Post-Thanksgiving Turkey

The day after Thanksgiving, we had a…well, “invasion” implies conflict, and there wasn’t any. “Visitation” is a bit better, but it suggests an element of social interaction that was entirely lacking. Let’s go with “encounter”.

The day after Thanksgiving, we had an encounter with some of the neighbors.
06-1

They spent half an hour or so wandering around the backyard.
06-2

We almost never see them on our side of the fence, yet there they were.
06-3

Sachiko peeked out the window to see if there were any birds at the feeders and promptly hid behind my legs.

At that, she comported herself more bravely than the rest of the security force, who apparently all clocked out and went upstairs to have a little lie-down on the bed.

They left as quietly and peacefully as they had arrived.

Was it a celebration of having survived another Thanksgiving? A wake for those who didn’t? A plea for some leftover stuffing and gravy?

Perhaps it was all of these.

Cold Comfort

The good news is that by all reports, Black Friday is dying, at least as an in-person event. The bad news is that it’s likely to take stores at least a decade to give up on it. I predict we’ll start seeing major retailers go through a transitional period where they heavily promote a “Buy your goodies online and pick them up in the closest store” approach. That’ll last a few years before Black Friday moves entirely online and stores just run regular hours and prices.

Moving on.

Spoilers ahead, but the movie has been out for a couple of weeks.

We went to see Frozen II last night. It was a strange experience.

Because of our often unsynchronized work schedules, we often go to late night showings, so we’re used to small audiences, especially when it’s a film nominally aimed at children. But yesterday was the first time we were the only people in the theater.

It’s not an ideal situation.

Aside from the large screen, it feels too much like watching a movie in your own living room. The theater experience should be a shared one. Shared laughter, shared gasps of surprise, shared tears.

No, we didn’t miss the inevitable screaming child who needed to be taken outside. But we did miss the emotional amplification effect of having a couple of dozen other people around us.

That said, the movie itself was better than the movie-going experience. Whatever Disney may have said after Frozen became a massive hit, Frozen II was inevitable. It could have been a routine, by-the-numbers repeat of the original. So props for all concerned–especially screenwriter Jennifer Lee–for trying to do something a bit different and largely succeeding.

Where the original movie was largely future-focused (How will Arendelle survive?) the sequel looks backward (How did we get here?) It might have been better had the writers found some element of the first film to springboard the new story, rather than having to essentially retrocon the critical element–Iduna is Northuldran–into the structure. Doing it this way raises questions that weren’t answered: Why was it necessary to hide Iduna’s origins for so long? Why did they have to conceal the purpose of their ill-fated and fatal sea expedition?

But perhaps that’s too far down the rabbit hole for the film’s intended audience–or just too much to fit into a hundred-minute movie.

Viewed independently of the original, Frozen II holds up well. The story is consistent, doesn’t leave too many loose threads dangling*, and provides a satisfying–if predictable–ending.

* The biggest, naturally, being what the heck the Arendelle soldiers have been doing for the last thirty-plus years while trapped in the forest. Unless they’ve been exclusively focused on hiding and finding food, wouldn’t natural attrition, regardless of the ongoing war with the Northuldrans, have killed them all off long before Anna and Elsa showed up?

It’s not perfect. It spends a little too much time on character development at the expense of the plot–but that’s probably inevitable. The only character who could have been shorted in that respect is Kristoff*. And cutting his big growth scene would have killed what I considered the film’s best song.

* There’s an argument to be made for spending less time on Olaf’s development, especially since he doesn’t change as much as the other lead characters. But that’s necessary to position him as a contrast to the others. He’s a creature of magic and his existence is totally dependent on Elsa. In a sense, he’s a part of her (consider how his expectation that he’ll know everything and be totally confident when he gets older mirrors her uncertainties about her ability to lead the kingdom and do what’s best for her people).

I could pick some plot nits, small and large. Some of the anachronisms (most notably “I’m blocking out your calls” and “This is fine”) stand out far more than they should. If the soldiers believe Elsa is dead, wouldn’t they assume Anna was the new queen and follow her orders, rather than her having to convince them to help destroy the dam? Would the ending have been stronger if Elsa had failed to keep the flood from destroying Arendelle–would it have helped her reach the realization that she’s not the right person to be queen, and given Anna a path to build an actual ruler/subject relationship with her people by leading the reconstruction, rather than just trading on her family’s somewhat inexplicable popularity?

But again, maybe I’m thinking in terms of a different audience. And, nits and all, Frozen II does work.

Except, largely, for the songs. I agree completely with other critics who have said the new movie doesn’t have a real blockbuster song like “Let It Go”. “Show Yourself” and “Into the Unknown” try, but perhaps too hard.

“Lost in the Woods” comes off better, IMNSHO, because it’s not trying to be the big winner. It succeeds in its mission: showing Kristoff’s coming to terms with his growing recognition that Anna is always going to be–arguably–more focused on her sister than on him. And the song’s presentation within the film, with its echos of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t hurt any either.

Bottom line: Frozen II is probably the best sequel to Frozen we could have gotten. If you’re a fan, you’ve already seen it, and I doubt you were disappointed. And if you aren’t a fan, but were dragged out to see it, I doubt you’ll want that hour and a half back.

Census

Why, yes, my schedule is a bit confused this week. What gave me away?

Here’s Friday’s post, only twenty-four hours late.

Four fine, feline fellows.

30-1

Okay, three and a half–that’s Yuki’s hindquarters off to the right there.

(To be totally honest, there were actually five cats present, but I couldn’t frame a picture that included Kokoro at the bottom of the stairs while still keeping Lefty even partially visible. Perhaps it’s just as well. She would indignantly deny being a “fellow”.)

Still Wrong

Now it’s personal.

I haven’t said anything about Black Friday and the rest of the post-Thanksgiving (and pre-Thanksgiving) shopping nonsense since, what, 2016? (Nope, just checked. It was 2015.)

Nothing’s changed for the better. And in one giant step in the wrong direction, I’m participating in the madness. Not, I hasten to say, as a shopper, but rather as a victimseller.

Let me emphasize that this is not an invitation to play guessing games about my current employer. As I said when I started the job, I want to keep a separation between my personal and paid opinions. That’s still true.

That said, yes, I am required to work tomorrow. From late afternoon into the wee hours when any rational person and most irrational ones would be in bed*. And then I’ll need to be back at work on Friday at roughly the usual time.

* Not necessarily asleep, mind you, but in bed. Those late night reading marathons are an essential part of my mental health regime, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who finds that to be the case.

Fortunately–something to be thankful for–I don’t have to work today. Maqgie, regrettably, is working, but at least it’s telecommuting. So she, the fuzzies, and I are celebrating Turkey Day a bit early. (And yes, I do have deep sympathy for my cow-orkers who are working today. They will, one and all, be working tomorrow as well.)

The bird is in the oven. We’re going to try doing the mashed potatoes in the Instant Pot when the appointed hour arrives, and the other essential sides are prepped and ready.

It won’t be the peaceful celebration of sloth and indolence we normally engage in, but traditions do need to change to stay relevant.

And, let’s face it, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all of their ilk are among the traditions that badly need to have some work done. Maybe not a full facelift, but a nip here and a tuck there would work wonders.

Step One, unquestionably, is to get Black Friday the hell out of Thursday. It’s even in the name! “Black Friday“. Not “Black Thursday Night”.

You want to start the sale at midnight? Fine. Keep the store open for twenty-four hours? Abi gezunt. At least let your employees spend the day that everyone else has off with their families. Happy, rested employees are far better suited to face Friday’s onslaught and sell more merchandise.

Remember, if everyone does it, nobody’s market share is affected.

Multiple Responsibilities

Sachiko, as I’ve said before, is the junior member of our home security force. The Ooki Brothers, Watanuki and Yuki, concentrate on external security, alerting us to intruders in the back yard. Sachiko’s remit is internal.

She can often be found on the landing halfway up the stairs. The security station there gives her a clear view of the upstairs hallway…
22-1

and the foyer downstairs.
22-2

As the youngest member of the security team, she’s also been given responsibility for our digital security. Here, for example, you can see her watching over Maggie’s abandoned laptop. Sachiko will guard it against theft, accidental damage, or unauthorized posts about lesser species, especially dogs, squirrels, and raccoons.
22-3

Note, by the way, the mouse carefully positioned in front of her. Mice are, of course, a prey species. Sachiko her secondary role as Gravity’s Little Helper just as seriously as her other security duties. She’s more than happy to defenstrate any rodents she finds in the vicinity of valuable electronics.

SAST 15

Some days a Short Attention Span Theater is the only option.

The West Coast Ragtime Festival is this weekend. Not much notice, I realize, but stuff happened. Nothing worthy of a story, unfortunately.

It looks like a good group of performers are on the schedule this year. There are several young players, and there are plenty of new faces among the adult performers I’m already familiar with.

The usual caveats about the unexpected apply, including the expected unexpected–this is California, Home of the Majestic PG&E Planned Power Outage and the Diabolical Unplanned Forest Fire–but I expect to be there all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday.

If you’re in the Sacramento area, drop by and say hello. Or, better yet, drop by and listen to some good music. Much more entertaining than hanging out with me*.

* Your Mileage May Vary, of course, but I feel obligated to exercise a little modesty, since the festival wasn’t organized to showcase my talents.

Moving on.

After some work-related delays and distractions and some purely writerly procrastination, I began work on the third draft of Demirep recently.

Yesterday, I reworked somewhere north of 5,000 words. I’ve always said that rewriting is faster and easier than writing* and Draft Three is the easiest one in my usual process. Even so, that’s a lot of words in one go, and it gives me hope that the book is on the right track.

* In some ways, it’s more fun, too. Finding the perfect word instead of the one that’s almost right is the good kind of challenge.

Draft Three is usually the one that goes to beta readers. That’s the real acid test for any book, of course: how does it resonate with people who weren’t involved in its conception? Will I be asking for beta readers? Probably. But not yet. This draft is still in the early stages, and I may yet decide it needs a major change of direction. Stay tuned.

Moving on again, this time to something that’s not all about me.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Apple just announced a line of 16 inch MacBook Pro notebooks.

The timing is odd. MacBook Pros are designed for a small group of professionals–tech, video, and other such industries that need big power on the go–not the general consumer market. There’s no real need to launch the line during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold off until next month and launch them alongside the new Mac Pro workstation? Let people spend their Christmas gift money on the consumer devices and then bring out the pro goodies. Aside from those people buying them in pallet loads for businesses, almost anyone buying any Pro product from Apple is going to be financing the purchase, so they don’t need that holiday cash in hand, right?

But then, I’m clearly not a marketing expert. I’m sure Apple has plenty of expertise in that area and neither wants nor needs my advice.

In any case, new MacBook Pros look like great machines. Apple’s usual premium pricing applies, but still, $2800 will buy you a lot of computer. If you’re considering getting one, though, make sure your budget includes a wheeled computer case. Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, but schlepping it around for ten hours a day (Apple claims a ten or eleven hour battery life; these machines aren’t designed for a nine-to-five workday) will put a serious dent in your shoulder.

And finally…

Speaking of those planned blackouts for fire prevention, we’ve been lucky so far.

I’m probably jinxing us by saying this, but the first three blackouts all missed us. In at least one case, it was only by a few blocks, but blackouts are not one of those situations like horseshoes and hand grenades where “close” counts.

There’s a movement afoot to force PG&E to bury all of its power lines. The reasoning is that underground lines don’t cause fires, so there’s no need to shut off the power during high winds. That may be true–as far as I can tell, we don’t have data showing complete protection–but it’s not a total fix for all of PG&E’s woes.

Case in point: while we’ve avoided the planned shutoffs, we had an unplanned outage a couple of weeks ago thanks to a blown high tension line. An underground line.

We’re now in Day Six of PG&E digging up our street and sidewalk to get access to the line and, based on a conversation with some of the workers, the job is going to stretch into December and include at least one planned outage.

Burying the lines may make them safer–though, since this is California, let’s not forget about earth movements, both slides and quakes–but it does make them harder to repair.

And there are secondary effects of outages. Ones that apply regardless of whether a protracted blackout is planned or unplanned. How many stories have we heard recently about fires and deaths caused by improperly maintained or incorrectly used emergency generators?

Before we spend decades and billions of dollars burying power lines, let’s spend a bit of time considering all the implications and hidden costs, financial and otherwise.

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.

15-1

“I haz a nest.” –Forti

15-2

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

15-3

“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

08-1

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.
08-2

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.

08-3
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.

08-4

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.