Worst of Times, Best of Times

Staying Sane & Entertained While Forced to Hide from the Coronavirus

Charles Dickens likely did not have a deadly global pandemic in mind when he wrote the “best of times, worst of times” opening for his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He was contrasting life in profitable, peaceful London with grim life in revolution-torn Paris at the end of the 18th century.

With most Americans now being told to stay away from their jobs and remain sheltered for weeks in their homes or apartments, people are coming face-to-face with a harsh reality: How do we keep ourselves sane and entertained while contained within four walls almost around the clock?

What follows are short reports from five people in different parts of the United States. They describe how they have responded thus far to being confined to quarters. They have not complained of feeling like people under house arrest or like space passengers practicing for a long, mundane cruise to Mars.

For some, at least, the pandemic response has been a time for reflection and reinvention, as well as frequently seeking and needing entertainment.

“Shadow Horse” – Photo by Si Dunn, sidunn@sagecreekproductions.com

Erin J., a Boston college student, is still recovering from coronavirus-like symptoms. She has been staying in a small living space for several weeks since her university closed and put its classes online.

“Well, I wasn’t tested for it, but I can say that the first week I slept for 16 hours a day and didn’t care much for entertainment. I’d put on anything to have noise. The second week was a little better, but I still slept most of the day and night but had midterm exams to prepare for. Took me four days to write a paragraph. I started consuming more media as a means to stay distracted and try to figure out what was going on. I found movies that were like comfort food and almost played them on loop. By about the end of the second week I started feeling human [again] and was more interested in doing schoolwork, and became more aware that I was stuck inside.

“I’ve stayed entertained by trying to find comfort in media that reminds me of the world I knew.”


Terry P., a writer and entertainer in Long Island, N.Y., has chosen a positive and pragmatic approach to coping with the current economic and health disaster:

“Planted a bunch of seeds and ordered a compost bin, planning a vegetable garden. Also taking piano lessons and writing a book for self-employed entertainers about how to kick start their businesses when this all ends. And watching Netflix, of course.”


Linda B. is a PRN (pro re nata – “as the situation demands”) worker in Austin, Texas, who currently is not doing much work, but filling time with many other activities.

“Slowly reading a serious book, What the Eyes Don’t See, about the Flint water crisis, by the pediatrician and activist who didn’t stop until the story was told and changes made. Making bread for my neighbors. Cooking new recipes. Using FaceTime, learning Zoom and What’sApp to see and talk to people I love. Staying up-to-date on happenings for my work which doesn’t need an ‘as needed’ PRN employee right now. Walking with another neighbor or [doing] something for exercise most days. Learning what it feels like to see the world “non-24″ by going to bed when I feel like it and staying there 7-8 hours no matter what hour that is. Today, 6 am – 3 pm. Recording the local news in case I’m doing something more fulfilling at the time; then watching without ads. Doing the same with movies and documentaries so that when I choose to watch TV, I can see interesting things or delete it. Learning after three weeks that I can live without touch for today. I may crack tomorrow, but for today, I’m at peace working on the ‘Mindboggler 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Carpathian Mountains’ I picked up on a whim at Half Price Books months ago.”


Musician and retired teacher Pamela F. lives in a small-ish town north of Austin, Texas, and avoids boredom by staying active on several fronts:

“Walking twice a day. Sometimes walking with the seven-year-old son of my next-door, single-parent neighbor. Trying to learn Zoom. Writing music. Using FaceTime and Facebook Messenger to see friends and relatives. Eating, and then eating some more. Small projects like cleaning out a drawer or a closet. Napping. Continuing my physical therapy regimen. Playing piano and accordion. Keeping up with friends on Facebook. Reading. Quiet time.”


Joe S., a Dallas-area journalist, is taking a more focused approach to using his sheltering-at-home time:

“Reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.”

That’s a 547-page work of history subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” Sounds appropriate and inspiring for coping with current times.


Catherine B., an Austin, Texas, university librarian (her school has gone to online classes) also is focusing on a central task, but is taking breaks to pursue other, more entertaining activities:

“I have been reading manuals and a glossary for a new integrated library system, the thing behind the scene that runs the online catalog. In my free time, I am sewing quilt blocks. I got excited when I found the perfect elastic for making masks. [And] Tom and I watched ‘Downton Abbey,’ the series and the movie, on DVD. We started that in early March before the social distancing. I have also made 20-second videos of rain and birds singing.”


Many things can be done while stuck indoors, including taking online classes, watching yoga or tai chi how-to videos, reading books previously ignored on your bookshelves, starting a home-based business, baking bread, or taking up new or lapsed hobbies. The possibilities are vast, and the time to get started currently is abundant.

Thanks for reading this effort to make creative use of some of my own inside time. And please feel free to add comments. Something posted here may someday end up in somebody’s sociology book, history book, graduate thesis, movie, or novel about these treacherous times. Who knows?


Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, novelist, screenwriter, book reviewer, and journalist. His books include Dark Signals, Jump, and Erwin’s Law.

Joe Biden’s ‘Promise Me, Dad’ #bookreview #2020Election

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose

Joe Biden

Flatiron Books

If you are leaning toward Joe Biden and wondering if you will want to back him in the 2020 presidential election, Biden’s 2017 book, Promise Me, Dad, can give you some good insights into his character, values, and long record of service in American government.

Promise Me, Dad is Biden’s first-person story of family life: losing his oldest son, Beau, to cancer; serving as an active and engaged Vice President in the Obama Administration; and juggling several international crises, all while trying to decide if he would run for President, against Hillary Clinton, in 2016.

Wikipedia:Featured picture candidates/File:Joe Biden official ...
Former Vice President Joe Biden

“Nobody ever told me a life in politics and public service would be easy; like life, I never expected politics to be free of disappointment or heartache,” Biden writes. “But I have always believed it was worth the effort.”

When the deadline arrived for him to choose whether or not to run for President in 2016, he was dealing with Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, with ongoing U.S. investments into “the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador,” and with trying to help hold together and provide support to a coalition of Shia and Sunni fighters battling ISIL in Iraq.

At the same time, he says, he had “learned first hand, the hardest way possible, that facing down cancer is a frightening and costly ordeal in the best of circumstances, for the strongest of families.”

Beau Biden’s death had left Joe Biden deeply grieved. And, no matter how hard he tried, he could not bury his sorrow beneath the duties of state and the myriad necessities of political campaigning. Grief’s cycles would not be denied; they would have to be allowed to run their course. The presidency would have to wait.

As fall 2019 approaches, we are already in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the most important, contentious, and acrimonious presidential elections in American history. As this sentence is written, Joe Biden is holding onto a double-digit lead in early Democratic polling. However, the field of candidates remains large at this point, and many unexpected things can happen between now and November, 2020.

Nonethess, Joe Biden currently is on track to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 ticket. And, like any other veteran politician, he will bring a wide array of experiences, qualifications, sensitivities, talents, supporters and funding sources to the race, along with baggage, detractors, and lingering questions.

A fair reading of Promise Me, Dad can provide more insights into Biden’s character, qualities, quirks, and question marks than you likely will encounter by using social media to try to figure out whom to support.

Si Dunn

A Noteworthy Book for Learning Python 3.X – #bookreview

Python Crash Course

A Hands-On, Project-Based Introduction to Programming

Eric Matthes

No Starch Press

Python has long been considered a programming language for beginners, a gentle steppingstone to other, more challenging languages such as JavaScript, Java or C++.

But, in 2018, a Stack Overflow survey found that Python apparently has become the world’s fastest-growing programming language in popularity. Some surveys have even ranked it in the top five, and up to number two, behind JavaScript. (You are free to question the accuracy of the various surveys, but Python has become a lot more popular in the past few years.)

Why? The rapid growth of data science has much to do with it. Many college students studying data science now must learn how to work with Python. Meanwhile, numerous companies employ data scientists to extract, analyze, interpret, and display data, using Python and statistical and machine learning techniques. Python is an important tool in some web development projects. And, author Eric Matthes points out, “Python is also used heavily in scientific fields for academic research and applied work.”

If you are wanting to learn Python, definitely check out Python Crash Course, 2nd Edition . Matthes’s updated book (released in May 2019) is a well-written, well-structured how-to guide, significantly revised in its latest release to focus on Python 3,X. (Python 3.7.2 is used in the code examples.)

The book is organized into two main parts: the basics and projects. In part one, the author provides extensive coverage of basic programming concepts using Python, including how to test code. Using numerous code examples, he dwells at helpful length on lists, if statements, dictionaries, user input, while loops, functions, classes, files, exceptions, plus other topics. In part two, the reader is offered three different programming projects, including a video game, a data visualization project, and a Web application that uses the Django framework.

Given Python’s burgeoning popularity, Python Crash Course, 2nd Edition is a good book to have on hand even if you already work with other programming languages.

Si Dunn

‘The Meanest Man in Congress’ – #bookreview

The Meanest Man in Congress

Jack Brooks and the Making of an American Century

Timothy McNulty and Brendan McNulty
New South Books

The Meanest Man in Congress should be essential reading for anyone interested in U.S. national politics and 20th-century American history. The book is a richly detailed, solidly researched, well-written biography focusing on the life, public-service career, and key achievements of a Democratic Congressman who served under ten presidents while representing Texas’s Ninth Congressional District for 42 years, until 2004.

Brooks, a World War II Marine combat veteran, played noteworthy roles in the passage of some of LBJ’s landmark Great Society legislation, as well as in Richard Nixon’s impeachment (Nixon called Brooks his “executioner”), plus the investigation of Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal.

The Southeast Texan avoided running for higher office. But, capping his Congressional career, he served for six years as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Along the way, Brooks also became “a guide and a friend” to a newly elected Californian, Nancy Pelosi, plus some other politicians still prominent today.

Despite being a staunch fiscal conservative, Brooks helped keep the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) alive at critical funding junctures and singlehandedly saved the International Space Station program from being defunded.

U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX) spent 42 years in Congress including six as head of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. He also championed NASA and the International Space Station.

The authors write that “Brooks’s legislative productivity was without parallel. Whereas many senior members might settle into a rhythm of what could be passed without much fuss, Brooks took on bigger and bigger legislative fights, going directly after lobbies that had successfully stalled reform in Congress for decades.”

While reading this intelligent, enlightening portrait of Brooks amid twentieth-century Washington politics, it is easy–and unnerving–to see what, and just how much, has been lost during our current era of Congressional rancor, suspicion, and deep partisanship. It is also easy to see where the bitter turmoil began and why it led Jack Brooks to later call Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich “scum.”

Si Dunn

P.S.–My thanks to New South Books for sending an advance reading copy for review.


Become a web app developer using Node.js with JavaScript

Get Programming with Node.js
Jonathan Wexler
Manning Publications

This is one of the best written and most useful Node.js how-to books I have read. Yes, the publisher’s cover choice is goofy, but the author’s text is well organized and well illustrated with code examples and other graphics. Also, Jonathan Wexler wisely focuses on how to set up good development and deployment environments first. Then you are shown how to use Node.js as a vital player in the somewhat-complex process of creating, building, testing, and deploying JavaScript web applications.

Wexler’s project-oriented book focuses on how to put together, expand, and launch a recipe-sharing web application called Confetti Cuisine. The process unfolds in 37 well-presented lessons organized into nine major topics:

  • Getting Set Up
  • Getting Started with Node.js
  • Easier Web Development with Express.js
  • Connecting to a Database (it’s MongoDB)
  • Building a User Model
  • Authenticating User Accounts
  • Building an API
  • Adding Chat Functionality
  • Deploying and Managing Code in Production

Along with Node.js and JavaScript, the reader encounters the basic use of several additional software packages, tools, and sites, including Git, Heroku, Mongoose, and Socket.io, among others.

If you have been wanting to learn how to be a web app developer and JavaScript programmer, Get Programming with Node.js offers a complete course in how to get started toward those two goals, using Node.js as one of your most important and most versatile tools.

Si Dunn

Destroyers: ‘Tin Cans and Greyhounds’

Sailors who served aboard destroyers (or other ships), and general readers of military history may want to check out this new book, “Tin Cans & Greyhounds: The Destroyers That Won Two World Wars,” by Clint Johnson. I have read several books that have highlighted the role of destroyers in naval combat. This is one of the very best.

“Other warships [ especially battleships and aircraft carriers ] may have won the fame and glory, but the versatile—and unheralded—destroyer deserves a special place in naval history,” Walter R. Borneman recently wrote in his review of Johnson’s book in the Wall Street Journal.

In Tin Cans & Greyhounds, there is no mention of my ship, USS Higbee (DD-806), nor of other Gearing Class destroyers which came out of American shipyards late in World War II (and also served in the Korean War and Vietnam War). But Johnson’s coverage of the older tin cans that served in World War I and World War II (and bore the brunt of a lot of combat) is fascinating, heavily researched and well-written.

Si Dunn

An #APRS #hamradio memo

I have #DireWolf packet software transmitting/receiving #APRS with a Baofeng UV-5R handheld transceiver, Easy Digi sound card adapter by KF5INZ, old Windows PC & fixed QTH setting. PC & UV-5R audio levels are touchy, so do not set them too high. Take the time to experiment with the audio levels. Decoding may not occur if the audio levels are set too high. Or, you may get a DireWolf error message: “Audio input level is too high. Reduce so most stations are around 50.” That is a bit easier said than done. One nearby digipeater generated that error message at an audio input level of 200, but more distant stations were down around 20 or 30. Just try to find a UV-5R volume level that decodes some APRS stations. Then test the results and try slightly lower or slightly higher settings to see if they produce better consistency.

Questions? Comments? Post on this site, or contact me at k5jrn@arrl.net. (P.S.– Easy Digi sound card adapters can be found on eBay.)


Python and Machine Learning

One of the first online courses I took and completed was “Learn to Program: The Fundamentals” from the University of Toronto. It focused on key aspects of basic programming, using Python. Back then (2012), Python often was considered a beginners’ language and a steppingstone to more “sophisticated” languages such as Java, JavaScript and numerous others.

I managed to fight my way to a B- (or C+) finish and concluded I had no great future in the nitty-gritty aspects of modern software development. But I did enjoy the course, even if logic is not my strong suit. Since then, I have learned how to work with several other programming languages, while focusing on technical writing, book reviewing, and other endeavors.

Nonetheless, I still have fond memories of learning and using Python (and getting my brain’s butt kicked by some of the exercises in the online course).

That beginner’s course is still around on Coursera.org. Here’s the link: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learn-to-program

Meanwhile, as Joe Eames, CEO of Thinkster.io, writes in a new article:

“Python [now] is the language of Machine Learning, but it’s also a very common language for Web Servers. Even for JavaScript purists, learning Python can be a big benefit as it not only gives you familiarity with one of the most popular web server languages, it also gets you started on the path of working with Machine Learning and AI.”

Thinkster is now offering a free “Better Way to Learn Python” course. Here’s the link: https://thinkster.io/tutorials/a-better-way-to-learn-python

To be honest, I do some non-programming tasks for Thinkster, so I am guilty of doing a bit of free promotional work here. But to be doubly honest, I still like the University of Toronto’s online course, too. If you are wanting to learn Python, I’d say give both a try, even at the same time. You might also try some of the Python how-to books available online from Amazon (https://amzn.to/2HT8GH1) and other sources.

To be triply honest, absolutely nobody’s going to hire this 75-year-old geezer to use Python or any other programming language in Machine Learning, AI, or web server support. But I can still use Python to exercise my brain and keep mental cobwebs at bay. And I still get a kick out of making my clunky programs run and answer such questions as: “What is the meaning of life?”

>42 (https://www.wired.co.uk/article/what-is-the-meaning-of-life)

I bet you can find reasons to check out Python, as well.

Si Dunn

Evil Personified

The biological, psychiatric & related factors that give rise to modern violent crime, including mass shootings.

THE NEW EVIL: Understanding the Emergence of Modern Violent Crime

Michael H. Stone, MD and Gary Brucato, PhD
Prometheus Books
Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/2UGDTjk

The New Evil is eye-opening and informative reading, especially if you have an interest in how criminal minds work and how people attempt to justify the horrible violence they have unleashed.

The book offers important insights useful for readers involved in law enforcement, the legal and judicial systems, mental health, and government. Other readers, such as crime novelists, journalists, and counselors, also

Published last November, The New Evil is a follow-up to Michael H. Stone’s 2017 book, The Anatomy of Evil (https://amzn.to/2Oc6QkH ). The new book is a well-researched and fascinating study of modern violent crime since the 1960s.

A strong caution is warranted: Some readers may be shocked and disturbed by the gruesome details of just how depraved some human beings can be while committing violent crimes.

The authors–Michael H. Stone, M.D., is a professor of clinical psychiatry and Gary Brucato, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and researcher–examine how certain biological, psychiatric and related factors have had important bearings on serial killings, serial rape, torture, killing sprees, and mass-casualty events such as school and church/mosque shootings.

To help bring clarity to what they define as “evil” and “violent” crimes, they present a 22-point scale that ranks “an individual’s crime or repeated criminal acts” by their severity.

Their scale is subdivided into six categories: (1) Killing in Self-Defense or Justified Homicide; (2) Impulsive Murders in Persons without Psychopathic Features; (3) Persons with a Few or No Psychopathic Traits; Murders of a More Severe Type; (4) Psychopathic Features Marked; Murders Show Malice Aforethought; (5) Spree or Multiple Murders; Psychopathy Is Apparent; and (6) Serial Killers, Torturers, Sadists.

The New Evil offers numerous case studies that help illustrate these categories. But, in the graphic details of the case studies, some readers may encounter manifestations of evil that are much more disturbing than they wish to confront.

— Si Dunn