Photograph of the New York skyline.
Approaching New York City by rail, November 2019. Photograph by the author.

After waking up in New York City for the first time as a resident, and before sunrise, I stepped out for a coffee and promptly locked myself out of my apartment. But I had my wallet, my phone, and a warm coat, so took the opportunity to do a little exploring, killing time until my wife (a sound sleeper) woke up enough to answer my texts. I soon found myself strolling through beautiful Riverside Park, running down much of Manhattan’s western edge. Presently, early-bird joggers and dog-walkers made their appearance, but I still had a couple of hours to go, and my phone’s battery was too drained to let me just sit and scroll around the internet.

So, I did something I hadn’t done in a long long time: I greeted a street vendor who had just set up for the morning, and I bought a newspaper, on paper. And because I didn’t want to think about it, I went for the familiar, picking up the Sunday New York Times for six dollars.

Returning to a park bench, I pulled out the Metropolitan section with chilly fingers (I had not brought my gloves, alas) and proceeded to impress myself with my muscle-memory for these things, from my days as a journalism student and regular newspaper reader. You don’t just hold the entire newspaper open in front of your face, like someone in a cartoon, you know. Instead, you locate the page you want, then fold its section twice into a tidy little rectangle, comfortable and light enough to hold in one hand. You flip and unfold and re-fold the thing as needed while you navigate around, which serves to provide a nice sense of progress through the paper.

Beyond my pleasure of the newspaper as a fidget-toy, I read some good stuff, there in the local-news section on my first morning in the city. I read a feature about the entrenched political power held by New York City’s real estate industry, and how it found itself with its first credible threats in a generation by the ascent of the progressive left, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as its emblematic head. I also read about the city’s attempts to make lemonade out of a recent spate of store closures along its famous Fifth Avenue retail district by hiring artists to create whimsical holiday displays in otherwise abandoned shop windows. The article noted how these displays would not advertise any particular store or brand, something quite unusual in Fifth Avenue history.

Happily, my wife returned my texts just as I polished off that section, so — humming with pleasure at experiencing these two unexpected deep dives into New York’s cultural firmament — I lugged the rest of the thick paper home and ended up dipping into it all week. Every morning saw me in our new living room, sitting by the big ninth-floor window. The cats, also adjusting to New York life, lounged on the couch alongside me, watching flocks of pigeons in amazement as I flipped and folded my way through another section.

And I have had such a nice time of it that I became a Times subscriber by mid-week. This despite my past disagreements with the newspaper, canceling a long-held digital subscription after Trump’s election in favor of the Washington Post. This subscription does not represent a change of mind, in fact! Pointedly, I did not re-subscribe to the paper’s digital edition, nor to its daily edition: I subscribed to its weekend issues only, on paper, delivered to my physical address. Each of these two aspects — the non-daily schedule, and the ink-on-print format — carries a specific motivation whose discovery on that Riverside Park bench drove me to forgive the Times to this degree.

In the paper’s feature-focused weekend edition we find longer biographies, well-researched investigations, many-sourced essays, and other articles that examine their subjects in a much more slow-cooked detail than the front pages’ news stories. By choosing to read only these deeper, slower articles, I implement the advice laid out by Jay Springett in “Your Attention is Sovereign”, a zine that I came across earlier this year. It advocates various measures of social-media hygiene similar to those that I myself have long advocated, but to these adds a stance against the consumption of news — or against its unmindful consumption, anyway.

Spurred by Springett’s writing, I ask myself: Does continuously choking down “breaking news”, to the point that taking my eyes away from the screen makes me feel a withdrawal pang — does that really improve my life? Would dialing down to a more relaxed approach leave me so less informed that I would somehow become unprepared for life, or would it instead remove a source of ever-present stress and anxiety, leaving a space that I could re-fill with slower-digested, healthier information?

These questions have stuck in my mind in the months since I first read the zine. My encounter in the park with the Sunday Times — which included the discovery, thanks to an ad insert, that one can indeed subscribe to only the feature-heavy weekend paper — brought Springett’s challenge to mind immediately, and set my course to try this out for myself. While reading the Sunday Times (and its many folded-in goodies, like the glossier New York Times Magazine, the book-review booklet, and so on), I soak in excellent writing about current topics without subjecting myself to “the news” — and by interfacing through a physical, printed artifact, with all the flipping and the folding, I cannot so easy alt-tab away into informational junk-food distractions.

I received my first subscribed issue today on my doorstep (literal paper! literal doorstep!), unpeeled the Saturday-news outer layer protecting the Sunday stuff I craved, and pitched it into the bin. (I did glance at its headlines, saw the same shrieking moans my Twitter timeline had adequately covered over the last twelve hours, and thought upon it no more.) I proceeded to enjoy the Real Estate section, the Travel section, Arts & Leisure, and the Metropolitan pages once again.

I feel hopeful that more than mere novelty drives my pleasure at reading the paper this way. Already, I feel so refreshed at browsing articles in two dimensions rather than the linear format that the Washington Post takes on my phone screen, where on each and every visit I must dig through layers of shameful, soul-deadening news headlines and photos to see what else the paper offers that day. By the time I arrive at the features, even if only seconds later, I often feel so stressed and discouraged that I lack the will to read anything deeper than my Twitter stream.

I will, in fact, continue to read the news on my phone. It has its purpose. But I do hope that by also getting my fingers inky every day, by taking the time to give my eyes and my mind more degrees of freedom to explore and discover than a digital subscription can truly offer, I can stay current and engaged without subjecting myself to the high-tension environment of the front page, the unfiltered murk at the top of every news-stream.

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Photograph of the Boston skyline.

“Citgo sign…on Explore #258” by ashokboghani is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

This Thanksgiving weekend contains the day I move away from Providence — the southern tip of the Greater Boston Area, as reckoned by its commuter-rail map — and I head south. This brings to an end 19 contiguous years of residency around Boston, and 28 years in New England if we count my preceding time in Maine. Maybe I’ll return some day; Boston, city of my birth, exerts a strong pull, a call I have already answered once. But starting next week and for the foreseeable future thereafter, I shall begin a new life as a New Yorker.

I entered Boston in 2000 as a neophyte, a kid with a couple years of self-taught programming experience and a youthful thirst to keep learning new technologies, eager to begin my new job at a world-renowned publishing house of quirky technical books. I leave it feeling full, ready to wrap up my two decades as a software engineer for hire, and refocus my professional attention on something else. I still love technology, but in a more mellow and measured way; I know which stable and open technologies sustain my long-term creative needs the best, and I no longer feel driven to seek out and sample every spicy new flavor as it appears.

I didn’t only write code, of course. During this Bostonian span I have served, in at least a semi-pro regard, as a technical-book author, a radio-play actor, a startup founder, a TV producer, a monologist, a game designer, a teacher, a podcaster, an arts-festival organizer, a disability advocate, and a nonprofit leader. As a software-maker, I built all the projects that I link to from my homepage, and for my supper I co-created a ferry company’s reservation system and helped maintain an international publisher’s ebook business. My best work has come only in the last five years, during my life in Rhode Island, away from the city proper. I have attained an undeniable mastery of craft, and one that I plan to continue drawing upon even as I attempt to cast my talent and experience in new directions.

None of this would have happened without the amazing community of friends that I found in Boston from almost the moment of my arrival, the closest of whom are my true chosen family. I came to Boston as a super-fan of Looney Labs’s oddball and (at the time) obscure tabletop games, and I wasted no time to ask on a mailing list, in the autumn of 2000, if any other fans lived nearby. Some folks I met this way remain my closest friends, and nearly all the friends I have made since — including the friend I ended up marrying — came through the network than began with that email. From these friendships, too, came all the social and professional organizations I would subsequently play a role in. If I have accomplished anything interesting, then I credit my Boston friends for making it possible.

This community includes friends from my past life in Maine who humbled me by following my trail to become Bostonians themselves — though often briefly, en route to even greater things elsewhere in the country. I imagine that I borrow some of that residual travel-energy as I bob my way a little further down the coast this weekend. To my great fortune, I already know people waiting for me in New York, including quite a few former neighbors from Boston. Even as I feel sad that my life in New England comes to a close, for now, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the friends and family who in a very real sense I’m not moving any further away from, not one inch.

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I enjoyed describing the earliest Nexus stories in my last post, and my month-long move to New York has meanwhile remained in-progress: I’ve accomplished little aside from more packing, filling out more rental forms, and reading more comics in my downtime. So here’s thoughts on three more of the many comics I’ve been into lately. (I read all these via Comixology, and I bet you can find one or more of them at your local public library too.)

Paru Itagaki’s manga Beastars delivers a Japanese high-school melodrama in a world like Zootopia’s, presenting all characters as different anthropomorphic animals, and allowing their often-conflicting beastly attributes to drive the story.

Manga art: an anthropomorphic wolf wearing a backpack walks under a full moon, speaking to someone off-panel. He says 'I'll be fine. It's always been like this. I'm used to being feared and hated. I'll survive.'

The protagonist, a lanky and moody gray wolf boy named Legoshi — named, according to the book’s end-notes, after Bela Lugosi — deals with foils such as the self-destructive prima donna who runs the school drama club, and the girl with an unseemly level of sexual agency who won’t leave him alone. Both of them happen to belong to edible species, leading in turn to oh such pained internal struggles.

Furthermore, we get to know Legoshi only after an anonymous but distinctly wolf-shaped lurker opens up the very first issue by killing and eating a student. This book takes a little bit of run-up to find its real pacing, but once it gets there it’s pretty great.

I’ve read the first two volumes available in Comixology, with a third one appearing even as I wrote this post. I have just now learned that the Japanese edition of Beastars has reached 15 thick volumes in less than three years and continues to grow, demonstrating how I have no idea how manga is made, compared to western comics. It already has an animated adaptation, too, one slated to arrive on American Netflix in 2020. I can’t predict how far into this particular rabbit-hole I will drop, but I have enjoyed it so far.

Notably, with Beastars Itagaki becomes one of the only female comics creators found on my bookshelf. Not knowing anything about the comic when I picked it up on a friend’s recommendation, I was delighted to learn this, and then humbled to realize the deficit that this has highlighted in my own reading habits.

Case in point: while I also like Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit, I could never generally recommend it. It is a sullen teenager’s notebook doodles turned into a thousand-page epic. On the surface, it follows the adventures of a gore-covered mutant with an unprintable name who rapes and murders his way through a hell dimension populated only by other rapist-murderers all trying to claw their way out. At the level of its (ripped-out, pulsating) guts, I read it as a body-horror comic fueled by a certain kind of confused self-loathing particular to adolescent boys.

Two crudely drawn comics panels. First shows a smashed-up and bloody wormlike creature. Someone off-panel says 'You stomped my slorge.' Second shows two bizarre monster-men in conversation. One says, 'Slorge? You mean that slug with a face? What, is that your girlfriend?'

More specifically, I see Prison Pit as the lurid imaginings of an angry teen circa 1986 who has been grounded without TV for mouthing off at his mother, and so sits in his room blasting heavy metal and grinding out page after page of crude revenge fantasies. The casually homophobic language and gynophobic attitudes merely flavor the comic’s real mood, an infinite fear and loathing that puberty can bring to the owner of a changing body with its own agendas. In the world of Prison Pit, girls are unintelligible monsters, other boys are swollen and threatening enemies, and their ejaculate is a ubiquitous substance of unknown purpose that powers various terror-weapons.

I date these fantasies to 1986 because I fear how the same boy in 2019 could so easily get online and become radicalized in short order by white supremacist incels. But I like the book anyway because it picks its direction and consummates it so completely. It’s something like a comic-book adaptation of the video game Doom, were such a thing done correctly, giving every speaking character the voice and attitude of the same world-and-self-hating 14-year-old boys that composed the game’s target audience. The eternally acne-scarred adolescent within me very much enjoys this really quite terrible comic book.

Prison Pit, too, has received an animated adaptation.

Finally, I read and loved the four-chapter Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, written by Grant Morrison and pencilled by Frank Quitely. I had actually purchased the first three parts as individual comics during their initial publication in 1996, but missed my chance to buy the last issue in the confusion of my first summer after graduating college. This comic is good, and meshes eerily well with some coincidental reading about contemporary cosmology that I’ve lately dipped into.

Two comics panels: On a crashing plane filled with colorfully dressed super-heroes, the leader says 'Strap yourselves in. Brace yourselves. It's not death. It's something new. Prepare to become fictional.'

Flex Mentallo, starring one member of Morrison’s Doom Patrol crew from a few years prior, hit the stands about two years into his six-year-long masterwork The Invisibles. It shares many of the longer work’s themes of reality as an infinitely self-reflective superstructure, encouraging the reader to adopt a cosmic perspective in order to achieve transformative enlightenment. And it does this in a story about an overt Charles Atlas parody aware of (and embracing) his role as a comic-book character, with the whole thing narrated by a burnout rock star as he rides out an acid trip.

And when I put it that way, it sure sounds rather insufferable, doesn’t it? Certainly some of my enjoyment came from personal nostalgia, but I feel quite sure that this book — drawn exquisitely by Quitely, one of my very favorite comics artists — has more going for it than that. Short and self-contained, it makes for a far tidier read than the sprawling Invisibles, and I found its themes as least as meaningful and relevant today than I did nearly a quarter-century ago. I spoil nothing to say that it ends with a super-heroic apocalypse a million times more satisfying than anything that might have appeared in movie theaters recently. This is a book that asks you to look up. What joy I found, reading this lost ending at last.

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Drawing of the superhero Nexus walking down a corridor, surrounded by a variety of people -- home human, some alien, and several of whom look injured or maimed -- raising their fists in salute as he passes.

This post represents the latter end of the widest gap between Fogknife posts since I started this blog years ago. I have an interesting excuse, at least, as I noted earlier this month: my family is moving to New York City, letting my wife begin her job as Columbia University’s new systems librarian. I began this blog as a reaction, in part, to my first lonely winter in coastal Rhode Island, and I cannot say how my return to a richly dense urban environment will affect the frequency of my updates here. I do hope that I can resume the once-a-week-ish pace that I’ve managed to maintain all these years.

More generally, once December arrives and our temporary full-time job of moving is complete — the most intense and informationally complex relocation we’ve ever experienced, soaking up all our available attention this month — I’ll need to puzzle out how else to spend my time. Allowing the aura of Amy’s new job to translate into career slate-cleaning for myself, I may very well resume my search for technical writing opportunities, or I might end up in some other role informed by but distinct from my decades as a work-for-hire software engineer.

But until then, I take refuge from this ordeal with comics. It happens that I picked up an eleven-inch iPad Pro a few months ago, just before our trip to Paris, and have been surprised at my complete delight with this little slab. It is the third iPad I’ve owned, but the first whose use has brought me real joy. Among the purposes the flat and feather-light machine serves better than any digital device I’ve owned previously is its use as a comics e-reader. I had purchased a healthy shelf of weird comics via Comixology years ago, and for the first time I have been able to read them a page at a time, without feeling obliged to crawl through it zoomed-in, panel-by-panel.

With half my days lately in trains or planes or hotel rooms, I find the embrace of comics very welcoming. Of course I have continued to read as much print as ever, but the comics’ visually assisted carry-along offers such a calming balm in an increasingly stressful world. And so I re-read All Star Superman and King City over my Paris trip, then caught up with Jim Woodring’s Frank saga, and came into autumn — and the news from Columbia — hungry for more.

This past week, while passing the time in a Upper West Side hotel in between apartment viewings, I made a sour face and accepted Comixology’s insistent invitation to join its “Comixology Unlimited” program. It feels like a deal with the devil, and I enter into the contract aware of — and, to some degree, sharing — all my librarian friends’ great suspicion that the Comixology and Kindle Unlimited programs represent Amazon quietly seeking to supplant public libraries as yet another part of Jeff Bezos’s Great Work, his ultimate plan to convert as much of earth as necessary into a discardable staging platform for the sole purpose of launching his genetic material into interstellar space.

But, look: as soon as I agreed to that so easy one free trial month of Unlimited, an effectively infinite amount of back issues opened up to my immediate access, quite literally at my fingertips. I need only think of a title I’ve long since meant to read, and a smiling genie delivers it, without even the already-gossamer-thin friction of charging a server-stored credit card number. After practicing a modicum due diligence by setting a calendar alarm to (maybe) cancel the service before the first six-dollar monthly fee kicks in, I opened my arms and embraced the flood of so many beautiful old comic books.

And the most notable comic book that has sustained me during the utterly absurd New York rental-application process is Nexus Omnibus Volume 1, collecting the very first commercially published adventures of Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s titular superhero from the early 1980s.

I came to this book with a present but unusual relationship with its characters and stories. A thoroughly independent comic book, Nexus has come in and out of print under various publishing imprints over the decades. One of its many revivals in the early 1990s coincided with my own personal awakening to the internet and the sargasso sea of various commercial computer networks that existed alongside it for a time. In those days I hung around the comics forums on GEnie in particular, and its denizens all became very hyped about the impending Nexus relaunch. I remember, in particular, one of the regulars expressing eagerness to hear my own opinion as a newcomer to the series. I don’t recall how I must have replied to that, but I did enjoy the series enough to continue buying and reading it for most of its 90s run.

Reading these earliest issues, I tried to put myself in the mind of a comics-reader in 1981, about to dig into something so interesting that they’d rave about it on the primordial internet ten years later. Nexus, at its outset, seems focused on the question What if Superman had to straight-up kill every bad guy he fought? It only strikes me now, but to the best of my knowledge Nexus has no arch-enemies in the traditional superhero sense, due to his habit of vaporizing every villain he encounters within minutes of meeting them, no matter how colorful their own costume. (Exceptions exist, such as those who commit suicide as soon as he shows up.) Nexus kills out of self-defense, following compulsions given to him by an insane alien intelligence obsessed with terminally punishing cherrypicked injustices within a Star Wars-style fast-and-loose intergalactic setting. Nexus gets to retain godlike power so long as he obeys this compulsion. If it resists it — and he always resists it — his brain starts to break.

And so Nexus always labors through a haze of self-loathing, relying on the emotional support of the friends and chosen family that fate has thrown into his orbit. He tries to put a positive angle on his gruesome vocation by leading an ever-growing lunar community of all the refugees that he displaces by suddenly murdering the various autocrats and tormentors they had depended upon. But, crucially, he’s kind of terrible at it. He doesn’t even want to do it, but nobody else can do it better — or maybe he’s just shitty at project management, such that every time he tries to delegate responsibility or even take a simple vacation, all his projects start coming apart as would-be subordinates immediately start pulling at their individual and conflicting agendas in his absence.

These social and political obstacles, resistant to his usual solution of just hurling a sizzling fusion-ray at the problem, end up the ones that dog Nexus the most — the only problems that stick with him in between issues. All of which is to say that I have a lot to discover and sympathize with, reading these old comics in middle age, that I did not see as a teenager.

I want to describe two panels from the very first issue of Nexus, back when it was still black-and-white (and which, happily, this Omnibus edition makes no attempt to “improve” with colorization decades later). They do so much to establish the subtlety of Baron’s writing, as rendered with Rude’s art. (And these panels’ clean reproduction here exemplifies another benefit of reading comics on a tablet: I’ve never before enjoyed such an easy process of screen-shotting a page, cropping the relevant panels, and exporting it as an image for sharing with friends or for use as a blog-post illustration.)

The first is the one at the top of this post, the first depiction of Nexus storming out of his sanctum to hop into his two-seater spaceship so he can go fry the next poor asshole whose name got branded onto his brain. The refugee-citizens on his moon base salute him with raised fists, and he barely acknowledges them, because (we’ll come to learn, though nobody says it out loud) he kind of resents their presence. But here they all are anyway.


The other panel is much smaller than the first, occupying just a fraction of its page. Seen several pages later, it depicts Nexus making his exit from his hit-job, having just iced a long-retired dictator at a fancy ball. He feels especially rotten because he dispatched him in front of his terrified wife as she futilely shielded him with her own body, but then couldn’t summon the energy to answer her wailed demands to know why. He just slouches away, mumbling a bitterly meaningless reply.

Despite this being just a few pages into the first issue, we know that Nexus is already famous in this world; the dictator knows exactly what will happen to him, and — as this panel shows — civilians with the questionable fortune of bearing witness to Nexus’s violence salute him in stunned silence, just like his refugee-worshippers do, even when standing in a rubble-strewn aftermath of his just having murdered their boss. So much is said in this tiny panel, entirely visually, with the minuscule detail that two of the three saluting people that Nexus isn’t even looking at are dressed like service staff.

I can’t but think that a filmed adaptation of this scene would really linger on those saluting waiters — and the one saluting party guest in fancy dress, too! — the music swelling as they squared their jaws and dropped their serving platters and raised their fists high, in the foreground. Nexus, striding away, would pause in mid-step, would half-turn his head, considering… and then resume his walk. It’d be a solid scene, really sending the message home. But that’s not what this comic is about. The comic book wants you to know those people are there, and it wants you to see the way their salutes mirror those of the earlier refugees, and to think about everything thus implied. And yet it keeps them tiny and backgrounded, the comic book itself brushing them aside precisely like its title character does. Utterly frustrating. I love it.

This is just one tiny bit of a single facet of the very first story from a still-ongoing comics series, well before the art and the writing started to really hit their stride. I said “oh my god” out loud when I encountered that second panel, how much meaning and narrative payoff it packed into such a small space — and how it did it so casually, not even centered on its page. It shows as well as anything how the best comics are pretty great and I will consider making vile agreements with dark forces if that means I can read more of them.

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Cartoon image of a woman walking along a Manhattan sidewalk, down past densely stacked storefronts with signs like 'Kosher vitamins' and 'Purse-a-teria' and 'Brass polishers union' and so on.

Ater I announced my impending move to New York City on Twitter, I asked what books about the city my friends would recommend to a newcomer. I received several excellent responses, one especially so.

One friend put forth Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, a genre-novel doorstop set in a magical-realist Manhattan during the apex of its industrial-age gang wars. This friend allowed that the book might not make for the most practical guide to New York, but I have fallen quite in love with the story regardless, and look forward to paging through the enormous thing over the coming weeks.

Another introduced me to Going into Town, a quite recent guidebook in comic-book form by Roz Chast. According to the book’s own introduction, it adapts and expands upon a pamphlet that Chast created years ago as a present to her daughter, as she began her university career in Manhattan. As such, I found it perfect for my purposes, exactly what I needed to read now: a calming balm against the anxiety and unsureness that unavoidably accompanies my own preparations to live outside of New England for the first time in my adult life.

Chast’s book, every page hand-drawn and lettered by the veteran New Yorker cartoonist, pads out the guidebook content with a bit of memoir and philosophy among a scattering of observational-humor vignettes. The book’s title comes from her own parents’ phrase, as Brooklynites, for their occasional trips into Manhattan. She remembers the snacks her dad would pack on these journeys, and how he would stress out over subway tokens. A few pages later, she gives us a two-page comic about a chatty weirdo at Starbucks, or illustrates the folly of trying to walk your cat in the city.

Mostly, though, Going into Town presents a refreshingly direct and accessible newbie-guide to the island of Manhattan, appropriate both to visitors and to long-term arrivals like me. It educates the reader about the island’s fundamentals more clearly than any guide or explanation I’ve encountered heretofore. Having read through the book once, I can now run down the basics myself: the difference between streets and avenues, and what “up” and “down” mean in terms of grid-nagivation — and how they translate to “Bronx” and “Brooklyn”, respectively, on subway signage.

And I now have a coarse idea of that subway system — why some lines have numbers and others letters, and what you can tell about them by their labels, and what makes the S line special. Chast acknowledges that she can explain only so much about the tangled subway graphically, and assures the reader that a little bit of personal experience will fill in the rest. I have learned enough to trust her.

In fact Going into Town, less guidebook than primer, intentionally shies from delving into too much detail about any facet of New York, giving readers tools to instead navigate and explore Manhattan for themselves. The few places within the island that it does examine a bit deeper — the Met, Central Park — represent areas as dense and internally varied as the city that contains them, inviting active exploration over merely visiting.

Chast notes that the island is only two miles wide at its broadest, and advocates spending a day now and then choosing a nondescript street and then walking its length, “coast to coast”, taking the time to admire the jumbled homes, storefronts, and surprising bursts of color and culture pressed into every cubic foot of city. Find the store that sells only ribbons, then see more types of ribbon in one crammed room than you knew existed on earth. Let New York unfold its fractal around you, and walk into it. It will make you part of its infinite surface, if you choose to stay.

The arc of my life has decreed this fate for me, at least for the next several years, and I still feel nervous about it. But reading this book has, at least, let me feel less lost.

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A simple outline map of the United States, with a many-colored curve, suggesting a flight path, connecting the two coasts. It is watermarked ''.
Turbulence forecast for United flight 510, from LA to Newark, departing 12:15 PM Pacific time, Oct 25, 2019.

Nearly three years ago I launched BumpySkies, my turbulence forecaster for airline flights over the continental US. Pride of my heart at the time, it sang with potential for growth, and whispered golden promises to me of commercial possibilities. Alas, other than a handful of bug fixes, I have put no further effort into it, and I have no plans to expand it beyond its current functionality.

Utterly static, it has taken on the role of my masterpiece: a clear and immediate demonstration of expertise in creative software engineering, as only I can express it… and no more than that. A useful enough purpose, and one I feel glad to have, of course, especially as I start to look around for new work. But I must admit some regret that it cannot grow beyond this, and feel compelled to examine the reasons why.

First of all, I cannot truly dogfood it. In one sense, yes, I did build BumpySkies for myself, a nervous flier with great anxiety about unexpected turbulence. And you can be sure that I do use BumpySkies when I fly! But that happens four times per year, perhaps. I simply don’t travel by air that often. In the thirty-four months since BumpySkies’ debut, I have boarded only twelve domestic flights. (I also rode four trans-Atlantic flights, which crossed out of BumpySkies’ American-airspace purview.)

More to the point, these opportunities to use BumpySkies happen weeks or months apart from one another, meaning that it precludes rapid iteration. The first couple of times I flew after launching the website, I excitedly wrote down notes for improvements even while strapped into my seat. Once on the ground, as I began to plan how I could encode these fixes, the insurmountable problem of actually testing them became clear.

When I work at my best, I keep many windows of input, output, and internal-state logging open: make a change, observe the effect, make another change, and so on, until everything lit up the way I wanted. Often, these cycles take minutes or even seconds each. Improving BumpySkies, on the other hand, would mean working with iterative cycles which might each take months to circle around. So, I would implement a trial improvement, and then… wait until my next Christmas flight to see if it actually did anything? I watched as the likelihood of this ever happening went soaring away, without me on board.

Finally, BumpySkies has political dependencies I cannot control. The program’s two major data sources are NOAA and the FAA. It gets the former through a resource I found because I asked some scientists nicely, and the latter through a federal data-sharing program, open to any citizen-run project willing to put the effort of application in.

Both of these run entirely on American public funds, and I can imagine either one vanishing suddenly, should the current short-sighed and thoroughly corrupt administration decide that it can kill it in order to score some political points, or redirect its funding towards some disgusting vanity project. Earlier this year the Trump administration demonstrated its willingness to suborn NOAA, overtly and outrageously, to support the president’s childish lies. I have no doubt that it would not pause to eliminate the programs that provide my data, if it meant even a momentary political advantage.

I built BumpySkies on quicksand, then, in the heart of a jungle I seldom visit. It is a folly, constructed in a frenzy over the course of a single year, and its inhospitable terrain resists any attempt to build upon it any further. Let it stand as a monument to my own ingenuity; let it serve my masterpiece, unchanging. I feel pride in its immediacy, like no other thing I’ve built, and in how it has run for years with so little need for maintenance. Let it coast on.

Sweat represents my next hope for an intensely personal project that might have a broader and more dynamic future. An ugly little command-line program, it lacks BumpySkies’ very visual, map-based immediacy, but it has lots of room to grow. As a program that I run almost every day, can iterate upon rapidly, and which operates free of any external politcal threat, it avoids the pitfalls that have doomed BumpySkies to stasis. I don’t know for sure that it will grow over the next three years, but at least I can afford to hope.

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A screenshot from the video game 'Let it Die', depicting a player-character receiving an enormous bowl of mushroom stew from the game's 'mushroom lady'.As I consider the game-over screen after yet another wipeout with Slay the Spire, I think about how I’ve heard that one key, often-overlooked difference between the ways that Americans eat versus folks elsewhere has less to do with the portion size than the diner’s sense of obligation towards it.

I count myself among those Americans inculcated as children that any scraps left on your plate, whether at home or dining out, serve as evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. If you didn’t hate your meal, then clearly it has made you ill — or else you brought disgrace upon yourself by spoiling your appetite, overdoing it on the openers. Whatever the cause, your abandonment of the dish covers yourself, your host, the server, and all other eyewitnesses in shame.

I carried this attitude well into adulthood — until I started to learn how, in other parts of the world, people set their forks down when they start to feel sated. In these lands, the diner feels no embarrassment at this, and the host feels no insult. Japanese culture even has a term for eating until one feels 80 percent full.

Only recently have I begun to attempt this myself, and I know that my life has improved for it: no more sleeplessly indigestive nights after conquering my whole appointed portion, no matter the size. I have traded in my Clean-Plate Club card for a doggy bag in the fridge and a lazy lunch the next day. And as Slay the Spire hoses my last character into the dungeon’s drain and invites me to roll up my next one, I think about how this approach to our diet can apply to video games as well.

I first gained this insight from my friend Joel, who in late 2016 introduced me to Let it Die, the utterly unique, absolutely bonkers hack-and-slasher from Grasshopper Manufacture. I had a grand time tearing my way through the game’s roguelike-inspired single-player levels, as well as tussling with the game’s bizarre asynchronous-multiplayer modes, where I joined Joel in representing Rhode Island. (The game, otherwise quite divorced from reality, encourages players to join teams named for American states, each flying its own wonderfully inaccurate flag.)

After a couple enjoyable weeks of bloody struggle I came to defeat the game’s first boss, and naturally the game rewarded me by swinging open the doors to World Two — more of the same, but harder, with more complicated power-ups and enemy effects to learn. It unfolded new styles of maps to master, promising more weeks of play, and the dim shadow of the third and fourth worlds waiting beyond all that.

And even though I had had a great time, I just couldn’t work up the energy for it. Defeating that first boss had a sense of not just triumph but finality. That didn’t seem right, though: the game had a clearly telegraphed endpoint, a long but finite distance ahead of me, and stopping now would constitute abandoning a project. A failure, and a stain on my conscience. And yet, here I sat, unable to eat another bite.

Some months later, I happened to visit Joel’s home city, and the topic of Let it Die came up over drinks. I thanked him for turning me on to the game, but admitted my regret at not finishing it — in fact, at not even getting to its nominal halfway mark. When I described my feeling of undeserved satisfaction at getting as far as I did, Joel interrupted my lamentation. “But that sounds good, though.” He leaned back and patted his belly, pantomiming a satisfied diner. “You felt full, and you stopped! That was all you needed.”

Earlier this month, after my wife and I shared an intense, days-long folie à deux over Slay the Spire, we both got to enjoy a winning run: Amy first, and then myself, mere hours later. By some measures — by the yardstick of online gamer culture, certainly — we had only just begun. The game intends for a single winning run to serve as mere prologue: it clearly signals that, for a real victory, one must complete the game with each of its three characters at least once, and then face down who-knows-what after that in order to score a “true ending”.

Amy, of far more organized mind than me, waved all that away, marked the game as complete, and thought upon it no further. But I, a fool, returned to the slog, relitigating Spire as if my genuine and hard-won victory meant nothing. I find myself playing with increasing impatience, rushing, making careless errors leading to messy deaths and a sense of time wasted.

And this is how I come to realize that I shouldn’t have gone back for seconds, just because I enjoyed the meal. I am powering through this extra helping, grimly, for no purpose. For me, one victory was enough. I should celebrate my time with the game and enjoy telling my story of how I beat The Collector with 3 HP left on a hail-mary play involving a Gambler’s Brew potion. That is my personal and true story of how I beat Slay the Spire forever, and the existence of a “Continue” menu option doesn’t make it false.

Some players, foodier than I, will relish the chance to keep grinding away after that point, exploring more permutations of deck-building combat. The game is ready to serve them as well. But those options exist for them, not me. I will set my controller down, sated, and give myself a chance to digest.

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Photograph of a University of Maine banner, attached to a street pole, set against a clear blue sky.

“University of Maine Flag” by jimmywayne is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a graduate of its Class of 1996, I call upon the University of Maine to rescind its hosting and support of the College Republicans. While the group may once have stood for legitimate conservative values within a liberal college campus, its more recent actions have demonstrated its descent into ethno-nationalism, cynically abusing the university’s “marketplace of ideas” to advance a regressive, destructive agenda. A progressively minded American university — and my own alma mater — has no business providing it a platform.

Maine has joined other cities and regions around the country in officially renaming the mid-October federal holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”. UMaine’s College Republicans (UMCR) responded with an absurd post to its Facebook page, condemning pre-Columbian civilizations as “brutal societies” and suggesting that the existence of human-sacrifice rituals in ancient Mesoamerica validated the subsequent subjugation and near-eradication of Native American cultures by European colonists.

The university’s president and its dean of students responded swiftly through a campus-wide mailing list, stating that this hateful message did not reflect the university’s values. UMCR immediately followed up with another Facebook post describing how this rather lukewarm email “horrified” them, making them afraid for the safety of its membership, and threatening to “hold [the dean] personally responsible” if any of them were “attacked, bullied or intimated[sic]”. It concluded with an exhortation to call the president’s office directly and complain.

All this, of course, lies perfectly in keeping with the behavior of the national Republican party under Donald Trump. I imagine that UMCR sees their activity as “counterpunching”, as Trump’s allies tend to describe his entirely reactive political style. But those who live outside Trump’s personality cult call it nihilism, sowing chaos and discord for its own sake. And when aimed at fearing and hating immigrants or Americans of color, it reflects the very worst of the contemporary Republican agenda: nihilism in the service of white nationalism.

UMCR’s has dedicated its online presence to the grievance-based politics that defines Trumpism. Its homepage mentions no policy or goals, except for a “fight” against “socialism”. Aside from the Columbus Day content, its Facebook page features the expected wall of memes, alternating between heroic portraits of Trump and unflattering photos of Hillary Clinton — the party’s own Emmanuel Goldstein — all adorned with extremely suspect quotes. It fills its equally active Twitter and Instagram timelines with conspiracy theories and mockery aimed at Trump’s enemies, mixed in with micro-screeds against immigrants, the free press, transgender people, and every other recipient of its leader’s ire.

I attended UMaine during the ascendency of Newt Gingrich’s Republican party, a quarter century ago. Its “Contract with America” at least had the pretense of offering a forward-looking political agenda. Some of us may have disagreed with the direction of that agenda, but we had little reason to question the basic legitimacy of the Republicans as participants in American democracy. We also recognized that UMCR had as much right to presence on-campus as any other significant political group.

That vision of UMCR drowned in the same tide of white-nationalist rage that swept away the rest of the pre-2008 Republican party. Today’s UMCR has made abundantly clear that it has adopted the new party line eagerly. The organization I remember as a grudgingly accepted conservative bastion in a granola-hippie college campus has transformed into another factory of right-wing hate, burning white racial animosity as its fuel and expelling choking clouds of informational poison. As with the national party, it possesses no apparent goals other than societal wreckage in the service of Donald Trump and his angry base.

Here, meanwhile, is the first two paragraphs of UMaine’s mission statement, with emphasis added by me:

The University of Maine advances learning and discovery through excellence and innovation in undergraduate and graduate academic programs while addressing the complex challenges and opportunities of the 21st century through research-based knowledge.

Opportunity for all members of the University of Maine community is a cornerstone of our mission. The university welcomes students, research partners and collaborators into an atmosphere that honors the heritage and diversity of our state and nation.

With this mission in mind, I urge the University of Maine to give the College Republicans a fresh look — one based on its activity since the start of the Trump era, and continuing through its present statements implying support for indigenous genocide. I would hope for it to conclude that UMCR, through its willful and fear-driven misinformation, works only to confuse and corrupt the values of knowledge and diversity that UMaine makes its mission to instill in its students and promote in its wider community.

In their email, the president and dean extolled the virtues of countering speech with more speech. This view, certainly correct in the general case, does not preclude one from declining to actively offer resources to those speaking disagreeably — let alone harmfully. UMaine has no obligation to give an organization like UMCR a platform, not when it uses it to work directly and flagrantly against the university’s own goals and ideals.

I invite the individual members of UMaine’s College Republicans to re-examine their own choices, to look around at the broad, multi-hued, and many-voiced American society that has given them the freedoms and fortunes they enjoy, and question the wisdom of polluting it with regressive ideas. But until they do, I hope that that UMaine itself will invite that group to pursue those ideas elsewhere.

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Detail of an ancient Greek mosaic portrait of a person's face, cropped to show only their eyes.

This summer I developed presbyopia, or anyway had my genetically predestined presbyopia develop to the degree that compelled me to seek out and read the web pages that taught me the word “presbyopia”. With here-yesterday, gone-today suddenness, I have — forever, it seems — lost the ability to focus my eyes on any objects closer than the length of my arm. My visual world, once an unbroken bubble extending into the infinity of space, has developed a lacuna: a tiny sphere of uncertain blur immediately surrounding my own head.

I came to enter my symptoms into a search engine because I quite honestly had no idea that this happens to everyone, or at least everyone with typical eye-function who lives long enough. Apparently one usually becomes a candidate for the condition in one’s mid-thirties, with a near-certainty to obtain it before you turn fifty. At age 45, then, the near-focus fairy seems to have visited me right on schedule.

This happens as I adjust to exercising more than ever and shoring up my diet in a bid to — putting it frankly — do better than my father (and his own father) at dodging the heart disease that my family history predisposes me to. Insofar as I’ve responded to my own physical aging, it has taken this form: getting serious about resisting the inherited threats I’ve long expected. And that’s all fine.

In my zeal to sweat these dangers away, though, it seems I spent no time at all learning about various inevitable robberies of aging that visit nearly everyone who pass various milestones, once they’ve rolled on beyond the easy pavement of young adulthood. Presbyopia has stricken nearly every human who has survived to middle age, and yet it was news to me. Definitionally, the list of people who live with this condition include several friends of mine, who upon hearing my complaint rolled their already long-blighted eyes and advised me not to let pride delay getting some decent bifocals.

(I have not bought any bifocals yet. The last pair of glasses I purchased have the sorts of skinny frames quite fashionable in the early aughts. They let me achieve a poor-man’s bifocal effect by tilting my head up and peering beneath the lenses, since my uncorrected eyes can focus on objects as close as elbow-length. I recognize that I’ll want to do better than this, someday.)

I can grimly appreciate that while I strive to blunt and delay, with diet and exercise, the ever-increasing incline of age that otherwise saps the energy, flexibility, and mental acuity that burble in abundance through one’s first decades, there exists an irrestiable schedule listing one self-contained anatomical system after another that must succumb to accumulated entropy. Had I somehow pushed my resting heart rate down below 50 beats per minute, had I dropped all red meat and sugar from my plate years ago, my eye-lenses would still have flabbed out exactly as destiny decreed.

I can’t help but wonder what other unhappy events might lurk on this ordered checklist of personal systemic wrap-ups. Maybe I’ll actually look, sometime; surely this knowledge has existed more or less unchanged for centuries, maybe millenia, and I suppose it just doesn’t come up until one arrives at it personally because who wants to talk about that? More likely, though, I heard references to these events my whole life and didn’t pay much attention. That has changed: In the opening of his new essay collection Calypso, David Sedaris chooses to describe his current age by noting, with characteristic frankness, how his urinary “washer” has recently given up, permanently adding unwelcome complication to his bathroom visits. Last year I would have given an amused snort and forgotten the passage. This year it made me a little dizzy.

Two years ago I visited the RISD Museum for the first time, and I encountered one particular artifact from its permanent collection: a slab of ancient white marble, chiseled all over with Greek writing. The plaque affixed by it noted that it still retained a very few flecks of the red paint that originally tinted its beautiful lettering. Forgetting my place, I could not resist putting my face right up to it, eager to see the paint for myself. Within seconds, of course, a watchful docent had a hand on my shoulder, a surprising gesture that flash-froze the whole scene into my permanent memory.

And because of all that, that slab became my most recent — and therefore final — definitive memory of looking at anything close-up with my naked and unmodified eyes. I suppose I should take a philosophical view, making metaphorical my new obligation for far-sightedness, appreciating that I got to enjoy supplely youthful eyes for as long as I did. Wikipedia says that written references to presbyopia appear as far back as Aristotle, and I find that oddly comforting. I can treasure my memory of the carved letters, a memento from a time and place long ago, and the arcs of time it represents both personal and civilizational. If I have to put a little more distance between myself and the things I contemplate, so be it. I will trust that the paint is there.

Photographs in this post by the author.

Photographic detail of the tablet described in this post. Line after line of ancient Greek words carved into white stone.

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Photograph of an hourglass-style egg timer.

“sands of time 7Dii0937” by coldpenguin1952 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I have announced a lot of projects on this blog, and Sweat, the chatty workout timer that I first made public earlier this month, has become one of those rare projects that continues to grip my interest afterwards. The projects I love the most are those that lead me to start researching topics outside the strictly technological: how The Warbler’s Nest led me to study a certain folk-legend beyond the bare sketch I already knew, or how BumpySkies required a dive into the specifics of modern aircraft navigation. This week, Sweat joined this group by encouraging me to read the original journal article that first introduced the seven-minute workout to the world. This fired me up with indignant impatience for everything I didn’t know from years of using only third-order workout timers (based on newspaper articles based on that journal article). I feel more driven than ever to work on Sweat, bringing in more in-line with the workout’s original intent. But first, I want to fix the workout’s common name.

“The seven-minute workout” caught attention, and not for the wrong reasons, when the first mainstream news articles about it appeared — such as this New York Times piece, contemporary with the original ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal article, that has served as my own go-to bookmark when I want to link to a primer on these exercises. Indeed, in the original article, authors Brett Klika and Chris Jordan cite the workout’s brevity as among its most attractive features. But, as I wrote years ago, “the seven-minute workout” is a terrible name, and recent work has given me both less patience for it and a suggestion for a sensible replacement.

Beyond its inherent hokeyness and ambiguity, “seven-minute” proves itself an unhelpfully misleading descriptor in light of the framework that Klika and Jordan propose, even given their design-emphasis on keeping things short. While it does indeed take seven minutes to run through one lap of their proposed workout, they unequivocally intend the exerciser to cycle through it more than once per workout session. Quoting the article:

Participants can repeat the 7-minute bout 2 to 3 times, depending on the amount of time they have. [ … ] Because most individuals may not be able to execute the program at an intensity significantly greater than 100% of their V˙O2max, following the established ACSM guidelines for high-intensity exercise of at least 20 minutes is recommended. This may require multiple repetitions (or circuits) of a multistation exercise circuit.

I found this shocking to read. For one thing, it puts the lie to literally every seven-minute workout timer I’ve ever tried, all of which declare you done after completing the twelfth drill. I don’t call any of them out for deceitful or inaccurate design, mind you; in retrospect they all clearly derive either from news articles touting this amazing new science-backed seven-minute workout routine, or from previous timers. That Times article from 2013 ends with “after seven minutes, you’re done,” and that misconception naturally percolated through all the future media and technologies that it wrought.

Certainly, Sweat counts itself among the misinformed, beginning life as yet another response to all the seven-minute-timer apps and videos that have jumping-jacked through the internet over the years. Reading the workout’s published origin drives me to pull Sweat out of this category, basing it more on first principles — and I want to begin with the name of thing it purports to implement. As the title of this post already spoiled, I intend to call it the Klika-Jordan workout from now on. (Non-alphabetical, yes, but it replicates the order of the authors’ names as they appear at the top of the Health & Fitness Journal article, and frankly I find it more pleasant to pronounce this way.)

As for what Klika and Jordan themselves call the workout — well, their article leaves that uncertain, actually. They do name their creation “HICT”, for “high-intensity circuit training” — but that describes the general class of a workout consisting of short, fast drills that exercise different major muscle groups in a cycle, while requiring no special equipment. The paper explicitly labels the twelve drills of the seven-minute workout as a “HICT sample program”, showing one possible way that a trainer could construct a HICT-based workout — and, perhaps inevitably, this example froze into immutable gospel as soon as the invention’s appeal hit mainstream news outlets.

And so, as a formal defintion, I might offer this:

The Klika-Jordan workout is a short but intense exercise routine described by Brett Kilka and Chris Jordan in the article “High-intensity circuit training using body weight: Maximum results with minimal investment”, published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, Volume 17, Issue 3. Specifically, it is the application of HICT described in the section “HICT sample program”, comprising twelve unique exercises to be performed in seven-minute bouts, with the whole circuit repeated up to three times.

I feel good about at last having a proper-sounding name for something I feel increasingly enthusiastic about — and which, I very recently learned, I haven’t spent half as much time with as I ought. So, this new term will go into all future discussion of Sweat, more of which I’m afraid you can expect so long as I dwell in this project’s honeymoon period.

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