Ada the cat, September 2008

Ten days ago, my wife and I had our cat euthanized, hours after she started a clear and rapid decline from the heart disease whose inexorable progress we had tracked for years. For all those months, Ada worked around her own failing health, still taking interest in the usual cattish things even as her body gradually allowed for fewer of them. But on that last day, after an evening of avoiding eye contact with me while struggling through increasingly labored breathing, she padded into the kitchen after midnight, looked up at me, and meowed.

Something passed between us. I will always remember it. The memory of that ragged meow will forever live next to the memory of the soft animal sound my mother made when she saw my father for the last time, the cry of a creature that knows it has come to an ending. I woke up my wife and we put our coats on.

The presence of Ada’s absence lingers long, with a weight. When I round any corner of our little apartment, I subconsciously check around for the cat. If a coat is crumpled on a chair a certain way, my breath will catch. Just now I rose from bed to write this, because I couldn’t convince my whole sad brain that she didn’t lie on the mattress just out of sight, over the hill of my sleeping wife’s hip. I stretched out my arm to brush the cold, flat blanket there. Twice, at least.

Two days ago, at my wife’s request, I picked through every photograph I have taken over the cat’s lifetime, which is to say every photograph I have taken while my wife and I have lived together. These time-spans correspond. The task let me better understand why, perhaps, losing Ada has felt like such an ongoing ache. Whether we realized it or not, she was the mascot for the household my partner and I keep together, and the shared external spark we have carried with us through all our house-moves since then.

When I was twelve, we put to sleep Gi-Gi the dog, many years my senior and with whom I shared a best-case childhood-pet relationship. I recall the sadness of the day, and I also recall feeling like I had passed through a necessary ordeal of growing up. It felt natural, like moving forward. Losing Ada doesn’t feel like this at all. It feels only like loss, that a little animal so subtly definitional to our human relationship should leave us.

The first of the photographs depicts four-year old Ada a few days after we adopted her. It shows her moments after she first decided to stop cowering behind these strangers’ couch, and come lie down on the couch instead. The last photograph also shows Ada lying down, eight years later, but not alone. The three of us are tumbled into bed together, nobody at a flattering angle, an awkward composition forced by my urge to take a poorly lit self-portrait anyway, and only a month ago. You can’t see Ada’s eyes, but you can clearly see the shape of her black-furred head and face. A cat-eared negative space in the foreground, her two human companions fading into the back.

We’re not devastated. With plenty of foreknowledge, we prepared for her departure, and we’ll move on together as surely as I did after Gi-Gi. We have dozens more photographs between those two, which will assist with her life’s transformation into soft and happy memories. Today, though, and for a time more, I must allow Ada to exist, achingly, as a thing missing.

Ada the cat, December 2016

A fog knife, via 48north.com

When I launched this blog two years ago, I wouldn’t let myself believe I’d attend to it with any regularity, and as such didn’t spend much energy on thinking of a title. So “jmac’s blog” it was, with the URL blog.jmac.org. An acceptable URL, but a terrible, forgettable not-title. With my first post of 2017, I change both.

During several summers of the previous decade, I’d spend a week guesting at a lodge on an island in Downeast Maine. This lodge had built up all sorts of decor over many decades as its ownership passed from one generation to the next. Among my favorite such artifacts was a blobby wooden plank hanging on one wall, about the size of my forearm, labeled FOG KNIFE. With an apparent handle and straps, it suggested use as a hand-held tool, but its blunt, round “teeth” with large and carefully bored holes made its utility entirely unclear. It certainly didn’t look suitable for cutting anything, and what did fog have to do with it? I remember searching on the web for it while sitting underneath it, and finding no clues.

According to the one article I can find today, the artifact exists primarily as a prop for prankish mariners: build a fog knife according to spec and hang it on your wall (just as I’d seen), and then wait for the inevitable questions about it from curious and gullible friends — a contract I apparently failed to fulfill. If I had, goes this article, then the knife’s owner would have described in all seriousness the knife’s usefulness for carving out and lifting away wedges of fog around one’s boat, as a handy aid to visibility.

Since I never did ask about it, the fog knife instead came to represent to me a tool of certain existence but uncertain application. And so it struck me this past week as a wholly appropriate title for this blog, which I feel compelled to keep sinking hours into every week or so despite entirely murky rewards.

Thank you for reading. I will keep writing.

(Technical note: All older URLs leading to individual articles on this blog should continue to work, quietly forwarding to the appropriate page on the new domain. Furthermore, existing RSS subscriptions should work without modification.)

Charlie Stross has a reputation among science fiction authors as one of that community’s most outspoken critics of interplanetary travel. Any dreams about humans permanently colonizing any world but Earth, he maintains, foolishly ignores how every part and process of our bodies has evolved for complete interdependence with every aspect our home planet, well beyond obvious stuff like gravity and oxygen. You can’t just pop a plexiglas bubble on your head and fly to the stars like a cartoon spaceman; bereft of the only environment nature designed it for, your body will fail in short order. Literal extensions of the planet they evolved on, fragile humans simply cannot live anywhere but here.

The Stross viewpoint came to mind repeatedly as I read Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. The book surveys modern science’s rapidly growing understanding of microbiology, with a particular focus on the microbiome: the island-universe that each and every person and animal on earth becomes for invisible creatures beyond number. (Before reading this book, I don’t think I’d heard it expressed that an adult human hosts more microbes than there exist stars in our galaxy, and by many orders of magnitude.) And within my own lifetime-so-far, the role of microbes vis-à-vis animals has itself evolved from filth that lurks everywhere and sometimes makes us sick to an elemental presence wholly intertwined with the development and sustenance of complex terrestrial life (and which sometimes makes us sick).

You, and every friend you have with a spinal cord, evolved in a world caked with microbes, and you all carry this forward by allowing them to thoroughly colonize every inch of your outside-world interface — not just your visible parts, but down the ducts and tubing of your nose, your mouth, and all your miles of guts. In the gut especially, evolution has designed many of our most crucial life-sustaining processes to invite the inevitable little darlings to make themselves at home and help us help them in the most literally symbiotic ways, while also making sure they keep out of deeper tissues where they’d only cause trouble. Anywhere we go, they gotta come with us. We can’t live without them.

Beyond that, in our roles as microbiomes, we really do live second lives as different worlds. While all humans carry the same broad categories of bugs, we are all so different in the details, the makeup of our teeming trillions unique to each of us. The “flavor” of our tiny symbionts likely influences our relationship, our interfacing, with the outside world at least as much as our genetics. And on that note, with especial delight did I read about horizontal gene transfer. Microbes, far too simple for something as mechanically involved as sex, instead play in Darwin’s great game by just casually passing their DNA back and forth. It struck me as a squishy biological version of quantum mechanics, the rules about how mutation and evolution works breaking down and getting weird when viewed at a sufficiently small scale.

Through HGT, fecal-transplant therapy (about which this book holds a whole chapter), and other microbe-specific wonders lies dizzying future potential, one where we encourage the strains in our bodies to learn new tricks that also benefit we-their-hosts. Yong interviews scientists who let themselves imagine a twenty-years-on time when we might ingest tailored microbial sachets that reprogram our gut-buddies to boost our health and eat our diseases. Somewhat ironically, I can’t deny finding this idea cleaner than the still-foretold future of injected nanobots picking the plaque from our arteries and so on. How elegant, to retrain the living tools we were all quite literally born into, rather than reinventing them from scratch.

This week I published to GitHub the source code and assets of my iPad adaptation of Sixis, a clever little dice game designed by my friend Chris Cieslik and published by Asmadi Games. I made this edition available in the iOS App Store between 2012 and 2016, but with digital sales falling below the break-even point, Asmadi and I agreed to wrap it up this year and share the source with the world. (The physical game remains available directly from the publisher, and I might suggest that it makes a nice stocking-stuffer for seven bucks.)

In truth, I allowed my $100-per-year subscription to the Apple development club to lapse this past summer, meaning that neither iPad-Sixis nor any of my other apps have appeared in the App Store for months. I have no plans to bring any of them back. I made passing mention of my turning away from iOS development in this blog before, and that position holds true today.

In the early years of this decade I felt very interested in iOS development. My iPhone plays as large a role in my life as any other body part, then as now, and my head swam with possibilities. I would end up making a handful of apps, and I used to have a website that boasted about them. I don’t any longer, since not only have I moved on from these projects for the usual reasons, but the platform itself has moved on from them too. I would have to put significant, regular attention into making sure those apps continue to work every time iOS changed, a cost at least as high as the $100 annual fee. This year I concluded it no longer worth it to me, and as such the apps — in complied, ready-to-use form, at least — have vanished forever, their App Store entries pruned away the moment I declined to re-up my dues.

Beyond regularly updating iOS itself in unforeseeable ways, Apple’s control over every element of iOS development soured me after my first year within the program. It’s much less the narrowness involved — I actually quite enjoyed using XCode, for all its being the only IDE option available — than the company’s tendency to dictate sweeping, capricious changes with each annual update. I learned the ropes of iOS app-building (and initially published Sixis) in 2012, but by 2013 I already felt frustrated at changes I had to make to all my published work so that it would continue to function in the radically changed visual environment of that year’s iOS version 7. In the three years since then, Apple has gone so far as to completely change the programming language it primarily supports, from Objective-C to Swift.

I do hear nice things about Swift, but I had already moved on by then, and I have no plans to return. I will never develop natively for iOS again, unless I have an immediate and inarguable financial reason for it. Maybe BumpySkies will start begging for a native app, but until then, I will keep that project — like everything else I work on — web-only. I will continue to take my programming tools old, boring, and stable as hell. New frameworks and techniques built upon ancient, open, standard technology might appear, and I shall feel free to adopt them from time to time, but only after they’ve proven themselves by building wide, self-sustaining user communities through merit. Not through corporate fiat.

Trump-related predictions I have offered in this blog have had a rather shaky record of coming to pass. I predicted that Trump would switch, post-primaries, from brutal dominance games to an emphasis on untenable promises, and that didn’t happen. In another post, I urged preparation for a possible Trump victory, but made it clear that I considered it more an exercise in disaster-readiness than in bracing for the inevitable.

Within that latter post, convinced by arguments of various learned people on Twitter, I stated my surety that a Trump victory would presage an immediate and devastating stock market crash. More than a month after the terrible event, it has become clear that the market reacted exactly in the opposite manner, so far. I also speculated there that a Trump victory would commence two terrifying months of feeling like a person trapped on a crashing airplane. In reality — for me, at least — this feeling did come, but it lasted only until the following day’s sunrise. Like many, many others, I immediately started seeking ways to define my own contribution to the coming years of anti-autocratic resistance. With this came more resolute hope and a stronger feeling of control than I would have predicted.

In this way, I have at least kept the promises I made to myself on this blog. One of those promises was I will seek out movements keeping American hope alive. Not explicitly stated, but which I now understand as implied by it: I will find my leaders. And right now, as Jeet Heer has lamented, the new American resistance moment lacks overall leadership. I hope that it will come, and I do not know where it will come from.

But I have a hope that it just might come from Barack and Michelle Obama, shortly after the former steps down from the presidency next month.

Many friends expressed disappointment that President Obama did not use the opportunity of his final 2016 press conference, held last Friday, to do something extreme in the name of rescuing American democracy: denounce the election as false, perhaps, or even declare a halt to the orderly transition of power to his elected successor. Part of me wanted to see that too, but I didn’t expect it. It would have been entirely out of character to the most subtle and nuanced U.S. president of my lifetime to flip the table like that. I do not think, however, that this means that the president plans to do nothing at all.

I have since the start of this year said every now and again how much I have looked forward to seeing what Barack Obama’s post-presidential career will look like. When I first said it, I felt sure that he and his family would start their next chapter against a backdrop of continued progressive leadership, which seemed all but certain at the time. I still mean it now, but with an entirely different tenor: I hope to see them emerge, grimly, as de facto leaders of a national movement of resistance against a nihilistic authoritarian kleptocracy.

Despite my questionable track record of casual political predictions, I feel strong about this one. Not just because I want it to happen, but because I have zero expectation that the Obamas personally desire to fade away into the brush-clearing obscurity favored by most American presidents of my acquaintence. They took office young, and they’re young yet. I think — I hope — that they will help us come together and fight to keep the nation and the world together.

We saw this movie a couple of weeks ago, after I had a bad day and needed an escape. That’s what I got, even if the various early scenes of global turmoil in the face of species-wide fear and uncertainty felt especially raw right now, given everything. We both loved it, and we talked about it for days afterwards. We talked about it more with friends at a party we attended yesterday. This movie affected us.

Amy accompanied me as a favor, expecting something emptily nerdy, but found herself delighted at an achingly human story of choice and consequence that mirrored the classical tragedies she holds dear. It reminded her especially of Oedipus Rex, and on reflection it seems on one level like its antithesis: Amy Adams’ character chooses to accept the future foretold rather than fight against it, and all the beauty of the film flows from this decision, even with the pain that accompanies it. Looked at through that lens, another friend remarked that it demonstrated an eastern philosophy of embracing hurt versus the more western stance of raging resistance, and showed how this gives an ending of subtle grace rather than tearful irony.

Beyond its objective aesthetic, the film felt all the more deeply personal to us from coincidental resonance with recent trauma, as smaller-scale as you can get from the either horrors in the news or the tragedy that the movie’s characters face. Days before we saw Arrival, we had a harrowing weekend with our cat, and we too found ourselves making some difficult decisions about a little loved one in the face of inevitability.

Something had gone wrong inside Ada, the week prior, and her belly had inflated like a warm water ballon. She didn’t seem terribly bothered by this, and we had a full Thanksgiving travel-schedule, so we waited until Friday afternoon before seeing the vet — who reacted with alarm. They didn’t know what had happened within Ada, but an x-ray revealed a terribly enlarged heart, and drawing a sample of the strange fluid revealed it as mixed with blood. It seemed something like heart failure, which in cats often expresses itself with the appearance of a choking fluid, but almost always in the chest, interfering with the lungs. Its presence in the abdomen — where it just sat, vaguely annoying the cat at worst — perplexed the vet, but did not lessen their concern.

Ada had a history of heart problems, and despite all the special medicine and attention we’d given this middle-aged cat over the last couple of years, her vet feared that we now witnessed the beginning of her end — even if a little off-script. They gave us a choice: rush her to a trauma vet elsewhere in the state, or euthanize her immediately, while she still felt comfortable and ignorant of what was likely a rapidly progressing disease. Thunderstruck, we chose the former option, if for no other reason than to give us more time to process all this.

After three days full of frequent consultation with the frank and caring professionals there, the animal hospital discharged Ada, shaken and shivering from all the places they had to shave her fur for ultrasounds and IV insertions, and to drain that fluid away. The doctor assigned to her puzzled out her strange case as the heart failure her primary vet feared, just expressing itself in a remarkably rare fashion (and one that proved far less painful to the cat, in a stroke of cold comfort.) Ada came back to us, but with a poor prognosis, a more complex medical regimen than ever, and a written list of all the possible final failure states likely to find her in the too-near future. And we took her back in, and as I write this we still hold her.

We could have let her go, at the start of all that, and spared her the pain — however brief — that probably crouches in her future. (To say nothing of the extra expense in attention and money that we have chosen to take on.) But keeping her with us, letting her live in love and comfort until her inarguable last moments, felt right, even though every person involved can clearly see that our little one does not have a long future. Over and after that weekend, Amy and I would spontaneously reassure each other that we were making the right choice, and we couldn’t help but see the film — and the choices made by its main character — as a beautiful, accidental affirmation.

For the foreseeable future, I will avoid referring to myself as a “hacker” in civilian contexts. This despite it still serving as the most apt label for my relationship with software and its creation, far moreso than more clinical terms like “developer” or “programmer”. I have for some time now introduced myself as a “freelance software engineer” when applicable, enough to have gotten over the strangeness of its mouth-feel. Maybe “software toolsmith” or the like when feeling feisty. But, no more “hacker”.

I have thought of myself as a hacker ever since reading The New Hacker’s Dictionary, Eric Raymond’s expanded print edition of the Jargon File, in 1998. Read during a directionless post-graduate period of my life, that book — as well as Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs — made me yearn for a career in software. The books set out a definition of “hacker” that sang to me: one who participates in a community of smart, creative people who find joy in making computers not just solve other peoples’ problems, but also accomplish wonderful things in new and amazing ways. Raymond’s essay defining a typical hacker today reads like the naive, decades-ago artifact that it is, but it resonated so strongly with me — naive and decades-ago, myself! — that I immediately internalized it. I like to believe that my personal implementation of the hacker identity has matured along with the rest of me, in all the years since. Its label to one side, I have grown around my hacker-ness, and have no desire to discard it.

In New Hacker’s Dictionary, Raymond also railed against the long-standing criminal connotations that “hacker”, whose etymology dated back to the origins of software itself, had become burdened with. He urged readers who identified with the term’s original meaning to take it back, wearing the label with pride. For many years, I did just that, and I believe that it served me all right, even when I knew it caused some confusion in public.

Today, though, popular use of the word has swerved swiftly and deeply in a negative direction. Recent news articles use the term — for lack of any better one — to describe not mere petty thieves or miscreants, but enemy combatants, operatives of hostile foreign-national powers engaged quite literally in attacking and damaging my own, real, not-a-video-game country. I don’t blame the news media for this, as I might have in the 1990s. They’re using the best language they have to cover a rapidly changing situation. (Raymond’s suggestion of “cracker” to replace the criminal definition of “hacker” never caught on, alas.)

I struggle to invent a simile describing how this feels. Perhaps as if I belonged to a group of creative professionals that affectionally referred to its more skilled members as “robbers” or “gunmen”, and then suddenly waking up to how strange that sounded outside of the circle. But even that doesn’t get to the extremely fraught and newly fear-invoking weight the word carries today, at least among Americans. “Guerillas”, perhaps? “Saboteurs”? But at any rate, I want nothing to do with any of it. I reserve the right to continue calling myself a hacker when among my fellow hackers. Out in the larger world, though, I shall for the sake of clarity and social tranquility use equally correct but blander terms.

Inspired by certain recent events, I last month joined the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of two climate-defense organizations (along with the Natural Resources Defence Council) which multiple friends recommended as worthy of my regular financial support. Yesterday they emailed their membership urging action against Trump’s disturbingly nihilistic proposal that Scott Pruitt, an avowed foe of the Environmental Protection Agency, should lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

This email energized me, because if you got all your news from reading my Twitter timeline, you’d have thought Pruitt’s appointment a done deal, an unstoppable act of Trumpian fiat. I found myself immediately hungry to help push back however I could while the opportunity remained. So, this afternoon, perhaps feeling a bit at loose ends with my week’s major task behind me, I did something quite uncharacteristic: I called the offices of my three congresspeople.

(Quick American civics lesson: U.S. citizens typically have exactly three people representing them in Congress. Two senators represent their state of residence, and their congressional district — a geographic slice of their state — has one member within the House of Representatives. I’m sure that many exceptions and edge cases exist against this pattern, but as a perfectly ordinary full-time resident of Rhode Island, mine is the typical setup.)

I used, as goad and guide, the excellent article “Shy Person’s Guide to Calling Representatives” from the Action Friday blog. It makes the case for calling your representatives instead of tweeting at or emailing them, even if you hate using the telephone as much as I do. It proceeds to help prepare you for the call, advising you to treat it as two-minute mission to get yourself on-record as a constituent with a precise concern, with no dreadful requirement to have an actual conversation with anyone.

And so I began with this tool by the National Priorities project to find out my reps’ names and websites. Visiting their respective homepages, I marked down the phone numbers for their offices in Washington DC, and noted other immediately salient facts. (I quickly learned that David Cicilline, for example, prefers the title “Congressman” for himself, versus “Representative” or what have you.) Then I used Inogolo to find out how to pronounce Congressman Cicilline’s name, as well as Scott Pruitt’s. And then I wrote a little script in triplicate, which looked like this:

Hello, I’m Jason McIntosh, a constituent of Congressman Cicilline, and I’m calling about a concern that I have?

I would like to urge the congressman to oppose the appointment of Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator.

::

Hello, my name is Jason McIntosh, I’m a constituent of Senator Reed, and I’m calling about a concern that I have?

I would like to urge the senator to oppose the appointment of Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator.

::

Hello, my name is Jason McIntosh, I’m a constituent of Senator Whitehouse, and I’m calling about a concern that I have?

I would like to urge the senator to oppose the appointment of Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator.

Then, I made my calls. All three of them went like this:

PERSON ANSWERING PHONE: Good afternoon, [name of congressperson]’s office.

ME: Hello, my name is Jason McIntosh, I’m a constituent of [name of congressperson], and I’m calling about a concern that I have?

ANSWERER: I can certainly pass along a message to the [title of congressperson], go ahead. (Or some variant of this.)

ME: I would like to urge the senator to oppose the appointment of Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator.

ANSWERER: I will let the [title of congressperson] know.

In two cases, my interlocutor followed up by asking for my mailing address; in the third, they let me know that the senator had coincidentally released a statement on this topic earlier this week. In every case, with all that business settled, I said “Thank you very much, goodbye,” and that was that.

So, all told, I found it no harder than ordering a pizza. I say this as someone who doesn’t like ordering pizza, or doing much of anything else by way of telephone. So, yeah, it was a little hard! But far from impossible. I feel very good about having made these calls, and can see myself doing it again. I share this tale in the hopes that it helps my fellow phone-shy citizens join me in overcoming their distaste in the interest of stronger civic action and resistance.

A full year after starting work on it, I’ve launched BumpySkies, a free, web-based turbulence forecast tool for most any upcoming flight within the continental United States*. I’ve been talking about writing a book for my fellow nervous fliers for some time, but it turns out that this is what I had in me instead: an interactive tool to help both them and me manage our fears.

Inevitably, I launched a blog for BumpySkies as well. Please follow that site for updates specific to the service. I reserve the right to continue writing on my jmac.org blog regarding subjects interestingly tangential to BumpySkies but not necessarily of direct concern to its users.

Its still-notional users, to be sure. After the formal, press-release-laden launch of my last major project (ably assisted by co-founders far more versed in public relations than I), it felt right to take the route of the soft launch for BumpySkies. I may have swung its front doors wide open today, and tweeted a few tweets in its name, but I’ve otherwise spent no energy on the problem of letting the public know that it exists. I feel comfortable enough in both its value and its uniqueness that I don’t feel immense pressure to shift immediately into full-time PR mode for it — but I do intend to start evangelizing it, after a short break.

My starry-eyed visions for BumpySkies’ future involve its feature-set expanding to cover more topics of interest to harried air passengers, as well as methods for me and mine to draw an income from it. I feel lucky to know many smart people with whom I’ve already begun imagining some possible paths, all with the goal of keeping the basic turbulence-forecasting both free to use and free of annoying, ineffective advertising. But before any of that, we’ve got to make sure we have a service that many people want to use, and come back to again and again because it does what it says and does it well. For the first time in my umpteen years as an independent creator of web-based tools, I think I’ve built something for myself with more than nerd-niche appeal. Let’s see where it goes.

* BumpySkies also includes flights between the U.S. and other countries’ airports, though it can’t provide forecasting for any point far outside of continental U.S. borders. I have decided to just abbreviate this as “flights within the continental United States” and let its limited support for international-flight forecasting remain a mildly happy surprise for users to discover.

I read it twice, in fact: first as an elegant little volume translated by the American poet Brooks Haxton, and then again on Wikisource, based on a 1912 translation and maintained by the website’s omninonymous hivemind.

The former put the fragments’ original Greek on facing pages, letting me feel smart as I sought and found “λόγος” or “Πυθαγόρας” or whatnot when their English counterparts appeared. Haxton also accompanies the work with notes about choices he made regarding ordering and omission, as well as straight translation.

Wikisource’s collection orders (and numbers) the fragments wholly differently; if it (or its original translator, John Burnet) followed any philosophy in doing so, it does not share it. To its credit, though, the Wikisource version included (in a very in-character flourish) a citation for every fragment, naming the post-Heraclitus work that originally embedded it, unwittingly saving that little piece of Mr. H’s work from the pre-Socratic oblivion that otherwise swallowed all his work whole.

This helped give me a deeper understanding of the Fragments’ true nature, at least as far as their physicality. Having watched a lot of movies and played a lot of games featuring tomb-robbing treasure-hunters and such, I read Haxton’s book with an ignorantly literal notion of the fragments: little bits of ancient parchment, no doubt crisped at the edges, that some brave priest had fished from the ashes of Alexandria and then stored in a cinematically appropriate strongbox, perhaps! But, no, what survives is not crumbling ancient artifacts but memes, in the original sense. Pure information poured from the original, long-lost vessel of Heraclitus’ On Nature, and put to work in other contexts — yet still retaining enough strength and coherence to maintain a single identity and source, despite its dilution across dozens of derivations, and hundreds of years.

That must have been some pretty powerful stuff!

In another sense, I don’t feel that I read the Fragments at all, so much as visited them for the first time, touring them for a bit. They don’t really strike me as something to fully comprehend by simply reading in sequence, no matter now much work translators past and present have put into tweaking and arranging them to juice up their thematic flow. The fact remains that each fragment has been removed from context twice over — first by the ancient writers who quoted the even-more-ancient Heraclitus in order to illustrate an example or prove a larger point in their own work, and then again by the act of gathering all these quotations into a single collection, heedless of the middlemen’s own various uses.

I can share a particular aspect that did stay with me. I loved glimpsing, through the Fragments’ cloudy window, a world that saw itself literally — not metaphorically — comprising the four classical elements. Heraclitus wrote much of the play among earth, air, water, and fire, but the latter element seemed to earn his fascination — or, at least, earned his most memorable writing, such that his intellectual descendants so often quoted his thoughts on fire. I squint through the fragments and I see one observing the human world as based on earth, spread out under air, and surrounded by water — but which fire consumes, and which consumes the fire in turn. Hints of fire as both ultimate motive and ultimate fate, as well as the fuel for the whole journey in between.

A proper reading, I reckon, would involve deep, slow interaction: meditating on one fragment per day, perhaps, or trying one’s own hand at reordering or even remixing them, seeing what new tones and meanings might emerge. Over one brief tour, I feel I spent enough time with the Fragments to feel a shadow of the power that’s kept them preserved for millennia. Probably worth owning my own copy of them; if I did it for aha! Insight I can do it with this too.