OmniFocus's current Mac icon, shaped like a big purple checkbox.This year marks my tenth anniversary using OmniFocus, the small family of Mac and iOS productivity applications from the Omni Group. I do not exaggerate to say that the Mac edition of OmniFocus has served as the glue of my life as a doer-of-things over this whole span. Not consistently, mind you — more than once I’ve let weeks, even months pass without tending to its lists of lists. Exactly once I took the opportunity of a new major release to declare “OmniFocus bankruptcy”, punting countless stale projects to start fresh with an empty task-database. Either way, I always find reason to return and stick with it once again for a long time.

Today finds me stepping through a pleasantly extended dance with the big purple checkmark on my Mac’s dock. After so many years, I have found my best approach yet of working with OmniFocus, such that it feels far more like a companionable assistant than a burdensome nag. In this pattern, I consult the program’s Forecast pane throughout the day, both to whittle down my daily task-list and to build up the next day’s priorities. Between tasks I revisit the app’s Inbox pane, reviewing the jotted-down proto-tasks I’ve recently captured for later cogitation, deciding the next steps for each. These become the raw materials for actionable tasks that, eventually, wind up on the next day-long shortlist, with all its invitingly empty checkboxes.

In recognition of how much this software-assisted cycle has helped me over the years, and in the hope that it may help someone else as well, this article describes several strategies I use when working with this glorified to-do list program. I focus here more on overall approaches than on software-specific tips-n-tricks.

Goal: Mind like water. While I did read David Allen’s Getting Things Done back when I first started using OmniFocus, I ultimately found it more useful as a backgrounder for the program’s design philosophy than as a guide to using it. In a way, OmniFocus reifies GTD, giving you a single place to capture tasks, tie time-and-space contexts to each one, and then forget about them until it’s time to focus on them. When it all comes together, I really can approach the “mind like water” state that Allen espouses in this talk from 2008*.

I don’t expect anyone else who relies on the program to use it precisely as I do, so your mileage may very much vary regarding the following list of personal habits and philosophies — except, perhaps, for the first point, which I understand as a core tenet of OmniFocus’s objectively intended use.

Always Be Capturing. Reduce the friction between yourself and your OmniFocus inbox, minimizing the length of time a newly realized task must sit in your meat-memory. Ideally, as soon as you perceive the need to get something done — and it could be anything, in any scale or context, from “buy cat food” to “respond to this email” to “deliver this six-month client project” — you can have that noted in your inbox within moments, and then eject it from your active attention, letting you return your focus to your current task. (Less than ideally, you’re driving or showering or something when a possible task hits you — but you can hold one or two things in your mental cache until you have a chance to inbox them safely.)

An inboxed item can wait until you’re ready to focus on your next inbox-processing session, sometime in the next day or three.† At that point — and no sooner — you’ll promote it into a time-deferred project filled with sub-tasks, or recognize it as a ten-minute doddle you can knock off right away, or change your mind about its relevance and just delete it.

(This doesn’t include emergencies, of course! Sometimes things pop up for which we really do need to put everything else aside, because they honestly can’t wait a few hours. Crisis management lies outside the forte of OmniFocus. On the other hand, in assisting you with continuously storing and processing the “everything else” that you must put aside when crises do emerge, OmniFocus can help make the transition from tactical emergency-mode back into strategic normal-work mode much less painful.)

OmniFocus gives you lots of ways to add stuff to your inbox, both inside and outside the actual applications — some of which I must admit I’ve never really figured out, like “clippings” or direct Siri commands. I tend to use a mix of the apps’ buttons, the control-option-space global keystroke on Mac, and the email integration feature. The latter I use in two ways: I forward to it all non-emergency email that requires a response from me, and when an idea hits me while I’m out walking I’ll pinch my iPhone’s mic-button and say “Send a new email to My OmniFocus”, and proceed to dictate the item’s content as its subject line. (This latter trick works because I have an address book entry for someone named “OmniFocus”, first name “My”.)

Organize time via deferrals. When I want to mark a task or project as a candidate for my attention on a certain day, I mark it as deferred until (and not due on) that day. Because I set OmniFocus to include deferred items in my Forecast tab (via its checkbox at Perspectives → Show Perspectives → Forecast), I can see with a click everything that my recent-past self thought I could get done today.

My thinking here tends towards the short-term: at the start of my work-day, if that list looks short, I’ll often browse my projects to “defer” some tasks to today. I’ll also do this for new tasks important enough to deserve my more-immediate attention. If the end of the day approaches and I have some leftovers, I’ll defer them to tomorrow. (Items have a handy “+1 day” button under the Defer Until field in the detail-pane, and I hit that button a lot with no shame. Three times apiece, on Fridays.)

Of course, I also defer tasks that I know lie in my future, but, for one reason or another, I can’t focus on yet: for example, writing a wrap-up report for a project that doesn’t wrap up for another month. I’ll define as many of the project’s subtasks as I can, stamp the whole thing as deferred for four weeks, and then happily forget about it, secure in knowing that OmniFocus will float it back into my sight-line just in time.

I also made myself a custom “Deferrals” perspective-tab which lists only deferred items, ordered by their defer-dates relative to today; OmniFocus intelligently and pleasantly groups these into today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and finally a fuzzy three-months-out blob. This view omits due-dates and calendar appointments and other stuff I can’t actually do anything about, giving me a nice summary of my likely future actions into time-chunks that grow appropriately coarser with greater distance from the present’s certainties.

This perspective will also show tasks whose deferral-dates have slipped into the past — something that happens to me frequently. This doesn’t mean failure, or even anything overdue; it just means that I expected to work on something during a certain day, and it happens that I didn’t. In this case, I feel no regret in just kicking ahead its deferral-date as needed.

Make and use a “Waiting” context. I have a context called “Waiting”, whose status I marked as On Hold, and which has no particular location or other information associated with it. When the next step in a project literally involves me waiting for something to happen — an email response, a package arrival, and so on — then I represent it with a task — “Wait for Jim-Bob’s reply”, say — and assign that task the Waiting context.

The task will then inherit the context’s On Hold status, causing OmniFocus to represent it as a blocker, preventing access to all subsequent tasks even though I cannot act on it myself. The program draws the task as grayed-out, with its “Waiting” context acting as a nicely self-documenting label.

But as we usually don’t feel content to wait for something indefinitely, I will most times set the Due field for that task to the date at which I shall be done waiting. (By default, I’ll just kick the “+1 week” button here.) Should the task become overdue, then it’s time for me to take action. If it’s an email reply I’m waiting on, for example, perhaps I’ll send another status-request email, and kick the due-date into the future for another week. (And also note this on the task’s notes-field, so that if it happens for two weeks running I’ll know to escalate appropriately.)

For most of the time I’ve used OmniFocus, “Waiting” has been my only defined context. I just haven’t used contexts very often, though I’ve very recently started experimenting with them once again, as I describe further below.

Use due-dates only for literal due-dates. I set the Due date-field only on tasks that actually have real-world deadlines attached to them. The due-date of my “Pay taxes” project is April 15; the due-date for obtaining a present for a friend is the day before their birthday. This sets an upper-bound in time for focusing on its constituent sub-tasks, and so long as I’m on the right side of that boundary I will use the Defer Until field to lightly pin times I intend to actually focus on the tasks, as I describe above.

(My exception to this restricted use of the Due field involves the way I pair it with the “Waiting” context, described earlier.)

I used to set the Due field to the date I thought I ought to work on a task, rather the way I use the Defer Until field now. This had the effect of items falling into cherry-red “overdue” status all the time, and my phone reminding me every day of all the ways I continuously fell behind schedule, in tasks both crucial and trivial. This made me not want to use OmniFocus. The Omni Group paired the release of version 2.0 in 2014 with a set of advice-articles from other long-time users; from one of these did I glean the strategy of using Due only for real, hard deadlines, and Defer Until as a more flexible date-pin. After declaring task-bankruptcy and starting with an empty database, I adopted this strategy myself, and I haven’t looked back since.

Use contexts only for physical-location prerequisites. Much like I use the Due field only for tasks that have real-world deadlines, I create and assign contexts (besides my beloved “Waiting”) sparingly, limiting them to physical locations representing the only places that certain tasks can get accomplished.

Right now, I have only “Home” and “Office”, and then “Hardware” “Store”, “Supermarket”, and a few other shops. And even though I accomplish most of my work in my home or office, I assign these contexts only when I must be at that location to fulfill the task. For example, only my home has a printer in it, so I’ll assign a “Print this out” task to “Home”. Only the hardware store will sell me a new screwdriver, so its context gets affixed to the “Buy new screwdriver” task.

The vast majority of my tasks, though, involve doing something on my computer. And since my main computer, a laptop, travels with me throughout the day, I don’t bother setting the context field for most of my OmniFocus items. That works out just fine!

Only quite recently have I begun geotagging contexts, letting OmniFocus send me a little reminder-ping through my phone whenever I approach a location tied to an available task which I can accomplish only there. I haven’t used this feature long enough to call it a definitive part of my long-term OmniFocus strategy, but I will admit to finding it pretty cool.

Trust the judgment of your past self. Often, a task will come up in my list of tasks for the day, and I’ll think: Is this really that important? Often it seems too “fun”, a next step in a personal project mixed into a daily task-list otherwise full of bread-winning client work, perhaps.

But here, I have learned to put faith into the judgment of the past self who found this task valuable enough to put into OmniFocus, and then to furthermore assign a deferral-date to. I can try to put myself into the mind I had then, and feel free to ask whether the value I saw in the task then remains true today. But unless I today find the task completely outdated or otherwise disagreeable, I’ll make an effort to focus on it exactly as my past self wanted.

I seldom regret this.

Drop stale projects ruthlessly. As I wrote above, I think very little of clicking the “+1” buttons below the Defer Until field on tasks for which I just don’t have the attention to spare today. There comes a point, though, when it seems like so much can-kicking, especially if I find myself marking the project as reviewed without any changes for week after week, stretching into months.

Very often, these fall into the category of “nice-to-have” goals — either personal projects, or work that would benefit clients or myself professionally but which nobody’s explicitly asked for. In any case, potential progress on these projects keeps getting shouldered out of the way by more important or interesting work.

In time, and for each of these, I have to face the fact that I clearly don’t want to work on this project. With no other force in the world (such as money) encouraging me to do it anyway, I’ll just keep kicking that can. And that’s when I mark the project as Dropped.

To lessen the sting, I reserve the right the copy the project’s checklist and paste it into an project-ideas archive file, outside of OmniFocus. This leaves the door open to picking it back up again, someday, when I feel actually ready to give some time and attention to it. But OmniFocus is about what deserves my attention today, and so it doesn’t belong there.

Take joy in completion, but do not dread commencement. Checking tasks’ checkboxes brings a feeling of forward momentum throughout the day. Completing (and dropping!) entire projects delivers an extra boost, causing whole rows of work to vanish in glory from your OmniFocus sidebar. When I don’t check myself, this pleasure in making things go away drifts inexorably into an adversarial relationship with my OmniFocus database, something not so much to complete as to defeat.

Seeing my inbox as a column of enemies to mow down may feel fun in the short term, but I try not to lean hard on this visualization — because it makes inboxing new items, or adding new tasks to an existing, evolving project, feel terrible. It makes the very act of planning feel like a step backwards, like fighting a boss-creature in a video game who keeps healing itself away from an end-point of ultimate victory.

Thinking of work as a foe to vanquish forever represents a category error, one whose impossibility to achieve can lead only to frustration. So long as I remain alive and healthy, I will have work to do — much of it, happily, of my own choosing, with a pace I set for myself. OmniFocus helps make this possible. To keep my use of it meaningful, I must see the act of capturing a task less as another burden to struggle against and throw off than as an investment, one which after some tending will sprout a profit of accomplishment, or wealth, or — yes, even just relief.

And that’s how I use OmniFocus today! I hope it proves at least as useful to me for another ten years.

* If that video looks a bit dated, note that it coincides with my adoption of OmniFocus. Watching it way back then did help me set my initial attitude towards the software and its use, and I expect that the talk still holds up today.

† I’m sure some OmniFocus fans get all meta about this, making a repeating project just for inbox-clearing! I personally don’t find that necessary. That little pale-blue stripe signifying unprocessed items in the Inbox tab feels like a pebble in my shoe, and I look forward to shaking it out.

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Photograph of an index card pinned to a corkboard. Written on it, in pencil, is the personal mission statement described near the end of this post.I learned the value of mission statements — super-succinct summaries of an entity’s raison d’être — while starting to organize the nonprofit I co-founded a couple of years ago. Since then, my application of mission statements has transformed and expanded, growing in steps from legal-document practicality to defining the heretofore unwritten goals of a long-lived group project, and finally to serving as a pocket-sized personal guide-star.

While I researched how to launch a nonprofit, all the better books I consulted agreed upon the ratification of a mission statement as a first step, something the would-be founders should accomplish before making any further major decisions about the nascent organization. This task has the founders unanimously agree upon a short statement of the nonprofit’s reason for existing, and then enshrining it such that it always sits in the sight-line for both themselves and any of their successors leading the nonprofit in the future.

Here is the mission statement of that nonprofit, standing today just as it did two years ago:

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) helps ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, and preservation of the tools and services crucial to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction, as well as the development of new projects to foster the continued growth of this art form.

Half the magic of a well-implemented mission statement lies in how it defines, by omission, everything the nonprofit doesn’t do. A nonprofit that pursues every noble-sounding goal it sees, even ones that all its constituent members individually appreciate, would quickly lose all its focus to effectively accomplish anything at all. In IFTF’s case, we’ve several times passed on opportunities to help causes in the general sphere of interactive fiction that just wouldn’t fit in the intentionally narrow mission we gave the organization. Board members have quickly learned to say “that sounds great, but I’m not sure it would be on-mission” — and not to feel like an uncaring jerk while doing so.

This negative angle does include a happier corollary: when the board encounters a promising project proposal that does fit the mission, this compatibility often amplifies our interest in the idea into outright excitement. We’ll trip over each other to find the best ways that the organization can help realize it, confident that we’ve found something rare and good. That’s a healthy and meaningful mission statement working exactly as it should: as passive gatekeeper, and active energy-focus.

IFTF also follows the common pattern of other multiple-program nonprofits by dedicating volunteer committees to the oversight of its various ongoing public-service projects. Each of these committees has, at its core, a charter document, and each of these charter documents begins with a mission statement. Here for example, is the chartered mission for the IFComp committee:

IFTF’s IFComp Committee oversees the operation of the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (“the Competition”). Its membership at any given time includes the Competition’s current organizers as well as its official advisors. As a group, they have the power to set the Competition’s year-by-year direction and definition.

It works for bringing a group of volunteers together under a common cause, which is all the charter cares about. However, this statement doesn’t have much to say about IFComp itself! This is why a year ago, around the same time I decided to make 2017 the final year I’d run IFComp before passing the responsibility along, I led an effort to define a separate mission statement specifically for the competition.

In retrospect, this represented a turning point for me in my view and usage of these things. Prior to this, I helped craft mission statements to affix to legal entities because of an external expectation that they exist. My proposal to add one to IFComp, however, came entirely self-directed, and only during my fourth year as its organizer. After my experiences with IFTF, a project of IFComp’s complexity and teamwork suddenly struck me as quite naked in lacking a mission statement, even though it had managed without one for its prior 22 years.

And once I had proposed it, the whole IFComp committee took this task seriously! After some weeks of discussion in email and chat, we produced the following mission statement, which now heads the competition’s About page:

The Annual Interactive Ficton Competition (IFComp) welcomes all kinds of text-driven digital stories and games, making them freely available in order to encourage the creation, play, and discussion of interactive fiction.

I like it.

Finally, the idea to write a mission statement for myself didn’t occur to me until the start of this year. (This may have flowed naturally from my official passing-along of IFComp duties with the turn of the calendar’s page.) I know very well that I have hardly invented the idea of personal mission statements; in fact, I likely drew on my dim memories of their description in Stephen Covey’s First Things First, read decades ago on a mentor’s advice.

So some day in late January, I set some time aside to draft something to replace my life-long pre-installed mission of “I wanna do stuff I like.” I did get as far as writing something down, at least:

Through study and toolmaking, I strive to foster the stability and growth of myself and my communities, in wealth, wisdom, and happiness.

As I type it out again a few weeks later, it reminds me how it does not look fully baked yet. In particular, “study” feels like it’s doing a lot of work here. I decided at the time that it covers reading, blogging, gameplay, podcast production… just about all my interactions with culture, really, and honestly that seems overloaded. And the rest feels a tad generic — who doesn’t want those things?

Still, a start. I liked it well enough to pencil it out on an index card and pin it to the corkboard on my office wall, per the photograph accompanying this article. I consider that a fine staging area, not as ephemeral as the whiteboard hanging beside it, but hardly permanent either. It has already proved its worth as a razor, encouraging me to cut away several ill-fitting projects I’d been dragging along for months. I can only keep it pinned at eye-level for now, and plan to revisit it later in the year for further sharpening.

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Bullwinkle the moose standing beside text reading 'The 2A Society'.The present mainstream understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment paraphrases to something like “All American citizens can carry guns around all they want, and use them however they please, and no part of the government may question this.” Quite recently, I have learned that this comes from a very specific interpretation of the original, oddly punctuated, and rather ambiguous sentence actually in the Constitution. Within my own lifetime, the NRA — once a society for hunting enthusiasts, radicalized into right-wing politics only in the 1970s — successfully crowded out any reading but this one, and in the process claimed private ownership of a front-page slice of my country’s foundational document. I want to see it taken it back from them.

The NRA, and its well-funded advocates in the current American government, are quick to redefine any suggestion to moderate the ownership, trade, or use of firearms in the most extreme terms, often as a direct challenge to the Constitution itself. No matter how mild the proposal, these advocates respond as if they heard only a demand to confiscate and ban all privately held guns forever. And too often, I see counter-responses from moderates that step right on into this baited frame, shifting into an argument that they can never win. One might start out, for example, with an argument to regulate gun use and ownership with universally available but mandatory licensing, just as we do with automobiles. But upon exposure to the old “Oh, so you want to ban all guns, then?” trap, they leap into its jaws, accepting the change of subject and reciting the low mortality statistics from countries that do practice restrictive gun bans. And that’s that conversation surrendered, with the NRA side not budged an inch.

I call upon the proponents of responsible gun ownership to ignore this frame entirely, and to present instead a new framing that moderate gun-rights supporters could reside in permanently. I propose that they, too, root their arguments in the Constitution, acknowledging the permanent presence of the second amendment and working with it rather than pushing against it. The NRA believes that they own the second amendment, and that they alone know its meaning. They are incorrect. The amendment itself is not the opposition here — it is those who would twist its antique and uncertain language towards their own, evil purposes.

As such, I would love to see a new and organized movement set itself against the NRA and its poisonous interpretation of this centuries-old set of 27 words, countering it with its own interpretation. I suggest “The 2A Society” as a possible name of this organization, making its subject matter clear, and directly denying the NRA’s claim as the second amendment’s sole reader or adjudicator.

The silly logo I threw together at the top of this article shows the mode I have in mind here. With a soupçon of self-aware humor, it draws on my personal connection with American hunting culture, an activity I never directly participated in but which I gained respect for through my many years as a moose-ensconced Mainer. I played around also with other iconography, drawing instead on my equal-parts Massachusetts heritage and manipulating a photo of a rifle-bearing Minuteman statue, overlaid with an Olde-Englishey typeface and situating everything within a five-pointed star. But I find that, more than such dully jingoist imagery, I prefer the lightness that a cartoon moose suggests, shining gently but steadily in the face of the NRA and its intentional miasma of darkness and despair.

(And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this organization necessarily secure a license to use ol’ Bullwinkle per se. Please think of him here as a placeholder for an original character design. “Dewey, the 2A Moose,” perhaps…)

I am not the one to launch this movement, because I lack sufficient interest or investment in firearms ownership. I simply know from personal history that the United States is full of responsible gun owners who feel no alignment with the modern NRA’s message of fear and hate in service of greed — or its eager trade of countless childrens’ lives for freewheeling gun sales. And I know also that the American allies of such a “2A Society” would itself be vast in number, and I would count myself proudly among them.

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A photograph of a stained-glass window bearing an eye-in-the-pyramid symbol.

Received The Last Guardian from a thoughtful in-law for Christmas of 2016, but put off playing it for many months. I had played the two previous major works of Team Ico, and so shared the expectations about the game’s emotional ordnance that had preceded its release by several years. Given our family loss immediately after the holiday, my wife and I did not feel ready to face this game, which centrally features an enormous, cat-like companion that we knew we’d unavoidably feel a real bond with — because Ueda and company are very, very good at what they do. We knew also that this would make ourselves vulnerable to real-enough sympathetic trauma, far too soon.

We made the right choice. The Last Guardian simulates the entire emotional journey of life with an adopted pet, accelerated to video-game speed, and with its natural drama and danger inflated proportionally to match the creature Trico’s two-story height. To accomplish this, it presents not just a believably simulated animal, but an illusory animal mind, and then requires the player to build their own heterophenomenology of it — their own internalized model of the creature’s subjective world, in order to communicate well enough across the human-animal barrier to navigate the objective game-world together. It succeeds so well. I’d never experienced any fantasy quite like it before.

Your journey with Trico takes you from initial wariness through growing trust as you both gradually explore how you complement one another beyond merely trading amusement for food. (Granted, there is that, too!) This carries low moments along with the high ones. The shared pain when the pet gets hurt, the worry when it gets sick. The animal surprising you with its own kind of concern and sympathy when you fall ill or injured. The frustration when, no matter how strong your bond may become, you find things you just can’t communicate to the companion who has put all its trust in you, and do your best to cope. It’s all effectively represented here, and I found myself extremely willing to believe in the mind of the enormous, cold-nosed, muscular Trico, his thoughts slow, earthy, but undeniably present.

Once it forges the link between beast and boy — and, by extension, to the player as well — all the game’s emotional high and low notes feel stunningly amplified as they reverberate along that bond. In-game moments of pain and fear cause real anxiety, exactly as we’d expected. This applies even to minor beats: whenever the boy needs to slip out of Trico’s view for a bit, the creature howls its worry at the separation, and my partner and I in our living room would act exactly as we would if our cat started had moaning two rooms away. In fact, we — I, especially — would semi-consciously talk to Trico constantly, reassuring him (and his big soft wet eyes) when we re-appeared, and singing the food-food song I used to sing for Ada whenever the boy returned bearing a treat for him. (There is, in fact, an in-game “pet Trico” verb, always available but mechanically necessary at certain parts of the story, and I dare any player to not vocally soothe the on-screen creature while using it to calm him.)

The game increases the emotional stakes in the early mid-game when it becomes clear that Trico had suffered abuse earlier in his life. Even as I type this I feel a lurch of emotion to recall this realization dawning on me, gradually, over the first hours of play, and we found ourselves learning to recognize and work around the animal’s trauma-remembrance triggers. I remember, too, the disgusted outrage I felt when the game’s villains start to actively exploit these triggers against poor Trico, and the angry triumph that welled up when he and I would find ways to fight back.

Due to all this, we needed at least six months of calendar-time to proceed through the whole game, even though the experience involves a few dozen hours of gameplay at most. My wife and I would push ahead in Trico’s world, with all its strains and obstacles, until the cumulative stresses stacked up to a shatteringly fragile degree. And then we’d take a few weeks off. Trico would wait for us, and greet us with relief when we felt ready to return, and we’d venture on a ways further.

As dizzying as its low points get, the game’s emotional high points soar. The fantastic setting allows for a literal spin on the classic “Who rescued who?” animal-adption bumper sticker, with more than one moment where you reach for Trico in desperation, and he reaches back with teeth or tail to pull the boy to safety. Besides these incidents, though, the game’s ongoing proof of its central human-animal bond serves also as perhaps the game’s most underappreciated facet: The Last Guardian contains the finest verisimilitude for riding an animal that I’ve had the pleasure to play.

While the little player-character can clamber around on Trico’s thickly feathered back from the get-go, he gains the ability to direct the big animal’s movements only later in the mid-game. And I mean direct literally: you can tell Trico where to go, though voice and gesture cues (themselves generated by certain stick-and-button combinations), but it’s up to Trico how — or, indeed, whether — to interpret your instructions.

If you tell Trico to trot across a wide room or down an open corridor, he will generally pad along in the direction indicated. But request a more complicated or dangerous maneuver, and Trico takes his time. Not out of stubbornness, though it may seem that way at first. Trico will look in the direction the boy points, and flick his ears, and pause. Maybe he’ll sit on his haunches for a bit, while considering the flying buttress or crumbling pillar you’re asking him to leap atop. But then: he shuffles to a calculated position, bunches up his muscles, and launches, carrying the whooping boy who grips his pelt, and (usually) sticking a graceful landing.

After a while, I came to feel like I knew how to not so much drive as accompany Trico through the stony, airy fortress that you together pick your way across and up. This experience felt worlds different not just from the many in-game sections where the boy must climb and jump around by himself (while Trico watches, groaning in worry), but from literally every game I’ve ever played where the player-character mounts a horse and proceeds to treat it like a jeep made of meat. In other video games, mounting a horse (or a dragon, or a war-bear, or what have you) instantly re-wires the controller directly into the brain and muscle of the animal, and you proceed to simply trundle it around effortlessly. Guardian’s approach of keeping the controls always focused on the boy, even during times when Trico carries him, reinforces the game’s core theme of animal companionship. It de-emphasizes control in favor of communication, of the certain kind of communion that only happens between a bonded human-and-animal pair.

The Last Guardian asks a lot of trust of its player, for a level of emotional investment that leaves the player feeling uncannily vulnerable. By the end of the game, I felt very glad I gave it my trust, even as I also felt glad for waiting until I stood on firmer emotional footing in real life.

A photograph of Ada, a tuxedo-patterned cat, starkly lit and looking patiently at you.

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Photograph of a broken toy robot, lying in the grass.This post contains spoilers.

Because I had let praise for the game burn for most of a year in my social-media circle prior to trying it myself, I knew about Nier: Automata’s final consequence many gameplay-hours before encountering it. While the event itself therefore didn’t surprise me, I did find myself disappointed at how loosely coupled the whole epilogue seemed when set against the preceding hours and hours gameplay. I awoke the next morning unexpectedly angry about it all. A little bit of introspection explains and dispels the latter reaction, but the deeper dissatisfaction lingers, a flaw endemic to the way I mishandled my approach to this brokenly beautiful and deeply strange video game.

Clearing the anger away, first: common knowledge tells us that the act of smiling, or raising one’s gaze off the gray pavement and towards the brighter sky, can improve one’s immediate mood a little bit. The brain, perhaps, observes the body as it displays the effect of happiness, and so it retroactively generates a little happy-feeling in order to make it sensible. Just so, when I thought of seeing all my saved progress in Nier get deleted in slow-motion the previous evening, screen by screen and line by line, my self-observer figured I must have done so in a pique of rage. Dutifully, it served up a steaming platter of disgusted anger with the game, even though I never felt that way while actually playing it! I knew this would fade in time, but for the whole morning I seethed, wishing I could delete the game more: from my memories, from the universe, for all time.

With that having burned itself away, I can now fall back to my original disappointment with the ending and epilogue. Considered by itself, I did enjoy the final end-credits bullet-hell shootout, and its unexpected twist where gradually accumulating messages of international encouragement lead to assistance from the helpful ghosts of these past players. (While I knew about the final deletion, I didn’t know the specifics of the path that led to it.)

This experience ties in solidly with the oddball main-game mechanic where, Dark Souls-ishly, you continuously stumble across crumpled android bodies representing other internet-connected Nier players who’d recently hit a game-over nearby. Besides looting their stuff, you can “pray” for them to give them a small in-game bonus. (As with actual prayers, you never receive any feedback about this, and must take it on faith that the game actually does anything at all with your kind thoughts.) Further, each corpse offers a little “death poem” about its predicament, assembled by its player, and you yourself can compose these when you fall in battle. It’s a wonky-fun way to connect with otherwise unseen Nier players around the world, and the epilogue harkens back to this by inviting you to assemble from similar menus a one-line encouragement (or discouragement, or dismissal of the game as a piece of crap) displayed to players struggling through the final challenge.

However, other than a single line of incidental dialogue, nothing else in the game interacts with or even acknowledges this respect-the-dead mechanic. No other characters remark on the lifeless bodies littering every part of the landscape, whether desert wasteland or treetop village, much less suggest the value of tidying them up. And the game doesn’t acknowledge this lack of acknowledgment, either; it treats the phenomenon as an external projection onto the world’s surface, invisible and insubstantial to all but the player. Now, I didn’t mind this while playing the core game; it seemed just another oddity in a game so rattlingly full of oddities, a game which like my beloved Deadly Premonition stuffed so much enthusiasm and variety into its casing that I felt quite willing to overlook the visible seams. But that the game’s ultimate ending, the note that it chooses to leave us on (and permanently), would choose this particular loosey-goosey mechanical aspect over anything else in the story, the characters, or the world they inhabited? It seemed so strange to me, and unsatisfying.

When I asked for comment on Twitter, friends who love the game argued that its ending connected strongly to the work’s other overall themes. I can only defer to them here, due to my other major difficultly with Nier: the characters and the anime-style melodrama arcing between them are so very stylized and abstract that I had a lot of trouble feeling connected to any of it myself, much less personally invested. I assume much of this comes from my bringing Western prejudices and expectations to a work that would prefer I approach it a little less concretely, with more of an appetite for style and suggestion than concrete exposition.

As time passes — even just a day or two — I already feel myself softening a bit towards some of Nier’s peculiar design and aesthetic choices. For example, I hungered from the start to know more about the main characters’ striking appearance, especially their bizarre costuming: deadly katana-wielding battle-androids who resemble porcelain-skinned teenagers dressed in gothic lolita fashion, all flowing black skirts and high heels. The civilian groups they mingle with comprise adult men and women dressed practically in drab earth-tones, marking the protagonists as quite odd-looking within the game’s world as well, even though nobody in that world ever remarks on the difference.

I couldn’t help but let myself expect some future plot discovery that would reveal their basis on their forgotten inventor’s beloved childhood dolls, charged with personal meaning — or perhaps the same inventor’s tragically lost children. But: the game provides no explanation at all! My seeking “sense” in why 2B and 9S look like Harajuku teens posing for tourists’ Instagram feeds represents me bringing an entirely incompatible frame to my reading.

If I let go of taking everything so goddamn literally for a second, I can start to make some pleasantly loose but real thematic connections between the costumes and the larger setting. I do love Nier’s depiction of a city some centuries after humanity’s extinction, the tall gray buildings reclaimed long since reclaimed by green, tenacious nature. It is haunting, and beautiful, and lonely and sad too. And viewed in that light — mixing with the android warriors’ self-deceiving mission based on their inability to accept their forebears’ death — 2B’s black dress starts to seem positively funerary, mourning raiments for a dead world, even as new life continues to thrive all around her.

So, that’s cool. I like that. And I like other individual aspects of this game too: the unexpected turn into deeply traumatic horror that 9S’s story takes, and the bleak humor found in various interactions and side-quests involving the “machine lifeforms”. But Nier: Automata presents so much of its overall narrative and theme through profoundly stylized abstraction, with the costuming serving as only the most obvious surface example. I’m afraid I just did a bad job processing most of it. While I felt fine just letting it pull me along for the ride during my dozens of hours chewing through the main game, by the time the ending reached out to make its amazing personal and emotional connection that had so deeply affected my friends, it mostly passed right through me. I expect I may appreciate the game, ending gimmick and all, more in memory (while also enjoying the irony of that, I suppose). But I regret missing out on any more immediate appreciation — and, as such, I find it hard to not to feel today a little regret about investing as much time and attention into the game as I did.

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ALTI know of Oliver Sacks’s work through a somewhat oblique angle, mainly through his many guest appearances on Radiolab (consistently one of my favorite podcasts over the last ten years). It was through Radiolab that I heard about his terminal illness in 2015, and his death soon after. A recent episode focused on how he spent his final months writing, writing feverishly, every moment that he could. If I understand correctly, this resulted in three posthumously published books — a memoir, a farewell, and The River of Consciousness, Sacks’s final collection of popular-science essays. The Radiolab episode mentioned the latter by name, and so I read it last month.

River does not make its connective theme obvious, though it assures us that it does contain a deliberate arrangement; its preface, written by one of Sacks’s colleagues, relates how the doctor prescribed the order of the book’s contents two weeks before his passing. The essays do share a common interest in the creative self (to borrow the title of one consituent article), a study of how the best work we make comes not just through focus and study on some topic, but also allowing ourselves to put things down for a time, to always investigate new interests, and check that our old assumptions still hold — while also minding that we don’t forget them entirely.

The book’s initial essays give us miniature biographies for two of Sacks’s personal heroes, focusing attention on the lesser-known parts of their careers. Two articles concern Darwin’s long life after On the Origin of Species’s first edition, where he continued his self-motivated studies in biodiversity, often recruiting his ever-growing brood of children as co-investigators. He published book after book, and at the same time never ceased to revisit and revise Origin, the masterpiece of his youth, into new editions. Sacks writes too of Freud’s initial career as a neurologist, and the author of at least one groundbreaking study in that field, prior to starting his foundational dig into psychoanalysis. Sacks maps out how the latter calling, while both distinct from the earlier one and also utterly eclipsing it, still grew out of Freud’s years of thorough exploration of a neighboring topic before inspiration and intuition drove him in new directions.

Running through the book’s midsection is its title essay, an informed speculation on an apparent paradox revealed in the study of human consciousness that I read with great interest, especially after my only recent digestion of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained from 1991; I welcomed this survey of more current research on the subject. Essays on the banks of River’s “River” include observations both personal and professional on the nature of everyday cognitive failures regarding mishearing, misperception, and migraines. And then “The Creative Self” relates many examples from the scientific literature — as well as Sacks’s own experiences — that suggest the mind’s ability to fork off a “hibernating” sub-self to continue working on interesting problems below the level of consciousness, their solutions bubbling up in brightness when one least expects it. Sacks ends this essay on such a high note, celebrating the rare moments when this creative self, prize in its jaws, returns and re-merges with his own conscious self — a state he identifies, simply, as his best self.

After a reprinting of the subtle and poignant “A General Feeling of Disorder” — serving as the one overt nod in this book to its author’s imminent mortality — River ends on a warning that struck me as something like Sacks’s own, short and focused version of Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. In the last essay of his final book, Sacks admonishes the reader to beware the scotoma in scientific research — here using the clinical term for gaps in an individual’s perception that originate in the brain, such that the person isn’t conscious of what they can’t see. Sacks describes the startling ease with which scientific discoveries, even published ones, can slip away forgotten for years, decades, or longer. It reminded me of women like Rosalind Franklin who didn’t receive timely recognition for their own work, but Sacks here writes of a broader phenomenon here that doesn’t necessarily happen due to willful ignorance or intentional suppression. Rather, knowledge needs to circulate to stay current. If a publication doesn’t catch on and find a home among the broader scientific community, then all the information it contains, no matter how true and valuable, will necessarily pass into darkness. This occurs whether the information gets blocked by opponents, or merely fails to thrive due to an accident of unlucky timing.

The fact this happens anyway, even despite best intentions, means that diving into the archives from time to time in search of lost knowledge remains a valuable skill for any researcher, one that Sacks himself exploited many times during his long career. And that’s the note he leaves us on.

As is very much anyone’s right after decades of authorship, Sacks peppers all his essays liberally with references to his earlier writing. I allowed myself to let this justify the pleasure I feel when I link within my blog posts to my own ever-growing history of online writing, however infinitely less interesting or relevant it may be. In particular, River contains a multitude of callbacks to 1970s’ Migraine, and to a lesser extent The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The latter appears to serve as Sacks’s most well-known book, and I’ve already begun reading and enjoying it for the first time, however odd it feels to read the voice of the same author from 30 years earlier.

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A screenshot of Apple's News app, running on an iPhone, showing Fox News as a prominent option. I call upon Apple to cease its offering of Fox News as a primary news source to users of iOS, let alone one activated by default. So long as it does, then Apple overtly allies itself not just with low-quality and deceitful information, but with the white-supremacist ethno-nationalist agenda that Fox has openly contributed to since the start of the Trump administration. I do not think Apple wishes to harm America in this way, and I ask that it stop.

This screenshot from my own iPhone shows the “Browse” panel of Apple’s News app, scrolled down just a bit. You can see that Fox News, signifying itself with an enormous fluttering American flag, appears as a top-level source for content.

I discovered this screen only a few days ago, weary with the gut-pulses of disgust I’d feel every time a Fox-branded headline bobbed among the various others on my phone’s dashboard. They were invariably trivial “weird news” stories, attacks on more objective news media, or obsequious praise for Trump and his gang, chafingly mixed in among other sources’ more substantial headlines.

I’d never actually configured the News app, you see; Apple had apparently marked Fox News as a default, common-denominator content source for lazy customers like me who couldn’t be bothered to tune the app’s output to my own tastes. But, on an annoyance-fueled whim earlier this week, I plunged in. After a few minutes’ exploration, including the discovery of the screen pictured here, I can report that the app no longer pollutes my phone with Fox’s cynical distractions.

For me, however, this became one of those situations where tucking an unpleasantness out of sight did not at all put it out of mind. As recently as two years ago, I think that I would have let the issue go at this point. For decades I’ve felt content to simply disregard Fox News, the way I might a supermarket tabloid: tasteless, perhaps, but doing me no harm so long as I ignore it. Forced to consider it anew through the action of fiddling with preference-screens on my phone, I realize that I don’t feel this way any more.

Need I go into detail about the ways that the powerful Fox News of today operates to actively dismantle American democracy, and support long-term harms to human civilization in exchange for sustaining the plutocrats whose support they enjoy? In just the last week alone, Fox dismissed Hispanic Americans as crypto-foreigners. Days later, it backed the president — erasing its own earlier on-air reporting — the moment he denied universally corroborated reports that he had tried to fire Robert Mueller last summer. These are just two close-to-hand examples of Fox’s red-meat racism and boosterism, keeping it in the good graces of the worst parts of the American executive office, who in turn keep listening as it directly advises them every morning.

All this on the surface! Fox News is a state-allied white nationalist propaganda network, assisting the most selfishly short-sighted factions of American power-holders by sowing confusion and chaos in a bid to strengthen their grip. Only the tri-colored veil of noisy jingoism above Fox’s logo on that screenshot separates its overt agenda from those of fellow-traveler news organizations like Russia Today, 4chan, or the Daily Stormer. I don’t expect that Apple’s News app will ever offer the top headlines from any of those websites. Why, then, does it continue to offer them from Fox News?

I request no censorship here; I’d never suggest that Apple stop the users of its operating systems from reading any news they choose via the open web. Let people continue to visit any site they’d like with Safari and such. But Apple, the company that unilaterally changed an emoji from a deadly handgun to a plastic squirt-gun, has a chance to make another small, positive step in the direction of social responsibility. Apple can rob the Fox News tumor of the rich attention-source provided by the News app’s default settings. The company could instead direct its customers to healthier sources of news — which I dare say, comprises literally everything else currently offered by the News app. That makes the solution rather obvious to me.

Please, Apple: drop Fox.

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Cover of Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey. Like many people in my particular arc of the interactive-fiction circle, I found myself sold on Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey the moment that Cat Manning shared its first stanza on Twitter, shortly before its publication date. Tell me about a complicated man, it begins. And… heck, let me just share the whole thing with you:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe, poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

Chills, right? I ordered a hardcover edition immediately, to better share with my classics-loving partner. I spent much of last month taking it all in, the first of any Odyssey translation I have read in its entirety. Unusually for me, I immediately new-game-plussed it upon completion so that I could re-read its hundred-page-long introductory essay and translators’ notes in a new light. This is a very good book from cover to cover, and if you are joining me in facing down our current cultural decadence by bolstering yourself with ancient humanities, then I strongly recommend your reading it.

I knew that, once I read the whole thing, The Odyssey would join other classics that have surprised me with their breadth and rich texture beyond their respective scenes of cultural ubiquity. Just as Romeo and Juliet tours us through a palace far vaster than its balcony, and most of Psycho doesn’t happen behind a shower curtain, so The Odyssey — read in full — leads us out of the Cyclops’ cave and past the familiar Sirens and into a storyscape far more complex than its innumerably retold tall tales of monsters and mayhem.

The Odyssey’s overall structure shocked me with its subtle complexity, incorporating but not at all limited to the straight-ahead adventure-story part in its middle. I had no idea that it begins in medias res with the title character already marooned for years on Calypso’s island, but we don’t even catch up with this fact for several chapters! Instead, the epic opens in Ithaca, with Odysseus twenty years absent, and sets the stakes for his return by showing the dire situation of his wife Penelope, besieged (almost literally!) by boorish suitors, and their barely-grown son Telemachus struggling to attain manhood in such a bizarrely broken home.

This long-static situation catalyzes into motion when Zeus authorizes Athena’s request to intervene, and so the story-driving goddess swoops down to throw the spotlight onto Telemachus. The two of them proceed to buddy-picture around the surrounding islands and countryside in what scholars call “The Telemachiad”, and which comes across to me as The Case of the Missing Dad. Through young Telly’s travels and inquiries of local landholders, we-the-audience receive a piecemeal portrait of Odysseus as all remember him, and various speculations about his fate. A few men report running into him, here or there, but long ago; most assume him dead, by now.

When the scene at last shifts to The Man Himself hugging his knees and pining for home on Calypso’s beach, it strikes audiences both ancient and modern as a reveal, the payoff after pages and pages (or hundreds of recited stanzas) of invested buildup. We hunger to join Odysseus as he picks himself up and resumes his journey homeward, far moreso than if the story simply began with the sacking of Troy and the chronological start of his own troubles.

The Odyssey returns to this buildup-and-payoff model after its midsection, when Odysseus returns at last to Ithaca — and stage-manager Athena immediately sidles in, grinning and gray eyes shining, to transform a happy but mundane homecoming into a bloody epic for the ages. I had of course long known the story-sketch of “Odysseus returns, shoots the arrow through the axes, and then kills all the suitors.” I had no idea, though, that Homer — though the machinations of Athena and Odysseus, working together — stretched the promise of this violent payback bowstring-taut across chapter after chapter. The tension becomes so great that the narrator falls into it, at one point reacting to a certain suitor’s line of dialogue by blurting out that he’s gonna be the first to die. It takes several more chapters before Odysseus finally picks up the literal tightly wound bow at the center of everyone’s attention and sends an arrow through the poor slob’s throat, commencing the great massacre and letting the audience exhale. In this whole sequence, and through my looking-through-the-wrong-end reference of culture, I saw echoes of Inglorious Basterds and 47 Ronin.

But I want to return to that middle part, the rollicking adventure tale that has embedded itself into the bones of Western culture for so long, with Circe and the Lotus-Eaters and Scylla and Charybdis and all the rest. When read in context, The Odyssey reveals this tall tale-of-tales to be told by crafty Odysseus himself, returning the favor of hospitality at a nobleman’s crashpad by regaling his host with an evening’s improvised entertainment. And seeing this broader scope led me, eventually, to conclude that Odysseus is one hundred percent full of shit.

In a key scene later on, Odysseus at last lands at Ithaca, but doesn’t recognize it at first. Athena, disguised as a random nobody and barely able to contain her glee, strolls on up and greets the disoriented traveler, asking where he’s from. Without even thinking about it, Odysseus dives right into a steaming crock about how he’s, uhh, from Crete! Yeah, that’s the ticket. He’s from Crete, and he totally killed this guy — a real fast bugger, too, named… erhm, Orsilochus, sure — but wouldn’t you know it, he was the king’s son! And well, nothing to do then but grab his loot and hop on the next red-cheeked ship bound over the old wine-dark, you get me? But then, there was this big storm, see…

Athena lets him go on like this for a while before dropping her disguise, letting the sight of her true form shut him up for two seconds. Then she says, in essence: Buddy, it’s me! You can drop the act. From here, they proceed drawing their plans to get Odysseus back to his palace and clean house, a project that consumes the remainder of the epic. More immediately, though, I took this as a clear signal that Odysseus is a straight-up congential liar.

The narrator’s voice doesn’t at all discourage this view, often assigning roguish Odysseus an epithet of “crafty” or “deceitful”, and throwing down something like “king of liars” now and again. Combine all this with the fact that his whole story of what happened to him between the Trojan War and his isolation on Calypso’s island comes from Odysseus himself, delivered to amuse and impress a local aristocrat, and I feel strongly directed to assume that the entire story is a fiction within a myth.

Really compelling fiction, mind you, crafted by the most celebrated golden-tongued liar of the heroic age — thousands of years later, it’s the only part of the whole epic that’s insinuated itself into global cultural awareness! But still, front-to-back, utter baloney. Who can say how sly Odysseus actually ended up moping on Calypso’s beach? Perhaps he reckoned that counting himself among the war-missing to shack up with this ageless island hottie was just the soldier’s retirement he deserved, and had no idea at all who she really was or what he’d signed up for. It takes the intervention of another god, after a full decade, to finally let him paddle back towards Ithaca on a humble raft; by then, many years removed from the heat of war — and many years into a promised eternity as an immortal being’s personal plaything — thoughts of settling down with home and hearth may have seemed rather more attractive.

Another bit of evidence, and one that had me laughing out loud as I read it: In book 11, here titled “The Dead”, Odysseus tells his host about how he and his crew visited Hades. Now, at this point, he’s been talking a long time, and one gets the impression that he starts to run out of his best material. (I’ve no doubt he had a lot of time to practice, prior to this particular evening; perhaps Calypso, when it amused her to do so, let him workshop his act with her.) His story starts running out of gas, and he turns instead to name-dropping, talking about all these mythological celebrities he met, down yonder.

And then comes the part I love, when he turns to his host and suggests that it’s getting late, and really let’s wind this party up and get to bed, big day tomorrow. And his host says no way this is great keep going. And Odysseys says: okay. And so, whew, all right, we… met Hercules! Good ol’ Herc, you all remember him, right? He was looking good! And he came up to me, and he was like…

Quick-thinking Odysseus manages to push away apparent sleep-deprivation and find his flow again, giving us the story (and, thereafter, eternally useful metaphor) of Scylla and Charybdis. But even then his foot slips just a bit from his weariness, when he realizes that he’d just over-spiced his work a bit by describing private conversations between gods in yonder Olympus, which he of course couldn’t have personally witnessed in his allegedly first-hand account. And so, in an utterly charming moment, he nudges in a little parenthetical that he knew about the conversation because Hermes, that old gossip, had blabbed to Calypso about it during a visit one day.

None of this is to suggest that the world of The Odyssey gives us grim realism outside of the title character’s outsized action-hero fables. The poem ultimately presents us with two layers of fantasy, with Odysseus’s rollicking pirate yarn acting as a temporary reprieve from an unsettling, dreamlike world co-inhabited by mortal humans and deathless gods, treated as two classes of people — albeit vastly unequal in power. Part of the human condition in this world is not just constant godly influence, but the knowledge and acceptance that gods can and will have sway over every part of your brief life.

This portrayal surprised me in how it didn’t quite line up with most every mythologically derived bit of pop culture I’ve ever consumed! When I think of “real” gods in fantastic fiction, I imagine them as in Clash of the Titans, or the Discworld books, or — let’s face it — Dungeons & Dragons. Present, but all over there, way up in their godly hangouts, and even at their most meddlesome they act more as puppeteer than direct participant in the mortals’ ceaseless dramas. Not so in this epic, whose world churns with gods’ ceaseless coming and going. By the narrator’s description, mortals may gape when they see Hermes or Athena or a random cave-nymph hurrying by on business, but it reads more like an celebrity sighting than what any modern person would imagine as a brush with the divine.

Depending upon your standing with them, a god might show up and give you a pep talk, or they might smite you and all your lands with a flying mountain. But gods can also, it seems, reach into the minds of men and women to tweak their immediate desire and direction, or alter their perceptions so that a person looks amazingly hideous or beautiful, or make one’s own home temporarily unrecognizable. Quite often, the Homeric gods work some subtle combination of the two, showing up in person besides the mortals who hold their interest and whispering suggestions, and the text makes it achingly unclear how the mortals in question literally perceive any of this. (Quite often, this epic reminded me of the bicameral mind hypothesis of pre-literate peoples’ god-riddled thought processes.)

The human denizens of Homer’s Greece take all this in stride; what else can they do? In Wilson’s translation, characters will often utter a sentence like “Some god must have put that there” or “Some god gave me the idea.” At first, this sounded strange to my ear, as I’d read “some god” with the cadence and approximate meaning of “some guy”; it sounded like a weirdly dismissive way for characters to describe key observations. Eventually I realized that it’s simply a synonym for “somebody” with color added, making it clear that the actor is one of the other people, the undying ones who share the earth with the kings and heroes and swineherds. When a Homeric human tells another “Everything was going fine and then some god messed it all up,” their listener can only nod in sympathy.

Wilson’s book does set the stage for this by its own introductory essay, which begins by making clear that The Odyssey’s original Greek uses dialect and diction that no human culture ever actually spoke, employed to describe an unbelievable world that people of our distant past imagined as their own distant past. Readers have been critiquing this epic since antiquity, scholars from Alexandria in conversation with those in New York, reflected in the end-notes of this newest volume. I feel so lucky to have this chance to participate in my own tiny way through this wonderful new translation for my time and culture.

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Photograph of an analog-dial traffic-counter, as found on an old turnstileBise remains in the very-alpha phase of itch-scratching personal software projects where I watch, over a period of weeks, to see how it really wants to be used. I’ve a couple of interesting shifts in relevant project philosophy to report and discuss since my initial release announcement from earlier this month.

In a social chatroom recently, I wondered out loud how AWStats, the high-level web-traffic analyzer I’ve used for a long time, presents its table of user visit-times. Each row of this table reports the number of remote users that have visited the analyzed website — whether less than a minute, or between one and five minutes, and so on. Since AWStats uses webserver access logs as its sole input source, and these logs’ entries record remote users’ activity only in terms of the resources they request, I found it entirely unclear how it claims to know how long a user stuck around reading or otherwise absorbing the requested media.

A colleague wiser than me revealed that AWStats simply measures visit-length from a given IP based on the bounding times around a discrete cluster of requests from that IP. So if the logs show that a certain visitor arrived and actively clicked around for 30 minutes (perhaps with a few minutes passing between clicks), AWStats considers that a half-hour visit. If another person stops by the front page and makes no further requests, then AWStats marks that as a five-second visit — regardless of whether the visitor really did bounce elsewhere immediately, or whether they lingered an hour to leisurely read the page’s text before moving on.

This strikes me on first blush as quite misleading, but on further reflection I can concede its greater utility for websites other than text-heavy blogs. More to the point, all the sites I design and maintain professionally present the user with goal-driven activity-flows, where they visit in order to accomplish some specific task — buying a ticket for a cruise, say, or viewing a list of one’s past orders. For these websites, we can quite reasonably expect that a typical user wouldn’t linger for a long time on any one page, and thus we can consider them to have departed soon after their final request of the server — just as AWStats does.

In the same conversation, my friend offered the observation that measuring visits by IP address — the technique used both by AWStats and Bise — unavoidably invites misinterpretation no matter how one reads it. Today more than ever, a single human user is likely as not to come at a given website from a multitude of IP addresses. An individual may have a home IP address and an office address, and either might change by way of DHCP, giving us a bunch of IPs already — but now we must also account for one or more mobile IPs, depending upon any number of factors (not at all limited to the number of mobile devices that person might use). I must concede that this fact discourages the simple and naive interpretation of a set of visits from a single IP address as representing exactly one human reader of my blog.

But I also feel that this does not therefore consign Bise’s output as useless. This interpretive thinking did remind me of a facet of Bise’s design philosophy that I did appear to forget by the time I wrote its documentation, such that it has no mention there (an oversight I plan to correct presently). Namely, while Bise does do its best given its input — again, plain old logfiles — to estimate the number of unique regular visitors a website has, one should read the numbers it offers as a score, more than a definitive turnstile-clicker person-count. It’s a slightly abstracted number, based on but not transparently indicative of objective reality. The number’s size suggests the size of your audience, in terms of about how many extra chairs you’d want to set up should you expect them all to visit your house at once. The number’s change over time reflects the growth of your readership, with rate and degree of change both represented.

Thinking of Bise’s output-numbers in this way also leads me to conclude that the program works best when you set its regular_interval_days number to match your blog’s average time between new posts, measured in days, rather than the naive single-day default that I’d initially thought fit most purposes.

This configuration-file setting tells Bise the minimum number of days that should elapse between a given IP addresses earliest and most recent visit (within the weeks-long time frame of recent log entries that Bise considers) in order to count that IP as a “regular” visitor. In Bise’s first release, I set this to 1, meaning that any IP that hit the site and then hit it again 24 hours later would increment the blog’s “score” by 1.

But for Fogknife, to which I post around once per week, I’ve increased this setting to 7. So now, in order to tick the score up, a given IP address must return to the website at least a full week after its earliest known visit within Bise’s consideration window. As of this month, this reduces the “All visitors - regular” row in my Bise output table from 260 to 175. (That counts around 110 feed-readers, with the remaining 60 regulars split between those who stop by the front page weekly to see what’s new, and those who reload specific internal pages for reasons I can only speculate about.)

Envisioning my audience here as a cozy lecture hall with a bit fewer than a couple hundred seats set up feels right for a modest blog like this. I find myself quite willing to count any IP address that goes through the trouble of visiting twice across seven days as a reader, or at least a sufficiently readerlike entity. Moreover, this certainly seems more accurately meaningful than the thousands of unique IPs that AWStats reports as monthly visitors — the raw-traffic figure I referenced at the end of my 2017 project-review post, and the writing of which probably helped needle me into creating Bise. The pride of reporting that puffed-up number was followed almost immediately by suspicion that it hid a deeper — and rather more humble — truth.

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Last year I had a filling on my hindmost bottom-left molar replaced. While the procedure itself took mere minutes, it brought along personal concerns that lasted for months afterwards. Here, then, is the article I wish that someone else had written on the topic, and I hope it’ll prove useful to some future web-searcher.

Before I begin: Everything is fine! Nothing bad happened! This article chronicles my experience with the new filling and a couple of worries I carried for a while after the procedure, and how they at last met thoroughly non-disastrous resolution.

Early last year, an x-ray showed my dentist that my oldest filling — installed around 1990, many dentists ago — had worn down enough to form a little pocket of exposure between itself and the tooth surface, making a cozy hideout for destructive bacteria. I would need to have the filling replaced, and so made an appointment for a couple of months later.

Friends and the internet both figured that replacing a filling is always a cinch, as opposed to having a new filling installed. Alas, I found this not quite accurate to my situation. Perhaps the old filling’s age led to the discrepancy of expectations; the dentist did imply that its ancient amalgam represented some truly archaic dental tech, especially compared to the new-hotness composite he planned to press into its place.

Whatever the reason, the procedure ended up about as involved as repairing a previously unworked tooth: the dentist presented the long-needle novocaine, then the drilling, then the filling. The middle part wasn’t agonizing, thanks to the first part, but it was rather unpleasant, dancing just on the edge of outright pain — just like it felt when that now-worn filling had first gone in. Nothing for me to do but wait it out, and in time the dentist dismissed me with the first real novelty of the day: I could go eat and drink anything I wanted, right away! I liked this new dental technology better already, and immediately let myself enjoy a calming hot coffee.

This brings us to the start of the mild worry phase regarding this new filling, which would last for much of the year. I attended a gathering at a friend’s house that same evening, where I enthusiastically crunched down on a snack, and it hurt. Oh no! Had something gone terribly wrong? Sitting on my friend’s couch, I frantically thumbed through internet medical advice on my phone, and found a few articles suggesting that this sort of dental surgery can leave the salient nerve-endings traumatized long after the local anesthetic has worn off. Pain from bite-pressure, these pages advised, is normal for a while; I should talk to my dentist only if it persists after a month or so.

A month! Well, I hadn’t expected that. But, I could chew on the other side of my mouth for a while, and lord knows I always favor solutions involving ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away on its own. And indeed, the pain persisted for the rest of April and well into the summer, tapering off very gradually. The healing at least seemed to progress in the right direction, however slowly, so I just left it alone. Today, nine months after the procedure, I can’t clearly remember when biting with that molar last hurt, letting me chew with my usual happy carelessness ever since.

This left me with the other concern: my tooth had changed shape, in a way I didn’t associate with my old fillings. At my friend’s house after the procedure, once the numbing effect of the novocaine had worn off, I could feel with my tongue how the tooth had some sort of new, sharp edge to it. I couldn’t see anything obviously strange in the mirror — but when I flossed, the new tooth-edge would fray and sometimes break the thread.

Given the nature of the new filling’s casus belli, I inevitably worried that it had somehow gotten all warped or something, and now lay pockmarked with the very same germ-craters that led my dentist to drill out the old filling. As with the other trouble, I bravely faced this down by doing nothing at all and waiting for my next regular dentist appointment to come ‘round. When it did, I told both the hygienist and the doctor about my concerns, and they listened patiently, and after their respective examinations had nothing to report except that everything looked fine.

That was all I needed to hear! I can still feel that new edge while writing this, but nothing about it worries me any more. And that’s the end of the story about how I had an old filling replaced and then worried a little about it for a long time afterwards, until at least receiving expert advice to stop.

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