Hang In There

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I noticed something odd about the way Rhubarb sits the other day. Or, more precisely, something I’ve noticed many times without thinking about it finally registered on me.

Do you see it? No? Here, try a different angle.

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Now do you see it?

Look at his tail. See how he’s got it carefully curled around the step? He often wraps his tail around something. It’s as though he feels the need for extra security.

It’s particularly odd because Kaja, his littermate, is an old-school daredevil. Her favorite trick was to slide between the steps and curl her body around until she was half upside-down.

We’re actually a little surprised–and very relieved–that she never slid all the way through and tried walking up and down the underside of the stairs, Escher-style. Knowing her determination, she might very well have succeeded, but I wouldn’t want to watch.

Come to think of it, maybe that explains Rhubarb’s habit. Maybe Kaja did take a stroll under the stairs, and the sight so unnerved Rhubarb that even now, years later, he feels the need for a little extra reassurance that gravity still likes him.

Pain and Gain

Well, that was painful.

I made the mistake of going to see Star Trek Beyond a few days ago. My brain still hurts.

Yes, a couple of movie mini-reviews. Since the movies are still in theaters, please be aware that spoilers lurk below.

Don’t think I–a Star Trek fan since the mid-seventies–am dissing the reboot for being a reboot. I liked the first reboot film and enjoyed the second one despite its problems.

No, my objection to Star Trek Beyond has nothing to do with its place in the canon. Pure and simple, it just didn’t work dramatically.

I’m not even talking about the extended sequences in which shaky-cam was combined with dark rooms and loud music in a futile attempt to build tension*.

* Seriously, folks, that doesn’t work. It’s never worked. Why do you keep trying? And in this case, those sequences were so long and unproductive, I kept expecting somebody onscreen to stop, look around, and say “You know? This is stupid. Can’t we just turn on a damn light?”

What I’m talking about are the plethora of plot threads that lead nowhere, the logical gaps, and the abuse of coincidence.

Consider, for example, the first scene of the movie. Kirk is trying to broker a peace treaty between a couple of races of aliens, at least one of which obviously has no interest in peace. OK, nice idea for a movie. Lots of room for action and thoughtful discussion, with a goal that emphasizes the Federation’s peaceful intentions.

What happens? Kirk’s efforts come across as hugely half-assed and the negotiation fails within a couple of minutes. End of scene, neither of the contesting races appears in the film again, and to top it off, instead of returning the artifact that was at the center of the peace proposal to its owners, Kirk confiscates it for the Federation! And then he compounds the offense by keeping it on the Enterprise instead of turning it over to whichever archival organization is supposed to hold onto the damn thing. (Hint: starships exploring the unknown are not safe places to keep unique, possibly dangerous, objects.)

If the writers–and IMDB lists five of them, not counting the obligatory credit to Gene Roddenberry–couldn’t think of a way to use those aliens later in the film, why even bother to include them? Just to get the artifact into Kirk’s hands and give him a chance to demonstrate how burned out he is?

Fine, then. Skip the aliens, let the Enterprise find the artifact in open space, and give Kirk the chance to bitch about how bored he is with scooping up relics of vanished civilizations.

I could go on–if you’re heading into unknown space where your detectors don’t work well and where rocks are bouncing off of your hull, why don’t you put your shields up, rather than waiting until the hostile force appears and starts shooting at you? If the villain has weapons that can overpower the Federation’s newest, most powerful ship, why does he need the Federation’s “advanced technology” to conquer them?–but it would be too depressing.

My advice: accept that the whole movie is just as bad as the opening, skip it, and go see Sausage Party instead.

No, I’m not joking. Yes, Sausage Party is rude, crude, and juvenile. It’s also funny, beginning to end, and the writing is, within the limits of the movie’s universe, consistent and coherent.

OK, I exaggerate a little. The last scene is an uncomfortably tacked-on epilogue that’s either a sign of a unnecessary sequel or a failed attempt to parody unnecessary sequelitis. Even within it’s context, the script overuses the F-word. And the film uses the obnoxious “the ugly guy can only find happiness with the ugly girl” trope.

But despite those failings, the story works on a “gang of misfits sets out to save the world” level, as a parody of that genre, and as a loose framework to support a collection of jokes.

And ideas don’t get dropped. Recurring jokes not only recur, but in at least one case a character indulges in meta-humor, commenting on one of the major running jokes. AliensJokes introduced early in the film are brought back in new forms later on.

Despite what some reviews have suggested, Sausage Party isn’t all that deep, philosophically-speaking. But it’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, unlike Star Trek Beyond, which simply steals two hours of your life and refuses to give them back.

Run, Damn It!

Call it a case of amusing serendipity.

I’ve been doing a little research lately on inside-the-park home runs. Why, yes, it is related to the current novel-in-development. So if you like hints and gradual reveals, you can put that on your list.

Anyway, after spending a chunk of Friday learning that, for example, the number of inside-the-park home runs has been declining since the twenties, it was delightful just in time to turn on the Blue Jays/Indians game just in time to see this.

For those of you who refuse to give in to MLB’s annoying insistence on using Flash video, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Ryan Lewis describes it: “Behind 2-1 with an out in the bottom of the ninth inning against Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, one of the better closers in the league, Jose Ramirez slammed a solo home run to right field to tie it 2-2. To turn up the excitement to 11, Tyler Naquin followed by hitting a ball off the top of the wall in right field. It got away from Blue Jays right fielder Michael Saunders and was fielded by center fielder Melvin Upton, who slipped. It allowed Naquin, sans helmet, to make the turn home and slide head-first for a wild walk-off, inside-the-park home run.”

Despite their declining frequency, inside-the-park home runs aren’t what I’d call rare. Baseball-Reference.com says there are, on average, twenty per season. Walk-off inside-the-park home runs are rather rarer, though. As best I can tell, Tyler’s feat on Friday was the first one since Angel Pagan did it for the Giants in May of 2013–and before that, you have to go back to 2004 (Rey Sanchez of the then-Devil Rays).

Since Ramirez and Naquin went back-to-back, I found myself wondering if there has ever been a case of back-to-back inside-the-park home runs. It turns out it has. Twice, in fact.

The first was June 23, 1946. Marv Rickert and Eddie Waitkus pulled it off for the Cubs against the Giants. The second occasion was August 27, 1977 with the Rangers playing the Yankees. The heroes then were Toby Harrah and Bump Wills. Seems like we’re about due for it to happen again.

Amusing coincidences: both times a team has gone back-to-back inside the park, it was the visiting team in a game played in New York. So if you want to catch the third occurrence, you might want to tune into the Phillies/Mets game on Friday. Hey, this is baseball: you never know…

A final thought: Most of the decline in inside-the-park home runs can be attributed to the shrinkage of ballparks, making it easier to hit one out and harder for a ball to bounce out of the reach of the fielders. But I have to wonder how many have been lost to showboating. How many times have you seen a batter stand at the plate watching his shot–perhaps even flipping his bat–and then have to scramble to salvage a double? It might not be a huge number, but every time I see a batter trotting slowly toward first, I want to scream at him to run, at least until the ball actually clears the fence. Given the speed of many sluggers, it might not be the difference between a double and a home run, but there’s a lot to be said for a triple.

Teamwork

So many of my posts only show one of the cats, you all must be getting a false impression. Yes, I’ve shown you several of them using each other as pillows, but beyond that, not much.

But they really do hang out together when they’re awake, too.
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Case in point.

Mid-afternoon. The mail had already been delivered, which meant there was no reason to hide in the closet, so several of them decided to sprawl on the stairs and watch the world go by.

That’s Sachiko on the lowest step, by the way.
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As you can see, she’s not nearly as relaxed as that first shot would suggest. Even when she does relax, she’s still usually on alert; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her sleeping, at least not so soundly that anything larger than a moth could sneak up on her.

Which is, of course, part of the reason she gets along so well with ‘Nuki, our self-appointed Chief of Security.
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Naturally, any time we open the sliding door, it calls for a two-member security team to ensure that nothing gets through the screen door. They’ll stay on duty for hours until we come to our senses and lock the house down again.

Such dedication! Such comradeship! Such gratuitous self-indulgence!

Small Bites

A collection of small items that don’t seem to warrant entire posts of their own.

Engadget reported last week that, as their headline put it, “Researcher finds huge security flaws in Bluetooth locks”. Briefly, he found that twelve of sixteen locks he bought at random had either no security or absolutely horrible security. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that those remaining four locks are safe, just that the researcher, Anthony Rose, didn’t immediately find problems.

Does this come as any surprise? It shouldn’t. Given how often we’ve seen Internet of Things manufacturers give no thought whatsoever to security, the surprising thing is that four of the locks weren’t trivially hackable.

Police and alarm manufacturers will tell you that it’s impossible to actually secure your house against a break in. The goal is to make it a harder target than your neighbors’ houses. Clearly, your best bet today is to buy a bunch of Bluetooth locks–and give them to all your neighbors!

Moving on.

I said that the new Ghostbusters movie wasn’t doing as well at the box office as it deserved. Apparently Sony agrees. According to Gizmodo (among many sources), the direct loss–before figuring add-on income from licensing and merchandise–could be as much as $70 million.

As a result, plans for a sequel are on hold. Instead, Sony is focusing on an animated TV show for 2018 and an animated movie for 2019.

OK, yeah, animation is potentially cheaper than live action, especially if you don’t have to pay full price for the actors. But it does rather make Ghostbusters something of a second-tier property.

And if you’re the betting sort, the smart money says neither the TV show nor the movie will feature the women who starred in this year’s film–and then, if the animation does well, it’ll be held up as further “proof” that women can’t carry a movie without male help.

Complete change of subject.

Audi is going to launch a new feature in some of its 2017 cars. Correction: IMNSHO, it’s a misfeature. They’re going to add a countdown timer on the instrument panel and heads-up display to let drivers know when red lights will turn green.

Seriously. And if Audi does it, you know everyone else will follow suit.

I don’t know how people drive where you are–or near Audi headquarters–but around here, people stretch yellow lights well beyond any rational limit. Give drivers a timer, and they’re going to accelerate as soon as it hits zero, without even looking at the traffic light, much less checking for oncoming traffic that didn’t even enter the intersection until their light was red.

The only way this could even begin to be sensible or safe would be if automakers lock out the accelerator (and horn!) until the onboard sensors confirm that the light is green, the car in front (if any) is beginning to move, and there’s no vehicle in the intersection. I regard this as highly unlikely to happen.

So, given my grumpiness in regard to new technological “advances,” you may be surprised to hear that I’m strongly in favor of this next announcement.

According to Ford CEO Mark Fields, the company is actively developing fully autonomous cars intended for ride-hailing services. They expect to have them on the market by 2021.

I’ll be blunt here: I dislike taxis and their modern would-be successors in large part because there’s no way to know whether the driver will (just to pick a few examples at random) cross solid lines changing lanes, speed, use the mirrors before changing lanes, or come to full stops at red lights and stop signs.

There’s no guarantee that an autonomous car will drive any better than any random human–and, putting on my QA hat for a moment–you can be certain that every single automaker’s self-driving car will have buggy software.

But at least autonomous cars will be more consistent. Get in a car that drives itself, and you’ll know what to expect from the driver. I find that idea soothing.

Finally, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this last item.

It seems that the Hacienda Mexican Restaurant chain in South Bend, Indiana thought it would be a good idea to put up billboards advertising their food as “The Best Mexican Food This Side Of The Wall.”

The signs are coming down. According to Executive Vice President Jeff Leslie, the company “didn’t expect the backlash.”

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a chain of Mexican restaurants that’s so out of touch with Hispanics, that they thought associating themselves with Trump’s Wall was a good advertising strategy.

I know the connection between an ad and the product it’s hyping is tenuous at best, but this really takes the tortilla. If the company has that big a disconnect with its roots, what are the chances that it’s food is any good at all, much less the best north of Nueva León? Small bites, indeed.

Mood Swings

Baseball is not a game for the weak of heart. And I’m not even talking about playing the game. Even watching it isn’t for those with heart conditions.

Two weeks ago, the Mariners were at .500, clinging to respectability and their fans were starting to mutter about “next year”. I said “They’re not doing well enough to allow one to hope for a turnaround, but they’re also not doing so poorly as to force one to give up on the season.” They were nine games behind Texas in the AL West and six games behind Boston and Toronto for a Wild Card berth.

How true those words proved. In the past fourteen days, the Mariners have played 13 games, winning 11 and losing only 2. That gives them–as the TV commentator pointed out several times last night–the best record in baseball since the All-Star Break. They’re now five and a half games behind Texas and only two back of Boston.

In other words, they’re not in a playoff slot, but they’re relevant. Even more: if they keep winning at their current rate, they’ll finish the season at 101-61. Winning 100 games doesn’t guarantee a team will make the playoffs*, but with the expanded Wild Card, the odds are certainly in favor of getting in.

* Just ask the 1980 Orioles (100-62), the 1993 Giants (103-59), and half a dozen other teams, going back to the 1909 Cubs who finished 104-49, a full seven games behind the Pirates.

Of course, the likelihood of winning 84% of their games over the next six weeks is negligible. According to fans’ guts, which base their estimates on the Mariners’ forty year history, the most probable outcome is an epic collapse in which they lose eighty-four percent of the remaining games to finish at 70-92. That slideplummet could–will, says the gut–begin today against the Angels, who have now lost eleven straight.

Back in reality, of course, the odds are good that the Ms aren’t going to win 101 games and just as good that they’re not going to lose 92. FiveThirtyEight’s updated prediction has them finishing 87-75, with a 44% chance of making the playoffs*. That’s…not bad.

* Since we were talking about the Cubs’ World Series drought two weeks ago, I feel obligated to point out that FiveThirtyEight’s current prediction is for the Cubs to finish at 100-62, with a probability of making the playoffs over 99%. But even with that, FiveThirtyEight gives them only an 18% chance of winning the World Series.

But tell that to the heart. Unless you’re one of those rare people who can sleep on a roller coaster, this is the time of year when your heart gets a real workout. Remember: nobody, not even the lowly Braves (44-74) has been eliminated from the playoffs yet. Any victory could, in theory, be the start of a run like the Mariners have been on for the past two weeks. And any loss could be the start of a plunge to the basement.

So, take your nitro tablets, hold on to the grab bar, and turn on the TV–better yet, collect the family and head to the ballpark, if you haven’t been priced out of it.

Forget Rio; the action is right here. The real playoffs started April 3, and the teams are playing every day.

All the News…

Why yes, it is another GT update.

As I said in a comment last week, we had to put the Cone o’ Shame back on him, because he scratched his cheek too much and gouged some furrows.

But he seems to have healed nicely, and he is once again collar-free. We’re hoping he’ll keep his claws out of his face and finish healing. It’s a good sign that the fur is starting to grow back in on his cheek, even if there’s still some scabbing on his ear.
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He’s eating well–we’re starting to transition him off of the gooshy food and back to the same krunchiez we’ve been giving him and the other outdoor cats–and he’s decided that he likes the bed Maggie assembled for him.
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And yes, he’s also decided that getting his chin and ears scratched is totally delightful and justification for the existence of bipeds.

For all the time we’ve been feeding him outside, we thought he was mute. Turns out he just didn’t have anything to say. Once we introduced the ear scratching, he decided to grace us with his purr. And what a beautiful chirring purr it is.

An Unsolicited Rant

Bear with me, please. I feel the need to vent a bit. And yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse and, given the quality of my readers, probably preaching to the choir. Neither fact makes venting any less satisfying.

The number of drivers doing stupid things on a regular basis continues to climb. The thing is, most of those stupid things fall into one of two categories. Fix those, and we’ll eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of accidents a year.

First, stop crossing solid lines–yes, even solid white lines. Yes, I know it’s legal in some states and in some circumstances. It’s still a bad idea.

Solid white lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices show places where crossing is discouraged, i.e. where it’s unsafe, or outside normal driving practices.

That’s why you see solid white lines just before a freeway exit and just before an onramp merge: drivers are concentrating on merging into or disentangling from freeway traffic; adding another vehicle disrupts the smooth flow of cars and makes the process more complicated. You may need to cross the lines in an emergency, so there isn’t a firm prohibition against it–but a traffic jam is not an emergency*. Neither is missing your exit because you were checking something on your phone.

* Unless you’re driving a police car, fire truck, or ambulance. But in those cases, you’re exempt from normal driving standards anyway.

Seriously, people, if you’re trying to get off the freeway, don’t do it by crossing the solid lines, even to get out of a tie-up. You’re either blocking people trying to get onto the freeway or people trying to exit legally. Similarly, if you’re trying to get onto the freeway, don’t do it across the solid lines: they’re probably there because you don’t have enough of a sight line to be sure the lane is clear.

Second, stay close to the speed limit–ideally within five miles per hour–or the prevailing speed of traffic. The arguments against speeding have been made over and over. I’m tired of seeing them. You’re tired of seeing them. Consider them included by reference.

But traveling significantly slower than the speed limit is just as bad. You become an unexpected obstacle to other drivers. Anywhere that sight lines are reduced, you’ll trigger abrupt slowdowns that can avalanche, causing major traffic tie-ups, even if nobody gets into an accident.

Worse yet, you become a challenge to the sort of person who exceed the speed limit. They’re going to start playing the Slalom Game: whipping around you without slowing down, and coming as close to your front and rear bumpers as they can to show you just how insignificant they think you are.

Again, there are circumstances where you might need to slow down. Snow, heavy rain, or high winds, for example. The zombie apocalypse*. In the Berkeley/Oakland area, a protest moving onto the freeway**.

* Maybe. One school of thought says you should slow down to minimize the danger to others when your passenger turns into a zombie and goes for your throat. The other school says you should speed up to maximize your ability to flatten the zombies wandering through traffic. A full analysis is, of course, outside of the scope of this rant.

** Be careful not to confuse a peaceful protest with a zombie apocalypse! Hint: protesters rarely, if ever, eat human flesh during the protest. That said, however, if zombies are carrying protest signs, you’ll have to solve the ethical dilemma yourself.

Bluntly, if you don’t feel capable of driving at least fifty on the freeway, take city streets. If you can’t drive at least twenty-five on city streets, take a cab. And if you’re incapable of driving less than eighty anywhere, get out of the car and take public transportation.

Thank you. I feel better already.

Tugging the Bandage

Ah, Mariners, how you tease me.

(Full disclosure: this post was written Monday afternoon and updated to include the results of Monday’s game. Be prepared for rapid changes of emotional overtones.)

Last Tuesday, I said that the Mariners could gain a measure of redemption for their embarrassing defeat in their previous game by beating the Red Sox on national television. That would put them back over .500 and provide a measure of hope for their ability to overcome adversity.

As it turned out, they did win that game. And the next one. They lost the final game of the series against the Red Sox, but then won three straight from the Angels, coming from behind in all three games.

5-1 is nice. Not a sign that they’ve turned a corner, much less that next year has arrived. But, combined with Houston’s 1-5 record over the same stretch, it put the Ms into second place in the division. Even more interesting, it means there’s only one team ahead of them in the fight for the second Wild Card. Amusingly, that’s the Red Sox.

But the thing is, the last fifteen years–and especially the last three–have conditioned Mariners’ fans to, as Mel Brooks put it, hope for the best, expect the worst. Before Monday’s games, the Mariners were three games behind the Red Sox in the standings, but they won’t play again this season*. Even if the Ms exceed that expectation of “the worst” they–and we, their fans–have to rely on others to beat the Red Sox.

* That’s “play each other,” naturally. If both teams were done for the year, there wouldn’t be much point in this post. That said, there’s always the chance of a one-game match-up if the two teams are tied for a playoff spot at the end of the season. But be honest: even though MLB would consider that a regular-season game, would you? I doubt I’m the only fan who would think of it as a playoff game.

That’s one way to look at it. Another is that we don’t care about how the Sox do; the important foe is the Tigers, who currently hold the second Wild Card slot. Since the Ms’ can’t control the Red Sox, ignore them and concentrate on beating the Tigers.

Guess who came to town last night? Yup. Detroit ambled in, owners of the best record in baseball since the All-Star Break, ready for a three game series. Since the Mariners were 3 1/2 games back, even sweeping the Tigers the same way they did the Angels wouldn’t put the Ms ahead. At most, it would close the gap while putting the Red Sox into the lead for that last playoff position. And–not-so-odd coincidence–this is the last time the Ms will face the Tigers this season, so they’d be depending on outside help to make up that last half game*.

* For the record, the Mariners have just three games remaining against the Blue Jays, the current first Wild Card team–and as of yesterday, the Ms were five games back. Help needed, no question. And, just to wrap up the possibilities, the Mariners are seven games behind the Rangers for the West title with (gee!) seven head-to-head games left. Help needed there, too.

But a sweep–or even just a series victory–against the Tigers would show that the Mariners are capable of continuing something they’ve started. Maybe it won’t show that they can finish what they start, but at this point, we’re not honestly thinking about anything as long-term as the end of the season. Show us they can put together a winning streak longer than three games*. Then we’ll talk.

* As of Monday, they’d won three in a row six times this season, including the weekend sweep of the Angels, and four in a row twice.

Any rational person would consider the Mariners’ playoff hopes dead along about now. But as Mel Brooks showed–yes, we’re back to him again–sometimes all it takes to bring the dead back to life is an abnormal brain and a bunch of leftover special effects. And you know what? A 5-1 record works just as well.

The preliminary results of the Mariners’ attempt at resurrection? A 3-0 victory. Can they make it a five-game winning streak and clinch the series win? Tune in tonight.

Unexpected Consequences

Having GT staying in the garage has led to some unexpected events. But before I go into that, a quick GT update seems in order.

He’s doing well. His cheek had healed enough for us to take collar off Wednesday evening, much to everybody’s relief. The evidence suggests GT spent the entire night making up for lost grooming time: Thursday morning, his fur was much sleeker–and there was a hairball of Trumpian proportions* on the floor of the cage.

* “It’s huge! Huuuuuggge!”

Even without the collar, GT’s behavior is excellent. When we set the bowl down and open the cage door, he strolls out, sits down, and starts eating.
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When he’s done, he calmly stands up and walks back into the cage, making no attempt to go explore the garage.

Admittedly, his table manners leave something to be desired.
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He shows a regrettable tendency to try to climb into the bowl, and there’s a certain amount of gooshy spray.

But since he’s getting regular meals with table service for, as best we can tell, the first time in his life, we’d be willing to pardon even more egregious violations of etiquette.

We remain convinced that he’s civilizable. (hint, hint)

Moving on.

The biggest side effect of having GT living in the garage is that we can’t put the car in there. But that’s turned out to be interesting. Among other things, it’s given us an opportunity to meet some new neighbors.
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This leafhopper was sitting on the side of the car when we went outside Monday morning. Since I was about to drive Maggie to BART, we suggested that she might be happier with a different perch, but she was adamant in her refusal to relocate.

Since the drive to BART is in the same direction as the morning commute, our trip down the freeway never exceeded thirty mph. Ms. Leafhopper took it in stride. Maggie checked when she got out of the car, and our passenger was still perched on the side of rear panel, and still showed no inclination to leave.

So I shrugged and drove home. That’s against the commute, so I was able to drive at full freeway speeds. After I parked, I checked on Ms. Leafhopper.
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She had moved, yes, but only a few inches, into a spot where she could get a better grip. And, while I’m no expert on Cicadellidae facial expressions, I’m fairly sure she’s showing the equivalent of a manic grin: “Man, what a rush!”

Tuesday morning, there were three leafhoppers on the car. Clearly, we’ve got the hottest thrill ride in the neighborhood.