Chris Dzombak

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Now, Jan. 2021

Now, Jan. 2021

For a while now, I haven’t felt very much like blogging. This isn’t unusual; looking at my posting history on this site it’s clear that I tend to post in spurts lasting somewhere from one to four years. In the past this was largely because I got bored with blogging or got too busy with other projects. But this most recent lull has felt a little different, for I think a few reasons.

First, I’m tired of the Internet. Like a lot of my friends, I’ve recently retreated into dark forests: private or semi-private chat groups, to the detriment of this blog and most of my other public social media accounts.

Second, perhaps more importantly, I’ve grown this feeling that every silly little blog post here has to be deeply insightful, well-researched, in-depth — basically, perfect. I don’t know where this feeling came from, but the important part is: nothing I’ve thought of to put on this website is up to that bar.

I’m trying to break away from that way of thinking. The three recent posts here are not insightful essays for the ages, but they’re write-ups of stuff I’ve been making the past couple of years. And that’s good enough. That’s all this blog was supposed to be: notes on stuff I’ve been doing and thinking.

Today, inspired by my friend Jason’s most recent post, I’m writing my version of a “now” page or, I suppose, a “now” post.

This is an incomplete, unfocused list of what I’ve been doing and thinking recently. A lot of these, too, are things I’d like to expand on in future blog posts:

Reading: One recent highlight is Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. In addition to being a great speaker, he’s a very good writer and narrator, and this book is providing some insight about his time as president (and reminding me how lucky we were to have such an intelligent, articulate leader).

As an aside, I appreciated Jason linking to Austin Kleon’s “On reading more than one book at a time,” because I absolutely do this, but I only started recently — like, in the last couple of years. I don’t know when or why I started reading only one book at a time, but combined with my reluctance to abandon a book (which I’m also unlearning!) this meant I could get stuck partway through a book that didn’t resonate with me. This could mean I ended up just not reading anything for many weeks. I’m happy I’ve figured out I can read as many books as I want, and that if I’m not getting into one it’s okay to put it away.

Over the past year or two I’ve read almost all of Peter F. Hamilton’s books: certainly all his space operas, and most of the other books & stories he’s written that I was able to find. I’m a picky and unusual sci-fi reader — I can’t make it through a Neal Stephenson book to save my life — but Hamilton’s books brought me back to the days when I’d stay up too late reading Harry Potter because I just couldn’t put it down.

If you have recommendations in a similar vein, or particularly if you know of any space opera-style sci-fi written by women, please let me know. (Goodreads has this list, but firsthand recommendations would be helpful.)

I’ve also read almost everything I can find by Robin Sloan. Interestingly, he — like me — is from Michigan and familiar with the tech world. His books and stories are a surreal, fictional blend of science & tech, mystery, and depending on the book, food or literature or something else entirely. He also does some interesting programming projects; I loved his essay about generating music for one of his audiobooks with a neural network, and he’s started work on a unique video game. Honestly, I’m jealous of his skillset.

The Kindle Fire: Before the pandemic, I realized I basically never used my iPad, and I gave it to my sister, who actually does productive things with it. But I still wanted something iPad Mini sized, to use solely for reading Instapaper. A full-size iPad is too big; my iPhone is too small. (iPads are expensive, too, especially for something I’ll realistically use for a couple hours a month.) So a few months ago I bought a “Fire HD 8 Plus” tablet from Amazon, and I installed Instapaper and a Feedbin client app whose name I can’t recall. It works fine. Not great, not bad, just fine. I wish the UI was a bit more responsive, and I wish the screen was higher-density (Retina screens have spoiled me), but it was cheap and I can read Instapaper on it, so I’m happy enough.

TV: I couldn’t possibly remember everything I’ve watched during the pandemic. (How surreal is it that we’re all using phrases like “before/during the pandemic” in day-to-day life now?)

Most recently I really enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit, on Netflix, and we’re currently watching Lupin on Netflix, which I’d highly recommend. I’ve ordered an English translation of the book it’s based on, Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief by Maurice Leblanc, and I can’t wait for it to arrive. Ronny Chieng’s Asian Comedian Destroys America!, also on Netflix, was one of my recent favorite stand-up specials.

Of course, re-watching Parks and Recreation is a favorite winter pastime.

Brisket: A few weeks ago I got a Weber charcoal grill from a friend who was moving and decided to smoke a brisket in it. This was definitely a learning experience, but it turned out deliciously and I’m looking forward to trying again.

Brisket (Jan 17)

Chickens: My house came with an empty backyard chicken coop, so I’d been thinking on and off for a while about getting chickens. Last summer I decided I wanted to actually do it, so we bought three Isa Brown hens. We now have more eggs than we need; thankfully, we’re able to give some away to nearby friends and neighbors.

They’re helping!

Indoor cycling: Just like I have the past few winters, I’m working through a TrainerRoad training plan. Riding indoors is boring, but it’s keeping me relatively healthy and sane, and I’m using the time to watch The Simpsons and Halt and Catch Fire.

Improving my personal SSH setup: I definitely want to write a blog post on this in the future. Historically, I’ve used a pretty basic SSH setup for my personal projects: my user account on every laptop/desktop/server had its own key in ~/.ssh, and I’d try to keep the authorized_keys lists on all the servers more-or-less up-to-date. This presents a number of obvious security problems.

Now, my SSH keys are stored only on a few Yubikeys; there’s no key material stored on any computer for an attacker to steal. SSH agent forwarding is used to allow me to connect from one server to another, or fetch code or configuration files from GitHub.

I’ve also had to figure out how to make agent forwarding work well with long-lived screen sessions and work out a few other details. That was a fun, interesting, and rewarding project.

Getting rid of iTunes, iCloud Music Library, iTunes Match, and the iOS Music app: A long, long time ago, I used iTunes to play music on my computers, the native Music app on my iPhone, and iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library to synchronize music to my phone.

Truth be told, I still don’t understand the relationship between iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library. It doesn’t matter; sometime around the time Apple Music was introduced, I decided to try it, which promptly screwed up my cloud music library in nonsensical, opaque ways. I canceled Apple Music and was able to restore my music library from a backup. A while later, I found that I couldn’t download a few specific tracks from my iCloud Music Library, no matter what I tried. At that point, I completely stopped trusting anything Apple does related to music in the cloud. I stored my music library on a Mac Mini here at home and synchronized it to my phone with iTunes.

Then, last year, my phone decided to delete its entire local music library. I think this was somehow related to me having to disable Apple Music, to keep its ads from popping up in the Music app. After my phone deleted my entire music library a couple more times (annoyingly, every iOS update seemed to reenable Apple Music and its ads), I decided to completely remove all Apple software from my music ecosystem, so that’s what I’ve done.

I still store my music library on a Mac Mini at home. It’s remotely accessible via Plex, so I can stream my music from anywhere, and that’s how I listen on my laptops. But none of the Plex client apps for the iPhone can reliably download an entire music library. I found the excellent Doppler music app for iPhone, and it works perfectly for my needs. I’ve been able to delete Apple’s Music app from my phone. Doppler’s developer says a macOS version of the app is in development, and I look forward to trying it out as soon as it’s released.

The only other problem was that I wanted to keep a lower-bitrate version of my music library on the iPhone, since it doesn’t have space for the full library with its high-bitrate and lossless files. (iTunes could do this natively as part of the sync process.) I wrote a tool, msync, to take care of this. It’s basically like rsync, except that while mirroring music it transcodes any files that exceed a certain (user-specified) bitrate to a lower bitrate.

I plan to go into this in more detail in another future blog post.

Microsoft Flight Simulator: I had tried and failed to get into flight simulators (X-Plane in particular) before, but after I saw the trailers and early reviews for this game I had to try it. It’s really, really good. I upgraded my desktop PC’s CPU and GPU and added more RAM so I could play at reasonably high quality settings, and the results are just gorgeous. To me, it feels quite realistic; flying a Cessna 152 across rural Michigan in the simulator really reminds me of flying one in real life back when I was taking flying lessons. (Fewer gas & exhaust fumes, though.)

I’ve been taking a lot of screenshots in this game; I need to find somewhere to publish them. (Maybe Flickr?) Where would you publish stuff like this?

Flying somewhere over Michigan in MSFS 2020

Bird watching: I never would’ve expected to be interested in this, but a while ago we stayed at a cabin in middle-of-nowhere Michigan for a socially-distant weekend getaway. The cabin had a bird feeder on the porch, right near some of the windows. It was surprisingly fun to watch the birds eat and chase each other around, and I found the free Merlin app, which is incredibly helpful for identifying different kinds of birds. We’ve since moved our bird feeder closer to the house.

Mourning Dove

There’s also a red-tailed hawk (I think) hanging out in our neighborhood, but I haven’t been able to get a good photo of it yet.

Raspberry Pi & the Pi 400: Jason mentioned that he recently got a Raspberry Pi to play with. I just got a Raspberry Pi 400 last month. I admit I bought it largely because the design is very nice and echoes that of some classic 1980s computers which I wasn’t alive to use, but also I don’t have any other Linux desktop or laptop, and sometimes it’s useful to have one of those around.

Remind me to tell Jason: there are a bunch of neat things you can do with a Raspberry Pi! Some things I use them for: tracking airplanes around me in real time, as a tiny FM transmitter for my alarm clock, controlling my garage door from my phone (blog post on this in the future!), monitoring for power outages and gracefully shutting down various computing devices, and for playing old video games with RetroPie.

Regarding RetroPie: I’d been meaning to set this up for a while. I put a 4GB Raspberry Pi 4 in the Argon One case, which looks nice by the TV and adds a bit of cooling capacity. Setting up the RetroPie software is straightforward, and now we can play Galaga at home.

Speaking of computer gear…

The new Apple Silicon Macs: I don’t have one yet. I’ve been sorely tempted by the stellar reviews, but my personal laptop is a 15“ MacBook Pro. I don’t think I’d like to replace it by a 13“ one, if only because I need more ports than the current M1 MacBooks offer. The Mac Mini “home server” I mentioned earlier could be replaced, but its trade-in value is pretty low and it works fine, so I can’t justify replacing it. As soon as the 15“ MacBook Pros are released, though, I’ll probably get one of those. Especially if any of the recent rumors — more types of ports, no Touch Bar, an SD card slot — turn out to be true.

I’m not looking forward to the Big Sur upgrade, though. I’m still on Mojave, and while it’s unfortunate that some programs I’d like to try don’t support Mojave, I worry that Big Sur will disrupt some of my automation/AppleScript-heavy workflows.

Photography, and publishing it: During this pandemic, for the first time in a while, I’ve picked up my “real” camera (a Nikon D750) now and then. I kinda burned out on photography toward the end of college, when I was shooting two or three plays or musicals a week on top of 18 engineering credits, and I feel like I’m finally getting over that burnout.

As with my Flight Simulator screenshots, though, now I need somewhere to publish my photos for y’all to see! I’ve ruled out Instagram and Facebook, because I have those set to private these days, and because I’m trying to use them less in general. I’m also ruling out self-hosting as part of this website, because I want some amount of interactivity and a very easy upload process, which an application like Flickr provides. So I’m thinking the best thing to do is revive my Flickr account, which I haven’t posted to in ages. (Alternatives would be Tumblr and 500px, neither of which I’ve ever really understood.)

I’d also like to put together a “portfolio” site again, not because I anticipate doing any professional work, but just because it’s nice to have a highlights reel of sorts. My current Adobe subscription includes Adobe Portfolio, which looks well enough suited to the task.

Decentralized social media: Facebook is effectively a right wing PAC, and Twitter … is Twitter. I’d really like to use these services less. I’ve taken some steps — my old Tweets are erased automatically, I started, I made my Facebook and Instagram accounts private, more and more of my social activity takes place on Slack, Discord, or iMessage, and I check Facebook as rarely as possible — but I’d like to go further.

Look for some posts on these in the future: cutting down on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; decentralized alternatives like Mastodon, Pixelfed, and Bookwyrm; and automatically deleting old data of all sorts.

This site’s /etc page: I just want to mention that this exists, because it’s become the most frequently updated part of this site. It’s easy for me to toss a link on there for whatever I happen to be working on.

Pandemic-inspired hiking: The pandemic has motivated me to learn about and explore a lot of local parks that were completely new to us, despite having lived here for over a decade. There are plenty of nice places nearby for easy, few-mile hikes through the woods. Some of my recent favorites are Scio Woods Preserve, Stinchfield Woods, Pittsfield Preserve, Marshall Nature Area, and of course Saginaw Forest.

Crosswords and Sudoku: Another pandemic silver lining. With more time to kill, I’ve started doing more crosswords than ever before. The favorite is the NYT crossword, of course, but I also occasionally do the WSJ crossword, using Daniel Jalkut’s Black Ink app.

I’ve also learned Sudoku, and I’m slowly working on advanced techniques with the help of Zach Gage’s Good Sudoku iPhone app.

So, there you have it. That’s a lot of what I’ve been thinking about and doing lately.

I like Jason’s idea of trying to write a “now” post every month or so, and I’ll set a reminder for myself, but I don’t guarantee it’ll happen.

Stay safe.