Over the last few years, I have been increasingly active in a few active fora online. In particular, multiple ones related to amateur astronomy and a couple related to WordPress. My participation is generally two-fold — I both learn from others and help newbies with their questions. I’ve also been active in the past in groups related to my son’s health issues, although those are often more sharing of experiences than directly helping anyone.
One thing that I am particularly good at is framing information in a way that a newbie can understand it, orient themselves to the topic, and then proceed with a rudimentary schema for processing various types of other information coming their way.
Yet what I am often struck by, and amazed at, is the completely useless advice provided by well-meaning people in the fora. I don’t mean that the information is wrong, although that happens too. I mean people who ask a question, and then when someone responds, the response is of the form “Do x.”
At first blush, that sounds helpful, doesn’t it? They asked what they should do, and somebody answered. Except they didn’t ask any questions to understand the context for the question. They didn’t say to the newbie, “Wait, what are you trying to do first? What are you looking for?”.
In astronomy circles, there is a very common opening salvo by newbies. “Hi, I’m new to the group but I’ve always been interested in astronomy. I have read a bunch of stuff online, but I’m just more confused. I want to buy a scope, and I don’t know which ones are good for newbies. Please advise.”
And invariably, within about 3 replies, someone says, “Buy a Dobsonian” and someone else says “buy binoculars”. Is that wrong advice? Maybe not.
But it’s about the equivalent of someone asking what tool to use to take apart a workbench, and someone saying a saw, another saying a screwdriver, and another saying a hammer. Are they wrong? Not really. But until we know the context of how that workbench was initially assembled, what it’s made of, and what the person intends to do with the materials afterwards, the answers are at best incomplete. As a result, they’re useless.
For astronomy, for example, telling someone to buy a Dobsonian design is about the same as telling someone to buy a sedan when looking for a car. It’s an all-round good choice, good value, a solid utility vehicle. On the other hand, if the person was looking to haul equipment around their farm, not the best of choices. Yet people will tell someone to buy a Dob without ever asking a single question about what the person is looking for, are they comfortable learning to navigate the sky manually, are they looking to get into astrophotography at some point, etc. Equally, binos are a frequent “all-round” suggestion EXCEPT it assumes that the person is able to stand still (i.e., no wobbles, no physical mobility issues) and their eyes work well in conjunction with each other and don’t have any aggressive astigmatisms or wear bifocals. If either of those is not true — i.e. for kids who can’t hold heavy binos still or seniors with different eyesight profiles — then binos might be a terrible suggestion. They are also less useful for certain types of objects (moon, planets) which are quite often VERY popular starter targets. In addition, they require manual navigation of the sky too, which might not be what the person prefers.
In WordPress, people frequently say “Get Elementor” which is a page designer. It is advertised as easy to learn, easy to use, and there is common wisdom out there to regularly say “it’s free and has lots of power”. I have been using WP for close to 10 years, and when I tried Elementor? I found it completely confusing. Plus it mucked with a bunch of my existing setup. It was an overly complicated and terrible design for a newbie who doesn’t even know what WP does or a theme is for, let alone plugins, but the common advice is to start with full page design to start?
I don’t know what it is, whether it is group think, or the dangers of underestimating stupidity in large groups, but frequently I will see people chiming in and leading the person down roads they are likely to follow, get confused, get frustrated, and end their trip before it even begins.
Equally in astronomy, there are certain types of setups that are better for astrophotography than others. While you can do visual and AP with them, they’re often not as versatile or as simple for visual. Different tools for different projects, so to speak. Yet there are people who say “Buy this equatorial mount” which is good for AP more than visual and is priced at 5x the budget the person said they had, or add this gadget, buy this upgrade, get this accessory. It is very popular for some people to randomly suggest upgrades to gear when it is someone else’s money.
Most days it’s merely puzzling. Some days it’s maddening. I’ve sometimes come to a discussion late, 40 people have already taken the person down ten different rabbitholes, I ask two simple Qs, and it turns out NONE of what the guy already went through applies to his situation. But nobody asked what the problem was, they just started throwing out generic solutions.
I feel at times it’s like the old issue of someone typing “FIRST!” when commenting on a post. Stupid and pointless. But then I feel more angry later…because in a couple of cases, the answers were SO wrong, that the person felt like they had NO choice but to give up the hobby. Because they had a budget for astronomy, for example, of $200, and some moron told them they needed to spend at least $1500 or it wasn’t even worth it to get started.
I confess that more and more, this kind of misleading “advice” just pisses me off. The person has no way of knowing the advisor is well-meaning but stupid. I’ve seen it with people trying to understand French training, HR prep for exams and interviews, or writing fiction too.
Maybe I’m cranky, but I feel like if you don’t have something actually useful to contribute, then don’t bother saying anything at all. 🙂 Others are more of the “you get what you pay for” variety. Either way, I am starting to believe in the “superficiality of the crowd” more than in their wisdom.
I didn’t know much about Firefly Lane until I saw that it had premiered. When I looked it up, and saw that it was a buddy premise, I thought, “Sure, why not give it a try?”. And with two women instead of two men, I really wanted to like it.
Katherine Heigl plays the co-lead, Tully, and for a lot of people that would be a giant plus. They loved her in Grey’s Anatomy or State of Affairs. Me? I remember her from Under Siege 2 and I thought she was decent enough there, but well, she was in the background. I didn’t watch GA and I gave SoA only one episode before bailing. I find almost all of her characters come across as almost superficial, particularly when she’s trying to be deep for a moment. I don’t “get” her, and I don’t want to I suppose.
Sarah Chalke is the other co-lead, Kate, and I didn’t watch her in Cougar Town with Courtney Cox or on Scrubs. I do remember her as Stella from How I Met Your Mother and vaguely as Becky from Roseanne. And she’s decent enough, just the character is rather bland. Yet I don’t mean just in comparison to Tully, I mean bland all the way around.
But you know the real problem? I kept seeing the two of them with all the flashbacks, and I thought, “Who cares what happened?” Because “modern day” Kate and Tully are a mess. There’s no giant success for the two of them to want me to know the origin story for them. I saw them meet, I’m pretty much done. I don’t care what happened in between and I don’t care what happens in present-day. Not to mention that relatively speaking, they seem like the same characters then and now. They started as wild child and home-body, so not much of a growth arc to present-day.
Kate’s daughter seems interesting, albeit a cliché teenager. But I don’t care enough about her to watch either.
I also can’t help feeling that someone watched Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie and said, “Give me that. But make them 40 instead of over-60.”
It’s Netflix, so the business model is different than normal. I’d normally say “cancellation” without reservation but it is getting buzz. Lots of women are interested to watch in the same demographic. And maybe the other 9 EPs are worth the buzz. But I’m going to pass. And I still think it should be cancelled.
I am an idiot, apparently. I thought I knew the history of Arsène Lupin. He is, after all, a famous character in France literature.
Now, in my light defence, I have read Edgar Allan Poe’s short-story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, which is considered by many to be the first modern detective story. The main character in the story? C. Auguste Dupin. Not Arsène Lupin. Oops.
So when I saw that Netflix had a new series starting called Lupin, and it had some reference to the stories, I was expecting him to be a detective. Nope, Arsène Lupin is a gentleman burglar, a master of misdirection and disguise. He can be anybody. Anyone. Any time.
In the opening, you meet a young man who is in debt to a loan shark. He’s working as a janitor at the Louvre. His ex-wife thinks he’s broke. What nobody knows? He’s Arsène Lupin.
A spoiler alert though is needed here. Because I can’t review the story without reviewing his disguise. It’s true he has an ex-wife, a son, and owes money to a loan shark. It’s even true he’s working as a janitor. But it’s all a con so he can get the loan shark to rob the Louvre. He has the perfect plan. It just doesn’t happen to be the plan he told the loan shark and his crew. They double-cross him, but he had already double-crossed them. He steals the necklace, and walks out the loading dock door with it. One young detective is on to him, but is it enough?
The larger spoiler is that the necklace has a history. The main character, who is not really Arsène Lupin but actually Assane Diop, knew the wealthy family that used to own it, as his father was their chauffeur. When the necklace went missing, the father was arrested and charged, and overcome with shame, he apparently killed himself in his jail cell rather than let his son see him in prison. So the theft is apparent revenge for his father’s death.
I loved the show and I loved the main actor, Omar Sy (Jurassic World). He played at least 3 different characters, so to speak, in the show, shifting from one to the other with ease. He was a bit off with his performance as a tech billionaire, a little too casual and cavalier about the necklace being stolen, but otherwise excellent. I can’t wait to see where the show goes.
Netflix’s business model is different than most, but I’m still going to predict renewal. Despite the dubbing, I think people will show up to watch it.
My blog is often my creative outlet, a way of making sense of the world. Taking an issue, wrestling with the details, framing it a certain way, putting a personal stamp on it. It is also stress relief. I talk through some of the things that are bothering me, a monologue with myself that I share publicly. Sometimes they provoke reactions, likes on FB or a comment or two. Many times they don’t. While I would love to have thousands of people hanging on my every written word, I write most of the time for me. A diary of sorts. Maybe a legacy that my son will some day read, wondering, “What did Dad think about that?”.
Yet because I write for me, sometimes as potentially the only one who will read the post, I also cannot hide in sophistry or metaphor. I believe strongly in as much transparency in relationships as they can handle, sometimes more than is comfortable, and that transparency has to apply to my relationship with myself. But even though it is sometimes hard, I know that my writing is good for me. An outlet of release.
Which is why I am posting something when I really don’t feel like posting or doing anything. I want to curl up in a ball and shut out the world. If it wasn’t for COVID, I’d probably want to go somewhere for a week, turn off my phone, and just shut down. To simply “be”, find my centre, and let my body and mind recharge. A form of CTRL-ALT-DELETE for my internal software and external hardware.
Except life doesn’t work like that, of course. You can’t run away from problems, and if they’re mental noise, they end up going anywhere you go too. I’ve often wondered if I’d be better off having an interest in alcohol occasionally. Something to just overwhelm the brain and shut it off for awhile. I tend to mute it through distraction instead, binge-watching something or a project. But I’m having trouble filtering the noise right now.
A good portion of it is COVID, of course. I feel like I want to go to a mall and just walk around. No shopping, no interactions with anyone, just go and walk around. Do something somewhat normal. I won’t, we are still a high-risk household, after all.
Some of it is the winter. I do tend to get squirrelly in February, although I’m barely noticing other than having to clear snow off the car. I barely even know it is winter or anything outside of the pod.
But my issues with my leg are getting to me. I can wrap my head around the compression socks, maybe not well, maybe not right away, but it’s noise. I did my fitting today for some custom socks, yay, and it’s not a big deal in the long run. Same shit, different day. Whatever.
I was able to wrap my head around the trips to wound care, constant wrapping, the extra hassles with showering, etc. Mostly because I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. My leg was improving, the wound was healing, the compression was helping.
And then last week blew that to hell in a handbasket.
My wound started to get angry and red again, I had multiple appointments by phone with my doctor to go back on the antibiotic horse pills for another 14d. I also had multiple “rush” appointments with the wound care people after I had to rip the compression off on Saturday and again today because the wound was starting to hurt like the Dickens. I think the bandage is somehow slipping under the compression over time, and it is “pulling” at the wound. My nurse thinks it is because I’m not keeping my legs elevated during the day, which while working at a desk for 8h isn’t a great combo.
So where does that leave me? Basically with a wound that is almost back to square one and the likelihood that my next stop is going to be an ER sometime. Who the f*** knows what they’ll actually do for me if I go, since I’m already receiving wound care and antibiotics. I suppose IV antibiotics is a possibility.
Yet when I look at that list, you know what I see?
It’s not that serious in the end. There are people out there with real serious health problems and I’m not talking about simply COVID. I’m talking about chronic pain conditions. Things they deal with and live with, and I can’t help but wonder.
If I’m this much of a basket case with a simple leg wound, what will I be like when I get to a point with REAL problems to live with?
That is what is frying my mental bacon. The weakness, the face of the future, my comfort and ability to handle mental stress and emotional turmoil but which seems to fail me completely when dealing with physical discomfort.
With a slightly serious segue, it is made me think about the MAID legislation that is going through. Medical Assistance In Dying. And it makes me wonder. Is that me in the future? Am I going to be THAT guy? The one who is in some discomfort, isn’t dying anytime soon, is relatively mentally competent (or at least as I ever was) but simply cannot endure the day to day that is misery?
I already live in fear of mental decline. For someone who has always lived in his mind, has always used his mind to separate himself apart from others in school or work, who defines himself by his mind, the thought of that mind not being “there” to continue to define myself is relatively terrifying. If my fear of snakes was put in comparison with fear of dementia, snakes would be about a 2 compared to a 12 for dementia. Even while knowing that ironically, I won’t know if it does decline.
On the other hand, I’m not in distress, I’m not in crisis. It’s a setback, I’ll bounce back. I’ll write, I’ll do Lego, I’ll do some stuff on my website design. But first I’m going to take a mental health day on Wednesday, as I didn’t feel like I’d really accomplish anything at work anyway.
Oh, and I’ll take out the garbage and recycling. I’ve already cleared snow twice today (Tuesday) so I’m hoping I won’t need to do that on Wednesday too, if I can help it. More coming on Thursday. Yay.
At least I was outside for awhile, right?
In the meantime, I blog late at night, throwing my words out into the abyss. A week ago I reached 1500 posts, and I didn’t even notice. I probably need to celebrate that milestone somehow, just not sure what it is yet.
There are lots of people out there who do really great and wonderful things in Excel, including advanced statistical formulas, trend analysis on huge data sets, or giant financial spreadsheets. I don’t do stats or huge data sets, but I have, on occasion, done some large financial spreadsheets (at least by non-financial officer standards). I have a semi-fond memory of working on a huge “options” spreadsheet for a large project on Dec. 23rd one year, just before I was going on holiday for two weeks and had to leave an updated version for our finance officer and senior management while I was gone.
It was a Friday, everybody else had left for the Christmas break, and there I was slaving away on this spreadsheet that for some reason WOULD NOT BALANCE. It was about $70M, and I was out about $113K somewhere in the middle, even though I knew the totals were right. Which meant looking through a table of about 20 columns and about 200 rows, even though I knew finding it was not going to alter anyone’s decision-making when using it, they were more doing macro stuff. But it took me a good 90 minutes to figure out that some formula that I had “adjusted” manually for a one-off adjustment was copied over to 7 other cells, so all of them were off by about $14K each. Not a figure you would see when looking at $113K spread out. Finding it was like a EUREKA! moment. It’s been 9 years and I still remember those meetings and that work very clearly.
So, yeah, I’ve done the financial spreadsheets, graphs, tables, simple lookups, complicated filtering, etc., but I’m not an expert. What I *do* like to do with it is create simple tools to help me with other projects. So I thought I would talk about some of my examples for fun. This post is what I consider “level 1” because it doesn’t use any real functions in Excel, just taking advantage of a large table layout.
Project tracking for my website
I frequently use my Excel spreadsheets like a simple project tracker. I create the various steps across the top and the phases down the side, and I track as I complete each step. Lots of people create pseudo-GANTT charts in Excel, and while I see the desire, I think people often get so bogged down in the beauty of the chart, they forget what they needed was a very simple linear tracker. They need the steps and the big parts, not the visuals as to when it is due, particularly if the critical path has no hard end-date/deadline. I know some managers who want their staff to update a critical path daily, even though they themselves (the managers) NEVER use it to make decisions, it is just giving them a warm fuzzy feeling that things must be on track. They forget that these are management tools, not simply presentation graphics. If you don’t use them to plan and manage, they’re not usually worth doing, but I digress.
I prefer tools that simply help me track things, and so I use Excel extensively when doing big stuff on my website. For example, when I was doing a recent redesign, I set up a simple table that had columns for 7 stages — take a category offline, convert entirely to Gutenberg blocks, flag if graphics need to be updated later, add in a new signature block, add in a new featured image, check the layout / look / feel, republish — and then rows for different categories like book reviews, movie reviews, astronomy articles, quotes, etc.
I like the approach because it lets me work horizontally or vertically. For example, taking a category offline is a horizontal workflow…I wouldn’t generally take everything offline at once, would I? Converting to Gutenberg blocks though might be something I could do vertically — all the categories at once — with certain tools. Similarly for a new signature block or replacing a featured image. But by the time I was down to checking layouts, that is more of a horizontal function again, making sure all the quote posts look the same. Some people wouldn’t bother doing the tracker, they would just have a to do list with each category. Or maybe supplement it with a separate to do list that was the horizontal workflow.
Those methods also work, but they are also weak in two areas. First and foremost, they won’t identify economies of scale where I can go vertical on all the categories at once. I would essentially lock myself into a single horizontal workflow and that’s it. Secondly, because the tool is a transitory work product i.e., when you’re done with it, it’s no good for anything else, people forget that the value is in being able to know exactly where you are in the process so the next time you work on the project (if you can’t work on it straight through), you know exactly where to re-start. You know where you left off. A to do list almost does that, but a tick box encourages you to finish a whole column or row, it’s not easy to indicate “partial completion”.
There’s another hidden element though, which is that a tracker like this also serves to ensure consistency in approach. I can’t take credit for any great insight here, hospitals figured this out long ago. They were trying to improve consistency in operating rooms, and in particular, avoid a problem where a sponge or a pair of scissors (!) could get left in a patient, the person would get an infection, and the patient would either have to be re-opened or die. So a bunch of ORs created a checklist-system based on some trials and experiments by efficiency experts.
One of the checklists that is still being used today is for the nurse assisting with the operation. They count sponges and equipment — the number going in, the number coming out. If they don’t match, the surgeon can’t close the wound. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you’re there doing a routine operation, do you remember when you’re done if you used 5 sponges or 6? How easy is it to forget if suddenly there’s a bleed, you try to staunch the flow, and you grab 2 instead of 1?
But hospitals didn’t stop with sponge counting. They found that simply having a checklist of the order in which you put a gown on after scrubbing your hand a set amount of times made sure the person doing it ACTUALLY didn’t forget a step. It’s the routine stuff that is easy to miss. And, to be honest, your brain goes on auto-pilot more than you think. They have video of people in these studies totally forgetting to wash their hands because someone spoke to them just before they did it, and their brain skipped over the step. They actually swear they did it, when the video shows they didn’t. But if they’re following the checklist, they know they didn’t do it. The goal is to reduce mental load so you don’t have to think about routine steps, the best method is already right in front of you.
This isn’t rocket science, I guarantee you’ve followed a similar approach before because all cooking recipes follow the same approach. A set of clear instructions to do the steps each time in the same order and get the same result. You don’t put the yeast in before the flour, for example.
In my case, I am in the process of drastically altering my photo gallery on my website, although the redesign part is done. Mostly what I am doing right now is populating the site with 15y of photos. About 250 galleries when I’m done. And I want them all to work seamlessly together in the same way. Which means I need consistency. So I doubled down on the microwork of Thomas Edison creating an assembly line breakdown of workflows, all the efficiency experts doing time and motion studies, and even the hospital systems creating workflow checklists, and I created my own grid. Here is a picture of what it looks like for my gallery process for 2008.
Yes, it looks anal-retentive. While the image is too small to see very well on the website, the columns across the top are all the steps to create one uniform gallery while the rows are the various galleries in the year. For example, going across the top, the steps are:
Acquiring the image, which seems redundant, BUT some of my images are originally in paper format only, so it isn’t simply “taking the image”, it could be scanning it;
Moving it from various devices around my house (including other people’s computers) on to my system, sorting by date, converting video to a format that can be uploaded to my site;
Importing it into my photo management software, Mylio, and then sorting it, editing, running facial recognition to auto-add certain tags, updating metadata in three area, saving the metadata (yes that’s a whole separate step, sigh), and moving the files within my setup from “processing” to “complete”, i.e. ready for upload and backups;
Within the website, there are two parts that happen relatively in tandem as certain parts of each have to be completed before the next step in the other area, so I end up creating a page (including page name, editing the URL slug from standard defaults to what I want it for the gallery, adding some special CSS coding, editing the breadcrumb, editing a a gallery description, editing any video descriptions and adding separate links, and setting some parameters if I want to tweak something from default which is very rare) AND creating the gallery (create the holder, upload photos and video, edit the internal descriptions, set up a link to the page above, add the gallery to an overall album in WordPress, confirm the main gallery image i.e. cover photo, and sort the photos and videos in the software if the defaults don’t get read perfectly); and,
When that is all done, I have to test the page for look and feel, as well as functionality for extra gallery pages and that the videos are loaded properly, publish it, share it on FaceBook, and tweak the way it appears in the gallery submenu.
Down the side are the various galleries that I’m working on. Months are generally “obvious”, but sometimes in that month I’ll have a special event — a trip, a wedding, a baby shower — and I’ll want that as a separate gallery. Equally, I also might be planning a blog post about, I don’t know, using Excel as a project tracker. For that, I don’t want the images cluttering up my media library, nor do I want them in with my monthly photos or my special events. So I have a special gallery for the month called “Blog posts” where I can upload images that no one would ever “browse” out of context, so I put them in the blog posts gallery so I can insert them as per above. But I still have to do all the “right” steps to create that gallery too.
When everything is created, I go through the whole year to make note of any possible “blog entries” I want to write in the future about an event, or maybe as a “throwback Thursday” type post. Or even just to go to a specific image in the gallery and share that separately on FB because not everyone will click through and therefore might not realize there’s a great image of Andrea’s uncle hiding in that collection, for example.
Is it overkill? Perhaps. For the 2008 image above, I have 34 steps, and many of them in a given phase (such as moving images around) are relatively obvious. I don’t need the workflow most of the time. But when I finish a gallery, and I’m “done”, I’m surprised when going back through the workflow to double-check that I did everything, how often I suddenly realize that “Oh yeah, I never saved the metadata” or “I didn’t rename the final directory to the right naming convention” so to speak, and now that gallery will not sort properly later. Maybe I missed a step, maybe I got a phone call in the middle. Usually it means I was winging it and NOT following the workflow checklist that I created.
And it is easy to agree that it probably doesn’t matter too much. Why be so anal?
Well, two reasons. About a month or so ago, I was looking for two images in my collection. I knew approximately WHEN they had been taken, but not precisely. I just remember the year approximately. So I simply went in and searched using the tags. One came up immediately, the other did not. Huh? They should have both showed up. I spent another 15 minutes of searching to find the second one, only to realize the reason it didn’t show up was that I had never completed the metadata steps. Somehow missed it. Now, it was not yet in my final “check-off” stage as being complete, so the checklist hadn’t completely failed me, I would have noticed eventually when I got to it, but it added 15m of work that it shouldn’t have needed.
Secondly, once I complete those “desktop” functions, and I upload to the website, if I miss a big step like adding CSS code to the gallery, I can find myself in the middle of something else, but suddenly my site is NOT showing properly. It has the wrong menu, it has the wrong header, it has the wrong layout, etc. And I don’t know why. After all, everything is set properly, right? Well, not always. Without the checklist, I can get that proverbial phone call that distracts me, and while I’m not leaving a sponge in a patient who then dies, my website has a sponge stuck in one of the galleries, and the site looks septic. Because I didn’t count the sponges.
I could use a whiteboard, but it’s hard to simply “add a step” in the process on a large table. I could use MS Word, although admittedly, 34 columns might give it a tad case of indigestion. Excel works great because it can have as many rows or columns as I want or need. Word works great if the steps are very different, but if it’s something that is repetitive, a simple table tracker in Excel works fine.
That’s it, and as you can see, my example is not that complicated. Anal perhaps, but not complicated, just a simple table tracker. Hence why I call it “Level 1”. Let’s see what Level 2 looks like.