09 August 2013

My People's Giant Passover Haggadah

Thanks to the suggestion of Rabbi Joel Nickerson, I have been enjoying My People's Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (henceforth MPPH).

It got me thinking about the design challenges of Jewish books.

Like many Jewish books, MPPH contains many related texts.

So a design challenge of such a book is to use resources such as layout and font to show how its texts are related. Making these relationships clear makes it easier for the reader to know his or her location within the complex structure of such a book. And it makes it easier for the reader to navigate within such a book.

A Talmud is a great example of such a book. Take a look at this neat PDF (by Joshua Parker) to get a sense of how a Talmud addresses the challenges of presenting multiple related texts.

Part II of MPPH is a sequence of sections. Each section contains a number of elements. The elements are of the following types and "multiplicities" (how many are expected).
  1. 1 Haggadah passage (Hebrew and/or Aramaic)
  2. 1 Translation of the Haggadah passage into English
  3. 1 Summary of the meaning of the passage (a "signpost")
  4. 0..n Ceremonial instructions, each belonging to a location within the Haggadah passage
  5. 0..n Images
  6. 8..11 Commentaries on the passage
(Note that Part II is not be confused with Volume 2. Like many Jewish books, another design challenge of MPPH is that its sheer length requires it to be split into multiple volumes!)

MPPH uses various techniques to show how the elements of a section are related.

The most notable technique it uses is what I will call the anchor spread. (I'm using "spread" to mean two facing pages.)

Here is an example. (I've provided it only at low resolution since I'm only interested in the layout, not the content.)

At the center of the spread is the beginning of the Haggadah passage in question, with English on the left and Hebrew/Aramaic on the right.

Surrounding the passage and its translation are the beginnings of the commentaries. Each commentary beginning is followed by an indication of the page on which the rest of the commentary appears. This indication is also known as a jump line or continuation line. (The Haggadah passage itself has no jump line since it continues immediately after the anchor spread.)

So in some ways the anchor spread resembles the first page of a newspaper section on which many articles are started, but most or all need to be finished elsewhere.

The anchor spread design got me thinking... what if jumps were not needed, i.e. what if the complete commentaries surrounded the complete Haggadah passage?

I.e. what would it be like if you could really see where you were within the "landscape" of the section?

To partly answer this question, I did the following.

  • I extracted the elements of the "4 questions section" from a digital version of MPPH. I hope I didn't break any laws (or breach any contracts) in the process. Just in case, I will not reveal the details of how I did this. I'm sure what I did was ethical, but of course ethics and the law are not always aligned.
  • I laid these elements out on a single giant page using the Scribus open source desktop publishing software.
  • For $10.90, I had a print shop print this out for me on a large-format printer, something like the following.

Here's the result (bill shown for scale):

Here's a link to a redacted PDF version of it on Scribd. This version is redacted to avoid copyright infringement. (Hopefully the picture of the un-redacted version above is low enough resolution to avoid anyone considering this copyright infringement.)

That was fun, but many questions remain. Could you do the whole book this way? How would you bind, or otherwise package, such a giant book? As a flip chart on an easel?

About ten years ago, Michael Hawley published the world's biggest book (at least at that time). I wonder what could be learned from that experience.

Going in a different direction, how can this "jumpless" large format experience be emulated (or improved upon!) digitally? A goal being, how can you, as seamlessly as possbile, zoom out to see structure, and zoom in to view content in detail, without losing a sense of your place within the structure?

I'm sure smart people have come up with interesting approaches to such problems and look forward to learning more about them. Perhaps I'll report what I find out in a subsequent post.

03 February 2013

How I made our computer quiet

One of the two (!) fans in our computer's power supply has been getting more and more raucous over the past few months. I don't know whether this means it was close to actually stopping, but it was certainly close to actually driving me crazy. So, somewhat out of character for me, I decided to finally try to do something about it. Big mistake.

I found the following three options for what to do.
  1. Lubricate the fan.
  2. Replace the fan.
  3. Replace the power supply.
I decided to replace the power supply. It seemed a little wasteful, but lubricating the fan didn't seem guaranteed to succeed and I was scared off of replacing the fan by warnings about capacitors holding a charge for hours.

A brief digression. I found it amusing to see, in an online discussion of what lubricant to use, a British person asking for the equivalent of "gun oil" since shops in his country don't commonly sell it, or sell guns, for that matter! (It was speculated that "sewing machine oil" would be similar.)

So I was determined to get a new power supply but not spend a huge amount of time figuring out what the best one would be. I fear I waste a lot of time shopping online for things, optimizing on margins that don't matter. Well it turns out it would have been worth spending some time figuring out what a correct one would have been, leaving aside the question of what the best one would have been.

I found some random site that offered a nice-looking lookup of power supply by computer name, and trusted it. Big mistake.

It turns out there has been a lot of evolution of the ATX power supply standard over the years. As is so often the case, there's a good Wikipedia article covering it. I only wish I had read it before plugging my new power supply in. (Digression: since it is so often the case that there is a good Wikipedia article about things, I've recently donated to Wikipedia, and plan to do so regularly, and encourage you to do so, too, if you find it useful.)

So, I plugged my new power supply in, and everything seemed fine, but when I came back a few hours later, there was a strange smell in the room and the computer was off and would not turn back on, even with the old-but-noisy power supply plugged back in. Woops.

So, making good on the promise implicit in the title of this post, that's how I made our computer quiet. Very quiet. One might even say silent.

I lack some combination of the skill and the inclination to figure out exactly what happened, but my not-too-wild guess is that you shouldn't plug a 20-pin power supply into a 24-pin motherboard. I guess I was hoping that if it wouldn't work, it just wouldn't work. Meaning, I hoped that if it wouldn't work, it would fail in the following three ways.

  1. obviously
  2. immediately
  3. non-destructively

Well, it did fail obviously. But not immediately, and not non-destructively.

Was my wishful thinking a product of "overly digital" thinking? Though digital systems have plenty of non-obvious, non-immediate, destructive failure modes, somehow I think analog systems have even more.

And power supplies are about as analog as you can get. In fact, they're not even analog: they're power! Power is the analog of nothing! Or, put it this way, I've never heard of power being used as the analog of anything. Voltage, certainly. Current even, sometimes. But power, never.

Returning from that digression, my point is, that what probably happened is that things did work, initially, and then once something heated up, over time, something on the motherboard melted or burned.

It turns out that those 4 extra pins are supplying "redundant" 3.3, 5, and 12 V lines, as well as ground. Not having them forces the other pins to carry more than their "fair share" of the current. Unfortunately I guess the weak point in the system was on the motherboard, not in the power supply. Otherwise plugging the old power supply back in would have worked.

So then I set about spending several should-have-been-sleeping hours researching the current offerings of Dell and HP. In other words, my mistake has led me to the most wasteful option, the following implicit option number 4.
  • Replace entire computer.
Whenever I research buying a new computer I'm always shocked by the way in which each manufacturer divides their products into confusing, overlapping market segments, where it seems like the same computer is being offered over a 4x price range with the only obvious difference being different case design. (It turns out there are deeper differences, you just have to spend several hours to start to get a grasp of them. Whether these differences justify the 4x price range... well, if the market bears it, I guess the answer is revealed to be "yes.")

So, I'll be spending a little quality time over the next few days setting up a hopefully-nice new Windows 8 machine.

Still to be determined whether I will shell out $100 to upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8 Pro. I am curious to try to run Ubuntu under the "Hyper-V" virtualization built into Pro, but probably I should just save $100 and use VirtualBox, like I do with great success and ease on MacOS on my MacBook Pro.

Also, will we ever want to connect to the machine using Remote Desktop? For that, you need Pro.

Decisions, decisions.

But at least these decisions are back in the realm of software, where I feel more comfortable.

Because if there's one take-home lesson from this experience, it is that I shouldn't have felt comfortable in the realm of power. She is a cruel mistress, the analog of nothing.