Archive for February, 2008

Clod Prints in the Snow

February 24th, 2008

It’s a XC harrumph. The question is schemiel or schmuck, rube or rowdy, ignoramus or boor?

Number two son and I just returned from cross-country skiing in Franklin Park. As usual, we found many of the carefully cut ski tracks stomped and useless after the boot-wearing villains had done their worst.

Maybe we’re too nice about, but we choose to conclude that people who would intentionally ruin the recreational offerings of others fall into the ignorant or unaware groups, and not the malicious. We figure they are not XC skiers and don’t know that it’s work to lay tracks that make gliding easier and more pleasurable for others. It’s also just nice.

Alternately, of course, destroying hundreds of yards or more of track might indicate:

  • Extreme self-centeredness, as in, “Oh, it might be a little easier for me to walk in this track. I’ll do that.”
  • Stereotypical New England lack of etiquette and breeding, flavored by thoughtlessness.
  • Dull-witted lack of observation, as in not having enough brain power to realize what the tracks are or what purpose they might serve.
  • Brutish malice, intending to inconvenience others for petty amusement.

As a tech writer, I can apply Ockham’s razor to this question. My professional experience has given me much support for the cluelessness rationale.

In my business, that is why most documentation and particularly online help systems are not very helpful. Too many tech writers don’t analyze or understand what’s going on before their eyes.

They don’t think like a user or more accurately the different sets of users of the product. With help, for example, Microsoft is typical and one of the most consistent offenders. It certainly has the human and other resources to provide greate documentation, but does not. Like the XC track trompers, if the writers don’t understand what’s happening and what it means, they can’t explain it in useful terms.

You can see how this doesn’t work best with help systems. When you press the F1 key in Windows or help on a Mac, it’s likely you’re having trouble proceeding and not that you are too stupid to read and interpret the on-screen menu items. Yet, nearly all help systems reveal in great detail what you can read for yourself.

When I was a doc manager and when I construct a help system myself, the catchphrase is “Make me smart fast.” That requires stepping back from expertise in the product and realizing what the likely problems would be at that point. The one, two or three most likely problems need to go into the help system to make it, well, helpful. Anything less is lazy, not terribly bright and pretty disrespectful.

Harrumph to track trompers and harrumph to bad documentation!

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Know the Blow

February 20th, 2008

Depending on who’s talking, the Blue Hills Observatory 10 miles south of our state house is both historical and dynamic. They’ve been doing it since 1885.

Historians and scholars in general manage to justify their study and existence by assembling facts and opinions is various ways. They’ll start a strong declaration, only to becloud it with adverbs, adjectives and qualifiers.

Observatory sunlight deviceWe lucked into a surprise tour from the program director, Don McCasland on Tuesday. It’s not open to the public all that often, but he was so impressed by the nice weather he unlocked the door. For $3 a head, it’s a lot more memorable and visually stimulating that $3 worth of a movie. (Normal open times are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekends, except Dec. and Jan.)

We got to get intimate with the sunlight-measuring globe (description follows). Pix Click Trick: Click on an image for a larger view.

For the history aspect, depending on which historian is saying he can spit the farthest, weather observation has its proponents. Consider:

  • In 1870, the Signal Corps didn’t have a lot of spying and long-distance flag and other manual communication to do. So the War Department expanded their duties to include the nascent field of weather forecasting.
  • Some of those teams apparently made intermittent measurements on Mount Washington. That observatory’s history page conflates that with full-fledged status, as in, “…from 1870 to 1892. The Mount Washington station was the first of its kind in the world, setting an example followed in many other countries.”
  • A wealthy dilettante (Bostonian, MIT grad, family whaling fortune), Abbott Lawrence Rotch, had an interest in weather, the time and money, and maybe no other career ideas. He had the stone observatory constructed at the top of the Great Blue Hill in Milton. It’s been taking and recording measurements since 1885.
  • According to McCasland, when the Mount Washington folk got around to building a station in 1932 for a permanent observatory, they turned to the well established Blue Hill people. Their original instruments were gifts from Rotch’s facility. Some of those are still in use.

Having toured Mount Washington’s station, I admit it is much larger and more elaborate. Until recently, they also had the famous pet cat Nin, who recently retired from the alpine life. BHO has no cat and does not get the intensity of storms.

BHO is a more human and manageable scale though. Upstairs, Robert Skilling has been recording and analyzing for 45 years. The sills and bookcase tops have dozens of manual typewriters and a mechanical abacus, representing well over a century of human intensive analysis. These reflect the daily work there, also a blend of ancient, just old, and modern.

Most of the TV and internet weather relies on the National Weather Service’s Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). Indeed, there are computers constantly updating displays. While we were there, the NWS sent alarms of small-craft warnings in Boston Harbor too.

The BHO is a hobbyist’s delight though, with old-time devices that worked in 1885 and work now. The BHO records are in binders there (and backed up in files off site, of course). Using the same techniques and machinery for decades makes the comparisons useful and meaningful.

There are electronic barometers, but the world’s oldest continuously (qualifier again) used mercury barometers are still there from 1885 and still read and recorded by eye and hand. Calibrated every decade or so, they remain amazingly accurate.

For one, the wind-speed devices turning on the top of the tower are still mechanical. After one turns 640 times, it trips a recorder, which makes a red line like a polygraph. The quaintness of the system is perhaps epitomized by the clothespins that keep the paper from curling too much. At various points, Skilling or McCasland examines various such recordings and figures out such data as peak wind gusts, average window speed, precipitation and more.

Boston from observatory towerAt specified times of the day, someone goes onto the tower platform to do things such as look at the sky. What parts of the sky have any clouds? How are can you see and how clearly. For example, the State House is 10 miles away, Mt. Monadnock 60 and so forth. We could see Cape Ann very clearly (Gloucester is 36). It must be torture in sleet and high winds.

Don loading sunlight cardPerhaps the singular most fascinating device though is the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder on top of the tower. It would be the perfect prop for a Gypsy fortune teller stereotype.

The pic to the left shows McCasland inserting the card for the new series of sunlight readings. Sun, rain, whatever, the cards must be swapped and examined. It was damned windy that afternoon, but he says the pin always keeps the card in place.

Sunlight measuring cardIt is sublimely simple and also blends science and art. One of the BHO staff places a long, heavy, dark paper strip under the globe, holding it safe from the wind with a metal pin. As the sun hits the glass, it does the magnifying-glass thing, burning a hole or erose line in the card. Depending on how bright the sun is, its focused light reaches certain temperatures. Hotter burns a wider space. The pic above shows number three son holding a burned card.

Don and Cindy at sunlight card displayAfter retrieving the paper, Skilling or McCasland can see when the sunlight was bright, brighter or brightest. The temporal measurements are simple too. Each white line represents the end of an hour. And so it has been since 1885.

The pic to the left shows McCasland and my uxorial unit examining example sunlight cards.

Perhaps a future post will talk weather kites.

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Jimmy Breslin Pounds a UU

February 15th, 2008

On Point on WBUR is not normally a yuck-fest. Today, though, I caught the Jimmy Bresllin segment while driving. It’s worth listening to for the first caller, a UU minister.

This show will be online shortly here. This entry is cross-posted at Marry in Massachusetts.

As a disclaimer, I admit that I’m a long-term UU. I even drive the cult car, a Volvo sedan. Also, I am a former journalist and as someone whose high-school tenure was exactly the same as Breslin’s three years writing columns for the New York Herald Tribune. We got the local paper, the NY Times and the Trib daily. I”d start with the Breslin column any day it ran. So, I can identify with both self-righteous UUs and newspaper writers, and of course, Breslin in particular.

I nestled in when I heard that he’d be on talking about his latest collection of Mob Tales, The Good Rat: A True Story, and taking listener calls. I got an extra charge when Tom Ashbrook rushed the introduction to start taking calls and the first caller was someone I’d met.

That would be Rev. Aaron Payson. His a big guy who dresses colorfully. He’s the minister at the UU Church of Worcester. He’s the other type of UU minister.

About half of them are slight and wiry with close cropped gray beards. Payson is the other kind — tall and chunky, smiling with dreadful sincerity.

We met in Worcester in court at the Larry Cirignano trial last fall. Payson was a witness for the prosecution, as well as a friend of the victim. He attended the whole trial and we chatted on occasion in the chamber and outside. We’re not buddies.

I do have a full enough sense of him to see my lefty politics racing behind his eyes, eager to assert themselves in conversation. That he did with Breslin…failing miserably several times.

Payson started with a longish assertion disguised as a question. It tangentially keyed off Breslin’s long journalistic and fictive association with the Mafia. Payson’s routine had two points:

  • Does writing about the Mob, treating them as entertainment, do society a disservice?
  • If the Mafia killings and such are somehow justified and humanized, does that lead to excusing the bloodshed of such adventurism as the current Iraq war?

Breslin was born in 1930 and has seen and done a lot. As far as I know, gangsters threatened him many times for his coverage, but only beat him severely once. As well as well writing, he’s extremely well read and is very thoughtful. He’d have none of Payson’s UU syllogisms.

I have no doubt that Payson rides those violence horses around his nave and in his living room. As a UU of more than 20 years, I am puffy and pedantic like that often as well.

Breslin noted that not only is violence one of the few mainstays of our entertainment, that has long been true. He said something to the effect that William Shakespeare had the stage littered with bodies before the end of many of his first acts.

Payson kept coming back. Breslin kept pushing back. He found it outrageous that someone would see a causality from writing about gangsters to thinking it’s okay to murder folk in foreign lands.

It’s a hoot and I hope I think of it the next time some right winger edges me into a debate. We lefties, particularly Unitarian ones, have to guard against such silliness.

By the bye, that BUR link has its sub-link to a selection from Breslin’s book.

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JP Hides February Colors

February 10th, 2008

Plants and people both
Clothed for New England winter
In tan, black and gray

In recognition of or perhaps as a paean to our Puritan heritage, the Arnold Arboretum and neighboring park on the way to Forest Hills Station dress dully in cold weather.

In many ways, it is the natural order of plants. Among the choices are evergreens of course, and numerous bushes and grasses with red or gold canes or branches, and little gems like the Japanese beautyberry that are drab until their leaves fall. Yet most trees and bushes in the arboretum are deciduous. They tend to leaf green, show colorful flowers and perhaps fruit, and then when fall and winter arrive, they turn as drab as commuters crossing Boston Common.

Pic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail to see a larger image.

When there is snow cover, the stark and leafless flora have a certain brutal elegance. Without the white, they blur into the dormant grass and other sleeping plants, as though painted by an impressionist with a very limited palette.

The drabness on the kind of nature path from Forest Hills has, on opposite sides, a bit of a horror-movie landscape and a delightful rare flare of winter color.

This path bisects a former urban wild. I lamented the demise of what was the habitat of foxes, pheasants, opossums, raccoons and rabbits. It seems there were other forms of wildlife less attractive to humans — junkies and hookers and hooker/junkies. There are no more syringes, surgical gloves or condoms, but few furry friends either.

Path to the arboretum marshOne remainder is a marsh. It likely is more evidence of the many springs that natives, then colonists, and then brewers found here. In the present form, the brook running from the arboretum empties into a marsh. In the winter, you can see the dead and dying trees there, but you don’t smell the stagnant water. It’s easy to imagine some form of malevolent critters submerged and waiting.

Directly across the path on the north side is a strand of grand and hardy staghorn sumac. Their response to fall and winter is to fruit, bearing large, thick orange or red flowers that give it its name.

sumac spikeSumac spikesThese bushy trees are common on several of our harbor islands, particularly Lovells. The rangers there point out that the natives made a tea from the staghorn spikes. It’s colorful, just a little bitter and with a citrus flavor. There’s a recipe here.

The rangers quickly note that while the plants are related, poison sumac and staghorn sumac are very different. The poison sumac (Rhus vernix) and staghorn variety (Rhus typhina). The plants and their fruits look nothing alike, but drinking a tee from the poison sumac would be an awful mistake.

Looking is good though…free and safe. It took me a couple of seasons to make the tea, but I do it regularly now. It has odd plant bits that float in it, but a lot of my favorite loose teas do too. It’s fun in the late summer to make it for folk and to keep a spike on the table to show them the source.

You’d think, incorrectly, that the arboretum folk would take great pride in ensuring spots of color in all seasons. Nah, that’s for amateur gardeners. In fact, they have a detailed Living Collections Policy. Amusing winter gawkers doesn’t make the list of priorities at all. The closest it gets is buried in one sentence, with the phraase “appreciation and preservation of woody plants.”

Pigeons on 203 bypassUntil the bushes and trees wake up, you have better chance of seeing colorful plants in neighbors’ yards than in the arboretum. It’s the same with our morose winter coats around here. In that vein, crossing on the Casey overpass above Washington/New Washington/Hyde Park Avenue, I saw that even the pigeons favor dark colors. They must be natives.

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Voting without Mike

February 5th, 2008

Where’s Mike? That was the question of the day at the Woodbourne Apartments in JP.

Despite middling rain, we had a solid turnout, with lines to get our ballots. However, out front on Southbourne at Hyde Park, no campaigners were in sight much less shilling. Moreover, inside there was no Mike O’Connor.Mike O’Connor with William Macy

I don’t think any of us was upset. Yet isn’t it amusing how we grow attached to what we expect?

Come election time, primary, special or general Sgt. Michael O’Connor is there all day verifying voters on the way from the booth to the machine. That’s he with act0r William Macy in a Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe pic, from a piece on him as the BPD motion-picture liaison.

Pic Click Trick: Click the image for a larger version.

He’s our neighborhood cop, as in he lives in the neighborhood, not that he walks a beat here. He’s also highly involved, as in he and his wife have run the baseball and other kids’ teams for a long time.

In his place at the table was a young patrolman. He had to answer, “Where’s Mike?” repeatedly. He said again and again in the short time I was there that Mike had been reassigned in preparation for the Patriots’ parade that didn’t happen.

It didn’t seem to keep anyone from voting, but it was a small puzzlement.

Otherwise, he had a full house, with Democrats maybe six to one for Republicans. The two independents I overheard asked for Dem ballots.

I had time too, because one of the poll guys slowed my precinct considerably. He had an Hispanic name, a name tag that included that he was a language interpreter, and a limited knowledge of English. Whether Boston or unaccented English, he needed at least two repetitions of the street and last name.

It’s good for the Latinos that a Spanish speaker was on hand to help them. It’s good for the others that the other guy was on hand to point out the name in the book and the box to check. That’s going to be a long day at that corner of the table.

Pats and Purity

February 3rd, 2008

Every player lives sportsmanship. Every cleric has a pure heart. Every bride is a virgin.

Spy peeking through blinds Alternately, the indignation and melodrama surrounding athletic corner cutting and outright cheating to win is sad, amusing and understandable.

Quelle horreur! Professional cyclists taking drugs to win!

Tour de France cyclists have drugged themselves for over a century. It was cocaine, speed and even alcohol when those there the available options. Many winning and also peddlers state flatly there is no other way to abuse your body and mind for three weeks otherwise.

Baseball boys looking like Bibb, the Michelin man, are certainly not surprising steroid users. That sport has a long history of every conceivable type of cheating, from fixing games to signal stealing to drugs.

Now the purity fantasizers would have us shocked that the Patriots spied on opponents’ practices. The talk of tainted record is likely permanent. The message boards fill with slurs on the coach and team. The indignation is vitriolic and loud.

Yet, as with other sports, the history of cheating is long and varied. Don’t tell your 8-year-old twins or even your 68-year-old uncle, but football teams have been spying on each others’ practices nearly forever.

Now the Patriots admit to filming practices. That has caused palpitation among the simpleminded. In reality, it is scant improvement over the long-standing practice of using naked eye or binocular spying. Video can be more convenient and can let more than one person weigh in on the interpretation, but it is a variation on a theme, not some breathtaking and new offense.

NFL ball is a multi-billion business. I have no doubt that virtually all teams go for every advantage they can. Sometimes, they violate the NFL rules the owners and managers have agreed to respect.

Get a grip, fans. The Pats were caught and punished. We may never know how many teams have done the same, similar or maybe even worse.

Onion cheat to win braceletThe odd aspect is that in any professional sport and quite a few amateur ones, cheating is an unfortunate part of the game. Even crusty old sports like cricket have their scandals. Yet with the possible exception of professional wrestling fans feel or feign absolute shock that their sport is not pure and does not fit the ideal of fair play.

I’d rather the Pats had not felt it was necessary and that it was likely that they could get away with breaking the rules to get an edge. I’m not sure who can enforce the how-competitive-is-too-competitive rules beyond the NFL, which in this case did enforce and did penalize.

The scandalized fans and press in losers’ markets can go to town putting asterisks after the Pats record or Barry Bonds’ stats or Roger Clemens’ awards or Floyd Landis’ former title. Maybe they can explain why they insist their favorite sport is the one pure one. It’s those other guys who cheat, not mine.

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