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This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

parking in NYC

Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems traffic access to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here:

The spot marked “A” is the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920:

My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old.

It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades and had no fear of heights, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables.

Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. See the brown area on the map above, between the highway and Main Street? That was it. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is now a house-less strip of rotting pavement flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached.

Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights on Main Street are City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old, in April 1948. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self.

When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — all born in the second half of the 19th Century — was still going strong. One relative I remember well was great-aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and the baby me. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She visited often from her home in St. Louis, and died just a few days short of 100 years old, in 1953. Living long is a Searls family trait. Grandma made it to 107 and Aunt Grace to 101 (she passed just last month, fun and lucid to the end).

So to me the world before cars, electricity and other modern graces was a familiar one, because I heard so many stories about it. Grandma grew up in The Bronx, at 742 East 142nd Street, when it looked like this:

Today, according to Google’s StreetView, it looks like this:

The red A marks 732. On the left, behind that wall, is a “towed car” lot. It sits atop a mound of rubble that was once “old Lincoln Hospital”:

According to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln Hospital, “In 1895, after more than half a century of occupying various sites in Manhattan, the Board of Trustees purchased a large lot in the South Bronx—then a semi-rural area of the city—at the corner of 141st Street and Southern Boulevard.” This is a morning view, lit from the southeast, looking north across 141st Street. Grandma’s place was on the back side of the hospital. Amazing to think that this scene came and went between the two shots above it.

Grandma’s father, Henry Roman Englert, was the head of the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in the city. His trade was also destroyed by industrial progress, but was an art in its time. Here he is, as a sharp young man with a waxed mustache:

Henry was a fastidious dude who, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters to appear and stand in a row. He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl. Or so the story went. Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Grandma met Grandpa in 1903, when she was twenty and he was forty. She was working as a cleaning woman in the Fort Lee boarding house where Grandpa lived while he worked as a carpenter. One day she saw him laying asleep, and bent down to kiss him. He woke, reached up, and kissed her back. Romance commenced.

Grandma didn’t like to admit having done cleaning work, insisting always that she was “lace curtain Irish,” to distinguish her family from “shanty Irish.” When ethnic matters came up in conversation over dinner, she would often say “All for the Irish stand up,” and everybody would rise. In fact she was only half Irish. Her mother, Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, died in her thirties. Henry later married an Italian woman and produced more progeny, only one of which was ever mentioned by Grandma. That was Harry, who died at age five. The largest framed photograph in Grandma’s house was one of Harry, looking up and holding a toy.

Kitty’s dad was Thomas Trainor, who came over from Ireland in 1825 at age 15 to escape England’s harsh penal laws. (He shipped out of Letterkenny with an uncle, but the Trainors were from south of there. Trainor was anglicized from the Gaelic Tréinfhir, meaning “strong man.”) Thomas worked as an indentured servant in the carriage trade, and married Catherine McLaughlin, the daughter of his boss. Thomas then prospered in the same business, building and fixing carriages at his shop at the south end of Broadway. His two daughters were Kitty and “Aunt Mag” Meyer, whom Grandma often quoted. The line I best remember is, “You’ve got it in your hand. Now put it away.” Mag taught Grandma how to walk quietly while large numbers of other people in the house were sleeping. Grandma passed the same advice to her grandkids, including me: “Walk on the balls of your feet, toes first.” The Trainors also had a son, who ran away to fight in the Civil War. When the war ended and the boy didn’t come home, Thomas went down to Washington and found his son in a hospital there, recovering from a wound. The doctors said the boy would be home by Christmas. And, when Christmas came, the boy indeed arrived, in a coffin. Or so the story went.

An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Time flies, and so do people, places and memories. My parents’ generation is now gone, and family members of my own generation are starting to move on. I can count ten places I used to live that are now gone as well, including my high school. Kevin Kelly told me a couple years ago that none of us, even the famous, will be remembered in a thousand years. I’m sure he’s right.

But I still feel the urge to pour as much as I can of what I know into the public domain, which is what you’re witnessing now, if you’re still with me at the bottom of a long post. I believe it helps to see what was, as well as what is.

For example, this view up Hoyt Avenue from the site of the old Searls place, in 2012, is now filled with a high-rise that is almost complete. The little bridge-less town where my grandparents met and my father and his sisters grew up is now a henge of high-rises. Fort Lee itself is now also known as Fort Lee Koreatown. In this constantly shifting urban context the current scandal seems a drop in the bucket of time.

 

With Comet Ison on the horizon (but out of sight until it finishes looping around the Sun), I thought it might be fun to re-run what I wrote here in 1997 (in my blog-before-there-were-blogs), about the last great comet to grace Earth’s skies. — Doc


 

Ordinary Miracles:
Start Your Day With Comet Hale-Bopp

Hale-Bopp

Graphic by Dr. Dale Ireland, whose excellent comet page is here.


By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say Ilooked and that maybe I saw something. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Finally, let’s not forget the kid, who was born between Hyuktake and Hale-Bopp. In this context the miracle of his arrival (to parents our age) seems almost ordinary.

Anyway, it might be fun to find the publicity coefficient of modern comets that at least get a little press. If the relationship is inverse, as I suspect, consider this modest page a bit of publicity prosthesis.

And don’t miss it. This may be the last comet you ever see.


Bonus links from the present:

Grandma Searlsfootstone says “1882 -  ” and is hardly and overstatement. She died pushing 108 in 1990, and was lucid, loving and strong in all the ways that matter.

She was one of four sisters in her family. That’s them, with their dad, on the left. Grandma is the one on the bottom right.

My father was one of three sibs, with two sisters, Ethel and Grace. My mom was one of three sisters and one brother. My wife is one of six sisters, plus two brothers. All those women were, and are, strong too. (Grace is now 101 and doing great.) My sister (Commander in the U.S. Navy), daughters and granddaughter too. Love ‘em all.

It’s Grandma’s birthday tomorrow, her 131st. It’s my wife’s birthday today. My daughter’s was yesterday. (Also JP Rangaswami‘s and RageBoy‘s.) So here’s a toast to all of them — and especially to the strong women who have been raising me all my life.

I orient by landmarks. When I was growing up in New Jersey, the skyline of New York raked the eastern sky. To the west were the Watchung “Mountains“: hills roughly half the height of Manhattan’s ranking skyscrapers. But they gave me practice for my favorite indulgence here in Los Angeles: multi-angulating my ass in respect to seriously huge mountains.

What stands out about these things aren’t just their elevations…

  1. San Gorgonio, 11,503′*
  2. San Jacinto, 10,834
  3. San Antonio (Old Baldy), 10,068*

It’s their relief. These mothers are almost two miles high: alps above low plains and hills that slope under city and suburbs to the sea. One day when I went skiing at Mt. Baldy (same mountain as I shot above, on approach to LAX), I met guys who had gone surfing that very morning, not far away.

That’s right: skiing. In Los Angeles County.

All these mountains are crumples along a seam in the earth called the San Andreas Fault. The 40-quadrillion-ton Pacific Plate is crunching up against the also-huge North American plate at a high rate of geologic speed and force. The core rock inside these mountains is about 1.7 billion years of age, but the mountains themselves are, geologically speaking, as new and temporary as waves of surf. Note the catch basins at the base of San Antonio Canyon in the shot above. Their purpose is to catch rocks rolling off the slopes, as well as rain-saturated “debris flows”: Southern California’s version  of lava.

Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (here’s an LA Times review), which features a long chapter titled “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains.” That anybody would build a damn thing on or below the slopes of these virtual volcanoes speaks volumes about humanity’s capacity for denial.

Well, I was gonna drive up to the top of Mt. Wilson this morning to catch the sunrise over the layer of marine fog just over my head here in Pasadena, but I’ve got too much work to do. So I’ll just enjoy orienting toward it as I drive to Peet’s for coffee, and let ya’ll derive whatever vicarious pleasures might follow along. Cheers.

[Later...] Beautiful clouds atop the mountains all day today, with showers scattered here and there, and even a bit of snow. Tonight the snow level will be about 5000 feet, I heard. Should be pretty in the morning. Alas, I’ll be arriving at Newark then.


* The photos in Wikipedia for both are ones I shot from airplanes. They are among more than 400 now in Wikimedia Commons. I love feeding shots into the public domain, to find helpful uses such as these.

Route 66A year ago I entered the final demographic. So far, so good.

@Deanland texted earlier, asking if I had a new affinity with WFAN, the New Yawk radio station that radiates at 660 on what used to be the AM “dial.” Back when range mattered, WFAN was still called WNBC, and its status as a “clear channel” station was non-trivial. At night clear channel stations could be heard up to thousands of miles away on a good radio. Other stations went off the air to clear the way for these beacons of raw 50,000-watt power. As a kid I listened to KFI from Los Angeles in the wee hours and in California I sometimes got WBZ from Boston. Now even “clears” like WFAN are protected only to 750 miles away, which means any or all of these stations also on 660 splatter over each other. Reminds me of a fake ad I did once back when I was at WSUS: All the world’s most beautiful music, all at once. We overdubbed everything we could onto one track.

Funny, a few months back my 16-year old son asked what the point of “range” was with radio. He’s a digital native who is used to being zero distance from everybody else on the Net, including every broadcaster.

He made his point when we were driving from Boston to New York on a Sunday afternoon last month, listening to the only radio show he actually cares about: All A Capella on WERS. While WERS is one of Boston’s smaller stations, it has a good signal out to the west, so we got it nearly to Worcester. Then, when it went away, the kid pulled out the family iPad, which has a Net connection over the cell system, got WERS’ stream going, and we listened to the end of the show, somewhere in Connecticut, with the iPad jacked into the car radio, sounding great.

Meanwhile here I am with a giant pile of trivia in my brain about how AM and FM broadcasting works. It’s like knowing about steam engines.

But mostly I keep living in the future. That’s why I’m jazzed that both VRM and personal cloud development is rocking away, in many places. Following developments took me on three trips to Europe in May and June, plus two to California and one to New Zealand and Australia. Lots of great stuff going on. It’s beyond awesome to have the opportunity to help move so much good stuff forward.

Speaking of distance, the metaphor I like best, for the birthday at hand, is “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Composed in the ’40s by Bobby Troup, the jazz composer and actor, it has been covered by approximately everybody in the years since. The Nelson Riddle sound track for the TV show Route 66 was evocative in the extreme: one of the best road tunes ever written and performed. In addition to that one I have ten other versions:

  • Erich Kunzel
  • John Mayer
  • Chuck Berry
  • Nat King Cole
  • The Cramps
  • The Surfaris
  • Oscar Peterson & Manhattan Transfer
  • Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby
  • Manhattan Transfer
  • Asleep at the Wheel

My faves are the last two. I’ll also put in a vote for Danny Gatton‘s Cruisin’ Deuces, which runs Nelson Riddle’s beat and muted trumpet through a rockabilly template of Danny’s own, and just kicks it.

Anyway, my birthday is happy, so far. Thanks for all the good wishes coming in.

Driving from New York to Boston today, I heard “Summer ‘Heat Tourists’ Sweat With Smiles In Death Valley” — a four-minute feature on NPR, aired on the 100th anniversary of the hottest temperature ever recorded outdoors on Earth, which happened in Death Valley: 134° Fahrenheit, which is around 57° Celsius. The report says Death Valley routinely draws a hearty Summer crowd of tourists from colder and damper parts of the world: Belgium and New Zealand, for example.

As it happens I was just in New Zealand and Australia, where it’s Winter now. And, on the way back, on a leg between Los Angeles and Newark, I got a nice look up Death Valley from about 40,000 feet up. So I shot it, of course. And I’ve put those shots up on Flickr. If you click on the one above, you’ll see it comes with notes identifying some of the sites in the shot. Two of the most remarkable are Dumont Dunes and the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, aka T&T. The Dunes link goes to the Wikipedia article on the dunes, which is accompanied by a shot I took a few years back from overhead, using a camera I wish I still had (a Nikon Coolpix p7000), which was much better than my Canon 5D SLR at shooting stuff below the window. (Got much better sunsets and sunrises too.) The railroad was built in 1905 and abandoned in 1940. Here are some additional links:

Just discovered by Antipodr that Bermuda and Perth are antipodes: located at the exact other ends of the Earth from each other.

I’m in Melbourne, Australia, which is the antipode of a spot on the h of North Atlantic Ocean on Antipodr’s map. By the end of tomorrow I’ll be back in New York, a couple thousand miles west of there, after flying most of the way around the world on four different planes and three different airlines. New York’s antipode is a spot not far southwest of Australia — maybe about as far from the coast as Brisbane is from Sydney, as you can see from the upside-down image of North America on the amazing map around which this text wraps.

The map is from Wikimedia Commons, and illustrates perfectly how little land is antipodal from other land. The sum, in fact, is just 4%. As Wikipedia currently puts it, “The largest antipodal land masses are the Malay Archipelago, antipodal to the Amazon Basin and adjoining Andean ranges; east China and Mongolia, antipodal to Chile and Argentina; and Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, antipodal to East Antarctica.”

Click on the map three times and you’ll find yourself at a large version of the map that lets you discover these other antipodes:

Those last three are the sum of U.S. antipodes, at least for the lower forty-eight. Most of Hawaii is antipodal to Botswana, while the northern edge of Alaska is antipodal to an edge of Antarctica. Same with the most northern parts of Canada.

So that’s a little fun in the early hours before my last day of meetings here. It’s been a fun trip.

A question on parting: Have the link piles been useful or interesting? They’ve been all I’ve posted on this trip, because it’s easy and I sometimes feel like sharing what I’m reading. But I’ve had just one piece of feedback so far, and it was negative. So, if you care, lemme know.

Parc de la Villette

That’s the Parc de la Villette, also variously known as Parc La Villette, Parc Villette, or just Villette, here in Paris. I shot it two days ago, when we got here and the weather was clear. It got cloudy and wet after that. But it looks like things will clear up for:::::

OuiShareFest

From the About page:

The first major European event dedicated to the collaborative economy.

This three-day festival will bring together a global community of entrepreneurs, designers, makers, economists, investors, politicians and citizens to build a collaborative future.
Paris, May 2-3-4, 2013.

Not just another business conference.

Co-designed with its community, OuiShare Fest will feature a wide range of hands-on activities and great live music.
Day 1-2 will gather 500 professionals and public officials.
Day 3 will be free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

I’ll be speaking there on Friday morning at 9:30. The title: Markets are Relationships. I’ll be there for most of the rest of the show too. Great line-up of topics, speakers and attendees. After that, it’s Silicon Valley for IIW.

See ya theres.

 

monofocal interocular lens“I see,” we say, when we mean “I understand.” To make something “clear” is to make it vivid and unmistakable to the mind’s eye. There are no limits to the ways sight serves as metaphor for many good and necessary things in life. The importance of vision, even for the sightless (who still use language), is beyond full accounting. As creatures we are exceptionally dependent on vision. For us upright walkers sight is, literally and figuratively, out topmost sense.

It is also through our eyes that we express ourselves and make connections with each other. That eyes are windows of the soul is so well understood, and so often said, that no one author gets credit for it.

Yet some of us are more visual than others. Me, for example. One might think me an auditory or kinesthetic type, but in fact I am a highly visual learner. That’s one reason photography is so important to me. Of the many ways I study the world, vision is foremost, and always has been.

But my vision has been less than ideal for most of my adult life. When I was a kid it was exceptional. I liked to show off my ability to read license plates at great distances. But in college, when I finally developed strong study habits, I began getting nearsighted. By the time I graduated, I needed glasses. At 40 I was past minus-2 dioptres for both eyes, which is worse than 20/150. That was when I decided that myopia, at least in my case, was adaptive, and I stopped wearing glasses as much as possible. Gradually my vision improved. In 1999, when the title photo of this blog was taken, I was down to about 1.25 dioptres, or 20/70. A decade later I passed eye tests at the DMV and no longer required corrective lenses to drive. (Though I still wore them, with only a half-dioptre or so of correction, plus about the same for a slight astigmatism. They eye charts said I was then at about 20/25 in both eyes.

My various eye doctors over the years told me reversal of myopia was likely due to cataracts in my lenses. Whether or not that was the case, my cataracts gradually got worse, especially in my right eye, and something finally needed to be done.

So yesterday the lens in my right eye was replaced. That one was, in the words of the surgeon, “mature.” Meaning not much light was getting through it. The left eye is still quite functional, and the cataract remains, for now, mild.

Cataract surgery has become a routine outpatient procedure. The prep takes about an hour, but the work itself is over in fifteen minutes, if nothing goes wrong, which it usually doesn’t. But my case was slightly unusual, because I have a condition called pseudoexfoliation syndrome, or PEX, which presents some challenges to the surgery itself.

As I understand it, PEX is dandruff of the cornea, and the flakes do various uncool things, such as clog up the accordion-like pleats of the iris, so the eye sometimes doesn’t dilate quickly or well in response to changing light levels. But the bigger risk is that these flakes sometimes weaken zonules, which are what hold the lens in place. Should those fail, the lens may drop into the back of the eye, where a far more scary and complicated procedure is required to remove it, after which normal cataract surgery becomes impossible.

In the normal version, the surgeon makes a small incision at the edge of the cornea, and then destroys and removes the old lens with through a process called phaceomulsification. He or she then inserts an intraocular lens, or IOL, like the one above. In most cases, it’s a monofocal lens. This means you no longer have the capacity to focus, so you need to choose the primary purpose you would like your new lens to support.  Most choose looking at distant things, although some choose reading or using a computer screen. Some choose to set one eye for distance and the other for close work. Either way you’ll probably end up wearing glasses for some or all purposes. I chose distance, because I like to drive and fly and look at stars and movie screens and other stuff in the world that isn’t reading-distance away.

The doctor’s office measured the dimensions of my eye and found that I wouldn’t need any special corrections in the new lens, such as for astigmatism — that in fact, my eyes, except for the lens, are ideally shaped and quite normal. It was just the lenses that looked bad. They also found no evidence of glaucoma or other conditions that sometime accompany PEX. Still, I worried about it, which turned out to be a waste, because the whole thing went perfectly. (It did take awhile to get my iris to fully dilate, but that was the only hitch.)

What’s weird about the surgery is that you’re awake and staring straight forward while they do all this. They numb the eye with topical anesthetic, and finally apply a layer of jelly. (They actually call it that. “Okay, now layer on the jelly,” the doctor says.) Thanks to intravenous drugs, I gave a smaller shit than I normally would have, but I was fully conscious the whole time. More strangely, I had the clear sense of standing there on my retina, looking up at the action as if in the Pantheon, watching the hole in its dome. I could see and hear the old lens being emulsified and sucked away, and then saw the new lens arriving like a scroll in a tube, all curled up. As the doctor put it in place, I could see the lens unfurl, and studied one of the curved hair-like springs that holds it in place. Shortly after that, the doctor pronounced the thing done. Nurses cleaned me up, taped a clear shield over my eye, and I was ready to go.

By evening the vision through that eye became clearer than through my “good” left eye. By morning everything looked crystalline. In my follow-up visit, just 24 hours after the surgery, my vision was 20/20. Then, after the doctor relieved a bit of pressure that had built up inside the cornea, it was better than that — meaning the bottom line of the eye chart was perfectly clear.

Now it’s evening of Day 2, and I continue to be amazed at how well it’s going. My fixed eye is like a new toy. It’s not perfect yet, and may never be; but it’s so much clearer than what I saw before — and still see with my left eye — that I’m constantly looking at stuff, just to see the changes.

The only nit right now is  little rays around points of light, such as stars. But the surgeon says this is due to a bit of distortion in my cornea, and that it will vanish in a week or so.

The biggest difference I notice is color. It is now obvious that I haven’t seen pure white in years. When I compare my left and right eyes, everything through my left — the one with the remaining cataract — has a sepia tint. It’s like the difference between an old LCD screen and a new LED one. As with LED screens, whites and blues are especially vivid.

Amazingly, my computer and reading glasses work well enough, since the correction for my left eye is still accurate and the one for my right one isn’t too far off. For driving I removed the right lenses from my distance glasses, since only the left eye now needs correction.

But the experience of being inside my eye watching repairs in the space of the eye alone — sticks with me. All vision is in the brain, of course, and the world we see is largely a set of descriptions we project from the portfolio of things we already know. We can see how this works when we disconnect raw sensory perception from our descriptive engines. This is what happens with LSD. As I understand it (through study and not experience, alas), LSD disconnects the world we perceive from the nouns and verbs we use to describe it. So do other hallucinogens.

So did I actually see what I thought I saw? I believe so, but I don’t know. I had studied the surgical procedure before going into it, so I knew much of what was going on. Maybe I projected it. Either way, that’s over. Now I don’t see that new lens, but rather the world of light refracting through it. That world is more interesting than my own, by a wider margin than before yesterday. It’s a gift I’m enjoying to the fullest.

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