2015.04 minutiae

  • At the end of March my tap water suddenly took on an awful sulfurous odor, and I asked my landlords whether the same was true for their half of the house.  It turned out that the same was true for the entire East Bay, thanks to an algae bloom in the Pardee Reservoir brought on by California's multi-year and possibly permanent drought.  It's always interesting, if often grimly so, when abstractions get instantiated as direct experience — when "health care crisis" becomes "my kidney hurts and I can't afford to make it stop", or "climate change" becomes "it smells like I'm showering in rotten egg salad".  The problem resolved itself after a week, but the word is that it could return at any time.

  • Meanwhile, some people are saying that with "exceptional drought" conditions as the new normal, California can't support forty million people and some are going to have to leave.  I love it here, but I have started to think that at some point I might have to return to the Northwest, not just because of the water situation, but because I now get killer headaches after even the tiniest amount of direct sunlight.  If I go out after the fog has burned off I have to wear a big goofy hat, and even that only helps for a few minutes.  One of the main reasons I left the Northwest back in '01 was that the gray skies depressed the hell out of me, but lately that constant cloud cover is starting to strike me as a selling point.  I'd rather be depressed than bedridden with a headache.

  • A few weeks after I wrote the above, however, I happened across this projection for the end of this year:

    So, yeah, apparently a giant El Niño is likely to relieve California's drought just as the normally drizzly Northwest goes so dry as to be off the charts.  I guess we'll see!

  • I wonder whether a less rainy Northwest would help Vancouver's standing in this survey Elizabeth found, in which residents of different Canadian cities were asked to rank their "life satisfaction" from 0 to 10.  The headline was that Vancouver came in last, but in reality there was virtually no difference between first-place Saguenay (8.2) and last-place Vancouver (7.8).  What struck both Elizabeth and me was that the responses were clustered so closely around 8.  Really?  I would rate my current life satisfaction at about a 3, and Elizabeth rated hers at a 4½.  And yet it's difficult for me to imagine how most people could be much happier than that, given that they work more grueling jobs, live in much more unpleasant parts of the continent, face greater challenges, and have lower standards of living.  Yet all these people are cheerfully giving their lives an 8?

    Some of this is probably Marge Gunderson syndrome — i.e., that happiness is based less on your actual circumstances than on your innate temperament.  But I also think that most people have a much different take on how scales work than I do.  Like, seriously, an 8?  I can't imagine an 8.  When I'm living in my solid gold mansion watching a holo-vision broadcast of my daughter receiving a Nobel Prize, that's maybe a 7.  And yet when I worked for the Princeton Review, there was an program in place called "Net Promoter" that asked students to rate their experience on a 0 to 10 scale — no explanation of what the numbers were supposed to mean, just 0 to 10 — and then interpreted those responses as follows: 10 or 9, positive; 8 or 7, neutral, 6 to 0, negative.  That is insanity to me!  Before I switched to a 0-to-24 scale, I used a 0-to-10 scale to rate things on this site, and a 6 meant pantheon-level quality.  For me to rate something a 10 or even a 9, it would have to be my very favorite thing of its type.  And yet my feedback pretty much always came back as all 10s, and while I think I'm a decent teacher, I ain't that good.  Is most of the population really having such fulfilling experiences on a daily basis that they don't want to save those 10s and 9s and 8s for something better?

  • But back to the drought, which has prompted some localities to take desalination plants out of mothballs.  Santa Barbara was in the news recently for beginning the process of reactivating a long-shuttered facility where the computers turned out to look like this:

    These stories used this image as a punch line, but I have to confess, my initial reaction was "What's the problem? The keyboard's a little strange, I guess, but otherwise, that's what a computer is supposed to look like!"  You could totally play Star Control II on this.  What more do you need?

  • Speaking of technology, one recent development that has impressed the hell out of me is this new video standard, H.265, that turns out files that are half the size of H.264 files yet to my eyes have greater quality.  I sort of take it for granted that hardware will inexorably get better just as a matter of course, but it is crazy to me that somehow math is getting better.  I mean, after a moment's thought, of course it is — the world's universities continue to turn out mathematicians, and they must be doing something — but still, the idea that even after so many breakthroughs people are still able figure out even more efficient methods to compress information astounds me.

  • And speaking of universities, after years of Berkeley being virtually the only game in town if you wanted to audit a course online, other schools are catching up.  Recently I've enjoyed a couple of classes that Yale put up, one on the early Middle Ages and another on France since 1871.

  • One of the projects in my high school physics class was to make mousetrap racers — i.e., to buy a mousetrap and use its kinetic energy to power a vehicle of your own design.  Most people used vinyl records as the rear wheels.  One kid in the class came from a wealthier background than the rest of us, and we joked that he was so rich that he'd probably use compact discs for his vehicle's wheels.  We all had a good laugh at the idea of being so cavalier about such a precious piece of cutting-edge technology.

    This month I decided to turn out a painting for the first time in several years.  I got out my supplies, but one thing I didn't have was a palette.  In the past I had used the lids of plastic food containers, but I didn't have any in my recycling box.  I looked around for a good substitute, and then in my closet I found, hey, look, a stack of CDs!  So I grabbed a couple and cheerfully set to mixing paint on them.

  • Another reminder that the '80s were a different time:

  • I spent the '80s in Southern California, and since I wasn't a vegetarian yet, I often ordered meat-heavy entrees at restaurants.  There was one place where I always got a chili size; there was another where I always got a French dip.  I always assumed that chili sizes were from Texas and that French dips were from New York.  It turns out that they're both from Southern California and that if you're not from Southern California you might not even know what I'm talking about.  I had no idea.

  • I went to a recipe site and next to one of the ingredients was a box informing me that I could purchase said ingredient at Safeway at 1500 Solano Ave., Albany, CA 94707.  That's a little more tracking than I'm comfortable with.  I mean, what's next?  "Before you go to Safeway, you must put on pants. You have a pair of gray pants hanging over the back of the chair next to the kitchen. Wear those."

  • I had noticed that in each successive season of Mad Men, Pete Campbell's hairline had receded a little more.  What I learned only this month is that actor Vincent Kartheiser's hairline is not receding!  He actually shaves it back as part of the role!  Good golly.

  • Elizabeth was telling me about an old radio program on the CBC that had a sing-along with some kindergarteners, followed by their teacher saying, "That was lovely. One day, I think you will sing very well indeed. Keep trying, will you?"  She noted that the teacher's message was less affirming than the programming of today, and I said that I thought it was probably a good note to strike — it's encouraging, but not so much so that the kindergarteners think, "My work is done! No more practice needed! Time to record my hit album!"

    Anyway, so this month I was watching some Kids React clips for the first time in ages, and then followed some links and discovered that one of the kids, Marlhy Murphy, now has a band.  So I listened to one of her songs, namely this one:

    Marlhy wrote, sang, and played drums on that song (called "Questions") when she was eleven years old — and it's not just promising, it's good!  In particular, the way she punctuates the verses with that hi-hat is a killer hook.  This is going into heavy rotation on my MP3 player. 

  • Speaking of radio programs, in case you missed it, a few days ago I launched an audio show called Radio K.  The first couple of installments are devoted to interactive fiction, but as with many of my Calendar articles, to a great extent the idea is not to review the works themselves so much as to use them as a springboard to discuss broader topics.  More information here.  Check it out!

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