Self-Calm

Self Calm cover

by Chris DeLeon (2018)

Roman Emperor Marcus Auralias' notes, traditionally titled Meditations, are a foundational text for practical Stoicism. They comprise a multitude of observations and recommendations, grouped into sections such as "Keeping thoughts tranquil", and "Cooperation, collaberation and contribution". They offer advice for living a contented life, with less regret, sorrow, anger and fear.

Several translations exist, themselves dated from through the ages. This book combines them, to synthesize a text which doesn't hew as precisely to the original as a straight translation might, but is instead intended to have the most relevance to modern ears.

Confession: It's taken me months to get through it. Partly this is because I've allowed myself to be distracted by more gaudy and immediate books along the way. Partly it's because I found the best way to read this was slowly. Practically every paragraph is worth reflecting upon, to consider how it applies to my own life, and ponder what practical, specific next steps are implied.

If I had to criticize, it would only be the superficial wrinkle that there's a lot of repetition, such as hundreds of suggestions to not fear death. Apparently the original documents were accumulated over decades of Auralias' life.

Genuinely life changing.

You can get the epub for free from the author's gumroad page.


Things They Don't Tell You About Peroral Endoscopic Myotemy

P.O.E.M.

The problem

This year I was diagnosed with achalasia. It's a rare condition in which nerve damage causes weak and poorly coordinated swallowing in the esophagus, including a reluctance of the lower esophageal sphincter, leading to the stomach, to properly relax at the appropriate moment.

This leads to difficulty swallowing, regurgitation, and a column of liquid sitting in the esophagus, which becomes distended, losing elasticity and tone. The cause of the nerve damage is unknown, and has probably been accumulating for decades. It's reasonable to assume this is mixed up in some way with various ailments of my guts over the years (celiac, eosinophilic esophagitis, chronic hiccups), but causal relationships are unknown.

A solution, of sorts

Peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM) is a surgical procedure intended to allow the esophagus to drain properly, avoiding further distension. Surgery happens through a tube down the throat, from where they cut into the muscle wall of the oesophagus, then tunnel down to the outside of the lower esophageal sphincter. There, they cut some of the muscle, making the sphincter less tightly clenched, so that food can pass more easily.

For me, my symptoms were a nuisance, but perfectly endurable. The main goal of the procedure was preventative - reduction in future damage to my esophagus. Plus, there's an outside chance that maybe eliminating that standing fluid might improve other matters, such as reducing irritation which maybe causes my hiccups? Long shot, but worth a try.

There's a lot of information given to the patient through the process, but these are the things that were still surprises to me.

Day 0. The procedure.

I've undergone a lot of regular endoscopic inspections or biopsies. At some point, in London's splendid Imperial College Hospital, I discovered the cheat code is to ask to do these unsedated. It's a few minutes of slightly nightmarish discomfort, to watch a burly gentleman hand-over-hand several feet of black rubber garden hose directly into your mouth. But the payoffs are that without any anesthetic, there's no need to fast, the procedure itself is simpler and safer, and best of all, recovery time is much reduced. Given a few minutes to compose yourself, you can cycle or drive yourself home right afterwards, making it a 45 minute appointment, instead of writing off most of the day.

However, going unsedated for the more substantial POEM obviously isn't an option. It requires more than the simple sedation I've experienced before, since apparently there's a phase at the end where they check you're regaining consciousness and are able to breathe for yourself before they remove the apparatus that's been breathing for you while you are paralyzed for the procedure. This is the sort of detail that is kindly elided from the regular patient briefing, which only came up because we were asking questions.

I only remember coming around sometime after that point, and my first thought, unplanned, was to test whether I could perform square and cube roots in my head. Apparently that's my brain's idea of a power-on self test. I could do small integers, like 27 -> 3, but had the presence of mind enough to see that's just relying on remembered sequences. I was able to envision the process to do the calculation for something which isn't a cube, like 28, but I failed to actually execute any iterations of it.

I said hello to a nurse sat beside me, but resisted the urge to chatter at her about my mental state. Somehow, even I could see that from her perspective, that would be like talking to drunk people. So now I'm doing it at you instead.

After a while they rolled me into my own room, and stuck a big pad over my butt. Foreshadowing! I fuzzily thought. I stayed in hospital overnight, for tests the next day. Forever grateful for Suze's visits even though I wasn't the best of company. :-)

My hiccups didn't reappear through the first few hours of my recovery, even though I spent the time propped upright in bed. This is pretty unusual - they usually return within seconds of me sitting up. But when they did return, they were pretty painful. What I call "hiccups" is partly a spasm of the esophagus itself - precisely where I'd just been cut and then clamped and sutered back together. So I asked the nurse to dial up the pain meds, at first with breezy British grit, and then with increasingly wild eyes and white knuckles as they took a while to figure out a few local administrative issues, like where the person with the keys to the drugs locker had gone. Rode out the rest of the day in style.

Day 1. Restart the line

I'd brought a bunch of things for my two day hospital stay, books and media and headphones and my own cozy pajamas to wear while garrulously socializing with staff and adjacent patients. That was all a total waste of time. I was a write off the entire time I was there, not able to muster the bandwidth even to watch t.v. I saw a single episode of Schitt's Creek at one point because Suze kindly propped it up in front of me, but I couldn't manage a 2nd. I just dozed, and was wheeled to a barium x-ray, to check I wasn't leaking anywhere untoward.

At some point during this day, my digestive tract started up again. It became apparent that it had just been on strike, inactive, since the surgery. I felt it ripple distressingly back into action, along with some impressive gurgles. The big pad they'd stuck on me the day before turned out not to be vital in this instance, but I can very much understand how it often might be.

The nurse introduced me to a plastic device for measuring and exercising my ability to inhale deeply, on which I could occasionally surpass the initial expectation of 1,000 points.

My ambitions for the day were to get out of bed and take a 2 minute walk, and later in the day to tolerate my first drinks, some water and fruit juices, sufficiently to get approved to go home. Leaving hospital with some prescription, gluten free, clear liquid pain killers proved to be an impossible administrative nightmare. Nobody's fault, the system is broken. The concept of "insurance" for healthcare is inherently dysfunctional.

Day 2. Home again

At home for five days of a clear liquid diet. This means water, strained fruit juices & drinks without suspensions (i.e. no particles floating in it to make it opaque), tea or coffee without milk, clear broths. Also, slightly bizarrely, jell-o, since it may be eaten while solid, but at room (or body) temperature, it's a liquid. I demurred on Suze's threat to make jello shots.

Ambitions for today were to rise from the sofa for a shower, and a walk or two around the inside of the house. Scoring 1,500 points on the breathe-o-meter. Importantly, I now have it together enough to be able to watch some dumb t.v.

Day 3. Outdoors.

Ambitions today were to take a walk or two around our yard. Scoring 2,000 points on the breathe-o-meter! Yay, progress. Able to concentrate enough to read.

Day 4.

Ambitions today were to take a couple of walks around the block. Scoring 3,500 points on the breathe-o-meter. I have no idea what my baseline was.

Day 5.

First full day and night without any pain killers. Ambitions for today were to take it easy and not mow the lawn (check!). Might have to get someone in to do it for us. I'd be writhing in guilt if Suze had to go out and manhandle our temperamental mower around. 4,500 on the breathe-o-meter.

Day 6.

Back to work - from home, at a desk.

Over lunch I visit the hospital for an x-ray and more tests. I was hoping to graduate to a soft food diet today, but surgeon says that, although he's happy with my progress, out of an abundance of caution he's going to keep me on clear liquids until day 9. Then a soft food diet for six weeks. C'est la vie. Back home to more apple juice. At least I'm still under instructions to take it easy, so retain my excuse for not mowing the lawn...


Demon

Demon cover

by Jason Shiga (2016)

I'm just discovering the works of Jason Shiga, creator of mathematically-inspired nonlinear comic-books, e.g. stories drawn on complex origami structures, that can be folded in various ways to represent either branching storylines, or else to manage state such as 'inventory'. Construction of these more elaborate paper constructions doesn't scale, (ie. I'm not likely to ever own one) but you can try some of his other creations on the web.

This is Demon, a regular linear webcomic.

The storyline is 'math-inspired' too, in the same way that the movie Primer is - intense, absolute, ruthless, narrative exploration of logical implications, while continually, dizzyingly, escalating to the next level.


Fine Structure, by qntm

Fine Structure cover

Another fabulously enjoyable science fiction adventure from qntm. Like their other novels, it does a tremendous job of exploring the implications and consequences of big science fiction concepts.

In this case, it's a story of human superheroes, whose powers derive from beings-beyond-comprehension, from the high-dimensional multiverse, the Structure, within which our paltry three-plus-one spacetime is naught but an embedded decal. Their struggles rewrite the fundamental physics of our universe, to fashion it into an inescapable trap, denying humanity access to advanced sciences, and to communion with the higher levels of the Structure. Loved it.

For those like me with an epub fetish, you can buy Fine Structure in many formats, including Amazon links, EPUBs, or free-to-read online, at the author's site.


Ed, by qntm

Ed cover

It took me a few pages to shift gears to match the provocatively casual style, but once I did, it quickly became an engrossing and endearing read. The book collects a series of tiny but grand adventures, each riffing on one of the titular Ed's fabulous new inventions or discoveries. Together these form an arc which burns through combinations of high-concept SF ideas at an unseemly rate.

It reminded me of what I've fondly said about 200AD (the galaxy's greatest comic), that somehow the superficiality of the medium allows writers to experiment more wildly with form and content, throwing up a torrent of creativity which, while sometimes uneven, generates moments of sheer brilliance. I thought being a comic was an essential part of that formula. But Ed proves me wrong by achieving the same velocity of verve and vigor, rendered in prose. A delight.

The Epilogue reminds me gleefully of this stackoverflow worldbuilding answer I gave a few months ago.

For those like me with an epub fetish, you can buy Ed in many formats, including Amazon links, EPUBs, or free-to-read online, at the author's site.


Ra, by qntm

Ra cover

I bought all four of qntm's books when I discovered the fantastic There is no Antimemetics Division. I didn't really expect to like all of them, sight unseen, but was delighted to support an emerging author who had contributed to the genius of SCP. But then the books that arrived turned out to be bloody brilliant.

This one tells a tale in which magic was discovered to be real in the 1970s, becoming a new, arcane branch of physics. From there, it piles on the twists and raises the stakes at an enthralling and dizzying rate, demanding the reader to keep up through many exciting layered reveals and escalating changes of perspective. Absolutely smashing.

Like Antimemetics, it scores points with me for including some female heroes, who surmount challenges through some striking strengths of character & expertise, rather than simply being the best at applied violence.

For those like me with an epub fetish, you can buy Ra in many formats, including Amazon links, EPUBs, or free-to-read online, at the author's site.


TIL: Energy use per transaction for cryptocurrencies vs Visa

For my own calibration, approximate current energy use for a single transaction in various cryptocurrencies, compared with using Visa:

Currency  Symbol  Energy use
per txn(Wh) 
Equivalent
Bitcoin BTC 1,000,000  Hot tub, 150 hours
Ethereum ETH 62,000  Nissan Leaf, 1.5 charges
Litecoin LTC 19,000  Clothes washer, 8 loads
Chia XCH 2,000  Dishwasher, 1 hour
Cardano ADA 500  Computer & monitor, 1 hour
Dogecoin DOGE 120  Humidifier, 1 hour
Ripple XRP 79  Amazon echo telling 2 jokes
Visa One Visa card purchase


Sources

  • I got most crypto energy use from this roundup.
  • For Visa, I used the figures from this breakdown.
  • For Bitcoin, I took a rounded figure roughly between those quoted on the above two sources (710kWh and 1,123kWh). A single figure precision is probably most appropriate anyhow.
  • For Chia, I did my own hacky calculation. Chia Power estimates 6MW in total is used by the Chia network, at current size of 4EiB. Meanwhile, Chia Explorer shows a hard-to-read graph which I'm eyeballing to get a rough average of 3,000 transactions per hour. 6 Megawatts divided by 3k per hour gives an energy use per transaction of 2kW.
  • For equivalent household energy uses, I used this and this.

Something's not quite right here though. The Chia whitepaper estimates 10,000 times better energy efficiency than Bitcoin, by my figures above only show 1,000.

They probably know how to calculate this better than I do. So perhaps my figure for Chia is high? I understand the value per transaction will come down as Chia starts handling more transactions, which seems reasonable. Perhaps the white paper refers to that future hypothetical efficiency?

On the other hand, many of the other cryptocurrencies listed above will become more efficient in the future too (e.g. Bitcoin is in the process of deploying its lightning network, which will reduce per transaction energy use.) So I think it's fair to leave the above figures as they are, as a snapshot of current reality.

TIL: Create mp3 from YouTube video

Install youtube-dl, a tool to download YouTube videos. Using apt installs a version that's too old to work, so:

pipsi install youtube-dl

Download the video from YouTube:

youtube-dl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyU1Pt2IXyE

This results in a webm file. I have no idea what that is, and am relieved to discover that converting it into an mp3 requires just:

ffmpeg -I MyVideoFile.webm -vn MyAudioFile.mp3

Where -vn disables video in the output.

11/22/63, by Steven King

Ra cover

Prompted by a conversation at work about favorite time travel stories, I snagged this from the library.

English school teacher Jake is roped into a dying man's plot to exploit a mechanism of travelling back to 1958, from which, with many complications, he waits out the intervening few years in order to prevent JFK's assassination.

I found it a page turner, certainly. But nonetheless I was slightly disappointed, perhaps because of my reverence for such a successful author, who I haven't actually read since my teens. Expectations of mastery clashed with what, for me, felt like lowest-common-denominator style.

King knows exactly what he intends - to use time travel as a hook on which to hang a human tale of drama, aspiration and loss. He has no interest in my personal predilections, such as messing with the logical conundrums of his chosen time-travel mechanic, and he declares this straightforwardly. When the main character asks "But what if I end up killing my own Grandfather?", his mentor shoots him a look of incomprehension, replying "Why in hell would you want to do a thing like that?" Subject closed, and fair enough.


There is no Antimemetics Division, by qntm

There is No Antimemetics Division cover

I first became aware of this book when I noticed that the good folks over at The SCP Foundation have kept themselves busy in the years since I last looked over their peerless and endlessly enthralling wiki of dry and tantalizing protocols with which to "Secure, Contain, and Protect" a catalog of creepy anomalous artifacts.

One of the arcs to break the churning surface of that crowdsourced fictional millieu is that of the Antimemetics Division:

"An antimeme is an idea which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages people from spreading it. Think of ideas that you wouldn't share - passwords, taboos, shameful secrets.

Anomalous antimemes are another matter entirely. How do you contain something you can't record, or remember? How do you fight an enemy when you can never even know you're at war?

Welcome to the Antimemetics Division.

No, this is not your first day."

Intruiged, I started clicking around, and as is the way of SCP, discovered many hours had passed. Shortly afterwards, I realized the arc has been collected into this book.

Occasional SCP entries, in the format we know and love, intertwine a short but intense tale of memetic hazards, populated by a few of the Division's finest - those rare individuals who can go from the standing start of a hint that their memories can't be trusted, to a well-executed plan based upon a stack of assumptions about what might be needed, and what might already have been done that they can count upon, even though they no longer remember any of it, without ever retaining any knowledge of their situation, or what they're up against. I don't think I've ever been so impressed by the sheer depth of a character's resourcefulness and initiative.

The journey does contain world-ending hellscapes, with some gore, which might not be everyone's cup of tea. But it's short and somehow manages to stay light in tone, so isn't emotionally arduous on that front.

Probably my favorite fiction of the year.

For those like me with an epub fetish, you can buy There is No Antimememtics Division in many formats, including Amazon links, EPUBs, or free-to-read online, at the author's site.