Poetry - Denise Levertov - The Secret

This poem was read at a recent MVUC service. I liked it a lot.

The Secret
by Denise Levertov
(via The Poetry Foundation)

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.

Here is a recording of the author reading it.

Levertov died in 1997. Here's a page from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with extensive material on her career, including a page of several more of her poems.

2015 Wrap

A quickie retrospective post on 2015 so I don't have such a very empty year on the blog.

New things I tried, some of which succeeded:

  • Made some improvements to my side project SankeyMATIC, including: more customization features, eliminating at least one browser-crashing bug, and improving the overall quality of my JavaScript code.
  • Started using my github account, including making the SankeyMATIC code officially open-source.
  • Made a couple of pull requests (a.k.a. code-change suggestions) to other people's projects which were accepted.
  • Gave a lightning talk on SankeyMATIC at a DataScience DC meetup. It went reasonably well.
  • Took a short course in R Graphics. Went from knowing no R to passing the course handily.
  • Participated in a GSA Hackathon for the first time. (Primary lesson learned: go in with a team if at all possible. It's not geared to the size of project I as an individual am likely to succeed at, and no one's looking to add team members on the day of the event.)

Some things I enjoyed:

  • Another year of being @medley's primary conversational partner. (The things you all miss by not surveilling us, I swear.) The closest you can get is probably following both of us on Twitter.
  • Another year of dad-hood, now with a second-grader who's playing good baseball, getting good at playing piano, and working his way ahead in math.
  • They Might Be Giants' new album Glean
  • Reading about the Hamilton show (now on Broadway), getting the Hamilton soundtrack, listening to it with genius.com open to the annotated lyrics
  • Frank Turner's new album Positive Songs for Negative People
  • Joe Jackson's new album Fast Forward (and seeing him on tour here).
  • The CBS show Person of Interest (Thanks to Laurel Krahn for the recommendation).
  • The podcast This Week in Blackness, which is a fairly eye-opening, brain-expanding listening experience for a plain white person such as myself.

A few other 2015 highlights that come to mind:

A few goals for 2016:

  • More improvements to SankeyMATIC -- enough so that I'm happy to stop calling it (BETA).
  • More attempts to contribute to other people's code.
  • Write more. Write a lot more. (A perennial wish, admittedly.)
  • Learn more data science skills.
  • Keep improving my data visualization skills.
  • Try to make something using Swift.

Not looking forward to in 2016:

  • the ugly political campaigns already well underway

I'm sure I'm forgetting numerous things, but that's a fair amount of links to throw out in one post.

Happy New Year to you & yours.

Txtg Shrtcts (Texting Shortcuts)

This falls in the category of ‘tiny optimizations for modern life’, or ‘probably overthinking it’. And on a level this seems like an obvious thing to me, but I've never seen anyone else talk about this, so.. I will.

iOS and Android both offer a feature where you can make your own custom typing shortcuts which the device expands into longer phrases. (For specific instructions, see any of the many articles with specific steps out there.)

I've never used any of the example shortcuts I see given. Some are:

  • btw = “by the way” … this is a pretty widely known abbreviation at this point, probably obvious to your correspondent, so why make this expand? Should we map ‘mr’ to ‘Mister’?
  • drv = “Can't text, driving” … this one's a little funny—how long will it take to safely peck out “d-r-v” while you're going 50mph?
  • omw = “On my way” … this is at least a useful message, but typing ‘o-m-w’ (top right of keyboard…bottom right…top left) doesn't strike me as a large improvement over typing the whole phrase.

My criteria for a truly time-saving shortcut are:

  1. Be really easy to type.

    • If I'm jumping all over the keyboard, I may as well be typing words.
    • Typing it should be as eyes-free an operation as possible. If you could type it without looking, that would be ideal. This is next to impossible on a touchscreen, but you can still make it easier on yourself by applying Fitts' Law:

      “The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to & size of the target”

      The easiest letter to reach from the letter you just touchscreen-typed is? The same letter.

      If you make your shortcut a series of the same letter repeated, you're making it about as easy for yourself as you can.

  2. Don't collide with other things I might type. If it's a series of characters I might actually use (like ‘ooo’), then it's not good to repurpose that string as a shortcut.
  3. Be easy to remember. As with any other keyboard shortcut, giving it some kind of connection to the original phrase will help make it something I will actually recall when I need it.

My most commonly-used shortcut is ‘hhh’, for “Heading home”. The only key I have to find is the H key, then poke it three times fast, then find ‘Send’. It's fast, the phone doesn't think I'm typing some other word, and it works great for me every day.

Here are some others which serve me well:

  • ccc = Checking out — used when out shopping, to give some sense of how far along I am in the process
  • ddd = Drop ok — school dropoff of child accomplished

If I used ‘on my way’, I'd probably use ‘www’ since I don't want to use ‘ooo’.

Along a similar line, this Lifehacker article recommends using “@@” as a shortcut for your own email address, with “@@@” for a second address and so on. (If I actually gave out my email address much from my phone, I would use this.)

One nice side-effect of using this style of shortcut: since they don't look like regular words, your phone has a good chance of auto-correcting to the right thing even if you don't get it exactly right. I typed too many ‘h’s once and my phone helpfully suggested “Heading home”, which was indeed what I meant.

What are your shortcut secrets?

Development Diaries

One weblog I have specifically admired in the last year and want to follow in the footsteps of is Brent Simmons' inessential.com.

Specifically, his habit of writing out software-development diary entries discussing what decisions he is facing and either how he is solving it or what he is stuck on (and then his readers will often jump in with useful advice on Twitter & elsewhere.)

One big example is his Vesper Sync Diary series. There are others too -- this is a Google search of his site for 'diary'.

I have a lot of posts along that line I could make about a tool I made and released last year: SankeyMATIC, "a Sankey diagram builder for everyone".

It really deserved several blog posts here but never got any; I plan to remedy that and pick back up the thread of its development, as there are several improvements left to make before I can consider it properly done.

Music recitals & what matters in them

After around 6 months of piano lessons, the 1st grader had his first piano recital a couple of weeks ago.

It went well—he didn't have a lot of nervousness, he did remember his 3 very short memorized pieces, and he played them fine.

But I was struck by something as I watched the procession of students play.

I have been out of the watching-kids-perform world for so very long that I had totally forgotten that when kids make mistakes, their natural reaction is to back up and fix them.

(Several of the students, across a wide range of ages and skills, did this.)

I tried to think of when that was trained out of me, and have concluded that it was essentially when I began performing in ensembles--orchestras, choirs, etc.

Whether they said so out loud or not, it became clear from my various directors that in a performance, the group will not be stopping for one person's mistake. It is simply not practical to go back and fix much of anything.

(I have definitely had a few of the worst-case experiences where everything gets so cocked-up that there is no hope of proceeding together coherently, when you can feel the director's pain as they halt the entire song, quickly communicate a measure number or other fresh rendezvous point to the group, and try to resume with some dignity.)

It gets even more pronounced when you are having to coordinate with other performers who are not even looking at the same conductor as you—say, being in the pit orchestra for a musical. The action on the stage is going to happen whatever you do, so you do your best to stay in sync with the actors no matter what, caution to the wind and devil take the hindmost.


Watching piano students play by themselves, especially some just starting out, I have to shush that longstanding instinct. They are more concerned with correctness than with maintenance of tempo, and frankly this is fine and age-appropriate. Just a little unfamiliar.

(Another idea this experience reminded me of was the "Five Nines" concept as applied to musical performances, which I will have to elaborate on in some future post.)

#Influences: First in a Series

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Interrogator: "Is that a fair thing to say? That you've been under the influence of other people?"

Sheridan: "No."

Interrogator: "No, really? I find that most remarkable. I mean, aren't we all under the influence of others? It's part of being in the world. Somebody in the office is in a bad mood, pretty soon everybody's in a bad mood. We're all influenced by other people."

—Babylon 5, Episode 4.18, "Intersections in Real Time"

To avoid one problem I have with writing—the strong feeling that I am repeating myself, leading to being super redundant, pointless and boring—I'll try a new tack.

For many of the various things I feel I've learned over the years, often I can point back to one or more specific things which led me there.

And rather than just expound on my various philosophies & heresies here, I think it will be more interesting to write about where some of these things came from (when I have particular things I can point back to).

This sort of rhymes with my wish to post about #ExcellentThings as well.

On some level, these kind of posts are just another series of 'Things What I Like'. But they are specifically things that I recall often, that I can point to as having had a lasting effect on my thinking.

Another part of wanting to post about these is to leave a trail for my son to find someday, helping to explain 'why was Dad like that, anyway?'.

#Influences: On Change

I was an avid reader of DC's The Question, by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan.

O'Neil used a lot of Eastern philosophy in his dialogue and plots, which was fairly interesting as a counterpoint to the Rand and Heinlein and so forth I was reading as a teen.

Of all the interesting thoughts and quotes that came out of it, the one that has stuck with me for decades is from the finale of a three-part crossover with Green Arrow and Batman, titled "Fables". (For an extensive exploration of that story, with scans of many panels, visit that link.)

Skipping the very very long setup, the line I come back to is spoken across a stormy ocean from a dying sensei to the main character Vic Sage (who is still immature, quick to anger and so forth).

The world was roaring around me...the wind shrieking, the water pounding and hissing.

I can't be sure I heard the old man's voice... I don't know if he really said it...

"I was once like you.

If you live, you will change."

—The Question, Annual #1, "Fables Part III" by O'Neil, Cowan & Magyar, 1988

it's a versatile idea, approachable from several angles:

If you live, you will change. If you continue to live, you will continue to change.

The only way you will stop changing is to stop living. You are never a "finished" person until you have no more breaths.

Assuming that you will change, that more changes are coming: will you deliberately attempt to become better, or inattentively change to become more calcified, more rigid, more of the same?

I come back to this whenever I get pushed out of my comfort zone, or when I have clearly made a bad mistake.

It's an egotistical thing to think that my behavior is as good as it really ought to be in all ways, in all situations. I can improve, and frankly as an adult human I should be capable of improving. And one's friends and spouse can give you a nudge at times by helpfully pointing out when, e.g., you have been a real ass. And it's helpful to see that as guidance for your future changes.

A discussion of 'change' would not be complete without the other thing that reliably leaps to mind any time it comes up:

Benjamin: How would you feel about making a change?

Garth Algar: We fear change. <hits nearby machine with hammer repeatedly>

—Wayne's World, 1992 (clip)

So much to re-learn

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Inigo: I am waiting for you, Vizzini. You told me to go back to the beginning. So I have. This is where I am, and this is where I'll stay. I will not be moved.
Brute: But the Prince gave orders –
Inigo: So did Vizzini – when a job went wrong, you went back to the beginning. And this is where we got the job.
The Princess Bride, 1987

Lessons I am trying to learn again, or for the first time:

  1. It is better to publish things on your own site than on Twitter or Facebook.

    You can control it, and it can't just go away without warning. Those sites are fine for mentioning posts and for getting feedback though.

  2. Waiting for polished writing means waiting forever.

    As evidenced by my very very sparse blog output over the last several years, I am a bit fussy about what I publish here—too fussy. These days, I think I will be happy enough to have some output of just-publishable quality instead of little-to-no output of quality I feel proud of.

  3. It's okay to have an idea cross multiple posts.

    I get stuck wanting to compile everything I have to say about a thing into one comprehensive master post, and that just leads to never ever finishing.

So I'll stop here. More to come.

2013, Under the Wire

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One should have a post at least once a year, surely? Herewith some hasty disorganized thoughts at year-end, focusing on the positive:

  • Having a pretty healthy 5-year-old kid is one of the big successes. He was able to shed the egg allergy this year, so a wider range of foods opened up for us; hoping that trend continues next year with the remaining allergies.
  • Joined a choir, the Alexandria Choral Society. I did miss singing in groups. The December concert went nicely, I had a solo (We Three Kings, the Myrrh verse) and didn't mess that up, so thumbs up there.
  • The markets had a good year, which meant the 401K had a good year. Like/Favorite/+1.
  • Big work project launched, pretty successfully.

Out with 2013, bring on 2014. A few select goals I have in mind:

  • Launch a project which can simultaneously serve as a useful tool for communicating difficult ideas and as a way to demonstrate publicly some of what I know about software, UI and complexity. More on this to come.
  • Level up at work -- I'm moving back into a team lead role, which requires a different focus than I've had recently. So I will need to consciously make some changes to succeed there.
  • Blog more than once, eh?

After many years of relative quiet in public (mostly existing as a twitter feed), I would like to plan for 2014's underlying nature to be this:

  • Enough reading, enough preparation, enough mulling. Do.
  • To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Instead of thinking about what would be possible to do, under better conditions than these, possibly ideal conditions (what would even be ideal conditions, really, let's mull that over a bit) and with a better set of tools..how would one measure which tools are the best ones, hm, that's a chinstroker, and so on, and so on.
  • Real artists ship. - Steve Jobs

A Tale of Two 2012s

Around the middle of November, this was how I was feeling about the year—

Ever said this, exasperatedly? "It's the twenty-first century!" "It's 2012!"

These are the things that people I know say when faced with a problem that seems like it should have been solved long ago.

  • Like the fact that the majority of cabs still only take cash and not credit cards. (Seriously. Is it 1989?)
  • Like any company or government agency which requires you to fax something to them.

Or, more soberly:

  • Discovering people who think that people of different races shouldn't marry.
  • Discovering people who think women should stay out of the workforce.
  • Hearing that women shouldn't be able to vote, or be allowed to wear pants to important functions.

So it's usually said with a negative affect.

Why aren't we further along than this? <negative>It's 2012</negative>.

But there was just an election. And some things which have seemed overdue (or downright futuristic) have actually begun to happen.

  • Marijuana legalization was passed in Colorado and Washington. While I don't partake myself, I appreciate this move as possibly the beginning of a rational climb-down from the endlessly expensive/ineffective/violence-soaked War on Some Drugs.

  • 18 women were elected to the US Senate (including the first disabled woman, first openly lesbian woman, first Asian-American woman..), bringing the number serving to 20.

  • Marriage was legalized for gay couples by voters in Maine & Maryland & Washington, and Minnesota voters declined to pass an anti-gay amendment.

  • Not to mention the first-ever black President earned re-election, by a pretty significant margin.

Look at that, gentle sentients.

<positive>It's 2012.</positive>

Then of course on December 14 there was the Newtown slaughter.

Not that there isn't always some horrible news out there if you look for it. But this one obviously stood out as both extra-horrible and potentially-preventable at the same time.

In its wake, I have been left philosophizing and analyzing and theorizing to myself even more than usual, and contemplating to the point of great distraction both the powerful inertia of everyday life and the sudden randomness of some fates.

I don't have an essay in me right now about how I tie all this together in my mind; instead I'll try to sum up one piece of it—

I read a lot of Isaac Asimov stories and essays when I was young. And he argued well for his outlook on humanity and the future, which has been labeled 'Humanist' or 'Secular Humanist'. Here's one summation from him I found:

As indicated by our very name, we humanists celebrate humanity, want humanity to survive, and recognize that if humanity does survive, it will be by its own efforts.

Never can we sit back and wait for miracles to save us. Miracles don't happen.

Sweat happens. Effort happens. Thought happens.

And it is up to us humanists to help—to expend our sweat, our effort and our thought. Then there will be hope for the world.

And since I—who am not on the front lines of any of today's conflicts—despair sometimes at the intractability of the problems we face and at our intransigence as a species in addressing all but the shortest-term issues, I find it helpful and important to look to those like Asimov and Carl Sagan—who saw far and were confronted very directly with obstacles and resistance—and remember that they could bring themselves to continue to put forth effort in the name of Humanity, day after day. Somehow.

Their example is useful when I feel defeated, as I have by Newtown and other events.

As a valediction for 2012 and an epigraph for 2013, I nominate this somewhat recent musical mashup of clips from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, with a special emphasis on this part of the chorus:

The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day
Venture to the stars

If we do not destroy ourselves... by giving guns to as many people as possible and inviting ever more accidental gunshot deaths into our lives (even if you dubiously exclude the supposedly-deterrable intentional ones).

If we do not destroy ourselves... by biasing all our planning for the short term and leaving any real progress on longer-term threats (like a warmer planet) for much, much later.

If we do not destroy ourselves... we will one day venture to the stars.

Let us not destroy ourselves.

Happy 2013.

Election 2012 News Sources

Just as a historical note, in this era I find the most interesting/useful sites for keeping up on basic day-to-day election news to be the following:

And a Twitter list which follows these accounts:

I followed these accounts because they gave me a good balance between informative/timely on the one hand and not a bloody firehose of updates on the other. (That's why @barackobama was not included - too chatty.)

Suggestions for other qualifying feeds gratefully accepted.