Gordon Lightfoot

I just read the news that Gordon Lightfoot has died. Given his age and condition, it’s not surprising, but still, it’s a shock. He was my number one favorite musical artist.

I’d heard his hits on the radio, of course, all through high school, and loved “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” when it first came out, not knowing at first, that it was based on a true story, but it wasn’t until the late seventies/early eighties that I really got into his music.

Someone had left Gord’s Gold at the Cape House, and I just totally fell in love with it. A lusher re-recording of many of his hits from the sixities and early seventies, it’s a great album. I so fell in love with the storytelling of the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, which tells the story of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, that I listened to it over and over until I knew the lyrics:

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white men and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real

But time has no beginnings and history has no bounds
As to this verdant country they came from all around
They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
Built the mines, mills and the factories for the good of us all

And whеn the young man’s fancy was turning to the spring
The railroad mеn grew restless for to hear the hammers ring
Their minds were overflowing with the visions of their day
And many a fortune lost and won and many a debt to pay

The song then switches to the viewpoint of the industrialists, who developed the land, and to the “railroad men” who envisioned “an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea” After this section there is a bridge, the tempo changes, and he switches viewpoints again, to the “the navvies who work upon the railway/Swingin’ our hammers in the bright blazin’ sun“. I can see this section in my mind’s eye, almost cinematically — yellow filter with the sunset behind, semi-slow motion silhouette of a worker swinging his sledge hammer to drive in the spikes.

Another bridge, and the original melody resumes, and the song’s camera pulls back, to show what the workers have accomplished, and the cost: “We have opened up the soil/With our teardrops and our toil”

The last stanza reprises the first, with one important addition:

For there was a time in this fair land
When the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white men and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
And many are the dead men
Too silent to be real

The storytelling in this song just blew me away. Pop music, at least the music you heard on the radio, was typically just love songs. This, this told a story. It was the first song I learned, (and to this day, if I want to test a keyboard, I’m apt to rattle off “There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run).

I fell in love with Gord’s Gold down the Cape, but it wasn’t mine, and I had to leave it there. The first album I owned was a birthday present that fall: Dream Street Rose. Again, a great combination of songs, including “Ghosts of Cape Horn” describing the sailing ships that rounded the Horn.

I started working around that time, and was able to start picking up his albums for myself. A concert of his, around the time of Shadows, was the first concert I ever went to. I must have seen him half a dozen times, at various venues in Boston, and the South Shore Music Circus. I picked up all his albums through the nineties, and most of his earlier work. When he appeared on PBS’s Soundstage, I recorded the audio off the TV, and nearly wore the tape out.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and while he never lost his songwriting ability, his wonderful baritone started to become reedy and thin. I started to find him unlistenable around the time of A Painter Passing Through, and stopped going to see him and picking up his newer music. I still love his older stuff though, especially the era from the seventies to early eighties, and feel like a big chunk of my musical life is gone.


Like a lot of people, I’ve become addicted to Wordle, the word guessing game first created by Josh Wardle. It’s sort of like Mastermind for words — you have to guess a five letter word in as few tries as possible. It does not give you any meaning based clues; instead, you enter a guess, and it colors any letters that are correctly in the right position green, any letters that are in the word but in the wrong position a mustard yellow, and any wrong letters dark grey. There’s only one puzzle per day. The game makes it easy to share your score via text or social media by placing an obfuscated version of your guess on the clipboard:

Wordle 679 4/6


(I probably should have gotten that one sooner)

My sister Karen also likes to play, and we tend to text each other our scores. I think we’re basically in the same league; some days she does better than me, somedays I do better than her, and somedays we do the same.

Wardle originally created the game for his wife, and when it became popular, he sold it to the New York Times in January 2022. The Times has maintained free access to the game.

One of the things they’ve added is Wordlebot, which provides an online analysis of the way you played today’s puzzle. What I find fascinating about Wordlebot is the way it solves the puzzle. It’s appears to be mostly probabilistic.

Here’s the way it appears to solve the puzzle:

  • It starts off with a fixed list of around 3000 words
  • It makes an initial guess, usually SLATE, and then filters out those words that the clue response eliminates. When analyzing your score, it will tell you how many words are still possible based on your guesses.
  • It makes another guess, based on the words remaining, probably weighted by some sort of word usage, and repeats until it gets the word.

I don’t work that way. For one thing, even though I have a very large vocabulary, I don’t keep all of them in my head. Here’s I I solve it:

  • I start with a word with a couple of vowels and some of the more common consonants. For a long time it was HEART, now I tend to follow Wordlebot and use SLATE
  • If none of the vowels hit, I’ll go with a word like SOUND to test a couple of the other vowels. If I did get a vowel, I then have to consider its placement, how many of them I got. Many five letter words have two vowels; if I only got one, then it’s not unlikely there’s a second, and I’ll choose a word to test that. I don’t play in hard mode,
  • If one of the vowels is in third position, I tend to try out two letter consonant combinations, since words that begin with a consonant tend to be more common than words that begin with vowels. If I know the first or second letter, that can be constraining, since a lot of letter combinations don’t work — think, for example, “dv”. If I can’t find a two letter consonant combination, then I’ll try a vowel in first position.

In general, I have a sense of English letter patterns, but what I don’t have is a sense of what words I have not yet eliminated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll agonize over finding a word that fits, trying out different letters to see if they sound right, and then finally, I’ll trip over the word, and it will be immediately obvious it is right.

Then I’ll look at Wordlebot, and it will tell me I’ve eliminated all but one word, and I should have it in the next turn. If I’ve done well, it will have be on the next turn, and other times… not.

The Verizon Follies

I’ve been a Verizon FiOS for the past fifteen years. Up until last week, I was a happy Verizon customer for TV, internet and phone.

I arrived home last Monday to find that the internet was down. A quick check showed me that the TV was down too.  I didn’t bother checking the phone — I seldom use the house phone anymore — but I assume it was down too.

The first thing I did was go downstairs, and check the Optical Network Terminal (ONT). I saw no indicator lights on it. 

The next thing I did was use the Verizon FiOS app to try to contact support. Oh, gawd. It. was. so. bad. Slow, laggy, and the user experience sucked. I build user interfaces for a living, and one of the the things you learn is that when the user acts, your app needs to react.

This app lead me through a series of yes/no questions, and when I answered each one, it sat there. No reaction whatsoever for seconds. The buttons didn’t highlight to indicate they’d activated, there  was no focus ring to indicate that the button had been clicked, there wasn’t any kind of spinner or progress bar to indicate a request had been sent to the server and that the app was waiting for a response. It just sat there, and I wasn’t even sure it hadn’t died. It finally led me through a series of checks which seemed to indicate that it was testing the ONT to see if it had power, and when it got the the last screen…. it was empty. Nada.

Having gotten nowhere with the in-app diagnostics that were supposed to get me back up and running “in just a few minutes”, I used the option to get a call from Verizon. I gave them my cell phone number, and sure enough, I got a call in just a moment. It went downhill from there. Press one for this, press two for that, etc, for a long chain of options. Finally it agreed that I could talk to a representative. And then it put me on hold for about ten minutes (it felt like an hour, but I just checked my phone). I finally got to an operator who told me that it was a known issue that should be fixed by 7 the next day.

So much for Monday night. I’d spent about an hour between the app and waiting on hold. I had no TV and not much internet — just cellular on the phone — so I actually read a book.

The next day, Tuesday, I got up early, because I knew that with the internet down, I would have to go into the office to get work done. Sure enough, the system was still down, so I went into Watertown. 

When I got back, the system was still down, so I called Verizon back; and this time I pressed a little. I got another operator, who continued to tell me that the problem was a cut fiber somewhere. I told him I was standing in front of the ONT, and it had no power. No, no he assured me. The problem was on their end. Well, what if there is a problem here too, and you fix your network problem, and I’m still down? Didn’t listen, just said they were working on it, and he would check in at 10 PM to see if I was back up. He didn’t and I wasn’t. I was beyond furious at this point.

The next day was Wednesday, the day we ordinarily go into the office, and I had a decision to make. Should I go in, or did I need to stick around to see if a tech would come?

I called Verizon back, and promptly got dumped into a robosystem that swiftly informed me that I already had a ticket open and it would not be resolved until 8 PM, and that there was nothing else anybody could tell me. Click.

By this point, I was pretty damned sure that the problem was sitting in front of me. They’d sent me a mail last year saying it was no longer supported, but since I work from home, it’s hard to be both available for a tech and get work done. So I put it off. But I know that indicator lights mean something, and if even the power light is off, there’s a problem. I was boiling mad, so I tried using the “I want a call” option again, and this time, I got an operator who listened.

He scheduled a tech to visit that day to diagnose the problem, and another tech the next day to upgrade the system. Finally. I mean, I wasn’t thrilled that I’d be down for two days, but at least, I was confident that the problem would be solved. I was hoping the tech could get the existing system back up so I could limp along for a couple of hours, until I had to go down again the next day for the upgrade, so I texted my boss to let him know I wouldn’t be available today and part of the next day.

James, the technician who came that day, was awesome. He took one look at the old ONT, pronounced it dead, and told me he could replace the ONT and router and arrange with one of his co-workers to come in and complete the upgrade that day. And he did. He got the internet back up in a couple of hours, running at much higher speed, and his colleague came by around 4:45 to handle the TV upgrades. It was done, and I now have a much better system (aside from the fact that the wifi doesn’t reach well into the bathroom). James and his colleague (and I wish I could remember her name) were the heroes of this little misadventure.

This whole thing feels like such an unforced error. As I said, up until last week, I’d been a very enthusiastic Verizon customer, because the previous times I’d called them, they’d responded quickly and well. I would get advertisements for other ISPs and chuck them, because their service is notoriously bad, and why would I want to deal with that when I was dealing with a good outfit that took customer service seriously?

At least, I was.

They burned so much good will with me over the course of about forty hours. Clearly, some bean counters somewhere realized it was cheaper to get rid of a bunch of representatives who knew what they were doing, and replace them with a poorly made app (which is clearly just a series of web views) a shoddy, unresponsive back-end backing it up, and outsourced customer service operators working off canned scripts that try to avoid having to send out repair people.

Yes, it’s cheaper. But it’s not more efficient.

It takes a hell of a lot of money to attract a new customer. I remember when I first got FiOS reading that they were spending ridiculous amounts of money on each new customer. If they can retain existing customers, that’s money they can amortize, not spend again trying to replace that customer. Furthermore, if they can keep those customers happy, they’ll tell other people, and hopefully that means attracting new customers is easier and less expensive.

Instead, they’ve chosen to become just as customer-hostile as the other guys. What a goal to shoot for. Instead of diagnosing the problem properly the first night, and sending someone out the next day to deal with it — since the problem started in the early evening, I would have been content with next day service — they fumbled for about 36 hours, while I became more and more enraged.

And I’m damned well making sure everyone I come into contact with knows about it.

Making of a Christmas Card, 2022

I really had no idea what I was going to do about a Christmas card this year, or even if I wanted to do one. I have less free time this year, and I wasn’t really feeling it. There is a big part of me that wanted to do a jump cut to February.

Still, a tradition is a tradition, and so, at the beginning of the month, I was wracking my brain trying to come up with an idea. I didn’t get as frantic as I did in 2013 — I have more confidence in myself now that I’ll figure out something — but I was definitely feeling bereft of ideas.

And then, one day, I was looking at pictures with Mum, and for some reason, I decided to look at my iPhone pictures. And there is was, a picture I’d taken with the iPhone last year:

Ornament on Christmas tree
Ornament on tree, taken with my iPhone 12 Pro

Looking at it, it was nearly perfect. The only thing that bothered me was that you can see my hands holding the phone taking the picture. So I took it into Photoshop, and cut the hands and phone out of the picture, using Content Aware Fill, in several steps. I also bumped up the contrast a bit because printing on card stock tends to flatten the contrast a bit:

Christmas ornament, with the reflection retouched away
After retouching my reflected hands out of the red ball

Content Aware Fill is an amazing thing. It took me maybe two minutes to take care of it; I remember when it would have taken me hours.

Then it was time to lay out the card. Once again, I used two-up card stock, using Apple Pages to lay it out. Vertical cards are actually laid out sideways on the template, so I just grabbed one of my older cards, replaced the images in them, updated the date on the back, and then had to decide on typography.

This year, I decided on white Bodoni 75 with a thin outline and drop shadow for better separation, placed directly on top of the picture. I removed the borders on the text box this year. I’m pleased with the way it came out — the type fits well with the picture, and it looks almost like a book cover.

The hard part this year was what to say inside. This has not been a good year for me or the family, because of Mum’s situation. Do I use the space to send a Mum update? But I send cards to a variety of people, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone I send cards to. And a single message isn’t appropriate for everyone. In the end, for the pre-printed part, I went with the classic “Merry Christmas & Best Wishes for a Happy New Year”.

And here’s the finished card:

Finished 2022 Card Cover - Picture of a Christmas tree ornament with Merry Christmas laid over it.
Finished 2022 cover

Merry Christmas, everyone.


Ten year ago, in “Season of Lights” , I wrote:

Personally, at least for now, I prefer the old-fashioned incandescent types. They seem warmer, with a better distribution of color. The reds and oranges are brighter, the blues less prominent. The newer LED lights seem to be too heavy on the blues. Their blue lamps are quite bright, and  their oranges and reds less bright in comparison. I suspect that this is something that will get fixed in time–the manufacturers need to make light strings where the warmer colors are brighter.

I think the manufacturers are finally starting to get it. I have a couple of strings on my tree that seem a little more well-balanced, and I’m noticing as I drive around town that there are more lights that have the characteristic LED deeply saturated blues, but also have decently bright reds and ambers. And for the first time, it feels to me like old fashioned incandescent lights seem reddish.

I’m also noticing that there are warmer “white” LEDs — the trees in front of the police station are covered with them, though they still seem just a touch greenish.

A few months back I took a ride on the new Green Line extension to Union Square. The new branch to Medford/Tufts opened last week, and I took a ride late Sunday afternoon. Like the Union Square branch, it starts off elevated headed out of Lechmere, then runs at ground level. Unlike the Union Square branch, it goes quite a distance. It’s sort of like the Riverside Line in that it’s fully grade separated with decent spacing between stops; unlike the Riverside Line, there are sound barriers along most of it, which kind of feels like you’re riding in a canyon. And boy, have the walls already been heavily tagged. There seemed a fairly decent ridership for late afternoon on a Sunday.

A Few Subtle Changes

“Upgrade to the latest version of PHP [the language that runs WordPress, the software that runs this site]”, the email from my hosting provider said. “Better performance” it said. “The version of PHP your site is running on is no longer supported, and won’t be getting security patches” it said. So, I figured, “Why not?” This site runs on WordPress, and I figured WordPress would be well tested on the latest PHP. So I clicked the button to upgrade the site… and the site died.

I followed the instructions for troubleshooting WordPress. I renamed the plugins folder, and the site came back partially– the page shell was visible, but not the content. Clearly, there was at least one plug-in that was incompatible. When I switched the site back to one of the stock themes, the text became visible again, and I knew there was a problem with the child theme.

A little trial and error located the errant plugins — there were two of them. One was the plug in that allowed me to reverse the normal order of posts within the Bonaire categories — I want the posts in those categories to be in chronological order. Fortunately, I found a different plugin to handle that.

The second one was the plugin that I used to display my tweets on the page. I’m less concerned about that now since Twitter has become such a shit-show. I removed that plug in entirely, and enabled the rest. The site continued to run.

Now it was time to find the problem with the child theme. I knew there was a file called “functions.php” that contained overrides to the stock theme. Looking at it, the most likely culprit was the “posted_on” function, that displays the date of the post. I’d customized it to show the date using a “calendar-like” appearance. So I commented it out, and the the site content came back. I knew I had the right culprit. At that point, the site was functional, though lacking the custom post dates. I needed to get supper and take care of some errands, so I left it in that state temporarily.

When I came back, I took a closer look at the problem. Unfortunately, I don’t know PHP, and don’t really know the WordPress internals, so I started by comparing the default version of the function with my customized function. Eventually, I realized I was calling esc_html( get_the_date(M) ), The esc_html function returns escaped HTML, while get_the_date() returns the post date. What I was trying to do was get the month part of the post date. Both of these functions are WordPress functions. The docs said that get_the_date() takes any PHP date formatting string. And then the word “string” jumped out at me. The M was unquoted. I quoted the parameter in each of the calls, and my content (and custom post date) came back. Huzzah!

Now it was time to clean up a few loose ends. I noticed the category display was gone, but in its place were two copies of the “tag cloud”. It turns out one was from a newer version of the theme, and one was from a legacy widget I’d added. I removed the legacy widget, and added a widget to display the post categories.

Then I took a second look — the categories were actually still present in the footer area. So I pulled it out of the side bar, and put the random post plugin back in its place. In the footer, I put a top posts plugin which would show my top posts if I get some traffic, but for now, is showing my most recent posts.

So there you have it. The site is back up and running. At the moment, it’s running in Christmas mode. I’ve made some tweaks to my plugins and sidebar widgets that most people probably won’t even notice.

The bigger question, of course, is whether it’s time for a redesign. This theme is long in the truth, but to be honest, I still like the way it looks. So, we’ll see.

Catching the Type 9

Back in March of 2019, I took a trip on the Green Line to see if I could catch a ride on their then-new Type 9 trolley. The T needed a couple of dozen extra cars to fill out the fleet once the Green Line Extension opened. (It’s been delayed, but the first branch opened last spring, and main branch will open next month. Finally.)

At that point, there were only a few of the trolleys in service, and one Saturday I saw one was out and about, so I decided to see if I could see it. I still remember excitedly watching its progress towards Kenmore on the B line, while I approached Kenmore on the D. I finally managed to position myself so that I was just ahead of it as it came back outbound, only to have it run right past me; it was not carrying passengers.

The COVID happened, and Mum’s stroke happened, and I’ve been busy, and I haven’t had a chance to try again. In the meantime, the rest of the order has arrived and been accepted. This past Saturday, I finally had a free afternoon, and decided to try to catch it again. I succeeded, and was able to ride #3904 from Riverside to Union Square.

Like the Type 8, the Type 9 is a “low floor” car, meaning that the center of the trolley is low, and you can board without climbing steps. The T has been obliged to buy low floor cars to accommodate wheel chair users. The Type 9 is laid out mostly like the Type 8 — bench seating along the sides of the car. I’m not a fan. You end up looking out the window behind the person across from you and can’t really see much. Along much of the car, the seats are on a raised platform that you have to step up onto from the low floor, while there are a few foldout seats available in the low-floor section.

I do like the interior of the Type 9 better than the Type 8. The Type 8 has a kind of light mint green interior that always reminds me of a bathroom. The Type 9 has warm light grey walls — almost a beige — green seat pads and enameled yellow stanchions for standees. It’s quite attractive. All of the signage aboard has been updated for the new extension. (The same cannot be said for many of the stations). The seat pads have a flat green textured surface that looks like they might be soft vinyl, but they are unfortunately hard plastic.

The train looks nice, and the on-board displays are nice, but still, I think I prefer the Type 7s with their transverse seating and beige and faux-wood interior. The entire Type 7 fleet was recently overhauled too, and they’re still the workhorses of the line. The Type 8s have never been particularly reliable; hopefully these new cars will be more so.

Sunrise at Castle Island

Today is the last day of Daylight Savings Time for 2022. The trouble with the tail end of DST is that sunrise is really late – 7:24 this morning, It been really sucking on workdays for the past few weeks; I normally get up at 7 on days that I work from home, and 6:30 on days that I go into the office, and I hate having to get up in the dark.

This morning though, I figured… If I get up a little after six, I can be over at Castle Island before 7 and be there before the sun comes up. I did not set an alarm; if I blew the wake time I figured no big deal, but in fact I did wake up around six, and hauled myself out of bed and onto the road.

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Crowd Crush

I’ve been reading a little about the Seoul Halloween Crowd Crush. There was a holiday celebration, the first after social distancing from COVID, and many more people showed up than expected, the layout of the streets funnelled them into a small area, and at least 156 people were crushed to death and at least 172 were injured.

It brought back memories. In October of 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Boston. There was a big temporary canvas covered altar set up on the Common. It was beautiful. Back then, I was 20 years old, active in the church, and had been invited to be in a special youth section up front, right in back of the VIPs, but in front of the vast masses covering the rest of the Common.

I got there early afternoon, and at first, it was great. I was close, I could see the altar clearly. When the Pope arrived, I was close enough to see him, and hear him say, “America the beautiful, beautiful even in the rain.”

But then the pushing started. Gradually, the folks behind us started trying to get closer, and started pushing from the back. We started moving forward, but there was only so far we could go because of the barriers in front separating us from the VIP section. It was scary, and I decided right there and then that I never wanted to be in that big of a crowd ever again. I can only imagine how the people who died felt at the end.

New Apple Watch

I decided to treat myself to a new Apple Watch, a Series 8, this year. I got my first Apple watch, a Series 4, about three and a half years ago. I still liked the look of my Tissot better, but I was interested in some of the heart monitoring features, and over the years, I came to like it a lot. I liked the fact that notifications popped up on the watch, so that I could triage them and decide whether I wanted to bother getting out the phone. Getting turn by turn directions while wearing a watch is great; the watch will tap you on the wrist when your turns approach.

The one unlovely feature about the watch, though, was that it was a rather so-so timepiece, because the display was usually off, to save battery life. The following model year, Apple introduced an always on display, but I really couldn’t justify getting a new watch after less than a year.

It’s now been a few years, though, and though there’s been mainly incremental improvements year to year, over four model years, they’ve added up to a number of improvements over my old Series 4:

  • From the Series 5, always on display and compass
  • From the Series 6, a blood oxygen sensor, faster processor and faster charging
  • From the Series 7, a bigger display
  • And with this model, car crash detection.

Last time, I got a base model with an aluminum case and cloth band. This time, I decided to get the nicer version, with a gold stainless steel case and magnetic leather band. I really like the look, and I’m really happy with the watch. Having the always on display makes a world of difference, because you can now use it like a normal watch to tell the time; you don’t have to hold it up to your face with a specific gesture to turn on the display.

The way it works is interesting. When the watch is inactive, the display dims. When running a watch face with a second hand, the second hand goes away. “Complications”, the little indicators of other apps, don’t update themselves. There is one watch face, the one that they use to illustrate this particular case and band, that has a beige background and cream colored dial. When that one goes inactive, the beige background goes black and the dial inverts — light numbers on a dark dial — to conserve power.

Having the oxygen sensor is good –I wish I’d had it earlier in the month when the COVID was just getting going. Still, it was good to see that my oxygen levels weren’t affected.

The leather band is nice. Rather than a buckle, the band is segmented, with little magnets inside the strap. When you put it on, the band wraps around itself. It’s neat, though I have noticed occasionally it will pick up metal objects.

Because I got the stainless steel case, the watch comes with cellular connectivity; but at the moment, I don’t intend to turn it on. I rarely use my watch without my phone.

I ended up buying the watch online, since this particular case and band weren’t in stores. It took a couple of weeks for it to ship. The only real complaint I have about this order has been the trade-in of the old watch. I’m not getting much for it — only $50, but I figure that’s better than having it sitting around collecting dust. The other three times I’ve done Apple trade ins, I’ve gotten the trade in box either at the same time or before the merchandise; this time it was about a week after, and I got a semi-querulous email from Apple asking me if I still wanted the trade in. The box arrived the same day, though, and I sent it off the next day. And when I got home, there was a second trade-in box waiting for me on the doorstep. So clearly something got screwed up there. They got it today, and I’m now waiting for them to process the trade-in.

Update 10/26/2022: The trade in has been processed, and I’ve gotten my refund.

I got the watch a couple of days before my birthday. On my birthday, it had a message for me.

My new watch