Smoke-pocalypse

The smoke cloud that’s covering most of California is so thick overhead right now that it looks like deep dusk. We have to turn on the lights in our house, as if it’s almost night. Drivers have to turn on the headlights of their cars. The temperature is stuck at 63 degrees, because there’s no solar warming going on.

It’s really spooky.

At least the air quality here along the coast is tolerable, due to the marine layer keeping the worst of the smoke aloft.

The dark orange light outside at 11:00 a.m. It looks like late evening.

Update

The past couple of weeks have been a wild ride for me.

At work, this is always the busiest time of year because we’re getting ready for a new school year. This year is busier than usual because so many things have to be moved online. Fortunately, we were able to delay the start of Sunday school classes till after Labor Day, but even with that there’s a lot to be done.

The weather has been crazy. We had thunderstorms last week that lit wildfires all around us, and now just about the whole state of California is covered in a big smoke cloud. There are fires burning to our south — they’ve closed Highway 1 south of Half Moon Bay down to Santa Cruz because of the fires — and fires burning to our east, and fires burning to our north. There’s smoke everywhere. At its worst, the AQI peaked at over 400 in our area, then we had a couple of clear days, and now the AQI is up to about 150. Here’s a recent screenshot of fire.airnow.gov. Density of smoke plumes is indicated by the darkness of the gray overlays; the little squares and circles are AQI monitors, with green being healthy, yellow moderate, orange unhealthy, and purple hazardous; then the little flame icons show locations of fires, and the little glowing dots are potential fires from satellite imagery:

And now we have a Red Flag Warning — a warning for high danger of potential fires — because of a forecast of the possibility of more dry lightning over the next four days. Someone recently asked what a Red Flag Warning means. For me, it means: double-check your go-bag, then place it by the front door because you may only get 30 minutes warning to evacuate. Ah yes; the joys of living in a world dominated by global climate change.

Then if that’s not enough, I’ve been sitting too long at the computer — because, of course, when you work at home you have to spend hours and hours sitting in front of your computer — and my foot muscles got all cramped up; so much so that it’s actually painful to walk. I didn’t even know that could happen to my feet.

Pandemic, wildfires, and job. It would be easy to get discouraged, but I look at it this way — at least I get to work indoors.

Wild weather

Before we went to bed Saturday night, we saw a couple of flashes of distant thunder. The National Weather Service had said that moist air from a tropical storm to the south was being driven up the Pacific coast by a big, hot high pressure system parked over the southwest, and they had predicted the possibility of thunder and lightning. Since this is the Bay Area, where we hardly ever get thunder and lightning, and what we do get is inconsequential, we thought that was the end of it.

We were awakened at half pst three by lightning flashes and loud thunder and wild wind and — could it be? — the sound of rain. It never rains in the Bay Area in August, but this sounded like real rain. Then the power went out. We got up, and went around closing windows. I stood out on the back steps for a moment, just so I could feel some raindrops.

The power was still out when we awoke on Sunday morning. That meant the huge cemetery gate that closes every evening wouldn’t open. I had to open it so I could drive to work. The hand crank was missing, meaning I was stuck inside until the cemetery staff showed up. And of course it started raining again while I was out there.

Since then, it’s been muggy — by Bay Area standards, muggy means relative humidity of about 60% — and partly cloudy — we hardly ever get real clouds in August, just high fog. It feels like the New England summer days I’m used to. It’s very pleasant. I just wish we’d get another thunderstorm, but I know that’s too much to ask.

It was supposed to be a workbench

A couple of years ago, Carol got some locally-harvested eucalyptus boards from her friend Darrel in Richmond. In addition to being an architect, Darrell runs a side business turning urban trees that need to be cut down into useable boards. We traded a spare router that I happened to have on hand for a few boards.

I finally have the time to do something with these boards. First I made myself a simple workbench. The boards had cupped pretty dramatically, and I had fun scribing the parts to fit to one another. Since this was just a workbench, I nailed the base together, attaching the top with brass screws (brass is softer than steel so it won’t dull sharp tools). Flattening the top proved to be a challenge. Although eucalyptus works like poplar in many ways, the grain is so intergrown that if you plane it you get lots of tearouts. Fortunately, the local Home Despot had a demonstration model belt sander that they sold me for thirty bucks.

When I got done putting a couple of coats of spar varnish on the workbench, it looked pretty good, with the deep red of the wood, the unplaned natural edges, and the organic curving lines of the cupped and warped boards — good enough that we brought it inside, where it provides a little more counter space in our tiny kitchen.

The workbench, repurposed in the kitchen as a counter.

Now I wish I’d taken more care with the joinery. But after all, it was just supposed to be a workbench.

Improvised oil lamp

We’ve been having some warm evenings here, warm enough to sit outside in our small back patio. I wanted to sit and the patio and read, so I picked up the LED lantern we have as emergency lighting. We now have to have emergency lanterns on hand because Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has decided that in times of high fire danger, it’s cheaper to turn off power than to actually spend their shareholder’s money to upgrade their crumbling infrastructure.

The problem with LED lanterns is that you have to keep buying batteries. Plus the LED lanterns we have tend to have weird internal reflections and shadows. I looked at Carol’s collection of oil lamp parts, harvested from her scrounging expeditions, but unfortunately there weren’t enough compatible parts to make one working oil lamp.

Surely there must be a way to make a simple oil lamp without buying anything, I thought to myself. A quick Web search revealed lots of DIY plans for a glass jar oil lamp, all of which probably stem from an old Mother Earth News article on the subject.

I took one of Carol’s Mason jars, cut a piece of cotton string for the wick, and bent a piece of wire to hold the wick up, and poured in some olive oil (the only vegetable oil we happened to have on hand). The tiny wick didn’t produce enough light to read by, so I braided three pieces of string together. Now the lamp produced enough light to read by.

The glass jar oil lamp in use; I put it on an upside down clay plant pot to raise it up.

Unfortunately, with the bigger wick, the lamp produced a lot of smoke; I’d never use this lamp indoors. And the glass jar didn’t adequately shield the flame from the evening breezes, so the flame flickered and jumped, making it hard to read; in fact, I had to leave the LED lantern turned on to have enough light to read.

There’s a reason manufactured oil lamps have elaborate glass chimneys, and large flat wicks the height of which can be adjusted by a turn screw. Those technological innovations provide more light, and prevent the lamp from smoking. The glass jar oil lamp is better than nothing, so it’s useful for emergency lighting if you don’t have anything else. But with fire season due to begin soon, and with the continued incompetence of PG&E suggesting that we’re going to have more power outages this fire season, I guess I’d better bite the bullet and buy some manufactured oil lamps, with wide flat wicks and glass chimneys.

Welcome to Chaos Manor

Beginning back in the 1980s, science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle wrote a column for BYTE magazine called “Computing at Chaos Manor” which consisted mostly of entertaining accounts of his struggles with computers and other IT software and hardware. Later on his blog “Chaos Manor,” arguably the first blog ever, Pournelle continued to write about his IT struggles, though unfortunately it looks like those old posts disappeared when Pournelle moved his blog to the WordPress platform in 2011. That’s too bad, because it would be fun to read those posts today, and se whether we’ve made any progress in home computing.

This past week, I’ve felt like I entered the land of Chaos Manor.

My troubles began when my HP Laserjet 1320 started malfunctioning: it would only print a page or two of a multi-page document, then shut down. At first I suspected that perhaps I’d missed an update for the printer driver, only to learn that HP no longer issues updates for that printer; I have to rely on Apple’s drivers. I’m told that writing printer drivers is not that hard — if you’re a software engineer, which I’m not. Instead, I looked online and bought a smaller, more energy efficient monochrome laser printer for under a hundred dollars. I had grown to like the old printer, as one grows attached to well-designed and reliable tools. Plus there is still plenty of toner in the cartridge (a corollary of Murphy’s Law says that a printer will die not long after you’ve purchased a new toner cartridge), and it can still print one page at a time. So it will go to my office as a last-ditch emergency back-up printer.

Then I made the mistake of learning how to use JamKazam, a service that allows you to make music online with other people, in almost real time. The problem with making music with other people online can be summed up in one word: latency. From a musician’s point of view, latency is the lag time between musicians, measured in milliseconds. 10 milliseconds of latency is approximately equivalent to standing 11 feet from your fellow musician; for a rule of thumb, think of 1 additional millisecond of latency as being 1 additional foot away from a fellow musician. Most musicians won’t even hear a latency of 10 milliseconds; 20 milliseconds becomes noticeable and may require extra concentration; and a latency of, say, more than 35 milliseconds makes it difficult to play in synch. If you want to know more about latency, you can read these posts on JamKazam’s support forum.

Jam Kazam provides a way of minimizing the latency, but it is not a plug-and-play-music solution. As I found out very quickly. When I tried to use the JamKazam service, their desktop client gave me several error messages. After a certain amount of swearing and head-scratching, the problem proved to be in my 11 year old wifi router. I attempted a firmware update, and the router stopped working. I had a moment of panic — Carol and I both rely on our internet connection, and we’d be in deep trouble if the router went down — but when I shut the power off and rebooted the router, it started working again. Sort of. Clearly, it was time to buy a new router.

The new router arrived today, and setting it up was mercifully easy. I started up the JamKazam desktop client on my MacBook Air, and everything worked well. However, the Jam Kazam client reported that at time I was using 20% of my processor power — and that was with just me, and no other musicians. So I started up the JamKazam desktop client on my Mac Mini, which has a much faster processor, plugged in my Blue brand Snowball USB microphone — and JamKazam returned an error message. The Snowball microphone samples at 44.1 KHz, and although JamKazam claims to allow you to change the sampling rate of your microphone, it soon became clear that unless I used a USB mic with a sampling rate of 48 KHz, the audio quality would be poor. In addition, the JamKazam desktop client revealed that the internal latency of the Mac Mini was quite high; it turns out this is a known issue with Macs: the Mac sound card introduces significant latency, which can be overcome by purchasing an external audio interface for, oh, two or three hundred dollars, or more.

I had just spent $180 on a blazing fast new wifi router; that expense I can justify. I cannot justify spending several hundred dollars on an audio interface and a new microphone. I went back to the MacBook Air. Using the internal microphone, the basic latency was under 10 milliseconds — more than sufficient for me to try using JamKazam with other musicians to see if I even like the experience.

One final addition to my home office has nothing to do with information technology, though it is the biggest improvement so far. I purchased a small apartment-sized rowing machine for under a hundred dollars. I can’t type while I’m rowing, but I can sit on the rowing machine and watch webinars or even read long pieces on Web sites. And whenever I need a five minute break, there it is, ready for me. If you’re ever on a videoconference call with me, and I turn off my video, you’ll know why — I’m rowing.

Speaking of which, I’ve been sitting at my computer too long. It’s time to row.

Adventures in sourdough

We’re all sitting at home under quarantine, with time on our hands. Not surprisingly, many of us thought, Now would be a great time to bake bread. I used to bake bread regularly, back when I lived in a group house with other twenty-somethings. We’d trade recipes and tips, and I got to be pretty good at the overnight sponge method of baking bread.

Clearly, lots of other people had the same thoughts about baking bread, and maybe even the same fond memories of how they used to bake bread. Not surprisingly, then, our local supermarket ran out of yeast three weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to purchase any yeast there since.

So I decided to make sourdough. I found a method online: mix a few tablespoons of flour and water, cover with something porous, then add another tablespoon of flour each morning and evening until you have a nice foaming mess of sourdough starter. It sort of worked; the flour mix bubbled a little bit, but it didn’t foam. Then I dragged out my old copy of Joy of Cooking; Marion Rombauer suggests adding a bit of sugar along with the flour, and that made the difference. Within a couple of days, I had a pint Mason jar filled with foamy sourdough starter. Then I followed the recipe for sourdough bread in Joy of Cooking, which includes eggs and some oil, and turned out two smallish but attractive loaves.

Above: Top view of a finished loaf. At left is another loaf still cooling on our chopstick cooling rack. The sourdough starter is in the jar at top, and at top right is the coffee filter I use to cover the sourdough jar.

The loaves are moist, and have a nice crumb. The taste is quite good — there’s a faint tang of sourness, but it’s not in the least harsh. But the loaves weren’t perfect, and I think I should have kneaded them a little longer, and let them rise in the bread pans a little longer.

But then, baking bread is all about perfecting your timing. And in quarantine, I’ll have plenty of time to work on my timing.

Update, April 30: The next batch of sourdough bread came out much better!

Bluebirds

While livestreaming the Sunday service, I happened to catch sight of a couple of Western Bluebirds. After the service was over, I went out to the front garden for a little stress reduction break, and sure enough, there was a bluebird resting on the perch attached to the nesting boxes.

Thanks to my super-zoom pocket camera, I managed to get a pretty good photo of this bird:

We had bluebirds nesting in these boxes from 2016 to 2018. The nesting boxes began to split in the sun, so we had to replace them in early 2019; nothing nested in the boxes last year. I’m hoping that this bird has decided this will be its nesting site in 2020.

Maybe good news?…

Update, 3/30: We saw a BIG uptick today, to a total of 848 cases. What we saw a couple of days ago was merely an anomaly. We are still in deep doo-doo.

Update 3/31: Kaiser Permanente, my healthcare provider sent out a mildly optimistic message this morning: “Thank you for accepting the challenge of sheltering-in-place and practicing social distancing … we think it is making a difference. Calls about cold and flu-like symptoms have declined over the past 10 days. That is a good sign. It doesn’t mean we won’t see more illness….” …but at least that’s some good news.

Original post: It’s really too soon to tell, and it might just be an anomaly, but the total number of COVID-19 cases shown on a bar graph on the Santa Clara County Board of Health Web site has not been rising at the same breakneck pace in the past three days:

The bar graph showing the number of new cases also declined in the last two days. However, that graph has a lot more noise in it, and two days’ worth of low numbers doesn’t indicate a trend.

In other good news, the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic began, has “partially re-opened” according to the BBC. Now it appears that the biggest threat is coronavirus imported into the province of Hubei from elsewhere: “On Saturday the province reported 54 new cases emerging the previous day — which it said were all imported.”

We started sheltering in place a week ago. Let’s hope that by mid-May, the number of cases in California will have gone down enough that some of our restrictions can be loosened.