Blog: January 2019

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.

Christian passover "seders"

Some Christian groups hold something like a "seder" on or near Passover. A Christian asked on Mi Yodeya whether this is offensive to Jews and, more generally, how such groups could celebrate a Christian seder that would be acceptable.

(Big breath.)

I responded: Read more…

Poor user experience, hardware edition

I call these "Don Norman doors". It's been 30 years since he wrote The Psychology of Everyday Things (aka POET) and people are still doing stuff like this:

door with handle and 'push' sign

But hey, they recognized the problem -- and "fixed" it with documentation. Yay?

I was recently mystified by the following control in a hotel shower:

faucet with two concentric knobs

One of those controls temperature, but it moves most of the way around so it's not clear whether you need to turn clockwise or counterclockwise. The other one controls which of two different shower heads to dispense water through. Why there are two shower heads is left as an exercise for the user, I guess. (And, of course, when I'm trying to operate a shower, I don't have my glasses on.)

(There's lots of discussion of affordances in general and shower knobs in particular in the comments.)

DVR options?

The TiVo that I bought (used) 4.5 years ago is showing signs of malaise -- probably the hard drive (again) but it's hard to tell. This is my second TiVo and I'm not exactly enchanted by their subscription model -- required if you want program data, which is pretty essential for programming recordings, but when they say "lifetime subscription" they mean lifetime of the box. If I watched a lot of TV that might be worth the cost, but it's hard to justify for the amount I watch. And their monthly subscription is a non-starter; that's just a way to pay them even more money for the relatively small amount I watch. I'm also not enchanted by the tendency of their technical-support people to respond to every problem with "you should buy a new TiVo".

I'm looking for an alternative and appealing to my DW brain trust for suggestions.

Some specifics:

  • I have FiOS TV from Verizon (comes with the Internet service), an over-the-air antenna, and a single ordinary HD TV. Whatever I get needs to fit into that. Ethernet is available and preferred over WiFi.

  • Currently the only Verizon equipment I have is a cablecard (M-card). I'm open to changing that.

  • I never watch live TV. All TV is the result of programming a recording device. I don't care whether the programming interface is on-screen menus, a web browser, or an Android app.

  • I'd like programming to be "fire and forget". I use TiVo's season passes, which catch things like "this episode started late because of a football game" or "next week's show moves to Wednesday".

  • I occasionally benefit from being able to record two simultaneous programs. I can't imagine a use for, err, is it six that TiVo is up to now?

  • One TV. I don't need to stream the signal anywhere else. I don't watch TV on other devices.

  • TiVo proactively records things it thinks you might like and suggests them to you. I don't care.

  • TiVo continuously records whatever channel currently has focus so that if you're 15 minutes late to the start of something you wanted to watch, you can still rewind and watch it (if it was that channel, I guess). I don't care, and I suspect that this behavior is why their hard drives fail.

Here are the options I know about:

  • New TiVo: they only sell the Bolt now, which, with "lifetime" subscription, appears to be about a $900 proposition. Nope.

  • Used older TiVo with subscription: that's what I did last time; I got my current TiVo with subscription on eBay for about $250. I'm not sure what older model I'm looking for if I go this route.

  • Some other DVR manufacturer -- there must be some, you'd think, but I'm having trouble finding ones that are still being made, and it's not always clear what works with what TV providers. Please tell me TiVo has competition? (Got a rec for this, which requires a cable box and isn't currently available.)

  • Rent from Verizon. I don't yet understand what other equipment would be required and, thus, what this would cost. (I could, of course, ask them. I'd like to know about other options first so that I have context if they offer a time-limited deal, which they've done before for other things.)

  • I understand that one could theoretically build a DVR starting with a computer, some parts, and a soldering gun. I am not that person. I'm open to buying such a thing in a ready-to-plug-in-and-go state.

Anybody have input on any part of this? Thanks!

How were the patterned curtains in the mishkan woven?

A few years ago I asked the following question on Mi Yodeya. Much later, and with some pointers in helpful comments, I found and wrote an answer.


Shemot 26:1 describes the mishkan's curtains thus:

וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן תַּעֲשֶׂה עֶשֶׂר יְרִיעֹת שֵׁשׁ מָשְׁזָר וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתֹלַעַת שָׁנִי כְּרֻבִים מַעֲשֵׂה חשֵׁב תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם:

And the Mishkan you shall make out of ten curtains [consisting] of twisted fine linen, and blue, purple, and crimson wool. A cherubim design of the work of a master weaver you shall make them.

I had always assumed that, given that we're using four different colors here, the cheruvim were somehow woven in using contrasting colors (like maybe the background was one color and the other three were used to make the pattern). But Rashi says the four colors were all plied together into one 24-strand yarn containing all four colors: Read more…

Winter CSA, week 5

  • 12 small carrots (4-5" long)
  • one celeriac
  • six yellow Delicious apples (better for cooking, they say)
  • three medium golden potatoes
  • five small-medium red onions
  • two rutabagas (these are new to me)
  • one bunch arugula
  • one bunch hydroponic lettuce
  • one bag tatsoi (this is new to me)
  • two pounds cornmeal
  • one jar salsa
  • one piece "Kiss of Kerry" cheese, est. 8oz

None of the greens really look like arugula to me, but that's what the manifest says. I think the stuff in the zipper bag (the left-most batch) is the tatsoi, based on image searches.

The lettuce will become a salad (I still have some radishes for this, too), and the other greens will go into stir-fry, an omelette, or soup. Lots of this is good for roasting, and one of the celeriac recipes from last time was very good so I'll check my notes and do that again. There is cornbread in our future. Dani doesn't like applesauce (I learned tonight) but does like baked apples, which is what I've been doing with some of the other apples (also stuffing into squash). There's apple crisp or apple cobbler in our future too, and I might just make some applesauce for myself even if he doesn't want to share it. (I like applesauce!)

Read more…

Visit to Cambridge

I visited our main office for a few days this past week. (Sorry to folks I didn't connect with.) I met our two new team members, one of whom is our new manager, and our intern for this coming summer, and I had lots of productive conversations. I also played one game of Caverna with coworkers.

I wondered what airport security was going to be like given the government shutdown. Monday morning in Pittsburgh the line was probably about 15-20 minutes long, but somebody came by to tell us the alternate checkpoint was open and had no line, so some of us went there. All of the agents I saw were polite, professional, and not acting disgruntled. I and several other passengers thanked them for being there despite the situation. Everybody there understood that the mess was not the fault of anybody there and taking out frustrations on the wrong people would be bad. Yay for people acting like adults!

Thursday night at Logan, the first checkpoint I found was closed but the second was staffed. It took me five minutes to get through. Again, people behaved themselves.

Wednesday afternoon our new writer and I took a walk through a park/wetlands area near the office. We saw lots of ducks and one heron. We later saw the heron catch a small mouse; I hadn't previously known that they ate mammals.

Photos: Read more…

Winter CSA, week 4

Today's themes: (1) giant squash! and (2) how am I going to use all those greens while they're still good?

  • two three bunches arugula (two different farms, one labeled hydroponic -- turns out one bag had two bunches)
  • one bunch endive
  • six Rome apples
  • one stripetti squash (this type is new to me)
  • five parsnips
  • three fingerling sweet potatoes
  • two bulbs garlic
  • three medium-large shallots
  • two green meat radishes (these are new to me)
  • dozen free-range eggs
  • jar pumpkin butter

I'm glad to get parsnips; I quite like them as part of a roasted-vegetable mix. And the eggs are well-timed; I was just about to have to buy more. (I did have to buy more carrots, so I have some to roast with the parsnips.)

We're not keeping up with the apples, largely because both our workplaces get fruit deliveries so we're not taking them for lunch. Plus we got inundated with desserts (baking season, I guess), so I haven't been making cobblers. It's time to change that; I like cobbler. :-) We've had some baked apples, and apples are one of the things I stuff squash with, and there was an apple-beet salad that I'll make again with the last beets. I have a recipe for a soup with (butternut) squash and apples that sounds good. I can always make applesauce, though Dani doesn't like it as much as I do. I welcome any other non-dessert suggestions. (Desserts I've got plenty of.)

I need to figure out how to divide and conquer the squash. We can't eat all of it at once; would unused portions keep better raw (carve off a meal's worth and cook that) or cooked (cook the whole thing and then store)?

I also welcome suggestions for arugula and endive. Salad, yes, and I understand that arugula works well in pasta. Do they stir-fry or saute well? Does either work well in soups?

So far I like having a farm share. I think we're eating better, I'm learning to use new-to-me produce, and we might even be saving a little money, surprising as that seems. We signed up for the spring CSA (weekly, eight weeks). We're undecided about summer; a summer share might produce more greens and zucchini than we're prepared to absorb. On the other hand, the summer share has options for both small and standard boxes and for weekly and biweekly pickups; a biweekly small box is a possibility. We'll decide later.

Random question: what makes brown eggs more or less brown? There's noticeable variation in this dozen and it got me wondering.

Read more…

Vision problems and computers

A friend is having some vision problems that currently impede her computer use. She knows that I have vision problems and use computers heavily, so she asked me for advice. So I don't lose track of it, and for the possible benefit of others, I'm going to mostly cut and paste the email I sent.

My normal focal distance for reading is about 8-10 inches using bifocals, which makes laptops pretty unworkable and even regular monitors awkward if they're larger (because not everything can be in range at the same time at that distance). I solved this part of the problem by getting a pair of computer glasses, which are focused at a reasonable monitor distance instead of infinity. That is, the part that would normally be distance vision is instead monitor-distance vision, and I also still have the bifocal (my ophthalmologist's suggestion -- "do you ever have to read notes or something too?"). Once you know that your prescription isn't going to be changing a lot, that's something to consider -- but it does mean paying for another pair of glasses. (If you do get computer glasses, get the anti-glare treatment on them even if you're using monitors that are nominally glare-resistant.) Ask your ophthalmologist if this makes sense for you. I did find that I had to bump up font sizes across the board, because monitor-tuned distance vision is different from reading-tuned bifocal. I don't understand all the optics; apparently I can't get a pair of glasses that's just like reading through my bifocal but at twice the distance.

On the software side, here are several things I did. My vision problems are different from yours so I don't know which of these will help.

If you're using Windows, you can set text magnification system-wide to 100, 125, or 150%. I use 125%. This is in the control panel under either "display" or "personalization".

For Outlook, consider forcing all your email to plain text by default. You can then set the font size for that text. [My friend had complained that zoom levels didn't stick; she has to zoom each message. This works around that.] If you need to see formatting or embedded images, you can, for an individual message, choose "show as HTML" from a control just above the message text. Plain-text email is sometimes ugly because of the formatting you're not seeing, but I find it better than letting the sender choose fonts, font sizes, color, and, heaven help us, stationery. The "show as plain text" option is hidden in a very counter-intuitive place (thanks Microsoft!), at least in Outlook 2013 -- go to "trust center" and it's in there somewhere. Yes plain text is a way to avoid malicious Javascript, but I think of it more as an accessibility setting or something that should at least be mentioned under "email settings". We got new domain accounts recently and it took forever for me to find that again.

I have found no way to adjust the size of the header fields (including subject line) on individual messages -- very frustrating. You can change the size of the text shown in a folder (like the inbox) under "view settings". You have to do it for every folder you care about (like you do to dismiss the reading pane) because Microsoft hates us.

I don't know if this will help you, but consider switching your color theme. Black text on a white, backlit background is actually pretty hard on the eyes. You can try one of the reverse-video themes but (a) they can be hard to get used to and (b) most of your web browsing won't use dark/reverse themes and will seem even harsher by comparison (more about browsing in a bit). What I did instead was to personalize the desktop theme to make the default white background a gentler light tan instead. This is all under display -> personalization in the control panel. That's for Windows; on a Mac you're SOL, unfortunately, because Apple knows what's right for everybody.

If that makes a difference for you, then take a look at your monitor's color settings. (I don't know if laptops have this, but external monitors will.) A different color temperature might help you. Also, look at your contrast and brightness settings; I personally find high contrast and lower brightness to be most comfortable, though I've heard others say the opposite works better for them. Leave one of them alone while you experiment with the other. If the lighting near you is under your control, that's another knob you can turn. (I can say more about lighting upon request.)

About browsing... lots of sites out there are designed by people with perfect vision who never thought about the rest of us, and some of the results are horrid. (What is with this trendy "light gray text on white background" meme?) Very frustrating. You can set a minimum font size in your browser and you can zoom individual sites with ctrl+/ctrl- (ctrl0 to reset to 100%). Firefox and Chrome remember these settings for a site; I don't know offhand if IE and Edge do. Some sites don't play as well with zoom as others -- maybe it makes the page too wide for your browser window and you now have horizontal scrolling, or maybe it uses a "responsive" design and moves things around on you. There are addons that let you force your own CSS on a site (Stylus) or apply your own Javascript to a site (Tampermonkey), but be warned that you will find yourself tinkering with settings often to respond to that shiny new thing your favorite site's designer came up with. I can pontificate at more length about browsers if you want.

The Orville: Primal Urges

All of the humans in The Orville seem to have a shared fascination with late-20th-century American pop culture, which is pretty lame for a show set in the 25th century. I mean, do you and your coworkers all share an interest in one specific historical period several centuries ago? Unlikely.

Until last night's episode I didn't realize it ran deeper. (Maybe it was a subtle clue!) Their ideas about computer security also run to the late 20th century. shudder

Sheesh. First I wanted to yell at the officer who did the moral equivalent of plugging in a USB device of unknown origin labelled "free porn!". Then I really wanted to yell at the ship's IT department for what came next.

Kids, don't learn security practices from those guys. Just don't.

(So far the new season is at "eh, wait and see". It's nice to see followup on that one controversy from season one and I realize that all episodes can't be "Majority Rule"- or "Mad Idolatry"-quality, but I was hoping for a stronger start.)

I've avoided spoilers in this post, but if you're on your own for comments.

Between (Netflix)

Over the last few days I watched the Netflix show Between, which ran for two (six-episode) seasons. (It was a collaboration between them and some other studio.) When looking for some stuff about it online I came across several "where is season 3?" threads -- apparently they never formally cancelled it but the last episode came out in 2016.

I, on the other hand, am fully satisfied with the ending, and while there's definitely more story that they could tell, I think another season would feel like a bolt-on taking things in a different direction, kind of like that terrible telepath plotline that filled half of Babylon 5's fifth season. I'm glad they seem to have decided to leave well enough alone here.

Between is set in the fictional town of Pretty Lake (um, ok); they don't say where, but it feels like the midwest. (I thought Ohio because we see Mennonites, but a government official is Minister so-and-so, so maybe Canada?) A plague strikes, killing all the adults (and making me immediately think of Jeremiah), and the government quarantines them. The show takes place in the weeks that follow. Some of the characters start out rather two-dimensional, but we see growth, especially in the second season. There's the spoiled rich kid who sees himself as the natural person to lead the town now, and the smart kid who tries to figure out what's really going on (and learns he has a special connection), and the farm kid who turns out to be a paladin to the detriment of his younger sister, and the druggie and the brother who tries to protect him, and the gangs, and the pregnant teen with the sanctimonious sister, and the guy who's locked in prison when the outbreak hits. And there is the infrequently-glimpsed government that isn't playing straight, which plot develops more in the second season.

There's a saying, I can't remember where from, that civilization is seven meals away from breaking down into chaos. That's very evident here; we have a quarantined town that has only the food they had on hand, and the conflicts between the "I've got mine (and will defend it violently)" folks and the "we need to help everybody" folks (and the "we need to break out of here" folks). This town is full of teenagers, so we get the angst that goes with that too.

I found that I very much needed to suspend disbelief on the plague itself; without spoiling things, let me just say that so far as I know, biology doesn't work that way. No, really, some of this does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny. If you watch the show you just have to roll with that.

It's a decent show, not a great show; the characters take some time to settle in and the acting isn't great. For me that broader plot scenario laid an interesting-enough foundation, and there good strong moments and arcs within the larger show. It's about a 9-hour investment to watch the whole series, which I found worth it.

In response to a comment about biology:

I might have been insufficiently clear. During the show we find out more about how the plague works, and biology really doesn't work that way. The disbelief you suspend for the initial premise isn't the only disbelief you'll need to suspend, I'm afraid. :-)

There was a show about 15 years ago written by JMS (of B5 fame) called Jeremiah, which had a similar starting premise, but the plague there was not contained. That show was set 15 or 20 years later, after civilization has largely collapsed and competing groups are trying to rebuild it. I quite enjoyed that one, which focused on the societal aspects and didn't get into much detail (as I recall) about the plague itself. So it was still a "wait, really?" premise, but easy for me to set aside.