In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Good Design and Bargains

As you consider those black Friday deals, consider this: Often as not, digital controls are just bad interface design foisted off on you to save design complexity– at added cost. Knobs are not obsolete just because we have microcontrollers that can be stuck into anything and configured in software–any more than doorknobs are obsolete because we have automatic doors, or wheels are extinct because we have robot dogs from Boston Robotics.
Sure, sometimes those little buttons buried under plastic are easier to clean, and sometimes (like on my dishwasher) they might be close to as simple to use. They are rarely however superior, and seldom worth paying extra for.
Very often, they are just annoying little beepy things you waste snippets of your life poking at when you could have just set the time (or temp, or both), hit “Start” and gotten on with living.

This is good design:

Emerald 3.2L Manual Air Fryer - Black

 This is poor design:

Emerald 1812 4L Digital Air Fryer

You might like the pretty LEDs — and that’s fine. Personal taste is a completely different matter, and you are entitled to your own. But from a design perspective, the correct way to set a temperature within a narrow range is with a knob (or slider). It’s quick, intuitive, and easy. The correct way to set an interval within a confined range is also a knob (or slider), and for the same reason. If you NEED to program your air fryer to turn itself on a week from Tuesday at two in the morning, that changes things. But you don’t. And if you need to keep splatter out of the controls, that’s different too, but unless you’re cooking chicken fingers inside a slaughterhouse, that’s probably not the case either. Requiring the user to repeatedly press hard-to-read, hard-to-press, buttons to set things by increments that could be set in an instant with a knob–indeed, with hardly a thought or glance–is poor design. And making the buttons beep annoyingly because they are so hard to press the user won’t otherwise know if they HAVE been pressed, is also poor design.
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If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

When it comes to computers, I’m not exactly a gear head. I built my own from an 8085 chip set as a kid, but these days I just want one that works. I like to get the job done, but I’m also thrifty and I don’t enjoy spending more than I really need to. Throughout the quarantine and for many years before, I’ve been using as my main home computer a cheap HP desktop I bought years ago for my wife when she needed it for a job she no longer has. It did what she needed and what I needed too until I started software development and video editing.

Earlier this summer, I decided if I was going to keep making videos, I needed to spend less time twiddling my thumbs and restarting after crashes. I bought an HP Envy with an Intel I7 processor that’s pretty good but certainly not the best to be had. I immediately doubled the memory, knowing I would need it for editing. This process was made slightly annoying by the machine, with a capacity of up to 32GB in two DIMM modules, coming with two 8GB modules so that in order to use it’s full capacity, you have to replace BOTH instead of just adding one. I don’t know if HP received the giant middle finger I mailed them,

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Benjamin Franklin Was Right

Years ago, when we first moved to Houston, I mentioned to a co-worker that we were taking the kids down to Kemah Boardwalk, a mini-amusement park run near the coast by a prominent restaurant chain, and he, being a resident of the area, spent 15 minutes telling me how hard it is to find parking and how to find the garage he usually uses. We got up early, hit the road at 9, pulled right in and up to the VIP parking rope 10 minutes before open, and parked practically underneath the Ferris wheel. People are lazy. The early bird gets the worm.
Recently, we’ve been looking for a new dog, partly to keep our little rescue terrier company when his dog sister passes away, as she’s getting a bit long in the tooth.
We’re fans of terrier mixes for obvious reasons and rescue dogs for several reasons, but anything that looks remotely Yorkieish gets snatched up by the local Yorkie rescue groups faster than you can say “Parson Russell,” and efforts to get a dog through them have proven consistently frustrating.
So I’ve been watching, waiting for a suitable dog to appear, checking the site a few times a day for months.
Last night before bed, the pickings were poor as usual. Nothing but labs and pit bulls and the odd “other kind of bull” or “other kind of hunting dog in a city that never hunts” the cross between a spaniel and a demon goat or the elder cripple wonky dog in genuine need of a loving foster hospice home, but not the family pet we are looking for, a young terrier mix of any of several varieties without two feet already the the grave and the others on banana peels.
This Saturday morning I went for a ride, mowed the grass, and came in to work on the computer,  coincidentally just as the county pound was opening for the day. As I sat down with my coffee, I checked PetHarbor, and low and behold, a new little dog appeared, days since intake:0. Someone had just logged on in the last half hour and listed a little terrier mix, female, looking just like Mr. Lucky–just what we’ve been looking for. I called to confirm they were open on Saturday and hopped in the car with Kristina, who’s a tad on the high strung side and reminded me approximately 14,000 times en route that we had to hurry, that someone would snatch that little dog before we could get there.
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Japanese Ginger Dressing

I LOVE Japanese ginger dressing. It’s always been my favorite part of visiting a Hibachi restaurant, and it’s healthy and light. But over the years, attempts to find a bottled substitute have universally failed. Most are like ginger-scented vinegar. They are without exception really, really awful.

So now that I’m the family chef, I decided to make my own, and it turns out it’s really simple:

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Pandemic Tacos

Like a lot of families, the Hardwick household spent a good part of the 2020 pandemic lock-down re-evaluating and adjusting our lifestyle. For us, a big part of that involved food. Kristina hates to cook and I never learned how, so for most of our adult lives, we’ve eaten far too much frozen or take-out meals. That ended in 2020. I started cooking, at first to take stress off of others and make the most of the foods on hand or readily available, later for health and economy and the too-often neglected in modern life, simple sociability of the evening meal.

I bought a high-quality ceramic coated wok and a Japanese knife of Damascus steel for making stir-fry. I mastered Korean Gyeran-mari (or rolled omelette), and found a new love for ready-made Indian sauces, tofu, and a host of other light and tasty alternatives to the high-fat, high-carb working man’s diet our parents learned on the farm and bequeathed us.

We will never go back. I’ve lost 50 pounds and have developed a striking intolerance for most American convenience food. But of all our improvisations and experiments, none has been as big a hit and made as enduring an impressions as my new go-to lunch, the pandemic taco.

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One Step At A Time

New writers these days are instantly awash in all kinds of advice (some even useful) but none is better, I humbly suggest, than that you don’t have to master everything all at once. This is true of writing craft, but it’s especially true of the business side of the game, from website development to marketing.

When I started writing professionally, I didn’t know much about the business, but I knew I needed to build a newsletter so that I’d have a list of people I could get news out to later when I had novels and such to sell.

At the Writers of the Future workshop, Mike Resnick gave me hell about not belonging to my local writer’s guild, and it was good advice. The Houston Writers Guild was at something of a zenith of activity at the time and I got invited to participate in a number of appearances from which I collected a tiny buy growing list of reader email addresses.

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Help Me Obi-wan! You’re My Only Hope!

From time to time, I get kind notes from readers favorably comparing my work to the classics of old. I also occasionally get messages asking how you can help promote my work and bring me one step closer to quitting the day job and doing this full time.

Well here’s something…

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If you’re tired of losing battles with yourself…

I’m no Matt Damen, but I did okay with the ladies back in the day–I guess. I was and am a nerd. I grew up in a world of books and ideas. I was that kid in the back of the class with his nose in a book to keep from having to make small talk before class, the kid in the comedy flick who never seems comfortable in his own skin, because at just over 6’1″ and adorned in whatever my mom found on the Blue-Light special, I wasn’t. I towered over the other kids, yet let myself be bullied. I avoided sports…and stayed scrawny. When I reached college with my touring bike and access to a natatorium, that all changed, but it never occurred to me I might be physically imposing until one night in a convenience store when the checkout clerk, unaware that her friend (who had come up to shout through the door and give me shit about my t-shirt) was sleeping with me, shouted her name and flashed the international standard facial semaphore for “are you fucking kidding? He’s gonna kick your ass!”

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Welcome (Back) To the Jungle

This week began our return to the daily commute, 3 days a week after 14 months fully at home. My day job is in IT, and the first thing we all noticed about working from home, everyone all the time, was the increase in productivity and reduction in stress. It took a while to sink in just how much additional time it bought us, and today, at the conclusion of my first full(ish) week back in the office, I felt the full weight of that additional time being taken away. Writing time–gone. Family time–gone. My wife comes home exhausted every day.

So today I put down the sums and added it up, for real.

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Until Further Notice…

The saddest thing I’ve seen in a while is a sign, hand-written with a beleaguered blue marker on a folded sheet of copy paper taped inside a glass door: “Closed until 7/13/20.” It had later been scratched through and updated to “until further notice.”

Double-masked, fully vaccinated, yet with no small trepidation, I ventured this morning out of the rain and into the labyrinth of tunnels underlying much of Houston’s downtown, just before 10 am, before any office workers are headed to lunch, when most stores are closed and restaurants are just starting preparations for lunch. Houston’s subterranean business district lives off this market, the lunchtime office worker rush. Aside from the many restaurants, convenience and gift shops, optometrists and printers all serve the needs of the itinerate workforce. 170,000 or so people who come and go every day of the workweek—a force that for the last 14 months has been largely absent.

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