SAST 20

One thing I didn’t mention in last week’s Google I/O comments was the Chromecast with Google TV. That’s something else you can blame Google for: they didn’t say anything about the gadget.

Quite a disappointment, actually. The CwGT is what the original Chromecast should have been. Though, in fairness to Google, the software wasn’t there at the time. See, unlike the Chromecast–which was designed as a single-purpose device to stream video under the control of your phone–the CwGT is a general-purpose Android device. Yes, it’s only output is via HDMI, typically to a TV, but it’s got the full Google Play Store, so you can install all* your favorite apps. Games, alternate video players, messaging apps, or whatever. All controlled via a simple remote with voice support or any Bluetooth gadget you want to hook up.

* Usual caveats about not all apps in the store are available for all devices apply.

I love mine. I’ll skip the ramblings about why, since this is an SAST post.

But.

It does have some shortcomings. Many people find its storage limited (can anyone really survive on 8 GB today–especially when the OS uses half of it?) and the hardware video decoding support lacks a few recently popular formats. And then there’s the fact that the last software update came out back in October.

So the newsrumor back in January that a new model was on the horizon was greeted with great fervor. Even the thought of the new model being intended as a lower-end option didn’t dampen the enthusiasm much. Because of course Google would slip in a few under-the-hood improvements to make up for the maximum resolution of 1080p, right?

Nice theory, anyway. But not a word at Google I/O about the CwGT or a successor. Shades of the late not-so-lamented Nexus Q media player.

Moving on.

A few days ago, I was listening to SiriusXM’s 40s channel on my way to work and–as I tend to do when I’m alone in the car*–absentmindedly singing along with most of the songs. Because I’ve been listening to Swing Era radio stations for more than four decades, I know most of the lyrics. Well enough to sing them, as long as I don’t try to think about what I’m singing. If I think about about it, though, I start trying to rewrite the lyrics and it all goes downhill from there.

* I’m not going to inflict my singing voice on anyone. I’m not that cruel.

Anyway, I was cheerfully semi-oblivious until a verse yanked me into conscious thought.

Halfway through the Martha Tilton/Harry Babbit version of “Let’s Get Away From It All“, there’s this verse:

Let’s spend a day at the White House

Pay Mr. Truman a call

We’ll visit the Veep there*

See Congress asleep there

Let’s get away from it all

* There’s a joke here: there was no vice president for the first several years of Truman’s presidency. And, as the song suggests, I’m not sure anyone particularly noticed or cared when Alben Barkley got the job in ’48.

Don’t understand why my tongue tripped over its metaphorical feet?

Consider: There was a day within living memory when common citizens could take a White House tour and have a chance, however microscopic, of seeing the president. Sure, the song is exaggerating for humor; I doubt anyone would have dropped in expecting meet Harry T.–much less sit down with him over coffee–but see him? Sure, could’ve happened. Not today.

More: Also within living memory, you could make fun of an ineffective politician or two without being branded a traitor, excoriated in the press, and buried under massive piles of letters blaming everything on the other party.

The Forties had plenty of problems, it’s true. And regrettably, most of them are problems we still have today–starting with racism, sexism, a World War, economic disruption, etc., etc., etc. And granted, politics could get vicious, but they were accessible to the concerned individual. Yes, the canonical smoke-filled room, but anyone* could get into politics at a local level and make himself a place in that room. He might have to buy his own cigars, but even so.

* Okay, any male person. Who was white. And not too obviously…you know.

I regret that we’ve reached the point where politics can’t be played by amateurs.

Welcome to May

As the Beatles said, “I read the news today. Oh, boy.”

All in all, four thousand holes just about anywhere would be an improvement.

I’m not going to say much about the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion, but I do recommend you check out Charles Stross’ post for a quick rundown on other rights that are on the chopping block if the opinion stands as currently written.

That said, I find it interesting that none of the stories I’ve seen have even speculated about how the draft was leaked. I saw one passing mention of the leak being “unprecedented”, but not Word One about how it got out*.

* If you value your sanity and your breakfast, do not read anything Fox News has to say. The pieces I dipped into explicitly state that the content of the decision is unimportant; what matters is to find and punish the leakers before ‘The Left’ can turn them into heroes. I’ll leave what the commenters are saying to your imagination. Trust me, it’s worse than you might come up with.

Anyway, what I found most interesting, and least predictable, was the other main topic of reporting. Suddenly, over the past few days, the papers* are full of stories about suicide.

* Including the all-electronic ones. Which raises a question: what do we call those sources of information and information-like content? “The electrons”? Might be overbroad. But I digress.

To the extent that they focus on suicide prevention, this is a GoodThing™. But I find the timing interesting. Yes, there have been several high-profile suicides lately. But when has that not been true? What makes this batch so significant that so many news sources feel the need to cover the subject in depth?

For the record, I’m not suggesting that it’s anticipatory of an upswing in abortion-related suicides. I refuse to believe that knowledge of the impending leak could have been that widespread in newsrooms without the general public hearing about it. No conspiracy theory here.

I don’t have an answer to “why”. Why does anything become a trend–or a fad, for that matter?

But whatever the reason, I’m hoping the trend continues. With everything else in the news these days, we’re not going to see a reduction in the suicide rate without positive action.

That Felt Weird

Maggie and I did some socializing last week.

For the first time in two years. Which makes us sound anti-social by traditional standards, but these days, it’s, well, the New Normal. Rather a depressing thought, isn’t it? Sorry about that.

And, to be frank, I wasn’t sure I was ready to spend an evening with other people when none of us would be masked. Even though everyone was vaccinated, boostered, and had taken a rapid test. But the payoff would be huge, so I went.

I mean, given the chance to hang out with our godkittehs…


…why in the name of all that’s furry would I decline?

And after all the build-up, and wary anticipation, the strangest thing about the evening was how normal it felt.

I mean, I’ve seen a number of my cow-orkers unmasked, and they looked really weird. There has been a significant quantity of staff turnover, to the point where I hadn’t ever seen some of those people without a mask. Others, I’ve only seen with their masks on for two years.

Discovering they have mouths is disconcerting at best. Disturbing in some cases. I didn’t know one of them had a beard.

But everyone at the gathering last week–even the bipeds–was face-naked. And it felt perfectly fine.

Maybe the difference is that I’ve never seen them masked. But then again, at work I see customers without masks–people I’ve never seen masked before–and they look odd. What’s that pink, flappy thing where the mask should be? Is it supposed to be there?

Now what? Even though I’m no longer required to wear a mask at work, I’ve been continuing to do it, because it makes me feel more comfortable. Should I take a hit to my comfort level and do my part to push a return to the Old Normal? Or look at the rising caseload in countries like Germany and China and do what I can to establish a new New Normal–one where masking is acceptable, even when not required?

I’m open to going mask-free. Not eager, perhaps, but I’m willing to consider it generally or on a case-by-case basis. And there’s one very strong argument for keeping the mask on for another couple of months when I’m outside the house: I don’t know about you, but my hay fever has been much less of a thing than usual the past two Springs. I find I like not sneezing uncontrollably whenever trees throw reproductive material at me.

So, for right now, the mask stays on, with exceptions for special occasions. Like visiting Patti and Forti.

And now I have to do is hope there’s no major backlash coming. We don’t–really, really don’t–need anti-mask mandates. But I have this sneaking suspicion they’ll be coming soon to Florida, Texas, and other states that ought to know better by now.

While We’re Waiting

No baseball.

Yes, I know. We’ve got college ball. We’ll have minor league baseball shortly. Odds are, if MLB doesn’t give us any signs of progress, we’ll get Korean and Japanese baseball on TV.

But for many of us, that’s all methadone. We want the full-on MLB experience.

Maybe not every little bit of it. I, for one, could do without the outrageously expensive tickets, the TV blackouts, or the looming threat of robot umpires. Which probably gives you some idea of which side of the labor strife I’m on.

Not that I think the players are blameless either. But I’m sympathetic to their desire to make the most of their skills.

I had a dream. No, not literally. That was last week.

But I dreamt that Congress found something to unite behind: revoking MLB’s anti-trust exemption. With that and a few other changes, a rival league could rise up. Maybe one of the independent leagues could catch major attention with a retro approach, rolling back all of the oddball experiments MLB has inflicted on us. Or go the other way, trying a bunch of experiments to see what really works–like the original XFL, but with a dose of sanity.

Of course, none of that would work without access to players. So the other half of the dream is to free up the players, which would require additional legislation. The goal would be to break the bonds that tie players to a single team from Day One. So, block the draft and require that MLB contracts be subject to “At Will” requirements.

A software engineer at Google can over to Apple–or go independent with her own startup–without Apple having to send Google two QA Analysts to be named later. So why can’t a ballplayer with, say, the Phillies, send a note to the Orioles–or the Austin Weirdos*–“Hey, I hear you’re looking for a second baseman. I’m having a breakout year; what’s 6 WAR worth to you?”

* Currently in the Pecos independent league. But in a new regulatory regime, who knows?

Obviously, there’d need to be some limitations. But any league could set their own rules: no player hired after such-and-such a date can play in the playoffs, for example. Or in our hypothetical XBL, maybe players hired in the last month of the season or during the playoffs have to wear flat shoes instead of cleats.

None of the above is ever going to happen, of course. MLB is too good at defending its turf. But our current freedom from MLB means we’ve got some freedom to make our own 2022 season.

Doing Right

It occurs to me that I’ve been remiss lately. I’ve been complaining about those who do life wrong–anti-vaxxers and anti-abortionists, Republicans, and software designers, for example–but I haven’t given any guidance for how to do life right.

I mean, I’d have thought it would be obvious, but the news continues to prove that it’s anything but.

So, with that–and my desire to make this blog a somewhat cheerier place–allow me to present a short playlist of songs that set a proper example.

Actually, it’s a very short playlist, so before I go there, I’m going to highlight a couple of songs that didn’t make the list.

“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”

Damn near everybody has done this one–this version is Bob Crosby and Martha Tilton–buy why? Ignore your problems and they’ll go away is lousy advice in any situation. Maybe it’s useful as a short-term strategy in a high-stress situation, but I’m even dubious about that. Anyone else think this was an early precursor to a certain track from Bobby McFerrin?

“On the Sunny Side of the Street”

Another dubious recommendation that everyone takes a swing at. No digs at Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee: it’s a great song. But really, “deny your problems exist and let someone else deal with them” isn’t helpful either personally or socially. As we’ve seen with the Republican attitude toward climate change.

“Swinging on a Star”

Bing Crosby, of course. The song is so loaded with negative stereotypes, I just can’t bring myself to recommend it as a guide to life: mules are stubborn and stupid, pigs are rude and dirty, and fish are sneaky scammers, or so Der Bingle tells us. So, even though the advice is good–stay in school, or, more generally, learn something–is an excellent first step towards living right, I just can’t bring myself to put it on the playlist.

Let’s move on to the songs that did make the cut.

“Pennies from Heaven”

Bing Crosby again, this time in a number that does meet my standards. His introduction seems like it would be a better fit for “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, and some of the advice is a bit dubious. Taken literally, carrying your umbrella upside down is not only counterproductive from a liquid standpoint, but any cash falling into it is likely to bounce right out. Figuratively, though, it’s on the money (sorry): smiling even when you don’t feel it can make you feel better. And who can argue with any song that reminds you that standing under a tree during a lightning storm is a bad idea?

“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”

Johnny Mercer nails this one, musically-speaking*. The lyrics are a bit more Judeo-Christian than I’d really like–Noah and Jonah feature prominently–but the message works. Focus on the good things. Acknowledge the bad, sure, but don’t let them control you. And, while the words do stress having faith, it’s not specifically faith in God. As far as I’m concerned, faith in yourself works just as well.

* And I do love the intro. “The topic will be Sin / And that’s what I’m ag’in’.”

“Straighten Up and Fly Right”

Nat King Cole, of course. And the advice is as timeless as the performance. Listen to that little cricket in the top hat. Nobody has to tell you when–or how–you’re going wrong; you know it already. Don’t call that voice a conscience if it makes you uncomfortable to think you have one, but listen up. And fly right, brother.

“Let It Alone”

The Dixie Hummingbirds’ biggest fame came as a result of backing up Paul Simon, but they’ve been around for nearly a century. This track* often gets lost among their gospel numbers with more conventional lyrics and themes. But the message here is worth remembering: not only can you not fix everyone’s problems, but you shouldn’t even try. It’s not “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Even the sinless have better things to do than to go nosing into other people’s business.

* Historical diversion: Kids, ask your grandparents about early methods of recording video. In particular, ask them about the SLP mode on VHS recorders. (Hint: it slowed the tape speed to one-third the normal rate, allowing six hours of recording on a single tape, at the cost of a significant degradation in video and audio quality.) Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a better recording of this song online.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

Monty Python, closing out our playlist. Be optimistic, pessimism will get you nowhere. I think it’s the best advice you’ll find in a song, even though as a pessimist by nature, I struggle to apply it myself. But when I fail, I do a bit of whistling, and I’m ready to try again.

Happy Tidings

Recent posts have, I’ll admit, been somewhat on the negative–if not outright depressing–side.

I mean, really. We’ve had posts about an entirely inadequate substitute for fireworks, persistent non-vaccination, software incomprehensible to a significant portion of its users, and the ongoing Hall of Fame controversies. And that’s just this year!

So I’ll cop to negativity. But I’ll deny any suggestion that I like the blog that way. I’m just editorializing on the news, after all, and there’s only so much one can do with the state of the world right now.

So, with the start of a new month, I’m delighted to have a story to talk about that’s nothing but good news, even if it is old news for many of you.

For the first time in over a decade, America has a First Cat. No, not a King of the Cats. This is still–barely–a democracy. Sorry, trying to stay positive.

Yes, the Bidens have brought a cat into the White House. Willow, by name.

Better news: she’s not some pampered show cat from a high-end breeder; instead, she’s a now-former working class cat–a farm cat, to be precise–from Pennsylvania. One hopes that her mousing skills will be unnecessary in her new home, but it’s good to know that, should the President be faced with an invasion of rodents*, he’s got a defense in depth.

* Am I the only one who thinks Mitch McConnell looks distinctly rodential? Wouldn’t you like to be the proverbial fly on the wall the first time he meets Willow?

But the best news of all?

Our new #COTUS is named for Willow Grove, Pennsylvania–Jill Biden’s home town. Thank all that’s holy for that. Imagine the horror if “Willow” had been short for “Pussy Willow”. The sugar overdose would have rotted teeth across the entire breadth of the country!

An Interesting Idea

Hmm.

Apparently, Quebec has given up on the carrot and is ready to try the stick. According to news reports, the roughly 13% of the province’s population that haven’t gotten at least one shot will have to pay a tax penalty.

It’s obvious that appeals to common sense have gone as far as they’re going to. And incentive programs have probably reached their limits as well. One can only offer so many lotteries, after all, and anyone who might be lured in by cash payments, offers of food and beverages, or merchandise promoting local sports franchises has probably succumbed to said temptation.

Although, as the BBC notes, this isn’t the first attempt to force the unvaccinated to pay–they cite a monthly fine in Greece and Singapore’s refusal to pay for health care for the unvaccinated–it does seem to be an approach that few politicians of any stripe are willing to propose.

So, kudos to Quebec for trying something a little different. Some details remain to be worked out, of course. The size of the tax bill hasn’t been set–one wonders if it’ll be a flat amount, a flat percentage, or some kind of graduated number based on age, income, or political affiliation–and I doubt whether there’s any agreement yet over whether refunds are possible if people do get vaccinated after paying up. Or, for that matter, whether a cut-off date has been set yet, or if there’s still time for people to get their shots and avoid the charge.

Any such plan in the U.S. would inevitably allow for medical and religious exemptions–making it entirely useless–and then be tied up in the courts for years anyway. Plenty of well-known anti-vaxxers north of the border; will Quebec’s plan run afoul of them?

All that said, I’d love to see a similar plan tried in a region with a much lower vaccinated percentage*. Any brave state politicians want to give it a shot?

* As of a couple of days ago, less than half of the populations of Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, and Idaho were fully vaccinated. For that matter, Quebec is doing better than any U.S. state: Vermont had the highest vaccination rate at 78.21%, slightly behind Quebec’s 78.32% rate.

There must be ways to make it slightly less of a political suicide pill. Plenty of states have taxes that are only imposed on certain people: gas taxes to pay for road repair, property taxes to pay for schools, and so forth. Maybe some states could make a non-vaccination tax fly by making it conditional: you only pay the tax–with the funds being earmarked to go to state hospitals–if you’re unvaccinated and are hospitalized for COVID-19.

Nah, never going to work in the U.S. But I look forward to hearing how it goes over in Quebec–and whether it actually raises the vaccination rate.

You’re Only Making Things Worse

Today just seems like the right day for a “Damn kids, get off my lawn!” post.

“We only have two seasons around here: Winter and Road Repairs.” I’ve heard that saying applied to several different places in various parts of the country. The Bay Area, though, is blessed–or in this respect, cursed–with a comparatively mild climate. As a result, road repairs are more like a standard feature of the freeway than a seasonal event.

That means I’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness what “typical driver” means today. It’s not a pretty picture.

Mind you, I’m not talking about the idiots who weave through traffic at high speed. They’re more common than they used to be, regrettably, but they’re still not in the majority.

No, my gripe today is with the mentally and emotionally stunted people who have forgotten the one basic unwritten rule of the road: “We’re all in this together.”

The ones who try to minimize their drive time by switching lanes whenever the adjoining lane is moving faster. Not only do their antics force everyone behind them to slow down and adjust spacing, but they even shoot themselves in the foot: the diagonal of a lane change is longer than the straight line of staying in the lane you’re in. More territory covered, more time taken*. Simple math.

* Yes, I know it’s less than a second of additional delay. So? Half a second here, three-quarters there; it adds up. Five lane changes going across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge probably adds as much as two seconds to the commute (and costs you a couple of pennies in the most expensive gas in the U.S.)

But IMNSHO, the biggest offenders are the ones who are so impatient that they can’t manage a simple merge. Not a merge onto the freeway, the kind where two lanes turn into one, as happens when a lane is closed for road work.

Remember how merges are supposed to work: first a car from the left lane proceeds through the choke point, then one from the right. One from the left, one from the right. Left. Right. So easy, even preschool kids can handle it*.

* On foot. I’m not suggesting that five-year-olds should get driver’s licenses. Though, come to think of it…

Instead, we get drivers in the left lane riding the bumper of the car in front of them so the guy in the right lane can’t take their turn or racing to the choke point to piggyback on someone else’s turn. (The extreme form of this is to pull onto the shoulder and floor it to jump ahead of two or three cars waiting their turns. Fortunately, this approach appears to be an aberration, common only in areas where weaving through traffic at high speed is common.)

And it’s so pointless. The reason those cars are waiting to take their turns is that traffic is being slowed down or blocked by the ones who won’t take turns. And that’s even before the thoughtless drivers cause an accident that completely blocks traffic.

Hey, I’ll make a deal with y’all: remember your manners, take turns at merges, and I promise I won’t foist milk and cookies on you. Agreed?

One of Many

One of many things I don’t understand: Why is Louis DeJoy still Postmaster General?

This is a guy who admitted when he was appointed that his intent is to destroy the organization he’s supposed to be running.

It might not seem like it when you look at the piles of junk it delivers, but the USPS is a key piece of the national infrastructure*.

* It’s also a key piece of the government’s efforts to keep tabs on its citizens, but let’s not go there right now.

Seems like getting a new Postmaster General installed should have been one of President Biden’s top priorities. Certainly something that should be done well before the mid-cycle elections.

Okay, granted, it’s not as simple as just handing the incumbent his pink slip and appointing a replacement. The president doesn’t have the power to remove a Postmaster General. That’s reserved to the USPS’ Board of Governors. Ditto for the governors themselves.

The board is supposed to have nine members, plus the Postmaster General and the Deputy Postmaster General. Legally, no more than five of the nine can belong to the same political party. Prior to Biden taking office, there were three vacancies, and the lone non-Republican–a Democrat appointed by Trump–is (per Wikipedia) considered one of DeJoy’s strongest supporters. Not exactly an unbiased group, in other words.

And one that’s hard to update. Fortunately, unlike the Supreme Court, appointments to the USPS Board of Governors aren’t for life, so there is a possibility of rebalancing it.

Still, it seems like Biden is dragging his feet. It took him until May to fill the three vacant slots. That’s not enough to remove DeJoy, but one would have hoped that prompt action might have let the new members slow him down a bit. Remember that, while the PG is responsible for the day-to-day management of the USPS, it’s the board that sets policy.

And there are two more slots coming open soon. Both are Trump appointees–one being the aforementioned Democrat–and their terms expire next week, though they’ll continue to serve until their successors are approved by Congress.

Biden has announced his nominations, but as far as I can tell, no date has been set for Congress to act on the nominees. Bets on how long it’ll take–and, assuming the nominations are approved–how long it’ll be before DeJoy is looking for a new job?

It’s Back

Yep, 2021 strikes again.

Black Friday was a non-event last year. Oh, sure, it happened. But the lines of people camping outside stores, the crushing rush inside when the doors opened, and the screaming fights over deeply discounted items were rare in comparison to the past*.

* It’s possible that being on the West Coast gives me a biased perception. Anyone in a state that didn’t have mask mandates, social distancing, and/or stay-at-home orders want to chime in with local data on last year’s Spend-a-Thon?

This year, though, it’s shaping up to be a doozy.

Not only is Black November gaining force–several major retailers have been pushing variations on the “Early Black Friday” theme since about 12:01 AM on 11/1–but those same stores are ramping up the publicity for their sales on the actual Black Friday.

Because, of course, people are sick and tired of shopping from home–even in the Southwest and Florida and all those other areas where they never started shopping from home–so they have to show up in the malls at Oh Dark Hundred Hours.

Feh.

On the bright side, the stupidity of starting the Black Friday sales on Thursday–better known as Thanksgiving–seems to have gotten lost. And good riddance.

What’s going to be really interesting is seeing what happens with Cyber Monday. Remember that? In case you’ve mercifully forgotten, the premise of Cyber Monday has been that people save their online shopping for the Monday after Thanksgiving when they’re back in the office and can use their employer’s bandwidth.

Man, that sounds quaint, doesn’t it? “Back in the office”? It is to laugh.

It’s only a little more than a week to Thanksgiving and, while your experience may differ, I haven’t gotten a single ad for an upcoming Cyber-whatever event.

Could Cyber Monday turn into a regional event? Only advertised in places where the concept of “working from home” hasn’t caught on?

Probably not. It’s cheaper for national advertisers not to filter their mailings, after all. Our best hope is that PR departments decide the optics of telling people to go to work are just too ugly this year.