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Sunday, May 19, 2019 No comments

Fixing supper

The local Kroger recently set up a refrigerated kiosk with “Home Chef” meals. These are boxed meals with two servings, running $17-$20 per box depending on what’s in the box. I’ve seriously been considering setting something up with Hello Fresh, or any of the myriad other players in this space, so I picked up a box to see how things would go. It featured (boneless) pork chops, mashed potatoes, and snap peas. Sounded pretty good, anyway.

Saturday evening, I got the box out and got to work. Now I had expected everything to be mostly ready to go—sure, I’d have to fire up the oven and what-not—but reality smacked me over the head with a raw pork chop. What was in the box was: raw ingredients, and a recipe. I had to string the pea pods, cut up two whole potatoes, put the breading on the pork chops, and cook the sauce. So what this amounted to was, a box of raw ingredients and a recipe card. The card said this was “intermediate” difficulty (gee, that would have been nice to put on the outside of the box), but I didn’t have any trouble putting it together. My technical writer (a/k/a work) side pointed out where the recipe sequence could be improved. The recipe did say to add some stuff like olive oil, salt, and pepper. I substituted NoSalt for the salt, and nothing turned weird colors or exploded.

Except that midway through cooking the potatoes (that I had to dice up myself), I realized I’d forgotten the second spud. In an inspired moment of panic, I cut up Tater#2 and threw it in the microwave for 3 minutes, then chucked it in the pot with the other one. This was the first time in my entire life that I made mashed potatoes from scratch, and in the end it was okay.

So was the rest of it. It actually turned out to be a pretty pleasant meal; we had our dinners, and Charlie sat between us and deconstructed a liverwurst sandwich. (Hey, if he eats the meat before the bread, fine.) The wife isn’t a big fan of snap peas, but Mason will have a side dish when he comes home (he went home with The Boy tonight). She also pointed out that russet taters are white, and you need to peel white potatoes (red potatoes are fine if you include the peels). The recipe card said “cut up the potatoes,” and the picture showed the peels still on, so that’s how I went. I thought the cream sauce that the chops floated on did a fine job of mitigating that bitter taste that comes with russet peels, but what the package provided wasn’t enough to cover them.

The upside is, the recipe card provides the ingredients list… so I can do this again, and improve on things instead of buying the box. Maybe I’ll double the recipe so there’s four servings (which would cover Mason plus some leftovers for work), and double-double the sauce/gravy recipe. Substitute red potatoes for the russets, or peel the russets.

Anyway… if this is what pre-packaged meals offer, I don’t see a lot of value. In the end, I might just mosey over to Publix instead. They provide recipes for meals like this, and give you the list for all the stuff you need (some of which you may already have). No pretense, and (especially) no markup for what amounts to packaging. But it was a valuable experience. Now I know what to do with Panko breadcrumbs, I can smash potatoes with the best of 'em, and maybe I’ll substitute a carrots/onions combo for the snap peas if I make this again. I’m sure it will end up with a lot less sodium than the original.

In the end: three stars. The food was fine, but doing some of the prep work would have been nice. I’m certain the value proposition is heavily weighted in favor of buying the ingredients individually.

What I really need to do is go back to my single days: plan out the meals for the week, figure out what I don’t have, then shop accordingly.

Thursday, May 16, 2019 No comments

Adventures of a #techcomm Geek: Sharp Edges when Rounding

One of the advantages of using a text-based markup grammer for documentation—these days, often XHTML or some other XML, but could be Markdown, Restructured Text, Asciidoc, or even old-sK001 typesetting languages like troff or TeX—is that they’re easy to manipulate with scripts.

There are quite a few general-purpose scripting languages that do a fine job of hunting down and acting on patterns. I’m conversant with Perl, and am learning Python; but when I need to bang something out in a hurry and XML is (mostly) not involved, Awk is how I hammer my nails. Some wags joke Awk is short for “awkward,” and it can be for those who are used to procedural programming. Anyone exposed to event-based programming—where the program or script reacts to incoming events—will find it much more familiar. Actually, “awk” is the initials of the three people who invented it: Aho, Weinberger, Kernighan (yes, that Brian Kernighan, he who also co-invented the C language and was a major player on the team that invented Unix).

Instead of events, Awk reacts to patterns. A pattern can be a plain string, a variable value, a regular expression, or combinations. Other cool things about Awk:
  • Variables have whichever type is most appropriate to the current operation. For example, your script might read the string “12.345,” assign it to x, then you can use a statement like print x + 4 and you’ll get 16.345.
  • The language reference (at least for the original Awk) fits comfortably in a manpage, running just over 3 pages when printed. Even the 2nd edition “official” reference is only 7 pages long.
  • It’s a required feature in most modern Unix specifications. That means you’ll always have some version of Awk on an operating system that has some pretensions to be “Unix-like” unless it’s a stripped, embedded system. On the other hand, even BusyBox-based systems include a version of Awk. Basically, that means Awk is everywhere except maybe your phone. Maybe.
If your operating system is that Microsoft thing, you can download a version of Awk for it. If you install the ISH app, you can even have it on an iPhone.

Now what am I going to do with it?

Okay. I told you all that to tell you this.

I’m working on something that extracts text from a PDF file, and formats it according to rules that use information such as margin, indent, and font. It requires an intermediate step that transforms the PDF into a simple (but very large) XML file, marking pages, blocks, lines, and individual characters.

“But wait a minute!” you say. “I thought Awk only worked on text files. How does it parse XML?”

Like many useful utilities first released in the 1970s, Awk has been enhanced, rewritten, re-implemented from scratch, extended, and yet it still resembles its ancestral beginnings. The GNU version of Awk (commonly referred to as gawk) has an extensions library and extensions for the most commonly-processed textual formats, including CSV (still beta) and XML. In fact, the XML extension is important enough that gawk has a special incantation called xmlgawk that automatically loads the XML extension.

The neat thing about xmlgawk, at least the default way of using it, is that it has a very Awk-like way of parsing XML files—it provides patterns for matching beginnings of elements, character data, and ends of elements (and a lot more). This is basically a SAX parser. If you don’t need to keep the entire XML file in memory, it’s a very efficient way to work with XML files.

So. In most cases, I only need the left margin of a block (paragraph). Sometimes, I need the lowest extent of that block as well, to throw out headers and footers. I need to check the difference between the first and second line (horizontally), and possibly act upon it.

In the document I used for testing, list items (like bullets) have a first line indent of –18 points. “Cool,” I said. “I can use that to flag list items.”

All well and good, except that it only worked about 10% of the time. I started inserting debugging strings, trying to figure out what was going on, and bloating the output beyond usefulness. Finally, I decided to print the actual difference between the first and second lines in a paragraph, which should have been zero. What I found told me what the problem was.

    diff=1.24003e-18

In other words, the difference (between integer and floating point numbers) was so miniscule as to matter only to a computer. Thus, instead of doing a direct comparison, I took the difference and compared that to a number large enough to notice but small enough to ignore—1/10000 point.

And hey presto! The script behaved the way it should!

It’s a good thing I’ve been doing this at home—that means I can soon share it with you. Ironically, it turns out that we might need it at the workplace, which gives me a guilt-free opportunity to beta-test it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 No comments

The Dresser Purge

In the brief two years I was on my own, I concluded 15 changes of clothes was the ideal number. It let me do laundry every two weeks, with one extra pair just in case I had to postpone laundry day.

Clothes accumulate, like everything else, and these days I have a lot more than 15 changes. And somehow, laundry day is twice a week—actually, that makes sense. Four people in FAR Manor means four times the laundry, right?

After the Great Closet Purge, I started putting out of season clothes in a storage bin I kept in the closet, to relieve pressure on the bulging dresser. This worked for a while.

De-bulging the dresser
But the warm weather got to Sector 706 couple weeks ago, and I got the bin out to swap stuff around. Being about 35 pounds lighter than last year, I tried on shorts… and if I could pull them off without undoing them, and half of them fit the description, they began the purge pile. Then I tried shorts that wintered over in the dresser (because the bin was crammed full). All in all, I shed eight pairs of shorts, including one that still had tags on it. There were also eight pairs of swimsuits between the bin and dresser… where did they all come from? I decided three pairs was plenty, and added the rest to the purge pile. I got the now-too-big pants out of the closet and tossed them on.

Then came the T-shirts. I weeded them out, and finally the purge filled a large garbage bag. Except for the three remaining swimsuits, my bottom dresser drawer was empty and the other drawers had headroom. And there was plenty of room for the winter clothes in the bin. But I think the shirts in my closet have decompressed, because now it feels as packed as before. I should probably weed them out again; if I lose a few more pounds, I might be able to go from XL to L.

I still have way more than 15 changes of clothes. Even with more frequent laundry, I probably don’t need to cut down to 8 or 10, though.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 No comments

Charlie, soccer, and a few mini-rants

With a new car in the garage—a 2019 Kia Soul EX—I now have that critical extra seat to take both Mason and Charlie places. I still have the Miata, but I won’t be putting all the miles on it anymore. Of course, that means I “get” to take Charlie to Mason’s soccer practices… which means I don’t get to sit and chat with the other soccer dads quite so much.

The upside is, we bring Charlie his own soccer ball, find an empty nearby field, and let him wear himself out dribbling the ball around. He was, despite his best efforts, completely zorched when we got home tonight.


He’s not terrible at ball control, which isn’t something you can say about many U8 or even some U10 players. His throw-in technique is better than half the players in Mason’s U10 league—ball overhead, both feet planted, no coach could ask for more. His birthday was 8 days past the cut-off for “U4 mini-league” this spring, but I’ll sign him up in the fall. It’ll be hilarious, watching a bunch of 3 year olds swarming the soccer ball… or sitting in the grass and playing in the dirt… (BTW, that’s Mason wearing the red/orange shirt in the background, flailing his arms. He scored a personal-record five goals in last Saturday’s game, although I only saw three because I was busy trying to keep Charlie from bolting onto the field.)

Mini-rant #1: How to get me to sign up for auto-pay
Somehow or another, I missed setting up the payment for last month’s cellphone bill. In a highly uncharacteristic move for AT&T, they didn’t immediately send me a “hey, pay up” email, text, or anything else. I had this nagging “did I pay them?” thing going on, but figured they would let me know if I hadn’t. So I go online to pay this month’s bill, and find the bill is about double what it usually should be. Whatever, I thought, and clicked “Pay My Bill.”

The website immediately started grinding, trying to get its act together, but enough time went by for it to pop up a “hey, are you still there?” notification. I gave up, figuring it was just a temporary glitch. (AT&T’s “up”dated website is gobs slower and far less responsive than the old one, BTW.) Then they had the nerve to pop up a “how are we doing?” notification. I let them know, in spades, then closed the tab. Trying again this evening gave me the same results. I finally went to pay it over the phone using the convenient *729 number. It asked me if I wanted to set up auto-pay… and yeah, why not? Most of my other monthly bills are on autopilot now.

So that’s how to get me to sign up for auto-pay. Conveniently forget to tell me I let one slip, then hose up your website to the point that I can’t get things caught up when I find out.

Mini-rant #2: When auto-pay gives you an Epic FAIL
And then, there’s the credit union’s credit card. I happened to be home last week one afternoon, and the home phone rang. The caller ID read CARSERVICES. Figuring this was a telespammer selling extended warranties, I answered to tie up the phone line (the longer you keep those @$$#0|3$ on the line, the less time they have to bother someone else). To my surprise, it was the credit union, wondering why I hadn’t paid my credit card balance.

“Huh?” I asked. “I had auto-pay set up.”

“Did you pay off the balance?” (I had, two months prior.) “If you pay off the balance, auto-pay automatically cancels.”

Surprise!

I happened to have the credit union website up on my computer at the moment, so I set up an immediate transfer and all was well. Except that I was miffed about auto-pay getting canceled without so much as a “good job, dude, and sayonara” message. Unlike mini-rant #1, I hadn’t forgotten anything—just ASSumed it was taken care of. The other credit cards I have on auto-pay just don’t transfer anything if I haven’t put anything on them, or pay off the balance if it’s less than what I set up on a monthly basis. There’s always a joker in the deck.

Mini-rant #3: Taxing taxes
Unlike many people, I don’t mind paying taxes. They keep the roads paved, provide food and healthcare to (not enough of) those who need it, run schools, and keep essential emergency services going. Are there things I wish they would do instead of other things I wish they wouldn’t? Oh heck yes. But overall, it’s better to contribute to the general welfare and reap the benefits. If you want to see what happens when you don’t have taxes, spend a few months in Somalia.

Anyway. I’ve been pretty good about getting the federal/state tax returns done in recent years, usually in late February or early March. This year was different, through no fault of my own for a change. We got our W-2s (as usual) right at the end of the January 31st deadline… but before I could grab the tax software and get to work, I got an email from work. In essence, it said, “the payroll company screwed up the W-2s, and we’ll get fixes to you ASAP.”

Weeks went by, and then months, without fixes. Some of us would email HR on occasion, and get the same response: “they haven’t fixed it yet, we’ll let you know.”

FINALLY, in the first week of April, they rolled out the fixes. It just so happened that I was out of town that week, so it was the week after before I could do anything about it. The wife and I both have business stuff to deal with, so it’s not just a matter of slapping down a few numbers and sending it off. Fortunately, it turns out the IRS has a way of filing for an extension online… and I wasn’t the only one who was up against the gun. The father in law needed some extra time as well.

With any luck, I’ll be able to finish up this weekend. Even with all the games Ch*mp played with withholding, there should be a refund.


Sound off!
What’s your rant du jour? Or maybe you have a new car you want to tell me about? :) Drop a comment, I love 'em.

Sunday, March 24, 2019 1 comment

Losing a Charlieweight

About six months ago, my weigh-in at the doctor’s office was not a happy occasion for me. I came in around 234 lbs, the most I’ve ever weighed. The doc didn’t give me too much grief about it, but suggested I try to get more active.

Fortune was looking out for me, though. Work and the group insurance team up to sponsor a program called “Naturally Slim.” “Lose weight while eating the foods you love,” the website proclaims. Yeah, by not eating very much of it, I thought, but figured I needed to do something. So I signed up.

Turned out I was right. But the part I missed was, they give you the tools to eat less… or at least remind you of what the tools are. What makes it work is, they tie the tools to their purpose (which in this case is getting to and maintaining a healthy weight without starving yourself). It boils down to three core principles:


  1. Eat when you’re hungry (but before you get to that RAW MEAT NOW!!!! stage).
  2. Eat slow.
  3. Stop when you’re full.


There’s more to it, but all the “more” is to support those core principles.

Yeah, yeah, so how’s it working?

Together, we weigh what I used to weigh
on my own. (Photo credit: Mason)
Quite well, actually. There have been times I’ve fallen off the wagon, but all that means is that you jump back on. I can now wear all the pants I couldn’t before because they were too tight, and have had to ditch some that won’t stay on anymore. My belt is at the tightest notch, and in the last week I’ve been trying to pull it in yet another notch… time for a new belt. I passed my current goal, 199.9, this last week. Since Charlie is 34 pounds right now, I’ve lost an entire Charlie worth of weight.

I had to celebrate with an “oil change,” that is, a chili dog and onion rings from Varsity Jr. I ate it slow and enjoyed every bit of it… and it was just enough to get me full. And that's another advantage: if you go to a restaurant, you can often get three meals for the price of two—or even two for the price of one. Or you can order off the value menu and save about half what you would usually spend. For example, I hit upon a "mini" quesadilla and nachos combo at Taco Bell that costs about $4. I can order it on my phone from the office, and it's ready (or nearly so) when I arrive to pick it up.

Next goal is 194 lb, which is the lowest I’ve weighed since moving to FAR Manor. I’m not sure I’ll be able to reach my final goal of 185 lb, but it’s something to aim for.

Thursday, February 28, 2019 No comments

Adventures of a #techcomm Geek: Info Architecture

In this adventure, we find that structure isn’t always structure. And sometimes, the structure jumps up and smacks you to get your attention. More geekiness follows…


Image: openclipart.org
As part of our conversion to DITA at work, I shuffled some things around in the huge manual I work on. I moved a huge wad of reference material into an appendix; other content can easily link to it when needed. But the reshuffling got me to take a look at the reference material.

Managed network devices, like the ones I usually write about for work, usually have a way to message the mothership about various issues. Examples include:


  • Hi, I’m online.
  • The power’s out here. I’m running on my battery.
  • Here’s some stats from the last connection.
  • One of my components just failed!


The messages aren’t that chatty, of course, and they often include some variable data. Some are more urgent than others, and might require some action by the network operators.

I had separate topics describing each message, and they came out of the conversion tool as concept topics—a lot more generic than I wanted. As I was trying to get everything done at once, I didn’t give it too much thought. Since the messages were reference material, they would be fine as references. I split them into sections (format, severity, cause, action), and moved on.

DITA to the rescue? Um… nope.


Later on, I came back to the messages. “There has to be a better way,” I thought. After all, the sections could get out of order, or end up with different titles—there’s all sorts of ways to be inconsistent with reference topics. My next thought was, “Hey, DITA has hundreds of elements, and its prime purpose is software documentation. There's probably an entire message domain waiting for me.”

In reality, there are three message-related elements in the entire ocean of DITA, and two of them are inline (<msgph> and <msgnum>). The third is <msgblock>, for tagging message output.

Ah, the joys of information architecture. Creating a message domain from scratch was a possibility, but would likely be a hard sell to the co-workers.


We’re in trouble(shooting) now


I gave a moment to the idea of using troubleshooting topics—then it hit me. A message has a condition (the message itself), a cause (why it was logged), and a solution (what to do about it). That’s exactly the structure of a troubleshooting topic!

The only sticky point was where to document the message format, and I quickly decided that was part of the condition. I used @outputclass="message" to tag the topics, and to have the transform use Format: instead of Condition: for the condition part. I converted a few to troubleshooting topics, and it worked as well as it seemed it would.

On to the next thing


Then yesterday, I got a meeting invite with an attachment, a follow-up to a discussion a few of us had last week. One of the groups in our far-flung department uses InDesign to produce actual printed deliverables (how quaint!). The fun part is, the page size is about 4 inches square—so it’s not a matter of tweaking our transform plugin; we need a whole new one.

But when I started looking at it, the structure almost leaped off the screen, despite a couple of misplaced pages. Each chapter contained a single task, and each step used one page for substeps and graphics. Having that revelation made the call go a lot faster and more smoothly, because it was one of those things that are obvious once you see it. I just happened to be the first one to see it.

So I did a conversion dance, involving lots of pixie dust: PDF → Word, then Pandoc converted that to Markdown. After some serious cleanup (and moving misplaced content where it belonged), I used a couple of scripts to break the Markdown file into topics and create a bookmap. DITA-OT gobbled up the bookmap and Markdown topics, and spit out DITA topics. Thus, I had a pilot book we can use as test data for the transform.

The InDesign users also have a couple more formats; one is close enough to a regular book that we’ll have them use the standard transform. The other is a folded four-panel sheet… that one is going to be interesting. I’m going to have to resist the temptation of blowing off documentation work for glorious coding.

Stay writing… until I geek again.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 No comments

A weekend at Camp Driveway

It has been a wet winter so far. We’re currently getting a few days of dry (and reasonably nice, for late February) weather… in mid-week, of course, when we’re all working or at school. But a couple weekends ago, we had a mostly dry weekend—that is, the rain didn’t arrive until Sunday afternoon. It was seasonably cold—around 50°F for highs, not quite freezing for lows.

Roughing it in style
If you ever end up with a popup camper, Popup Portal is a deep hive mind that can tell you pretty much everything from the most basic tips to walking through complete rebuilds. Now the Starflyer (I can’t improve on the name that Starcraft gave it) doesn’t need anything close to a complete rebuild, but there are a few maintenance issues that the previous owner (and perhaps those who came before) neglected. The Portal has been very helpful in that regard.

One thing the hive mind recommends for new popup owners is to do what they call “Camp Driveway.” In other words, set up the camper in your driveway or back yard, and spend the weekend in it. You get to test it out, and figure out what you need before you go “live.” Mason was wanting to try out the new camper, so I opened it up and Camp Driveway was on!

Fortunately, I’d ordered a bunch of accessories from Amazon—an extension cord, an adapter to plug an RV into a house outlet, leveler, heater, 12V LED bulbs (they’re brighter and draw less power, important if you’re using a battery for lighting) and a few repair and maintenance things. I was pleased to find that everything worked as intended. The interior lights did a fine job of illuminating the camper, the stove fired up once the air got worked out of the lines, the outlets were happy to charge my phone and Mason’s tablet (and keep a night light glowing). The “Little Buddy” heater, which uses the same small propane cylinders as lanterns, was a big help because the electric space heater that came with the camper wasn’t too helpful. With both heaters going, the digital thermometer I brought along inched up to about 67°F at tabletop level (not nearly as warm along the floor, though!). But still, with the beds a little higher yet, I figured that was going to be just fine. Besides, we had the same sleeping bags we used for Mason’s Polar Bear Camping outing a couple years ago. If we kept warm enough in an unheated tent, a popup with (some) heat would be at least as warm.

It was. My first night was restless, with the electric heater kicking on and off every 15 seconds or so, but I stayed warm enough. Mason, wrapped up in the down mummy bag, had no trouble sleeping at all. For us old farts, I think we’ll need a memory foam topper on our bed. The camper came with a literal Porta-Potti, a little self-contained toilet that sits in a cabinet during the day and Only Comes Out At Night. It turned out to be very handy—after I turned off the Little Buddy at bedtime, the temps inside the camper dropped to around 55°F, but that was still better than the 34°F outside. Especially if you had a post-midnight necessity.

In the morning, putting a kettle on the stove and cooking bacon&eggs helped to warm things up. The French press I bought myself for my birthday finally got its first run, and there’s nothing like a good strong cup of coffee on a cold morning. The Starflyer has fairly primitive plumbing—a hand pump at the sink, and no hot water heater—but the Popup Portal hive mind had a solution for that. Get a pump pot, fill it from the kettle in the morning, and you’ll have hot water to wash the evening dishes (and an afternoon coffee, if necessary). Actually, we used bottled water, since I’d put RV antifreeze in the water system to prevent serious issues until spring.

The second night went better for me; I turned around to put my head toward the center of the camper, and for some reason I found that more comfortable. I left the Buddy Heater going until it emptied its canister, which saved me the hassle of getting up and turning it off. It went a little longer than I expected, which is nice. We got to air out the bacon smell for a few hours, and I folded up the Starflyer as the first sprinkles came in mid-afternoon.

Camp Driveway was a success. I came out with a list of stuff we need, and am holding out some hopes of hitting a local campground next month when Mason has another no-school Friday. A 3-1/2 day weekend would be a nice warmup to our Spring Break trip to Mom’s…

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