Monday, January 30, 2006

How wet is it in Seattle?

After a month of near-continuous rainfall (we've had one 24-hour period without rain) everything -- stairs, driveways, wood fences -- is edged with brilliant green moss.

How damp is it? Well, I just found a baby slug on the floor the dining room. Let's assume it rode in on one of the long-haired cats. The alternative is too creepy to think about.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

It's a bagel

Yesterday I bought something I haven't seen in a long time: a real bagel.

I'm including a picture of the bagel, with a coffee cup, to show scale and to make the point that a real bagel is small. It weighs 3 oz. It is not the size of a sourdough bread.

It also tastes like a dense, dry, European white bread. It does not have jalapenos or blueberries in it, or (shudder) pizza sauce on top.

It has a limited shelf life, and will be dry as a bone in three days. It is not filled with preservatives and petrochemicals.

Interestingly, this particular bagel comes from a Seattle bakery with no Jewish roots (the baker is Asian). However, the baker is a master baker, with a strong knowledge of European (French) breads. Thus, the basic bagel.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

More cat toys

The Play-n-Squeak Mouse Door Hanger cat toy chirps rather than squeaks, but the cats love it anyway. Even the deaf white cat Sheba loves it, so the chirping/squeaking is apparently a secondary attraction.

The toy mouse dangles from long elasticized line attached to a short rod that attaches to the top of a door. This puts the dangling mouse about four inches from the door, making it easy for the cat to smash it against the door. With each smash, the mouse bounces and chirps, inciting the cat to yet another attack.

From my office down the hall, all I hear is a pleasant chirping.

This is far superior to the Panic Mouse, a battery-powered cat toy we bought last year that thrashed a mouse around on a long metal wire at variable speeds. The gadget made a grinding sound that drove us mad, and the cats got freaked out, too, since nothing they did stopped the wired mouse from thrashing. We found out later that there was a slightly more expensive version of the Panic Mouse that comes with a timer.

Still, the most popular cat toys in the house are the tiny rabbit fur mice we buy in packs of 12 at Petco. Kaylee and Zoe play with them until they fall to pieces. We have mice under the sofa, mice under the stove, and in the morning I stock my pockets with mice to keep Kaylee busy while I work. (BTW, we've tried the faux-fur mice by the same vendor and the cats have utterly ignored them.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pogue on Trolls

Last week, in his New York Times Circuits column, David Pogue took on trolls -- the people who send email rants and post nasty comments. (He took the approach of writing a tongue-in-cheek how-to for aspiring trolls.) Today's column, featuring the best of the comments on the troll column, is even more fun than the original.

One reader sent in his own term for online flamethrowers: e-holes. Others sent Pogue pithy comebacks to hate mail (attributed to Garrison Keillor and Winston Churchill).

It's official

I'll be leaving my job with Apple's .Mac group Feb. 28.

I love the company and love the people, but my group and my job have evolved over the past six years in such a way that almost all of my work is project management — which isn't the most exhilarating way to spend your day if you're a writer.

If you've known me for several years, you'll recognize the pattern: I'm hired as a writer, get promoted to editing other writers, and then to managing a publications production process, thus winding up with all of the stress and none of the fun. But the people in charge of the places I work are managers, not writers; they enjoy managing and think I should, too. To confuse matters, I'm fairly good as a project manager. No one sees me when I end the day limp as a dishrag, too bleary to cook, and all I want to do is get into a hot bath and bury my nose in a science fiction novel.

By contrast, after a day of writing I want to leap out of my chair, scamper around in the garden, come in and cook a gourmet dinner, and then go out dancing or meet friends for drinks. Needless to say, my family finds the writer persona far easier to live with.

This wasn't an easy decision, because Apple is the only place I've worked where I was able to be myself, do my best work, and feel safe, valued, and appreciated. I've been able to get a tremendous amount of work done because I've never had to waste time watching my back. Sure, there are heated arguments, but they're always professional. Each person truly believes that he or she has a plan that puts the best interests of the company, or the products, first. And what products!

After I wind up my work at Apple, it's back to full-time writing. I have a couple exciting offers for freelance writing and editing projects, and projects (specific, intense, and short) are exactly what I want. I'll be attending some writing conferences, and working on some fiction projects as well. In short, my schedule will be just as full, but far more flexible. And I'm expecting to have lots more energy to garden, cook, and go out dancing.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Spotting a trainspotter

Before we had geeks and nerds, the British had "trainspotters" -- harmless weirdos who enjoyed standing by the tracks to log passing trains by time and number, then collecting, cataloging, and endlessly discussing their findings.

The term "trainspotter" eventually came to be a more general British term for a harmless weirdo.

Today I received an email from the American female version of a trainspotter. She and I will be attending the same writing conference back East this spring and she'd gotten my name from a conference organizer. Her paragraph-long email contained the information that she is also from the Seattle area, doesn't really have any experience in the field the conference deals with, is wondering what sort of clothing attendees would be wearing, is so worried about getting there on time that she is planning to fly in a day early, and wanted to if know had I made my travel arrangements yet. Hint, hint.

What a flaccid way to present yourself to a total stranger: As an adult who has no idea what to wear to a little conference and worries about being late to something in which she plays no signficant role. I was sure I sensed a bulky, gelatinous, self-piting leech preparing to glom onto me at check-in and maintain a smothering death-grip throughout the three-day conference.

A small voice inside me suggested that I was being harsh and uncharitable. I shut it up quickly by Googling the woman (she has an unusual, and particularly frumpy, name). Sure enough, she's a treasure hunter, one of those nut cases who runs around with a metal detector at the beach.

All together now: EEEEEEK! I can only hope they capture her at airport security.

Impress your date

Back when I was single and dating, I remember a first date when I was getting into the guy's car and spotted, on the back seat, the Loompanics catalog.

Those of you who know what that is will be chagrined to hear that I got into the car, and the relationship, anyway.

The guy turned out to be not so much the sort of person who would buy Loompanics publications (arranged in categories such as "Heresy/Weird Ideas" "Murder, Death, and Torture" "Head for the Hills" and "Reality Creation" ) as the type who would leave the catalog on prominent display to freak people out. notes that Loompanics is going out of business. Check out their sale, complete with a touching farewell comic strip.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kitties love HDTV

"But, honey, I'm getting it for Fluffy."

Was this what they had in mind?

Some observations about the effects (intended and otherwise) of the new parking and smoking regulations in Ballard.

The astonishing increase in population density in Ballard in the past two years has led the city to charge for what used to be free parking and the businesses to patrol their patrons-only lots with increased vigilance. Today I stopped in Ballard to go to the bank and shop at Classic Consignment and Bartells drugstore. All three businesses, within a block of each other, have their own parking lots for patrons. The problem, of course, is that you aren't allowed to shop at one while you're parked at the other. The solution is either to park, shop, drive around the block, park, shop, drive around the block, park and shop or to simply pay for street parking and go shopping. I paid for street parking, of course.

Once I was parked on the street, I wandered down Ballard Avenue. It's a secondary street once populated by scruffy taverns serving hardcore Scandinavian riff-raff. It's now populated by scruffy-chic taverns and pricey boutiques serving stylishly disaffected alt-Yuppies. Ironicly, both the grizzled riff-raff and the disaffected alt-Yuppies tend to smoke. Since smoking is now against the law within 25 feet of a public establishment, Ballard Avenue was filled with uneasy looking smokers sidling around with their smoldering cigarettes.

"Is this 25 feet?" I heard one boozed-up old coot snarl at his lady friend, as he went weaving around in the middle of Ballard Avenue. In front of a trendy restaurant, one of the kitchen staff stood at the edge of the sidewalk, puffing nervously.

Now people who go into bars can drink smoke free, but people who walk down the street must dodge smokers and inhale their smog. Huh?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Vampire novel

It was an unusually active and social day. I started with my annual visit to the dermatologist, who froze off all sorts of little patches on my neck and chest. Of course, as soon as I got back to my office, a colleague in California called me into a video iChat. I informed him that I was doing research for a vampire novel.

Hutch came by and we went out for lunch at the Hi Life in Ballard. (After I disguised all the marks on my neck using a silk scarf.) The food was pretty good, the waitress rather spacey, and the adjoining table had a woman with an 18-month-old grandchild who managed to grab and throw her cell phone under our table two or three times.

After work I had my annual eye exam, including the part where they dilate your eyes. I drove home with all the traffic signals and street lights sparkling like Christmas decorations. Zorg was in his office hooking up his second 23" monitor and chortling.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Don't use the "h" word with them!

Want to make a bank customer service person reach for the Valium? Ask him (or her) what it means when they say that your debit card was cancelled because it was "compromised."

I spoke with two customer service drones today who tried to make me feel thankful that they had cancelled two of my debit cards (for two different accounts) because the debit card numbers had been "compromised by a third party."

Like a nincompoop, I kept trying to find out what ATM, or store, or online service I could have used that had caused Visa to decide my cards were "compromised" and cancel them with no notice to me. Finally, at the second "supervisor" level, I got plainer language.

"A third-party database was compromised" and my cards were both listed in that database. Upon further prodding, it turned out that a third-party used by Visa and my bank, not a third party used by me, had the compromised database. And "compromised" is the euphemism for "hacked."

Whew! Well, that only took 45 minutes of my workday to choke out of them.

Anyway, I'm suffering the consquences of their shoddy security -- oh, excuse me, a third party's shoddy security -- as I wait seven business days to get replacement ATM cards. Cards which I must then take into the bank during business hours to get the pre-set PIN numbers changed to something I'll remember. Until the next time the bank gets hacked.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Communicate using iTunes

I often wait to write about things until I can see and express some element of humor. A friend of mine, of similar bent, sent me an iTunes track through the iTunes gift program: "Bill Lee" by Warren Zevon. It's a short, sweet, piece that in its entirety goes:

You're supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things
Man, that's hard to do
But if you don't, they'll screw you
If you do, they'll screw you too

And I'm standing in the middle of the diamond all alone
I always play to win when it comes to skin and bone

And sometimes I say things I shouldn't, like
(harmonica break)
And sometimes I say things I shouldn't, like
(louder harmonica break)

Boy, does that ever describe where I am right now. Lots of harmonica breaks.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Don't leave home with it

Have a WaMu Visa debit card? Don't venture out of state with it — at least not if you expect to use it for wild and crazy criminal acts like a $7.95 internet access charge at your hotel.

I've worked in California for the past five years, and frequently use my WaMu Visa debit card at the WaMu ATM near my office in Cupertino. Nevertheless, when I went to Macworld this past week, Visa detected "a suspicious pattern of spending" due to an out-of-state use and cancelled the card with no attempt to contact me. I discovered this Saturday when I got back to Seattle and couldn't purchase $1.50 worth of metered parking. Using my second debit card, for the linked joint WaMu account I share with Zorg, was not an option, since Visa had thoughtfully cancelled that card as well!

I called WaMu, but they disclaimed all responsibility. Visa makes this decision, they said, not WaMu, adding that both the Visa and the WaMu offices for handling this are closed until next Tuesday.

There is no indication in my online banking records or trip receipts of any purchase in California, though the WaMu folks I spoke with said that they can "see" an out-of-state transaction that apparently triggered the cancellations. I now suspect it was the $7.95 online internet access deposit at the hotel, refunded in full for Macworld attendees, that resulted in a $0.00 charge against the card but got the card cancelled anyway. Bravo, Visa.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Google Earth

We're back from Macworld, tired, but installing all our software updates. Google released Google Earth for Mac, and I just tried it out and took a look at our house. The detail -- right down to garden benches and patio furniture -- is rather scary. The feeling that big brother is watching was dispelled slightly when I noticed that the photo is not current. It had to have been taken more than a few months ago, as our neighbor Steve's car appears parked at it's usual rakish angle in front of his house. (He's since moved into assisted living, and the car has been sold.)

The Mac version is apparently not as full-featured as the Windows flavor. Here's a review by a power user.

I wonder if you can subscribe to a satellite view and have the updated photo sent to you each time one becomes available? I'd be interested in having a record of neighborhood changes over time...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Thursday at Macworld

After two days of work and social activities behind the scenes and around the outskirts of Macworld in SF, Zorg and I made it onto the floor at the Expo Thursday today.

The Apple booth had on display both the new iMac Intel Core Duo and the MacBook Pro. They each look just like their predecessors, but are screamingly fast when running OS X 10.4.4. I can hardly wait to get home and try out the new iLife applications; the iLife '06 Family Pack I ordered Tuesday may make it home before we do.

The Expo was not, as I'd feared, dominated by iPods. It was solid Mac-related hardware and software, much of it from established vendors. The quality of the giveaways was higher than it has been in the past few years, though without the lavish excesses of the dotcom era. The overall impression was glossy (rather than glitzy).

We're staying at the Nikko, in a basic room that is quiet, comfortable and serene. Unfortunately, the Nikko's business center has a printer that doesn't relate well to a Mac, making it difficult to print out our boarding passes for tomorrow. (Boo. Hiss.) But the hotel's sushi bar is outstanding.

Zorg got some cool clothes and software; I got a leather iPod case. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to do any San Francisco shopping.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Snug as a bug in a rug

I am so accustomed to finding clues (if not answers) with a Google search, I was astonished to strike out completely when I Googled each of the first two lines of this verse:
Money is the milk in the coconut
Money is the cream in the jug
Money is your honey, when you've got a pile of money
You're as snug as a bug in a rug.

When I was a child, I often heard my grandfather sing this ditty -- usually after he'd perused the stock pages of the Boston Globe.

I came away with the impression that the bug was enjoying itself somewhere in the vast ruby-red expanse of my grandmother's Oriental rug.

If you've seen or heard this song somewhere, please email me. I'm very curious to know more about it.

NOTE: A reader emailed me with information that this is a folk song, and a blander version of it appears in Carl Sandburg's 1927 collection, American Songbag. I'm going to hunt the book down to see if there are more verses.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Rain rain rain, whine whine whine

Well, the weather is certainly doing its best to render Seattle as miserable as out-of-towners imagine it. We don't often have days on end of steady precipitation, really we don't.

The cats periodically insist on going out in it, as if to say "this can't really be happening." Fortunately, we have several areas under the house and porches where they can hang out -- including, of course, two heated and insulated "cat nests."

Betaille, the elderly Himalayan/Abyssinian who lives in one of the nests, will no longer come up onto the exposed back porch to be fed, so we have to remember to go down to her den every few hours to feed her. She greets us with an irate "meowranh!"

The neighbors who travel all the time seem to be gone on yet a third trip in as many weeks. Their increasingly frenetic cat appeared in our basement at dinner time tonight and, for the second time this week, came on upstairs to demand that Zorg, her specially buddy, feed her a supper of canned cat food. Apparently the bowl of dry food in the basement no longer meets her expectations. Such nerve. Our cats were just flabbergasted.

If it sounds like our days are one long round of attending to damp, pathetic, restless felines...well, yes. And we're pretty damp, pathetic, and restless ourselves.

Next week we turn the whole operation over to various friends and catsitters and head off to MacWorld. The weather in San Francisco promises to be a tad better than this. I'm looking forward to the usual round of dinners and breakfasts with tech friends and old family friends, and luxuriating at The Nikko with Zorg. Plus a private billiards party — more on that later!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Noodle pudding

To make lokshen kugel, you must be a Jewish aunt or grandmother, preferable a bit eccentric, with a refrigerator full of dairy.

I qualify. Here I am, at the end of the winter holidays, with all sort of things you don't usually see in our house, including big containers of sour cream, cottage cheese, and a couple boxes of eggs.

I looked up my version of my family's noodle pudding recipe in the FileMaker database, and then decided to check out some versions on the Internet. I soon realized there are thousands of versions of noodle pudding, each one based on what that person's aunt had in her refrigerator.

Aunt Reva (or Helen, or Sadie) had cooked a noodle pudding based on what was available, someone had complimented her on it, and that version became set in stone for the remainder of her cooking career. When I was a child, our family gatherings included at least two versions of kugel; one included dried apricots and the other was the alternate selection. (My grandmother's version featured pineapple tidbits, and so does mine.) A cottage cheese version can be something like a cheesecake; one with lots of eggs, as fluffy as a souffle.

I stumbled across a great explanation of kugel-type recipes on the blog Sabbath Meals, which explains it in terms of the "shit" method of cooking used by Eastern European grandmothers. (That's probably not what you think, unless you are fluent in Yiddish.)

The bottom line is that kugel is a mixture of wide egg noodles, dairy (sour cream and drained cottage cheese as a rule, but cream cheese, yoghurt, and buttermilk can also come into play), dried or winter fruits (golden raisins, almost certainly, but apples, prunes, apricots, almonds, walnuts, pecans, and canned pineapple can turn up), lightly beaten eggs (usually in a ratio of 1 egg per 4 oz. of dried noodles), and flavorings (sugar, salt, lemon juice, and cinnamon are the most common, but honey, brown sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and almond extract also appear). (The wikipedia entry for "kugel" notes that there is a Jerusalem kugel with carmelized sugar and black pepper — now that's worth trying.)

Boil the noodles, butter them, mix in the rest of the glop (this is where some people want to top it all with bread crumbs) and bake at 350 C for 45 minutes to an hour.

If you would like some kugel, email me and you can come try some Thursday or Friday. (Seattle area availability, only.)