All posts by Ben


Considering the circles I run in, it’s almost astonishing that I’ve made it this far in life without ever playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons … until tonight. A coworker of mine and his wife are also a well-practiced dungeonmaster team, and tonight they invited me to join a quest they were narrating.

It was a bit perplexing, and I get the feeling that we weren’t exactly following the rules, but it was fun. I played a gnome “diplomancer” with the gift of gab, and spent the evening trying to talk our party out of dangerous situations with elves and bandits. There was a board, which one of the dungeonmasters drew on the spot with a marker and was casually updating as new objects and people were mentioned, but it was definitely peripheral to the quest at hand.

We didn’t make a whole lot of progress in 2+ hours … which means if I want to see how the story ends, I’ll have to come back next week, and the week after that too. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.


Akismet has now blocked over half a million spam messages to this humble weblog. To celebrate, here’s an excerpt from the comment at the top of the spam folder:

{I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your {rss|rss feed} as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to find}
your {email|e-mail} subscription {link|hyperlink} or {newsletter|e-newsletter} service.

Do {you have|you’ve} any? {Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so that|in order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe.

For anyone who’s ever operated a weblog and had to read some of these spam messages, this might help explain how the awkwardly phrased adulation that comprises most comment spam is actually generated. Harder to explain is why the spammers have taken to sending me the template itself!


In Seattle I used to go jogging around the downtown grid, which was a very easy place for it: Lots of wide, friendly sidewalks, and a graph-paper street layout. The Manhattan grid is a lot less square, and up here it’s also broken up by diagonals, parks, and thoroughfares. You don’t see joggers on the street. There is, however, a public athletic field just a few blocks away, complete with a running track, the kind that they put around the outside of a football field.

The last time I can recall running on a track was sophomore year of high school, for the state-mandated 1-mile run test. In accordance with the usual health guidelines, I usually jog for 30 minutes, so I set the timer on my phone and set off.

It was possibly the most boring half hour of my entire life. I literally was running in circles. I had so much spare attention that I could spend a week writing posts detailing the mundane goings-on in the vicinity of that track during that half hour. I don’t understand how anyone can stand to run on a track.

Next time I’ll remember my headphones.

Citizen Four

What if the entire Edward Snowden debacle had been caught on camera? Can you imagine if, in that hotel room in Hong Kong where Snowden had fled for asylum, there had been a filmmaker, heck, a professional cinematographer with the gear to match, filming every personal moment? It would make for quite a movie, right?

Well, there was. Snowden knew that he was making history, and the first person he contacted was Laura Poitras, a political documentarian. She was there, with her camera, in that hotel room, recording it all for posterity. The film is called Citizen Four.

The truth is, it’s an awfully slow movie. Laura is totally committed to cinema verite, so the recipe is Just Add Nothing: no infographics (except from the documents themselves), no interviews, etc. The other independent documentary I’ve seen recently, The Internet’s Own Boy, is a far more engaging film to watch.

Still, Citizen Four is starkly compelling, because it captures a pivotal moment in history, almost in real time. It’s a chance for a deep look at the soul of Edward Snowden, who is nominally the star of the movie, but in a sense deserves credit as a producer. This movie was his idea from the beginning, part of his plan to change the world. It might even be working.

The Harvest

The original impetus for this trip to Italy was the grape harvest at my grandfather’s friend’s small personal vineyard. I had been hearing my grandparents and cousins tell me over and over what a wonderful experience it was, and this year I finally decided that I wanted to try it myself.

We came to the villa (formerly a stable, now rebuilt in high style) on Friday afternoon, and had dinner at a snazzy local restaurant that was formerly an ancient monastery. The harvest was all day Saturday, from 9:30 to 5:30 with a long break for lunch.

The harvesting crew consisted of about 10 snippers with gardening shears, plus the logistics crew who swapped empty baskets for full ones on the tractor and carted the grapes away. I was a snipper, cutting off bunches of grapes and dropping each bunch into the basket. It’s not rocket science, but it’s sometimes tricky when the vines have tied themselves in knots around the support wires. It’s easier with a partner on the other side of each row, which leaves plenty of time for conversation, but it’s also a fine, meditative solo activity.

The baskets of grapes are taken by tractor to the destemmer, which uses a spiral blade to separate the grapes from the stems. The grapes, crushed, go into the tank for fermentation. The grapes in question are of the sangiovese variety required to make Chianti: smaller, darker, and sweeter than table grapes, but also full of small bitter seeds.

The grape vines are planted exactly one tractor width apart, so when you hear it coming you must limbo under the vines into the next row. Also, there’s something about grapes and hillsides, so one is often dragging baskets up or down a slope, or ducking under a vine while stepping up onto a higher terrace. It’s exercise.

In 6 or 7 hours spent working yesterday (plus 3 or 4 spent feasting), our crew of mostly senior citizens managed to harvest grapes that, when crushed, amounted to 5000+ liters of juice and mash. This was not such a small vineyard after all!