Monday, March 30, 2020

E-Book Options During COVID-19 Lockdown


Introduction

As I approach my third week of shelter-in-place, and confront the (albeit still nascent) need to stave off boredom, one of the activities I miss the most is going to the library. So during a couple of days off from work I dove in to learn what electronic resources my library has to offer. This post documents that effort, and frankly that struggle. Don’t worry, it’s not as dull as it sounds. (Trigger warning: this post contains lots of profanity.)


Virtual book club

My book club moved its meeting to Zoom, following in the footsteps of my world-famous, game-changing Virtual Pub Night. This worked out very well. At the end, we chose the book for next time, which presented a problem for me.

My standard book club protocol is to go to my library’s website the very moment the next book is announced, to put it on hold (possibly ahead of my fellow members in case few copies are available). I’m a cheap bastard, and though I love buying books, I only buy cannot-lose titles I know that a) I’ll read more than once, b) I’ll want to loan out, and c) I’ll keep forever. Plus, I prefer to buy from library sales where books are only a buck or two. No disrespect to my book club, but our selections seldom meet these high standards. Now, with the library option no longer available, I had to buy Picking Cotton and had to figure out where.

The obvious solution would be Amazon, who has it for just $7.51. But can we really do that to our local booksellers, when they’re already suffering, while Amazon’s business is booming more than ever? My book club agreed we couldn’t. And yet, our local bookseller wants $17.99 for the book, plus $3 shipping, so with tax it’s almost triple the price. I’d still do it, except that it’s not at all clear how quickly this local outfit could fill the order right now. Actually, that’s the total BS rationale I contrived to feel better about myself. The truth is, I’m just a cheap bastard.

The Kobo

Fortunately, I have in my tech arsenal a little e-reader called the Kobo. What, you haven’t heard of it? Well, neither had my book club. In fact, I myself had no idea what this thing was when I inherited it from my late father a couple years back. I also have no idea why he bought it. I powered the thing up some months ago out of curiosity, and found that it only had one book one it, which was actually just a teaser excerpt of Heart of Darkness which was totally not my dad’s style.

Via a quick trip to kobo.com I learned they could sell me Picking Cotton for $12 all-in. Would it be worth setting up an account, signing up for endless spam no matter how many times I opt out, forking out the money, and learning the ins and outs of this weird Kobo thing?

I stared at the dumb little reader. Obviously it’s not best-in-breed because nobody has heard of it, and if my dad didn’t get any mileage out of it, why should I think I would? But that’s a loaded question. My dad, though an even cheaper bastard than I, often bought stuff he never ended up using, like a $2700 tricycle (featured here, but you’re too late, somebody already bought it).

Toward the very end of his life, when my dad was already riddled with cancer, he planned a cross-country solo road trip, dragging a little teardrop trailer behind his tiny car over remote highways. I talked him into getting a mobile phone in case he encountered trouble. He bought an Android phone and a prepaid plan and the guy at the phone store got him up and running, but my dad never used the phone. He literally never placed a single call, nor, apparently, did he even turn it on. It just sat there in its box. I suspect he was intimidated by the technology, particularly because he knew it was designed for anyone, even a dumb teenager or technophobe blue-hair, to easily grasp. Paradoxically, this increased the intimidation factor because my dad—an actual rocket scientist who programmed computers back in the ‘70s when they were the size of refrigerators—feared the intense embarrassment of being stymied by this basic consumer product.

Pondering this as I gazed upon the little Kobo, I realized I really had no choice but to engage with it. In fact, as tired as I was after book club, I knew I had to figure this thing out immediately. You see, another idiosyncrasy of my father’s was that he loved to put stuff off. A common rant from my poor mother, before they divorced, was “‘Someday’ … it’s always ‘someday’!” Sure, he’d fix the garage door … someday. He’d get that VW Beetle running … someday. So frequent was our mom’s rant, my brothers and I used to compete for who could do the most accurate rendition of her “‘Someday’ … it’s always someday’!” So given my knee-jerk reaction to the very notion of procrastination, I stayed up late and had that Kobo up and running before I turned in.

Kobo vs. proper book – Volume I

So how did the Kobo work out? Well, nine years ago I blogged about the Kindle, giving ten reasons why I wanted to hate it. The Kindle was synonymous with e-readers back then, there having been no real competition. I conceded then that ideally I would have read an entire e-book before advancing an opinion on them. Now I have.

I had to install the Kobo app on my PC, create an account, and give over my credit card info. The device itself was fairly self-explanatory but I had to expunge my dad’s account info from it, which was just a little weird, like exorcising a ghost. It wasn’t clear how to do this so I pried the back off and stuck a paper-clip through a tiny hole to do a factory reset. When reconfiguring the Kobo I noticed the WiFi was extremely flaky: it’d find wireless networks I’ve never seen before on any of my other devices, but would fail to find the access point on my desk, less than five feet away. (It did pretty well when I leaned it right against the access point but really, should any device be that finicky?) Eventually I got Picking Cotton loaded on the Kobo and over the next few days worked my way through reading it. Now I’m able to give you the pros and cons of this e-reader.

Overall, in the “pro” category I’ll say this:
  • The screen was pretty easy on my eyes;
  • I like how an e-reader doesn’t interrupt and distract me the way a smartphone does via all the content being pushed to it by apps, friends, and colleagues;
  • Unlike a smartphone, I don’t have to unlock it (which isn’t that hard, but still)
  • Battery life was excellent;
  • The Kobo sits flat on a table (unlike a book) so I could easily read while eating lunch;
  • It’s lighter weight than a book, so if I were to read it while lying on the sofa I’d probably appreciate that (vs., say, a hardback of Anna Karenina)
  • My wife didn’t bristle to see me peering into the Kobo, at least when she realized it wasn’t my phone;
  • It gave me some interesting stats at the end (e.g., it took me 4.4 hours to read Picking Cotton)


In the “con” category I’ll just say at least 7 out my 10 original misgivings about e-books still apply. Looking at #5, “I can’t buy used titles at a great discount,” I figured it’s been a long time … maybe the market has changed. Since this may not be the first time I need an alternative to my local library, I figured I should see if the Kobo folks might have some great deals.

I searched a couple random titles to see how the prices were. Started Early, Took My Dog (2011) is ten bucks. That’s no bargain. Maybe an older book would be cheaper? Nope … The God of Small Things (2008) is $14. What about much older? I found Lolita (from 1955) for $13, which is a rip, but As I Lay Dying from 1930 is available for only a buck. If I searched on price, what else might I turn up?

Wow! They’ve got a lot! Check out these free titles:



Wow … “She’s stumbled into a lair of desperate dragons—and she’s just the thing they need.” No wonder my dad bought this Kobo! (Wink.) Now, if you’re not into the romance genre, there are also lots of free nonfiction titles for cheap… here are a few.


Remarkable, isn’t it, that Saundra’s sweet revenge actually happened, and that there really was a bike path killer? Fascinating. Now, if I’m willing to pay just a bit more, here’s a priceless book:


But seriously, this was getting me nowhere. The bigger question is, what could I get from the library for free to read on my Kobo?

Digital content from the library

I’ve long known that the Berkeley Public Library has lots of alternatives to bound paper books, CDs, and DVDs. Almost too many options, really … the full list is a bit intimidating:
  • Kanopy (streaming movies & music)
  • Hoopla (digital books, audiobooks, music, and movies)
  • Naxos (music)
  • Alexander Street (music)
  • In-branch albertnet via guest WiFi (wow, cool!)
  • Overdrive (e-books, audiobooks)
  • RBdigital (digital magazines)
  • Flipster (kids’ magazines)
The trick with these platforms is they don’t always get included when you search for a title on the library’s main website. (I learned that the hard way … it turns out Hoopla has as audiobook of Picking Cotton and I could have saved a lot of trouble had I discovered that earlier.) The other issue is that you have to set yourself up on each platform individually, which isn’t that hard but obviously presents some friction.

I tried out Hoopla for an audiobook and it’s really easy, once you’ve downloaded the smartphone app. It’s great for road trips if your phone can sync with your car stereo. I’ve also been using Kanopy for a while, and in fact I just set my wife’s PC up on it the other day, in less than five minutes. Kanopy’s digital streaming works great (no jitter or buffering) and it’s easy to connect your laptop to a modern TV.

All this being the case, I was emboldened to seek better return on the time I’d already invested in my Kobo. I asked my older daughter to research this for me, since she was on spring break and stuck mooning around the house anyway. She tapped away for a minute or two and said, “You have to do it through Overdrive.” And thus was my next tech journey launched.

Kobo vs. proper book – Volume II

So here’s where things get complicated. The library can’t just buy the online rights to a book and make it available to all its readers at once … that would be injurious to publishers, like Napster was to the music industry. The library must buy individual licenses for each title it wants, so only a finite number of library cardholders can check out the e-book at once. This is trickier than buying a finite number of physical books, because each library customer must be able to view the same title on more than one device. So when I check out the e-book, I’m downloading a license file with the content, and that file has to travel with the content. How does this work when there are at least 18 companies making e-readers?

The answer is, you have to download software called Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and install it on your computer, and create a login for that. This software is how you manage the digital licenses. Then you have to authorize your computer, and also your e-reader, with your Adobe account. Now your ADE app will enable content on your e-reader for your login, but no other. You also have to set up Overdrive with your library, to check out the material. You download the content and license, and then use the ADE interface to copy these files over to your e-reader. So you’re getting a crash course in three platforms: Kobo, Adobe, and Overdrive.

So how hard is this, really? In principle it’s not that bad; getting the devices authorized wasn’t too hard. I was able to get an e-book working with my laptop pretty quickly, and then I loaded an e-book on the Kobo, ejected it from the PC, fired it up, and clicked the icon for the new e-book. And then?


This is super annoying on so many levels. It’s bad enough that loading the library book on the Kobo just plain didn’t work, after all that time and effort. Second, no error message should ever say “Oops!” That’s like hearing your dentist say “Oops!” when he’s drilling in your mouth. Meanwhile, the info this error message gives on how “this document is protected by Adobe Digital Rights Management (DRM)” is nothing you don’t already know, and the idea that you didn’t sign with the authorized ID is pure BS. The software wouldn’t let you copy the content over to the e-reader if it wasn’t authorized and you weren’t signed in. Clearly, I followed the process … it just didn’t work. And then, to get the dialog box to go away, I had to click “OK” when obviously this is not OK.

I found a help article about how to de-authorize your devices, delete all copies of the content and licenses, start over, re-authorize, and try again. This accomplished nothing. I also got nowhere cussing up a blue streak … it didn’t even help me feel better. At one point I got an error message about the license having actually expired, so I tried loading some very recently published books, but this too was a bum steer.

The Kobo error message should have said, “Oh, SHIT! I’m really sorry, my software is all jacked up so I can’t access this content, but you’ve done nothing wrong. Really—it’s not you, it’s me. See how easily you can read that book on your laptop? I know. That’s because the laptop works like it’s supposed to. I just can’t get it done. I suck. This is why nobody has heard of Kobo. I’m a loser, so why don’t you kill me.” And the “OK” button say either “FUCK ME” or “Make this dialog go away, and go get on with your life, I’m a lost cause.”

Oh well, I thought, at least I can still buy titles for the Kobo if I need to, like if this COVID-19 shelter-in-place goes on indefinitely. I mindlessly clicked on the Picking Cotton icon, just to remind myself the Kobo wasn’t without value, and was shocked to get another error:


Whoa. Let me get this straight, Kobo: because I tried to load a library book on you, and you couldn’t parse the digital license properly, now the totally separate title I paid for also can’t be accessed anymore? How is this okay in any universe?

Figuring I could at least start over, I deleted the e-book content and license files from Overdrive, de-authorized the Kobo, re-synced it with the Kobo PC app, and tried again. Still no dice … I just kept getting that stupid error message. So then, based on the advice from a knowledge base article from Overdrive, I de-authorized the Adobe account from my laptop, created a new Overdrive account for the Adobe app, re-authorized the laptop and the Kobo using the Overdrive credentials, and tried again with another library e-book. Still no dice. The Kobo still wouldn’t display the library content, and still wouldn’t even display the content I’d paid for.

Whoever wrote this second error message should be taken out and shot. Beyond the annoying recurrence of “Oops!” there’s the weak statement, “There might be a problem with the file.” Might be a problem? Like, this might not be working? Gee, you think? It should say, “I have clearly failed you.”

And then we get “Try updating your library.” Try?! Haven’t they heard Yoda’s words of wisdom? “Do or do not. There is no try.” I mean, I’m facing an obvious software problem and the Kobo coders are telling me what I might try? How about, “Try sticking your thumb up your ass and whistling Dixie”?

And don’t they realize the word “library” is meaningless here, since they could mean my library folder on the Kobo, or a device software library, or the Berkley Public Library I checked out the (apparently devastating) content from? Perhaps the worst part is referring me to “Customer Care” at Kobo, because Kobo actually does not have a technical support department … just a bunch of useless static content giving you a bunch more dumb suggestions.

(Full disclosure: after much searching, I did finally find a link for “Contact Customer Care” on the Kobo website but here’s where it led.)


Of course I tried rebooting my Kobo, many times. Finally, as a last resort and knowing this would mean starting from scratch and reconfiguring the device entirely, I went for the factory reset, prying the back off again and using a paper-clip through the hole in the back. In the process, because the back is so hard to pry off, I actually drew blood. (From me, not the Kobo, unfortunately.) This time, however, the device would not reset. The factory reset process is apparently as stymied as the rest of the device. All I kept getting was the stupid little smiley face as it rebooted again to its fucked-up state.


“Wipe that smirk off your face, you worthless little shit!” I boomed idiotically at it. You know, with this coronavirus pandemic I think we’re all a little on edge, and I find I actually have less patience than ever for anything that I’m supposed to have control over but suddenly do not. In this light I’m very proud of myself for managing, upon seeing that stupid little Kobo smirking at me over and over, to not just pound the stupid thing to rubble with my fist. It’s reduced itself to a paperweight, and a useless one at that because for its own safety, it really needs to be kept out of my sight. Perhaps my dad was wise not to tangle with it (though in that case he was foolish indeed to shell out $80 for it in the first place).

Silver lining

Okay, so the Kobo is a bust. Item #9 on my list of reasons to avoid e-books was certainly prescient: “I fight with PCs and other electronic devices all day, and books are my respite. I don’t care how foolproof the [device] claims to be: it has an OS that can have bugs, and it has WiFi of which it can be out of range, and it has a battery that can die … all potential headaches.” But I shouldn’t have lost sight of a larger misgiving, #5: “If I end up loving it, embracing its format, and becoming addicted to its convenience and cool features, my literary world will shrink from ‘anything any library or bookstore anywhere has’ down to ‘anything that’s available on the [platform].’” If I can’t buy the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina from kobo.com (and I can’t), but they’re offering me romance novels about “the brooding, sexy captain of the NHL’s Chicago Blaze” or a sexy young woman being “pinned to the floor by a billionaire playboy,” should I really be spending any time on this platform anyway?

On the plus side, I can still read the one Kobo title I paid for, albeit on my smartphone via the Kobo app. I’ve also discovered that Overdrive e-books can be read on my smartphone, via yet another app called Libby, which has a pretty nice user interface.


So, even if this shelter-in-place has me stranded for weeks or months, I know I’ve got options. I just have to relax … take a deep breath … step away from the Kobo … count to ten …

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Shelter-In-Place Frequently Asked Questions


Introduction

I’d like to distract you from all the doom and gloom around COVID-19, but it seems to be all I can think about. I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the first places in the U.S. to be put on mandatory shelter-in-place. We’re allowed to leave the house only for “essential activities.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, that’s one of the many questions I’ll answer here. Note that this post isn’t just about policy, but also about the experience so far.

I’m not like some big authority on this, but I’ve been at it a while. These questions comprise a) ones I’ve asked, b) ones others have asked me, and c) questions that have flown around via email threads. Others are hypothetical but I’m sure somebody, somewhere is asking them.

What is an “essential activity”?

In a nutshell, we’re allowed out to engage in activities essential to health and safety; to obtain necessary services or supplies or to deliver them; to work at an “essential business”; to care for family members in another household; or to engage in outdoor activity for exercise.

“Necessary supplies” doesn’t just cover groceries, but also booze and weed. I guess the local government is going easy on addicts. But you can’t go to a pub because that would involve a gathering, and that’s prohibited. Whatever we do, we have to stay six feet from others.


Can I throw a dinner party?

No. That’s actually a misdemeanor. But you can make your kids eat with you. My family has had some success with this.

What kinds of businesses are open?

Some take-out restaurants are open. Grocery stores are open, obviously. To my surprise, some bike shops are not only open, but at least one of them (I heard from a pal) was hopping the other day. But all our brothels are closed. (No, we have no brothels. Just making sure you’re awake.)


Are people in your ostensibly progressive community behaving in a somewhat racist fashion, for example by avoiding Chinese take-out?

Yep.

What is “bugging in”?

As detailed in this article, bugging in refers to hoarding tons of groceries and other supplies as though we actually needed to. I’m so glad I read that article because I learned that the Germans have a word for this: “Hamsterkäufe, meaning to shop like a nervous, bulging-cheeked hamster.”

I haven’t bothered to head over to Costco, but I saw plenty of bugging in at my local Safeway. The meat, dairy, bread, and pasta aisles were utterly ransacked. Check out this pasta section: a lone box of pasta, which was the weird tiny stuff that’s like gravel, was all they had left, and almost the only sauce remaining was the kale pesto. I’d hate to be the product manager for that variety.


I stood in line for half an hour in the Express Aisle with my ten items. Everybody was totally ignoring the 15-items-or-less rule. When this kind of societal breakdown happens, you know finally that the center cannot hold. You know what I call these kinds of shoppers? Express-holes.

Why do people stock up on toilet paper in particular?

Don’t read too much into this. If you were to tally up all the products related to what we take in, that would totally dwarf this lone output-related product. I suspect when people see others stocking up on toilet paper they probably assume there’s a valid reason behind it (which is giving their fellow man way too much credit, IMHO). Beyond that, I guess people just can’t handle the idea of what would happen if they ran out of toilet paper.

This is pretty silly, actually … I get that starvation would kind of suck, but it’s not like toilet paper is fundamental to sustaining life. As detailed here, Russia lacked toilet paper entirely during my own lifetime: “The first toilet paper factory in the USSR was built in 1969, but it took many more years to supply the huge country with this essential commodity.” Before that, the Russians just used old newspapers. Given their survival of those dark pre-TP days, I think we could probably manage somehow.

Myself, I haven’t bothered to lay in an extra supply. I suppose I could use this handy Online Toilet Paper Calculator to see how my household is doing, but I’m counting on our manufacturing industry to step up to the plate here. The guy at Safeway assures me their supply chain is only temporarily backed up.

Can I go outside to get exercise?

I’ve read a gazillion emails about this from the various cycling teams I’m hooked into. The short answer is yes, you can exercise outside, but not with others. The prohibition on “All travel, including, but not limited to, travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit” is mitigated by the stipulation that we may leave our homes “to engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running.”

Even before the shelter-in-place order, as acting head coach for the Albany Cougars I had to decide whether to hold practices after our NorCal League canceled our next two races. Other high school teams shut down upon hearing this, even before the schools closed. But all our assistant coaches were game to keep riding, as well as the riders, and the school was okay with us continuing. I worked out a whole protocol around COVID-19 (e.g., no water sharing; no food sharing; no riding two-abreast; all coaches outfitted with surgical gloves in case we have to provide first aid; multiple groups to maintain social distance, etc.). Everyone was game. In fact, I had riders asking if their friends could join us; a rider’s parent asking if his kid’s sister could join us; riders asking if friends from other (i.e., shut-down) teams could join us; even a parent asking if he could come. This was all before the shelter-in-place order came down, though. Now of course I’ve had to put the kibosh on team rides, though I have encouraged riders to still get out, and suggested they pick a common route and set out ten minutes apart, in case somebody has a bike problem etc.

Are locals taking advantage of their right to exercise outdoors?

Yes, totally. My wife and I took a walk up the main commercial street in our neighborhood to see what businesses were still open, and we’re pretty sure we’ve never seen so many people out walking. Cycling pals report that there are tons of hikers on the trails.

When out in public, is it difficult staying six feet apart?

It hasn’t been difficult, but it’s been a bit awkward. Amazon misdelivered a package to my house and when I took it over to drop it on my neighbor’s porch, he happened to be out front. I told him what happened and he strode toward me, looking all friendly like he might even shake my hand, and though I wouldn’t say I panicked, I was a bit startled. I set the package on the ground and stepped back a few feet, and he looked at me like I was crazy.

At Walgreens, those in line at the prescription counter were giving each other like eight feet. I even felt I had to ask, “Are you in line?”(thus running the risk of getting the response, “No, I’m just standing here like a jackass because I enjoy it,” though nobody said this). On my way out, I started down an aisle and some guy was coming my way. He stopped and stared at me, looking decidedly worried. Obviously the aisle was too narrow to allow us six feet of separation, but it’s not like either of us was coughing or anything. I turned around and headed off to find another aisle to head down, just to give the guy some slack.

While I was at the checkout somebody ran through the exit without paying for something, triggering the alarm (which announced in a robot voice, “Alarm activated, please return to your cashier” over and over), which the cashiers blithely ignored. I hadn’t found any rubbing alcohol on the shelves, but the casher had a stash behind the counter. “I have to keep it back here or people will steal it,” he said. (People used to steal Nyquil to cook meth with, but these are different times.)

In your last post you lamented the closing of Bay Area pubs. Is virtual pub night a thing?

I don’t know if it’s widespread, but three pals and I did have a virtual pub night over Zoom the other evening. I have to say, it worked even better than I’d expected. We had some good beers and some good laughs and the only time things bogged down was when my Internet connection temporarily dropped and we got sidetracked for a few minutes discussing the pros and cons of various video conferencing platforms before somebody pointed out how absolutely dull that is and what a bunch of irredeemable geeks we are. Other than that side-trip, it was a blast.


Here’s a little booze-related quiz for you: given the wobbly logic of COVID-19 paranoia, which of the beers shown below is safest for consumption?


I gave this quiz to a handful of people. Two picked the Stella, because of the paper on the neck that extends all the way to the cap. I’m not sure how this would help so I consider that a wrong answer. Two said the Westmalle, because (being a Belgian ale) it probably has the most alcohol. I suppose this was based on the dubious theory that ingesting alcohol could protect against the virus. But: wrong again. The correct answer is in fact the Westmalle, but not because of its ABV (though it’s a stellar 9.5%) but because it’s brewed in a Trappist abbey. Who could be better isolated from this virus than a bunch of monks? (Note: obviously you wouldn’t get COVID-19 from beer, but I did say “given the wobbly logic of COVID-19 paranoia.” In fact, on that basis all three answers are equally valid.)

Where can I get a list of fun things to do while sheltering in place?

You don’t even have to do an Internet search … just look in your Spam folder. I’ve been getting “helpful” emails from some realtor I’ve never done business with and a Toyota dealer I’ve never even heard of.

Are these lists useful?

No, of course not. The ideas are pretty dumb, like “get ahead on spring cleaning,” “create lists,” “fix up your house,” “fix your marriage” and a bunch of other nonsense. I think the best ways to pass the time are highly specific to your home situation. In my case, my older daughter was kicked out of her college dorm and sent home until October. So she’s spending her time learning to play Beatles and Radiohead songs on here ukulele and of course fighting with her little sister, who is pretty ticked at no longer having her own bedroom. One of my fun new activities is trying to figure out why my younger daughter’s homework submissions, via an online survey platform, are failing to go through.

My friend’s daughter Maddie staved off boredom yesterday by doing some bathroom sculpture using only materials found in her home:


I’d like to point out that the artist is not condoning tobacco use. In fact, the use of the toilet in this work is symbolic.

I forgot to stock up at the library before it closed. What can I do?

I’m assuming this question is sarcastic, making fun of my old-school habits, but I’m going to answer it anyway. Since your kid is probably trying out Netflix for 30 days (and will learn a hard lesson about how to extricate herself from these “special offers” later), you could watch any of the dozen or so movies that platform still offers. You could also see what online resources (e.g. Kanopy) your library has on offer for free.

Also, if you’re good at computer/Internet stuff, you can while away the hours doing remote tech support, helping an old person get all this to work on his or her tablet or laptop. This is a bit like teaching a cat to do algebra, communicating only by Braille. You will hear things like, “Oh no, it vanished.” You’ll be like, “What vanished?” And s/he will be like, “All of it!” And you’ll say, “The whole screen?” and s/he will say, “‘The New Yorker,’” and you’ll say, “You mean the window?” and s/he will say, “The Internet thing” and you’ll say, “The browser?” and s/he will say, “Well … the [unintelligible].”

Speaking of “The New Yorker,” shelter-in-place might finally give you time to catch up. You can view the entire archive online, all the way back to 1925, if you’re a subscriber. The other night my wife and I read a classic story from 1996 to our kids, who laughed all the way through it. Afterward we got into a lively literary discussion, which was a real kick, though it unsurprisingly ended with the kids fighting.

Are all English majors as insufferably self-satisfied as you?

No, I’m particularly bad.

Any tips for indoor workouts?

If you have your own Stairmaster, try to avoid the temptation to merely go through the motions, supporting most of your weight on your hands so your legs don’t have to work so hard. If you have a rowing machine, row merrily and remember that life is but a dream. If you ride your bike on a stationary trainer or rollers, here is a handy guide to getting the most out of that. In particular, make sure you have some righteous, hard-driving tunes as detailed here.

What is Zwift?

With a one-two cleaning punch, Swiffer Sweeper is designed to sweep and mop your floors. Thick dry sweeping cloths conform to the surface of your floors and grout lines, trapping and locking dirt. Wet mopping cloths dissolve dirt and grime for good, trapping it in its core and locking it away. There is no better way to protect your family from COVID-19 than to Swiff!

Not Swiff, numbnuts … Zwift!

Oh, sorry. Zwift is an indoor training système that attaches to your compliant $500-1000 indoor trainer so you race your friends in the virtual realm, explore real and imagined landscapes, follow detailed training plans, and more, blah blah blah … with your paid monthly subscription.

Do you recommend it?

I haven’t tried it … my kickass E-motion rollers aren’t compatible and I’m not about to replace them. But that’s okay … I’m thinking it’s about time to start heading outdoors again anyway.

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, March 16, 2020

More Beer Pix (Beck’sts) - Nostalgic for Pubs!


Introduction

Well, this COVID-19 thing has really come home. I’m not talking about my daughter, recently kicked out of the college dorms and made to move home—with all her stuff—and remain until October (though that did happen). I’m talking about California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, announcing that pubs statewide should close. I’m feeling pretty bitter but won’t fault Newsom for it. (I kind of owe him one … I once ate his breakfast. For details see the Appendix.)

I’d already planned a pub night with my pals for this Friday. We had all agreed that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are no longer enough, and we need to be disinfecting from the inside out. A dozen emails later we’d finalized our plan. Now that’s off.

I’m already feeling nostalgic for pubs, and for sharing the beer drinking experience digitally via Beck’sts. (What?! You haven’t heard of Beck’sting? You’re already living under a rock even before the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders come down! Click here to learn all about the fast-growing global phenomenon that is Beck’sting.)

To get my readers through these tough times, I’m posting here some more or less cheerful Beck’sts. As before, I’ve grouped most of these thematically. Since a Beck’st isn’t just a photo, but a photo with a caption and/or commentary, I’ve included that too, and the initials of the Beck’ster. Where you see one letter only (e.g., “T—”) that’s generally somebody’s spouse.


Apocalypse IPA

DA: This is a 10 Barrel Apocalypse IPA.


DA (continued): I rather liked it. It drinks like a beer that has been doubly or triple-y hopped—and dry-hopped, no less, or at least dry-humped—with a very aggressive malting and/or molting. It’s a big, cheeky, voluptuous, dare I say buxom IPA. But it’s brassy without being brazen—not the kind of beer that you’d meet in a bar (where else?) that would dare you to punch it in the stomach as hard as you could; it’s more like the kind of beer that would let you finish whining and then would let out a little derisive snort, maybe a dismissive whuff. It’s got tones of melanin, surely due to the natural oxidation of the amino acid tyrosine endemic to the piney resins of barley ester that find their way, through the very air we breathe, right into the soul of this handcrafted ale. It’s also got arias of woodwind from all the up-and-down hopping like you get in a long line for the bathroom at a mobbed kegger. Subtle hints of sell-out and corporate synergy threaten to spoil the smooth, big-drinking cred of this beer, but it walks the line nicely, giving my drinking experience a ragged little blade of excitement.


Better Dayz Beck’st
                                                                                                                    
JL: Family ski trip to Killington, Vermont. Snow is good. Double IPAs are better.


DA: NOOICE! Were you skiing downhill or cross-country? I think a Double IPA is great for after downhill, but after XC you probably need a really hydrating beer like a lager!

Unorthodox Beck’st

DW: Deschutes Pacific Wonderland Lager in a Hydroflask 22oz. cup:


DW (continued): I wanted to see if the insulating qualities of this cup would enhance or degrade the experience of drinking this nice beer. Verdict: I’ll stick with the regular pint glass with some random logo on it. This bex’t is subsequent to riding the McKenzie Pass earlier in the day ... a top five road ride for me in terms of scenic beauty and experience. They don’t open the road up for cars until mid June, so it is a cycling wonderland right now.

DA: Unorthodox vessels? Insulated beer mugs with a new-age-y logo? I agree, that’s not the best way to enjoy a beer. You don’t mix alcohol paraphernalia with normal stuff, IMHO ... you just don’t. Non-beer-specific vessels for beer drinking is a bit weird, like a teddy bear with nipples or something. Even those standard foam rubber beer can caddies never made sense to me. I mean, why would a beer ever sit around long enough to become warm? My MO has always been fridge-to-belly within 5 minutes, tops.

Post-workout Beck’sts

JL: W— left this morning for another six day trip, and then they canceled school tomorrow because it is currently -4 degrees F and only going to get colder and windier (Polar Vortex rocks!). So there was only one thing to do: ride the trainer in the garage for an hour and then drink a nice stout beer!


JL (continued): Notice the 9 year old reading (and pouting) in the background! (Pouting because I said no to a sleepover tonight.)

DA: I’ve been kind of getting back into weak, pussy lagers, particularly Stella (a beer for which I formerly had no use). Kind of refreshing and “won’t slow me down,” as they say. I split one with Freya this evening after my (outdoor) bike ride.


DA (continued): By “pussy” above I mean the word that rhymes with “wussy” (and means pretty much the same thing). If you thought I meant “pussy” to rhyme with “fussy,” meaning “puss-laden,” I can’t blame you, heteronyms being what they are. Perhaps the context helped here … I’ll concede lagers can be a bit boring, but puss is not the answer.

Dark days Beck’sts

DA: I wasn’t drinking much this week (last night’s Stella doesn’t count—Freya drank most of it) because I was going to race on Sunday. But I broke my derailleur hanger last Sunday, and though I got right on it and ordered a replacement on Monday, it didn’t arrive in time. I’m kind of bummed because I actually have pretty decent form right now, which I’ve worked hard for, blah blah blah.


The silver lining is that there’s really nothing more for me to do now but drink! I never need to be fit again! E— is even talking about walking over to Fieldwork (despite the fact it’s raining). Anyway, dark times like these call for strong beer, so notwithstanding all the chatter about IPAs being so January, I’m enjoying (actually, it’s all gone now in the span of this typing) the Lagunitas Maximus IPA featured above.

PCS: Dana! These truly are the dark days of biking AND beer drinking. Although, of all the people I know, you are the one person who I knew could rebound from such adversity. The rest of us would be considering buying a new bike and a case of the Banquet. But, you are fixing the bike problem AND supporting the local brewpub. Good on you! Tonight, I was so damn lazy that I drank wine instead of beer because all my beer in the house is warm...talk about dark days. I think it’s over Boyz. It was nice knowing you all.

BA: Dana, how on earth did you break your derailleur hanger? I think you’re riding too aggressively. You might get hurt. On the plus side, at least you can replace it. Back in the old days you’d just be hosed. I’m glad you enjoyed your beverage. By the way, I thought you said you ride better when you’re drunk? Or maybe that was driving. Hmm...

Expat Beck’st

PCS: We came to Spain for spring break because S— has some business here next week. We got here at 7:30 am today and have been wandering around, snoozing on the beach, and doing some day-drinking! I don’t even know what kind of beer this is … it’s great and I’ve decided this is my kind of lifestyle.


DA: Dang, Spain really takes the stemware to new heights! Was H— content during this lazy afternoon?

PCS: Sure, he was enjoying the coke next to my beer. We invented a new game called “Does this person smoke?” Which, for a pulmonologist, is not a hard game but was entertaining nonetheless!

JL: Oh yes, European café culture! It’s pretty great. If there was one thing I could import from Lisbon to the United States it would be the fact that they put a café/bar in every public park. So parents take their kids to the park to play and then they just sit in the café drinking coffee and/or beer and/or wine. But the prevalence of smoking was pretty crazy. So many smokers and so many discarded cigarette packs on the sidewalks.

DW: Love this picture...not much to say because everything is answered in the image. Your expression tells most of the story. The only word that comes to mind is GLORIOUS! Feliz vacacions, bebe y disfruta!

Palliative Beck’st

So, this isn’t a very good beer (not even worth pouring into a bottle) but I really needed a beer. (Full disclosure: so dire was my situation, I also had half of E—’s beer.)


Kind of a rough day. First, during the team mountain bike ride I decided to pop a wheelie and went over backwards. Normally this isn’t a problem because you just drop your feet and end up running behind your bike. But due to mud in my cleat or something, I couldn’t get my foot out. So I went all the way over backwards and landed on my back, my butt, and my phone. The phone and my lower back damaged each other. In testing the scuffed edge of my phone I actually cut my finger slightly. Man, I really landed hard. Obviously it was pretty embarrassing too, but mainly I’m just sore. My back, my butt, and my elbow. Even my neck. I might have whiplash. Serious need for beer in light of these facts (right Dr. S?).

Then we got home and Alexa got some bad news via email. Vassar, after admitting Alexa for the class of 2023, sent us their financial aid letter, in which they announced that they’re prepared to give us (drum roll please) … [scroll down for the amount].






















NOTHING.

That’s right, no aid whatsoever. The government, however, under the dutiful guidance of The Donald, is prepared to provide $3,500 per year in low-interest student loans. That will really help with the cost of this school, which is (drum roll please) … [scroll down for amount].


























$73,000 a year!

So, needless to say, A— won’t be attending Vassar. I recommended she file a financial aid appeal which should contain the phrase “obviously whacked out on coke and smack.” Poor thing … she’s really mourning. I’m trying to buck her up, but it’s not easy when I’m feeling all lugubrious myself over having only this Pacifico to drink.

JL: Ouch! Ouch squared!! And one more ouch if your daughter refuses to do the math! The wheelie accident I can definitely relate to. I popped a wheelie on my cross bike a couple years ago in our cul de sac to impress my kid (and to imitate Peter Sagan) and forgot that I was clipped in… went right over and landed on my hip and back so quickly that I didn’t have time to break my fall (which is probably for the best — could have broken a wrist!). Took weeks for the bruise (and the pain) to go away. Ego is still bruised. Needless to say, kid was not impressed… So that sucks. Adding to your pain is the busted phone, which is just salt in the wound. Sorry dude. I’m not a doctor (wait! Yes I am! [a Ph.D.]), but I would recommend lots of Advil during the day and as much beer as you can get away with without worrying the family at night.

DW: What a complete bummer to go off the back of the bike. I’m so glad you did not smack the back of your head on the ground. Even if you had a helmet on, that is no bueno for what lies in between. I gave up doing wheelies just for that reason a long time ago. Alas, now I always hold the railing when going downstairs. Why are ultra-white New Balance sneakers with velcro suddenly appealing?! I digress...

Beck’st + Dairy

BA: Last night, after dinner, I learned that this was a thing:


BA (continued): Who knew? I’ve got to say, I was a little skeptical at first but discovered that it was really good! (That’s just vanilla ice cream under that Milk Stout Nitro, in case it wasn’t obvious.) Also, while enjoying this treat in Estes Park, at altitude, I noticed that they fill the ice cream containers until they’re overflowing before they put the lid on! Actually, I was told (and I have no reason to disbelieve) that the air bubbles in the ice cream expand in the relative vacuum of altitude here causing the ice cream to expand, lifting the lid right off the carton. Amazing. (I have also witnessed chip bags exploding on Trail Ridge Road as they get tauter and tauter the higher you go, due to the reduction of air pressure protecting them from the vacuum of space. If you wish to experience this mini science lesson for yourself, it helps to have the bags on the dashboard of the car, in the hot sun, to increase the pressure.)

JL: Funny you should post that photo after my lamenting about no longer eating ice-cream, because that very stout (from Left Hand) has been one of my go-to beers of late. I’ve been moving away from IPAs and trying more stouts lately, and that Left Hand nitro is really, really good. Maybe if I lose a few pounds I’ll reward myself with one of those stout beer floats!

PCS: Ice cream and beer! Epic, truly epic. though I’ve never had it personally. The thought of a milkshake with some whiskey in it also sounds interesting to me...

Airport Beck’st

JL: Traveling to Denver via Newark. They have iPads everywhere in the waiting area. I ordered this beer more out of curiosity than anything else while my kids play video games. Like 30 seconds after swiping my CC, this bartender showed up with the beer. Weird. But this beer is welcome anytime! I won’t tell you how much I paid for it...


DA: I use that airport from time to time when I travel on bidness. The iPads are pretty silly, especially when the restaurant app suggests a 15%, 18%, or 20% tip. Even when I’m spending my employer’s money, I bristle at tipping an iPad app. Sure, somebody comes over and plops a plate down in front of me, but that’s hardly service. Nobody even checks on me (thus depriving me of the chance to say, “The games are boring, the user interface insipid, the color palette uninspiring, and the screen grubby”).

I know what you paid for that beer. I bought one last time, even though I shudder to waste money, even my employer’s, but I was emboldened because my boss was next to me, his boss next to him, and they both bought expensive drinks (my boss’s the size of a ten-gallon hat and his boss’s some froufrou cocktail). My beer was small and disappointing. (I know, I know … “that’s what she said.”)

How’d you like the Lagunitas IPA? I wish I had one right now…

Appendix: how I ate Gavin Newsom’s $1,000 breakfast

I was at a fundraiser back in 2004 in San Francisco. For $1,000, I didn’t even get a table in the same room as the guest of honor. I was pretty pissed. On top of that, the breakfast was pretty bad: rubbery pancakes, MSG-y sausage, OJ from concentrate, etc. Right after I finished eating, but before the event began, a friend happened by and said, “Hey, come to the main ballroom, there’s room at a better table!” He himself wasn’t at said table, but there was indeed an empty seat. It was like ten feet from the stage. Right after I sat down I was served breakfast again, bringing my unit cost down to $500. NOOICE!

As the table filled in I realized I was with some pretty high-caliber people … impeccable suits, beautiful attachés, etc. Someone said, “Is Gavin coming or not?” Newsom was the San Francisco mayor at that time, and I suddenly realized to my horror I was sitting in his seat. How do you explain that to the Mayor? “Uh, sorry dude. Hey, I didn’t touch the fruit salad…”

Suddenly Newsom appeared at the edge of the room with his entourage, briskly walking along waving to everyone. To my utter relief, he couldn’t stay, and literally just made an appearance on his way to departing through the other exit. Nobody ever questioned my spot at the table. I finished “my” breakfast and (somewhat) enjoyed the event.

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Saturday, March 7, 2020

From the Archives - Video Gaming in the ‘80s


Introduction

It’s pretty clear video games are insanely popular … perhaps too much so. Time magazine has called them “the greatest threat facing America.” (Note: I totally made that up.) A grown man was mugged in my neighborhood a decade or so ago, an obvious target because he was walking down the sidewalk absorbed in his Game Boy. The very next day I saw him again, this time at the nearby train station, still absorbed in his Game Boy. I couldn’t decide whether to push him on to the tracks or mug him myself so I slipped between the horns of the dilemma by silently pitying him.

Considering the wealth of smartphone gaming apps, and gamers’ souped-up computers, and X-Boxes and Playstations etc., it seems like we must be in the heyday of video games. What’s seldom remembered is that there was a lull in this national pastime, when kids got too lazy to trek out to the arcades but before the time when the home consoles got really sophisticated. This post, from my archives, documents a bit of that time, and wistfully recalls what I once took to have been the glory days of video games. I wrote this in college, when I was a student at UC Santa Barbara.


Video Gaming in the 80s - December 7, 1988

We can all remember the big video game days, back when there were fifteen arcades in town, all offering at least ten tokens on the dollar. Machines were scrubbed shiny; knobs were packed with grease or oil for extra smoothness. These were the salad days of the gaming world. Finding any kid was as easy as remembering which arcade he preferred. We were good, too. Any seasoned vidiot could play for at least forty‑five minutes on one token. But alas, kids eventually came around and the arcades died out suddenly, just like the dinosaurs.

It’s a good thing, too, because the games being designed today are not so innocent and harmless as what we played back then. My favorite was Tempest, a game in which your “guy” (a random thingy shaped kind of like a C-clamp] skittered around on the edge of a geometrically shaped hole shooting abstract figures, which had names like flippers, tankers, spikers, and fuzzballs. Shooting a tanker caused it to vomit up two flippers, complicating your job. When you’d destroyed everything coming up from the hole, you flew through it (avoiding dangerous spikes that could skewer you), then briefly through space (on autopilot, apparently), and landed on another hole to shoot more figures.



If you didn’t like shooting stuff, you could drive a racecar; that was a popular format. It started with Monaco GP which had really lame graphics; when Turbo came out I like that a lot better.


Then we got Pole Position. Its graphics were so amazing, it was tempting to throw over Turbo entirely, except that a game of Pole Position just didn’t last very long (typically 90 seconds). Sure, you could get Extended Play if you drove well enough, but if you got really good at it, eventually you’d make it to the Finish line and then—well, you’d be finished! I was pretty ticked the first time that happened, but then what did I expect? It’s the Finish line!


Or you blasted spaceships. That was the meat and potatoes of the vidiot. Those games were abstract, and promoted manual dexterity. Today, a typical video game involves beating up street thugs and prostitutes with clubs, or gunning down soldiers with a machine gun. I know this because last summer I went bowling with the boys from Broad Street Bikes and we observed the mêlée. I have to wonder what the lasting psychological effect of such blatantly violent games is on our youth. But all preaching aside, I must confess that recently, I have visited the arcade here [in Isla Vista] on more than one occasion.

It’s nothing like the old days. But one night, a few months ago, I was out with the boys and we wandered into Video Madness [a video rental place]. They had a bunch of the new-fangled games. I could hear the grunting of the street thugs as they pulverized each other, and the shrieks of the karate champs as they beat each other into submission. But over at the end of the dark room was a Tempest machine. I had to investigate.

Alas, the original knob was gone … the machine was out of order. But right next to it was Space Duel. For me, this game is nostalgic, since [my brother] Bryan and I used to play it back during the glory days of video games. I even talked Mom into playing it with me once, although I doubt she’d remember.


[This video is amazing, by the way. It’s an Atari ad showcasing the game in order to sell it to arcades. It even shows, here, how to set dip switches on the printed circuit board to select different languages.]

Space Duel is a totally unique game among the rest. The graphics are nothing special, the controls are nothing unique, but the method of play is unlike any other. There are various options of gameplay, but my favorite is the cooperative play mode. Two spaceships, joined about their rotational axes by a short rod, are controlled by two different players, who work together to blast various octahedra and other geometric shapes. The cooperation is key. While the players rack up individual scores (the object of any video game), they also rely on each other for survival. Kind of reminds you of the real world, don’t it? And when one player gets hit, his ship is seriously disabled, and his partner begins to outscore him. The wounded player almost longs, at this point, to get hit again so that he and his pal both get new ships and his point deficit is minimized.

The tragedy of the commons is ever‑present here. The injured player has seemingly little to gain from preserving his friend’s life, since this limits his own ability to get points. But if he decides to end it all, he hurts the common fighting unit. And remember, he’s here at the arcade playing with a friend … who would do that to a friend? Well, almost anyone actually. I mean, it’s not like there’s no recourse … your friend can always punch your arm or something. Still, the point of the game isn’t just to score points—it’s to make the game last as long as possible. So you usually limp on.

[Oddly enough, I didn’t know at the time that Space Duel was kind of hip, in a way. The Who had featured it on the cover of their 1982 album “It’s Hard.”]



Naturally, Space Duel can also be played by one person alone, and I haven’t lost the touch. I mostly drop in to Video Madness after intense study sessions, to remind myself how trivial school is when you’re fighting for your very existence against a variety of colorful geometric foes. I’ve discovered that I can actually use my score to monitor my stress levels. The lower my overall stress in my life, I have realized, the better I do at the game.

Occasionally, the game itself begins to cause me stress. I mean, losing at anything can be emotionally taxing, and in the moment it can be hard to remember this is just a game. When this happens, and it dawns on me that I’m paying good money to stress myself out, I fire my thrusters on full, sending my ship reeling out of control to its eventual death and the end of the game. In this way I remind the video machine that times have changed, and—unlike the game-possessed vidiots of the past—now I am the master.

Postscript

For further reading, specifically on the video game of the future, check out this fictional albertnet post: Robotron 2084’.

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