Back to Boston

I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in the Boston area, my first airplane trip since COVID started. I’m not going to say “my first post-COVID trip”, because COVID is still with us and probably will be for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, this trip did feel like a landmark.

It wasn’t a vacation, as I had to head back to take care of some personal business, which I’m not going to go into here. Originally I’d planned to be there for two weeks – July 19 to August 2 – but some of that business got truncated, so I ended up moving my flight earlier, coming home on July 28.

I flew JetBlue, which I’ve been flying for over a decade as they consistently have direct flights between the Bay Area and Boston, and they’re usually on time. My flight out left at 8 am, and the day before a friend posted on Facebook that the line at security at SFO had been insane, so we got up at 4:30 am and Debbi drove me up early. It turns out whatever had been the problem the day before was fine for me, and I got to the gate two hours early, the flight took off on time, and landed half an hour early.

I had massive anxiety about the plane flight ahead of time, even though as far as I can tell there have been negligible COVID outbreaks traced to airplanes. Staying masked for a 5-1/2 hour flight (even longer on the return trip) seemed implausible at best to me, if for no other reason than because I’d need to drink water regularly on the flight. I wore an N95 mask, but less than half the people on my flight were wearing any mask at all (and that was probably a pretty good rate, since I bet San Francisco and Boston have higher mask-wearing rates than most cities). Most people took off their masks to eat or drink, and, well, it’s really, really hard not to follow the examples of others, even when you know it’s not the smartest thing to do, and especially since the mask was starting to drive me crazy after a couple of hours (cloth masks are fairly comfortable, N95s are definitely not). So I took off my mask to eat and drink as well.

So I have a lot of sympathy for people who have to wear masks all day, and a fair amount of understanding for people who object to having to do so, as well as a fair amount of annoyance at people who blithely say or imply (usually through their tone) that that level of mask wearing is easy or should be globally expected.

Anyway.

My sister Katy took the opportunity to drive up to visit as well, bringing my nephew Ivan along, and they picked me up at the airport. We all crammed into my Dad’s townhouse. Fortunately said house has excellent air conditioning, because the first week of my visit had highs in the 90s and awful humidity every day.

It was good to visit with them and my Dad. I haven’t seen Dad since he visited me the fall of 2019, and it had been even longer since I’d seen Katy and Ivan.

I might have mentioned that we’ve been doing some work on the beach house we own on the south shore. “Some work” undersells it considerably, as in a sense we’re making up for several decades of deferred maintenance. On the bright side we have an excellent general contractor managing the project, and I finally got to meet him and see the progress firsthand. The really large chunk of work has been finished and now we’re on to the large-but-smaller pieces. As big an effort as it’s been, it’s going to be awesome when it’s done.

One of my tasks was to help my Dad buy an iPhone, because his flip phone uses the 3G network which Verizon is discontinuing at the end of the year. That went reasonably smoothly, and he seems to be picking up the essentials of using it pretty quickly (though he might not entirely agree). But then, he’s been using an iPad off and on for a few years, so he had some familiarity with it.

Originally, Katy, Ivan and I had planned to go to the Red Sox game on Friday, but we all bailed because of the heat. We’d eaten dinner outside several times and I’d wilted after about an hour, and couldn’t see myself making it through a 3-hour game. It turns out we missed an historic game, as the Blue Jays won 28-5, which is tied for the 4th-largest run differential in the modern era (since 1900). How often does one get to see something like that? Oh well! Hopefully whoever bought our tickets we either a Jays fan, or really wanted to drink a lot of beer.

Over the weekend I drove down to visit my in-laws, whom I also haven’t seen since the Before Times. I got to see all three of my niephews, and all four of the dogs – three of whom are new since our last visit. It was a nice quiet weekend other than chasing the dogs around.

Katy and Ivan had left by the time I got back – and of course while I took a bunch of pictures with the in-laws, we completely spaced taking photos with the three of us. Oh well!

I had some more tasks to do during the week, and also hung out with my Dad a bunch. I was happy to see it rain Monday evening, which finally cleared out the humidity and took a bunch of the heat with it. I also drove back Tuesday night to meet our contractor for dinner, which we both enjoyed. I ate out a lot on this trip, but was able to eat outside almost all the time.

I took a late afternoon flight home on Thursday, because I just didn’t trust dealing with getting up early, catching the T, and getting through security in time for one of the morning flights. Fortunately everything went smoothly, except that the plane took off almost an hour late due to general weather issues across the country, and didn’t land until about 1:30 am east coast time, so I was basically dead by the time Debbi picked me up and we got home.

We took the next day off and went out for breakfast, and then had a pretty quiet day otherwise. Domino-the-labradork is slowly adjusting to living with us: His personality is coming out as he gets more comfortable, and he is slowly getting less aggressive or excited around the cats. Progress!

I took COVID tests on both Friday and Monday, and both were negative. I decided to just work from home all week out of an abundance of caution, and will take another test at the end of the week. Maybe I got away with it.

It was a good trip, although holy cow Boston you can keep your summer humidity. Hopefully next time I can go back for a proper vacation, and Debbi can come with me.

Knotwords

Today I’m going to sing the praises of a very clever and fun word puzzle app I’ve been playing on iOS: Knotwords, by Zach Gage and Jack Schlesinger.

Knotwords is like a second cousin to crossword puzzles. You’re given a grid of rows and columns, which is broken up into sections, and for each section you’re given the letters which go into the squares in that section. So there might be a section of 5 squares, which includes pieces of 2 or 3 rows or columns, and you need to figure out which letters go where. The trick is that each row or column is a complete English word, often consisting of 2 or more sections.

Here’s a recent simple puzzle and its solution (it briefly explodes the grid when you solve it, which is what I captured for this image):

What makes Knotwords enjoyable for me is that it exploits the human mind’s ability to pattern-match, but it also allows the player to break down the puzzle into smaller pieces, building up words out of multiple sections as you go. My approach – especially with larger puzzles – is to identify the sections which appear most tractable to figure out the word, and then build out from there.

Sometimes the sections allow you to reason about the letters through knowledge of English words. For example, if there’s a section of 5 squares, with two 3-letter words which overlap, you can sometimes figure out that there are a limited number of ways to combine the letter to make valid words. Vowel placement is often key. Sometimes you can eliminate combinations, for example knowing that there’s no English word which begins with the letters ‘BK’. Knowing the 2-letter words is also helpful. The app also tells you when you’ve entered an invalid word, so you’re not just guessing. And you can ask for a hint which gives you the dictionary definition of a word you choose on the grid, but it’s rewarding to solve puzzles with a few hints as possible.

Knotwords does reward having a good vocabulary, but the words are not usually rare. I’m more likely to spell a valid word and go “What the heck is that?” and then look at it differently and realize it’s a perfectly ordinary word. I’ve solved a couple hundred puzzles so far and maybe only encountered a couple of words I didn’t know.

The system is self-correcting in a way. Sometimes you build up a valid word, but it leads to other words being invalid, and then rearranging letters to fix things up untangles the other words. You quickly develop an instinct for which words are almost certainly correct (spoiler: longer words usually have only one solution).

If that sounds good to you, then you’ll be happy to learn that there’s even more to discover. In addition to the basic puzzles, there are “twist” puzzles, where each row and column has a number indicating how many vowels are in that line. For example:

Knotwords twist puzzle

And the solution. Whenever you solve a puzzle you get a happy little bunny person in the bottom right cheering you on:

Knotwords twist puzzle solved

Usually additional constraints in puzzles like these make things easier for the player (for example the “Sudoku X” variant of Sudoku), but that also means the twist puzzles can be harder because you have more information to work with.

Every day you get a new simple puzzle, a classic puzzle which gets larger and harder each day from Monday through Sunday, and a twist puzzle which also gets harder through the week.

Each month there are two puzzlebooks, one classic and one twist, each with thirty puzzles. The later puzzles in these have additional twists, such as word themes. At first I was intimidated by the puzzlebooks as I got to the midpoint, but while they get pretty large, it’s not too hard to work through them. While it takes me upwards of 25 minutes to get through the largest ones, you can always pause and come back to it later.

Knotwords has built-in gamification, such as tracking your stats on the daily puzzles, achievements, and of course tracking your streaks – which you can recover if you happen to break one!

One thing to know is that the app does not yet support syncing your progress across devices; as a result, I play it only on a single iPad. (Apparently syncing is in the works, though!)

I’ve never really made the leap to doing traditional puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku on computer, but Knotwords fills that space nicely, and in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as good on paper. It’s free to try, with an in-app purchase to unlock the full range of puzzles. I didn’t hesitate to buy it once I finished the trial, and I hope this post helps it find a few more fans.

The End of an Essential Freedom

I’m not sure there’s much I can say about the overturning of Roe v Wade which hasn’t been said better – and many, many times – by other people in the last few days.

I’ve long felt that the right to abortion is a litmus test for a free society. The United States now fails that litmus test, and over a dozen states fail it with extreme prejudice. It’s a national tragedy.

Everyone tries to prognosticate where things are going in the future, but I think it’s clear that the Republican Party – who are quite simply the American Nazi Party at this point – are willing to do anything to bring about their state of white protestant Christian nationalism. Will they succeed? I don’t know, but I do know that they will do anything and everything they’re not prevented from doing.

(Remember when John Roberts was the swing vote on the court, supposedly concerned with its reputation and legitimacy? Yeah, with a 6-3 majority he’s shown his true colors. With its reputation in tatters, how much longer will it still be regarded as legitimate?)

I was especially enraged by this NPR interview with law professor Helen Alvare, in which she says:

[T]here will be efforts to ensure that, you know, corporations in particular, but also government and other institutions, value caregiving (laughter).

[…]

I can’t emphasize enough how much they would like pro-choice groups to step in instead of just focusing on providing abortion, to step in and provide assistance…

I say to Alvare: Fuck you, all of you forced birth fascists. This is all on you. Pro-choice groups – individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments – have a job to continue to provide access to safe abortions. You fascists own every single death, health condition, and child living in poverty as a result of your forced birther actions, and it’s on you to care for them. The caregiving is your job, because you made it necessary. Grow up and for once in your life take some personal responsibility for your actions.

(Spoiler: They won’t.)

We must resist fascists like Alvare. And anyone who believes people like her when they say the Supreme Court isn’t coming for gay marriage, contraceptives and interracial marriage in the next few years is deluding themselves.

Introducing Domino

So this happened:

Domino sitting in the kitchen

Domino is a black lab mix, about a year and a half old, maybe 50 pounds? (My guess is he’s 55-60.) (ETA: The vet says he’s 45 pounds!) He had a rough early life: He was abused as a puppy, was rescued and had at least one surgery (one rear leg is stunted and we think has a pin in it so he can’t bend the knee), then was sent to California where he was adopted and returned three times. Our friends Chad and Camille fostered him in between, so they got to see him grow up, and he became friends with their two dogs.

After he was returned the last time, Debbi decided to pursue us adopting him. He’s going to be more her dog than mine, because while I like dogs, I’ve never really wanted to responsibility of a dog (which is rather different from the responsibility for cats). I’m going to help, of course, but she’s primary.

He arrived with the name “Dominoes”, but we decided to drop the plural.

We brought him home a week ago, having picked up a couple of crates, beds, food, toys, bowls, and a leash. Understandably he was tentative at first, but he seemed to trust us, and he got more comfortable over the next few days. We even took him with us to pick up dinner!

Domino in the car

Integration with the cats has been… bumpy. Maybe because he doesn’t have much experience with cats, we’re not sure. He barks at them and sometimes lunges at them if they get too close. But sometimes he does the “I want to play” crouch. He’s slowly getting better but there’s a ways to go. We’ve been keeping him on a leash inside to control his lunges.

The cats’ reactions have been varied. Jackson pretty quickly decided the dog doesn’t impress him, and he quickly returned to his normal habits. He’s had a couple of close encounters with Domino, but no one’s gotten hurt yet. Simon by contrast has mostly kept his distance, and spent the first couple of days mostly under the bed. Edison is somewhere in between. All of them have been figuring out Domino’s habits (he sleeps in a covered crate, he spends most of the work day in the dining room with Debbi, etc.), which I think has helped them be more comfortable.

Domino gorked out on the couch

I think Domino has accepted us as his humans. Debbi has been taking him for a walk in the morning, though he is a low-endurance pupper and I doubt I’ll be taking him on my runs any time soon. He is enjoying the back yard, though, and his favorite game seems to be tug-of-war. Sometimes he just gleefully runs around the yard with a kong in his mouth.

So it’s an ongoing adjustment. I’m hoping he’ll eventually chill out enough that the cats will lie with him, or at least play a bit with him, but I’ll settle for him not going after them, even if there’s some barking. We’re doing some training with him on Saturday, and there will be more in the future.

In any event, we now have this big ol’ labradork in our family.

Domino lying on the lawn
(Just ignore the drought-browned grass)

Backyard Multiverse

Writing this at the end of a long weekend, one which was both productive and quite lazy.

We had a warm Saturday which prompted Debbi to take the covers off our patio furniture at last. It’s pretty durable stuff, but we were happy with the waterproof protection of the covers during the winter rainy season (such as it was – California is in another bad drought), and we didn’t get any critters nesting in the furniture when we removed it.

Consequently it was so warm that we spent most of Saturday afternoon sitting on the sofa outdoors under the umbrella and reading (in between wasting time on our iPads, of course). We left the doors to the family room open (with the retractable screen in place), so the cats got to have the full outdoor-smells experience. I don’t think the kittens are quite used to us being around but not indoors, but neither of them tries to go out (Simon definitely does not want to go out), so it’s fine.

In the evening we played Jackbox Games with friends and family – which we’ve been doing regularly throughout the pandemic – followed by me going out for a walk.

Sunday we also spent a bunch of time outside, but I also did some yard work since it cooled off to reasonable levels. I finally replaced the transformer for our low-power accent lights outside, which went really well, and I honestly probably spent more time practicing stripping the wires than anything else. I also re-staked a couple of the lights and replaced some bulbs, and it made me feel like a real homeowner.

Then I assembled my new extension pruner (the old one having seized up last summer) and filled up our yard waste bin with trimmings from the plum tree. Our yard is maybe 20% larger than I have the energy to take care of, and so it’s been slowly getting away from me over the 11 years we’ve lived here. I expect we’ll re-landscape sometime in the next couple of years.

I took today off and Debbi took the afternoon off. After lunch at nearby sandwich joint Specialty’s, we went to see our first movie in the cinemas in over 2 years – for which we were joined by exactly three other people, who all sat behind us. We saw Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I’m not going to write a full review, but I enjoyed it overall. People who enjoyed Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) character development in WandaVision will probably enjoy it here as well – I personally did not, though since it wasn’t her film, I can live with it. I enjoyed seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange as a more experienced sorcerer, yet I thought he had some good character development. They didn’t quite stick the landing on that character development, instead taking things in a suddenly-different direction, so that was disappointing. Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez and Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer were both great. There was a bunch of fan service nonsense in the middle which was fine as far as moving the story along and setting up a big set-piece, but honestly since I thought the Illuminati in the comics were stupid, I’m glad they didn’t make more of it than they did. The film’s sense of humor works sometimes but feels awkwardly bolted-on at other times. I sort of agree with Kurt Busiek’s take in this Twitter thread, though I think I liked it more than he did. But the script probably needed a couple more rewrites to completely work.

Anyway, it’s a dark and sometimes very grim film, and I think they really missed an opportunity for closure and optimism at the end by not having Strange more directly talk to the one person he really owed some emotional honesty to. A solid mid-range MCU film, sort of the dark version of Guardians of the Galaxy. If they’d clung more firmly to the theme of “learning to love yourself” (the flip side of Guardians’ found-family theme) and followed it through then I think it’d have worked better.

Hey, I guess I did write a review.

Anyway, I’m sitting on the back porch again writing this while Debbi plays (different) games with friends, and I think we’re going to QBB for drinks and barbecue afterwards. So it’s been a good weekend.

Star Trek: Picard Season 2

The first season of Star Trek: Picard was maybe the best season of Star Trek ever. I adored it so much that I wrote six reviews covering its ten episodes! (If you’re interested, you can start here.) It wobbled a little bit on the landing, but overall it was character-rich, exciting, and thoughtful – all the things that The Next Generation muffed on a regular basis.

I was certainly disappointed to hear that Michael Chabon stepped away from being the showrunner of season 2, but was happy to give it a chance. Unfortunately my disappointment was warranted, as season 2 was a big step down from season 1.

Season 2 featured a lot of Trek fan service, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It set the early tone for the series as the first episode was packed with views into Picard’s life, his current role in Starfleet, what the other main characters were doing in and around Starfleet, the return of an old friend, and the return of the Borg. But things get turned on their ear when Q shows up and most of the principals from season 1 find themselves in an alternate timeline, and have to return to the 21st century to set things right.

The problem is that the writing was all over the place. As in season 1, each character has their own story arc, but they’re embedded in a tired framework (going back to “the present day” to fix history) with extremely awkward pacing (a lot of running around to set up later payoffs, but the running around gets tedious quickly). Finally, it absolutely does not stick the landing, although the final episode has a few nice bits.

Spoiler-rich commentary after the break:

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard Season 2”

Steven Brust: Jhereg

Jhereg, by Steven Brust, MMPB, Ace, © 1983, ISBN 0-441-38551-6

Jhereg, by Steven Brust

Earlier this year I read Jo Walton’s collection of essays What Makes This Book So Great, which is a collection of essays from over a decade ago mostly about books she re-read and discussed on the Tor blog. In it she covers all of the books published up to that time in two series. One of them I’ve read before, Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Miles Vorkosigan stories. The other was Steven Brust’s Draegarian novels, which I haven’t. I enjoyed her writing about them that I decided to start reading them myself. (I bought a used mass market paperback on eBay because I dislike the trade paperback format, but that’s another story.)

I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I could have jumped onto this series fairly early, as I blasted my way through most of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy in 1986, but these were pre-Internet days, and it was unlikely I was going to get into a series through other than word-of-mouth. Brust was a fixture in midwest conventions when I lived there and attended them, and I remember seeing Five Hundred Years After on dealer’s room tables at the time, but I didn’t start reading them then. These days I still gravitate mostly to science fiction, but I read the occasional fantasy novel, and after reading Jhereg, the first book in the series, I’m looking forward to continuing, as one of its prominent features is something I really enjoy, and which I want to discuss here: The world building.

I hope to keep this spoiler free, as there are some nice twists in the story for those who haven’t read it.

At 239 pages, Jhereg is comically short by the standards of today’s fantasy series. Even in the early 80s it was on the short side, but not ridiculously so. However, it packs a huge amount of world building into that span, while still having space for an engaging story with a couple of nice twists. It’s quite an accomplishment for a first novel, especially the first of a series which has been running for nearly 40 years. I understand the series moves backwards and forwards in time from here, and I’ll be interesting to see how much consistency the series exhibits.

The lead character is Vlad Taltos, a human on the world of Draegara, who hails from the East, but lives in an empire of Draegarans, who are humanoids who live for centuries or even millennia. There are seventeen houses in the empire, each associated with an animal on the world, and the book makes clear that membership in a house strongly governs the lives and behavior and alliances of its individual members. Vlad is a member of House Jhereg, who are assassins, and by some considered the lowest of the houses. Vlad is in business as an assassin, and apparently a good one.

Draegara has magic, of at least two forms: Sorcery, which appears to be an exertion of will, and witchcraft, which are more ritualistic and time consuming. Vlad has some familiarity with both, the the book opens with him performing a ritual to obtain a Jhereg dragon egg, which grows to become his familiar, Loiosh. The world also features telepathy and teleportation, as well as resurrection from death, and methods to thwart such resurrection. The clever, powerful, and resourceful all take measures to deal with these various powers, and while one could not argue that Brust builds an airtight balance of forces, he does a good enough job in the scope and length of this novel that it’s not needed.

(Thanks to Clarke’s Third Law, one could imagine that this series is science fiction with a fantasy skin, but I prefer to take stories like this at face value unless given reason not to.)

Vlad is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He’s constantly surrounded by people who are better than him at any one sill, but his edge is in fitting all of the pieces together. He also has an extensive backstory, having inherited his membership in the Jhereg from his father. He is married to another Jhereg, and is head of security for Morrolan, a powerful member of House Dragon. He’s friends with several other powerful people associated with Morrolan, and he runs his own business with his own staff and contacts. It’s unclear how old he is, but probably late 20s or 30s in this story.

Draegara itself has an extensive backstory, with periods of war, an interregnum, and characters who have lived through it all. And I’m sure there’s plenty we don’t see, since there are whole novels later in the series which take place centuries in the past.

Weaving all of these pieces together without seeming like two hundred pages of exposition is no mean feat. To be sure, Vlad spends a lot of time talking, gathering information, and even learning a few things he didn’t already know. But it all works. I think because Brust is careful not to go in too many directions at once. For example, only three houses – Jhereg, Dragon, and Dzur – figure significantly in the story, and mainly because of the characters’ connections to them.

Oh yes, the story: Vlad is hired by a high member of the Jhereg named The Demon to find a man named Mellar who has stolen a large amount of money from the House. This is embarrassing for the House, but moreover it could signal the others could and should try the same thing if it gets out. So The Demon wants to kill Mellar quickly and permanently, and recover the money, so that even if it does get out, the risks will be clear. Unfortunately, once Vlad finds Mellar, actually killing him proves to have huge and unexpected challenges.

So the story is partly a mystery about Mellar, and partly a puzzle as to how to kill him – or, more precisely, how Vlad can fulfill his contract, do right by his house, and overcome the challenge that killing Mellar presents. (I was pretty happy to figure out the mystery about ten pages before Vlad did. I sort of figured out the puzzle, but my solution probably wouldn’t have worked – or at least, it just would have shifted the steep cost to other parties.) The story is also pretty clearly a set-up of Vlad’s relationships and loyalties, as well as laying the ground rules for how some of the characters and structures in Draegara work. I expect these will be developed and play out in later novels.

All in all, Jhereg is a remarkable piece of work. It even doesn’t feel very dated – for example, several of the major characters are women, including one of the most powerful ones, even though it’s a book with a male protagonist written by a male author. In some ways it’s what I’d wanted George R. R. Martin’s A Song if Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) to be, with more action, more character, less wordiness, and more of a sense of wonder. Definitely recommended if any of these elements appeal to you, and I hope the series only gets better from here.

Back to the Office

Thursday was my first day back in the office since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic over 2 years ago. I’ve been in a few times (four?) to pick up stuff, or to clean out my space from the Apple Silicon project, but those have been brief visits. This was a full day of work.

Since I’d brought home almost all of my stuff from the office, I had to figure out what I’d need to bring back. Since I’m only there one or two days per week to start with, I knew I’d been working on my laptop and leaving my more powerful desktop at home for now. I couldn’t remember whether I had necessary cables and chargers left in my office, or even other stuff like Kleenex, so I drew up a list and packed everything on it up Thursday morning.

In fact I remembered almost everything I needed. The one exception is that I’d ordered a new monitor for my laptop to replace the very old Cinema Display I’d been using before, and I needed a new keyboard since the old USB-A one that connected to the Cinema Display couldn’t plug in to any port on the laptop or new monitor. Fortunately, accessories like that are easy enough to get hold of (especially since I’m happy with basic keyboards – none of those fancy split, recessed keyboards for me, thanks!).

There’s been a lot of controversy about tech companies requiring their employees to return to the office. I’m not going to address that controversy here, but I am going to articulate my own feelings about going back to the office. I think it’s a very complicated situation (and I know there are people who would disagree with that), and I don’t think my feelings or opinions are definitive, but I do think they’re just as valid as (almost) anyone else’s.

There are two major pieces to this: The COVID piece, and the if-COVID-didn’t-exist piece.

If COVID didn’t exist, then it’s a slam-dunk for me: I hate working from home. I’ve always preferred to keep my home life and my work life as separate as is practical. Home has too many distractions (starting with cats coming in to demand attention when I’m trying to focus on something). I also associate physical spaces with memories of what I do there, and it’s been increasingly difficult to enjoy being in our home office because I spend all my time there when I’m working.

I also like seeing and hanging out with my cow-orkers, and find interacting with them in person way easier, more convenient, and more comfortable than doing so over messaging apps or audio or video calls. Those other forms of communication are useful for certain things, but as secondary channels, not the primary one. I like going to lunch and coffee with them, and we’ve worked through many issues over the years by talking through them in person.

I recognize that I’m privileged to work in an office – even though I usually share it with someone else – rather than a cubicle or some worse open-office space (which I think are abominations, and companies that prefer such spaces should be ashamed of themselves). I’m also privileged to have a short commute to work with minimal traffic. Silicon Valley and many other places are terrible to commute in, and I wish housing prices were not so high so that my cow-orkers could afford to live here without feeling so much stress about it (stress I keenly remember back when I was not so privileged).

Anyway, I know lots of people disagree and/or have very different perspectives, but that’s how I feel about it.

COVID of course throws a big wrench into the whole equation. The office on Thursday was pretty similar to any other day in the office. I hadn’t been looking forward to wearing a mask all day, but when I got there most people were not wearing masks. (I decided to try to wear a mask whenever I was not in my own office.) This is of course a false sense of security, in that how the office experience feels has no bearing on whether I’m going to catch COVID from being there, even if case numbers are very low right now. I took my first-ever COVID test on Tuesday in order to go in (it was negative, of course), and for all I know I’ve had it previously (I bet not, though). I wondered whether we’ll get to the point that once someone in the department tests positive if we’ll have a cluster of people test positive shortly thereafter. We’ll find out, I guess.

I don’t want to catch COVID, and I really don’t want to bring it home to Debbi. But I don’t want to work at home anymore, either. I think it’s been bad for my mental health.

It’s still kind of inconceivable to me how much the world has been upended by this. Even more so that there are idiots out there who resist getting vaccinated.

Anyway.

The work day was close to normal for a “coming back after a break” day. Our department has been doing office reshuffling (part of me internally chuckles at the thought that it’s been driving management crazy that we’ve gone almost 3 years without moving offices around), I got to meet some cow-orkers whom I hadn’t met in person before, and saw some folks I hadn’t interacted with much during the pandemic. I introduced at least two people to The Sandman thanks to the PVC figurines I have on my desk. We went to coffee. I made a guess at the cause of a low-information bug report which turned out to be correct (I’m always kind of amazed when I do this). And then I drove home.

For now I’m planning to go into the office at the minimum required rate (1 day a week to start), to see how things go with COVID rates. I think there’s going to be a total disconnect in my brain between the COVID risk and the enjoyment of being around my cow-orkers again. That’s pretty weird. But maybe we’ll be lucky and it will never get worse than weird.

Maybe we’ll get really lucky and we’ll have better vaccines by fall. Because better vaccines and better treatments are likely the only thing that will save us, at this point.

Main entrance to City Center 2

March 2022 Staycation

It’s hard to come up with journal titles sometimes since we’re, well, not going anywhere or doing a whole lot.

I took last week off from work. Since we are, again, not going anywhere, I’ve been accumulating vacation time steadily without the usual trips to spend it on. Originally 2020 was going to be a big vacation year for us, but that didn’t happen. Instead I’ve been taking off about one week each quarter, plus the occasional day off here and there. That’s basically burning my vacation time just slightly faster than I earn it.

Since we’ve been, you know, in the middle of a global pandemic, I probably should be taking the occasional sick day as a mental health day, but I haven’t been. Once we start going back to the office – which may happen soon – I’ll see how that goes and how I feel. I expect being around people will be good for my mental health, but being around people potentially carrying COVID-19 will be bad for my mental health. (I’m sure they’ll feel the same about me.)

Anyway, I spent the first half of the week mostly hanging around at home and doing some chores. For example, ordering some new eyeglasses, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Going to get coffee and hang out at Philz, whose closest location to home has a nice outdoor patio. We also got a good rain shower on Monday, which we really needed, and where I was able to do some yard maintenance ahead of the rain, such as laying down some plant food for various things.

Wednesday Debbi also took the day off and we went to breakfast at Stacks in Campbell, and swung by Recycle Bookstore. Then we went to Santa Cruz, where we went to Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Penny Ice Creamery, before driving over to look at the ocean. It was warm downtown, but cold and windy by the water! So we didn’t stay long.

The Penny Ice Creamery

Thursday I decided to drive up to San Francisco. When I got there, I found my car had hit a milestone:

Odometer reading 40002
Yes, the inside of my car is rather dusty

I went by Borderlands Books, where I found a few things. They haven’t changed a lot – other than a staffer I hadn’t seen before – but I think they’re hoping to move into their new space later this year. Then I went by Amoeba Music, mainly because I’ve wanted to pick up a copy of the new Jethro Tull album The Zealot Gene on CD. They didn’t have it, although they did have the ridiculous $120 vinyl/CD deluxe set, but I passed on that.

Visiting Amoeba brought back memories. I went to it and Rasputin in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Campbell many times in the ten or so years after I moved to the Bay Area in 1999. That was when I really got into progressive rock, and it was sort of the golden age of the compact disc, where companies which had issued half-assed versions of vinyl albums on CD in the 80s were reissuing them nice editions with full liner notes and many bonus tracks and other goodies during that period. Those stores were excellent for finding many CDs, including of the increasingly-obscure bands I was getting into – bands which wouldn’t be available via download for quite a few years. (I knew the tide had turned around 2009 when there was an album I could not find on CD, but which was available from the iTunes Store. This was the eponymous album by Days Before Tomorrow.)

Haight Street in SF was still fairly quirky at that time (although I’m sure nothing like it had been 30 or even 10 years earlier). I particularly remember one used bookstore with tall bookcases and similarly tall stacks of books on top of those cases. I don’t generally worry about earthquakes, but I was worried about being caught in those stacks if one hit San Francisco. That store and many others are long gone, and the remnants of quirky Haight Street are not interesting to me – and honestly, even the tattoo parlors are looking pretty upscale.

Amoeba, however, seems to have not changed at all. They still want you to check your bags at the front. They still have extensive new and used CD sections, and a large side room with DVDs and blu-rays. If much has changed, it’s a larger selection of vinyl, as well as some record players. And actually they have substantially improved their organization of artists with large catalogs so you don’t have to go searching through three rows of unsorted discs to find the one you want. I hope they’re doing okay.

Amoeba Music interior

I had lunch at a nice nearby sandwich place called Bite Me Sandwiches, even if I did have to sit on the sidewalk to eat it. (Thanks COVID!) Then I drove over to Green Apple Books, which I haven’t been to in forever. Apple Maps claimed that all their locations were permanently closed, which I was pretty sure was wrong, but which made it hard to figure out which one to go to. When I got there I filed a report through the app with a photo of their open front door and hours, and it got fixed the next day. Fight entropy, everyone!

Green Apple Books is one of those old-style “we’ve crammed a bookcase into every square inch of space” bookstores, with wood floors and writing on the shelves indicating what used to be on those shelves back in the 80s. Still, they have a fine selection of used science fiction in excellent condition, and I picked up a few books here, too.

By this time it was time to head out to beat rush hour traffic, which I mostly did, and I came home and collapsed for the day.

The rest of the week and weekend involved more chores and more hanging around. I was pleased to win my first trophy in a Magic Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty draft. And Saturday night we got together with neighbors at the nearby Sport Page bar for drinks and dinner. They upgraded their patio during COVID and it seems to have paid off for them. The only downside was that we got there halfway through the Duke/UNC Final Four game, which none of us cared about, but once it ended everyone cleared out. We had a good time hanging out, including with a couple of former neighbors we hadn’t seen in a while.

So it was a pretty good week, though it went by fast, and wasn’t as good as, say, going to Hawaii. We know many people who have been travelling, so maybe our turn will come sometime this year, too. Otherwise, I’ll probably be writing another staycation entry in three months.

The Warmest Winter

After a near-record wet November and December, we’ve now had a near-record dry January and February. We got a little rain last week, mixed in with a sudden cold snap with frost on my car several mornings. This is not especially unusually – we always have a little near-freezing overnight weather in the middle of winter, but not sandwiched by days with highs in the 70s.

Today was another such day which cracked 70F, and Debbi and I took the day off and drove over to Half Moon Bay. It was bright and sunny for a coastal walk, and then we had lunch at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, which was an impressively tasty and good-value-for-the-money establishment. (Okay, people outside the Bay Area might flinch at their prices, but trust me they are good for here.)

We got a little too much sun, but otherwise a fine day out. Nonetheless I’d be happy to have weeks of pouring rain in March or April. We need it.