Area, you'll see a place, say "Four units, never vacant, $3800/month turnkey," and it's selling for (say) $2,000,000. That's $86,400 of income per year! And...even with maintenance or rent increases, it takes numerous decades to pay off its purchase price. So if the revenue from the asset isn't the point, it must be the value of the asset, either to sell later on, or to borrow against for other financial plans (like buy more properties!). We did see people running a string of leveraged properties as Airbnbs, suddenly having a sort of cascading margin call when local governments decided the law applied to them the way it does with hotels; we saw it again with the pandemic crash, which indicates that, yes, one buys real estate in order to buy more real estate. It looks like a lot of work, although it is nowhere near as much work as having a real job, so there is that to consider.

I'm on a Slack instance with some folks from Rochester, NY, who linked a "10 Cities Where Home Prices Have Started Falling" listicle, and Rochester was #2, but #5 is my sadly post-industrial hometown. Or it was sad, anyway; but it looks like it's far above state and federal rates for violent crime, and only slightly above for property crimes.

(Not much change, I guess: we weren't in a bad neighborhood, but I did wake up one night to hear someone trying to jimmy open the back door under my bedroom. That door, probably solid wood aged from 1914, also had a pretty epic Yale deadbolt, keyed on both sides, so they only got the trim off. The door got deadbolt guards, and eventually we got an alarm system.)

Back when I spent three weeks at San Francisco Zen Center, there was a guy there who was fast approaching his priest/monk ordination—the ambiguity is a long story, but comes from Japanese Zen's histories in both Japan and the West—and he struck me because he was so young to be a professional cleric: somewhere around 22. He'd been at SFZC for a few years, and I don't know if he did college or not, and he didn't chat much with us transient students, but what struck me most was that he'd never lived on his own, only in groups of one kind or another.

I know quite a lot about solitude, and loneliness, and isolation, and so I know that the solitude of meditation (zazen specifically here) is one form of being with your self and your mind; and living by yourself, instead of in community, is quite another. And doing zazen when living by yourself is yet another other thing.

Hopefully I was not condescending at him, but in my head, certainly, thinking about my long road to living alone but mentally healthy, I thought he would at some point find he would need to figure that experience out.

Post-ordination, he left to be the resident priest in a place that needed them—one problem the Bay Area has with Zen clerics is that nobody really wants to leave—and blogged a bit, until he stopped. A few years later, I looked him up, and he's definitely practicing the Buddhist Right a public defender in my hometown.

Monday, April 25, 2022

it's funny because it's true.

 I do not know this mad genius, but this is so, so spot-on.

This came up when I was sharing "If Bostonians Loved Other Local Institutions The Way They Love Their Local Sports Franchises" with folks, which states that Connecticut

wants so hard to be part of New England but is actually just part of New York, and it knows it, and so it’s got all this twisted anti-Boston resentment.

I went to a prep school in Connecticut, and I can't speak to the anti-Boston resentment—most people have trouble understanding that I grew up in Western Massachusetts, not Boston, and that the Boston accent stops abruptly at Worcester—but that is absolutely Connecticut's level of New England-ness relative to its New York City-ness. I went to college north of Albany, NY, so the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic/Rust Belt population was more diverse, and that's...still what Connecticut is like.

I am still on unemployment, which I'm happy to have, but it's also a grim window into the finances of living in the area; I'm sometimes amazed anyone is still here who's not making a Relative Fuckton of Money. Much like NYC, there are always the people here making $300k/year and moaning about the impossibility of making ends meet. Dig in a little bit and it's rarely hard to find big-ticket items they think of as "necessary" and the rest of the world thinks of as "costs a year's salary (or more)." At some point we'll get a plug-in hybrid. Is it going to be a BMW? Audi? A shiny Porsche Cayenne?

Dear Reader, it will not. Those are choices we make.

Do you have any idea how many musical instruments a Porsche could buy?!

Saturday, April 2, 2022

nono, this toy is *much* nicer.

My cittern arrived from Sweden last week, 10 strings of awesome shipped in a very, very robust case.

I haven't gotten around to recording it yet, let alone recording it next to its colleagues which will be moving on to their next homes; not that it matters, since I'm not exactly competent at any of them.

It's amazing.

It's beautiful, to start with. I ordered it from Mats Nordwall (a Swedish luthier who's well-known in the right circles) about a year ago, but didn't get to play one until a few weeks ago, when Timbre Folk & Baroque in Berkeley happened to have one of his more economical mahogany citterns in stock. The sound was what I've heard in my years of watching and listening to Esbjörn Hazelius recordings. He's playing the same instrument, only he's good at it.

You wouldn't know it from the house, but I actually only buy the instruments I need in order to have the sounds I want. I bought a cheapie electric guitar when I wanted to get into that, and then I replaced it with a Line 6 Variax that will mimic almost any electric guitar to my satisfaction, and donated the cheapie to a local school. I have a tenor guitar, a mandolin, a little solid-bodied mandolin, because of the sounds they make.

(Well, mostly. I bought the mandolins because earlier in my violin career, I wanted something tuned the same as a violin, but easier to play. I'm keeping the acoustic, and the electric is decorative, and not worth the hassle of selling.)

I expect to own more guitars because the Variax's acoustic mimicry is far short of its electric, so a 12-string guitar and some sort of smaller-bodied guitar would be nice.

It turns out there's a few things that make it such a distinctive sound:

  • It's common for instruments with paired strings to have the lower pairs be one pitched high, and the other an octave below it; for some reason, Swedes use a classical guitar string (nylon wrapped with silver) for the lower-pitched string. So of course it sounds different.
  • This reduces the total string tension, so they can build the soundboard with fewer stiffening braces, which means it has more freedom to vibrate.
  • The lighter build means you can use a capo really, really far up the neck: usually, instruments will lose their resonance if you capo them above maybe the 5th fret, because physics.
    • (Not that you shouldn't do it, because it can be just what you want, but you'll lose complexity and sustain.)
    • My cittern's sound doesn't change much until maybe the 10th fret.
  • If you capo your instrument up really high, it's reasonable to expect it will go a little out of tune and you'll just have to tune it for the higher position. My cittern...does not have this problem.
It's literally everything I hoped it would be. I am very pleased.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

keep on shippin' on.

My cittern has gotten as far as Stockholm, which is enough to get into the USPS tracking system!

I have spent the last week assuming "UTRIKES" is a place, but it actually just means "to/about a foreign country," which means that my cittern is probably on a ship on the ocean. Luckily, Evergreen shipping—of last year's Suez Canal blockage—has grounded a different ship—named, I shit you not, EVER FORWARD—outside of the Port of Baltimore, but courteously off to the side, on a shoal just over half the ship's draft, rather than blocking the channel.

I stopped by Gryphon Strings the other day, and exercising great discipline, I did not acquire a single new instrument. Martin Guitars, of which I own an admirably illegal Japanese copy from the 70s, does try a lot of new things, for a 190-year old company, and they created this weird thing that I wanted to try. It is delightful, and maybe that will make its way here. We're doing some rearranging and refurnishing the living room, which will involve changes in instrument storage/display. We're not out of wall space, as such, but it's definitely not a blank canvas.