It’s That Time Again

If you were expecting some commentary on the state of the world, sorry. I got nothing for you today. No insights that hundreds of other people haven’t already broadcast. All I can say is that I don’t think the current unrest is the end of America, nor do I think it’s a minor blip that will quickly be forgotten. The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere between.

And right now, I’m doing my best to stay safe and healthy, and getting on with my life.

Which, at the moment, includes babbling about my latest toy.

Looking back into my archive, I see that five and a half years ago, I shared some thoughts about my new Nexus 9 tablet. That nine-inch wonder replaced my defunct Nexus 7.

At the time, I said that I had some qualms, mostly around the size and weight of the device. It was too heavy to use in transit, a bit too large for comfortable reading, and perhaps a smidgen too small for comfortably watching videos.

As it turned out, I was right about the first two, and wrong about the third. When I was able to move my reading to another device–at various times, the Amazon Fire tablet, the Windows tablet, and the ebook reader–I didn’t hesitate. But video was just fine on the Nexus, and I often watched ballgames on it. And the size–that inch or so smaller than the iPad–made it quite comfortable for the card and word games I favor.

Jump ahead to today and the Nexus is on the decline. The screen is still fine and the weight hasn’t changed, but the battery is losing capacity rapidly. As recently as the beginning of the year, I could get four or five days of use on a charge. Now I have to charge it nearly every night.

Regrettably, I couldn’t find any Android tablets that appealed to me. Amazon’s Fire tablets are too, well, Amazon. The Amazon store is front and center, and their app store is small and in some cases out of date*. Samsung’s tablets are reasonably solid contenders, but I’m no happier with the add-on software they supply than I was back in 2015. And most of the other offerings are no-name, low-end devices that give the impression that they’ll fall apart or drop dead right after the warranty runs out.

* Yes, you can put the Google Play app on them and gain access to the full variety of apps available through Google, but the process is kind of a pain, and having two app stores on the device can get confusing–they sometimes try to update each other’s apps with mixed results.

So I went in a partly different direction: I got a Chrome OS tablet.

I say “partly” because most Chrome OS devices let you install Android apps. I figured that would let me keep using my must-have apps while investigating Chrome-native alternatives. It was a nice theory, and honestly, it’s mostly worked out that way.

The device I got is the Lenovo Duet. It’s a ten-inch tablet–which means it’s roughly the size of my old iPad Air (though the screen is larger, thanks to its smaller bezels)–and it weighs about the same as the Nexus. Assuming I don’t use the case. Lenovo does supply a case: a back cover that attaches magnetically and provides a kickstand support similar to Microsoft’s Surface Go and a separate front cover/keyboard that also attaches magnetically. Adding the cover and keyboard doubles the weight of the device.

Speaking of the Surface Go, the Duet is roughly the same size and weight as the Go. So why didn’t I just get another Go? Well, cost for one. The Duet is about half the price of the cheapest Go. And much as I like my Go–it’s still my main machine–several of my must-have Android apps have no Windows equivalents. That makes it a less-than-optimal Android alternative.

Let me get this out of the way up front: overall, I’m pleased with the Duet.

That said, there are some issues.

First and foremost, the user experience is inconsistent. For example, Chrome OS apps have access to the entire file system: everything on the device’s storage (including the Android app space and the Linux storage), the Google Drive space, and any other cloud storage options you have. However, Android apps can only access the Android space on the local drive. Any cloud access has to be provided by the apps themselves. Linux programs are slightly better off: you can give it access to specific folders in the Chrome OS space, but even there you’re limited to the local storage–even giving access to the Google Drive space is iffy.

Speaking of cloud storage, while Google gives Google Drive first class support, that’s as far as they go. Chrome OS includes the ability to connect to shared drives on your local network (say, your Windows computer), but as noted above, you can’t access those drives via Android or Linux. As for other storage options, you’re at the mercy of third parties. The Dropbox software, for example, is provided by an independent developer, not affiliated with either Google or Dropbox. OneDrive access comes from Microsoft, but for reasons of their own, it’s read-only. In neither case does it work for Android apps (of course), requiring you to also install the Android version of the software to gain access to those cloud storage locations if you need them in your apps.

The inconsistencies go further. Some Android apps and Linux programs are recognized as being associated with particular file types (for example, the Android version of the VLC media player is recognized as supporting mp4 videos). Other programs are not–and there’s nothing like the Windows “Open with” functionality that allows you to use a program that wasn’t automatically recognized.

Here’s a good one: If you have a keyboard connected, Chrome OS supports multiple desktops, so you can group related programs together and switch between the groups easily. Once you disconnect the keyboard, you can still use your existing desktops, but once you close a desktop, it’s gone. Close all of them and you lose the multiple desktop functionality until you reconnect the keyboard.

Other quirks: many Linux programs are unusable without the keyboard and trackpad because they don’t recognize screen taps*, and support for the on-screen keyboard is limited.

* This may have something to do with the way screen size is reported. The display is actually 1920×1200, but some programs see it as 3413×2133. I suspect this has something to do with making onscreen buttons large enough to tap, but it may be confusing Linux programs that don’t support high pixel densities.

Most–I’m tempted to say all–Android devices allow you to flip a switch in the settings so that you can install apps that don’t come from Google’s app store. This is handy if you want to install an older version of an app or, for whatever reason, the app isn’t available through Google. On the Duet–I can’t speak for other Chrome OS devices–in order to install third-party apps, you have to put the tablet in Developer mode, which makes it awkward to boot the device without a keyboard and may have other side effects.

One odd omission: there’s no support for widgets, so you can’t put programs on your desktop. That’s an excellent bit of Android functionality–so good that Apple is starting to move in the same direction with iPadOS–that would make Chrome OS much more attractive.

I know this all sounds grim, but as I said, on the whole, I like the Duet.

The screen looks good. And, while it’s too large for comfortable ebook reading, it’s an excellent size for reading comics. And there’s a nice split-screen function; if we ever get baseball again, I’ll be able to show the games in the top half of the screen and run an ebook reader app in the lower half–multitasking at its finest.

The sound quality is decent, and I was able to connect Bluetooth headphones without trouble.

The Chrome OS app selection is limited, but most of the Android apps I used on the Nexus work fine on the Duet. The one major omission–the app that controls the MeezerCam–still works fine on my phones and my iPad.

The keyboard is a bit too small for long bouts of typing, but it certainly gets the job done. In a pinch, I could write on it. And the Duet runs Word well, both the web-based Office 365 version (pardon me, “Microsoft 365”) and the Android app. And if I had to write something longer on the Duet, I could plug a full-sized keyboard into the USB port.

I like the Duet. But I can see where a few changes could easily turn like into love.

People Are Strange

People are strange.

And wrong.

A SiriusXM channel is once again the target of my ire. Or, in this case, I should say that the listeners of 60s on 6 are at fault.

I missed it late last year when they ran a poll to collect the “top 600 songs of the 1960s” and I also missed the playthrough of the entire list. But no matter. They re-ran it this past weekend, and as you may have gathered, I have bones to pick.

I realize that with any venture of this sort, inequities are inevitable, but really, this one is so flawed, I have to limit myself to the Top Ten, or this post will be longer than most novels. I mean, really, how can “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” (#96) be more “top” than “White Rabbit” (#97) and “MacArthur Park” (#98)*?

* I almost said “in what universe” but clearly the answer would be “this one”. Ah, the tribulations of an author looking for just the right phrase…

Honestly, I like all three songs (I’ve mentioned before that I have low tastes), but Henry is quite literally a single joke repeated three times–“Second verse, same as the first”–while the other two make the effort to tell a complete story. They’re complete artistic thoughts that attempt to answer the questions they raise. Why does the widow prefer Henrys? Does being Henry the VIII give the singer the option of executing or divorcing his wife not open to the common Brit?

Anyway. The top ten*.

* The full list is online, of course.

The Beatles got two tracks into the top ten, “Yesterday” (#10) and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (#8). There are nineteen other Beatles’ numbers scattered through the list–not a unreasonable number for the most influential band of the decade. But “top” is not “important”. I may shake my head in sorrow, but I won’t complain out loud.

I also won’t complain about the inclusion of “My Girl” (#9). The Temptations are certainly worthy of a top ten slot, and “My Girl” is certainly one of their better cuts.

But really? “Downtown” at Number Seven? Yes, Petula Clark probably had to be in there somewhere, but how does that particular song make it that far up the list? “Don’t Sleep In the Subway” only hit Number 321 and her second highest placement–“I Know a Place”–is well back at Number 179. (Petula’s also the only woman to crack the top ten. Even the great Patsy Cline only made it to Number 13 with “Crazy”.)

Moving on.

“Cara Mia” from Jay & The Americans? What were the voters thinking? I know, I know: they weren’t.

The Beach Boys’ kick off the top five with “California Girls”. They also had twenty other tunes on the full list. Personally, I’d have picked “Surfer Girl” (#200) over “California Girls”, but I’m mostly okay with this one.

“Oh Pretty Woman”. No top list would be complete without Roy Orbison and this is his best-known work, if not his best musically. But “top” isn’t “best” either. And Roy did have seven other songs on the list.

Number Three is “The House of the Rising Sun”. Great song. Great car singalong. But, third toppest song of the 1960s? I haz a dubious.

“Satisfaction”. Um. Big hit, though I prefer Devo’s cover. And the Stones did put a total of ten tracks in this top 600. But their next best showing was “Get Off My Cloud” at Number 138. That’s quite the drop off–nearly as dramatic as Petula Clark’s. Still, it is the Stones. Give it the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings us to Number One. The toppest of the top. The absolute musical pinnacle of the decade. Who is it? Not Elvis (twelve songs on this list, peaking at Number 21 with “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”).

Brace yourselves.

“Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers.
Seriously.

This is a miscarriage of justice on a par with the 2000 Presidential Election. I suspect somebody was stuffing the ballot box.

But then again, maybe it’s perfectly legitimate. Nobody who survived the election in 2016 can say voters always make the right choice. Not with a straight face anyway.

People are strange. (Oh, and “People Are Strange” didn’t make the list. The Doors only got one song into the Top 600: “Light My Fire” at Number 50. Go figure.)

How About 32,000?

A few further comments on my iPod rebuild, now that I’ve had a little time to play with the device and have started to get the hang of Rockbox.

The flash drive is much lighter. Those few grams may not seem like much, but you notice the difference. And, since there are no moving parts, using a modified iPod on the go feels more comfortable. Exercise? Potholed roads? Sure, go ahead. Better yet, add a cheap Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into the headphone jack, and you can do away with that annoying wires to your headphones or the car stereo’s aux jack.

If you’re doing the hard drive replacement, it’s a good time to look at your iPod’s battery life. On the one hand, opening an iPod Classic is such a pain that you might want to save yourself some trouble and expense by swapping in a new battery at the same time you put in the flash card. On the other hand, the flash card uses so much less power, you may not need to replace the battery to get adequate life.

Not only does the flash card use less power than the original hard drive, it’s much faster. When I did some tests with Rockbox prior to the drive replacement, it took hours for the software to build its database of music. After the replacement, with about five times as many tracks, building the database took less than ten minutes.

Similarly, there’s no lag between tracks. Unlike the hard drive, there’s no spin-up time when the iPod wakes up the flash drive. Well, okay, there is, but it’s measured in fractions of a second instead of multiples of a second.

Rockbox supports music in many formats that Apple’s software doesn’t know anything about. If you keep your music in a flac format for the best possible sound on your computer, loading it to an iPod via iTunes requires converting it to aac or mp3. Sure, iTunes takes care of that for you, but it still takes time and you wind up storing a duplicate copy. Why waste the space on your computer–not everyone has a 50 terabyte server in their home office. Admittedly, the music may not sound any better on the iPod–let’s be honest, even when the iPod Classic was new, there were complaints about the sound quality–but it’s certainly not going to sound any worse either.

To be fair, everything isn’t wonderful in Rockbox-land.

It doesn’t work exactly like the original iPod software. Buttons do some different things, so there is a learning curve.

You can still use iTunes, but you don’t have to. Be aware that if you don’t, you lose Apple’s music management, metadata editing, and playlist generation. Those can all be replaced, but if you’re comfortable with Apple’s approach, you might want to stick with iTunes.

If you do stick with iTunes, however, you should know that some versions have a limit on the number of tracks you can store and the number of tracks per playlist. On some older versions, those limits may be as low as 100 per playlist and 25,000 total. If you like the “I forgot I owned that” moment of discovery that comes from setting your device on “shuffle” and letting it skip around through your entire library, 100 tracks isn’t going to work for you.

Rockbox also has a playlist limit (although there’s no total track limit). However, unlike Apple, you can change it. By default, the limit is 1,000 tracks. The “Settings” screen will allow you to change it to 32,000, but if you’re willing to live on the edge*, you can crank it up as high as you want. For the record, I have around 42,000 tracks–I’ve been buying music for four decades and I’m a packrat–so I set the limit at 64,000 tracks.

* The documentation warns that this can result in memory shortages, but so far at least, I haven’t had any problems. (As a reminder to myself, to set a limit higher than 32,000, you copy Rockbox’s “config.cfg” to “fixed.cfg” and edit the new file with any text editor. Delete the lines you don’t need and change the track limit to whatever you want. When you turn on the iPod, config.cfg gets loaded first, then anything in fixed.cfg replaces the settings in config.cfg. That allows you to make changes while you’re listening to music, but always return to your normal setup at power-on.)

Rockbox isn’t as polished as Apple’s iPod software, but it more than gets the job done. I love having 42,000 tracks in my backpack. Assuming the average song is five minutes long, that gives me more than three months of continuous music and comedy with no commercials. Not bad at all, even if the iPod has to be recharged every couple of days.

When 120GB Isn’t Enough

I’ll admit up front that this post will probably only be of interest to a couple of you.

But for the sake of the two or three of you who might find it useful, allow me to take you all back into the past.

Before there was the iPhone, there was the iPod in all its many sizes and shapes. And in those days before streaming, you needed lots of storage to carry all your music with you.

Of course, back in those days, “lots of storage” meant something very different than it does today. We’re talking 2001-2004, and the top of the line iPods had astoundingly large 40GB hard drives.

Yes, actual hard drives, not flash storage. Itty-bitty 1.8-inch drives. Packing that much storage into something that small was expensive. The fourth-generation iPod that came out in 2004 cost $399 for that 40GB model. But you could, in all likelihood, put your entire music collection on that drive.

Fast forward to 2007 and 2008. By then, Apple was moving to the streaming model. They didn’t really want people carrying their collections. They wanted everyone to stream their music from the iTunes store to their spiffy new iPod Touch devices which maxed out at 32GB of flash storage.

Of course, those of us who had big collections didn’t go for that at all, and we jumped on what turned out to be the last generation of non-touch iPods: the iPod Classic with 80GB, 120GB, or 160GB of storage.

Those Classics have served us well, but our collections have grown. And, regrettably, hard drives do fail. A fifteen-year-old drive should rightly be regarded with suspicion.

The result is a bunch of excellent music players gathering dust.

Naturally, this is the point where the Internet and some dedicated hardware hackers step in.

Flash storage is cheap. What if we could replace that 1.8-inch hunk of metal with an SD card? Physically smaller, use less power, read and write faster, and offer capacities well beyond 160GB.

Turns out you can.

It’s a three step process, which I’m going to document here, partly for any of you who have elderly iPod Classics going to waste, and partly to help me remember how to do it, in case I need to repeat the process somewhere down the line.

Step One: Get the necessary hardware. You need a small circuit board to allow you to put an SD card where the hard drive used to be. You also need the SD card or cards.

At this point, I’m going to recommend iFlash. I bought their iFlash Solo*. Total cost, including shipping from the UK, ran me $44. I probably got lucky, but even in the face of world-wide lockdowns, it only took a couple of weeks to get here.

* The Solo, as the name implies, holds a single SD card. Iflash also offers the Duo and the Quad, which allow you to use multiple cards and have them show up on the iPod as a single drive. Handy if you want really awesomely large capacities or want to make use of whatever SD cards you have lying around the house.

Note that the iFlash boards call for SD cards. If you want to use a microSD card, make sure you get one that comes with an adapter. I wound up with a 512GB PNY microSD card. It came with an adapter and ran me about $100.

Step Two: This is the hardest part. Apple very much does not want you to open your iPod Classic. I failed completely. A friend of mine who repairs computers failed completely. I finally wound up taking the whole pile of parts to a local Mac repair shop. They opened the iPod, swapped the drive for my Solo+512GB microSD card, and reassembled the device. Best $30 I’ve spent all year.

Step Three: At this point, if all you wanted to do was replace a failing hard drive with and SD card, you’re done. Plug the iPod into your computer, let iTunes format it, and you’re all set.

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Unfortunately, if you wanted to increase the capacity of the iPod, you’ve got more work to do. Take another look at that picture. “127 GB Free”. What happened to the rest of my 512GB?

Well, back in those long-ago days, operating systems couldn’t easily deal with drives larger than 128GB. There were some tricks available (hence that 160GB iPod Classic), but they were very limited.

So, to take advantage of that new space, you have to replace Apple’s iPod software with something more modern. Like Rockbox. Specifically, Rockbox for the iPod Classic.

Let’s extend our steps a bit.

Step Four: Install Rockbox. It’s easy. Plug in the iPod to your computer, download and run the installer. Whoops, forgot a step.

Step Three Point Five: Rockbox doesn’t recognize the Macintosh disk format. So you need to use iTunes on Windows to format the iPod. Launch iTunes, plug in the iPod, and say “Yes” when iTunes asks if you want to initialize the iPod.

Okay, back to Step Four. You can take the defaults on the installer. Select your iPod and follow the prompts. You will have to reboot the iPod at one point, but don’t worry, the Rockbox installer will tell you when to do it and how.

Once Rockbox is installed, you’ll see this:
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Yup, still only seeing 128GB. That’s because we have to reformat the iPod to use the entire SD card. So, on to

Step Five: This is the tricky bit. The iPod needs to be formatted in FAT32*. Unfortunately, Windows won’t let you format a drive larger than 32GB in FAT32. There are a number of programs that will let you get around that restriction. Google is your friend here. Or use a Mac and choose “Windows (FAT)” as the format.

Don’t worry about what these names mean. They’re just different ways to lay out the data on a drive.

    1. Using Windows File Explorer or Mac Finder, copy the folder “.rockbox” from the iPod to your desktop. This folder is where Rockbox stores its configuration. Without it, your iPod won’t boot to the point of being able to play music.
    2. Format the iPod.
    3. Copy the “.rockbox” folder back from your desktop to the iPod.

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Ta-da! (Let’s not go into why a 512GB SD card only gives you 462GB of storage.)

Step Six: Load up your iPod. You’ll find that it is much faster. (Quieter, too.) Which is not to say it’s fast. The connection is still USB2, which puts an upper limit on how quickly your music can be copied. But you can always start the copy and let it run overnight.

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That took about twelve hours. But I’ve still got more than a quarter of the SD card free. I figure I shouldn’t need to upgrade the storage for at least another six months.

(Oops. Just realized I forgot to set the iPod’s clock. I’ll go do that now.)

Anyway, total cost of the upgrade was well under $200. That’s less than a 32GB iPod Touch. (The current top of the line iPod Touch will run you $400 for 256GB.) Makes the math easy, doesn’t it?

Goin’ Back

I’ve been listening to the Fifties channel on SiriusXM lately.

Yes, the decade when the saxophone was a legitimate rock and roll instrument. Because really it was a decade in transition. Swing was on the way out, but rock and roll wouldn’t take over the world until the Sixties. There were plenty of cuts that could have been either rock or swing (in fact, there were more than a few early rock releases that had been swing hits.) And, of course, there was a giant market for sentimental pablum*.

* Let’s be clear: every decade has a giant market for sentimental pablum. It’s just that the definition of both “sentimental” and “pablum” changes. But I digress.

Which, of course, meant there was also a market for that unholy (ahem) hybrid known as the religious love song.

Brace yourself and allow me to direct your attention to “One Hundred Pounds of Clay” which is my candidate for The Song Most Likely to Make You Cringe Harder Every Time You Hear It.

I’ve had a lot of practice cringing over this song lately. Specifically, it’s come onto the radio three times in my last four hours of listening–that was spread over two days, so it’s not like you’re guaranteed to hear it if you listen for an hour and a quarter. But still: heavy rotation.

Anyway, I’m not nominating it because of the religious content. Not my cup of fur, but there’s been plenty of good religious music.

Nor is it because the song suggests that women’s only purpose is to be sexual. I beg your pardon? The BBC banned the song for that reason, but I don’t hear that at all.

There’s a sexual element, yes, but the only way I can interpret this song is that women’s only purpose is to shine by her man’s light. That charming only “love, worship, and obey” thing. Take the guy out of the picture, and the gal goes poof as well.

Say, Mike Pence was born in 1959, which means he’d have been two years old when this piece of tripe was at the top of the charts. Psychological scarring anybody?

(The really vexing thing about the song is that it didn’t come out until 1961. Why is it even on the 50s channel? It’s not that Gene McDaniels’ career started in the 50s. Well, his career did, but he didn’t start recording until the 60s. But I digress again.)

So, yes, I do cringe or change the channel–usually both–when it comes on. But there’s enough good stuff on the station to make up for it most of the time.

And, by “good stuff” I mean plenty of silliness and fluff to help you forget that you’re living in trying times, with just enough seriously solid material mixed in to keep you grounded.

Who Put the Bop” (Also from 1961. Win some, lose some.)

Summertime Blues

Only You” (Or darn near anything else The Platters did.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you rush out and subscribe to SiriusXM to get “’50s on 5”. But if you’ve already got the service, give it a listen.

But keep a finger near the power switch, just in case…

Super? You Decide

No, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl again this year.

Well, okay, mostly didn’t watch. I caught about the last five minutes by the game clock–call it the last quarter hour of real time–which was, for those of us rooting for anyone other than San Francisco, the best part.

And I did once again hunt up a recording of the halftime show. Have to keep that record intact, right? Still haven’t missed one this century.

Let’s be blunt here: the FCC and the NFL owe Janet Jackson an apology.

For the sake of the argument, I’ll temporarily accept the dubious premise that sex and sexually explicit television will scar the psyches of the youth of Amurrica.

Over the course of nearly fifteen minutes, Sunday’s halftime show featured (a) Shakira and J. Lo in a succession of outfits that would give a bikini delusions of adequacy, (b) a plethora of panty shots, (c) an American flag accidentally(?) dragged across the stage, (d) pre-teen singers and dancers in short skirts and short shorts, (e) too many naked male nipples to count without freeze-frame, and (f) a bona fide stripper pole.

In high definition.

How is that less psychically and psychologically damaging than a couple of seconds of grainy, standard definition exposure of what might have been a bare nipple?

Nor did Fox cover themselves in glory with the closed captions. The lyrics of the songs in English were displayed, but the others? “[Singing in Spanish]”. I guess they couldn’t afford a bilingual closed caption writer. Watch for the cost of an ad to go up again the next time Fox has the rights so they can again fail to provide equal access.

All sarcasm and sniping aside, it was a good show. Arguably the best since at least Lady Gaga’s outing in 2017. Less explicitly political, but implicitly? Oh, yes!

(And the music itself was good, too. I find I’m enjoying the “throw a bunch of songs in the blender” approach to creating a Super Bowl medley. I suppose it reflects a shortening of my attention span, but perhaps there’s a more innocent interpretation.)

Am I going to gratify the artists’ record labels by rushing out to buy their albums? Nope. But I might support a local business by picking up a CD next time I see one on the shelf.

Looking forward to next year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, when Ms. Jackson will have the opportunity to revitalize her career. Ah, happy dreams.

Educational

Ask ten people to name an educational TV show, and chances are good at least nine of them will say, “Sesame Street.”

Fifty plus years of embedding itself in the American consciousness accounts for much of its dominance, but it does mean that other worthy shows get short shrift.

And not just American shows (you knew this was where I was going, right? Anime non-fans can tune out now.)

Allow me to redress the balance slightly by introducing you to Hataraku Saibou, better known in the US as Cells at Work.

The concept is simple: present information about the human immune system by anthropomophizing the types of cells in the body*. We follow them around in their daily lives and see how they interact. Occasional popup messages on screen give details that can’t be directly animated. Our main focus is on a red blood cell, tasked with delivering oxygen throughout the body and returning carbon dioxide to the lungs.

* Though it does raise some disturbing questions about whether the components of a cell should be seen as characters in their own right. Anyone up for a “Mitochondria at Work” spinoff?

Blood vessels are depicted as streets of various sizes: main arteries are wide roads, capillaries are alleys that Red Blood Cell has to squeeze through sideways. Platelets are depicted as small children, white blood cells of various types have pale skin and generally dress in all-white clothing–a less than logical choice considering their primary responsibility is the bloody dismemberment of invading bacteria.

What makes the show work is that it’s not a simple travelogue: Red Blood Cell visits a new organ, bacteria attacks and is repelled, end of episode.

Instead, the characters interact in ways that mirror actual body functions. We see, for example, that red blood cells are born in the bone marrow, grow up in groups, and are released into the blood stream to do their work.

The relationship between Red Blood Cell and White Blood Cell* is obviously one of mutual love, but the writers spare us any hint of romance. Cells don’t leave love letters in school lockers, fantasize about happy married lives, obsess over breast size and/or inappropriately fondle one another.

* All the cells have distinguishing numbers, typically displayed somewhere on their uniforms, but they’re rarely used in conversation.

The result is a show that stands on its own as entertainment, but still delivers a healthy dose (sorry) of education in each episode.

Check out an episode or two on Crunchyroll (see the link above). You’ll look at your next bout of the flu very differently.

More TV Talk

I seem to have survived the holiday season, something I wasn’t sure I’d be willing to make bets on along about December 26.

While survival is gratifying, I am still playing catch up on many of the things I normally do on a more-or-less daily basis. Little things like reading the newspaper and checking on my online news feeds, taking pictures of the cats, and, yeah, watching TV.

Worst Cooks, for example. We managed to watch the first episode of the new season, and it was great fun. Alton’s slightly sadistic sense of humor was exactly the goose the show’s format needed. Telling a competitor “I’m confident this won’t be the worst thing I eat today,” is a great change from the usual focus on the good and bad points of each dish. Sometimes the contestants need a reminder that they’re competing against the members of their own team as well as the other team.

And forcing them to use pressure cookers in the first challenge? Evil genius!

I remain optimistic for this season.

On the other hand, I haven’t gotten to the first episode of the new Kids Baking Championship. As far as I know, there are no changes to the show this season–certainly nothing on the level of a new host–but that’s fine. The current format hasn’t gotten stale, so the show remains on my to-be-watched list.

Doctor Who is still on our schedule, too. We caught the first episode of the new season, only five days late. Naturally, it had to be a cliff-hanger episode, leaving us looking for a timeslot for the second episode. We’ll get there.

I continue to approve of Jodie Whittaker’s take on the Doctor and roll my eyes at the brigades of haters who believe the inclusion of anyone other than straight, white males in the show ruins their childhood.

How can a change now ruin something that happened twenty years ago? Or even just three? Sure, it’s a show about time travel–among other things–but nobody’s editing those episodes they remember fondly.

And if they honestly think Jodie’s Doctor is wildly different than earlier versions, they’re remembering those episodes poorly. “Spyfall, Part One” gave us classic Doctor. The whole business of her reminding her companions about “Rule One” before totally ignoring her own advice could have come straight out of almost any Doctor’s playbook, right back to William Hartnell in 1963.

And one of the key complaints they have about Whittaker’s Doctor, the one that poo-poos her emotional relationship with her companions, is utter hogwash as well. Every Doctor since the 2005 revival has been tightly tied to at least one companion.

Since the reboot, the Doctor has explicitly been written as an outsider looking in. Admiring humanity and wanting to be close to it, but unable to take that last step. Look at the Doctor’s relationships with Rose Tyler, Amy Pond, and Bill Potts. By comparison, Jodie’s attempts to including herself in with her “fam” are weak sauce–or, more accurately, slightly-used dishwater. (I’m looking forward to the inevitable point where the current companions start to leave her. From a writer’s perspective, the way the breakups are handled and whether we’ll get a series with only temporary companions will be fascinating.)

But enough ranting*.

* Okay, a little more. I’m well aware of the complaints about lack of LGBT+ representation and ageism. The difference between the complainers I’m bitching about up above and these is that the former group are looking backward, trying to force a reversion to a show that never was and wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as what we got. The latter group is looking forward, trying to make the show we have better and more in tune with the real world.

One group points to lower ratings and says, “Ha-ha! You’re getting what you deserve! I hope you get canceled soon!” The other group points to lower ratings and says, “Hey, fix this problem and the ratings will go back up, because I and my friends will start watching again.”

I know where my sympathies lie.

Rant over, now for sure.

And, to wrap this up on a good note (pun intended), “Spyfall, Part One” gave us one of the best musical bits in recent Doctor Who memory. Give another listen to the background music at the beginning of the “Going to the Party” scene and tell me it isn’t a dead ringer for every James Bond theme you’ve never heard.

I appreciate a show with a sense of humor.

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.

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.