Saturday, March 10, 2018

better living through electronics

I'm reading the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy by Cixin Liu, translated from the Chinese. It's really good, on its own terms, but also in the same way Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is good, which is that it's a non-Western example of a (largely) Western genre. Translation is a miserable set of tradeoffs, but the translators have written English that probably no native speaker would write, which combined with the Chinese names does keep it fresh.

I've been sick all week, starting right after I spent Thursday and Friday in the office last week. I mostly only go there when I have a new minion starting, and #10 started on Monday of last week. Monday is my big meeting day, so I pushed through that, then I was useless Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday I wore myself out with 90 minutes of hiring tasks.

As you might imagine, I handle the home IT tasks, which extends to the A/V gear. We've been running for a while on my Yamaha "PianoCraft" receiver that was already discontinued when I bought it in 2008. In addition to the companion DVD player dying (who plays DVDs any more?), it doesn't handle modern video cables (HDMI), and as is always the case with these kinds of setups, only the person who set it up can really remember that in order to use the PlayStation you have to set the receiver to TAPE/MD and use the HDMI Y-junction to select Input A, and the Windows gaming laptop is DVD/CD on the receiver and Input B on the HDMI. The speakers are nice enough, though.

I did the usual research on how to solve this problem, and the answer appears to be precisely the kind of Home Theater AVR (Audio/Video Receiver) that I've avoided as being too awkward and expensive, which was true until recently. They look like this:

Incredible as it seems, I have avoided them, as they are large, and used to be expensive. My late housemate J.D. bought one, a Harman-Kardon, and I'm not sure he ever got the full value from it. They're better now in pretty much every way, and the base models start at $180: not too shabby for something that will stay mostly up-to-date for a decade.

This being the Bay Area, people are always selling this caliber of stuff, so after some painstaking research to count HDMI ports and try to understand what I'd be able to do with it, I picked up an older sibling of the Denon shown above, for $75 from a very nice Irishman who moved into a smaller place. Maybe his new place was too small for 5.1 Surround Sound? Dunno.

The digital music devices I use, the now-Logitech Squeezeboxes, were originally made by/for audiophiles, so they have a digital optical output I've never used. But behold! a few minutes with the on-screen menu, and I've reassigned the OPT port to the DOCK source, rename DOCK to "Squeezebox" (because changing the name is a thing you can do), and it's done! BD (Blu-ray Disc) becomes "PS3," DVD becomes "Laptop," and then that's it. If we ever get the yen for more speakers, there's 3 more speaker outputs, and an automatic setup function using the included calibrating microphone, although I don't remember where it is.

In other respects, it's been an extraordinarily messy few weeks. But the stereo is easy to use now!

We do what we can.

Monday, February 26, 2018


At work we have a #talk-food chat channel, and several people evangelize the Instant Pot™, a many-functioned electric device which does:
  • Sauté
  • Slow Cook
  • Pressure Cook
  • Rice Cook
  • Steam
  • Yogurt(!)
(They say "7-in-1," but they may somehow be counting the various pressure and temperature levels. The models bigger than 3 quarts have a few more complex automated programs.)

Being as the small one is $80, I hadn't planned to get one; but the cute little one-button rice cooker I bought off a friend has a peeling nonstick coating, and burns a bottom layer of the morning quinoa. Anna wanted a rice cooker with a stainless steel insert, and at that point you're looking at programmable rice cookers in the $80 range anyway.

Apparently pressure cookers have been an Indian family favorite for decades, though I'm not sure how I only just learned that. Much Instant Pot™ evangelism starts with someone making a Butter Chicken just like their mother or grandmother. I tried a pressure cooker on the sailboat, where cruisers like it for its reduced fuel usage, but it was mysterious and awkward. You had to watch it, wait for it to reach pressure and tell you so via the rattling of Widget #1, turn the heat off after some number of minutes, then when Widget #2 un-clicks or something, then leave it alone for another number of minutes, then vent it. I knew at least a little about cooking by then, but--setting aside the constant monitoring--how did you know how long to apply which phase? How could you adapt random recipes?

The Instant Pot™ uses a tiny computer to handle most of this nonsense for you, and furthermore it appears that once said nonsense is taken out of your hands, pressure cooking is pretty forgiving. Anna has made a fantastic beef stew a couple times (taking maybe 1-2 hours instead of 6 or 7) and gave it her highest accolade: "I can get rid of my Crock-Pot now."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

another addition to the household.

We had a remarkably un--relaxing day, starting with a trip to Urgent Care--I swear one of us is in there every 3 weeks lately--for a doctor to get a painful speck of something out of Anna's eye. (She's fine.) Then we had an appointment to buy a car, because one day the station wagon didn't start, thus calling attention to the frayed seat belts and other signs of wear and tear. So we bought a car.

I buy cars so rarely that I forget how many hours it takes, even without financing. I'm pretty sure even buying the house didn't involve 4 hours of sitting around.

The newest member of the family is a 2016 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, named "Appa." He looks like this:
We did the test drive yesterday, and today we were just going to check out the fancier version (the R/T) to see if it was worthwhile. It's possible we could have tolerated the red-stitching-on-black-leather upholstery, but the deal-killer was that the leather meant the middle seats have a sizeable hard bump going right into the base of your neck. On the SXT's cloth seats, the bump is soft, so you don't notice it. The R/T also has a bunch of storage compartments running down the center, which lower the roof by an inch or two: clearly a downside with a child who's likely to top 6'2" before he graduates high school.

On reflection, the only thing we really liked about the R/T was the upgraded center console with the Bluetooth integration and digital temperature display, and that's usually the sort of thing added for less money than the R/T would have cost. Even if we can't get the OEM console installed, the Bay Area has a healthy culture of car modification, so there are a few dozen places to call about upgrades.

Hilariously, I learned to drive on a Dodge Grand Caravan. The family had gotten an original (not-Grand) Caravan, but my parents insisted on a manual transmission, back when that was both possible and not quite unreasonable: automatic transmissions were sold as a feature, but were often real shit-piles to drive. Of course, the manual only came on a V-4, which could have been okay if you weren't hauling stuff, but then why are you buying a minivan? And we were hauling stuff. Three boys, our friends, skis, bicycles, you name it, until our annual trip to Cape Cod saw this gasping little engine towing a 17-foot sailboat (probably pushing 1,200 pounds with the trailer) and everyone's bicycles at once, plus clothes and kitchen equipment, everything you needed to bring three children to the beach for three weeks, back in the days when books were paper and computers were large and expensive.

It sort of worked. Usually with the A/C turned off.

I don't remember if the Caravan died or just became intolerable, but the family's next car was...a Grand Caravan! with the coveted V-6, and the begrudged automatic transmission. That was what I drove, when I drove, and I was pretty good at it (as much as an 18-year old can be). I knew where its sides and corners were, what it would or wouldn't do.

The 2016 model drives exactly the same as I remember. Stronger engine, modern automatic transmission that doesn't suck, better tires and suspension etc., but fundamentally the same size with the same brick-on-wheels shape. You can lay flat a stack of 4'x8' sheets of plywood. You can carry 5 large teenagers and their swimming gear. You can tow 3,600 pounds (handy, since a trailer is how you'd take 5 large teenagers camping). Other features, besides the remarkably ugly front grille:

  • The seats have this Super Stow 'N Go™ system, where there's 12 cubic feet of storage under the floor, which is also where the seats fold into, creating the 160 cubic feet for  plywood-stacking.
    • I grew up helping to reconfigure minivan interiors by unlocking the seats and maneuvering them out the single sliding door, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds. (If you think about where you would store 2 bench seats when not in use, you'll probably find fewer than you were thinking.)
  • En route to folding into the floor, the rear bench seat flips over to provide seats facing out the (presumably open at that point) tailgate.
  • Not only is there a sliding door on both sides, they and the tailgate are motorized, openable from the keyfob, and you are specifically enjoined from opening or closing them by hand.
    • By extension, I assume this doesn't have the "shit, we parked facing uphill and now it's hard to close the sliding door" problem.
    • With less confidence, I assume there's some kind of safety mechanism to prevent the robotic doors from closing on people.
  • It has a kind of "Eco" button which claims to extract higher gas mileage in exchange for reduced performance.
  • The roof rack, which sucks up a few mpg on the current car, has tool-free (dis)assembly into slots in the roof.
Since Appa is replacing a 25-year old Corolla wagon ("Molly"), we had several years to research replacements. I was surprised to find that most SUVs won't hold as much total cargo+people as a minivan, and many SUV towing capacities are pretty weak. We were less surprised to find that our desires to travel SUV-required roads are transient enough that we can just rent one as needed.

Here's to never again cracking my head against the Toyota's anemic tailgate that doesn't raise up the final few inches unless you push it. Thanks for the years and years of service, Molly.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

that makes sense.

Our dog has many mysteries, but the biggest has been her many cat-like behaviors. She grooms fastidiously, complete with licking her paw and cleaning her face. (It dawned on me at some point that if she takes her disgusting dog-breath and transfers it to her fur, that goes a long way to explaining the "Time To Wash The Dog" smell.) She head-butts into you as a form of affection. And she purrs, or at least has a solid go at it, with no help from her anatomy. It comes out as a very high-pitched whistling sound.

There are other mysteries, like how she could have been properly socialized as a puppy and then somehow abandoned without being microchipped, but our houseguest came up with the theory, based on her experience of mixed dog/cat households:

The dog was raised by cats.

When my niece was a baby, I watched her crawl around the floor saying "rarrr rarr rarrar rarr," which didn't make any sense until I saw her family's two Springer Spaniels making growly play noises around her, and of course they were the things down at her height, and she made her best approximation of friendly dog-noises.

There's a lesson in there about what we grow up with, versus what we grow up into.

I assume the dog was raised by particularly kind cats, since she's now very excited to go pull their tails off, because obviously they're giant rats. No animal does that who understands that cats are made of fast-acting, pointy pain.

Saturday, February 3, 2018


The boy has just returned to school, after about a week and a half of being out with the flu. He had some vomiting, then congestion, and now he's doing a lot of wet coughing. I'm worried about him because I have lots of experience with wet coughing, and if you don't get that shit out of your lungs, bronchitis happens, and then possibly pneumonia (which happened to my brother). I used to get bronchitis every summer like clockwork, until I finally understood the warning signs, and started chugging guaifenesin-only (i.e. not psychoactive) cough syrup at the first sign of lung-phlegm.

I was nauseous on Tuesday, but not since, and it seems I've escaped the phlegm stage, being stuck only with the soreness and weakness that seem like the universal calling card of the flu. (I'm pretty sure I've never had the flu until now.) We could tell I was sick for sure because on Tuesday I had a fever! Which is not something my body does, post-childhood. My body temperature always comes in a little low, so a significant fever for me would be 99º.

By the usual measure, my flu shot was a week or two too late to have any effect. Maybe I got lucky, or maybe I will relapse, but I've been steadily getting better. Nothing at work seems to have missed me this week, which is both awesome, and also triggers my Impostor Syndrome. If nobody missed me, am I really useful?

I am, I think, but more on scales of weeks and months, rather than days. That's as it should be. If your teams can't work effectively without you, their manager, you may need to make some different choices.

Absent the energy or need for thought--J watched The Princess Bride without even smiling; as he said, "it's hard to be interested in things"--the days just cruise on past. Even the minimal routine of walking the dog hasn't been on the table.

Luckily I have a whole empty weekend ahead of me, with nothing on the calendar except my violin lesson.

Friday, February 2, 2018


I kept digging for information on that weird 5-course instrument, and I found a much more complete (and likely) origin, from the Scandinavians themselves:

  1. The part about calling it a cittern because the word was available: true enough.
  2. Only being able to get one used or custom-built: still true.
  3. Wait. Quarter-tone frets? What?
  4. Single-string capo pegs that screw into the fingerboard?!
  5. I'm 99% sure theorbed wasn't a word before this guy typed it, but what he means is having a second set of strings ending beyond the first set, thus with lower pitch, usually as drone strings. There's, uh, some variety in how this is done in a theorbo.
I don't really want to pay a few thousand dollars for a custom instrument; I expect violins will keep me busy for a long time. I've been watching people play these things, thinking about what I find appealing in them, and it's really that they look much easier to play. In the original video I saw, if you look at Ale Carr's left hand, he rarely has more than two fingers holding strings down, because the instrument is tuned to something close to an "open tuning," where strumming the strings without any fingers down (the "open" bit), plays something closer to a pleasant-sounding chord. Most ordinary tunings, for most instruments, are not chord-friendly, for various historical and music-theory reasons.

Then I started thinking that I have quite a nice guitar here, and partial capos, which don't cover all 6 strings, are totally a thing. This guy takes it to what is probably an extreme, but I'm pretty sure I can have a lot of the fun of these weird Nordic instruments, using just my guitar and some toys.

Monday, January 29, 2018

okay, but *technically*...

In Chile I lived with one of the Language Arts teachers--who was teaching Shakespeare in the original Spanish--and when I asked what she taught, she included the word ortografía. I could readily translate this into "orthography," which neatly illustrates the pitfalls of translation, because I didn't know what that meant. We eventually worked our way around to something like "making sure the word has the right letters," so I got to explain that it would be an unusual native English speaker--certainly the rarest kind of American--who would hear "orthography" and know what it meant.

The approximation we found was "spelling," but it actually means "the list of mistakes you pay your professional editor to tell you about." English is justly notorious for this (though there are far worse possibilities), but I finally noticed the lyrics to this Swedish Christmas song I keep listening to (only because I didn't grow up with it, can't understand the words, and the music is thoroughly European and yet also thoroughly unfamiliar).

(See here if you're wondering what instrument the lead singer is playing.)

I Österland, där en stjärna uppgick,
ovanligen hon månde brinna.
Tre vise män efter Guds allvisa skick
Gud sände det barnet att finna.
Från Midians land kom de löpare tre,
Som ville den nyfödde kungen se.
De offrade håvor och ära.
De offrade rökelse mirham och guld.
Det heliga barnet var oss så huld.
Jesum, vår frälsare kära!
När konung Herodes fick höra det tal,
att en konung var födder till världen,
fick han i sitt hjärta bekymmer och kval
och trakta därefter att mörda.
Men Josef tog barnet och Marie hand
Och flydde sen in i Egyptie land
Ur fattigdom, köld och elände.
De offrade håvor och ära.
De offrade rökelse mirham och guld.
Det heliga barnet var oss så huld.
Jesum, vår frälsare kära!

You know if Anna, a gifted multi-linguist if ever there was one, raises her eyebrows, you're onto something good. It's okay up until the spot where skick is pronounced "fweek," and even the phrasing of ville den, but then kungen comes out as "kohni[n]gen" and De offrade håvor och ära is "dom offrwaduh hovor oh-waara" where that "rw" is a sort of French thing, and it can't really be healthy to stick that many consonants into your sinuses, can it?

There's a lot there to find familiar! You suspect that Österland is probably not Austria (Österreich). Just take Gud and guld on their face, since your friends don't know pre-Conquest Germanic any better than you do. Tre can be our trusty Indo-European "three," and if you watch enough BBC and squint hard enough, barnet looks like the Scottish bairn. I don't know the origin of the word, but it's a song about the Three Magi bringing gifts, and I know Bach wrote a suite called L'offrande Musicale (English "offer," Spanish oferta) so offrade seems clear enough. Okay, fine, just look at Google Translate.

What I really want is to pack a violin and spending a year learning folk songs in Scandinavia.