October 11, 2016

Trump Disrespects Men, and Yom Kippur

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 3:49 pm

What makes me really angry about things Donald Trump said isn’t that it disrespects women. It’s that it disrespects men.

When our country’s founders wrote “all men are created equal,” or Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote about Halakhic Man, or Hannah Szensh wrote about “the prayer of Man” (actually, in Hebrew, there are two words for “man” and she used adam, which conveys the deeper meaning more than the common word ish)—that language seems archaic now: it would be better to just say “people.” But the classical usage of “Man” also had a deeper connotation: a good, civilized human. A mensch. Donald Trump may have male chromosomes, but he’s not much of a man in this sense.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with “locker room talk.” Not just for the sake of (as the rhetorical trope goes) my mother/sister/daughter, but because it’s a challenge to being a man. Being a man means having testosterone-fueled energy and needing to find a way to sanctify it and to do the right thing. Bill Clinton has clearly struggled with this, and I’ll say to him what he said to us: “I feel your pain.” Mitt Romney has lots of children, so presumably he’s done the same stuff Donald Trump talked about—with his wife, when she consents. Teenagers may talk about this in locker rooms, but grown men are supposed to be better.

What does this have to do with Yom Kippur? In Jewish terms, we have good and evil inclinations, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. The little angel and devil on our shoulders, like in cartoons. We need both, and we wrestle to keep them in balance. On Yom Kippur, we check in with ourselves as to how we’re doing with that.

Such work is a big part of being (to quote Glenn Beck!) a “moral, dignified man” and Trump doesn’t seem to have any respect for that.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

July 22, 2016

Rambling thoughts on FOMO, email and the news of the world

Filed under: Media, Personal Blog, Technology — marcstober @ 4:44 pm

I have over 50 thousand messages in my inbox. Most of them unread.

Cheryl makes fun of me for it because she manages to keep pretty close to “inbox zero.” But I think she’s more the exception than I am.

It’s all FOMO. For example, I just deleted hundreds of message from Glassdoor. But I’m hesitant to completely unsubscribe. What if I missed the perfect job or bit of career advice? It could be like leaving money, or my happiness, on the table.

Heck, I don’t want to unsubscribe to coupons I might get. I just got an e-mail from a certain business and was reminded to use a $20 promotional gift card before it expired. Score! If I delete promotional offers what I end up needing what they’re promoting? Unsubscribing from Constant Contact with its “SafeUnsubscribe” is especially fraught. It make is hard for a company to add you back to a list, even if you want them to, without an extra opt-in. I suppose the one time it happened (that I wanted to restart getting news from a certain company) it worked out but….

Of course, the thing about FOMO is that it’s not humanly possible to keep up with everything. By definition, you are missing out on 99.99% of what is going on in the world. If you’re a big media junkie, 99.98%. (Not exact numbers, but you get the point.)

The interesting thing is that we ever think we weren’t missing out on most of everything. There is this expectation that we are supposed to be keeping up with everything. For my parents’ generation, that was watching the nightly news. Which has turned into having CNN on, all the time.

The usual fiction goes like this: there is normally nothing going on and if there is, then we hear about it and do something about it. For example, if there’s a murder or an accident in our community, we expect to turn on the news or open the paper and hear about it. And there’s a response, and then things would recover and go back to normal. I don’t think I’m the only for whom that’s the expectation of normal, even though I know that not every disaster in someone’s life is actually in the news.

Presumably there is some weird mash-up of human brains evolved to participate in communities of hundreds or thousands of people, and technology that makes a small world out of millions or billions of us. I may lead a someone privileged life, but in a community of thousands—a college campus, my office building, the public schools on my side of town—this pattern holds. Emergencies happen once in a while, and we notice them, and respond, and recover.

It is so hard not to apply that principle to the whole world. Something terrible happened somewhere, we’ll see it on TV or the Internet, respond, and things will go back to normal.

It is so hard to really believe that the world as a whole is so big. That the one-in-a-million event in a small community is a daily event in the world, and the pattern of news, response, and recovery doesn’t apply.

The irony is that fear of missing out on everything doesn’t mean I’m not missing out on something. How do I not miss out on what I really don’t want to miss out on?

July 14, 2016

Not .NET

Filed under: Personal Blog, Software Blog — marcstober @ 7:10 am

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a recruiter; I get these pretty typically:

I came across your resume in a file of ours…. I am not sure if you are looking around anymore or not but I just partnered up with the company searching for a .NET engineer…

I am long over identifying as a “.NET engineer.”

Let me tell you how I got into this business. First, I taught myself Perl from a book—back when Perl was cool! Then, I taught myself Microsoft Access from book, and also from learning relational databases from the academic side in graduate school. With that I became a citizen developer, learning the programming language that came with Access, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). I leveraged that experience into jobs that required more serious development on the Microsoft stack, first in Visual Basic 6 and then in C# with the advent of .NET.

C# in particular is a great language and Microsoft despite all the criticism they’ve taken has made some great software. But while I’ve made actual money using Microsoft technologies, I’ve always envied the cool kids working on a LAMP stack or Plone or Django or Ruby on Rails. That is where this work becomes an art form. Or building iPhone apps.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten back to what first got me into technology in the ’90’s, web development. And, finally, I’m at a job where I’m not at all a Microsoft developer; I’m still running IIS but, conspicuously, without ASP.NET.

So no, I’m not interested in your old resume on file that says I’m a .NET Developer. Besides which if you can’t even look me up on LinkedIn and see what I’ve been doing since I talked to your agency ten years ago you’re not a very good recruiter anyway.

Oh, and that first database was to track custom imprinted B’Kol Echad orders. So that I was ever a Microsoft-stack developer was all caused by that other domain I am still passionate about.

March 6, 2016

Compiling aacgain (an exercise in Open Source software archaelogy)

Filed under: Software Blog — marcstober @ 12:07 pm

So I found a lecture that had been recorded and posted online that I wanted to listen to.

The only problem, is, it was very, very, quiet. I had to turn up the volume all the way to hear it all all, and still could barely hear it; not to mention that I almost damaged my ears when I changed to listen to something else.

So, being me, I went looking for an open-source tool that could modify the volume of an audio recording. I found some references to mp3gain, but this was an M4A file which is (basically) an AAC file. It also turns out there is something called aacgain. But what I was finding was source code, which I don’t usually bother with.

Nevertheless, I downloaded and tried to compile it. I was able to compile mp3gain easily, so I was encouraged. aacgain, which I really needed, was more complicated. But, I dug in, and after downloading various things from SourceForge and Google Code, and combining that with an existing copy of the core mp3gain code to Github, I was able to get aacgain up and running.

I say this is an exercise in software archaeology because this useful software was written several years ago and hosted on sites that are no longer the go-to places for open source code. There was a bit of fiddling required to get them running on a modern system. In the end, though, this is one of the promises of Open Source; you’re free to find something useful that no one is actively maintaining and get it working again yourself. It’s not just about the cool new stuff–something old and unmaintained, if Open Source, can still be valuable.

I’ve placed all the source code I cobbled together back in a Github repository for the benefit of anyone else who can use it.

Now off to listen to that lecture!

January 7, 2016

grunt.file.match and grunt.file.isMatch Do Not Access File System

Filed under: JavaScript, Software Blog — marcstober @ 10:05 am

While trying to improve my team’s grunt scripts, I spent a while stuck trying to figure out why grunt.file.isMatch wasn’t working.

I was expecting this to be like a fancy “file exists” check, that would take some pattern and looking in the current directory and subdirectories (as specified by my globbing pattern) to tell me if the file exists. And I couldn’t figure it out, especially since there were two arguments, “patterns” and “filepaths”.

Ultimately, I looked at the source code and figured out I’d gotten in all wrong. Despite being methods of the file object, “match” and “isMatch” don’t look at anything in the file system. They’re just string pattern matching operations: completely deterministic functions that match “patterns” against”filepaths”.

What I’d really wanted to do was something like:

if (grunt.file.expand(“my-dir/**/*.js”).length > 0) { …

Posting this so hopefully the next person searching the web for a solution to the same problem finds this and doesn’t get stuck like I did!

July 13, 2015

Renovation Update

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 7:27 am

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We’ve just finished week 12 in our home renovation project.

People always ask how long it’s going to take. It’s a way to make conversation but it’s not what I want to talk about. It’s like kids asking “are we there yet?” on a car ride instead of think about the fun things you’re going to do on the vacation. We’ve been planning this since we bought the house nine years ago and hope to live here for at least as long again, so I’m not focused on the temporary disruption.

Maybe what people really want to ask is how much it costs. Let’s get that out of the way: We crossed the six-figure mark a few weeks ago, about halfway through the project. I’ll leave it at that.

The Process

We hired an architect, Peter Sachs, to design the project, and a builder who he recommended. You can renovate a single-family home without an architect, but it was a good investment. Thanks to his advice, we’ve avoided some mistakes and done things that will add to the home (and it’s value if we sell it) more than raw square feet. Some people hire design-build firms–one company that handles the architectural design and construction–so they won’t design something you can’t afford. I wanted to design what we needed first and then figure out how to afford it.

We’re paying our contractor on a time-and-materials basis. This goes against the conventional wisdom, Theory X, win-lose viewpoint I’ve encountered, where you’re supposed to have a contract and then get argumentative about sticking to it. Maybe I’m idealistic, but that doesn’t seem fair and or even realistic. Maybe some people just like the intellectual challenge of contract law more than the craftsmanship of their house. I’d rather trust the people working for me. Time-and-materials carries risk, but only in the economic sense that greater risk leads to greater reward. Since I’m not buying “insurance” against a change in plan, I save money if the contractor does. If things cost more, it is what it is, nobody “loses.”

And one of things we’ve gotten from our contractor is a lot of value engineering, saving us money by following the architect’s plan on the whole while finding more cost-effective solutions in specific areas. For example, using an in-wall toilet that takes up less space to avoid moving the entire wall, or buying a different name-brand window that he was able to get at a better price.

Our architect has been less involved in the construction phase of the project. From what I’ve heard, some architects choose paint colors and lighting fixtures and every detail, and while I’m sure ours would have us good advice in these areas if we needed it, he’s let us work these things out with the builder and other vendors, which is fine because I like picking out these details.

The Decisions

The first parts of the project were major but not needing a lot of decisions. I mean, having a giant excavator and cement mixer visit your house is pretty impressive. But, it’s a hole in ground filled with concrete, I’m not ruminating on the details. Now we’re into things where getting the details right now really matter: exactly where a door or outlet is going to is something that we need to get right now or we’ll be living with the repercussions for years to come. I’m telling myself, “you can do it this way, or that way”–sometimes, I need to let go of the idea that there is one right answer and I’m going to get it wrong.

I tend to obsess about the electrical stuff. I like a lot of light, but I’ve never liked the heat incandescent light generates, and I like bluish fluorescent light when I have to stay alert after dark and traditional warm yellows when I need to relax. Fortunately LED’s have made amazing progress in the past 10 years; they were too unusual and expensive when building the kitchen just 8 years ago but it’s easier to find LED’s now than the halogen bulbs we used then. Maybe I should have obsessed about windows more instead, but in all these years of thinking about lighting I’ve never given much thought to windows other than whether they’re double-pane or drafty. I’ve been researching online about home automation. It’s seems to in the same expensive-novelty-but-might-have-potential phase LED lights were 8 years ago. I want to try and experiment with it, but not until after the “real” construction.

On the other hand, a big part of this project is being able to delegate these decisions to your architect and builder. I think that comes naturally to some people–they have “a guy” they trust and don’t even want to think about the details. But not to me; professionally, I’m a “leaf node” about the details: business people and UX designers give me a concept and I’m the one who actually puts every bit and pixel in place and chooses the specific code. And on smaller home project, I’m a DIYer and enjoy working out the details myself, too. But on this project I’m the owner at a high level, and not the one who places every stud and screw, so it’s just the opposite of the role I play at work.

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The Big Build

I’ve called this project the Big Build, because it’s for our family what the Big Dig was to Boston: it changes everything. (We were in Boston last night and events were going on on the Greenway and in the Seaport area–it really has changed things!) When we first moved into the house, we talked to a couple architects, both of whom gave us advice to do a larger project that we couldn’t then afford rather than improving the house piecemeal. We renovated the kitchen, but deferred almost all other major improvement and maintenance. People seem surprised how big the project is. It’s not that big in an absolute, McMansion sense; we’ll end up with around 2,000 square feet, maybe a little under. But our project is changing every room in and side of the house to some degree; even the rooms that aren’t changing much physically will be used differently.

While there are mornings I don’t relish contractors showing up at 7:00 a.m. I’m thankful that the dream I’ve had since childhood of a custom house is coming true!

May 10, 2015

Boston Public Library Inscription about Education and Liberty

Filed under: Uncategorized — marcstober @ 5:22 pm

Did I mention I like libraries? And architecture? So of course I love the historic Boston Public Library building in in Copley Square. I was there yesterday, and remembered that I few years ago I took a picture of the inscription on the building, facing Boylston Street, that pretty much sums up my viewpoint on politics and life in general:

The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty

(Because, you know, Massachusetts is technically a “commonwealth.”)

Actually there’s more to the story: I took the pictures on my way to the 2013 Massachusetts Pirate Party convention, which, despite the silly name is raising some important issues along the same lines. I’m still registered as Democrat though so I can cast a meaningful vote in primaries, like maybe for Bernie Sanders.

So I played around with the pictures in Pixelmator today, made the meme-friendly version above, and new masthead background for my blog (further above), and I’m sharing them on flickr. Under a CC free-culture license, appropriately.

June 15, 2014

My Real Claim to Fame

Filed under: Personal Blog, Software Blog — marcstober @ 10:35 am

In 2009, I answered a CSS question on StackOverflow about word-wrap in an HTML table.

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5 years later, almost every time I go to the site, I am greeted with new reputation points from people upvoting my my answer. I now have a reputation of 3,602 which the site tells me is in the top 10% overall! My answer, which is the top answer to the question, has been benevolently edited and commented upon and the question protected due to its popularity.

I got lucky. If I had this problem I wouldn’t know the answer today and would go looking for the answer on StackOverflow. Even if someone asked the question today and I did know the answer, someone else would probably answer it before me. I just happened up on an unanswered question to which I’d just happened to figure out the answer in some other work I was doing.

The significance of this is that figuring out these little technical details of user interface implementations really is how I make my living, and it’s also how I leave the Web a little bit of a better place than I found it. As my tagline says, repairing the world, one byte at a time.

(For those who aren’t familiar, StackOverflow is a hugely influential online question and answer forum for computer programming questions. I like to say, only half jokingly, that my job as a software developer isn’t really about knowing how to do anything but about knowing how to find the right answer on StackOverflow.)

June 1, 2014

Who’s Social Now?

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Jewish Organizations, Parenting, Social Media — marcstober @ 2:41 pm

So this was an interesting tweet:

There are times when I wish the religious organizations I’ve been involved with would take some marketing lessons from the retail world. But, sometimes, we should value what we’re doing better: community and social stuff. I mean, the Jewish world is in the business of giving people a way to find community and social on Friday night as we have been for thousands for years. Businesses trying to add community and social features to their website are WAY behind at what community really means.

Indeed, I came across this tweet because I was ordering labels for kids going to summer camp. I am going to let the nonprofit Jewish summer camp meet some our family’s needs for community and social. Try as they might, the e-commerce company trying to be social seems a little forced. But they probably make good labels.

January 20, 2014

When Instagram is the (small) Sanctuary

Filed under: Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 10:07 am

It was just Tu B’Shvat. I really had good intentions to do something for Tu B’Shvat this year. We could have done a little seder with the dried fruit, or maybe even found something to go to in the community. I mean, we had just gotten back from a family trip to Israel and were supposed to be feeling all connected the land and all.

And then, after kids went to bed, I was looking at Twitter. And seeing tweets about the holiday from my more religious or environmental-activist “friends.” Tu B’Shvat was tonight?We had pasta and broccoli, nary a tree food in sight. (And we’re not even one of the those families that gets the kids to eat the broccoli by calling it “little trees.” Though I did put some olive oil on it….)

The next morning I was still fretting when I realized, what is the tree fruit that I consume even more religiously than I observe my actual religion? That is probably the most consumed tree food in the world? That you you have to brew first? Yes, coffee! I was certainly planning to start my day with coffee. It turned out I had Max with me when I stopped at Starbucks, and he wanted hot chocolate. Cocoa beans grow on trees too, right? The second most important tree food! So we stopped at Starbucks, and I Instagrammed and tweeted this picture.

To the casual observer, I was all that is wrong with parents today: ignoring my kid to look at my phone while plying him with sugar on weekday morning. But for me, I was making the experience sacred, holy, special, kadosh. I took a common stop at a chain restaurant and elevated it. By taking that picture and posting those words, it didn’t matter where I was. I was celebrating Tu B’Shvat, and doing it with my community: my virtual Jewish community of people, some of whom I don’t often get to see in real life, but who, through social media, let me be part of a Jewish community wherever I go. Of course, finding real-life community is great, but to those who say I would be better off if I put down my phone: I seriously doubt I was going to connect with another Jew about Tu B’Shvat that morning otherwise.

Judaism gives us the idea of mikdash me’at—the small sanctuary. The idea is that we can make things holy wherever we are, in our homes and communities. It’s a beautiful idea that I love about Judaism and that’s helped us survive as a people. This year, we sanctified Tu B’Shvat with Instagram at Starbucks. I still pray “next year in Jerusalem”–but more likely, next year will be on Pinterest.

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