Blog

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Light takes

From a friend: just because something has a name doesn't mean it deserves a name. Exhibit A: consecotaleophobia. Exhibit B: Zymarikaphobia.

Seen on the net; source unknown:

Image without description

Transcript:

Lost Roomba!!!

(Photo)
His name is "Higgins". 35cm /9cm high / 2.8kg
DOES NOT BITE!!!

Roomba app info:
Battery: 3%
Dust bin: 190%

My husband left our bungalow door open and our Roomba escaped!!! We followed his cleaning track for 4 Km down to the beach where we lost his trail. Higgins can not swim!!! Please help us bring Higgins back!

(Tear-off strips with contact information)

Licenses: only as strong as the will to enforce them

I realized, while doing some digital housekeeping, that Stack Overflow Inc. is using some of my writing, without attribution, in violation of the Creative Commons license under which they obtained it. To correct it, I would have to file a DMCA takedown demand, which would require me to be in contact with them and their lawyers, which is icky quite aside from any retaliation they might engage in. I don't currently have the will to deal with that, so they get away with violating my copyright and license.

I'd likely be ok with them using it, at least on the public sites, with the required attribution, and if they do so for other people's work they've taken, too. (I know I'm not the only one, because one of mine is in turn built on something by someone else.) I think they're banking on the fact that engaged users don't tend to mind and people they've driven out don't want to take on the burden of securing a correction. Such things do a lot more damage to the individual than to the corporate behemoth, after all. In their younger days they would have readily done the honest and ethical thing, but these days?

They can get away with it because they can make things unpleasant. But having noticed it, I can also note it here.

Pardoning turkeys

On the way to Thanksgiving dinner we found ourselves wondering what happens to the turkey that the US president pardons each year. We were both under the impression that the president is presented with two turkeys, one of which gets pardoned and one of which becomes dinner. I said I thought the pardoned bird went to a zoo or some such, and that it would be wrong for it to go back to the farm where it could become somebody else's dinner.

We talked about the similarity to the two goats on Yom Kippur, one of which becomes an offering and the other of which is sent to Azazel. I pointed out that neither of those goats gets out alive (though they at least serve a holy function), and said I didn't think the turkeys worked like that.

When we got home I looked it up, and found that we were both wrong on several points. (I blame that West Wing episode, though perhaps my mistaken impression predated it and I shouldn't.)

The president is presented with one turkey, not two. There is a backup turkey, in case something unfortunate happens to the first one. (Still on the goat theme: like the backup wife for the high priest on Yom Kippur? Topic for another day...)

This turkey is presented by the National Turkey Federation. (Today I learned that there is a national turkey federation.) This started in the 1940s, apparently as tribute. They ate the turkeys until sometime in the 70s, when presidents started sparing them. The regular ceremonial pardon started with Bush the First (though it also says Reagan pardoned one).

I hadn't thought about this at all, but there is a selection process where a pool of candidate turkeys is filtered on not only size and appearance but also tolerance of loud noises, flashes, and large crowds.

And yes, the turkeys end up at various places where they will not become food.

Filkcast

Eric Coleman hosts a weekly filk podcast, FilkCast. He wrote me recently to ask if it was ok to include On the Mark's music. Twist my arm, I said. :-)

Today's episode includes our recording of "Flowers for Algernon", written by Kathy Mar. It also includes one of my favorite Bill Sutton songs, "The Pilot's Eyes", and a bunch of other songs both classic and modern. I'm glad that this music is getting heard beyond filk circles at SF cons, and glad that I got to be a small part of it.

Fae shifter knights (Zoe Chant)

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, someone shared a link to a blog post from Zoe Chant, who -- because we were all suddenly in lockdown and dealing with extra stress -- offered a free e-book of hers to anyone who asked. I asked, she described a few options, and I chose Dragon of Glass, the first book in what would be the Fae Shifter Knights series. I loved it and got each of the following books as they came out. The fourth and final book just came out a few weeks ago, so I'm finally getting around to writing about them.

As implied by "fae", the knights (one per book) are from another world or realm. They're transported, one at a time, into modern-day Earth, and have to learn about magical cooling boxes and lights without flames and smartphones and television -- and social conventions. I enjoyed the fish-out-of-water aspect, laughing not infrequently. It would be easy for this to be overdone, but it's not.

The knights were one fighting band on the other side, where their world fell to evil magical beings. Somehow, during their final battle, they were frozen in glass and sent into our world. (That's explained, but it would be a spoiler.) Each knight has a corresponding person in our world, a "key", who can help unlock that knight's magic (which is greatly diminished in our world). Each of the four books focuses on one of the knights while contributing to the overall story. When I started reading Dragon of Glass I thought I was getting some light-hearted fluff, but there's more depth to the series and I found the larger story engaging.

As implied by "shifter", each knight has an alternate, magical form -- dragon, unicorn, gryphon, firebird. (When they were frozen in glass, it was in those forms, at the size of tree ornaments. The set got broken up; part of the quest for the knights and keys already here is to find the other ornaments.)

Aside: There is a whole genre of "shifter romance" that I was largely unaware of two years ago. These books, and many of Zoe Chant's other books, are in this genre. There are definitely romantic elements (and some sex scenes), but as someone who's not really into romances, I didn't find it overdone or intrusive. It was just part of the story -- not the reason for the story like (as I understand it) with some mainstream romances.

The knights have a leader and mentor, a "fable" -- not a fairy, as the character keeps insisting. (At a foot tall and with wings, you can understand the confusion.) As a reader I had more trouble connecting with this character than with the knights and keys, though the fable does get some funny, snarky lines. (Part of my problem is a personal one: the number mismatch of singular "they" trips me up as a reader, every time, even when I know who the referent is. My brain treats it as a runtime exception or something. I've tried to overcome it, but have not yet succeeded.)

The final book, Firebird of Glass, was heavier than the others (as was the end of the third book). The series has been building toward a final confrontation (the forces that took over the knights' world want ours too), and at times the book is sombre and grim. When I started the book I had predictions, expectations, of how this final confrontation was going to end; partway through the book I developed different predictions -- and in the end the author surprised me with something I never saw coming but that felt right.

I enjoyed the series, and I think some of my readers would, too.

Tainted elections

Stack Overflow (Stack Exchange) has been faltering for a while for a variety of reasons that boil down to "still don't know how to work with rather than against their communities and power users". Even so, I'm surprised to see three corrupted moderator elections in a span of two weeks, one of them on the one site they actually kind of care about, Stack Overflow.

First up is a Stack Overflow election. I became aware of this incident when I noticed an extreme spike in view stats for Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk on one day and looked around to see what might be causing it. During the voting stage of the election (the second week, after a week for nominations), the moderators and community managers (SO employees) jointly decided to remove a candidate. They did not suspend the user, so this is already on very shaky ground -- the community is supposed to choose its moderators from candidates who meet the eligibility requirements, which this candidate still did. Now, this candidate had done something problematic, and if they had suspended him for it then his candidacy would have been revoked legitimately, but they decided it wasn't bad enough to suspend over.

They didn't stop there, though. They announced on their meta site that the candidate had been removed, they talked about the allegations, and they did all of this before talking with the candidate. Their reasoning was that they had to make a prompt announcement so that people who had already voted would know to review their votes. Except, no -- they didn't need to do that. SO is fully capable of pausing an election; they only needed to announce a pause (without removing anyone), discuss it with the candidate, and reach a resolution -- like letting the candidate gracefully withdraw. SO recently restarted an election on another site, so there's already precedent for intervening in the timeline for extraordinary reasons.

I would think that "we'd like to avoid smearing a user in public" would count as extraordinary reasons, but apparently not. The candidate returned a day or two later, having suffered a local Internet outage in his part of the world. Imagining getting back online, going to a site you care enough about to want to lead, and seeing that. Cringe.

It was completely avoidable, had the community managers running things cared to avoid it.

Read more…

Ballot problems

Here in Pittsburgh, voting by mail in 2020 and in this year's primary was smooth for me. Ballots were mailed in time, the process was smooth, tracking worked. Naturally I assumed that for the minor off-year election today, the same would be true. Boy was I wrong.

My ballot was spoiled on arrival. It had my name printed on it (uh, secret ballot anyone?) along with a bar code. (Photo at end of post.) It was printed across part of the ballot, obscuring some candidate names. There were no return envelopes, neither the secrecy envelope nor the outer one with identifying info (the one you mail). Just this misprinted ballot in an envelope sent to me.

I visited the URL printed on that envelope and submitted a support ticket. Crickets. Later I called the phone number listed there. When I finally reached a human, the person said "oh you've reached the state; you need your county". So I tried to track them down. No luck.

It was now a week before the election. No time for a replacement ballot to arrive and be received back. I looked up how to vote in person (and confirmed their Covid protocols).

I want to interject that the people at my polling place today were great. This isn't their fault. They did everything they could to deal with this problem not of their making.

I learned this morning that this ballot misprinting happened to other people too. Mine was the first case in my precinct at my polling place, so they had to look up the instructions for handling a surrendered mail-in ballot. I had brought everything I received, as instructed. I filled out the form. Then they saw in their documentation that I had to hand over the ballot and the two return envelopes. The return envelopes I never got. We all agreed that my name being printed right on the ballot ought to confirm my ID for validation purposes (that's why they want the outer envelope, where my name should have been printed), but we didn't feel safe relying on logic. This is government, after all.

They offered to escalate so I could vote now but said that could take a while -- how long could I wait? I was on my way to work (I now go to the office one day a week). Fortunately my workplace is flexible that way, but I still didn't have another hour to spend on this at the time. I considered leaving and coming back after work, but figured anybody who could help worked 9-4 or something like that and wouldn't be available anyway.

So I cast a provisional ballot. I'm assured it will be counted some days hence. I have a tracking number. This still feels very wrong.

Even though my vote will probably be counted, even though it probably doesn't make a difference this time, I feel disenfranchised. What happens in the mid-terms next year when people are more motivated to place hurdles in front of voters? What happens to voters who are likely targets (like immigrants) or have mobility challenges or who lack confidence in standing up for their rights? I'm a white professional in the heart of a very blue city (albeit in a purple state) who had the time and perseverance to try to chase this down after the bad ballot arrived. I have way more advantages than many, and I failed. What hope did others have?

The problem wasn't at the state level where most of the attention is, and it wasn't actual election tampering as far as I can tell. It was an error made by the county that affected an unknown number of people. Nobody's watching counties in all the election shenanigans. I'm in Allegheny County, not voter-suppression-ville. This was an accident, but I couldn't get it corrected.

Brr.

Photo: Read more…

Facebook outage

As the whole Internet knows, Facebook and other stuff they own were all down for several hours a few days ago. They were off the network entirely: DNS couldn't resolve their host names. A post from Cloudflare describes what happened from the outside, including explaining how some of the key parts work (like BGP and Autonomous Systems, terms I learned this week), and a post from Facebook explains what happened inside. Read more…

Trope Trainer

Trope Trainer is a software package for working with Hebrew cantillation (trope). You can use it to view, listen to, or print the weekly Torah reading (or parts thereof), weekday readings, holiday readings, etc. As the "trainer" in the name implies, one of its purposes is to teach the cantillation system -- or, I should say, systems, because there are regional and other variations.

I didn't use it for that because I already know (my community's) cantillation system; while occasional curiosity might lead me to ask it "hey, how does the Lithuanian tradition chant this?", in practice I haven't. No, what I use Trope Trainer for is to print legible copies with the vowel markers and trope markers. These are useful for practicing and, when I know in advance so I can print it, for checking the reader during the service, because the scroll used for readings does not have vowels and trope marks. (There is always somebody following along during a Torah reading to correct the reader in case of mistakes.)

Back in August, somebody in my minyan asked me to be his checker the following Shabbat, so I launched the program to print a copy. But the program was stuck at "checking for updates", a state that had previously passed so quickly that I wasn't used to seeing it. If I cancelled, the program crashed. Repeatedly. A little digging revealed the probable cause: the company went out of business and their domain isn't there any more. Presumably the software is checking a now-dead URL and the programmers didn't handle failures. (There are other reasons the service might not be available, so this isn't just "didn't consider the company might die".) Read more…

Short takes from the high holy days

My synagogue hired a cantor for the high holy days. (We don't currently have one otherwise.) He's a friendly fellow, obviously very experienced, and very "performative" -- which some people liked but isn't to my taste. (I felt like I was at the theatre.) Unfortunately it's not just a matter of taste; elaborate chazzanut that you can only listen to is fine in a traditional setting, where it's in the cantor's repetition of the central prayer, but the Reform movement did away with repetitions. When there's only one trip through the prayer, everyone saying it together, and it's being led in a way that precludes me saying it, that's a problem. After Rosh Hashana evening and morning were like that, I decided not to go back. (I later skimmed the video of the second-day Rosh Hashana service, which started as a minyan-style service but drifted, and it was more of the same.)

For Yom Kippur I went to Chabad, like I did last year. Night and day -- I felt included from the moment I walked in, I was able to focus on the kavanah, intentions, behind the prayers, the more elaborate melodies didn't impede my own prayer because they were separate from it, a lot of the singing was accessible even with unfamiliar-to-me melodies, and there was plenty of way-finding (page numbers, quick explanations, etc) so people didn't get lost.

All are welcome, all included, on Yom Kippur, the machzor (special prayerbook) says, even transgressors, even that guy. Even me. Read more…