Beeting the Heat

Greetings from the San Francisco Bay Area, where the temperature is no longer into three digits.

Yeah, we had the hottest Labor Day weekend on record this year–several cities around the Bay had all-time highs, more had high-for-the-date days. The gods were punishing the Bay Area for something I did.

Well, maybe I’m overly self-centered. It might have been something Maggie did. “But how,” I hear you ask, “do you know it was your fault?”

Simple: Our air conditioner broke. We’re not sure exactly when, but it was either Friday evening or Saturday, when the heat was at its worst. Big thanks to our HVAC company for having somebody working Monday and for keeping their holiday service surcharge to a reasonable level. Of course, by Monday, temperatures were back down to normal levels–but we still had to run the AC for a couple of ours to get the temperature indoors down to normal.

Of course, the problem with this sort of punishment–smiting everyone in the area over the sin of one person–is that the gods never drop you an email to tell you what it was you did wrong. Which means you’re doomed to make the same mistake over and over again. So if you hear that the state of California has finally fallen into the Pacific Ocean, you’ll know whose fault it is.

So it wasn’t quite a restful a holiday as we might have hoped, but it wasn’t an entirely unmixed curse. Rufus, no fool he, spent most of the weekend in the master bathroom, one of the few rooms in the house with an uncarpeted floor. Not only is that new territory for him, it meant he had to interact with the other cats more than usual. As a result, this morning has been unusually free of feline drama.

Meanwhile, the Oakland As were so happy to not be playing in the heat here, that they kindly lost all three of their games in Seattle. Of course, once they left Seattle, Houston moved in. And it seems that floods don’t induce the same sort of friendly attitude. Can’t have it all, I guess.

And, on a more personal note, I discovered a new taste treat.

Yeah, I know. About four-fifths of you are making gagging noises. I’m well aware that beets aren’t a popular food item. I’m fairly sure they remain in salad bars almost entirely through inertia–and vendors not wanting to spend the money to retool their production lines.

But for those of us who appreciate a good beet, Trader Joe’s offering is rather compelling.

The beet flavor is present, but not so strong as to be overwhelming. The texture is similar to a thick-cut potato chip, crunchy on the outside and a little chewy in the center.

And check that ingredient list! How can I resist a single-ingredient food? No salt, no preservatives, just pure beety goodness. Yeah, there’s some natural sodium, and a lot of potassium–though that may be a good thing for some–but they’re low fat and cholesterol-free. Even better, unlike most prepared foods, the stated portion size is generous. Trader Joe considers these to be single-serving containers, but I got two quite adequate snacks out of the package. And they’re clearly somewhat dubious about their own recommendation, as they included a zipper seal on the package.

Two tasty snacks for three bucks? That’s a darn sight cheaper and healthier than the vending machine. Even if you’re not normally a beet fancier, you ought to give these a try. You might just be converted.

Fair to Middling

We’ve moved from July to August, and you all know what that means. No, not that. It’s county fair season again.

After a year’s absence, we returned to the Solano County Fair. And, much as I hate to say it, it wasn’t as good as last time.

There was a complete absence of Xathanael Todd in the art show. Yes, there were some nice pieces–I particularly liked Stephanie Liu’s “Succulent Pot Costume”–but nobody stepped up to give us the sustained off-kilter artistic vision Xathanael did so well.

Once again, the fair failed to provide strawberry shortcake.

And, while I can’t give firm numbers, I’m fairly sure there were fewer critters. Certainly the carousel lacked anything more than boring horses, but even the live animals seemed sparser than I recalled.

All that said, don’t think I didn’t have a good time, because I did. Just not quite as good as in 2015.

A few highlights.

This year was the year of the rabbit nose twitch for me. I just found them insufferably cute and took several videos.

I’ll note in passing that some of the artwork that wasn’t part of the art show was more entertaining than what was. In particular, the deconstructed chicken–part of an educational sign detailing “The Digestive System of Chickens”–should have gotten a blue ribbon.

It’s the row of violets on the ledge below the art that really puts it over the top.

This year won big on music. Two years ago, we didn’t hear anything particularly distinctive, but this year we caught Metalachi.

Full disclosure: We didn’t stumble over the band at the fair, we went intending to catch their show.

Heavy metal done mariachi style. Great concept, well executed. I’d like to hear them take on some original compositions. There is, after all, only so far you can go as a cover band. But in fairness, not every musician is a composer. And on that subject, need I mention that I was hoping they’d go for the multi-cultural trifecta and do a BABYMETAL number? I was and they didn’t. Perhaps a bit too much to hope for.

The video isn’t great. Between the backlighting and the demolition derby next door, I’m surprised it turned out as well as it did. If you go in search of better videos, be warned that they tone down the act for the family friendly venue.

And then there was the food. The “Shark on a Stick” folks were back, but I again declined. A BBQ beef sandwich did quite nicely for protein and vitamins and set me up well for the obligatory “only at a fair” food dessert.

Behold this wondrous offering from the “Everything Deep Fried” food truck!

Granted, the caramel comes off as something closer to syrup, but frying the sandwich turns the peanut butter into a delicious oozing mass and the jelly is transformed into sweet streams of liquid. The cereal adds a nice note of crunchiness that the syrupcaramel can’t soggify. It was well worth the experiment, even knowing I’ll be visiting my doctor to discuss my cholesterol later this week.

In all, despite the minor disappointments, it was a successful day at the fair. And remember: the Solano County Fairs for ewe.

No, really, it says so right over the entrance, lack of apostrophe and all!

Catnip It Ain’t

Warning: Spoilers abound. But you may not care.

The most noteworthy aspect of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may just be the title. Never before in my experience has a title so accurately summarized everything that’s wrong with a movie.

It’s worth noting that when Maggie and I got home from the theater, the cats wanted to know if we had brought them any valerian. If you didn’t know, valerian (the herb) has a very catnip-like effect on cats. It also stinks to high heaven and tends to depress the human nervous system. The parallel is obvious.

Though, to be fair, Valerian (the movie) doesn’t stink that badly. It just takes a few wrong turns.

Let’s start with that title. Alpha is a “city of a thousand planets” in the same way that New York is a city of eight million stories. It’s a city. In space. With, so we’re told, residents who come from a thousand different species. It’s marketing. Hey, if the main character drops by to visit me in the sequel, we can call the movie “Valerian and the City of Pride and Purpose”. That almost sounds exciting.

Oh, and let’s not forget about Laureline. Although whoever named the film sure did. The original comics that the movie was based on are called “Valerian and Laureline”. And she gets nearly as much screen time as he does. But she’s apparently not enough of a marketing draw to make the title. Which pretty well summarizes her role in the film, come to think of it. When Valerian isn’t around, Laureline is, by and large, a kick-ass character. And as soon as he comes into the room–whether she knows he’s there or not–she turns into the archetypal helpless movie female. Hell, he doesn’t even have to be in the same room: just talking to him on the radio turns her into such a ditz she doesn’t realize she’s holding a map upside down! (Insert laughter here–because the audience in the theater didn’t supply any.)

I wanted to like the movie, even if it was only in a “turn off the brain and enjoy the pretty pictures” way. And for the first ten minutes or so, I thought I might. Opening with a space scene a la 2001 set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was a lovely way to invert a SF film trope. And then the opening narration blew away my suspension of disbelief.

We’re told that Alpha, the space station that grew up around the International Space Station, got so big that its gravity endangered the Earth and it needs to be moved out of the way. This is wrong on so many levels, I don’t even want to discuss it. I may have missed a couple of lines because I was banging my head against the seat in front of me, but the next thing I remember is that after several centuries, Alpha has moved “seven hundred million miles”. Big whoop. That’s not even as far as Saturn. From the perspective of a culture that routinely moves from one solar system to another in minutes, covering 700,000,000 miles in three or four centuries is like me walking up to the mini-mart on the corner.

Yeah, I get it. The film is based on a comic book, something not known for scientific accuracy. But how difficult would it be to change a couple of sentences to avoid the worst clunkers. Send Alpha out on a mission to spread Earth’s culture to the universe, and change “700,000,000 miles” to “7000 light years”. Problems solved–still sufficiently comic book, but not as grating to the ear.

Then there was the mcguffin, the living 3D printer that can create unlimited copies of anything–including fully-powered batteries that hold enough juice to power a spaceship–with no raw materials. And what good is having the critter going to do the Pearls? Unless they can convince it to duplicate itself–something that seems unlikely, given the film’s apparently universal rule that all species have two sexes–someday it’s going to die and take their utopian civilization with it.

And I haven’t even touched on the main plot, which relies so heavily on coincidence and character stupidity that it almost makes Star Trek Beyond seem logical. Almost. At least there’s no motorcycle.

All that said, still, the visuals are spectacular, the set pieces are at least competently executed, and there are some nice auditory jokes hidden in the music. The film’s biggest problems are that it’s too long and its plot not only makes no sense, but brings the film to a screeching halt every time it comes to the fore.

Fortunately, one fix would solve both problems. Trim the film by thirty minutes by simply cutting out the plot. The remaining travelogue and explosions would come in at a comfortable hour and three-quarters, and make a perfectly serviceable late night film.

It’s About Time

Oh, noes! The next Doctor is going to be a woman! Oh, the horrorz!

There’s a lot of that sort of thing floating around the Internet these days. Makes me want to find a wall and apply a forehead to it it. Repeatedly and forcefully. Maybe mine, but those of the people making the comments seem more in need.

Okay, I know there are some non-SF fans reading this, so let me take a moment to explain.

Doctor Who is a long-running show from the BBC–it’s been running since 1963, albeit with a rather long hiatus in the 1990s and early 2000s. I won’t attempt to summarize nearly forty years of storytelling; the important thing here is the title character. Over the course of the show, The Doctor has been played by twelve different actors. Doctor Who is not, of course, the only show to replace a star. What made it nearly unique is that the change was written into the show: acknowledged and made a part of the character.

From a storytelling standpoint, it was a brilliant idea, and undoubtedly a major contributor to the show’s longevity. Changing performers without trying to find someone who looks and behaves like the previous person in the role allows writers and actors an opportunity to take the character in a radically new direction every few years. Even better, the backstory developed to explain the changes has been a rich source of story ideas.

Every Doctor’s retirement since Tom Baker’s in 1981 has been accompanied by speculation that the newcomer might be a woman. That’s apparently Baker’s fault. Supposedly (and I can’t validate this), when he announced his retirement, he wished his successor, “whoever he–or she–might be,” good luck.

But until now, every Doctor has been male. Old, young, or somewhere in between. Oh, and white. Let’s not forget that.

Suddenly, everything’s changed.

Well, no. Not really. The Doctor will still be The Doctor, dedicated to preserving Earth and the universe from the forces of…well, not necessarily evil. Perhaps “chaos,” “entropy,” and “greed” would be better tags.

It’s been a long time coming, but remember what I said about “radically new directions”? It’s time to let the show and the character do something new. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt a quite literal chill of excitement watching the trailer introducing Jodie Whittaker.

In the end, it comes down to storytelling. If the writers use Ms. Whittaker as a plug-in part and keep retelling the same old stories, it’s a waste. If she’s used as an excuse to show some same-sex snogging, it’s a lost opportunity. But if they truly embrace the chance they’ve been given, we’ll get a freshness we haven’t seen since the show’s reboot–pardon me, “relaunch”–in 2005.

To those crying doom and gloom, I say, “Give it chance. If it sucks, stop watching.” And to those who are complaining because we still haven’t gotten a Doctor of color, I’d add, “Hang in there. It’ll happen. And I’m quite sure it won’t take another forty years.”

Semi-Vacation

About the time this post goes live, I’ll be boarding a plane, heading for Sedalia and the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.

I’ve uploaded Feline Friday posts for the next two weeks–I know better than to leave y’all with no cats–but don’t count on anything else. There may be a few short posts. There may be a few tweets (If you’re not following me on Twitter, why not? I’m @CaseyKarp over there.) Or not. We’ll see.

Regular posting will resume June 13th.

Google I/O 2017

So, yeah, Google I/O again. Are you as thrilled as I am? You’re not? But they’ve announced such exciting things!

Well, OK, when you come right down to it, they really only announced one thing: Google’s focus is changing from “Mobile first to AI first”. And let’s be honest here: that’s pretty much what they said last year, too.

But what does AI first look like?

For starters, Gmail will start doing “Smart Reply”. This is the same idea as in last year’s Allo text messaging app: pre-written, context-sensitive messages. I haven’t used Allo–anyone want to comment on whether the smart replies are any more accurate than the word suggestions when you’re typing?

Potentially more exciting is their application of image recognition technology. Their example is being able to take a picture of a flower and have your phone tell you what kind it is and whether it’s going to trigger your hay fever. Since I’m sitting here sniffling despite massive doses of anti-histamines, I have to admit that actually sounds like a good use of technology. Presumably over time, the tech will learn about non-botanical parts of the world.

Yes, I’m kidding. It can also recognize restaurants and show Yelp reviews. That’s nice, but not nearly as useful. Ooh, and it can translate signs. (Their demo showed Japanese-to-English translation. I want to know if it can handle Corporate-to-English.) If there are dates on the sign–for example, an ad for a concert–it can add the event to your calendar. It can even ask if you want it to buy tickets.

Basically, it’s playing catchup with Alexa–including adding third-party programmable actions and voice calling–with a few little steps ahead of Amazon.

Case in point: Google Assistant, the brains behind “OK, Google” is getting more smarts and the ability to hold a typed conversation. So you’ll get a running record of your interaction, so when you realize you’ve been following one association after another, you can scroll back and check the answer to your original question. Could be handy, especially if you get stuck on TV Tropes.

Moving on.

AI first also means Google Photos is getting added smarts, starting with something Google calls “Suggested sharing”. Yup. It’ll nag you to share your photos with the people in them. 95% of the pictures I take seem to be of the cats. Is it going to create Google accounts for them so I can share the photos? Or do they already have accounts?

More seriously, if Google knows who the people are, but they’re not in my address book, will it still urge me to share the photos? Sounds like that’s an invasion of privacy just waiting to happen.

Moving on.

Android O (no name announced yet, naturally. They’ll undoubtedly wait until release time for that) is getting the usual slew of features and tweaks. Picture-in-picture, notifications on Home screen icons, improved copy/paste. That last will not only let you select an entire address with a single tap, but offer to show it in Maps. I’d rather it offered to add it to my contacts for future reference, but maybe that’s just me.

Google also made a point of stressing that all of these new “AI first” features happen on your device, without any communication back to Google. That’s actually reassuring. I’m sure the results are reported back–your phone will tell Google you were checking on the hay fever potential of that weird flower that appeared in your back yard, but at least the actual picture won’t wind up in Google’s archives waiting for a hacker to drop by.

There’s also going to be an Android O lite. Called Android Go, it’ll be stripped down to work on cheap phones with limited memory. I wonder if that means they’ll start offering it for popular but abandoned devices that can’t handle recent Android versions. Nexus 7, anyone? Nexus 9, for that matter?

Moving again.

Yes, the rumors are true: Google is working with third-parties to launch a VR headset that doesn’t need a separate phone. Hey, anyone remember how big 3D was a few years ago? How long before VR is as critical to the entertainment experience as 3D?

And one last move.

Ever used Google to find out what movies are playing nearby? Soon you’ll be able to use it to find out what jobs are available nearby. Searching by title, date, and commute time. Why do I think the popularity of that last filter is going to be very strongly geographically linked?

Honestly, I’m not seeing anything here that gives me a major “gosh-wow” feeling. Some interesting possibilities and appeals to niche markets, yes, but most of what they’ve announced are obvious extensions of last year’s announcements. We can give them points for consistency, I suppose.

Off Track

Despite the snark and curmudgeonly grumblings I indulge in–to say nothing of the occasional grumpiness–I hate to write bad reviews.

But when I find a product that is so poorly designed and executed that it makes me want to buy an industrial wood chipper solely for the purpose of destroying the product, I feel I have a moral imperative to warn people away from it.

So let’s talk about TrackR. Yes, that’s really how they spell it: no “e” and a capital “R”. I’d be tempted to say that should have been the first warning sign, but it’s probably excessive to penalize a product for the excesses of the marketing department.

Anyway, TrackR sells a line of products which they say are intended to help you find lost items. In particular, the “TrackR bravo” (yes, lower-case “b”) is a “coin-sized” jobbie that you can attach to anything you’re afraid you might lose. According to their website, “It’s perfect for shared items like the remote, shared car keys or the family pet.”*

* I’ll skip the snark about the missing Oxford comma.

There are the obligatory apps–iOS and Android–that use Bluetooth to track the fobs. And not just your fobs. If your phone spots any fob, it uploads the GPS location data to TrackR’s cloud database. The idea is that if you lose your keys at the beach, someone else’s phone might find them, and you’ll get a notification on your device. You can also set geographic boundaries, so you’ll be alerted if a fob moves outside a particular area, and separation alerts to be warned if the fob gets too far away from your phone.

We got a set of four bravos, figuring to put them on the cats’ collars. Not so much to keep tabs on the cats, but to help find the collars when they inevitably pull them off and hide them under furniture.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? As usual, the problems are in the execution.

Let’s start with the bravo itself. “Coin-sized” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about 25% larger in diameter than a quarter and twice as thick. That’s a pretty large coin–though to be fair, it is lighter than a quarter. It’s larger than I’d want on my keychain, but that’s a matter of personal preference. Certainly none of the cats, not even little Sachiko, had a problem with the fob on their collar.

The bravo uses a coin-style battery, CR1620. It’s an unusual size, but not impossible to locate. And you had better locate a source. The fobs come with a battery installed and no insulating plastic. Of our four, one had a dead battery when we bought it.

But there’s no way to tell how low the battery is! Nothing in the app gives you battery charge information. There’s a speaker on the bravo (so you can trigger a beep when you’re looking for it), but it didn’t occur to anyone at TrackR to have a low-battery beep. There’s a a small LED as well (used in pairing the fob with a phone), but no low battery blink. The light in my car alarm’s fob blinks when the battery is low, and it’s not much larger than the bravo. There should be room for whatever circuitry is needed here.

Pairing the fobs with a phone is simple and seems to work well. The Android app kept forgetting about one of the fobs, so it was just as well that re-pairing was easy. After the fourth time I did it, I switched to the iOS app, which didn’t have the same memory issues.

It had other problems. Remember what I said about cloud-sourced location alerts? One of the four fobs was permanently stuck in “lost” mode. Every 30 seconds, the iOS app gave me a notification that somebody had spotted it.

The location was accurate as far as it went. But telling me it was somewhere in my house wasn’t very useful. Amazing though it might sound, I already knew Kokoro was in the house. And the twice-a-minute reminders that I couldn’t turn off didn’t exactly endear me to the product. I had to shut off notifications for the app completely to get it to shut up.

So much for cloud-sourced locations. But the phone-based location wasn’t an improvement. It uses Bluetooth, which isn’t directional. So it uses signal strength to tell you “You’re getting closer.” and “You’re getting further away.”

Great. Actually, that might not be a bad approach, except that it’s so sensitive to variations in the signal that it can switch from “warmer” to “colder” multiple times within a minute, even if both the phone and the fob are sitting motionless on tables a few feet apart.

This is not going to help find the family pet. It’s not even going to be of much use in finding your keys.

TrackR is aware of the general uselessness of their product in performing its intended purpose. Their solution? Sell you a new product!

Their website has been touting preorders for “TrackR atlas” (yes another lower-cased name) for months. The idea behind atlas is to plug a thumb-drive-sized gadget into a wall socket “in each room of your home.” Then you build a map of the house in the TrackR app. The atlas units triangulate on the bravo fobs to locate them more precisely than a single phone can.

Or maybe not. According to the FAQ, “TrackR atlas is accurate in rooms that are at least 3 x 3 m (10 x 10 ft).” So if your room is large enough, atlas will be “accurate”–but they’re not saying how accurate, even though the actual question that purports to answer is “How accurate is TrackR atlas?”

Nor do they give any indication of when those preorders will be filled.

But if you’re willing to pay more for the functionality you already paid for, you can preorder at $39.99 per atlas. That’s pretty stiff for “each room of your house,” so they’re offering volume discounts. You can buy four for the price of three, eight for the price of five, or ten for the price of six.

That’s make it $200 to cover my house. I’d skip putting atlases in the bathrooms and save a few bucks, but these are cats we’re talking about. They spend more time in the bathrooms than we do.

One final note: In order to register the fobs and get them into the cloud database, you have to give TrackR an email address. Care to guess how many emails I’ve gotten asking me to review them? You’ll have to guess because I can’t count that high. To compound the insult, I did review these pieces of junk in the app store. They’re still sending me emails.

Maybe they’ll find this review, but I doubt it. The evidence is overwhelming that TrackR can’t find anything.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Sideways

I suppose this could be considered a Short Attention Span Theater post, but I’m not caffeinated enough to think about that.

Step One: The Bay Bridge is still standi–no, wait, I’ve used that joke before. Never mind.

Seriously, the Bay Bridge did take a step forward this week. The bike path between Yerba Buena Island and Oakland is now open seven days a week. That’s actually a very big step.

Mind you, it doesn’t help would-be bike commuters. The path is only open from 6 AM to 8 PM. Any techies planning to bike in for their usual seventy-two hour week are likely to hit the barrier in one direction or the other.

Well, actually, they’re going to discover that there’s still no connection between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, so unless they’ve got an amphibious bike, they’re only going to get halfway to work. Of course, if they do have one of those gadgets, they don’t need the bike path in the first place. Never mind.

It’s unclear to me whether there’s a plan to open the path at night, and according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a bike path on the western span is at least a decade away. But a scenic ride that’s available seven days a week is a decided improvement over one that’s only open on weekends.

Step Two: I said Tuesday that I would be having signings outside of Seattle. I can now announce the second scheduled event.

On Sunday, July 16, I will be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I’ll talk for a while about Scott Joplin and ragtime music, do a Q&A session, and then sign books.

This is breaking news, folks. Borderlands doesn’t even have it on their website yet.

But if you can’t make it to Sedalia or Seattle, I’ll look forward to seeing you in San Francisco.

And who knows, maybe I can arrange a signing in a city that doesn’t start with an “S”.

Step Minus One: Have you heard that McDonald’s has invented a new eating utensil? You probably have, but if not, the inevitable commercial is here.

Yeah. The “frork”.

As one might expect, the Internet is up in arms about this. To the extent that there’s ever a consensus online, it seems to be that this is the stupidest idea ever.

Having waded through more dumb Kickstarter projects than I can count, I disagree.

Seriously. I just can’t get upset about the frork. Come on, folks, it’s an advertising gimmick. It’s served it’s purpose: getting people talking about McDonald’s.

It doesn’t look like a frork uses any more plastic than the usual fast food restaurant’s plastic fork/spork/spoon, so where’s the harm?

Mind you, it is–as McDonald’s admits–completely superfluous. Toppings that drip out of a fast food burger (or even a slow food burger, IMNSHO) are meant to be scooped up with and licked off of an index finger. Preferably your own–or your date’s*, but whatever floats your boat. Personally, I think fries should be eaten with the fingers as well, but I’m not dogmatic about it.

* But not in a Tom Lehrer/”I Hold Your Hand In Mine” kind of way, please. Even if you’re a zombie, that sort of behavior doesn’t qualify as proper restaurant manners.

So, yeah, not the end of civilization. Not even a serious attempt at bread and circuses.

Teasing

If you were hoping for the deep insights that are the usual fare here, you’re out of luck today.

No meditations on the impending end of civilization. No searing critiques of the latest cutting edge triumphs from [Apple|Google|Amazon|Microsoft|Samsung]. No detailed dissections of America’s culinary obsessions.

I mean, yes, it does have matters culinary and technological, and it probably portends the coming apocalypse. But it probably won’t change your life for the better.

Sorry. Better luck Thursday.

So, with that said, here’s the key thought: “This household runs on tea.”

Many people would try to make the case that it actually runs on cat hair, and there’s some validity in that view, but I think it would be more accurate to say that it runs over the cat hair.

Not to be too blunt, but we haven’t found a way to metabolize fur. Which is a shame, really, because if we could, we’d never have to buy groceries again. Though now that I think about it, it seems likely to be a fairly monotonous diet. Sure, each cat’s fur probably tastes a bit different, but we’re going to a have a largely homogeneous mix.

But I digress.

Tea. It’s not that we’re anti-coffee. Maggie likes it and drinks it on occasion. I don’t drink it, but I’ve been known to eat coffee-flavored foods. But for real, day-to-day motivation–read that as “caffeination”–it’s tea.

We keep a variety of blends and flavors around, but naturally we both have our everyday favorites. (I’ll leave you to guess who prefers which. No helpful hints from those of you in the know, please.)

Making tea requires hot water, and microwaving just doesn’t work out for the high volumes* we require. Putting the bag in cold water before nuking produces less than optimum flavor, and adding the bag after the water comes out doesn’t work well either–pouring the water over the bag into an otherwise empty mug is the only way to go.

* Forget those wimpy eight and twelve ounce mugs. We start at sixteen and regularly go as high as twenty-two or twenty-four ounces. We take our tea seriously.

So that means we need a kettle. We strongly favor cordless electric kettles. (A point of clarification: they’re not fully cordless. As with cordless cell phone chargers, there’s a base station which does plug into the wall. But the kettle itself has no cord; it sits on the base station and draws power either via induction or a physical connection that’s shielded from accidental contact.)

We had a scare recently when we thought the kettle which had served us reasonably well for several years had died. That turned out to be a false alarm, but not before we had gone shopping for a new one.

And we discovered there are a heck of a lot of poorly designed kettles out there.

Kettles that give you no way to see how much water is in them.

Kettles that don’t shut off when the water boils.

Kettles that can’t pour without directing steam onto your hand.

We finally settled on this model from the well-known-by-nobody “Chefman” brand.

It’s not perfect. The fill levels are clearly marked, but only in liters. We’re probably not the only Americans who’d like to see ounces or cups. The temperature control can only be set in five degree increments and can’t be set any higher than 212*. Nor is the manufacture all that solid: the high-tech blue LEDs that are supposed to illuminate the water while it heats failed after less than a week.

* Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a way to set the kettle to use Celsius temperatures to go along with the metric fill marks.

But it works, and quite nicely. The blue light doesn’t actually do anything, so we haven’t missed it–especially because the three-character LCD in the base does a fine job of lighting up the water. The heat and hold function works perfectly: we set the target to 205 and pour the water whenever we’re ready, instead of as soon as it boils. The tea tastes just as good, and we don’t risk it getting cold while we’re doing other things. Very handy for breakfast time.

I thought the built-in (but removable) tea infuser would be a useless gimmick, but when combined with the heat and hold setting, it actually makes very good iced tea. Keep the water boiling while the tea brews, then remove the infuser and let the tea cool before refrigerating.

Almost There

We’re almost there. The MLB preseason is just about over. Opening Day is Monday, though as usual, we’ve got Scheduled For TV games on Sunday–three of ’em this year.

As we all know, the beginning of the season means two things: cats are making predictions and this year’s baseball video games hit the shelves.

Let’s start with the bad news.

Check out this commercial for MLB The Show 17.

Assuming you haven’t fled, screaming in horror, let’s talk about what’s wrong with this.

For starters, did you notice that every single person in the commercial is “this guy” and “he”? I’m not sure whether Sony thinks that women don’t play video games or that there aren’t female baseball fans, but either way it’s a damned offensive assumption.

Then there’s the celebration of Manfred’s Kool-Aid. “Quick three inning games”? Are you kidding me?

And speaking of that guy–four jobs and twelve kids? Come on! As Groucho Marx once didn’t say, “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while!” Maybe if the dude hadn’t dropped $300 on a PS4 and $60 on the game, he could afford to quit one of those jobs.

I don’t play video games–not even baseball games–but I’m tempted to buy a PS4 just so I can boycott MLB The Show 17. The only thing stopping me is that Sony makes the console too.

Moving on.

Of course we’ve begun indoctrinating Rufus into the household traditions. He’s seen some baseball on TV (about ten seconds worth of highlights), so we figured he was qualified to make predictions for the 2017 season.

On the other hand, he is new to the concept, so we decided to start him off with something straightforward: predicting the final standings for the American League West. We’ll keep working with him during the season, and if his predictions pan out, we’ll give him a shot at the playoffs.

He used a treat-based methodology to make his selections.

The final prediction:

  1. Texas Rangers
  2. Houston Astros
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Oakland Athletics
  5. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

It’s not the order I’d have liked to see, but it’s not completely unreasonable, based on the preseason predictions. For comparison, FiveThirtyEight has Houston, Seattle, Texas, LA, and Oakland.

Rufus definitely enjoyed making his picks.

He was, however, rather less enthusiastic about the obligatory Wearing of the Cap that followed.