Another Guest

We have a catio guest!
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Involuntary and hopefully of strictly limited duration, I hasten to add.

Way, way back last July, when Rufus–called “GT” at the time–moved into our garage for what we expected would be a short visit, I said “Once everything settles down and they [Fix Our Ferals] reopen, Tuxie will be paying them a visit.”

“Settles down.” It is to laugh. But it has gotten a little quieter around here, and FOF is reopening, so…

Tuxie’s appointment is Sunday morning. We wanted to make sure he didn’t miss it, so we snagged him Tuesday afternoon and moved him into quarters on the deck.

I suggested he think of the time not as pre- and post-op, but as an extended vacation. He doesn’t seem convinced.

He spends most of his time lounging around and complaining.
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Mind you, that’s basically how he spends every day. And to be fair, I should note that the previous photo shows him mid-yawn, not mid-yowl.

Tuxie is a bit skinnier than we’d like, but two meals a day should help with that.

And we really, really hope that he’s not FIV-positive, because that would really give us a difficult decision to make. Realistically, the Rufus solution is not on the table. Of course, it wasn’t on the table last August either.

But be that as it may, at least Tuxie will get to spend a week or so in a luxurious retreat with catered meals and plenty of attention.

He doesn’t seem too unhappy about that.
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“We”

Yesterday was Dad’s birthday. “Was,” damn it. Not “would have been”. Because, as I’ve said elsewhere, he still had stories to tell, and I’m sure he’s gonna hang around until he finds a way to tell them.

Granted, not in a corporeal sense, because that would just be creepy (and I say that as someone who writes fantasy). But here.

And then there are those other ways he’s still around…

I was making a note for the next draft of the novel-in-progress and realized I had started it with the phrase “We need to find a way to justify…” Even though it’s been six months since I last worked on Mo’less and even though every word of this book is one I wrote, yes, I’m still making notes in the first person plural.

But Dad critiqued multiple drafts of Splat Squad and Lord Peter’s Eyes. He always had good suggestions, even when I showed him individual scenes where he didn’t know who was who or what was going on. I didn’t always agree with his suggestions, but when I didn’t, figuring out why I didn’t like them usually gave me an idea to make the book better.

I wrote 1,524 words yesterday. (It was probably closer to 2,000 words, but there was this familiar voice in the back of my head saying things like “Are you sure you want to say it like that?” and “That doesn’t sound like her. What about…?” So it was 1,524 net words.) Most of them were for a scene that could easily be dismissed as filler. It’s not wildly exciting–but then, I’m not writing an action movie, so every scene doesn’t have to end with an explosion. It’s not critical to the plot*–except that most stories need a reminder that everyday life is going on even while the characters are dealing with The Most Important Thing That Ever Happened. (There’s a scene in The RagTime Traveler–one of my favorite scenes, in fact–where some of our main characters opt out of the ongoing investigation so they can do a load of laundry.)

* Or at least I don’t think it is. For all I know, the most exciting scene in the book couldn’t happen without the events I just wrote. One of the joyous hazards of not being an outliner.

But one of the important lessons I learned from Dad is to let your characters do what they want*. Nothing good will come from forcing them to do what you want.

* Another, arguably more important, lesson is that a mid-afternoon craving for a cookie shouldn’t be neglected. So I had a Florentine concoction of almonds and chocolate in his honor.

And so, when [redacted] wanted to visit [purged] and take him to task for discriminating against [censored], I let him.

At the moment it seems like a good idea, but if it turns out the scene doesn’t add anything to the book, I’ll make another note: “We should junk this.”

And we will.

Teasing

If you were hoping for the deep insights that are the usual fare here, you’re out of luck today.

No meditations on the impending end of civilization. No searing critiques of the latest cutting edge triumphs from [Apple|Google|Amazon|Microsoft|Samsung]. No detailed dissections of America’s culinary obsessions.

I mean, yes, it does have matters culinary and technological, and it probably portends the coming apocalypse. But it probably won’t change your life for the better.

Sorry. Better luck Thursday.

So, with that said, here’s the key thought: “This household runs on tea.”

Many people would try to make the case that it actually runs on cat hair, and there’s some validity in that view, but I think it would be more accurate to say that it runs over the cat hair.

Not to be too blunt, but we haven’t found a way to metabolize fur. Which is a shame, really, because if we could, we’d never have to buy groceries again. Though now that I think about it, it seems likely to be a fairly monotonous diet. Sure, each cat’s fur probably tastes a bit different, but we’re going to a have a largely homogeneous mix.

But I digress.

Tea. It’s not that we’re anti-coffee. Maggie likes it and drinks it on occasion. I don’t drink it, but I’ve been known to eat coffee-flavored foods. But for real, day-to-day motivation–read that as “caffeination”–it’s tea.

We keep a variety of blends and flavors around, but naturally we both have our everyday favorites. (I’ll leave you to guess who prefers which. No helpful hints from those of you in the know, please.)

Making tea requires hot water, and microwaving just doesn’t work out for the high volumes* we require. Putting the bag in cold water before nuking produces less than optimum flavor, and adding the bag after the water comes out doesn’t work well either–pouring the water over the bag into an otherwise empty mug is the only way to go.

* Forget those wimpy eight and twelve ounce mugs. We start at sixteen and regularly go as high as twenty-two or twenty-four ounces. We take our tea seriously.

So that means we need a kettle. We strongly favor cordless electric kettles. (A point of clarification: they’re not fully cordless. As with cordless cell phone chargers, there’s a base station which does plug into the wall. But the kettle itself has no cord; it sits on the base station and draws power either via induction or a physical connection that’s shielded from accidental contact.)

We had a scare recently when we thought the kettle which had served us reasonably well for several years had died. That turned out to be a false alarm, but not before we had gone shopping for a new one.

And we discovered there are a heck of a lot of poorly designed kettles out there.

Kettles that give you no way to see how much water is in them.

Kettles that don’t shut off when the water boils.

Kettles that can’t pour without directing steam onto your hand.

We finally settled on this model from the well-known-by-nobody “Chefman” brand.

It’s not perfect. The fill levels are clearly marked, but only in liters. We’re probably not the only Americans who’d like to see ounces or cups. The temperature control can only be set in five degree increments and can’t be set any higher than 212*. Nor is the manufacture all that solid: the high-tech blue LEDs that are supposed to illuminate the water while it heats failed after less than a week.

* Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a way to set the kettle to use Celsius temperatures to go along with the metric fill marks.

But it works, and quite nicely. The blue light doesn’t actually do anything, so we haven’t missed it–especially because the three-character LCD in the base does a fine job of lighting up the water. The heat and hold function works perfectly: we set the target to 205 and pour the water whenever we’re ready, instead of as soon as it boils. The tea tastes just as good, and we don’t risk it getting cold while we’re doing other things. Very handy for breakfast time.

I thought the built-in (but removable) tea infuser would be a useless gimmick, but when combined with the heat and hold setting, it actually makes very good iced tea. Keep the water boiling while the tea brews, then remove the infuser and let the tea cool before refrigerating.

As Excuses Go…That’s a Pretty Good One

Writers are justly famous for our ability to procrastinate.

But–do you want to hear a secret? Okay, come a little closer so I can whisper–the truth is we’re actually no better at it than anyone else. We just document it better. Because writing is what we do.

And we’ve been at it for a long time. How long? Well, Excuse for Not Writing Number 1 is “Sharpening my charred stick.”

Technology has made some changes. In many parts of the world, Number 2,745 (“Washing the dishes”) has been largely replaced by Number 68,117 and 68,118 (“Loading the dishwasher” and “Emptying the dishwasher”).

At this point, many writers do it more because it’s a tradition than because they feel any deep personal need to procrastinate.

There’s something of a thrill in extending a tradition.

I speak from experience. I’ve just been notified that I’ve had an excuse added to the list.

Official Excuse for Not Writing Number 237,630 is “Rufus demanded a tummy rub.”

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I’m proud, honored, and humbled to have made such a significant contribution to my field.

SAST 05

A few quickies for you today.

I’m betting that most of you have already seen the fuss over Juicero, but for those who missed it, the short version is that the company sells a variety of juices in bags–and a $400 machine (marked down from $700) to squeeze the juice out of the bags.

The controversy is not over “Why?” That’s quite clear: because there are enough people willing to shell out the money to buy the squeezer and the juice packets (at $5 to $8 a pop–though one hopes they don’t pop easily).

The controversy is over the fact that Juicero’s investors feel they’ve been defrauded because customers don’t need to use the squeezer to get the juice out of the bags. According to Bloomberg, hand-squeezing the bags produces almost as much juice as the squeezer, and does it faster.

Apparently, neither the investors nor Bloomberg have heard of a device called “the scissors,” which could be used to empty the bag even more quickly.

Let’s note, by the way, that the bagged juice is a perishable product, enough so that the bags can’t be shipped long distances.

My advice? Go to your local hardware store and buy a hammer. Stop at the local grocery store on the way home and pick up a box of zipper-seal baggies and a couple of pieces of your favorite fruit.

Place the fruit in a baggie and zip it closed. Pound the fruit with the hammer repeatedly. Unzip and pour.

When you finish your juice–which cost you considerably less than $400 unless you got the hammer on a military procurement contract–repeat the process, substituting Juicero’s executives and investors for the fruit.

Mmm, yummy!

Moving on.

There’s a letter to the editor in today’s SF Chronicle from one Lorraine Peters addressing the United Airlines fiasco. Ms. Peters suggests that United should have handled the matter differently. Instead of using force, she says, they should have made a loudspeaker announcement: “Attention all passengers, this flight cannot take off until the gentleman in seat (so and so) vacates it and disembarks with the other three passengers.”

I presume Ms. Peters is an investor in United Airlines.

Let’s not forget that the “gentleman in seat (so and so)” paid for that seat in the expectation that United would supply the service he paid for. Placing the blame on him when United failed to meet their obligation is disingenuous at best.

Allow me to propose an alternate loudspeaker announcement. “Attention all passengers. We fucked up and didn’t get a flight crew to the right place at the right time. The only way we can think of to fix our mistake is to kick four of you off this flight. So we’re going to sit right here at the terminal until four generous souls agree to disrupt their travel plans for the benefit of the rest of you. Complimentary drinks and meals will not be served while we wait.”

It wouldn’t have done any better by United’s reputation, but at least it has the virtue of being honest.

Moving on again.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (that’s the San Francisco Bay Area, for those of you in the outer provinces) has announced a regional plan to combat climate change.

Among the proposals included in the plan are such sure-to-be-popular items as “Explore vehicle tolls in high-congestion areas to discourage driving,” “Discourage installation of water-heating systems and appliances powered by fossil fuels,” “Encourage the removal of off-street parking in transit-oriented areas,” and (my personal favorite) “Start a public outreach campaign to promote climate-friendly diets.”

That first one’s interesting. I see some potential pitfalls in implementing it, of course. It’s taken months to get the local metering lights to work reliably; adding an automated payment system on top of that seems fraught with peril. Imagine the fuss the first time someone gets charged a four-figure fee to get on the freeway. More to the point, though, we had major congestion on the freeway yesterday outside of commute hours because of an accident. The metering lights at several on-ramps detected the slowdown and kicked in. If the payment plan had been in effect, would we have been charged to use the freeway while the police were examining the car that went off the road?

That last item, by the way, translates as “encourage people to eat less meat,” because meat production creates more pollution than growing and shipping plants. Maybe they should also tax “add-on” gadgets such as Juicero bag squeezers, since building and shipping them creates unnecessary pollutants. But I digress.

Needless to say, not everyone thinks the agency’s plan is a good one. According to the Chron story, the opposition–they quote a Chevron employee–is suggesting that local action is pointless because climate change is a global problem and needs a global solution.

Let’s not examine that logical fallacy too closely. Let’s just rejoice in the fact that a Chevron employee actually admitted that climate change is real and related to human activity.

State of the Fourth Estate 05

It occurs to me that I completely failed to bring you the traditional “State of the Fourth Estate” post last month. Instead of rambling on about what’s happening with my writing, I gave you pictures of Tuxie and Rhubarb.

Many of you probably consider that an improvement.

But tradition must be served (I prefer it barbequed, but I won’t look down on anyone who’d rather have their traditions fried), so here we go, not quite a month late.

Starting with the blog, as usual, the Home Page continues to be the most popular page because most of you are reading new posts there. Which is perfectly fine.

Home Page aside, in 2016, the most popular post was not Using Up the Leftovers: Sauerkraut. Top honors instead go to Four for the Price of One. I’m not na├»ve enough to think my musings on The BFG, Ghostbusters, or even They Might Be Giants brought in well over five hundred viewers. Nope, most of the credit goes to those three young ladies from Japan*.

* If BABYMETAL brought you to the blog and you’re still hanging around, make a note in the comments, would you?

So far in 2017, the pickled cabbage has reclaimed the popularity lead, but posts about The RagTime Traveler are doing very well. Thank you all for that.

Unsurprisingly, most of the readers come from the US, with Japan, Brazil, the UK, and Canada making up the rest of the top five. (I’m going by page views, as WordPress doesn’t seem to track unique viewers.) There’s been a single page view from each of twenty countries, including (alphabetically) Angola, Faroe Islands, and Turkey. C’mon back, folks. You’re welcome to hang out as long as your network connections last.

Over on the fiction side of things, The RagTime Traveler is, of course, the big news. If you missed the earlier announcement, by the way, you can now preorder TRTT as an ebook. Just click that picture of the cover and choose your format.

When I wrote the 2014 SotFE post, my beta readers were looking at Splat Squad. In 2015, it was Lord Peter’s Eyes, and last year it was TRTT. This year, unfortunately, there’s nothing in beta.

As many of you know, Life rather kicked me in the face in 2016. I’ve got about 41,000 words of the first draft of Mo’less Jones and nearly 50,000 words of the first draft of the still-untitled other novel. Had I spent the entire year on one or the other, I suspect it would be with the beta readers today, but as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “So it goes.”

(For those of you who haven’t been regular readers, my father and co-author of The RagTime Traveler and Mo’less Jones, passed away in October. I do intend to pick up Mo’less at some point, but there are both emotional and practical reasons why it may be a while. And so I’m instead working on The Nameless Novel, which has nothing to do with ragtime or baseball.)

Last March I said that my daily target was 1,000 words a day. More recently, when I started writing again in November, I dropped it to 500 words. As I said last month, it’s not a hard-and-fast goal, and I don’t usually worry if I come up short, but never coming close to 1,000 words was starting to drive me nuts.

But for the past month, days when I failed to hit 500 words have been rare, and I’ve exceeded 1,000 at least as often as not. So I’m officially bumping the target back up. Not only does that feel good, as a sign that my brain is starting to work again, but it means I might just have the first draft of The Nameless Novel done before the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival*.

* Yeah, my first drafts tend to run short. If TNN comes in at 70K, it probably means the draft that goes to beta readers will likely be 80-90K, right on target for a fantasy.

It’s iffy: there are still some major gaps in the plot that I need to figure out, but if it was a sure thing, it wouldn’t be much of a goal, now would it?

Stay tuned!

Quota

One of the main reasons why the ASPCA and other animal welfare groups recommend Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR) over euthanasia in reducing feral feline populations is that feral colonies are rarely isolated.

As with any wild animals, population will increase to roughly that of the environment’s carrying capacity. Removing cats from the colony, rather than fixing and returning them, simply lowers the population to the point where the local habitat has a surplus of resources. And then cats from surrounding areas will typically move in, and the population will rise back to the local maximum.

Since we’ve adopted Rufus, we’ve begun to see this phenomenon playing out.

Meet Bunter.
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Maggie named him, not for his prowess in wielding a bat, but for the character in Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories. As Wikipedia puts it, “Bunter conveys an air of awesome solemn dignity lightened at rare intervals by an icy sarcasm and an understated but biting criticism.” That sounds about right.

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Our Bunter has been showing up intermittently for a couple of months–and the expression he* turns on us when we interrupt him at the food bowl is the most eloquent icy sarcasm laced with biting criticism I’ve ever seen.

* As usual, in the absence of evidence, I’ve assigned pronouns via coin flip.

MM, of course, has been keeping a close eye on Bunter.
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As queen of the local chaos of cats, it’s her responsibility to pass judgment on the suitability of any would-be immigrants. She’s also drawing on the talents of Ooki Brothers Security in monitoring Bunter’s behavior.
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They naturally take a special interest in tuxedo-clad cats.

Nor is Bunter the only feline who’s been dropping by.

During the February rains, we spotted a new arrival.
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He slipped into the yard when MM and Tuxie weren’t around and checked the food bowls for goodies. After a couple of days, he vanished, and we decided he must have found fault with the environment and moved on.

Until a couple of days ago, when it started raining heavily. Sure enough, as soon as it got wet out, there he was.
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He hasn’t been around long enough to acquire a name. For the moment, we’re using our usual fallback of naming based on appearance. So he’s known as “Somewhat Bedraggled Meezer.” If he sticks around, we’ll need to replace that–or at least shorten it.

MM is on the job, keeping an eye on SBM, though as yet she hasn’t called in the Ooki brothers or their assistant.
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It’s too soon to say whether either of our visitors will become regulars–though we do have another bowl ready for deployment if it’s needed–but the queen seems to have given tentative approval to both of them. Or, to be more precise, we haven’t heard any debates in the yard, nor have we seen any pointy politics.

Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.

Goin’ All the Way 2017

Trust the Tigers to sow confusion. After all, they are cats, and you can count on a cat confuse matters given even a microscopic sliver of a chance. Detroit beat the White Sox 6-3, and that three-run difference is enough to bump the Red Sox out of the Wild Card game.

Here, for easy reference, are our playoff teams. I’ve included their current Won/Loss records for your amusement.
National League

Team

Won/Loss

Run Diff.

Mets

4-3

25-25 (0)

Cardinals

2-5

25-39 (-14)

Dodgers

4-4

42-25 (17)

Rockies

5-3 31-35 (-4)
Nationals 4-3

40-43 (-3)

 
American League

Team

Won/Loss

Run Diff.

Rays

5-3

34-34 (0)

Twins

5-1

30-13 (17)

Astros

4-4 21-30 (-9)
Indians 3-3

28-35 (-7)

Tigers

4-2

25-28 (-3)

As Eric pointed out on Facebook, one game is a very small sample size. I agree, but that’s what makes this exercise amusing. That said, if I were to use the results of Opening Week instead of Opening Day, our playoff teams would change just a bit.

National League: Phillies (+9), Reds (+14), Dodgers (+17), Diamondbacks (+16), Cubs (+9)

American League: Yankees (+7), Twins (+17), Angels (+6), White Sox (+5), Red Sox (+2)

That’s not any more appealing. Yes, it gets the Cubs into the playoffs, but it also lets the Yankees and Red Sox in. Worse, it still doesn’t help the Mariners, Orioles, or Giants. Feh.

So I’ll stick with the original, one game, predictions and see how the playoffs will run.

The first thing I see is that we’re going to have some really close games. The Cardinals will get slaughtered while the Twins and Dodgers are slaughtering, but all the other games are going to be tight, defensive battles as the teams struggle to score.

That ought to make Commissioner Manfred happy. After all, low-scoring games are typically short. Unless they run to extra innings. But in the playoffs, extra innings draw viewers. So, again, a win.

The bottom line is that the Twins are going all the way to the World Series. They’ll breeze through the AL, probably in something close to the minimum number of games, and there will be much rejoicing in Minnesota–it’s been a quarter of a century since the Twins were in the World Series.

Meanwhile, the NL playoffs are going to play out as a mirror of the AL with the Dodgers playing the part of the Twins. It’s been even longer since the Dodgers played for the championship–granted, only three years, but it still counts–so the cheers in LA will be even louder.

Based strictly on run differential, the World Series won’t ever end. Clearly, that’s a low-probability outcome. The Dodgers have those additional three years of futility on their side. But I think it’s a mistake to overlook the teams’ won/loss records. Despite a +17 run differentials, the Dodgers are 4-4. They’re clearly scoring their runs in bunches. The Twins have turned that same +17 into a 5-1 record–obviously scoring just enough to win comfortably.

So after a tight, high scoring, seven game World Series, the Twins are going to be the champions. You heard it here first.

And the Mariners will just have to wait until next year. Again.