Reading: January & February 2019

I’ve resolved to spend more time reading in 2019, with some more focus on short stories.

I resolved, in what is my only specific New Year’s resolution, to read 100 short stories in 2019, in addition to reading about the same amount, in total, of material as I did last year split among short fiction, novels and other things like non-fiction.

In January, I mostly started reading books I didn’t finish reading that same month. I started reading Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, a volume of Richard Matheson’s short fiction, a graphic novel, On a Sunbeam which Chessie got me for Christmas.

Books I finished reading in January were all ones I’m counting toward my goal of reading 100 stories in 2019. I enjoyed the ebook I read of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Stars Below. That story did an astounding job of making you feel close to the main character and to feel his loss and how he grows to replace that loss with some substitute that amounts to either passion or madness.

In thinking about the short stories and novellas I’ve been reading so far this year and at the tail end of last year, I think reading them in one sitting is critical. I read a Zelazny story, He Who Shapes but did so over the course of an entire week and I think that sapped it of its impact.

The other side of the Tor double novel was Kate Wilhelm’s The Infinity Box a story which I hated intensely for its main character who thinks about his conscience without allowing it to stir him and who is rendered vaguely except in his increasing disregard for anything but ongoing, total control of another person’s body. The character’s actions were disgusting and I finished it only to see if the story would see him punished or his victim overcome his domination but which ended with the narrator questioning the reality of their entire experience as possibly unreal. This seems a tremendous copout that pulls the rug out from any moral stand the story might be making. It’s possible I am just a poor reader of the story but I have to roll my eyes at the decision to reprint, let alone publish in the first place a story which ends on a rhetorical question worthy of a stoned creative writing student and destroyed what was in places a very good short story. That hamstringing of an ending is a big part of why I’m so angry about this story and it’s failure to deliver a meaningful, profound or even satisfying conclusion.

Being able to sit quietly and consume an entire book is always a great pleasure and the short story and novella allow you to do so more often. Tor and Subterranean Press often publish the perfect little books at 80 or 100 pages which perfectly scratch that itch. One late afternoon I sat down and read Warren Ellis’s novella Dead Pig Collector in a single sitting and have done that a few times with a story or two from the little Penguin volume of Matheson stories I’ve also been reading.

Those stories are all, as with the Twilight Zone adaptations little master classes in getting precisely to the point. They’re sparse little mechanisms that spring the terrifying or surprising little trap on you. In fact, them seem to work best when they’re simplest as in Counterfeit Bills, Shipshape Home, and Button, Button and less so when there’s more scene setting and world-building crammed into so small a space.

I haven’t made much time for reading lately and have felt either overwhelmed or unfocused at work, when I might normally read over my lunch break and too busy at home to carve out much time except my bedside reading of The Odyssey.

Cubesat Catalog

There appears to have been a lot of work in the last few years around the “small launch” segment of the spaceflight industry. Lots of companies are designing, building or flying rockets to compete for the market in getting small payloads into LEO, which has previously been done with extra space inside second-stage fairings in larger rockets.

So I’ve been wondering, how many of these have flown to date and what exactly have they been designed to do? Is there more going on in these small satellites than minor technical feasibility demonstrations? Do they all have low and quickly degrading orbits that don’t even allow them to do much useful work? How do they compare to early satellites from the first decades of spaceflight?

Via the wikipedia page on Cuebsats, I came across this astoundingly detailed website / database of cubesats which appears to be comprehensive: http://www.nanosats.eu/  

2 Cubesats in orbit
Image via NASA’s
CubeSat Launch Initiative Overview Page

The below chart of companies with constellation of small satellites is a little bit staggering, even if you only look at those companies which have already managed constellations of some size.

So, you can see that most of the satellites were launched by Planet and they’ve been doing so for years. They seem to have built a business on small, short lived 3U cubesats and selling access to the remote sensing data they collect. They offer some free access to their data for educators and students here.

The example here from Planet’s page for academics shows “Reef Atoll Damage” in the South China Sea, which is an interesting way to describe what could just as well be Chinese Naval base construction in one of the most hotly contested bodies of water in the world, in a clear nod to the ongoing and obvious important of remote sensing in all sorts of intelligence work. (Especially as one of their products allows you to request imaging of a particular area on demand. Why be a superpower with billions of dollars in clandestine remote sensing operations when you can just subcontract the whole thing out to these guys?)

Most of the orbits are fairly quick decaying, as you’d expect, but there have recently been two Deep Space cube-sats that were used as relays in the recent landing of NASA’s Mars Insight Lander. (As seen in this rendering below, via Wikipedia.)

NASA's
NASA’s MarCO CubeSats

The graphs below from Nanosats.eu gives a great idea of just how long any of these satellites can expect to stay up for given their orbits.

Most of those SSO (Sun Synchronous Orbit) satellites at 500km do various kinds of Earth-Observing work in roughly polar orbits, such as Spire, which appears to do weather and ship tracking in a slightly different remote sensing vein from Planet. Spire has a much more cyberpunk website and I approve of their aesthetic choices.

As new launch vehicles come online and the number of launches likely grow, I look forward to seeing more and more companies like Planet and Spire, ideally with a name like Wintermute.

Space Launch Report’s Worldwide Space Launch Box Score put 2018 at 114 launches, the first time since 1990 that there have been more than 100 launches in a year. I hope 2019 sees a similar worldwide cadence of 2 launches a week.

Finances in 2018 & 2019

2018 was unequivocally the year I started taking our household finances seriously.

I got us set up through the first months of the year with all our accounts in budgeting software called “You Need a Budget” (YNAB) and made a household budget and largely stuck to it.

The YNAB software is great, it is a stellar example of how software can help to shape your behaviour and help you to understand things. Adopting its way of thinking means I think about what I want my money to do, what my expenses are and it helps me to allocate that money for immediate and long-term expenses. It is also a spectacular web application. The best version of the software runs in your browser and works very well.

There are always multiple things to spend money on and the software helps you to figure out how to prioritize spending and saving that money. Being able to get a sense of what your money will be doing and how much you have and are allocating for a given purpose eases the anxiety of otherwise staring blankly at the checking account balance trying to add up the things you know will come out of it and hoping you still have money left when it starts again the next month.

The first and most important thing about our finances right now is getting rid of our consumer debt. (Which for us means any debt that isn’t my student loans or our mortgage.) Though at the start of 2018, I was too ambitious: I thought I’d be able to halve out debt in a year, which I wasn’t able to do. I made a dent, but a number of other things added back some of that debt. We understand where we’re at financially much better at the start of 2019 than we did in 2018. We’re never going to overdraw our checking account again and even as we shovel money into paying down our debts. We’re also earmarking money without consciously saving it. I put $80 a month into a category for our water bill and when we get a water bill every 3 months for about $240, we just cut a check we don’t worry about precisely when to do it.

Graph of 2018 net cash balances
Net Cash, 2018

We’ve managed to lower the amount of debt we’re in and mostly stabilize our other accounts. The graph here shows (with redacted totals) the total cash we have (savings and checking accounts minus credit card accounts). We had some setbacks and took on some more debt and spent more cash in 2018 than we could have guessed in January but that’s OK as long as we’re reducing our debt and putting away enough money for other expenses. Even with those setbacks, we’re in a much better place than we were at the start of the year and only going to get into a better place as the year moves on.

All in all, we’re set up to be in pretty good shape here in 2019 to finish paying off those debts. I have a spreadsheet with the plan and YNAB to help me get there. I think we’ll have it all paid off just in time for Chessie and I to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of our first date.

2019 is about getting ourselves all the way out of a hole and onto firm ground. I am hopeful we can carry out this plan to reduce our debt in 2019 and end 2019 in a very good position even as the unexpected happens. (As I write this the car is at the dealership getting a ton work work done which we’d only mostly anticipated and tax season approaches and has typically left us with a large bill…)

My goals in 2018 were:

  • Build up a month’s expenses in our main checking account: stop living paycheck to paycheck.
  • Add at least 15% to out savings.
  • Pay off at least half the outstanding balances on our credit cards & debts.

My goals for 2019 are much the same:

  • Have a month of expenses in checking accounts. Spend last month’s money this month. 1
  • Pay off our credit cards 100%. 2
  • Regular savings contributions, fixed amount per month. 3

There are other more detailed goals I’d like to hit, but I need to ignore those as they’re pretty far outside my control and I’m already going to be hard pressed to meet my savings balance goal with the car repairs I’m having done this week and next. An important part of goals are setting ones it is within my power to achieve and I think these fit that.


New year, new hosting

It’s 2019 and I am working on remaking some of my relationship with the internet. I’m hoping to slow down, stop compulsively logging into everyone’s favorite trash website twitter dot com. My actual favorite website these days is Space Launch Report.

I think I’ve struggled to do much more than receive the awful firehose of news that twitter so often is. (Holy shit so much awful stuff is happening so fast that you get anxious just trying to figure out how bad things are.) Around all that noise there is a lot of writing that is interesting, thought provoking and worth writing about. There is a lot to be said for thinking out loud, and something to be said about doing so in public.

In service of thinking-through-writing more in 2019, I’m switching to a new CMS which will get out of my way and let me write more. Last year I wrote:

Ultimately what we need is for the tools to get out of our way, for those tools to conceal or only gradually expose complexity. A tool is for accomplishing a task, like cutting wood or hammering a nail. If the handle of the saw or hammer is difficult or complicated to hold, it effectively gets in the way of allowing the user to preform the task they are attempting to accomplish. If I want to build a bookcase (publish a webpage) then if the handle of my saw requires too many unfamiliar things of me (use of git) then I allow the process of getting a grip on the saw to stop me from building the bookcase. I let the little roadblock stop me from doing the fulfilling thing and I’m stuck shuffling deck chairs.

Not only was Jekyll proving to be just a bit too complex a system for writing, but I was also paying for more hardware than I needed. I’ve sized my server down and will still save money even after paying for shared hosting here with Reclaim.

I’ll probably spend a fair bit of time writing here before I manage to move all my previous posts and domain name over entirely. Have to do a bit to add more serifs to fonts here as well.

Image of red maple leaves lit by the sun
Fall foliage in the Adirondack: Oct 5, 2018.
Taking a moment to appreciate Fall weather when writing from a cold winter’s night in mid-January.

For its Own Sake

As a rule I’ve done more thinking about writing than writing in the last few years.

I’ve thought also about my feelings about writing, about notions of ‘productivity’, ‘progress’, and at least a little about ‘work’. I aspire to be someone who contributes to the world of ideas, culture and media in whatever small way I can. My writing here exists as a small stake in the ground and a way to organize ideas. I am not under any obligation to write things here. No one is compelling me to do this and I need not do it.

I’m working to try and think about work and progress in smaller pieces, what I am doing today and tomorrow that will add up over time, while not letting myself get frustrated with the pace of any accumulation. This applies of course to all sorts of work: tasks at my job, chores, home improvement projects or nearly anything else. I have to do the work of letting every small thing be a little accomplishment.

I especially have to think about the work here in terms of how it helps me, how I’m providing myself a quiet little outlet and how I’m putting these words together for its own sake, doing the work because it is something I want to do, whose outcome is good and which I decide to do instead of other things I find less satisfying both in doing them and having done them.

I am not going to resolve to write here more or do a particular kind of writing, but I am going to try and continue to think about writing as a way of thinking and this kind of thinking as helpful to me and perhaps eventually of some value to a nominal audience.

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