Knowledge is good

Nature Comments Off

What I learned today…

There is such a thing as a California Ground Squirrel, and they are spotted and interesting. Ignore the fact that many see them as a pest.

California Ground Squirrel

California Ground Squirrel

Went for a walk today at the park at the end of San Antonio, in Mt. View.  Was playing with a camera that Geoff lent me, and saw this little guy. He was considerate enough to freeze in the way that some animals do when they spot something potential dangerous, giving me a chance to get some very nice photos.

The California Ground Squirrel is broader than the squirrels back east, and with a wider tail (though it seems to be mostly fur).

Eventually someone came by and startled him. I watched him go down a trail in the grass, probably to the safety of his burrow.

Welcome to my new home

Life, Writing Comments Off

Previously, I maintained two websites, and History Maven was my personal blog, and the Kate Stout site contained material related to my consulting business.

Since it’s unlikely that I’ll be doing any consulting in the near term, I’ve decide to merge the sites. One less thing to care for!

I enjoy helping people out, and one of the things that I’ve decided to do is create articles about ordinary things we have to do.  I’ve just added a booklet on Job Interviewing, and you can see other articles on the How To tab. I’ve also posted some of my history stories and travel articles on the  History & Travel tab.

So welcome to my new home.

Bad UI for medical bill payment

Uncategorized Comments Off

Ok – I used to comment (or is that complain?) regularly about nasty UI problems on the Web, but there are so many silly things out there that I gave up out of sheer weariness, and a fear of boring others.

But I hit one today that was so bad….. Stanford Medical Center’s online bill payment system. I received a bill, and thought I would use the convience of online payment. Here’s what happened:

  • First you have to enroll, and setup some security challenge questions – ok not so bad

  • Now you have to activate either your Physician Billing or your Hospital Billing, and you need different information for each. I realize this is problem with systems integration, but really, why should I have to care?

  • I look my bill over, and it is from the Hospital. I try to activate the account, which asks for the account number. I am sternly informed that I have entered invalid information. Fail!

  • After a phone call to the support line, I discover that the source of failure is that the Account Number does not appear on the first page of the bill, and the only number I could find there is the Medical Record Number, which is not the Account Number. The Account Number appears on the last page of the bill. That sounds like a good workflow to me – put the data key to the whole bill paying system in back someplace.

  • With my newfound Account Number, I’m in. Ok, who thought a red lettering on pink background was a good UI idea? .
    Red letters on pink background

    Red letters on pink background

    They do sometimes vary it with white lettering on a pink background, which is also hard to read.

  • After wandering around through the menus (another issue but let’s not dwell…), I click on Pay My Bill. A presized window pops up that is too small for the form it is displaying.

  • Resize the window, and see the details of the billing. Ok, click Pay Now. OOPS! An error – I should have gone over to a special field and entered the amount I want to pay.

    It must be too hard for them to prefill that field with the amount of the bill. Probably an edge use case problem, because I’m sure people rarely want to pay the amount of the bill

  • Enter billing info, and finally pay the bill. No option to have the receipt mailed to me, I have to print it. No place in the User Profile to put in an email address.

  • Elapsed time to pay one bill – 40 minutes, including call time to support. This could be so much better.

    Discovery of ancient house in Yorkshire

    Uncategorized Comments Off

    The BBC is reporting that a early structure has been found.

    The circular structure, found at a site near Scarborough, North Yorkshire, has been dated as being made in 8,500BC.

    Details here.

    I am always excited by new evidence of our past.

    Images of workers

    History Comments Off

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the Coit Tower images that I saw last weekend. I was going to write a post about movies that best show the Depression era, but just saw these color photographs of workers and families in the 30’s and wanted to share them.

    They are part of a larger collection at the Library of Congress of photos that where collected by government agencies in the late 30’s and 40’s.

    I love contemporary sources. One of the things that I find fascinating in most of the collections of photos in this period is how most people are unsmiling. Even children don’t seem to smile much.

    Children at the fair

    Children at the fair

    I can’t help but wonder if it was just a cultural norm at the time, or if the exhaustion and hunger were so widespread that most people look grim.

    Workers, Unite! – Coit Tower

    History, Travel 1 Comment »

    Last weekend, Geoff and I went to San Francisco to see Coit Tower, which is perched on Telegraph Hill. I first saw Coit Tower in the late ’80’s and was blown away by the murals created in the mid-30’s by a group of artists employed by the Federal Government, under a scheme to employ artists during the Depression.

    It’s always interesting to revisit a place that you remember fondly. There’s always the possibility that it’s a trick of nostalgia that renders the place attractive, or that as your tastes have changed, and what once amazed you now seems obvious, or overdone.

    But Coit Tower’s murals still deliver. It’s not that they are great art – they are, in general, a very stylized yet realistic form popular in the 30’s. Many of the artists were inspired by the artist Diego Rivera, who had recently created a mural for Rockefeller Center that was rejected by Rockefeller because Rivera included a portrait of Lenin. What is exciting and compelling about them is that they record a very specific time in American history. They were painted in 1933-34, in the depths of the Great Depression. They are focused on the workers of California, and show them in many aspects, working in the fields, creating a great dam, generating a newspaper. But what truly makes them exciting is the political aspect of the murals.

    In one, which shows a street scene, a newspaper stand shows not only the more popular magazines of the time, but also The Daily Work and the Masses, a communist and radical papers, respectively.

    Coit Tower - newspapers

    Coit Tower - newspapers

    In the same scene there are not only ordinary people going about their business, but a man being robbed.



    The most famous mural is of a library, where one side there are men reading newspapers with dire headlines about the politics and the economy, and one man, crumpling up his newspaper, reaches for a volume of Karl Marx.

    Reaching for Marx

    Reaching for Marx

    I find it interesting that in the ’30’s the reaction to economic disaster, in part caused by excessive financial speculation, was a turn to the radical and communist elements, which demand that the government do the right thing, and today, the reaction for many is to turn to the Tea Party, which wants the government to stop doing things.

    Worth a look – Coit Tower.

    More pictures here, and here

    Never Mind – bad historical fiction

    Books, History Comments Off

    I just read The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion. The book jacket claims that she is the world’s foremost scholar on Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III mentioned in the title. I’m not quite sure how many scholars of Alice Perrer there are, that she can make the claim.

    Here’s a review that was posted for me on Amazon. My friend Geoff gets items from Amazon’s Vine program, so what I read was a proof copy.

    There are several ways an author can create a successful historical novel. The novel can

    - Tell a good story, even if a few of the historical facts are wrong
    - Recreate a time and place so well that the reader feels as if he understands it
    - Be titillating and tell all

    This book, about Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III, fails in all three categories. Historical accounts describe Alice as a greedy woman who accumulated great wealth for herself and her friends, and was eventually tried and convicted by Parliament of numerous crimes. In this first person narrative she is a victim, again and again, and again.

    The story itself is unsatisfying. There is a complex and unbelievable back story that robs her of her much beloved husband, forcing her to the protection of the Royal Court, and eventually into becoming the King’s mistress. She frequently proclaims herself innocent – the gifts the King gives her, the lands she acquires, the things she does are all because the King made her do them. She is shocked when people misinterpret their relationship and think her greedy and self serving, when all she has done is to serve her king.

    The book also fails to provide a satisfying sense of the time period, the late 1300’s in England. Most of the historical elements are mere window dressing. And the author even trots out Geoffrey Chaucer as Alice’s best friend since childhood!

    And if you’re looking your fix of historical fiction soft porn, which is such a popular category these days, this isn’t it. There a whole lot of limbs entwining, but nothing more erotic than the description that “we had a night of passion”.

    Overall a disappointing book

    "Celebrating" World Sjogren's Day

    Health, History 1 Comment »

    I’ve received several reminders that today is World Sjögren’s Day. I can’t say I can really celebrate a day that is about a disease, but I will use it as a chance to do what I love to do, which is look at the history of Sjogren’s (said “show-grins”).

    Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disease, in which your immune system, instead of attacking external viruses and infections, identifies part of your body as foreign, and attacks them. In Sjogren’s, the most common issues are

  • Dry, gritty eyes
  • Dry mouth, making it hard to eat without liquid
  • Dry skin
  • Exhaustion and “brain fog”
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • This excellent diagram outlines the wide range of problems that can occur.

    Sjogrens Symptoms

    Sjogrens Symptoms

    There are a host of other symptoms that can occur, and it is a disease when you have times where you feel relatively good, and times when you feel like you’ve had the flu for a week. When you will have which is not predictable. The Sjogren’s Foundation has more information.

    It’s estimated that about 4 million people in the US have Sjogren’s. About 90% of them are women, and it’s diagnosed more frequently in women in their late 40’s and older. There is no “cure”, just things you can do to try to make the symptoms better.

    The name of the disease comes from the doctor who first documented the condition, Dr. Henrik Sjögren. Today is the day of his birth. He was a Swedish ophthalmologist who first identified a pattern in patients that he was seeing, and wrote a dissertation describing the syndrome in the 1930’s. He continued to be interested in the problem throughout his career and in the 1960’s was recognized by his peers for his contributions to the topic.

    So hurrah for Dr. Sjogren for identifying the problem. Let’s hope that we can continue to find solutions to the problems of the folks who have Sjogren’s .

    The Mystery of the Swordsman

    Books, History 4 Comments »

    So it seems that a mystery that has intrigued me since I was a child will remain unsolved.

    As I’ve mentioned from time to time, I have always loved history. I don’t know when that love started, but I do know that by the time I was 11, it was well developed. When I was a child, I lived within walking distance of my local library, the Berkshire Anthenaeum,

    Berkshire Anthenaeum and I went there frequently. This wasn’t just a library, it was a Romanesque castle of books and learning, with the quiet and hush of a church The children’s room was upstairs, and it was still the norm that children never went down to the adults’ area.

    When I was 11, I read a book that mention that Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn, was executed by a “swordsman from Calais”. Traditionally, traitors in England were executed with an ax, but, according to the book, Henry VIII sent to Calais to for the swordsman, as death by the sword was less painful.

    This detail fascinated me. Sure, it was just a minor detail, but for some reason I really wanted to know the name of the swordsman. I pestered the children’s room librarian. She sent me off to the encyclopedia, which as you can imagine, had no information on the topic. She suggested I look at other books about Henry VIII, but the children’s room was not well stocked on the topic. After asking her questions for over a week, I finally persuaded her to let me go to (dramatic pause here) The Adult Part of the Library. It was all carefully planned – I could look at books, but could not check them out, I had to sit at a certain table where a librarian could keep an eye on me.

    And so I went. I went through all the books on Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn, and anything else I could find. Many of them made mentioned the swordsman of Calais, but not one mentioned his name. This was before I realized that much about what we know about the past is based on what happened to survive – if his name was never written down, there is no way to know it. It was disappointing to me, but it opened the door to the inner sanctum of the adult part of the library, and I got permission to continue to use it. This was happiness for me!

    But back to the swordsman -
    I just read The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir. It’s about the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and is copiously researched. Weir is a well known Tudor historian, and she goes in to great detail about each event in the last few months of Anne Boleyn’s life. A good book if you have a deep interest in the topic. As I read the book, I grew excited. Perhaps at last the mystery of the swordsman’s name would be revealed!

    But alas! It was not. Here’s what she does know:

      He was referred to as “the hangman of Calais” and the “sword of Calais” in different manuscripts
      He was given money to buy clothing suitable for a gentleman for himself and his assistant. At the time of the execution, he and his assistant were on the scaffold with others, and did not stand out as executioners
      He was paid 23.6s.8d for the job (including money for the clothes)
      For him to travel from Calais to London, he must have been summoned well before the trial of Anne Boleyn. According to one contemporary account, it was nine days from the time messengers were sent to summon him, until his arrival. Anne was tried and convicted on May 14, and was scheduled to be executed on May 18, though there was a delay, and she was executed on May 19. This adds to the evidence that Henry VIII and his councilors planned to execute Anne Boleyn.

    So, it is likely that the mystery of the swordsman’s name will remain a mystery. One contemporary account said “He did his office very well, before you could say paternoster”, and all accounts seem to concur. That may be the best I can do.

    FDR's Shadow

    Books, History Comments Off

    Just finished FDR’s Shadow: Louis Howe, The Force That Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
    Good read for those interested in Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their circle.
    Here’s my review.

    People enjoy reading about Franklin and Eleanor not only because of their important impact on America, but because of the sometimes mysterious and confusing nature of their relationships with each other and others in their lives.

    In this well researched and well written book about Louis Howe, FDR’s principal campaign advisor and political strategist, you get a sense of the political battles that eventually led to FDR’s presidency. You also learn about Howe encouraged Eleanor to shed her role as a good and dutiful wife to take on the political activism that brought great meaning to her life.

    Howe was not only a political operative, he was an intimate member of the Roosevelt household. After Franklin contracted polio, Howe rushed to his side and helped Eleanor with the nursing. When Franklin was finally able to move back to NYC, Howe moved in with the family to help. He emphasized the importance of keeping Franklin mentally active, and brought interesting visitors to keep Franklin engaged with the world.

    Howe also served as a bridge between Eleanor and Franklin as their lives went in different directions in the 1920’s.

    Heartily recommend this book which helps you understand another aspect of the complex puzzle of Franklin and Eleanor. It is a relatively brief book (about 200 pages) which seems an appropriate size for the topic.

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