New Internet

Tuesday we upgraded our Internet service for the first time in, well, a long-long time. How long? Before the upgrade we were getting 6 mbps download speed. Good enough for a lot of things, but downloading sizable things like, I don’t know, apps, took a long time. Good things there aren’t a lot of apps in the world!

Our ISP is Sonic, which is one of the few ISPs which has stuck up for net neutrality over the last few years. I signed up with them for DSL when I bought my townhouse in 2001, and later upgraded to their service called “Fusion” (which I think is basically ADSL), which was pretty good at the time, but not really up to the level of Comcast at the time. But I was happy with them because their customer service is great. And they don’t have any bandwidth caps. And frankly at the time there wasn’t really a better non-cable service available.

But now there’s fiber. Sonic has been rolling out their own fiber service, but it’s not available down here. Instead they resell AT&T fiber. So I signed up for their gigabit (1000 mbps) service. Which is 167 times faster than what we had, because that’s how math works! AT&T sent a tech out to install it Tuesday morning, and he showed up 5 minutes after the beginning of our service window. He was also great: We walked through the house showing him how things were laid out, and he was able to connect to our house’s in-wall ethernet easily enough, and from there it would connect to my AirPort base stations to use our existing wireless network. The service info said it could take up to 4 hours to install, which I had a hard time believing until he told me they had to run a cable from the telephone pole to our house. All told, it took about 2-1/2 hours to get everything set up and tested. The testing had a couple of glitches – a few devices needs to be rebooted to work correctly, not sure why, but things seemed fine and he left shortly before noon.

Well, there were a couple of follow-on issues:

First, I got a box for Voice Over IP phone service for our land line. (You can tell we’re Gen X because we still find having a land line useful. Although if it weren’t bundled with the service I’m not sure it’s that useful.) It turned out that it had a new phone number – annoying! I e-mailed Sonic, and it turned out that it was a temporary number and they moved our old number Wednesday night. So that was easy!

The other issue is that we’re only getting 100 mbps on our network, not a gigabit. And this is a bit harder to solve, because it turns out that the AirPort Express base stations we have only support 100 mbps on their ethernet ports. I’m not sure what’s up with the AirPort Extreme upstairs which shows the same behavior, but I suspect one of the three switches we have on the network might also only support 100 mbps. Still! It’s 17 times faster than what we had! (Because that’s how math works!) It’s already pretty great!

But, it seems I’ll want to upgrade our network sometime in the not-to-distant future, once annoyance at not getting full speed overcomes my inertia of having a network that already works. A couple of friends recommended UniFi, while another strongly recommended an Asus router. I know several people like Eero, but I’m a bit reluctant to go with an Amazon-owned product (or Google or Facebook, for that matter, all for the same privacy-related reasons). It sounds like UniFi has a lot of knobs which I probably don’t need (or maybe just don’t yet know that I need!), so we’ll see. I should probably audit the ethernet switches first. One thing at a time.

Anyway, it’s so much faster than what we had. Suddenly updating apps on our phones is blocked more on the installation step than the downloading step. Downloading podcasts is super-fast. Hopefully we won’t have any more “why is the network so slow?” issues. And while we’ve never had a serious problem streaming TV at the slower speed, this ought to relieve any concerns we might have, especially since we’re not 4K TV viewers yet.

Look at us, joining the 2010s just in time for 2020! Because that’s how time works!

Seeing J. Michael Straczynski

Saturday night we went up to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco to see J. Michael Straczynski speak in promotion of his memoir, Becoming Superman. The talk had been postponed from mid-August because JMS had a freak accident and badly dislocated his shoulder while leaving for the airport.

The museum is in one of the busiest parts of the city, next to Fisherman’s Wharf, so we went up early and got an early dinner so we’d be there on time. We walked past the museum and noticed the talk had been moved from 7 pm to 8 pm. Huh, just a typo? I checked Twitter, and it seemed Straczynski had been stuck at the airport in Burbank for hours due to fog in SF. (The SF airport is actually about 10 miles south of the city, but in an area that arguably gets much more fog than the city itself!) Nonetheless, after killing some time at the Musée Méchanique, we were first in line when the doors opened at 6:30.

Fortunately, Straczynski was able to get a standby seat on an earlier flight and managed to arrive nearly to the original schedule! However, since the event had been announced to have been postponed until 8, he and his interviewer vamped for half an hour. The vamping, however, was just as enjoyable as the talk!

I haven’t yet read the book – I bought a copy as part of my ticket to get it autographed – but I’m quite looking forward to it. Because this event showed that Straczynski is as good at telling stories about himself as he is at telling fiction. (I’m a huge fan of Babylon 5, and have enjoyed many of his comic books as well.) After the “warm up” where he told a few stories of his previous visits to San Francisco, he bantered with the interviewer and related tales of his early life and career, through The Real Ghostbusters and Murder: She Wrote. Unfortunately time ran short for later stories and turned to questions from the audience, but nonetheless it was well worth the trip. He was funny, self-deprecating, and thoughtful. Afterwards he signed books and briefly chatted with attendees. I had him sign Becoming Superman and Midnight Nation, although if I’d thought of it I might have had him sign The Twelve instead – though they both hit me in similar ways, they just take different paths to get there.

Now, here’s the paragraph that I’ve written several times and just can’t get quite right, but I hope my meaning comes through:

I don’t really have “heroes” or “idols” among media figures. Many of them seem like good people, many of them have admirable stories, but it also seems like they often don’t live up to the hopes we vest in them. And, well, they’re only human. That said, I’ve been following Straczynski since the early 90s when he was promoting Babylon 5 online before it aired, and I’ve always thought of him as a good guy, a straight talker, someone who deals with people fairly. These days he’s quite active on Twitter and watching him politely but firmly stare down Twitter trolls can be a sight to see. His writing is fun, engaging, and thoughtful, and he pulls back the curtain to explain where he’s coming from. He owns up to his own failings. He’s not the only person with these traits, but what he writes and who he is speaks to me like few others do. And I was delighted to see that all of that comes through when seeing him in person, too.

Oh, and he was willing to have his photo taken with this guy:

I highly recommend seeing him speak if you have a chance. And I’m very much looking forward to reading his new book.

Audio Dramas by A.R. Olivieri

Last week I did a binge-listen of all of A.R. Olivieri’s audio drama podcasts. I recently started listening to the one that started last spring, Great & Terrible (because I’m about 8 months behind on podcasts these days), and something clicked and made me think I should go listen to them all. This isn’t as big a project as it sounds, because individual episodes top out at about 8 minutes, less credits. I started listening on Sunday and finished up on Thursday.

I casually follow what might be called the “audio drama community”, but mostly I’m a listener. From what I can tell, Olivieri projects an aura of obscurity, doing projects that are notably different from many other audio dramas, and also being personally something of a mysterious figure. His web site is pretty sparse, and the only info about him his this interview podcast, which I listened to after finishing (or catching up on) his series. I have no idea if all of this is intentional on his part, but it’s an interesting image. Many other podcasters are pretty transparent about their personas, at least in broad strokes.

His podcasts, too, are kinda quirky, with a distinctive – though evolving – structure which makes them stand out. For example:

  • Each podcast title & episode title is in ALL CAPS.
  • Every episode is almost exactly a round number of minutes, for example 3:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00. Sometimes they’re a second longer, but that might be a rounding error in my podcast app. While he sometimes pads an episode with music to get to this point, it seems likely that he plans or edits many episodes to fit into a specific amount of time. Does any other audio drama do this?
  • Only his first series, 2298, has introductory music, which comes in almost exactly 1 minute in. All the others have a cold open.
  • Every series except for Limbo has closing credits which are 30, 60 or 90 seconds in length. Most of the credits have a memorable turn of phrase where he says, “<this podcast> is written, directed and produced by… me! A.R. Olivieri.”, followed by some info about his Patreon.
  • His podcasts have music by a variety of performers (none of whom I’m otherwise familiar with), but they all feel somewhat similar – like they’re in a particular style which I infer Olivieri likes.
  • Structurally several of the stories are grouped into “chapters” of 2-to-4 episodes, although except for 2298 there’s no clear indicator in the audio itself of this; you need to look at the show notes.

It’s quirky, but I think a lot of it is cool, appealing to the structure work in me. It’s just… very different compared to other audio drama podcasts.

It took me a while to realize that many – maybe all – of his shows take place in the same world, and that he’s slowly revealing the nature of that world. There’s connective tissue, but where everything fits together is not entirely clear. I find this deeply neat, and it definitely elevated my interest in his shows to another level. I believe in one of his “thank you” shows he alluded to it being a single world.

Olivieri is clearly very respected in the audio drama community, and he gets several top-notch voice actors from other podcasts to appear in them. Some actors appear more than once, and it’s not always clear whether they’re appearing in different roles, in the same role but we don’t know that they’re the same role, or if there’s something else going on. (“There’s something else going on” is a recurring theme in his shows.) For example, Sarah Rhea Werner, who does the great Girl in Space audio drama and who recorded the interview above, shows up several times. She has a really distinctive voice, which which made me wonder, “Wait, is this character also this other character… or not?”

Olivieri also does voice acting, appearing in a few of his own podcasts as well as others. I first heard him as one of the two main characters in the SF horror drama Janus Descending, which is maybe the best performance I’ve heard by him. In his own dramas he plays an everyman sort of character, observing, commenting on and questioning the world around him, while in Janus he’s a scientist who gets thrown in way over his head and is by turns frustrated, panicked, annoyed, terrified, and angry. It’s quite a range.

At time of writing, Olivieri has 5 audio dramas of his own, 4 complete and one still ongoing. Here are some of my thoughts about them. Also, while I didn’t listen to them in this order, I think this is the best order to listen to them in, as least as of the time of writing:

2298: A dystopian story taking place in the titular year. Number 24 is a “profile” in the remnant of humanity, somewhere on Earth in an enclosed environment after civilization’s collapse led to an invasion and a new society being set up run by a computer system called the Network. 24 – voiced by Olivieri – is a happy young cog in the machine until a bird and some strange dreams lead him down a path outside the one the Network has assigned him. The story contrasts a totalitarian society to a free one through the eyes of someone who’s happy with the system he lives in. The ending hints at where some of the other shows are going, although I imagine that wasn’t very clear when it first aired in 2018.

Magic King Dom: This was the first show I listened to; it grabbed my interest because of its conceit of a girl who grows up in Walt Disney World after the end of the world destroys everyone else. Dom (voiced by Lysette Alvarez of Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services, whose performance is great) survives for 6 years by herself before she encounters other survivors in the park, who need her to escape. There have been two seasons so far, with the third and final one coming soon. The writing is pretty strong as far as it goes, but there’s an awkward discontinuity between the first two seasons and there are several bits I found hard-to-follow, so I’m glad I re-listened to it. I think the story takes place about a century from now. The second season is where the hint of the tie-in to 2298 appears, but it’s still not clear how it fits together.

Limbo: David (Olivieri) is a thirtysomething (?) man who dies and finds himself in a house her grew up in, alone, except that he receives one visitor each month. Only 6 episodes, but to be continued in the future. It’s the lightest on plot of all the stories, and if you prefer stories which focus on the background, foibles and anxieties of the main character, then this is the one for you. It’s not quite my thing, though, as I am more plot-oriented, and I felt this was basically a collection of settings and moods without a sense of moving forward. I’m also not sure what more there is to do with what’s here if it does continue as the final episode seems, well, pretty final.

Great and Terrible: This one is the story of a woman who was gifted and cursed with immortality (and maybe other powers?), but who has to kill someone every new moon or her life is forfeit. (No spoilers – it’s right there in the podcast description!) This is the slowest of slow burns: While it’s self-narrated from – it seems – centuries in the future, the whole story so far takes place in 1988, when the main character of Jane (Leslie Gideon) is in high school and acquires the curse. It’s weekly 4-minute (less credits) episodes, and after 8 months we’ve just gotten to the curse, but it is nonetheless quite good and at times arresting, and it’s the sort of story that could go on for many years at this pace, so I wonder if that’s what Olivieri plans for it – I hope so. The high school dialogue is perhaps just a bit too precious (TBF I wouldn’t want to write high school dialogue from that era, and Jane is only 3 years younger than I am!), but Gideon’s performance sells just about everything else. This is in my opinion Olivieri’s best series to date.

The Easiest of All the Hard Things: Kelsey (Lucille Valentine, who gave perhaps the most memorable performance in the first season of The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray) is stranded on an island with only a turtle for company when they find a cell phone, and work to charge it to hopefully get off the island. How did they get there? How do they expect to get a cell signal? Who left the phone? I found the last episode of the season pretty baffling, and the story overall felt slight compared to the others, although with more of a plot than Limbo. But overall I wasn’t sure what I should have taken away from it.

I definitely enjoyed the binge-listen, and found myself much better able to engage with the stories than I was when I’d just listened to Magic King Dom and Limbo, which are at the more surreal end of the spectrum. It looks like he has at least a couple more series planned, and I’m definitely curious whether the pieces across the stories will start to knit together more closely as time goes on. I hope so!

Childhood Comics

As far as I know, I started buying comic books in 1975. The 70s were a weird time for the comic book industry: In the 1950s the industry (such as it was) had a fair bit of genre diversity, with superhero, western, horror, and humor books all being published. The 60s saw superhero books move towards ascendency, and by the mid-1970s superhero books were clearly the dominant genre, with the other genres in decline. Other than Jonah Hex I’m not sure I saw another western title outside of a comic book store in the 70s. (In my lifetime, the arrival of a well-made western film seems to underscore just how dead the genre is.) There were a few horror books, and a smattering of other titles.

Uncle Scrooge #114 (1974)

We’ve been watching the new DuckTales cartoon (recommended!), and it reminded me of one of the few non-superhero books of that era that’s stuck in my memory. I’ve never been a big fan of the Disney characters, but I picked up a few of their comics when I was a kid, and the one I remember is “The Phantom of Notre Duck”, which I probably read when it was reprinted in Uncle Scrooge #114 (Sept 1974), and which I likely picked up as part of some supermarket bundle of books rather than through a newsstand or comics shop. These bundles were often 3-5 comics packaged together in a sealed plastic bag, usually with no connection to each other, and you usually couldn’t see what was inside other than the front and back issues. If this is how I acquired it, I probably bought it because it was in a bundle with some superhero book on the outside that I wanted.

I really have no insight into how these bundles were created, whether they were national or local, or what. I just bought ’em (or, well, my parents did). It looks like this issue was published by Gold Key and also printed with the “Whitman” logo: Whitman says the two were the same publisher, and that the Whitman logo was used for bagged comics, so maybe that was it. I have no memory of which version I owned.

The story (written & illustrated by Carl Barks) I mainly remember involved Scrooge and his nephews pursuing the Phantom throughout the Cathedral, with hidden doors & passageways, old rooms and ornaments, and the heroes eventually managing to corner the Phantom and figure out what it’s up to, and that it wasn’t all that sinister after all. But I haven’t actually read it in probably 40 years, as I likely purged it – perhaps long missing its cover – at some point in the 80s or 90s. But I recall it fondly as a spooky story, which I might want to track down and read again – it seems it’s been reprinted at least twice more since then, so it ought to be possible.

The Addams Family #1 (1974)

Recalling that book reminded me of another non-superhero book I read as a kid, coincidentally (maybe?) also from 1974, The Addams Family #1. Maybe this date is a sign that I actually read a few comics before the earliest ones I remember from 1975, I don’t know. I’ve long thought the first comic I read was Wonder Woman #220 (Nov 1975 – which means it was probably on the newsstands over the summer).

In any event, I am a huge fan of Charles Addams‘ cartoons, and I own a copy of almost every collection of his cartoons that have been published. But I didn’t become a fan until my dad bought me a copy of his last original collection, Creature Comforts (1981), so I had no attachment to this comic when I read it. It was just weird. It seems it was probably spun out of a 1973 cartoon series, which frankly I’d never even heard of until now. (I mean, maybe I watched it when I was a kid, but I have no memory of it!) I also didn’t watch the famous 1960s TV series, so I have no attachment to it, either. I do kinda dimly remember them showing up in Scooby-Doo.

I have almost very little memory of the comic itself. As you can see, the cover was sparsely drawn with no background, which stuck out to me at the time. My recollection is that it involved the family going on vacation in the spooky camper seen on the cover, and elevating the chassis on stilts several dozen feet in the air in order to drive over a traffic jam, but that’s about it. It seems it was a little different from that, and was directly adapted from one of the animated episodes. It appears to have been written and illustrated by Bill Ziegler, about whom I know nothing except for what’s written at that link. I bet it was pretty weak, though I also bet if I’d been a few years older I would have enjoyed the animated show.

Interpretations of the Addams Family are interesting to track, as a long-time fan. The ones I’ve seen do reflect Addams’ originals in general, especially their sense of family and mutual support in this group of oddball characters living in their own space within larger, “normal” society. But the details are often curious, especially the reversal of Pugsley and Wednesday’s characters in the 1990s films (although one can hardly object to them spotlighting Christina Ricci in her breakout role by giving Wednesday a more vivid and active characterization). I don’t know what this year’s film is like, although I’m not a fan of the character designs.

I’m not going anywhere with all this, except that we all have vague memories of our childhoods, some of them stick persistently in our minds for a long time, to the point that we no longer recall why they made us remember them at all. But at least with these I can go out and find copies of these two books and read them again and see if they stir anything up in me.

Old Man Exam

Now that I’m fifty, I “get to” start some of those rites of passage for older citizens in our society. The AARP mail has started rolling in, of course, but the other milestone is that yesterday I had a colonoscopy. I wanted to document my experience, partly for anyone searching around for personal accounts of the procedure, and partly for my own reference the next time this rolls around.

Spoiler: The exam didn’t find anything. I don’t know whether I’d be writing this post if it did find something. Writing about medical issues is something which is, well, maybe not frowned upon exactly, but something people often don’t do, due to a lot of different personal and internal pressures, as far as I can tell. I’m not terribly shy about it myself (though TBF I’m also pretty healthy), but I don’t think people really want to hear about it either. But as something which was a pretty significant subject for me over the last week, I decided it seemed reasonable to write it up.

I got a referral for the procedure when I saw my PCP last March, but I put it off for various reasons, not least worry about the difficulty of preparing for it and finding out what the results would be on the other end. But since I knew my schedule would be clearing up early this month, and not wanting to put it off into the holiday season, I made the call and was happy to find out I pretty much had my pick of dates for when to do it. So I scheduled it for noon yesterday (which, for those gliding into this entry in the future, was a Tuesday).

The pre-prep involved picking up the laxative for the day before the exam, and stopping eating nuts and seeds a week before, I guess because those take longer to digest. Although not specifically called out, I also avoided nut products like peanut butter. It also occurred to me that there are incidental seeds in a lot of things, e.g. sesame seeds on buns, those whatever-they-are on the bottom of English muffins, etc. I didn’t kill myself trying to cut out everything, but I avoided anything obvious, trying to generally stay in the spirit of things. I was also supposed to skip aspirin and ibuprofen, which was easier.

The real ‘fun’ started on Monday, when I was supposed to stop eating anything except for white liquids (lemonade, white cranberry & white grape juice, chicken broth, etc.). I did go to work and had a low-energy day. Fasting was not as bad as I thought it would be – my stomach had a dull ache all day, but it wasn’t growling out of control and leaving me weak and woozy. But it was probably the worst part of the preparation.

I left work early and went home to take the laxative (under the brand name SUPREP) at 6 pm. This involved mixing a 6-oz bottle of the stuff with 10 oz of cold water, drinking the whole thing, and then drinking 32 oz more water over the next hour. I had heard a few stories about the taste of the stuff, but it was actually not that bad. It smelled kind of like cherry NyQuil, tasted a little worse, but was pretty easy to chug down with a pause for breath in the middle. Honestly drinking another 32 oz of water over the next hour was harder, because that’s a lot of water in a short time.

My big worry was that the results of the stuff was going to be miserable: Sitting on the toilet for 2-to-3 hours, or dirtying my clothes or furniture, and I was braced for it to have an immediate effect after drinking it. In fact it took about 40 minutes before I felt the effects, and I had the usual amount of control over my bowels throughout the experience. The effects lasted about 4 hours – which is presumably why I had to drink it at 6 pm, so I could get a decent night’s sleep – and overall was not so bad. Better than not being able to eat, honestly.

As my procedure was scheduled for noon on Tuesday, I woke up at my usual time at 6 pm and showered, and then drank the second dose of laxative, and, well, let’s just say that it was pretty clear that the medical brain-trust knew what they were doing to prescribe two doses. The experience was basically the same as the night before, except that I had to stop drinking around 9 am. But I did drink some extra water before that.

Debbi stayed home in order to drive me to and from the appointment and keep an eye on me afterwards, so we went in well before check-in time, and a little after 11 I went through the whole check-in process. Since I would be somewhat sedated during the process, they put some monitors on me and an IV drip. Apparently being dehydrated makes it more difficult to put the needle into a vein, but fortunately they got it in in a single try. That was probably the worst part of the pre-op procedure. Well, that and the fact that I was cold all morning, which they said was a side-effect of the prep procedure.

While they were wheeling me into the room I reflected that the last time I was on a gurney being wheeled around a hospital was when I was 17 having surgery for a pilonidal cyst. (I remember the date because it was the summer of 1986, because I started watching baseball while recovering from that surgery in the hospital.) Before that was probably when I was 7 and had surgery for a hydrocele, which I barely remember except during recovery was the only time I’ve ever found Cheerios to be tasty. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky to have avoided this experience for the last 33 years.

The actual exam had me lying on my left side, but almost as soon as I turned onto it my memory goes blank. I assume the sedative kicked in and I either fell asleep or just got too groggy to remember. The nurse said it’s common for people to not remember or have one brief flashes of memory of the exam. I remember taking up near the end of it and seeing the screen they were looking at, which was weirdly mesmerizing, watching something tunnel around inside my innards. It was like some weird Doctor Who special effect. It was vaguely uncomfortable, but not painful. Then it was done and they wheeled me to toe recovery room.

Debbi met me there and the doctor came in and said that they’d found nothing during the exam, no polyps or anything else they needed to monitor, which means I don’t need to do this for another 10 years. Woo! Apparently I do have a few diverticuli, which the doctor says is very common and is unlikely to cause any problems.

Since I had been sedated, I was instructed not to drive or drink alcohol (or “make important decisions”) for the rest of the day. I think I was still a little groggy – without feeling groggy – because I don’t really remember getting dressed, but I remember everything after that. I basically felt normal, but I trusted that I wasn’t, really.

Debbi drove us home and I ate some soup and an English muffin, and had a quiet rest of the day. Around 3 pm I fell asleep for a couple of hours, and then Debbi made dinner. I was not as ravenously hungry as I’d expected to be, though we did also go out for ice cream. I also felt well enough to go to a walk before dinner (thus keeping my 4-month Apple Watch move goal streak alive!).

This morning was a normal day (plus a call from the doctor’s office to make sure I was feeling okay), and so far no after-effects from anything in the procedure. It’s a big relief to have it over, and to have had a positive outcome. I tried not to worry about it too much, but I did have some anxiety about it regardless. I’m very glad I don’t need to do it again for a decade.

Home Maintenance

Our house is now 11 years old (we’ve been in it for 8), which means – of course – that it’s time for little things to start failing.

Well, there’s a big thing which has been failing too, that being our lawn. But that one gets a bit of a pass since it got hammered pretty hard by California’s drought several years ago. I’ve been doing my best to keep it going and fix it up, but I’m about at the point of declaring bankruptcy on that and having someone in to re-sod it. The advantage to re-sodding is that maybe that will smooth out the very bumpy soil of the back yard. (Our soil is clay-like which is pretty annoying in several ways.) I wonder when the best time of year to do that work would be? Before the rainy season, which starts in a couple of months? Or after?

A slightly smaller thing is that we need to have several windows repaired. Some of them appear to have compromised seals, which the window cleaner last year told us is why they’re dirty between the two panes. But we also have a window which no longer opens, and another in which the outer pane broke mysteriously a few years ago (I suspect a bird flew into it or dropped something against it). Some of that might be covered by warranty, assuming the builder’s warranty transferred to us.

We also have a couple of faucets which have issues, and I suspect the issue is in the wall for both of them. One of them is the hot water for one bathtub (but not shower), so it’s not urgent; the other is the cold water for one of the sinks in the master bathroom, so it’s a little more important. We had a plumber in a few years ago for a different issue and he didn’t want to look at the sinks, so I suspect it will be a bigger job. (Or maybe he just wasn’t a very good plumber, or not rated to do that kind of work.)

More recently, we had a couple of light fixtures go out. One is one of the three pendant lights which hangs over our island. Of course the one over “my” spot at the island. Another is an under-counter light next to the stove. I might be able to fix the first one myself, but probably we’ll get an electrician to handle both.

The other outage is more amusing: The electrical outlets in the living room stopped working one evening. Not a huge deal because the overhead recessed lighting worked fine, but certainly annoying. We spent some time checking the three breaker panels around the house (upstairs, downstairs, outside) and flipping breakers, but nothing had been tripped, and no flipping fixed the issue. (We did find out that we need to evaluate and re-label some of the circuit breakers, though.) I was dreading having an electrician in for that and having it turn into a big thing. But a few days later I did some vacuuming and then plugged the hand vacuum into the one outlet in the laundry room to recharge – and its charging light didn’t come on! “Hmmm”, I said, and remembered that that outlet is one with a GFCI (since it’s near a utility sink), so I pressed its reset button, the charging light came on on the vacuum, and I checked the living room lights and they worked!

It is a little weird that the living room outlets are on the same circuit as the laundry room outlet, but to be fair there are no other outlets in the other small spaces around the laundry room, so putting it on a circuit with a larger room makes some sense. We’ll just have to remember that. It’s a relief to have it fixed.

I also did exciting things like changed a light bulb and fixed a latch on the sliding screen doors to our deck. I need to figure out why one of our drip sprinklers seems to be mostly-clogged, and replace an accent light in the back yard. And then see about getting our Internet service upgraded (which I’ve been dragging my feet on all year, on a probably-misplaced fear that they’ll do the upgrade and it will stop working for several days). And we want to get our bar stools reupholstered, as the faux-leather covering is flaking away faster and faster.

And fall means yard work. I’ve been trimming the jasmine on the back yard fences, and cutting back the bushes in front between our house and a neighbor’s. And fall also means endless raking until probably New Year’s as the sycamore tree over the front yard gradually drops thousands of leaves, mostly on our lawn.

My dad visited last week so some of this stuff has on hold for that and other reasons, but it should give us some stuff to do for the fall. Like we need things to do!

Amazon Oddity

Last weekend I ordered a couple of things with Amazon Prime. They were supposed to be delivered on Tuesday, but Tuesday afternoon I got an e-mail saying my items were delayed because they’d been delivered to the wrong carrier facility. Okay, unusual but not a big deal; I wasn’t in a hurry to get them, really.

Tuesday night I got another e-mail, this time saying my package wouldn’t be delivered at all because it had been damaged. Moreover, it was being returned to the sender and my credit card would be credited.

Which is weird, because Amazon’s site said that both items I’d ordered were still available. Why refund my money rather than send me new items?

Anyway, Thursday I get another e-mail , saying that one of the two items is out for delivery. Yeeeeaaaahhhh, I didn’t believe them. It never showed up. My guess is that it was actually out for delivery to be returned to the sender, and their system didn’t handle that well.

The refund hit my card today, backdated to Thursday. So that was weird, too.

Anyway, I still want the items, so I guess I’ll order them again. One of them was from a small vendor, although it was supposedly shipped by Amazon, but I have a feeling that both items were really shipped by that vendor, and something went wrong somehow. I dunno. Maybe I’ll order them separately this time. Because Amazon Prime means not having to hit a threshold to get free shipping.

Wolf 359: The First Half

I’ve listened to a lot of audio drama podcasts, but none of them has impressed me as much as Wolf 359. Created, co-written and co-produced by Gabriel Urbina, the science fiction adventure-comedy ran for 61 episodes (plus a number of mostly-shorter bonus episodes) between 2014 and 2017 and is – as far as I can tell – one of the most acclaimed audio dramas around. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any other audio dramas as old as this, but it feels as fresh and new and polished as any of the new releases in 2018 and 2019.

I enjoyed the first 25 episodes so much that I stopped there, and went back and started listening again with my wife, who has also been enjoying them. Conveniently, episodes 31 is the halfway point in the show and is also a great point to pause and reflect on the series up to that point, and speculate on where it’s going. And maybe this will encourage a few more people to listen, and perhaps amuse people who have already listened to the whole thing and can chuckle at some of my observations.

I’m going to talk in general terms about the series and its story, and will have a few spoilers from the first season which I think are useful to know since the first season is regarded by some as “something you have to get through to get to the good stuff”. Then I’ll have some more spoilery discussion later a cut.

Wolf 359 takes place aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus research station, which orbits the red dwarf star of the same name. Said star is 7.9 light-years from Earth, and might be best known on pop culture for being the site of an off-screen space battle in one of the most disappointing stories in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The show’s protagonist is Communications Officer Doug Eiffel (voiced by Zach Valente, who also co-produces), a lazy, ne’er-do-well who nominally is checking for unusual transmissions from deep space, but who spends a lot of his time trying to smoke cigerettes and avoid work. The station’s commander is Renée Minkowski (Emma Sherr-Ziarko), a by-the-book military officer who is constantly locked in battle trying to get Eiffel to do his job. The station’s science and medical officer is Dr. Alexander Hilbert (also Valente), a Russion mad scientist whose bumbling experiments also threaten everyone’s lives on a regular basis. The station is overseen by an artificial intelligence, Hera (Michaela Swee), who is a little sensitive whenever anything goes wrong around the place.

The show opens about a year and a half into the crew’s 2-year mission, and the first ten episodes are a collection of mostly-humorous vignettes about the crew’s mishaps: Eiffel getting cigarettes from Hilbert, Eiffel staging a revolt to hoard the last tube of toothpaste on the station, the terrifying annual physical exam, and so forth. But there is also real danger, as the station gets rocked by solar radiation, the power goes out and Hera goes down, and a mysterious extra room is found bolted onto the side of the station.

I feel like Wolf 359 has a lot in common with Babylon 5. While it’s common (and sometimes frustrating) for audio dramas to have a slow burn, Wolf 359‘s arc is a lot like B5’s: The first season provides background into how things on the station work (or, often, don’t work), raises several interesting questions and suggests several others, and lets the listener get the lay of the land before things get rolling. While the characters are not without depth, they start out as caricatures, with just a few glimpses of what’s beneath the surface. And that’s the point, because it makes what comes later that much more powerful.

And again like B5, the end of the first season shakes up the status quo and raises a whole bunch of new questions. More crucially, it takes the story from a light comedy to a serious drama with a heavy dollop of suspense and significant character development. Eiffel and Hilbert both turn out to be much more capable than you would have guessed, while Minkowski and Hera are both a lot more fallible than they’d appeared. And the story becomes a series of crises and developments, each time bringing us back to a slightly different status quo than we had before.

Most importantly, the show becomes one of understanding motivations and teasing out background. Eiffel is the perfect character for this, because he’s a big loudmouth and not a very deep thinker by nature, but he also has a sharp sarcastic streak which makes him seem profound when he does figure out what’s going on. As the second season progresses, a number of key questions are suggested:

  • What exactly is the Hephaestus’ mission? It’s pretty clearly more than “sit around and see if anything happens”.
  • Why was the station staffed with this collection of buffoons?
  • Why does the station seem so unreliable?
  • What else are their superiors hiding?

There’s one other point, which might turn out to be nothing, or it might not. Let me get into it this way:

It’s been said that restrictions breed creativity, and the audio medium has its own peculiar set of restrictions. First, there are no images, so the story has to be conveyed through audio. Unlike prose, however, there are sounds as well as words. But there’s a lot less space for words than in prose, so economy of words is valuable. (Consequently, I tend to find most audio dramas which substantial narration to be tedious.) Wolf 359 is outstanding at conveying the action without having long bits of exposition, and even when it does have exposition it feels meaningful and dramatic. But the show also has a terrific array of sound effects, with a very distinct style: They’re generally overly dramatic, and very retro: Mechanical keyboards, bells and whistles, a communications system that signals with a loud buzz, and so forth. It’s wacky.

Or, I thought it was wacky, but there’s something missing from the setting: When exactly does this show take place? The station is 7.9 light years from Earth, but they are able to travel between the two in a few months. And there are loads os pop culture references, but they’re all… contemporary. Entirely from the 20th and early 21st century. Lastly, while I couldn’t easily find the quote, there’s a suggestion at some point that some of the music they listen to is from within the past century by the crew’s time.

Does Wolf 359 take place… in the 2010s? Is this a parallel universe to ours? And does that matter?

Maybe it’s just part of the show’s wacky background, but so much of the story seems carefully assembled, with many deliberate set-ups and payoffs, that it feels like this could be something.

I hope it is.

Anyway, if you enjoy audio dramas, science fiction, comedy, character development, suspense, surprises, or people showing they’re capable of more than you thought they were, I highly recommend Wolf 359. If the second half is as good as the first half, then it’s gonna be fantastic.

A few more comments spoiling season 2 and the beginning of season 3 after the cut:

Continue reading “Wolf 359: The First Half”

Zed (and other Myst-like Games)

I spent a few hours on my recent vacation playing through the computer game Zed. I’d backed it on Kickstarter a while ago, and it was eventually published with the help of Cyan Ventures, an arm of the company which produced the Myst series, which I adore.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Zed, though it helped clarify what I enjoy about games of this sort. While the art, sound, animation, etc., are all important elements in providing a sense of being present in the setting of the game (which was the breakthrough triumph of Myst, I think), the main factors are having an engaging story, and having interesting gameplay usually puzzles or challenges to walk through the story (and usually not combat). The gameplay also allows the player a certain amount of agency, or at least the illusion thereof.

Cyan’s games do a good job of balancing both elements, particularly in Myst and Riven, as well as the sequel (not by Cyan) Myst III Exile. Cyan’s most recent game, Obduction, also hit this sweet spot for me. (I reviewed it here, though it seems I thought some of its puzzles were a bit too far on the hard side, which I’d forgotten.)

Zed is heavy on the story but very light on gameplay. The framework is that you’re playing the role of an artist with dementia walking through memories of his life to collect ideas for a final gift for his granddaughter, but it’s a heavily guided experience where you roam regions of his memory in sequence, being exposed to the narrative of his life, and collecting a small set of objects in each area, but that’s really all there is to it. There are no puzzles, nothing else really to do, and negligible agency. It looks great, the story works pretty well, but it feels like doing a walkthrough of a game rather than playing a game. I worked through it in about 4 hours (by contrast, Obduction took me about 20 hours).

Zed is the first game of this type that I’ve played which has leaned so far in this direction; I’ve seen some which leaned too far in the other direction. I vaguely recall a 90s game called Obsidian which I played and felt was all gameplay (and surreal settings) and not much story. (I didn’t finish it.) Quern: Undying Thoughts is a more recent example: It’s full of puzzles (and takes a long time to work through them), but the story is pretty thin.

Another nuance is when the puzzles are too obscure or difficult, or which are tedious because they involve too much walking around (which takes time and is no fun if you’re not discovering anything new). Myst IV: Revelation is unfortunately an example of this, with several puzzles that made very little sense to me, and I ended up using a walkthrough for a lot of it. (The story was pretty good, though.) I suspect Myst V: End of Ages was similar, but the game was buggy enough (I think it didn’t play well with the video card I had in my Mac at the time) that I didn’t get very deep into it before getting frustrated and giving up. Quern had the too-much-walking-around problem in spades.

Anyway, I do love this style of game, and will play most games of this type that I come across as long as they’re on platforms I own (Mac and iPad, basically). Here are some others I’ve played:

  • Alida (2004) This one was pretty well balanced, with maybe a couple of puzzles that were too obscure.
  • The Talos Principle (2014): I’ve been playing on my iPad. The puzzles are pretty good, but the story is nearly nonexistent.
  • The Witness (2016): All puzzles – often very frustrating puzzles – and no story at all. I ha-a-ated this game and gave up after about 5 hours. The graphics are pretty mediocre for a modern game, too.
  • Tipping Point (2007?): Another game I’ve played on my iPad. It’s okay but I lost interest about halfway through and haven’t gotten back to it. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t found it satisfying.
  • Grim Fandango: Originally released in 1998, I bought the remastered iPad version when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure this game really belongs in this category, though it seems adjacent at least. I didn’t get very far in it because it involved a lot of walking around from place to place, and frankly I got bored. It sure is stylish, though!

Are there are others currently available that I should try?

I’ll also try games that are clearly not really intending to quite be this sort of game but are similar in some key ways. Some games by Simogo feel adjacent to Myst but not quite the same thing. Device 6 is more of a story with a few small puzzles, as is The Sailor’s Dream. I enjoyed both, although Sailor left me feeling a bit empty at the end. I also tried Year Walk, but it felt like it was all walking around and not much progress.

Anyway, my disappointment with Zed isn’t going to dissuade me from playing more games of this sort. In fact, I backed Cyan’s next game on Kickstarter, Firmament, once they committed to a Mac version. And heck, I kinda feel like playing through Obduction again.

A Temperate Trip

Yesterday we flew back from our latest trip back east to visit our families. I’ve been working so much over the last year that I haven’t taken much vacation since last year’s trip – just a few days here and there – so I was so ready for this one. We took 2 weeks for this trip, like we did for last year’s, but we didn’t have chores to take care of for the beach house this time so it was pretty much a pure vacation.

The JetBlue red-eye flight isn’t getting any easier, but there aren’t a lot of choices for flights from the Bay Area to Boston unless we’re willing to make a connection (we’d rather not). Our flight was also delayed an hour. So we landed around 6 am EDT time on a Wednesday morning, then picked up our rental car. This was supposed to be a mid-sized car, but was actually a Mazda 3 hatchback. This was a pretty crappy car, with a lousy console, a buggy entertainment system (no CarPlay! The console went dead on Debbi at one point while she was driving to her sister’s house!), it was missing the cover for the hatchback and we couldn’t fit all our luggage back there anyway. And the tire pressure light came on during our second week there. At least it had 4 doors, but not my idea of mid-sized. Our experience with it definitely makes me disinclined to buy a Mazda in the future. If we had been more awake when we picked it up we would have gone back to request another car when we saw it was a hatchback. I made a note for future trips to be sure to request a sedan.

Anyway, car bitch-fest aside, the trip went smoothly. Debbi spent a night with me at my Dad’s before heading out to meet a friend of hers for lunch, as said friend was also in town from out-of-state. I spent a couple of quiet days with Dad, going to the cemetery to visit Mom’s grave, where we also saw red-winged blackbirds and a small turtle – we definitely hit the jackpot with her site at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The second half of the Women’s World Cup tournament was on while we were there, and I watched one game with Dad, and others with Debbi and other family. Maybe I’ll get into soccer as my next spectator sport.

The first weekend there I borrowed Dad’s car and drive down to the beach house to meet Debbi and spend the night there. Debbi’s friend from out-of-state as well as another friend met us there for the afternoon, which was a nice, relaxing time. We ran some errands after they left and had a quiet evening. On Sunday Debbi’s family came by to hang out for the day.

Oh, and I bought Debbi a late birthday gift, the Lego Millennium Falcon, figuring we’d spend time putting it together on our vacation. I’d originally planned to get her the totally bonkers Ultimate Millennium Falcon until I saw that that one would take 40 hours or more to put together, and came with instructions on how to lift it without it falling apart. Plus the box weighs 30 pounds! I decided that was a little too ridiculous, so I got her the basic set (from the original trilogy – there are also sets from The Force Awakens and Solo). But the joke is that we never put it together and ended up shipping it home before we left. Oh well!

I drove back to Dad’s Sunday night, while Debbi went to stay with her sister. Debbi had another friend drive up with his daughter and her friend (both teenagers) on Monday to stay the night, and it sounds like they had fun. Meanwhile Dad and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which we’d last visited a decade or more ago. They’ve updated a lot of the exhibits since last we were there and it looks a lot spiffier, although it’s somehow comforting that the room with the dinosaur fossils and the coelacanth seem to only have received a fresh coat of paint. (Technically this is the Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology.)

Plateosaurus
Plateosaurus
Coelacanth
Coelacanth
Triceratops
Triceratops

Several of our favorite restaurants near Dad’s have closed in recent years, so we tried a few new ones (to me, anyway, and one new one to Dad). Fortunately one favorite, Taberna de Haro, is still there (we went twice).

I decided not to go out to Waban on this trip, because with Mom’s house gone, my elementary school replaced, and not really anyone left out there whom I know, it didn’t seem necessary to go again this year. I belatedly realized that this means 2019 is likely the first year since 1971 when I didn’t spend any time in Waban. Truly the end of an era for me.

Tuesday Debbi picked me up and we started the second half of our trip, which consisted almost entirely of hanging out at the beach. We didn’t quite think our meal plans through as we kept going back to the grocery store to pick up stuff for lunch or dinner, but otherwise it went smoothly. I was reminded that unfortunately while there are several “okay” restaurants in the area, there are not many really good ones. I think my favorite that we’ve tried is The Galley, a small plate restaurant in downtown Scituate with some good drinks and a nice open-air atmosphere. (Check the mirror behind the bar for their wi-fi info.)

Debbi’s family came out for July 3rd, which is when many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of (illegal) fireworks are set off by homeowners up and down the beach. It’s quite a display, and a highlight of our trip. Then Friday night an old friend of mine from high school, Matt, came to visit. I’d contacted him around the time of my 50th birthday and learned he lives near the beach house! So I grilled burgers and we hung out and chatted for the evening. I think it’s been over a decade since we’d seen each other, so we had a lot to talk about. In many ways I feel like we haven’t changed a lot, at least not as far as how we relate to each other.

We had really good weather for this trip, much nicer than the sometimes-brutal weather of last year, but Saturday was the one rough day of heat and humidity on this trip. We mostly spent it sitting in front of the fans, though we ran a couple of errands in the afternoon. About 5 pm a storm rolled in and it instantly got cooler and drier. We got a good view of some lightning strikes out over the water before the rain crashed in for about an hour. We did take a walk in the drizzle in the evening to go get ice cream, though! I’m grateful that even though we did have some very warm days, it always cooled off at night so we could sleep, since we don’t have A/C at the house.

Storm coming
Storm coming (click for larger image)

The fam came over again on Sunday to watch the World Cup final and have a last day at the beach before we left (and several of them headed off on their own vacation). Debbi and I had a quiet evening and a last day at the house before we drove up to Dad’s for the last night with him.

We flew home Tuesday night and miraculously our flight arrived 40 minutes early, so we were able to decompress a bit before bed. We smartly took today off from work so we were able to reorient ourselves and get ready to go back to work. Plus it took most of the day to convince Roulette to come out from under the bed and warm back up to us. She will be 16 years old later this month and she is definitely looking a little thin, so it’s hard to see her traumatized by us going away like this. Poor girl. (Sadie and Jackson, of course, bounced back immediately.)

Holy cow did 2 weeks of vacation fly by! On the other hand, now I have so much in the bank at work that I can’t let another year go by before taking another one.

Sunrise