The Fog Dissolves

“…careful the morning lest it wake from slumber the city half-encumbered by the morning mist…”

— John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, though it has not been a while since I have blogged; my silence here was by choice. I felt, for a while, that I had little to share. Of course, this was never true. It merely represented the same funk all writers – or, at least, all those who claim to be writers – go through. Not writer’s block, merely disinterest. I did not take the time to distill the vapor of my thoughts into something more coherent.

In short, the mists shrouded this space; the city – if literary license will grant me a brief nod and a blog can be called a city of works – slumbered. Indeed, it is still half-encumbered by these morning mists, not entirely vibrant, not entirely self-aware. It will require some effort and investment on the part of its ownership – me – to decide that it will again awaken, bustling with promise.

In the silence, many things changed. I have grown and moved again, from the Tri-Cities of Washington to my undergraduate stomping grounds of Olympia, Washington. I now work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts as a Systems Integrator, basically a fancy way of saying that I try to make systems that work (less integration, really, and more function). The more proper term would be “Software Developer” or “Web Developer”.

Somehow I haven’t quite gotten away from government, though my governmental involvement has varied. I have served public education institutions in Washington State, serving out my masters’ degree internship at what was then the Washington State Department of Information Services (since split into the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services and Washington State Consolidated Technology Services). I then moved to the federal level as an employee of a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy, Battelle, which manages Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I have now returned to Olympia to work with the judiciary branch.

I cannot promise you, reader, that this awakening will last; indeed, this may be nothing more than the equivalent of one getting up from bed long enough to get a drink of water. I would hope, though, that this stretches out longer: that we walk downstairs together, get a cup of coffee, and discuss the events of the day over breakfast.

I stretch the metaphor, but metaphors are nothing if they cannot brush off the wisps of meaning and metamorphose into something else, as the fog will lift to reveal new days.

Netflix Captioning: Botched

I’ve been saying for a couple years that I would never use Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature until they got around to introducing some form of subtitles or captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired.  Well, as of April 15, Netflix announced that subtitles would be available on “about 100 titles” and that users were free to enjoy the first four seasons of Lost in subtitled form (which, coincidentally, is about 100 episodes, so it’s not hard to figure out what those “about 100 titles” were).

The subtitling system works well – it does not blow my socks off (nor does the player itself, which has severe issues with switching between episodes within a series).  But Netflix managed to screw up in other ways:

  1. Subtitle everything in the series if you’re going to bother. It’s really irritating to watch one subtitled episode only to find that the next episode has no subtitles whatsoever for reasons that cannot easily be explained.  I was bouncing between Hulu (which consistently subtitles each episode) and Netflix quite a bit (why? I don’t like ads any more than the next person).
  2. Make subtitles a saved preference rather than having to select it every time. Hulu finally got this right when they released their new player into the wild, making it a saved preference.

But the most egregious violation by Netflix is this: there is no way to tell whether something is subtitled or not without first opening it within the player. From a user experience and an information architecture perspective, this is an absolute nightmare.  It’s the equivalent of forcing your users to stumble around with a blindfold, and does very little to improve the user’s opinion of your site in general.

I would also point out that the only part of Watch Instantly currently allowed to use subtitles is the web-based player; none of the media devices capable of picking up Netflix Watch Instantly streams can pick up subtitles (yet).  So, in short, while Netflix did at least finally manage to do good on their promise to bring subtitles, it is a fairly hollow victory – with no way to find these subtitled titles, they might as well have just not bothered.  They give no timeframe for future releases of subtitles on things that aren’t the Lost television series, either, which kicks it down another notch.


A pen is a very visceral thing.

An extension of the body that allows one to translate one’s thoughts from mere wisps in the mind to concrete, tangible information, pens serve a very important purpose in our society.  This purpose has not been at all diminished by the advent of technology; I argue it has, in fact, increased its importance.  I use my own pen fairly frequently; whether that’s signing paperwork, writing notes, poetry, song, short stories, or even novels, more often than not, I revert to good old-fashioned pen and paper.

I have always prided myself on having a pen at the ready, which is why I’ve been a bit lost the last day or two – the red Cross Morph I have had since my undergraduate years has disappeared, and no amount of searching has revealed its whereabouts.  Admittedly, the Morph is not the creme de la creme of pens, not by a long shot, but as my everyday pen, it has worked wonders, and obviously, I grew quite attached to it.

So of course, I’m ordering a new one, but since so many years have passed since I initially got my first Morph, I figured a color change was in order – I’ve ordered a new Electric Blue Cross Morph via eBay.

It is my personal belief, however backwards it may seem, that the pen reflects the person – someone who has a pen readily available shows that they are prepared for the unexpected moment where the need for a writing instrument might arise.  If the pen is properly selected, it also says something about who that person is.  My father, for instance, is something of a pen collector and has several quite beautiful fountain pens; I have always found him to be quite eloquent, as suggested by the style of a fountain pen, though of course, the relationship between eloquence and fountain pens is tenuous at best.

I have one fountain pen, but have never found myself able to adapt to the way fountain pens interact with the paper.  Whether this is due to lack of patience or some other factor, I do not know.  I always tend towards ballpoints, and I would like to believe that my everyday workhorse Cross Morph pen reflects something of who I am.  I would prefer that it be the side of me that is always, to some extent, prepared, or perhaps my wordsmith nature.  At the least, though, having a pen on me gives me a feeling of some self confidence, which, I believe, is sufficient reason to harp upon the subject.

Configuring the Oticon Epoq’s Streamer with Windows Vista

Oddly, configuring audio Bluetooth devices with Vista has been turned into something of a convoluted process, but once you get the steps, it’s pretty straightforward. The steps below let me use both the audio and microphone tie-ins for the Streamer within Vista. Many thanks to this page for giving me the steps I needed to turn around and make this work properly.  This is not a perfect procedure; you may encounter hiccups with the Streamer losing connection or audio programs crashing.

First, place the Streamer into Bluetooth pairing mode by pressing and holding the Bluetooth button for seven seconds – you will hear one beep two seconds in and another once the pairing mode is activated.

Next, we have to pair the device with the laptop (note that this assumes said laptop has Bluetooth capacity and has the WIDCOMM drivers loaded – if it doesn’t, this sequence may not work).  Note that Dell’s Bluetooth devices are automatically installed on the machine using the correct WIDCOMM drivers, so they’re available as a download from them if needed via  If the Bluetooth icon is showing in the system taskbar, then you can simply right click and select “Add Devices”.  If not, you have to go to the “Start” menu, open the “Control Panel”, and select “Bluetooth Devices”, then click “Add Wireless Device” button along the top bar.

You are then prompted to select the device that you wish to pair (I turned off all other Bluetooth devices I had floating around to make sure the streamer didn’t get confused and try to do the wrong thing):

Click the “Next” button with the Streamer selected.  Next, you will be prompted to select an option for pairing the device.  You want to select the middle option, “Enter the device’s pairing code”:

On the next screen, enter the pairing code for the Streamer (0000 – all zeroes) and click “Next”:

The next screen you see prompts to select the type of hands-free device being connected – take the default option:

Next, open the “Bluetooth Devices” option screen in the Control Panel if it hasn’t already opened for you and right click on the “Streamer” entry, then click on “Properties”:

When the Properties pane opens, select the “Services” tab and check all of the available checkboxes except for the “Remote Control” checkbox:

Click “OK” to close the Properties pane.  Along the top of the “Bluetooth Devices” window, select “Bluetooth Settings” from the toolbar:

On the “Bluetooth Radio Properties” pane, select the “Audio” tab.  If any of these devices list as connected, click on them and then click the “Disconnect” button. Select the “Bluetooth Stereo Audio” option and click the “Connect” button:

Open your Control Panel again and then click on “Sound”:

On the “Playback” tab, right click the entry that reads “Bluetooth Stereo Audio” and select “Set as Default Device”.  You may have to show disabled or disconnected devices (done via the right-click menu) to see the “Bluetooth Stereo Audio” option – if done correctly, that option should be there without having to do anything further.

Now open your favorite audio program and play away!

Note that I have not been able to resolve issues where iTunes (my music player of choice) may randomly decide to crash under this arrangement.  I also have noticed that the device itself sometimes will simply disconnect for no clear reason, which means trying to force it to reconnect using the “Bluetooth Radio Properties” dialog box above.

My Tribulations in Dell’s Universe: How Twitter Saved Two Reputations

I’ve always been a faithful Dell customer. I’ve never, ever had a problem that Dell Support couldn’t fix; in fact, in college, I once sent my laptop in for depot service and got it back the next day. If that doesn’t make for an impressive and accurate customer service and a model to emulate, I’m not entirely certain what does.

So, of course, when it was time to upgrade my laptop again, it was a fairly obvious choice for me: Dell was automatically in the running. I ended up choosing a Dell XPS M1330, which I got for Christmas in 2007. The laptop worked incredibly well for several months — long enough that I was fairly convinced that I had made another good selection. In April of 2008, however, I started experiencing issues with the laptop’s power — the battery would take an abnormally long time to charge, losing a full charge faster than it would charge to begin with, abruptly slowing down significantly on random occasions when it was plugged into the wall, and spontaneously shutting down randomly. I, of course, opened a ticket with Dell fairly quickly when I identified this as a systemic problem — taking over 6 hours to charge from around 10% battery charge to a full charge seemed bad, somehow.

Little did I know what I was walking in to at the time.

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Test Ride: 2009 Jamis Aurora

I went over to the U Village branch of Counterbalance Bicycles on what was a fairly blustery and cold day to try out a new 2009 Jamis Aurora.  The shop itself is fairly nondescript along the Burke Gilman Trail, which makes for a good test ride area (now if it weren’t so cold).  The technician helping me out was quite patient and willing to explain the new shifting mechanisms that have gone on to a good majority of bikes since the last mountain bike I wrote with grip shifts a decade ago(!).  After the ride, he was even nice enough to offer a few pointers on what to look for when selecting commuter/touring bikes and to talk a bit about what could be added to the bike itself.

I didn’t ride much more than five minutes on a flat trail, partly because I was using this as an initial assessment, and partly because it was a cold wind (and I can’t say I was that well layered, though I did, at least, have my favorite polar fleece jacket on, plus helmet, but no gloves).  I ended up on a 53cm frame, since apparently every site I looked at that recommended a 54-56cm frame for my inseam size and height was patently nuts.  The ride went quite well – accessible gear shifting, good braking, and with the drop bars, I felt like I had a fairly comfortable position.  I felt a lot of bumps/vibration through the saddle, but since the saddle wasn’t perfectly tuned in to my riding style, both the tech and I wrote that off as potentially fixable with saddle adjustment (it was also a fairly hard saddle to boot).  The gearing was responsive to shifting, though since I’m not adjusted to the gearshift style, it was somewhat hard to remember which lever did what (easily correctable).

I didn’t try any hill riding or normal street riding due to the wind, but the trail was close enough quality to some of the not-so-well maintained roads so as to make it a fairly good indicator of what to expect.  The gearing range was wide enough just on the flat portion to make it rather clear that hills should be no problem for a properly trained rider (though there is this one rather large hill on 35th NE between 95th and 110th that I’d be interested in trying this out on).

A couple interesting things the tech pointed out: one was to pay close attention to the quality of the wheel on the bike, as well as the overall component quality.  Weight is not that big of a concern for me for this, so the steel frame of the Aurora wouldn’t present a problem.  The tech did point out that the Aurora Elite would have higher-quality components and thus (theoretically) longer durability, if it were in my price range.  He certainly didn’t seem to think that the Aurora was a bad fit – there wasn’t any particular indication of “um, maybe you should go more for this one”, but that might be because I was specifically requesting that exact bike.  Amanda suggests that perhaps part of the reason we didn’t hear any push-back from the tech is due to the economy and the price of the bike, but I would hope that someone concerned with making the sale would be more concerned with the satisfaction of the buyer (thus garnering repeat business), even if that means going against what the buyer thinks they want.  Perhaps this makes me nuts.

Most of my time on whatever bike I get would be commuting back and forth from work to school with some other destinations as required, probably with some recreational riding thrown in.  The major concern health-wise will be making sure that my wrists and back stay fairly well supported so as to not throw those any further out of whack than they already are.

Résumé XML: Current and Future Steps

I have finished reformatting my résumé into my own XML schema and instance – basically, I now have a formalized definition for what the XML containing my résumé should look like alongside the actual data (in XML format, of course).  The first step was to create what’s called a transform – basically a method of translating the XML data into something more human-readable – so that it can be displayed on my web site in HTML format.  The PHP file that my résumé link points to now actually dynamically creates this HTML display based on the current state of the XML data behind it, so it’s as accurate as the information behind it.

My end goal is to make it so that the XML data drives all presentations of my résumé, including HTML, PDF, Word 2007, and plain text.  While the XML version will always be a complete reflection of my work history, accomplishments, etc. (so things will never be removed, only added), the Word, PDF, and plain text versions will be specifically targeted and abbreviated versions of the information on the site.  The HTML version, on the other hand, is likely to remain a complete transform of the XML (assuming that I don’t end up with so much data as to make this impractical to display properly).

There’s still quite a bit I need to do, though, in order to make this happen:

  1. Create a plain text transform.
  2. Figure out how to write a transform that allows me to create Word documents that have the same layout as my current Word document.
  3. Ditto for PDF.
  4. Modify the original schema (the formalized structural definition of the data) to include targeting parameters so that I can specify which information makes it into which transform.
  5. Add the ability to specify skills/objectives.

Numbers two and three are not insignificant tasks (the last two aren’t either, but require far less effort).  I’m hoping to get this done fairly quickly, since currently, I’m maintaining two copies of the same data in different formats (one in XML and one in Word 2007 format).

Moodle UI hacking

I’ve been doing my own little bit of user interface hacking on Moodle for work, since the layout we had before (below) didn’t work well for our purposes; specifically, the issue we had was with the “Enrolment (remote) database fields” section, which is supposed to map values from a remote database tables into Moodle’s local database tables so that students can be automatically enrolled in courses.  Before, the screen looked like this:


My user interface tweaks below include a new mapping category done by our in-house web developer Lucian DiPeso so that the full name of the course could also be used locally.  The new section, relabelled “Data Mapping”, has eight text fields instead of the original six for precisely this reason.


The only issue with this layout change is that the help text on the right-hand side of the new table isn’t in line with the rest of the help text on the screen, which I expect to correct soon.

There is one other change that we will be implementing on this screen, but that won’t generate as substantial a user interface change as our need to re-envision the data mapping portion did.

We do intend to commit these changes back to the Moodle core, but we’ll see whether they are accepted or not (this won’t be done until we’re absolutely sure the code changes required across several Moodle files are completed).

My MSIM Application Essay

While I have posted snippets of my application essay for the MSIM program before, I’ve never actually posted the whole thing, and it occurred to me that this might make for interesting reading.  So here it is!

Peter Ellis, Application Essay for the Master of Science in Information Management Program
University of Washington – Seattle, January 2007

As a college freshman, I became aware of the interconnectivity of the world.  It is far from coincidence that many of those connections are expressed and explored through the exchange of information.  It is only recently, though, that I have realized that much of my work at the college level has been an effort to assist myself and others with visualizing and describing how the information they present should be organized.  As a writing tutor at Evergreen, my job was to reach a better understanding of information, its roots, and its connection to other ideas and facts; realizing a better organization and distribution of the Writing Center’s informational documents is my vision as the Center’s Information Technology Manager this year.

But what is information?  Certainly, there are textbook definitions, but I think of information as collective knowledge passed on by some form of communication.  Information can persist, but not without some method of recording it.  Information necessarily must be interpreted via communication, in addition to being conveyed through such means.  Without a method to interpret what is provided, potentially invaluable resources can be lost forever.  Worse than the loss of information is the loss of information’s meaning.

It is important to remember that information and information technologies are not inextricably linked.  Though information should survive without modern information technologies to manage it, the inverse is not true.  Modern information technologies serve to make the collection and dissemination of information far more efficient, and also make available new methods of manipulating information; still, it is the information itself that is key, and one must not lose sight of this.

Information management has been my work in some form since high school, but communicating information has been a lifelong pursuit.  As a person who wears hearing aids, I have found a natural affinity with the written word and the Internet as a communications medium.  Perhaps because, for me, there are fewer barriers in understanding via instant messaging, that is how I have found myself regularly communicating with others.  My desire to understand more about information stems – at least in part – from this experience.

I have found that information management is not just about the approach, but about the ethical and professional handling of information.  Without a clear and objective preservation and organization of the information crucial to organizations, and without a clear eye towards how such information should be presented, managed, and used, the process of preserving information for future use becomes a losing battle.  As a writing tutor who worked with students to discover meaning in their writing, I allowed them to realize the importance of knowing how what they tried to present should be organized and stated in a clear, concise manner.

As I shifted into my role as Information Technology Manager, I became the steward of digital copies of resources vital to the Writing Center’s daily operation, ranging from publicity documents to yearly statistics reports.  I find myself now in the position of drafting policy and recommendations about how the Center’s computer resources should best be organized, and also writing grant proposals to support that work.  My work on a digital archive of past and present Center documents, as well as my work on a customized appointment system for the Writing Center, has given me a far greater understanding of the centrality of information in work environments.

With this experience, I find myself considering another major interest of mine: sustainability.  Since my freshman year of college, I have been fascinated by this subject, particularly the issue of sustainable economics.  I have found, though, that there is very little baseline by which to measure corporate commitment to sustainable principles.  My experience with information is not yet broad or deep enough to understand well what it takes to measure sustainable performance.  I hope to apply my work in information management to construct a method of assessing companies by their commitment to sustainability.  I envision allowing everyone the ability to understand where corporations stand in relation to implementing more ecologically friendly approaches to business.

When I examined the MSIM program, I was surprised to find a profound intersection between my personal beliefs and the program’s identity statement.  I have made a point of ensuring that all the work I have done to date is human-centered and advances the ability of organizations and people to work not only more intelligently, but more efficiently.  I also have an interest in how information (or the lack of it) can influence everyday action on personal and organizational levels.  My personal mantra – though I have only consciously realized this recently – is that everything is interconnected; without information, those connections can be hard to articulate or even see.