Thesaurus > Dictionary

Some reference books are better than others. I like a good thesaurus better than a dictionary. A well-made thesaurus helps me boost my vocabulary.

I have a copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus. I also have a couple of dictionaries: Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and a Pocket Oxford Dictionary (The pocket Oxford also has sentimental value with a note “Given to me by Mrs. Ann Porter the nice woman who lives in the flat across the hall in England.” I was visiting my grandparents in London when she gave me the book.)

The Webster’s dictionary is the lesser of the three. Its definitions are merely satisfactory and I don’t expect greatness. I like the Oxford dictionary more. It’s succinct and I usually find something interesting when I open it randomly. It’s not the giant, full Oxford dictionary, but to call it “pocket” is a stretch. My bath robe might have a big enough pocket for it, but fitting it into a pants or shirt pocket is completely impossible.

The thesaurus is much more useful. Mine has two parts. The primary text is organized into topical areas, for example “496: Taste, Tastefulness,” “970: Uncertainty” and “487: Celebration.” Each category is broken into sub-categories of related synonyms. There’s always new phrases to find. “At sixes and sevens” under Uncertainty is a new phrase for me and I like the word “finesse” that I found under Taste.

Finesse is a comforting word. It reminds me of when my parents would play bridge. They would describe a certain situation in the game and call it a finesse. One hazard of a thesaurus is that, when I find a word I don’t know, I can embarrass myself by using it improperly. For example, if I write about a bridge game, first I need to learn what finesse means to a bridge player.

The second half of the thesaurus is a dictionary. Rather than having definitions, this section links to the relevant sub-part of different categories. This dictionary offers different senses of a word. “Worthless” points to categories containing “valueless,” “disadvantageous,” “paltry,” “unworthy,” and “terrible.”

I opened the thesaurus and the word “martyrize” popped up. I had never thought of what the verb form of martyr was. The word looks weird but makes sense. However, it’s not a word I’ll find in the novels I’m reading.

A thesaurus has better rabbit holes than a dictionary.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

The novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin has started me on a quest. I’ve reignited in my reading interest. More specifically, reading science fiction. I’m letting the Hugo and Nebula awards help me compose my reading list. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin won the 1970 Hugo and 1969 Nebula awards for best novel.

I obviously hate trees because I’m buying used copies of the books, rather than reading them on my kindle or other ebook format. I’ve found a convenient venue to locate used books at

The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from Ekumen, Genly Ai. Ekumen is a federation of planets connected by near light-speed starships. However, relativity’s time dilation affects travel and trade. Ekumen has developed a long-term perspective because travelers will often return home decades after they left on a mission.

The people living on the aptly named planet Winter (also known as Gethen) are unique because of their fluid gender.  Every person can bear children as well as father them. However, most of the time the individuals are genderless. The effects of this on their culture is complex. On one hand, sexuality and nudity become much less sensitive a topic. Raising children is a more cooperative enterprise with more than the parents responsible. People are hospitable and welcome strangers. It’s challenging to know how to look at them from this more-or-less solid-gendered world. It’s easy for Ai to consider everyone a “he.” When he notices feminine qualities in individuals, he finds it disorienting.

The story describes three different nations. One, Karhide, is hierarchical and like a large confusing family. It is hierarchical and formal. The second, Orgoreyn, is bureaucratic. Its citizens deal with interminable paperwork and passport documents when they travel. However, the bureaucratic culture has work for everyone. The more feudal Karhidish society has strong bonds of mutual aid and generosity. The third culture, the Handarata, is mystical and has a subtle mythology. It is not explored as deeply as the others but seems very Zen-like with contradiction and paradox essential attitudes.

The language of the novel is very clear and descriptive. During a journey over a large glacier, the feelings of fatigue and the difficulty dealing with the murderous cold was striking. At one point, the novel made me actually jump with surprise and emotion. The book’s early chapters do not provide a linear story. Alternating chapters include information from Gethenian mythology and storytelling. This is helps the novel be a little more anthropological so that I had get a better feel for the world.

The Left Hand of Darkness reveals that my native assumptions about gender are not the only way to see things. The Hainish people share strong bonds. There are intrigues and power struggles that Ai has to navigate through. The title is misleading because the book isn’t about a struggle between darkness and light. Instead, it is a testament to endurance and the ability of people to form bonds of trust and honor.

Film Review: 12 Monkeys (1995)

Twelve Monkeys is a story about the world after a viral plague kills 6 billion people in 1996. The time travel story jumps between the 1990s before the pandemic and decades into the future. The future is run by strange scientists who hope to track down the virus’ origin. They send James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time with a mission to gather information.

Another protagonist in the movie is the psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). She is interested in the history of people who present a Cassandra complex. The Cassandra myth describes someone who knows the future but cannot do anything to change it. She wrote a book documenting examples of such people appearing in the past.

She is unfazed when she meets Cole who has the same outlook. She believes that he is mentally ill and she first meets him in her psychiatric hospital in 1990. She tries to maintain a clinical and objective interest in Cole. Cole vanishes for several years after his first hospital stay. He meets her a few years later and he kidnaps her for several days. Much of the story takes place during that kidnapping as she learns more about Cole’s remarkable story.

The future scientists are interested in a mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys which their surveillance indicates is responsible for the virus’ release. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys was led by Jeffrey Goines, played by Brad Pitt. His wannabe insurgents appear to be central actors in the plague because Goines father is a biologist studying deadly viruses. However, the exact role of Goines’ team is unclear until the end of the film. Goines and Cole meet when he shows Cole around the psych ward in 1990.

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt provide excellent performances in the film. Willis portrays Cole as disoriented by time travel who does not know whether he is delusional or a “volunteer” traveling back in time on behalf of the scientists. He clearly demonstrates the sense of confusion and helplessness that his character experienced. Pitt portrays Goines as privileged, crazy and unpredictable with many goofy antics. Often institutionalized, Goines acts paranoid, manic and defiant. While in the hospital in 1990, he has a wild pillow escapade to help Cole escape. Goines has boundless energy and Pitt plays him very convincingly. Gradually Goines’ friends in the Army of the Twelve Monkeys realize he is unhinged and that his plans are going to end badly.

Changes at deviantart

I’ve been part of the community for a long time. My current username is about 7 years old but I’ve been there longer than that. The service is going through an evolution that I don’t welcome.

They’re replacing their default “green” user interface with a UI that the site owners call Eclipse. According to one user survey, over 95% of current users prefer the traditional design.

It appears their goal is to transition deviantart from being an artists’ social media into an art gallery. They emphasize presenting popular works in an easy-to-access form rather than helping a community thrive. Finding users that fit my style is becoming more difficult.

On my home page, a visitor sees some technical statistics first in bold letters. They aren’t a good measure of how I contribute to the site. I don’t want to stare at those statistics and feel less than.

It looks like their developers have optimized for a small number of use cases. My interactions with the site doesn’t fit those cases. Unfortunately, they may be emphasizing the use cases that create revenue, so my small footprint isn’t relevant.

Technically, the new interface has rough edges and performance problems. Although they’ve been beta testing Eclipse for over a year, there are still hiccups and delays. The thumbnails are bigger and a little slower. I’ve had some simple actions flagged as slow scripts by my browser.

Some people are likely to jump ship when a site changes. I’ll transition from being a multiple-visits-a-day user to a coming-when-I’m-bored user. I’ll just drift away and sadly, my friends on deviantart won’t be so important any more.

I haven’t seen reports of people finding alternatives. Tumblr, Instagram and perhaps flickr are obvious choices, but I haven’t searched for the best fit for me.

Lisa Notation

A really useful tool for technical support is to tell the user concisely where to look on the computer screen. Lisa notation is a simple way of doing that.

Lisa notation starts by dividing a rectangle such as the screen or a window into quarters and labeling the quarters A, B, C and D.


And then, in each quadrant, divide it into 9 sections, numbered like the dial of a phone.


Although that chart has a lot of clutter, it’s never needed in practice. You can estimate them automatically. Picking the quadrant is easy and then dividing it into 9ths uses a skill familiar to anyone who dials a phone.

With this technique, you can verbally point the person to the right part of the screen. Dividing the screen into 36 pieces this way is really easy. It’s something that can be understood instantly.

For example, if you’re helping someone with Microsoft Word, you could say ‘Click Draw at A-2 and then when it opens, near C-1 click Drawing Canvas.” Alternatively, helping someone with Firefox, you could say “select the item at C-3 that looks like books leaning on a bookshelf and then at Lisa A in the menu that comes up, click History.”

The last example shows that there can be a couple of variations. One is that you might only give the first letter if the area is small. Alternatively, you could just give a number “Lisa 5” to mean the center of the screen as if there were a 3 x 3 grid over the whole area.

The other thing to remark is that you would specify the location relative to the current area of interest instead of the full screen. For example in a dialog box, you would give the location relative to the dialog instead of the full screen. In a Windows “Save As” dialog, you could tell the user to “type the file name you want starting at the File Name edit box near C-5” regardless of where the dialog is on the screen.

Other situations that would really benefit from this notation are computer documentation and help files. When someone describes the steps to solve a problem, the directions would be much more precise and understandable if the writer would use Lisa notation. On the help page “how to send an email,” showing where would really help to someone inexperienced  Saying “Click in the subject line and type a subject” isn’t helpful enough. Someone that really needs it would appreciate the extra help.

Conversely, I might help someone on the phone, and I might not know exactly what their screen is showing. It could make the phone call go smoother if I would ask them to read to me what is near C-7.

Artists and art critics could use this notation quite effectively. What is supposed to be in the blank space of Mona Lisa’s B-6? It looks like da Vinci just got tired of working on the painting when he got there and quit.



RhymeZone: A Useful Site for Writers

A blue push pinI have needed a site to help with word choice in poetry. I found and use it frequently.

Although RhymeZone starts as a rhyming dictionary, it is much more. I actually use it as a thesaurus rather than a rhyming dictionary because it includes an index of synonyms and antonyms.

When you need them, it will find homophones and similar sounding words. The similar sounding word lists include a rating of the closeness of the similarity and the options’ popularity. It will also search for a word in the titles of Wikipedia articles. It has examples of words in the context of lyrics and poems. It also provides several definitions for a word.

One query I made showed that “harsh” has the same consonants as the surnames “Harsch,” “Hirsche” and “Horsch”. This is one example of how it is integrated with a table of surnames. For “book,” there are 46 different words with the same consonants including dictionary words, surnames and rare words.

There are many uses for the web site. It’s presented in a well made design that integrates its features conveniently. Their article RhymeZone Turns 20 (with updates aplenty) describes features of the site.

If you’re a writer, it definitely is worthwhile to add this site to your favorite bookmark list.

Lost buttons!

A pile of buttonsA couple of years ago, my clothes dryer needed some maintenance. I had workers come and replace the heating element and main bearing.

When they opened it up, dozens and dozens of buttons fell out. I’ve lost many buttons from my shirts over the years and there they all were! I resolved to do something about it.

I decided to change how I did my laundry. I’ve always turned printed t-shirts inside out  to preserve the inked design. Now, for my button-down shirts, I do the same. I button them up completely and turn them inside out before putting them in the wash. I also invert the cuffs and collar.

It takes a little extra work to prep the shirts for the laundry. When they come out of the dryer, I turn them right side out and unbutton them.

It’s been a roaring success. In the two years since I started this, I haven’t lost a single button in my laundry. I wear a lot of button down shirts, especially in cold weather, and I know  that the effort at prevention is worth it.

Image origin buttons by bptakoma. Image license

Alexa on Fire

The letter AHere are my impressions of the Kindle Fire’s Alexa implementation. It has some features that a smart speaker can’t provide.

It shows what it understands. When you ask a question, the service displays the text of your query. It also shows the text that it speaks back to you.

I was surprised that the Fire also shows a graphic relevant to your question. A question about cheese shows a graphic of cheese on a cutting board. I asked for the name of the mayor of Auburn, Indiana and it displayed the Auburn city logo. My search for the mayor of Indianapolis retrieved a photo of him.

I didn’t explore the quirky questions that you can ask. I also haven’t used it enough for the software to dial in on recognizing my voice, so I was frustrated with some errors when I tried to use it as a calculator.

It isn’t clear how much curation of the answers is done by a human analyst.  My search for the mayor of Auburn, Indiana returned with the wrong name. The display shows that the name came from Wikipedia and I just corrected the Wikipedia page. It will be interesting to see how long it takes Alexa’s data repository to reflect that. Will someone need to check the citations first?

I am interested in where the information came from. I’ve seen the results explain that  information came from Reuters,, Getty or Wikipedia. Sometimes the attribution is spoken in the answer. At other times, it is in a small note on the display.

Unfortunately, the results can attribute information to Wikipedia that is not available there. For example, the sodium content of Velveeta cheese is not available on Wikipedia, even though the answer claims it is.

Alexa on the Fire is useful. I’ve been hesitant to get a smart speaker and this is a demo of some of what I could have. The most consistently useful feature I found so far is the weather.

An anniversary

a red heartApril 1 is a big day in my life. I had a cardiac arrest at work and was rescued by my boss who did CPR until the EMTs were able to restart my heart.

As a result I have an ICD, an implanted defibrillator/pacemaker. I’m on my second one.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the attack.

The cause was never determined definitely although it might have been because of low Magnesium levels. I was in a really stressful time at work, and I was maxed out on stress when it happened. One part of the stress was fearing being dragged out of the closet.

I was fortunate that I got up and was heading to the kitchenette. Before I made it there, I collapsed and fell on my forearms–lots of bruises. If I had stayed at my desk, I would have just slumped over and died since no one would noticed in time. At the time, I got up with chest pain thinking that drinking some water would help. I probably aspirated the carrots I was eating, which kept me in the hospital some extra days and helped me acclimate to my new reality.

I was glad that my heart catheterization showed very little blockage so I didn’t need any stents or bypass surgery.

So I have a big anniversary coming up.