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Saturday, October 31, 2020 3 comments

Zapped by Zeta, day 3: Live-action Creepshow!

I felt pretty decent in the morning, despite all the drama. Still, the house was dark and still (no electricity). Fortunately, by the time I was ready to get moving, Wife and Daughter Dearest had come back from a Dunkin' (and gasoline) run and brought me a large coffee. So… caffeinated and needing some Internet, I rolled outside to tackle the generator.

After the “fun” yesterday, the gennie was still sitting in the box, right behind the blood-spattered tailgate of M.O. the B.B. Armed with a utility knife and a garage full of tools, I began the assembly. Despite my missing the installation instructions (and cursing the people who didn’t put them up front where they couldn’t be missed), I got it put together, oiled, and gassed up.

The brand-new engine didn't want to fire up (thankfully, it’s an electric-start), so I got the starter fluid and gave it a squirt. After a few tries, in which I considered the possibility we had a dud, it fired up and ran. Woohoo! I plugged it in, threw the transfer switch… and it died.

Okay, I had already flipped off the high-draw stuff at the breaker box (oven/stove, A/C, water pump, water heater), so I turned off everything and restarted. I turned on one room at a time… and somewhere along the line, it died again. At this point, I was certain I had a dud, but it did run some stuff. I figured if I could get the lights and at least one fridge going, I could live with this for now. After a few fits and starts, I got the kitchen fridges up, and then the freezer in the garage. At this point, we were due to get to the church for our Trunk or Treat thing, so I left the gennie running and hoped for the best.

My original Halloween costume plan was to be the Grim Reaper, complete with a real scythe. Hanging from the blade, a sign: Wear a mask! I have enough work already! But given all the “fun” I had yesterday evening, I just ran my booth. I had a BB gun and targets, with candy for anyone who could hit a target (and consolation candy for those who couldn't). Amazingly, the first person to hit the smallest target was a kid in an inflated (with battery-operated fan) dinosaur costume!

As for me, I wore a hat to keep the adults from losing their latest meal over the bloody mess that was still my scalp. But for the older kids, I offered: “You want to see a live-action creepshow?” They all said yes, so I would remove my hat and bow. Daughter Dearest would get the Shivering Collywobbles every time she made herself look at the staples, and Mason grimaced when he asked to check as well.

Hey! You want to see it, too? Okay! After all, it’s just a flesh wound.

Hurts to see it? Think about how I felt!

The staples come out in a week. Washing my hair is going to be… interesting… until then.

Finally, we went home. The gennie had run through its gas allotment, so I refilled it. This time, it started without a hiccup, and sounded a lot better than before. Maybe it just need a few hours of break-in time? It gave no grief over us flipping on the lights, fridges, and furnace… so the wife decided to extend the test. Our old gennie wasn’t quite up to running the water pump, but the new one was rated for 150% the old one’s capacity. We turned on that breaker, and the gennie surged but handled the load. Running water, yay!

The final test: the water heater. I got the wife to wait about 15 minutes, to give the water pump time to finish pressurizing the system, then we flipped that breaker. A brief surge, but it held! We prioritized the showers, but nobody got ice-cubed. We turned on everything but the A/C and stovetop, and mirable dictu, the DSL was waiting for us, wondering where we had been.

Now that we have all the comforts of the grid, I expect the “real” power to come back on pretty quick. Fortunately, there’s a website that will tell us when that happens.

Friday, October 30, 2020 No comments

Zapped by Zeta, day 2: It's Just a Flesh Wound

Still no power this morning. We decided to hit the retail district to:

  1. Get breakfast
  2. Look for a generator
  3. Pick up some other odds and ends

As expected, Home Despot and other big-box stores had sold out of generators. Other things we needed, we were able to find. Then the wife, on a whim, called a plumbing and electrical supply joint where she gets farm stuff.

“We don’t have any now,” they told her, “but we’re expecting a shipment around 2 and we’re open until 5.” She gave them a credit card number, and they virtually set one aside for her and promised to call when the truck came in.

Then, she and Daughter Dearest had a meeting at church to do some last-minute planning for the Trunk or Treat event we’re doing tomorrow afternoon. I hung out outside with the kids (including AJ, who was happy to be in the stroller as long as the sun wasn’t in her face). I took AJ inside after a while, figuring she would be ready to eat. She munched happily away at her veggie puffs, then gobbled a container of Apple Chicken mush.

The wimmin-folk got back as AJ decided she was done eating, and wanted to sit in my lap as I had my sandwich. Time was getting tight, especially since this guy who helps with farm repairs and upgrades had all but moved into M.O. the B.B. We hurriedly cleaned it out so everyone could pile in (and have room for the gennie in the back), and got on the road, arriving just in time.

Seized by some impulse, the wife bought a second gennie for Daughter Dearest, and two guys hoisted the boxes off the dock and into the voluminous back-end of M.O. the B.B. We headed home at a much more sedate pace.

But the lights aren’t on, and mine nearly got put out. I wrestled a box into a dolly, hoping I could slide it down the tailgate and onto the ground. Gravity had its own ideas though, and I got jerked out of the bed and flung headlong into the dolly. At first, I thought I’d just banged my head a good one, and I could finish the job… then blood started pattering out of my hair. Mason seemed calm, although he was near panic, and I pressed down on the laceration.

“It’s only a flesh wound,” I said. Too bad I didn't have the chance to yell, “Hey, y'all watch this!” Anyway, pressure did what was needed, and the wife and Mason hustled inside to get a cloth and some ice to help with it. Daughter Dearest came up and got the kids, and wife took me to the urgent care, getting there 10 minutes before closing.

“Uh,” said the doc, when he saw the gash, “that’s bigger than what we’re equipped to deal with. You need to go to the ER.” That was another 15 minutes down the freeway, but pressure and ice had done for the worst of it. I continued pressure, switching hands when the active one called for a shift change. This may have been a tactical error—since I wasn’t bleeding all over the place when I arrived, I was in the normal queue. The initial intake generated an amusing side-story: the blood pressure cuff got so tight, my hand went numb, then the nurses put the oxygen sensor on that hand. “No way he’s an 83,” one said.

“Try the other hand,” I suggested. “That one went numb.” They did, and were much more satisfied with the results. After that, a P.A. cleaned around the worksite, put staples in my head, and sent me home. There, wife and I got most of the rest of the bloody mess cleaned off.

So tomorrow, I will get the generator going… if the power doesn’t come back on first.

Thursday, October 29, 2020 No comments

Zapped by Zeta, part 1: Tropical Snow Days

This one didn’t seem as scary as Opal in 1994. Just like Opal, Zeta passed by overnight (or very early Thursday morning). The heavy rain came in ahead of the heavy wind, and some of the gusts got pretty loud. The power crapped out at some point, which we had expected. The school system decided to close ahead of the situation, so Mason got a tropical snow day.

But when we all dragged ourselves out of bed, we all soon dragged out the chainsaws to clear the roads enough to get somewhere. There were trees down everywhere. We had recently taken down a bunch of trees near the manor, so maybe that helped us dodge a bullet. So… open the garage and drag out the generator.

It started, but the lights didn’t come on when I threw the transfer switch and plugged in the house. I have two cords, so I tried the second one. No dice. I plugged a fan into one of the outlets. Nothing. Seeing as people have probably made a run on any place that stocks generators, that leaves us at the mercy of the power company. With 8,000 houses in the dark, there are likely 7,999 ahead of us.

So… I plugged my phone into the work laptop to help charge it, and used my hotspot to get to work. That lasted through the morning. The laptop battery hadn’t quite wheezed, but I need a few minutes to let co-workers know I’ll be out of pocket if the power isn’t back on in the morning. If not for the pandemic, I’d hole up in a coffee shop in the retail district (of course they have power), but given the third surge that’s not what I’d call a smart maneuver. To at least keep the phones charged, I pulled the battery out of the Miata and connected it to a solar panel. It sits outside during the day, soaking up lots of sun (and charging the tablet), and then comes in for the night to deal with the phones.

I often had to remind myself it isn’t Saturday, and that I don’t have to worry about church in the morning. We heated leftovers on the grill’s side burner for supper, then Mason and I took a bike ride. The school robo-called us to tell us no school on Friday as well, so that’s our second tropical snow day.

Tomorrow, I’ll probably spend much of the day cutting firewood. Between one thing and other, we never got around to doing that. But now there are downed trees to clear. Maybe I’ll get another bike ride in with Mason. He’s wanting to get to where we can ride to town (10 miles each way) for (root) beer and tacos. We’re building up to it.

Friday, October 23, 2020 2 comments

Shakedown cruise

When I last mentioned it, the county was stripping the pavement off our road in sections, and widening the roadbed. Now, they’ve finished repaving and striping. The “bike lanes” are maybe 18" (about 50cm) on either side… I would have been fine with them putting both shoulder strips on one side. But whatever… it’s a lot safer to bicycle now, both for us and people who come up from the metro to ride.

I wanted to take the Fuji out for a shakedown cruise, but Mason threw in a wrinkle: he wanted to join me. We took a short trip down to a nearby church and back, and found his mountain bike wasn’t really suited for road riding. “I guess I need a road bike,” he said, and I suddenly remembered.

I don’t know where it came from, or how long it’s been sitting there in the back of the detached garage, but I had a small-frame road bike—to be precise, a Schwinn Prelude. Solar suggests it’s about mid-80s vintage, and a “pretty decent bike for its day.” It’s a 12-speed, and the shifting is like-new smooth. The tubes needed replacing—one had a stem separation, the other missing completely—but I happened to have two tubes on hand. The tires themselves have also seen better days, but are still round and not coming apart. I figured they would be good for a few miles, anyway. That, and a little chain lube, and it was ready to adjust. First adjustment: remove the foot straps. He’ll want them later, but for now, one step at a time.

The frame, although small, is a couple inches too big for Mason. I vaguely remember offering to get it rideable for Daughter Dearest, back when she was a teen, but she demurred. And yet, with the seat all the way down, it’s a perfect pedaling height for Mason. He provided a little entertainment, getting on it the first time, but soon took it a couple laps around the slab between the garages. By then, it was getting dark, so we hung it up for the night.

This afternoon was perfect for being outside—upper 70s (F), partly sunny, and just a little breeze. I aired up the tires on the Fuji (the Prelude was still holding its air, which is good), we strapped on helmets, and Mason took a couple laps around the driveway. He got more confident about being perched 'way up there, and off we went.

Sector 706 is pretty hilly, and Mason was soon waxing enthusiastic about how much easier it is to pedal a road bike uphill. We rode a mile or so, then reached a long uphill climb, and we got about 3/4 of the way up before Mason decided it was time to turn around. The Fuji mostly performed well, but I found that pesky front derailleur wasn’t quite as dialed-in as I had thought. Mason didn’t notice anything on the Prelude that needed adjustment, so I put Fooj back on the stand and tightened the cable until the front derailleur did what it’s supposed to. So now it’s dialed-in… at least until the cable stretches again.

If we can get out a couple days each week, we’ll both soon be ready to tackle those hills. Mason’s already talking about riding to town (10 miles each way) or all the way to the retail district (another 5). We’ll need to be in much better shape for that, though. He also needs to feel confident enough to reach down and work the shifters. Despite their analog look, they are indexed.

He’ll probably be tall enough by spring to fit the frame, and maybe get a couple years out of it before he outgrows it. So I took tomorrow off, because Mason has a day off school as well. We’re going to ride a little more, then hop over to the local bike shop and get him some new tires. I might get a new bike carrier, too. The one I have now is a strap-on (mounts to the trunk) I bought in 1981, and those straps are starting to make me worry. If the weather stays reasonable into November, we might spend a day on the Silver Comet Trail.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 No comments

Adventures of a #techcomm geek: Constants Aren't, Variables Won't

DITA-OT logo
One of the advantages of having a DITA-based workflow for technical writing is for translation. During the acquisition binge that ended with us being on the “bought” end, we picked up a product with a fairly strong retail presence. You’ve probably seen those products in Best Buy and similar places, and maybe even bought one to upgrade your home network. (No, I’m not going into details, because I don’t write documentation for that line… mostly.)

But, as usual, I digress. Retail products, or not-retail products that are supplied to the end-user, need to have localized documentation—that is, not just in the native language, but using country-specific idioms (although this might go a little too far). And, to help with consistency, things like notes or cautions use canned strings.

The DITA Open Toolkit (DITA-OT) PDF plugin provides a pretty good list of canned “variable” strings for a bunch of different languages, including languages with non-Latin glyphs. Of course, we added to that list… somewhat. I put quotes on “variables” because I don't know why they call them variables; they are basically language-specific constants. Local Idiom, I suppose.

Fast-forward a couple years, to the disease-ridden hellscape that most refer to as “2020.” A year ago, one of the point people for translations sat two aisles down from me, on those days we weren’t both working from home. We would have hashed half of this out in person, before roping in a bunch of other people in a long email chain. (Don't get me wrong, working remote is da bomb, and I hope they don’t expect me to do time in the office in the future… but it had the occasional upside.)

Anyway, this was the first Brazilian Portuguese translation we had done in a while, and weird things were happening. My initial guess—that we had provided updated strings for only a subset of languages (mostly French and German)—turned out to be correct, when I started poking around in the source. I remembered working on a script to parse the XML-based “variable” files to build a spreadsheet, so we could easily see what needed updating. Turns out, I had either given up or got pulled away after the script was less than a quarter-baked (let alone half). I beamed my brain power at the cursed XSLT file, and it finally turned brown and gave me the output I wanted: name[tab]value.

Now I was halfway there. I had tab-delimited files for each language, now I just needed to coalesce them into a single (again, tab-delimited) file. As I’m fond of saying, when I want to process a big wad of text, awk is how I hammer my nails… and I started pounding.

Since I had an anchor point—the “variable” names that were constant for each language—it was a Small Matter of Programming. Knowing that English (en) was the most complete language helped; I used it as a touchpoint for all the other languages. After a few fits and starts, the script produced the output I needed and I imported it into Excel. Blank cells that needed values, I highlighted in dark red. Things I needed to personally tweak here and there got yellow highlighting. I hid rows that didn’t need attention (some were complete across the board, others we don’t use), and sent it to the rest of the team.

Just to be complete, I finished the day embedding the XSLT and awk scripts inside a shell script (and tested the results). If I need to do this again, and I probably will, I can do it in a matter of minutes instead of spending an entire day on it.

I deliberately formatted the spreadsheet so I can export changes to TSV (tab-separated values) and write another script to rebuild the language “variables” if I feel it’s necessary. It’s always good to anticipate future requests and be ready for them.


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