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Robo-woes

So, Robomaid, our Neato XV-11, seems to have finally coughed up its last hairball. Over the past year, it was giving out more frequent and more difficult to diagnose "My brush is stuck," error messages. Usually, this means cleaning under the ball bearings on either side of its brush, as well as the brush itself. About 3 months ago, no amount of cleaning would help. I finally managed to see that the shaft attached to the drive belt seemed to have accumulated hair around one end. The shaft itself is a solid piece of forged metal with no open ends, so I tried using tweezers to reach through the narrow opening and pinch hair out. This was a good idea in theory, but the tweezers weren't strong enough to pry open four years of twisted hair.

I then figured that if I could remove the bottom casing, I might have a chance of cutting away the hair completely. But even after taking out what I thought were all the screws, there was no conceivable way I could see to remove the top and bottom casing from each other. I tried this twice, once on my own and another following a video to figure out which screws I missed. Even then I was doubtful I could remove the top casing without actually breaking something. Plus, it wasn't obvious to me that the bottom casing would come free the way I thought it would, with an obvious entry to the shaft for cleaning.

An online search gave some suggestions. Among them, I tried using WD-40 to melt the hair (this seemed chemically implausible), or loosen it. This totally didn't work, although WD-40 is good to help clean out dust that might be blocking you from seeing straight down under the drive belt. I tried Nair on a cotton bud for the same purpose -- which sort of worked. Unfortunately, Nair is an opaque cream that is more trouble than help. One of the suggestions was to use a Havel's Ultra Pro Seam Ripper, which is basically a thin scalpel with a hooked end (like a very tiny halberd). Apart from the sheer fun of wielding a small scalpel, it wasn't entirely obvious to me at first how I was supposed to apply it to the shaft. What you have to do is essentially run the hooked end facing downwards to catch on and rip into the ring of hair. Any hair that comes loose needs to be tweezed out. About 2 hours of sawing later, I finally saw the glint of metal in the darkness. A test drive of Robomaid suggested she was cured.

Then I tried running it for real to vacuum our bedroom. Five minutes later, Robomaid stopped with "My brush is stuck." In a house with two cats and two people, I can sympathise if a wee robot vacuum decides to face down the dust under our bed and get a heart attack. I tried cleaning the brushes, pulling out a little ring of suspiciously beige fur from under one of the ball bearings. No dice.

At this point, even though a tiny part of my soul goes, "You cannot win overly-sensitive precision tool!", I am leaning on just getting the pros to pry the damn thing open and figure out what I couldn't. Mind you, this is cautious optimism. Robomaid has served us well for the past four or five years. But if the problem is hair, and I can't remove it, we could be looking at something that will repeat itself later. I mean, I just replaced the batteries with new ones! So a part of me wants to spend the night sawing at the drive shaft some more, and a part of me is like, "I'll just pay someone $95 shipping included to fix that in the morning." Seth leans in favour of the latter. He also suggested three months ago that I should get one of the newer Neatos, which comes complete with Wi-Fi, a mobile phone app, telescopic brushing arms (those make me go oooh!) and a better battery. Given that Black Friday is coming up, it seems a good idea to save up for that. Honestly, a second robot vacuum isn't a terrible idea. Owning one has been a real quality of life improvement. It's near impossible for me to reach into the places Robomaid could with a normal vacuum, and a normal vacuum is great for specific narrow places, but gives me tinnitus in the process. Also, cats. One of my cats is the fur of three cats. The other one seems to like rolling in dirt. And leaves. And bits of cardboard. I can see Robomaid just scanning our carpets and blaming us for all the injustice in the world from the crumbs. The crumbs!

We should just assume I come from that generation of people where electronics don't go tits up on you after five years.
For my birthday this year, we decided to head to Vegas for the FFXIV Fan Fest -- an incredibly impromptu decision that was all the more amazing in that we actually got tickets (all the tickets apparently sold out in 2 hours). I hadn't been to Vegas before, so for me it was a kind of sociological experiment. I also hadn't been to a gaming convention before, being that for the vast majority of my game-playing life, they were either a) too far or b) too expensive. That I had a buddy with me honestly helped.

Some back story here: Seth and I have been playing FFXIV 2.0 since beta, or roughly around the last 3 years. It's been the keeper MMO for us, and we've been playing a lot of different MMOs. The primary draw is the system (you can play every class/job (specialisation) you want on the same character) and in particular, the crafting. Three years in, my end-game goals are still primarily making furniture (more on that later). It's also an amazingly tight game in terms of writing consistency and bugs (or the remarkable lack of them per patch). The graphics and soundtrack are on par with the current Final Fantasy games in general, which is to say they're gorgeous. I believe the "Yoshitaka Amano designed the title graphic" thing is still alive. Again three years in, I still catch myself wandering around some zone and suddenly realising the horizon or the plants are breathtaking, even if I've passed that place hundreds of times before. Yes, it's kind of a resource hog, but it's also worth the good graphics card.

So the game is something close to both of us, and we never thought we'd ever make it to the Fan Fest, but we did.

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Adventure in the kitten papoose

 Yesterday I decided to strap Dorian into a backpack-type cat carrier and carry him to the SPCA hospital for his shots. He howled sadly for three blocks and anxiously piped down. Dor was quick to realise that shifting his weight in any one direction would cause me to tilt, so he tried to stretch out and balance his weight as much as possible. Good job, cat!

This kitten papoose thing is really neat. Technically it has a telescopic handle and wheels, but I don't trust our pavements with it. I also think that having the cat against my back goes some way towards calming him down. It is pretty big though. It's built tall enough for cats to sit up in, and in theory it's large enough for a cat to curl up rather than constantly sit in a loaf. I felt really tiny carrying this thing uphill. If it were an emergency, we could probably chuck both cats in here and go... slowly.

I don't consider carrying my cat eight blocks a terrible hardship. And it's much cheaper in the long run than maintaining a Zipcar account for those three times a year we drag the cats kicking and screaming to the vet. It also saves the amount of times I need to apologise to cabbies for my sad kitten. Mind you, I have large cats and they aren't light -- I haven't had to carry a backpack this large or heavy since secondary school, but I need the exercise. It will be... interesting when Sif's turn in this comes up. Dorian is a champion vet visitor. Sif we've heard trained technicians yell for spare hands to hold down the wailing beastie with for routine shots. 

Either way, I like the walk to the SPCA. It's nice broad sidewalks through the industrial edge of the Mission, which reminds me I have always wanted to catch a show at the local theatre companies in the area and put my name down for the Charles Chocolate hot cocoa high tea. I kept maneuvering around to keep the sun out of Dorian's face, but the weather was nice. Seth met me at the vet's to help carry Dorian home, which made it easier to share the load. 

It was the worst day ever for Dorian. But I think the seven consecutive treats went some way towards atoning for my sins...
So, Melbourne CBD. It's a weird place. Within the span of a four block radius, we've found more game, comic and anime stores than either of us could have guessed would exist in one city. The laneway shops and upper storey stores that stack haphazardly upon themselves sometimes rely on the smallest of signage -- if such a thing is even visible at street level, so more often than not, we literally walk past a store before we know it's there. Once, I spotted a guy carrying what was clearly a fresh comic store-labelled bag. A few doors down, we spot the signboard that lead us up the narrow stairwell that went totally not into a small comic store in the wall. The shop was gigantic and alphabetical, with a Previously Owned/Discounted bin bigger than the stock in some of the (what I previously thought were) large stores would have. You just wouldn't see it past the narrow stairwell from street level unless you were looking for it.

Seth found a place called Dungeon of Magic on Google Maps, which turned out to be literally a dungeon store of Magic: TG. We wandered down another basement to Minotaur, which is what I can only describe as a Tower Records of all the merch there ever was. They had sections for novels, models (anime, TV and random game franchises), DVDs, manga, a large shop in itself of comics (excellent indie section) and the best part was that it was all patronised. Like, not by a bunch of old guys people our age poking around the corners, although we were clearly represented, but also schoolgirls shopping in groups for the latest anime, families with kids buying cards and other women just picking up models to put on their shelves at home. In the span of the next 3 hours, we walked out of a Hungry Jack's and up the decrepit lift to a tiny anime store whose dusty signboard was smushed between ads for beauty parlours, and passed by what we thought was a closed board game store on the way to dinner. By our reckoning, the tiny anime store was probably surviving on mail orders, but even that store was patronised, albeit by a much more specialised breed of Idolmaster fandom than the average bear.

The closed game store, Mind Games, which we visited during business hours the next day, was definitely worth the look. a) What we thought was just another board game store was really a board and card game store, role-playing bookstore (with models) and tabletop wargame specialist (with everything); b) The wargame stuff took up a whole separate floor we once again didn't immediately spot at street level; c) Never before have I seen all the Citadel paint colours together in one store, alongside at least four other brands of model paint and equipment. I picked up two Gloom add-ons (Nightmare on Cthulthu Street! Something to do with vampires!) and Seth picked up a Warhammer40K novel, and both of us tried not to bring home 24 colours of unusual pastels or something. Yes, we could and should just mail order the paint, but they're right there in a jar if we wanted.

I think at some point, we might want to pick up souvenirs for friends. I'm told the proper way of things is to get people Tim-Tams.

Note: On the way home from dinner, a giant pink signboard happened across the street that read: "Nekocards -- Trading Cards". I now feel like there are roaming armies of M:TG and Future Card Buddyfight players all around us seekritly prepared to pull out their spell circles at the drop of a hat.

Jun. 29th, 2014

Ah, Masseuse Cat. By day, he is a fearsome predator and guard cat, killer of vermin, eater of bugs. At night, I am to be scolded to sit still so he can knead up my arms with all four feet while climbing backwards then stick his bum in my face. And then we repeat that for each arm, until he is convinced I am suitably macerated, based on his vast knowledge of Traditional Cat Medicine. Interestingly, if I have a sick belly, Masseuse Cat will make sure my stomach is carefully kneaded of its ills. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but Masseuse Cat knows best.

Meanwhile, Sif rolls luxuriously into old age, being quite happy with four meals and a nap. And belly rubs. And chin rests. And treats. And love. More love. All the love.

I plot many things I do not quite get to. I think I have frozen enough berries to last us a year. But most days I lack the energy to cook, much less make mythical cherry pies. Trying to keep us in home cooked meals is going to take rather more effort than I'm putting into this right now.

I am hoping to make a pie this week. Or brownies. I have a diabolical plan of garnishing the brownies with a small amount of shaved hard cheese and sugar. I can attest to the fact cream cheese tastes awesome in brownies. So, salted caramel cheese topping isn't that far fetched. When I do make this thing, and if it turns out good, I should bring some to the cheese guy at the farmer's market. His cheeses are magical, he chats much about cheese pairings and won't stop feeding people samples. Someday, he intends to bring out his bottle of chocolate syrup to prove that cheese really does go well with fudge sauce. Don't hate the chocolate-cheese. I convinced Seth sliced pears and cheese go well together by making a pear and cheese sandwich for dinner once. I wonder where the really bored Chinese dude who sells pears at the farmer's market went to? He's the most bored pear seller ever, but if you ignore that, the pears themselves are amazing.

You know those organic cherries in fancy bags you get from the greengrocer's? The stone fruit guy makes cherries that, pound for pound, make any cherry organic or otherwise look like green peas. Seriously humongous cherries. I could not pass those cherries and not buy them. They're twice the size of the average cherry and I swear they're just normal Rainiers and Bings. Also, he sells very nice peaches and apricots, and plums close to summer. I'm not a big fan of plums (well, in puddings and meat sauce maybe), but I do really like cooking with peaches and apricots. A long time ago, my friend desertwolf coined me up to stir frying peaches with chicken. Garlic, peaches and chicken really work. Actually, I can't think of any meat at this point that tastes bad with peaches.

Someday, I will buy a whole duck from the local organic market. Those darn things mock me from the chiller case behind the butcher every time I visit. Also, store-made bottarga. They sell duck fat by the tub. It is utter deliciousness. I bought a tub to make pie with, but I actually haven't made pie crust with it yet because I get distracted and use it in other foods. Hopefully, I make the pie before I go buy another tub. This could be a challenge.

Also, dulce de leche is caramel sauce in a can. I consider this a form of genius. Instead of butterscotch nibs, I can mix it into chocolate chip cookies, replace the sugar and satisfy my poor husband's love of caramels (they're too sweet for pure burned sugar!) all at the same time.

Did you know it is remarkably easy to write ramblings about food? It is.

Now, I must go sit on a couch and become limp, because Masseuse Cat is bored and if he gets any more bored, he'll knock things off shelves.

The secret Muslims

Two men came to my door today. They were bearded, wore cotton kaftans, one even came complete with skullcap, asked for me by my first name and wanted to let me know there was a mosque round the other side of Bernal Heights. I should feel free to visit sometime.

Here's where it gets odd. I don't have a land line, so I don't think I'm listed in the phone book. My contact info is listed on translation networks online, but none of it would be available to the public. The only place I can really think of that might list me is the business register, but you'd have to be scraping the barrel if you needed to look for Muslim-sounding names in City Hall's records. SF is diverse enough I know just looking for "Muslim-sounding" wouldn't help. People with Arab names out here don't have to be Muslim. People who look Arab don't have to be Muslims. 

Where is this Muslim informant mailing list I'm not subscribed to? More importantly, why would I even be on it? Who would cite me by first name and give my exact address? 

I'm not creeped out yet, but I am worried. There are more than enough reasons why I would never expect to open my front door to the friendly neighborhood Muslims in San Francisco, never mind ones who know and would call me by my first name. I didn't come here for this. And I shouldn't have to deal with this here-- a city I genuinely love and where I feel I am weird enough. I am not something to 'save'. I am not a lapsed  project. So what am I still doing wrong? 
Well, Internet, I have finally joined the ranks of the smart phone people. There's been a few hurdles getting here. First was the cost: How do I justify paying for data and voice per month vs. what I was paying per use before? That finally changed earlier this year, when the sheer volume of texting I do finally made that cost somewhat equal -- in fact, cheaper over time, if I paid a set plan. Let's call this the effect of two writers being married to each other.

I grew up being heavily influenced by my father's love of computers (and computer games). When I was a teenager, I scoured the annual PC Gamer bumper issue for next year's hottest video card (and video games), much to the growing horror of my mother, who realised somewhere when I was 13 that she was never going to have the daughter she'd get to dress for parties. To put it lightly, I enjoy building my desktop so it can play ever-newer games with ever-fancier graphics with ever-more lags-in-the-middle-of-a-castle-siege, with lots of explosions on top. This is in direct conflict with my responsibilities as a green citizen. How do I reconcile a love of fancy video cards with the fact that every new gadget I buy uses up more potentially illegal, exploitative or dangerous underlying metals?

Most of my daily work is for the ad industry. It's given me a healthy cynicism for most corporate green initiatives. However, over the years I've read enough, from different perspectives, to understand the kinds of opportunities our increasing dependence on electronics brings to developing countries. I was born and bred in a country that owed its boom years to this industry. It does, it has and it will continue to raise the standard of living for more people than we could ever know. I was particularly impressed, earlier this year, after reading Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls, which apart from being a riveting set of narratives, goes into some of the life-affirming aspects of rapid industrialisation for its workforce. The part that struck me most was how each migrant worker nearly always first purchases a new cell phone upon reaching their new town, and the ownership of a smart phone, with all its camera functions, dramatically changes their self-esteem. Making high-end tech products in the developing world, and slowly building the middle classes there that can afford to purchase these same products, is simply part of raising a society's standard of living. That would be the "push progress" message I've seen and heard growing up among the so-called Tiger Economies of Asia from the 90s. The message is so overwhelming, especially if you have lived in any big Asian city in the past three decades, people get kind of defensive when you raise some of the fallouts. Ruining the environment? Exploiting desperate migrant workers? But the developed world enjoys all these spoils, and how can they say we can't too?

One of the other things I keep in mind with this impasse is that for most of Asia, the environmental and social fallouts of all this industrialisation is still new. It makes sense, industrialisation, particularly as pertains the high-tech sector, for us is largely still new, take or give a few decades. The developed world warns about future losses because it's had the gains and reaped what it sowed. The developing world hasn't gone that far yet. This doesn't mean Asia is doomed to be a septic smog pit in the next century. It just means that catching up between the, "Wow, we have shopping malls!" and "Hey, our rivers have gone black!" is going to take time. Imagine if you will that my generation is possibly the first middle-classed and educated enough to indulge in 'organic', 'eco-friendly' and 'energy-saving'. Our parents did not want to live like their parents. Reconciling the genteel pastoral life with healthier living is a new concept. Now, are these ideas moving fast enough? That's hard to tell. It's clear we've already lost a significant amount of our natural resources to propel progress. That may never be recovered. I'm a hopeful person. I don't think we will lose everything. The developed world hasn't lost everything, and its countries were the guinea pigs of the Industrial Age. People adapt to their changing circumstances, it's what they do.

But how does any of this have to do with me getting a new telephone? I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. First, I looked for the most "cruelty free" smart phone out there. There's a neat company out there called Fairphone that's trying to make better, safer, greener and socially-conscious phones from the supply chain up. I'd love to get one of their phones when they hit the US, but right now, it looks like they're only catering to the European market. Samsung, it turns out, has a pretty good environmental record according to review sites. Its phones are widely available on US networks, and I have always liked Samsung's monitors. The Samsung Galaxy S4 just came out, and it has the functions I need, namely, a nice camera to post cat photos on the Internet, an intuitive keyboard and GoogleMaps with GPS tracking so I don't get lost everywhere.

Then came the problem of a carrier. Poking around brought up Credo Mobile, which openly donates part of its customers' charges to different progressive social causes as part of its business plan. Most of the causes are things I would support, they offered the phone I wanted and had the coverage I needed. My experience with them has actually been off to a fantastic start. I sent in my purchase order on a weekend, and my phone showed up on the next Tuesday. They worked with me to transfer my old phone number, from a prepaid account at a different carrier, on to my Credo account. I didn't even have to call my old carrier for all the convoluted details when we ran into a hitch, their customer representative did, I supplied some added info, and we were good. I haven't taken any life-affirming selfies yet, and I'm working on those cat photos. But I look forward to walking into Chinatown on Monday and not somehow emerging in North Beach. I might even get not lost enough to come home with tea eggs.

FFXIV Weekend

My first pizza is baking in the oven, along with mini plum and sage pot pies. I am resisting the urge to bake cookies. But you know, the oven is hot, and I might as well not waste heat. The problem is that I can't decide which cookies to make, or make first: Kampar chicken biscuits or chocolate chip?

As the title to this post suggests, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn goes live tonight. The game honestly grew on us, and took a damn long time to at that. MMOs-that-both-us-like-going-live-night is a big deal in our house. Celebration food big deal, and leftovers big deal, because, uh, we won't be able to leave our desks for a few days.

Me and Seth both got into beta (I didn't even know there was a beta till he told me), and we've kind of realised how much we like playing MMOs together, that, and we are both kind of excited about the crafting (and the classes in general). Blame it on our tragic nostalgia for Vanguard's crafting system, which is our gold standard for this sort of thing. FFXIV's crafting is somewhere between Vanguard and the assembly-line stuff that permeates the market. The classy stuff is:

a) Crafting and gathering professions are each a character class, just like all the battle classes. Mastering a crafting/gathering profession is as big a deal as mastering say, being an Archer, or a Summoner. Hitting certain levels of crafting professions opens up areas, just like it would with all the battle classes.
b) There's no limit on what classes you can take, after picking at least one to level up to 10. Cook-Fisher-Botanist-Weaver-Alchemist-Pugilist? Sure!
c) They have player housing. That means we can obsessively craft furniture, tapestries and ikebana till we drop.
d) There's crafting and gathering and battling armour -- that's a lot of crafting and exploring new areas for new ingredients to do. Also, dyes. Seth and I have an obsessive relationship with dyes. We blame it on Warhammer.
e) There are individual skills that level up with you for crafting and gathering. How cool is that?

But wait! Wouldn't it be easier for you to buy a book on crocheting and some yarn?
What. And then how do I add +1 to everything?

Also, also! Moogles! Cactuars! Tonberries...somewhere. There must be.

Un-survival

Dear World,

I have done a terrible thing. I accidentally stepped on a basement mouse. Now, it is lame. I don't know what the right thing to do is. I feel like I should keep it in a shoebox and make a little splint for it until it hopefully gets better. Or let it back out into the wild. Or snap its neck and end its misery. Seth forbade me from keeping it in a shoebox. I let it go near our back fence, where there are trees and not too good shrubbery. Maybe I should have let it go near our porch, so it could hide under our deck. Then I went back inside, and I heard one of the neighbour's cats crying somewhere above our fence. Then I went back outside, and moved the mouse -- who frankly can't walk very far -- behind a tree, where I know Dorian usually hears mices.

For all I know, I have doomed it in territorial combat with some other mouse.

I am filled with terrible feelings.

The End.

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Made baked beignets again yesterday. This time, the yeast sponge, bread dough and cut dough all rose well, but something was off in the final product. You know how health foods try to taste like normal food but don't? Not even in the way some alternative foods taste good in their own right, but things like health-food crackers, which look similar to crackers yet have the brittleness of shale and a flavour not too far distant. Beignets should taste like Paula Deen food. They should be like little squares of suicide notes that you can't stop eating. Think of funnel cakes. Beignets are the bread versions of funnel cakes.

My baked beignets tasted like leavened bread squares, lacking in any richness and which powdered sugar could not save. I think that baked beignets are still possible, but only if we reverse engineer them to make up for the fat that goes into deep frying. I'll be frank here -- I like deep fried foods, but I don't have a kitchen that would fare well with deep frying. Too much wood flooring and 100-year-old plaster than I care to wipe down. This would be seriously beyond the capacity of any spatter-proof lid to hold back as well. So a reverse engineered baked beignet would require a few modifications. Heavy cream and evaporated milk instead of just 'milk'. Lots of butter. Eggs. Enough eggs to make challah. Really, I imagine the ideal baked beignet to be closer to mini-brioches with sugar on top. Like so.

The recipe I linked to, above, calls for shortening. I can't abide Crisco -- it just smells and taste weird. So we're looking at either beef tallow (time to collect broth fats...) or butter. Given how I felt the beignets didn't rise enough both times I baked, we're looking at tallow. Or combination tallow and schmaltz? Oooooh.