Alexa on Raspberry Pi

On Friday I was talked into going to one of the library’s Maker Events focused on turning a Raspberry Pi into (effectively) an Amazon Echo.  I know that I’ve been to quite a few student presentations where they talked about using Alexa skills to let them do all kinds of nifty things, but I hadn’t really given much thought to what was involved in using Alexa myself.

We spent most of Friday’s session getting micro SD cards set up with Raspbian on them, and setting up our Amazon developer accounts.  Honestly that sounds like it was probably the hardest part of the whole project.  After that, it looked like it would just be a matter of following this sample project before we’d be ready to go.

Yes, I am saying “it looked like.”  We didn’t actually finish the project.  We didn’t have good enough wifi to complete Step 4, where you clone the Git project onto your Pi, in a reasonable amount of time.

Most of the other people at the event had bought their own equipment, and thus were able to take it home and continue working on the project.  I’ll be curious to talk to them and see how the rest of it went.  For myself–well, I was using the library’s equipment, which had to be turned back in before I left.

I’m pretty ok with that, though.  I don’t particularly want an Amazon Echo, I don’t have any projects in mind that would make use of being able to talk to a computer and ask it to do things, and I’m mostly just happy to have gotten a sense of how a project like this works.  If I *do* think of a project that would benefit from this, I know where to start and I’m pretty confident I could pull it off.

Linen Stitch

Knitting at professional conferences is simultaneously wonderful and awful.  On the one hand, I love the spontaneous connections with other knitters.  Also, knitting is a great way to stay awake during those presentations that are, shall we say, less than stimulating.  But on the other hand, trying out a new stitch or pattern in a public, noisy, stressful place… well, that’s not so good.

All of this is leading up to how I’m learning to knit linen stitch.  You can read more about the stitch here, among many other places.

I was really excited about how much knitting I got done at Computers in Libraries last week, until I realized just how awful a job I’d done at keeping track of whether I was on a knit row or a pearl row, and whether each stitch was a slip or a proper stitch.  All of that matters when you’re making a scarf as simple as this one.  There’s nowhere to hide your mistakes.

So when I got home, I ripped out all those many hours of travel/conference knitting.  Wheeeee.

Thinking positively, though, I have now gotten myself in hand enough to keep a written tally of which row I’m on.  This gets rid of the problem of doing a perl row when I ought to do a knit row, and vice versa.  It also gets rid of the problem where I go, “Hang on, how many rows have I worked in this color?”  Variegated yarn and an unfamiliar stitch do NOT make it easy for me to see my rows!

Plus I’ve spent enough hours with this stitch now that I know how to see whether I’ve just stitched or slipped, which is key to knowing which to do next.  Better still, I’ve *finally* figured out that for most of these rows, you can just check the loops on the needle to make sure they’re alternating colors.  If they are, you haven’t screwed up the stitch pattern within the row.  So obvious!  And so painfully learned in the school of “Now you must rip out everything that you spent hours and hours doing in the first place.”

Anyway–linen stitch.  I’m doing it.  And I’m totally going to continue using it for other projects after this, because I’m getting rather fond of it.

More Birds of Oswego (and a Fish)

As part of my efforts to pay more attention to what’s around me, here are the birds I’ve been seeing lately:

  • Red-breasted Merganser
    This one was new to me.  Check out its crazy head feathers!  Love it.  There were a few of these down by the mouth of the river today.  Possibly yesterday as well, but I’m not 100% sure that what I saw yesterday was the same bird.Bonus: While looking up which merganser I saw today, I saw pictures of the Common Merganser, which I’m about 90% sure is something I saw last summer but couldn’t ID.
  • Robins
    No link for robins, because, I mean… robins.  Anyway they’ve been back at least since Pi Day; I saw them when I was out snowshoeing in the blizzard.  Very Oswego, that–spotting a traditional spring bird in a howling blizzard.
  • Crows
    Always crows.
  • Seagulls
    Always seagulls, too.  But there are kinds!  Specifically, I think these kinds: Ring-Billed Gulls and Herring Gulls.The other gulls, that are speckly brown all over, are juveniles, I think.  At least I know now that they’re not a different kind!
  • Mourning Doves
    I don’t feel like I usually see these around town, but maybe I just never noticed before today because they’re so normal I take them for granted?
  • Ducks
    What kind of ducks?  The normal kind, which apparently Audubon Society won’t uncover for you under a search for “duck”–no, you have to know to put in Mallard.  Duck snobs.
  • And a fish: Brown Trout?
    I’m not 100% sure that the fish I saw someone catch yesterday was a brown trout, but the time of year is right, according to the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation.  And the pictures when I Googled it also look about right.  So we’re going with it–I saw a brown trout breathing its last on the sidewalk.

Cream of Tartar

One of my plans for the weekend involves baking scones, and my dad’s scone recipe involves cream of tartar.  I don’t make scones much, and I don’t use cream of tartar much, so I started to wonder whether cream of tartar is the sort of ingredient that goes bad.  Happily, not even spice companies who presumably want to sell me more of the stuff claim that cream of tartar goes bad.  Huzzah!

So I can make my scones using my cream of tartar from I’m-afraid-to-think-about-when… but… I mean, the stuff doesn’t really have a taste.  What is it?  Why is it included in this recipe, anyway?

Apparently cream of tartar crystallizes out of wine, especially when the wine gets too cold.  Wine people mostly seem to talk about “tartrates,” for the record, but it’s the same deal (at least mostly).  My mind is blown.  I’m cooking with a bizarre substance that crystallizes out of wine and can look like shards of glass, which apparently freaks people out a lot when they find it in their wine bottle.

A main use of cream of tartar seems to be stabilizing egg whites so you can make stuff like meringues.  (I really should make meringues sometime; they always look so lovely on The Great British Bake Off.)  Who comes up with these ideas, do you ever wonder?  Like, “Hey, I found these things that look like shards of glass in our wine; guess I’ll go throw them into this meringue I’m whipping up.”  I just… maybe the experimental cook was a chemist, and already had some guess as to what might happen?  I’m going to go with that, because the alternative just seems suicidal.

But anyway scones don’t involve stabilizing egg whites, or I would have noticed.  So… why the cream of tartar?  Best guess, it’s because you can combine cream of tartar with baking soda in order to get baking powder.

Well then.  Now I know.

Reading: Thinking in Systems

I don’t remember why I decided to ILL Thinking in Systems. I think it must have been cited in something else I read; maybe Design is the Problem?  Regardless, I did ILL it, and it was fantastic bedtime reading. Many thanks to Nazareth College for having a nearly three-month checkout period. Seriously: Much appreciated. Provided that I don’t forget to throw the book into my work bag tonight, I will even be returning the book early!  That makes me feel all accomplished and smart and stuff.

The only downside to this book was that I don’t (yet) keep a notepad and pen at my bedside, so I didn’t jot down any of the fabulous quotes in this book. And because I read it right before bed every night, I know that I’ve forgotten some of the best bits. The book is copyright 2008, but the author died in 2001, and–I mean, are we sure she didn’t have a time machine?  Because wow she had some quotes that feel very, very timely.

Anyway, what am I taking away from this book?  The “systems zoo” was interesting, with its examples and simple diagrams of various types of systems:

  • Systems with competing balancing loops
    Think thermostat heating a room. The temperature is the stock, and the thermostat tries to keep the room warm even as the temperature outside tries to cool the room down.
  • Systems with competing AND reinforcing balancing loops
    Think population. The birth rate reinforces population growth, and the death rate competes with it.
  • Systems with delays
    Think inventory in your store. You buy more inventory to respond to what your customers have bought (and what you think they’re going to buy), but it takes time for the new stock to show up. How much of a delay you put on your orders for more stock affects oscillations in what/how much you have on hand.
  • Systems with a renewable stock constrained by a non-renewable stock
    Think oil economy. The oil is non-renewable; your oil company’s capital is renewable. The amount of capital you have (after you start) both affects and is affected by the amount of oil you extract.
  • Systems with a renewable stock constrained by a renewable stock
    Think fishing. Your fishing company’s capital affects and is affected by the population of fish. (Which is a population system–so the fish’s death rate is competing with their birth rate to control how many fish there are.)

If you think about systems rather than just events, you get into why things happen, which is truly a thing that I love. But how do you figure out the limits to your system?  You don’t want to think about too small a system, or you won’t learn much. But you also don’t want to think about too large a system, because you’ll get lost in waaaaaaay too much information that’s only tangentially related to whatever it is that you care about.

“Ideally, we would have the mental flexibility to find the appropriate boundary for thinking about each new problem. We are rarely that flexible. We get attached to the boundaries our minds happen to be accustomed to. Think about how many arguments have to do with boundaries–national boundaries, trade boundaries, ethnic boundaries, boundaries between public and private responsibility… It’s a great art to remember that boundaries are of our own making, and that they can and should be reconsidered for each new discussion, problem, or purpose.” (p. 98-99, author’s emphasis)

Swoon. And then she has a section on “system traps”: resistance to policies because the goals of sub-systems don’t align with the goals of the larger system(s); everyone’s beloved tragedy of the commons, where because people get all the benefits but only part of the negative consequences for over-using something, they over-use the resource; the drift to low performance, where we all say “well, given x, can you really expect any better?”; escalation, where we all keep responding a little more strongly in opposition to each other; the trap where the rich keep getting richer because one of the rewards of success is more of whatever it takes to become successful; shifting the burden to an intervenor whose “solution” to a problem isn’t really a solution; trying to beat the rules; and seeking the wrong goal (think: assessing the wrong things).

She offers ways out of these traps, but if I’ve managed to phrase them right in my summary, I think the ways out are generally pretty self explanatory. Once you’ve realized what kind of trap you’re facing, anyway.

She also offers a list of places to intervene in a system, albeit with the caution that we often have a tendency to “pull the lever” in the wrong direction. That reminds me of an obstructionist co-worker I once had, and how everyone just kept excluding her from more and more decisions because she argued about everything, but that just made her more and more obstructionist. When I shocked my boss and brought the obstructionist to the table intentionally, she worked with the team on the project instead of obstructing it. Seeing the larger system FTW!

Anyway, one of the last sections of the book is about places you can intervene in a system. Stock, buffers, reinforcing loops, delays, presence/absence of information, overall goals, and more. I liked this part, but really once you’ve gotten your mind wrapped around the system and are thinking of it as a system, I think these are also pretty obvious.

The very last section of the book is “Living in a World of Systems,” and offers a series of maxims that made me want to jump up and down and say, “This is what I’m trying to do!”  I don’t think any of them are earth-shattering on their own, but I quite like the list. This section of the book seems like it might make a good reading assignment for… something. Anyway, here are the section headings:

  • Get the beat of the system.
  • Expose your mental models to the light of day.
  • Honor, respect, and distribute information.
  • Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts.
  • Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  • Make feedback policies for feedback systems. (This one I think needs translating: Make dynamic, self-adjusting rules to control your system.)
  • Go for the good of the whole.
  • Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  • Locate responsibility in the system.
  • Stay humble–stay a learner.
  • Celebrate complexity.
  • Expand time horizons.
  • Defy the disciplines.
  • Expand the boundary of caring.
  • Don’t erode the goal of goodness.

In short: This book is who I want to be when I grow up. And you can see why it’s so chock full of quotes that feel relevant right now, even if I didn’t transcribe those quotes. So much of my problem with current events is that I feel like the people in charge are not even seeing the whole system, much less understanding how its various parts play together, how those parts affect people who aren’t the same as the people in power, thinking about the future, etc.

Anyway. Thinking in Systems is good stuff, and I recommend it.

They Want to Terminate the EPA??!

There’s now a bill in the House of Representatives “To Terminate the EPA.”  I am really not ok with this.  Here are some reasons.
Where I Live Now
My current home in Oswego, NY is near a bunch of Superfund sites. That means the EPA is working / has worked to clean up toxic pollutants near me. This is work that needs to be done; who would do it if the EPA weren’t around?

Search for Superfund sites near you.

Where I Grew Up
I grew up near the Cuyahoga River, which burned several times.  Yes, several times.  Everyone knows about that time in ’69, sure, but there were more times before that.  Water quality in Lake Erie (which the Cuyahoga River feeds into) was and is kind of a big deal.  It even made Saturday Night Live, back in the day.
The EPA has been involved in helping clean up the Cuyahoga. I think that’s a good thing.  I loved being able to go to the beach on Lake Erie when I was a kid.  
Whenever I Buy Appliances
The EPA is in charge of Energy Star, which lets us know ahead of time how much energy our appliances will consume.  That lets consumers make informed decisions about which appliances to buy if they want to keep their electricity bills under control.
Being Able to Breathe
Remember that whole thing with VW cheating on their emissions tests?  Whose side were you on when you heard those stories?  Personally, I find it difficult to cheer for a company who lied to consumers as they were making decisions about what car to buy.  The EPA was on the other side of that fight, and I support that.  I really like being able to breathe the air outside.
All Kinds of Other Things, I’m Sure
I have to get other things done today so I’m stopping here, but seriously–the House of Representatives wants to kill the EPA???  Not cool, House.  Not cool.

Reading: The Tea Book

I’ve lost some time lately to little things like, oh, introducing a second cat to my first cat, plus discovering that NYPL library cards are available to anyone who lives in NY state.  So many ebooks of fun, fluffy, escapist reading!  So convenient to download while preventing growling cats from killing each other!

But I’ve also been following through on some of the things I said I needed to learn about, when last I wrote.  Specifically, I have now read The Tea Book: All Things Tea.  Scholarly?  Heavens, no.  Unbiased?  Again no–this was written by some people who own a tea company.  So I can’t really blame them for the pages that discuss things like which of that tea brand’s teas are best for whatever mood, etc.

It did, however, serve me well in giving me a very brief history of tea drinking, some recipes, and explanation of the differences between green tea, black tea, and white tea.

In short–most of the difference is in how the tea leaves are processed after they’re picked.  There *are* some exceptions to that, like how white tea seems generally accepted to involve younger tea leaves / buds, and matcha tea involves shading the tea bushes for a couple weeks before the harvest.  Also you drink the entire leaf with matcha, instead of filtering it out, which makes sense of the fact that when I tried matcha this week it tasted like, well, leaves.  (It does taste nice in a milkshake with coconut ice cream, though, FYI.)

Anyway the difference between green tea and black tea is that black tea is allowed to oxidize (more) before they heat it to stop that process.

Plus everyone makes a big deal out of where the tea was grown, including considerations like elevation.  That part really sounded a lot like reading about wine.

And… now I know.  I’m also intrigued by some of the recipes in The Tea Book; I hadn’t previously considered cooking with tea.  That now seems like a grave oversight.  Culinary adventures, here I come!

Things I need to learn about

What have I learned this week?  Well, my friends, here we go:

  1. A reminder that I hate being sick.  Hate.  Hate, hate, hate.  Thing to look up later: What *is* the maximum volume that normal human sinuses can hold?
    1. In my initial, less-than-five-minutes attempt to find this out, I have discovered that there is such a thing as the American Rhinologic Society.  Add that to my list of things that shouldn’t be surprising but somehow are.
  2. I have learned that I need to learn more about tea.  I consumed vast quantities of tea this week–white tea, Darjeeling, lapsang souchong, oolong, green tea with jasmine, and my more normal orange pekoe.  I know that lapsang souchong has a whole thing about being smoked… and isn’t oolong fermented, maybe?  But all in all I have no idea what makes these teas different from one another.  There are a couple books in the collection at work that I expect to be reading by this time next week.
  3. Snowshoeing is fun.  It’s probably not best undertaken on one’s first day of (relative) health after being flattened for a week, but I couldn’t resist my first chance to try out that Christmas present.  Somehow I had expected to “float” more on top of the snow than you actually seem to, but I have confirmed with multiple sources that I was mistaken in that belief.
  4. I have begun to read The Weaver’s Idea Book.  I had no idea so many things were possible on my rigid heddle loom!  Stay tuned for lots of weaving posts.
  5. I have also begun to read Needlework.  Lots of broad strokes in this one; it’s your basic historical overview.  Plenty of good pictures, though.
    1. I’m learning that when it comes to western embroidery, I generally prefer the aesthetic of pre-1700s work.  That’s always good to know, I suppose.
    2. Also stumpwork (aka “raised embroidery”) is a thing–embroidery in 3d.  I need to find some kind of directions/tutorial for a stumpwork project that isn’t hideously ugly.  Who doesn’t need to up their embroidery game to involve three dimensions??
      1. AND, someone wrote this book, which I need to ILL asap: Stumpwork, goldwork and surface embroidery : beetle collection

So I guess this week has been more of a week for “Oooh, I need to learn about that,” than anything else.

Reading: Design is the Problem

I’ve been reading Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. LibUx was doing it as some kind of book club thing, and while I’m horrible at book clubs, I *am* open to book recommendations. So, Design is the Problem.

It makes pretty decent bedtime reading–engagingly enough written that I can stay awake for more than a couple paragraphs, not so thrilling that I will glance at the clock and realize that I should have been asleep hours ago.  I have a surprising amount of difficulty finding that balance, so it’s worth noting.  Also worth noting: I don’t have my ILLed copy of the book at hand, so we’re just going to pretend that my intent was to capture broad ideas and not worry about details.

Things I like as of right now, when I’m maybe 3/4 of the way through the book:

  • The focus on systems.  Systems make me so ridiculously happy.  Don’t just think of the system you’re designing in–think of the systems that system is a part of.
  • The idea that in nature, one system’s outputs are another system’s inputs.  No waste!  What would that look like in a library?  I keep trying to figure that out, and coming up with things like–I produce lots of data when I’m doing usability testing.  I do my best to share it, but I can’t force others to reuse it, and I don’t generally have time to reuse it myself.  Imagine if that were part of a larger process that I could dip into when I needed to and/or contribute my data to, and know that it would flow onward to someplace where it would see further use.  Being able to reuse others’ output, whether in usability data or anything else, would mean I don’t always have to start from scratch!  (And neither does anyone else.)
  • Building on that idea–the idea that a subsystem’s “waste” could actually improve the larger systems it’s part of.  Imagine a factory that purified a river instead of polluting it.  What would be the library equivalent?  Must figure this out.
  • The idea of river systems vs. lake systems.  In a river system, inputs come in, flow through, and pass right back out.  In a lake system, inputs come in and get used and swirl around and get reused, maybe several times, before they pass out of the system.  They contribute value to the system instead of just passing through.
  • Recognition of the fact that there are many kinds of sustainability: social, ecological, financial, etc.  Come to think of it, there are probably as many kinds of sustainability as there are kinds of systems.
  • The case studies.  I really enjoy the case studies embedded throughout the book; they take the abstractions and make them concrete.

Things I don’t like:

  • The footnotes.  I mean, I like footnotes in general.  Footnotes are good, right?  They often contain citations, and I like citations.  But the sources this guy is citing in his footnotes–!  Wikipedia, repeatedly.  And news articles.  I mean, nothing against Wikipedia and news articles, but seriously, these are the chief sources you use for your book?!  You couldn’t even be bothered to chase down the sources those sources cited?  My inner librarian is crying.

    Every time I say to myself, “Oh, that’s interesting!  I wonder where he pulled that from?” and then look and see it’s Wikipedia, I immediately begin to doubt the point he just made.  Is it actually true?  Maybe, but it just got added to the “Interesting but unverified” column in my brain.

Anyway–it’s worth a read, and possibly also worth further research to verify all the things the author relied on Wikipedia for.


Software for Visualizing Data

It’s been a rough couple of weeks, posting-wise–but all is not lost!  I am still learning fabulous and ridiculous things.  My latest rabbit hole is visualization software.

See, a year or two ago I volunteered to write a script to pull more meaningful data out of the spreadsheets of data generated by my library’s reference stats software.  The spreadsheets were in Excel, so I channeled high school computer class and wrote Visual Basic scripts.  Those scripts counted stuff up and threw it in tables.  Not nearly as fun as the Visual Basic project I did back in the day where you pressed buttons and an image moved around the screen, making annoying noises… but definitely more useful.

The problem?  We keep coming up with different questions to ask of our reference desk data.  I’m not particularly fluent in Visual Basic, and as much as I do enjoy coding, I don’t really enjoy coding in Visual Basic to manipulate spreadsheet data.  Plus the boring tables of numbers that are all I was able to output are, shall we say, less than inspiring.

As a result, I spent much of yesterday messing around with software that would help me slice, dice, and visualize my data.  For the record, “business intelligence (BI) software” is at least as good a search term as “data visualization software,” at least for what I was doing.

I started off with Google Data Studio, because I read about it somewhere recently and it seemed nice and approachable.  It did have an unintimidating interface, but I spent *way* too long fighting with it over whether my many columns of dates were actually dates.  I reformatted those suckers at least five times trying to convince Google Data Studio that, yes, actually, these ARE dates–but I still didn’t win that fight.  I was trying to find workarounds when I realized that the graphs GDS was showing me showed one subset of my data when I sorted them one way, and a different subset when I sorted them another.  Is it really too much to ask that it show me all seven days of a week, all at once?  I couldn’t find a way to make the graphs display all the data at once, the help pages were not helpful, and at that point I decided that Google Data Studio is not for me.

So I started playing with SandDance, because someone linked me to it ages ago and I remember thinking it was cool.  I think the interface had a bit more of a learning curve than Google Data Studio did–it took me a while to figure out how to include/exclude parts of my data.  I did get the hang of it after a while, but I was stumped by the fact that I couldn’t find a way to zoom in and look more closely at the graphs when I had a lot of bins going on.  My labels weren’t visible, which meant that I couldn’t tell what I was looking at, which meant it was fairly useless.

At that point I started searching for recommended alternatives, and a result I kept seeing was Tableau.  And, oh yeah, I *have* heard of Tableau. But ye gods, $999 for a personal copy of the desktop version, or $500 to use it online for a year?  The library is great about buying me software, but I would have to know for a fact that we were going to get some serious mileage out of this before I could justify that kind of money.

Except it turns out that there is Tableau Public.  If you’re willing to make everything you use Tableau for public, you can use it free.  So that’s cool.  I mean, I work at a state college so I’m pretty sure all our data has to be public anyw–oh hey, what’s this?  “Tableau Desktop is free for students and instructors around the world“?  Um, yes, please!

You actually have to get approved for the free-for-instructors thing.  In the mean time I’ve been playing with Tableau Public and all I can say is, why was I wasting my time with Google Data Studio and SandDance?  I can tell that there’s a lot of functionality I don’t know how to use yet in Tableau, but it hasn’t gotten in the way of me doing some basic stuff right off the bat.  And I can always read the labels on my visualizations!  And I can export them as PDFs that I could hand to co-workers even if they aren’t at all tech savvy!  And data doesn’t disappear and reappear depending on how I sort things!  And I can *manually* sort things, so that I don’t have to choose between having the days of the week show up alphabetically or in descending order of how many questions got asked!

In short, I think I may be in love.  This is so much more fun than trying to remember how to select a cell in a different column in Visual Basic.