Thursday, December 7, 2017

Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky

Paper: Paging Through HistoryPaper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paper is one of those things that I never really thought much about. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply pretty much anywhere you go, in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. This book describes the long and complex journey to that state of affairs.

I learned a lot about what actually goes into the creation of paper from reading Paper. I always thought of paper as coming from trees, but that's a fairly recent development. For a long time, various kinds of cloth rags were the primary input material. Kurlansky describes the evolution of the paper-making process from early hand methods to modern paper mills. It's only in the last couple of centuries that the volume of paper produced has exploded, making it so easy to obtain.

The subtitle mentions "history" and there's plenty of that here. The book focuses on literacy and the use of paper, of course, but that ties into a whole lot of world history along the way. From the long history of China to the Middle East to Western civilization, Paper traces how changes in society drove the development of paper-making and usage over time.

Much of the book describes paper used for writing and drawing, of course, but I was surprised at how many other uses of paper were also mentioned. Wrapping, packing, cartridges for firearms, construction materials, even clothing...paper is used in all kinds of ways that don't immediately spring to mind for me.

Any student of history will find Paper an interesting read. Kurlansky provides a view into the long history leading to the wide variety of paper products we have today.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Ada Chili and Beer Festival 2017

Chili and beer, sounds like a good Saturday afternoon to me.

Event Logo Image
Every year, folks from the Community Church in Ada and Ronald McDonald House organize a chili cook-off. Most of the entrants are from local restaurants and brewpubs, who also bring their beers and ciders along.
Doing an outdoor event so late in the year in Michigan is a bit risky, but the weather cooperated this year. No major snowstorms and it wasn't even all that cold. Though with as many people as were crowded into the big tent, cold wouldn't have been an issue regardless. Nice to have the option of wandering around outside a bit, though.
I didn't come close to trying every chili or beer option, way too many choices! About a half-dozen of each, I think, before I was too full to keep going. Everything was good, though! I look forward to another round next year.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Moto X4 and Project Fi

I took advantage of one Black Friday deal this year, for a new phone and carrier service.
My old phone was a Samsung Galaxy S5, which was starting to show its age. I got it last year as a refurbished sale, which was cheap but I knew it wouldn't last for long. It's been acting up recently, with battery issues and needing reboots regularly. As my carrier, I was using H2OWireless, a budget outfit which only cost me about $10/month. It mostly worked, but I had occasional connect troubles, especially when traveling. And I had to very carefully watch every MB of data to avoid high usage charges, which got annoying sometimes.

Google has a fairly new phone service offering called Project Fi, which seems to cover exactly what I'm looking for. It's a bit more expensive at $30/month, but has much better coverage and significantly more data allowance. They credit your next month if you don't use all your data, which I expect will be the case for me more often than not.

I don't need a high-end phone, so I went with the budget option that Google recommends: the Moto X4. $400 with a Black Friday sale giving $100 credit on the Project Fi service. The reviews of the X4 are good for a budget smartphone - some small issues, but nothing that will affect that way I plan to use it.

The hardware arrived today and everything's working as expected so far. I'll be testing the new phone and service out over the next few months, but I don't expect any significant issues. And if anyone decides to try out Google's Project Fi as a service, let me know and I'll share a ref link that gives us both some credit.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up Underground Airlines on a friend's recommendation after he saw that I'd read The Color of Law. Both deal with racial issues in America, though otherwise the books couldn't be more different: fiction vs non-fiction, thriller novel vs historical research.

Underground Airlines takes place in an alternate reality where the Civil War was prevented, just barely, by a compromise that left slavery in place as an institution in the South. Over time, it shrunk to only four states, but also modernized and scaled up like any other industry. Giant plantations with thousands of "Persons Bound to Labor" feed demand for cheap cotton and other goods.

There's plenty of action and suspense in Underground Airlines, as our protagonist searches for an escaped slave and eventually makes his way into the lion's mouth of a slave plantation. But I found the development of his character and revelations about his history to be just as interesting as the action. He assumes identities as needed in the work, never showing the deeply scarred mind underneath...except to the reader, of course. We never even learn his real name, only that he barely remembers hearing it from his mother before being taken from her.

I was struck by how many of the differences in this alternate world seemed to be of degree rather than kind. For instance, in one scene a white woman and black man are checking into a small hotel, and the (white) clerk asks her if she is all right, obviously assuming that she's being forced. Or when a free black man in a free state is harassed by police. Or how neighborhoods are described as white or colored. We've made progress in racial integration and equality in our world, but we still struggle with those kinds of issues.

Underground Airlines is a great read just for the mystery and action, but it's even better due to the alternate reality setting. Every reader is likely to find something to make them consider our own world in a different light.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Car Shopping

After my 2010 Toyota Yaris lost its battle against a deer, it was time to go car shopping.

I don't enjoy vehicle shopping. To me, a car is a tool to get from point A to point B, with as little fuss as possible. I don't much care about looks, high performance, fancy interiors, and just about anything else that a salesman is trying to sell the customer on. My selling points are reliability and economy, which means I'm about the lowest commission that they're likely to see. But, it's a necessary evil, so I made the rounds.

That deer did me no favors, but at least the timing wasn't too bad. Now is a pretty good time of the year to be looking for a new vehicle. The dealers still have some 2017s sitting around that they're wanting to get off the lot, so they can show off the 2018 models. And everyone has Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Year-End deals getting off the ground.

There's no lack of places to look for a car in my area of West Michigan. Within a 15 minute drive, there are at least 7 different dealerships. Drive another 10-15 minutes and you can double that. In a couple of days, I stopped in at a variety of brand dealers: Chevy, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Kia. Plus a couple of used lots. And looked at just about every local dealership's online listings.

I basically had three choices. One, buy a new car: most expensive but least risk of problems in the near term. Two, buy a lightly used vehicle from a dealer: a bit less expensive, but slightly more risk of problems. Three, buy a cheap older used car: almost free after my insurance payout, but highest risk of problems cropping up.

In the end, I decided on the lightly used option. I really didn't want to deal with the maintenance issues of an older used car, so that eliminated option three. I wouldn't have minded a new car if the right deal had come along, and there were some fairly decent deals available. However, there was a 2017 Chevy Cruze with 30k miles on it at the dealership right down the road that still beat the new car prices by several thousand dollars. A good chunk of the manufacturer's powertrain warranty remaining, only one previous owner, and certified by the dealer service department. The only downside was that the previous owner was a rental car agency, but the dealer certification and limited warranty that goes with it mitigates that concern.
The new Cruze, at home in the garage.
So now I'm mobile again, hopefully for many years with minimal maintenance. And no deer encounters.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Oh Deer

I hit a deer.

It’s a dark Sunday evening, and I’m going about 50 along Broadmoor Ave, which in that spot is a 4-lane divided highway. A deer comes running left to right from the median and across in front of me, so I reacted by swerving a bit left and hitting the brakes. Which meant that I hit the second deer, right behind the first one, broadside right on the hood. I had no idea it was there until I hit it, and I had to still be going about 45 at impact.
It doesn't look too terrible...
Good news: No human injuries. The car coasted a good quarter mile down the road to a convenient parking lot entrance, so I didn’t block traffic. I didn’t go back to check on the deer but the road looked clear, as best I could see in the dark, so it probably survived. I called my auto insurance folks at State Farm and they handled roadside assistance. Both the state trooper who came to report the incident and the tow truck driver who picked up the car were awesome. They made the reporting and towing process as painless as possible under the circumstances.

Bad news: The engine died immediately and wouldn’t restart. The hood crumpled up, and one headlight shattered. Deer > car.

The tow truck dropped me off at home and I settled in to deal with insurance and repairs. I had no major plans for the next couple of days, so having no transportation didn't hurt me. By Monday afternoon, the car had been moved to a repair shop (also arranged by State Farm). And by Tuesday afternoon I had a preliminary estimate...lots o' money, likely enough to total the car.
...but a closer look shows that the front bit, with the air filter, is badly bent and pushed back into the section behind.
Why so high on the estimate? This little Toyota Yaris is a very compact car, and all the space under the hood is used very efficiently. Which means that when something impacts the front and crumples it up, it also damages engine parts. The body damage would be bad enough, but add engine repairs and the cost skyrockets.
Yep, that thing is hosed. "Twisted" is a bad look for engine parts.
So, now I'm just waiting on the official estimate and then the insurance verdict. I'll be shocked if they don't just call it totaled. Meanwhile, I'm doing a month-long rental to give myself time to figure out my car situation without too much time pressure. Not exactly the kind of holiday shopping I'd intended, but the deer didn't ask if it was a convenient time!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Byron Center Fine Arts Boosters Craft Fair

There was a craft fair today held at the Byron Center high school. I heard about it from a friend, whose wife had a display booth for her artwork.
A herd of wooden reindeer, one of many craft items available. Managed to snap this in a rare moment when no child was trying to climb on them.
I showed up expecting a few dozen exhibitors, probably set up in the gym, and hoping I could do a bit of Christmas shopping. This was a gross underestimate. The first sign was the completely full high school parking lot - I had to park on a nearby road and walk in. There were not a few dozen booths in a gym - there were over two hundred booths set up in two gyms and lots of hallways and other areas. Hundreds of people crowded through the halls and around every booth. Clearly this is a major event!
All the cars. They had a shuttle to a nearby middle school for even more parking.
All kinds of craft art was on display. Paintings, wood carvings, clothing of various kinds, pillows, and so on. Several booths had collections of rock pieces. There was a group selling "yard yahtzee" with giant wooden dice, and several with various versions of the cornhole beanbag-toss yard game. And food, of course, from kettle corn to bake sale tables. It was not hard to fill a few spots on my Christmas list!
One of two gyms full of people. Not to mention all the hallways.
The fair benefits the Byron Center Fine Arts Boosters, which is a volunteer organization that raises money for fine arts programs like theater, band, and choir. I'm always happy to help out those kinds of causes, though it does sadden me a bit that it's necessary. Personally, I'd be happy to pay a bit more in taxes so all schools could have this level of support for these kinds of programs, not just the districts that are wealthy enough to support organizations like the Fine Arts Boosters.
I did not purchase the Batman pillow-and-blanket combination. But it was tempting.
My visit to the craft fair was a fun couple of hours, and useful in the annual holiday shopping quest. I'll be keeping it in mind for next year, too.