Unfolding Before Your Eyes

The future is here–or will be on April 26–and it ain’t cheap.

Unless someone sneaks out a surprise, two months from now, Samsung will have the first folding phone commercially available in the US: the Galaxy Fold.

Though that’s actually a bit of a misnomer. When the device is folded, it looks like a fairly standard high-end phone, albeit one with an unusually narrow screen (1960×840) and really, really wide bezels.

Unfold it and it’s not really a phone anymore. The phone screen winds up on the back (here’s hoping they disable that screen when the device is unfolded) and you get a front-facing seven-inch tablet with a more-than-decent 2152×1536 resolution.

So what do you call it? Ars is saying “phone-tablet hybrid” but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Phablet is already in use and tablone isn’t very inspiring–and it sounds too much like Toblerone.

There’s been a lot of speculation about how well Android is going to handle folding screens, but largely in the context of a screen that folds into a different size and shape. In this case, you’re either using one screen or the other with no on-the-fly reconfiguration. Though, to be fair, it sounds like there’s some communication between screens. That’s a slightly different situation, however, and one that developers already know something about.

Frankly, I can’t see this gaining much traction, even among the early adopters who need every new thing that comes along. It looks prone to breakage (remember Apple’s butterfly keyboard?) and, because the folding screen can’t have a glass cover, likely to scratch easily.

Personally, I think a seven-inch tablet is exactly the right size, but by and large, the market doesn’t agree with me. Fans of eight to ten inch tablets are going to find the Fold’s tablet mode cramped, especially if they try to multitask. Samsung is saying you can display three apps at once, but how large are they going to be when they’ve divvied up those seven inches? I can’t be the only person who’s worried that text will be either too small to read or too large to fit well on a phone-optimized UI.

More important, however, is the price tag. At a whisker short of $2000, there aren’t a whole of people who’ll pick one up on impulse. And, as the iPhone X has shown, even Apple is having trouble convincing the general public to shell out four figures for a phone, no matter how large its screen may be.

When you can pick up a good phone and decent tablet for half the price of the Fold, two grand is going to be a hard sell. That folding screen has to deliver some solid value as a display or it’s going to come off as a gimmick.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of a folding display. A tablet I could legitimately fold up and tuck in a pocket sounds like a winning idea.

I just don’t think the Galaxy Fold is the right implementation. Even if I had $2000 to spend on a phone or table right now (I don’t), I’d sit back and see what other phone makers come up with. And I suspect a big chunk of Samsung’s potential market will too.

Follow the Leader

Can we talk about self-driving cars again? Oh, good. Thanks.

It occurred to me the other day that the public press (as opposed to the technical press) isn’t paying much attention to one particular aspect of autonomous vehicles: interoperation.

Every article I’ve seen that touches on the subject makes mention of emerging standards and the need for inter-vehicle communication, but they all seem to assume that having standards is the solution to all the potential problems.

Believe me, it ain’t. For one thing, there’s the ever-popular catchphrase “the great thing about standards is that there are so many of them”. Just because a car implements a particular standard, that doesn’t mean it implements every standard. And which version of the standard? They do evolve as the technology changes. Will a car that’s compliant with version 1.2 of the car standard for signaling a left turn recognize the intention of the oncoming truck that’s still using version 1.1 of the truck standard?

Lest you think I’m exaggerating the problem, consider the rules (not a standard, but similar in intent and function) for the noise-making apparatus in electric vehicles. (I talked about it several years ago.) That one document runs to 370 pages. Do you really think there are no errors that will require updates? Or a significant amendment to cover cars made in other countries? Or a missing subsection for retrofitting the technology to older electric cars released before the rules were finalized?

And, speaking of those 370 pages, that brings us to the second problem. Even assuming the best will in the world, no spec is ever totally unambiguous. Consider web browsers. Remember back around the turn of the century, when we had Internet Explorer, Netscape, and AOL’s customized versions of IE? All theoretically compliant with web standards, all delivering different user experiences–rendering pages slightly–or extremely–differently.

Nor do they do anything to prevent developers from introducing non-standard extensions. Do we really want some latter-day Netscape-wannabe from coming up with an automotive blink tag while their competitors over at Microsoft-like Motors are pushing their equivalent of the scrolling marquee tag?

But I digress slightly.

What started this train of thought was wondering how autonomous vehicle developers are going to handle weird, one-off situations. We know some of them are working up plans for turning control over to remote drivers (like OnStar on steroids). But how well is that going to work at 60 MPH?

Case in point: The Richmond-San Rafael has a part-time lane. For most of the day, it’s actually the shoulder on the eastbound part of the bridge. But during the afternoon rush hour, it becomes a traffic lane. There are lights to signal when it’s open to traffic–and the open hours are scheduled–but it can be taken out of service when necessary. That means developers can’t count on programming open times. Cars may or may not be able to read the signal lights. Maybe there’s a standard compliant (for some standard or other) radio signal as well.

But the critical point here is that the lane markings are, well, weird. There’s a diagonal stripe that cuts across the lane; when the lane is open, drivers are expected to ignore the line, but at other times, they’re supposed to follow it in merging into the next lane over.

How is the car supposed to know when to follow the line? (Come to think of it, how do current lane assist technologies handle that stretch of road?) How are the programmers prioritizing lane markings versus other signals?

Maybe, I thought, in ambiguous situations, the rule could be “follow the car in front of you”. That could work. Sooner or later, the chain of cars deferring to the next one forward will reach a human-driven car which can resolve the conflict. Hopefully that driver is experienced enough to get it right and neither drunk nor distracted by their cell phone.

But how are the cars going to know if the car in front of them is trustworthy–i.e. is following the same “follow the car in front of me” rule? Is your Toyota going to trust that Ford in front of it? Or will it only follow other Japanese manufactured vehicles? Maybe the standard can include a “I’m following the car in front of me” signal. But what if the signal changes in version 2.2a of the specification?

There’s a classic short story* in which cars and trucks have evolved from trains. Each manufacturer’s vehicles require a different shape of track and a different width between tracks. Some are nearly compatible, able to use a competitor’s tracks under certain special circumstances. As you might imagine, the roads are a mess, with multiple tracks on every street, except where a city has signed an exclusive deal with one manufacturer.

* Whose title and author currently escape me, darn it. If you recognize it, please let me know in the comments.

The story is an allegory on the early personal computer industry with its plethora of competing standards and almost-compatible hardware, but I can’t help wondering if we’re about to see it play out in real life on our roads.

All Hail!

Who’s that curled up all cozy on the mushroom?
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Why it’s Lefty!
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Care to share a few words with your fans, Lefty?
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Clearly, he’s got nothing printable to say…

Seriously, though, this is a major step forward. Sure, he was uneasy, not to mention annoyed at being awakened. But nevertheless, he stayed put long enough for me to stick my phone through the barely opened door and take several pictures.

All part of the evolution of his attitude. He still hides under the futon when we come into the room, but he stays much closer to the edge, and he’ll actually come out into the room to get treats.

He’s quite the elegant fellow–though he’s still not happy about being watched–and he’s still keeping a safe distance, even when treats are involved. But his definition of a “safe distance” is getting smaller and smaller.

Hail the Formerly Feral Feline, who’s becoming increasingly “formerly” every day!

Room to Disagree

Reasonable people can disagree. (So can unreasonable people, but that tends to get too contentious for daily life. Anyway.)

Not everyone will agree with my assessment of the various proposals being passed back and forth between the MLB Players Association and the league management. But I’m willing to accept the validity of their views, and I’d hope they’ll do likewise in return.

Because, see, I’ve got a few proposals of my own that I think would go a long way to improving baseball. What do you think of these ideas?

    1. Expand the MLBPA to cover the minor leagues. Many of baseball’s problems can be traced to the minors. Currently, there’s no unified voice that can speak for players without major league contracts. As a result, the players are unquestionably underpaid–well below the federal minimum wage–with no ability to negotiate better deals and they have far fewer opportunities to develop themselves off the field. For all its faults, the MLBPA could give them that voice. And, as an added bonus, including minor league players in the collective bargaining agreements would give them a say in the deployment of new rules (i.e. their working conditions), something that’s currently the sole province of the major league owners.
    2. Expand the major leagues. Specifically, add one team each to the AL and NL. That would give sixteen teams in each league, greatly simplifying scheduling and potentially allow a return to the earlier practice of having everyone in interleague play at the same time, something that was popular with the fans; certainly more popular than the current arrangement which has one interleague game every day. For reasons I’ll discuss in the next point, I’d like to see the new teams in Vancouver and Las Vegas (although Portland would be an acceptable alternative).
    3. Realign. Sixteen teams across three divisions isn’t going to work. Better to have four divisions of four teams in each league. In order to maximize the value of geographic rivalries, and better balance the amount each team must travel over the course of the season, I’d suggest that the divisions break from the current time zone orientation and go to the compass points instead:
      AL East NL East
      Baltimore Washington
      Boston Philadelphia
      NY Yankees NY Mets
      Toronto Pittsburgh
      AL West NL West
      Anaheim Los Angeles
      Vancouver (or Portland) Arizona
      Oakland San Francisco
      Seattle San Diego
      AL South NL South
      Texas Atlanta
      Houston Las Vegas
      Kansas City St. Louis
      Miami Tampa
      AL North NL North
      Chicago Sox Chicago Cubs
      Cleveland Cincinnati
      Detroit Colorado
      Minnesota Milwaukee

      Vancouver would not only give a local rival for Seattle, but also a Canadian cross-country rival to the Blue Jays, who’ve had the Land of the Maple Leaf to themselves since the Expos abandoned Montreal. Portland, on the other hand, would mean even less travel for the AL West teams, while still providing the Mariners with local arch-villains. That’s certainly working well in soccer, where Portland and Seattle have one of the league’s great rivalries.

      Las Vegas, of course, is a natural, given their current expansionistic ways in sports. Perhaps they’re a little too far west for maximum convenience in the South–and there are a few other geographical compromises in my proposed alignments–but certainly there’s nothing worse than the current arrangement, which has two Texas teams in the AL West.

    4. Shorten the season. Not much. Just enough to sneak a few more rest days into the calendar. Along with the above expansion and realignment, schedules could break down like this:
      • 13 games against each division rival
      • 5 games against each of the other teams in their league
      • 5 games against each team in the same division of the opposite league (i.e. AL North vs. NL North)
      • 3 games against each of the other other-league teams (home one season, on the road the next so we don’t have one game road trips)

      That would be 155 games, hearkening back to the pre-expansion 154-game season. With proper timing, and perhaps an occasional double-header, that could allow for six or seven more days off scattered throughout the year.

Agree? Disagree? Can we at least be reasonable?

Spring Is About to Spring

Spring isn’t quite here yet, but it’s less than two weeks away.

Oh, sure, the Vernal Equinox isn’t until March 20, but I’m talking about the start of baseball. The real beginning of Spring. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the day of the first Spring Training game. Not when players begin reporting–which was Sunday, by the way–because unless you’re in Arizona or Florida you can’t take part, not even electronically. Nobody broadcasts pitchers stretching their arms, position players taking fielding practice, or batters in the cage.

Nor is it when the first official games are played, because that’s the start of Summer. “Boys of Summer,” right? Gotta sneak Spring in there somewhere. It’s particularly bad this year, with the Mariners and As starting the season in Tokyo. That’s at some ridiculous hour the night of March 19 or morning of March 20, depending on your time zone. Okay, it aligns with the astronomical calendar, but so what? This is religion, not science.

Opening Day for everyone else is March 28, by the way. Which means Spring is going to be only thirty-five days long. But what can you do?

Anyway, yeah, Spring starts with a radio-only game between the Mariners and As on February 21. (The first televised game is the next day, also a Mariners/As contest.) Close enough that we should start seeing the prognosticators popping their heads out of their holes and looking for their shadows any day now.

Too early for me to make any predictions. As usual, I’ll hold mine until everyone’s played an official game. But to tide us through these last ten days, how about a survey of the proposed rule changes MLB and the MLB Players Association have blessed us with this year?

Tweaking the size of the roster. Count me as wholeheartedly in favor of this one. Increasing the number of active players from twenty-five to twenty-six will give teams more flexibility in arranging their lineups, and combining it with a twelve-pitcher limit will ensure that there are enough position players to allow for late game substitutions and pinch hitting. Add in the reduction of September rosters from forty to twenty-eight, and you’ve got a recipe for more consistent play. I’m in.

Fewer mound visits. Shrug. Was anyone penalized for too many mound visits last season? I sure don’t remember it happening. The proposal is to drop the limit from six to three by 2020. I don’t see it making much of a difference.

Bringing the pitch clock to the majors. I’m already on the record as being okay with this one. I haven’t seen any ill effects on the game in the minors, where it’s been in use for several years. I gather the current thought for the major league level is to only use the clock when the bases are empty, which would certainly reduce its impact–no hurried pitches going wild and allowing a runner to score from third. Nothing here compels me to change my position.

Changing the draft to discourage tanking. Um. No. Does anyone really think the Orioles intentionally lost 115 games last year to improve their draft position? Maybe there was some jockeying for the second and third picks. Maybe. But penalizing teams for losing seems more likely to hurt unlucky or injury-prone teams than to discourage teams from punting a couple of games.

The three-batter minimum. Nope, not this one either. All it takes is a glance at football to see why this is a bad idea. Remember when football had a thirty-second injury timeout? There’s a reason the “injury” part got dropped. Why force players to fake an injury to get out of the game? Besides, limiting the number of pitchers should cut down on late game pitching changes, especially with the increase in the use of “openers”. This one feels too much like fiddling for the sake of fiddling.

A complete ban on trades after the All-Star Break. Oh, hell no! Sure, it can be frustrating when your favorite player is traded on July 31, bringing a measly return of minor league players and forcing you to give up on the playoffs. But blocking the trade isn’t going to make your team any better–they’ve already lost enough games that management has given up on the season. The idea goes against roster flexibility and might even encourage tanking. Send this idea to sleep with the fishies.

Lowering or moving the pitching mound. Lower it? Sure. Wouldn’t be the first time, and if it does increase offense, it’ll make games that much more exciting for the casual fan. I wouldn’t want to see the mound eliminated entirely–Walter Johnson, anybody?–but shave it down from ten inches to seven or eight? Not gonna bother me a bit. On the other hand, I’m firmly against moving the mound further away from the plate. Not only would it invalidate 125 years of pitching records, but it would force pitchers to throw harder, risking more arm injuries. And it would mess with hitters’ timing, something they’ve spent their entire lives tuning. My gut says moving the mound back would be more likely to decrease offense than increase it, at least for the first decade or so while we wait for players who’ve played the game since high school with the mound at the new distance. Not to mention that moving the mound would leave the US out of sync with the rest of the world, who are unlikely to want to tamper with that bit of tradition just because MLB has.

Introduce the DH to the NL. I like having the DH limited to the American League. I think it’s good to shake up coaches and players by forcing them to make a strategic change for interleague games. But if this proposal goes through, I won’t cry. Be honest here, National League fans: once you get past “because it’s always been done this way,” the argument against the designated hitter boils down to a love of the “NL style” with its emphasis on bunts and sacrifices. Yes, but. The ninth batter is still (usually) going to be the weakest hitter in the lineup. Nothing says you can’t make him bunt or hit for the sacrifice, just like you do with the pitcher today. Heck, under the AL’s current rules, you can forgo the DH and let the pitcher hit. I’ve even seen it suggested that you could declare the pitcher to be the DH, thus letting him hit for himself and potentially stay in the game to hit when you bring in a reliever. I’m not certain that’s a legitimate interpretation of the rule, but I’d love to see it happen. That said, NL teams generally switch to an AL-style offense when playing in AL parks, which suggests that sacrificing and bunting aren’t winning strategies. Why would you want to see your team playing to lose? (Are we back to the tanking discussion again?)

It doesn’t look like any of these changes are going to be introduced this season. But, as the saying goes, just wait until next year!

Cuddle Buddies

Just a brief post today, for reasons.

But I had promised to try and post video of Lefty and Rufus indulging in mutual grooming. And I do keep my promises.

One has to admire Rufus’ patience with his companion.

The Fellows are a bit distant, I’m afraid. No zoom on the camera. So, to make up for that, here’s a snippet of them sharing the mushroom condo, at the other end of the camera’s range.

For some value of “sharing” anyway.

Littering

Those of you who don’t have cats can probably skip this post. Unless you like theoretical problems in waste disposal, you’re probably better off leaving this one to those with practical experience.

As you might expect, with nine cats–counting MM–and eight litter boxes, we go through a lot of litter.

The catio box gets the old standby, clay-based litter. Not because it’s cheap, although it is, but because the box and the storage cabinet are outside. See, the clay stuff comes in a plastic jug, which keeps it dry even in wet weather. Handy. It clumps fairly well, making scooping the box simpler, and most importantly, MM is comfortable using it.

Matters aren’t so clear-cut indoors.

We used to use corn-based litter, either World’s Best or Pet Food Express’ house brand equivalent. It has advantages over clay. It clumps better and produces less dust.

On the down side, it’s not so great on odor control–a major consideration for us–though no worse than clay. And it’s getting more expensive and harder to find. WB raised its prices recently, and the PFE “Smart Litter” has vanished from the stores.

One might have expected the opposite, given what the current trade war with China has done to the price and availability of corn. But history shows that logic bears only a passing relationship to economics.

But I digress.

Lately we’ve been trying Nature’s Miracle. It’s also corn-based, though the packaging emphasizes that it uses corn cobs, rather than dried kernels. It’s loaded with “bioenzymes” (type not specified) and judging by the scent, a certain amount of evergreen wood.

The piney scent does help with odor control. The biggest problem with the NM is that the particles are smaller than the other varieties we’ve tried. Smaller pieces means more mobility, i.e. more litter migrating out of the box. That’s annoying but manageable: the stuff does vacuum up easily. What makes it a problem is that the litter doesn’t clump well–or rather, the clumps tend to fall apart during scooping. So used litter accumulates in the box, migrates out of the box, and makes the nearby floor unpleasant for humans and felines.

We’ve had some luck mixing litters. Get the proportions right and you wind up with the best of both worlds: good clumping and good odor control. Unfortunately, figuring out the correct ratio and thoroughly mixing the hybrid litter are non-trivial problems. Get the balance wrong or fail to properly integrate the two types, and you get non-clumping litter that doesn’t do diddly to suppress odors.

We can’t be the only people facing this dilemma.

Any feline caretakers out there who’d like to offer advice? We’d love to hear what varieties of litter work well or what tricks you use to improve the performance of what comes out of the bag.

Not So Super

If you’ve come here expecting to see my annual run-down of the Super Bowl commercials and the obligatory snide comments about the game itself, my apologies.

See, I didn’t watch the game this year.

Not that I’m feeling smug about it or anything. In truth, I had been planning to watch. As I said last year, “I wanted to see the Patriots lose.” That was just as true this year–and I’m deeply disappointed in the Rams.

I can feel mildly virtuous for doing my part to reduce the NFL’s viewership numbers, and thus hurt their potential revenue from next year’s game. But only mildly, because I didn’t choose to abstain. But watching at work would have been a non-starter.

Of course, I did get paid to not watch the Super Bowl. That’s a darn sweet deal.

I did go looking for a recording of the halftime show. I could claim it was because I wanted to see if there was anything in it to justify all the various controversies. (Spoiler: nope. Topless singers and censored rap lyrics aren’t going to do the job.) Really, though, it was because I haven’t missed once yet this century and I wanted to keep my record intact. In retrospect, I needn’t have bothered. My life is not enriched. It wasn’t quite as much of a snoozefest as last year’s Justin Timberlake effort, but it’ll be hard for anyone to top (bottom?) Justin.

What? Oh. For those of you reading this overseas, no matter what the NFL wants you to think, Super Bowl Sunday isn’t a federal holiday. No mail delivery, but then, there normally isn’t on Sundays. And those of us who had to work were on our usual Sunday schedules.

But since we’re on the subject of holidays, perhaps you’ve heard that the “For the People Act” bill that Democrats are pushing in the House includes a provision to make Election Day a federal holiday? The intent is to make it easier for people to get to the polls.

Good idea, bad implementation.

Because, to be blunt, the kind of businesses that don’t close on holidays are exactly the ones that employ the people who find it hardest to take the time to cast a ballot: low-income workers, usually earning minimum wage, who live in neighborhoods where polling sites are routinely closed (chiefly by Republicans, naturally). Hotels, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores aren’t going to close. Neither, for that matter, are hospitals, police and fire departments, or airports.

Take another swing at it, Congresscritters. Concentrate on measures that directly make it easier to vote: longer voting hours (or extended voting periods), mail-in ballots, streamlined registration processes. That sort of thing.

If you really feel the need to establish a new holiday, there is that whole Super Bowl thing–I wouldn’t mind getting time-and-a-half for not watching the game. Just be aware that America’s other religions will expect the same treatment. I’ll be looking forward to my World Series Week this October.

How to Handle Change

Some people never change.

Take MM, for example.
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This is not a cat who’s happy to see me. Even though I’d just filled her food bowl, exactly as Maggie and I have done for the past seven months or so. Cleaning the litter box is often performed with a soundtrack of hisses.

She’s mellowed enough to take cover in one of the shelters when it’s particularly wet or cold, but that’s not much a shift.

Then there are those who try something new, give it up, and come back to it.
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After an extended period of terrestrialism–completely voluntary, I assure you–Sachiko has resumed her acrobatic ways.

It’s probably a misperception, but I tend to believe she’s spending more time balanced on one of the banisters than on the ground.

We’re hoping it’s a phase. Not that we begrudge her indulgence of her aerialist tendencies, but the truth is, she’s not as svelte as she was the last time around, and we’re concerned about the ramifications of a misstep.

And then there are those who revel in change.
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After something of a slow start, Lefty seems to be turning into quite the fan of indoor living. He adjusted to a mixed gooshy/krunchie diet rather quickly and picked up the art of the litter box faster than MM. After that, though, progress was slow for several months.

But ever since we let him out of the cage, he’s been enthusiastically trying out new things. As in the picture above, he’s finding great joy in nesting in the blankets on the futon. Curiously, however, he’s still not at all interested in having a cushion in any of his caves–we often find one or another condo pillow in the middle of the floor. (Not yet available: video of Lefty and Rufus sharing the futon and exchanging ear-washings. Hopefully I can pull it off the camera in time for next week’s post.)

And, speaking of the middle of the floor, the other thing we often find there is Lefty himself. Sometimes by himself, keeping a watchful eye (sorry) on the activity outside the room, but more often in company with his buddy Rufus.
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