Throwing dirt

There's something to be said about keeping a work area clean—mise en place, more or less. Wash dishes as you cook, put tools away when you're done using them, etc. It makes final cleanup easier, it makes the work go faster because things are prepared and organized, it makes the final product better because there aren't things in the way while you're working, and it looks nicer.

Those first three things—easier, faster, better—are self-evident. The fourth one is basically the aesthetics of work—not aesthetics of the act of working or of the final product, but aesthetics of the state of the work at any given time.

There is still a big pile of dirt in my backyard. First there was a huge pile of clay dirt from digging the trench for the retaining wall and digging down the high side of the yard to the desired level. Then I pushed that out and made a new pile in the middle of that area from topsoil that I ordered. Then I really flattened the clay pile into what will roughly be the new shape of the flat part of the backyard—but it still doesn't look good because the topsoil pile is sitting there in the middle making what should look like Victory Field look like Mt. Trashmore instead.

There's nothing that can be done about it, really. I have blocks and rocks and bricks and dirt stacked in various places behind the house, biding their time. "Just-in-time" delivery of these things is a fine concept, but the reality is that every truck delivery from the material yard costs $125, so I've got materials for four projects back there to save some money. Also I have no concept of what "in time" means for these projects, because I'm stealing time—tempted to call it "free time", but it's not even cheap—to work on them, an hour or two after work, a weekend day or two. (This is also my trick for not shattering my back, I think: not working very much for any long stretch of time.) Although the final result will be what I'm most proud of, all of this staging that I'm doing—managing where this or that goes, what order to do things in, etc.—is what I'm secretly feeling good about. It's a complicated problem to solve. I'm not winging in, despite how it looks.

Still, it's bad form to let the backyard construction site look like trash all the time. It's a curse to be able to see, inside my head, how all of the pieces will move and the game will play out when it's not obvious to observers who see only the visible situation. Sometimes it's worth taking some time to reorganize things. "Things" here are pallets of 45 30-kg (70-lb) blocks or truckloads of rock and dirt, so you really have to believe that it's worth the trouble to convince yourself to do it. It's a matter of taste. And sometimes it's a matter of comparing how much time it takes to move those things versus how much time it takes to explain to your significant other that the yard actually looks better than it did before, OK, there's just a pile of dirt there that will be moved soon, come on.

Sometimes you just have to throw dirt for a while—from this pile to that pile, from this pile to that pile—in order to keep the right people satisfied that the job is getting done. It's locally inefficient, sure, but if you have to repeatedly spend time explaining the current state of things, then it might be globally efficient. Form should follow function as a general rule, and like all rules you should really consider what the rule means so that you know when it's time to break it.

With the flow

Sometimes you find the right song and it matches whatever internal rhythm you have at that time, and you flip it on repeat and let it escort you through the work day (except during the meetings, I guess, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to try):

We've talked about this before to some extent—Minor threats. I don't really go searching for music to listen to during work. That turns out to be work itself, and the Right Song is ever out of reach, out of mind. It's only disappointment to go looking.

Better, in my opinion, to be satisfied with a random song selection or wait for the song that wants you to find you. Let the magic of serendipity serve you. You don't need control over all of the variables. Let some of them float and find their own level. Then go with the flow.

Watching the grass grow, 2

Previous: Watching the grass grow

There' something more to it than I said yesterday. I tried to pass it off as something respectable—as some kind of feedback problem that I'm managing, some kind of work that I'm doing, some kind of activity that I am accomplishing.

Look closely: action verbs. For grass.

Yeah... probably not entirely accurate. It's grass.

The thing I meant to say is that I go to a window—upstairs, downstairs, doesn't matter—several times a day to check out... the grass. I'll step outside the garage back door to have a look at... the grass. I'm not doing anything. But I am taking credit for the biological processes taking place in the backyard. (Maybe you've worked with people like this.)

There is an aspect of feedback correction, but it's very low frequency. It's hard to take credit for it, especially when the most difficult thing I have to do is walk around the yard and spin seeds out of this little seed throwing machine. It's an action—there is an act—but it's low effort.

What am I trying to get at here? (An honest question to myself.)

It's a funny thing to take credit for something that you're not really doing. I have these impulses frequently—maybe you do, too, I don't know. When your favorite sports team wins, or your university where you haven't been in ages gets some kind of credit for doing well, or your colleague gets an award, or an aspect of your work project has a breakthrough, and so on and so on—it's hard to take credit for doing those things, but still there's something inside that feels... something. It can't be accomplishment, but it feels like accomplishment. It's tickling the same brain receptors.

Grass in specific, but gardening in general: you can affect where the seeds go, you can affect the shape of the area you plant, you can affect the soil somewhat, you can add water, you can shade the sun—but you can't make a seed grow. There's effort and luck and environment, and then there's all the many variables inside the seed that you can't know (other than in some probabilistic sense). You can envision the outcome—and you should, sometimes that's the best part, before reality disappoints—but you can't know the outcome until the outcome comes out. Until then, I watch and watch and watch—not doing but waiting, patiently and impatiently, for what happens next.

Watching the grass grow

I do it. I admit it. It's just as boring as the saying implies, but since I'm doing it intentionally, it's not that bad—subjectively, in my own head, at least.

In the backyard there is an area in the southwest corner that never really has any grass when we moved in. It was shaded by the pine tree to the north, the hackberry and mulberry trees to the south, and a bunch of honeysuckle on the west boundary of our backyard. Also it's on a slope, so it was eroding every so slightly each time it rained.

Listen: I'm trying to justify why I wrote a post about grass.

Last fall we got rid of the mulberry tree, which wasn't healthy, and also all the honeysuckle that was arguably on our property, and all the low branches on the pine tree. Suddenly there was sun in the dark corner of the yard—but also a lot of exposed dirt.

This year I made the dirt worse by rolling the wheelbarrow repeatedly through the area while moving wall materials to the backyard. But once that was done, and when any residual trench-digging dirt (clay) piles were moved out of the way, it was time to reclaim the dirt slope.

(Please clap.)

So that's been one of my side projects this year: tossing grass seed on the dirt, turning on the sprinkler, seeing where the grass grows (some areas are still susceptible to fast moving water when it rains, and some of the dirt is exposed packed clay), then adjusting my approach (blocking the erosive flows with bricks until the grass grows, scratching or breaking the clay before throwing more grass seed). Then watch. Then adjust. Watch. Adjust. Over and over until it's right, whatever that means.

Mostly I just want something to stop the erosion, and something to hold some water in and shade it from evaporating away. Grass works for that—we are, after all, living in a suburb, where grass is the national animal. It also looks nice—soft and green. But it seems to work best if you keep an eye on it—not just to watch it, which I do 1000 times a day, keeping up with patches of new grass which have recently joined the party, the but to keep that watch-adjust feedback loop working.

The boring web, 2

I missed the point in The boring web. It had some thoughts that were in my head, sure, but there were some other, simpler things I meant to say there.

I didn't mean to talk about the old web—Ye Olde Webbe—at all, really. I'm still doing that here, for the most part (except with a database and WordPress running things, versus a 90s-era static HTML setup which is tempting to go back to some days...). Maybe this site is more like the adolescent web, the mid-2000s web when writing a personal blog (still an ugly sounding word) had some novelty, and successful ones still had a core of followers. And it was easier to find other blogs, honestly, through out-of-date things like web rings and blogrolls and directories and so on. (Actually there probably is no "and so on", that might be it.)

Again, though, the old web wasn't the point. The old web is probably still out there, but it isn't as interesting as the new social web, which isn't remotely new anymore, but still there is that urge to call it "new". I like using social media to be boring. I have no flash. I can't sing. I can't dance. I don't have the interest or wherewithal to do what needs to be done to become popular on TikTok or YouTube or whatever. I just want to say, "Here, I made this". Over and over and over. Here, I'm making a wall. Here, I made some tomatoes. Simple, no over-the-top promotion—utterly boring.

But I'm OK with it. Most making is boring. There are moments that are interesting, and the finished product is nice to see, but most of what goes on in making something is just... sanding, or brushing, or digging, or cutting, or boiling, or whatever. But I enjoy the process—mine or someone else's. Let me introduce you to the best channel on YouTube: Dashner Design & Restoration. Pure doing, but from start to finish. You're welcome. I have friends on Facebook (actual people-I-know-friends) who post songs that they're practicing, quilts they've made, photos they've taken, etc. No flash, just sharing their experience living the process.

Boring doesn't mean low quality, though. There are good photos of what you're working on, and bad ones; good recordings of songs, and bad ones. And so on. Do what you do, and be boring doing it, but learn how to capture that moment well—if you're going to let someone into your space where you do what you do, respect their time and attention, and give them something good, no matter how boring it is.

The point of being boring, in this context, is to be inspiring, by showing things slowly and inexorably making their way in the world, so do it right.

The big trouble

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.

—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Apropos of nothing, I suppose, but that line has been banging around in my head.

I'm sorry I never met Kurt Vonnegut. ("He's up in Heaven now." [laughtrack]) Or maybe I'm not. I'd probably bore him. I don't have anything to say to any heroes—living or dead, real or fictional—and it doesn't bother me that much. Let us all keep our distance.

I've gone months now, if not years, without reading much of substance. Some articles here, some books there, but nothing much that gave me the Batman slap that I got from reading (some) Vonnegut for the first time. Maybe it's time to go back. That or Ed Abbey or Hunter Thompson—something to make the time go by, something to make the words coming in and going out have a little more something, I don't know what. I don't if that's something that's missing, but I miss it.

I don't know if Vonnegut was the inspiration, or if finding his writing was like finding a fellow thinker and that's why I latched on, but I've always felt comfortable in what I felt was the underlying current to all of his works that I read:

Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this:


Only he didn't say 'doggone.'

Garden planning, 7

Previous: Garden planning, 6

I have some misgivings about preparing wildflowers for the yard. I mean, they're not very wild if they need my help. These wildflowers would never survive in the jungle, hunting their own food to eat, surviving with their wits and cunning. Wildflowers these days are too soft.

This should be the last garden planning post. It's too late to plan. May is on Saturday. Most of the vegetables that started in the basement graduated to either the space above the retaining wall, or are tomatoes and waiting for me to figure out where to plant them. The only starter plants left in the basement are the various chilies and eggplants and bitter melons.

But now I've got these small, small wildflower seedlings down there as well.

These are the first batch of seeds that required 4 weeks of cold soak before germinating: butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, purple coneflower, and showy goldenrod. Then they got an extra week and a half on a side table because I was too lazy to get them planted. No matter—this gave the seeds some time to germinate so I could find them in their respective beds of moss or paper towels.

To my surprise, the seeds stored in wet paper towels outgerminated the seeds stored in wet sphagnum moss. My model for which one would be more successful was simple, and apparently stupid: plants grow in dirt, moss is more like dirt than paper, the seeds in the moss will grow better. If I do this again, I'll skip the moss and go for the paper.

Quite a few of each kind germinated, but in order of success it was: showy goldenrod, butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, purple coneflower.

There are still two others bags left in the refrigerator, waiting for slightly longer soak times. The individual wildflower seeds that I planted—"planted"—earlier didn't seem to take. I figured that since they were wildflower, I'd just throw them on the ground where I wanted them and then, since they were wildflowers, they would just grow, because that's how wildflower seeds do it in the wild. No one plants them. Maybe they're germinating now, I don't know—we'll see if some unexpected milkweed pops up.

There was also a bag of mixed wildflower seeds that I threw on the ground near our garage path, but later I covered them with mulch when I was putting mulch around the (very much not wild) tulips. Lots of these wildflowers have germinated and are poking through the mulch now.

We'll see what happens. It's hard to justify to anyone what is the utility of planting a bunch of milkweed and other plants. I just thought I'd be friendly to some butterflies who I've never met before. Maybe in this suburb where we live now there used to be the kinds of plants that would support monarch butterflies and other butterflies and insects and animals as they traveled from here to there. Maybe not. But there will be.

What gets consumed easily gets measured

What gets consumed easily gets measured, and what gets measured gets managed.

What gets managed, gets measured.

What gets consumed easily sometimes doesn't really mean much at all in the big picture but now it's the thing that gets measured, so you measure it.

And it gets managed.

Now there's a clear deviation between reality and the measurements, but what gets managed gets measured.

What gets measured gets gamed.

What gets gamed gets internalized in the unwritten tribal rules and regulations that exist somewhere just outside of what gets measured or managed, but what happens in Work Club stays in Work Club.

If this is your first time at Work Club, you have to perform as if you are working.


Meanwhile, we observe with straight faces as that which gets easily consumed gets measured, and what gets measured gets embedded in a PowerPoint slide, and it's basically law at this point.

What gets embedded in a PowerPoint slide is inviolable, you are committing a thought crime right now if you think otherwise.

Thought crimes will be recorded in your permanent record and you will be questioned very sternly and publicly as a warning to all those who might be likewise inclined, and let's not even talk about your performance rating.

Meanwhile, in one teleconference or another, maybe all of them, it's hard to keep up, the measurements are pouring in and the managements are pouring out.

It's really beautiful if you look at it from the right angle—like a great migration across some distant savanna, like salmon splashing up a river to spawn.

I didn't get a "harrumph" out of that guy.

We have to protect our phony baloney jobs.

What gets managed easily, gets measured.

What gets measured, gets consumed.

What gets consumed, gets excreted.

What gets excreted, gets consumed.

What gets measured, gets the whip.

What gets measured is the whip.

I am Jack's smirking metrics.



It was clever to talk about designing for interruptibility, but the truth, as ever, is more bothersome.

I'm rounding the bend of the deck with the wall now. Getting the curve right is hard enough, and the wall drainage is on the curve as well, adding slightly more difficulty. The drainage also means that when it rains, even if I cover the part of the construction I'm working on directly, some water still comes in from the side—not much, just enough to make the work grind to a halt.

The base rock is 3/4-inch limestone with a bunch of fine bits of dust and tiny rock, smashed down again and again until it's basically a solid layer. It's solid, but there's an interesting feature to deal with: it has enough pores to hold some water when it rains, but not enough to evaporate efficiently. And when the pores are full of water, the water-rock aggregate behaves like putty when pressure, like a sledgehammer flex smashing down the rock, is applied. Smash it here—, but it blurps up there. You can't compress it, you can't level it properly. You're stuck.

There are two ways to fix it. One, wait a week and let it dry out on its own terms. Two, dig out all the water-saturated rock, let the hole dry for a day or two, then fill the hole and keep going. Either way, it's annoying—you really are stuck until nature does its part.

That's where I found myself today. It rained Saturday. Sunday I discovered the mistake saturation situation and dug it out, then today went crazy filling the hole, smashing and leveling the rock, beating and leveling and aligning the blocks —just trying to get one block past the drain pipe so that when it stops raining in a few days, I can get back to a plastic-covered, not water-saturated rock to work again.