2021 in the Rear View

Overall, 2021 was a step down from 2020 for me, which is saying something since 2020 featured the outbreak of a global pandemic, and living the whole year not knowing if you’d catch COVID and die or end up with lifelong health problems.

2021 did have a few good points. First, the U.S. government transitioned from being run by racist, fascist, corrupt, incompetent Republicans to being run by garden-variety politician Democrats, which has been a huge step up. Also, COVID vaccines got rolled out, considerably lowering worry for many people about getting seriously sick or dying from COVID.

On the other hand, COVID has continued to mutate (and will continue to do so, probably forever), so it’s unclear when or if the pandemic will ever end. And those same shit-for-brains Republicans have continued their efforts to topple American democracy, as well as spreading lies about the vaccines which have resulted in a third of the country not getting vaccinated – making it even less clear whether the pandemic will ever end.

And that’s just the big picture.

For me personally, 2021 was a rough year. As I’ve said before, I hate working from home, I hate not having my work and home lives separated, I hate not seeing my friends and cow-orkers regularly, I hate all of it. Vaccinations have helped, as we’ve been able to see some friends sometimes, but it’s a band-aid. It’s been a long slog, and it’s gradually getting harder for me to keep slogging. And we surely have at least another year of this to go.

Last year we lost our elderly cat Roulette, but also very suddenly lost our other girl kitty Sadie. Those were a couple of big blows to take in the space of just a few months. I still miss Sadie coming to tuck us in at night.

We’ve had a couple of unexpected big stressors, too. I don’t often mention our vacation house on the east coast, but the insurance company told us we need to replace the house’s siding to retain coverage. We decided to also replace the windows which were in bad condition, but once the siding was off we ended up in an ongoing cascade of additional things to fix (for example, the bathroom needed to be gutted for multiple reasons). Debbi has been handling most of this, and the contractor we’re working with has been great, but it’s still been an ongoing project with many decisions and no small expense. (And doing all of these remotely has been about as convenient as you’d expect.)

And then just before New Year’s my Dad fell, and while he didn’t sustain serious injury (for instance, he didn’t hit his head), he did end up going to the hospital. Coincidentally my sister was there and was able to help. But we’re still waiting to hear what the road forward looks like, and I imagine it will involve me flying back east during the winter or spring to help out, which is of course exactly what I want to do during a pandemic.

Last and probably least, we almost made it a whole calendar year without ants coming into the house. Fortunately the exterminator was able to come out and do a perimeter spray within just a few days, so the ants are gone. (I really, really hate ants inside my house. It’s not a phobia, but it makes my skin crawl.)

This past weekend we took down our Christmas tree and about half of our fairly ludicrous outdoor light display, marking the end of another holiday season. It’s always a melancholy moment for me, moreso these days since I take a lot of nighttime walks and now the lights I look at are coming down.

Another year of this. Maybe more.

It’s getting harder.

Christmas Munchies

Debbi’s eye was better yesterday, but still bothering her a fair bit. We had plans to have dinner with neighbors and were on the fence about going, since we didn’t know how many people would be there and it didn’t seem like a great idea to mingle with a group of people we didn’t know in these days of Omicron. Eventually Debbi decided to stay home since she didn’t feel up to socializing with a group of people, and I decided to go.

While this was arguably a poor choice, it turns out we had misunderstood the plans, and in fact we were the only people invited, so Debbi ended up coming after all, and we had a nice afternoon feast with the neighbors. They’re Swedish and their family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve, including a large meal followed by opening gifts. So we met their kids, and their dog and cats, and all had a good time. All of the humans are vaccinated, so it was probably about as safe as these things get these days.

In the evening we indulged our annual tradition of driving around to view Christmas lights. This was a lot of fun except for the one popular street in Palo Alto which is always overrun with cars and was as bad this year as ever. On the other hand a well-known street in Los Altos was nearly empty when we drove through.

This morning we got up in time for Debbi to take a video call from her parents, followed by her baking homemade cinnamon rolls she’d prepared the night before – one of our newer traditions. We opened gifts (the kittens were thrilled with the wrapping paper), I talked to my dad, and we spent a lot of time sitting on the couches. Then we went for our traditional midday walk, where we got rained on (which is also sort of a tradition).

I cooked my traditional dinner – meatloaf and potatoes gratin – and as also seems to have become a tradition, some of the meat I bought on Wednesday had spoiled and I had to run out and buy more ground chuck. It took longer to make than I’d expected, but it turned out yummy in the end.

I went for another walk after dinner, where I walked through a short but very windy rainstorm, and now we’re sitting on the couch (again!) watching Knives Out on television, with passed out cats around us. And happily Debbi’s eye is feeling much better today!

Holiday Update

Apple closes down its corporate operations between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. I added a couple of days to either end of the break to give myself just over 2 weeks off, starting yesterday. And just in time, because I was pretty much out of gas a week ago.

So what’s new?

Debbi and I got our COVID booster shots in early December, which was a relief. The sites around here to make reservations are all terrible, especially the ones for pharmacies which require you to answer a long list of questions before telling you there are no appointments available. We tried a drop-in clinic near our house but the wait was at least an hour. It’s been bad. A friend says that Stanford Health has been a good experience – it’s just about the only site I didn’t try.

I’ve actually had 7 vaccine shots this year: 3 COVID, 1 tetanus, 1 influenza, and two shingles shots. I had negligible effects from all of them, except for the shingles shots, each of which took me out of work for the next day. It wasn’t a horrible experience (I have friends who said they were flattened for several days, especially after the second shot), but it was a bit rough.

Meanwhile, Debbi has been having occasional eye problems, which came to a head this morning and turned out – after a trip to the ophthalmologist – to be a bad case of dry eye, essentially her eyelid chafing on her eyeball. She’s slowly getting better, but it’s been a rough day for her. We’re glad it turned out to be a common and easily treatable problem and not something exotic or chronic.

We put up our outdoor Christmas lights the weekend after Thanksgiving, over 3 days. It’s getting a bit harder to put up the lights each year – for me, anyway, as I go up and down the ladder – so spreading it out over 2-3 days is nice. We’ve been seeing more and more lights going up around the neighborhood each year, which is nice. We probably have one of the larger displays – especially since we don’t have any inflatables – but we don’t compete with anyone. We just do what we want to do.

But then we started to get rain last week – our first rain since the big storms back in late October – and the circuit breaker for our lights started tripping. Strange since that’s almost never happened in the 10 years we’ve been putting up lights here. I had figured I’d need to unplug things to systematically figure out where the problem is, but as it turns out I went out to rake along the boxwood yesterday afternoon, and decided to raise up the net lights on those bushes so they weren’t so low to the ground, and the breaker didn’t trip during the showers last night. So maybe that was it somehow. Who knows.

We also put up the (artificial) Christmas tree, which delighted the kittens, who have been happily playing under it (and one time in it) since then. Until.

So Debbi’s wanted to replace our laundry baskets for a while, but we haven’t been able to find stackable baskets which fit in the space we have for them in the stores we’ve checked in the area. So she finally ordered them from Amazon. And they arrived.

In. Four. Separate. Boxes.

Obviously Amazon’s packing machines don’t have the concept of stacking four laundry baskets in a single box, they just grabbed each one, packed it in its own box, filled the extra space with brown paper, and shipped it to it. (It’s entirely possible that humans did this but didn’t notice the full order – possibly because depending on how the system works, four different people might have packed the four baskets.)

Anyway, aside from four large boxes (promptly recycled), we also ended up with a huge amount of brown packing paper, which drove all three cats bonkers for a couple of days, even Jackson, which has been pretty hilarious. And it’s distracted them from the tree.

(I imagine the pandemic is really testing the efficacy of our recycling programs, since our household is generating at least 50% more paper recycling than before the pandemic. No doubt many households are generating even more.)

We are not going away for the holidays again, and wouldn’t be even if Omicron hadn’t reared its ugly head. (Omicron looks like it should substantially accelerate the endgame of every human on Earth contracting COVID in the next few years, so that’s fun.) Hopefully next summer we’ll feel safe enough to go visit our families for the first time in over two years, but we’ll see.

Anyway, over the next couple of weeks I plan to have some downtime, do some house chores, hang out with Debbi, and get some kitty snuggles. The rain is supposed to stick around through early next week, which is nice – not only do we need it (ho boy do we need it) but I love rain. In particular it looks like it’s going to be a Wet Christmas, just like the song says.

The Great Filter

Earlier this year I participated in a thread on Facebook about where all the aliens are, since none seem to have contacted us – i.e., the Fermi paradox. Through this I learned about the Great Filter, a theory that we haven’t encountered aliens because a series of obstacles eventually prevents any species from being able to contact other planets before they die out.

Current events and (relatively) recent history have made me think that the Great Filter seems very plausible. Consider some of the threats to our species’ survival over the last hundred years:

  • Global thermonuclear war. We seem to have dodged this bullet (although, since the genie can never be put back in the bottle, there’s always some chance of this).
  • Resource Exhaustion. It’s unclear whether this will happen in a meaningful way, since it seems likely that we’ll transition to renewable energy before we use up all the fossil fuels, and it’s basically unknown whether we’ll use up any other key resources before we manage to get into space to get access to more.
  • Climate change. This is the current threat of great concern, and it is looking less and less likely that we’ll overcome it. It might not actually wipe humanity out – we could stop it and be forced to live farther from the equator for some centuries or millennia – but it could still result in a Great Pause in our species’ development.
  • Biological genocide. I.e., being wiped out through a virus or other biological agent, either that we developed, or which evolved naturally. There’s always a risk here, but my guess is that unless we engineer something ourselves it’s unlikely that this is the way we’ll go.
  • The Internet.

This last is the one that’s been on my mind lately, as we’ve watched a slide in many nations towards authoritarianism and fascism, combined with a growing populism rooted in conspiracy theories, disdain for science and education, and extremism. I think what’s been happening is that the advent of the Internet – and generally global, cheap mass and one-to-one communication – has amplified the voices who believe in those things, while taking advantage of an innate tendency to treat things that sound authoritative as being authoritative. Combining this with the human mind’s tendency to see patterns even where none exist, and I think this is pushing a significant and growing fraction of humanity down the authoritarian/fascist path.

Not that the pre-Internet days were perfect, of course (one large and obvious drawback being rampant gatekeeping by the dominant culture), but it seemed that the limits of communication before the Internet were a natural – if accidental – check on the ability of the more lunatic voices to spread and gain an audience. Again, not perfect, as plenty of lunatic ideas ended up being ingrained in human cultures (slavery, anyone?). And of course the Internet allows supports the spread of sane voices that were formerly on the fringe. But the results so far are not making it look like the Internet has been a good thing for humanity.

The Internet itself isn’t going to destroy humanity, but I think its effects make it more likely that something else will. For example, the crazy resistance to reasonable measures to combat COVID-19, including to simply being vaccinated. And even as we have mounting evidence of, and scientific consensus regarding, climate change, there is strong opposition to doing anything to fight it, including a large contingent who don’t believe it’s even happening. Moreover, authoritarian leadership – especially of the narcissistic, incompetent Donald Trump variety – could even revive the prospect of global thermonuclear war.

So my take on the Great Filter is that any time a civilization develops an Internet, it becomes a significant impediment to fighting threats to that civilization’s survival, making it much less likely that that civilization is able to solve the in-and-of-themselves huge obstacles to interstellar space flight. Granted, all of this is very human-centric, but there may well be characteristics of many (theoretical) sentient species which are susceptible to the Internet, even if they’re not the same characteristics that humanity has.

Even assuming developing interstellar civilization – or at least colonization – is possible, and even if there are (or have been) billions of technological civilizations in the galaxy, it doesn’t seem at all implausible to me that they’ve all killed themselves off before they got there.

And these days, it seems like we’re well on our way to doing the same.

(Postscript: If this sort of thing interests you, I recommend the audio drama Out of Place, the second season of which explores a dozen ways that humanity could go extinct. I think most of them are unlikely-to-implausible, but they arguably make for better drama than the ones above.)

Doctor Who: Flux

Doctor Who’s 13th season was one single 6-episode story titled “Flux”. I expect the three specials slated to air over the next year will be the last hurrah for show runner Chris Chibnall and star Jodie Whittaker as they turn the keys to the kingdom over to returning show runner Russell T. Davies and whomever he chooses as the fourteenth Doctor. Chiball’s run has been mediocre and pretty forgettable to date (see my previous season round-ups). Did Flux change that? Let’s find out what I think, with spoilers, after the cut:

Continue reading “Doctor Who: Flux”

This is as Good as it’s Going to Get

This is another COVID-19 entry. It’s a long one, and it’s not a very positive entry, because my feelings about it can be summed up thus:

In the United States, the pandemic is as over as it’s going to get. You may or may not feel that the pandemic is “over”, but I don’t believe it’s ever going to get more over than it is now. At least in my lifetime, and maybe in that of anyone alive today.

I’ll talk about why I think this further down, but I want to lead with what this means for us in our day-to-day lives. It means that the world isn’t going to become much more comfortable for you than it is now. Cases may go up and down, extra measures may come and go, but if you’re not comfortable doing things now, the only way you’re going to get more comfortable is by adjusting your own mind. And if you’re convinced that your current comfort levels are warranted, then what you’re comfortable doing now is what you’ll be comfortable doing for the rest of your life.

For example:

  • If you’re not comfortable eating at a restaurant, nothing’s going to change in the future to make you feel more comfortable. More likely I think there will be fewer restrictions on restaurant patrons with respect to masking and vaccinations over time.
  • If you’re not comfortable flying on an airplane, that’s not going to get better either. (From what I’ve read, flying is one of the least-risky group activities, but it’s not surprising that our lizard brains look at flying in a narrow metal cylinder with a couple hundred other people and think “Nope.”)
  • If you’re not comfortable going to work in a group environment – an office, a retail store, a warehouse, or wherever – that’s not going to get any better. (And I bet we’ll see employers start pressuring people to return to in-person work in the next year. Or, at the latest, in 2025 if the Republicans capture the White House and Congress.)
  • If you’re not comfortable going to an art fair, movie, concert, wedding, funeral, or other event where there will be lots of people around, indoor or outdoor, masked or not, don’t expect much to change in these areas either.
  • If you’ve been looking forward to getting to the point where you don’t need to wear a mask to suppress the transmission of COVID, don’t expect the need for that to change either. But don’t be surprised if lots of other people decide that they’ve had it with masks and just stop wearing them unless required to (and also expect requirements for masking to slowly go away over the next few years).

When people talk about “the pandemic being over” or “the pandemic not being over yet”, or “the pandemic ending”, I don’t think things have appreciably changed in the U.S. in the last few months, and I don’t think they’ll appreciably change in the future – ever. There’s never going to be less need for mask wearing, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds or indoor events, until and unless there’s some significant unforeseen development.

I am not an infectious disease expert, so there may certainly be important things I don’t know. But here’s why I feel this way:

  • A little under 60% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. This is likely to continue rising slowly (with a slightly larger bump this month and next as 5-11 year olds get vaxxed), but I think it’s likely that we’ll peak at around 70% vaxxed. I suspect that last 30% will never get vaccinated voluntarily.
  • More importantly, only about 42% of the world population is fully vaxxed, and that also needs to get much, much higher. I bet it will peak at around the same level as the U.S. – around 70% – or possibly a bit higher if more authoritarian governments impose vaccinations requirements than prohibit them.
  • The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID is never going to go away. Even if we manage to eradicate it among humans – which I doubt we will – it’s likely to survive in animals (such as deer) and retransmit back into humans periodically.
  • The existing COVID vaccines are great at preventing infections and preventing serious symptoms against those with breakthrough infections, but it doesn’t eliminate transmission even among the vaccinated, and I believe we’ll never get to the much-greater-than-90% vaccination rate we need for vaccination to eradicate the virus among humans.

An important caveat is that I believe all of this to be the case assuming there are no unexpected developments. By “unexpected” I mean developments that we either don’t know about or don’t expect will happen. I think we can reasonably expect the world to get to a 70% or slightly higher vaccination rate, but getting to a rate of true herd immunity – above 90% – does not seem like something that’s reasonable to expect.

I think there are reasons for hope among things we could imagine happening, though. Here are some of those unexpected developments which could make a significant impact:

  • Better treatments for COVID symptoms are developed. There are two anti-viral pills which have been announced recently, and hopefully there will be more. This could mitigate the impact of people getting infections to the point that it really is like getting the flu rather than getting a dripping illness (not that the flu is anything to laugh at). It’s not clear to me that this will really move the needle in changing the need for masking, etc., but it might.
  • New, more effective vaccines are developed. I doubt anyone who isn’t researching such vaccines or in close touch with such people has any sense whether this is likely to happen. I’m optimistic that we will create better vaccines, maybe even one which prevents transmission or otherwise significantly reduces the spread of COVID among humans. I think this is the most likely path to returning life to complete pre-pandemic “normal” (for the vaccinated, anyway).
  • We achieve herd immunity levels of vaccination. As I said, I think this is pretty unlikely, but it’s possible.
  • COVID evolves to be basically harmless to humans. There’s a long-standing theory that viruses can evolve in this way, but there seems to be little evidence that this actually happens. (This may be what happened to the 1918 influenza virus.)
  • Humanity evolves immunity to COVID. Seems unlikely, and if it does it might only happen for future generations.

The other wild card is that the virus itself could evolve in various ways. (In a sense Delta has been a boon, because I’ve read that its high transmissibility without being much more deadly than the original virus might be blocking more deadly mutations from taking hold. They can’t replicate and transmit fast enough to beat out Delta.) The really bad mutation, of course, would be one that reliably breaks through the vaccines. Another bad one is that it might become more deadly to the unvaccinated but not substantially worse for the vaccinated.

This brings me to one of the worst parts of all of this, which is the thousands – maybe millions – of people who are unable to be vaccinated. While for people who can’t be vaccinated because of a reaction to something in the vaccine there is some hope that a vaccine might be reformulated to eliminate that problem, for the many others who are immunocompromised such that the vaccine either wouldn’t work for them or might itself be harmful, I don’t see a way forward. This is of course one of the main reasons why we needed to squash the virus through universal vaccination, but as I said I don’t think we’re going to achieve a high enough vax rate to do that, and so the unable-to-be-vaccinated are going to be stuck. While they can mask and physical distance like anyone else – like we did before vaccines – neither of those is a solution, it’s just a stopgap measure, especially in a world where many other people – both vaxxed and unvaxxed – will likely be doing less of both in the future. I expect many tragic stories in the future. We as a society are failing these people because of the shitheads who choose not to get vaccinated.

(This is one reason that I have little sympathy left for people who are unvaccinated by choice, catch COVID, and then die or experience long COVID. They made their choice, and it was the one that basically said fuck everyone else.)

A few days ago the New York Times published this piece which includes interviews with Dr. Bob Wachter, whom I’ve been following on Twitter for his COVID analysis over the last year and a half. He – and the piece’s author – make some points which are similar to my thoughts here. The point that we will likely transition to looking at illness counts rather than case counts as the factor which dictates how we adjust our precautions seems right on to me. Case counts are going to go up and down among the whole population, forever, but more and more of those cases will be vaccinated people testing positive but having no significant illness as a result of the virus. What this means for masking, and testing, and other measures remains to be seen. What exactly happens probably depends on to what extent people are willing to endure those measures. I don’t really have a guess as to what will happen – after all, we put up with an awful lot of security theater nonsense in order to fly.

But I think we’re now at the point where the substantive, enduring measures we can take have been taken, and the next few years will largely be us – as individuals and as groups – deciding what our social structures are going to evolve into.

Personally, I am so, so sick of working from home. But I don’t relish the prospect of wearing a mask for a whole day in the office, either. But at this point, what happens isn’t really up to me.

Memory Lane: Audio Equipment

Earlier this year I finally got rid of something I’d owned for over 30 years, an Aiwa AD-WX808 dual cassette deck.

Growing up my parents – well, really my dad – had a component stereo system with a record player, receiver, and speakers. At some point one of them bought me an all-in-one record player/radio/tape deck which I used through high school. I remember the first LP I bought was the Return of the Jedi soundtrack. And during high school I bought a lot of 45 RPM singles, and a few LPs. As I say occasionally, I wasn’t really into 80s music, so I was more likely to have MTV or a local radio station on in the background than listen to music that I owned. I also had a few Walkman and competing products for playing tapes and listening to the radio, which I used pretty regularly. And at some point we got a boombox which we mostly used downstairs.

All this largely changed in college, when I discovered 60s and 70s rock music. My gateway drug – oddly enough – was Styx, but I soon moved on to The Who and various progressive rock groups. A guy down the hall from me had a boom box with a compact disc player, and I bought a few CDs that year.

That summer – 1988 – I researched and bought my own component stereo system. If I recall correctly, I bought the four components at two now-defunct stores, Lechmere and Tweeter. Tweeter was an audiophile store and they recommended a receiver and speaker set, while at Lechmere I bought a CD player, and the Aiwa tape deck. I shlepped this set back and forth between home in Massachusetts and college in New Orleans every year, first by shipping everything (along with my Macintosh SE) – amazingly nothing ever got damaged – and in 1990 by driving them in my new (to me, it was a 1987 Honda Civic) car. The Aiwa tape deck was great for copying tapes that for some reason I didn’t have on CD, and its recording quality was quite good (or maybe my hearing is just bad, hard to say). The going rate for a component stereo at the time was around $300 per piece, so I probably spent $1,200 on the whole system. Seems kind of ridiculous today, when you can buy a powerful laptop computer for less.

Over the next ten years I bought hundreds of CDs – and custom-built cases to hold them. My car also had a tape deck, and I regularly put together mix tapes to listen to in the car, while I usually listened to whole albums at home. At some point I replaced the CD player with a 5-disc changer. I remember there were also 6-to-12 disc “magazine” models, which were supposedly less reliable. In hindsight I bet that was technically true, but probably not enough to matter.

(My vinyl records from high school didn’t make the transition to the new media era, but there wasn’t much there I missed. I’ve always thought vinyl was a cumbersome and mediocre media format anyway. CDs are a thousand times better.)

At some point I bought a Discman, and an adaptor to be able to use it through the tape player in my car, but portable CD players were pretty clunky and skipped easily (this got better over time, but was never great), so I didn’t use it a lot.

Of course, all this changed again between 2001 and 2003 with the advent of iTunes, iPods, and eventually iPhones. I ripped all my CDs into iTunes – several times as the encoding tech got better, actually. I kept the CD player for a long time, but it didn’t get much use after that. I did buy a new receiver and speakers since the old ones were nearing the end of their lives. Once I bought some Airport base stations for wi-fi in my house, I connected one of them to the receiver and then if I wanted to listen to my music library I would play it from my laptop to the receiver. I also played our television’s sound through the receiver.

In 2009 I bought a new LCD television with much better sound, and then using the receiver for the TV sound was just a pain in the ass. We still used it for the radio, until 2017 or so when Debbi got a Google Home and we started using that instead since it was so convenient. A few years later we bought a HomePod, and the Google Home took an accidental spill onto the floor and never recovered. The HomePod’s radio streaming capabilities were a bit iffy at first but they’ve gotten a lot better.

A few years ago I went through my CDs – which had been sitting in boxes since we moved to our current house in 2011 – and sold over two thirds of them to Rasputin Music, getting quite a bit more cash for them than I’d expected. I kept some by my favorite bands, and have bought a few more since – maybe three or four per year, many of them the spiffy remastered editions of Jethro Tull‘s albums. But usually I just rip them and put them in a bookcase. At time point if I do another purge I assume I’ll just throw them out unless it turns out some of them have significant resale value on eBay. I got rid of one of the custom-built cases, and the other is sitting in the garage holding random crap.

Anyway, I kept the Aiwa tape deck for years, planning to eventually digitize a number of old audiotapes I have, most of them bootleg concert recordings that I bought at the Cape Cod flea market in the late 1980s. In particular, a few Jethro Tull (that name again!) concerts which are quite good. But I never got around to it. I did loan the unit to a friend who wanted to digitize some cassettes that he owned, though. Otherwise it’s mostly sat in a closet, literally gathering dust from the pan of cat litter in the same closet.

Finally I decided that I was just never going to use that unit to perform the digitizing – who knows if it even works anymore? Instead I bought a handheld unit from Amazon which I’ll use sometime (if I can remember where I stored the cassettes), and dropped the Aiwa unit off at the e-waste center.

There’s always some old junk lying around to get rid of. We hang on to things because we think it might still be useful, or because we have fond memories of using it, or because we can’t be bothered to get rid of it. Or all three. But for most things, sooner or later its time comes.

Online Personas

Recently I had a little conundrum about what persona I wanted to present in some online communities I’m in.

When I first got online – around 1989 – this wasn’t really a concern. I mean, it was for some people, I’m sure, but for most people the need and the tools weren’t really there. I didn’t participate in any dial-up BBSes, and on USENET and on mailing lists it was usually the case that your e-mail address and real name were right there in anything you posted. By today’s standards those communities were very small, and safety and privacy was not much of a concern for most people. There were a few communities which developed anonymizing posting systems, but they were in my experience very much the exception.

I had a brief fling with changing my display name on USENET in college to “Night Watchman”, because I was often online late at night posting stuff. It seemed cute at the time, but kind of dumb now.

(I have one friend who to this day refers to me as ‘rawdon@rex’, since ‘rex’ was the name of the machine I posted from in college. Machines in Tulane‘s computer science department were named after Mardi Gras parades.)

I’ve never been shy about posting under my own name, on USENET, on mailing lists, on social media, and on the web, including my journal. The one thing I’ve generally avoided doing is posting my address and phone number. Not that these things are particularly private – I have a listed phone number1 – but I figure that a lot of shenanigans and mayhem are largely because of opportunity and convenience, and I can save myself most of those potential headaches by not making it trivial for people to find me. (Of course I have no idea whether these precautions have had any effect at all.)

People who want to remain anonymous or appear under an alias is much more common today – and often for good reason – but it’s still not really a concern of mine. What triggered the recent conundrum is the growth of services where you only appear under a “handle”, which by convention tends to be short and memorable. The two sites I was interested in were Magic: The Gathering Arena and Twitch, which only show users under their chosen handle. I think this grew out of online video games of the 1990s and 2000s, and a lot of people who were active in those communities have consistent and often (?) memorable handles. I wasn’t active, and so I don’t – and I kind of envy them.

I could have simply used my name ‘MichaelRawdon’, as my handle – and on Twitch I did for a while. The advantage on Twitch is that when I interact with a streamer they could call me by my name. The disadvantage is that almost no one else uses their name as their handle, and so it felt out of place and a little lame. I also wanted both of those to have the same handle, so in the event I interacted with the same people on those platforms they would possibly recognize me.

My first attempt at a distinctive handle was ‘mRawd’, but that didn’t feel right. After several months I hit on the following: My account on Twitter is mrawdon, and I realized I could capitalize it like “MrAwdon”, in theory pronounced like “Mister Awdon”. That felt a little clever and a little more sensical, so that’s what I went with.

It’s worked out… okay. A couple of Twitch streamers end up calling me “Mister”, which is a little odd but at least a name they’re not stumbling over. So I think I’ll stick with it for a while.

(Why didn’t I go with ‘rawdon’? Mainly because it’s already taken on Twitch and on Twitter, and maybe even on Arena. It’s an uncommon name, but common enough that it’s already taken in many online sites.)

I wish Twitch did what Discord does, which is allow you to choose a default handle, but then to customize your display name for each channel. I’d definitely make use of that by having a recognizable handle for Twitch channels who know me from other area (e.g., who I interact with on Twitter, or support on Patreon), but having something else for most streams where they have no reason to know me.

Anyway, maybe too many words about too small a subject. I bet hardly anyone else ever worries about this sort of thing.

1 Kids, ask your parents what a ‘listed phone number’ is.

Lurching Into Autumn

It’s been a little while since I last wrote here. Well, of course I have two or three mostly-written entries which maybe I’ll put up sometime, or maybe I’ll decide they’re kind of dumb since I don’t have the forward progress which made me write them in the first place. We’ll see.

The first half of October has been the Bay Area slowly lurching into Autumn. Some cool weather, then the last two days temps in the 80s, and today it cooled off into the 60s, and tonight we got out first light rain of the season (with a couple more days forecast over the next week). It wasn’t much, but with California in the midst of another terrible drought, anything helps.

We put up our Halloween lights a couple of weeks ago. I picked up a little smiling grim reaper to add to our (honestly rather small) display- I enjoy Target’s assortment of Halloween decor. Other homes in the neighborhood have been putting up lights too, but there are fewer than there were last year. I think we’ll be able to do a closer-to-normal Halloween night for trick-or-treaters this year, though we’ll likely still take some precautions.

Speaking of normal, we’ve been acting a little more normally lately. For most of the pandemic I was doing the grocery shopping, usually going to the store at 2 pm on a Tuesday to avoid the crowds. Now we’re back to going on Sundays after going to the farmer’s market. We’ve also gone out to eat a bit more, though always eating outside, and trying to avoid the craziest times for the crowds. Last night we had an early dinner at Cascal, which was great.

We lost another local restaurant, although this was a branch of a chain, Opa!, which was a place I enjoyed ordering lunch. They’d had a Help Wanted sign up for a while before they closed, so I wonder if they closed because they couldn’t get staff. And today our nearby Starbucks closed at noon due to staffing problems. Hopefully we’ll see businesses raising wages more soon to attract workers. They’ll have to, because I think there’s a worker shortage because of people who have to stay home due to COVID.

We’ve gotten together with friends a couple more times – including a last-minute visit to some friends who brought out their copious selection of gin for us to try. We also bought new patio furniture which we were able to enjoy for a few weeks, but we’ll likely cover it up soon with more rain coming up.

And my nemesis, the sycamore tree that shadows our front yard, is starting to drop its leaves. Which means I’m going to be raking through New Year’s. I do like that tree, though.

So that’s the news here, such as it is. I hope the couple of dozen people who stop by here when I post are doing well.

Memory Lane: Hurricanes

Last week Hurricane Ida slammed the Louisiana gulf coast, New Orleans, several other southern states, and then the eastern seaboard, damaging infrastructure, flooding New York City, and killing dozens. While infrastructural improvements prevented the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans in 2005, I wonder how many more such hurricanes the city can absorb before humans are forced to abandon it.

I don’t have more significant thoughts about it than that, other than those which any climate change forecast could tell you. But I have experienced – or almost experienced – a few hurricanes myself, and thought I’d write about my memories of them.

The first Hurricane I remember was when I was growing up in Newton, MA, because I had to take our Welsh Corgi dog Punkin out for a walk in it. Since she lived from 1976-1988, that likely means it wasn’t Hurricane Belle, but rather Hurricane Gloria in 1985. But I don’t have a strong memory of it other than walking the dog, who I took maybe 3 blocks away to a mailbox (which hasn’t existed in that spot for decades now) and back home again. It was windy, and rainy, and kind of unpleasant to be in, and I mainly waited for Punkin to do her business so we could go back. I don’t even remember if we lost power, and the Wikipedia entry makes it sound like it was just a really strong storm by the time it reached Massachusetts, but not really anything special.

My next hurricane was an even bigger nothing, and I’m not even sure which one it was. My memory is that I was a freshman in college in New Orleans, and that we battoned down the hatches – including many buildings on Tulane University campus boarding up windows – expecting a hurricane to hit overnight. When we woke up the next morning we learned that it had turned at the last minute and hit Texas (Galveston, maybe?) instead. However, this would have been in the fall of 1987 – September or later – and no hurricanes from that season match my memory. The closest one I can find from my 4 years in New Orleans is Jerry in 1989. So it’s likely my memory is faulty.

(I also recall New Orleans getting socked with enough rain in the summer of 1991 to cause St. Charles St. to become a river running from uptown to downtown, and a heck of a lot of flooded-out cars around the city, but that doesn’t match up with any hurricanes, either. Fortunately my apartment had a well-elevated-and-drained driveway so my car was fine. It seems 1991 was the rainiest season in New Orleans on record, and the storm I remember was probably the June 10 one.)

Hurricane number three was a different beast, that being Hurricane Bob in August 1991. Every summer my family would vacation on Cape Cod, with my (divorced) parents each coming down for a week, and my sister and I staying for two weeks. This was the summer between college and graduate school for me, and my plan was to drive up from the Cape on Wednesday and spend the night with my father before driving to Madison, Wisconsin on Thursday. Bob, however, made landfall on Monday, August 19. Overall we were pretty lucky, since our vacation cottage wasn’t damaged, although it did lose power. At one point I walked down to Skaket Beach, a bay side beach which more-or-less faces Boston, and saw the dark clouds of the storm passing in the distance, with a lighter patch which I assume was the eye trailing it. This was during a period where the rain and wind had died down where we were, so I don’t know if the storm was huge and the eye was also huge, or if it was just coincidence.

Anyway, the next morning we walked out to the main road and saw downed trees lying across it as far as the eye could see, so it looked pretty grim for my ability to leave the next day. I don’t remember what we ate that day, but without power it was probably just sandwiches and chips or something.

To my surprise, the next morning all the trees had been chopped up and cleared off the road, so I was able to get out and drive all the way up to Boston. I don’t remember encountering any difficulties at all, and my dad had power and we probably even went out to dinner. And the morning after that I drove off to Madison as planned.

I remember calling my mom sometime later – probably the next Sunday after they’d driven home – and she said the power didn’t get restored until Friday, so I guess it wasn’t much of a vacation for her and my sister. Wikipedia says the Cape got the worst of the wind, but not a lot of rain, so I guess we got off easier than we could have.

And I think that’s it. I haven’t been back to New Orleans since I finished college, and our two trips to Florida (March 2007 and November 2015) have been hurricane-free, and none of my trips to Boston since then have involved hurricanes or their remnants either. As much as I enjoy rain and some wind – and I got both via some pretty big storms in the midwest when I lived there, along with some impressive lightning – I’m fine with having missed the big storms.