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More phone notes

November 10, 2020 5 comments

Still getting to know my new smartphone…

  • I’ve settled on using the vinyl bank book holder as a protective sleeve for my phone. It really works surprisingly well, though it would be perfect if it were about a centimeter shorter. Indeed, it’s easier to grip than the phone’s somewhat slippery case. I have my doubts about its durability, but I definitely prefer it. I did have to cut a hole in the clear plastic to accommodate headphone and power cords; the first time I did that, I subsequently found there were some numbers in ink on the inside of the clear layer, transferred from a bank book or something, and they wouldn’t come out. Luckily the thing’s symmetrical, so once I checked that the other side was clear, I had to cut a hole in that side and use it instead. And then I determined that it’s best not to charge the phone while it’s in the sleeve, since it gets kind of hot. Also I prefer to use the glasses case to hold it when I’m listening to an audiobook. So maybe I didn’t need to cut a hole at all.
  • I discovered that MS Office (Word included) is pre-installed on the phone, so theoretically I could save my prose files on the cloud and write or edit them on the phone. Although they open in read-only mode by default, and it took some research to figure out how to make them editable (you have to save a local copy on the phone). I’m undecided whether to try it. I’m not very practiced at typing on a phone screen — I’m not much of a texter — so it would probably be slow and not very comfortable. But making a change in where and how I write can help against writer’s block, so it might be worth a try. At the very least, it could work as an emergency backup if something happened to my laptop.
  • I found that the phone has a “side screen” that you can open that has various built-in tools like a compass, level, ruler, and flashlight control. Oddly, the directions the compass claims as due north and due south are only 143 degrees apart (I checked with a ruler and protractor). Several attempts with the “Calibrate” button failed to correct the problem. Either the app is inaccurate, or my apartment is a space warp.
  • Followup: I looked into it online, and apparently you’re supposed to calibrate the compass away from magnetic objects. It was a nice day, so I took a (masked) walk up to the local park to get as far out in the open as I could, and my recalibration attempt there was successful. I don’t know if I’ll ever actually need a compass — I never have before, and there was actually a time way back in the day when I did carry a small compass in my backpack just in case — but if I have one anyway, it might as well actually work.
  • I’ve discovered that a number of the New York Times puzzle games are easier to play on a smartphone than a computer screen. I’d wondered, in particular, why the Spelling Bee game was so unwieldy in that you had to click on the letters instead of being able to type out the words. It makes sense if it was designed for a touch screen.
  • This phone’s native weather app doesn’t auto-update when you unlock the phone like my old one did. You have to tap it, or set it to update on a schedule. The weather radar app I use has an alternate widget I could try, but I don’t like its design.
  • I also miss the light on my old phone that blinked to alert me to a new text message, e-mail, voicemail, or whatever. Now I don’t see any notification without turning on my phone. There’s a notification sound when a message arrives, at least if I have it turned on, but that doesn’t help me after the fact if I miss hearing it.
  • Plus it annoys me that the ringtones and notification sounds on modern phones don’t have any nice, simple rings and beeps, just these annoying musical phrases. I did find a ringtone that sounds like an ’80s telephone, which is tolerable. But when I tried using the timer, there were no nice, simple “ding” or “beep” options for the notification sound.
  • I have to retrain my muscle memory for turning the screen on. My old phone had a front button I tended to use for that, but this one only has a side button. It goes on if you tap the front a few times, or if you move it suddenly while touching the screen, but I’m still figuring out its triggers.
  • There’s also an “Always On Screen” that shows the time and charge level and such on the black screen when I tap it once, as well as the temperature from my weather radar app. I wish I could increase its font size, since I often don’t have my glasses on when I want to take a quick look at it. But I checked, and apparently there’s no way to do that. The font can be enlarged elsewhere, but not there.
  • I’m getting more spam calls and texts than before. I think it must be because I failed to back up my old phone’s data, which might have included my block lists.
  • Battery life seems comparable to my old phone. I’m generally charging once a day, and that’s to keep it in what I gather is the recommended charge range for modern phone batteries, between 50 and 80 percent. It charges pretty quickly, at least as fast as the old one did with the newer cord I bought last year.
  • Oh, I’m so glad that I’m now able to have a fully functional Firefox app on my phone with access to all my desktop (or rather laptop) bookmarks. Before, I could only get Chrome to sync bookmarks between devices, but it’s inconvenient to keep importing updated Firefox bookmark lists into a browser I rarely use, so I only occasionally got around to doing that. Now that’s no longer necessary. The Firefox app doesn’t let me access my bookmarks as easily as my laptop browser, but I’ve already found that the phone lets me view a couple of sites that my older, refurbished Windows 7 laptop has trouble with (including FiveThirtyEight’s election update liveblog, which sometimes fails to load on my laptop).
  • I discovered a surprising new quirk of the phone — its calendar widget not only popped up a notification of my upcoming deadline on the phone, but somehow transmitted one to my laptop as well. I didn’t know it could do that and didn’t ask it to. I’m not sure how it did. From the placement of the message’s tab on the bottom bar, it was associated with my e-mail client somehow, evidently through the Gmail account connected to my cell number, but I’ve never seen the client display that ability before. Anyway, I’ll have to try to remember to set it not to do that anymore.
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Hope lives again!

Four years ago, after the horror of seeing the results of the 2016 election come in, I made a post called “What do we do now?”, expressing my fears of what a Trump presidency would mean — all of which subsequently came true, and then some, because all this was incredibly predictable even then — but also trying to find rays of hope for the future. My hopes for the short term failed to materialize. The past four years have been an ongoing disaster, an unprecedented assault on American society and values. I always expected Trump to lead us into an unnecessary war that would cause enormous death and suffering. I never anticipated his war would be waged directly against Americans.

This year, the polls and forecasts gave me hope that we could end this hell. Joe Biden was not my first choice for the nomination (I liked Elizabeth Warren), but he was a good choice, a good and decent human being and a proven, competent statesman — and Kamala Harris struck me as a good choice for VP, and perhaps for the top of the ticket in time. But I was burned four years ago, so I couldn’t let myself grow complacent. I knew that if Trump won again, legitimately or through trickery and theft, it would probably mean the end of democracy, the solidification of fascism and kleptocracy. This might be our last chance.

For much of Wednesday, I feared the worst and despaired for the future. Then the tide started to turn as the absentee votes were slowly counted. By the end of the day, I felt cautiously optimistic. It was a thrill to wake up Thursday morning and see the news on my new phone that Biden had pulled into the lead. For the two days since, I’ve been waiting with everyone else for the expected outcome to be made official. I suspect any normal, rational incumbent who cared more about the stability of the nation than his own ego and power (and fear of prosecution and bankruptcy once he’s out of office) would have conceded by Thursday night.

But now we can say it — President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. In any other year, the fact that we elected a woman to the executive branch for the first time, let alone a woman of color, would be the story. It’s amazing, and long overdue, though still only halfway there. But under the circumstances, it’s just one part of a bigger story — the story of bringing America back from the brink, of preventing the most corrupt, incompetent, and evil chief executive in generations (if not ever) from continuing to entrench fascist rule.

I find that my faith in America’s institutions has been restored. Trump and the GOP did everything they could to sabotage democracy and subvert the will of the people. They stacked the courts with appointees they expected to hand the election to them no matter the outcome. They spent months creating doubt about the integrity of our elections. They sabotaged the post office to try to keep absentee ballots from getting through, restricted the number of drop boxes and polling places to make it harder for people to vote, and did everything they could to disenfranchise voters.

They did manage to come closer than they should have. They probably managed to hold the Senate, which is dangerous. But our laws and institutions withstood the assault better than I feared. The post-election attempts to subvert the count with bogus lawsuits went nowhere, thrown out by those judges who were expected to be rubber stamps. In that and other ways, the mechanisms in place to keep elections fair did their job. Moreover, I’ve heard that a number of attempts by right-wing extremists to commit terrorist acts against Democrats and the electoral process have been quietly thwarted by law enforcement, with multiple arrests happening before the parties in question could inflict any harm. It seems our country’s immune system isn’t as badly impaired as I’d feared.

It’s still going to be a long, hard struggle to rebuild, and there will still be fierce resistance from the faction that’s been radicalized by decades of right-wing media. But we’ve won the first battle now, and I have renewed hope for the future. As I said in my post four years ago, I believe we’re playing out a recurring historical cycle and that eventually the turmoil of the crisis era would be resolved by a new generation that would bring us to a new era of prosperity. But I feared how long it might be and how much more suffering and death we might have to go through before that point could be reached. A second civil war? A resistance movement against a dictatorship? Would a writer like me have to flee the country to escape the anti-intellectual purges? Instead, we’ve managed to avoid that. Hopefully these next couple of months before Inauguration Day will be the worst of it, and then we can begin the slow climb back upward.

I’d really gotten tired of seeing the bad guys win. It’s such a relief that we came through in the climax.

This meme has been going around all over, but I’m going to post it too, because it sums up this feeling so well:

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New phone notes

October 31, 2020 2 comments

This is a collection of discoveries and observations I’ve made about my new phone. I figured I’d let them build up over a few days before I posted them.

  • It turns out that the power cord uses a USB-C plug rather than MicroUSB. The battery pack gizmo I got earlier this year for jumpstarting my car uses the same connector, so I was able to use the phone cord to recharge the battery pack. It looks like you can get Micro/C adaptors online for only pennies more than the cost of shipping, but the cost of shipping is a bit high.
  • As I mentioned in reply to a comment on my previous post, I figured out how to get the music player to display the files in device memory. I had to look it up online. Why don’t electronics come with proper instruction manuals anymore? I guess because we can look it all up online.
  • Well, whaddaya know? The hands on the icon for the clock app actually tell the time! That’s clever, for the icon itself to be a functional source of information. I prefer using the digital clock widget, though. Some people are good at reading analog clock faces by the hand positions, but I prefer having numbers to look at.
  • The screen automatically brightens and dims with the light level. That’s very useful.
  • I got an email from Google Play offering me the chance to reinstall apps from my old phone — including some I’d uninstalled long ago. Anyway, I took the opportunity to do something I was planning to do eventually anyway, and install my bank’s mobile app which wouldn’t work on my old phone. It works on this phone, so now I have the ability to mobile-deposit checks. Of course, most of my publishers pay me by direct deposit now anyway, but it could be handy.
  • I noticed a free compass app on Google Play and tried it out. For some reason, it defined north as whatever direction the phone was pointing when I opened the app. That one got uninstalled quickly.
  • I’ve discovered that the phone fits almost perfectly into an old pouch-style glasses case I have, which would be good for carrying it around outside, except the pouch doesn’t close on top. I’m debating between that and the alternate option of a vinyl bank book holder. The phone is about the size and shape of a checkbook, so it fits perfectly inside the clear plastic sleeves, and I can even work the phone through the plastic cover. That could be very handy for outdoors use, but I’d have to take the phone out to use headphones, charge it, or take outward-facing photos/video.
  • Following up on that, I tried the glasses case when I went out for grocery pickup, and it was a bit awkward to pull the phone out of the case without pulling the case out of my pocket. That’s a point in favor of the bank book holder, although I’m thinking I may need to reinforce its spine with some tape so it holds up to frequent opening and closing. I realized I could also cut a hole in the plastic for the headphones and power cord.
  • I was also finally able to get the Kroger app to work and use it to notify them of my arrival. I had a bit of trouble hitting the buttons, though; I had to hold my finger on them rather than just tap. I wonder, was the app running slow, or was the screen having trouble reading my finger’s heat because it was warm from being in the pouch in my pocket?

Meanwhile, my shopping trip was a bit harrowing in another way. The main reason for my rush to get a new phone this week was because I was running out of my heartburn pills that I take daily, so I needed to get groceries before they ran out. But it turned out they were out of stock at Kroger and I wasn’t offered an alternate option. And I only had one pill left. So I decided to brave the Walgreens across the lot from the Kroger store, reminding myself that the risk is minimal if you’re only inside for a few minutes with proper safeguards. It’s only the second time during the pandemic that I’ve been inside a public building (the first being the post office), and though everyone was masked and distancing, I still wish there had been fewer people.

And yes, I did look into the possibility of curbside pickup at Walgreens, but it looks like they only offer it for certain items, which is weird.

Anyway, I got to use my new credit card’s “tap” payment function, where you just hold it against the scanner. I’d gotten the impression that you just waved the card over it briefly, but you have to hold it against it while it checks and approves the card. Took me a couple of tries to figure that out.

So weird to live in a world where we have such technological advancements and conveniences undreamt of by our forerunners, but have regressed a hundred years when it comes to public health and pandemic response.

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Phoning it in, Part 2

October 29, 2020 2 comments

Predictably, despite my hopes of getting back to work today, I’ve continued to try out my new phone and get to know its features. It’s good to be able to listen to audiobooks again, and a couple of apps that didn’t work well, or at all, on my old phone are now installed and working fine on the new one — including Firefox, which means I can finally consistently have the same bookmarks on both devices’ browsers. Also the Kroger app, which should make it easier to notify the store when I arrive for a pickup. (My impending need for groceries was the main reason I needed to get a new phone before much longer, since you kind of need one to let them know you’ve arrived, unless there already happens to be a clerk outside in the waiting area.)

So mostly this is an improvement so far, but there are some disappointments. I find the phone’s Gmail app more limited in functionality than the old Android mail app. It won’t let me default to showing all mail from both my addresses (my Gmail is secondary), so I have to remember to select that manually each time. And it won’t let me select a whole day’s worth of emails and mark them as read, as far as I can discover. Nor can I scroll from one open email to the next by swiping horizontally. I see there’s also an Outlook app pre-installed, which might be worth looking into as an alternative, but I don’t know if it’ll be any better.

The music player is frustrating. My old one just played the music files I had on my SD card. The one here is YouTube-based and assumes I want to download music from online, which I don’t, at least not now. When I started it for the first time, I briefly saw some option listed for playing files on the device, but it went away before I could select it and I haven’t been able to find it again. I find that, outside of that app, I can just hit the “My Files” icon and navigate to the music folder to select tracks manually, but that only plays one track at a time. What am I missing?

So far, the battery life doesn’t seem any better than my old phone’s. But then, it’s been pretty active what with all the app installations and software updates and such, so maybe the battery won’t run down so fast on normal everyday use. Also, this phone has a dark mode, which could be easier on my eyes as well as on the battery.

And now I’ve lost the whole day on this, and lost track of how late it’s gotten. Hopefully I can refocus on work tomorrow.

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Phoning it in

Well, I decided this morning to go ahead and order a new smartphone. I’d just about settled on the model that charged the least monthly fee, and I called the store this morning to make sure I could keep my current number. So I went to my account page, hit the upgrade button, and picked out that cheap/discounted model.

However, to confirm the order, I had to enter a code that they texted to my old phone. Not a good idea when my old phone barely worked. I still had some charge left, though, so I turned the phone on and waited for the text — although the first two texts I got were spam. It took a long time before their code finally came through, which was a relief. Still, it’s annoying that they didn’t have the option to e-mail the code or something. How do people manage if their phones are broken even worse than mine?

Unfortunately, it turns out there are a couple of up-front fees I’ll need to pay after all. It comes out to roughly 80 extra dollars I’ll have to pay by the end of the year, and I just have to hope that fits within the very, very tight budget I’m operating under until late December at the earliest. (I still welcome Patreon subscriptions or PayPal donations.)

To my surprise, I was told the phone would be delivered to my door within a couple of hours. Again, they said they’d use my mobile phone as the contact number, and it was tricky to find a way to ask them to use my landline instead, but I finally achieved that through e-mailing their help address.

This was supposedly “contactless” delivery, but it took a fair amount of near-contact through my open front door, for they (the guy brought a trainee along) had to install my SIM card and transfer my MicroSD card and so forth to get it set up out in the hallway. Apparently it’s not as easy for the customer to do those things with this model. I don’t think it opens up at all; there’s actually a special pin included that you need to use to eject the SD card, and I didn’t even see how it was done. Anyway, we all had masks on and I had my windows open and the ventilation fans going, and I used hand sanitizer as appropriate.

Annoyingly, they’ve changed the design for the charger plug port. There was a charger included, but the new phone is not compatible with my existing charging cords, including the long one I need if I want to use the phone as GPS in my car, since the outlet is inconveniently placed. Well, it’s not like I was planning a trip anytime soon.

Another inconvenience is that it turns out my old data wasn’t backed up after all. Luckily that was mostly just my contacts list, and I don’t know that many people, so it’s a short list. I wasn’t sure the old phone retained enough charge to let me copy the list manually. But it turns out I still have an older, non-smart phone, and though its soft plastic shell has gotten decayed and sticky, it still functions, and once I charged it, I was able to access its contacts list and copy the numbers manually. I still needed to turn on my old smartphone long enough to add or update newer contact info and double-check the older info, but it reduced the amount of time I needed to have the phone turned on.

One odd loss of function: The new phone only lets me enter one contact number per person, as far as I can tell. Both my old ones let me enter more than one.

Luckily it’s proven easy to set up other things, since my e-mails, Kindle books, library rentals, etc. were stored in their respective clouds and I just needed to install and sign into the apps. So I’m mostly set up now, at least the essential stuff, though there are still some things I need to sort out. For instance, hopefully the new “Notes” widget is downward-compatible with the memos I backed up onto my desktop just in case I couldn’t transfer them directly from my old phone — which I can’t.

The phone is not much wider than my old one, but surprisingly a good deal taller. I was able to fit the old one entirely in my shirt pocket, but this one sticks out of it more and is more likely to fall out. It’s a weird aspect ratio, maybe designed with watching widescreen movies in mind, though I doubt I’ll be doing any of that on the phone. Still, it should be good for reading e-books or Facebook or the like.

The best news (aside from actually having a working phone again) is that I’m once again able to play audiobooks from the Hoopla library service on my phone. I’ve been going through their catalog of Doctor Who audio dramas for a few months now, and I’d come to enjoy listening to them on headphones while I did other stuff around the apartment or stood out on my balcony. But they suddenly stopped working on my phone a while back, and they didn’t always play on my desktop either (I found I had to shut down and restart Firefox to get them to play, and even that didn’t always work). It might’ve been a software compatibility issue, or maybe the first sign of my phone’s recent breakdown. When I contacted tech support, they could only tell me that they didn’t support my old phone anymore, but I wasn’t sure if that was the cause of the failure or just a statement that they couldn’t advise me on the cause. Anyway, it’s a moot point now. I can listen on my phone again! Although for some reason, the headphone jack is on the bottom edge now. I’ll have to keep it in my pocket upside-down.

Another apparent loss of function: My old phone let me scroll through the home screen pages in either direction; I could go forward from page 1 to 2 or backward from page 1 to 3, as needed. This one doesn’t have that “wraparound” capability. If I hit one end, I need to go back the other way. But since it’s a bigger screen, it looks like I’ll be able to fit all the stuff I need on just the first two pages.

So anyway, I’m mostly back in business now, much sooner than I expected. It’s my first real taste of how the retail industry has adapted to COVID — now they make house calls. I wonder if that might persist even once things go back to normal.

And while it’s good to have a new phone, I’ve now lost pretty much the whole day dealing with this instead of writing. At least I’ve sorted most of it out by now, so I can put this behind me and get back to work.

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Phone woes again: Now it’s the OTHER phone!

October 27, 2020 5 comments

This is getting ridiculous. Just weeks after my land phone line (and Internet line) finally got fixed, my mobile phone started acting up. Its apps started crashing randomly, giving me “Unfortunately, X has stopped.” messages whether I was using the apps in question or not. It also started rebooting itself at random, often freezing on the boot-up screen. This got rapidly worse until I could barely use the phone for more than a few moments.

Folks on Facebook suggested that I might have malware or a bad app, which could be purged with a factory reset and restoration from backup, or that I might have a loose connection I could fix by fiddling with the battery and SIM card. The latter didn’t work, and I didn’t feel ready to tackle the former. The timing is bad — I’m two weeks from deadline on a major project and really need to focus on that.

So I set it aside for a couple of days to concentrate on my writing, and it was interesting to realize how little I actually need my smartphone on a day-to-day basis, since I don’t go out often these days. Mainly I use it to play backgammon and other games, and as an e-book reader — and I was using it for audiobooks borrowed from the Hoopla online library, until they suddenly stopped working on my Hoopla app a while back. I couldn’t get any tech support because my phone is 6 1/2 years old and they no longer support its software.

Because of that, and because the case is kind of worn out, I was considering getting a new phone anyway. If this had happened early next year, when my money situation is better, I would’ve just gone ahead and upgraded. Right now, though, money is extremely tight. So I gave some thought to just riding it out for the next couple of months, not using my phone except when I go out to get groceries, and hoping it would at least keep working enough to let me call the store to notify them I’ve arrived.

This afternoon, though, I figured I should turn the phone on just to make sure I hadn’t gotten any voicemails (which are almost always spam anyway). I saw the battery was low, so I decided to plug it in to recharge.

And the plug wouldn’t go in.

I realized I was very stupid the other day. Remember how I fiddled with the battery and SIM card? Well, it’s been so long since I opened the back of my phone that I confused the charging port for the bit where you stick in a screwdriver to pop the back open. When it wouldn’t open, I got kind of aggressive with the screwdriver. And apparently I bent the pins inside the charging port, and now I can’t recharge the phone anymore. Aggghhh!

So me am dumb, and now I have no choice but to replace the phone. Fortunately, it looks like there are a couple of decent upgrade models I can get for only an extra $5-$10 per month on my current bill. I could cope with that for the (probably) 2-3 months remaining before my income begins to improve. However, looking over the terms, it looks like there might be an up-front lump-sum charge as well, and that would be more of a problem. I’ll just have to hope I can weather it somehow.

Ugh, this would also be easier to sort out if I felt free to just drop into the phone dealership a couple of blocks away. They could answer my questions about an upgrade, smooth the process, or maybe even help me fix my existing phone (although I doubt that — my past experience is that the people at those stores are only salespeople rather than repair people). I suppose I could at least call them and ask some questions.

This is rotten timing on a couple of levels. But I guess it could’ve been worse. If I had to have both my phones fail within a month, it’s a good thing they at least took turns.

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Phone/Internet repairs again

Over the weekend, my phone line remained dead and my Internet connection was uneven. On Saturday, it was dropping in and out for much of the day, then stabilized for a few hours, then went spotty again. On Sunday, I had a consistent but very slow connection; in the past, I would’ve tried rebooting my modem in hopes of a faster connection, but this time I didn’t want to risk losing the stability I had, so I lived with the slowness (it was a bit nostalgic, actually). Late in the day, it suddenly got faster again, and worked fine through this morning.

The phone guy came a bit after 9, and as the equipment room downstairs was locked this time, and as the previous maintenance people hadn’t found the solution, I had to let him into my apartment at last. I made sure to wear a mask, to open the balcony doors, and to have the bathroom ventilation fan blowing, and I kept my distance and stayed out on the balcony as much as possible. He was masked too, of course. He fiddled around with my phone jack for 15-20 minutes before determining he needed to be let into the equipment room, so I called the building manager on my cell. Fortunately, she was in, and she came around to unlock the equipment room (though she was not masked, grr).

Before he went downstairs, I asked him if he knew what the problem was that the others couldn’t diagnose. He said there was a short between my phone and DSL lines somewhere, and the others couldn’t find it because I didn’t want them to come in. I would have if they’d told me it was necessary. Anyway, he said it wasn’t my modem’s age at fault, just the short causing the interference between the two lines. Which makes sense.

I hung out on my balcony for a while waiting — not only did I not want to be inside the apartment for long until it had aired out for at least an hour, but the Internet was down so there wasn’t much else I could do. He called on my cell and said he had a problem and had to go out for a while, so I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait. But then, about an hour after he left, I stepped inside for a moment and saw that the modem lights were on again, and the “Check TEL Line” notice was gone from my desk phone. A moment later, he called on my landline and said he’d fixed the short. Hopefully that’s for real this time. The Internet connection is stable and fast for now.

I’m still wearing my mask inside my apartment, and I have the balcony door open and both the bathroom and kitchen vent fans blowing. I even took the spray bottle of diluted detergent that I use to spray gnats (it coats their wings so they can’t flit away from a swat) and squirted it around the room a couple of times, on the theory that the soap might help negate any aerosolized viruses in the air. (I don’t have any disinfectant spray, alas.) I’m sure it’s an excess of caution, and it’s getting kind of chilly in here, but better too much caution than too little, as recent news events have driven home.

Anyway, the disposable surgical masks I bought are too small for my face. I have a long chin, and opening my mouth tends to pull the mask down from my nose. Also, I find that I’m psychosomatically imagining my vision fogging when I exhale in my mask even when I don’t have my glasses on!

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Phone woes again, this time with Internet

Back in August, I posted about how my phone line went dead, and how worried I was about letting a repair person into my apartment, until it turned out he could fix the problem in the downstairs equipment room instead. Problem solved! Or so I thought.

I woke up Saturday morning to find the phone line dead again. Once again I e-mailed the phone company, and they sent a guy out on Monday. This guy wanted to come into my apartment until I told him the last guy had done his repairs downstairs. It seemed to work — except then my Internet connection started to get unstable, periodically dropping out, with the DSL and Internet lights on the modem going out.

Six hours later, the phone line went dead again — after which the Internet stabilized. The next day (Tuesday), they went back and forth — the phone line came back and the net became unstable again (and there was a crackling noise on the phone line on top of the dial tone), then later in the day the phone went out again and the net was fine. It was like they were interfering with each other somehow. But by that evening and into the next morning, the phone line was intermittently working and the net was fine.

So the third repair guy came on Wednesday and did his repairs downstairs — in fact, though he called in advance to ask about the problem, I didn’t even know he’d arrived until I got an automated call that afternoon asking what I thought of my service. He didn’t bother to check in or confirm the repair or anything, but both phone and Internet seemed to work just fine after that. In fact, the Internet connection was faster than it’s been in a while.

This morning, the Internet started dropping out again. Ugh. And after the third or fourth time I unplugged the modem and plugged it back in to reboot it… the phone line went dead again! Huh????

So I called them again, and they tell me they can’t get a tech out here until Monday. I called Friday morning, before 10 AM, and they still couldn’t get anyone out here today, even though this is an ongoing problem that they’ve repeatedly failed to fix.

I’m still nervous about the idea of letting someone into my apartment what with COVID risks, but at this point I’ll accept it if it actually gets the problem diagnosed. I should be reasonably okay as long as I wear a mask and ventilate the apartment effectively. Really, it shouldn’t take that long to completely exchange the air in my 480 square foot apartment, right?

So anyway, I tried looking up things that could cause an Internet connection to drop out. Most of them don’t seem applicable, because the connection was mostly fine until last Saturday. There had been a time a few months back when the connection became unstable for an hour or so in the mornings but was back to normal by 11 or 12. I figured maybe it was some outside interference, like that recent story about the guy whose old TV was shutting down a whole town’s Internet. But that hasn’t been happening for a while.

Still, there was one thing I couldn’t entirely dismiss as a possibility. Apparently a modem can lose its connection if it overheats. Now, I think my modem is pretty well-ventilated. Due to the distance between my computer desk and my phone jack, I need to have the modem on the floor by my bookcases, and I keep it upright on its side, with both its broadest faces exposed to the air. And it’s right underneath my ceiling fan, which I keep going pretty much constantly when I’m awake and at home. Still, the way it drops out seems like it could be consistent with overheating — namely, it tends to drop out when I’m trying to access a page that’s slow to load, as if it’s processing a lot of data and overheats from doing so. And sometimes, it seems more likely to stabilize if I walk away from the computer for a while, which could be giving it time to cool down. I haven’t had the opportunity to test whether it feels warmer when it drops out, though, because I only just read about this as a possibility.

Still, it doesn’t add up. Why would it be a modem heating problem if my modem was working just fine (usually) until the first failed phone repair attempt on Monday? Could it be that some interference or slowdown elsewhere in the phone/DSL wiring is somehow forcing my modem to work harder and heat up more? And what could be causing the phone and DSL lines to interfere with each other? And why can’t they fix it?

These are not rhetorical questions. I’m open to any informed replies on the subject.

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eSPEC BOOKS AUTHOR READING SERIES – 9/25/20

The newest entry in the eSpec Books Author Reading Series includes me reading an excerpt from the prologue to ARACHNE’S EXILE (beware spoilers for ARACHNE’S CRIME).

eSpec Books

Do we have a treat for you this week! Two of our readings are sneak peeks at upcoming books! The third is about biker faeries! How could you go wrong? We hope you’ll enjoy them all. If you are interested in the books, they can be purchased via the links provided.

If you are an author and would like to participate in one of these series, please visit the eSpec Books Author Reading Series Facebook page for details.


The eSpec Books Author Reading Series

Christopher L. Bennett reading an excerpt of his upcoming novel, Arachne’s Exile.

What a Tangled Web…

When the colony starship Arachne unwittingly destroyed a deep-space habitat of the Chirrn, her crew committed themselves to a lifetime of penance to repay their debt. But a brutal act of vengeance has now forced them into exile in a distant part of the galaxy.

Drawn into a cosmic…

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eSPEC EXCERPTS – ARACHNE’S CRIME

From the eSpec Books blog, an excerpt from Chapter 1 of ARACHNE’S CRIME.

eSpec Books

We have a lot of exciting new titles coming out over the next six months. Here is a sneak peek of Christopher L. Bennett’s Arachne’s Crime. The first volume in his hardcore science fiction duology.


Arachne’s Crime – Chapter One

Stephen kept his eyes on the lights in the sky, even as he lay in the mud. The more they tried to beat him down, the more he took comfort in the heights humanity could reach.

“Look up there,” he told them once he’d grown strong enough to defend himself and win the chance to be heard. “Look at what we have the potential to achieve if we use our energies together instead of wasting them against each other.”

At first, Benjamin was his only audience, gazing up with him at the points of light that swept across the heavens. Stephen spoke to inspire the boy, to give his…

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Isolation breeds self-sufficiency (sometimes)

August 19, 2020 1 comment

Remember how last week I was worried about having to let a repairperson into my apartment to fix my phone, only to be relieved when it turned out they could fix it from the building’s equipment room? Well, my relief was short-lived, because another breakdown came to my attention soon thereafter.

For quite a while now, I’ve heard an almost constant sound of water in the pipes in my apartment bathroom, and I assumed it was from somewhere else in the building, until I noticed some water leakage on the floor around the toilet. I checked the tank and saw that there was a small but constant sputter of water out of the top of the fill valve assembly. I was able to adjust the lid of the tank so the water squirting upward didn’t drip out the back, which seemed to be the cause of the water on the floor, but that didn’t solve the problem that my toilet was wasting water through this constant leak, and possibly had been for weeks, even months before I caught on.

In saner times, I would’ve gone to the office and alerted them to the problem so the maintenance guy could come fix it, but the staff of my building seems uniformly unwilling to wear masks, so I didn’t want to let any of them in if I could help it. At first I figured I could just live with the slight leak. But finally I had the thought that maybe I could do something about it myself. I found an instructional video online which showed me that the problem was probably a leaky washer in the cap of the fill valve, and that a replacement could be obtained cheaply and installed quite simply. My assembly matched the one in the video, so I turned off the water and tried detaching the cap to check the washer. I hoped maybe I could just push it more firmly into place or something and make a temporary fix, but when I put it back together, my fiddling apparently made it worse. Now there was more water slowly but uncontrollably leaking into the tank and spilling into the overflow pipe.

So I found a replacement cap and washer assembly on Amazon and ordered it, and I just hoped I’d diagnosed the problem correctly and it wasn’t a leak somewhere else in the fill valve unit, or that I hadn’t broken something else in my fiddling. In the meantime, I realized I could just leave the water supply valve turned off except when needed. That kept the problem in abeyance, and I just had to hope the replacement cap wouldn’t suffer the same delivery delays or cancellations I had with an order last month. Luckily, it didn’t. I ordered it on Saturday night and the part came an hour ago, just under four days later. Apparently it was delivered by an Amazon driver rather than the US mail; there was real-time tracking info on their site as she approached, and she called me on arrival to confirm delivery. (Her phone had a Seattle caller ID; either that was a really long drive, or it was registered as an Amazon number or something like that.)

So I picked up the part from the porch just after she left, read the instructions on the back, rewatched the instructional video, and went about the swap. I hit two snags. One was that the bit that clips the lever onto the rod connected to the float was clipped on pretty tightly, and I was afraid to get too forceful wresting them apart for fear of snapping the rod. I finally managed to pry the prongs of the clip far enough apart to slip them off the rod. Okay, so then I put it down next to the new one — and I promptly lost track of which one was the new one! Not to worry, though — back on Saturday, I’d taken a photo of the cap with my phone so I could check it against the Amazon items and make sure I got the right one. I made sure the photo was close enough to include the serial number (since I wasn’t sure if it was a more generic part number I’d need to know, though luckily it wasn’t), so I was able to tell the two valves apart by their numbers.

With that settled, I snapped the new cap into place and, with anxious anticipation, turned on the water. The tank refilled… the float rose… and the water stopped! The repair worked! Such blessed silence, at long last!

It was such a simple thing to fix, but it brought me such an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction, since I’ve been so worried about it not working. It’s a relief that my repair attempt went so smoothly and easily, that it didn’t require further effort or have any complications. And it’s satisfying to know I can handle something like this on my own (well, with a little help from people on YouTube). Sure, I had to spend money for the part and shipping, whereas the maintenance guy would’ve done it for free, but it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make these days. (I figure the 13-odd bucks it cost is too low for a renter’s insurance claim.)

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Tea at last, tea at last

My tea tribulations have finally cleared up. First, the store finally got back to me about the tea that they charged me $3.79 for but was omitted from my pickup order. They say they’ve given me a $4 credit on my next order. I can’t find any mention of it on their website yet, but hopefully it’ll show up when I place my next order.

Anyway, that still left me close to running out of tea bags, so I figured I might as well try to buy a big box of tea bags from Amazon again, hopefully from a different vendor. This time, it went through without a hitch, and it just arrived minutes ago. It’s a relief to know the US Postal Service is still at least somewhat functional. It turns out it’s not one big box so much as three boxes of 104 tea bags each, shrink-wrapped together. Unlike the boxes of 100 bags I usually get from the store, the bags are individually wrapped instead of in four trays of 25 bags each, which I guess is why there are a few more. It’ll create more waste, but I guess if I were really concerned about minimizing waste, I’d get loose leaf tea instead (and I probably should). Anyway, I even found room for all three boxes in my cabinet, with a little shoving around of things. At the rate I go through tea, I figure this should last me for several months, maybe half a year or more. So I’m set for a while. (Amazon actually lets you subscribe and get a new shipment every X number of months, which is worth considering.)

On the downside, the pitcher I tried to buy for iced tea was still running late, so I contacted the vendor directly through Amazon, and they said they were out of stock and cancelled my order, which I hadn’t been charged for yet. I’ll just have to buy a different pitcher, but I like to buy enough stuff at once to get free shipping, and I already made an exception for the tea, so I’m a bit reluctant to place another single order so soon. And the iced tea is less necessary now that I have my regular tea bags back in stock.

As for the iced tea, I’ve made two batches now, using my orange juice pitcher while it was empty and then storing the iced tea in an empty, washed-out juice bottle. It’s okay, but it’s pretty strong. I guess it’s meant to be diluted by a lot of ice in the chilling stage; I’m probably not adding enough. I’m working out how much sweetener and lemon juice to add through trial and error.

So anyway, now that I’ve replenished my caffeine sources, I should really get back to work.

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The universe doesn’t want me to have tea, it seems

I’m having the hardest time restocking on tea bags lately. Last time I ordered groceries online, the store was out of the black tea bags I ordered, and instead of letting me search through available options for a substitute, their software picked a substitute arbitrarily and required me to either accept or reject it. The substitute they offered was a box of “iced tea blend” bags from the same maker, and I figured, okay, one tea bag is much like another aside from taste, so I’ll try it.

Turns out, however, that iced tea bags are really big and meant to make one quart per bag, impossible to use to make a single cup (unless it’s really strong, I guess). I needed a pitcher to make it in, and I only have one pitcher, which I use for orange juice so it isn’t available. So I didn’t have any way to make the tea. So I decided, what the hey, last time I needed stuff I couldn’t get from the store, I just bought it on Amazon. So I went to Amazon and bought a big box of tea bags, and while I was at it, I bought a pitcher so I could make the iced tea after all.

But I didn’t count on the US Postal Service becoming a victim of all the political awfulness going on and being actively sabotaged and delayed by the administration lackey currently in charge of it. My big box of tea bags got lost in the mail and Amazon wrote it off, giving me a refund, though they said it’s still conceivable it might show up someday. And my pitcher was supposed to arrive by yesterday, but Amazon now says it’s “Delayed, not yet shipped.”

Anyway, sometime last week, I finished a bottle of apple juice and realized that once I used up the current batch of orange juice, I could make iced tea in the empty pitcher, then use a funnel to pour it into the (washed) juice bottle, the only suitable-sized beverage container I have that isn’t in use. So I set out to do just that… but reading the instructions on the iced tea bags reminded me that I’d have to sweeten the tea. The only sweetener I keep in the apartment is honey, and that only works in hot tea. So I had to abandon that plan.

So, okay. I counted my tea bags again and figured that if I kept my intake to 2, at most 3 cups a day, I could stretch it out until my next grocery trip. So I put tea bags on my grocery shopping list, and while I was at it, I ordered a box of sweetener packets, so I could make the iced tea in my impending pitcher once all the ingredients came together (this was before I was informed of the pitcher’s delay).

To digress a bit for setup: I woke up yesterday morning to find the power was out. Not a nice thing to wake up to. All I could do was go back to bed, and the power came back on a bit over an hour later. Okay, good, but I didn’t know how long the power had been out. Would I have to throw stuff out from the fridge? I didn’t think it had been that long, since with my ceiling fan off, I would’ve been hotter under the sheets if it had been a long time. But I wasn’t sure. So I looked for outage info on the power company’s website, but they only seemed to list current outages, not resolved ones. I finally went to their Facebook page and messaged them, and they told me the outage had started no more than two and a half hours before the power returned. Which meant my food in the fridge should be okay, since it was under the recommended four hours and I never opened the door in that time. Though I only found this out after I’d had a breakfast without milk (frozen waffles and vegetarian sausage) to be on the safe side. Later in the day, I had other perishables from the fridge and they were fine.

So this morning, I confidently poured a bowl of cereal and dried fruit and took out the milk. With an excess of caution, I took a whiff… and it smelled badly spoiled! I guess it had been open longer than the other items, closer to the brink of spoilage already. Still, there was a fair amount I had to pour out, and I had to make do with coffee creamer diluted with water on my cereal — not great, but necessary because of the dried banana chips. (The cereal itself, a store-brand Cheerios equivalent, is actually quite palatable without milk. But dried banana chips are really hard and crunchy.) Anyway, this moved up my planned grocery trip to today, so yay, I’d finally get my tea bags.

And my car wouldn’t start.

Yup, once again, letting it sit idle for a couple of weeks (just 12 days, actually, which doesn’t seem like it should be enough) drained the battery. But this time, I had that portable storage battery/jumpstarter I bought back in June. (Whose built-in emergency flashlight was useful to me the previous morning when the power was out.) I went back up to my apartment and grabbed it, and after a few false starts figuring out how to hook it up properly and turn on all the switches, I got my car to start. Yay! I drove a circuitous route to the store to give the car battery time to recharge, and then I picked up my order, leaving the engine running while I waited just in case. And came home and unpacked my groceries.

Only to find the tea wasn’t there.

I was charged for it, it was on my receipt, but it wasn’t in any of the bags. I went out in the rain to double-check the trunk — no tea. (Which I guess makes it a runk.) Nor had I absently placed it in the wrong cabinet, nor was it on the ground anywhere between my car and my apartment. The grocery clerk (whose nose was sticking out of her mask) probably missed it while loading the trunk. Or the runk.

The one thing, other than milk, that it was most important to me to get on my trip today — and it’s the one thing that was missing. And it’s the same thing I’ve been trying to get unsuccessfully for nearly two weeks now! What the hell, universe?

I let them know through their website that the tea had been omitted and asked for a refund, or a delivery if possible. But as things stand, I’m down to my last half-dozen teabags, which I typically use twice each to stretch them out.

At least I have the sweetener now, so I finally have the option to make iced tea and keep it in the empty juice bottle (which I washed already), or in my pitcher when and if it arrives. And I suppose if I wanted hot tea, I could just heat up some iced tea in the microwave or something — couldn’t I? (Advice welcome.)

Plus I restocked on Folger’s Coffee Singles, which are like tea bags, but bigger and with coffee. I don’t have a coffee maker and these are better than instant; indeed, I’ve read that the flavor is considered pretty good compared to ground coffee. I’ve been avoiding coffee for a while, only having tea in the morning, since I thought the higher caffeine levels (or maybe the sugar in the creamer, or both) might be causing me anxiety. So I let my coffee bags run out and only had some instant (which I keep on hand because I like to add a bit of it to hot chocolate for flavor). But a day or two ago, I was sleep-deprived and decided to have a cup of instant coffee at midmorning. And it actually made me feel better, more alert rather than irritable. So I figured I should get more coffee as an alternative to tea, though I’d still prefer not to have more than one cup per day.

Still… I want my dang tea bags. This is getting ridiculous.

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Boldly Going Into Star Trek Adventures

A post from one of my fellow contributors to the STA Klingon Core Rulebook:

ENEMY LINES: Dispatches from a Cranky Writer

I’ve been working on the Star Trek Adventures role-playing game with the fine folks at Modiphius for some four years now, after being “drafted” by Jim Johnson. My role has primarily been as the canon editor, meaning I review the narrative text to ensure the details are consistent with the filmed canon across the multiple TV shows and movies covered by their license (basically everything prior to Star Trek: Discovery). In the very beginning, I also worked with Dayton Ward to develop the Shackleton Expanse, an unexplored region of the Beta Quadrant that served as a setting for a series of adventures in an early promotional campaign run by Modiphius. That was the last time I’d done any writing for the game . . . until now!

Star-Trek-The-Klingon-Empire-Cover-Promo-No-LogosFor the recently announced Klingon Empire Core Rulebook(available for preorder at the time of this post, or right now as…

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Today turned out better than it started

That’s the headline I thought of, but I should begin with yesterday morning, when my building maintenance people told me I needed to move my car from the rear lot to the front lot so they could resurface the rear one. (I didn’t see the notice on the front door ahead of time since I don’t go outside much these days.) When I got down there, I was the only person, resident or building staff, who was wearing a mask.

And my car wouldn’t start.

I hadn’t driven in a while, so the battery had run down. So I had to get a jump start from several people not wearing masks, not caring who they breathed on. At least they had their own cables so I didn’t have to interact too closely with them. Still, things like this that would once have been routine are scary these days, especially because so many people don’t seem to get that they aren’t routine anymore.

So anyway, that brief, sudden bout of anxiety ruined my mood for the whole day, not only because of the mask thing but because I needed to get groceries either yesterday or today and wasn’t sure my car would start when I needed it. Plus, while I finally got a new novel advance check last week, thereby easing a lot of my financial anxiety, I was waiting for a portion of it to complete the transfer to my other bank so I could put some more money on my credit card before grocery day. And though yesterday was the expected completion date of the transfer, it didn’t complete.

So this morning I was still kind of uneasy about things — especially when I went out to test my car and it again wouldn’t start. The automatic door lock worked, and the wipers worked when I tried them, so I knew the battery was still viable, just drained. The few minutes I ran it while moving my car yesterday weren’t enough. And I still needed groceries. I might need to spend the extra 10-12 bucks to get them delivered. More than that, I had a tax appointment I’d need to drive out to next week, or so I thought (see below).

Tired of my dependence on jumpstarts, I decided to look on Amazon for one of those portable charger units you can use to jump your own battery. Now that I finally have some money, it seemed worth the investment. I found what seemed like a good and inexpensive one, at a discount and the last one in stock, so I snapped it up — but the delivery date was the end of the month, so it wouldn’t help with any car trips before then.

Meanwhile, I tried watching last week’s Agents of SHIELD on the ABC website, since without a cable provider I have to wait 8 days to see an episode. But it was glitchy. The first act or so had the audio description turned on with no way to turn it off (the second week in a row it’s done that). Then it restarted from the top without it, so I had to jump forward to where it left off. But not long after that, my laptop shut down! Sometimes streaming sites work it too hard and it shuts down to protect itself from overheating. And these days I routinely keep a cool pack from the freezer on top of it when I watch videos, just in case (at least from sites that I don’t know are free of that problem). Either the pack wasn’t cold enough or the thing was just running too hot in spite of it. I rebooted and tried again, but it still seemed like my laptop was running pretty hot, so I gave up rather than risk it. So that was pretty frustrating.

Anyway, a while later, I decided to walk to the nearest mailbox to mail a check, so I could try to clear my head with some exercise. But I gave my car another try, just to see if maybe it had recovered a bit more charge. No luck. But this time, another tenant came out (masked, yay) and I asked her for a jumpstart. Neither of us was very experienced at it, but we managed to get my car started. (She had an electric car with the battery in the trunk and an engine I couldn’t even hear when it was running.) So I drove to the post office, dropped the check in the drive-through mailbox, and then just motored around the neighborhood for a while, since a Facebook friend told me last night that a half-hour drive every so often would keep the battery charged. Still, I could only hope there wasn’t some defect draining the battery and that I’d be able to go pick up groceries after all.

So things were still feeling kind of iffy. On top of all that, I needed to call my tax preparers and ask about the appointment I have scheduled for next week. (I hate to say I’ve benefited from the pandemic, but I’d never have been able to pay my taxes on time if not for the 3-month postponement.) Since the main offices were closed for the summer, I would’ve had to drive a very long way to get to the place, and that would’ve been just to drop off my documents so they could prepare things without me present. And I didn’t know if my car would even work. So I called to ask if there was an online alternative, and the guy told me how to sign up for their website. So that was one step of that problem solved.

Also, my bank transfer finally went through, so I was able to take care of the credit card and also pay some bills, as well as order groceries for later pickup. So things were starting to fall into place. When the time came to pick up groceries, my car did start — and this time, the clerk who brought them out was wearing her mask properly, unlike last time. And though my phone had trouble logging into the website you’re supposed to contact on arrival — which last time meant my order wasn’t logged in properly and I had to go back hours later and figure out how to complete it on my phone so that my card would be charged and I wouldn’t be an inadvertent grocery thief — this time they seem to have improved their process and the order went through properly after all. (However, they were out of sandwich turkey and I forgot to order cheese slices, so I’m not going to be able to have my usual turkey sandwiches for a week or two.)

So stuff was pretty much working out now, and I was feeling better. But the best news came just a little while ago. My new novel outline was approved, so now it won’t be long before I get the second part of the advance. I’m finally pulling away from the brink after all these frustrating months, and hopefully it’s for good this time, if certain other things continue to work out.

Hmm… you know, I wrote this post to celebrate how relieved I was feeling that so much stuff worked out well after the rough start to the day. But writing about how I felt before has made me tense again. Well, it will pass. Things are starting to look up for me now, and hopefully that will continue.

Incidentally, one thing I’ve been enjoying these past few days is DC Universe’s Harley Quinn. I’ve avoided the show because I heard it was really violent and crude, but I’ve seen glowing reviews of its character work and plotlines, so I finally decided to give it a try. It definitely is far more gory than I care for, and I avert my eyes a lot, but otherwise it’s a damn impressive show, with mostly effective humor and fantastic, nuanced character work. There have been some very funny moments, but also some incredibly poignant, moving, and dramatically powerful moments. It’s the first time I’ve liked Kaley Cuoco in anything; she’s surprisingly good as Harley. (But the last thing I saw her in was the original Charmed, which was 14 years ago, so long that they’ve already rebooted it.) Lake Bell is fantastic as the best version of Poison Ivy I’ve ever seen. And Diedrich Bader is easily the best Batman voice actor not named “Kevin.” Remember how rattled I felt yesterday? I spent much of the day bingeing this show, and it was very comforting. (I’m only up to episode 8 of season 2 as of this writing, so no spoilers in the comments, please.)

So that’s where I’ve been. My personal sources of anxiety are finally working out for the better, so now I just have to worry about the ongoing collapse of civilization going on outside. Still, it did seem that a somewhat higher percentage of people were wearing masks today than the last time I went out for groceries. More people may finally be catching on. I just hope my building’s staff figures it out soon.

the other cool thing at Balticon: eSpec launch party!

Reblogging from Keith DeCandido…

KRAD's Inaccurate Guide to Life

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I forgot to mention one thing I did at Virtual Balticon 54: the eSpec Books launch party! One of the highlights of Balticon these last years has been the launch parties run by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, and every since she, her husband Mike McPhail, and Between Books owner Greg Schauer formed eSpec in 2015, it’s been an eSpec launch party specifically.

This year, the launch was virtual, and since part of any launch party is the ability to buy books, eSpec set up a “virtual launch” section on their online bookstore.

The launched books included:

  • To Hell and Regroup by David Sherman & Keith R.A. DeCandido (that’s me!)
  • The Literary Handyman: Build-a-Book Workshop by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
  • Arachne’s Crime by Christopher L. Bennett
  • In a Flash 2020 by Christopher J. Burke
  • Stellar Science Fiction by Jeff Young
  • Death’s Embrace by Michelle D. Sonnier
  • new editions of Danielle Ackley-McPhail’s Eternal Cycle

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Picking up a new skill (and groceries)

Last time I went grocery shopping, I was concerned at how many people in the store — staff included — were unmasked, and how little concern there was for distancing in the aisles. So this time, I finally gave in and registered at the grocery store’s website so I could order groceries online and arrange a drive-in pickup (which usually has a fee attached but is now offered for free given the pandemic).

I found the website surprisingly convenient; I entered my shopper’s card number when I registered, and as a result, when I started shopping, I was shown a list of the specific items I’d bought previously, already in the store’s computer system. So it was easy to pick out my standard items rather than having to search for them. That was very handy and a real timesaver.

The pickup was straightforward enough. I got a text ahead of time telling me what number to call when I got there, so once I arrived, I just had to tap the number in the text and it connected me right to them. (There were signs in the parking spaces saying what number to call as well, but the text made it simpler.) Then I just had to wait a few minutes for them to come out, pop the trunk, and there we were.

The downside is that they had to substitute a few items due to supply shortages. A couple of the substitutions were harmless, but they gave me my antacid pills in the wrong dosage (though I can just take two at a time to make it up), and in place of my favorite vegetarian Italian sausage (the Tofurky brand, which has sun-dried tomato and basil and is very spicy), they substituted vegetarian kielbasa, which I don’t know if I’ll like. I knew I shouldn’t have gambled on that one, since they didn’t always have the Italian in stock even before all this. I wish the system were set up so we could specify or decline an alternate beforehand rather than gambling on their judgment.

The staffers who came out to deliver groceries to me, and before that to the person ahead of me, were all masked (as was I on general principles, even though I stayed in my car), but one of the people in the earlier group had his mask pulled down, defeating the purpose. I like to think that most people would be more diligent about mask use if they understood that it was to protect others more than themselves. There’s obviously a contingent of selfish people who don’t care about the risk to others as long as they aren’t inconvenienced, but I know they’re very much in the minority, despite what certain politicians claim. Also, based on what I’ve seen, I think more people need to be reminded that masks are not a substitute for social distancing and the rest, but a supplement to them. Parachutists wear crash helmets, but that doesn’t mean wearing a helmet means they get to skip the parachute.

Anyway, aside from those drawbacks, I appreciated the convenience of shopping this way. There were some things they didn’t have available for pickup, so I’ll probably have to brave the store again at some point, but it will be nice to be able to order through the website again in the future, at least as long as the pickup fee is waived. I do feel a bit guilty about making the grocery staff do the work for me, but at the same time, I’m not exposing them to the risk of my presence in the store, which is probably more important under the circumstances (I’m unlikely to have been exposed, but you never know).

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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT – CHRISTOPHER L. BENNETT

Here’s a new interview with me to tie in with the upcoming release of ARACHNE’S CRIME and ARACHNE’S EXILE.

eSpec Books

eSpec Books interviews best-selling science fiction author Christopher L. Bennett, author of Arachne’s Crime (currently funding onKickstarter), Only Superhuman, Among the Wild Cybers, and a wide array of media tie-in novels.

eS: Hi, Christopher. Thank you for joining us today. Arachne’s Crime has some pretty detailed tech. How much of the tech is extrapolation and how much is technobabble? Please tell us something about the science of your universe.

CB: I’ve always striven to make the science in the Arachne/Troubleshooter Universe (as I’ve finally settled on calling it) as authentic as I can. I allow for a little poetic license with things like faster-than-light travel, but I ground them in real theory with a minimum of fudging. The novelette that Arachne’s Crime is expanded from — “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide,” my first professional sale back in 1998 — was a concept that came out of the…

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I have braved the realm of groceries

I’ve been trying to make it as long as possible without going to the grocery store, and fortunately I stockpiled a fair amount of stuff before the lockdown began and on my previous trip just over 3 weeks ago. It’s not just because of COVID-19 concerns, but also money — I’m still waiting on my stimulus check and on a new writing contract, and my bank accounts are quite threadbare at the moment. I thought I still had a few more days before I’d have to go, but this morning I discovered that the downside of trying to ration my milk usage and make a gallon last as long as possible is that, well, milk doesn’t last indefinitely. I had to dump out maybe two cereal bowls’ worth of spoiled milk this morning, and though I could maybe have managed one more day (I had two frozen waffles left), I decided I might as well go ahead and make the trip today.

It took some psyching out, though. I reminded myself that I was probably at more risk of exposure on my trips last month before the lockdown. By now, weeks of social distancing have probably reduced the presence of the virus, the grocery staff has presumably gotten lots of practice at maintaining sanitary conditions, and I’d be wearing a mask and rubber gloves. And the city health department’s map shows only a handful of cases in my part of the city, so I’m probably in a relatively low-risk area anyway. I probably take a bigger risk whenever I drive to Shore Leave or to visit family. Still, I was very nervous the whole time, since novel risks always seem scarier than the risks we’ve learned to take for granted.

Speaking of which, I was surprised by how many of the grocery staffers weren’t wearing masks. The cashiers were — mine was so bundled up I could only see her eyes — but the shelvers generally weren’t, and neither they nor many of the patrons were worrying much about keeping six feet apart. I took some roundabout routes to avoid people who didn’t seem as concerned with avoidance as I was. And this was despite the parking lot being relatively empty. You’d think with so few people, it’d be easier to avoid them.

Of course, the problem with only going to the store every three weeks or so is that you have to get a lot when you’re there — which, combined with not being able to use my cloth bags anymore, meant I had to pack quite a few plastic bags in the trunk, and needed three trips to get them all in. Plus there are still shortages (oh, good grief, I just realized I forgot to restock on refried beans — I knew I’d forget something), and I’ve had to settle for some substitutions here and there. For one thing, they didn’t have any single rolls of paper towels, only 6-packs — which I guess is good for the long run, since it means I won’t need more for quite a while. But it meant spending more right now, when I can barely afford it. (I’ll just leave my Patreon and Kickstarter links here…)

The hard part was getting unpacked, since I put the bags on the kitchen floor rather than the countertops, so I had to do a lot of crouching and standing up — which is not a good idea when one is dehydrated after a grocery trip bundled up in a coat and mask. I got dizzy and had to take a break for apple juice, and then after washing my hands, showering, and changing clothes, I went ahead and had lunch to restore my energy (leftovers, so I didn’t have to handle any grocery packages right away).

So now I’m going to spend the next 12 days worrying every time I cough or feel low on energy, even though both are fairly commonplace for me.

For what it’s worth, I got a call last night from my aunt in the DC area, and she tells me that she and my uncles (her husband and brother) are all safely isolated and well in their retirement home, which has a few positive cases but according to her is the best-run one in the region, so that’s reassuring. I admit I’d been a little afraid to contact my elderly relatives in case there was bad news, so I’m glad she called me and let me know they’re doing okay. And the rest of my family members seem to be weathering things too.

These are strange times. I’m talking about a trip to the grocery store as a momentous adventure. I’d love to go back to it being mundane and unremarkable, and leave the adventures to the characters in my fiction.

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Home repairs when stuck at home

Over the past few days, my kitchen silverware drawer has twice come loose from its track when I pulled it open. I managed to reseat the wheel thingy in the track, but after the second time, I realized that it was a problem that would repeat if I didn’t figure out what was wrong with it. I tried examining the side wheels that it rolls over, at least by touch (the drawers are over a cabinet so I could get to them through it), but I couldn’t figure out what the issue was through that alone. But given the current circumstances, calling in the maintenance guy didn’t seem like a good idea unless it were a real emergency, so I figured I’d better solve it myself somehow.

Finally it occurred to me — I have a second drawer right next to it! I don’t use that drawer nearly as often, so I didn’t think of it at first. I realized it would show me what the drawer mechanism was supposed to look like so I could diagnose the problem. It took me a few moments, but finally I realized that the lower drawer edges, the ones that roll over the side wheels, had eroded almost completely away! Many years of constantly opening and closing the drawer, with the weight of my silverware pushing down on it, had worn the edges out pretty much completely. Which finally explains why I kept having to blow sawdust off the lid of the peanut butter jar. I figured the sawdust was just from the general age and wear of the cabinet, but it was specifically created by my heavy use of the heavy drawer.

Anyway, this clearly wasn’t a problem I could fix; I’d need to replace the drawer altogether. But again it struck me — I have two drawers! I just had to remove their contents and swap them left to right. I don’t use the other drawer nearly as often, and its contents are far less heavy, so the erosion would be less of a problem there. I also put some tape over the worn parts to stop any further sawdust from falling, since that drawer is now over my spaghetti pot. Come to think of it, I should probably put tape on the other drawer as well, now that it’s going to be subject to the same abrasion that eroded the first one, but I’m too tired right now.

I’m just glad this was a problem I was able to solve by myself using the resources on hand. This would be a bad time for anything more serious to go wrong.

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