Duck!

Who knew?

Well, not me, for one.

I’ve got fond memories of Arby’s restaurants. When I was a kid, their roast beef sandwich was (arguably) the healthiest fast food main dish going.

And, in the era Before Spices–yes, youngsters, this was in the days before mainstream America had even heard of Thai food–their Horsey Sauce was an amazing alternative to ketchup and mustard.

To this day, horseradish is my preferred condiment on roast beef sandwiches, and I have to wonder how much Arby’s influenced my tastes.

But it’s been at least twenty years since I last ate at Arby’s. It’s not a matter of changing tastes or disdain. Fast food is all about convenience, and when the closest outlet is more than twenty minutes away even without traffic, well, you explore other convenience options.

Lately, though, the chain has started advertising more heavily–I’ve been seeing at least a couple of commercials during each MLB playoff game, for example–and pushing the heretical idea that they sell other things than roast beef sandwiches.

What I completely missed is that they’ve been intermittently wildly experimental. According to Thrillist, in recent years they’ve tried limited runs of deep-fried turkey, lamb, elk, and venison.

Not at all what I’d have expected from any fast food restaurant, much less one so iconically linked to cow meat.

And Arby’s latest experiment–aimed, as many of their limited runs have been, at their fanbase in parts of the country where hunting is popular–is a seared duck breast sandwich. With smoked cherry sauce. Arby’s.

I’d love to try it. Admittedly, not enough to drive to the nearest of the sixteen stores that will carry it*, but enough that I did go so far as to look up directions.

* Chico, California, a mere 144 miles away, according to Google.

It bothers me a bit that they’re partnering with Ducks Unlimited on this promotion. Given Arby’s primary markets, it’s a reasonable pairing, but personally, I’d prefer not to support DU.

So, yeah, another argument against popping up the road to Chico on Saturday.

I’ll note here that despite its Midwest, red state core constituency, the chain’s political contributions are moderately balanced: per Ethical Purchasing, Arby’s falls into the “yellow” category. Other yellows include McDonald’s, Jet Blue, Whole Foods, and Dow Chemical. Make of that what you will.

No great insight to close out this post, I’m afraid. Just a reminder that things change, even fast food restaurants.

A Tiny Step Forward

The good news is that the Transbay Terminal is still standing.

The bad news is that we don’t know when it’ll reopen–heck, we don’t even know when we’ll know when it’ll reopen.

Seriously, though, at least everyone involved is making the right noises. “Get the temporary patch in place, then figure out what went wrong, and then decide what to do about it.”

Is it just me, or does that feel like the exact opposite of the way the Bay Bridge problems have been handled? I don’t think it’s just me. The attitude on the bridge seems more like “Fix the problem, then figure out what went wrong and whether the fix actually accomplished anything.”

But I digress.

The latest news on the terminal is that the temporary fix is in place and Fremont Street has reopened. Only ten days later than planned, but that was widely expected. Considering the patch involved cutting through three levels of the terminal, dodging pipes, cables, and ducts, only the most starry-eyed optimist would have expected them to have finished by the fifth.

In any case, the engineers involved believe the terminal is secure enough to allow invasive sampling–meaning “snipping off bits”–of the cracked beams. The current plan is to complete the testing by the end of October.

Then comes the fun of designing and implementing the permanent fix.

It’s not all gloom and delay, though. Depending on what turns up in the analysis of the cracked beams, there’s a good chance the rooftop park will reopen even before repair work begins. Though, to be fair to the downside, there’s no word on a fix for the crumbling paths in the park.

Reopening the terminal to pedestrians and park goers would be a win. Not only is the park a major attraction for an area that needs one, but there are many small businesses in the terminal. Getting more foot traffic, even if it’s not the daily commute crowd, would likely save jobs.

Kudos to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority for taking the proper approach to the problem, and best of luck for a swift and secure resolution.

Stuffed

Rufus has a new hangout.
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Well, okay, it’s actually an old one. Just about the first place he went when we started letting him explore the space outside his transitional cage.

But we’ve recently rearranged the room and made the mushroom more accessible, and he’s taking full advantage.

And yes, we realize it’s probably supposed to be a tree stump, but really, with that domed cap, it looks more like a mushroom.

And besides, mushrooms are funnier. Especially when they’re cat-stuffed mushrooms.

Anyway, that dubious look is rather atypical for the normally mellow Mr. Alexander. But at the time I took the picture, he’d just finished a round of territorial negotiation with ‘Nuki, so any unusual activity was cause for suspicion.

Normally, Rufus is considerably more relaxed when acting as mushroom filler.
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Yes, he was snoring. And the mushroom acts as a resonator. I won’t say the walls were shaking–but they may have quivered a bit.

A Good Start

Jodie Whittaker has made her full debut as The Doctor in an episode of her own, and guess what? That’s right, just as after her two word initial appearance last year, the universe didn’t end! Not on either side of the TV screen.

Haters gonna hate. That’s a given, unfortunately.

But for the rest of us, those willing to give Ms. Whittaker and the show’s writers a chance, it was quite the satisfying experience.

I’m not about to declare “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” the greatest episode ever. Not even the greatest debut of a new Doctor.

But it handled all the expected set pieces for an introductory episode–The Doctor’s confusion, the unveiling of the new costume and key props, and the first signs of the character’s personality–smoothly. Better still, the episode’s story worked as a story, without gaping plot holes or random non sequiturs dropped in solely to move the story along.

And, best of all, did not rely on old, familiar–one might even say “tired”–villains. We’ve reached the point where bringing in the Daleks or Cybermen comes off as a sign that the writers don’t think their story can stand on its own. I’d love to get through the whole first Whittaker season without seeing any character we’ve encountered before.

But let’s back up to those set pieces for a moment.

There was a real potential for disaster in how The Doctor’s confusion about settling into a new body was handled. Focusing on the change of sex would have yanked the viewer right out of the story and made the episode all about that. Too soon. Save it for later, if ever. Looking at the reaction of old companions, villains, or (inevitably) Doctors could be fun and educational. But not yet. The writers acknowledge the change with a single joke near the beginning, another near the end, and leave it at that. Instead, we got a focus on things almost every viewer can relate to personally: memory loss, missing possessions (that “Where’s my wallet” panic everyone’s felt), and even a bit of the “OMG, I’ve got a test, and I’ve never even been to the class!” horrors. High marks.

The prop and costume reveals are taking a fair amount of flak. I’ve seen a lot of ridicule over The Doctor assembling her new sonic screwdriver out of local, twenty-first century components, none of which would even fit into the final product. Come on, people, you’re willing to accept the Tardis being bigger on the inside than the outside, but not the sonic screwdriver? (That said, I did like the suggestion someone made online, that the actual mechanism is a big block of electronics that The Doctor has to wear like a backpack, and the handheld bit of gear is just the remote. It’d be a great alternative to the joke they actually went with. But I digress.) And at least nobody is objecting to the actual look of the device–unlike the costume, which is, I completely agree, unattractive.

But I think the people complaining about it are missing the point. It’s a very unisex outfit–equally unflattering on men and women–that emphasizes that The Doctor doesn’t see sex as relevant to her mission. And it’s also a very clear signal that the writers don’t see the new Doctor as being at all about sex appeal. None of the previous incarnations have been–we’ve never seen a Doctor use sex to influence other characters or move the story along–and this one won’t be either.

Bravo, again.

And then there’s the emergence of The Doctor’s new personality and approach to solving crises. It’s clear that Ms. Whittaker’s Doctor will fall toward the frenetic end of the spectrum. As somebody who grew up with Tom Baker’s portrayal, I say “Bring on the frenzy!”

But, that said, it’s also obvious that she’s going to explicit about promoting compromise and choice, rather than conflict-driven, all-or-nothing victory. I’ve seen several commentators suggest that this is a sop to traditional gender roles (the old “female equals nurturing” fallacy) and it might be true to an extent.

Really, though, The Doctor has always been about making choices, trying to understand, and reaching accommodation with the “enemy”. Sure, it’s often been buried under fisticuffs, car chases, and us-versus-them paranoia, but it’s been there, right back to the first season and the Daleks’ first appearance.

If this year’s new Doctor had been male and delivered the same speech at the climax of the first episode, nobody would have blinked or called it a radical departure. It’s perfectly in tune with the spirit of the character.

Kudos a third time.

It could all still fall apart. But that’s true of any show. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, and all that. But I’m encouraged. Ms. Whittaker is off to a good start, and I’m looking forward to seeing where–and when–she goes from here.

Google Hardware 2018

Some days I wonder why I write fiction, when real life so easily out-weirds–or at least out-coincidences–me.

Like today, for instance. Google’s hardware announcement event kicked off with a bit of hype for their artificial intelligence technology and a touch of horn-blowing over their elite security skills. This came, of course, one day after the announcement that they’re closing the highly unpopular Google+ social network in the wake of a massive security breach.

Imagine how much longer that introduction would have run if the two events had been reversed.

But anyway, new hardware.

In another, unrelated security breach, Google’s done a lousy job of keeping their new toys under wraps. We know about the Pixel 3 phones, the Chrome OS tablet, new Chromecast and Google Home, and probably a few other things I’ve already forgotten about.

But at least now it’s all out officially. Let’s take a look at what’s coming–as usual, thanks to Ars Technica for their live streaming report on the unveiling–and see if there are any surprises left.

First up is the Google Home Hub. It does all the usual digital assistant stuff, but it’s the first Google-branded model with a screen. Interestingly, it does not have a camera, unlike all the other screened digital assistant devices. They’re quite blunt in saying it’s to make users more comfortable putting it in the bedroom and other private spaces. That’s a brilliant PR move, even if its microphone means your privacy can still be painfully broken.

The “Hub” part of the name refers to its ability to control “smart home” devices. Lights, thermostats, and all the other goodies that work so much better than a simple wall switch… Anyway, Nest will be assimilated more tightly into the Google collective, and their hardware will work seamlessly with the Home Hub.

Next was the Google Pixel Slate. It’s something new, and not, Google emphasizes, a laptop trying to be a tablet. Okay, so what is it then? As best I can tell, it’s a tablet. The “new” is that it’s running Chrome OS instead of Android.

Which means, since Chrome now runs Android apps and Linux programs, it’s also an Android tablet and the long-awaited* Linux tablet.

* By the small minority of people who actually use Linux on a daily basis.

Much is being made of the round keys on the matching keyboard accessory. I dunno. It looks like the Logitech K380 bluetooth keyboard I’ve had for a couple of years. It works. It’s not my favorite keyboard, but it’s far from the worst I’ve ever used.

The flexibility is enticing, but with prices starting at $600, not including the keyboard ($200) or stylus ($100), I’m a bit dubious about the price to performance ratio. And with a complete lack of announced specs–including size–and release date, I’d file it under “intriguing but so what?” Wait and see if it even makes it out the door.

Moving on to the Pixel 3. What can I say? It’s a phone. This year’s models (the 3 and the 3 XL, what a surprise) are bigger than last years, but “feel smaller”. Okay. Better cameras with better low light and zoom. No surprise there.

Hey, there’s a new Google Assistant feature: the phone will answer itself when someone calls, and the Assistant will interrogate the caller to find out if you want to talk to them. That’ll apparently roll out to older phones next month, too.

I’m up for that one, actually. If it cuts down on spam, I’m all in.

There’s a stand accessory coming, as well. Wireless charging and turns the phone into an “ambient display”. Which sounds like it’ll work as a something of a low-end Google Home device.

Not a word, apparently, about the new Chromecast. Oh, well.

Interesting toys, but nothing that sets my heart aflutter. Other than that phone-answering feature. Too bad you can’t choose the voice it’ll use–“Ve haf vays of makink you tell us who iz callink”.

Maybe next year.

Sleeping Arrangements

Surprisingly, our feline crew have orderly minds.

Granted, cats generally have a strong preference for tradition and regular routines, but ours even carry it over into their sleeping arrangements.

Right triangles are popular.
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Though equilateral triangles are almost as common.
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And the straight line is evergreen.
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(The line is straighter than it appears in this photo. Kokoro and Rhubarb were lying on my legs, preventing me from aligning the camera properly.)

Having said all that, I should clarify that such geometric specificity applies only at the interfeline level. Individual cats are always free to be as goofy as they wish in their pursuit of teh kyoot.

And they do.  Take a closer look at Watanuki in that last photo:
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Note the paw over the nose, the brilliantly pink toe beans, and, most important of all, the tail carefully curled around the end of the rear leg.

Microsoft Hardware 2018

With Apple’s 2018 hardware announcements behind us, most of the tech industry’s attention has turned to October 9, when Google is scheduled to announce their own new goodies. Meanwhile, Microsoft almost escaped notice with their release party.

That’s at least partly because what they announced is, well, let’s say “underwhelming”.

The October Windows 10 release will officially start rolling out on Tuesday–though you can get it now by doing a manual check for updates. But why would you want to? The big feature is a cloud-based copy/paste function so you can copy files and data from one Windows machine to another. Which sounds nice, but how much value is it going to add over Microsoft’s existing cloud service, OneDrive? Then there are also enhancements to the Timeline feature that syncs app history across devices. It’s nice that Microsoft is opening the functionality up to non-Microsoft browsers, but–aside from the fact that Firefox and Chrome already have history syncing. Are there enough people who want to sync browser tabs between, say Edge at work and Firefox at home, to make this worth Microsoft’s time and energy?

Then there’s the big enhancement to the “Your Phone” app. Controlling your phone from the desktop sounds useful. But that’s a future feature. All the app offers now is syncing photos and sending and receiving text messages. If you have an Android phone; iOS is also a future feature.

Nor are their hardware announcements any more exciting.

The biggest plus most commentators can find for the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro updates is that they now comes in black. The speed and capacity updates are minimal, and Microsoft’s continuing refusal to adopt USB-C is baffling and vexing.

The hardware upgrades in the new Surface Studio 2 are somewhat more impressive, but despite the Studio’s cool form factor, it hasn’t taken the world by storm. It’s very much a niche product, aimed at digital artists, and the improved graphics and faster hard drive won’t change that.

Oh, yes. Microsoft also announced a pair of noise-canceling headphones. The specs look nice, and I like the idea of user-controlled noise reduction. But Microsoft is a late entrant into the headphone space, and I don’t think these phones offer enough to make a serious dent.

Bottom line: if you want cool new toys, hang loose and see what Google has for you next week. Sure, most of it has leaked already, but the odds are good there will be at least one surprise.

Playoffs

Your team didn’t make the MLB playoffs? Sorry to hear it. But we all know watching the playoffs is more fun when you’ve got a rooting interest. As always, I’m here to help.

(Those of you who are fans of playoff teams can come back Thursday.)

This isn’t about picking a winner. I did that back in April–to save you the trouble of re-reading that post, my prediction is Astros over Braves in seven high-scoring games. (Fortunately for my pride, both teams did, in fact, make the playoffs.) Come November, we’ll take a look at how well all my predictions turned out.

If you’re new to this blog, you may be surprised to hear there are rules for choosing a rooting interest. But why should something so important be left to whim and chance? We’ve been tweaking the rules for the past few years; for the first time in blog history, they haven’t changed.

Rules for Rooting, 2018 edition

  1. Unless it’s the team you follow during the regular season, you must not root for any team that has been promoted as “America’s Team” or otherwise held up by its owners and/or the media as the ultimate expression of the sport.
  2. You should not root for a team from your own team’s division.
  3. That said, you should root for somebody from your own league. Crossing the league boundary without a really good excuse is in bad taste.
  4. Possession of team merchandise with sentimental value OR a history of following a favorite player from team to team trumps Rules Two and Three. It does not override Rule One. Nothing overrides Rule One.
  5. Teams with a record of recent futility or legitimate “misfit” credentials get bonus points in the decision process. A record of futility means multiple losing seasons or a lengthy stretch without a playoff appearance and/or title. What constitutes legitimate misfittery is up to you. Be honest with yourself.
  6. All other rules notwithstanding, you are always free to root for the Indians, holders of a sixty-eight season World Series drought.

Yes, the Indians did make the playoffs this year. But let’s do this in an organized fashion.

Since the Astros won it all last year, we’ll give the AL home field advantage and make the NL bat first.

The National League playoff teams are Atlanta, Milwaukee, Colorado, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Rule One clearly applies to the Braves (blame Ted Turner). And as far as I’m concerned, no Vin Scully retirement and no assault on the MLB record for wins in a season means no Rule One exemption for the Dodgers.

We’ll award a futility point to the Rockies, who’ve never won a World Series in their twenty-five year history, and two to the Brewers, who have been around for forty-nine years and are still looking for their first title.

Braves and Dodgers fans, you go do you. For those of us who don’t follow overly-aggrandized teams, it looks like this: if you normally root for an NL East team other than Atlanta, you should pull for Milwaukee. If you usually follow the Cardinals, Pirates, or Reds, cheer for the Rockies. And if you’re normally a Diamondback, Giant, or Padre booster, show your October love for the Brewers.

Now, on to the American League, where the playoff teams are Boston, Cleveland, Houston, New York, and Oakland.

We can eliminate the Yankees via Rule One and, given how ESPN is slipping back into their old habit of glorifying the Boston/New York rivalry, I’m invoking Rule One on the Red Sox as well.

As noted above, the Indians get multiple futility points. The Athletics deserve a point as well, not having won a World Series since the infamous 1989 cross-bay affair. If you want to award the As a misfit point as well, based on their reputation as a bunch of unknowns and lunatics who’ve managed to piece together a winning season, I won’t argue with you. Hell, I’ll give Oakland the point just for having Khris Davis–the only man in history to hit exactly .247 four consecutive years–on the team!

Yankees and Red Sox boosters, go join the fans of the Braves and Dodgers in your media-created hell. Currently-unaligned AL fans, your teams are as follows: Central Division dwellers, you get Oakland, and those of us out west (or southwest–I’m not forgetting you Rangers’ fans) will take the Cleveland. Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles fans can take your pick and go for either Cleveland on their record of futility or Oakland for futility plus misfittery.

And, as always, if you don’t normally follow baseball–whether because you’ve lost the True Faith or never been properly entered in the rolls of the Faithful–you can exercise your free will. If you choose a team based on proximity or sentimental reasons, follow the guidelines above. Or take the easy way out and root for the Indians.

Do not–I repeat, not root for the Astros just because I’ve told you they’re going to win. The Baseball Gods do not favor bandwagonism. And besides, there’s a chance my prediction might be wrong. That’s why they play the games and why we cheer.

And me, I’ll be in front of the TV Friday night when my-for-the-moment Cleveland Indians take on the temporarily-hated Houston Astros.

Which is not to say I won’t be watching any of the five games before then, because I will. Following the rules, of course. That means I’ll be rooting for the Rockies in the NL Wild Card tonight, the Athletics in the AL Wild Card tomorrow–much as it pains me to root for a division rival to my Mariners, nothing trumps Rule One.

Thursday is trickier. It’s easy enough to root for the Brewers over either the Rockies or the Cubs, but what about the late game? Both the Braves and the Dodgers are subject to Rule One, and mutual destruction isn’t an option. Coin flips are so arbitrary. I may have to play the underdog card and root for whoever is losing at any given moment.

Chomp

Maggie recently brought home a new feline torture device. Sort of the equivalent of a hair shirt. And if you don’t think a hair shirt over fur is a torture device, well, our crew invite you to give it a try.

Anyway, given Sachiko’s sometimes sharkly behavior…

…we decided she was the logical first victim.

She carried it off very well:

Very “searching for something to rend to bloody bits”.

Somehow, though, she seemed less than appreciative of the opportunity.

In fact, that was almost two weeks ago, and she’s still giving us suspicious looks when we come into the kitchen together.

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Here We Go Again

A quick reminder: the MLB season ends Sunday* and the playoffs start Tuesday evening with the NL Wild Card game. In keeping with this blog’s usual public service orientation, Tuesday morning’s post will be our annual guide for “Who To Root For If You Don’t Have a Team In the Playoffs.”

* Monday’s scheduled make-up game between the Marlins and Pirates has been canceled, presumably because it has absolutely no impact on the playoffs.


That said, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not the one about a woman being put on trial in the Senate over a man’s alleged inability to behave like a moral individual. Though that is getting to be a rather tired story, and I really wish Congress’ slush pile reader would try something different.

No, I’m talking about the one where a Bay Area multi-billion dollar transit project goes wildly over budget, and only to have serious construction problems uncovered.

Long-time readers will remember my fascination with the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch. In large part, my interest was due to the obvious QA failures and the (still!) unanswered questions about what testing was done and how the reports were handled.

And now we’ve got a new serial to watch. The brand new Transbay Transit Center opened just last month after $2.2 billion in over (if memory serves) a decade of construction. Mere weeks after it opened, decomposed granite paths in the park on the center’s roof underwent further decomposition, crumbling and developing potholes. But that was just a warm-up for this week’s troubles: on Tuesday, the center was closed indefinitely after workers found a large crack in a major support beam. The beam supports the bus deck and the park where they cross Fremont Street, so the street was also closed as a further precaution.

On Wednesday, inspectors found a second cracked beam adjacent to the first.

The cause of the cracking hasn’t been determined yet. Despite a lawsuit between the company that handled the steel work and the primary contractors over construction documentation, it doesn’t seem like there was a QA failure this time around. The Chron says they passed inspection after installation and again when the beams were fireproofed two years ago.

Speculation about the cause of the cracking is all over the map: manufacturing defects, installation errors, and design flaws are all getting consideration. Despite the uncertainty, temporary repairs are in progress, aimed at reopening Fremont Street by the end of next week. Presumably–hopefully!–permanent repairs won’t start until the root cause has been determined.

The situation is rife with irony.

Not only was the problem found during Transit Week, San Francisco’s official celebration of public transportation, but the official name of the facility is “Salesforce Transit Center”–and Salesforce is current holding their huge, annual “Dreamforce” convention a couple of blocks away.

But wait, there’s more.

Traffic coming into downtown San Francisco on I-80 across the Bay Bridge exits the freeway on–you guessed it–Fremont Street.

QA implications or no, I’ll be following the story as more information comes out.