A twitch notification appears in my Slack!

I wanted to set up one of my social Slacks such that a notification would automatically appear in the main chat-channel when I, or another of our circle of friends, started broadcasting gameplay on Twitch. I got it working, more or less! You’ll need a certain level of nerdcraft to follow the path I found, including access to a Linux server and knowledge of crontasks.

I could find no official integrations between Twitch and Slack, but I easily found multiple pages of GitHub projects claiming to do fill this need. Most have no documentation. Of those that do, the only one that I could get to work is Jeremy Bernard’s twitch-to-slack, albeit after some struggling. It requires a more recent version of Node.js than Debian — my preferred Linux distribution — makes easily available through its standard package manager. Happily, a friend taught me about NodeSource, which offers some Node-upgrading incantations specifically for Debian, and that got me on-track quite nicely.

Configuring the program presented a bit of a puzzle as well, but I managed to piece together the disparate advice from several of these half-baked projects’ README.md files into this list of steps:

  1. Register your instance of the script as a new application with Twitch.

    When filling out this registration form, I found, one needn’t have a meaningful value for the “Redirect URI”; twitch-to-slack performs no authorization magic. I just wrote my personal URL in there, to no ill effect. And I selected “Chat Bot” as my application category.

    At any rate, Twitch will reward you with a “Client Secret” string, which you’ll need, so copy it somewhere.

  2. Add an “incoming webhook” to your Slack. Follow the prompts via the Slack website, and land eventually on a screen that provides you with a Webhook URL. You’ll need to copy this down, too.

  3. Per the twitch-to-slack documentation, copy the file config.json.example to config.json.

  4. Paste the Twitch Client Secret you generated earlier, in double quotes, as the value for this new JSON file’s “clientToken” key.

  5. Paste the Slack Webhook URL you generated earlier, in double quotes, as the value for the “slackHookUrl” key.

  6. Set the file’s “chaineID” value to a JSON-formatted array of Twitch user IDs you wish to track. For example, ["jmacdotorg", "asmadigames" ].

  7. Set “notificationOnStatusChange” to true.

And that should do it. You can test the script on the command line by running nodejs index.js while inside the twitch-to-slack directory. You can temporarily set the “chaineID” array to contain the ID of any currently-online Twitch channel — if all else is well, then a notification should show up within the Slack channel you specified back when you set up the webhook. (While testing, you may wish to aim the webhook to a private channel that only you can see, so as not to spam other Slack users.)

Once you feel satisfied that the script works as intended, set up a crontask to run the script regularly. I have my server simply run nodejs /path/to/twitch-to-slack/index.js every minute. It does get confused every so often, mailing me a random dirty-data error a few times per week, but not so much I feel bothered to try fixing it. It otherwise works just as it should.

Good luck, and happy broadcast-notifying!

The road to The North

I didn’t recognize this delightful novella by Kij Johnson as Lovecraft homage until nearly the end, when I looked up the name of a strange creature mentioned within, and discovered its original appearance in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. From there, surprised, I learned of all the connections between the two century-separated stories. Johnson does not mean to deceive; she names the original work in her book’s acknowledgements, and makes clear her motivation for setting the story in the older book’s world. She writes of a desire to “make adult sense” of a personally formative work she loved as a child, in spite of its transparent racism and its utter lack of female characters.

The territory that Johnson borrows from Lovecraft is “the Dreamlands”, a dimension which appears to be knit by men — and men, specifically — dreaming a certain boys-own-adventure dream in resonance. The sky resembles a rippling, patchwork quilt, highly intelligent housecats travel with agendas, and all the world’s people fear an unseen but very real pantheon of childish, squabbling gods. In one corner of this land, tucked away like the Shire, Vellitt Boe teaches at a women’s college. A student, the daughter of an important patron, elopes with one of the dreaming outsider-men, promising ruin the the college (either basely financial or divinely wrathful) if not amended immediately. And so Boe, herself a retired adventurer, straps on her kit and grimly sets out to retrieve the runaway.

Seen through Boe’s eyes, the Dreamlands resemble a world that only grudgingly accepts notions of gender equality, and without letting go of thoroughly male-dominated hegemony. This comes in part, it seems, because men vastly outnumber women in the Dreamlands — something that Johnson layers on to Lovecraft’s vision to explain certain discrepancies in hindsight. Of course, it doesn’t feel at all difficult to draw parallels between Boe’s trek through her fantastic landscape and a real-life woman’s mundane travels. Her perspective reminded me strongly of that of the protagonist in Charlie Stross’s The Annihilation Score, also a middle-aged woman, and who just like Boe finds herself struggling to belong to the only world she has even as it renders her increasingly invisible.

For all this, Dream-Quest keeps its focus on Boe’s quest, larger than this one burden she carries, however constant. Assisted perhaps by my accidental lack of expectations stemming from my unfamiliarity with the source work, I loved the whole strange, engaging adventure, whose satisfying conclusion I arrived at in a single sitting. The author makes clear her own lifelong admiration of Lovecraft’s surreal settings — and the weird creatures and cultures that populate it, both above and beneath the earth — and deploys them with such an original and interesting voice that, as I said, I had no idea until the end that I read a remix.

The other facet that stood out notably (in that I took notes about it) involved Boe’s obsession with her own age. Perhaps understandably, having not rambled through the Dreamlands in decades, she sees at every step visions of young Vellitt, incandescent with beauty and foolish confidence. She thinks constantly about the differences between that woman and her present self. In the middle of her adventure, she reconnects with an old flame, but realizes with distaste that he sees her as she was, now how she is. Does Boe realize the irony of her (not unrightfully) rebuffing him, when she lets herself carry the very same delusion? Perhaps so, and maybe that helps her better accept her particular transformation at the end of her quest.

The road to The North

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad presents its prologue and opening act as straight historical fiction, introducing us to young Cora, born on an antebellum Georgia cotton plantation, the daughter of its only successful escapee. After years of enduring the plantation’s dehumanizing tortures and privations, she embraces her inherited inevitability, stealing off with two other slaves to a rumored safe-house. And here, the novel plays with divergence: the Underground Railroad of Cora’s world exists as a literal subway line, coal-fired locomotives groaning through vast, dark tunnels. The abolitionists risking their lives to act as this railroad’s station agents feel modeled on history, while the stations beneath their homes, and the engineers manning the trains, exist in a surreal half-reality that reminded me of the “Red Room” dream sequences from Twin Peaks.

Through this mechanism, Cora slips between alternate-history views of the United States before emancipation. Each stop on the line carries her to a new state and — it seems — to a neighboring reality as well. South Carolina, here, has somehow become a free state, but its white hegemony still manages to see its black population as a problem to study and solve. Cora, reluctantly, must move on. North Carolina is neither a slave nor a free state, instead opting to bar all blacks from its borders — as well as any whites who would harbor them — on pain of public execution. And if Railroad’s Tennessee has achieved a measure of racial equality, it comes at the cost of universal diminishment, its blasted lands ravaged by fire and plague on an otherworldly scale.

Cora travels through all these states, arrives at a coda elsewhere, and then moves on from that as well. While she does meet friends and allies, Cora is hounded and harried in all these places, without rest, by a society that wants to destroy her. She has committed the crime of stealing herself, and so must run and fight like hell to protect her most personal property from a world which, whether through means overt or insidious, refuses to acknowledge that Cora belongs to Cora alone.

This reading puts me in the mind of Ta-Nahisi Coates, who also writes of the black American experience from a viewpoint that must begin with slavery — an evil whose soul survived emancipation, living on within the pervasively institutional racism that still thrives today. But Coates, like Whitehead, wrote his book before Trump’s election, and one cannot avoid feeling tightly contemporary resonances running through The Underground Railroad. The narrative of a woman fighting for her own bodily autonomy carries a new urgency, of course. As I write this, social media carries reports of American immigration agents breaking up families and deporting life-long residents, and — dizzyingly — I read of refugees fleeing the perils of America for Canada, for the uncertain safety of The North.

All of which challenges one to ask: What state do you live in?

I heard of this book in the most uncanny fashion, its author receiving mainstream acclaim for it just as I finished reading The Noble Hustle, a short and wryly self-effacing account of his brief go at the World Series of Poker. I picked up that book at random from my local library’s stacks because I wanted to read something about Poker, and that book looked new and short. I hadn’t heard of Colson Whitehead before, but his author photo let me know the book would count towards my ongoing mission to read more books by people besides white dudes. So I read and enjoyed it and then serendipity decreed that I would find myself suddenly awash in news features celebrating The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s brand new novel about the titular 19th century American abolitionist network. Okay!

You may find yourself in a situation where, in order to protect the private data on your phone — as well as the data on all the services accessible from your phone — from imminent seizure, you will need to erase that phone as quickly as possible. In such a situation, you may be unable to spare the attention necessary to fiddle around in the guts of your phone’s utility applications, hunting for its rarely used self-destruct command.

With a bit of foresight, you can set up your phone to allow erasing all your sensitive information without leaving its lock-screen — and then give you the ability to restore your data later.

  1. Set up your phone to back up its data regularly.
    • iPhone: In the Settings app, under iCloud, turn on backups. (You will need to set up an iCloud account if you don’t already have one associated with your phone.)
    • Android: (I don’t know! Feel free to tell me.)
  2. Set up your phone to erase itself after a certain number of incorrect password attempts.
    • iPhone: In the Settings app, under Touch ID & Password (or just Password on an older phone), turn on the Erase Data switch.
    • Android: (I don’t know! Feel free to tell me.)

Having done this, if you find yourself needing to make your phone’s data inaccessible quickly, you can lock it, then proceed to rapidly and repeatedly tap an incorrect unlock code — 1111, say — until you trigger the phone’s erasure. (Caveat: I haven’t tried deleting my own iPhone’s data this way, so I don’t know if one can expect having to navigate past “You’re about to erase this phone” dialogs or the like, as well.)

When your phone and your attention have both returned to your full control, you can get yourself to a Wi-fi spot and restore its data from its most recent backup. (On iPhone, this option clearly presents itself from a just-erased phone’s setup process.) You can also continue using your phone in its “factory-fresh” state in between its erasure and its restoration, but without access to your data you’ll have to (for example) manually enter your friends’ or family’s phone numbers in order to contact them. It may be a good idea, therefore, to complement this plan by carrying a few key phone numbers on a physical card that you carry separately in your purse or wallet.

I offer this advice as a white American who seldom crosses his country’s national border, such that I don’t feel it that this advice necessarily applies to myself today — but, reading the news, I have prepared my phone as I describe above just the same. I invite readers with different backgrounds or experiences than my own, and who wish to offer counter-narratives, to get in touch; I will amend this post as warranted.

Near and far.

When I launched my flight-turbulence prediction tool in December, I expected it to remain the focus of my attention through 2017. However, the global chaos that has followed Trump’s ascendency beckons me to shift my priorities. Surrounded by crises both suddenly shocking and subtly insidious, I can’t help but turn to less uncertainly entrepreneurial channels in order to assist the new American resistance.

BumpySkies won’t go anywhere, in the meantime. Having achieved minimum viable product, it has reached a sort of local minimum of stable utility; it does its one thing well, and requires little attention from me. I would love to turn BumpySkies into an income-generating venture, somehow, and I can see many paths to profitability I could start investigating — but any one such journey would require a very large personal investment in time and attention.

In the other timeline, I might have felt happy to begin this adventure immediately. In the world we have, though, I feel instead the call to return — at least for a while — to my consulting work, racking up a lot of billable hours and finding new but dependable routes for recurring project fees. I have, for the last couple of weeks, thrown myself into doing good work for my clients, approaching my professional relationships with renewed vigor.

This has meant that, on weekends when my friends and family have been marching in protests, I’ve stayed in my office, my head down over a hot text editor, refactoring code and writing automated test suites. And yet I march with them in spirit, because our goals are the same, and I have conviction that this method, indirect as it may seem, represents the best way I can assist the American resistance. I choose to trade away a larger slice of my time and attention for an activity that pays me well specifically so I’ll have more money to give away to causes I believe in, causes that will in turn help to keep my country and my world on-track.

A friend of mine told me recently that my new conviction resembles the philosophy known as effective altruism. Its Wikipedia entry describes that in rather specific terms, but also links to a related strategy simply called earning to give, which resonates immediately. Effective altruism, when practiced by the book, features an oddly passionless mandate for maximizing charitable efficiency — choosing, for example, malaria-prevention concerns over any charity of closer relevance to one’s own life, because money so applied will help far more people in measurably profound ways, dollar-for-dollar. Earning to give decouples this principle from the simpler pledge of pursuing the highest-paying career one can in order to tithe away a significant fraction for society’s good, leaving the specifics of targeting for the heart to decide.

What does my heart say? At present, there exist two major beneficiaries of my charitable giving; I have set up automated and sizable monthly donations to both. I reserve the right to adjust my sights in the future, but for now I like keeping to a strategy of having one near charitable recipient, whose actions lie close to home in terms of both location and time-span, and a far one concerning itself with long-term, world-wide issues. I do not mean to imply that these charities are the best, or even the most worthy within their spheres. They’re just the ones I give to right now.

ACLU. The near-term one, obviously. I last gave to them once the latter Bush administration grabbed the opportunity of a terrorist attack to enact its own abusive regime. If I recall correctly, I gave them a single gift of $100 — an amount commensurate with my financial status more than fifteen years ago. Today, I can afford to give more, and more often, and I do. Like countless others, I see its leading the swift legal fight to nullify Trump’s thoroughly un-American travel ban as immediate proof that I have invested wisely.

Union of Concerned Scientists. Prior to last November, I couldn’t have named a single politically active organization dedicated to legally challenging the forces who would keep the world ignorant about the threat posed by climate change. Now I know at least three. I learned about UCS first, and began monthly donations to it on November 9. I have since then encountered both EarthJustice and NRDC.

I may re-examine and rebalance my giving; UCS seems to emphasize communication and organization, and I may prefer supporting a group that favors direct action and legal challenges, in the same vein as ACLU. In any case, I find myself as frustratingly susceptible as anyone else to losing focus on climate change’s fearful, long-term promises when surrounded by closer crises of every kind. I very much want to support an organization that will pay attention to it — and act on it — in my stead. For now, UCS will do.

Robert Hooke's drawings of a pin's head and razor's edge as seen through a microcope

The first chapter of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, which I read late last year, reviews the start of humanity’s study of microorganisms, made possible with inventions like Leeuwenhoek’s microscope. These new technologies inspired the naturalists of the day, such as Robert Hooke, who dove hungrily into this new science of looking very closely at tiny things. Yong relates how Hooke gave a series of celebrated lectures on the topic for the Royal Society, which he later collected into a book titled Micrographia; the author noted in particular its beautiful and groundbreaking illustrations, drawn by Hooke himself.

Okay, thought I, and followed my impulse to pull out my phone and see if Rhode Island’s library system had a copy, and I’ll be damned. So some days later I brought home this small but heavy volume, a 1960s reprint on oddly thick, smooth paper of a 1920s edition which in turn precisely replicated the printing of something centuries-old, not re-set into modern type but preserving the block-printed appearance of an ancient book. Old enough for utterly unironic use of long esses throughout its text, and something else I’d never seen nor heard of before: every page ended with, in the lower-right margin, a preview of the next page’s first word. A checksum to help the book-binder get all the pages in the right order? I have no idea.

All of which made for quite a challenging book to actually try reading, so I approached it lightly, taking it only the gist of Hooke’s prologue and the text of his first couple of illustrated presentations, and then just content to flip through the promised pictures. With delight, I was able to extract Hooke’s spending many pages arguing that the reader accept the efficacy of the scientific method, of the value of creating new knowledge based on observation and experimentation — rather than merely faith, “common sense”, or received wisdom. This implied that this approach, which we learn today as essentially as eternal as science itself, held an uncertain novelty to the book’s learned contemporaries.

After that lengthy prologue, I unpeeled enough of the equally dense text around his first couple of illustrations to appreciate Hooke’s desire to punch up his topic by applying a narrative order to it. The first object he illustrates and describes is the tip of a pin, and the second is the edge of a razor — neither one the compound fly-eyes or finely haired flea-legs that inevitably serve as the book’s cover-worthy images. Hooke starts here, he writes in so many words, because he enjoys the idea of starting with objects that a reasonable person of the day might assume are manifestations of a geometrically perfect point and line, respectively.

Hooke then relishes his reveal, in both cases — not so! See: the microscope shows stunning imperfections in both. Under the apparatus, the pin-point appears as a crudely blunted mound, containing pits large enough to house bits of dust. The razor becomes a mere wedge, holding no more Pythagorean perfection than a door-stop. Both objects boast innumerable warps and scratches, all spotted with rust. The ineffable rendered ordinary, three-dimensional, and subject to the same mortality as all else on earth.

And that’s as far as I got. Really reading this book would require more study than I know I could reasonably give a book that my library card allowed me to keep for only a few weeks, so back in the return-bin it went. Still, a delightful adventure in chasing 17th century references in a 21st century book at a 20th century pace.

Two and a half years ago, the Ferguson street protests birthed two of the most amazing pure-American speech acts I have had the privilege to see develop. The hands up, don’t shoot gesture defies police violence by offering one’s own body up in what I can only call Christ-like aggression, and the Black Lives Matter movement — whose name is its message — has since become an ongoing, organized light shone on the violence of American systemic racism.

Given the hard rightward shift of highest-level American government since, with a White House publishing intentionally misleading statistics about crime on its website in order to stoke fear and potentially justify future police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement will play an increasingly prominent role. As its message becomes more immediately relevant, it and its participants will also face dangerous attention as a police-critiquing organization within an increasingly authoritarian environment. As such, it needs allies, and allies outside of the community of black Americans who lead it. It needs support from people with a degree of immunity from the racism that it stands against, and who can make themselves a buffer — physically, or informationally — between the movement’s central actors and outside forces that would do them harm. It needs white Americans to take its message up.

I considered adding more words to the title of this post, “advice to my fellow white people” or whatnot, but that would have gone against my reason for writing it. Unlike so many other gestures specific to a political movement tied to an oppressed group, the motto of the Black Lives Matter movement is one that anyone can take up, regardless of racial identity, without fear of accidentally skewing the message — so long as they practice a modicum of humility about it.

I can tell you about my own initial approach. While certainly no replacement for action, I do believe in the power of symbolic accoutrements: a low-wattage but constant broadcast of here I stand, and an ongoing talismanic reminder to oneself of one’s own convictions. I began after the election, reattaching the peace-sign lapel buttons I wore through the Bush years. This month, taking after a friend who stuck an array of new, post-election buttons on his shoulder bag, I added a Black Lives Matter sticker to my laptop, just as Jeff Sessions sailed through his senate confirmation hearings.

I found it on Amazon, after browsing through different variants, since the movement doesn’t seem to have a standard logo. Some, I noticed, added extra qualifiers to the three words, such as an “I’m white but I believe that…” preamble. And it struck me how some white folks who wish to represent the slogan might feel more comfortable hedging it that way. They may fear the possibility of appropriating a message that doesn’t belong to them, or inviting the spotlight upon themselves when they only (and rightfully) desire a supporting role with that particular fight. In this case, though, this level of caution doesn’t seem warranted.

When I present the three words without further adornment, they are clearly not about me, and I make no effort to suggest otherwise. The message on my laptop declares my acknowledgment of the ongoing struggle of black Americans to overcome the stubborn and destructive evil of systemic racism, while making no claims that it applies to my own predicaments (except, perhaps, as a long-unwitting beneficiary of unjust history and racist policy). Through the slogan’s simple specificity, it serves as a pointer to others’ struggle, one that I fear may face even more difficulties over the next few years. One way to support a struggle — especially one whose aggressor denies even to exist — is to bear public witness. I repeat the pointer.

And I can title this blog post that too, and it works just as well, for the same reasons.

Calling a statement a lie imbues it with malicious intent. You and I can easily refer to counterfactual utterances by those in power that way, but I would feel disappointed if the objective press started to do so, at least outside of its opinion pages.

While I absolutely support the resistance protocol of taking them at their word, and I will not for a moment disagree with the danger raised by their continuously reckless speech, I cannot feel certain that the new executive branch of the United States government knows what the heck they’re doing at any level. And I must fold into this the possibility that they believe what they say.

As such, I support the policy of the news media to call out the kakistrocracy’s falsehoods as such while carefully avoiding any word that implies motive, or declares the reporter’s knowledge of the speaker’s inner mind. Even when that word is so short, would fit so naturally in a headline, to the everlasting frustration of half my Twitter timeline.

Some of this view, I admit, might be grounded in personal history. When Trump speaks, I hear the cadences of my mother’s voice, and I have to accept that I probably find some comforting familiarity in this. At the address I gave at her funeral, I described how none of her surviving family knew anything about her early life, by dint of all her self-descriptive stories being mutually contradictory hogwash. But that’s only because I had the privileged position of hearing them all, over the years, and over countless shifting audiences and interlocutors. Right up to her death, she instantly befriended everyone she met, because she always knew exactly what to say to make the people right in front of her at that moment feel delighted, even loved, and eager to help her.

I don’t remember my mother as a liar. She was a fabulist. She cared only and ultimately for the health and success of her husband and children, and considered the whole world and all its facts and histories and people as entirely malleable in the service of making sure her family’s next step would be onto solid ground. She was very, very good at it. Without question, I benefited from it.

As her Alzheimer’s disease progressed, she found it increasingly easy to wholly reside in her own fiction, but I feel certain that she found ways to do that to some degree long before her illness took root. My mother lived in the worlds that she built, even as she built entirely new worlds with each new listener.

When I hear Trump tell the New York Times that he loves and supports them and thinks they are a jewel, and then hear him visit the CIA and declare that he loves and supports them and the lying media has terribly distorted their relationship, I can’t discount the possibility that both of these are true for him. I find it entirely likely that, as my mother did, he has long since moved beyond the idea of applying the same objective reality to every conversation.

And like my mother as well, this works only if you don’t hear everything he says. I overheard enough of my mother’s conversations to put two and two together, though it took a long time — well into my young adulthood — to realize the whole of it. Until the memory-decaying disease progressed to the point where individual conversation frames began to self-conflict, nobody who didn’t live with her had reason to find her charming stories suspect.

And as of a few days ago, Trump has the whole world scrutinizing everything far more than he has any experience with, calling out contradictions against both the objective world and all his past utterances the very moment he says anything (whether personally or via his surrogates). I can’t shake my assumption that the pattern he’s followed to personal wealth and success his whole life now starts to fail him, and how confusing and frustrating and scary that must feel. Like the only way he knows how to communicate has been taken from him.

I will probably call these utterances “lies” casually, sometimes. I certainly don’t mind if you do. But, I think, I feel too much pity in my heart to wish that newspaper headlines follow suit, even as it cheers me to see them get better at calling them false, harmful, wrong, and dangerous.

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.)