The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

No key left behind

I think we can all appreciate the novel and—can I just say?—courageous interpretation of the National Anthem that not even the lads from the Anacreontic Society could have managed when they penned the tune lo these many centuries past.

Last weekday of the winter

I get to turn off and put away my work laptop in a little bit in preparation for heading back to the office on Monday morning. I can scarcely wait. 

Meanwhile, I've got a few things to read:

OK, one more work task this month, then...I've got some other stuff to do.

"Don't call me stupid"

I read the news today, oh boy. And one of the stories reminded me of this movie:

See if you can guess which one.

Finally, Chicago managed 58 hours of above-freezing temperatures (from 1pm Monday until 11pm yesterday) leaving us with only 15 cm of snow on the ground and a chance it'll all be gone by this time tomorrow. The forecast calls for daytime highs above freezing every day through next week, possibly hitting 10°C over the weekend. Spring!

Good morning!

Now in our 46th hour above freezing, with the sun singing, the birds coming up, and the crocuses not doing anything noteworthy, it feels like spring. We even halted our march up the league table in most consecutive days of more than 27.5 cm of snow on the ground, tying the record set in 2001 at 25 days. (Only 25 cm remained at 6am, and I would guess a third of that will melt by noon.)

So, what else is going on in the world?

And now, back to work.

Dry Hop Brewers, Chicago

Welcome to stop #38 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Dry Hop Brewers, 3155 N. Broadway, Chicago
Train line: CTA Brown, Purple, and Red Lines, Belmont
Time from Chicago: 16 minutes
Distance from station: 800 m

Dry Hop Brewery on Broadway belongs to the same restaurant group as Corridor Brewery and Provisions (stop #37) and Crushed by Giants. It has similar (good) food, plus the advantage of sharing space with the fourth restaurant in the group, Roebuck Pizza. Like Corridor, Dry Hop's beers are pretty good. Unlike Corridor, they don't do 5-ounce tasters.

I had just two of their beers: the Candy Paint (double dry-hopped hazy IPA, 7%, 30 IBU), which was juicy and well-balanced with a decent finish; and the Johnny Quest Thinks We're Sellouts (black IPA, 7.5%, 45 IBU), a complex chocolatey, malty IPA with good but not overwhelming hops and a clean finish. I also had a pizza, which tasted excellent but was a little droopy. (I think they should have cut it into squares.)

I ate in the Roebuck section. The Dry Hop section has more light and more brewing equipment, but both were quiet (they were playing an old jazz LP) and the staff were friendly without being overbearing. In the summer, they take over a good stretch of sidewalk. As soon as practical, I will investigate whether they allow dogs out there, as I'm interested in tasting more of their beers.

Beer garden? Sidewalk
Dogs OK? Maybe outside?
Televisions? None
Serves food? Yes, pizza and sandwiches
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

The best love song of all time?

WBUR–Boston's Julie Wittes Schack says Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" tops the list:

[N]ow, nearly 50 years after it was released on “Blue, one of the best singer/songwriter albums of all time, I can still confidently assert that “A Case of You” is one of the best love songs ever written. The quantitative evidence of that can be found in the fact that there are over 300 known cover versions of it; 300 artists who found something in its distinctive melody or conversational lyrics that they felt they could make their own.

But it’s not the number of versions that makes this song so enduring. It speaks to each new generation of singers because of the feeling it evoked in me, even when I was a moony teenager, driven by inchoate longings, knowing that there were insights still well beyond my reach. This is a love song by and about grown-ups.

There’s no giddiness here. Unlike practically every pop song that came before it, in this one, love is not an intoxicant. Quite the opposite, in fact:

I could drink a case of you darling and I would
Still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet

Some understand those lines to say that she can’t get too much of her lover (variously speculated to be Graham Nash or Leonard Cohen). But what I hear all these years later — and the interpretation I prefer — is that with the clarity generated by time and age, she can drink him in, savor him and still be sober enough to clearly see him.

I got Blue in 2000, and I agree it's one of the best albums ever. As I'm wending my way through my CD collection I've got a ways to go before hitting it. But I'm looking forward to hearing it again.

Corridor Brewery and Provisions, Chicago

Welcome to stop #37 on the Brews and Choos project. As promised, now that Illinois has moved into Phase 4 (and, we hope, Phase 5 before too long), we're brewing and chooing again. But a confession: I walked to this one.

Brewery: Corridor Brewery and Provisions, 3446 N. Southport Ave., Chicago
Train line: CTA Brown Line, Southport
Time from Chicago: 27 minutes
Distance from station: 100 m

Corridor Brewery might be the least-pretentious restaurant on the Southport Corridor. They brew beer; they serve well-prepared but simple food; and they have a large, dog-friendly patio in the summer.

During Covid-19 Phase 4, they have reduced capacity and they're pretty strict about masks. (The servers follow the latest CDC guidance and wear decorative cloth masks over surgical masks, for instance.) In summer, they open up the front sliding doors and spill onto the sidewalk, drawing a lively, if very young, crowd from the neighborhood. I visited on a February evening when the temperature hovered just under -11°C, so I chose to sit indoors.

They have a prix fixe flight of whichever six beers they have on draft, but I only tried four, and enjoyed them all. The Portly Warrior (porter, 5.1%, 30 IBU) was lighter than I expected, with some fruit and bitter notes from the hops, but complex malt flavors that had a nice, lingering finish. The Squeezit DDH IPA (8%, 40 IBU) hit me with a fruity, juicy Citra flavor, yet had great balance and just enough sweetness. The Wizard Fight (APA, 6%, 60 IBU) had a strong but not overpowering hoppy flavor, and a very tasty, balanced middle with a clean finish. Finally, I tried the Cosmic Juicebox (DDH IPA, 6.8%, 40 IBU), which had so much grapefruit (and maybe pear?) but with a malty finish that overall worked really well.

I also had a hamburger. Whether because I had walked 3 kilometers in the cold or because it was really well-prepared, I snarfed it down a lot faster than I intended.

Beer garden? Sidewalk
Dogs OK? Outside only
Televisions? None
Serves food? Yes, full menu
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

New York, 10 years ago

Shortly after upgrading from my old Canon 20D to a new Canon 7D, I flew to New York for business. My company let me fly in on Saturday instead of Sunday as the lower airfare offset the extra hotel day, enabling me to spend Saturday afternoon and evening getting to know the new camera. You can see some of the results here. This morning, I revised the treatment of one of the photos I posted that evening:


1/30 s, f/3.5, ISO 6400, 18mm

I think the Mark II could do even better. Whenever I'm able to travel to New York again, I'll re-shoot the scene.

How lazy usability can make your day harder

This morning I posted about some frustrations in getting our CRM system to import donations from our fundraising events so that we can then match donations with addresses to send out end-of-year tax letters. The frustrations have grown to the point where naming names seems appropriate, if only because Neon One, the CRM company, has a web-based ticketing system that doesn't really handle the level of detail their developers will need to (a) understand the problem, (b) understand the frustration, and (c) understand the features needed to solve (a) and (b).

As you read this, keep in the back of your head that I'm a software developer with 25 years of professional experience and another 15 of hobby experience before that. In other words, I've been writing software longer than almost everyone at the CRM developer has been alive.

Neon will probably consider this a feature request, though on any of the product teams I've run in the past 15 years, this would be a usability bug report.

tl;dr: Neon's import feature is software-centric, not user-centric. Instead of the feature helping the user, it expects the user to help the software. This causes grief for any user who is not a piece of software.

The simple problem

Because Neon doesn't have adequate (or, it seems, any) support for silent auctions and other day-of-event realities, we use a different system for our fundraising events. The other system spits out perfectly reasonable Excel documents with all the information we need to track donations along with the fair-market valuations of silent auction winnings. We want to import that information into Neon so that we (a) can print out end-of-year tax letters and (b) accurately track giving in the long term.

The obvious path, which doesn't work

People have studied usability for almost as long as I've worked in software professionally. Jakob Nielsen has written about since 1998. The first principle of usability has never changed: make the obvious path work in an obvious way.

Neon has an import function that appears, at first glance, to import exactly the kind of data our event system produces. It seems like one should be able to import a flat file containing the donor name, address, email, and phone number; the date and amount of the donation; maybe a note or other optional information. You would think you could map the columns on the file to fields in Neon, and the software would read the data file and import the data. Maybe you'll get one or two spurious donor records when the information in the file doesn't exactly match an existing record's data, so maybe you'll have a few minutes of clean-up that you can do right from the import report after it's done.

Anyway, that's how I'd design it. That's how Jakob Nielsen would design it. That's how the 22-year-old newbie with a still-wet bachelor's degree in design would do it.

That's not how Neon designed it.

OK, so there may be an extra step

The first thing the Neon import feature asks is: does your data have Neon account ID numbers? If not, it warns you it won't be able to match your data with existing donor records.

Wait, what? The CRM already has a decent "find duplicate records" feature, so why can't this run automatically on new or imported entries? (Seriously, Neon: why do we spend time after every concert de-duping our data because your software doesn't think to match existing records with new ticket orders even when all of the data are the same in both records? More on this in a moment.)

All right. I'll spend 15 minutes adding Neon IDs to all the donation records in the exported file that correspond to existing donor records. It's an extra step that the software should be able to accomplish on its own, but whatever, no one likes writing record-matching code.

Now what I expect is that Neon will add the new donations to the existing records, and add new account records if I don't supply an ID.

Nope. My first pass through this process looks only at the exported records whose IDs I've provided and updates those donor records, while completely ignoring the new records. And it then takes me to a screen that looks suspiciously like it will make a total hash of the donation records in the same export file if I click "next." So I abort.

Maybe a few extra steps?

I think, perhaps I should give Neon a little extra help now. Let me scrub the data going into the import so that we have the best chance of good data getting into the CRM. So I separate the export into two files, one containing Neon IDs and one with all the new donors who came to the event. Then I go through both to make sure mailing addresses conform to USPS standards, phone numbers are uniformly 10 digits without separators, and email addresses are validly formed.

Next, I import the file that does not have Neon IDs, hoping it will create new records for me. It does! And it even exports a report containing the new IDs it created, albeit with only the donor's full name and not the donor's first and last names, which creates a bit of extra work as now I have to manually map them to my donor export.

So after I add the new IDs where needed in my donation export file, I'm ready to import the donations. I start the donation wizard, it accepts that my records have valid Neon IDs, and I map the donation date and amount columns to Neon fields. And then it tells me that I don't have a "donation type" mapped.

I'm not going to go through the steps required to figure out what a valid "donation type" is. Suffice to say, I add a column to the export called "Donation Type" and fill every row with the value "Donation". (Why can't we just specify constant values for required fields at import?)

I go through the import wizard again, map everything required, and hit import. Oof! Error! Apparently, dates are hard. The export file has donation dates in the format "Jul 17, 2020 7:27:19 PM", but Neon says "Time field must be a date;now it supports 'MM/DD/YYYY','MM-DD-YYYY' and 'MMDDYYYY' format."

Now, without going into the rabbit hole too deeply, a few things immediately occur to me as someone who has successfully parsed dates for a quarter century in a half-dozen programming languages. First, why the fuck does Neon only accept those three formats when the format presented is unambiguous and can be parsed by nearly every programming language out there? Second, none of the formats presented or accepted in this case conform to ISO-8601, the international standard for date and time representation, so everyone is on shaky ground here. Third, I got all the way to this point and now it tells me I have to go all the way back and change the date format by hand? Because it turns out, Excel can't parse the dates either. Good work, 3rd-party event package. Nicely done.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or jam the import with our ISO dates.

After entering all the dates by hand (made easier by 90% of them being the date of the event), I re-exported the file to .csv and tried the import again. (Oh, yes, Neon can't read XLSX files, so I have to export to CSV every. Single. Time.)

Success! Finally!

And now I get to do it again with the silent-auction winners list. All of it. Again. This time I just entered the 9 new accounts by hand, and discovered 7 duplicate accounts that had to be merged, and thanked the universe we only had 60 silent-auction items.

So I go to import and...Goddammit I forgot the "donation type" field.

So I go to import again. And it mostly worked. Except even though I specified which field contained the fair-market value to map against the donation, Neon ignored that. It appears nowhere in the individual donation records. Why even present the field as an option if...I mean...what the hell, Neon? Yet more shit I have to map by hand later on.

But wait, it still doesn't work

After all that effort, I did some spot-checks on various accounts and found that even though none of the donation records shows fair-market value for auction items, at least all of the donations that I expect to see in each record appear in each record. So now it's time for the 2020 donor report, and...

Um...you're fucking kidding me.

None of the imported donations shows up in the donor report's "2020 Donation Amount" field. After checking a few donor records, I promote my hypothesis (that Neon groups by the record-creation date for the annual sum instead of the actual donation date) to a theory. Neon support case #00316491 is born.

How Neon should have coded this

Many, many developers have solved this problem before. Importing donations should require only one pass through the Import feature, and follow this heuristic:

  1. As soon as the user selects "import donations" from whatever UI control offers the choice, Neon presents a page of simple documentation explaining the process, listing the required fields, and offering some insight into how it will work.
  2. The user selects the import file, which can be CSV, Excel, or any other common delimited format.
  3. The user maps all of the relevant columns from the import file to Neon fields. Neon does not present the user with fields that it will ignore for no stated reason later on.
  4. The user provides constant values (from drop-downs if necessary) for required fields that do not appear in the import file.
  5. The user clicks "upload."
  6. For each record:
    1. If the imported donor account has an ID that matches an existing account by ID, use that donor account.
    2. If the imported donor account matches the name and email of an existing account (or some other criteria), use that donor account but flag the row for review.
    3. If the imported donor account does not match an existing account on either criteria, create a new donor account.
  7. Stage the donation record with the specified, found, or new account ID, including all of the fields that the user mapped in step 3.
  8. Present the list of "for review" items to the user before committing the import, allowing the user to make edits to the imported data, or move back a step in the process.
  9. Once the user is satisfied, the user clicks "commit" to write the data to Neon.

I get it: Neon's dev group have process problems

I mean, guys, this really isn't that hard. You want hard? Write an IBM360 to MS-DOS import, complete with different endian values, and where mapping has to be hard-coded because configuration files haven't been invented yet.

I know how software development works. I expect any Neon folks reading this may think this is unfair, that the devs told management the features weren't finished, that management told leadership the devs weren't 100% finished but the stuff works well enough, and that leadership looked at the growing list of must-have features for the brochure and forgot to finish the must-have features for the users, that "it's not my fault." I'd also bet you a dollar that any dev reading this will think "I told you so" (unless they think "it works on my machine, you DFU," in which case you have other problems.)

In other words, you guys have a process problem. Somewhere the definition of "done" that passed QA for the import features didn't match the definition of "done" that users need.

For this we're paying $3600 a year. NB: we're willing to pay a lot more for software that works the way we need it to.

Meanwhile, though, I'll have to hand-correct what all this automation should have given me already, and get the damn tax letters out.

And Neon CRM support incident #00316497 is born.

So much not fun about this

I'm president of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago. One of my jobs is to send out letters to all of our donors acknowledging their donations for the previous calendar year. These letters should have gone out by January 31st, but...well...OK, I'm a little delinquent. And for no other reason than I really, really did not want to merge all the data by hand.

You see, we use a smallish CRM system for all of our institutional data, which works pretty well, especially with our membership and tech-savvy donors. Many people have set up recurring donations through the CRM portal (please donate!), which happily bills their credit cards each month and creates new records for us to merge later. (It's really, really dumb about preventing duplicate records, but its merge feature works well enough.) Other donors make ad hoc contributions through the CRM as well. The CRM then sends a report to our treasurer which he imports into QuickBooks, and all is good.

You know there's a "but." See, we use a different system for managing our annual fundraiser, because our CRM sucks at event management. This system records all of the donations received for each event, plus silent auction winnings, and produces its own reports that we import into QuickBooks.

The upshot is that the CRM is not the single point of truth for donations, though it muddles through as the single point of truth for membership and music purchases. The Development Committee therefore doesn't want to use the CRM, even though it's why we have the CRM in the first place. The treasurer doesn't want to enter or reconcile all the event donations by hand either. Nor does our IT Director want to merge all the duplicate records that would result from importing the event data.

I hope to have a solution for this by next year. This year, however, I'm banging my head onto my desk as I try to reconcile QuickBooks' list against the event software's list against what should be the single point of truth for all of it.