The Perfumed Void https://the-orbit.net/alyssa Research, Feelings, and Life with Alyssa Gonzalez Sun, 10 Oct 2021 02:46:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.3 https://i0.wp.com/the-orbit.net/alyssa/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2018/03/cropped-Screen-Shot-2018-03-30-at-12.31.50-PM.png?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 The Perfumed Void https://the-orbit.net/alyssa 32 32 134704142 Macaroni and Cheese, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/10/09/macaroni-and-cheese-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/10/09/macaroni-and-cheese-alyssa-style/#respond Sun, 10 Oct 2021 02:46:03 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7319 The post Macaroni and Cheese, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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There’s nothing quite like elevating a classic.

Macaroni and cheese, cheekily named “Kraft dinner” in Canada, is a boxed-meal standby in North America. It is inexpensive comfort food, easy to acquire in large quantities and easy to prepare on short notice. It can tide people over between occasions when more involved cooking is an option and a staple for low-income situations.

This macaroni and cheese recipe is none of those things.

Based on Vincenzo Prosperi’s recipe, this macaroni and cheese is decadent, labor-intensive, and a cut above the experience of its boxed kin. It is a rich and flavorful treat for friends who forget that macaroni and cheese can be as fancy as the fanciest cheeses, best paired with a white wine and garishly over-the-top cinema. It is less ideal for those eating alone or cooking ahead for multiple meals, for although this recipe serves four generously, it does not reheat especially well, its components tending to separate in the microwave. Reheating in the oven might be more effective.

Note that the cooking process involves managing the pasta and the cheese sauce simultaneously until the former is completed.

Yes, I am freely mixing metric and imperial measurements down below. Live with it; I work with the measuring tools I have.

Equipment

You will need a stove or similar source of bottom-up heat, an oven, a pot and strainer for pasta, a mug or measuring cup able to handle sudden exposure to very hot water, two wooden spoons, a small mixing bowl, a kitchen scale, your favorite cutting tools, and an oven-safe pot. I found my cast-aluminum caldero satisfactory and Prosperi recommends a cast-iron casserole pot. You may benefit from organizational aids for the various components of this dish, such as small plates.

Ingredients

  • Salt and water for pasta
  • Cheese, Havarti, 100 g.
  • Cheese, provolone, 70 g
  • 2% milk, 2 cups. Use less if you are using milk with higher fat percentages, down to 200 mL for full-fat milk.
  • Salted butter, 100 g
  • Short pasta, 1 454g package. Pasta with surface texture is recommended.
  • Cheese, pecorino romano, grated, 6 tablespoons.
  • Rosemary, a light sprinkle.
  • Cheese, mozzarella di bufala, 120 g. Mozzarella di bufala typically comes in large balls packaged in brine; one of these will be at or near the desired amount and does not need to be reduced if it is higher.
  • Additional pecorino romano for a surface sprinkling.
  • Variations: For the Havarti, any creamy cheese will have the required consistency and Prosperi recommends taleggio, brie, and gorgonzola as usable alternatives. For the pecorino romano, parmiggiano reggiano is a workable substitute but avoid anything labeled “parmesan.” For a creamier topping, double the provolone.

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free if gluten-free pasta is used.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Use a low-carb pasta alternative.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is very high in lactose but is otherwise FODMAP-friendly.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: This recipe is vegetarian. Removing dairy would require the entire recipe to be reworked accordingly.

Preparation

  1. Fill your pot with water, add salt, and start it toward boiling. Preheat the oven to 180 °C or 350 °F.
  2. Cut the Havarti and the provolone into small cubes no more than 1.5 cm on a side. If your pecorino romano is not already grated, grate it now.
  3. You can perform Steps 5 and 6 while the pasta water approaches boiling and while the pasta is cooking.
  4. Prepare the pasta according to package directions, including any cold-water rinses, being sure to stir enough to keep it from sticking to itself or the pot. Cook to al dente and do not overcook. The pasta will cook further in the sauce during later steps. Reserve some pasta water using your mug or measuring cup.
  5. To begin making the cheese sauce, place your caldero on the stove at a low heat and add the butter, letting it melt.
  6. Once the butter has melted, add the milk and Havarti to the caldero and stir frequently. Continue until the Havarti is uniformly melted rather than still in discrete chunks.
  7. Mix half the pasta water and the pecorino romano in the mixing bowl until it becomes creamy and dense. This step prevents the pecorino romano from becoming stringy and adds depth to the cheese sauce.
  8. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce and mix gently.
  9. Add the pecorino cream and a light sprinkling of rosemary into the pasta.
  10. Break the mozzarella di bufala into rough chunks by hand and add it to the pasta.
  11. Add the rest of the reserved pasta water and mix everything together. Since the cheese sauce is hot and the caldero is still being heated, this should help the various cheeses melt and mix together, though some chunks will likely still remain. This is part of the character of the dish.
  12. Dust the top of the macaroni with more pecorino romano. This will turn crunchy in the oven.
  13. Top the pasta with cubes of provolone cheese. Variation: This recipe calls for relatively little provolone to make sure it does not smother the pecorino and prevent the formation of a proper crunchy top. Use more provolone if this is not a priority, resulting in a layer of provolone on top instead.
  14. Bake the caldero uncovered in the oven for 25 minutes
  15. When serving, try to get both the crispy surface and creamy lower layers into each serving and add black pepper to taste.

I don’t anticipate making this often, due to its combination of cheeses I don’t typically buy, high effort, and low reheatability. But the occasions when I do will be special and memorable, because this is macaroni and cheese worthy of a restaurant price. Happy cooking!

A caldero containing fancy macaroni and cheese, full of macaroni and white cheese sauce.
This version used more provolone than this recipe does. It was amazing.

 

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Some Crab Memes to Brighten Your Day https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/09/04/some-crab-memes-to-brighten-your-day/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/09/04/some-crab-memes-to-brighten-your-day/#comments Sun, 05 Sep 2021 03:28:15 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7301 The post Some Crab Memes to Brighten Your Day appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Some days, the inspiration does not come. Some days, none of the things you have been thinking about feel worthy of becoming essays, whether because they seem too obvious, have been written too many times already, are too incomplete to distribute safely, or cross the threshold from shareable musing to private contemplation. After spending a large chunk of today banging my head against that particular brick wall, I have accepted defeat.

So here are some funny captions on pictures of crabs.

A crab looking awkward, captioned "the slowly dawning realization that this house has zero cats and you're going to have to interact with the other people at this party."

A pompom crab looking angry, captioned "when you brought her flowers but it turns out she's an anti-vaxxer."

A male horseshoe crab latched onto a female, captioned "Hello I showed you my genital pores please respond"

A ghost crab being stroked on the belly, captioned "Not yet you'll make me PBBBBBBBBB"

A large crab looking sad captioned "Hello all you happy people."

A close-up image of a crab looking puzzled captioned "Wot in carcinization"
A brightly colored cheerful-looking crab captioned "i'm baby"
The same brightly colored crab, now captioned "I am no longer baby I want power"
The same brightly colored crab again, this time captioned "Peace was never an option."

And finally, 
A ghost crab retreating into its burrow, captioned "Welp, that's enough Internet for one day. Back to the no-internet hole where I can shed my entire eyeballs and forget I ever saw that."
May these images serve you well in your quest to amuse your friends and confuse your loved ones. Carcinization comes for us all, even your humble correspondent.

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Opportunity Missed: A Study of “Life Warp Opportunity” https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/08/18/opportunity-missed-a-study-of-life-warp-opportunity/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/08/18/opportunity-missed-a-study-of-life-warp-opportunity/#comments Thu, 19 Aug 2021 02:11:10 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7296 The post Opportunity Missed: A Study of “Life Warp Opportunity” appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Content Note: Discussion of pornography, conversion therapy. NSFW.

More than a few trans people enjoy transformation-themed fiction, often as part of how we find ourselves. I have spent more time than I care to admit on specific websites that cater to this fascination, including those that do so for erotic purposes. I’ve written before about how awkward this can become for a trans lesbian, aligned with the subject matter but not with its intended audience. What registers to them as a neat little storytelling twist rapidly becomes dystopian and horrifying to people like me. “Life Warp Opportunity,” a 186-page erotic graphic novella available on tgcomics.com, is emblematic enough of this pattern that I have not been able to clear it from my mind in the two years since it was published. So, let’s have a look.

The key players of “Life Warp Opportunity” are Iris, Clara, and Lance. Iris is developing a group of technologies that effect fantastical alterations to bodies and minds, with some success reported in animal experiments, but is struggling for funding. Lance, their mutual friend, is a generally pathetic schlub of a man who is discontent with much of his life, in particular his appearance and difficulty attracting a romantic partner. (This is a theme throughout transformation fiction, which says much about its intended audience.) Clara convinces Lance to serve as Iris’s first human test subject and Iris to accelerate her plans accordingly.

The next bit is hackneyed but fascinating all the same. Following the lead of Lance’s imagination, Iris’s machines make him more conventionally attractive: taller, more muscular, with a less unassuming haircut. He is thrilled, but the habits of his previous awkward life follow him into his new one and he flames out of his next attempt at picking up women in a bar in spectacular fashion. Commiserating with Iris and Clara, the three of them come to a conclusion only straight sitcom writers and fetish artists could reach: Lance will only understand women well enough to seduce them by temporarily becoming one.

The newly minted Lancea emerges from the transformation pod. She is a short white woman with long red hair. Iris, a taller woman with short blue hair, and Clara, another taller woman with dark brown hair, stand nearby, impressed with Lancea's transformation.
Of course she’s an alabaster-skinned redhead. Of course.

Lance reenters the transformation device, and with Iris and Clara’s guidance, transforms himself into Lancea, a petite alabaster-hued redhead. Clara is immediately attracted to Lancea, and Iris and Clara both do what they can to make sure Lancea feels accepted and welcome as a woman up to and including inviting her to a girl’s night and sharing their clothing, but the newly minted redhead has trouble adjusting. Eventually, Iris suggests that they try the other transformation device she has created, which performs mental conditioning.

At first, only the barest hints of the sinister realities to come are visible. The three of them test the machine by making a single, relatively subtle change to Lancea’s mind, making her more interested in tattoos and piercings than she was before. It takes a few sessions. Lancea enter this process skeptical but willing, and it succeeds beyond their wildest expectations. Despite this, Lancea remains reclusive and largely uninterested in the outside world, even more so than when she was Lance, and finds the experiment as a whole increasingly pointless. After all, she isn’t learning anything about navigating the world as a woman, and especially isn’t learning anything that could help her seduce one once she’s Lance again. So the three of them come to another, darker conclusion: they decide to use the mental conditioning device to make Lancea fully at ease in her new form and willing to show it off in revealing clothing.

And then.

An image of scripts running in the second transformation pod, showing the mental changes Lancea is receiving. Among them are "I am a woman" and "I am completely at ease in my new body."
Ending gender dysphoria just like that.

As a fetish piece, this works. The point is for this recently minted woman to enthusiastically embrace her womanhood, and to explore the tension between her old identity and the new. The mental conditioning provides a way for her understandable reticence about this whole scenario to pass relatively quickly so that more interesting decisions can follow. It sets her up to begin to believe in her own erotic potential and become willing to explore it.

But as an actual trans person, for whom my womanhood is something I had to fight to embody, the idea of a machine that could instantly have made me comfortable in my assigned gender—i.e., not trans anymore—is deeply horrific. In our world, such devices would absolutely have been deployed to force me to keep living as a man and answering to my old name, with whatever amount of abuse and coercion would have been needed to make me cooperate. My parents admitted as much when they told me, “If we could have stopped you, we would have.” And that’s to say nothing of all the other ways that a machine that can literally warp people’s sense of identity would be use to enforce dystopian levels of control, whether it worked swiftly or slowly.

Lancea’s changes are gradual, her outfits going from slovenly to matronly to casually feminine to overtly daring. She grows the sense of ease and confidence the conditioning machine promised and then some. More than just becoming at ease in her new body and feminine identity, she seems to be ascending into a warmer, happier version of herself, beyond anything that Lance seemed likely to achieve on his own. Clara, in turn, becomes more attracted to Lancea with each panel, until the two begin dating. Their romance goes swiftly but nervously, with Lancea still figuring out how to process this relationship and her place in it. She spent most of her life imagining heteronormative expectations about how relationships work, all power and confident dominance he could never live up to before and even less now, while Clara is confident, assertive, and almost too forward. It’s cute, sweet, and rather hot, until it isn’t.

Their lovemaking is by turns tender and kinky, Clara’s dominant personality helping Lancea discover the possibilities her new body holds. Clara proves to be an enthusiastic wielder of a strap-on and Lancea an equally enthusiastic recipient. But Clara is disgusted and insulted when Lancea dons the strap-on herself and suggests returning the favor, proclaiming to her petite new lover, “the last thing I want is for you to try to act like a man…I like girls!”

The mind boggles. Clara’s sense of herself as a woman, in that scene, did not seem to be compromised by wearing this device and using it to bring Lancea to orgasm, nor did she seem to think that Lancea’s attraction to women was compromised thereby. Invoking her orientation and Lancea’s gender to reject this activity is both a low blow and a baffling misapprehension of what this activity usually brings to the people who partake in it, suggesting to me that the writer has not spent much time around actual sapphic women, but it also sets up the next subplot.

Clara decides to take on a male form, as a new layer of temporary fun and exploration.

The pair again revisit the transformation facility. Clara takes on the enhanced masculine shape that Lance-cum-Lancea left behind, naming herself (what else?) Lance, and the pair of them receive new mental conditioning. Clara-cum-Lance cements her new masculine identity and ease in her new body, and Lance-cum-Lancea…makes herself heterosexual for him.

In our world, that is called “conversion therapy” and the more benevolent governments of our planet are working on making it illegal or already have. That it could be deployed here to facilitate erotic storytelling without a hint of self-awareness is…chilling. It is a glaring reminder that most stories of this kind are not meant for queer people to see or enjoy, even when we feature in them. If nothing else, a queer(er) version of this transformation premise might have left Lancea’s old attractions intact and simply added new ones.

Like the previous conditioning, it is not instantaneous, but it, too, succeeds. Lance and Lancea ease into and then enthusiastically inhabit their new roles, each a little worried that they are losing their old selves to this “temporary” experiment, each plowing ahead anyway. They trade homes, they remain a couple, and Lance continues to be the primary motivating force, pushing the pair forward toward new explorations. Lancea’s reticence ends up being a dominant motif in the entire story, as she is pulled into each new step by her body’s urges and Lance’s urging. Clara-cum-Lance’s assertive personality reaches new, almost domineering heights in Lance, confidence she wasn’t exactly missing before but which is on powerful display as the experiment continues. The pair hint at taking on new jobs with Iris’s company and the possibility of exploring other partners after an office party, and the story ends a bit abruptly when Lancea and Lance finally consummate their relationship in their new forms, seemingly affirming that they no longer intend to resume their former lives. (The abruptness is because this story helps set up a larger continuity of similar stories rather than standing alone.)

On its face, this is an astonishingly ignorant piece of storytelling. It literally contains a machine that can make a gay woman straight and reset trans people’s gender identities to make them cis, the fever dream of those anti-gay and anti-trans ideologues that can at least imagine that we exist. In this read, it is only the fact that erotica speaks to primal needs and urges within people, things that are often not palatable in polite company and which are often connected to trauma, that keeps me from condemning its very existence, even as I occasionally revisit parts of that first sex scene for my own gratification. And even this much sympathy is strained when I notice that this author has three distinct fictions on the same site featuring a high-powered white man being transformed into a low-income Hispanic woman for fun and glory.

But there’s another read. File off the potentially coercive aspects, make the mental conditioning more freedom to be oneself and a fast-track toward the ease in one’s own skin that transition can take years to provide, add in the almost-always-missing acknowledgement that trans people even exist, and we get an altogether different story. In this mild reskin, the original Lance is so discontent with his life because he is a closeted trans woman and so inept at attracting women because his most honest attractions aren’t aimed at women. Clara, in turn, is so aghast at Lancea’s bedroom suggestions and so eager to embrace a masculine life because this is her accepting that she is a trans man. The transformation devices grant these two trans people the possibility to not only find themselves, but find each other, with all the techno-magical aplomb that these stories can offer. Their romance becomes much sweeter now, still a bit off for my tastes thanks to Clara-cum-Lance’s constant pressure but no longer premised on being mind- and body-altered into apparent heteronormativity.

Most stories in this genre have this tension. This kind of transformation fiction, close cousin of “sissification” fantasies, invites trans and queer reads but almost invariably leaves them on the doorstep in favor of unpleasant subtext and disturbing text. But few exhibit, embrace, and embody that tension more deeply than “Life Warp Opportunity,” and even as I find other fiction in and out of this genre better suited to my tastes, I keep coming back to this one because I can’t look away from the spectacular train wreck of it. It could have been so beautiful, and instead it’s…this.

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Biology, Linguistics, and the Folly of Two https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/30/biology-linguistics-and-the-folly-of-two/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/30/biology-linguistics-and-the-folly-of-two/#respond Fri, 30 Jul 2021 15:24:50 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7292 The post Biology, Linguistics, and the Folly of Two appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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As a child, I had a book that described the differences between numerous common animal categories. It provided two-page spreads, lavishly illustrated, narrating the differences between frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, snakes and lizards, turtles and tortoises, whales and dolphins, whales and fish, and more. Each was authoritative, each was simple, and each, I would later learn, was either only superficially correct or outright wrong. Deeper exploration of these animal groups shows how these basic dualities offer little explanatory power or understanding and reveal more about us than they do about the world. Biology does not deal in dualities, and classification in particular finds them quaint and obsolete.

So, let’s dive into a few of them.

Frogs and Toads

Like most of these terms, “frog” and “toad” as the two definitive categories of hopping amphibian got its start in Europe. Europe’s fauna, particularly of amphibians, is impoverished compared to the far greater diversity found in tropical climates and lent itself easily to dividing its hoppers between terrestrial, warty “toads” and semiaquatic, smooth “frogs.” Even here, arboreal “treefrogs” add a wrinkle to the story. And even now, the two most common families of these animals in Europe, the Ranidae and Bufonidae, get called the “true” frogs and “true” toads.

Northern leopard frog, a green frog with dark brown spots.
Northern leopard frog, Lithobates_pipiens, a “true” frog. By Brian Gratwicke – https://www.flickr.com/photos/briangratwicke/5898747773/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15848126

When one ventures into the tropics, one sees what a mistake it was to define two categories this way. The neotropics alone hand us the drab, fully aquatic Pipa; the terrestrial, smooth Dendrobates; the warty, arboreal Osteopilus; and more, and yet more variations appear in Africa, Asia, and Australia. What’s worse, the traits that supposedly distinguish frogs and toads appear and disappear numerous times in every combination throughout the anuran family tree, with the family of “true toads” including the smooth, brightly colored Atelopus genus from Central America and the warty, largely terrestrial Pyxicephalus turning out to be close relatives of the “true frogs.” Even Europe’s own lineages hardly fit into this dichotomy, with the warty, usually drab, semiaquatic genus Bombina being variously referred to as “fire-bellied frogs” and “fire-bellied toads.” “Frog” and “toad” had, at best, shown themselves to be deeply flawed names for broad ecotypes, and at worst become completely inapplicable outside their original home.

So English fudged, and the results are a tangled, inconsistent mess that puts lie to the tidy dichotomy I was taught as a child.

Pipa became the “Surinam toad” in English, despite its only fit into the “toad” archetype being its brown coloration. Kaloula pulchra, a ground-dwelling, slightly warty, brown species not closely related to “true toads,” is the “Malaysian painted frog.” Osteopilus is a genus of treefrogs, but the similarly sucker-fingered, brightly colored Rentapia hosii is the “Asian yellow-spotted climbing toad.”

Amidst all of this linguistic foolishness, “frog” slowly emerged as a shorthand for the entire group, sometimes including “toads” and sometimes not, with most people hedging their bets by saying “frogs and toads” as though either term carried any real weight.

They’re both, and they’re neither. They are fascinating, cute, and so far beyond the primitive dichotomy that created these names as to make them useless. But the names persist anyway.

Salamanders and Newts

This one is more forgivable.

“Salamander” and “newt” emerged as opposites much like “frog” and “toad” did. All urodelans have aquatic larvae with visible gills, and the difference between salamanders and newts, in the colloquial sense, is based on what happens after they metamorphose out of this life stage. “Salamander” referred to urodelans with terrestrial adults, whereas “newt” referred to those with long residence times in both habitats after metamorphosis. Newts are characterized by distinct terrestrial (“eft”) and aquatic (“newt”) forms that they take as part of this migration. North American newts typically remain aquatic for the rest of their lives after exiting the eft stage, whereas European newts become aquatic for their breeding season and resume living on land for the rest of the year, changing shape seasonally to suit each habitat.

Taricha torosa, a red-orange newt in its terrestrial
Taricha torosa, a newt in its terrestrial “eft” phase, photographed by Connor Long.

This peculiar life history meant that, unlike “toad,” “newt” was always a specific term, even if people using it often simply meant “warty-looking terrestrial slime-lizard.” It thus turned out that the creatures known as newts formed a monophyletic group, with a single common ancestor and shared genetic inheritance. What is interesting, however, is that this group, the Pleurodelinae, nests entirely within the core salamander family Salamandridae. Newts, then, are closer to Europe’s archetypal salamander, the fire salamander Salamandra salamandra, than they are to the rest of their order. Any discussion of salamanders, then, would have to include newts to carry any biological weight.

With newthood confined to a small number of species entirely within the core salamander family, “salamander” would emerge as the umbrella term for this whole order of amphibians. Species in other, more distantly related families, whether they were terrestrial or aquatic as adults and regardless of whether they metamorphosed at all, would all be called “salamanders.” “Newt” would remain reserved for the species with distinct habitat phases as adults, all grouped together in the single subfamily Pleurodelinae.

The “Salamanders and newts” qualifier that discussions of the Urodela in general often receive is, thereby, redundant. We don’t say “and mudpuppies, olms, amphiumas, and sirens,” so “and newts” is a relic of a long-gone time. “Newt” retains some utility as a name for the peculiar life history of one subfamily of salamandrids, but it is in no way the “opposite” of the others. Biology does not deal in dualities.

Snakes and Lizards

One would think the distinction between lizards and snakes, at least, would hold special reality, and for a while, it seemed to. Snakes have long existed as a natural sort of opposite to lizards, clearly related to one another but also clearly distinct and having enough species around the world to warrant their own word. Modern research has revealed, however, that this is not because snakes are distantly related to other squamates (the group containing lizards and snakes), but because snakes are highly specialized. Their distinctive highly distensible jaws and elongated, flexible skeletons mark them, not as an early-branching distant cousin, but as highly derived group nested deeply within the broader arrangement of lizards. Specifically, snakes are within Toxicofera, a lineage within Squamata that contains snakes and the large lizard groups Anguimorpha (including monitors and Gila monsters) and Iguania (including iguanas and chameleons). Toxicofera, in turn, does not include geckos, skinks, tegus, and numerous other lizard species.

In effect, much like newts, snakes are a clear taxonomic group, a single evolutionary lineage, but lizards are incomplete unless “lizard” is taken to include snakes.

Interestingly, snakes are not even close to the only legless group within this grand assemblage of lizards. Other notable legless lizards include the anguid slow worm, numerous pygopodid geckos, and most amphisbaenians, themselves a group once held to be “neither lizard nor snake” and now found to be definitely lizards, just as snakes are. There are even more examples of lizards with highly reduced legs, including many skinks whose legs are barely large enough to support their weight. And then there are the visible leg traces on some snakes, more pronounced than those found on some non-snake legless lizards.

Lialis burtonis, a light brown legless gecko with a snakelike body, licking its eye in very gecko fashion.
Lialis burtonis, Burton’s legless lizard, a kind of gecko that has lost its legs. Not a snake, definitely a lizard.

This reality leaves us with the terminological silliness of having multiple lineages of “it’s not a snake, it’s a legless lizard” elsewhere in the squamate family tree, in positions little different from the one snakes hold. Tidying this mess requires expunging the idea of “legless lizard” as a concept that excludes snakes and accepting that snakes, too, are highly specialized lizards, a particularly extreme and successful expression of the common lizard motif of reducing legs.

Turtles and Tortoises

One would expect the distinction between turtles and tortoises to be obvious and natural. Tortoises live on land, have highly domed shells, and are herbivores, and turtles live underwater, have flatter shells, and have other diets. Until these European terms encountered Asian and North American testudines, this simplicity could reign largely unchallenged. But North America and Asia both have domed, terrestrial testudines with other diets (the box turtles), unrelated to each other and to the tortoise lineage. The Americas also have the Kinosternidae, a family of dome-shelled aquatic turtles, albeit not as domed as most terrestrial turtles, and Africa has the pancake tortoise, a rock-dwelling member of the tortoise family that is flatter than most aquatic turtles. Clearly, the old terms would not do.

Cuora flavomarginata, the Chinese box turtle. A dome-shelled, dark-colored turtle with burnt orange spots.
Cuora flavomarginata, the Chinese box turtle. Not a tortoise. By Torsten Blanck.

Surprisingly, the solution common English found was not to make a frog/toad mess of these terms. Instead, “tortoise” was reserved for the Testudinidae, whose domed members were the first recipients of this name, and the others were left to be called turtles regardless of diet or habitat. In the US, the indigenous word “terrapin” is sometimes used for aquatic turtles as well. “Turtle” was permitted a degree of primacy as the umbrella term for the whole order, but many still insist on tacking “and tortoises” onto it in general settings. Meanwhile, Spanish and French lack this distinction entirely, using tortuga and tortue, respectively, throughout.

Conclusion

Linguistics and biology are not fields of study that spend a lot of time together, and days like this, it’s clear why. The distinctions that humans latch onto when naming the world around them rarely reflect organisms’ evolutionary history, nor should we expect them to. These common words instead reflect far more basic, practical, immediately observable distinctions that are often specific to the time, place, and society that created those names. But we are no longer those people, and we are not beholden to the thoughts that held them when they were coining our terms. Etymology tells us much about the relationship to nature of the people who named things, and biology tells us how much those people did not see. One reveals the past and the other, hopefully, shows us the future.

So here’s to frogs, salamanders, lizards, and turtles, sensu lato, in their grandest and most diverse profusion.

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Combustion Man https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/22/combustion-man/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/22/combustion-man/#respond Fri, 23 Jul 2021 02:34:37 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7288 The post Combustion Man appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Flash Fiction.

He did not have time to repent of his crime, or even remember what it was. The curse was as swift as it was thoughtful, and his substance transmuted to meet its grim syllables:

“Die in EVERY fire.”

The magic churned through his substance until every nanoscopic iota of his being was transposed into the universe’s supply of oxygen molecules. Not atoms, for that would have been a mercy and granted the offender a life that could endure all but the heart of a star. No, his curse was far more dire: to become oxygen molecules, whose duality made them just impermanent enough to hurt.
And every fire, everywhere, until the last lights in the universe blinked their final flashes. would rend him in two with a carbon blade, forever.
Molecular diagram of carbon dioxide, showing how it is a carbon atom between two oxygen atoms.
Forever.

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Oxtail Stew, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/12/oxtail-stew-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/12/oxtail-stew-alyssa-style/#respond Mon, 12 Jul 2021 19:09:41 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7283 The post Oxtail Stew, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I’ve been hoping to make this happen for years and I finally did it.

Oxtail stew was a much-loved treat when I was growing up. It was never a common meal, and I grew to treasure the smell of it cooking and the experience of eating it. In some ways, it became the decadent upper end of what I remember fondly about my mother’s cooking, where arroz con salchichas was the cozy lower end. As a meal I could make myself, it eluded me for many years, primarily because of the difficulty of sourcing oxtails, but I still got to enjoy it a few times in Ottawa. But now I’ve learned how to make it myself.

In the modern world, oxtails are uncommon and expensive. A single head of cattle has only one tail, after all, whereas it has many, many kilograms of other cuts. Oxtails have a distinctive, somewhat gelatinous texture once cooked that makes them quite unlike most other beef preparations, due to the abundance of connective tissue that softens and melts as it cooks. Like brisket and similar cuts of meat, cattle tails are tough and mostly unpalatable without the long cooking time that enables this result, but the fall-off-the-bone results are worth the wait and effort. Oxtails became a fixture in the Caribbean Hispanic community for much the same reason as brisket became a classic of Jewish cooking in the US: the need to make use of all available foodstuffs, no matter how nominally subpar. Sourcing oxtails can be difficult, but ethnic markets are a good place to start. Mine come from my local African grocery, after the local Latin American groceries proved fruitless.

This variation features a few changes relative to the one I grew up with. In particular, I have left out the otherwise standard onion and garlic to spare my stomach and added asafoetida. Asafoetida, also known as hing, is a substitute for the earthy flavor of onions commonly used in South Asian cooking and available in South Asian groceries. Hing is sold as a resin mixed with flour to keep it powdery, and whether that flour is rice or wheat depends on whether the asafoetida is sourced from southern or northern India, respectively. This is an important detail to keep in mind for those avoiding gluten.

Because of the necessarily long cooking time, this dish is ideal for slow cookers. The version presented here assumes the use of an Instant Pot, a Canadian slow-cooking invention that is rapidly proving indispensable in many kitchens, but should be easily modified for other contexts. Reduce the cooking time and keep an eye on the desired liquid content of the final product when modifying this recipe for stovetop use. This recipe serves eight and reheats well.

Equipment

You will need an Instant Pot with a capacity of at least four liters, a chef’s knife, a cutting board, a wooden spoon, and a ladle.

Ingredients

  • Green bell pepper, 1
  • Red or orange bell pepper, 1
  • Potatoes, 5 large
  • Oxtails, 1.5 lbs. Oxtails are often sold cut into appropriately-sized chunks already; cut into sections no more than 2” thick if not. These do not have to be defrosted before use in this recipe, unless you have to cut them.
  • Spinach, chopped, 150 g
  • Cooking oil, as needed
  • Asafoetida/hing, to taste
  • Parsley, either 1/3 cup fresh or ¼ cup dried
  • Canned whole tomatoes, 1 791-mL can.
  • Red cooking wine, 1.5 cups Reduce this volume for a thicker broth.
  • Capers, ¼ cup
  • Cumin, 1 tablespoon
  • Thyme, 1 teaspoon
  • Oregano, 1 teaspoon
  • Cuban oregano, leaves from one long branch
  • Bay leaves, 2
  • Balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon
  • Dried red pepper, 1 dash

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free if rice-based asafoetida is used.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Remove potatoes.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is optimized to reduce FODMAP content.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: A specific meat is the centerpiece of this stew, so a vegetarian substitute is unlikely.

Preparation

  1. Dice the green bell pepper and red bell pepper. Chop the potatoes into medium pieces.
  2. Add the cooking oil and asafoetida to the Instant Pot on the Sauté setting. Add the oxtails and brown on all sides. If using frozen spinach, you can add it here to thaw at the same time.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients to the Instant Pot and switch to the Slow Cook setting for 6 hours.
  4. Ladle into bowls and serve with ground black pepper to taste.

My mother and grandmother are still better at this than I am, not least because they get to use onion and garlic, but I’m good enough to satisfy myself and that’s what counts. I hope this recipe serves you well, as it has served me.

A bowl of oxtail stew, with one of the chunks of oxtail raised.

 

 

 

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On Little Finny Hands: Fish That Walk https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/23/on-little-finny-hands-fish-that-walk/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/23/on-little-finny-hands-fish-that-walk/#respond Thu, 24 Jun 2021 01:31:32 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7281 The post On Little Finny Hands: Fish That Walk appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Fish swim. But they also walk.

One might wonder what use an aquatic organism would have for walking. Water exerts a buoyant force that, for many organisms, is enough to counter gravity and allow them to essentially levitate, whereas the far lower density of air grants few terrestrial beings this gift. Combined with any amount of propulsive force, touching the bottom becomes essentially optional. Flight, by contrast, requires near-total specialization of those beings that would attempt it, because they must counter the lack of meaningful buoyancy with other forces. But just as crabs and crayfish spend most of their time walking along underwater surfaces, so too do some fish walk instead of swim. And they’re all so charming about it.

The best-known walkers are those fish that venture onto land. Many freshwater fish live in floodplains, ephemeral ponds, and rivers whose courses shift over time. These fish can be stranded when their home waters recede. Those that can maneuver on land have an advantage over those that cannot, and numerous lineages have developed this ability. Bichirs (pronounced “bee-sheers”), family Polypteridae, are an ancient lineage with this capability and combine the same kind of undulating motion that characterizes most fishes’ swimming with strong pectoral fins to walk with some adroitness on land.

Perhaps the most famous fish with this ability is the walking catfish, genus Clarias, which has become invasive in Florida in part thanks to its ability to migrate between isolated water sources under its own power.

Lungfish, particularly the African genus Protopterus, similarly, are famous for their ability to aestivate underground in mucous sacs for months or years at a time, emerging from seemingly nothing once water returns to their seasonal homes and quite able to migrate elsewhere overland if it suits them.

Seaside conditions are another ideal case for fish walking on land. Estuaries and intertidal zones experience the marine analogue of flood and recession multiple times per day. Fish that can maneuver between the resulting tide pools, mudflats, and other water sources can avoid those that are running low on oxygen, seek out less maneuverable prey, and otherwise gain advantage over less mobile competition. The most famous fish with this ability are the mudskippers, several genera of goby-like fish from Indian and Pacific Ocean coastlines that spend up to three quarters of their life on land. Mudskippers have joints similar in function to elbow joints in their strongly muscled pectoral fins, making them perhaps the most capable terrestrial walkers of all walking fish. Unlike many others, which venture onto land primarily to seek out new water, mudskippers feed, mate, and more while out of the water.

A personal favorite among these marine fish that use the ability to walk to venture between tide pools is the epaulette shark, Hemiscyllium ocellatum. Where many terrestrial fish make little use of their rear fins to travel on land, H. ocellatum comes close to imitating a quadrupedal land animal in its movements, using both pectoral and pelvic fins to maneuver.

A key specialization that comes along for the walking ride for these fish is the ability to breathe air. To a one, walking fish have some ability to extract oxygen from the air, whether that involves accessory breathing organs, functional lungs, or the ability to keep their gills wet even when out of water. Some, such as the lungfish, are so dependent on air that they drown when kept from it. Most of the situations that encourage fish to venture onto land include reduced aquatic oxygen, and even the ones that do not require a fish to be able to function while exposed to air for at least a short while. If this makes fish that venture onto land sound a lot like modern amphibians, that is not a coincidence.

But it is not only fish with an eye toward terrestrial locomotion that try their fins at walking. There are walking fish underwater, too. Most of the fish mentioned in the previous sections will use their walking motions, or similar movements, to maneuver underwater, and that shows a key use case for this ability: maneuverability on complex surfaces. Steering a swimming body, especially one partially adapted for walking on land, can be difficult, and being able to latch onto and push off of a solid surface can be useful—so useful that fish with no special facility for moving about on land also pursue this ability.

Perhaps the best known of these are various anglerfish lineages. Other than the deep-dwelling ceratioid lineage, anglerfish are benthic predators that specialize in luring prey toward them, and that benefits from being able to hold very still. Anglerfish fins are thus specialized for grasping and maneuvering on surfaces, including rocks and sand, and some can maintain this while moving. Antenarioid anglerfish often spend more time clambering about their rocky and weedy homes than they do swimming, and one species, the sargassum fish Histrio histrio, is often found climbing within and clinging to bits of formerly floating seaweed on warm Atlantic shorelines.

Some of the strangest aquatic walkers are the sea robins, family Triglidae, whose main concession to walking is gently pulling themselves along the seafloor on a few fin rays while feeling for food beneath the sand.

But none are stranger than the tripod fish, Bathypterois grallator, which balances on three fin rays to hold a steady position above the deep seafloor. It might be a bit of a stretch to call this creature a “walker,” though.

Relatively few walking fish are common in the pet trade. Most of them are predators and most of them are adapted for specialized niches that are difficult to emulate in home aquaria, making them poor pets. Many are threatened by human activities, including habitat destruction and overfishing, and one, the Tasmanian smooth handfish Sympterichthys unipennis, was declared extinct in 2020. Epaulette sharks are available for experienced marine aquarists to keep in large tanks and several bichir species are commonly spotted in pet stores, giving many people their first experience with fish that walk.

It is a delightful reality we inhabit, that such beings can find homes in it. I hope we get to enjoy them a long time yet.

 

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The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/06/the-ones-we-left-behind-urban-pigeons-deserve-better/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/06/the-ones-we-left-behind-urban-pigeons-deserve-better/#respond Sun, 06 Jun 2021 13:47:05 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7279 The post The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Few animals in urban settings garner less sympathy than the pigeon. Christened “rats with wings” by their detractors and dismissed as ambulatory pollution by most city-dwellers, they do not bring the sparkle of joy that cardinals provide or even the nonchalant charm of equally European-derived house sparrows. Much ink is spilled and homeowner frustration vented on the subject of how to get them to stay away from a place or outright stop existing. Our cities are littered with plastic spikes to deter their passage and false nesting sites set up for easy egg-culling. The appearance of peregrine falcons in urban environments is celebrated not only because these birds are magnificent in their own right, but because they prey on pigeons. Those who would defend these creatures receive accusations of naïveté, as though no one who actually interacted with pigeons could find them anything less than offensive.

Watching them live, one has trouble understanding this antipathy. Pigeons’ coloration is striking, with most feral individuals having a band of purple iridescence around their necks that catches the sun. Pigeons retain more of their domestic color variation than most feral animals, making their flocks a riot of diversity. Their calls range from soothing coos to purr-like rumbles, and their mating displays are charmingly gawky. They are unusual among birds in how easily they can drink, directly sucking from water sources rather than filling their bills and pouring it down their throats like most birds. They can use sight, smell, and the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate home from thousands of kilometers away. They are devoted parents, with father and mother alike caring for their young until they are fully fledged and even producing “crop milk” in their digestive tracts to feed their squabs. This ability allows pigeons to breed throughout the year, another superpower they have over other birds. Their bodies are loveably rotund, their behavior surprisingly affectionate. Pigeons are, if anything, most of the things we like about cats, only far more sociable. So why the hate?

It is because they outlived their purpose, no more, no less.

Two pigeons, one i the common gray color with an iridescent purple neck, the other with white splotches on its head, back, and underside.
Too pure for one world, too soiled for another.

Pigeons entered human cultivation before any other birds, more than 6000 years ago. Shelters called dovecotes encouraged wild pigeons to nest where humans could harvest their eggs, young, and the occasional adult, setting up a slow march toward domestication. In the following centuries, they became standard livestock and their various talents were discovered and put to use. They were selectively bred for beauty, for nutrition, for speed, and for long-distance flight. Different varieties were used as racers, as poultry, and as “homing pigeons” to deliver messages back to their homes from far away. Cities large and small had thriving populations actively cared for by humans to keep these functions working. The white morph of the pigeon, often called the “dove,” became a symbol of peace and purity, to the point that it became part of the hawk/dove idiomatic duality for warlike versus diplomatic character; it remains so loved that many people do not even realize it is the same species as the reviled city pigeon.

But time was not kind to their usefulness.

Chickens proved easier to raise in huge numbers in confined settings than pigeons and so replaced pigeons as the standard poultry around the world. Artificial fertilizers reduced the demand for natural ones in developed countries. Modern telecommunications equipment progressively made homing pigeons more and more obsolete. Breeding ornamental and racing pigeons persisted but became a higher-class affectation, and the lower-class stock slowly shifted from poultry to the birds later substituted with “clay pigeons” at shooting galleries. The rest were simply…abandoned.

Our cities are full of pigeons because we, as a society, ran out of uses for them. We turned them from domestic to feral with a thousand little rejections. When they kept on living anyway, we called them pests.

Dozens of generations later, their descendants eke out a livelihood on our refuse and whatever we throw at them. They nest on whatever surfaces remind them of the seaside cliffs their wild ancestors frequented, whenever they are not chased away, poisoned, or shot. The excrement that was once celebrated as a perfect fertilizer became the bane of urban environments, staining concrete and damaging statuary, with few realizing that its unwholesome runniness is a symptom of the birds’ enforced dietary poverty. They are held up as examples of urban disease carriers, despite the rarity of their transmitting anything to humans.

City dwellers declared them “flying rats,” but “flying dandelions” might be more accurate. Dandelions, too, were cultivated for food and encouraged to spread until they weren’t.

I can’t be angry at pigeons. They are not mosquitoes, bedbugs, or fleas that directly harm people, nor are they urban rodents and roaches that sneak into homes to steal food and defecate in cupboards. They just figured out how to survive after the people who were taking care of them started hating them instead, and it is hard not to empathize with that. We would all do well to appreciate what the humble pigeon has achieved, surviving long after humans decided it wasn’t worth anything anymore in places inhospitable to so many other birds, looking like a fluffy, purring friend the whole time.

You are welcome near me on all my outdoor excursions, Columba livia domestica. You’ve earned it.

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Four Months Later: How is Recovery? https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/22/four-months-later-how-is-recovery/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/22/four-months-later-how-is-recovery/#respond Sat, 22 May 2021 20:33:11 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7277 The post Four Months Later: How is Recovery? appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I had facial feminization surgery and breast augmentation on 28 January this year. Recovery from these procedures is a long process, even if the worst of it is over in the first few weeks. I already reported on the immediate aftermath and on two months later, so, how are two additional months treating me?

  • My scalp has been regaining sensation. The region at the top of my head in which sensation has been reduced since surgery has gone from almost completely numb, to furiously itchy, to just having less sensation than it did before, and it continues to both slowly shrink and to regain sensation.
  • It looks like I am most likely in for a long-term result that includes hair loss on my forehead incision, in particular the portions of it that are within my existing hair on the sides of my head. The thinned hair in that area is noticeable for those who know what to look for. Although hair has grown through some of my scar tissue at the front of the incision, where the incision scar itself is visible on my forehead, this does not seem to be happening on the sides, or if it is, it’s much less. I can endure this, but I have to keep it in mind when I wear my hair up.
  • I had an infection within the forehead incision for a week or so, which looked to be a whitehead until I drained it a few times. It was ultimately of no consequence but left me concerned.
  • My frontal sinus now behaves no differently than it did before surgery, and I can sneeze without difficulty.
  • I have regained mobility in my eyebrows, although the left one is still harder to move than the right.
  • The blood in my sclera cleared long ago.
  • I have been wearing a professionally-sized bra during most days ever since I became sure that my size was no longer in flux, and my body has appreciated this assistance in keeping my new breasts supported. I have also been wearing a sports bra at night. I notice a little soreness if I go long periods without wearing either, such as when the day’s outfit is a dress that looks best without a bra.
  • I no longer experience discomfort when manipulating my breasts, such as pushing them closer to each other, which is helpful for considering my wardrobe possibilities in the future.
  • I realized that part of my breast augmentation surgery involved lowering my inframammary fold on both sides, which has resulted in an impressive improvement to my overall breast shape and in moving my bra band to a narrower part of my torso, leading to a smaller band size.
  • I can look at old photos and identify the differences between my old face and the new, and my satisfaction with my new features has only grown.

At this stage, I consider my recovery virtually complete. The main thing left is for the sensation in my scalp to fully return and for any further changes in my hair regrowth pattern to manifest themselves. This surgery has continued to be much easier on me than some of my previous medical experiences, and I am glad I was able to make it happen. I hope this retrospective is useful to others who are considering it.

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The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/09/the-satisfaction-of-a-good-optimization-problem-or-that-time-i-obsessed-about-some-wires-for-a-week-straight/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/09/the-satisfaction-of-a-good-optimization-problem-or-that-time-i-obsessed-about-some-wires-for-a-week-straight/#respond Sun, 09 May 2021 20:02:20 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7267 The post The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I’m a tidy autistic. Compared to most of my friends, my home is uncannily organized; my routines are rigid and often inflexible. When I last moved house, my new home was 90% unpacked within the first week and firmly lived-in by the end of the first month, thanks to packing my previous home with destination rooms in mind and having a new floor plan for my furniture worked out in PowerPoint a month before moving day. With tape measures, notes, and detailed pro/con analyses, I worked out the best places for my sofa, television, display cases, desk, aquaria, and each individual houseplant, along with which new items to order and where those would go. Waste is sorted immediately and removed on a schedule, and cups never accumulate away from the drying rack. Mess makes me anxious and staying on top of these things is both a gift for and the result of my executive function, not done for others but to keep my home liveable for me. I pride myself on that level of masterful order and accept the neuroticism that comes with it as the price of success.

And that makes the state my PC, aquarium, and entertainment center cables were in until recently a bit odd. Truth be told, they were a mess. I got them functional when I moved in and I moved on, to the rest of the tasks that needed far more doing. It was the seedy underbelly of my immaculate world, and unlike real seedy underbellies that are where a town’s magic happens, this one had no redeeming qualities. Whenever I had to interact with the wires, such as to keep my aquarium filter from malfunctioning during a water change or remove my headset for travel, I had to confront the Tangle, and it was exponentially worse whenever I had to replace a specific component that had stopped working.

It was time to tangle…with the Tangle.

Fish Froth

The mess behind my aquaria had one fundamental cause: timing. I keep my aquarium lights (two on the fish tank, plus my turtle’s basking lamp) on a timer, and connecting them all to that timer involved a chain of electrical cords that I wish could have been any other way. The timer could accept one electrical plug as the output it would control, which was non-grounded, preventing me from connecting most multi-outlet adapters or power bars to it safely. I had picked the position of my turtle’s basking lamp based on a convenient hook in the ceiling (meant for hanging plants) and an orientation that would keep its light out of my eyes while I was at my desk, and that meant it was far enough away from the two aquarium lights that connecting all three of them to the same anything would require at least one extension cord. The solution, at the time, ended up being connecting the basking lamp to an extension cord and connecting that extension cord and the two aquarium lights to a second extension cord, which then plugged into the timer. After all of that, connecting the other four aquarium-related devices (two filters, a heater, and an airstone) to a single power bar was positively tame.

So, what was to be done?

I tried a spare, higher-end timer, which boasted a grounded output that would let me use a multi-outlet plug or power bar. Unfortunately, the orientation of its output and the size and shape of the timer meant that my three-outlet splitter would not fit once the timer was plugged into the wall. I could instead use a standard power bar, of which I had several, but that seemed excessive for such a small number of lights, and later steps in this adventure would make it seem even more superfluous. But I had one other tool: a small ungrounded-to-grounded adapter. With it, I could use my old timer and the three-outlet splitter instead of one of the extension cords, immediately removing the primary source of cord chaos behind my aquaria. The wires for the other, untimed devices had little length to spare, keeping them straight and easy to manage even without binding them together. In this singular effort, the wire situation behind my aquaria was rescued. However, completing this task exposed a greater issue that took more effort to address.

A lot of my aquarium equipment is old, low-end items cobbled together over years, suboptimal even when it was working at its best, which it no longer is. The power supply to one of my aquarium light fixtures is fragile and malfunctions when I interact with any of the wires, near it, and my old filter needs to be unplugged during every water change to prevent it damaging itself. Both needed to be laboriously coaxed back into behaving correctly after any interruption, which grew ever more tiresome as both devices continued to age. That light’s counterpart on the other half of my tank had already died and been replaced with a less functional backup lamp with a different color temperature that was causing algae problems, and the filter’s noise during its malfunctions was loud enough to make my office hard to tolerate. Tidying the wires helped make clear that it was time for some upgrades.

I have now replaced my old hang-on-back external power filter with a higher-end external canister filter and both light fixtures with a single LED fixture that exceeds the output, color temperature, and performance of its two predecessors put together. Switching these devices also required replacing my old, mismatched plastic aquarium hoods with new glass covers that let in much more light. This new arrangement has one fewer device to plug in and is much quieter than the older devices. It did crowd items out of my aquarium cabinet that I was holding for when I set up a third tank for a new friend I have not made yet, but that is a temporary nuisance. The algae problem is already resolving itself. I am excited for what the future holds for my fishy family. My scaly children, after all, deserve the best.

Schematic of the electrical connections in my aquarium wall.
So tidy.

Table Turnover

Another improvement came to me by chance. While cleaning my guest bedroom, I discovered one of the lengths of coaxial cable that the previous owners had left behind. There were many like it, attached to cable outlets in the walls and, presumably, used for televisions. Meanwhile, my router was connected via a short length of the very same kind of cable to the main outlet, on the wall opposite my desk. I had long wanted to have my router with all my other computer peripherals and accessories, near me at my desk, and its enforced position on the other side of the room was an ongoing nuisance. It meant getting up to attend to it when it malfunctioned, turning around to check its status, and keeping it on a table near that wall so that it wasn’t on my floor getting accidentally kicked. I had checked all of the coaxial cable in my possession when the router was first installed and a few times since, finding them all too short to address the problem, and had given up. The cable in the guest room had sat there, behind a dresser, ignored for over a year, before I rediscovered it and realized that it was long enough to let me move the router to my desk. I would still have a wire trailing across the floor, but it would be more durable coaxial instead of fragile ethernet and the router itself would be where I wanted it.

It was not an instant fix. I had to rearrange the plugs in my surge protector to make a little more space on my desk and adding a new power and data wire to the nest behind my PC was not especially welcome. Fortunately, I had an abundance of shorter ethernet cables I could use to minimize the excess additional wire, instead of the long one that had once draped across the entire room. As a bonus, I could even use the previous long ethernet wire to connect a gaming console to the now more conveniently located router. The coaxial cable was stiffer than that ethernet cable, creating a minor tripping hazard, but some leftover pieces of the same carpet that covered much of my home could cover that wire as well, keeping it from entangling visitors’ feet. But the most unexpected perk was that this change meant that I could repurpose the table that had once borne the router.

At the far end of my living room, I had a trio of houseplants in pots in a large, disused litter box on the floor. Interacting with them was always inconvenient, but not inconvenient enough to do anything about it, least of all anything that would cost money. It turned out that the table from the router fit in that space, and under that tray, perfectly. This elevated the houseplants and made them easier to reach, while also getting them better light. The space the table left behind was going to be emptied eventually as a home for my third and final aquarium, when that ambition can at last be realized, and now it is done well in advance. Watching success cascade through a series of problems is one of the most satisfying parts of organizing a space, and I got to enjoy it once again, right before one of the more high-effort fixes of this whole adventure.

Computer Kerfuffle

My PC was the next mess to resolve. Computers are notorious for the sheer number of wires connecting their various peripherals to both electrical sockets and to wherever their data must travel, and cable management is nigh-mandatory for making any sense of them. The nest of wires behind my computer formed when I set up my office and had served to snag various items falling down the back of my desk ever since, while also complicating interactions with those wires. After a particularly mortifying video from Linus’s Tech Tips, I set to work disentangling this morass.

This was harder than it sounded. The wires were not only unbound, but intersecting in chaotic arrangements that had more to do with when each one was connected than any sense of utility. Attempting to bind them while they were still in this state would turn a loose weave into a tight web, worse than useless. Disentangling the wires meant deciding not just which ones deserved to be bundled together, but what those paths should look like, and from there, which ones needed to be disconnected and reconnected on other paths instead. I ultimately decided that the power cables would travel below the data cables, because I needed to interact with the data cables (such as USB and HDMI) more often. Arranging the two categories of wire this way made them easier to bundle separately, dramatically reducing the complexity of the situation. It was not the end, however.

It was tempting to bind every place where cables still shared paths. Such a tight arrangement would have looked orderly, and even been orderly, but it would not have been practical. The more ties held various cables together, the less simple it would be to replace those cables or those devices if and when their time came, and the more rigid the whole arrangement would have become. There were limits to how many ties could be useful instead of over-engineered, and it took a little more thought to find those limits. Three additional ties ultimately proved worthwhile: one more to restrain the USB and power cables from my printer, a second to hold together the wires issuing from my HDMI splitter (which serves to duplicate my PC’s screen on my television when desired), and a third to collect the wires from my monitor and adjacent webcam. Others tempted me—binding my keyboard and mouse wires to the monitor bundle to turn it into a “these are on my desk instead of in the cabinet” bundle, or attaching my printer’s USB cable to the nearby power cable bundle, or doing more with my HDMI cables—but ultimately, this smaller set proved more than sufficient. It was not quite as tidy as I wanted, but it retained practical utility it would have lost if I had gone further. I had restrained the cable dragon of my computer, and it was on to bigger and thornier problems.

Schematic of peripheral connections of my PC.
I have a copy of this in a plastic sleeve taped to the wall behind my monitor. It is oriented as if projected from the PC so that I can use it to guide my hands, sight unseen.

Entertainment Extravaganza

The example of my PC proved instructive for my entertainment center. Like my PC, my entertainment center had two central hubs where cables came together, and like my PC, there was one main place from which those cables issued. My entertainment center has two large holes in its backing for cable passage, reducing a forbidding series of numerous cables from numerous devices to two exit points. Taking a page from my PC adventure, I decided to use the lower of these openings for all the power cords and the upper for data cords. I could bind the power cords for my various devices into a single large bundle right up to that lower opening and leave their excess length inside the cabinet where the devices themselves resided, a convenience that the varying cord lengths, varying AC adapter locations on my PC’s peripherals, and varying device locations relative to my surge protector did not allow.

The data cables were not so easy. I had two upgrades for my setup to install, an HDMI switch and an adapter that claimed to be able to turn a Nintendo 64’s output into an upscaled HDMI signal. With most of my entertainment devices using HDMI as their output mode, the HDMI switch would let me have them all plugged in at once instead of just two, solving one problem. However, this particular switch had its ports along two sides instead of in a single row, limiting the feasibility of a single-bundle strategy for the wires leading to it. What’s worse, most of my HDMI cords were of greatly excessive length for their application, leading to large amounts of cable to wrangle. That excess, in turn, was not the same between all the devices, making bundling them all together difficult.

While I investigated my options and did a belated dusting of my entertainment center’s exposed shelves, I decided to move my Nintendo 64 to the top, outside the shelving, where the television itself is. Although the shelf the N64 was on was deep enough to allow switching the top-loading device’s cartridges, clearing the shelf made the data cords from the other devices easier to visualize and created space for a future ambition. The fact that I already needed to fuss with the N64’s wires to install the HDMI adapter made this the perfect time to move it. Keeping it separate from the other HDMI devices also kept its much shorter HDMI cable from complicating the rest of this process.

The solution for the data wires, in the end, was as inelegant as it was simple. There was a hidden area in the bottom shelf of my entertainment center seemingly designed to help manage AC adapters and other cord-related mess, and it proved capable storage for all manner of excess cable. I had initially planned to attach plastic hooks to the back of my entertainment center and hang the looped HDMI cables there, but the improvements already achieved gave me an idea. By tightly binding the two longest HDMI cables together, I could conceal them inside that same hidden area, without getting them entangled with the power cords. It would then be a challenge to extricate either cable if one of them needed replacing in the future, but with both cables being the same age, quite new, and used infrequently, that seemed an unlikely and far-off problem. I could hide the other, smaller excesses—the smaller HDMI cable connecting the HDMI switch to the television, the component video cable for my Xbox, and the N64’s new HDMI cable—in the empty space within the entertainment center, keeping both the front and back wonderfully tidy.

The shelf vacated by the Nintendo 64 now holds its four controllers, waiting for when I can have a group again for some split-screen play. But it will eventually also hold a VCR sufficient to enjoy some childhood documentaries and add a charmingly retro touch to my whole setup. With that in mind, I have kept my composite video switch in place, a device otherwise rendered superfluous now that only one device, my original Xbox, is using it.

Table-of-contents-style listing of how to access each media device connected to my television.
I keep a version of this in a plastic sleeve on my entertainment center now. This version is held in reserve for when I add something.

Conclusion

I did an exemplary job optimizing the location of my furniture. Every now and then, I check whether certain tempting alternatives, such as switching the locations of my aquaria and my display cases, would work, and each time I find the same result: at best, the switch would be neutral, effort spent for no improvement. More often, it would create some problem that the current arrangement escaped, the exact reasoning that led me to set things up as I did the first time. I have known people who rearrange their furniture every few months just to jostle their minds with false newness, but from where I am, an arrangement so carefully optimal that any deviation from it is objectively worse feels like an achievement. From the locations of my electrical outlets to which circuit breakers they are on to which surfaces my cats can easily reach, I have checked and re-checked every relevant factor, making it easy to be arrogantly certain that there are no further improvements to be had.

Venturing into cable management, and with it the upgrades I decided to pursue along the way, was a pleasant reminder that, no matter how good I get at making sure things are already the best they can be, I can still find ways to make them better, ways that are not likely to be themselves supplanted anytime soon. And every one of these problems leads to another eruption of diagrams that I can pour joyous hours into, fussing with the situation digitally to make it understandable in the world of touch and smell and creating a record of what I have done that I can consult even when the work itself is hard to view and enjoy.

I am looking forward to the steps to come.

Flowchart depicting the connections between various devices in my entertainment center.
This is ASMR for the eyes.

The post The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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