Blog: January 2011

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.

Apple Magic Mouse

I got a Magic Mouse to use with my Mac Mini a few weeks ago. This is a Bluetooth multi-touch mouse, so it's a touch-sensitive mouse but not a trackpad. This is my first experience with multi-touch (beyond having used iPhones or iPads for perhaps five minutes total).

The mouse is physically shallow; while part of my hand rests on a normal mouse (leading me to be finicky about the size and shape of such mice), if you did that with a multi-touch mouse you'd get all sorts of unwanted behavior. While on a regular mouse the only relevant interfaces are the buttons (and scroll wheel if present), with this mouse the entire surface is responsive to taps and sweeps. Lay your hand across this and you might find yourself inadvertantly scrolling, perhaps at high speed.

At first, and not having thought through all that, the low profile seemed like it would be a problem. However, it is low enough, and otherwise sized appropriately enough for my hand, that to move it I just put my thumb on one side and last two fingers on the other and go. I wouldn't have expected this, but it feels pretty natural.

Even with the touch interface it does support conventional left- and right-clicks (with actual motion and a clicking sound). It does not have buttons; you just press on one side or the other near the end (where buttons would be). Occasionally my attempts to right-click have mis-fired as left-clicks, but that's been decreasing over time so I guess I've learned to get past whatever problem I was having.

The main use of the multi-touch interface (out of the box) is scrolling. I can just sweep a finger along the mouse to zoom whatever web page or document I have open at the time. In fact, I don't have to keep my finger on the mouse; I can touch, give a quick swipe, and lift my finger and the zoom will go an appropriate amount (past when I lifted my finger) and slow down to a stop about when I expected it to. Somebody put some significant thought into that behavior (velocity modeling seems like it would be hard) and it's pretty cool. The faster you move your finger, the faster the scrolling. No documentation told me this, but before too long I learned that I could stop a scroll in progress by just tapping my finger; otherwise this would be too hard to control and I'd stick with paging. And, unlike a scroll wheel, finger-based scrolling works horizontally. Since web pages with horizontal scroll bars are the bane of my existence (accessibility rant redacted), this is a big win for me. But I bet it'll be useful in fundamentally-horizontal applications (editing audio files comes to mind); haven't tried yet.

One surprise from the scrolling: it applies to whatever window the mouse is currently over, rather than the active application. That's a little weird and I hope there's a preference I can set for that.

There is one big problem with the Magic Mouse: tracking. I was finding that sometimes it would move freely in one direction but not another, or that it would suddenly slow down a lot, and was otherwise unpredictable. I had the tracking speed maxed (unlike with my previous mouse) and there was no problem with the batteries, yet this problem persisted, intermittently. That's unforgivable in a mouse, but the multi-touch was cool so I looked for a solution. Google led me to a two-part solution: first, if behavior is erratic, pick up the mouse and blow across the sensor because of dust or cat hair (!). And second, MagicPrefs is a software add-on that not only speeds up tracking quite nicely but also allows you to program all sorts of other multi-touch gestures (which I have not played with yet). With those two changes I am satisfied with the tracking.

Using this mouse is a different experience from what I was used to, but overall it's been pretty positive.

Yitro: advice for the workaholic

In this week's portion Yitro joins the Israelites in the wilderness and immediately sees Moshe straining under the load. Moshe is doing everything himself, suggesting that he may have some combination of control issues and workaholism. And we can see how that happens -- he is the only one of the people in direct contact with God, and it's not like he's had the chance to learn any management skills. He's doing the only thing he can see to do, which is to be the person everybody comes to for answers about what God wants.

This is no good, as Yitro sees immediately. And left unchecked it will get a lot worse in a month or two when God gives the torah on Sinai (not that anybody knows that yet). If the people think there's a lot to keep track of now, well, they haven't seen anything yet.

It's hard for an outsider to come into a community and immediately set about trying to change things, and if he does we usually don't thank him for it. So what compels Yitro to try? Why is he speaking up when none of the Israelites have? One possible explanation is to remember who Yitro is: he is Moshe's father-in-law, or, put another way, the father of Moshe's wife.

Why is that important? There is a midrash about the incident where Miriam and Aharon speak against Moshe and Miriam (only) is punished with tzara'at (let's call it leprosy). The rabbis ask what happened -- what did she say? The midrash tells us that when the 70 elders went up on the mountain with Moshe and then Eldad and Meidad started prophesying in the camp, Miriam said to those around her "oh, their poor wives!". She knew first-hand that a man who attends to divine matters and public administration "from morning to night" is not paying attention to his wife and children. This is clearly not going to seem fair to the family of the prophet.

I think Yitro has the same complaint. After he supported a fugitive from Egypt joining his family and marrying his daughter, I think it's natural for him to be unhappy seeing his daughter being neglected, even if Yitro has just accepted God's superiority. He can agree about the majesty of God while still regreting what is happening to his family, his child.

Yitro has the same complaint that Miriam does, but he pursues it differently. First, he addresses Moshe directly, presumably in private. He doesn't gossip about him, nor does he ignore the problem. He knows that somebody has to bring it up and that the alternative would be worse -- if Moshe's leadership breaks down, people will take matters into their own hands, each in his own way, and this people needs a leader, not anarchy.

Second, Yitro makes it about Moshe and the people, not about Tzipporah -- he tells Moshe that "you" and "this people" can't handle the current situation. He might have another motive, but he doesn't just make it about his personal family interest, a concern that would be easier for an over-stressed workaholic to dismiss. We would hope that Moshe would also be concerned about the effect of his behavior on his family (an idea that underlies every intervention), and given time to think it through I believe he would, but Yitro brings up the concerns that are most likely to get Moshe's attention in his current, stress-filled mental state.

And third, Yitro doesn't just come to Moshe with a complaint but also with an idea for a solution. Now I personally hate the management quip that says "don't bring me your problem without a solution", because I think it's important for people to be able to go to their leaders when they don't know what to do about a problem, but it's certainly easier to get the discussion going when you can put an idea out there of how to proceed. It doesn't need to be the best idea; it just needs to start the conversation. Yitro suggests a good way for Moshe to delegate the routine work; this allows Moshe to focus on the most important problems (and on personal and family needs), and it also empowers the people under him. Instead of being all about Moshe, an unsustainable situation even without matan torah coming, this structure lets it be all about this people working together. And for bonus points, Moshe need not lose face when implementing Yitro's suggestion.

We can learn a lot from Yitro that applies in our communities and families and work-places today. Leaders can take on too much without realizing it, damaging themselves and the community in the process -- many of us aren't much better at delegation than Moshe was, after all ("no one else will do as good a job!", we say), and we need to share the work. When we see this problem in others we have a few choices. We can do nothing, which means the problem continues and probably gets worse. We can grumble about it to our friends, which feels good but accomplishes nothing and perhaps does damage to the community, depending on who hears our grumbling. We can rise up and try to take control (a la Korach), which descends into chaos when we should be building better systems. Or we can do as Yitro did: express our concern directly to the leader in question, do it in a way that the leader will be able to hear, come prepared to talk about solutions, and allow the leader to take action himself, strengthening the community instead of tearing people down.

It is impossible to live in community without encountering leadership problems from time to time. When we do encounter them, let us approach them like Yitro, strengthening the community and its leaders.

Keeping warm

Our living room has a (currently-decorative) fireplace in the middle of one wall, with L-shaped radiators on either side. (In a bit of cleverness, somebody built window-seats over those radiators.) Erik in particular likes to lie in front of these radiators, using the L shape and body curve to maximize the thermal properties of the arrangement. Even though there are two radiators he and Baldur will sometimes fight over one of them; the one on the left seems preferable for reasons known only to cats.

When Erik lies along this radiator he always orients himself in the same way, facing into the room (instead of facing the fireplace). I've gently chided him that he needs to warm the other side sometimes, but you know how cats are about listening.

But now he seems to be taking my advice: for the last few days I have noticed him not changing orientation (that would still be wrong, apparently) but alternating radiators. Ok, that works too. :-)

Unusual galactic representation

Today's entry at Astronomy Picture of the Day introduced me to the Galaxy Garden, a detailed representation of our galaxy in foliage form (1 foot = 1000 light years). Nifty! It has some very nice touches, like the gravity well at the center. If I should ever find myself in Koma I want to go take a closer look.

Spinach tart

Baronial 12th night is traditionally a free pot-luck event. I generally try to bring a main dish (knowing that most main dishes brought will be meat). This year I adapted the spinach tart from Cariadoc's Miscellany (his recipe is about three-quarters of the way down the page). For two 9" crusts I used the following:

  • 10oz fresh spinach
  • about 3/4 bunch of fresh parsley
  • about 1T fennel seed (maybe more)
  • about 1T ground ginger
  • 10 eggs
  • 8oz cheddar
  • 8oz mozzerella

(I didn't have any chevril or beet leaves.)

I chopped everything reasonably finely but I did not try to reduce it further like the original suggests. I had a little too much fennel. Next time I make it I will increase the ginger and perhaps try different cheeses; for a modern use I think havarti or parmesan would be tasty. I will also increase the spinach a bit or add another green; I was planning on 3/4 pound of spinach but didn't quite have enough.

I never know if people at potlucks will actually eat their veggies, but these both went pretty quickly so I guess people liked it. :-)

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect got lukewarm reviews when it was in theatres and I don't go out to see that many movies anyway, so I missed it at the time. Last night I remedied that with the DVD, and boy am I glad I did. (No spoilers in this post, but I can't vouch for comments.)

The story follows a college student, Evan, who had several blackouts as a child, almost always in stressful situations. The doctors encouraged him to keep a detailed journal in hopes of finding clues to the problem. Eventually Evan discovered that he could use the journal entries around the blackouts to go back in time and change those situations. Change, however, is not always good, as any veteran consumer of time-travel stories will assure you.

There are some scenes in this movie that were very difficult to watch. (One in particular: cruelty to animals is a major squick for me; that it was not shown on-screen was not sufficient mitigation.) But I found the story compelling and the characters generally believable as they morphed through changing situations.

The DVD offers the directors' cut and the theatrical release; without any advance knowledge I chose the former, figuring it would pick up a few deleted scenes but be basically the same. (While for books I usually prefer works that have stood the scrutiny of editors, for movies I tend to watch the story the director wanted to tell unless I know of a reason not to.) Later, when I was looking (unsuccessfully) for a detailed plot synopsis online to confirm a couple details of sequencing, I learned that the endings are very different between the two. Having seen the directors' ending and read about the one that showed in theatres, I am glad I watched the one I did. While much darker, it seems a much more powerful conclusion to the story.

Recommended, with the caveats about some troubling themes. Not for kids.

Musical happiness

Ah. Sometimes a piece of music just clicks.

My congregation is having a talent show at the end of this month (for the second time). Last year I wrote a song (with piano accompaniment) for it and that went well so I was planning to do the same again this year, but the muse does not always work to deadline and what I was coming up with just wasn't working. So, a little disappointed in myself, I fell back on doing a song written by somebody else. But there was a problem: I didn't have sheet music. I didn't need it for my part, but I needed something to give the pianist.

Several attempts to reach the author produced no results and I was about to hire somebody to transcribe the music from a recording (it was beyond my skills) when I got a message from her. She put me in touch with her pianist, who provided music and transposed it into a couple adjacent keys for me after we sang/played it via phone to get candidates. (For the record, F# minor is a happy key for me. F minor is pretty good too. Nothing is ever easy.)

Tonight I met with our pianist, who sight-read a reasonably complex piano score while I sang. And we both felt really good about it. Imagine what some actual practice will do! :-) (I've been practicing on my own against an mp3 the first pianist provided, which helps me but of course doesn't do squat for our pianist.) Our pianist would also like to do more with me, and would like to play more music that I've written (once I actually, y'know, do that). Nice.

This is going to be fun!

Law and philosophy

I sit on a board of trustees and was recently added to the bylaws committee. (Finally somebody listened to me when I said "I write precise technical specifications for a living and I'd like to help".) There are some changes we need to make this year, so the committee was charged with looking at everything. As long as we have to call a membership vote on bylaws changes anyway, the theory goes, we may as well try to address anything else that's posing problems.

I am in my element. :-) But it turns out that there are some "me against everybody else" differences in philosophy, so it's been educational all around. For example:

Me: This "examples" passage is just advice, not law. It doesn't belong.
Them: It's good advice.
Me: There should be no unnecessary words in law. This half-page doesn't accomplish anything.
Them: It's not like the difference between 15 pages and 14 is really going to matter.
Me: !!!

They explained that the intent of the actual law might not be clear; I said if not then we needed to clarify the law. They said people might still need examples; I said we were free to provide supplementary documents if anybody thought it was necessary. (Federalist papers, anybody?)
Fundamentally, I believe that law should contain only what is truly necessary, with the result that it is short enough that we can expect stake-holders to read, comprehend, and remember it, and so that we leave to policy what should be covered by policy.

In the end they conceded the specific point of discussion, but I don't think we have achieved understanding. My point wasn't just to win this particular argument but to bring them around to a different way of thinking. So there is more work to be done here.

Some may remember that back when the principality of AEthelmearc was forming, I was one of the ones on the law committee arguing that our laws ought to fit on on 8.5 x 11" piece of paper in a reasonable font size, too. (For the kingdom I was willing to grant a second sheet of paper.) We lost that one, alas.


Added in a comment:

Sometimes you don't need to get specific in law. Our bylaws currently say that the board meets on the fourth Thursday of every month. This has actually never been the case during my time in this congregation -- we usually, but not exclusively, meet on third Thursdays. But instead of changing it to third Thursdays, we changed it to "monthly" and empowered the president to set the schedule. (A meeting can also be cancelled if there is an insufficient agenda.)

Another case: any situation that has to be approved by the board anyway can be left vague. The bylaws don't need to spell out the rules for how sisterhood and brotherhood will elect their chairs given that the choice has to be approved, for instance. On the other hand, the rules for how to amend the bylaws must be specific and unambiguous, because there is no "higher authority" (so to speak).

So I guess what I'm saying is: sometimes leaving things up to interpretation is a good thing IMO. It allows you to react to situations instead of waiting for the next annual meeting to change the bylaws to allow whatever it was you really needed to do six months ago.

Another under-appreciated TV show

I just finished watching Day Break, which is kind of like a cross between a crime/conspiracy drama and Groundhog Day (in the science-fiction sense, not the romantic-comedy sense). The main character, Detective Brett Hopper, wakes up one morning to find he's been framed for murder, so he sets out to clear his name, uncover the truth, and protect his family (who are getting some attention because of the first two). The twist is that he keeps reliving the same day over and over again, with his memories (and injuries) intact. Changes he makes in one iteration affect the next (and can be reverted by subsequent actions).

The show was canceled after 6 episodes aired; 13 had been made and eventually came out on DVD (which I've been watching via Netflix). The final episode reaches a satisfying ending while leaving doors open; I presume it was intended to be the finale of a short season when it was made. So it fared better than many shows that get canceled early in that it tells a story rather than just the first few chapters of a story. It had potential, though, and it would have been interesting to see a second season.

The episodes that were made do not, however, provide any insight into what is causing the time loop. I wonder if we were ever going to learn about that or if it was just meant to be one of the givens of the show.