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Screenshot at 2018-01-20 23-53-19

I’m adopting Leo’s 8 year old Macbook Air from circa 2010, and its sluggishness provided the perfect excuse to tinker with Linux again. The hardware is still solid, and the specs are acceptable. The old boy has a few years more to go yet.

So from a few days ago I had been reading up on different distributions and then getting my hands dirty on the actual installation and customisations. After a few days of cracking my head on various seemingly trivial problems, I am finally at the stage where I am comfortable with my “new” computer, so I thought that I would jot down some notes for posterior’s sake.

Choice of distribution

There are many. There is Ubuntu, which I tried several years ago and had a good experience with (but don’t remember too much of), but I was afraid that it may be too bloated for the old machine. And then there are LXLE, Elementary OS, and Linux Mint that I had heard about that seemed to be viable alternatives.Ubuntu required 2 GB of RAM, Elementary OS 1GB, and LXLE only 500MB.

Eventually I decided to try out Elementary OS first. Elementary OS looked sleek and elegant at first glance, but soon started to get on my nerves. The language keyboard did not work, and keyboard hot keys did not make sense (I couldn’t figure out how to switch between windows when an Alt-Tab or CMD-Tab should do the job). The localisation was very messy – when I tried to use the Chinese version to see if the language input worked, some items on the country menu were translated, some were not. Also, on top of that, there was something annoying about the interface being so simplistic, I felt that it was bordering on patronising. And that it called itself elementary in lower case just felt pretentious.

So I decided to try LXLE on Virtual Box. Somehow I took to it quite immediately – the desktop gave you everything that you needed on dropdown menus, neatly organised into applications and files. There was even a button that when you pressed it, it gave you a random wallpaper, which tickled me to no end. As if it was so efficient in its interface that it even found the space to give you that trivial functionality. The OS also came pre-installed with numerous applications, such as Libre Office, Mozilla SeaMonkey (first time I’d ever used it), and other nifty stuff.

I never made it to Mint. I decided to ditch Elementary, and go with LXLE.

LXLE: Installation problems

This was where my problems started with LXLE. I created a live USB, and LXLE worked fine when I booted from it. However when I tried to install it it would always break down at the very last bit, saying that “the ‘grub-efi-amd64-signed’ package failed into install into /target/”, and that without the “GRUB boot loader” the installed system would not boot. The gibberish level of this one is just too high. I tried reinstalling it, same error message. I created the installer medium again, it didn’t work. I tried installing an earlier, beta version of the .iso file, nope. I suspected that something was amiss with UEFI (now I know what it is, it’s like BIOS but superior) but nope my system does support it, and the partitioning was done correctly.

Eventually through some hours of research I found an application called Boot Repair and I ran it on the system – it said something about lacking a 64-bit something (bear with my non-techie specificity), and so I tried to make another installer which was 64bit (previously I had used the 32-bit version), and this time it worked. That took about five hours of banging my head against the wall, and I finally made it at 2am.

Leo agreed that my stubbornness is useful sometimes.

Chinese/Japanese Input

So I went to bed, and this morning upon waking up I went straight to the computer and started working again. I must say that I quite like the LXLE interface, things are placed where they should be, and that gives me pleasure. The language input methods did seem to work at first glance, but I quickly realised that Pinyin was not available and I  don’t know how to use the other ones. I tried ibus, I tried Fcitx. Neither gave me Pinyin. The organisation of LXLE on its language settings is also a little strange, as it was a little fragmented, spread over “Languages”, “Ibus Preferences”, “Fcitx Configuration”, “Input methods”… and sometimes you have to restart after making some changes so that the input method options would show up. Patient trial and error was my friend.

Eventually I installed ibus-pinyin through Terminal (sudo does make me feel powerful) but for some reason it gave me Sun-Pinyin instead, which only had Simplified Chinese, while I prefer using Traditional Chinese. I poked around some more, and finally after restarting the computer I found Pinyin. I installed Japanese-Anthy through Terminal as well. I am now using Mozc as the Japanese input method. For the time being I am sorted, language-wise.

Installing applications

I realised that I don’t actually use that many applications. What is indispensable to me is just Dropbox, and KeepassX. Seamonkey was pre-installed so I just started using it as the default browser. In the beginning I thought that I would have to do everything through Terminal, which made me nervous, but eventually I found the pre-installed Lubuntu Software Centre (a little like App Store) which made things much easier – and even for other command-line installations it was usually just short lines of code that I could copy and paste. I don’t remember how it was in Ubuntu.

The Power Button

Having gone through the previous hurdles I was starting to feel confident, and decided to tackle one more important problem. The power button on the Macbook Air triggered an immediate shut down, no questions asked, and this is very dangerous since you could lose your work if you accidentally press it when you were pressing the Delete button, or your cat could trigger it easily when it is walking on your keyboard (which is not an infrequent happening in my household).

This little endeavour proved to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. I was instructed to download and install dconf Editor, which I did, with just a faintest idea of what it was – and I started to tinker with it, but I couldn’t find this thing called gnome setting daemon. What’s gnome? What’s a daemon? Later on I found that there’s this other thing called “Mate” which seems to be a similar something as Gnome, even though nothing happened after I changed the values in the dconf Editor. I was getting a little too far out of my depth.

In the midst of all this despair I sent a distress call to Pellaeon. While waiting for his reply, Leo helped me with a hack that I found online (this one) which instructed us to modify a certain logind.conf file, which stopped the immediate shutdowns, even if I felt a little insecure about changing some code that I had no idea about, since it might cause problems later on. We left the cafe, somewhat triumphant, and I collapsed into a deep sleep when we arrived home.

When I woke up, I saw that Pellaeon had replied my messages in a superbly comprehensive manner. I copy his explanations here for future reference:

  • GNOME is the name of the “desktop environment”, it includes supporting programs for the desktop (such as drawing the windows outlines and toolbars), many basic functionalities (such as the system settings tool and text editor)
  • in the linux world, GNOME and KDE are the two major desktop environments
    they have the most development resources
  • They are also modular, so parts of them may be re-used by other projects
  • the LXDE reuses many parts of the GNOME desktop environment
  • LXDE and MATE are also desktop environments, they reuse parts from GNOME but combine them in different ways, so the interface looks different
  • “daemon” is basically a program constantly running in the background, for some service, imagine it as a shop that waits for customer 24h
  • in contrast to daemons, the applications are only opened by users while they need it and closed while they don’t, such as your browser, documents editor, etc
  • daemons and applications are both programs
  • to build a desktop environment, many daemons are needed, for example, there is a daemon handling power button, lid open/close, power plug/unplug events
  • the daemon is called “dbus”, it is the de facto desktop event handling daemon, used by both GNOME and KDE, and of course most of all the desktop environments
  • dconf stands for “dbus configuration” if i’m not mistaken, so dconf-editor is a editor to change dbus configurations
  • beside power change events, dbus also handles most of the desktop-related events , such as wifi scans, enable, disable, headphones/mic plug/unplug, device plug/unplug, keyboard layout management, printing, etc
  • it is basically a “message hub”, it receives notifications of some event (such as power button press” and rewrite/block/re-broadcast the notifications to programs that “subscribes” themselves to the event
    org.gnome.settings-daemon is the name of the configuration value that decides the behavior when you press the power button
  • the configuration values are grouped in a hierarchical fashion
  • under “org.gnome” are all settings related to GNOME, and under settings-daemon are the configurations related to the GNOME settings daemon
  • so for example, the KDE settings are likely under “org.kde”
  • the problem with these configuration knobs is that, the paths/names may change from version to version
    LXDE might simply follow the settings of “org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.power” , or they might decide to use their own settings under “org.lxde.xxx.yyy.zzz”
  • so for your error message, it cannot find the path org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.power, there might be 2 possibilities:
    1. the org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.power knob have moved to some other path in your version of GNOME (that your version of LXDE is using)
    2. LXDE simply has its own knob somewhere
    or:
    3. LXDE doesn’t allow you to customize the power settings behavior at all
    Can you try this? https://askubuntu.com/questions/568957/how-to-shut-down-lubuntu-immediately-with-the-power-button-instead-of-a-logout-m

So we undid the hack, and installed the XFCE Power Manager (as per the link sent by Pellaeon) which provides a GUI for all the tweaking to happen. I am very satisfied with the outcome.

Current Status

I’m still having to get used to Hotkeys that are a little different from what I had in Mac OS, but all in all everything works like a breeze. I like the task bar, which Mac OS didn’t have, which I didn’t know that I missed. I like the different work spaces as they’re laid out more intuitively than in Mac. There are small things that I still need to tweak, such as the volume buttons on the keyboard not working anymore, but those are not high priority.

Using LXLE now somehow brings me back to perhaps 15 years ago when I was tinkering with my first computer, when things crashed, and working with the PC had some element of learning and risk when you didn’t know what you were doing, but 硬着头皮 did it anyway. Nowadays everything works and you don’t even think about it anymore.

I think I’m going to enjoy my new old computer :)

What is the purpose of having lots of input, if there is no output?

There hasn’t been much time for introspection, but some thoughts have occupied my mind lately. There is an itch that I am longing to scratch, but every time I sit down in front of the computer I’m distracted by something. An email that I really should have written three days ago. Social media. Random YouTube videos. And I forget to scratch that itch. It grows, and eats at me.

It has become increasingly obvious. I am consuming too much, and creating too little. Interesting information flow through my brain, I am able to recall only fragments. I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff that come through, but don’t have a structure that I can put them into, to digest and later search for. I imagine a filing system within my brain that doesn’t work, with papers covering every available surface, the desk, the couch, even on top of the lamp shade. I’m standing in the midst of this mess, looking longingly at the cover pages and the unfinished drafts and I’m completely paralysed with what to look at first, because THERE IS JUST TOO MUCH.

Deep breath. You can do it. First take the bunch of papers off the lamp shade, and let the light shine through.

The solution, it seems, is to allocate time for output. The past two years I have set targets for number of books to read, and although those targets were always missed I did manage to read a good number of books (46 books in 2016, and 15 books in 2017, not counting the half-read ones). That was a progression from the realisation that I was consuming too much junk material online. I was also able to write reviews for all of the ones that I read, so there was some processing involved after the reading. But, the time allocated for consumption far outweighed the the time allocated for processing or creation.

With the number of unread books that are creeping onto my bed stand, my coffee table and my book shelves, it looks like I will never have the time to finish all that, not to mention make anything out of it. This has become a source of deep-seated anxiety. I want more time. I can never get more time.

This year, call it a resolution if you will, I will focus on balancing quality consumption, and creation. Note that I didn’t put “quality creation”. That is possibly for next year. This year, let’s start with creating something, anything. We can’t refine something that hasn’t been created. This year, let’s give time to creativity, imperfection, and play. Gleeful learning and unapologetic geekiness. Making things because, why not.

So here are the plans:

There will be no more piecemeal reading of non-fiction. I will group my readings and go at them with specific questions and ideas that I have in mind. Let’s call it themed reading. I will take notes, draw mind maps, and in the end consolidate what I’ve learnt and main takeaways, and produce notes or sketches. Here are the topics that have interested me in the past few months:

  • Digital economy (gig economy, robotisation and dehumanisation, cryptocurrency)
  • Geopolitics (mainly between China and USA)
  • Brainworks (how the brain learns, the importance of sleep, effects of social media on the brain)
  • Art (the point of it, how to interpret art, art history)
  • Strategical thinking (Go, war strategies)
  • Living better (cleaning and decluttering, eating better, minimalism)

Language learning will continue, but will be output-oriented. I sometimes feel that language learning is also like pure consumption to me, even if there is more processing involved than just eating blindly. Maybe I enjoy it too much for it to seem like actual work, but there’s also this nagging feeling that I could be retaining much more if I get more serious about those grammar drills and all the unread Japanese and Spanish books on my shelves. So here are some things that may help:

  • Note-taking while reading, translations and summaries on important ideas
  • Essay-writing/short story writing
  • Systematic grammar drills followed up with reading books in target language

I was thinking of going on but perhaps two main points are enough, for the time being. Better keep it simple, and just follow the main idea: allocate more time to process and create, and less time to read and watch mindlessly. I will report back.

—-

P/s.

Just stumbled upon this video on Facebook, whose ability to read my mind continuously astounds me. Lisa Bu recommends “comparative reading”, which is a useful concept to accompany my “themed reading”. Maybe this can be applied on fiction!
;

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It has been a gradual and creeping process but I believe that I have become too used to reading, but not writing content.

Yesterday a high school mate told us, laughingly, that he had spent some time writing 300 words on the topic of nose hair. It started off as a plan to review the year past. Somehow, along the way, he lost the plot and started contemplating the more pressing issue of the overgrowth of his nose hair and the point of growing hair out of one’s nose. Then he spent more time tightening his prose and choosing precise words to convey the dismay that he felt when he extracted a half-white one. To be exact, it was black on one end, brown in the middle, and white on the other end.

I don’t believe anyone has read his piece yet. But it appears that his nose hair has inspired another running train of thought that is happily, pointlessly chugging along.

Is High School Mate’s nose hair trying to reach out to the sun? Is that why it has been growing as quickly as it can, even as it is relentlessly plucked, so that it can see the light of the day? Would we finally achieve world peace when the arms race of efficient growing versus efficient plucking stops?

Anyway, I digress. The point is, there is no point. What is the point of art? What is the point of play? What is the point of living? Here I perform some word juggling. What is the point of art, if there is no play? What is the point of play, if there is no living? What is the point of living, if there is no art?

Anyway. Again.

I want to write more in the new year. Some plans are under way, a new domain name, a new website structure, some content ideas. A consolidation of my online identity and content production onto one platform.

As practice, I have been writing about things that have excited me these days, including my progress in solving the Rubik’s Cube without a manual (I am about 5/6 through), the first time that I had properly cooked in months, and certain ideas on the governance of artificial intelligence, which I had been reading about. None of the writings have made it to being published, and my graveyard of dead drafts is now populated with half-baked remains again.

But that’s ok. I wrote. I can’t expect to produce shiny articles or contain my control freak perfectionism within a few weeks, after lacking practice and being in creative prison for so many months. If I continue writing ten drafts, out of which one will be posted, or if I continue fine-tuning my inner critic to stop yelling and giving false alarms (This is a drill that people will hate what I write and judge me until the end of time! I repeat, THIS IS A DRILL! ), maybe this year will be a year of writing and thinking through writing.

The important thing is to start. I believe I have, and I believe I have finally written a post that I can press publish on. Thanks, High School Mate’s nose hair. Never stop growing.

My last post was in February 2016. And scrolling through the graveyard of dead drafts I see that in 2016 I made a few attempts to write something. The last draft drafted was on the 31st of December, 2016. It didn’t make it. In 2017 I hadn’t even tried. Well, up till tonight.

Tonight there’s something racing in my head, a little Tasmanian devil spinning around and around trying to get out of my head, onto the keyboard, splat onto the screen. Tonight I feel as if I have had an overdose of caffeine, even though I haven’t had coffee at all. Tonight I feel a bit of vitality seeping through the cracks of my hardened soul, and if I knock on the right places, maybe we might just break the dam and get me out of this multi-year writer’s block.

I haven’t written in such a while! This business of self-expression has long eluded me. When I started my first blog (in 2005), I wrote for myself, and for the people who I fancied were interested in reading about my life. Looking back, I can’t imagine why they would be – I had a pretty boring life back then. Life has since become multifold more interesting, but at the same time I developed an expanding self-censoring mechanism, a result of growing consciousness of the dangers of exposing oneself in this digital wilderness. A concoction of fears – of unintended consequences due to unintended audiences, from the revelations of my hero Edward Snowden, and of leaving indelible digital footprints for ever and evermore – rendered the impotence complete.

But tonight I’m feeling brave. Exhilarated. I need to tell someone. Hear me, everyone and no one.

I actually don’t know why this has come about. We can find this out together. Writing usually makes things clearer for me. So, while I write this and while you read this, we are on the same page (literally and figuratively), just separated by space and time.

Maybe it has something to do with this overwhelming high that came out of a recent Youtube channel find – Acapella Science – which tickles so many of my fancies simultaneously that I’m experiencing this extreme joy. The below video is my favourite from his collection.

I must have listened to it at least twenty times by now, but I still experience this frisson from how perfect the vocal arrangement is, and how the lyrics snap into place in beautiful precision. That I am dancing to celebrate art and science, together. There’s something spiritual about this. I want to never stop listening to it, but yet I am afraid to exhaust the magical energy that I’m harvesting. At least there are about 10 science songs from his channel that I’m rotating.

And the more that I think about it, the more I feel that the draw to me is not only the marriage between art and science, but how unapologetically nerdy this musical scientist Tim Blais is. The rendition is impeccable, but what shines through is Blais’ strong conviction in his art and science, no matter how obscure and arcane the subject matter might be, or how niche the audience might be. More than beauty, I draw courage from this steadfastness to be true to oneself and to execute that self-expression into perfection.

The result is distilled joy. I am going to bed with a smile on my face tonight.

Maybe, just maybe, I can write again.

 

It’s 10:30am and since this morning I’ve been tinkering with the solar cooker that I’ve made out of makeshift materials. Inspiration struck yesterday and I was watching youtube videos and perusing the resources from the good folks of Solar Cookers International Network – while waiting for the sun to rise today – and so here we are, with an old cardboard box lined with aluminium foil, seated in a polystyrene box, positioned in the most sun-optimal part of the house at the balcony.

The lined cardboard box is covered with a pane of glass that I happened to have lying around (yay greenhouse effect!) and in it is a black baking tin. My thermometer that measures up to 110 deg C is lying in the box as well. The polystyrene box outside is for keeping the heat in, and doubles as a convenient holder for the heat reflector (usually used in cars against windshields to keep the sun out – in this case it is amplifying the sun’s effect on my solar cooker). The baking tin is black because black absorbs heat most readily.

Side view

Side view

Top view

Top view

Back view

Back view

9:30am: Temperature in solar cooker is at 29deg C.

10:15am: Took a salted egg (the type that is wrapped with black salt) from the fridge and put it into my black baking tin, as the very first thing that I am going to cook in the solar cooker. I didn’t have any other cookware that was black, and the baking tin didn’t have a lid – so I chose to cook something that was black as well, with no water vapour.

The temperature within the solar cooker is 30deg C. The sky is cloudy. There is some intermittent sunlight shining onto the trees right outside my balcony, but usually direct sunlight doesn’t come onto my balcony till about noon, and only comes for 1-2 hours. This will change as we go further into the year, mid year we get, I think, about 5-6 hours of full sun. That is when I think I’ll be able to really take advantage of the sun for cooking.

Salted egg in baking dish

Salted egg in baking dish

10:45am: Temperature is at 32deg C. It is still overcast.

10:54am: Checked weather forecast – it seems that it will rain in the afternoon. Should have checked the weather forecast earlier :(

11:03am: Temperature now is at 33deg C. A tiny sliver of direct sun is showing itself on the next wall – it will come our way in about 1.5 hour’s time. It’s windy and cloudy.

11:14am: It’s still at 33deg C, though I thought that the glass felt a little warm when I hovered my hand over it. Leo didn’t feel it though so maybe it’s my brain manifesting its wishful thinking. I am now wearing sunglasses when I go check on the cooker.

11:31am: It seems to have dropped to 32deg C. I am feeling dejected and my only source of hope is the expanding sliver of sun on the next wall. I have also found some recipes on the Solar Cooking Wiki (part of the Solar Cookers International Network website).

12:07pm: The temperature is now at 34deg C. The sun is advancing, but the sky remains cloudy. The hope is that the rain will come after I get some of my full sun, just to see how high the temperature can go. I am full of regret that I didn’t do this experiment a few days earlier when it was so warm. Still, my sunglasses are perched on the top of my head as I write this, indicating my adamant optimism for a better outcome every time I go check on it.

12:20pm: 36deg C, go sun, go! Incidentally, I rediscovered this product which is called the Go Sun stove, which seems to be the coolest thing for camping. I got to know about it some time ago when I chanced upon its Kickstarter page, and it looks like nowadays it’s in production. It’s not cheap, and I wonder if it’s possible to try to make a copycat product based on same principles. I now regret that I never spent much time learning woodwork or metalwork in Kemahiran Hidup back in high school. Would be useful now when I’m life hacking.

Source: Go Sun Stove

Source: Go Sun Stove

12:32pm: 37.5deg C. Unfortunately there’s a big thick rain cloud above in the sky which I observed with annoyance through my sunglasses. Taking off the glasses did not help assuage the worry that my hopes of a full sun may be dashed. Well, as long as it’s not raining the solar cooker will remain standing out there. The glass does feel warm to the touch now, as it’s a titch above my body temperature.

12:45pm: 37deg C. The rainclouds are really heaping in, and I’m slowly losing faith. Spot, in a gamely show of solidarity, is now camping beside the solar cooker and keeping watch.

Spot is keeping watch

Spot is keeping watch

Rain clouds :(

Angry sky being angry

12:55pm: I watch in despair as the temperature recedes to 35deg C. Spotty got bored and left. Maybe it’s a sign that today’s not a good day for solar cooking.

1:34pm: It’s 37deg C again. The rain has not begun pelting down although it had been threatening to do so for the past hour. If the rain clouds were gone, the sun would be right on the solar cooker by this time – which probably explains the increase of temperature again, even if the sky looks pretty dark by now.

1:50pm: It’s 38deg C. I doubt that we will get much further progress today though, even if it hasn’t started raining – in an hour or so the hypothetical direct sun (behind layers and layers of clouds) will have deserted my balcony, and so I don’t think the temperature will rise any further. I’ll still keep it out there but it seems a lost cause by now.

1:52pm: Just started raining :( Mission aborted. Brought the whole setup indoors. Better luck tomorrow.

1:58pm: Started wondering if I could try to set up a project regarding rainwater as well – if you can’t beat them, join them right? Maybe a rain chain? To harvest downpours of rain?

Rain chain

Rain chain (source)

Notes:

  1. Always check the weather forecast first. ;_;
  2. As a proof of concept I probably chose the worst day to test the prototype. Even though the sun wasn’t out the oven’s temperature rose steadily, but then it receded when the sky made clear its decision to rain on my solar cooking parade. Hence we have no idea if this thing will work or not.
  3. It was fortunate that I didn’t lay out any elaborate recipe and only put a single egg into the baking tin, but this was because I didn’t have a lid for my baking tin and didn’t want the ingredients to steam up my greenhouse glass lid (which I assume is a problem – not sure if it is). So I gotta figure out the lid problem or get another cooking container.

The funny thing about this project is that while the sun has mostly been a source of annoyance in a major part of my tropical life (until I visited temperate countries, which was when I realised that we’re lucky and ungrateful bastards in this side of the world), now I’m actually eager for it to unleash its full power on my balcony so that I can see if this solar cooker works. Goes to show what a change of perspective can do to one’s likes and dislikes.

So I’ve finally bitten the bullet, beat procrastination, and planted some seeds. I had wanted to do it for the longest time but didn’t, because of one problem or another. Either I didn’t have the right containers, or I didn’t have soil, or I was in Japan.

But tonight the stars aligned and I planted some cucumbers, and four rows of leafy vegetables: 奶白(Nai Pak), red bayam (spinach), Hong Kong Sawi (香港菜心)and round bayam. Writing this down to note the date. All the plants are in recycled containers – the cucumbers are in some old ice-cream cartons, the leafy greens are in polystyrene boxes that I dumpsterdived after the pasar malam yesterday.

I’m excited and cannot wait for the month or so for harvest! Getting ahead of myself – let’s just first look forward to the sprouting of the seeds 😀

It is 10:30am. We have had breakfast and been to the beach, where I practised my ukulele and Leo ran. After taking a shower, we are now at the lovely hostel cafe, located right beside a big field on which two cows are steadily chomping grass. They have a lot of grass to get through, and I have a lot of work laid out. But I daresay we’re contented, the cows and I, and today is unfolding into a great day.

We have decided on a rough routine. We wake up about 7am, do beachy things, and start work around 10. Lunch, continue working, and do another round of beachy things around 5pm. Dinner follows, with or without copious amounts of alcohol – a mug of beer in the neighbourhood Chinese seafood place is RM5 – and we are merry until 11pm, the time we go to bed. The routine for the next ten days will be broken for two days of motorcycling/cycling around the island, since the hostel rents them out at low prices.

Besides some work that I’m quite excited to get into, I am also budgeting some time to practise the ukulele, read books (I am 10 books behind schedule for my 2015 reading challenge of 50 books), and brush up my long forgotten taichi. Some doodling on my notebook is in order because I forgot to bring a sketch pad. I guess some staring into the distance and daydreaming will also be involved. And writing – for the sake of writing. I don’t think I’ve done so in a long time.

Yup. We’re contented, the cows and I. Work awaits.