Upgrading from Pixel 1 to Pixel 4a

I recently upgraded from a Pixel (the original 1st Gen) to a Pixel 4a. The Pixel 4a is a perfect successor to the Pixel 1 if you like the Pixel and just need a newer phone.

In 2016 I bought an original Pixel when they came out to replace my beloved Moto X (1st Gen). It’s been a great phone for the past 4 years but in the last few months the battery life has deteriorated to the point where the phone was almost unusable, often turning itself off while reporting 35% battery remaining. This despite it almost never leaving my house with a strong wireless and WiFi signal because of the pandemic.

The Pixel did everything I wanted it to do and had all the features that I wanted — including a headphone jack — and none of the ones that I didn’t. Despite some recent consternation with Google I still think the Pixel phones are the way to go when buying an Android phone. But the Pixel 4 and 5 are physically huge and expensive. And of course no headphone jack.

Enter the Pixel 4a. Physically it’s identical to the Pixel in size with a much larger screen thanks to the almost-bezel-less design. It still has the headphone jack (yay!). And because they took out all the expensive Pixel 4/5 stuff I don’t care about (wireless charging, Active Edge, Face Unlock, waterproof) it’s much cheaper than the Pixel 4 or 5.

The Pixel 4a is a nice step up in camera, newer generation CPU, and the battery life is truly amazing, although it’s hard to objectively compare with my dying 4-year-old Pixel. Full hardware spec details available at phoneArena.

After using my Pixel 4a for two weeks now, I couldn’t be happier with it as a successor to the Pixel 1.

Granny Dot’s obituary: corrected

My birthday always brings my Granny Dot to mind (her 94th birthday was the Thursday prior) and I remembered an important omission in her obituary that bears correcting. My additions in bold.

Dorothy Birkelbach

Dorothy Lois Birkelbach was born in Littlefield, Texas, to Walter and Thelma Timian on November 5, 1926, where, according to her, “on the corner where the First Baptist Church is now.” She departed this life to be with her Heavenly Father on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

Dorothy attended Littlefield High School and Draughon’s Business College in Lubbock, Texas. She became a military bride on June 9, 1943, when she married 2nd Lieutenant Werner W. Birkelbach. She manned the home front while Werner went to war.

After Werner’s discharge from the Army in 1945, the couple returned to Littlefield where they started a family and founded Birkelbach Machine & Pump in 1955.

Dorothy was a devoted wife and mother. In addition to raising their three children, she and Werner welcomed nieces and nephews into their home at various times to help out their extended families. She loved to cook, and everyone was always welcomed at her table. She was a talented seamstress and enjoyed needlework and ceramics.

Dorothy was active in the Littlefield First United Methodist Church as long as she was able, singing in the choir and teaching adult Sunday School.

Werner was an avid sail plane pilot, and Dorothy loved to accompany him to soaring competitions where she made many friends in the soaring community. She once pulled an empty sail plane trailer from the Mexican border to Canada while Werner and his friends sailed along the ridges of the Rocky Mountains, stopping when they landed at various airports along the way for fun and fellowship.

Dorothy loved to fish with her family and friends on Lake Buchannan, Texas. She and Werner hosted many “Grandkid Camps” there. Her favorite food was fried catfish.

She was “Granny Dot.”

Dorothy is survived by her daughter, Terri Peel and husband, Bruce of Austin, Texas; her son, Randy Birkelbach and wife, Ede of Collinsville, Oklahoma; seven grandchildren, Casey Peel and husband, Dr. Daniel Nidzgorski of Seattle, Washington, Kelly Peel of Spicewood, Texas, Jonathan Peel and wife, Lindsey of Cedar Park, Texas, Staci Hamilton and husband, David of Lehigh Acres, Florida, Shelli Myers and husband Brian of Montgomery, Texas, Phil Birkelbach and wife Shannon of Waller, Texas, and Steven Birkelbach and wife Brandi of Pilots Point, Texas; eleven great-grandchildren, Kooper, Isabelle, Miller, and Weslie Peel; Dustin Gibbs, Clint and Hunter Hamilton; Jared and Charlie Myers; and Chase and Kaden Birkelbach; her sister, Betty Wilkinson of Littlefield and numerous nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her parents, Walter and Thelma; husband, Werner; and son, Kenny.

Break Glass List

Today I’m working through my Break Glass list, a tool that has helped me deal with some almost-overwhelming anxiety the past few weeks. I learned about this mental health tool a few months ago from my BFF Jonobie who in turn learned it from her therapist.

A Break Glass list is simply a list of things that help ground you physically or mentally. Things that, were we not overwhelmed and just a bit down, we might do anyway. But when our systems are overloaded it’s hard for us to think of those simple things which is why we have this list made in advance. Then when we’re feeling overwhelmed we only need to remember one thing:

In case of emergency, break glass.

I keep my list in a Google Keep document that I can readily access from my phone or computer whenever I need it. Here’s my list, which is very me and likely not useful to you as-is but might give you some ideas:

  • Listen to Working Girl soundtrack
  • Close your eyes and take deep breaths
  • Text Jonobie or Jeena
  • Stretch
  • Drink water
  • Eat something
  • Step away from the computer / phone
  • Go get a Sonic cherry coke

The trick is making this list in advance so you have it when you need it.

Granny Dot would have been 94 today

My Granny Dot, who died in March, would have been 94 today. I was born two days after her birthday and every year when I called her to wish her a happy birthday she would wish me one as well.

IMG_20150412_130126254Today I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies in her memory. The irony is that while I’m certain she made chocolate chip cookies at some point, I remember all the other types of cookies she baked over the years. Marfa Light cookies, Cowboy cookies, Oatmeal and Raisin cookies, and more. But the joy was in the baking and in the sharing the result with people she loved, and I think she would have been delighted in a chocolate chip cookie today.

Happy Birthday, Granny. I love & miss you!

Pie and pottery

This weekend started my week-long staycation and I jumped right into the baking and throwing.

In the kitchen I decided to conquer the fabled braided crust after being inspired by my friend Habib’s beautiful crusts and a pumpkin pie seemed perfect for the season. Despite a panicked moment where I forgot how to braid (seriously brain?) it turned out really well! I see more of these in my future.

PXL_20201101_205156286

In the pottery studio I trimmed the spoon rests and small bowl I threw last week. This was easy and uneventful just as I was hoping it would be. I then started into the three pieces that we need around the house: a tea steeping lid for Daniel and pots for our two carnivorous plants.

After brewing his tea, Daniel has been using plastic take-out container lids on top of his mugs. This will never do – we are not barbarians. I mean, how hard can it be to make, it’s essentially a small plate with a rim. Clearly a plate thrower I am not because I re-learned the lesson: throw plate-like-things on bats. After throwing bowls for so long I got use to throwing them directly on the wheelhead and you just can’t with plates and get them off intact. Lesson (re)learned.

We have two carnivorous plants in the house which are both pretty and help keep the fruit-flies in check. Unlike other plants, carnivorous plants need to sit in water. For both plants we’ve been using, again, random plastic containers we’ve had available so I set out to throw some short wide cylinders for them. We will probably still keep them in the black plastic pots — the last time we tried to transplant some it went poorly — but it’ll be a step up.

I opened up into the Pine Lake White clay and it threw like a charm. It’s much less groggy than the Columbia White and I’m looking forward to throwing some more with it.

Home pottery studio

After being on backorder for 5 months my new Brent C pottery wheel arrived yesterday. Thus begins the start of my first home pottery studio.

I’ve been throwing pottery for something like 15 years now, but always in a studio. First Clayways in Austin (which has since become Austin Pottery), then Pottery Northwest here in Seattle. I was taking a class two years ago when I ruptured my bicep tendon in March. Then life happened. Then the pandemic. I ordered a Brent C wheel from Seattle Pottery Supply back in May but the manufacturer was on backorder. Little did we know the backorder was going to be 5 months long!

The wheel arrived yesterday and I picked it up with the help of friends with a truck. I came home with 2 bats, 2 plaster wedging boards (one for dark and one for light clay bodies), three different kinds of white and white/buff clays, and a stool.

Today I threw for the first time in 1.5 years with an entirely new setup and new clay. So I went to my go-to “remember how this works” pieces: some spoon rests and a bowl.

It’s going to take me a while to figure out how to work well in this new space. Using Daniel’s woodworking bench for wedging went way better than I had hoped. The throwing itself went great and I look forward to testing out the other two clays I got — Columbia White was groggier than I like. Cleanup didn’t go as smoothy as I wanted though and it’s going to take some time to figure out. I need to get a clock and radiant heater for the garage. I also need to store the clay inside (because wow cold clay is cold) but having warm water while throwing was really nice!

I’m super excited to get to play in the mud this winter with the convenience of a short walk to my garage!

Nothing beats voting in Washington

Voting in Washington state is the gold standard for how voting should be done. It’s safe, secure, insanely convenient, and encourages informed voting.

voting-ballotsWashington state is a vote-by-mail state so everyone votes by mail in every election. A few weeks before the election you receive a ballot in the mail addressed to you by name. You open it, fill in some bubbles, put it into the provided return envelope, sign the envelope, and drop it in a US Postal Service mailbox — no stamp required. Unlike some states, which must receive your ballot by election day, in Washington your ballot must be postmarked by election day.

Or you can put it in one of dozens of official ballot drop boxes across the state. King County alone has over 70 drop boxes and 94% of King County’s 2 million people live within 3 miles of a drop box. Ballot drop boxes are open from when ballots are mailed until 8p on election day.

Once the elections office receives your ballot, your signature on the envelope is matched with your voter registration. If it doesn’t match, the elections department will reach out to you and confirm it’s from you. If it does match, your voting record is updated to indicate that you voted — allowing you to confirm online that they received your ballot. The envelope is then separated from your ballot. This way who you voted for is still confidential and not tied to you. The ballot is then tabulated and retained as a paper trail if ballots need to be recounted.

It’s literally that simple. You get something in the mail, you fill it out, and you send it in. You can vote from the comfort over your own home with a beverage of your choice in hand.

You don’t have to:

  • take off work
  • find your polling place
  • stand in line
  • remember which propositions you were against
  • remember which candidates with similar names you wanted to support
  • navigate confusing electronic voting interfaces
  • worry the voting machine marked your ballot incorrectly
  • worry about someone hacking the electronic voting machine
  • request an absentee ballot
  • be around people in a pandemic

But it gets better. Yes, really.

voting-pamphletsIn Washington state about a month before the election every household receives two voter’s pamphlets. One from the state and one from the county. The state pamphlet contains information about state-wide elections, including bios on every candidate running for office (submitted by the candidates) and information about every measure on the ballot. The county pamphlet contains similar information for the county and city measures, again with bios on every candidate running for office and information about every measure on the ballot.

Picture it: it’s a lazy Sunday morning and you sit down at the kitchen table with a muffin, a cup of coffee, your ballot, a pen, and the voter’s pamphlets. You read over the ballot measures and candidates, mock Goodspaceguy, do some googling on candidates, laugh along with The Stranger’s voting guide, maybe even look up some endorsements. Fill in a few bubbles on your ballot, put it in an envelope, seal it, sign the back, mosey over to your local US mailbox or county ballot box, and drop it in. Congratulations, you have successfully participated in democracy in your pajamas.

This. This is the pinnacle of voting.

If you don’t have this already, demand it from your state government. There is no reason for your state not to adopt the same thing as Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii — besides voter suppression, disenfranchisement, and cronyism.

Demand it from your state representatives.
Demand it from your state senators.
Demand it for democracy.

Peanut Butter & Oat Protein Bars

During the workday I always end up needing a snack around 3p. Before the pandemic that would often be a Kind Bar or Larabar. Since I’ve been working from home during the pandemic I’ve been iterating over making my own no-bake protein bars and here’s the recipe I’ve settled into.

Several of the recipes I found online included a large amount of sugar — one recipe called for a cup of maple syrup! — so I’ve tried to reduce the overall sugar in these.

Peanut Butter & Oat Protein Bars

  • 2.5c cut rolled oats
  • 0.5c yellow pea protein powder
  • 1c creamy peanut butter
  • 0.5c almond milk
  • 0.25c agave

Mix dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. In a sauce pan, add remaining ingredients. Warm and stir until fully incorporated and add into bowl with dry ingredients.

Using your hands mix everything together, pour into a 8×8 pyrex dish, and pack the mixture down well. Place in refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes, then cut into 12 bars.

Store these in the fridge until you’re hungry in the afternoons!

Estimated nutrition value per bar

  • 254 calories
  • 22.7g carbs
  • 12.5g fat
  • 12g protein

Plex and Sonos

With the death of Google Play Music I needed another way of managing my music library and playing it through our Sonos system. We opted to go with Plex and in general it has been a good experience.

Plex

We have a Mac Mini hooked up to our TV for those times we want to watch something on YouTube or some other service that our not-very-smart TV doesn’t support. This was clearly the logical choice for the Plex server as it is always on and has worked really well.

I keep a copy of my music on my main laptop. Despite not using Music (formerly iTunes) to play music, I use it to manage my music on the filesystem. When I purchase music (now from Bandcamp or Amazon if I can’t find it there), I import it into Music and then run an rsync script to refresh the copy on the Mac Mini. Plex automatically picks up the changes and my music is ready for playing.

After some work I was able to import my playlists from Google Play Music (GPM) into Plex as well. See my GPM playlist reconstructor and Plex playlist importer gists for some python code to help get you going in the right direction.

Now I can access music, including all of my playlists, from my phone and any web browser.

Sonos

Being able to play my music through our Sonos system is one of my primary use cases and one of the reasons why YouTube Music is such a poor substitute for Google Play Music. Plex integrates nicely with Sonos without requiring a Plex Pass.

When I first got Plex and Sonos connected two months ago everything worked perfectly. Then a few weeks ago Sonos stopped reliably finding my music which was incredibly frustrating. When the Sonos couldn’t see the Plex library I was still able to access the library from the Plex mobile app and the web interface. Indeed, everything except Sonos seemed happy to talk to the library.

We did all of the usual things like rebooting the devices. I followed the Plex and Sonos troubleshooting docs both from Plex and from Sonos. I even tried upgrading the Sonos system from S1 to S2 to no avail.

Eventually I found this Plex on Sonos forum post which goes into a lot of details about the nuances of how the two devices connect. We had a 9-year-old Netgear WNDR4500 wireless router that in theory supported UPnP but it didn’t seem to be working to allow Sonos to reliably access the Plex library. I set up a manual port forward which seemed to make things slightly more reliable but didn’t fix the problem.

Eventually out of frustration I bought a brand new TP-Link AX1800 wireless router to replace the Netgear and suddenly everything just started working and has been rock-solid for a week now. No special configuration & no fuss.

So if you’re having trouble getting your Sonos to talk to your Plex library and are using an old wireless router, consider upgrading it.

Accessibility of Unicode as styled text

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other internet sites often lack the ability to style text, like making it bold or italics. Some “clever” people have discovered ways of abusing Unicode to make the appearance of styled text with these sites. Unfortunately doing so renders the text completely inaccessible by users of assistive technology.

You might have run across an Instagram profile, Facebook post, or tweet that includes styled text and wondered how the person did that. They probably used a site like YayText [which I’m loath to reference at the risk of encouraging its use]. These sites take a string of text as input and present the user with what visually is the same text but styled in a variety of ways. How does this work? To explain that, we need a brief primer on Unicode.

Unicode is a technology standard that allows computers to encode and represent hundreds of thousands of characters, letters, and symbols used in over 100 world languages. It allows computers to differentiate between the English letter K (U+004B) and the Greek letter Κ (kappa, U+039A) because while they are visually similar — at least in many fonts — they are two very different letters and mean two very different things.

But Unicode supports more than just languages, it also supports mathematical symbols including a whole slew of alphanumeric ones. These mathematical symbols are intended to be used for math texts and are semantically different than their Latin counterparts. Said another way: just because the 𝐴 looks like an italic A doesn’t mean it is one.

Why is this important? Is this just a language nerd getting uppity about incorrect use of Unicode? It matters because beyond being semantically incorrect, using Unicode in this way renders the text completely unintelligible to assistive technology like screen readers.

When a screen reader encounters 𝐴 (U+1D434), it will read it as “mathematical italic capital a” because that’s what it is. It isn’t the English letter A (U+0041) that is italic. Which means that the string “apples 𝐴𝑁𝐷 bananas” will be read to the user as:

apples mathematical italic capital a mathematical italic capital n mathematical italic capital d bananas

The video in this tweet by @kentcdodds does an excellent job of demonstrating just how horrible this is for people with screen readers.

While I can certainly sympathize with the desire to add style and emphasis to help convey emotion in written form, let’s not do so at the exclusion of others.

Thank you to this StackExchange question & answer for confirming my suspicions and providing the video link when I was investigating this back in July.