Total eclipse of the something-or-other

A couple of years have passed since my last post announcing updates to Plerd, the open-source software that powers this blog. That seems like the right pace, per Anil Dash’s ninth lesson. But all things come due, the sun and the moon dance on and I pushed up Plerd version 1.5 last night. What’s new?

  • Better documentation. While I continue to keep Plerd’s README updated with a complete usage summary, I’ve also started to add pages to its wiki about customizing templates, the single most flexible yet under-documented feature of this software.

    I’ve also reformatted the example config file for clarity. For my whole career I’ve always appreciated this style of “chatty” config file, with lines and lines of commentary, and it pleases me to have reason to add my own small contribution.

  • Social-media metatags. With a bit of additional blog-side configuration, services like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack can now present those ubiquitous little summary-cards of Plerd-based blog posts whenever they link to them. It adheres to both the Open Graph and Twitter Card standards.

    Interestingly, I didn’t know about these cards at all because I view Twitter through third-party clients (which don’t display them) and I seldom visit Facebook. I had wondered why Slack made tidy little preview-summaries of some webpages, but never for my own blogposts, though. My weekend research of this puzzle led to here.

  • Support for custom post attributes. You can now put anything you wish in any post’s metadata section, in key: value format, and then refer back to it from within post templates. This allows you to design templates that display all sorts of variable information beyond the handful of Plerd’s predefined post attributes.

    I added this feature for the blog of the nonprofit I help run. Despite Plerd’s original design goal of supporting only one author, a team can use it just fine through the use of custom post headers. In this case, I just add the header byline: Jason McIntosh to my own posts.

  • Estimated reading-time labels. You know, the labels that say “7-minute read” or whatever at the top of articles. I actually don’t know how I feel about these things; as of this writing, I haven’t added them to my own blog, even though I added support for them to its codebase.

    But, I saw them on a friend’s blog recently, and I thought I bet it would be fun to add this to Plerd and it was.

  • JSON Feed support. Plerd has quietly supported JSON Feed for a few months now. My motivation for adding it was the same as that for adding the reading-time labels, and when I tweeted about it I got a Daring Fireball link out of it, so time well spent as far as I’m concerned.

    According to my access logs as of a week ago, a single person reads Fogknife via JSON Feed, and I unironically salute this iconoclast. I do have more thoughts about this technology, and perhaps I’ll share them here, sometime. In the meantime, here is Fogknife’s JSON Feed link, available to all.

  • Support for older/newer-article links on every post. If you read Fogknife on the web, you’ve probably noticed these already.

There’s a passel of variously less interesting features and improvements beyond these, as listed in Plerd’s complete changelog. Enjoy!

This has been a very rough week, hasn’t it.

It started with the Google manifesto and all its fallout exposing how my own professional field has yet to throw off its endemic sexism. Engineers far younger than I promoted ideas I ignorantly thought had fallen out of date decades ago, emboldened by a diseased culture lately less afraid to shine light on itself.

Then — after the initial raw terror had boiled away — the idiot president’s cavalier war-drumming left me with shameful anger at what feels like my completely compromised American citizenship. Things in this realm had started to feel manageable, if not normal, with the most decisive repulsion yet of Congress’s anti-healthcare activity, and reports that senior members of Congress regardless of party affiliation had started to openly ignore the president’s whining and ranting. As he clearly shows no proclivity to give any actionable instruction to his military or his government, on this nor any other topic, I feel returned to this coldly comforting belief — but quite shaken, just the same.

Friday and Saturday’s hate, violence and death in Charlottesville made me ashamed of pretty much all my outward defining features. Not just that I’m a white American, but specifically one of the countless who failed to stop Trump. The president, afraid to upset the white-supremacist bloc among his voters, made worse-than-useless statements about the violence from “all sides”. Some of my fellow white Americans brought their Trump campaign signs to the hate march, just to remind him who lifted him to power, and it worked. It worked on me, too. That woman’s blood is on Trump’s hands and my hands both.

I deserve Trump. We deserve Trump. All us Americans do. We could have headed him off last year, but we blew it. He and his cronies now enjoy the spoils of their victory, coasting for as long as they can on their unbelievable sweet luck, and not caring a whit who or what goes to hell under the wheels of their grift. That’s the truth of it. Everything that happens while they retain power, we deserve one hundred percent. Yes, all of us — but the more powerful and privileged of us take a proportionately larger share of the blame. We didn’t do enough. I didn’t do enough.

But here we are, and wars don’t stay won forever. I believe black lives matter. I believe even lazy but comfortable chuckleheads like me can make a difference. I take heart and boldness that the health-care came around because of the roar of the citizens, me among them, and if we had to royally screw the pooch to find our voices and discover that representative democracy isn’t some civics-lesson abstraction, so be it. Here we are, and we’re all moving forward together anyway.

This past week felt more like a stumble, like I got pulled by the hair for a while. I will get back on my feet. Please join me. I will help you up, too, if I can.

At the beginning of this three-episode mini-season of Telltale’s Walking Dead game-serial, Michonne — a main character from the comics and TV show, as I understand it — collapses to her knees after battling a small horde of the titular brain-eaters. Completely exhausted both physically and spiritually, and racked with grief over the recent loss of her children, she considers her pistol. As she does so, the game offers us its first choice: have her put it away, or let her end it all?

A thrill ran through me as I selected the latter option as soon as I read it. Look: I had no illusions about why I was there. I have played Walking Dead games for the overwhelming, almost unbearable despair and hopelessness they fill me with while staying in the safe and controlled environment of a video game. I remain especially affected by Season Two, after I helped guide dear young Clementine into unsmiling cold-calculus monstrousness. As such, I couldn’t turn down such an obviously dark choice, even so early in the game. “Alas”, my thrill turned to disappointment when another character, horrified, slaps Michonne’s gun-barrel away from her temple. Crash-cut to opening credits.

I continued to play out the rest of that episode, as well as the following two, and I liked it fine. But in retrospect, I really wish that the game allowed Michonne — with the player a demon, whispering in her ear — to carry out her impulse, decisively ending both the game and the whole miniseries just minutes after its start.

I know with certainty that I would have felt satisfied to leave it there, not playing the rest. All those hours of playtime, to say nothing of those months of work by developers and actors, all gone from my future in an instant, because of one person’s succumbing to a self-destructive voice. (And, yes, all made so much worse by that voice belonging to a white man, me, commanding a black woman to destroy herself.) It would have felt terrible and delicious and real and I would have considered my money well-spent for the consensual trauma.

But, no, instead I got another Telltale game out of it. It was okay. I liked it fine.

'West Maui Mountains' by Warren Antiola, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Not a great film, but pretty good. Felt in many ways like a quarter-century-on echo of Aladdin, most obviously through the presence of a celebrity-voiced barrel-chested trickster-god who rather effectively swipes the spotlight from the title character. Not a complaint; I saw the movie specifically because a friend linked to the film’s signature musical number, and I said: I want to see this movie. I don’t regret seeing it, though I do wish that its script had taken risks as bravely as its own heroine does.

Moana rises well above mediocrity via satisfyingly clever echoes of dialogue and action while power shifts and settles between the film’s two protagonists: the eponymous and grit-driven hero-princess, and the scenery-chewing demigod Maui. She learns her full potential, ready for adulthood; he learns humility, as well as the joy of playing a support class now and again.

All of which, I dare say, feels fated from the start. We never doubt that the heroes of a Disney movie will succeed in saving the world, but with Moana I note especially how they never seem to pay a price or make a sacrifice of any degree, either. Dead grandmas come back, Star Wars-style, to continue their tutelage; unique relics shattered during boss battles get re-instanced by kindly gods. In a running gag, every time one of the seafaring characters gets tossed overboard, the ocean itself reaches up to plop them right back on deck. Everyone learns something about themselves, and nobody loses anything.

I realize perfectly well how I cluck and complain that a colorful animated movie for children doesn’t contain enough tragedy for my middle-aged tastes. I get it! But, even recognizing the milieu, something about Moana’s mood still didn’t sit well with me.

I see it also in how it treats the ocean as an active character. I understand it as a “living object” sidekick in the same vein as the magic carpet from Aladdin, but this didn’t seem the right format for anthropomorphizing the entire sea, especially in a film that draws on Pacific Island folklore. I can accept humanizing something so non-human as the sea, so long as it keeps its most important intrinsic qualities. To an islander of antiquity, the living sea would be vast if nothing else, right? But Moana only gets as far as “wet”, giving us the water-tentacle from The Abyss cross-bred with a frisky puppy. So tonally off-kilter.

It just seems a little disingenuous, I suppose, for a kids’ movie to introduce themes relating to growing up — death of loved ones, voyages of personal discovery, the unknown world over the horizon — but then render them so completely toothless, exacting no price to pay. Pixar’s lovely Inside Out examined how growth and loss can often seem inextricably bound, even (and perhaps especially) regarding the painful transformation of adolescence. I guess I wanted at least a little bit of that here, even in a movie set in paradise.

Cover of The Teeth of the Comb, by Osama Alomar

One line in my notes for this book reads “Syrian Robot Chicken”. Please believe me when I say I feel the appropriate level of remorse over this. But, I also can’t deny how I rather consistently hallucinated bursts of channel-change static between Osama Alomar’s dozens of surreal micro-fictions, particularly when a cluster of tweet-length morality fables stumbled directly into a three-page love story or war allegory without any hint of segue. Well, I liked it!

The book also brought to mind Richard M. Dorson’s Buying the Wind, a freshman-year textbook that has somehow remained in my possession for a quarter-century, and which I’ve found myself picking through as occasional bedtime reading for a year or two now. The bulk of its material derives from folktales that Dorson collected while traveling the rural United States in the early-to-mid 20th century, and its sections range in shape from bullet lists of one-line aphorisms about wives and donkeys to chapter-long hero-tales accreted across generations of bedtime stories. As such, and given their clear common source, The Teeth of the Comb’s many tiny stories let me imagine them as oral traditions of an unknown culture, organized according to some unguessable principle.

Naturally, we can’t so cavalierly compare Alomar’s work to the stories Dorson transcribed, because despite my flights of fancy the author makes no claims that his work has any source other than himself. But then, every line that Dorson wrote down came to him through an individual telling it to him. Each of Dorson’s sources were not passive storehouses of cultural texts, but living people who expressed their cultures’ stories in their own way, making them every bit as alive and individual as their tellers. So, yeah, who’s to say.

The Teeth of the Comb takes its title from one of its closing stories, a short parable addressing the danger that individual pride can pose to a larger community. But that seemed to me a bit apart from the book’s most common theme, one that licks at the edges at every page: the toll of war. Over and over, there are descriptions literal and otherwise of gnawing hunger and privation, of losing one’s nation and one’s family — perhaps to death, perhaps to the terrible sorts of foggy uncertainty particular to modern civil wars. Even when the stories focused on more abstract concepts like humanity’s bottomless capacity for senseless violence, I always felt them drawing from the specificity of contemporary warfare.

Yes, I allow myself to read into the author’s intent, based on what little I know of his background, but I dare say it seems a reasonable assumption here. And as such I let myself appreciate (savor not being quite the right word) a voice I realized I have rarely encountered in my reading, that of the civilian directly affected by war in his homeland, and one tragically continuing even as I read his words.

I took a picture of one of the less explicitly war-shattered stories from the book, because I laughed when I read it; I thought it was pretty great. It’s basically the official Osama Alomar story of my Twitter timeline.

Photo of the text of page 41 of "The Teeth of the Comb".

I read this book because it sat on my local public library’s new-fiction shelf, its cover looked cool, and it seemed like a relatively easy way to score some perspective outside my usual fare.

A barber's diagram of head anatomy, borrowed from

I snap-purchased a PSVR in early June, hours after the idea struck me that VR would transform — indeed, must have already transformed — the driving-simulator games I have always enjoyed. Two months later, I still haven’t tried any PSVR driving games. I have, though, spent enough time with the device to learn firsthand about the unexpected nature of presence it carries in two places: one on your skull, and one in your brain.

In terms how one wears the thing, one would do better to describe the device as a headband rather than goggles. It took me several play-sessions to figure out that donning it properly lies entirely with adjusting the padded plastic “crown” at a comfortable tilt. It grips your forehead in front, and in back should hug the hollow where your neck meets your occipital bone. The binocular viewscreen, as a result, does not rest on your nose like goggles at all, but simply dangles down in front of your eyes. The screen’s interior does feature a nasal cut-out between its eyepieces, but more to make room for your nose than to provide support from it.

Despite the unit’s on-board how-to-wear-me tutorials, I didn’t find any of this immediately obvious. Until I figured it out for myself, I rather wondered about the testers who found it acceptable to play video games with their nostrils pinched shut. Once I did discover the shift in perspective, I found the device perfectly comfortable.

Now that we’ve strapped it on, let me tell you that I had no idea about the core perceptive illusion that VR brings. Before trying it for the first time, I imagined that the VR experience would simply feel like having a little motion-sensitive screen mounted to my head. I’d certainly used any number of iPhone apps that responded to the phone’s orientation in space — SkyView a long-time favorite for stargazing, for example — and I assumed that the PSVR would work just like that, except freeing up my hands and blocking out other visual input.

Funnily enough, one’s first interactions with the PSVR bear this out. Once you fumble the thing on for the first time, it presents you with the ordinary PlayStation dashboard, projected onto the screen of a “virtual theater” you sit within. You can look around at the screen, and the experience replicates that of sitting very close to a large television (albeit a somewhat fuzzy one). For some moments, in fact, I wondered if I was somehow looking at my real television through the PSVR goggles. When I realized the truth of it, I quite felt impressed with the instantaneous response to my physical movement that allowed this illusion. Still, it fell within line of my expectations.

But then I loaded my first game, via the demonstration disc that ships with PSVR, and all that mundanity dropped away. I immediately discovered that properly done VR exploits your eyes and brain to convince you, from the very first moments, that the illusory landscape presented to you does not limit itself to a window in front of you, but rather literally surrounds your entire head, in all directions. This isn’t a stereogram, or something else you need to learn to see as intended; the PSVR rootkits your sight-cognition hardware instantaneously, at a biological level. You can’t not fall into it.

VR has presence, and I wasn’t prepared for that.

The totality of this illusion carries a sort of desperate reification to the objects presented within. For example, after you page through a three-ring binder to learn the play-controls at the start of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, the game tells you that you can review this information at any time by looking to your right. Of course, you try this immediately and — you nearly jump out of your skin to discover a wall a foot away, and taped to that wall a colorful poster summarizing the controls, just as promised. How long has that been there, and how had you not noticed it before?! Turning back to the desk in front of you (where the player-character sits throughout the game), your real-brain situational awareness circuits kick in, mapping that poster to your right in the physical space you inhabit.

Of course, playing a traditional video game simulating a 3D space uses perception and reaction much like this. Were I playing Keep Talking on a flat screen, I’d remember the poster’s location within the game-world, and know to tilt the right analog stick to rotate the camera any time I wished to regard the poster. But the first time I saw it, I wouldn’t have felt the central-nervous shock that I experienced in VR, my physical autonomous systems lighting up with alarm that something so obvious as a big solid wall with a poster on it had somehow snuck past my notice until now.

If, while I played the game on a flat screen, you were to ask me “Where is that poster?” I’d say “To the right, see?” and nudge the camera over to show you. I would use similar language were I playing Keep Talking in VR, glancing over my right shoulder… Or, just as likely, I would point that way with my hand, quite easily forgetting that, outside the headset, you can’t meaningfully follow my finger. And this is because only in VR do I succumb to accepting the poster as actually existing in space beside me, not a merely a perspective-warped picture I know how to bring into view on a screen we both gaze at.

So what have I been playing? Rez, mostly. Of all the pack-in demos I tried, that one alone made me feel good when I tried it; even when the action gets hectic, something about its neon low-poly landscape really invites the visitaton that VR affords. This is the game’s second re-release since its 2001 debut, and I daresay that VR is where it wanted to be all along — because, I discover, Rez plays better from within. I’ve enjoyed two complete playthroughs of it since picking it up, as well as plenty of time spent in its various new side-features.

On the other end of the spectrum, I tried Superhot VR and lasted about ten minutes before tearing the device from my head, flush with panicked anger. It presents a violent and difficult challenge that sends you back to the start of a long course on any misstep. I caught a glimmer of pleasure at moving my physical hands and head with increasing confidence while slowly mastering a pattern through rote practice, but in the end could not escape feeling trapped — literally, physically trapped — by an inescapable antagonistic force. I compare it to Dance Central, but with a deeply unpleasant edge. I did not like it at all, I will never play it again, and I will know to avoid any VR experience like it.

I still haven’t tried a driving game. I really ought to.

Meatball Soup, photo by stu_spivack, CC-BY-SA 2.0

My household has lately been enjoying The Witcher 3 a great deal — it has picked up the long-disused banner last carried by Fallout: New Vegas as a compelling and well-written “triple-A” game that we enjoy playing together, treating like a TV series. (And a bingeable one, for good or ill.) That said, I find myself needing a break from it, even though after six weeks of almost daily play we’ve arrived at the main storyline’s final act. While my partner plays solo for a while, gladly hoovering up all the earlier sidequests we’d left behind, I ponder why my attention ebbed over the game’s vast middle — especially compared to its extremely interesting prologue.

Even as I played through it, I knew exactly what grabbed me so successfully in White Orchard, the relatively small world-map that holds the game’s first few post-tutorial hours. Just as you start getting your bearings, you receive your first major quest: slay the griffin pestering a local army garrison, in exchange for information that’ll gate you into the midgame. This comes after foreshadowing about the monster’s power and rapacity — one of the very first NPCs you meet is a hapless merchant, stranded in the woods after the terrible creature turned his horse into salad.

More crucially, you accept the contract many real-time hours before you get to lay eyes on the fearsome thing yourself — but you work your way up to it, steadily, in satisfyingly paced steps. You interview townspeople about the attacks, then visit the sites the witnesses mention, looking for clues about its methods and habits. You research griffins’ known weaknesses, then gather ingredients and shop for recipes to make the specific potions and oils that will work best against this particular prey.

All this tension reaches a delicious height when you find the monster’s nest, discovering the motivation for its unusual aggression and completing your pre-fight checklist. When you feel ready, you set the trap, and at long last face the creature down, and it feels awesome. Those last few violent minutes cap what, all by itself, feels like a small, self-contained (and surprisingly large-budget!) adventure game about an episode in the life of a fantastic monster-hunter. I loved all of it.

And then the game set me free in the enormous mid-game world map, and… well, I have willingly spent dozens of hours slumming around in Novigrad and island-hopping across Skellige so I’m not going to suggest that I haven’t had a good time. But I never did recapture the feeling of White Orchard, even though I find myself going through the same motions, again and again. What Witcher 3 sees as a training exercise, I saw as the main course! Why did this happen?

A lot of it, I think, comes down to how the game handles your character’s personal resources. Crafting potions and oils (buffs and debuffs, respectively) plays a central role in Witcher 3, but unusually — and in stark contrast to Skyrim, especially — once you brew a consumable goody, you keep it forever, able to use it repeatedly. Each bottle or bomb has only a handful of “sips” or charges or whatnot, but you completely recharge used-up stock every time you rest.

Certainly I found this refreshing, when I first figured it out. No more hours slaving over a hot alchemy table between dungeon sorties, or having an inventory screen resembling a liquor store’s stockroom. Just carry one of everything, easy!

Alas, this style carries a fun-deadening drag of its own. Just as Witcher 3 does not escape the typical single-player CRPG problem where your character quickly becomes so absurdly wealthy that in-game commerce becomes meaningless, his ever-ratcheting collection of anti-monster alchemical tools means that you never again experience the oddly immersive joy of assembling a task-tailored toolkit from scratch to face down your next big contract. Odds are, you already have the stuff from all your last jobs, and you don’t even have to go home to fetch it first. You read the bestiary to find out which oils to slather on your sword this time, and head straight to the lair.

All that is still pretty fun, mind you, and the writing is good — not just “good for a mainstream big-budget videogame”, but as good as a higher-end long-arc fantasy teleplay. And every so often, part of it does manage to feel, once again, like a compelling adventure game that rewards deep attention. Several hours into the midgame, for example, I found Geralt’s encounter with the Bloody Baron and his “botchling” a solid work of fantasy horror, startling and meaningful and wrapped up in unexpected grace. It, along with the whole White Orchard sequence, are two of several rewarding Witcher 3 sub-stories floating in a sea of far more passive play that otherwise stretches on for hours and hours.

I would have felt at least as happy had the game somehow served up these isolated episodes as all its playable content, rather than offering me a whole landscape in which to dwell. I know that level-uppy triple-A games just don’t work that way, and more’s the shame. I’ll take what delight from this one, once I’ve spent enough time away from it to start missing its world — one which, for all the fun I’ve had, I really don’t wish to feel too familiar with.

The mysterious Mike from episode 6 of Twin Peaks Returns, saying: Don't die.

My doctor diagnosed me with hyperlipidemia in January. Presumably my blood, run through the lab, resembled the disagreeably pond-scummy claret illustrating that condition’s Wikipedia page. Doc gave me a deadline: If I couldn’t fix this situation through diet and lifestyle changes within one year, then I’d have to accept a lipid-thinning drug regimen. Heart disease crippled my father and killed my father’s father, so I knew that would submit to statins that if I had to. But I would really rather not have to. This cut my work out for me.

I took another blood test last week, about six months after the first, and received the results the following morning. I can report that all my blood-numbers have adjusted, for the first time since I began having them measured, to generally acceptable levels. I feel pretty happy about that. While I naturally cannot point to any one thing I did as the cause, I can summarize the salient changes I made in my behavior since the winter.

Honestly, it comes down to two factors: I significantly cut back on processed sugars, and I started visiting a professional dietician.

More to the first point, I stopped eating sugar mindlessly. Better phrased, perhaps, as I started eating more mindfully. But I really do feel I set myself up poorly through decades of eating sugary treats whenever I felt like it — and, often, when I didn’t feel like it, but something sweet lay in reach so I ate it anyway because eh why not.

Like, when I went out to get my morning or afternoon coffee, of course I’d get a little something to nibble on too, a frosted scone or a big cookie or a chocolate bar or whatever. I wouldn’t even think about it. And I did this for years and years.

For the last six months, though, unless I feel very sure that my body requests a sugar hit — not never, but also not more than once a week or so — I just get the coffee.

I brought my experience from earlier food-quantifying experiments to bear, here. I had already learned both the possibility and the benefits of simply acknowledging what I eat. With those earlier efforts, I didn’t tune my intake in any particular way, other than capping my daily calorie-ingestion.

This time, I left the food-diary closed, instead just paying attention to my sweet-toothed fingers, willing them to hey maybe not automatically pick up the donut just because it’s there and it’s morning. It worked — over the course of mere months, one could cater quite the gala celebrity wedding with all the treats I didn’t eat.

And, friends, processed sugar is very bad for you. It’s so very bad. I have known this for some time. I think I was ready to let it go at last, but I needed a greater push than scary news articles to get me to act. So that’s what I got in January.

I must admit, though, that I arrived at this place indirectly. When I shared the diagnosis and my fears about it on Twitter, a friend — and, it happens, a stroke survivor — recommended the book Grain Brain to me. I ate up its confident insistence on a low-carb, high-protein diet, and it launched me into an extremely enthusiastic and very brief gluten-free phase. While I couldn’t maintain that more than a couple of weeks, it gave me an wholly unexpected side-effect: my “sweet tooth”, my lifelong shrugging excuse to myself for eating sugar all the time, vanished.

The happiness that lovely breads and cereals and pastas give me triumphed over my experimental rejection of them. But somehow in that struggle my always-on background-desire for sweets, left unfed for just a couple of weeks, simply guttered and died. When I realized this, and recognized the significance of the life-improvement I had stumbled into, I drew up a peace treaty with carbs and ordered a pizza. More than enough territory gained, for one war.

This mood for accepting modest gains over radical redefinition continued to help when I started seeing a dietician, beginning a couple of months after the diagnosis. Every other change I made flows from this activity. I didn’t need to shop around or anything; I scheduled an appointment with the dietician that happened to base their practice in the same building as my primary-care physician, and we took it from there.

I have sat down with this dietician twice, so far. First, we sketched out my current lifestyle as seen through the lens of the food I eat — what, when, how often and how much — and established what about myself I wished to change through changes in my diet. (In this case: righting those terribly askew blood-numbers.) They gave me homework, thus:

  1. Instead of eating breakfast out literally every morning (as I did indeed do), try cutting that back to every other morning. I received a shopping list of nutritious and filling breakfast components, and friends I have really learned to unironically enjoy mixing up my own greek yogurt parfaits.

  2. Create and keep a big container of oat bran and flaxseed mix in the fridge. Sprinkle a spoonful onto all those homemade breakfasts, and also any other meal where I could get away with it.

  3. Start taking over-the-counter plant-sterol supplements with my meals.

  4. Maintain course on the good habits I’d managed to pick up myself: my still-regular dives into the seven-minute workout, and my aforementioned shunning of sugar. Continue my frequent appreciation for fibrous greens, cultivated by prior reading.

  5. For two weeks prior to my subsequent visit, keep a food diary.

My second visit began with my handing in that latter assignment. On the dietician’s instructions, rather than carefully measure out amounts and calorie-estimates, I simply wrote down what I ate, and when I ate it, every day, for days. We reviewed it together, and the dietician circled things here and there — oh dear, still eating one or two sugary treats per day, I see — and we fine-tuned my habits a little further.

I have a third visit coming up later this month. My homework this time: take a six-months-on blood test, and bring in the results. So here I write, with an LDL of 124 mg/dL — down from January’s 151, and for the first time thrillingly below the good-range ceiling of 130. (My triglyceride and HDL measurements also both find themselves sitting pretty.)

I think I may have a hard floor of one sweet treat per day. Given the undeniable reality of my progress, I enjoy that single big buttery oatmeal-raisin cookie with my 4 PM coffee, and apologize to nobody. We’ll see where we stand next January.

On a recent episode of the Do by Friday podcast, co-host Max Temkin voiced dismissive disdain for all contemporary superhero films, decrying their preordained outcomes — the hero will surely triumph in the final act, the canonical romantic interest must survive for the sequel, and so on. I can’t disagree in principle, even though I have enjoyed so many recent super-movies. I therefore found my joy at Spider-Man: Homecoming boosted by keeping this criticism in mind, feeling delight in the ways that the story flourished within these very present constraints.

Personal background: Spider-Man is very important to me. My middle-older brother Pete and I had a secret language based on the bizarre and often psychedelic 1960s Spider-Man animated series, the source of the immortal theme song everyone knows but so many more memorable moments for kids watching it in re-run. For instance, this Spider-Man would fall from great heights a lot, due to both the machinations of foes as well as the necessities of a limited-budget re-use of animation cels. Every time he fell, trumpets would blare a desperate, descending scale until the moment Spidey managed to at last snag an overhang with his web and fling himself back to safe altitudes. So Pete and I would sing this to each other, DA-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da, whenever we wanted to say “this thing we are both observing bespeaks a poor outcome”, or just “I am about to tackle you”. And so on.

I read the comics too, from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. Spidey, his company of friends and villains, and their already decades-old lore became intimately familiar to me. Even in those days before the web, resources existed to aid any obsessed young comics-reader in eagerly soaking up decades of past continuity. And all this plays into why I referred to the 60s animated Spider-Man as “this Spider-Man”, because even during his first decade or two the character’s official handlers would re-invent him again and again — here for that crazy cartoon, but there too for his frequent cameos on The Electric Company, or for a spate of TV movies throughout the 70s and 80s. Each vision of the character tweaked and adapted him to better fit into the medium at hand. It all seemed perfectly sensible to me!

As such, I don’t see the 2017 film as a “reboot” in the way that the post-Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies represented. Homecoming’s Spider-Man isn’t any sort of do-over, a rewind of the character back to his starting place for yet another retelling of the origin story, bouncing it through reset cultural contexts and audience tastes and hoping enough will stick to bankroll a couple of numbered sequels before the next team of handlers reels him back to square one for another go. Instead, the new movie — paired with its prologue, embedded in last year’s Civil War — pours the spirit of Spider-Man into a wholly new vessel, like like all the perfectly normal multiplicity of cross-media Spider-Men of my youth.

That vessel being not movies in general, but the contemporary “Marvel cinematic universe” specifically. They could have given Spidey the Doctor Strange treatment, clean-slating him yet again. The film’s producers instead did the character and his audience such a grand service by overtly hand-waving away his origin — look, you bloody well know it by now — and while they still rewind him back to dorky teenhood, they set his context not merely to “whatever year this movie is filmed in”, but the nearly decade’s worth of begging-your-pardon worldbuilding that the studio has exercised since Iron Man.

And the two films let that already-established world gleefully pervert the canonical Spider-Man origin arc from the get-go, having a slickly agenda-driven Tony Stark of all people swooping into Peter Parker’s flat and replacing poor old Uncle Ben, smooth as a snake, and forking this universe’s Spidey far away from the oft-told self-reliant versions. Stark charms Aunt May off her feet, then fast-forwards poor Peter’s crimefighting career far more than his feeble experience and maturity can balance. It was perfect, I thought; a fresh, invigorating and completely believable (within the excesses of superhero fantasy) take on what should happen to the Spider-Man archetype when injected into this particular world. It feels like a Marvel “What If” story — What if Spider-Man™ showed up a few years later than he did? — allowed to flourish into full, wonderful character.

In the end, it is character that sets the best of the current Marvel movies apart, allowing them to overcome the strictures of Temkin’s complaint. Yes, we know Spidey can’t die, we know that New York won’t get toasted by the villains, and of course he’ll end up with MJ. But: will Peter, a naive teenager, willingly remain in Stark’s shadow (as he very much remains at the end of Civil War), or will he find a modicum of self-definition? I feel certain that my long love for this character encouraged to me care, but — thrilled by the topsy-turvy opening configuration — care I did, and I loved seeing Peter find his way through the question in Homecoming.

The film also breaks from formula in the way it ends. Going all the way back to 1989’s Batman, and up through the first two Maguire Spider-Man movies and beyond, the “big bad” super-villain inevitably straight-up dies at the end. Homecoming, aware of this grim tradition, raises the stakes by handing poor Spidey a reason to not let his nemesis get killed — not even ironically! No, not even as the result of his own hubris, the “oh well, I tried” excuse that has served silver-screen supers so well for so long! I feel it no spoiler to say that the villain, doomed from the start, tries his best to exeunt in this dully typical fashion just the same, and it falls on poor Peter to find a less explodey ending. And I thought that was pretty great, too.

I presented BumpySkies: A Passion-Project Postmortem at The Perl Conference 2017 in Alexandria, Virginia last month. It remixes my !!Con 2017 talk from May, adding five minutes of newer stuff at either end. In this 20-minute talk I tell more or less the complete tale of how I spent much of 2016 making BumpySkies, a commercial-flight turbulence forecaster. While it works just as I’d hoped, I kind of dunno what to do next with it — and the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the country that provides its data gives me concerns for its longevity that I didn’t have when I began the project.

For some reason, the sound recording came out very soft. You can still hear me speak if you crank your volume or use headphones, but I nevertheless created the following alternative version using Keynote’s recording feature. (It’s the same text and pictures as the TPC recording, just louder. I speak a bit more slowly, so it’s a little longer as well.)

And here’s a whole-slideshow PDF, with a slide-by-slide text transcript included. I see now that I should really save a text-only transcript, since my flipbookish presentation style doesn’t make this easy to read. I shall endeavor to do this in the future.

I really enjoyed TPC 2017, by the way, and hope to push out at least one however-belated blog post about what I learned there. First, though, I’m going to watch all the keynote presentations I missed, via the conference’s YouTube channel; I had a client emergency explode on the event’s first day, and ended up missing a lot of the in-person content.

The next major tech conference I plan to attend is All Things Open, this October in Raleigh, where I shall present nothing at all, because all of the above’s enough for this year. I suspect that two mutually different talks in one year, even on the same topic, represents one too many for me. I loved putting the initial !!Con talk together, but making the TPC version felt like a real drag — even though it came out well — and explains in part my blogging very little last month. As I say in that very talk, building things tends to fire me up far more than just describing things.