Blog: June 2017

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.

Astronomical puzzle

Unless you're on the equator, neither the earliest sunset nor the latest sunrise of the year is on the winter equinox (source). In Pittsburgh, the earliest sunset is usually around December 9 or 10. People who keep Shabbat tend to notice this.

This happens because apparent solar time doesn't line up exactly with mean solar time. The day isn't consistently (or exactly) 24 hours long, and "noon" usually isn't exactly 12:00. Plus there's some shift because of latitude. Fine.

I wondered why there wasn't a corresponding effect at the summer solstice, and played around with this slider to map it out. There actually is an effect, but it's much smaller -- the earliest sunrise was parked at the same time (rounded to the minute) from June 10-19, and the latest sunset is parked at the same time from June 23 - July 1. So in the week or so surrounding the solstice there's barely any change, while in December the boundaries more more visibly. The latest sunset is June 23 which is barely past the solstice, but it's also July 1 (and every day in between of course). And the earliest sunrise is only a couple days before, but also a week before. So what I notice is "earliest sunrise June 19, latest sunset June 23", even though those bands are wider. In the winter, on the other hand, sunset has been creeping later for a week and a half when you get to the solstice.

I guess this, too, is because of latitude, but it's still not intuitive to me. I wonder what's still wrong with my mental modeling.

Shopping is hard; let's do math

My cell phone (Samsung Galaxy S4) had been showing signs of its age, and then more recently it started spontaneously (and unpredictably) rebooting, sometimes several times in a row. This happens with both of my batteries, so it's probably something in the hardware. (Yeah, checked for seating, dust, etc.) It's also running Android 4.4.4 and Samsung has no plans for further updates (aside from security patches, when they get around to it); meanwhile, the current Android release is 7.something. So I started shopping and reading reviews.

I would have been willing to get the latest Samsung, on the theory that after the fiery-batteries-of-death fiasco they're probably being careful with the next one. But... ugh, aspect ratio! I do not want a long, skinny phone! I'm mot going to watch super-wide-screen movies on my phone, and the thing is too skinny to read web pages, email, or anything else once I apply a bit of zoom. Meanwhile, the extra length (height) isn't helpful and further challenges pockets. Ick. Remember back before smartphones, when the two form factors were flip-phones and candybars? I hated candybars, too.

Sadly, "longer and skinnier" seems to be becoming more common; the Google phones are the same way. So, criterion #1: reasonable aspect ratio (and size).

Criterion #2 turned out to be even harder. When did removable batteries stop being a thing? I've replaced the battery somewhere along the line on my last two phones (to get extra life out of them). Actually, with the S4 I got a spare battery fairly early on, which allowed me to carry an extra, charged battery in my pocket on phone-intensive days, like when taking lots of photos on vacations. There are still phones out there with replaceable batteries, but they're a dying breed. I only found one that got ok reviews, and it had some other weirdnesses.

I went to the local T-Mobile store to see if they had anything interesting that I'd missed in my searches (and, you know, to fondle the phones). Long and skinny rules the shelves there too.

In the end I bought a ZTE (who?) Axon 7 (whazzat?). It has a good screen size and aspect ratio and lacks a removable battery. I'm a little concerned about the latter (how many times can I charge this phone before the battery dies, taking the phone with it?), but I assume if it modern batteries were terrible that way, I'd've heard. I've never bought a phone without seeing one first, but I took a chance.

I took it to T-Mobile today to have service transferred, came home and took a 1.8G OS update to 7.0 (the phone shipped with 6.something), and at this point I think I've got most of the basic settings right. So far I'm happy.

It's too early to evaluate the software, but the folks at ZTE clearly put some thought into other usability and user-experience considerations. I don't usually care about the "opening the box" experience (just gimme my stuff), but their packaging stood out as well-designed. The box includes the wall charger of course; it also includes an adapter to use with your micro-USB cables because this phone (like many newer ones) takes USB-C in. They could have just said "hey, we gave you a charger; you're on your own for the rest", but they didn't. The box also includes a case -- not a high-end one or anything, but I've never seen a phone that included one before instead of making you buy it separately. It also includes a screen protector -- ditto, always a separate purchase in the past. In short, the box not only contained everything I needed to use the phone, but it even included an adapter I could stick on my car charger or power pack. (There's also a set of earbuds, which I don't care about.)

There is one mystery object in the box, a piece of rubber(?) of a size to cover the (rear) camera and fingerprint reader (why would you?), but with no obvious place to snap it in, and with what looks like a pin buried in it at one end. The guy at T-Mobile was mystified, too.

Price-wise, this is a mid-range phone, not inexpensive but also not in the Samsung Galaxy S8 range. I hope the battery lasts a few years, to give me a cost per year that's comparable with the last one.

Dammit Verizon...

After some heavy storms this afternoon (complete with flash-flood warnings), we came home to a power outage. The power came on around 7, but we had no Internet service. We have FiOS, so I checked the phone (dial tone) and TV (receiving channels I don't get over the air), so it wasn't a general outage. We restarted the router a couple times, but that didn't help.

Dani called for support, worked through an automated menu, and eventually requested a call back. We made and ate dinner -- no call. I tried Google, which took me to Verizon's troubleshooting pages. One painstaking step at a time I told it that the problem was Internet, I was using a wired connection, yes the wire was plugged in (I assume the Wifi path would have had me verify the password), yes I'd restarted the router... and then told me I needed a technician. Gee thanks; I'd figured that much out on my own. Other pages told me that I might need to reset something in the "ONT" (the box in the basement), and I found an anecdote that said Verizon had talked the blogger through the process just fine and it was easy and saved him a service call, but didn't say what to do. (Who were you, DenverCoder9???) We opened the side of the box labelled "customer access" that nonetheless required a screwdriver, saw that the "data" light was off, and saw no obvious way to proceed.

I called and worked through an automated system full of "duh" and a test from their end saying the problem is in my house (yeah, that seemed pretty likely), and eventually I got into a queue for a human. And waited. And waited. Occasionally the recording interrupted the hold music to tell me that I could go through the same troubleshooting by using their software, which I could download from... , missing the irony that we didn't have an Internet connection. (Ok, there's probably a phone app that I could get from the Play Store, but that's not where they were directing me.)

43 minutes later "Steve in Texas" picked up. For my own future reference and perhaps your information, he had me:

  1. Turn off the router.

  2. Disconnect the coax cable. (He asked where the cable went and when I said "into the wall" he said "good, that'll be easier".)

  3. Reconnect the coax cable.

  4. Turn the router on.

And that fixed it. Is that so much harder than telling people to verify that an Ethernet cable is plugged in? Would it have been so hard to put that information on their support page? Are they worried that people can't disconnect and reconnect a coax cable without damaging something, so they don't want just anybody trying that? (Well if so, let me just clarify that I offer no warranties on this blog post.)

I asked Steve why that works, and he said that sometimes the router gets "out of sync" after a power outage and fully disconnecting it from the data feed resets it. Good to know.

No GenCon

Dani has gone to GenCon, a huge gaming con, a few times and enjoyed it. (He started going after Origins, a large gaming con, took a quality dive some years ago.) He asked me to go with him this year and I agreed despite its size. (It is, literally, an order of magnitude bigger than any SF con I've been to.) We talked about things I would need from him to help me not be overwhelmed by it, and he was fine with making those accommodations.

Then the schedule of events came out at the end of May and I realized that a convention an order of magnitude bigger than any I've been to also has a program an order of magnitude bigger than any I've seen. Even after Dani sorted the spreadsheet into categories and suggested some pruning mechanisms, I stared at that "board games" tab and kind of wilted.

But I don't need to find All The Best Games; I just need to find enjoyable games. So Dani made a pass through it for things he thought were interesting, and I reviewed his picks and gave him a short "no" list and a short "meh" list and said everything else was fine. (I'd already reviewed some other categories, including "spouse activities" (yes they have "spouse activities"), for things I could do while he was doing things I didn't want to do.) The general plan was to attend most things together, splitting only on these differences of interests. This is all very kind of him. We were going to mostly attend this con as a couple, which is cool.

Then he took all that data and went to sign us up for things, and... almost everything on the "A" list, both games and other things (seminars, concerts, brewery tour (ok that one was for me), etc) were booked already. He started to assemble a schedule based on the "B" list but it was hard and, anyway, it was the "B" list. He said this has not been a problem in the past, but this year is GenCon 50 and that probably has something to do with it. So we bailed. We'll try this another year, when he can show me his con in a better light and not be feeling "meh" already before even getting there.

Inclusive kavanah

My congregation hired a cantor two years ago, and wow did it make a difference. (Previously we'd had a cantorial soloist, meaning a good singer with an amateur understanding of liturgy, and we've had other such soloists at some of our services sometimes.) This difference really stood out for me at Shavuot a couple weeks ago.

I've encountered a few kinds of musical service leaders in liberal congregations. (Note: in many communities, especially more traditional ones, musical ability is a nice side-effect if you get it but not the driver -- somebody who's competent in the prayers and halachically qualified, who might or might not have a decent voice, leads the service. I'm not talking about that case.)

  • Performers. This happens when the primary background is singing, with leading prayers being secondary. Some give off the definite vibe of performing for the congregation -- their singing, posture, and everything else says "I'm on a stage". I'm not dissing people's motivations here; this is about what they've spent time learning and doing before taking the job and what they convey (to me at least). If you hire a professional singer, you shouldn't be surprised to get a performer. But I don't go to services to hear a concert.

  • Performers for God. These are people who understand before Whom they stand, who are focused on God more than the congregation, but it still feels like a performance. Again, not saying that's inherently bad -- in another religion you could put the "little drummer boy" into this category and that's generally considered to be a good role model -- but it still leaves the congregation as spectators, and that's a problem for me.

  • Pray-ers who share their kavanah (intentionality, focus). These are people who are obviously praying not performing, and you can see their emotions, their intentionality, etc. I've been told that when I lead services I "exude kavanah", and I think this is what they mean. Sometimes this can carry people along; we had a visitor once to my Shabbat morning minyan and after the service I said to him, "it was a privilege to pray near you" because it felt like his prayer amplified mine. Other times it's just that guy over there having kavanah for his prayer but what does that have to do with me?

  • Those who bring the congregation along in their kavanah. These are the ones who understand that da lifnei mei atah omeid, "know before whom you stand", has multiple targets -- God and congregation. They know that their role is in part to be a bridge. They're praying and facilitating others' prayer. I believe I have sometimes reached this level, but it's mostly instinct plus some coaching I've gotten along the way, not something I could explain how to do beyond being aware. Our cantor is in this category for me; her leading the service helps me, elevates my prayer, connects me.

(Yes I have told her, and my rabbi, this. Having done so, I'm now also trying to write it down.)