Thursday, March 26, 2015

Show Don't Tell - The Language of the Story and the RFP

Show don't tell. It is THE quintessential writing advice for good reason. Don't tell us that a character is brave - show them facing a fear. While you're at it, don't tell us they are afraid - show us the quickening pulse, the sweaty palms, the tightness in the belly. Paint a word picture. Avoid "telling" words  such as nice, beautiful, good. Those words don't tell us anything.

I know; I'd promised a technology post, and here I am prattling on about standard, entry-level writing tips. That's because as a consultant someof my biggest contributions are written. Specifications. Narratives. System descriptions. All the details that go into creating an RFP.  While technical writing is in many ways different than creative writing, this one piece of advice holds strongly for both: show, don't tell.

There's a temptation to write a specification in such a way as to make the user feel that they're getting something special - expecially in the more specialty spaces on a larger job. I've seen language such as this:

The auditorium will be served by left and right program speakers, for high-quality stereo audio...


Flat-panel displays for high-resolution video playback of multimedia content.


Paging speakers for highly intelligible voice reproduction.

Compare those with

 The basement is dark and scary

Absent a definition of "high-quality audio", "High resolution video" or "highly intelligible voice reproduction" there's no objective goal. From a purely functional perspective, those words add nothing to either a contractor's understanding of the project or to the creation of a standard of success. Absent a description of the "scary" basement, you're literally giving the reader nothing but a dark space.

Two things can go wrong with such vague language. First, a contractor looking to cut corners or maximize profit can provide equipment with insufficient capability for the intended use. This can devolve into a fight in which the definition of "high quality" or "high resolution" is disputed. At the very worst, you can get a situation in which a contractor is either unwilling or unable - because their understanding of "high quality" is different than yours - to deliver a solution which is satisfactory to the client.

The other goal accomplished by more precise use of language is the setting of a finish line. There has to be some way for everyone to agree that a project is done. If an end result is described with purely subjective language, one is dependent on the client's subjective impression to agree that a project is successfully complete. Did you write "high-quality audio" in official bid documents? Good job - now you have a client standing in the room saying "it doesn't sound very high quality to me", and you have no way to tell him anything different.

So how do you do it? You fill in the darkness by painting a word picture. The only difference is whether that picture belongs in an art gallery or a set construction documents.

Some things are easy. Paging systems should have an STI (speech transmission index) target. This is an objective measure to which a system can be designed for intelligibility. High quality audio? SPL level, frequency response (+/- n dB over a range of frequencies) and other such objective criteria can give an actual target and actual design parameters. It'll make things easier for everyone.

Furnish paging speakers per contract drawings. Paging system should reproduce sound at a level of 75dB SPL at a height of 4' above finished floor. This system should achieve an STI of no less than 0.65

There are secret parts of the basement where nobody goes. Behind the boiler. Under the oil tank where winedark stains smell of old engines.  In the cracked parts of the foundation where tree trunk-thick waste pipes snake off to the underground. ... A little nook under the workbench, smelling of sawdust and oil layered over damp, earthy secrets. Sometimes, if I lay very quiet, I could hear their whispering. Low, languid, earthynoises, deeper even than my father's bellow but so soft and gentle.

Perhaps not the best descriptive text I've ever written, but it's paints a far better picture than "The basement is dark". So far as the paging spec is concerned, the improvement is clear; we show (using a number or objective measure) rather than tell (using a subjective statement of "quality"). At system close-out, it makes the difference between "the STI level is measured at .45, which does not meet standards" to "it doesn't sound good to me." The problem with the latter is clear: I've seen contractors chasing an elusive "It doesn't sound good to me" far, far too long into what should be simple projects. 

Issues with vague language can linger, and get into a user's head.  

If I wrote:

     We walked into the woods

Do you see this:

     The lantern cast a little pool of light in which they saw only branches and brambles. Dried leaves crunched underfoot as we walked on. This was closer to the nightmare of being lost in the woods, but not too close. The familiar gravel path was nearby. It had to be.

Or this?

     Truth be told, it isn't much of a wood, but there are trees and moonlight here in suburbia, what would have been an enchanted forest populated with dragons, witches, highwaymen when I was a boy. They're nice, straight, tall pine trees, but not connected to the famous pine-barrens. Perhaps they were  some time in the distant past, but now it's just enough to inflate the property value just a bit, and
to keep us from seeing our back-fence neighbors.

It's the same with "good audio"; if you don't show the reader what you want them to see, they'll tell their own story. That might not be the story you wanted to tell, or the story that you wanted to tell. Once the readers have told their own stories in their heads it's very hard to regain control of the narrative.

Does this always work? Are there times when you can't use numbers? Absolutely. Is there room for simile and metaphor? Perhaps. That is another discussion for another day.

Thanks for listening.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Why the Sun Did Not Rise Today

This was going to be an audiovisual post, but sometimes there's an event about which I simply must write. Yesterday was such an event in the world of literature.

I'll start by saying that the death of a celebrity is not something which usually affects me on a personal level; I was sad, but didn't cry over Robin Williams. Same for Leonard Nimoy. I don't feel close enough to them for it to have a visceral impact. That said, I cried when I saw this on Twitter:

For those who've not read Terry Pratchett (and if you've not you should have), Death is a recurring character in his Discworld series of fantasy books. His dialog is always in all capitals, so this final series of tweets on the occasion of Sir Terry's passing reads as a meeting between the author and his creation as the Reaper takes  his hand and leads him to whatever lies beyond. Yes, I cried over it.

I felt that we already mourned him once when he learned he had a rare form of early-onset alzheimers, but with the books continuing to appear it seemed that he'd be with us always, and cheat death. We know that that isn't the case for anyone. We can, of course, take comfort in the work he left behind. In one sense he'll never truly have left us as long as his work is still to be read. What did we lose - especially those of us who would never meet Sir Terry? I'm reminded of a scene from Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels. The personification of dreams (known as Dream) had just died. Cain and Abel (from the Bible. It's THAT kind of book. Also highly, highly recommended) were discussing the funeral with another character:
“Nobody died. how can you kill an idea? How can you kill the personification of an action?""Then what died? who are you mourning?""A point of view."
Isn't that all that ever dies? Someone's unique way of seeing the world? We still have the legacy of Sir Terry's words and ideas. What we don't have is anyone who sees the world exactly as he did.

Who Was Sir Terry?
Pratchett at a convention. You have to love his
self-deprecating sense of humor
He's best known as a humorous fantasy writer, his best known work by far being the Discworld series. I discussed the series overall in my review of what was, tragically, the very last volume in a post here. How sad it makes me feel to have given so poor a review to a master's very final work! The first time I read one of his books was over twenty years ago now, making his a presence through half of my life to date. He was extremely prolific and extremely engaging.

The primary tribute I've seen online has been to share favorite quotes. I'll do the same herein, starting with a bit on economic justice. Neil Gaiman, another terrific British writer, described his friend Pratchett as a very angry man, whose anger fueled a decades-long writing career. Here;s his character, police chief Sam Vimes, on income inequality

"Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. 
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feed dry in ten years' time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and still have wet feet. 
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes "Boots" theory of socioeconomic unfairness. "
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feed dry in ten years' time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes "Boots" theory of socioeconomic unfairness. "

He was also a writer who is very easy to dismiss, as he primarily wrote not just fantasy but comic fantasy. In my eyes, fantasy is important in that it gives us another language to tell truths too big for literal language. In closing, I'll share the quote the activist and writer Steampunk Emma Goldman shared. The scene here is a scrap of dialog between the aforementioned Death and his daughter Susan. They've just saved The Hogfather (a sort of Santa-Claus analog in the Discworld universe) from assassination. Susan had been told that, had the Hogfather died, the sun would not rise the next day.

"Now...tell me..."
"Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?"
NO."Oh, come on. You can't expect me to believe that. It's an astronomical fact."THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.She turned on him."It's been a long night, Grandfather! I'm tired and I need a bath! I don't need silliness!"THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN."Really? Then what would have happened, pray?A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.They walked in silence for a moment."Ah," said Susan dully. "Trickery with words. I would have thought you'd have been more literal-minded than that."I AM NOTHING IF NOT LITERAL-MINDED. TRICKERY WITH WORDS IS WHERE HUMANS LIVE."All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable."REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE. "Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little-"YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES."So we can believe the big ones?"YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING...YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN'T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?"

Today many of us feel that the Hogfather has died and that, in place of a glorious sunrise, the clockwork of the world turned in such a way that we'd face a large, burning ball of gas.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Curt Schilling is Not the Victim - the limits of shame in the fight for public civility

First off, I apologize to any of my fans for being away from this space for so long. As you all know, these have been trying times for me and my family; My lovely wife Karine had major back surgery just over a month ago, and is now convalescing in our home on Long Island. It's been a very difficult road in terms of her immediate recovery and hospital stay (including a long stint in the ICU), continued post-surgical pain, and the challenges of caring for two young children with one parent out of commission. I'll thank all of you who have offered kind wishes and who have supported our ongoing fundraiser to help cover expenses (special thanks to Gary Kayye of Ravepubs, Tim Albright of AVNation, and Corey Moss et al of the cAValry Rides show for lending their respective platforms to help spread the word. Thank you, AV friends!). It seems thematically fitting that my return to blogging will touch on the theme of family. Worry not, there will be more to say about the world of AV, fiction, and other thoughts. I'll start, however, with recent events involving former pitcher turned semi-professional loudmouth Curt Schilling.

Say what you will about him - we'll never forget Schilling's
performance in the 2004 ALCS.
Image courtesy of CNBC
For those living under a rock, Schilling posted a simple message on Twitter congratulating his daughter for getting into her college of choice where she will pitch on the softball team. The reaction - as it too often is when a woman is involved anywhere on social media - turned misogynistic and nasty including rape threats, reference to very aggressive sex acts, and overall nastiness. Schilling responded on his blog with a rant about civility, about how people need to learn that their actions have consequences, and included the names of some of the worst offenders. Two were students who were promptly suspended for their conduct; one was - in a poetic twist - a ticketseller from Schilling's old rivals, the New York Yankees. They fired him, along with a statement that they have zero tolerance for such conduct.

At a glance, everything is as it should be; a man defended his family from verbal bullying, the bullies paid a price. Nobody innocent was hurt, and we were given an example as to why we need to treat people civilly. The global community shunned these miscreants as a local village would have in times of old. Yet part of me can't help but feel uncomfortable, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is the emphasis on Curt Schilling. He's famous, his daughter Gabby is not.  Yes, he chose defend his family and to name and shame. What he has not done, as of this writing, is direct any of that attention to those bullying women NOT related to famous baseball players. In his blog post, he said the following:

I mentioned being a Republican, being a Red Sox and all that other stuff. I didn’t insert politics to make a point, I did so to make sure if you read it you knew that I KNEW people hate me for one or more reasons.


I look at it like this. If someone walked into your house and punched your daughter square in the face, what would your reaction be? You and I probably are thinking the very same thing. How is that different than what happened to my amazing Daughter?

This, to me, can be read as framing the bullying as a crime against him, Curt Schilling rather than against his daughter Gabby. At best, it puts the focus on him. At worst, this and the mention of Gabby's boyfriend paint bullying of a young woman not as a crime against her, but as a property crime against the men in her life to whom she belongs. Was this Curt's intent? That I can't answer, but even if we give him the benefit of the doubt it's hard to not see that as a message. In the meantime independent computer game developer Zoe Quinn continues to receive rape and death threats, Anita Sarkeesian is forced to cancel a speaking engagement due to death threats, Brianna Wu faces literally two years of harassment and threats from a man who later claims that it was some kind of elaborate performance art (and no, I'm not making that up. I wish I were). What makes the latter cases different? Wu and Sarkeesian and Quinn don't have powerful men to speak on their behalf; All they have are their own voices against the small, pitiful, but loud "GamerGate" movement dedicated to attacking outspoken women under the guise of "ethics in video game journalism". Their own voices aren't enough to have us listen.

That brings the bigger problem; there is no systemic way to deal with things like this. "Name and shame"  favours the loudest voices, those who already have power. Gabby Schilling's harassers were punished not because of what they said, but because of who their victim's family was. Schilling is not only famous and wealthy, he's a loud, polarizing figure who knows how to get our attention. A similar attack on, say, my family would get zero public attention. I'm one hundred percent in favor of platforms such as Twitter allowing anonymity; there are many legitimate activists and members of marginalized groups who depend on it. That said, they need to take a more active role in stopping this kind of behavior. I'm not such a free speech fetishist that I'll accept harassment as the price of doing business.

Even those of us who dislike Curt Schilling will fight for his daughter. We feel as if we know him and, by extension, her. Sure, he's the crazy uncle with reprehensible political views and a shaky grasp - at best - of science. That doesn't make him any less OUR crazy uncle with reprehensible ideas.

Finally, there's the issue that absent legal remedies we've resorted to the extralegal weapon of shaming. This is open to all kinds of abuse, both intentional and subconscious. Consider the following thought questions:
  1. Is it likely that the same swift response would meet a victim of color?
  2. Is the response equal across the board, or is it arbitrary?
  3. One harasser lost a fairly low-paying entry-level job. Should a repercussion to such things be an inability to work? If so, how is he expected to feed himself?
  4. One harasser was suspended from college. Is an inability to get an education a reasonable repercussion? How will this benefit society?
  5. How does your response to Item 4 blesh with the fact that prisons often offer educational programs to inmates? Could this be seen as worse than a prison sentence, for either the harassers or for society?

I won't lie, I'm a primate just like you are (I assume all of my readers are primates. Apologies to any uplifted dolphins reading this on waterproof smartphones). My first reaction was satisfaction that justice was done; someone did something bad, and we hurt them. Stepping far enough back, I don't see this as a solution. I see one very powerful man throwing around his muscle against some nobodies without moving to take any steps to solve the bigger issues. I see the community reading about this brushing its collective hands together, muttering to itself "good job" while higher levels of more persistent harassment continue. I see an emotional response, not a logical one. Judicial approaches have a fixed penalty, standards of proof, and - at best - a path to post-penalty rehabilitation and reintroduction to society. This kind of ad hoc shaming has none of that. Can we do better? I want to believe that we can.

As always, thanks for listening. I'll be back soon with something on the world of audiovisual technology.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Shoggoths and Snowstorms, Gay Wizards at Christmas: some later-year musings on culture

I was going to write a year-end wrap-up, but that might not be happening; Christmas was busy, and we still have Karine's surgery looming. For those who haven't been up-to-date, there's a post on the latter here, and a fundraiser here. Feel free to support or spread the word.

This is a literature post of sorts, with some of my musings on culture, art, and its various interpretations. Specifically, three discussions arose recently which interested me:
  1. The petition to replace the bust of HP Lovecraft on the World Fantasy Award trophy with someone less problematic.
  2. JK Rowling's recent response to a question about LGBTQ students at Hogwarts
  3. The seasonal tradition of dissecting and defending the lyrics to the holiday classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside",

All three discussions are, at their heart, about how we view art, what messages we find therein and, especially in cases 1 and 3, how we engage in potentially troublesome content from yesteryear.

Discussion the First: Lovecraft
HP Lovecraft
This, for me, is the easiest one. For those who don't know, Howard Phillip Lovecraft was an American writer of horror fiction in the early part of the twentieth century. His best known work revolves around what has come to be known as the Cthulhu mythos - a pantheon of unknowable and amoral godlike beings far older than the human race. His is a canon about man's growing feeling of insignificance in a universe which isn't only not centered around us, but which is beyond our understanding. Lovecraft's stories often involve an encounter with something inexplicable (to the point at which the author can't even describe it) and inimical to humans. The stories often end with a loss of sanity. He's a tremendously influential author, not only in direct imitators recycling his imagery but also in the tone of the "weird tale" - both of which persist to this day. There also is, in both his work and his personal correspondence, an overwhelming undercurrent of racism.

That an author basing his work on the concept of  "fear of the other" is a racist should come as little surprise. What should be shocking to a modern reader is how Lovecraft used the same language to describe immigrants to his New England setting as he used to describe eldritch horrors from beyond our observable world. One friend described a particular Lovecraft story as follows, "This seems like it was just a list of things he [Lovecraft] didn't like. There were rats. IT was horrible! There were sea-monsters. It was horrible! THe people were praying in Polish. It was horrible!"

For his influence, a stylized bust was selected as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award. Some current writers - including winner China Mieville who turns his award backwards to symbolically write behind the old racist's back - feel uncomfortable with honoring a legacy which is hurtful to so much of the population. To them, I'll agree; Not only was Lovecraft was a racist even by the lower standards of his time, but we are not living in his time. By today's standards, his work has very, very uncomfortable messages. Can we read is as a historically artifact? Absolutely. Can we read it and enjoy the craft and his skill at setting a mood? Yes. Can we read it without regard to the larger message, and accept it unchallenged? I say that we should not.

Discussion the Second - Gay Wizards
A few years back, JK Rowling created a bit of a splash with her declaration that Harry Potter character Albus Dumbledore is gay. I've spoken to some people who tell me that they see hints of this in the text, but I think we can all agree that it's never explicitly written. Given that one of the flaws in the final volume is a surplus of indigestible chunks of exposition, it would have been quite easy to include a scene with Dumbledore holding hands with a male classmate. Or kissing a male wizard. Or anything like that. Leaving it as something perhaps hinted at reduces "Dumbledore and Griffenwald were lovers" to one of many interpretations of the work; that the author is the one making it does not, to me, make it any more valid or more interesting an interpretation than if anyone else had.

This issue came back to mind when I recently stumbled across a click-baity headline announcing that "JK Rowling was asked about LGBT characters at Hogwarts. Her response was awesome." [A digression on headlines: the purpose of a headline was once to present the main idea of the article. "Man Walks on Moon", "US Attacked", "Dewey Defeats Truman". The purpose of a headline appears to have devolved into an attention grabbing question with just enough information to make you click through to the story. It moved it from a means of communication to a means of advertising. End of digression]. Her response was that OF COURSE Hogwarts had gay students, being quite open about such things. It was forward-looking, open-minded, and completely unsupported by the actual novel. In the same vein, when asked about Jewish wizards she referenced a nearly anonymous Matt Goldstein who - if he appeared at all in the books - had a minor enough role to be completely forgettable. We never in the actual work saw Howarts students light a menorah, light candles on a Friday evening, or debate whether use of magic breaks the Sabbath.

This doesn't bother me as much as Lovecraft; while Rowling made some comments which weren't fully supported in the text, the text itself does have a largely positive message about inclusion and against racism. Lovecraft's text, to the contrary, supports tacism.

Discussion the Third - Holiday Cheer
Every year, someone brings up a discussion on the sexism inherent in the song "Baby it's Cold Outside". For those who either reside beneath a solid chunk of geology or hum along without listening to the words, it has some pretty creepy lyrics in the form of a call-and-response between a man an woman. That these parts are usually labeled as "the wolf" and "the mouse" respectively tells you something. If that's not enough, read a bit:

I really can't stay
But, baby, it's cold outside
I've got to go away
But, baby, it's cold outside
This evening has been
Been hoping that you'd drop in
So very nice
I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice
My mother will start to worry
Beautiful, what's your hurry?
My father will be pacing the floor
Listen to the fire place roar

Etc. The lyrics repeat a theme: the woman wants to leave, the man is persuading her to stay. It's a very old-fashioned style of seduction, with the "expected" roles that the man pursues and the woman has to at least pretend to retreat; it's the double standard that men are supposed to want sex, women to turn it down. It sends what is, to me, an uncomfortable message that  to be a woman is to retreat, while it is the man's job to chase. One wants it, one has to at least pretend to NOT want it.

Why am I discussing this today? Largely because blogger Lily Alice wrote an impassioned and well-thought out defense of the song here. Her larger point is that, viewed in the context of the decade when it was first written and performed, "man chases/woman retreats" was part of the standard mating dance. It's possible - and original intent would perhaps say preferable - to read the mouse's protestations as either playful or pro-forma faux-rejections (and yes, I know that that phrase sounds more than slightly pretentious) rather than actual distress. By this reading, the woman would be hurt of the man failed to pursue. She compared deconstruction of a tale of mid-twentieth-century mating with a re-reading of Shakespeare or the Bible outside of historical context.

To a large extent, she's right and I'm wrong; it's fully possible to look at a historical artifact as a historical artifact and read it in-context for the original meaning. From another perspective, I'm right and Lily is -- less so. I'll accept her analogy about Shakespeare and counter with one about Defoe; it can be argued that no racism was meant in Robinson Carusoe; the island native Friday elevated himself from savagery and cannibalism when the white, Christian European took control of him. Read in-context, it's the tale of an educated white-man doing his duty; read today, it's terrible and blatant racism.  My point is that a piece of art isn't a thing frozen in amber, nor is it a mathematical text with a single right or wrong answer. If you want to use songs, stories, and other artwork from the past to explore other times and how other people once thought and lived, that's wonderful. If you want to read them with modern eyes to throw a mirror onto today's world... that's also OK. So long as you take the effort to use reason, so long as what you say fits the text, and so long as you can have a respectful conversation, go ahead and do it. Listen to the author. Listen to yourself. Read history. Study current culture. Read what others have to say, and join the conversation.

Remember that any piece of art worth reading is worth analyzing. 

With that, I'll wish you all a Happy New Year. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Personal Call for Help

Karine with our daughter, in matching
winter jammies.
This is a different kind of post. Next week we might have some semblance of a year-end wrap up, but for now I'll beg your indulgence on a personal matter. There are times in which everyone's life can be difficult; for me and my family, this is one of those times. It's a time when we need your help. Let me first tell you why, and then what you can do. Don't worry, later in the week I'll be back to literature, writing, and AV technology. This is the one bit of my personal life I need to share.

I don't speak about it much because it isn't my story about which to speak, but my wife, Karine, has suffered from very serious back trouble - to some degree or other -  for three decades now. What's hard to wrap my head around is that her pain goes from moderate to severe to completely debilitating, but it's always there. Think about that for a moment if, like me, you're fortunate enough to be blessed with good health. She is always in pain. Always. On good days it hurts; on bad days she can barely get out of bed, if she can at all. As of late, there have been more bad days than good.

Remember the post-a-day Nightmare Fuel series I was writing in October before I just vanished the last week? That was a string of bad days to the point that she couldn't walk our son from the car to his room at preschool. Over the past months, there have been more "can't walk anywhere" days and fewer days when it just hurts. We're reached a point at which we need a solution. That solution is going ot have to be surgery. 

This isn't going to be the kind of surgery one recovers from quickly; Karine is going to need to have nearly her entire spine fused. What does that mean? It means her back won't bend anymore. It means that it's been so curved and being stretched so straight that she'll end up nearly two inches taller. In terms of time, it's at least six hours of surgery. A week in the hospital. Months away from work.
Mother and Child

That's a big part of our challenge. Karine is a clinical psychologist with her own practice, and one of the few who takes insurance. Each day, she drives a two-hour round trip to her office, spends hours helping people deal with their life issues, drives back. She does this in constant pain, she does it on her own. She is her own office manager, scheduler, marketer. It's a lot.

ANd now she needs help.

Working independently means not only having no paid sick leave, but in addition to the mortgage there's an office rent that won't go away. In addition to the co-pays and out of pocket expenses for the surgery, we're facing months of lost income plus all of the little extra expenses one never thinks of until they get there, from big things like physical therapy and visiting nurses to small ones like wide-angle mirrors for the car because she won't be able to turn and look behind her anymore.

We need your help.

I've set up crowdfunding for this at Give Forward. If you've enjoyed my ramblings here, if the story moves you, and if you can, any help would be appreciated. If you can't give, feel free to reshare and boost the signal.

On a final note, this isn't really about me, although it effects me and our family; it's about Karine and the hopes that, after a difficult year, she can wake up without the pain. It would be a big change, perhaps too big for us even to hope for. But that's the goal; it's about someone beautiful and kind and special whose presence in my life has made me a better person. If you've enjoyed my company, if you like the person you see on these pages here, then she is the one you need to thank.

Any support, from money to reshares to words of encouragement - is appreciated.

We have difficult times ahead of us. I need your help.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Pixel and Ink-Stained Wretch vs. Residential Tech - My experiences with Nest and Lyric

Now that I own a home out in suburbia I have cause to sample the residential side of the tech market. As winter approaches, I'm making a two-pronged attack on the elements - low tech (weatherstripping and better attic insulation) and high (a new fancy thermostat). As this is a half-technology blog we'll focus on the latter, specifically my trials and tribulations with the Nest learning thermostat. Was this a good experience? Read on!

What to look for?
There are a few elements I look at when evaluating technology. At first look, the Nest passed most of them:
  • It is physically attractive and solidly constructed.
    • This is a matter of taste, but the Nest feels solid and has a clean minimalist look.
  • It has an intuitive and pleasant UI
    • Again a matter of taste; I think that the Apple-inspired minimalist aesthetic in UI has gone perhaps too far, but the Nest is not only simple to use, but gives clear feedback as to what is happening; when the system is heating, for example, the face lights up red and says "heating". The mobile and web UI - an image of the actual unit - is clear and easy to use.
  • It has interesting and useful features.
    • Another win. It learns not only your schedule, but the time it takes your system to reach temperature. It connects to a web portal. It gives monthly reports on energy usage. It would be nice to have geofencing, but one can even workaround that using the IFTTT service.

There is, of course, something very important and basic missing from this list. More on that later.

Unboxing the unit was a great start; the thermostat display, base, and even a little screwdriver are packaged with the kind of care and attention to detail that says you're getting something special. It mounted to the wall easily enough and, after running some wires (I was replacing an old high-voltage thermostat which is, for the nonce, retired in place). It mounted easily to the wall, and I had an easy enough time wiring it to my system. And then the trouble started.

The first issue is that it wouldn't turn the heat on. Some troubleshooting with Nest support (available 24/7, albeit with fairly long wait times) revealed a defective base unit. Back to the store, swapped the unit for a new one, reinstalled. Success! It lit up, heated when it said it was heating. And also heated when it said that it wasn't.

Trials and Tribulations
Some quick Googling revealed this as a known and fairly common issue, albeit one which Nest does NOT disclose in any of their documentation; sometimes two-wire setups as the unit inadvertently calls for heat when charging its battery. No problem; I'm a technology professional. It's easy enough for me to add another wire, add a low-voltage transformer and... voila. No more power issues. It only called for heat when it said it was calling for heat, battery voltage remained consistent, but there was a new problem: the temperature on the display had no relationship to the temperature in the room. It read anywhere from dead-on to 7 degrees warmer.

After more calls to tech support then offered to send a new base which they assured me is a different model than the ones stores might have. While I appreciate this, the fact that the units in stores have a known issue but have not been recalled and replaced is another warning bell. If you know that the units in the field don't work, it's a bad idea to let people get their hands on them and sour their image of your product. The good news for Nest is that prior versions souring the experience ended up being a non-issue for me, as the new unit did exactly the same thing; cool in the house, just under 70 on the spirit thermometer built into the old thermostat, 78 degrees on the Nest. It was not 78 degrees.

This brings up the qualification I missed above:
  • Performs its primary function.

One of my last trouble-shooting calls with Nest support went something like this:

They: Sometimes the WiFi makes the temperature read higher. I want you to turn off your WiFi on the thermostat for about five hours, see if the temperature normalizes.
me: What is the long-term solution here? Without the WiFi the thing isn't really all that useful.
They: You might have to change something on your router.
Me:  What would I have to change on it?
They: (pause) -- uh... settings.
me: (through gritted teeth): Which settings?
They: Maybe the channel?

It's much warmer six inches to the right.
Everyone at Nest tech support was professional and courteous, but they clearly didn't have a solution. A Google for "Nest Reading..." autofills for "wrong temperature" "high" and "too high" as four of the top five results.

Hardware is Hard
The barriers to creating and marketing hardware have never been lower, with "internet of things" as the latest buzzword, crowdfunding for sexy ideas and the possible reward of a buyout from a big player (Nest was purchased by Google for a billion dollars). The problem is that creating and testing good hardware isn't always easy. Is is a subtle design flaw in the Nest that makes it heat up sometimes and not others? Perhaps. What's clear is that features and even UI can be easier to design and implement than solid, reliable performance.

How does this story end? I took the last Nest back to the big box store from whence it came, returned home with a Honeywell Lyric. It doesn't have the fancy learning algorithm like Nest, nor is the UI as nice or slick. What it does do is accurately control the temperature, taking advantage of Honeywell's decades of experience in the field. 

I'm sure that with the money available, companies such as Nest will eventually catch up and produce hardware worth the premium they charge. That time, alas, does not yet seem to be here. Hopefully Lyric will release an API in time for my next big project, to be discussed sometime next year.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Fun with HDBaseT

HDBaseT has been described as a bridge technology between traditional video transport and IP-based systems, the time for which is rapidly arriving. It's a technology about which I've not been excited for some time; every manufacturer not only uses the same chipset (produced by Valens), but appears to have settled on the same form-factor and product line. There's the standalone transmitter, the standalone receiver (with or without scaling), a 2-gang wall-plate transmitter with VGA and HDMI, a single-gang HDMI-only transmitter, and card-based modular matrix switches in 8x8, 16x16, 32x32, 64x64, and sometimes 128x128 sizes. Are there any innovations to be had in this realm and, more importantly, do they matter? To answer the first question, there are three products I've seen recently which I find interesting. As to whether or not they matter, time will tell. At present there is still enough need for point-to-point transport that HDBaseT types of solutions can have a place either in place of IP-based systems (for small, single-room systems)  or as part of a hybrid system (for larger deployments).

I had the pleasure of meeting the Lightware team last month here at Primeview's showroom in New York City. In addition to having the foresight to build their matrix switches with a high enough bandwidth backplane for 4K content, Lightware has a few interesting quirks. One is that their matrix frames each have a single local input and output, sizing them at 9x9, 17x17, etc rather than the traditional 8x8 or 16x16. It's a very minor point, but one that has the possibility to save design headaches in those rare, specific situations in which one has, for example, a ninth input and doesn't want to move up to the next size frame. More practically, because it's a local-only output it creates an easy connection point for a rack-mounted monitor. Nice? Yes. Groundbreaking? Not really.
Lightware ModeX Tx/Rx, matrix switch, and
other goodies

The other item of which they are proud is their Modex line of HDBaseT extenders. This is an interesting mix-and-match concept in that the standalone transmitter and receiver boxes are populated by modules; one for copper or fiber transport, one for audio or video inputs, etc. This allows one to purchase units with exactly the desired connectivity. Sadly, the modules are neither user-swappable nor available for purchase a la carte. If they were, it would be an intriguing way for contractors to create a transport "toolkit" in which they mix-and match modules on the fly for specific purposes. Hopefully this will come someday.

While I tend to think of Hubble as an architectural connectivity company rather than a source of electronics,  they do have an AV division producing active devices, including HDBaseT extension. Their "110 AV" line is interesting in that, unlike other AV over twisted pair transport, they connect via  110 punchdown blocks rather than RJ45 jacks. This is more in line with BICSI wiring standards (as well as common practices by teledata contractors), which indicate that field cable is NOT to be terminated to a male connector. In fact, the only people one is likely to see field-terminating UTP  are audiovisual contractors. This not only creates a potential failure point, but makes packaging AV wiring with the rest of the structured cable contract a challenge.

Speaking of wall plates, they have taken advantage of their line of power receptacles to create what stands out in my mind as the most clever means of locally powering a wallplate device. They've modified one of their standard duplex receptacles with a low-voltage DC pigtail to run into the back of a single-gang wall-plate HDMI transmitter. Both transmitter and receptacle can then be mounted together in a custom 2-gang wallbox with an integrated low-voltage divider. It's a neat way to combine device power with video transport.
Hubble's single-gang transmitter and power, also with
USB charging!

Hubble's weakness here is that they lack the scope of most other participants in this market segment; they have perfectly reasonable point-to-point transmitters and receivers, but lack the matrix switches, scalers, and other units we'd expect from a more AV-centric manufacturer. They've also, as of yet, not done enough homework on interoperability to be able to tell us which display manufacturer's integrated HDBaseT receivers with which their transmitters will work.  This, sadly, limit
s their usefulness.

This is the one item I've not physically gotten my hands on, but it's an interesting one. Crestron has, for some time, offered a 2-channel H.264 transmitter as an output card for its modular matrix switches. I have used this, and it does what one would expect it to. The part that I've not played with yet is a corresponding H.264 streaming input card. This is useful for system designs utilizing point-to-point transport within a room and the addition of streaming to share content across spaces. It's the kind of solution that can give HDBaseT longer legs.

The Future?
The folks at Valens tell me that the HDBaseT chipset has capabilities not yet being used, including the ability to divide available video bandwidth into separate video channels. This may or may not be useful; I still see complicated systems as more likely to be handled over IP in the future.