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About touchscreens

This is your future speaking. If you’re lucky, you will grow old. When you get there, your skin will be drier. I’ve had Death-Valley-Desert-dry skin my whole life, and it only gets more so.

Guess how touchscreens react to very dry skin?

They don’t.

It can take me three or four swipes or taps on a phone, after breathing on my fingers to make them moister, before anything happens. By then, because I’m frustrated, it’s usually the wrong thing.

So, what am I saying? That touchscreens don’t work for a whole large part of the population. A part which is getting bigger, not smaller.

Now picture that kind of not-working in a car. You’re driving. The last thing you want to do is study a screen with stupid icons on it. And when it doesn’t turn on the A/C or close the windows, you have to study it again. When you look up, the two tons of metal you’re in are bearing down on a lane closure sign that the car is ignoring because, hey, it’s not moving. (I know. They’ll fix that someday. But then we’ll just move on to the next AI idiocy.)

That doesn’t even get into the topic of tactile feedback and muscle memory and how necessary they are to maintain situational awareness when driving. All those levers and buttons and knobs and steering wheel and pedals allow you to use a different part of your brain for control of the car so that your eyes and ears and frontal cortex are available for the unexpected. It’s called human factors engineering. The electric car makers ought to try it sometime.

Right now I have an old car. So old, you open the windows with one of those little hand cranks. My relationship with my phone is bad enough that I’ve often thought I should give up and get myself a cocktail sausage to use as a stylus. Then I imagine trying to run a car with a cocktail sausage.

Koreans wearing gloves in winter, using sausages on their phones.
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Lazy sourdough

[Update 2016-02-13: Old version with details after the jump. Experience has shown that the following is the essence.]

  • Starter has had some flour and water added to it daily. Enough flour to feed the yeast — one or two handfuls — and enough water to keep it at a batter-like consistency. Really, no need to measure anything. Store in fridge the whole time.
  • Pour most of the starter into bread machine pan for kneading. (Reserving maybe a cupful for continuing starter.) Add only enough flour to keep dough from coating the sides. Add a scant teaspoonful of salt per loaf. Knead for 10-15 minutes, let rest 20 min, knead for another 10-15 min.
  • Invert into bowl, cover, and let rise overnight.
  • Invert onto floured surface, shape into loaf or loaves (see detailed post after the jump), invert into airy forms that will allow surface to dry enough to form a toughish outer layer. (That last is the part I didn’t know before and which is crucial to making loaves that don’t pancake out.) The eventual bottom of the loaf faces up at this point. Let rise for 6-8 hours in fridge.
  • Invert onto floured surface, score top with sharp greased knife, slide into superhot 500°F oven, and bake (see detailed post).

Read more »

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Useless loud cheap (mis)targeted ads

There’s a multi-bazillion industry devoted to making me buy things. They have followed me through all of my days and tracked my every thought.

Searching for plum blossoms in the snow

(Xu Daoning, c. 1000 AD, Freer Gallery)

So you’d think they’d know I’m in the market for a vacuum cleaner, right?


I haven’t bought one in dog’s years. I don’t read articles about vacuums for fun. All they know about is the last thing I searched for, not what I need.

Well, I’m not a total newbie. I’ve been around computers since the days of punch cards. I’ve heard of Google. All I have to do is search, right? I want a machine in the neighborhood of $200, outrageously good at picking up pet hair, good at corners, and that doesn’t spew the dust right back out.

The search understands I want a vacuum cleaner, but that’s as far as it goes. To get what I want, I can spend hours — nay, days — of my life plowing through useless store websites full of obnoxiously happy beautiful people who find everything with one push of a button. Or I can dig through pages of search results, trying to find reviews that aren’t ads in disguise.

I am not a patient person. The first time, I put off the purchase after an hour or so. The second time it might have been two hours. Then I gave up for a couple of years. That’s what happens when there’s a massive selling industry in my face with everything I don’t want. You’d think they’d have an easier time hitting a great big bullseye like a customer looking to buy a product. By the time I finally bought a vacuum cleaner, they could have sold me a second one if the hucksters who’ve taken over the web instead made it easy for me to find what I want.

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In the must-have vehicles series

There is, at long last, a worthy addition to the field of flying cars, ice sailers, alien electric three-wheelers, dune jumpers, and lawn chairs.

Behold, the sphere chair.

Seat atop a self-balancing sphere that somehow rolls the occupant forward. Not sure how. And what happens when you brake?

Segway, eat your heart out.

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Tablet, schmablet

(This started life as a comment over at Suburban Guerrilla, when it occurred to me that it’s really a post.)

Update, Jan 22, 2012: At SCALE 10x, I had a chance to see a couple of the late, lamented HP Touchpads running WebOS. They’re beautiful! They don’t have the idiotic virtual keyboard described below. They respond to taps properly, even when done by me. HP are a bunch of idiots for cancelling that thing instead of just pricing it realistically.

An iPad started it, but this is really about tablets in general. I’ve been using computers since the 1970s, when we had to do stat programs on punch cards and use Job Control Language. I l-o-o-o-ve computers (although not those JCL mainframes, to be honest), and I’ve always jumped on each new thing as it came along. I’ve had to face the fact that I’m a gadget freak.

Except tablets. They seemed pointless. Portable TVs, basically. Mobile-type things like checking contacts, phoning, music, or web surfing I can do on my phone without needing a ten inch pocket to carry it. Then I had to use a tablet yesterday because my local hospital has gone all iPad for their check-in procedures. Twenty questions that would have taken seconds on paper took about five minutes.

The legendary touchscreen takes forever to respond to a tap. (I have very dry fingers.) I needed an “a.” Tap … tap, tap … tap, tap, tap, tap, mash whole top of finger down and hold. Get a “z.” Start over. Breathe on fingers so they have some moisture on them. Tap. Tap, tap, tap, — tap! Finally, an “a.” And so it went. If I had a tablet, I’d need to carry a sausage to operate the stupid thing. commuters using cocktail sausages to tap their phones because they're wearing gloves in winter But my shortcomings were only the beginning of the problems. I needed an “@.” Tap special characters key for different keyboard, get the one character, tap key for a-b-c keyboard, tap-tap-tap out a few letters, tap special characters key for different keyboard, tap out two numbers, tap key for a-b-c keyboard, etc., etc., etc. What a total and absolute pain. And this is what everyone is raving about? I’d get frustrated just entering a password, forget writing a message. The bitsy keyboard on my Nokia N900 is easier to use (and I am not good at using it).

The graphics are okay, so as a portable TV it would work except that you have to hold the thing all the time. Hold one hand behind your back while you use a computer to see how it feels to use a tablet, unless you’ve already trained yourself on the things. (Yes, I know you can get stands, but that’s a workaround, not good design to begin with.) And one more thing. You want the screen tilted up for visibility without neck contortions and you want the screen flattish for input without shoulder and arm contortions. That’s a problem.

I know there are lots of much more coordinated people than me out there. And also people with more normal skin. But, believe me, tablets are worse than useless for some of us.

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Celebrating geezerdom

I saw what follows on the BBC, written by a young teenager and good sport named Scott Campbell. I laughed practically non-stop through the whole thing, coming at it from the geezer side myself. I have to share snippets with you.

BBC | Giving up my iPod for a Walkman

My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day.

He had told me it was big, but I hadn’t realised he meant THAT big. It was the size of a small book. …

From a practical point of view, the Walkman is rather cumbersome, and it is certainly not pocket-sized, unless you have large pockets. It comes with a handy belt clip screwed on to the back, yet the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats.

And you probably thought we didn’t wear those diaper pants because we weren’t cool, huh?

… It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser ….

I love it.

You can almost imagine the excitement about the Walkman coming out 30 years ago, as it was the newest piece of technology at the time.

Perhaps that kind of anticipation and excitement has been somewhat lost in the flood of new products which now hit our shelves on a regular basis.

Personally, I’m relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices. I’m relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born . . .

Bwahahaha.  Sort of reminds me of whoever it was before Niels Bohr and Einstein burst upon the scene, saying there was nothing new to be discovered in physics.  The boy’s in good company.

. . . as I can’t imagine having to use such basic equipment every day. …

Did my dad, Alan, really ever think this was a credible piece of technology?

Walkman, Mp3, tech, music

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I have Issues with cell phones

Let me start by boasting about my driving. In over forty years on all kinds of roads, I’ve had two accidents, both of them fender benders. One was thirty five years ago in Afghanistan. Driving there was, shall we say, different. And the other one happened at three mph in one of those parking lot traffic jams about twenty years ago. My car, being a reliable Japanese thingy, didn’t even have a smudge on it. The other car needed $900 worth of work. The US at the time did not require car bumpers to withstand at least 5mph impacts.

Okay. So that’s point one. Very safe driver. Point two is that, like all Boston drivers, (that’s where I learned to drive), I’m brilliant. I swear, I could be a fighter pilot. My reaction times are still faster than twenty year-olds, at least judging by the amount of time it takes them to wake up when the light turns green. Part of me is kind of looking forward to getting doddery enough so that other drivers no longer make me nuts with how long it takes them to see anything.

Now we get to cell phones. (I told you we’d get there eventually.) I’m not big on phones, and I hadn’t used them while driving. One day about five years ago I decided it was time to get with the program. I took a call while I was on one of those California town roads: four broad lanes in each direction, perfectly straight, well-behaved drivers, and slow traffic. I was being very careful about the whole thing, so dialing while driving was going to be the advanced course. My part of the conversation started a bit disjointed, but gradually it got better.

The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of the intersection — eight lanes north-south and eight lanes east-west, it takes time to cross an intersection that big — with two walls of polite California drivers, who had a green light, waiting for me to get out of the middle of the road. I’d sailed into the intersection with the red light right in front of me. Nobody even honked.
Read more »

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What’s with my car dealer?

I go to the lot and flag down the last salesman they haven’t fired yet. He’s got nothing to do and races right over. I show him the picture.

“I want this,” I say.

super-thin, green, alien-spaceship-looking wheeled vehicle with a sail, which looks like it doubles as a rudder, at the back

“It runs on wind,” I point out, “which is about what I can afford right now. But it still looks cool. So, how much?”

He tries to sell me a Chevy Tahoe.

greenbird, wind racer, cars

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Hummingbird Love

Updated 2009-03-21 from post of 2006-09-18. Links fixed, some new photos included.)

Hummingbirds, as far as I’m concerned, are the most marvelous creatures out there. (Well, them and mariposa lilies, especially Calochortus catalinae.)


So, ignoring all the impending doom for the moment, time for a hummingbird break…

Anna’s hummingbird male, starting to take a bath during one of the first rains of the season.


Anna’s male preening on the same tomato cage. It helps to have a neck with 14 vertebrae.


hummingbird stretched out on wooden deck to warm up in the morning sun Anna’s hummingbird, warming up in the morning sun by hunkering down on the wooden deck and stretching its wings out. They don’t hover all the time.


hummingbirds in red crocosmia Two hummingbirds absolutely furious with each other for sitting in the same shrub. They’re threatening each other by moving their heads back and forth and making ticking noises like an overactive Geiger counter (and probably more in the ultrasonic).


Hummingbirds do a lot of fighting. Mostly, they seem to do nothing but fighting. Cute, but deadly.


A traditional hovering hummingbird at a classic red sage flower.


hummingbird in lavender Traditional hover, but less classic lavender flower. Once they decide that your garden is a good place to look around, they’ll visit anything, including dandelionsand promising-looking bits of old rubber hoses.


Sparkling violet-eared hummingbird, at home in the San Diego Zoo hummingbird house.


Anna’s hummingbird, taking a breather on the flowering stalk of a small succulent in a pot, sitting about four feet away on the other side of a screen door.


Allen’s hummingbirds are the other main species we get here on the coast of Southern California. They’re a bit smaller than the Anna’s and even feistier. This one is a juvenile male just starting to molt in his adult plumage. The little blighter stopped hanging around two days after he was fully plumed in and finally looking magnificent.


Allen’s juvenile male shrieking defiance at passersby.


Collecting nest material.


More hummingbird pics at my photo page.

Also some phenomenal ones, by Acreepingmalaise:

Technorati tags: hummingbirds, Anna’s hummingbirds, Allen’s hummingbirds, Costa’s hummingbirds, blue, Iochroma, tree tobacco

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Bill Gates: Better Without Windows

You know what’s scary? I’m starting to like Bill Gates. Like everyone else, he seems to be doing a lot better since he shed Microsoft.

First there was this. I didn’t even know the man had a sense of humor, let alone a good one. Suddenly, I was half as annoyed at Windows as I usually am. Illogical, but there it is.

And now, via Slashdot, there’s this:

Bill Gates Unleashes Swarm of Mosquitoes

“Microsoft founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates released a glass full of mosquitoes at an elite Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference to make a point about the deadly sting of malaria. “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” Gates said while opening a jar on stage at a gathering known to attract technology kings, politicians, and Hollywood stars. “I brought some. Here I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

I’m that close to becoming a fan.

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Losing Friends

I’m feeling melancholy. Maybe it’s a belated fit of New Year’s Eve Auld Lang Syne. (A procrastinator can’t be expected to have fits on time.) Whatever it is, I’m missing some of the late great voices in blogspace.

  • Salam Pax (You have to change your browser prefs to a white background to see the writing….) Update: after crossposting at Shakesville, a commenter there pointed out that Salam is now here! Hurrah! He’s back!
  • Riverbend
  • Clay Pot
  • Homeless Girl (which used to be but even the archive is gone.)
  • The Religious Policeman (Actually, I sort of know where this one is. He went off to write a book, but he hasn’t come back.)

They’ve fallen silent, one by one. Good friends, people who cared enough to tell the truth and let us see some of their world. People who are kind, funny, brilliant. People I love.

Where are they now?

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Six things about me

I’ve been tagged by garychapelhill of Electric Blues for a free-floating list. At least, he made it free, and that’s how I’ll take it. So, forthwith, six of the infinite moments that shape me.

1) When I was almost six my family moved to the US from Australia. Until the boat people started arriving, I was one of the last immigrants who’d literally stepped off the boat. That trip was an eyeopener because my family were all sea sick, confined-to-the-cabin type of sea sick. (Those were the days before good drugs for that.) I, however, was not sea sick. So I and the other rugrats on the boat tore all over the place without adult supervision. I went to meals by myself. I did everything on my own. And I never forgot the view from outside, the understanding of the size and weight of authority, and what it was good for and what it wasn’t. Yes, I was a weird five year-old.

2) At sixteen I got early admission to college. The sixties were at the height of their fever (which didn’t happen until quite late in the sixties, actually). I can’t say I was that big on rock-n-roll. But the other two elements of the series were right up my street. Having dived into them, and having had a wonderful time, it became impossible to understand why people would tie themselves in knots trying to avoid sex or drugs. Because, let’s face it, the roots of conservatism in the US have nothing to do with small budgets or small government. It’s all about bottling up sex. (Well, part of it is about having somebody else pay taxes, but that’s another matter.) Now that I’d seen both sides of the issue, the bottling process looked really stupid. It was a useless waste that caused huge suffering. And it robs people, men as well as women, of real highs. Coming you can do in hell, but you can’t find joy there.

3) A couple of years later, I set off on a journey to visit Australia via an overland trip across the breadth of Eurasia. Afghanistan still had a king. It was a long time ago. Of the thousands of windows onto other worlds that I saw, one in particular blew me away for the rest of my life.

I travelled around India by train quite a bit. There were desperately poor people everywhere, and also around train stations. Plenty of people seemed to spend their lives on embankments. My train was pulling out of a huge station (Delhi?) in that leisurely way Indian trains had. It would go a few feet, then stop for a breather. I was leaning out the window, looking at nothing in particular, eating one of a bunch of bananas I’d bought for the trip. I threw the skin down to join some other trash on the gravel of the embankment. (Hey, it’s biodegradable and I was young and foolish.) A little boy of about six with curly black hair and no clothes to speak of swooped out of nowhere and pounced on the skin. He started chewing on the kind-of edible layer on the inside, and grinned at me with complete delight.

I can still see him.

I passed down the rest of the bunch of bananas. I have never again had the same definition of what it means to be poor, or to really need something.

4) Teaching puts you under strong constraints, or it does if you care. It’s not enough to impart the material. You also have to be scrupulously fair about it. You have to treat everyone equally, even if they’re, oh, I don’t know, something completely beyond the pale. Republicans, for instance. I’d been teaching college biology for a number of years, doing my best as far as the fairness thing goes.

And then I met my match. Before, I’d always been able to concentrate on the person and ignore rudeness, weirdness, and all the rest. (Believe me, for rude weirdness, few things beat college freshmen, except maybe high school seniors.) This particular guy wasn’t rude, but he was weirder than a palm tree in a polka dot dress. He was anorexic, cross-eyed, and painfully shy. His remedy for the shyness was to get as many piercings as possible and to dye some of his hair.

So far, so good. I could deal with that. No problem. But for some reason he’d taken one lock of hair right at the top of his forehead and curled it into a long spiral that hung down to the middle of his nose. It was right at the focal point of where his eyes crossed. And he’d dyed it green. It was too much. If I looked at him, I’d find myself staring at that lock of hair in just plain fascinated horror. When I talked to him I had to gaze into the distance over the top of his head, as if I was thinking deep thoughts.

5) Speaking of teaching, I guess doing your job doesn’t normally count as liberal cred, but, well, it’s all I’ve got, really. It was my job to present the facts — that’s one of the advantages to being in the sciences — and it’s well known that the facts have a liberal bent. I didn’t blink that connection. I made sure the students understood not only the facts, but what they meant. I’m the teacher whatshisname (Horowitz?), the guy who thinks academia spawns liberals, warned you about. And I’m proud of it.

6) Last, and least given how much impact voting has, I didn’t vote for the empty suit. Every authority on the planet — political, media, peers, the whole damn boiling of them — had all been hopenotized. But being liberal means you don’t just take the word of someone in authority. You think for yourself. And the facts in that case had an alarmingly anti-hopeful bent. So, yes, this last sad thing counts as a liberal feather in some cap or other.

* * *

The final part of this process is supposed to be tagging someone else. Somehow that feels like taking a liberty, but what the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound. I have no idea how you do these things, so there’s no reason to think my tag-ees will even know about it, but here they are:

Violet Socks at Reclusive Leftist
Heidi Li at the Potpourri
Alegre at Alegre’s Corner
Elliott Joseph at Gray Matters
New Hampster at partizane

(That was fun, Gary! Do you know, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever answered to this kind of thing. I don’t promise I’ll ever get my act together a second time, but this was fun.)

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California fires

BBC, as usual, has the shot. Quintessential California just now:

Man rides Segway in Yorba Linda - 15/11/2008

Technorati Tags: California, fires, Los Angeles

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There is hope

Or fear, according to taste. Via Slashdot, I see that we now have a more sophisticated estimate of the number of alien civilizations out there. Read more »

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Hummingbird in the rain

We’ve had out first rain in months here in Southern California, and there is nothing, nothing, half so worth seeing in life as a hummingbird taking a bath.

(This is my first ever video, so I apologize for all the rough edges. Let me know in comments if you know about software — free or cheap! — that I could be using. I’ve started on VirtualDub. There’s no sound, and it’s about 45 seconds long. Update Oct 11: This was crossposted to Shakespeare’s Sister, and thanks to suggestions from Portly Dyke there, I’ve uploaded a somewhat improved and slightly longer version.)

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Friday photo

I think this should be a motivational poster. You know, the kind with captions like “Determination,” and “Perseverance,” and “Achieve Your Goals.” This one should be: “Energy Conservation.”

young elephant seals resting together on the beach

The elephant seals are working hard, regenerating all-new skin. It’s called a catastrophic molt and it takes several weeks. When molting, they’re too susceptible to the cold to go into the water, so they don’t feed or drink during those weeks. They spend the whole time conserving energy. (More info at Wikipedia.) The photo was taken at–logically enough–Seal Beach on California’s Central Coast.

bit of molted skin showing the fur

The fur side of a piece of molted skin found lying on the beach.

bit of molted skin showing the underside of the skin layer

The once-living side of the skin.

Technorati Tags: elephant seals, molt, Seal Beach

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