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Silver linings to WFH

I had to swing by Google’s offices last week to pick up a device for prototyping. It was nice to see Google’s campus again. I miss our building; we didn’t even get to enjoy it for a full year before we had to abandon it! It was also depressing. The campus was empty and lifeless, when it used to be bustling with people and full of energy. I saw maybe three people wandering around, and one of them was a security guard. It made me miss seeing all my coworkers and having face-to-face conversations.

But hey, working from home all the time does have a few silver linings, right? It’s been over six months since I’ve worn socks (when I haven’t been running or biking). Same for pants; I’ve been in shorts since at least April. I bought a pair of hair clippers in May, and I’m pretty sure I’ll break even after my next home haircut. After that I’ll be saving money. And we’re already saving on car washes, having bought a sprayer for our hose in June. And I can wear a wider variety of my wardrobe to “work”, since I don’t have to worry about getting clothes sweaty from biking into work (we won’t talk about the exercise I’m not getting since I’m not biking to and from work).

The benefit I might be looking forward to the most is coming up. Since I prefer running in the afternoon and evening to running in the morning, I usually end up having to run in the dark with a headlamp starting in November. This year, though, I can just shift my work schedule and go running in the late afternoon and then just work a little later. So yes, I’ve been stuck at home for the last six months and for the foreseeable future. But at least I don’t have to go running in the dark this year.

Heat and smoke

The heat wave we’ve been having for the last week or so in the Bay Area finally seems to be breaking, and the cooler air off the ocean is clearing the smoke from the Glass Fire out as well (as least for now). I’m used to cooler weather in September from growing up in upstate NY; it’s just wrong to get a stretch of 90+ degree weather at the end of September and into October. And California’s wine country just can’t seem to catch a break; unless I’ve lost count (entirely possible; we’ve had so many fires this season), the Glass Fire marks the third time they’ve been hit with fires this year.

This week the forecast predicts we’ll cool down throughout the week, ending with a high near 70 on Saturday. I am seriously looking forward to some cooler weather. And there’s even a chance of rain (although not a huge chance), which I think we could all use at this point.

I’m hopeful the cooler weather will help the area finally get a break from the incessant fires, although fire season still isn’t over. It’d be nice to be able to actually close the Purple Air tab I’ve been leaving open in my browser. I think July was the last time I didn’t have Purple Air in a tab on at least one of my devices.

It’s beginning to look a lot…

… like there are a bunch of fires blowing smoke in our direction. Sadly that’s not a dusting of snow, it’s a dusting of ash. Although it’s hard not to think “nuclear winter” at the moment; this weekend instead of unseasonably hot weather and unhealthy air, we’re going to have unseasonably cool weather (due to the smoke blotting out the sun) and healthy air.

Welcome to Mars

There’s so much smoke in the air from all the fires in California that we had an orange (and dim) sky all day in the Bay Area. It felt a bit like we were on Mars. At this point 2020 must be running out of things to surprise us with, right? Right?

Today in the Bay Area

Heat wave

For a couple of days last week we had comfortable weather with clearer air; we could actually leave our windows open all the time! And then we got hit with another heatwave, and our house has been closed up since Saturday. Yesterday it hit 106, and today it hit 105. PG&E, our electrical utility, has been pleading with people to reduce usage between 9 and 3 to avoid the need to introduce rolling blackouts. And the stagnant air has been trapping smoke from the wildfires, so even when it’s cooled down at night the air quality has been poor enough that we haven’t opened the windows.

As vacation weekends go, this one hasn’t been that relaxing. Can’t go outside because it’s hot as hell. Can’t go anywhere because of Covid 19 restrictions. My wife and I often glance at the “What you get” section in the NY Times, where they show off three homes you could get for a certain dollar amount in different parts of the country. The Bay Area being as expensive as it is, the homes are either invariably much cheaper or much larger. This week, after heat, fire, and smoke, the idea of a lovely home in Maine is downright tempting.

Memories of Big Basin

When we first moved to California and our daughter was younger, we used to do a lot of camping in the summer. It was fun, inexpensive, and a way to take advantage of the great weather in the Bay Area (and when it got too hot in Silicon Valley, it was often a fair bit cooler in the mountains under the trees).

One of our favorite spots to camp was Big Basin, California’s oldest state park. It was just isolated enough to avoid it being overrun with people (you had to navigate a seriously twisty little road to get there), while remaining close enough to make it a good destination for a weekend camping trip. And with its coastal redwoods it was a different world from the valley’s more Mediterranean climate.

Big Basin camping

Unfortunately, Big Basin was hit by CZU complex fire that’s still burning, destroying the historic headquarters building and damaging much of the park’s infrastructure. According to the latest reports, it sounds like it’s going to be closed for at least a year for repairs.

Thankfully, it also sounds like most of the redwoods survived (they’re extremely hardy, and fire actually helps them reproduce (so long as the fire isn’t too intense). So future families will be able to also build memories of summer vacations together in the woods.

iOS needs a better launcher

I still divide my time between iOS and Android phones to keep tabs on both ecosystems, and although there are many things I like about iOS, the launcher is not one of them. These days my preferred launcher layout is the one I have on my Pixel phone:

  • Most of the screen is empty. I have 8 icons on my primary home screen, all arranged at the bottom, leaving plenty of space for me to enjoy my home screen wallpaper (currently a picture of Zumwalt Meadow in Kings Canyon). I have fast access to the apps I use most, while still providing a calm experience on my home screen.
  • I have a further 6 work apps available at the bottom of a second home screen.
  • Everything else I access through the All Apps drawer. That puts everything else on my phone available through a quick gesture, without it impinging on my regular use.

So what do I dislike about iOS’ launcher?

  • You still (!) can’t put app icons anywhere; you’re forced to fill the screen left to right and top to bottom. Never mind the fact that it’s easier to reach the bottom of the phone than the top.
  • They’re still sticking with 4 columns of apps. Never mind that phone screen sizes have gotten substantially wider since the original iPhone. That forces me to suck up more screen real estate for the app icons I want.
  • No app drawer. Yes, I know that with iOS 14 you’ll be able to hide app screens and have those apps available via an additional screen, but Apple seems to be forcing you to use category folders they’re generating for those apps. I’d rather just have a flat, alphabetized list, thanks anyway.
  • The interaction is kind of a mess. I spent some time rearranging my home screens (getting rid of apps I was no longer using), and it’s harder to trigger jiggle mode than it used to be. A long-press used to be sufficient, but now Apple apparently really wants you to long-press and then trigger editing via a menu selection. You can still long-press and drag to start re-arranging, but it’s kind of finicky. And iOS kept thinking I wanted to create a folder and then not letting me cancel it, so I’d have to drop the icon and then remove it from the folder as a second action. This was on iOS 13, so maybe it’s better on iOS 14, but I’m not holding my breath.

Yes, I know, iOS incredibly popular so Apple must be doing something right blah blah blah. But in my opinion the current launcher design isn’t one of those things.

Watching the French countryside

The Tour de France, postponed from earlier in the summer, started yesterday. Watching the Tour de France feels like one of the rituals of summer. Since it’s typically shown here early in the morning or at night, it’s something light to watch during breakfast or to have on in the background while doing other things.

In normal times I’d typically have to head off to work before the end of the day’s stage, so I’d rarely get to see who won. But since I no longer have to head off to work, I’m planning to leave it on the background while starting work (when doing so won’t interfere with my daughter’s virtual classes).

The reason I enjoy watching the Tour de France isn’t because I find cycling a particularly interesting sport; I don’t. I watch the Tour de France to see the French countryside and the occasional moments when the broadcast provides colors by showing a nearby castle, chateau, or picturesque town.

Now that we’re mostly stuck at home and unable to travel, watching the Tour provides a lightweight way to experience another place.

Patterns of smoke

The last couple of weeks have been defined by patterns of smoke. When a couple of days of freak thunderstorms ignited multiple fire complexes around the Bay Area, the first few days were defined by smoke clouds. They billowed in the distance. At first glance you could take them for puffy cumulus clouds, until their color and the circumstances reminded you what they were. While distressing, the clouds were also fairly coherent, and we could keep our windows open and spend time outdoors.

But then the smoke became pervasive. No longer billowing clouds in the distance, it instead became a haze. Sometimes thicker, so that it almost felt like a cloudy day (although you could still see an orange sun through it), and sometimes thinner, so that the sky became a faint, steely blue instead of a vibrant one. But always there.

With the onset of the haze, our days have now been dictated by wind patterns and pollution readings on Readings indicating unhealthy conditions and the air smelling like a campfire? Time to close things up and turn on your air purifiers (thankfully we have some, acquired two years ago when the Bay Area spent 2 weeks mired in smoke from the Camp Fire). Readings dipping into moderate? Time to open the windows in hopes of a breeze cooling off your house, all while keeping an eye on the readings in case the air quality deteriorates (which it inevitably will).

The patterns of our lives the last couple of weeks have been dictated by the patterns of smoke.

What else can go wrong?

Just a few weeks ago I was thinking that we’d gotten lucky with a long string of nice weather this summer: highs in the low 80s, cooling down nicely in the evenings and mornings. I spent part of every week day working outside. And then our luck ran out.

First was the heatwave, a stretch of nearly a week where the temperature was hitting 95+ every day, on some days breaking 100. That sucked, but you could still open your windows up in the evening to bring in cooler air in preparation for the next day. And then a series of freak thunderstorms swept through (we almost never get storms, thunder or otherwise, between May and October) and set everything on fire.

Now we’ve got a fire complex to the southwest in the Santa Cruz mountains, one to the east-southeast in the hills to the east of San Jose and Gilroy, and one to the north in Napa and Sonoma (those two counties just cannot catch a break). You know a fire is big when they call it a “fire complex”, instead of just calling it a fire.

The fires are raging out of control and filling the air with smoke. Sometimes in the afternoons we get a breeze from the north that clears the air and allows us to venture outside for awhile, but as the air cools late in the day the smoke inevitably descends again. So now we’ve gone from being trapped at home by the pandemic but able to go outside, to trapped and home and able to go out in the evening once it cools off, to just being trapped inside.

It’s hard to avoid wondering what’s next. At this point it’s presumably going to be earthquakes (if our next disaster is California-themed) or locusts (if it’s biblical).