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. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Revisiting Narnia, Part the Second

A while back I wrote about my re-read of the Narnia books on the occasion of my seven-year old girl's discovery of them. She's a terrific reader, but I felt that she could not only get more out of the books with some guidance on some ways to think about literature but might also enjoy it more if she has someone with whom to discuss them. As an added bonus, it's been great fun reading them. As I'd said before, these are first and foremost entertaining books which are quite simply a pleasure to read. As a second added bonus, my re-reading of Narnia coincides with my finally having time to finish Lev Grossman's grown-up Narnia tribute series The Magicians. What has the experience been like? Read on!
Reading together, on the train

Revisiting Narnia
I'll confess that  I'd forgotten much of the plot and characters of the Narnia series;  I read them long enough ago to have little more than a vague memory of finding them enjoyable. As an adult, I've learned that CS Lewis was a Christian apologist who wove themes of his faith into the books. What I didn't realize until the current re-read is just how pervasive and how heavy-handedly obvious those themes are. Jesus figures appear from time to time in science fiction and fantasy,  from Michael Valentine Smith (of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, but if you need me to tell you that your youth has been truly and thoroughly wasted) to Paul Atreides (Herbert's Dune, but you knew that) all the way through Harry Potter. I'm sure someone reading this will correct me, but I don't recall any fictitious messiah figure who takes the Christ story quite so literally as Narnia's Aslan who comes back to life after being ritually killed in atonement for the misdeeds of another. What's neat about this is that it opens a discussion into the myth without the cultural baggage that comes with a modern-day religion followed by millions of real-world humans; Aslan's sacrifice and the way in which people react to it (with some remembering and some doubting or questioning) can be discussed on their own, divorced from the real world.

The straightforward nature of the messages in these books makes them ideal as discussion points for a young reader getting her first taste of real fantasy; in addition to the obvious discussion of plot, Narnia gives very easy answers to the one important question about any fantasy book - or any book at all, for that matter - that of "what is this book about?" It's easy to find answers, including:
  • A magical world created by a talking lion
  • The value of belief and obediance
  • The conflict between tradition and modernity.

Chloe and I had terrific discussions about how these themes were developed. We would talk about which characters were portrayed positively and which negatively, who was rewarded and who was punished, and a bit about which details were a central point of focus. We did not go word-by-word into the language used to describe various characters and settings because this wasn't that kind of reading; in the balance between education and entertainment, I wanted these to be entertaining. Closer readings will come later.

((As an aside, entertainment and attentiveness are not mutually exclusive. My lovely bride asked what I thought of the Harry Potter books, I rattled off a few flaws - most notably an over-reliance on coincidences to move the plot. She asked, with some exasperation, if  could just read something for fun rather than pick it apart. My answer is that, for me, picking things apart IS half the fun. End of aside)).

How to Love Something Problematic
I don't share Lewis's Christian faith, but don't have many real issues with it. What I do have issues with are his sexism and anti-modernity. There are some interesting ways in the Narnia books, some of which we discussed, in which Lewis's ideas of gender roles are presented. One not-so-subtle one (and this is one of the few areas in which Chloe and I did discuss language) is in the way Narnians refer to those from our world as "Sons of Adam" or "Daughters of Eve". What at first seems like a simple nod to the Jewish creation myth can be read to contain something else; by splitting human lineage into male descendants from the first man and female descendants from the first woman one emphasises and exaggerates gender differences, strengthening the expectation of gender roles (ie, Peter is given a sword and shield to fight up close and lead in battle, while his female siblings are given a bow and arrow to offer support from a distance and a magical healing potion). Imagine how different it would feel to have them described as "Sons and Daughters of Adam" or "Sons of Eve and Daughters of Adam".  In later books there are equally troubling messages about modernity, about schooling, and even corporal punishment.

There's a larger meta-lesson here about tolerance and acceptance. One can read a book with some viewpoints which are archaic or even problematic and still appreciate the setting, plot, and other elements. I see it as important to understand them, acknowledge that the messages are there, and make ones own judgements. I see Lewis as wrong about many of these things, but that doesn't take away the enjoyment one feels in reading his books any more than H.P. Lovecraft's racism and anti-semitism diminish the pleasure in reading his Cthulhu mythos stories. Like Lovecraft, Lewis is an important figure in the field with a wide enough influence to make him worth reading for historical purposes if no other.

The Gift of Innocence
All that said, young readers have a remarkable ability to take a piece of fiction at face value. For those who don't remember the last book, The Final Battle, is exactly what it sounds like: the last kind of Narnia along with all of the talking animals, the Centaurs, and everyone else  about whom we've come to care fight an uncomfortably Middle-Eastern seeming invading force and are killed. All of them. Aslan then judges all of the fallen, brings some of them to what is clearly an analogy for heaven. The world-travelling schoolchildren were not killed in the final battle, but learn that they all died in a car crash in the real world and would, therefore, get to stay in the afterlife with everyone else. As an admitted materialist (in the sense of philosophy rather than commerce), I saw "everyone dies, including the children who were killed in a train wreck" to be a bit of a downer. Chloe took the talking lion's assurance that the children had arrived in "the true Narnia of which the other Narnia was a mere shadow) to have many more joyous adventures at face value, and finished the book with a bright smile and look of wonder rather than the stream of tears I'd expected.

Narnia's Shadows
As I mentioned, in between the Narnia books I read Lev Grossman's Magicians novels. These books - dealing with a hidden college of magic - have been described as an adult Harry Potter. There are elements of that, but what they really are is an adult retelling of Narnia. Characters in the book grew up reading series of Narnia-like books about a magical world called Fillory. In the sequences of The Magicians and sequels taking place in Fillory - a part of the book which becomes more prominent as the series moves on - we are treated to a rundown of all the high-points of the Narnia books. This includes not only talking animals and the idea of four humans becoming royalty (and not having to do much in terms of ruling), but such specific plot elements as the sea voyage to the end of the earth and a final, apocalyptic battle at what seems to be the end of the world.