Star Trek: Voyager

As long as I signed up for CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Picard, something made me decide to watch Star Trek: Voyager. Longtime readers may recall that I was not a fan of The Next Generation, and I only made it through a season and a half of Deep Space Nine before I hit the eject button, as by that time Babylon 5 had sucked all the air out of the room for television science fiction. (It’s still the best SF series I’ve ever seen.) So I had little interest in Voyager when it debuted in 1995.

I think what made me decide to watch it this time was hearing that it had a bunch of time travel episodes, and I’m a sucker for a good time travel episode. Once I decided to watch that many episodes, I figured I’d draw up a list of the supposed best episodes and go through those. I didn’t really have the interest or patience to watch the whole thing, and while I assumed I’d miss out on some nuance of character development over the full 7 seasons, I also figured – based on the other “NuTrek” series between 1987 and 2005 – that characterization would not be the series’ strong suit. If the episodes I came up with ended up being surprisingly great, then I could branch out to some second-tier episodes.

We powered through the 48 episodes on my list (plus one we watched by accident) throughout June and July, and the verdict is: It was okay. Not great. Most episodes were watchable, none were great, none were outright awful. Definitely some disappointments, though. But I doubt I’ll watch any more than this. (It’s over a quarter of the series, which seems sufficient.)

Anyway, spoilers for a 20-year-old TV show in case you care about such things.

Here are the ones we watched, with my grades (on an A-F scale):

  • Caretaker (season 1 episodes 1-2) C+
  • Parallax (S1 E3) C
  • Time and Again (S1 E4) C-
  • Eye of the Needle (S1 E7) B
  • Non Sequitur (S2 E5) D+
  • Deadlock (S2 E21) B-
  • Flashback (S3 E2) C
  • Future’s End (S3 E8-9) D
  • Unity (S3 E17) C+
  • Before and After (S3 E21) B+
  • Worst Case Scenario (S3 E25) D
  • Scorpion (S3 E26, S4 E1) B
  • The Gift (S4 E2) C
  • Year of Hell (S4 E8-9) D
  • Message in a Bottle (S4 E14) B-
  • Hunters (S4 E15) C
  • Prey (S4 E16) C+
  • Living Witness (S4 E23) B
  • Demon (S4 E24) C-
  • One (S4 E25) C
  • Hope and Fear (S4, E26) C
  • Drone (S5 E2) B-
  • In The Flesh (S5 E4) C
  • Timeless (S5 E6) C
  • Dark Frontier (S5 E15-16) B
  • Course: Oblivion (S5 E18) D+
  • The Fight (S5 E19) D (this is the one we watched by accident)
  • Relativity (S5 E23) C+
  • Equinox (S5 E26, S6 E1) C+
  • Survival Instinct (S6 E2) B
  • The Voyager Conspiracy (S6 E9) B-
  • Pathfinder (S6 E10) C-
  • Blink of an Eye (S6 E12) B-
  • Memorial (S6 E14) B-
  • Collective (S6 E16) C
  • Unimatrix Zero (S6 E26, S7 E1) C+
  • Repression (S7 E4) C
  • Shattered (S7 E11) B+
  • The Void (S7 E15) B-
  • Homestead (S7 E23) C-
  • Endgame (S7 E25-26) B

I also erratically live tweeted watching these episodes, and if you care you can read my at-the-moment reactions in this thread.

For those unfamiliar with Voyager, the premise is that the USS Voyager is captured and taken to the Delta Quadrant by an alien called the Caretaker, along with a ship of insurgents from a group called the Maquis. The ships end up stranded there, with casualties on both, and integrate into a single crew on the Voyager, captained by Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who makes the Maquis captain Chakotay (Robert Beltran) her first officer. 75,000 light years away from the Federation, it will take them 75 years to get home, through entirely unknown territory.

“Caretaker” appeared on several best-of-the-series lists, and while it wasn’t a bad episode, I figured if it ended up among the ten best of the series then I was going to be glad I didn’t watch the whole series. Having not watched deep (heh) enough into Deep Space Nine I didn’t have any knowledge of the Maquis, but I could take them on principle. So the first half of the episode was mostly based around Tom Paris (Maquis) and Harry Kim (Starfleet ensign), which was enjoyable enough, but once the Doctor showed up, he overshadowed everyone else as a character.

I didn’t have many episodes in the first 3 seasons in my list, and what I did have wasn’t great. Despite being a bit padded, “Eye of the Needle” was the best episode of the first 2 seasons, with a nifty kicker which I wondered whether it would become relevant near the series’ end (it didn’t). “Before and After” was a touching episode which foreshadowed some future events, but unfortunately those didn’t really play out very satisfyingly either. The other time travel episodes were pretty mediocre. “Future’s End” was sort of the centerpiece of these three seasons, I guess, but it was basically another dumb “go back to the 20th century” yarn.

Maybe the best episode of the whole series was “Scorpion”, which introduced Seven of Nine. It was a solid adventure, gripping at times, with a fairly smart interaction between Voyager and the Borg. Species 8472 is (briefly) a breath of fresh air in introducing aliens which look and feel alien compared to the typical Star Trek fare, and it’s just about the only episode of the series which has a genuine “yeah!” moment when Janeway tells Chakotay to execute “scorpion”.

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but it’s a bumpy ride from here. The biggest change is that Seven of Nine sucks most of the oxygen from the room as far as characterization goes, as she far overshadows almost everyone else in interest and development. Tom Paris had been nominally the point-of-view character (certainly he seemed to be the one with the best mix of practicality and moral compass), but he gets smothered by Seven. I guess there’s a subplot which leads to him and B’Elanna Torres getting married, but Torres was not a very interesting character to me.

The biggest disappointment of the series was “Year of Hell”, touted as the best episode of the show in at least one list, and teased in “Before and After”. It was basically a big waste of time, the dumbest of time travel episodes (everything gets reset at the end), with lots of questionable decisions by Janeway and others. I guess it was trying to ramp up the tension and the stakes, but it was all so artificial and manipulative it was hard to take it seriously. And of course it didn’t track with “Before and After” at all.

“Living Witness” was a nice little surprise in the middle of a bunch of otherwise unremarkable episodes, feature the Doctor being revived 700 years later to help set straight what happened when the Voyager encountered a particular planet on their journey. While not an entirely original premise, it was one of the best executed of its type. I certainly enjoyed it more than the maudlin NextGen episode “The Inner Light”.

The biggest disappointment of Voyager was without a doubt the portrayal of Captain Janeway. While I guess they were aiming to show her as less perfect than Kirk or Picard, in a different way from Sisko, she was written very erratically, often headstrong and stubborn and honestly something of a tin dictator at times. “Year of Hell” had some of this, but the peak of Janeway stupidity was “Equinox”, in which the Voyager encountered another Federation ship, the Equinox, which had also been pulled to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker and had been trying to get home despite being a short-term research vessel. That ship ended up making some morally reprehensible choices to try to get home, which by the end of the first half left the Voyager in a bad spot. But in the second half Janeway goes around the bed, engaging in her own morally disgusting actions, and everything comes to an end when the Equinox captain has a change of heart for no apparent reason. A great set-up wasted by lousy writing in the second half.

(Several Equinox crew end up joining the Voyager, and I assume are never mentioned again – they weren’t in any of the episodes I watched.)

Though if she was frustrating as a Captain, her interactions with Seven and Chakotay were her high points. I suspect I missed the full nuance of her mentoring Seven to become a functioning human being, but even the glimpses I got were engaging. Jeri Ryan’s portrayal of Seven as imperious and haughty felt a bit off in her debut as a full Borg, but seemed more and more spot-on as Seven’s personality developed. Seven got many excellent moments, disagreeing with Janeway, confronting other Borg, interacting with one of the few children on the ship. She was surely the high point of the season.

Then, Chakotay ended up filling Tom Paris’ role from the first 3 seasons, as the ship’s even keel and moral compass. One of the final season episodes, “Shattered”, was a clever way of revisiting a number of key moments from the series without doing a clip show, but it was Chakotay as the featured character who held it all together, recruiting and convincing a much younger Janeway to help.

One interesting dynamic was Janeway and Chakotay meeting privately, since they were effectively the only people on the ship who were truly equals. They could air their differences, and argue all they wanted, as long as it was behind closed doors where their reports couldn’t see. This was one of those bits where the show almost seemed to understand what it had – a chance to show the power dynamics among Starfleet personnel, especially in a high-stake scenario – but it mostly treated it as an opportunity for NuTrek’s patented irrelevant character moments, showing things the character liked or remembered or experienced without really giving us a reason to care about it.

What about the rest of the cast? Well, in true NuTrek fashion there were just too many characters for all of them to be treated as major characters. The aliens Neelix and Kes were both somewhere between “just there” and outright annoying (though Kes at least got a good story in “Before and After”). Most of the rest just never really grabbed me, either. Torres was the typical “grumpy former rebel”. Paris also kind of filled that role, but with a vaguely self-destructive, sarcastic attitude, but I wish they’d played up a lot more. Ensign Harry Kim seemed like a cousin to Geordi LaForge, especially in that both of them were a little too earnest and a little too underdeveloped. The real missed opportunity was Tuvok, in whom Tim Russ turned in a pretty good Vulcan performance in the style of Leonard Nimoy, but the character himself was quite generic, and could have just been “Vulcan Science Officer #1”.

The only other character that worked for me was the Doctor, as Robert Picardo immediately brought humanity and humor to the role of the ship’s artificially intelligent medical officer. He got several good stories to play off of characters other than the main cast, including off of himself in “Equinox”. He was also the best part of “Blink of an Eye”, which was a fairly routine “this planet is in a faster time frame than our heroes” story elevated primarily by his performance.

Watching Voyager in 2020, it seems like a series of missed opportunities for story and character development: The ship just flits from place to place with no continuity. When the Equinox showed up I wondered just how they were able to make it through the obstacles Voyager had just barely cleared with far fewer resources. Sometimes they’re badly outclassed by the Borg, other times they’re willing to face them directly. The characters change in very small increments, but mostly there’s no character development here. All of this was par for the course for The Next Generation, making Voyager a natural successor to it, but it’s also very much an 80s/90s series with storytelling that seems shallow by today’s standards. It shows just how far ahead of its time Babylon 5 was compared to Star Trek.

The series finale, “Endgame”, is one of the very few episodes I’d seen before. When I did, I was glad I didn’t sit through 7 years of stories just for that. Watching it again, it works to the extent it does largely because of Kate Mulgrew’s performance as Admiral Janeway, who is driven to save her old crew but is also convinced by her old self to try something different. The story ends very abruptly, with no denouement, no winding down of the characters after they make it back to Earth, despite the backstories they’d all built up. It was pretty disappointing, and other than a brief appearance by Janeway in a NextGen film, and Seven appearing in Picard, I don’t think we learn anything about what happened to the others. (I imagine other media covered this, but I don’t care about anything other than what’s shown in TV and movies.)

So am I glad I watched it? Glad enough, I suppose. It wasn’t bad, but it always felt like the really good stuff was right around the corner… right up until the end, when it still felt that way.

The Last Crest

This is an entry about toothpaste.

I’ve been using Crest toothpaste for as long as I can remember, presumably because one or both of my parents used it when I was a kid. Sometime in the 90s, toothpaste manufacturers (or are they extruders?) started diversifying their products, and after trying various kinds, I eventually settled on Crest tartar control fresh mint gel as my preferred product.

(I don’t really strongly about paste vs. gel, but I’ve tried both cool mint and cinnamon flavors, and say “no thank you” to both of them.)

Back around 2013 I noticed that I could no longer find the gel in stores, so I turned to Amazon, which sold them – either directly or through third parties – in batches of 5-to-10 tubes. Annoying, but whatever. I also learned that you’re only supposed to use a pea-sized blob of paste to brush your teeth with, and while I still use a little more than that, cutting down made the tubes last a lot longer.

Unfortunately, my reprieve seems to have reached the end of the line: Amazon no longer offers this product, so I assume Crest has stopped making it. Which means sometime in the next week I will crack open the last tube of my favorite toothpaste, and sometime in the next eight months or so it will be gone. Alas.

Crest does still make something similar: Fresh mint gel+paste mixture with baking soda & peroxide whitening with tartar protection (and doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?). I bought a tube, and will try it out when this last tube is gone. It will probably be fine. Maybe just a touch weird, I don’t know.

I guess I should blame the millennials for ruining my favorite toothpaste, but probably it’s just good for me to try something new. Kind of.

Welcome Simon & Edison

Did you ever find yourself mostly stuck at home for months on end and think to yourself, “This would be an excellent time to adopt some kittens”?

Well, we are, and so we did. Meet Simon and Edison!

Simon is the brown tabby, while Edison is the black fellow.

We met them because one of my cow-orkers was fostering them, and we went over to visit a few weeks ago (pretty much the only people we’ve visited indoors since shelter-in-place started in March), and we thought they were pretty adorable. But, color-wise, they fit in with our three current cats, Roulette (calico), Jackson (gray tabby with white), and Sadie (white with orange tabby markings). And they had fun, playful personalities. So we decided to adopt them!

They are not brothers – Edison is about a week older than Simon according to their records, and they’re about two and a half months old. Simon has had a rough first couple of months, with some sort of bug that suppressed his appetite, and a foxtail or something in his right eye which left an ulcer. But he seems to have recovered from both, and is a little behind Edison in size and weight.

We brought them home two Mondays ago, and they’ve been mostly confined to a bedroom since then. And holy cow they are just about the most high-energy kittens we’ve ever had, other than maybe Blackjack. They zoom around their room and play and play and play. They’re changing practically every day, learning to jump higher, complaining that I’m not scooping their litter enough (we put a larger tray in the room after a couple of accidents), finding their meows, learning to snuggle, learning to clean themselves. Some switch flipped in Simon a couple of days ago and he’s become a lot more assertive, which has been adorable.

We’ve given them some supervised access to the rest of the upstairs, which they find delightful. They’re also very interested in the big cats, though only Jackson is interested in them so far, and somewhat cautiously, although we’ve played with all of them at the same time. Sadie will get a glimpse of them and then run away, while Roulette doesn’t like the cats we already had and I think is in denial that we have more.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been fun and games.

We took them in for their first appointment with our vet, for which they did very well. Both have put on a bunch of weight since they arrived (Simon is going to be a roly-poly guy, while Edison is going to be long and lean). That’s good, but less good is that they both have upper respiratory infections, and also conjunctivitis (or something like it). So we get to give them both meds for the next week and a half, and have to keep them separated from the other cats – and likely also change our clothes when we visit them – to keep the others from getting infected (especially Roulette, who will be 17 later this month; Jackson and Sadie are 7 and can probably deal with an infection if they contract it). Aside from the hassle for us and the disappointment for the kittens, it also means it will be a couple of weeks at least before we can start integrating the household.

Hopefully we’ll all come out the other side okay, but it wasn’t a great start to the long weekend.

As for the names? I’ve had “Edison” in my back pocket for decades waiting for the right cat, and I think this is the right one. We talked through a bunch of other names and both liked Simon. Of course, these are my fourth and fifth cats whose names end in “-on” (Jefferson, Newton, Jackson), so next time we’ll have to add a little more variety. But I think these names suit these kitties.

So despite the speed bumps, we’re very excited about these new additions. I’ve felt since they arrived like these are exactly the kittens we were meant to have.

COVID-19’s Darker Timeline

People sometimes joke (well, maybe they’re not joking) that this is “the darkest timeline”, between COVID-19, the idiots in the White House, the idiots in 10 Downing Street, etc. But it’s easy to imagine the development of COVID-19 taking even darker turns. I think about this sometimes, and wanted to write down some of my thoughts.

This is going to be a pretty dark post, so if this isn’t your thing, then you should skip it.

I have two what-ifs for you, one building on the other, and some thoughts on how they might go:

1) What if we never develop a vaccine?

This is possible. We’ve never developed a vaccine for the common cold, which can be caused by coronaviruses. We don’t yet know whether COVID-19 can be vaccinated against, and we probably won’t know for a year, if not several years.

What does it mean if we can’t develop a vaccine? Well, it means that almost everyone in the world will eventually contract the virus, which at a 1% fatality rate means that about 70 million people will die worldwide, 3.5 million in the United States, and many more will have serious health problems, probably for the rest of their lives. (I don’t know what percentage of infected survive but develop such problems.) I don’t think humans have the will to be able to go into the long-term total lockdown that would be necessary to prevent this.

It also seems likely that immunity to the virus provided by recovering from it won’t last forever – maybe it would last for 2-5 years. So if there’s no vaccine, then everyone who contracts it and recovers would contract it again a few years later. People who got seriously ill the first time around might not survive the second time, raising the fatality rate. And maybe people who came through fairly easily the first time would have a harder time the next time. Or the next. We might each of us end up living in fear of the day that the virus eventually hits us hard.

Moreover, we know that older people are more susceptible to the virus than younger ones, so as we age we may be aware that the next time we catch it could be the last time. People who before were expecting to live to age 70 or 80 might start thinking they’ll live 10 or 15 fewer years – and most of them might be right.

What might such a world look like? Well, we might just decide that since there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just go back to living the way we did before. Maybe we’d ramp up medical services to ameliorate the impact on individuals, but maybe not. (Many nations probably wouldn’t be able to. Some nations might not have the political will to do so.)

Alternately we might continue the lockdown for years, or forever, altering the way the economy works to accommodate. Office buildings would largely be a thing of the past, as would restaurants as we know them and many other social gatherings. Lots of things would move online further. We’d probably see a gradual reshaping of our cities and suburbs along lines it’s difficult to predict – more single-family homes? Fewer? No mass transit? As some have already predicted, people who work in jobs where they can telecommute would no longer be motivated to live near work, and housing prices in places like the Bay Area might plummet as people leave. On the other hand, jobs where people need to interact with other people might become less desirable – but no less critical. Maybe they’d start to pay better as a result.

Some people have already clamored for Internet to be classified as an essential service, regulated or free. That might be a necessity in such a world, but of course the need for medical care hasn’t prevented the U.S. from developing a for-profit health care system where people get raked over the financial coals for essential care. So Internet service might be no different. And even if it is, providing quality Internet service across as large a nation as the U.S. would take time, as many rural areas still have poor service.

If this were to continue into the future, one can imagine significant investments in robotic technology and other automation to serve people who are mostly living in their homes. Automated production, packaging, and delivery, overseen by a bare minimum of people. Restructuring of infrastructure around this sort of life, where cities have automated distribution centers and roads get narrower and mainly used by robots. At an extreme there’s the cheesy science-fictional idea where humanity becomes slaves to our machines, letting our physical bodies atrophy as we’re all living alone in our own homes without the interest in going anywhere. (Much like the “Seerons” in this comic book.)

But I digress. Maybe.

2) What if the virus mutates?

From what I’ve read, COVID-19 is not mutating very quickly. The reason we need to get a flu shot every year is because influenza mutates rapidly, so there are new strained every year. Fortunately we do a pretty good job creating influenza vaccines, though it’s not perfect. COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have this characteristic, and the strains we’re aware of seem to be closely related.

However, we could be wrong about how fast it’s mutating. Alternately, it might start to mutate faster. Either way, it might become more virulent, or more fatal, and mutations might also mean the temporary immunity gained from contracting one strain wouldn’t provide any immunity from another strain.

This isn’t necessarily game over for the human race. If the virus doesn’t become more fatal then it would just be a rougher form of the scenario above. If it does become more fatal, though, well… it probably means mass deaths, close to an extinction-level event. Our only hope as a species then is that it kills so many people that it kills off its ability to spread, and a few pockets of uninfected humans manage to survive long enough to restart the species, without being infected by the remnants of the virus left elsewhere. This is sort of how Europe survived the Black Death – exactly how things play out depends on how fatal the virus becomes.

A cheery picture, yes?

And so:

How likely is all this? Heck if I know. Probably not very likely. I choose to be optimistic that we will develop a vaccine, and that at worst we’ll all be getting an extra shot every year or two to stave off the virus. While it could take longer than the 18 month minimum, supposedly we were close to developing a vaccine for the 2012-13 MERS outbreak before it was determined to be much less virulent than feared and research funding petered out. If so, then hopefully we’ll be able to develop one for COVID-19.

Everyone keep your fingers crossed.

The Spread of the Virus

As I write this (and I say this mainly for posterity, not for anyone who reads this in the next few days), we’re about 5 months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and over 3 months into the shelter-in-place measures which have closed down much of the economy.

Just under 110,000 Americans have died from the virus, with about 2 million having tested positive. However, testing in the U.S. has been woefully inadequate, due in large part to the inaction of the Racist Impeached President Trump administration – since usually government action and coordination is key in driving nationwide efforts to deal with an emergency – so its likely far more people have been infected. A case fatality rate of 1% means that about 11 million people – around 3% – of the population has been infected. Adjust accordingly if you believe the fatality rate is actually higher (which would be bad) or lower (which would be good, but still pretty bad even at 0.5%).

In other words, the pandemic is a long, long way from being over.

Despite this, the nation is starting to “open up”. It differs by state – some states never really entered full ‘lockdown’ – but even California is allowing outdoor dining at restaurants, retail is reopening, and I think we’re on the cusp of hair and nail and similar stores reopening. (I honestly haven’t been following the details that closely as there are some businesses I just don’t plan to visit any time soon.)

We’ve also had the Black Lives Matter protests – as well as some other, smaller (and in some cases far stupider) gatherings – over the last few weeks, where mask wearing has been haphazard and physical distancing difficult or impossible.

COVID-19 has a gestation time of about 2 weeks, which means right about now we’d expect to be seeing additional cases, but it’s difficult to be sure due to the poor testing. The number of new cases reported nationally has been going down very slowly, but it’s going up in some states such as California and Texas. It’s hard to know whether this is due to more cases, or more testing. This is one reason that I look to the death rate rather than the reported case rate. We’ll probably know a lot more by the end of July, unfortunately in the form of a spike in deaths (or not).


The question I keep coming back to is: How many people will get the virus before we develop immunity?

Some people have advocated letting the virus run its course through the population for us to develop herd immunity. But if it takes at least 70% of the country catching the virus to develop herd immunity, that means 230 million people. And that means between 1 million and 4 million deaths – maybe more, if the medical infrastructure gets overwhelmed. Sweden elected not to enact significant social changes and it hasn’t been going well for them. The other issue with this approach is that we don’t yet know whether people who catch and then recover from the virus end up with durable immunity, and many people who survive have significant health problems. So it’s a painful and risky approach.

(When I’ve occasionally butted heads with someone who thinks herd immunity is the way to go, I’ve noted that they should be prepared to say goodbye to between 1 and 5 of every hundred people they know. This goes over about as well as you’d expect.)

Most experts think we’ll need to develop a vaccine. Putting aside the question of whether we can develop a vaccine (which we don’t yet know one way or the other), experts agree that it will take at least 18 months to develop a vaccine which we know works and is safe (i.e., that won’t kill or injure the people who get it) and it could take 3-to-4 years.

So even if we continue to impose physical distancing and masks and other measures, how many people are going to end up catching the virus anyway in that time? If 11 million people have been infected so far, that probably means 33 million by the end of the year, and double that before a vaccine is developed, assuming it’s developed in the 18-month window and is rolled out more-or-less instantaneously. 66 million a lot less than 230 million, but still a lot of deaths.

But now the country is starting to re-open, which means more people may be infected, at a faster rate. Humans are social animals, and our economy and social structures are based around getting together in groups. And it’s just very, very hard for humans as a group to make significant sacrifices over a long period of time to combat an emergency. Historically – for example, during war – this behavior is reinforced through strong leadership at many levels, but especially driven from a unifying force at the top. The United States obviously doesn’t have that – we have the opposite of that – and the mid-level leaders such as the governors don’t have the social capital to maintain this level of sacrifice indefinitely.

I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to find a way to start re-opening and country safely, but I don’t think the people motivating the re-opening are interested in “safely”, they’re just interested in “re-opening”. So I believe things are going to continue to open up, and then the virus will spread faster, people will get sick and die, medical facilities will be overwhelmed, and things will get worse.

I could be wrong. There are a lot of things we don’t know (for example, maybe face masks are a magic bulletif we can convince people to use them). But based on what we know so far, I think it’s going to be a long summer, possibly leading into a painful autumn.

We’re much closer to the beginning of this than the end.

Three Months Inside

A week or so ago marked three months since I started working from home, and just a little less than that since the Bay Area started its shelter-in-place policy. Debbi started working from home about a week after I did.

As I’ve chronicled, it was rough for the first few weeks, some better than others, but we’ve mostly gotten used to it.

We were doing “happy hour” video chats with friends for the first few weeks, but those have tailed off, though we did one with some neighbors and some former neighbors last weekend. We’ve also done some in-the-driveway evening drinks with other neighbors, using our six-foot folding table to separate us. Sadly, they’re going to be moving at the end of this month, as their landlords wanted to raise their rent, and they found a place closer to where they work. We’re going to miss them. I think their landlords may be in for a surprise, as there are a couple of vacant rental homes in our neighborhood.

The county has been gradually opening things up. Construction started up again a few weeks ago, and the house across the street from us has gone from little more than a foundation to the plywood exterior going up. Other new construction is moving along, too.

Over the last few days, retail businesses are opening up as well. Diamond comics distributors had closed for several weeks, which meant no comic books, but they’re ramping up again and I’ve driven down to pick up my books at the curb the last couple of weeks. Supposedly I’ll be able to go into the store tomorrow – with up to four other people so long as we distance ourselves. Restaurants and game stores and other retail are also opening up – we picked up lunch today and saw a few people eating at outdoor tables at downtown restaurants. Ditto when I picked up coffee today. Meanwhile, the city may close the main street downtown to allow restaurants to set up seating there. (By the time I publish this, the city council will probably already have voted.)

Is it too early? My gut says ‘yes’, but a lot depends on whether the measures to keep people separate work. I do most of the shopping for us – Debbi comes with me to the farmers market on Sunday, and not much else – and what I see is pretty iffy. Safeway supermarkets aren’t very diligent about enforcing masks, distancing, or the one-way arrows in their aisles. I encounter lots of clueless people. By contrast, I went to Costco this morning for the first time since shelter-in-place and it was smooth: Everyone was let in promptly at 10 am, everyone wore masks, almost everyone was keeping their distance. Granted, it was a Tuesday morning and not a Saturday afternoon, but it made me hopeful. I also went to the nursery to get some pots and plants and it was great too. (In case you’re wondering why I wasn’t at work, I took the day off.)

We’ve had a couple of heat waves in the last few weeks – it got over 90° today – and we’ve been glad of our air conditioning. On the other hand, it got cold over the weekend. Strange days in more ways than one.

We’ve been cleaning up our study, buying new furniture and making it a more usable space, and getting rid of a lot of stuff (like, two bankers’ boxes worth of paperwork from my late mother). I’ll likely do an entry about it when we’re all done, but progress has been going pretty well, just more work than I’d expected.

On another front, we’re thinking of getting kittens, since if we’re home all the time it seems like the perfect time to have kittens. And frankly, Jackson and Sadie (who turn 8 this fall) really need and deserve kittens. On the other hand, Roulette (who turns 17 next month) didn’t like these kittens, and has gradually been showing her age. Last night she peed on our bed, though it may have been because we’d closed the door to kick Jackson out so she couldn’t get to the litter. So, I don’t know. I don’t want to have her slowly decline and end up waiting 2 years, either.

So, it’s been a time. I know lots of people have had it a lot harder than we have, even people with jobs, and maybe we’re lucky we haven’t caught COVID-19 (or maybe we have – who knows?). In two weeks Apple has its developers conference, which ought to be an odd experience as an entirely-remote affair.

Now that summer is here we’re gently mourning our vacation plans for the year, which included visiting family, going to Hawaii, and maybe to Las Vegas. But I doubt there will be any non-essential travel in our future for at least a year (and, frankly, any essential travel probably won’t be for happy reasons, if it happens).

I imagine these entries start to sound like a broken record after a while, but so it goes when you’re mostly at home. I hope everyone reading this is doing as well, or even better.

Black Lives Matter

I was thinking that it was past time to provide a personal update about living during the pandemic, but something more important has obviously come up, the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Make no mistake, I support these protests. Like many, I worry that it will hasten the second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, but I can’t in good conscience judge the protestors’ actions in this regard. Institutional racism has been holding down the country for centuries – literally centuries – and Racist Impeached President Trump has emboldened the plainer variety of racists for many years. The lives and well-being of millions of people are at stake, regardless of the pandemic.

The protests have been mixed with a dose of rioting as well, but it seems clear to me that the rioters were a combination of right-ring agitators trying to cast the protestors in a bad light, and opportunistic looters. In the last week peaceful protests have continued to grow – spreading across the world – while the rioting and looting has declined.

It’s been delightful seeing our Coward-in-Chief flailing around, talking tough while hiding behind ever-growing fencing between the White House and the rest of Washington, DC. And a smattering of his racist party showing their true colors, such as Boy Blunder Senator Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed calling for Trump to send in the troops against American citizens, which led to the Times editorial page editor resigning. (Honestly, what good is the Times these days? They seem like little more than apologists for the Trumpists.)

Far less delightful has been protests against police brutality being met with waves of police brutality. The latest news are people calling to “defund the police”. I don’t know what the answer is here, but the status quo clearly isn’t it.

I live in the suburbs and though a couple of neighboring cities have had some surprisingly-large protests, mine hasn’t. There were some curfews in nearby cities and a neighboring county, and there was at least one ugly incident in nearby San Jose. Across the country, though, science fiction & mystery bookstore Uncle Hugo’s & Uncle Edgar’s was burned to the ground in the Minneapolis riots, while fellow Twin Cities store Dreamhaven (which I’ve actually patronized) was vandalized. Moreover, the offices of one of my favorite Magic podcasts, Good Luck High Five, was damaged in a fire and I don’t think they’ve yet been able to access it to find out what state it’s in.

If this sounds like a “but” to my original statement of support, it’s not. It’s an accounting of some of the things that I’ve noted during the protests. There are many others, such as the arrests of the officers involved in the Floyd killing, and I hope we’ll see more people called to account for the attacks on the protesters.

But I do hope this leads to change. Fast change, slow change, durable and systemic change. I realize that I’m at the high end of the privilege scale in this country, but I recognize that this change needs to happen. I believe that we – individually and as a nation – are better off when we all are able to thrive.

And in order to get there, we need to understand, and act on the understanding, that black lives matter.

Star Trek: Discovery: Seasons 1 & 2

If Picard represented a brave new world of solid storytelling for Star Trek after more than 35 years, Discovery is, well, the same old thing, lightly refurbished to meet modern dramatic television sensibilities. Since I subscribed to CBS All Access to watch Picard, I decided to give Discovery another try, despite the first episode having been so bad that I mocked it live on Twitter.

Overall the show is, well, better than that first episode, but not very good. The first season is very hard going, partly focused around a war with the Klingons, but also spending several episodes in a strange digression. The second season is more coherent and generally improved, but still kind of disappointing. The general feel of the series is one of flamboyant and nonsensical plotting, without much of a message. The characters are generally pretty flat. Overall it feels very much of a piece with NextGen and the later series, albeit with a rougher edge, but that’s not really a good thing.

Lots more – with spoilers – after the cut:

Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery: Seasons 1 & 2”

Trying the Official Twitter App

(This post is an adaptation of a Twitter thread I wrote on the subject last night.)

A few days ago I decided to try out the official Twitter app for macOS and iOS. Twitter has been slowly cutting back support for third party apps, so I was curious whether their app was any better than what I’m currently using.

For me, the answer is… a little yes, a lot of no.

For a while Twitter had dropped their macOS app entirely, but the Mac Catalyst technology prompted them to port their iOS app to the Mac. I probably wouldn’t have tried this experiment otherwise.

My current Twitter client on both platforms is Tweetbot, which is great, and would probably be even more great if Twitter weren’t slowly crippling it by cutting back on what third party clients can do with their APIs.

Here’s what I thought of the official clients, across both platforms:

The Good

  • Being able to see the count of responses and likes to a tweet (the “ratio”) is nice. Tweetbot shows like count but not retweet count, presumably because Twitter’s API doesn’t provide it.
  • Being able to see polls inline is very nice. I often see tweets where someone asks a question and I just respond, and sometime later realize it’s a poll.

    I believe Tweetbot can’t show polls due to Twitter’s API deficiency. I always have to open a poll in a browser to vote.
  • Pinned lists are very nice, probably the one feature I don’t think Tweetbot really has which I wasn’t expecting and immediately found useful.
  • The bookmarks system looks nice, but I haven’t really used it. I had no idea it exists. Presumably because Twitter’s API doesn’t vend it for third-party clients.

The Odd

  • The iOS client has a sidebar which is just the search field and “what’s happening”. Not very useful. I miss the responses sidebar from Tweetbot.(Which used to also show most notifications until Twitter’s API dropped support for that.)

    So I mostly hid the search bar in my trial. Which was weird because then the timeline doesn’t get any wider, it’s the same width with a whole bunch of whitespace on either side, and no way to adjust it. Seems like poor design.
  • Tweetbot has a nifty muting system where you can choose where people are muted (everywhere, only in lists, etc.). I use this a lot to manage my lists, following people and then muting them in my timeline but not elsewhere. I was concerned the Twitter wouldn’t give me that control, but muting only mutes from the main timeline, so it’s fine, but took some trial and error to figure out. I’m not sure whether more fine-grained control here is something I’d need.
  • It’s annoying that I can’t (AFAICT) mute individual accounts for limited periods of time like in Tweetbot – that functionality only seems to be available for keywords. I use this a fair bit (e.g., if someone is going on about some subject I don’t care about in volume I’ll mute them for a day), so I would probably miss it at some points.
  • Tweetbot seems to have its own separate mute list data, so I had to go through and re-mute dozens of people. I don’t know whether this is because of Tweetbot’s richer muting system, or a deficiency in Twitter’s API. But it was annoying.

The Bad

  • The client doesn’t show me the number of unread tweets for my main timeline or whatever list I’m viewing. I missed this a lot.
  • The client doesn’t keep my reading spot in lists. So at some point when I open a list it will scroll me to the top, no matter how many tweets in the list I haven’t read yet. This is extremely annoying and on its own almost enough to send me back to Tweetbot.
  • It seems my reading spot in lists and the main timeline are not synced among my various devices. This is also extremely annoying, as scrolling down to find where I’d last been reading is not really feasible.
  • Sometimes when I come back to Twitter after a while away (such as overnight), the client shows a “Show more tweets” prompt above my last spot in my timeline, but clicking it almost always shows me the newest tweet in the gap, not the oldest, so I have to scroll back down to get to where I was.
  • The threading in the client is nice in some scenarios, but pretty annoying when scrolling upwards, to see the most recent tweets in a thread first (i.e., at the bottom). This seems like a poorly-thought-out user experience. It would make sense if one scrolled down to get to the latest items in one’s timeline (which, TBH, is kind of what I want anyway, but they’re never going to do that).
  • The notification system is pretty annoying, as it supplies a lot of customizability but most of it I don’t want. I pretty quickly figured it would just be easier to deny it notification privileges at the system level. This needs some user-quality-of-life evaluation to simplify these settings, probably cutting about 75% of them.
  • Holy cow there are a lot of ads, excuse me, “sponsored tweets”. I felt like I saw 2x-5x more ads on Twitter than on Facebook. Tweetbot shows me none of this nonsense (which is presumably why Twitter doesn’t want you using third-party clients).

    Ads might be more bearable if I could assign them a different background color or something.
  • There’s no way in the app that I can find to set a show/hide keyboard shortcut on macOS, which I use all the time in Tweetbot. Maybe I could do it through a macOS system pref, though I did a short search and couldn’t figure it out. It would be a much more useful app pref than all the notification stuff.

I could probably live with a lot of the Twitter app deficiencies if it remembered my reading spot in all lists and synced across devices. But overall it needs a lot of polish, so I’m likely heading back to Tweetbot.

I’m not sorry I tried it out, but I am kind of surprised that the app – on both macOS and iOS – feels like it has a lot of maturing to do.

Quar Wars Day

Debbi’s birthday falls on Star Wars Day, which is convenient since she loves Star Wars, especially the original trilogy. In these days of shelter-in-place with no vacation plans for the foreseeable future, we decided to both take the day off.

The night before we re-watched Knives Out, which we saw in the theater in January and enjoyed tremendously. It holds up very well on re-watching, partly because it’s funny and lively, and partly because knowing what’s coming throws a different shade on some of the earlier scenes.

Debbi made pancakes for breakfast before our current set of eggs expired, and we turned on the original film, as some TV station was showing episodes 1-8. And, well, watching them is most of what we did for the day. We’d talked about driving to a nearby park or trail to go for a walk somewhere other than the neighborhood, but neither of us felt like it. So we each went for a local walk instead, and otherwise had a lot of couch time.

I picked up lunch from our local Hobee’s, which reopened for take-out a week or so ago, and for dinner we picked up from QBB. I puttered around doing a few chores, and Debbi got calls from friends and family, but otherwise we watched five Star Wars movies: The original trilogy, The Force Awakens, and The Rise of Skywalker, which other than Rogue One are the five best films in the series. (It’s ironic that we watched and enjoyed Knives Out, because its writer/director Rian Johnson also did The Last Jedi which is as joyless and glum as Knives Out is otherwise. Some people think it’s because it was produced by committee, but I also think it’s much worse than the two Abrams films. I’m perfectly happy to not see it again, as with the prequel trilogy.)

So, it was a low-key but pleasant day. If nothing else, we’re grateful that COVID-19 waited until this year to strike, so we still have the fond memories of Debbi’s awesome 50th birthday weekend from last year (which somehow I never did an entry about). Small favors, etc.

Anyway, happy birthday to Debbi! Hopefully we can do something more exciting for it next year.