start-of-year reader mailbox replies

previously: end-of-year reader mailbox replies (2022)

zoyd w. asks:

"Hey so when are you going to shut up about hawaii, otaku culture, and the suburbs and get back to the canned coffee content"

soon, i've actually amassed a large backlog of cans to photograph because for the past couple weeks i've been very slowly undertaking a disastrous and most likely unnecessary upgrade of the lightbox setup. also, if you really do hate hawaii you won't like this, but i have a long overdue honolulu canned coffee field report to submit as well. things have been slower than i'd like around here in general lately because i was busy, then i got sick, and then i possibly had a brief case of long covid. as part of my recovery i've been doing a bit of a detox and have been off both the grape and the bean, so i apologize if this year's installment of the reader mailbox isn't as entertaining as last year's. please understand.

osbie f. asks:

"What is the thing you spend entirely too much money on?"

most of my pasttimes come pretty cheap, maybe because it's because i'm frugal or maybe i just got lucky. i read a lot of older books, which can be found at the library or quite cheap at used bookstores. i'm on the free mailing list for something like 15 substacks and other related platforms. writing can be cheap as well, if you don't pay for microsoft word or fancy stationary. i mostly pirate or mooch off friends (who are in turn mooching off parents) when it comes to tv and movies. the canned coffee cans i collect are considered trash to most people, and generally cost less than $5 each brand new from the store, and they even come with coffee inside you can drink.

but there is one exception: my comparatively-lavish spending at the arcade. now, mind you, i am not throwing away money gambling on crane machines and coin pushers. in fact, in three years i have never once put a credit into one of those wicked contraptionsmy immunity to crane machines comes mostly thanks to my dad, who when i was a kid would take every opportunity to denounce them as scams and ripoffs. another victim of his personal crusade was soda at restaurants, which he never failed to remind me cost the restaurant only a few cents to produce by mixing water with a bit of syrup from hidden containers that he had been responsible for swapping during one of his first jobs long ago. to this day i still rarely order soda in restaurants, even if it's on the dime of someone whose wallet i'm trying to drain. my dad is one of those guys who conceives of the world as an enormous minefield of grifts and ripoffs, all out to get you. it's the kind of worldview that has turned many a man bitter and despondent, but my dad seems to have avoided that because he sees it more as a game, where you keep a look out and try to dodge as many mines as you can. if you lose, it's not a huge deal because it's just a game. i can recall many times when my dad, defenses exhausted, reluctantly reaching for his wallet at last with a strained chuckle, as if to say "alright, you got me, you win this round".. no, i dump nearly all of my credits exclusively into 5-panel korean dance game pump it up (and while resting in between sets, japanese button game sound voltex).

not so long ago, i was horribly addicted to video games (i have played over five thousand hours of minecraft), and now pump it up is pretty much the only video game i play. in many ways it's perfect for rehabilitation, able to scratch that itch to prevent a relapse while at the same time containing many safeguards that discourage excessive play. there's a large access barrier since i have to physically get in the car and go to the arcade in order to play, each session is broken up into discrete units (3/4 songs per credit) that provide many good stopping points, and of course you have to PAY for each play. there is also another built-in limit in the form of physical endurance, as the game can be quite a workout.

indeed, that's another big benefit dance games offer over "sedentary" games, exercise. i tried several times over the years to get into running but no matter what i did i could not make myself keep doing it. running sucks, the "runner's high" is a myth and a cope, the only people who "enjoy" it are masochists addicted to the grind like that crazy mormon guy running 5 small businesses at the same time whose feed i occasionally inspect with the kind of sick fascination usually reserved for the grotesque (he is an "ultramarathoner"). add some music and a bunch of arrows on a screen, though, and suddenly i'm exerting myself like my life depends on it to hit those arrows and clear the song, sometimes going so hard that i collapse on the pads. then, astonishingly, i come back willingly for more. so yes, i may be spending one hundred united states dollars every other month loading up on credits (loading up $100 at a time is the most cost-effective, though) and the growing mass of bonuses they give out for large reloads accumulating on my desk attests to just how long it's been going on, but i consider it my gym membership. sometimes i will even tell people i'm going to the gym or to "work out" when i'm going to the arcade, to avoid any awkward questions.

actually, it's better than an actual gym subscription, because you only pay for what you use. we all know that one guy who pays for a gym membership but goes maybe once a month, if even at all. i wonder if there is some alternate timeline where gyms developed more on an arcade model, where you have to swipe a card with credits on a gym machine to activate it for a few minutes of use. at any rate, i strongly believe that every gym in the country would benefit from having a pump it up cabinet as an option for cardio instead of boring old treadmills, which have always gotten umcomfortably close to the image of a hamster on a wheel for me. as far as i know, hamsters cannot play video games.

lately i've also been spending a lot of time and money cooking. i get in and out of it every couple of months on an almost cyclical basis, affected by a few factors like my brother's presence (when he is around, he constantly makes massive messes in the kitchen that he seems pathologically incapable of cleaning up). this latest cycle seems to have been triggered by an extended absence of my brother (some kind of dodgy roadtrip that went south literally and figuratively), combined with a cookbook i unilaterally borrowed from a friend's house as i went home after having some wine. there's no shortage of cookbooks around the house because of my brother's longstanding fascination with haute cuisine, but since they are all by michelin-star chefs they aren't at all practical for beginners or home cooks, requiring exotic ingredients, complex techniques, and expensive gadgetry like sous-vide machines, centrifuges, cyclotrons, etc. although the cookbook i lifted was titled "the food lab: better home cooking through science", it did not in fact require much laboratory technique or equipment for its recipes. unfortunately the tone of the cookbook is a bit, for lack of a better word, reddit for my tastes (as you might be able to imagine from the title, it leans into "I F**CKING LOVE SCIENCE"), although since it's almost ten years old some of the humor feels almost quaint, like a period piece capturing the kind of humor that was popular on reddit around that time. remember the obsession with bacon? good god...

besides that, my only other complaint is that a lot of the "scientific" explanations are rather extraneous and not really required to execute any of the recipes, as long as you know the HOW, a lot of the WHY is no more useful than trivia. but beyond that, i think using the scientific process to refine recipes through experimentation (cooking something a bunch of times, just varying one step or ingredient each time and seeing which turns out the best) is a very effective method of improving your cooking or recipes, and doesn't even require understanding the underlying chemical processes at work or whatever. the process also helps dispell a lot of culinary myths or legends which seem to abound in the field in a kind of "well that's just the way we've always done it" way, people blindly accepting them for decades without even thinking to test any alternatives.

fortunately for the busy reader/cook, the author has already done the legwork of doing most of that experimentation for you, the recipes in the cookbook being the final products of dozens of experiments done with no myth or method held sacred. these days there are many cookbooks that seem a little phoned-in, but behind this one you can easily sense the kind of obsessive passion that can be trusted to deliver good results. indeed, every recipe i've tried from it has lived up to its description (when i've done it correctly), whether it be "the best" or "really good", "easy", "fast", or "foolproof". people were even DEMANDING the coleslaw recipe from me when i made some for thanksgiving, and the massive amount of beef stew i made with the addition of questionable "umami bomb" ingredients that was supposed to last me a week was so good that it was gone in a day or two because my mom ate so much of it.

i also think cooking has gotten a lot more enjoyable for me lately because i've gotten "over the hill" in a way and finally reached a comfortable position in terms of cooking skill. cooking seems to me like one of those skills that has a long and brutal grind at the outset, a confusing and dispiriting period of feeling completely incompetent and barely functional. i suppose you could call it a steep learning curve. starting from zero, there's a lot of basic knowledge and technique you need to acquire and before you do, everything will either be done incorrectly or take forever because you have to go slowly and constantly reference materials. even "simple" tasks like dicing an onion or mincing garlic will take a while at first, and it doubles or triples the length of time it takes to complete a recipe. then of course it's very easy to make unrecoverable errors like blasting the heat too hard and burning everything or dumping in too much salt, which sometimes happen right at the very end and ruin hours of work. it can be quite frustrating, but at the end of the day it's just about putting in the hours. the 100th onion you dice will take a fraction of the time that the first or even the tenth took.

now, after a few years intermittently getting into cooking, i finally feel like i've hit a stride. the cycle of frustration is broken, and i feel like i've entered into a kind of self-reinforcing virtuous cycle, where most of the things i cook end up going very well which encourages me to cook even more. there's no longer any need to force myself to keep going in the face of endless difficulties and failures. i can pull off most recipes on my first attempt, i'm no longer shying away from long ingredient lists or fancier techniques, and i even have a growing repertoire of simple reciples i can pull off without a recipe or precise measurements. i am still not 100% convinced bay leaves do anything but i continue to dutifully include them as a sort of good luck charm whenever a recipe asks for one. i suppose now that it's all downhill, the biggest concern is that it can be so easy to sit back and coast at this point, but is it such a bad place to coast in? i can have perfect eggs benedict for breakfast ever day, after all.

ditzah f. asks:

"**TAB INSPECTION** How many tabs do you have open, and post links for 5 of them RIGHT NOW! NO CHEATING!"


emory b. asks:

"SURELY you're not actually using that dinky old typewriter"

i actually had to buy an additional package of cassette ribbons online because i used up all the ink on the one that was already in it when i bought it. it cost me like $30, which is more than i paid for the typewriter itself. in the long run this is probably going to end up being more expensive than buying microsoft word...

lyle b. asks:

"What was the last truly great book?"

2666 (2004)

wicks c. asks:

"What is your achilles heel?"

i am fundamentally incapable of spelling "tomorrow" correctly on my first try, i always put in an extra "m". even being aware of it doesn't seem to help, for some reason the word simply doesn't look right to me with only one "m". maybe it got ingrained in my head wrong when i was young, maybe i'm missing one very specific neuron, maybe it's a mandala effect thing where at some point i shifted over from a parallel universe where it actually is spelled with two m's, who knows.

mitzi r. asks:


hopefully never. last i heard, he was working on some kind of "monastery for programmers" concept, after an unpleasant experience at a particularly loud coworking space.

zepho b. asks:

"what's on the bucket list?"

i managed to check off a lot of things this year: touring an aircraft carrier, visiting the bass pro shops pyramid, going to an ice cave, seeing a concorde plane, etc. the last one in particular had been on the list a VERY long time, and i ended up seeing it almost completely by accident when i missed a connecting flight in seattle a couple weeks ago. my prior flight had departed late, and then completely failed to make up any time in the air due to "strong headwinds", and then when we landed took an agonizingly long time navigating a circuitous path to the furthest possible gate. i did the famous "seattle sprint" circuit but it wasn't enough, the gate for my connecting flight was absolutely abandoned by the time i arrived huffing and wheezing. i stood there in shock for a few minutes because that was the first flight i'd missed in a very long time, a perfect record going back probably a decade or moreit feels like there's never been more delays, cancellations, and other shenanigans with flights, airlines must be having a lot of trouble getting back on their feet operations-wise after cutting back during covid. i've had a lot of memorable close calls, especially in 2023. i remember almost exactly a year ago, the FAA had a bug in their computer systems and grounded all flights in US airspace for the first time since 9/11, for a few hours in the early morning. this threw off flight schedules for every airline for the entire next day, during which i of course had to fly. i ended up in denver, where united valiantly struggled for upwards of 4 hours to produce a functioning aircraft for our flight (at one of their biggest hubs, even). they ended up having to swap out the plane three times due to maintenance issues, and we were kept in suspense at the gate the whole time because they never seemed to know if they would be able to find another plane. the flight was originally scheduled to arrive at 10:30 pm and i don't think we made it until well after 2:00am, although i have to commend united for hustling hard enough to get us there at all, since many weren't so lucky. even the weather itself seems to be conspiring against airlines more than usual for some unknowable reasons, one time there was fog so thick that they grounded all outgoing flights for nearly two hours (it sounds absurd but i can attest: that fog looked practically solid), more or less ensuring i would miss my definitely-under-two-hour connection. unbelievably, i actually made the connecting flight, because it turns out both my flights had been assigned the same pilots so the connecting flight couldn't actually leave until my prior flight arrived, something i found out only after i had sprinted to the connecting gate after what felt like the longest deplaning of my life.. it had been so long that i didn't even know what to do, i stood there in a daze, strangely melancholic over the loss of the record, but at the same time amused by it all. eventually, i leisurely made my way over (now that there was no rush) to the nearby customer service desk, where they set me up with a hotel for the night and a flight for the next day, all for free since technically it had been their fault. everything went so smoothly, the hotel shuttle was at the curb just as i got out of the terminal, and within 30 minutes of missing the flight i was lounging in bed with a cookie (apparently that hotel chain's gimmick is giving out a cookie at check-in).

when they rebooked me, i requested a later flight, so i'd have time to see one of the seattle things i chronically fail to see on my other trips. i was in seattle three prior times that year and never even made it to pike place market, arguably the most visited tourist attraction in the whole PNW (i did manage to make it to uwajimaya village and round 1 southcenter every time, though). i looked at the map and the "museum of flight" (where i knew they had a concorde) seemed most attainable, appropriately located close to the airport (i was not going to miss another flight). then of course when i made my way out there, the interior of the concorde was closed for maintenance or something. so i guess there's something that's still on my bucket list: see the INSIDE of a concorde.

on a related note, here's another thing that's been on the bucket list for a very long time: seeing a space shuttle. there's something so elegant about the design, something so civilized about landing like an airplane instead of plonking down in the ocean in a tiny "capsule". of course in practice the shuttle program ended up far more dangerous and costly than it was intended to be, but for a brief time it felt like real progress was made towards the dream of commercial space planes, like in that one scene in 2001.

compared to the concorde, though, it's way harder to track down a space shuttle since they only made six of them (compared to twenty concordes). then of course two space shuttles experienced, er, "rapid unplanned disassembly", so there's really only four remaining: one in LA, one in NYC, one near DC, and one in florida. over the past couple years i've actually been to all of those places, and yet things have somehow never worked out. the closest i got was one time in DC when i had concrete plans to go out to the udvar-hazy center that has both a space shuttle and a concorde, but then there was some kind of flooding that disrupted transit and so i had to cancel.

now that i think about it, there is one place i've been trying to go this entire year that a cosmic conspiracy seems to be keeping me away from: this chain of yakiniku restaurants called gyukaku. they seem to have locations everywhere i travel, taunting me. it should be so easy, but every time the people i'm with don't want to go, or we end up at a kbbq place instead. sometimes it's my fault: i was going to go to one with my dad while visiting him recently, and then at the last minute he told me about this chinese yakiniku place with ROBOTS and so i opted to go there instead (that place was really wild, they had a "meat ferris wheel" and a "meat cake" you could order). then, when i was all alone in honolulu recently and therefore sole master of my dinner destiny, i spotted another gyukaku. by that point it was nearly the last day of the trip and i felt like i had already spent way too much money, so instead i went for the fifth time to this super cheap udon place (to be fair, it was absolutely spectacular).

i suppose there's a lot of other stuff on the bucket list, like alaska's "oh shit" corner, devil's tower, finishing the recognitions, a beached shipwreck, a nuclear missile silo, the humungous fungus, a bbq buffet, New Hampshire, or the grave of jesus in aomori prefecture japan, but i've already gone on for quite a bit so i'm going to leave this one off here.

brock v. asks:

Any thoughts about how your website design has evolved over the past year?

i think the website design has come a long way since last year, although it is not yet good enough to get stolen or ripped off. i guess my main focus, though, has always been on the content (which as far as i know that hasn't gotten stolen or ripped off yet either...), in fact there's been many times when i find myself wishing i could get back to writing after hours of fruitless design tinkering. the trouble with websites is that you not only have to come up with a design, but then you've got to figure out how to implement it as well. sometimes there are software limitations (the css "box model" is naturally hostile to rival shapes like triangles and circles), and sometimes it feels like there's too many possibilities, and you get stuck in the weeds trying to figure out which one is the most maintainable, displays on all browsers, offers the best performance, etc. occasionally i wish i had the aesthetic sensibility (or perhaps bravery?) of the grizzled math professor with the primitive yet rugged pure html website, or the blogger content rocking a basic free wordpress theme.

ilse p. asks:


i deny all allegations, real or imagined.

etzel o. asks:

"Just curious if you have any future plans. also do you have a podcast."

i looked back at what i answered last year, and it turns out i didn't end up doing any of that stuff. the obvious conclusion is that i jinxed it by talking about it here, so instead i should use this space to discuss doing things that i actually DON'T want to happen. so next year i plan to die, lose lots of money, read no books, and write nothing.

dzaqyp q. asks:

"wait a second... aren't all these wacky names from pynchon books? also, there's no way this many people bothered to solve the dumb contact email puzzle... don't tell me you're doing the same bit as last year where you made up all the questions yourself..."

look, if you want something done properly, you've got to do it yourself.