Hanging Around

A couple of cameo appearances today. Perhaps you recall Beth and Eric’s feline overlords, Patience and Fortitude?

They’re no longer kittens, but they’re still quite the cuties.

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“I haz a nest.” –Forti

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“Oh, yeah? Well I haz a nest too, and I haz a kyute.” –Patti

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“Oy, haz I gots a dubious about the both of youse.” –Sachiko.  (Why yes, we are corrupting her language. Isn’t that what one is supposed to do to one’s kids?)

Now Listening

Yes, I know I’m a couple of years late on this one, but I’ve got an excuse.

I’m talking about the “Now Playing” feature on Pixel phones.

For those of you who don’t have Pixels, “Now Playing” runs in the background and identifies music playing nearby. When the phone is locked, it will display titles and performers on the lock screen.

Sure, it’s a minor feature, but it’s got its uses–which is part of the problem. Not all of those uses are necessarily for the good of the phone’s owner. But I’ll get back to that.

“But, wait,” someone out there is undoubtedly saying, “hasn’t Casey had a Pixel for over a year? Why’s he only now getting around to ‘Now Playing’?”

Simple: Until a few weeks ago, I kept the phone in a belt pouch. It couldn’t hear a thing unless I took it out. However, I’ve now switched to a phone holster-and-case combination for convenience and protection. Now “Now Playing” can hear much better.

And I’m starting to wonder about the ethics of feature.

A quick digression: According to Google, they don’t see any. The phone periodically downloads a database of songs, all recognition is done on the device, and the history is only stored locally.

The database comes from Google Play Music–it’s based primarily on what tracks are being played there. This naturally means that “Now Playing” can only recognize popular music (for some values of “popular”). (According to one source, the database is also tuned to accommodate regional preferences, based on where the phone was purchased.)

The history on my phone suggests that to be an accurate description. Many of the songs I hear on the radio in the car show up on the list, as does much of the music that other people are playing at work.

A few anime opening and closing credit songs show up. But only for very popular shows; nothing from the current season. Snippets of background music from TV shows turn up in the history.

My tastes in radio tend toward oldies channels. Not much swing shows up in my “Now Playing” history. Most of the music from the 70s and 80s does show up–but primarily the tracks that charted at some point. Fringe material, not so much. Case in point: the Dark Wave show on SiriusXM features “goth, post-punk, and industrial”. Not a single track from last week’s episode made it onto my phone. (Correction on deeper inspection: a few show up in misidentified form.)

I’m inclined to think the failures are a good thing. To some extent, some inaccuracy improves the security of the system.

Let’s face it: how willing are you to believe Google doesn’t have access to your history? Because any sort of halfway competent Big Data miner could match up that history with radio station playlists, Muzak tracklists, and other data to create a profile of your musical tastes and physical movement, especially when paired with data from Maps. Whether that would give an accurate impression of your other tastes is a matter of opinion, but how many advertisers would be willing to buy that information? Quite a few, I’d bet.

Nor does Google make it easy to clean up the history. Once you find it–buried in Settings, not in an app–you can delete individual tracks or wipe the entire history. But there’s no way to search and remove those embarrassing low points. Want to get rid of last month’s early Madonna binge? You’ll have to do it one song at a time or nuke the whole historical record.

No provision for a timed delete (“On the first of the month, delete everything older than two months.”) Not even “Wipe the entire history once a month.”

And don’t forget: it’s always listening. Well, okay, popping in once a minute or so. I imagine certain political figures would love to get their hands on a list of people whose phones are hearing a lot of Latin pop. There are all sorts of interesting, non-advertising ways to use that kind of data.

Come to think of it, Google must know at least which phones are pulling down track databases from, let’s call them “countries of interest”. Would that be data that DHS could requisition, either legally or covertly? They’d certainly find uses for it.

Sure, I’m a bit paranoid. These days that’s a survival trait.

Not paranoid enough to turn off “Now Playing”. Not yet, anyway.

Bed Riding

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Why, yes, that is Lefty on the bed.

He’s become quite brave and exploratory of late. He has several times joined the scrum in the kitchen, jostling for a chance to lick the gooshy fud cans.

And he’s decided the bed is a good place to hang out in the evening.
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I don’t think he’s quite figured out that the lumps under the covers that he leans against are my legs, but he’s quite happy to sprawl across them.

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Or even snuggle between them. And purr.

It’s not a very audible purr. Not yet, anyway. But I can unquestionably feel it vibrating through my shins and down to my phalanges.

Nor, and let’s be quite clear about this, does he limit his visits to times when I’m alone in bed.

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Granted, the other cats have a tendency to depart when Lefty arrives. But that has more to do with his uncertainty about how to establish his position on the totem pole than anything else. He’s not sure if he should be licking ears, sniffing rears, or instilling fears. And so he swings rapidly from one approach to another. Once he settles into a consistent form of interaction, I expect matters to settle nicely.

And the more time he spends with the rest of the crew, the faster that settling will take place. Or so I presume. One can but hope.

Regardless, he does look good on the bed–that black fur against the red blanket is very attractive, as Yuki knows well–and he seems to be an excellent furry hot water bottle.

Not Quite Instant

Maggie and I have succumbed.

Not to the lure of another cat. Please don’t tempt us with the thought.

No, what we’ve given in to is the latest kitchen fad. Maybe not the latest-latest, but at least the latest long-lived.

We held out against the sous vide apocalypse, but we’ve accepted the Instant Pot into our lives (and our kitchen).

Seriously, given how often we use our slow cooker, the Instant Pot was a no brainer. A six quart IP takes up about the same amount of counter space as our three quart crockpot–maybe even a bit less–and that’s important in our one-and-a-half-butt kitchen.

Is it going to revolutionize our existence? Not likely. But that extra elbow room from the doubled capacity will be very nice when we do a fauxtisserie chicken. Might even be able to do it faster. Must experiment one of these days.

Though it may be a while. We’re still learning its quirks. Heck, we’ve only used it three times so far.

Braising a hunk of cow big enough for two dinners in ninety minutes–including heat-up time and extra time for the potatoes–was nice. More work involved than in using the oven, but the savings in time and electricity make up for a lot.

The pasta dish turned out well. I’m not certain we’ll do that regularly–for one thing, it actually took longer than the traditional stovetop approach–but I’ll admit that not having to drain the pasta was nice.

The Instant Pot “one dish meal” method is not the way to go if you’re looking for a bowl of sauce with noodles swimming in it. The goal seems to be to balance the ingredients so the liquid from the sauce goes into the pasta, leaving the sauce solids bonded to the outside of the noodles. Tasty (though we’ll definitely tweak the recipe next time–more oregano at the very least) if a bit disconcerting at first.

And it does function well as a crockpot. We did chili as our first slow cook experiment. Yes, there are plenty of quick chili recipes for the Instant Pot out there and we’ll probably try some eventually. But for this test we wanted to see how it handled a known recipe.

It seems as though Low Heat is a bit lower than our crockpot’s “Lo” setting. The onions were a bit crunchier than we expected, and the meat not quite as soft was we’re used to. It’s probably as well that we used thin fajita-cut meat instead of cubes. Next time we’ll set the pot on Medium, and that should improve matters.

Our slow cooker let us set a timer–cook for some amount of time, then either turn off or, if it was on “Hi”, switch to “Lo”. We never used it. The thought of coming home to either room-temperature food or excessively-cooked food didn’t appeal. The Instant Pot, on the other hand, can be set to switch over to a “keep warm” setting after the cooking time runs out. That might just be worth a good chunk of the admission price right there.

Speaking of warming things, I hadn’t realized just how many people believe microwave ovens are tools of the Devil.

Okay, I exaggerate slightly. But only slightly. I started researching how to reheat the chili in the Instant Pot, instead of using the oven as we normally do. Nearly every site I read warned about the unspecified health hazards of microwaves–and especially reheating food in one–though none actually stated what the risks are. I conclude they’re the same risks one runs by not eating “organic” foods.

Several sites said–and I’m not paraphrasing–“Thank God for my Instant Pot!” I’m not sure how much Hephaestus had to do with the creation of the Instant Pot, but I’m sure he appreciates their gratitude. Or maybe they were addressing Hestia–a goddess of the hearth might be a more appropriate vessel for cooking-related thanks.

But I digress.

Are there Instant Pot recipes we’re not going to try? Absolutely.

As a typical example, consider lasagna. I admire the dedication and determination of all the people who’ve created Instant Pot lasagna recipes, there’s no way I’m going to try them. Every one I’ve seen requires even more effort than traditional oven-based recipes do, most of them take longer, and a significant percentage call for finishing the cooking in the oven. Why bother?

But our initial experiments with Instant Potting (Instant Pottery would be something else, I think) have been successful enough to encourage us. I don’t think this will be the sort of kitchen gadget that gets used once or twice, then shoved in a drawer, never to be seen again.

And, as soon as the weather cools off a bit further, I intend to see how the Instant Pot handles our favorite hot spiced cider recipe. I’ll report back if we figure out how to reduce the cooking time without compromising the flavor.

Winter Weather

We’ve had a bit of a cold snap of late. Overnight temperatures are dropping into the forties and upper thirties. Even though we keep it significantly warmer in the house, the weather does have a predictable effect on the cats.

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Kokoro and Kaja are roommates of long standing, and as roomies often do, they tend to hang around together. Kaja is definitely taking it to unusual levels of closeness, though. It’s rare to see Kokoro actually snuggle up with someone who doesn’t walk on two feet.

Rufus and Lefty, of course, have been sharing living space for a comparatively short time–less than a year! They’re still working out the parameters of closeness. Lefty is more inclined to exploration–Rufus seems to have a “been downstairs, didn’t like it” attitude–but they still spend most of their time in reasonable proximity.

Lefty likes to keep an eye on Rufus, to better protect him from those perplexing bipeds.

Even so, they’ve been unusually close the past few days.

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Cuteness reigns throughout the house.

Winter Again

And so another season has come to its end. My Mariners pajamas have been packed away until spring* and The Time of No Baseball is upon us.

* Well, they’re in the hamper, waiting for Saturday, our usual laundry day. No, this is not the first time they’ve been washed since April. What a disgusting thought. They generally go into the wash when the Ms get stuck on a losing streak. They got washed a lot this year.

But before we say goodbye to baseball (hasten, oh ye Winter Meetings) I need to give the scorecard on my playoff picks. As you probably guessed, it’s not a pretty picture. My goal is 70% accuracy; my historical mark is closer to 50%. This year did not showcase one of my better outings.

Three out of five in the American League isn’t bad. Typical, even. Thanks to the Yankees, Astros, and Athletics for making it happen.

Over in the National League, however, I barely avoided a shutout. Much as I hate to thank the Dodgers for anything, they were my only score.

That’s a measly 40% across both leagues.

Nor did I do much better once we got into the playoffs.

I correctly put the Yankees in the AL championship and called their failure to make the World Series. Other than that, though…

I predicted the World Series would run to six games. So much for that notion. I’m betting that nobody predicted a seven game series with every game won by the road team. Never happened before–in any sport–and may never happen again. That’s not a prediction, by the way, just a gut reaction.

Far from strolling past the Padres on their way to the championship, the Dodgers went down in flames against the Nationals.

Meanwhile, the Astros had the best record in baseball, allowing them to avoid the Wild Card game and my predicted embarrassing loss to the As. Didn’t help them in the World Series, though.

That–to use a traditional cliche–is why they play the games.

All in all, I might as well have been in Mudville.

Clearly, my methodology needs some work. I’ve considered delaying my predictions, thinking that picking the teams a week into the season would give me a longer baseline and improve my accuracy.

Had I done so this year, my AL picks would have been the Yankees, Twins, Mariners, Blue Jays, and Athletics. In the NL, I would have gone with the Dodgers, Phillies, Mets, Brewers, and Cardinals. That would have improved my overall score to 50%, yes. But I still would have picked the Dodgers to go all the way.

And, as you may have noticed, the Astros wouldn’t even have made the list.

Somehow that doesn’t seem like the kind of statistical breakthrough I’m looking for. I’ll have to consider my options more deeply.

At least I’ve got something to do during the next five months of baseball-free nights.

Who’s Keeping Watch?

Yes, the turkeys are still hanging around the neighborhood. If decades of Thanksgivings haven’t scared them off, a few coyotes aren’t going to do the trick.

And besides, there’s safety in numbers. That is, after all, why birds flock and herbivores herd.

And the turkeys have it down to a science: we’ll often see a few birds hanging out away from the main flock, keeping watch. Human miscreants do the same thing, assigning a member of the group to keep an eye out for the authorities while the rest of them get on with their anti-social activities.

That made this seem like just another day in the neighborhood.
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Until I looked again.
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No sign of the rest of the flock. No other lookouts.

This lone turkey seems awfully well positioned to watch our house. Was he casing the joint in preparation for a future prank? We have had mass turkey landings on the roof before (they’re not graceful fliers or landers; it sounds like a box of bowling balls being dropped on the shingles). And Halloween is coming: the traditional time for tricks.

Still, the bird was on public ground–or, more precisely, public tree–so it’s not like I could chase him away.

And it’s probably just as well I didn’t, because a little later, I found this charming little scene.
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That’s Watanuki, head of our internal security force, trying out a new role as an in-home recycling adviser.

I’m still not sure if ‘Nuki is having a mid-life crisis and trying out a new career or if he’s just bored and looking for new challenges.

But either way, it seems he’s more responsible than we thought. During this time of transition, he’s obviously contracted with the turkeys to keep a skywatch on the house.

Now that’s security done right.

A Singletasker That Works

Last time I wrote about my daily-use tech tools, I praised my Surface Go as–among other things–“far more capable than I expected” and noted that “it works well as a tablet-slash-ebook-reader”.

I still stand by those remarks, but I have uncovered a significant flaw in the Go. A flaw not unique to that device, by the way, but endemic to gadgets.

There’s only one of it.

I’d frequently settle down on the bed to read for a while and discover I’d left the Go upstairs, connected to the big monitors. Or go upstairs to do some pre-bedtime writing, only to realize I’d been reading in the living room and left the Go downstairs.

First world problem, sure. But labeling it that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

So, following the traditional pattern, I turned to technology to solve a problem created by technology.

My first attempt involved using a remote desktop app on my aging-but-much-beloved Nexus 9 tablet to bring the Go’s display to the bedroom while leaving the computer upstairs.

It worked. Mostly. Our Wi-Fi is a little spotty, so I’d sometimes lose signal mid-page and have to wait for it to reconnect before I could finish a sentence.

And, of course, the solution would be useless outside the house on those occasions when I needed reading material, but didn’t want to take the Go with me. Like, say, waiting in line for a BABYMETAL concert.

Enter the dedicated ebook reader.

Yeah, I know: it’s a singletasker. Usually not what I want. But in this case, it makes sense to go with a gadget that’s specifically designed to do one thing.

Sure, it might be nice to have a clock on it. And a calendar. And email. But keep layering on the “would be nice” features, and I’d be back in the “why not just buy another Go” headspace.

So I resolutely ignore the dedicated band of hackers who work diligently to push the gadget into realms it wasn’t designed for.

And it’s a very pleasant experience reading on this thing–a Kobo Clara HD, by the way.

It’s tiny. Remember stuffing a paperback into your back pocket? You can’t do that with a tablet. Not even a seven-inch model, much less a ten-inch iPad or Surface Go. The Clara fits perfectly. I’m careful not to sit down with it in my pocket, because it’s not going to take well to bending, but as a place to put it while I’m walking around, it’s delightfully retro.

Despite the reader’s size, the screen is shaped much better for reading than a smartphone screen. And the display is wonderfully sharp. I can crank the font down to the point where I get almost as much text onscreen as would fit on a paperback page without having to squint. Even without my glasses.

It’s not perfect. No gadget is. Loading books onto it can be slow. And there’s only one level of sorting when looking at the list of books on it. Sort by author, say, and series display in random order. Sort by series and multiple authors get mixed together. (Side note to Kobo’s developers: Please give us two-level sorting!)

But from the perspective of sheer convenience, the reader can’t be beat. It migrates from my work bag to the bedside table, so the Go can stay upstairs on days I’m not writing at work*. And on writing days, the Clara can stay home while the Go accompanies me to the library, the DMV, or wherever else I expect to be sitting for several hours.

* During meal breaks and before shifts, not while I’m on the clock. I’m not getting paid to write, unfortunately.

Even if you’re an avid reader, I’m not recommending you rush out and buy an ebook reader. A phone with a reasonably large screen or a smallish table may be all you need. But if you find yourself reaching for your multipurpose device, only to discover you left it somewhere else so it could do something important, maybe, just maybe, you should let a singletasker into your life.

Settling In

Lefty has definitely gotten past his fear of humans. He’s still cautious, yes, but not afraid.

Case in point: while I get the gooshy fud ready–mixing in the Fellows’ medications and adding water to keep their kidneys well-lubricated–Maggie goes upstairs to play with them and distribute a few treats.

Time was, Lefty would hide under the futon as soon as she approached, emerging only grudgingly after he was sure we’d both left the room.

Now? Not so much.
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Yep, that black blob at the top of the photo is Mr. Lefty himself, sprawled bonelessly on the carpet, waiting for Maggie to put down the camera and pick up the feathers-on-a-stick toy.

Can’t get much more settled in than eagerly awaiting a chance to attack a fake bird.