Category: essays

Bad Luck For Animals

black cat walking on road
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I hate seeing a dead animal in the road, or on the bike paths, but animals die, as do we all, and coming across dead animals from time to time is inevitable. Unintentionally killing the animals is another story. For one thing, it is incredibly rare that it happens. When I was nine or ten years old, living in New England, I was firing a BB gun at a target on a fence and ended up hitting a bird. I felt horrible for days. I can still remember the feeling, although it no longer bothers me the way it did when I was a kid.

Recently, however, it seems that I am bad luck for animals. A few days ago, driving to the post office for our passport appointment (a story for another time), a squirrel dashed across the road. This happens almost every day and I watch the squirrel in the rearview mirror as it makes its way to the safety of the sidewalk. This time, however, the squirrel hesitated in the middle of the lane. I was driving the speed limit, 30 mph, and there was nothing I could do. Instead of continuing its mad dash across the street, the squirrel hesitated, and as the car approached, I saw it wrap its tail around itself. A second later, there was a thud, and when I checked the rearview mirror, the squirrel was motionless in the road behind us.

All through the day, I couldn’t get it out of my head, but I chalked it up to bad luck. I’ve passed thousands of critters dashing across the street in front of me, and no harm came to any of them from my vehicle–until the odds caught up with this one.

Then, the bad luck continued. The following day I was sitting here in my office, writing, and out of the corner of my eye, saw something moving. I turned in time to see a bird fly into the window and disappear. It made a loud thud, louder than the squirrels. I looked down by the shed outside my window, and after a second, saw the bird laying motionless on the concrete between the shed and the house. It’s just stunned, I told myself. But an hour later, it was still motionless and, I suspect, dead of broken neck.

Apparently, I am bad luck for animals right now, so if you are an animal, I’d suggest keeping your distance, until this statistical anomaly passes. You’ll thank me for it later.

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Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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Do You Like This Post?

person marking check on opened book
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Ratings systems have screwed up the world. It seems everything these days requires a rating. Watch a show on Netflix? Rate it so that they can recommend more shows you might like. Read a book, rate it on Amazon because the more rating the more the book gets noticed and the better Amazon will be at recommending other books. Their recommendations, it turns out, are not particularly good. And don’t get me started on the five-star rating system.

I use Spark Mail for my mail client on my Mac Mini and my iPhone. I really like it as a mail client. Every now and then, the apps ask me, “Do you like Spark? Yes / No.” This reminds of junior high school when a friend would pass a note that read, “Do you like Katie? Yes / No. Circle one.” If you say “Yes” then you get asked to leave a rating on the App Store. I don’t know what happens if you say “No.” I’ve been too afraid to try. I fear that maybe the application will say, “Well, you’re no picnic either.” And then delete all of my email and shut down, never to start up again.

Spark Mail isn’t the only app to do this, just the most recent in a long line of apps that I use that express this occasional neediness. My understanding is the more ratings an app (or book, or a show) has, the more visibility it gets, and therefore, the more sales. This seems like a poor system to me. I don’t use an app because of a rating. I don’t read a book because of a rating. In both cases, what gets me to the product is usually word-of-mouth. A friend tells me about it. I read about it in article or magazine or, better yet, a blog post. I’m even pestered in apps where I’ve paid to use the app. If I’ve paid to use an app, there probably isn’t a need to ask, “Do you like this app?” I wouldn’t have put down the cash if I hadn’t.

Of course, the “Do you like this app?” question is another form the endless surveys that get sent out for just everything these days. When I take my car in for routine service, before I get home, I have an email asking me how my service was, and encouraging me to give them the highest possible rating since jobs and livelihoods are on the line. Uber and Uber Eats constantly wants to know how well things are going. With the latter, it’s not just the delivery service they want to know about, it’s the quality of each specific item I ordered. Recently, I opened a ticket with our city to have our old microwave oven picked up during trash collection. After the pickup was completed, I got an email asking how they did1. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

It got me thinking: what about the services that don’t ask for feedback. I’ve never gotten a message from the I.R.S. asking “Did you enjoy your tax experience this year?” I’ve never had a visitor to the doctor or dentist which was followed up by a request: “Did you like your recent colonoscopy?” And if so, would you leave a review, preferably, a 5-star review?

I stopped replying to most surveys a long time ago. My primary reason for doing so was that if I replied to every survey I got, I wouldn’t have time for things like, reading to my kids, going for evening walks with Kelly, or pretty much doing things I enjoy. It bothers me that some apps and companies survival depends on the reviews they get from customers, whether or not they are honest reviews, or someone rapidly filling out a 5-star rating just to get it over with. I wish there was a better system, but if there is, I’m not smart enough to figure out what it should be.

On a completely separate and unrelated note: Do you like this post? If so, you can click the “Like” button below. If not, well, [unprintable.] 😉

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  1. They came as they said they would, but by the time they got here, someone had already grabbed up the microwave, either for scraps, or some nefarious microwave experiment.

When a Phone Is No Longer a Phone

pexels-photo-699122.jpeg
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

We need a new term for the devices many (if not most) of us carry around in our pockets. I have an iPhone, as do the other members of the family. Several times a day, I hear things like, “Has anyone seen my phone?” “There’s an alarm going off on your phone.” “Mom, you just got a message on your phone.” “Put your phones away, it’s not device time.” However, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I’m on a call,” or “you’re phone is ringing.” We use these devices constantly, but we rarely use them as phones in the classical sense.

Thinking about this, I checked the call history on my own phone. There are dozens of “missed” calls because I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. In the month of September (it being the evening of September 30 as I write this) I made 4 calls from my phone. I received two calls from numbers that I recognized and answered. 6 calls in a month. Meanwhile, I use my “phone”constantly for reading email, text messages, as well as audio books, reading newspapers, keeping up with social media, and occasionally watching shows like the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, or Ted Lasso.

The “reading” screen on my “phone.”

As someone who spans the digital divide, a phone, to me, is the thing on the wall in the kitchen with the cord that always gets tangled and can never be untangled, though which you talk to friends and family at a distance. For my kids, a phone is where you watch YouTube videos and from which you make TikTok videos, as well as play Minecraft or Roblox. It seems to me, we need a new name, something that better represents what this device is.

Sometime in the late 1990s (I think) someone coined the term “personal digital assistant”, or PDA for short. Unfortunately, PDA became a popular shortening of “public display of affection” which makes it an awkward candidate for an alternate name for a phone.

“Smart” phone is frequently used. I see references to smart phone everywhere, but this doesn’t work for me because it seems patently silly. The phone is not smart. It may make its users seem smart, but let’s not kid anyone that it is the phone that is smart. Then, too, “smart phone” still refers to “phone” which is the thing I am trying to avoid.

Taking some inspiration from the science fiction world, “brain pal” came to mind. Brain pal, of course, comes from Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. For something I carry around in my pocket, however, brain pal doesn’t seem to fit all that well.

What about “computer”? After all, a phone really is just a computer, all miniaturized down into a hand-sized package? These days, however, phones often do more than computers. The take photos and videos; they have all kinds of biometric capabilities. They can detect changes in surroundings, can identify their location on the globe, and even their altitude above or below sea-level. “Computer” seems a little too mundane.

When all is said and done, “phone” is likely the best we can do, and I suppose we are stuck with it. Rather than change the term, we just have to understand that the meaning has evolved, and we need to evolve along with it. We did it with albums. An album used to to be a record, a flat disk that you played with a needle on a turntable. Albums had tracks that ran around them and represented individual songs. We still use the term “album” although we usually don’t mean the disk, and we use the term “track” to mean a digitally stored piece of music. Those terms have evolved into what they are today and are commonly accepted. I guess I’ll need to do the same for “phone.”

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The New Chair Has Arrived

A few days ago I mentioned that I needed a new office chair. I had been putting off getting one for a while, and I finally bit the bullet and ordered one. The new chair arrived yesterday, and I’ve been using it for about 24 hours now. Like anything new, it takes a little getting used to. I think it is a better quality chair than the old one, but is similar in its overall look and feel. Here is the new chair and the old one side-by-side.

a side-by-side image of the new and old chair.
The new chair (left) and old chair (right)

The new chair has that extra head rest, which I am a bit dubious about. I rarely sit back in a way that would make the head rest useful. The new chair is firm and comfortable, however, and it doesn’t squeak or groan when I sit on it. All the mechanisms are smooth and easy. And it has a new chair smell

Of course, now that I have a new chair I spent a fair amount of time standing at my desk today. It means less wear and tear on the chair and so maybe it really will last me into my retirement.

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The Power and Beauty of Slow Books

There are some books that I read quickly. I finish them off in a few hours. There are other books that take longer because they are much longer reads. In December, for instance, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books. Those are really big books, and even at my usual pace, it took me the better part of a week to finish just one of them. Then there are slow books.

Slow books are book that seem almost designed to be read slowly. These are not boring books; I don’t me slow in terms of pacing. Rather, these are books that I need to savor, and that, like a rich chocolate cake, I can’t take in large doses. I call these slow books because it can take months for me to finish one. Take, for instance, my current slow book, The Diaries of John Quincy Adams.

Each night, before I go to sleep, I read a few of JQA’s diary entries, making my way from the beginning and following along with Adams’ thoughts and opinions as his life progresses. Some nights, I read a single entry, which may be half a page. Other nights, I might read two, three, or more. Usually, I don’t spent more than 10 minutes, but I do think about what Adams writes, occasionally conversing with him in the margins. For instance, the other night I came across this passage in which Adams records his arguments from a debate class at Harvard. Within it he writes:

But when the Passions of the People, conscious of their Liberty and strength are raised, they hurry them into the greatest extremities; an enraged multitude, will consult, but their furry and their Ignorance serves only to increase their Obstinacy, and their Inconsistency.

“From 1787 Adams foresees 2021,” I scribbled in the margin beside this passage. But of course, this isn’t a hard prediction to make if you’ve read a lot of history, and Adams’ certainly had by this point. I’ve read quite a few presidential biographies, and in my own estimation, John Quincy Adams was probably the most intelligent person ever to serve as President of the United States. I don’t say he was the best. His father, John Adams, is my favorite president, but I also don’t consider him nearly the best either. I appreciate JQA’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, however, and also his refection and attempts at self improvement. In another passage, he writes,

I believe I should improve my reading to greater advantage, if I confined myself to one book at a time; but I never can. If a book does not interest me exceedingly it is a test to me to go through it; and I fear for this reason, I shall never get through Gibbon. Indolence, indolence I fear will be my ruin.

In the margin I wrote, “Me, too.” I know just how JQA feels. I should focus on only one book, but there are so many out there, and so little time.

Even while reading other books, each night, I dip into JQA’s diaries and read some more. It is the perfect kind of book to read before bed. It settles my mind. It narrows my focus away from all of the usual distractions of the day. JQA didn’t have constant notifications popping up on his iPhone. Other distractions, perhaps, but not that one. His eyes weren’t glued to screens for the better part of the day. This is why I try to read slow books on paper. The last few minutes before bed are spent off screens, looking at the printing page, scribbling thoughts in the margins. A slow book like this helps clear my head before bed.

How slow is a slow book like this? Well, the 2-volumes in this set (not nearly Adams’ complete diary but representative selections from it) total about 1,400 pages. Some nights I get through half a page, others two or three. Occasionally I skip a night. Call it two pages per night. At that rate, it will take about a year to get through each volume. That’s okay, though. It is something I look forward to before bed each night, and it means that I can put off trying to figure out what my next slow book will be for another two years or so.

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Perfect Stories

One of the things I love about baseball is that it is possible to have a “perfect game.” A perfect game is one in which a pitcher faces 27 batters, and not one of them gets on base. There are no hits, no walks, no one hit by a pitch, no one ever making it on base. Period. The perfect game, as you might imagine, is incredibly rare. From 1903 to the present, the era of “World Series” baseball, spanning 118 years, there have been 21 perfect games. In that same period of time, there have been approximately 220,000 regular season baseball games. That’s one perfect game for every 10,500 games played, which is itself about 4-5 seasons of baseball.

Like an elusive perfect game, I think stories can be perfect, too. The guidelines for a perfect story are not as well-defined as those of a perfect game, but I suspect they are just as rare, and just as impressive. In all of my reading, I’ve encountered only a handful of what I consider perfect stories.

My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man
My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

My list of perfect stories, and the writers who wrote them, are:

  1. “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury. You can find this one in The Illustrated Man.
  2. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” by Harlan Ellison. You can find this one in Slippage.
  3. “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov. This one appears in The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories
  4. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. This one appears in my favorite Stephen King collection of novellas, Different Seasons.
  5. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. It turns out this one is currently available online, on Gizmodo
  6. “Understanding Entropy” by Barry N. Malzberg. This one can found in In the Stone House.
  7. “A Death” by Stephen King, making him the only author with 2 perfect stories on my list. I wrote about “A Death” when it first came out. This story can be found in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

I’ve never tracked the stories I’ve read in the way I keep track of the books I’ve read, but I would guess that by now, I’ve read thousands of short stories. These are the 7 out of all those thousands that, to me, are the fictional equivalent of the perfect game. Over the years, I’ve tried to think about what makes a story “perfect” in my mind. I think it involved a couple of factors:

  • After reading it the first time, when it seems that any possible change would diminish the story, it is a sign that it is perfect.
  • A perfect story keeps me thinking about it for a long time after I’ve read it.
  • A perfect story gets better with each re-read.
  • A perfect story involves a deep appreciation of the craft involved in its creation, in much the way one can marvel at the skill of a pitcher who tosses a perfect game.

There are some stories that have come close to perfection–these are the no-hitters of the short fiction world. This list is obviously longer, but here are three that immediately come to mind as close to perfect:

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that there is probably such as thing as a perfect essay as well. But I’ll save my list of perfect essays for another time.

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In Need of a New Office Chair

Apparently, chairs die. I’m not exactly sure when I got my current office chair, but I think it was at least 7 years ago. Since I work mostly from home these days, I sit on the chair a lot, and the wear and tear takes its toll. The chair squeaks constantly these days. WD-40 works for a day or so before the squeaking starts up again. Then, too, the mesh in the seat of the chair has developed holes. Moreover, it has been stretched to the point where it rests upon the pole supporting the seat, which isn’t particularly comfortable. It reminds me of that Leslie Nielsen line from The Naked Gun: “The truth hurts, doesn’t it? Sure, not as much as jumping on a bicycle without a seat. But it hurt.”

This evening, I finally ordered a new office chair. It is not a particularly fancy chair, like the Aeron chair I had in my office at work. But it is a step up from the chair I have today. And if it manages to last another 7 years it will be well worth the cost.

Not long ago, I ordered a new desk. My old desk was falling apart, like my chair is today. The desk I ordered was a sit-stand desk. It was my idea that it would be good to stand for at least part of the day, and for a while, that is just what I did. Recently, Grace has commented that she never sees me actually standing at the desk. What does she know? She is in school all day. The truth is that I have been sitting more than I have been standing lately.

My intentions were good when I got the desk. After a while, I told myself that I would stand during meetings. I tend to have a lot of meetings and so I figured that would be good. But then, I’d forget to stand during the meeting, and not remember until after. Getting a new chair probably won’t help the situation much, especially if it is a comfortable chair. Besides, I get out for a 2-1/2 mile walk each morning and usually go for another 2 mile walk with Kelly in the evenings, so I am getting plenty of time standing, right?

If I am being perfectly honest, however, I have to admit that I sat at my desk all day today. I woke up this morning with the goal of consolidating 4,000 lines of Groovy Script as much as I possibly could. I wanted to the code to be reusable. The fact that there was 4,000 lines of code in the first place was pure laziness on my part. So I sat in my broken chair at 8 am and begin consolidating code, writing functions that handle repetitive task, generalizing things. With the exception of an hours break for lunch and my afternoon nap, I didn’t stop until just after 6 pm. Days like that typically result in what I call a code-coma. It is hard to come out of the weeds and back into the world after focusing on code for nearly 10 hours. But I succeeded! Sitting there in my broken chair, I consolidated 4,000 lines of code into 650. Not bad, if you ask me.

It is sometimes difficult to get out of these code comas. Kelly suggested dinner at a local beer garden this evening. On the way there, we stopped to get passport photos of the three kids. We are planning a trip to Ireland next summer, and the kids will need passports for that. So we got their photos and then headed to the beer garden. The evening was just about perfect. The beer was good, the burger was okay, and it was just what I needed to lift me out of that code coma.

Back home, I sat in this broken chair, trying to decide what to write about, and finally settled on the chair itself. The new chair is due to arrive on Wednesday. If nothing else, I’ll post a short update when the new chair is installed and ready for use.

It turned out to be a productive day in this broken old chair of mine. I consolidated 4,000 lines of code down to 650. We got the kids passports photos taken care of. (The actual passport appointment is Friday morning.) I managed to get a fair amount of reading done on my walks. I had a nice dinner with the family. And it occurred to me that today was important for one other reason. It is September 27, 2021, which means today, I am 49-1/2 years old. That may not seem particularly significant to you, but to me, it means that I have ten years–3,652 days–until I retire. Then 10-year countdown clock begins today. Assuming things continue more or less as they have been these last 27 years, I will retire just shy of my 37th anniversary with the company. I’m good with that. Zach will be about to graduate from college; Grace will be at the beginning of her junior year in college; and the Littlest Miss will have just started high school I’m okay with that, too.

Maybe, if I stand at my standing desk a little more each week than I have been, I can stretch the life of my new office chair to 10 years. When I retire, as a retirement present, I can buy myself a new office chair.

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My Initial Thoughts on Apple TV’s Adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (with Spoilers)

SPOILERS AHEAD: Given my initial apprehensions about Apple TV’s adaptation of Foundation, and my many readings of Asimov’s series of the years, I couldn’t find a way to write this post without including spoilers both to the two episodes that have appeared thus far, and to the books. If you have not yet watched the first two episodes of Apple TV’s Foundation, or have not read the Foundation novels and plan to either, be warned: spoilers to both lie here within.

This past Friday, I sat down to watch the first two episodes of Apple TV’s production of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. If you are here to find out if my apprehensions were well-founded, or if I liked what I saw, and want to avoid any spoilers, read no further than the next three sentences: I loved it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I watched it a second time on Sunday.

To understand why I enjoyed it as much as I did requires knowing something about the Foundation stories, and that is why spoilers are required. If you are not interested in anything more than whether or not I liked it, you have the answer now, and can stop reading. Thanks for stopping by. If you are curious as to why I think it so good, thus far, read on, but be warned, spoilers follow.

1. Understand that this is an adaptation

I went into this with the clear recognition that this was an adaptation of Asimov’s work. Adaptations, at least good ones, are not meant to be strict copies of the original canon. They bring to bear the views and artistic insights of those involved in adapting the story. Some adaptations are bad: the 2004 adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I. Robot is one example, in my opinion. There was very little of the heart of the robot stories in that movie. A good adaptation maintains the heart of the original and builds upon it. Think of The Shawshank Redemption. It is an outstanding adaptation to an outstanding story, but it is not an exact copy. There are important changes that make it different, interesting, and yet you can see the core there, and how it was built upon.

The core is there in Apple TV’s Foundation. Almost from the outset, we hear the names “Salvor Hardin”, “Hober Mallow”, and “the Mule.” We hear them in the voice of Gaal Dornick, who in addition to playing a pivotal role in the story, acts as the episodes’ narrator. And even that stays true to the original stories. In “The Encyclopedists,” written in 1950 as a kind of prequel to the original Foundation stories (which themselves were written in the 1940s), we are told:

…the best existing authority we have for the details of [Hari Seldon’s] life is the biography written by Gaal Dornick, who, as a young man, met Seldon two years before the great mathematician’s death.

2. Depth and background has been added to the story

But Gaal Dornick is not a young man in the Apple TV adaptation; she is a young woman and one with an interesting background. This is an example of the depth and background that as been added to the story in the adaptation.

Isaac Asimov wrote about ideas. He wasn’t much for backstory, and where it existed in his original Foundation stories, it was there to further the ideas about which he wrote. Readers have often complained, for instance, that many of Asimov’s stories, including the early Foundation stories, completely lacked women. Asimov argued that at the time he wrote these stories (he was 21 when he started the first Foundation story) he had no experience with women. That is a flaw in the Foundation stories that he attempts to correct in some of the later stories.

In Apple TV’s Foundation, the adaptation faces this head-on. Gaal Dornick is woman. Salvor Hardin is a woman. And perhaps best of all, Eto Demerzel is a woman.

I loved the backstory given to Gaal Dornick, and I liked the idea of the triumvirate of Dawn, Day, and Dusk, that make up the cloned descendants of Cleon I who rule the empire. These are details that breathe life into characters originally written to serve ideas in the story, rather than be living, breathing people in their own right.

Raych is another character that has been introduced early, and here, things are more subtle, because Raych was fleshed somewhat in the latter Foundation novels in the 1980s. We know in the Apple TV adaptation that Raych is Hari Seldon’s son, but we know he is his adopted son. We don’t know much more than that.

3. Moving through time

Gaal Dornick narrates the story, and we see that story move between the “present” time, when the Foundation is on Terminus, 35 years after the trial of Hari Seldon. We see the mysterious Vault, and the kids who try to make it as far into the null field that surrounds the vault as they can, to plant their flag. We learn that Salvor Hardin, the “Warden” has made it the farthest of anyone, that she doesn’t seem to be affected by the null field. We don’t know what the null field is, or why it is there, or what it is hiding in the vault, other than rumors of a ghost.

Of course, if you’ve read the books, you have a good idea of what is going on here. The null field is a kind of mental barrier that can’t be passed by most people. And there is only one group who could create such a mental barrier. I’ll come to that a bit later.

The episodes set up short segments on Terminus in the present, and then flash back 35 years to the time when Hari Seldon’s predictions are revealed to the galaxy during his trial.

Once again, the heart of the Foundation stories are preserved here. The trial of Hari Seldon differs mainly in that Gaal Dornick is also on trial, and that she is there to verify his claims. A line from the original remains in the script, when the advocate in the trial presses Seldon on the fact that the empire has been around for 12,000 years and seems as strong as ever. In the book, Seldon says, “The rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of strength it ever had,” The Hari Seldon on screen in the adaptation says something very similar.

4. The core story is being told in the best way possible for the medium

Isaac Asimov had no idea where the stories where going when he wrote them. Remember, that the original Foundation trilogy was a collection of stories that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s. Asimov wrote the first without any idea of what would happen next. John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, tried to convince Asimov to produce an outline of the future history of the Galactic Empire, in much the same way Robert A. Heinlein had produced an outline for his Future History stories, but Asimov refused. That wasn’t how he worked.

Those adapting the story had an advantage that Asimov never had: they knew the entire story before they ever started out. And it was clear to me that they planned to take full advantage of that fact.

Serious spoilers ahead, so take heed.

I was delighted to see Eto Demerzel show up early in the first episode. Demerzel was introduced in the Foundation stories late in the game, in Prelude to Foundation, published in the late 1980s. If the Galactic Empire has been around for 12,000 years, well, guess what, Demerzel has been around longer. She has used different names, and appeared under different guises (including male guises) because Eto Demerzel is robot. We get hints of this in the second episode, when Dawn watches her repair herself from an injury she sustained.

She is not just any robot, however, she is a robot named R. Daniel Olivaw, who made is first appearance in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. While she appears as the Empire’s advisor, she is an ally of Hari Seldon and his cause.

Hari Seldon always intended for the Foundation to be established with imperial support, but away from the eyes of the empire. He used his predictive science of psychohistory to try to get the Foundation established on Terminus–and his plan succeeded. But there is a question that no one has yet asked: his science is predictive; how then, did he manipulate events in his favor?

There is a scene in the first episode that gives a clue. On her journey from Synnax to Trantor, Gaal experience the Jump–that passage through hyperspace that allows a galaxy-spanning empire to exist in the first place. Passengers are put to sleep during the jump because, as the spy Jerill says, “Your mind might separate from your body.” Except that Gaal awakens during the sleep and sees the passage. One of the Spacers asks, “How can you be awake?” and then puts her back out. What is it that makes Gaal different?

Toward the end of the first episode, we get a second hint. Just before terrorists blow up the star bridge, Gaal looks up to the sky and tells Hari that the sky is not right, that there is something wrong with the bridge. How did she know before it happened?

The answers to these question, I suspect, lie with the idea that the adaptation has been created with full knowledge of the events of the Foundation stories, and advantage Asimov did not have when he wrote them.

Consider: in the books, Hari Seldon never goes to Terminus. He has other business to attend to. In the adaptation, he goes with the team to Termius in the slow-ship, so that the journey takes over 5 years to get there. But, as we discover toward the end of the second episode, Seldon apparently dies–is killed, it would seem, and Raych, puts Gaal Dornick in an escape pod and launches her into space. It seems that with Seldon seemingly dead and Gaal gone, we are back on track.

I believe this is the writers attempt to setup the bigger reveal: Seldon, along with Gaal and likely with the help of Demerzel, return to Trantor to establish the second Foundation. The second Foundation is the secret Foundation. It is the one that must work in secret for it is the one that can manipulate history through subtle mental abilities that can influence people’s behavior. I suspect that Gaal’s waking up during the Jump, and her knowing there was something wrong with the star bridge before anything happened were clues that she was someone with this mental ability. At one point she says, “I could feel the Empire’s fear.” At another point, in the library after meeting with Gaal, Raych asks Hari for his impressions: “She solved Abraxis, of that I’m sure,” Seldon said, “As for the other thing…”

This mental ability is “the other thing” to which Seldon is referring.

5. Exciting possibilities

All of this makes for exciting possibilities. I can see the future episodes being split between the establishment of the first Foundation on Terminus, and the struggles they go through as they grow, develop, and begin to handle each of the “Seldon Crises” that arise in order to help minimize the duration of the Dark Ages. At the same time, with Seldon and Dornick back on Trantor, we have not only a view of the establishment of the Second Foundation, their secret role, but also a direct view into he fall of the Empire. This makes the most sense to me and it makes for dramatic episodic televisions as well.

6. Sense of wonder

After I watched the first two episodes of Foundation, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept thinking about it. It was a visual marvel. And what occurred to me is that I was seeing much of what I imagined when I first read the books. Gaal’s reaction to Trantor was my own. I never questioned it, and it felt like what I was seeing was the Trantor I had always imagined. The feeling lingered, and just before I decided to watch the two episodes a second time, I realized what that feeling was: it was the sense of wonder that attracted me to science fiction in the first place. It has been a long time since I’d felt that sense of wonder. The fact that Apple TV’s adaptation of Foundation could generate that sense of wonder within me probably explains, to a large extent, why I loved the first two episodes so much.

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Why Give Up Napping?

apartment bed carpet chair
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The most frequent piece of advice I get when complaining that I don’t sleep well at night is: give up your nap. Kelly has suggested this a number of times, as have people I’ve complained to about my poor night’s sleep. I’m not sure these people appreciate the value of a good afternoon nap.

My sleeping problems are relatively new. They coincide with the pandemic, were much worse during those stressful early months, got a little better, and have settled on a kind of mediocre plane, just mediocre enough to be annoying. Taking a page from business writer Jim Collins1, I rate my sleep on a scale of -2 (the worst) to +2 (the best), with 0 begin a perfectly satisfactory night’s sleep. Prior to the pandemic, my sleep was generally in the range of 0-to-1. During the pandemic it has fluctuated between -2 and 0 with a rare 1 in there out of sheer exhaustion. The thing is, in pre-pandemic days, my average was generally above 0. In other words, better than satisfactory. And I was napping then, too. This makes me suspicious of any advice suggesting that napping is the cause of my sleeping problems.

I’m not certain of when it began, but I have diary entries from the mid-1990s referring to my lunchtime naps in my office at work. I’d close my door during lunch and nap for a little while. Eventually, this evolved in the following daily routine: (1) eat for 10 minutes, (2) read for 20 minutes, (3) nap for 30 minutes. When it came to napping, I had a sweatshirt I kept in a desk drawer that I used as a pillow. I put my head down on my desk, or later, my meeting table, rested it on my makeshift pillow, and usually I was out in seconds, waking feeling refreshed when thirty minutes had expired. I never seemed to oversleep.

When the Littlest Miss was born, this napping evolved. I would nap with her. When she was an infant, I’d cradle her in my arms, sitting in the rail chair in our bedroom, and rock her to sleep, rocking myself to sleep at the same time. As she got older, she and I would take post-lunchtime naps together. This summer, she began growing out of napping, but since I have been napping at lunch since the mid-1990s, I have not. After lunch, I head down to the guest room (Kelly is often working in our bedroom) and nap. Just like those days in my office, I fall asleep in seconds, and wake feeling refreshed.

Indeed, my afternoon naps seem to be the only sleep I get that feels quite, peaceful, and undisturbed, even by dreams. For me, just a little good sleep is better than a lot of bad sleep. Why would I give up such good sleep, knowing it would likely make little difference for the bad sleep? I’ve gave up caffeine in order to improve my sleep at night, and it didn’t seem to do any good. (For the sleep, that is. Since I was a big caffeine addict, it was probably good for me regardless.) Why give up napping?

I was thinking about all of this as I went downstairs for my afternoon nap yesterday. There, on the dresser in the guest room, was a paperback copy of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. I’d never seen it before, and assumed it was Kelly’s2. Curious, I picked it up as I settled under the covers and read a few pages. Pages 4-5 cover the basics: the things we really need to know, and right there between “Live a balanced life,” and “watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together” was this gem:

Take a nap every afternoon.

That triggered a memory and as I sat down to write this essay, I pulled every Andy Rooney book from my shelves, searching for something I knew he’d written about the joy of naps. I found it in his 1986 essay collection, Word for Word, back when his books still went under the byline Andrew A. Rooney. There, on pages 279-281 was an essay aptly titled, “Napping.” Rooney writes,

Naps are underrated. I don’t know why we dismiss napping as an inconsequential little act. The word itself doesn’t even sound important. I think everyone should get off his or her feet and lie down for a few minutes at some point during a long day.

He continues,

Napping got a bad reputation somewhere along the line and I resent it. For some reason, people who don’t nap feel superior to those who do. Nappers try to hide it. They don’t let on that they drop off once in a while because they know what other people will say.

Indeed! They will say things like, “Maybe you should give up napping in order to get a better night’s sleep,” when in fact, it was only recently that my nighttime sleeping has been impacted. I slept perfectly well for 23 years before the pandemic and took a daily lunchtime nap during that time, too. It is really the nap that is a problem? Of course, a non-napper would argue that if I hadn’t been napping during those 23 years, I might have slept even better at night.

In another essay, “How To Sleep” in his 2006 book Out of My Mind, Rooney writes,

I usually get six or less [hours of sleep at night], but then I get sleepy after lunch and ruin my night’s sleep with a nap. A five-minute nap seems to mean as much as an hours sleep at night. I realize I’m luckier than most because I’ve been on the job for so long at CBS that I have a couch in my office. I’d rather have the couch than a raise or another week off in the summer. Naps are one of the best things in life. They have all the good feeling of a night’s sleep without taking so much time. [Emphasis mine.]

Well, I like my afternoon naps. They are quiet, peaceful, daytime sleeping. The sun filters into the room making it bright and airy. I listen to a playlist that the Littlest Miss and I fell asleep to together back in her napping days (all of two months ago), and it is the only time I can actually seem to manage to sleep on my back. I fall asleep almost instantly and rest in a kind of dreamless reverie until I awaken naturally a little while later, feeling refreshed.

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  1. He rates his days on this scale. Checkout his interview with Tim Ferris on Episode #361 of the Tim Ferris Show podcast for more details.
  2. It was. She dug it out of a box in the attic while looking for something else.

Autumn Has Arrived! Throw Open the Windows!

red leaf trees near the road
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Each year it seems that the period of time in which we can throw open the windows in the house grows shorter and shorter. Mid-spring, say April 15 – May 15 is one such period. Mid fall–October 15 – early November–is another. During those times, the temperature outside is normally just right. We can open the windows and enjoy fresh air. The air is not humid. It is a little cooler than inside the house, which always feels nice. Yesterday was the first day of fall, and today, after the rain passed, the sky had that soft color that is one indication that autumn is upon us. The temperatures dropped and this evening, it was finally cool enough to allow us to throw open the windows.

There are twelve windows in my office and I opened a bunch of them this evening. The sliding glass door out to the deck is open. The front window in the living room is open. Several bedroom windows are open. Some windows downstairs are open. The air in the house feels wonderful.

windows open in my office

I sleep better with the windows open, but just about everyone else in the house gets congested when they sleep with the windows open so I can rarely do it. Tonight would be a great night to sleep with the windows open. The crickets are loud and lull me to sleep. I would love to live in a place where we could throw open the windows for most of the spring and fall. (I would not love to live in a place where there was no spring and fall.)

Fall is my second favorite season, right behind spring. Summer is hot and humid from start to finish. Winter is cold, and occasionally snowy. Spring is great because everything comes alive again. Fall is the opposite, with nature making slow preparations to bed down for the winter. Of all of the places I’ve ever been in the fall, New England seems about the perfect place to be and I’m often envious of the people I know who live there during this time of the year.

Fall means the end of the baseball season, the playoffs, and the Fall Classic, also known as the World Series. Fall is better for reading books. Yesterday, on the first day of fall, I finished reading the new Walt Longmire book, Daughter of the Morning Star by Craig Johnson. Last night, since it was the first day of fall, I lay in bed with the window open (closing it before I went to sleep) and read Ken Follett’s short book, Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals. Some of my favorite books I’ve ever read, I read in the fall1. The first time I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury was in the fall. The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear I read in during fall. The first time I read Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella it was fall. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was a fall read.

I often want to open the windows in the summer, but it is too hot and humid. Occasionally, on a more mild winter day, I’ll crack open a window, especially in the bathroom when I shower. The cold air always feels good. In the summer, when I can see the heat rising from the pavement, I always have a hard time remembering what winter is like. In the winter, when the ground is icy and I have to bundle up to go outside, I always have a hard time remembering what summer is like. In both summer and winter, I often look forward to spring and fall because I know I’ll be able to open the windows again.

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  1. For a complete list, go to the list of what I’ve read since 1996 and in the search box, type any of the following: -09- or -10- or -11-, and you’ll see all the books I’ve reading Septembers, Octobers, and Novembers respectively.

Foundation Day

Today, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation makes its television debut on Apple TV+. I haven’t watched it yet, but I plan to watch the first two episodes, which were released last night, before the end of the day. It has been a long journey from original concept to the silver screen. H.B.O. attempted to do it and failed. Isaac Asimov first got the idea for Foundation on August 1, 1941. It was 8 months before the first story, “Foundation” appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The story was written before the United States had entered the Second World War and was published after we’d entered the war. Today’s debut of the series marks just over 80 years from first concept of the story to appearance on television.

The original 1942 “Foundation” story is not the story that appears at the beginning of the first Foundation novel. That novel, and the two that followed, were fixups–collections of the original stories woven together in a more seamless narrative. The first part of the Foundation novel, “The Encyclopedists” was actually written in 1950. The original 1942 “Foundation” story makes up the second part of the Foundation novel. In the original story, Hari Seldon made only brief appearance during his life at the very beginning of the story. It was only with the addition of “The Encyclopedists” that Seldon was introduced more fully during his life.

The original “Foundation” story in my copy of the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

I’ve written a fair amount about Foundation here on the blog. My post popular Foundation post is one I wrote back in 2009. It’s a post aimed to recommend the best order in which to read the original Foundation books called “If you are planning on reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation…” That post has received more than 50,000 views in recent years, which isn’t bad, considering it is something I wrote in 12 years ago. In recent weeks, I’ve seen a big uptick in interest in that post. More recently, I wrote some thoughts on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and the Apple TV+ adaptation. During my Vacation in the Golden Age, when I went through the first 40+ issue of Astounding Science Fiction beginning with the July 1939 issue, I wrote more about Foundation in Episode 35.

Although Foundation is probably Isaac Asimov’s most popular science fiction novel, it is not my favorite Asimov fiction. That title belongs to his story, “The Bicentennial Man” which makes my very short list of “perfect” stories. (Also on that list: Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man” and Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.”) Foundation is a novel of ideas, not so much emotion. There is much more of the latter in Asimov’s later fiction (Forward the Foundation is my favorite of the series) and “The Bicentennial Man” is the height of this. There was a mediocre movie made of “The Bicentennial Man” starring Robin Williams. It wasn’t bad, it just doesn’t capture the beauty of the original story. This is part of the reason for the trepidation I have this morning as I get ready to watch Foundation. Will the Apple TV adaptation do the story justice?

Come back in a few days and I’m sure I’ll have some answers to this question. In the meantime, if you watch Foundation on Apple TV, I hope you enjoy it, and I hope even more that it encourages you to check out the Foundation novels, and go beyond and find more of Asimov’s fiction and nonfiction that you’ll enjoy as well.

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