Can’t Satisfy Everyone

Some days you just can’t win. Also known as “you can’t please everybody”.

Case in point–and I’m making no assumptions here about how tuned-in you are to the current news: On April 29th, a couple of black men were hanging out near Lake Merritt in Oakland. They had a charcoal grill, but they were in an area of the park that only allowed non-charcoal grills.

This is not what most people would consider a major breach of the law.

On seeing such depraved behavior–charcoal grilling in a gas-only zone–the average person would probably shrug. At most, she’d go over to the scofflaws and say, “Hey guys, you can’t use that grill here.” If she was an optimistic sort, she might even point them to the nearest area where charcoal grills are allowed.

And at that point, the outlaw grill-meisters would either move or they wouldn’t. Either way, the supporter of the law would feel a modest glow for having done her duty.

That’s not what happened in this case.

A white woman confronted the men and called the police. She then stood nearby for two hours until the police arrived, at which point she accused the men of harassing her.

Needless to say, this didn’t go over well in Oakland. A protest was organized. Fortunately, it was not a march through the streets. Historically, those haven’t turned out well in Oakland, with vandals and looters using the marches as cover and excuse to make matters worse.

No, this protest was appropriate to the situation: a mass barbecue in the same area of the park, complete with a city permit, local corporate participation, and a voter registration drive. Thousands of people showed up, and by all reports, a good time was had by all.

Except, one presumes, the woman who originally confronted the men.

The punchline here, and the reason I say you can’t please everyone:

As it should, the SF Chronicle ran a story yesterday about the protest. Today’s paper included a letter to the editor from a reader in Palo Alto who was deeply offended by the story. She said, in part, that she “found it upsetting to read of the carnage required to make this protest.”

Yup. She’s hijacking a protest against racial injustice to protest to expound on the moral superiority of vegetarianism and promote animal rights.

With all due respect to the letter writer, this is exactly the sort of mission creep that dooms projects of any sort. Focus, solve one problem at a time, or work in parallel. Don’t undercut the work of others or insist that they work for your cause as well as their own.

Unless, of course, you’re more interested in protesting for the sake of protesting, rather than achieving a goal.

‘Nuki Beans

We took a close look at Tuxie’s toe beans last week, and now I’m in a bean mood.

So let’s move from a faux tuxedo to the real thing.

Watanuki has the two-tone tuxedo fur, and he’s got two-tone toe beans to match.
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And it’s not just pink toe tips and black palms. Take a closer look at that back foot.
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Half and half!

Not as tasty as the dairy product, but a heck of a lot cuter.

Divine Wrath

It’s been a rough week for Seattle baseball fans.

It started with an ordinary aggravation: a rain-out, resulting in a doubleheader. Normally you take those in stride, but it came at an awkward time in the Ms’ schedule: a lot of travel and no off days, thanks to an early-season snow-out.

Then, the day after the doubleheader, Robinson Canó was hit on the hand by an errant pitch. Broken metacarpal bone, out for an estimated 6-8 weeks. A big hit to the team’s playoff hopes and overall morale.

Naturally, then, the Universe doubled down. Before fans even heard the specialist’s appraisal of Canó’s injury and expected recovery time, they found out it was largely irrelevant. MLB determined he’d taken a banned substance and suspended him for eighty games. Not only does that push his return into August, but it means he’ll be ineligible if the Ms’ manage to squeeze into the playoffs.

It’s especially vexing for the fans because of a lack of information. Canó and MLB say he took a diuretic which is on the banned list because it can be used to flush performance-enhancing drugs out of the system. Players don’t get banned for taking that medication; instead, there’s an independent investigation to determine the likelihood that it was taken to conceal PED use.

Canó denies there was any PED use, and that the drug was to control his high blood pressure–a legitimate use. MLB says there is evidence of PED use, but, for privacy reasons, will not discuss what the evidence is or what banned substances they believe he took.

Of course, the result is a persecution complex among Mariners fans, and the rise of conspiracy theories. My favorite says MLB is unhappy at losing the Cubs’ curse as a drawing card and publicity tool. As a result, the theory states, they’re taking steps to extend Seattle’s playoff drought–already the longest in all of the four major American sports–indefinitely. This, of course, ties in nicely with reports that Portland is in the running for an expansion team: how thrilling would it be to have a playoff race between the martyred Mariners and the Portland TBAs? One team trying to break their curse, the other trying to duplicate the success of the NHL’s Vegas franchise–now that’s drama (and ticket sales).

But I digress.

Picture those poor Seattle fans, already dealing with all that.

Tuesday–the same day Canó’s suspension was announced–Nelson Cruz, another key piece of the Mariners’ playoff hopes, was hit in the foot by a pitch.

A wave of fan suicides was forestalled when the team was able to give an update before the end of the game: no bones were broken, but Cruz will be out for several days, and a stint on the Disabled List is still a possibility.

You might think that was enough. But, no. Adding insult to the injuries, most of them couldn’t even watch Wednesday afternoon’s game. Not because of their work schedules, but because it was exclusive to Facebook, one of twenty-five such this season. No local TV, no MLB.TV. Closed your Facebook account in protest of the Cambridge Analytica? Too bad. Don’t want to sit in front of your computer for three hours? Sorry. Don’t have the Facebook app on your mobile device because you don’t want to give them access to your location and contacts? We weep great crocodile tears for you.

Ahem. Sorry.

How was the experience if you were willing to deal with Facebook?

Feh.

In fairness, they did provide a way to turn off the comments window and the stupid emoji scrolling on top of the video. And having the broadcast commercial-free was nice.

Other than that, though…

Even with Facebook comments off, we still got viewer questions and comments slapped onscreen and had to listen to the announcers read them and respond.

Instead of letting fans enjoy the lack of commercials by showing pitchers warming up, attendees singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and all the other enjoyable non-game elements of the live experience, we got historical moments only tangentially related to the current game and more inane viewer comments.

Let’s not forget the frequent use of split-screen, shrinking the actual game in favor of interviews with studio talking heads, players, and managers.

And, of course, several in-game reminders to buy MLB.TV and get access to “all out of market games”, conveniently not adding “except this one”.

Pardon me again.

So, yeah. Baseball on Facebook is better than no baseball–but that’s a given. If there were any alternative short of flying cross-country to watch the game in person, I’d recommend it.

Still, today is a new day. Mariners fans across the country are risking divine wrath by assuring each other that the worst must surely be over, and life will get better from here.

Game time is 7:10 Pacific, and it will be available through all the usual distribution channels. Surely nothing else can go wrong this week. Right?

Impossible

Let’s talk about “impossible” for a moment.

Have you seen any of the dozens of articles and videos making the rounds under some variant of the headline “This boat is impossible to capsize”? If you haven’t, there’s a good example at Popular Mechanics.

It’s immediately obvious reading the article that the boat can be capsized; the real brilliance here is that it’s designed to flip itself back over automatically.

With a caveat or two. The article above cites three design factors that contribute to the self-righting capability. All are subject to failure modes: “the cabin itself is watertight” (provided no hatches are left open) and “it has a very low center of gravity” and “the cabin is built to be extremely buoyant” (assuming all cargo is stowed properly and nothing heavy is mounted on the upper deck).

This boat was designed for law enforcement, the Navy, and what PM calls “other groups who sail in high-pressure situations”. How many of those organizations are going to want hull-mounted weapons of some sort? Sure, you could counterbalance the guns by stowing their ammunition at the bottom of the hull–but then, are you going to jettison the guns when you run out of bullets?

“Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.” (Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled)

It’s not just programming, and the Universe is winning in all fields of endeavor–as I’ve noted before, you can verify this any day on the freeway. All it takes is one person who doesn’t read the directions to undo even the best design.

And that assumes the designers haven’t overlooked anything. Lest we forget, the original “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, failed to live up to the hype in part because of a design flaw*.

* Accounts differ, but most note that the bulkheads intended to isolate compartments and confine water coming in to a limited area did not extend to the full height of the ship. When enough water had entered the sealed compartments, it began to flow over the top of the bulkheads and fill adjoining compartments.

But I’m not here to denigrate the boat’s designers. Realistically, headline writers are indulging in a bit of click-baitish hyperbole.

I’m on record as accepting the contradictory usages of the word “literally”. But I’m drawing a line here. “Impossible” does not mean “can”. Not even “can, but reversible”.

We need a word to mean “can not under any circumstances”, if only to save writers’ fingers when discussing the likelihood of finding compassion among the Republican’s party leaders.

Don’t sink the Titanic, don’t capsize the Thunder Child, and don’t erode the utility of “impossible”.

Tuxie Beans

Tuxie has been very friendly of late, sometimes preferring cuddles to food. And he’s developed a taste for a tummy skritch–a taste he shares with Rufus, by the way.

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Pardon the blurriness. Even when he’s getting the attention he wants, he’s still rather wiggly.

But check out those handsome, two-toned pink and black toe beans.

Another Corporate Fail

Something a little lighter than Tuesday’s discussion of Google’s plans to build the first generation of our Robot Overlords this year.

Lighter, yes–though I fear no less depressing. Sorry about that. Stop back tomorrow for cat picture therapy if you need it.

Anyway, we’re going to add another item to our list* of bad reasons to make a change.

* Did you know we had a list? I didn’t until I sat down to write this post.

We’ve already got “Because we can,” “Because the schedule says it’s time,” and “Because we need to generate artificial excitement“. Now we can add “Because everyone else is”.

That’s right, it’s the Jumping Off a Bridge model of product development.

Look, I like Pop-Tarts–specifically, the frosted blueberry variety. I make no apologies for keeping a box around for the occasional weekend breakfast, and I’ll cheerfully ignore any comments expressing dismay over my pastriotic orientation.

Really, Kellogg came up with the perfect ratio of crispy to crumbly in the pastry, just the right amount of sweetness in the filling, and an unbeatable capper in that sweet, sweet sugar frosting. Even the multi-colored sprinkles, which I initially regarded with suspicion, turned out to add a nice bit of texture.

But somebody in Kellogg Sales’ Marketing Division looked at all the lovely cash Nabisco was raking in with its Oreo flavor variants, and decided to follow suit.

They couldn’t easily do wild flavor variants. For one thing, there are only so many colors they could dye the filling. For another, there are already plenty of Pop-Tart flavors.

So they fell back on Nabisco’s other trick. If “Double Stuf” could usher in a couple of generations of “innovation” in Oreos, why couldn’t it do the same for Pop-Tarts.

The result of that high-level brainstorming? A couple of months ago, my Frosted Blueberry Pop-Tarts package gained a new banner: “Now with MORE FROSTING!”

Uh-oh.

Of course I tried them. In fact, I’ve tried three boxes, made several months apart, just to be sure the flaws in the design weren’t just aberrations in a single batch. They’re not.

Yes, there is more frosting. In fairness, there’s not very much more. The additional frosting does not overwhelm the other components as I feared it would.

But, y’know, sugar is expensive. To keep the price of a box the same, something had to change. Kellogg executives were smart enough to realize that tampering with the traditional “two pastries to a pouch” packaging would be likely to cause massive consumer dissatisfaction and rioting in the streets.

They might have gotten away with reducing boxes from eight pastries to six or shrinking the size of each Pop-Tart, but that would have meant a box redesign and cost even more money.

So they decreased the amount of filling instead.

I can’t prove it. I don’t have any “Classic Pop-Tarts” handy to measure. But to my well-trained eye, it’s obvious. And, more importantly, it’s even clearer to my teeth. Less filling + same baking time = crisper pastry.

There’s more variation in texture than before the change, but even at its best, the pastry shell is crunchier than before; at its worst, they come off as more cracker than pie crust.

And, most importantly, Kellogg missed an important part of the “Double Stuf Lesson”. When Oreo introduced their “more sugar” treat, they made it optional. You could still buy regular Oreos. You still can, even if you have to hunt through the shelves to buy them.

You can’t buy regular Frosted Blueberry Pop-Tarts (or any of the other flavors that now have MORE FROSTING!)

I don’t expect a New Coke fiasco, with Kellogg recanting and offering the two products side by side. Pop-Tarts, for all their popularity aren’t an iconic American offering like Co’cola. The outcry is likely to be limited. Probably to this blog, to be honest.

But I won’t be buying any Pop-Tart with MORE FROSTING! Which means I won’t be buying any Pop-Tarts for my weekend breakfasts any more.

That’s undoubtedly better for my physical health. But is it better for my mental well-being?

Google I/O 2018

As promised, here’s my usual cynical rundown of all the exciting things Google announced in the I/O keynote. As usual, thanks to Ars for the live stream.

Looks like a great year ahead, doesn’t it? See you Thursday.


Okay, okay. I just had to get that out of my system.

First up, Sundar admitted to Google’s well-publicized failures with the cheeseburger and beer emojis. It’s great that they’ve been fixed and that Google has apologized publicly. But when are they going to apologize for their role in inflicting emojis on us in the first place?

Anyway.

Google has been testing their AI’s ability to diagnose and predict diabetic retinopathy and other health conditions. I’m hoping this is not being done via smartphone. Or, if it is, it’s fully disclosed and opt-in. I’m quite happy with my medical professional, thanks, and I really don’t want my phone to suddenly pop up a notification, “Hey, I think you should see an ophthalmologist ASAP. Want me to book you an appointment?”

I do like the keyboard that accepts morse code input. That’s a nice accessibility win that doesn’t have any glaring detrimental impact on people who don’t need it.

That said, I’m less enthusiastic about “Smart Compose”. I’m not going to turn over writing duties to any AI. Not even in email.

But I do have to wonder: would it improve the grammar and vocabulary of the typical Internet troll, or will it learn to predict the users’ preferences and over time start composing death threats with misspellings, incoherent grammar, and repetitive profanity? Remember what happened with Microsoft’s conversational AI.

And I’ve got mixed feelings about the AI-based features coming to Google Photos. I pointed out the privacy concerns about offering to share photos with the people in them when Google mentioned it last year. Now they’re going to offering the ability to colorize black and white photos. Didn’t Ted Turner get into trouble for doing something of the sort?

More to the point, how many smartphones have black and white cameras? Taking a B&W photo is a conscious decision these days. Why would you want Google to colorize it for you?

Fixing the brightness of a dark photo, though, I could totally get behind.

Moving on.

Google Assistant is getting six new voices, including John Legend’s. Anyone remember when adding new voices to your GPS was the Hot Thing?

More usefully, it’ll remain active for a few seconds after you ask a question so you don’t have to say “Hey, Google,” again. Which is great, as long as it doesn’t keep listening too long.

That said, it’ll help with continuing conversations, where you ask a series of questions or give a sequence of commands; for example, looking up flights, narrowing down the list, and booking tickets.

And, of course, they’re rolling out the obligatory “teach little kids manners by forcing them to say please” module. If it starts responding to “Thank you,” with “No problem,” I will make it my life mission to destroy Google and all its works.

Moving on.

Smart displays–basically, Google Home with a screen–will start coming out in July. I can see the utility in some areas, but I’m not going to be getting one. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten a screenless GH, nor have I enabled Google Assistant on my phone. I just don’t want anything with a network connection listening to me all the time. But if you’re okay with that, you probably ought to look into the smart displays. It will significantly add to the functionality of the home assistant technology.

Good grief! You thought I was joking about your phone offering to make a medical appointment for you? Google isn’t. They’re going to be rolling out experimental tech to do exactly that: your phone will call the doctor’s office and talk to the receptionist on your behalf.

Not just no. Not just hell no. Fuck no! No piece of AI is going to understand my personal constraints about acceptable days and times, the need to coordinate with Maggie’s schedule, and not blocking my best writing times.

Moving on.

Google is rolling out a “digital wellbeing initiative” to encourage users to get off the phone and spend time with human beings.

Just not, apparently, receptionists and customer service representatives.

It’s a worthy cause, but let’s face it: the people who would benefit most won’t use it, either because they don’t recognize the problem, or because being connected 24/7 is a condition of employment. I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that Google employees are likely to be among the most in need of the technology and the least likely to use it.

Moving on.

The new Google News app will use your evolving profile to show you news stories it predicts will interest you. No word on whether it’ll include any attempts to present multiple viewpoints on hot-button topics, or if it’ll just do its best to keep users in their familiar silos. Yes, they do say it’ll give coverage “from multiple sources” but how much is that worth if all the sources have the same political biases bases on your history of searches? Let’s not forget that Google’s current apps with similar functionality allow you to turn off any news source.

Moving on.

Android P (and, as usual, we won’t find out what the P dessert is until the OS is released) will learn your usage patterns so it can be more aggressive about shutting down apps you don’t use.

It’ll offer “App Actions” so you can go straight from the home screen to the function you want instead of launching the app and navigating through it.

Developers can export some of their content to appear in other apps, including your Google searches.

The AI and machine learning functionality will be accessible to developers. Aren’t you thrilled to know that Uber will be able to learn your preferences and proactively offer you a ride to the theater?

And, of course, the much-ballyhooed navigation designed for a single thumb. The “recent apps” button will go away and the “Back” button will only appear when Android thinks it’s needed. And some functionality will be accessible via swipes starting at the “Home” button. Because the “Back” button wasn’t confusing enough already.

I do like the sound of a “shush” mode that triggers when you put the phone face down. I’m using a third-party app to do that with my phone now. Very handy when you want to be able to check in periodically, but don’t want to be interrupted. Sure, you can set the phone to silent, but putting it face down is faster and you don’t have to remember to turn notifications back on.

On to Google Maps.

It’s going to start letting you know about hot and trending places near you and rate them according to how good a fit they are for you. I’ve got serious questions about how well that’s going to work, given the number of times Google’s guessed wrong about which business I’m visiting. If they start telling me about popular Chinese restaurants because there’s a Panda Express next door to the library, I’m gonna be really peeved.

Oh, and businesses will be able to promote themselves in your personalized recommendations. How delightful. Thanks, Google!

Okay, the new walking navigation sounds useful. Hopefully it will learn how quickly you walk so it can give reasonably accurate travel time estimates. Hopefully there’s also a way to get it to make accommodations for handicaps.

Of course, if you don’t want to walk, Google–well, Waymo–will be happy to drive you. Their self-driving program will launch in Phoenix sometime this year. Which seems like a good choice, since they’re unlikely to have to deal with snow this winter.

I guess people in Phoenix will be getting a real preview of Google’s future. Not only will their phones preemptively book their medical appointments, but they’ll also schedule a self-driving car to get them there. Will they also send someone along to help you put on the stylish white jacket with extra-long sleeves and ensure you get into the nice car?

Odd Couple

Tuxie and MM have, for the most part, arrived at a workable arrangement. There’s always some jockeying for position when the food bowls go down, but after a minute or so, they settle down to the serious business of eating.
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To be quite honest, we’ve arrived at the point where they spend more time shoving each other aside to get petted before they eat.
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It’s a bit awkward, but quite endearingly cute.

The Group W Bench

The latest twist in the publishing industry–and the latest hot topic of discussion among authors, agents, editors, and other industry types–is the morality clause. Rachel Deahl’s write-up in Publishers Weekly is a good overview.

The TL;DR is that, in reaction to the #MeToo movement and high profile cases such as Milo Yiannopoulos, publishers are demanding the ability to drop an author if he or she says or does something the publisher believes will affect their ability to sell the author’s books.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. They range from “I don’t like it” to “I loathe it.”

I’d be less bothered–not okay with it, but less concerned–if such clauses were very narrowly drawn, citing specific causes for termination. Unfortunately, by all reports, current boilerplate contracts are very vaguely worded, giving the publisher free rein to decide what constitutes moral turpitude. As one agent notes in Ms. Deahl’s article, there’s nothing to prevent a publisher from using a morality clause to get out of a multi-book deal that isn’t earning enough.

There’s definitely an Alice’s Restaurant vibe here. Publishers want to know if we’re moral enough to “join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages” (or whatever else it was we wrote about that the publisher liked enough to offer a contract) “after bein’ a litterbug.” Except, of course, they want to make sure we don’t turn to littering after we’ve served our stint as pyromaniacs.

Full disclosure: The contract for The RagTime Traveler does not include a morality clause. I’m free to say and do what I want, hindered only by my recognition of the law, societal standards, and my ability to get a contract for the next book.

Realistically, even under the best, most author-friendly contracts, publishers have plenty of ways to free themselves from an author they’ve had second thoughts about. Ms. Deahl notes the typical clause giving the publisher the sole right to determine if the manuscript is suitable for publication. There are other such clauses, and there are semi- or non-contractural options, including failing to publicize the book or allowing it to go out of print.

But by adding a morality clause, publishers are giving themselves a Get Out of Jail Free card. It’s good to see agents objecting to morality clauses. But publishers still have the final say on whether they’ll modify or drop the clause if the writer and agent object. They already have nearly all of the power in the relationship–only a few of the highest-profile writers have the option of declining a contract over a clause the publisher refuses to drop or modify, nor is self-publishing always an option.

Despite publishers’ claims that morality clauses are solely for self protection and won’t be used for censorship or financial reasons, the bottom line is that the contract is the contract.

One piece of advice writers hear over and over at the beginning of their careers is “Don’t accept a publisher’s assurance that [specific term of a contract] is never enforced. Publishing is a business, and that clause is there for a reason. It will be enforced.”

As always, interesting times are ahead.


One housekeeping note: Google I/O begins on Tuesday. As usual, I’ll be writing up my thoughts on the keynote announcements. Since I can’t do that until after the keynote, Tuesday’s post will be later than usual. Don’t panic if you don’t see anything from me in the morning. I haven’t forgotten you.

Ready, Aim…

Joel Stein’s LA Times piece on Nextdoor is worth reading.

Not that he’s saying anything new–Oakland residents have been fighting Nextdoor’s rather lax and inconsistent approach to policing content for years. But he does say it entertainingly.

Nextdoor, for those of you who haven’t heard of it or were smart enough not to join, is supposed to be the electronic town square. Think Facebook, but strictly limited by geographic neighborhoods. You can see posts in your own neighborhood* and in adjoining neighborhoods, but nothing else.

* There are a number of methods used to verify that you live where you say you do. Some are of rather questionable utility, but at least Nextdoor is making an effort.

In theory, it’s a combination local bulletin board, neighborhood watch, and community chatline. In practice, well, as Joel says

In the alternative reality that is Nextdoor, people are committing crimes I’ve never even thought of: casing, lurking, knocking on doors at 11:45 p.m., coating mailbox flaps with glue, “asking people for jumper cables but not actually having a car,” light bulb stealing, taking photos of homes, being an “unstable female” and “stashing a car in my private garage.”

And he’s right on the money.

Except that he missed a couple of items. Roughly half the posts on any given day are pet related. “My dog/cat/parrot is missing.” “Somebody’s using the public park to train attack dogs.” And, of course, “All of you better stop letting your dogs crap on my yard!”

And then there’s the inevitable response to any post, frequently from multiple people:

“Someone claiming to be from PG&E knocked on my door.” “That’s a scam. He was just trying to see if anyone was home. If he comes back, shoot him.”

“There’s a strange man walking along the sidewalk. He had a camera and was taking pictures.” “He’s casing houses to break into later. If he comes on your property, shoot him.”

“I’m sick and tired of cleaning dog droppings off my lawn.” “Next time you see a dog on your lawn, shoot it.”

Are you seeing a pattern here?

Yes, even the missing pet posts get responses like “Don’t expect to see Fluffy again, ’cause I’m gonna shoot her if she keeps messing with my chickens.”

Don’t even think about reading any thread related to gun control, unless you really enjoy repeated regurgitation of the NRA’s favorite talking points, wild exaggerations, and outright lies, all mixed with threats of violence against anyone who “comes to take my guns.”

I don’t know, maybe it’s just here. According to Nextdoor, there are 237 people signed up in my neighborhood, and I can see posts from 6,756 people in the adjoining areas. That’s a small enough group–given that more than 90% of people on any social network rarely post more than once or twice–that a few lunatics may be disproportionately represented. Anyone else, especially in larger neighborhoods, seeing the same thing?