Sunday, December 09, 2018

Hire It Done!

     Overwhelmed by the fallen leaves, with a bad knee and an inflexible deadline for the last city trash pick up of bagged leaves, I hired it done.

     There are clearinghouse companies that match work and workers; I've used one for lawn-mowing in the past, when neither Tam nor I had time, and they did a good job.  The same company coordinates leaf removal.  It's not cheap, but it's not excessive, especially considering the alternative.

     What showed up was a father-daughter team with basic equipment, on a bitterly-cold day when the leaves were sticking to the ground.  The father pointed that out, I agreed and asked him just do what he could; if some leaves were left, that was okay as long as the big leaf piles (I've been able to do a little raking) and loose stuff went away.  I told him to ignore the patio, where I have managed to accumulate a loose pile of fallen limbs and small branches, cut-down saplings and yanked-up Winter Creeper.

     Two hours later -- two hours of steady effort -- the front and back yards were 95% leaf-free, and he asked if I wanted the brush pile on the patio hauled away, naming a price well under what it was worth to me to have it gone.  Darned right I wanted it removed!  He was happy to extricate the fire bowl and utility wagon from under the heap and I was happy to have my patio back.

     Why didn't I do this last year?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

About "Trust"

     My short piece on trust garners some interesting reactions.  Not everyone gets my point; they talk about trusting others as though it was a choice.

     That's not the kind of trust I was writing about, or not only that.  You are -- right now! -- trusting others, or you wouldn't be connected to the Internet; you would not be connected to utility power, you wouldn't eat any food you didn't raise or grow yourself and you certainly wouldn't drive a car on the public roads or walk on the sidewalks and you would never, ever cross the street on foot.  You'd spend all your time safe inside the bunker you dug for yourself, never picking up the mail (anthrax or worse!) or coming into contact with others. 

     Trusting others isn't a bug and it's not an optional feature, either.  It's an inherent part of being engaged in a functioning society.  It doesn't keep you from noting the location of exits, from being mindful of suspicious persons or situations, or from avoiding risk you deem excessive.  And, yes, there are people who exploit that inherent trust -- but understand that they're rare.  Mailbombers and mass shooters grab headlines but you're more likely to be hit by lighting.

     Someone within a few miles of you has staggering quantities of poisonous chemicals; someone not too far away has a basement armory that would beggar belief.  All around you are people whose jobs, hobbies and/or skill sets include deadly capabilities and the means to use them.  Most of the people around you operate automobiles or other motor vehicles, one of the most deadly contraptions human ingenuity has yet devised, implacable machines that rend flesh and crush bones, and you don't cringe away in fear.   You trust them to stop at red lights and stop signs -- and they do, 99.9999999% of the time.

     I trust people -- and so do you.  Every time you get on an elevator, you trust the people who designed it, installed it and maintain it.  You trust the company that made the hoist cable and the brakes, that made the electric motor and the controls.  You step right in the thing, the doors close -- and it carries you to your selected floor.  Most of the time, you don't even think about it,* you just push the button and off it goes.  And that kind of trust is repeated over and over, by you and all around you, a network of shared trust.  Yes, some people take advantage of it and you've got to be alert for that -- but that doesn't keep you from relying on others, all day, every day, often without even considering it.
* I'm not a fan.  Occasionally, my work takes me to the tops of tall buildings, carrying tools or  gadgets, and I am reminded that I am much less a fan of a hundred flights of stairs.  I get on the elevator, trusting.

Friday, December 07, 2018


     You know what? I trust people. I have to -- and so do you.

      I have heard a lot of elitist nonsense from the anti-gun side, and a little from the pro gun side. And I get that the world is stuffed to the gills with yahoos; I've seen "People of Wal-Mart." I qualified for Mensa; I'm supposedly smarter than most of the folks I meet and I'm pretty sure that's so.

     But many of those "yahoos" have skills I lack. Some of them are just better people than I am. And the truth is, most people are all right. I've had cars conk out in bad neighborhoods and had three guys show up to push the thing to a gas station; I had a muffler fall almost off in a wealthy neighborhood, had to pull into the nearest driveway and wire it up out of the way, and the homeowner came out to see if everything was okay. The rich guy didn't run me off. The poor guys didn't rob me.

     You trust these people. You have to. You trust your next-door neighbor with natural gas and a charcoal grill. You trust his seventeen-year-old kid at the wheel of their car. You trust the utility workers to not zap you or poison your city water. You trust the Mormon down the block, with a couple of year's worth of food and who knows what else socked away in his crawl space. You trust the drivers of enormous tractor-trailer rigs on the highway, and the garbage man in his huge truck. You do so every day and you don't think about it much.

     And your neighbor with a gun or two, or twenty? You're trusting him, too, like it or not. The odds are *hugely* that he's not out to get you -- the firearms death rate (other than suicide) in the U.S. is one third of the automobile death rate. (Add firearm suicides in and the rates are within a tenth or two of being equal, a little over 10 per 100,000.)

     If you want a safer world, get to know the people around you. If you want less violence, make more friends. The world is full of people. Most of them are pretty much like you: they want to get along. We mostly hear about the crazy and the wicked -- but they are a tiny minority.

     (This is a rerun, but I think it's worth rerunning.)

Thursday, December 06, 2018

New Story!

     A new vignette at I Work On A Starship:

     "Of course, it took one of the Power Room electricians to find it.
      And of course, it was the ternary degausser.  The degaussers don’t run very often but they’re absolutely essential. ..."

     What's a ternary degausser?  Well, it's got three parts. but they're all the same.  And if you don't have one, eventually it gums up the stardrive. That would be bad.

Witty Repartee Or Poor Speech Recognition?

     Think what you will of Amazon's "Alexa," it's the handiest kitchen timer I've ever used.  Just sing out what you need, when you need it -- but she is a bit nit-picky and perhaps I shouldn't call her on it:

     "Alexa, set a timer.  Ninety seconds."


      "Alexa, define 'pedantic.'"


     "Alexa, wow!  Isn't that kind of harsh?  I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."


Wednesday, December 05, 2018


     Today and the rest of the week was supposed to be a mini-vacation.  For today, at least, it's been cancelled. 

     There's a thing that hasn't been working, a very background sort of thing that no one notices until it is really needed.  It's been a problem off and on for years and for the last couple of years, it hasn't worked at all.  Because it's so much a background thing, of interest only to Engineering, it's been difficult to much attention to it.  We replaced an expensive and difficult to access component of the thing, and after a very sort stretch of proper function, it hasn't been working at all.

     To troubleshoot all of it, I need the assistance of a couple of specialized trades.  Co-ordinating them has been tricky.

     Yesterday morning, unexpectedly, one of the specialists told me they were going to be available today.  By midday, the other one was scheduled and I'd rescheduled that day of vacation.

     I sure hope we'll be able to get this thing working.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Politicians Acting Like Adults

     The death and services for former President George H. W. Bush have had an interesting effect: politicians, in this time of bitter partisan divide, have had to behave in a mature manner.  It's been instructive to see who has stepped up and who has stayed in the shadows.  Graciousness is often dismissed as trivial in the rough-and-tumble political arena but I think it's a valuable quality.

     It probably does some good to bring them all together in a situation that does not encourage childish sniping.  They have plenty to disagree about, substantial and important issues, which too often are submerged by the cheap shot, the snide comment, histrionic outrage and posturing for the press.  None of that's easy to pull off at a solemn memorial service.

     Maybe it won't help matters much.  Still, it can't hurt.

Monday, December 03, 2018


     I spent several hours Sunday taking a class at the Indiana Writer's Center. This one was called "Overcoming perfectionism," both the tendency to fiddle with a manuscript during and after the writing to make it better, and the occasional sheer cliff of doubt that rears up when you look at your idea versus your skill set and wonder if you can possibly scale such a height.

     Like any but the most nuts-and-bolts of writing classes -- and perhaps even those -- what it's really about is how the only way to be a writer is to get your fundament in a chair and write.

     One of the best things about being a writer is the feeling of having written; one of the worst things is looking at a blank page and having to fill it up.  Next-to-worst is line-editing, the drudgery of fixing every typo and misspelling, locating every misplaced comma and so on.  And don't even get me started about hunting shifts of tense and viewpoint, mistakes of number and agreement, sneaky malapropisms and other missteps!  --But between the blank page and the various kinds of editing is the writing.  There's no way around it.  And with the writing comes rewriting -- it's not a simple, linear process.

     That's really what the class was about.  Everyone in the class, even our instructor, was or had been put off by their process.  After all, it was famously said of Shakespeare, "in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line;" Henry James dictated finished prose that was promptly typed up, submitted to editors and published, right?  Right -- and this is remarked on because it is so unusual.  It's not how most writers work.

     I found the class reassuring.  I managed to put in some work on a story that had me stumped.  Now all I need to do is keep going.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Noting The Passing Of A President

     George H. W. Bush, June 12, 1924 – November 30, 2018, carried the office of President with what at times appeared to be reluctant grace.  President Reagan's easy handling of the Press meant whoever followed him would look less deft and President Bush was far more strait-laced than his predecessor.  He did the job and didn't whine, not even when Congress fouled his hopes to reduce the deficit and torpedoed his chance of reelection.

     He served well in many jobs for many years, and his passing leaves us with a little less perspective on current events.   

Saturday, December 01, 2018

News Robots

     That hand-crafted local TV newscast you grew up with?  It's gone, along with unsliced bread.

     Automation is the only thing keeping local news alive. The number of people it takes just to put a newscast on the air in a non-automated system -- I'm not talking about gathering, reporting, writing or editing the news , just pushing studio cameras and switcher buttons, turning knobs and yelling at the crew -- is very high and most of them have to be full-time employees.

      Take Indianapolis, a very competitive market ranked somewhere in the top 30s. Of the five stations doing local news, most produce 90 minutes between 4 and 7 p.m. That's a minimum of:

     2 Directors, trading off for each 30-minute segment (it's stressful; Directors come out of the chair sweaty and frazzled after a busy half-hour).

     3 Producers, the "editor" in charge of final scripting for each segment, making sure all the people and video is available, fonts ready, etc. and then running his or her segment, keeping track of timing, ensuring remotes are ready, cueing talent and adjusting as needed to make the show end on time.

     1 or 2 TDs, doing all the video switching.  ("Technical Director."  The Brits call the same job "Vision Mixer," which is a little more descriptive.)

     1 or 2 audio operators, not only running audio but laying out wireless mics for the talent, enuring the mic transmitters and IFB receivers have fresh batteries, etc.

     1 Chyron/Graphics operator, running fonts and fullscreen graphics in real time, supported by a "back room" of at least one other artist. (Automation can pull most of the basic fonts from the script, but we haven't got that, so type fast, kid!)

     1 "Tape" operator, cueing up pre-recorded segments for playback in the correct order for the TD or Director to roll them as needed.

     1 "QC" operator, shading cameras on the fly and pulling in remotes via video-over-IP and microwave; you can hand the latter task off to the person on the News Assignment desk and stick the TD with shading, but it's still one more person.

     3 or 4 camera operators. Most shows use at least four studio cameras but one is usually dedicated to the chroma-key weather wall and camera ops can back up one another,

     1 or 2 Floor Directors, who cue talent and make sure they are pointed at the right camera, usher guests in and out, hand out iPads and put them back on chargers, and dole out emergency batteries for mics and IFB receivers.

     1 Prompter operator, scrolling the teleprompter displays along at a rate that suits the on-air talent -- or a little faster, if the director tells them to. They're also probably having to skip ahead when elements are dropped for timing.

     Fifteen people, plus or minus a few. Their work is used for an hour and a half, at least twice that for Producers and Directors, and an added hour for Audio and Floor on prep and clean-up; the full-timers work shifts that include another hour of news at noon or 10/11 p.m., but they've got to be paid for eight hours and kept busy -- and not one of these people is involved in the collection and reporting of news; there are 4 - 5 photographer/editors and as many field reporters per shift (usually three shifts), assignment editors, "tape" ingest/editors (1 or 2 of each per shift) along with anchors (probably two sets for the 90-minute evening news), Sports reporters, anchor(s) and photogs, Weather talent and a few reporters, photographers and reporters doing features and investigative stuff who report news and generate content.

      Stations can't give up on their original content -- it's the one thing they have that their network, the cable news networks and the competing stations don't have. But do they need all those people just to put the show on the air, and not even kept occupied for their full shift?

     Nope.  There are robots for that.  Robot cameras, script software that picks up on when video segments have to be aired, which camera should be on the air, what fonts and graphics should appear when, and which audio sources should be on at any given time.  But they have to be told what to do.  They have no initiative.  They can't guess at what you meant. 

      To do automation correctly, the prep work becomes detailed and absolutely vital. With a live newscast, the Producer can hand out scripts five minutes before air time and everyone will find their place, staying a few steps ahead if they're good. Under automation, the Producer finishes up her script well in advance, ingesting what the reporters, Desk and wire services have written, marking up voice-over video and sound-on-video segments,* fonts and graphics so automation will pull them in as needed. She hands it off to the Director with an hour or 45 minutes to go, Director adds camera assignment sand moves, then goes into the control room and with the TD, steps through the script much faster than real-time, checking for anything missing, fixing any flubs, noting stuff that has yet to come in.

     The automation crew is still 2 or 3 Directors plus 2 or 3 Producers, but after them, you have 1 or 2 TDs, 1 audio person, 1 floor person -- and that's it. TD also shades cameras, Assignment Desk pulls in remotes in their spare time. Graphics is *all* back room, probably one person. Nine people, roughly -- and they have a lot less down time. There are still the same number of people as before out gathering news, though more and more of the routine stuff is covered by "MMJs," or "one-man-bands," who shoot, edit and report. It's not always ideal, but five MMJs are cheaper than three two-person teams.

     Was your car built by hand, like a Morgan? Was it built on a non-automated assembly line, like a 1932 Ford? Or did robots do most of the heavy lifting, routine assembly and nasty spray-booth work? Your news now comes to you the same way.

      But here's the thing: if the robots aren't programmed correctly, they turn out junk, not cars. The guys who build Moggies? They can't be let loose in a Japanese car plant!

     The TV producer who is used to "winging it," who doesn't put the newscast together until five minutes before airtime, who pulled off breaking news coverage as smooth as silk thanks to a lot of people frantically doing their jobs at the last minute? He's Plague Death for an automated newscast! Oh, he can probably do them, but they'll look like crap. If the Director didn't get the script in time, the shots will be off, robot cameras looking at an empty desk, or in the wrong direction -- and there's nobody behind the camera to fix them. Large-scale, last-minute rearrangements of the script will wreak havoc. It takes a whole different approach to cover late-breaking news under automation, and a lot more preplanning, with filler you can drop and replace, and careful timing.

      TV profits are shrinking. I love old-fashioned live news but it's getting to be an impossible luxury, especially if you still want your local stations to cover any actual news.
* Collectively known as V-O/SOT, for voice-over and sound-on-tape and pronounced "voe-sought," they're anything shot out of the studio that doesn't have a reporter in the picture, talking.  This is the real red meat of news: what's happening, as it happened.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Weather? it's 41 degrees and climbing, and we've got fog so thick that when I heard a loud snorting and groaning and felt the house shake a little, I was looking for a dinosaur rather than the garbage truck with its fancy hydraulic can-grabbing claw.

     But it was a truck that emerged from the mists and just as well -- I'm pretty sure my insurance doesn't cover thunder lizards.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Well, It's Warmer Today

     It's much warmer today.  In the upper twenties to low thirties, in fact.  What an improvement!  --Except for the freezing drizzle, of course.

     Yeah.  Here in town, at least so far, it's still just wet, though I won't be surprised if there are patches of ice.  Out where things begin to thin out, it's worse, including my current worry at the North Campus, where some things that shouldn't ice up probably are, while I try to coordinate specialists to help us do something about that.