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Reassessing ARACHNE’S LEGACY

Over the past month, I’ve been tooling along pretty well writing Arachne’s Legacy, the third book in my Arachne series — or so I thought. I’ve been focusing on just one of the book’s two parallel plotlines, since I often find it easier to write the A and B plots separately so I don’t have to keep shifting my mindset between them. As of early last week, I was getting close to the climax of this first plotline (I’m not sure whether to call it A or B, since they’re pretty equal), thinking about how to bring it all together… and I realized I’d been so focused on just moving through the outline and putting words to the page that I’d overlooked a problem.

Specifically, my outline for this half of the story was focused so much on plot and new characters that I’d failed to work out the specifics of the returning characters’ personal arcs. I didn’t really have them going on the kind of transformative personal journeys in this book that they underwent in the previous ones, since I’d pretty much resolved their arcs in Book 2 and hadn’t given adequate thought to where they would go next.

So I put the brakes on and reevaluated the story from a more character-driven standpoint, figuring out what the returning leads’ goals and states of mind were growing out of the end of Book 2, and how that would create dilemmas or growth opportunities for them going forward. Then I did a revised draft with that in mind, reworking some scenes and adding more material. It didn’t have too great an effect on the plot structure up to that point, but it did alter a lot of the character scenes and conversations to make them more substantial, and it let me plant some seeds of character growth or conflict that I hope will pay off in the climax.

In particular, the character arcs I set up led me to realize that a few characters needed to end the book in very different places than I’d originally intended. One character has become a more active antagonist than I expected, becoming the initiator of something rather than just being convinced to go along with it. Conversely, a new character I’d put in the outline as a secondary antagonist has blossomed unexpectedly into more of a protagonist in the latter half of the storyline. This is partly because my own opinion of a key element of the story has changed since I plotted it, so I’m more sympathetic to the point of view of the character who’s questioning and challenging the main characters’ goals. It’s also because I realized I had too many new characters, so I conflated this one with a more sympathetic figure in the outline.

Even with the clarification of the characters’ personal journeys and where I intend them to end up, I’m still wrestling some with how I want the climax to play out. It turns out that when I outlined it, I didn’t take the logistics of the situation into account well enough, failing to consider the days of travel time between different locations in a planetary system, so there are matters of timing that are harder to work out than I thought. Nor did I work out specifics for what all of the relevant characters are doing in the climax and how they achieve it.

Well, I guess it’s probably not as complicated as it was to choreograph the climactic action in Arachne’s Exile, which required a whole beat-by-beat breakdown and lists and a map of the battle scene. And this climax is going to be less action-oriented than that climax, or than the climax of the novel’s other plotline, which I haven’t tackled yet. But it still hasn’t fallen into place in my mind. I made essentially no progress yesterday, since I woke up at two-something in the morning because a neighbor was having a party or something, and though I eventually got a bit more sleep, I was pretty useless all day, and I’m still lethargic today. I am inching a little closer, though. Hopefully it’ll fall into place soon.

Meanwhile, now that I have money in the bank again, I’ve begun buying a few of the things I’ve needed for a while, like new bedsheets and a protective case for my smartphone. I’ve been using a homemade phone case that I MacGyvered from a vinyl bank book sleeve, cutting a hole at one end for the power/USB and earphone jacks. But I hesitated to cut a hole for the camera/light and risk the structural integrity of the sleeve, so I had to take the phone out of the case if I wanted to use the camera or flashlight or put it in my car mount. Also, the vinyl kept coming apart and I had to retape the edges and spine repeatedly, with clear tape overlapping the screen.

So I was glad to finally get a proper phone case. I considered one of those wallet-style ones, which would be similar to the makeshift one, but I decided to go for one of those heavy-duty drop-proof rubber cases with a metal ring on back for holding the phone or propping it up on its side. It works well, and the ring really makes the phone easier to handle. (I’ve long found it bizarre that smartphones are so poorly designed for being held in the human hand.) The case makes the phone a bit wider, so it takes a bit more effort to fit it into the bracket of the car mount, but once it’s in place, the rubber grips much better than the bare metal of the phone, so it should stay in more securely.

However, I’ve had a rougher time with the protective screen cover that came with it. I didn’t get it aligned quite right the first time, so I peeled it off and tried again, which proved a mistake, since it wasn’t as pristine afterward. Also, the very first time I dropped the phone, a corner of the screen protector cracked. At first, I wanted to complain to the makers, but I decided not to. For one thing, I didn’t want to send the whole thing back when it was just the screen protector that broke. Also, I found that replacement protectors tend to be sold in packs of 2, 3, or more, suggesting that they’re not expected to be permanent anyway. And I realized that it was probably my own fault that the thing broke. I didn’t realize it was tempered glass rather than plastic, so I probably bent it too far and weakened it when I peeled it off and put it back on repeatedly in the attempt to align it perfectly. All told, I decided it would make more sense just to buy a set of 3 replacement covers than to ask for a replacement for the whole thing from the seller.

(I also decided to make this one a pickup order delivered to the Amazon center a few blocks away, since my last couple of mail deliveries have been iffy. This’ll be my first time trying that. To make the order large enough for free shipping, I’ve also bought a new wall clock for my bathroom, since the old one died years ago.)

Still on the agenda, for when I get around to it, is buying new shoes, and also a new laptop. But right now I’m mainly focused on writing the novel, and on catching up with a bunch of shows now that I’ve subscribed to HBO Max (after putting Netflix on hold for a few months, since I still have my old stingy habits and don’t want to spend too much at once).

Oh, and I know I promised some new Patreon fiction coming up soon, but I’d like to get this half of the novel finished up first. Hopefully it won’t be much longer.

Grounds for experimentation

Sometimes my local grocery store hands out bags of free stuff to its curbside pickup customers, and the most recent time this happened, the bag included a sample pouch of coffee grounds. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, since I didn’t have a coffee maker; I rely on coffee bags, which work essentially like tea bags. So I searched online for methods for making coffee without a maker. The only method I had the necessary equipment for was brewing the coffee in a measuring cup and pouring it through a fine mesh strainer, which does an imperfect job straining out the grounds. It was also suggested to dribble cold water on the coffee to make the grounds settle, so I did that and then strained it, which mostly worked.

Turns out the coffee isn’t bad; it’s a medium roast, described on the package as “smooth with a balanced flavor,” and I found it mild enough that I could almost take it black, though I did stir in a little creamer. It did taste a bit thin, but it seemed to have a pretty decent caffeine kick, which could be useful now that I’m weeks from deadline on my current writing project.

Afterward, I realized I also needed to search for how to dispose of coffee grounds. I’m glad I did that before I tried pouring them down the sink drain, which is apparently a bad thing. But it wasn’t easy to scoop them out of the measuring cup with a paper towel and throw them in the trash. It’s easier when the grounds are contained in a coffee bag.

It turned out not to be a great idea to try that coffee after having already had my regular cup that morning, since the second cup was pretty strong, and once the cumulative caffeine kick wore off, I was pretty zonked out and useless. So the next day, I started the day with a cup made from the loose grounds. This time, I tried pouring it more directly into the strainer in hopes of getting a less thin-tasting result, but I ended up with way too many grounds in the cup, and oddly a less full cup than I expected.

I considered just going ahead and buying a small single-cup coffee maker for about 20 bucks, something I’ve thought about doing in the past. I wasn’t quite sure where I’d keep it in my small kitchen, but I figured out that it would just fit in the cabinet where I keep my coffee and tea bags, so it could work.

Still, I decided to try something else first. It occurred to me that the next time I used a coffee bag, I could cut it open, rinse it out, let it dry, and insert it in my mesh strainer to catch the grounds. When I did that the next morning, I was planning to cut it on three sides so it would be flat, but after cutting two sides, I realized it could form a rough cone shape, which was better. Once dried out, it fit surprisingly well into the strainer:

Makeshift coffee filter with used coffee bag in mesh strainer

When I used it the next morning, it worked, but it was very slow. The grounds quickly built up in the bottom and blocked the liquid, so I could only strain a little at a time. I eventually found it went a bit faster if I used a spoon to push the grounds aside.

In any case, all this prompted me to investigate ground coffee and how much it would cost per cup. The Folger’s coffee bags I use run to about 28 cents per cup, but it looks like a can of the equivalent ground coffee would make enough cups that it would come out to under 5 cents a cup. So if I spent 20 bucks on a coffee maker, it would pay for itself in about 3 months, assuming one cup of coffee per day.

That realization of how comparatively expensive my coffee bag usage has been, combined with my lack of success at finding a reliable method for preparing loose grounds, convinced me to go ahead and get the coffee maker. I ordered it just after I signed my contract for “Aleyara’s Descent” on Thursday (since I like to know for certain I have money coming before I buy things).

It was delivered sooner than I expected, just a little while ago today (Saturday). This time the delivery guy brought it to the right building and handed it to me on the balcony, which was convenient for me, but seemed a bit too trusting of the guy not to confirm I was who I said I was.

I figured it was still early enough in the afternoon that I could go ahead and make a cup of coffee rather than waiting until morning. Of course, I followed the instructions to wash the reusable filter and do a dry (well, wet) run with just boiling water first, but then I made my first cup with the free coffee grounds, and I’m finishing it up as I write this, using the black ceramic mug that came with the machine, a nice bonus (I manage just fine with just my usual mug, but it’s nice to gain another one). I don’t exactly love the taste, but it’s okay, not too sour or bitter, though enough that I did add some creamer.

I think the coffee I made in the measuring cup tasted a little better. I wondered if that was because I “bloomed” the grounds first, letting them sit in a small amount of water for a minute before adding the rest. But a drip coffee maker adds the water gradually enough that it’s the same as blooming anyway, or so it seems to me. So maybe it’s just that the grounds were fresher last week. Or maybe the concentration of the coffee is different.

Anyway, now I finally have my own coffee maker for the first time in my life, and it’s compact and easy to use — although I haven’t gotten the hang of pouring water from the mug into the crescent-shaped reservoir without spilling some. I guess I should use a measuring cup with a spout for that. Also, it’s so lightweight that I have to hold it in place to push the power button, or it slides. And the power doesn’t automatically turn off after the cup is brewed, unlike the single-serve coffee maker in my hotel room at Shore Leave. That’s a bit inconvenient.

Still, it’s a good thing to have. I do like my coffee bags, but they’re a more expensive indulgence than I realized. And there’s no guarantee the store will always carry them. A coffee maker gives me more options.

Well, I think the caffeine buzz is kicking in, so I should get back to work.

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My new microwave

I was expecting it might take a few days after I got home from Shore Leave before I obtained a new microwave oven, so I made a stovetop meal with leftovers for lunch yesterday (forgetting that I usually use a microwave for reheating). But then I decided to start shopping online. I’d already settled on going for a smaller, less expensive 900-watt oven rather than the 1100-watt kind I’d had before. After thinking it through and comparing notes with Cousin Barbara, I realized my old microwave was too large for my needs anyway, and it was easy enough to adjust cooking times with a handy chart I found online and could print out.

Since I’d rather minimize human contact for the next couple of weeks as a COVID precaution post-convention, I figured I should get a microwave delivered. But rather than going to Amazon, I tried the Target site to see if they delivered, since they had cheaper options (and apparently the sale that I thought was ending last week was still ongoing). They actually had same-day delivery, but I soon realized that the oven I wanted was the same one I’d seen on my quick trip to the small local Target last week. It was just a few blocks away, and delivery would cost an extra 10 bucks.

So I decided to go in person after all. Since I already knew exactly what item I wanted and where to find it, I wouldn’t need to be in the store for long. And I had my N95 masks for extra protection. The only issue was carrying the thing, but I decided to drive up and find a parking space near the Target. I had to circle the block, but I found a space surprisingly close to the store near the end of my loop. (The blocks there are long and narrow, so the street behind the store is a very short walk from it.) I put a quarter in the meter for 12 minutes and hastened to run my errand.

The only snag was realizing I should go back and get a cart to carry the box to the register. They even let me take the cart out to my car, as long as I brought it right back, which of course I did. Though as it turned out, the smaller microwave wasn’t so heavy. I don’t know if I could’ve lugged it all the way home on foot, but it was easier to carry from my car to my apartment than it usually is to carry my groceries.

The new oven seems to work okay, though there’s going to be a learning curve getting the hang of the new controls — for instance, I can’t just tap in a time and hit start, since tapping any of the first 6 number buttons instantly starts cooking that many minutes. I have to hit “Time Cook” first and then the time. But it’s not that hard. For reheating my leftovers today, I weighed the serving on my kitchen scale so I’d know how many times to hit the “reheat” button, and it worked pretty well. I just have to remember in the future to hit that button twice for a serving that size.

The best thing is that the oven’s slightly smaller size lets me do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I have a small kitchenette, and the old microwave had to be positioned sideways to leave me enough counter space. Which meant that when I had the dishes drying on the rack between the sink and the microwave, the rack blocked the door from opening very far, so it was very hard to use the microwave after washing the dishes. But now, even though the new oven’s width is only a bit over an inch less, it’s small enough to let me do this:

Microwave facing forward next to drying rack

Yay! I no longer have to choose between doing the dishes and having an accessible microwave (and counter space)! The age-old dream is fulfilled!

Although that white towel is what I used when I had too many dishes to fit in the rack, so I put some on a wire cooling rack atop the towel atop the microwave. The new one might be a bit small for that, but I could use the counter space in front of it. Or the cutting block that provides a bit more counter space between the fridge and the stovetop, if I want access to the microwave (but then that would block my toaster oven).

One problem is that I store the dish rack on top of the microwave when I’m not using it, but the new one’s a bit small to make a good platform for that, and the new position puts it under the overhead cabinets, so it’s a bit more awkward to put things on top of it. Also, I have to be careful not to let that towel get caught in the door. I’m considering if I have any alternative places to store the rack.

As it happens, I also recently bought a glass shelf that goes over two of the burners on my electric stove, which also gives me a bit more counter space than I had before. Between the two, hopefully my kitchen won’t feel quite so crowded anymore.

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A surprise I did not need

Well, just when I thought everything was going reasonably smoothly in the run-up to Shore Leave — car repaired swiftly, COVID test scheduled promptly and turning up negative, my own physical fitness improved somewhat in recent weeks — I got thrown a bit of a curve ball. This morning, I noticed an odd silhouette on the clock of my microwave oven. Was there a bug on it? I looked closer, and it turned out there was a bug inside the clock. And then I saw another one crawl across it.

I have no idea how, but somehow some bugs must’ve nested inside the workings of my microwave, probably slipping in through the air vents or something. I’m not sure, but they’re probably cockroach nymphs. (I took a photo to show the manager, but I don’t want to inflict it on my readers.) I immediately took the microwave out onto the balcony, and as soon as the office opened, I went to notify the manager. Apparently I’m now required to get a cockroach spraying in my apartment, which is something I’ve always managed to avoid until now, relying on plastic roach baits instead. They’ve always worked in the past, but not so much lately, and now I’m wondering if a hidden nest inside the microwave might explain that. Anyway, they’ll presumably do it while I’m away, which works out, I guess. Unless they come today, but I didn’t get the impression they would.

Unfortunately, neither the manager nor I had any idea how to get bugs out of the inner workings of a microwave. Maybe putting a chunk of dry ice inside overnight would suffocate them, but I don’t have time to sort that out when I have to make final preparations for my trip tomorrow. And I’m not allowed to leave appliances sitting on the balcony. I hated to do it with an otherwise perfectly workable appliance, but my only option was to lug the microwave to the dumpster out back.

On the other hand, I just looked back through my records, and unless I omitted something, the last entry I have for buying a microwave oven was from 2005. Which appears to be consistent with when this model was on the market. So it had a good long run. And a new one can be had for about 100 bucks or so, which isn’t too bad, though it’s not great, either. (I’ll be getting a nice-sized check after I finish my current project in about a month, but I don’t yet have any work lined up beyond that.)

I checked, and apparently Target has a sale on microwaves that’s ending today. I decided to walk up to the Target store a few blocks away, a small one serving the university, to see if they had a suitable one. But I couldn’t carry it back; I had a hard enough time lugging the old one down to the trash. I thought I might ask if they did same-day delivery, the cost of which would presumably be cancelled out by the sale price.

But the only microwaves they had were 900 watts, while I’m used to 1100. Maybe if I’d had time to think it over, I’d have decided to settle for the lower power. But it was a token effort anyway, so I just went home (then promptly went out to return some library videos and mail a package, as long as I still had fresh sunblock on).

I guess I’ll just have to get by without microwave food for the rest of today and tomorrow morning, and then an unknown amount of time after I get home. That’s easier now than it would’ve been once, since I rely less on frozen dinners (stovetop mixes, pasta, etc. are cheaper) and use an electric kettle to boil water. But there are still a number of things I routinely microwave, like hot dogs, veggie-burger patties, and single-serve macaroni pouches (which I just restocked on yesterday, and only work in the microwave). Come to think of it, maybe I should get a smaller one next time after all, since I rarely use it for anything big.

I wonder if they make smaller 1100-watt ovens. Or does it scale with size, so that a smaller 900-watt heats as fast as a larger 1100-watt? I’m not sure that makes sense given how microwave ovens work, but maybe the energy is more concentrated in a smaller volume?

Trackpad travails

In breaking in my new keyboard, I’ve been having some issues with the built-in trackpad. There were a couple of occasions where it started glitching, the cursor dragging spontaneously to the side and the scroll strip (the equivalent of a mouse wheel) no longer working. I found I could reset it by unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in, but it happened twice within the first few days, then again a bit over a week later. There was one time when scrolling worked intermittently and came on and off with no clear rhyme or reason. Also, the sensitivity of the pad seemed variable; sometimes it got so sensitive that I kept accidentally clicking on things while just trying to move the cursor across them.

So I was concerned I might have to swap it for a different keyboard, but when I went to Amazon to look into the return policy, I saw a troubleshooting page, and after looking it over, I realized the problem was probably that the driver hadn’t installed right, because I’d ignored the instruction to shut down the computer before plugging in the keyboard. I really don’t like to shut down or reboot my laptop, because it takes forever. I usually just hibernate it at night.

So I tried rebooting it at last, and after that, the pad seemed to stabilize. The sensitivity was normal again, and its behavior was consistent for a few days. It still tends to be slow to respond; I have to move my finger over it a bit before it starts to work, so if I try clicking or tapping it “cold” after not moving the cursor for a while, the click doesn’t go through. I wondered if this was another driver issue, but since it’s been pretty consistent from the get-go, I suspect it’s a built-in feature to guard against accidental clicks, or something. Not ideal, but I can get used to it.

But a couple of days ago, the scrolling stopped working again, and I had to unplug/replug the keyboard. I may have to try something more than just rebooting; the troubleshooting page suggested uninstalling the driver, shutting down, then plugging it in and rebooting. Of course, then I’d have to use the laptop’s own keyboard to shut it down, a bit more involved (since I keep the laptop sort of halfway under the desk on a wire rack for ventilation, so I have to kneel down and pull it out to access its keyboard). So I’ve been hesitating to do that.

See, I realized that the past couple of times the trackpad glitched, it was when I tried using it with damp fingers. (I’m a very frequent hand-washer.) So I’m wondering if maybe this is not a driver problem; maybe this particular trackpad just gets confused by the coldness or spread-out contact when there’s moisture on the pad. So maybe reinstalling the driver wouldn’t do anything.

Another possibility suggested on the troubleshooting page was interference with the USB port, suggesting plugging it into another port. The problem is that I don’t have a lot of options there. The ports in my laptop itself are taken or inaccessible. (The speaker jack stopped working several years back and I had to get a USB speaker/mic adapter that’s wide enough to block the adjacent port.) So my only real options are the ports on my USB hub, and if one of them had interference, they all might. And somehow it doesn’t really seem like an interference problem at this point.

I really should try the uninstall/reboot thing just on general principles, but I’m lazy. For now, I’m just waiting to see if the pad glitches again without moisture being involved.

I guess I put up with my old keyboard’s dirty contacts and responsiveness problems for so long, constantly having to fiddle with the left button and push it at just the right angle and pressure to get it to engage after multiple false starts, that having a keyboard that works fine aside from occasionally having to be plugged back in — or one that works fine as long as I keep my fingers dry — seems like a minor inconvenience by comparison, one I can live with in the same way.

Anyway, if anyone has any insights based on the symptoms I described, feel free to comment.

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My new (old) keyboard

February 13, 2022 2 comments

I’ve needed a new desktop computer keyboard for a long time now. I’ve had the same keyboard since 2007, and it’s gotten really worn out, but it wasn’t easy to replace. See, because of my shoulder tendinitis, I have trouble using a conventional mouse. Back in ’07, I finally found a special ergonomic keyboard, split in the middle and contoured, with a built-in wrist rest that has a touchpad in the center, which is much less strenuous on my shoulder than a mouse. (It’s also got volume and mute hotkeys built in, which is really handy.) But it’s a unique design, and I haven’t been able to find anything comparable. The only available option was to buy another of the original model, and that would run me around 70 dollars, quite pricey for a keyboard.

So I just stuck with my old keyboard and tried to put up with its increasing deterioration. The letters had worn off of many of the keys, which was okay since I can touch-type, but sometimes a problem when I was typing one-handed by sight while sipping tea or something. There was some kind of a glitch in the connection (I suspect in the USB adaptor for its original mouse and keyboard jacks) that occasionally caused it to disconnect for a fraction of a second so I’d have to retype. If it glitched while I was using Shift, Ctrl, or Alt, they would sometimes get stuck on and weird things would happen until I realized the issue and hit the key again to undo it. Worst of all, the left button on the touchpad had a very dirty or eroded contact and I had to push at juuust the right angle and pressure to get it to connect, so it often took multiple tries to highlight a piece of text or use a scroll bar, which was very frustrating. Still, I figured I’d just bear with it until something stopped working altogether.

But the other day, the E key suddenly became less responsive. I had to push firmly for a moment to get it to engage, and that really disrupted my typing rhythm, as you can imagine. So I decided that was the last straw. Despite the expense, I went ahead and ordered the replacement keyboard. I found I could pay on a 3-month installment plan, which is nice, but not really making much difference since I don’t expect to get much if any new income until 3-4 months from now, unless one or two pending things pan out within that time frame (or unless a lot more people finally start backing my Patreon). Still, I figured I didn’t really have a choice. How did I know the E key would keep working at all? I can’t be a writer with only 25 letters! (And yes, I know there have been whole novels written without the letter E, but that’s not an option for someone who writes about the starships Enterprise and Arachne, Troubleshooter Green Blaze, and the Tangent Knights.)

So I went ahead and ordered the new keyboard… and then I somehow managed to get the old one’s E key to work pretty much normally again, though I’m not sure whether it was by finally clearing whatever debris was sticking it or just by pushing down on it long enough to do… something or other. (It ended up permanently lower than the other keys, which had also happened to the T key a few years before.) Still, I couldn’t be sure it would last, so I didn’t cancel the order for the replacement.

I was initially told that the expected arrival date was Tuesday, but then I was notified that it had shipped and would be here Saturday (yesterday). It arrived yesterday afternoon, and it proved a simple matter to plug it in and start using it. The instructions said to turn the computer off first, but I wasn’t sure how that would work with plugging it into my laptop, and I figured maybe it was an outdated instruction that was no longer necessary. So I just plugged it into my active laptop, and the driver installed with no problem. I was using it within moments.

Though it’s the same model, it’s a bit more advanced, with a USB connector this time, so I no longer need the adaptor. The cord comes out further to the right, so it no longer goes into the cord clip built into my desk’s roll-out keyboard tray. But that’s fine, since it’s a heavy keyboard that doesn’t slide around anyway. Other than the brand logo being in a different place, it’s otherwise exactly the same as the previous one, except all the keys work normally.

Which is great, since I don’t have to adjust to a new layout. All my old comfortable typing reflexes still apply. The only habit I’ll have to unlearn is my expectation to struggle with the left touchpad key. Although I’m still getting used to the new touchpad, whose sensitivity is a little different than the old one. Sometimes it seems to need a bit more pressure applied to start responding, yet paradoxically, sometimes I accidentally select something when I think I’m just hovering over it and not pressing hard enough to engage. And I probably need to relearn that left-clicking may be a better option sometimes than tapping the pad.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the first thing I did with the old keyboard after plugging in the new one was to pop out a few of the keys to see if I could clean the crevices between/under them. I was always afraid to try that before, since I didn’t know if they were designed to be detachable. Turns out they are, and if I’d know that all along, I could’ve kept the crevices/contacts cleaner and probably kept using it longer. But I still can’t figure out whether the left touchpad key is detachable for cleaning, and that was my biggest problem. Plus cleaning the contacts wouldn’t have helped with the worn-out letters and the glitchy connection. At least I know that I’ll be able to clean out the new keyboard when necessary. Though I wish it were one of those newer models with an integrated surface so you don’t have to worry about crumbs or hairs getting under the keys.

But hey, my previous keyboard lasted through almost 15 years of heavy usage with poor maintenance. Hopefully this one will last even longer.

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Calculator update (further updated)

This morning, I decided to see if I could find a way to fix the blanked-out row of LCDs on my calculator, after determining that the batteries weren’t the problem. Looking it up online suggested that there was probably a dirty or broken connection in the ribbon of circuits connecting the display to the circuit board, and that it was theoretically possible but extremely difficult to fix.

Taking the long shot, I unscrewed the back of the calculator again — swapping the old batteries back in while I was at it, since they were still good after all — and tried to spot the problem. Seeing nothing, I just generally tried to fiddle with the connecting ribbon and push any loose connections back into place. I have an old irrigation syringe left over from my orthodontic surgery decades ago (since I’m a bit of a pack rat and I often hold onto things just in case they might prove useful someday), and I used it to puff air under the ribbon in hopes of blowing any dust free. But nothing seemed to make any difference. So I figured I’d done all I could and closed the calculator back up again.

Then, just as a last-ditch, token effort since I had nothing left to lose, I resorted to the ultimate fallback — percussive maintenance. I just tried banging the calculator around in hopes of knocking something back into place.

And it worked!!!

I’m not kidding. It actually restored the display to full function, at least for now. Brute force did the job when delicacy failed. I have no idea if it will hold, but at least I have hope that if the problem does recur, I’ll be able to bang it back into place again. Though hopefully there was just a speck of dust or something that’s now gone, and it’ll be fine. Still, I’ll try to remember to be gentle with the calculator lest something get knocked loose again.

That left the question of what to do with the unnecessary replacement batteries I got. Amazon doesn’t let you return batteries, because they’re technically hazardous materials, but it does allow refunds. I didn’t feel right about getting a refund on perfectly good batteries I still had, but if the calculator had proven irreparable, I might’ve done it anyway. As it is, though, since the calculator is still working (for now), I might still have use for the batteries in the future. So no refund — I just put the batteries back in the pouch they were shipped in, taped it back up with a note saying “For calculator” so I wouldn’t forget, and put the pouch in the closet where I keep my other spare batteries. I figure if the original batteries have lasted for so many years (the manual is copyrighted 2003, apparently the last year this model was sold, so it’s probably about 18 years old), the new ones will keep. Though it’s just as possible that the old batteries will last longer than the calculator.

(Also, if I’d remembered earlier that the manual was still in my drawer, instead of just now when I decided to check the copyright date, then I wouldn’t have had to look online for battery replacement instructions. D’oh!)

EDIT: Well, that didn’t last long. I just tried using the calculator, and the LCDs went out again after a few moments. And no amount of banging was able to fix it this time. So basically forget what I just said an hour ago. Yeesh.

UPDATE 12/10: Turns out I can return batteries after all, as long as they aren’t defective. Since the calculator’s busted and the old batteries are still good, I had no reason to keep the new ones. I just had to print out the shipping and hazardous materials labels, tape them onto the return package, and walk them up to the Amazon pickup/drop-off center a few blocks away. I’ve been notified that my refund has been issued — all five bucks and a penny. Whee!

Return of the phone woes

You may recall that last year I had chronic problems with my landline phone and internet connections going out. After they were fixed last October 5th, the connection’s been stable, aside from one brief dropout that fixed itself after a short while and was probably due to some kind of work going on outside somewhere temporarily disrupting the system. So I’d thought the worst was behind me — until last Tuesday morning, when both connections abruptly went dead just after 9:40 AM. Remembering the previous brief outage, I waited about an hour to see if it would fix itself, and when it didn’t, I used my cell phone to call the help line. They thought it might be due to some work being done in the area, and said they’d have someone out to fix it within 24 hours. I figured I could make do without it for that long. I could still access the web through my smartphone, though my phone’s Gmail app is for some reason quite slow in updating mail from my other, primary address, and I’d have to do without streaming video, since the data usage without wi-fi would probably get expensive, if I could even get a good enough signal (I rarely get more than 3 bars out of 5 in my apartment, which is part of why I need to keep my landline). I figured if it were fixed by Wednesday morning, I’d be able to catch the Supergirl series finale just a bit later than I otherwise would have, and things would be fine.

By 10:30 AM Wednesday, it still hadn’t been fixed, so I called again. (I see now in my phone log that I called precisely 24 hours later, to the minute, even though I hadn’t planned to. Wow.) They told me someone would be coming that afternoon… then called back later to say they’d been delayed and would be here later that afternoon, no later than 4:30, I think. The technician finally called at 4:45 to say he was on his way, then showed up at 5:08 PM. He determined that the problem wasn’t in my modem or line and was probably in the electrical room downstairs… but it was after the building manager had gone home for the day (apparently she doesn’t live in the apartment adjacent to the office as previous managers have done, something I didn’t realize until now), so he couldn’t get into the electrical room to fix things. He went on his way, promising to have someone out to fix it first thing in the morning. Okay, then, I’d be a bit more delayed in catching my Arrowverse shows and the new Star Trek: Prodigy episode. Also, I wasn’t able to log onto my Patreon page because it didn’t recognize my phone, and it took hours for the confirmation code it emailed to my main address to show up on my phone, by which time it had long since expired.

Nothing happened all day Thursday. As I surfed on my phone, I was reminded that it was Veteran’s Day, and I realized the phone company was probably closed for the day. (It was later confirmed to me that this had indeed been the case.) Oh, well; I resigned myself to one more day without TV, filling the time by rewatching a couple of my DVDs and trying to get some actual writing done despite my frustration (and I did get some done, though not nearly enough). I figured they’d have someone out early Friday morning instead.

So on Friday morning, I called them again to make sure… only to be told that no appointment had been scheduled and the earliest they could fit me in was Monday. Monday?! I got angry, pointing out emphatically that I’d been promised it would only take 24 hours, and then promised again that it would be fixed first thing in the morning, and it was unacceptable for them to make me wait three more days when it should have been fixed already and it only wasn’t due to their delays and oversights. I ended up demanding to speak to a supervisor, but even then, I couldn’t convince them to get anyone out to me any sooner than Monday. I was left infuriated and unsatisfied, but resigned to three more days of this drought.

So I finally started to think about other options and realized I could take my laptop out to the library or the university to use their wifi. That hadn’t been an option on Tuesday or Wednesday when I was waiting for the repair tech, and I hadn’t realized it would be an option on Thursday until it was already too late (plus, in retrospect, it would’ve been harder to find someplace open on a holiday). But on Friday afternoon, after letting the building manager know about the Monday appointment and confirming she’d be there, I walked over to the library with my laptop, taking the opportunity to return some items and borrow a couple more DVDs to tide me over the weekend. But I didn’t see any good places in that branch where I could watch TV on my laptop (with earphones, of course) without distractions and without risk of patrons tripping over my cord. So I went over to campus instead — only to be unable to log onto their wifi! I figured it wasn’t my laptop that was the problem, since I was able to connect at one point to the university guest network’s access page, but kept timing out when it tried to log on anywhere else; it must have just been that the signal was too weak or something. Tired and frustrated, I gave up and went home, resolving to try again at the library the next day.

On Saturday, I decided to drive to the next-nearest library branch and see what they had to offer. I found a quiet place to sit and log on… and I still couldn’t connect to the wifi! Since it was a completely different service, I realized at last that it was my laptop that was the problem; sometimes the DNS recognition thingummy or whatever just stops working and I have to reboot. So I rebooted, noodling around on my phone while I waited, since rebooting my old laptop takes forever. Finally, finally, I got a connection. I had laptop wifi, for the first time in more than four days! I was able to download my emails at last, and to get my Patreon to recognize my phone, and do a bit of other stuff. But again, enough time had passed that I gave up on trying to watch streaming video and just wanted to go home for the day, since I didn’t want to spend too long in a public building even with a mask on. Luckily this was one of the only library branches open on Sundays, so I resolved to go back again the next day.

Sunday, I found a better place to set up at that library, a reading/study room with a nice empty corner table where I could plug in. And again, I had DNS problems and had to reboot. I’ve never had that happen twice in such quick succession, and it hasn’t happened in months, so I’m guessing it was somehow a function of moving the laptop around between different wifi signals, or something. Still, I finally made a connection and managed to catch up with a couple of shows including last week’s Prodigy. The laptop got a little warm without its cooling-fan platform (which I should’ve brought with me, but that didn’t occur to me, since this is the first time I’ve taken the laptop anywhere since I bought the cooling platform mid-pandemic), but I finally perched its back end on top of the little box that my earphone cord is stored in, which provided enough ventilation. Still, I didn’t want to press my luck with too much TV, and the branch was only open for four hours on Sundays. I regretted that I hadn’t figured things out sooner.

So then came Monday morning, and waiting for an appointment I’ve been let down for twice already is much more nerve-racking when I’m actually in the scheduled window and can’t think about anything except my fear of being disappointed once again. Luckily, at 9:50, I got a call from the tech to say he was 15 minutes away. After about 25 minutes, I got antsy and went out to look for his truck, not finding it. When I got back in, of course, the tech was waiting outside my apartment!

So I told him where to find the electrical room and went to get the manager, who opened it. This time, I stuck around to watch the tech working, and finally got to see inside this mysterious electrical/storage room. (To my annoyance, I noticed a couple of bottles of wasp/hornet spray, which means they could’ve helped me with my car’s wasp infestation a few months ago rather than leaving me to fend for myself. Grr.) It was rather alarming to see that the Internet connection on which so much of my life depends is reliant on a pair of virtually hair-thin wires in a mare’s nest connected to a old circuit box.

Still, the tech determined that the problem wasn’t a short in the wires like it had been the last time. He managed to trace a dead signal all the way to the substation that the lines lead to, and after calling up the staff there and checking some things, he determined that someone on that end had swapped some things around and attached my line to the wrong place, since they were using really old wires with lead insulation (I think) that wasn’t color-coded like the newer plastic. So not only did the phone company keep missing appointments and failing to live up to its obligations, but the problem was their mistake in the first place.

Despite that, though, the tech explained some things that eased my anger. Apparently there aren’t that many techs still working that are qualified to fix the older copper wiring instead of the newer fiber optics. That’s why it was so hard to get one of them here in a timely manner — they’re just spread too thin, especially in bad weather when there’s more damage to repair. My building complex hasn’t been rewired for fiber optics because it’s just too big, and it would be hard to access all the old lines and replace them.

But that might be a tradeoff for something good. I mentioned to the tech that this week’s frustration had made me think about switching to the building’s wifi service, which I think would be added to my rent, but might cost less than what I’m paying for the Cincinnati Bell service. But the tech nodded to the Spectrum wifi router that was attached to the wall and said that it would get really slow when multiple tenants were using it at once. He opined that the lines originally set up for cable TV had gotten a lot slower since all these other services were piled onto them. Although now that I write that, I have to ask why the same thing wouldn’t be true of lines originally set up for telephone conversations. Still, it might have something to do with each apartment having its own separate phone line, to which individual modems would be attached, rather than everyone drawing on the same modem/router/whatever. It occurred to me at the time that the tech had a vested interest in promoting his service over a rival, but as he is on the technical side rather than the business side, I’m more inclined to trust that his assessments come from a practical place, a mindset that’s more about understanding mechanisms and their abilities and weaknesses than about trying to sell people things.

Bottom line, the tech successfully got my phone and internet back on, and he did good work and reassured me about some things, in contrast to the disappointing service I got over the rest of this week. I could finally start getting back to my normal routine, though I spent most of yesterday catching up on the shows I missed last week. I’m probably going to stay nervous about my connection’s reliability for a while, but it helps to know that last week’s outage wasn’t from the same cause as last year’s, so hopefully it was just a fluke. Apparently there are downsides to relying on the old copper wires, but there are advantages too. And at least now I have a better idea of my options for wifi elsewhere if I need it.

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Braving the garage

Last time I reported on my car battery situation at the end of January, I was cautiously optimistic that I might have dealt with the drain on my battery by removing the charger from the power socket. No such luck — the last couple of times I went for groceries, I had to jumpstart it again. Luckily, I still had a few weeks left on my battery’s 18-month free replacement warranty. Still, I waited for the weather to improve a bit (both so the car would be easier to start and because I’d have to walk from and to the garage after dropping off my car). Plus I was hesitant to go to the garage because of COVID and all. Finally I noticed that Google now gives health precaution info for businesses, and it confirmed that my garage had sensible precautions. I was still a little concerned about indoor ventilation, though. People are still preoccupied with disinfecting surfaces, but the scientific consensus now is that surface infection is vanishingly unlikely and the real risk is from being indoors with other people for any length of time, particularly in a poorly ventilated space. But when I thought about it, I figured that an automotive garage would pretty much need to have good ventilation by default. Well, maybe not so much in the office, but it’s a small office and it usually has at least one door open.

As it turned out, there have been some procedural changes as well — when I called, I was told to schedule a dropoff time online, and the online form asked me to describe the issues, so I didn’t have to do it face to face. And I didn’t even have to come inside, as it turned out; I just dropped the car off and left the spare key on the front seat. Picking it up today, I was able to call the guy from outside and he brought the credit card scanner out with him. He offered to take my card info over the phone, but I figured just being outside was enough.

As it turns out, while I did get a new battery, new wiper blades, tire rotation, and other servicing, it turns out that the battery problem is what I feared. The electrical issues the car’s been having for well over a year now, which are beyond the local garage’s ability to address, are evidently causing some kind of “parasitic draw” on the battery. And I don’t see how I can get that taken care of anytime soon. The garage they referred me to is too far away to get back from except by bus, which isn’t an option I’m willing to take in a pandemic. And though my money situation has begun to improve, it’s an incremental improvement and I need to keep my spending relatively constrained until the next big paycheck comes in a few months. So as it stands, my options are either to drive the car more regularly to keep the battery charged (even though I have zero other reasons to drive anywhere besides grocery pickup), or just keep using my jumpstarter pack to start it up like I’ve been doing for the past few months. Hopefully at least the new battery will make some difference, or will drain less as the weather warms. But I have no idea what to do about the problem in the long run.

So my walks from the garage yesterday and to it today are the longest walks I’ve taken in quite a while. I’m glad I was still up to it; my fitness hasn’t deteriorated too much from the lockdown. I even managed to keep my glasses from fogging up too badly with the mask on. Still seeing a lot of people going unmasked, though among those who were masked, I didn’t notice anyone with their noses sticking out.

Oh, speaking of electrical problems, we had a power failure here yesterday afternoon, just after 5 PM. I was able to check the power company’s outage map on my phone, and it gave an estimated repair time of 9:30, which I hoped was just a placeholder and that the power would be restored before the 4-hour safe limit for food in the fridge. I passed the time reading a paperback book by the window before the sun set, and to avoid opening the fridge, I had supper consisting of a peanut butter sandwich (no jam) and potato chips, and cracked open a new, room-temperature bottle of apple juice (then forgot myself and accidentally opened the fridge door for a few seconds to put it away).

I’d just settled down to do some writing work on my laptop (which still had a full battery) when the power came back on, about 2 hours or so into the blackout, so my food was safe. So of course I blew off the work and went online again. I didn’t really feel up to doing much anyway. Although moving my laptop to the table did finally let me brush the dust off the cooling-fan platform it sits on, something I recently realized I should try to do periodically.

Still, it’s frustrating how often the power goes out around here. I wish we could really modernize the power grid — build in more redundancies, give buildings backup generators or batteries, stuff like that.

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I have a new(ish) printer!

February 5, 2021 3 comments

My old printer has been acting up for a while. Something was wrong with the paper feeder that made it feed jerkily so that there were gaps and overlaps in the printout, and that made the printer act as though there were a paper jam when there wasn’t, so that I couldn’t get past the paper jam warning on the printer’s own screen to work the controls. No matter, then; I had software on my computer that let me control the scanner function and keep using it for that purpose, at least. But it turns out that software was dependent on Adobe Flash, so it stopped working at the start of this year. No matter, then; at least I could still control the printer from Word or Acrobat or whatever. Except that when I tried that, it wouldn’t print at all!

If not for the pandemic, I might’ve tried taking the printer in for repairs before replacing it, but I figured it probably wouldn’t cost much more to get a new one. So I went looking online. I hit a snag when I realized that all the modern printers from the makers of my old one require a software app that isn’t compatible with my old refurbished Windows 7 laptop. So I had to look into other brands, and I found an older model that was compatible and not too expensive. I actually thought I’d be able to get it for under 40 bucks from a local store, but then I noticed it didn’t have a “Buy” button, just a “Notify me when it’s available” button. So I ended up getting it through an Amazon vendor for 100-plus. Not great, but at least I’m in a position to afford it now.

So the printer came yesterday, but I didn’t feel like going to the trouble of installing it until today. I almost hit another snag, since I keep my printer up on top of my computer hutch and I wasn’t sure the supplied cords would reach. The power cord turned out to be just long enough, but the USB cord (since it’s not wireless, being old and cheap) was way too short. Luckily, I still have an old USB hub/extension cord thingy that I replaced years ago with a faster one. It seems to work just fine despite the slower data rate. The printer doesn’t seem to work that fast, but I think that’s more of a hardware issue. It’s not like I use my printer much, so it doesn’t need to be great, just functional.

So now I finally have a working printer/scanner again, which is good. The reason I decided I needed to act now was that tax time is coming up and I wanted to be able to scan and upload my tax forms. I should be able to do that now. Although I’ll have to remember that the scanner plate has the reverse orientation from my previous one — the top of the document goes on the left side now. Also the control buttons are on the top instead of the front, which isn’t great for a printer I keep up high.

Also, I think the printer control software slows down my browser after I use it, heaven knows why, but closing and restarting the browser clears it up. Another thing to remember. The software itself is a bit annoying, putting up this whole weird control panel on my screen that it was hard to figure out how to turn off, but at the same time, the controls seem more easily accessible and intuitive than the previous printer’s control software.

Aside from these minor snags, the installation went pretty smoothly. Yet I’m having a weird reaction. Part of the reason I waited a day to install it was because I was worried that it might be difficult and frustrating. I deal poorly with tech going wrong, or just in general with new problems I can’t figure out. I tend to get really flustered by such things. Yet even though the installation went fairly smoothly, with nothing going wrong aside from a couple of setbacks I quickly solved, I find myself feeling emotionally drained and edgy, much as I’d feel if it had been hard and frustrating. I didn’t feel upset or agitated while I was installing the printer, but I’m kind of feeling the aftereffects as if I had. It’s as if my brain and hormones reacted to what I feared would happen instead of what actually happened. Weird.

Meanwhile, as long as I was getting stuff from Amazon, I finally got around to buying a new toilet flapper valve to deal with the “ghost flush” problem I talked about back in August, i.e. the slow leakage through the deteriorating flapper that caused the tank to slowly drain and spontaneously refill every few hours. That problem has come and gone over the past few months, but it’s been fairly steady lately, so I was glad for the chance to fix it at last. I was surprised by how decayed the old flapper had gotten; when I drained the tank and pulled it out, the crumbly rubber stuck to my fingers like I was holding a moist brownie, and there were cloudy wisps of black particulates dislodged into the surrounding water when I moved it. So definitely way, way overdue for replacement. The new one fit perfectly and seems to be working fine now, although it didn’t quite close at one point last night and I realized I’d hooked up the chain a bit too loosely so that it got caught underneath the valve. I realized that was why the previous chain was attached over the top of the lever instead of the bottom, so I adjusted it accordingly.

So bit by bit, things in my household are getting long-overdue fixes. There are still some other fixes needed, like a new desktop keyboard and car repairs. But those can wait until more money comes in over the year ahead.

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An automotive addendum

December 23, 2020 1 comment

Since it was fairly warm this afternoon (which meant I didn’t have to worry about my car being sluggish to start due to cold lubricants or whatever), I took that drive I mentioned above, to recharge my car battery and test the GPS on my new phone. Turns out the battery ran dry again even in just the two days since my grocery trip, so said trip was nowhere near long enough to charge the battery. And for a few moments, I was worried that my jump-starter battery pack wasn’t working. The cable bit that plugs into it is supposed to go from flashing red and green to solid green to let you know it’s working, and it wouldn’t go green. It eventually did, though, when I happened to tilt it 90 degrees from the way it naturally rests, though I don’t know if that was cause and effect or coincidence, since it stayed engaged when I tilted it back. Anyway, I started the car and moved on to the next thing.

The USB adapter worked fine, letting me plug in my 6-foot charging cable, and the GPS worked smoothly too. But I’m out of practice at looking down at the screen as the phone rests in the cup holder, or else the angle was less amenable with the new phone somehow, even though it’s a bigger and brighter screen. I’ve never felt particularly safe doing that anyway. What I really need now is some kind of phone mount for my dashboard or dashtop or whatever you call that flattish surface under the windshield. The cable is easily long enough to reach even from the outlet in the back seat (the lighter in the front doesn’t work as a power outlet, I guess because the designers figured only passengers would need one, since the car predates smartphones).

Not that I expect to need it anytime soon, as I said above. I thought about maybe going to some store or other, maybe pick up some food at a drive-thru, but I decided I’d rather not deal with exchanging cash with anyone, and I only have a few bucks in my wallet anyway. I ended up just driving around the neighborhood, including some areas I haven’t been to in years if at all, just so I could experience the change of scenery. I was willing to risk getting a little lost since I had a working GPS again. But I didn’t need it. I still have a fairly good sense of the layout of the area and knew which way I needed to go.

Although the same can’t be said for everyone. As I was coming up along the one-way street leading to my home street, another car was approaching me the wrong way in the same lane! But they were on the other side of an intersection and they turned off before they and I got too close — also going the wrong way into a one-way turn lane. I hope they got back on the right side of the 2-way street they turned onto after that. At least, I didn’t hear any evidence to the contrary.

Given how effective my little pocket-sized jump-starter pack is, I wonder why car batteries need to be so big and heavy anyway. I guess a car battery is meant to hold a greater amount of charge, though, since it’s used for more than just starting the ignition. Isn’t it? Also, the pack always needs at least two tries to start the car. I guess you want a larger charge in the battery to make it more reliable — providing you use the car often enough for the darn thing to hold onto its charge.

I didn’t really think I was using the car that much less frequently than I did before the pandemic. Maybe about half as often, at a guess. But I suppose the distance I drive is much less, just to the neighborhood grocery store and back, which is only about a mile every couple of weeks. That was still my most common destination before, but it wasn’t the only place I drove to.

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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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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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Minor website update

I’ve been getting acquainted with WordPress’s new editing software, which is frustratingly more limited than the old software in its ability to edit image size and placement, but which has a few useful features I’ve been discovering. One of those is the ability to insert hashtag anchors inside a page, so that I can create page jump links within a single page, or link to a specific part of a different page. For instance, here’s a link to the discussion for “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” on my Troubleshooter fiction page:

https://christopherlbennett.wordpress.com/only-superhuman/#StuffDreams

So despite my ongoing Internet connection problems, I’ve managed to update my pages covering multiple works (such as my pages for Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation or Among the Wild Cybers) with page jump links for easier navigation to the individual entries, usually in the form of tables of contents at the top.

Speaking of the Internet problem, it stabilized yesterday afternoon and evening, but went out again this morning. (Phone line is still dead.) As I mentioned in a comment to my last post, I noticed that the dropouts seemed to fit the pattern of my modem overheating, though that couldn’t be the only reason, since they didn’t start until after the technician did his failed repairs to the phone line on Monday. Still, I tried blowing a fan into the modem vents to dislodge dust buildup, and it was stable all day after that. However, I can now rule out the overheating idea, since I tried the fan again after the first dropouts this morning, and had another dropout just moments afterward. Nothing I can do seems to fix it; I’m just trying to work around it as best I can, to take advantage of the moments of connection I get and hope it eventually settles down again.

I have to say, I really am much calmer about this today than yesterday. I realized yesterday how agitated and frustrated I was getting about what’s really a relatively minor inconvenience, albeit an annoyingly persistent one. I mean, things are improving in my life lately. The new project that I hoped to announce this week (well, maybe next week) should finally get me out of the financial mess I’ve been in for the past few years, though I still have to scrape through the rest of this year first (and more Patreon subscriptions would help me with that, even if you just try it for a month or two). And while I’m well behind schedule on my current novel assignment, I’ve finally been catching up and getting back on track. So I have good reason to feel better about my life situation now, and you’d think it would be easier to put more minor crises into perspective.

But I guess I’ve just been in panic mode for so long that it’s my default reaction. The little frustrations feel the same as the huge setbacks. I hope in time, as things continue to improve for me, I’ll be able to settle back into a more stable state of mind. (Well, as close to stable as a neurotic sort like me can get.)

And now I really should get back to work on that book…

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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Quantum teleportation revisit: Now with wormholes!

December 12, 2017 1 comment

Six years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on this blog musing about the physics behind quantum teleportation — first proposing a model in which quantum entanglement could resolve the philosophical condundrum of whether continuity of self could be maintained, then getting into some of the practical limitations that made quantum teleportation of macroscopic objects or people unlikely to be feasible. I recently came upon an article that offers a potential new angle, basically combining the idea of quantum teleportation with the idea of a wormhole.

The article, “Newfound Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes” by Natalie Wolchover, was published in Quanta Magazine on October 23, 2017. It’s talking about a theoretical model devised by Ping Gao, Daniel Jafferis, and Aron C. Wall, a way that a stable wormhole could exist without needing some kind of exotic matter with arbitrary and probably physically unattainable properties in order to keep it open. Normally, a wormhole’s interior “walls” would attract each other gravitationally, causing it to instantly pinch off into two black holes, unless you could line them with some kind of magic substance that generated negative energy or antigravity, like shoring up a tunnel in the dirt. That’s fine for theory and science fiction, but in practical terms it’s probably impossible.

The new model is based on a theory that’s been around in physics for a few years now, known in short as “ER = EPR” — namely, that wormholes, aka Einstein-Rosen bridges, are effectively equivalent to quantum entanglement between widely separated particles, or Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen pairs. (Podolsky, by the way, is Boris Podolsky, who lived and taught here in Cincinnati from 1935 until his death, and was the graduate advisor to my Uncle Harry. I was really impressed when I learned my uncle was only two degrees of separation from Einstein.) The EPR paradox, which Einstein nicknamed “spooky action at a distance,” is the way that two entangled particles can affect each other’s states instantaneously over any distance — although in a way that can’t be measured until a light signal is exchanged between them, so it can’t be used to send information faster than light. Anyway, it’s been theorized that there might be some sort of microscopic wormhole or the equivalent between the entangled particles, explaining their connection. Conversely, the two mouths of a wormhole of any size could be treated as entangled particles in a sense. What the authors of this new paper found was that if the mouths of a wormhole were created in a way that caused them to be quantum-entangled — for instance, if one of them were a black hole that was created out of Hawking radiation emitted from another black hole (it’s complicated), so that one was a direct outgrowth of the other on a quantum level — then the entanglement of the two black holes/mouths would create, in the words of the paper’s abstract, “a quantum matter stress tensor with negative average null energy, whose gravitational backreaction renders the Einstein-Rosen bridge traversable.” In other words, you don’t need exotic matter to shore up the wormhole interior, you just need a quantum feedback loop between the two ends.

Now, the reason for all this theoretical work isn’t actually about inventing teleportation or interstellar travel. It’s more driven by a strictly theoretical concern, the effort to explain the black hole information paradox. Conservation of energy says that the total amount of energy in a closed system can’t be increased or decreased. Information is energy, and the universe is a closed system, so the total amount of information in the universe should be constant. But if information that falls into a black hole is lost forever, then conservation is violated. So for decades, physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have been exploring the question of whether it’s possible to get information back out of a black hole, and if so, how. This paper was an attempt to resolve that question. A traversable wormhole spinning off from a black hole provides a way for information to leave the interior of the black hole, resolving the paradox.

I only skimmed the actual paper, whose physics and math are way beyond me, but it says that this kind of entangled wormhole would only be open for a very brief time before collapsing. Still, in theory, it could be traversable at least once, which is better than previous models where the collapse was instantaneous. And if that much progress has been made, maybe there’s a way to refine the theory to keep the wormhole open longer.

There’s a catch, though. Physical law still precludes information from traveling faster than light. As with quantum teleportation, there is an instantaneous exchange of information between the two ends, but that information remains in a latent, unmeasurable state until a lightspeed signal can travel from the transmitting end to the receiving end. So a wormhole like this, if one could be created and extended over interstellar distances, would not allow instantaneous travel. A ship flying into one end of the wormhole would essentially cease to exist until the lightspeed signal could reach the other end, whereupon it would emerge at long last.

However — and this is the part that I thought of myself as an interesting possibility for fiction — this does mean that the ship would be effectively traveling at the speed of light. That in itself is a really big deal. In a physically realistic SF universe, it would take an infinite amount of energy and time to accelerate to the speed of light, and once you got fairly close to the speed of light, the hazards from oncoming space dust and blueshifted radiation would get more and more deadly. So as a rule, starships would have to stay at sublight speeds. In my original fiction I’ve posited starships hitting 80 or 90 percent of c, but even that is overly optimistic. So in a universe where starships would otherwise be limited to, say, 30 to 50 percent of lightspeed, imagine how remarkable it would be to have a wormhole transit system that would let a starship travel at exactly the speed of light. Moreover, the trip would be instantaneous from the traveler’s perspective, since they’d basically be suspended in nonexistence until the lightspeed signal arrived to “unlock” the wormhole exit. It’s not FTL, but it’s L, and that alone would be a damned useful stardrive. You could get from Earth to Alpha Centauri in just 4.3 years, and the trip would take no time at all from your perspective, except for travel time between planet and wormhole mouth. You’d be nearly 9 years younger than your peers when you got home — assuming the wormhole could be kept open or a second temporary wormhole could be generated the other way — but that’s better than being 2 or 3 decades younger. Short of FTL, it’s the most convenient, no-fuss means of interstellar travel I can think of.

Or, looked at another way, it’s a method for interstellar quantum teleportation that avoids all the scanning/transmission obstacles and impracticalities I talked about in my second 2011 post on the subject. No need to use a technological device to scan a body with a level of detail that would destroy it, then transmit a prohibitively huge amount of data that might take millennia to send in full. You just pop someone into one end of a wormhole and make sure the handshake signal is transmitted strongly enough to reach the other end. I’ve long felt that wormhole-based teleportation would be a more sensible approach than the disintegration-based kind anyway. Although we’re technically talking about black holes, so it wouldn’t be the sort of thing where you could just stand on a platform in your shirtsleeves and end up somewhere else. Also, there might be a little problem with getting torn apart by tidal stresses at either end. I’m not sure the paper addresses that.

This idea could be very useful for a hard-SF universe. My problem is that the universes I have established are a little less hard than that, though, since I tend to like working in universes with FTL travel of one sort or another. But maybe some idea will come to me for a future story. And maybe some other writer will read this and get an idea. We’re all in this together, and any worthwhile SF concept can inspire multiple very different stories.

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