Saint Patrick’s Day

Friday was St. Patrick’s day, and today’s the big parade in South Boston, and it’s a big deal. I was surprised to find out from our contractors that they had St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in both Leicester England and Porto Portugal.

Despite having an Irish surname, I’ve never felt Irish. I’ve never cared about St. Patrick’s day, and have never cared for the hoopla. If I remember on the day, that it is St. Patrick’s day, I generally make a point of not wearing green just to be contrary. This year I forgot, so I happened to be wearing a plaid shirt with some green in it.

See, the thing is, I’m really a mongrel. My ancestry is English, Irish, French/Canadian and Scottish. What this makes me is American, and that’s perfectly fine by me.

Non-Breaking “Breaking News”

I’m getting very annoyed with the way local media is abusing the term “breaking news”. To my mind, stories must meet these criteria to be termed “Breaking News”

  1. The story must have just become known,
  2. and be of an urgent or emergency nature
  3. or supremely important

I’m a Boston Globe subscriber, and we watch the Channel 5 news. Both are bothering me with their misuses of “breaking news”.

The Globe sends out breaking news emails, and they’re pretty good about doing it in timely fashion, but I’m really starting to wonder about their news judgement. For example, Friday, I got an email from them: “Breaking News Alert: Baker promises state funding to offset any Planned Parenthood cuts”. This is not urgent, this is not an emergency, it doesn’t rise to the level of importance I would expect —and it is done via an email, which means it’s an interruption. Lately, they’ve been supplementing it with “morning”, “midday” and “afternoon” reads.

I do read the news. But it if isn’t pressing, I’d prefer to read it on my own schedule.

They also send out a morning digest of the headlines— that, I do appreciate and enjoy, because it comes on a schedule and is not an interruption. I also do appreciate the breaking new alerts that truly are breaking; for example the alert they sent out last week of a major problem on the expressway. They weren’t doing the email alerts at the time of the Marathon bombing, but it would have been entirely appropriate then.

WCVB misuses the term in another way, to promote news stories that have already been broken. This weekend’s example would be the fire in Warwick that happened overnight, but was still being described as “breaking” on the 6 PM newscast the following day. It’s especially annoying when there is nothing new to the story, and they’ve been telling the story all afternoon on their various newscasts. If there is nothing new to add, and the story is more than a couple of hours old, it is no longer “breaking”.

The term “breaking news” used to imply some sort of emergency. If news organizations continue to abuse it, like the boy who cried “Wolf”, the public will learn to ignore it.

 

 

First Real Snow of the Season

Late afternoon at the Ski Track

Late afternoon at the Ski Track

We had our first real snow of the season yesterday. Oh, sure, we had a couple of minor storms in December, but they didn’t amount to much, and didn’t really stick. I’d say we got about 10 inches of light snow here.

It’s amazing what a difference having a snow blower makes. I rather enjoyed it. First I cleared our driveway, then I cleared the drain across the street and then cleared the ends of a couple of neighbor’s driveways to boot, before heading out to breakfast. 

The porch ceiling was leaking, so after I got back, I got up on the roof and cleared off the porch roof, and roof raked the main roof. In hind sight this may not have been a great idea — the sun warmed the roof, and melted the scraps of snow that I left, and this meltwater then leaked through the porch ceiling. It does make me more certain that the leak is related to the gutter; I think when the gutter backs up, or the wind is from the south, the water is getting in behind the gutter.

After clearing the roofs, I changed into my ski clothes and headed over the Weston Leo J. Martin Ski Track, for my first skate skiing of the year. I was a little hesitant about it, because my back has been bothering me, and because skate skiing has always been painful for me. I generally set a 20-25 minute timer on myself.

I don’t know whether it was the fresh waxing I gave the skis yesterday, or the powdery snow, or the fact that I was on the extended trails, but it actually worked out pretty well. I still tired easily, but it was just as much my arms as my legs. I definitely felt that I had the right skating motion, and was actually able to skate uphill (for short distances). I actually spent over an hour on the trails; I was cold at times, partly because I’d been sweating, and I still had to stop continuously because I was running out of steam, but it didn’t hurt much. Does this mean that I’m finally getting the hang of it? Man, I hope so. If I am, then maybe it’s just a matter of practice before I can go further without stopping. 

At least, I can hope.

Happy 2017!

Happy New Year! This New Years Eve was the first one in several years that I skipped First Night. We had company arriving right around the time I would have had to leave to get into Boston, and looking at the schedule, there wasn’t much I wanted to see. The whole event has become rather anemic; besides the fireworks, there was only one event I wanted to see, the organ and brass performance at Old South Church. Given that, I decided to skip it.

For some reason, the number 2017 is weirding me out a little. The last two digits are getting big enough to force home the point that we’re really in the 21st Century. (So where’s my hover car?)

I’ve been off the past week, but I’ve been experiencing some health issues that kept me pretty close to the house most of the week. After the snowfall up north Thursday, I decided to head up to Windblown Friday, despite the fact that my back still isn’t feeling great. It was a good decision; I did about 3 miles on touring skis before the battery in my phone died and the GPS tracker stopped. I had a great time, and in fact, my back felt better the next day. I guess my body is telling me it needs more exercise.

Today, we had Christmas part II at our house. My two sisters came, and we exchanged gifts with that part of the family. I got my nephew a watch, and it looks like he liked it. Tomorrow, the tree comes down. It’s been a pretty good tree – it’s starting to dry out a bit now, but it’s held its needles pretty well. Looking at it in the afternoon light – today was the first day in a while that it’s been sunny – a couple of the ornaments caught my eye, so I took pictures of them for possible future use.

I saw this post on Brent Simmons’ blog last week, which fits my feelings exactly:

If 2016 was a tough year for a number of reasons, it was tough especially because we agreed to hand a machine gun to a monkey.

So we can all agree that we’d like to put 2016 behind us. Good riddance to a bad year.

The problem is that 2017 is the year that the monkey pulls the trigger.

I am still deeply worried about Trump. Probably more so than I was right after the election. Nothing he has done since the election has reassured me.

A Choice of Trade-Offs

Apple has gotten to a place where each new product is just as notable for the things that have been removed as they are for their improvements. The iPhone 7 dropped the headphone jack. The newest MacBook Pros add a wonderful new Touch Bar interface – and loses the MagSafe power adaptor, the SD card reader, and has a poorer keyboard than its predecessor. Many professionals are upset about it because they don’t like the compromises in the latest machines.

All products are the sum of the trade-offs made in their design. Add battery power, add battery weight. Make the computer thinner, and you have to reduce keyboard travel. The trick is to make the right choices in what to prioritize, and what kind of compromises to accept. And the problem is, people are starting to feel that Apple isn’t making machines for them anymore.

It seems like Apple’s overriding concern over the past few years is thinness and lightness, and balanced against those, everything else goes to the wall. Keyboard feel and useful ports are sacrificed to make the case thinner. Battery life is sacrificed to save weight. The overall goal is to make the product as thin and light as possible.

That’s great for some people, but not for me. I transport my computer, so I do like using a laptop, but I almost always use it on my desk. Right now I have a wired mouse connected (I hate the BlueTooth mouse at work, because it keeps disconnecting itself), and I often have a graphics tablet plugged in, too. Because my main drive is nearly full, I’ve offloaded my media library to an external hard drive.

For me, the weight and thickness of my phone and laptop ceased being an issue long ago. I was fine with the thickness of my iPhones 3GS and 4S, and I’m satisfied with the weight and dimensions of my current 2014 and 2011 MacBook Pros.

I wish Apple would also create products where the overarching concern was to make the products no bigger than necessary, rather than as thin as possible. I’d like to see them splurge on a couple of extra mm of keyboard travel. I’d like to see the SD card built in. I get that USB-C is a wonderful future, but having to rely on a fleet of dongles is not particularly elegant.

I also wish they’d reconsider internal expansion. I understand that they don’t want to build in features used by a small minority; the flip side is that external expansion is messy. Who wants to live with a rat’s nest of cables? The current Mac Pro is a marvel of design, but I think for its intended audience, professionals who need tons of computing power, a tower design that facilitates internal expansion is more useful. A loaded tower with internal drives mounted inside is neater,  has fewer cables and is easier to move around than a smaller computer with connected external drives.

I understand Apple wants to keep their product line simple. But I do think there is demand for Apples that are not compromised for the sake of thinness.

 

Making of a Christmas Card, 2016

This year was a bit unusual in that I actually had two competing ideas for a card, and I was able to do them with a minimum of stress. The first idea was to get some pictures of Christmas lights at night, and I actually brought the tripod with me into work, and went out shooting afterwards at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I did get some good stuff there, but in the end, I decided to go with my second idea.

I’d gotten a “Table Top Studio” kit the previous Christmas. Essentially, it’s a small square tent with white nylon sides to soften the light coming from the included pair of quartz lights. It came with four backgrounds: red, white, blue and black, and I decided to pick up a small snow globe and photograph it.

My initial thought was to use the red background, because red’s a Christmas color. I shot a number of frames. The snow globe lights up and has a small impeller to stir up the glitter inside, so I shot a a number of pictures with the globe both on and off.

I found that the moving glitter didn’t really read as glitter (or snow) but rather as noise.

I also decided, more or less for the heck of it, to try it with the white and black backgrounds:

I found I really didn’t like the black ones at all, and the white ones were underexposed and the white background was wrinkled, so I decided to shoot a few more with more exposure. I also got the idea to hide the bottom of the background with some fluffy cotton, to make it look more like snow. I shot both red and white versions:

The cotton balls in both are a little too obvious, but I figured that would be easy to fix in Photoshop. The red one was more in line with my original conception of the shot, but there was something about the white one that I liked. The red one was a little cleaner; the white one had some color casts that needed cleaning up. The snowmen in the white one were a little easier to read, and the reflections of the lights on the globe were a little less prominent on that one too. It would also take less ink to print. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to go with the white one, and took it into Photoshop.

All these steps took a lot less time than it usually does. The photography took maybe 45 minutes, and I had the Photoshop work done in less than an hour.

Next, I imported the picture into the card template in Pages. This was a little ticklish since I had to rotate everything 90°, because the template is designed for horizontal pictures. For the text, I used Museo Slab, the same font I use here for headings. I ended up choosing golden text with red rules above and below.

All in all, pretty simple, but I’m pleased with the result, more so than I was with last year’s card.

Final Result

Final Result

Merry Christmas everyone.

The Perfect Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

We just finished putting up the Christmas tree. It’s always a lot of work, and it’s always nice to bask in the glow of the lights when it’s done. This year’s tree isn’t perfect, but it is pretty nice.

I remember growing up, my Dad always picked out the family tree, and he had a well earned reputation for picking out a Perfect Tree. Our trees were always much nicer than the Charlie Brown trees my cousins had.

So when he died, my two brothers and I all felt strongly that we had to live up to his reputation, and none of us was willing to cede responsibility for getting the tree to the others. So off we went, the Three Wise Men — or is it the Three Stooges? on a bitterly cold December day to find The Perfect Tree. It took forever, because of course, there is no such thing, and even less so 36 years ago when shaped trees were less common. It took nearly an hour for the three of us to agree on one. It was a great tree though.

Nowadays, it’s just me. I still like to get a nicely shaped tree, but it’s easier now, because trees are more likely to be nicely shaped, and I have less enthusiasm for standing around a windswept tree lot trying to find The Perfect Tree. But every time, I always think of Dad.

Goodbye EX-500

I just got rid of my first motorcycle, a 1987 Kawasaki EX-500 the other day. It had been taking up space in the garage for a decade and a half.

I’d been interested in motorcycles for a long, long time before I got the bike — privately. My parents were very opposed to motorcycles, and I was pretty conservative in the way I manifested myself, so I think it was a shock when I actually got it. (I think my relatives have gotten over being shocked at anything I do).

I started buying motorcycle magazines in 1986 or so, and by 1987, I’d decided on the EX-500 — sporty, but a good beginner bike. I put down my money in the spring of 1987, intending to pick up the bike after taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.

It was a disaster. I bombed out of the course. In hindsight, it didn’t help that the instructor was a screamer who just made me tenser when I screwed up. At the end, I came home from that weekend convinced motorcycles were not for me. I called up the dealer and cancelled the order, rather to his disbelief.

And yet… over the next few weeks, I found that it really was something I wanted to do. I still found myself looking at bikes hungrily. So I found another instructor who gave me one on one instruction, found that it went well, and called the dealer back, found that they still had the bike, and picked it up in the mid-summer of 1987.

It took me a while to get comfortable on the bike. I remember doing a lot of practice on Green Lodge street, where there is no traffic. Then I started taking it out on the side roads in traffic, and started to get comfortable.

This was all on my learners permit, which restricted me to daytime operation within the state. I had jury duty scheduled in early fall, so I couldn’t make the appointment until after that was over. In the meantime, I practiced circles and figures eight for the license test, and got so I could do one in a fairly tight area.

Finally, I had my appointment in early October. The inspector had me do a circle and figure eight in an area about twice as big as the areas I’d been practicing for, so I whipped through them confidently. He then told me to go down the road half a mile and come back, and as I did, I could see him in the rear view mirror go inside to do the paperwork. I had my license.

That October was when I first developed my liking for night rides, since I could now ride at night. It wasn’t until the following year that I really started to get into riding. I got better at it,  and got more confident. I developed that awareness of other vehicles that motorcyclists have. And I found I really enjoyed it.

The ride that sticks out in my memory was a trip out along the Mohawk Trail in July of 1993. I got to Mount Greylock at the end of the day, and took the road up to the summit. To the west, the sun was setting. To the east, the full moon was rising. It was awesome.

By the late 1990’s though, the bike was getting unreliable. It developed some sort of intermittent electrical problem that left me stranded a couple of times. I took it to one place to get fixed; the problem came back. I took it to a second place to get fixed; they said they found it, and I was just about to pick it up, when they came back and said it had died on the owner while he took it on a test ride. They got to the root of the problem, but I never fully trusted it again.

I was coming back from a short ride to visit my aunt when the end came. I was 90 seconds from home, when the car ahead of me stopped short. I slammed on the brakes, and was just congratulating myself for making a good emergency stop when I heard the squeal of brakes, and got tossed over the handlebars, breaking my collarbone.

The bike sustained enough damage — broken windscreen, mirror, and other scuffs, that it wasn’t worth fixing, especially given its past issues. So I got a new one, and the EX-500 has been sitting in the garage ever since. I wanted to be rid of it, but couldn’t figure out how. Dealers didn’t want it, and there weren’t any local junkyards.

I got a little more serious about this fall, and started looking online, and finally found a page that suggested Kars4Kids. I’d heard their jingle on the radio, of course, but didn’t realize they dealt with dead bikes too. I called them a couple of weeks ago, and asked them about it. “Sure!” they said. I told them the bike was damaged. “That’s OK”. I told them it had been sitting in the garage for 15 years. “Wow” they said, but they’d still take it. Great. So I put some air back in the rear tire so I could move it, and got it out from under all the accumulated junk. Last Wednesday, I wheeled it out to the street, and when I came home, it was gone.

So, Trump.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the election, and my two readers have both asked me what I think about it. I came down with a cold the night before, and spent Election Night shivering in bed with the chills, as I watched the unfolding disaster, and spent most of the time since recovering, which sounds metaphorical, but isn’t.

For the first week, I was too ill and too upset to read much of the news. I’ve been about 10 – 14 days behind on Twitter for a while, and spent most of the past week catching up. It was hard reading all the pre-election certitude in the cold hard light of hindsight.

I’ve never been so sorry to be proven right. I was saying a year ago that Trump scared me, because I saw very clearly what a weak candidate Hilary Clinton was. In July, I wrote, “Hillary Clinton feels like Martha Coakley writ large; people will find a reason not to vote for her.” She seems unauthentic, doesn’t seem to be intellectually honest, and never defined herself well enough for people to vote for her; she relied on the belief that Trump was clearly unsuitable.

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Trump won fair and square. It doesn’t matter that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump; in our system, the states elect the president, not the people. And there are enough states with enough people that the economy has left behind that have spoken. There have been protests of the election, but to my mind, that’s wrong. You don’t protest free elections, and that goes double if you didn’t vote. I felt sick enough to work from home Tuesday morning, but I still voted.

Next, I’m hoping I’m wrong about him. I’d like to be proven wrong, because the better he does, the better we do. One of the columnists in the Globe wrote, “I don’t want Trump to succeed. I want him to fail spectacularly.” I get what he’s saying, but I hope Trump manages to pivot away from his more extreme positions. and perform reasonably. My Uncle Kip claims that we’ll see a different Donald Trump, and I hope he’s right. So far, I haven’t seen it.

Finally, I’m seeing a lot on Twitter about opposing every move he makes. I despised the Republicans for doing that to Obama, and I’ll despise the Democrats if they do that to Trump. To my mind, the duty of an opposition party is to fight the policies they oppose, find common ground where they can, try to influence the president by providing an alternative, and remember they are Americans first and partisans second. President Obama seems to be taking that to heart, and I hope other members of his party do as well.

The thing that dismays me is that people either couldn’t see his character issues, or saw them, and decided they were OK. There are a lot of people who should have known better, but voted for him anyway.

What truly scares me is the outright fascism his victory has enabled. All the little neo-Nazis and white supremacists are crawling out from under their rocks into the light of day. It’s become more acceptable to be racist in public. I’m seeing reports of people being harassed just because of who they are. I worry about people like my friend Rami, one of the nicest, friendliest people around, getting hassled because of his name and appearance.

Trump hasn’t helped with his statements or his actions. He did make a point of telling people to “Stop it”, but then he’s gone on to appoint Stephen Bannon and Jeffrey Sessions to important posts. He’s still leading with his mouth. He still doesn’t seem to think through his actions. He still seems, well… nuts. And he’s already in line to be the most corrupt president ever – witness the foreign governments lining up to stay at the Trump hotels, and the settlement of the Trump University case.

Unfortunately, he also has a Republican Congress to back him up, and the Republicans in Congress so far haven’t shown any inclination to put country above party, or to consider the people their actions affect. I’m hoping there may still be enough institutional decency left – or at least, enough institutional protectiveness of their own prerogatives – to prevent the worst of the abuses.

I suspect that the way it will play out is that it will be Amateur Hour for the first six months or so – he is inexperienced in government, and doesn’t seem to be surrounding himself with good people. He will attempt to bully his way around, and manage to offend enough of Congress that he will engender opposition within his own party. As his policy initiatives become clearer, the media will find people who will be hurt by them, and allow them to tell their stories. The biggest advantage Obamacare has right now is that there are already a lot of people dependent on it. After a while, he’ll realize that if he wants to get anything done, he’ll need more experienced hands to help him, and hopefully, get rid of the strident right wingers.

In the end, it will come down to his willingness to be bound by the rule of law. If he recognizes that, while it won’t be great, we’ll be OK.