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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).

Baseball’s back

So baseball’s back. Our local stations have been showing old A’s, Giants, and Warriors games, and they were occasionally fun to watch (or at least having on in the background when you were doing other things). But they didn’t pack a whole lot of suspense: when a station is showing a “classic” game, odds are pretty good the home team won. It’s nice to have the chance to watch games that actually have tension again.

The feel of the games is certainly different. I’m glad teams have opted for background crowd noise, even if it’s fake; it would just feel weird for games to be play in near silence. And while it would obviously be preferable to be in a situation where actual people could attend games, the cardboard cutouts teams have opted for do seem like an improvement over just having empty stands. If nothing else, they give you the opportunity to scan for funny images during “crowd” shots.

You can tell it’s been quite awhile since players have been in real games; most of them look rusty (both on offense and defense). It’ll be interesting to see how players in other sports look as they restart. Our daughter is looking forward to hockey starting again this weekend (although with the Sharks out, I personally won’t be paying that much attention).

Leaf blowers are a plague upon humanity

I’ve never been a fan of leaf blowers (or, more specifically, gas-powered leaf blowers). They’re noisy, they’re polluting, and they generally just move debris around rather than cleaning it up (many of the people in our neighborhood have yard services, and they generally just seem to blow the debris into neighboring yards or into the street rather than actually clean it up).

But they’re even more irritating now that we’re all stuck working at home. Working outside is one of the few bright spots to our current remote work situation; California weather for the win. But it’s very hard to enjoy working outside with the irritating whine of leaf blowers all around you.

They should be banned as a public nuisance, and people should just pay extra for the additional time yard services needs to (quietly) rake up the debris by hand.

Enough with the calendars

Now is apparently the time of year when environmental organizations seeking donations send out calendars. Between organizations that I already support sending me calendars in hopes of securing another donation and organizations that I don’t support sending me one in hopes that I’ll start, I think I’ve gotten five or six calendars in the last month. Here’s a tip for those organizations: stop sending calendars!

First, who the heck still uses a paper calendar? We’ve reach 2020, people. I don’t even remember the last time I used a paper calendar. And even during that long ago time, it was typically completely empty and two or three months off the actual date.

Second, you’re all sending the same thing. It shows a distinct lack of imagination. Try doing something different. Perhaps something that actually requires a little bit of imagination.

Third, you’re environmental organizations. Stop killing trees to send me calendars I don’t want (and even if I did, I would need one – not five). You’re making me less likely to donate, not more.