PROTOTYPES: AN EPIC POEM

I designed a new product.
I had the parts made.
I sent the parts to our production site in China. "Lo", I said, "Take these parts and deliver unto me a great Product!"
A Chinese engineer built the prototypes.
The engineer gave the prototypes to his shipping department.
The prototypes arrived at my receiving department.
The prototypes were delivered - but to our stock department, not to me.
"Lo," the stock clerk said, "these Products do not meet our Incoming Quality Control Standards."
The prototypes were marked for disposal.
I asked the Chinese engineer, "Didst thou make the prototypes?"
"Verily," the engineer said. "Here is proof that they were delivered one week earlier than scheduled!"
"Dunce!" I said to my receiving department. "To whom didst thou give the prototypes?"
"It is not Recorded," said the foul Clerk, "Read it in thy Tea Leaves, buddy."
"Fellow Engineers," I cried, "Wert my prototypes mistakenly delivered to thee?"
"No," they said, and "wherefore yelleth he?" and "check out this Video."
And so grieved I went unto my Boss. "Lord," I said, "I shall send an angry message to the whole building asking all and sundry to look for my prototypes."
"Check the stock department first," saith milord.
And I did.

And so it was that on the day that $20,000 worth of design, parts, and engineering effort were to be thrown out and a multimillion dollar project was to be set back two months because of a QC FAIL sticker, I got my prototypes.

Why? Because twelve time zones, a language, an ocean, and two shipping clerks stood between me and my engineer. In R&D, ideas are the easy part.

Road hypnosis: Quiet.

From an excellent short piece in Esquire about driving west across North Dakota:
Squinting into orange, I thought about those things that we never let ourselves think about — those things that we actively defend ourselves against thinking about by having so much other stuff to look at and listen to.
We actively defend ourselves against thinking. Doesn't that speak volumes? Sometimes the messages that bubble up from our own minds are unsettling, even painful: will this path take me in a direction I want to go in five years? Am I being genuine? Am I avoiding doing something I'd really enjoy just because it would look stupid or cost too much? What am I earning this money for, anyway? Our possessions, our music, our booze, and yes, our Internet - all these things serve partly to protect us from the pain of these questions.

In A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer goes into some detail about how he brings together groups of people in ways that help them hear what they're thinking. Not what each other are thinking - each individual strives to hear their own motivations and fears. I've written a series of posts here about how I try to use quietness for that purpose. It's my war against myself - a struggle to consciously push aside all the distractions I've put into place to cover up my subconscious. I'm pretty sure it's what Kundera was talking about when he wrote about slowness. (Hi, Matt!)

I'm not sure if driving would work for me, but it certainly did the trick for Chris Jones.

via Jalopnik

Things that are not me

Heidi Cool sent me an invite to check out the blogging platform at wordpress.com. I tried to create an account with username "myfuturepast" and was informed that that account already exists.

Um, OK.

The blog, myfuturepast dot wordpress dot com, was created on my birthday in 2008 and never used. I'd like to take this opportunity to formally disavow it. That's why I said "dot" instead of putting in a real URL--I don't want that site associated with me. I've checked my records and there's no way I created it. This could be innocent, for example, the person who used to sell jewelry at www dot myfuturepast dot com (now offline) might have been thinking about blogging. Alternatively, someone may have been toying with the idea of spoofing me. Good luck with that: googling myfuturepast, about 85% of the first few pages of results are me. That's much better saturation than I get googling my name.

Other miscellaneous things that are not me: the female South African blogger at tgfuturepast dot blogspot dot com (who predates me but uses the same template and title!); the livejournal username myfuturepast; and the diaryland account myfuturepast.

But yeah, that is my old gutted myspace account.

Cloud computing, a modern analog to 120VAC electric service

I don't often repost without commenting, but I'll make an exception for this compelling analogy: There's an app(liance) for that. Quote:
...far more important was what companies and individuals did with the cheap and readily available electricity after the grid was constructed. The same, I'm sure, will be true of the infrastructure of cloud computing.
In other words, where today we say "there's an app for that", in the 1900s we said "there's an appliance for that". Decades from now, our lives will be as different from today as today is from the time when light bulbs and electric motors began to proliferate. Imagine that!

Ghost of Christmas Past


Above: Salton Hotray Model H-928 automatic food warmer, "never been used", "$5.00"

I found this in my basement last night while I was looking for something else. Its stained and yellowing box was resealed with packing tape I recognized from two moves ago. The "never been used" and "$5.00" stickers marked it as a yard sale find. It had indeed never been used - when I pulled it out, the cord was still bound with a matching twistie. The sans serif font and self-important prose on the packaging and leaflet are vintage 70s. The handles are real wood, which is to say, they actually used to be TREES. You don't see that too much anymore.

My guess is that Alice's mother bought this for us early in our marriage. And before that, it had been somebody's Christmas present.

So I plugged it in. It worked. I brought it to a party last night and left it plugged in for hours with a casserole on it. And it worked. Actually its "low" setting is a little too warm, but I can live with that.

Solid State Drives (SSDs): Early adoption?

I'm planning my next computer. Normally I wouldn't bore people with the details, but I may become an early adopter of a new technology, so I thought I'd share my research.

What and why?
Anandtech.com, a well-respected hardware technology site, describes SSDs as a must-have, game-changing upgrade:
"I don’t know how else to say this: it’s an order of magnitude faster than a hard drive. It’s the difference between a hang glider and the space shuttle; both will fly, it’s just that one takes you to space."
A Solid State Drive does the same thing as a hard disk drive in your computer. However, they have no moving parts; they're made of the same flash memory used in USB thumb drives. This gives them a couple of advantages: they're generally faster, and specifically much faster at retrieving many small files. When a hard drive tries to retrieve many small files, its magnetic read/write head has to physically move to each file, which takes time. With no moving parts, an SSD can do this about 50 times faster. Yes, 50. It's a quantum leap in performance. The drawbacks, at present, are capacity and price.

History
Solid state drives first came into use in early netbooks (cheap ultraportable laptops) because they were lighter, more durable, and used less power than hard drives. They also improved boot times, though the SSDs of the time didn't have room to store much more than the operating system. SSD's didn't spread into other types of computers immediately, but over the past two years, capacity has increased and the technology has matured.

Issue 1: Stuttering
There have been some hurdles to overcome. When used to boot a Windows OS, some drives have suffered from "stuttering", where the computer freezes for several seconds periodically. The roots of this problem seem to lie in the circuitry that manages communication between all those flash memory chips and the rest of the computer. According to Anandtech, stuttering seems to have been overcome in drives using controllers made by Indilinx or Intel, rather than older controllers by JMicron or Samsung. Anandtech's most recent article lists several models with good controllers, and a previous article compares several older drives that are still being sold.

Issue 2: Performance fade
The new controllers are also on the road to addressing problems with performance degradation over time. This is a really complicated issue to describe, but Anandtech covers it. The remedy is either having a capability called TRIM built into all your hardware and software, or periodically running a refreshing tool; for some drives, neither is available.

Issue 3: Bricking
Another issue that I've heard discussed, largely in the user forums of resellers (like Newegg) and drive manufacturers (like Intel), is that the drives occasionally just quit working after weeks or even months of use and they can't be fixed. They are, in Internet parlance, "bricked", like an jailbroken iPhone. This problem is a little murkier, which doesn't give me confidence. It seems to be associated with previous-generation drives (for example, Intel's X25-M G1 as opposed to G2), though that could simply be a matter of how long they've been available for people to talk about them. It is also associated with firmware updates, for example, a bad one Intel relased to enable TRIM and then pulled.

The plan
The drive I'm looking at is the Intel X25-M G2. It currently costs about $260 and has 64GB capacity. That's enough to hold an installation of Windows 7 plus applications and user profiles for the life of the computer, though documents will have to be kept on a hard disk drive. It addresses the stuttering and performance degradation issues, and so far there are not too many complaints of bricking.

My current laptop was cheap when I bought it 3 1/2 years ago, and now strains under the burden of audio, video, and Web 2.0 applications. My hope is that with a multi-core processor (AMD Phenom II X4 or Athlon II X4 or Intel Core 2 Quad), Windows 7 (no way am I touching Vista), and an SSD, I'll have a computer that won't slow to a crawl after a few years of accumulated cruft.

Imbalance

For the past couple weeks I've felt my creative powers retreat. Instead of pulling abstractions out of my observations, I've just observed and moved on, amused. It's happened before. It's an imbalance between RSS feeds and this blog, a correlation between reading more and writing less. I wonder which is the cause and which the effect, or is there a hidden cause?

I've discovered several fun new RSS feeds. Sensing the imbalance, I've also begun to cut some I'd like to follow. But TV lovers know they can't watch every show they'd enjoy. Same here: the Internet is functionally infinite. Several of the feeds I've come across lately are very time-consuming. Consider, as an example, jalopnik.

Jalopnik.com is about cars. All about cars - new models, classics, obscure niche cars, racing, customization, the lot. At over a dozen posts a day, if you're a car guy, Jalopnik will give you all you can handle. In fact, I'm tempted to say that you definitely are a car guy if you keep coming back to Jalopnik. I get Car and Driver and Road & Track in the mail, but that's only once a month. Well, problem solved.

Jalopnik is a Gawker Media site. As Scott Rosenberg noted in "Say Everything", Gawker works their bloggers pretty hard. Here's what you have to do to make a living at blogging: repost press releases with commentary; go to trade shows and post picture galleries of the displays; build a community by moderating and contributing to comment threads; solicit input from your readers in the form of photos and stories; write a long article maybe once a day; and above all, project enthusiasm relentlessly. Whew! I don't read through it all--I couldn't, even if I wanted to or felt I should--but I appreciate the flood of information.

I've also begun reading books again. I think that happened when I cancelled my subscription to the New Yorker. Books, blogs - it's consumption. I guess it's a good first step that I hear the little warning bell to tell me I'm only consuming, not creating. I'd like to keep my balance better, but nobody's perfect. I'm not going to beat myself up about it. I'm just going to try to improve.

Links roundup

Since I started adding things to my Delicious links that I thought other people might like--and not just stuff I wanted to refer to later--I find it's leaving an interesting trail. Here's a few.

How future musicians will earn a living. A popular current theory is that in the future, an artist will need about 1000 "true fans" (willing to spend $100 a year) to earn a living at music. This smart article examines some problems with that approach.

Authenticity is special now. A designer tells you how he did it: if it looks like the torn edge of a piece of paper, it probably is. Why do people keep asking? Head-spinningly meta.

Clients from Hell. More graphic designers (why is that?), this time telling you horror stories. Nobody thinks they can DIY their surgery, but the creative professions do have this problem. Begun in January, this example of user-generated literature glows with energy and originality. Although that might be my perspective--after a while I begin to see patterns in all these sites and they're not as funny.

Internet Vices. A short list of online timewasters, with analogies to real-world abusable substances. Terse, clever, and on target. I'm sure we can think of more!

Bloggers

The upwelling of support for Anissa Mayhew--I think next Thursday is going to be huge--made me think about bloggers, the people. I chose to start blogging more or less by accident: I was looking for a creative outlet and I'm most comfortable with writing. (You wouldn't want to see me dance.) Why have I stuck with it? Because I met some of my fellow bloggers.

At the first Moose meeting, Steve Cadwell introduced himself by saying that he blogs mainly to give him an excuse to hang out with bloggers. I can relate.

I don't know what it is about bloggers, but every time I'm in a room full of them, it's fun and crazy and smart and occasionally touching. Clearly I chose the right hobby, because these are my people. This is why I'm looking forward to next Thursday, when I'll get to meet a whole bunch of new ones.

...

I realize that the last several posts have been on the self-referential side and thin on "new content". I think soon I'll post a round-up of links from my delicious feed.

Blog It Forward: come to a benefit for a blogger

Anyssa Mayhew, of Aiming Low and other blogs, has suffered a stroke. She is a 35-year-old mother of three and fighting for her life. There is a happy hour benfit on Thursday the 3rd at The Greenhouse Tavern on East 4th Street. This post at Chef's Widow explains the details and has a larger version of the graphic I inserted below. (Chef's Widow is a blog by the wife of Jonathan Sawyer, the chef of Greenhouse.) I learned about it from this meetup.com event. I'll be there - hope to see you!

A use for Fernet Branca: The Columbus Road

If these four bottles intrigue you, read on.

The First Avenue is one of my favorite drinks, and a great excuse to keep sherry around the house:
  • 1 1/2 oz oloroso or other good quality sweet sherry
  • 1/2 oz Cointreau
  • 3/4 oz soda water
  • Stir the above in a rocks glass half-filled with ice
  • Top with a spoonful (about 1/4 oz) Campari
I was drinking one last night, made using Rivesaltes Ambre (on the left in the photo) instead of sherry. Whereas sherry is made in Jerez, Spain, the Rivesaltes Ambre is a French fortified wine made similarly. It was good as usual, but halfway through, it struck me that this was one drink that might tolerate the addition of the hangover cure deterrent Fernet Branca.

I tried it. It worked. It was, in fact, incomparably more complex than the original drink. But: DO NOT OVERDO THE FERNET BRANCA. It is very powerful. You'd think you were drinking sherry out of an ashtray.

So I give you the Columbus Road, named for the location of the Velvet Tango Room, the only place in town I can imagine being served one of these:
  • 1 1/4 oz oloroso or other good quality sweet sherry
  • almost 1/2 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz soda water
  • 1/4 oz Fernet Branca
  • Stir the above in a rocks glass half-filled with ice
  • Top with a spoonful (about 1/4 oz) Campari
Enjoy!

Blogging101: how to administer comments in Blogger

Over at the Lake Erie Moose Society site, I've posted a brief tutorial about allowing comments in the Blogger system.

I'm a firm believer in the power of commenting to build community, and I still wish I had an RSS reader that would at least display how many comments have been made on the posts I'm reading. But the workaround of subscribing to RSS feeds of comment streams I've posted in seems to be adequate.

A few new features here

Here at this blog, I've added some sidebar lists. They'll show you sites I've bookmarked recently, posts from other blogs I found interesting, and a more complete list of Cleveland blogs.

At the inaugural meeting of the Lake Erie Moose Society (the "not ready for mainstream media bloggers") I realized we needed a better way to keep track of each other. I read blogs in Google Reader, but there's no easy way to make that list of subscriptions public. As I thought about how to approach the blogroll problem--and what approach to recommend to my fellow Moose members--I found a couple other interesting options using Google Reader and the social bookmarking service Delicious. So there are three new sidebar items, not one. But first, a little background.
Delicious (formerly del.icio.us) has been around a while. It allows you to maintain a list of bookmarks on the web, so you have access to them from any computer. It's in the cloud for you. I started using it for exactly that reason - I just uploaded my file of 1000-odd bookmarks going back to the late '90s, told Delicious to keep them all private, and went about my business. But Delicious is a social networking service; you can share bookmarks, find similar items, friend people, et cetera. I'm starting to use these features and I'm happy with it.
Now on to the new features. In the right hand column of this blog, below the Archive, About This Blog, and other sections, you'll see Recent Posts from the Blogroll. This has actually always been there, but I mention it because it pulls recent posts from a slightly different list than the new section below it: CLEblogs, my Incomplete Blogroll of Cleveland Blogs. The latter is the entire list of Cleveland blogs I read. I created it by bookmarking each Cleveland blog in Delicious and tagging each one "CLEblogs". The standard Blogger gadgets were unsatisfactory, but I discovered a Javascript gadget written by Delicious for this purpose. You can also see the list at Delicious itself. As for the content, it's an incomplete list because these are mostly blogs written by people I've actually met. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of active and important blogs here so this is just a slice of it.

Below CLEblogs, you'll see a short section entitled "Recently shared items in Google Reader." When you're using Reader, there's a line of options at the bottom of each post, including "Share" and "share with note". Google Reader is a social networking service in its own right (you can "follow" people and make comments within Reader) but I only use these features to make my shared items available to the whole Web. This short section shows the most recent items, and here's the whole page of them (my notes are in blue at the top of each item).

The final new item is "Recently shared bookmarks in Delicious". This is a short list of web pages I've bookmarked in Delicious; at the moment, it shows several Cleveland blogs because I used the service to create the blogroll above. Eventually it will fill in with whatever I find interesting. I used to use Facebook for this purpose, but after their recent redesign, a lot of people limited their Facebook usage to viewing and posting only status updates.

So there you have it. If you'd like more information about Reader, or Delicious, or how I implemented these features, just drop a comment.

Cultivating creativity: a 21st century industrial revolution

In this post I'll try to make connections between quiet, creativity, productivity, and marketing, and I'll propose a solution. Buckle your seatbelts!

Elsewhere, RossinDetroit has a pretty interesting point about cultivating creativity. To paraphrase him, the work he's currently doing is not mentally taxing, so he occupies his mind working out the details of his own projects. I responded, in part:
I know sometimes when I'm having trouble building something, I hit a wall just staring at the parts. I have to go do something else. But I have the sense that during that time I'm not actively working on it in my head, I'm just allowing all my assumptions to reset themselves. This allows me to re-ask important questions.
I suspect that these are two kinds of mental work - mine behind the scenes and Ross's more conscious. They each require their own kind of quiet. I mean quiet in a general sense - any distraction, not just noise, disturbs quiet.

So, freedom from distractions cultivates creativity. On the other hand, marketing is a branch of psychology that constantly evolves to capture the attention of the members of society. It is a science of distraction.

My next thought is that what you can measure, you can manage. I firmly believe that one's energy and drive is not a fixed resource: if you're doing the right things, you can do more of everything. This applies in both personal and professional spheres.

So I propose an industrial revolution for the early 21st century, to parallel the one of the late 19th. This new industrial revolution will measure, and manage, distraction (including marketing) for the benefit of productivity. As new tools for measuring productivity become available, the power of undistracted people will become irrefutable. This will rein in marketing, and personal creativity will flourish. When someone brings no passion to their job, it will be obvious, and there will be tools to help them find a way to make a living doing something they love. Since money will no longer be the only thing we get out of our jobs, it will be socially acceptable to choose to earn less. The year 2100 will look back on the gray bureaucrats of 2000 with the same sorrow that we now feel towards the poisoned and disease-ridden laborers of the Civil War.

It'll be a better world.

The way in which science is like a religion

Many years ago in one of those college philosophy debates I was challenged with the assertion that science, as a way of looking at the world, had no more claim to correctness than religion. That it was, in effect, a religion itself.

(Do you remember those conversations? Everybody seemed filled with intellectual fervor and self-righteousness and the debates carried on into the wee hours. Somehow not too many people changed their minds as a result of what they heard. There's a lesson there....)

It made no sense. Maybe if the person who said it to me had bothered to explain what he meant, I would have been able to forget all about it, but I couldn't. It has hung in the back of my mind for 20 years, awaiting support or negation. Finally I figured it out:

Science is like religion in this way: it makes the fundamental assumption that events are repeatable. Science says that if you can completely describe a situation, and later completely reproduce the conditions, the same events will follow. This is somewhat trivialized by the fact that when science says "completely describe", it means all the way down to the wavefunctions of every subatomic particle. It also includes the caveat that even our best descriptions are probably incomplete because we're still learning. However, it is a very real assumption, and if you think about it, there's no reason to take repeatability for granted.

If it weren't for repeatability, cause and effect would be replaced by coincidence. Science wouldn't have a leg to stand on. On the "strictly speaking" level, this is an absurdly philosophical debate - all those wavefunctions are unknowable in practice. But on the "how should I live my life" level, it has created two large groups of people making choices based on radically different assumptions: either I can understand the world and predict the outcomes of my actions, or it's out of my hands. Of course most people use some mixture of those perspectives, and many people oscillate depending on circumstance and mood.

Repeatability has consequences for theological debates as well: if you would always make the same choice given the same conditions, then does free will exist? And if it doesn't, how can a person justly be subjected to heaven or hell after death? Maybe this is the tiny crack at the bottom of the chasm between science and religion.

The choice didn't exist 500 years ago, before the rationalists and the empiricists got going. It's strange to me that they did their work specifically because they hated the things people did out of superstition. Hate is a strong word, but guys like Voltaire devoted their lives to skewering religion just to make room for their new way of looking at the world. Now that science has brought us so many technologies, it's hardly necessary, and I'm repelled by that adversarial culture.

As you might guess, I have very much drunk the liquid nitrogen Kool-Aid. It's unfathomable to me that things might happen for no reason. But I rarely argue that others should see the world the same way, because I might be wrong. After all, I'm still learning.

User Generated Literature, the reality TV of publishing

This is the kind of literature I'm talking about. They're published by these guys, who call themselves "the cheezburger network". Now I mean no disrespect - I subscribe to an unhealthy number of their RSS feeds, plus these related ones from other entrepreneurs:A reality TV show is made by soliciting exhibitionists to improvise around a theme. They make their own humor and drama, and people watch. These websites are much the same: you come up with an idea--let's say, awkward family photos--publicize it, and watch the user submissions roll in. To make things easy on yourself, provide thumbs-up/thumbs-down buttons so your own readers can tell you what's funny. After a while, collect the highest rated ones and publish them as a book.

It's a business plan with a bottom line. Also: they're blogs.

How to choose (and remember) a secure password

According to this article, I am one of only 5% of computer users who use secure passwords.

What's a secure password? It's at least 8 characters long, mixed letters and numbers, at least one special character, and isn't in the dictionary. Why don't people use them? They don't make any sense. You can't remember random strings of text. What you can do is create functionally-random passwords that actually have meaning to you. Here's one way to do it.
First, think of your favorite pastime, hobby, or other interest - say, for example, wine. Now choose a memorable example of it; here let's work with an old favorite of ours, Markham Merlot. Cut it down (or add to it) to get it to a manageable size at least 8 characters long: MarkhamM or markhamm.
So far, this is progress: it's memorable, the correct length, and it's not in the dictionary. Why is that important? Because automated password-guessing algorithms will try every word in the English language, in addition to common choices like abc123 and phrases that can be connected to you, like your birthdate or your spouse's name. At this point you may feel frustrated, imagining that there's nothing left to use. But what's still available is proper nouns - basically anything capitalized. That's why things like rock band names often work. But we're not done yet.
Lastly we need to add some numbers and/or special characters (!@#$%, etc). My technique is to take the plain-English version of your password and replace letters with lookalikes or soundalikes. Vowels are easy: a=@, e=3, i=!, o=0. There are plenty of consonant replacements too: s=$, c=(, L=7, B=8, et cetera. These replacements are all common examples of leet-speak, the dialect adopted by early hackers to annoy the uninitiated. As a rule of thumb, I prefer to use at least two replacements. If you want to use two that require use of the shift key, put them one after the other and both on the same side of the keyboard so you can type it faster. See how practical this is?

To complete our example, we substitute #=H and @=a, and we get mark#@mm. That's easy to remember, easy to type, and almost impossible to guess--as long as you're not related to anybody named Mark Hamm.
Taken by themselves, these substitutions are inadequate, because a password guessing program can try all of them too, as variations on the dictionary and the names of your family members. But using them on a proper noun that's not associated with you makes it functionally random - at least from the perspective of automated guessers. A person who knows you might guess that you'd tweak the title of your favorite 1972 progressive rock album. Especially if they lived with you and eventually were forced to let candle wax overflow onto that record.

Of course, a greater danger than guessers is that someone will simply find your password written down--on paper, in a file on your computer, or on your PDA. Passwords that only get used once a year do get forgotten, and I confess I do record mine. However, I keep them on my PDA in a program that requires, you guessed it, a password before you can open it. That password I never forget.

The Black Angels at the Beachland, 10/12/09

The Black Angels are rock and roll the way I like it: loud, distorted, and slow. Like Neil Young circa Weld, and Low.I've put their concert poster above because a few songs into the set, the singer made a gesture to the sound man about the lights. The next thing I knew, the stage was as dark as the audience. I did take this picture....


Makes you feel like you were there, doesn't it?

I failed to get a picture of the fangirl wearing the pointy ears. This is a strange thing to see outside of a comic book convention. I ended up behind her in the audience for quite a while. We had prime real estate between the speakers, in front of the stage; she spent the entire time facing away from the band. I thought about being offended, but my righteous-indignation circuits burned out years ago from overuse. Now, I'm like, whatever.

Maybe pointy ears were appropriate considering that the Black Angels occasionally remind me of Pink Floyd circa 1967. Think "A Saucerful of Secrets." This probably says a lot about why I like this band, but I don't have the musical training to explain how. So there you go. They're a hard rock Syd Barrett for the 2000s.

Bridgeport Mill: O Joyous Metal-Eraser


I learned to use this machine last week. My only question is, WHY NOT FIFTEEN YEARS AGO?

This Bridgeport mill is a manually operated milling machine with a digital position display. Conceptually a milling machine is like a power drill pointing downwards, with the ability to move the thing you're drilling up, down, left, right, etc. You bring the workpiece to the drill, and the tip cuts away any metal in its path. Using the display, you can decide when to stop cutting with an accuracy of a thousandth of an inch.

I used it tirelessly for hours, giggling like a toddler.

I spent much of my stint in graduate school in search of appropriately shaped pieces of metal so I could perform my experiments. I learned to use drill presses, bandsaws, grinders, press brakes, shears, and all manner of hand tools, but nobody ever inducted me into the secret brotherhood of mill users. I'll never look at a piece of aluminum the same way again.

100,000 Miles


My trusty Mazda just turned over 100,000 miles. Other cars I've done the same in:
  • 1995 Acura Integra
  • 1993 Honda Civic
  • 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale
(One of these things is not like the other....) This is four of the ten cars I've owned in the last 20 years. Wow, that's a lot of cars. And a strong tendency to buy used cars with high-five-digits mileage.

Getreide-Kummel Caraway Liqueur from Cleveland, Ohio

I saw this unfamiliar bottle at the liquor store and bought it just for the thrill. The truth is, there were a dozen or so unfamiliar bottles there, and this was the cheapest. Cheap thrills, that's me.


It was on the same shelf as Fernet Branca, which tastes like ass. I can happily advise you that Getreide Kummel improves upon the taste of ass by a fair margin. It is a 70 proof caraway liqueur.

Opening the bottle without reading the label or looking it up on the web, I sniffed it and thought immediately of bratwurst. ('Wait, what?') I laughed it off with a faint shudder of disbelief and poured a glass. I sniffed again. This time, not bratwurst, but rye bread. Actually, it transported me to a meal Alice makes, where a pork roast is slow cooked in a mixture of rinsed sauerkraut and barley. And caraway. And served with rye bread. Ah ... OK.

A sweet alcohol that tastes like a youth hostel is kind of like a hot girl who communicates only in Fortran. What do you do with it? But after a while, you just do what comes naturally.

Your friendly neighborhood spider


He's back
(or one of his kids):I call him Cthulhu.

I don't know why I feel fondness for this creepy guy. (Not creepy "little" guy, because he's about an inch long.) I have to say I'm impressed; this web is bigger than a stop sign, and its anchor lines go six to ten feet outwards. Spiders must have pretty damn good vision to pull that off.

Change happens at intersections

About a month ago, Susie Sharp posted something from the Cool Twitter Conference: 'Change happens at intersections. On Twitter, don't just follow the same people all your other friends follow.' It's a tidy nugget of wisdom.

That same day I had posted a video on Facebook that someone on The WELL dug up. It was an instrumental Japanese math rock band called Nisennenmondai. Things I learn on The WELL are part of the value I bring to my other friends. The converse happens too - like my journeyman's attempts to drive traffic to the WELL discussion of Scott Rosenberg's book.

A lot of people don't understand my marriage - how can we spend so much time apart? But if we experienced everything together, we wouldn't have anything to talk about. If you start reading books about how to improve your marriage, one of the first pieces of advice you'll hear is this: don't try to be the whole world to each other. You'll fail, and you'll lose yourself in the process. Bring something fresh to it. Don't be afraid to have passions that are only your own.

Nobody learns anything in an echo chamber. When it came time to throw a birthday party, I made a point of inviting four or five different groups of friends, many of whom hadn't met each other. I was tilling the fields for a fertile cross-pollination.

There's a more abstract point I'm trying to make, and I'm not doing a very good job. Something to the effect that we need challenge and variety. Duh, right? Maybe if I throw enough examples at you, the plural of "anecdote" will become "data". I have to try.

Is your car angry or happy?

I'd like to call your attention to the redesigned front end of the 2010 Mazda3. I drive the previous version, and I like it enough at 100,000 miles to consider buying a new one down the road. But this ...I don't know if I could handle it.

First, my car:

And now the new car, "smiley":AUUUGGH!

Why is this so strange? Like pop music(*), cars are rarely happy. When cars are anthropomorphized, they're usually made to look angry or aggressive. Consider sports cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, BMW M3, Dodge Viper, etc. Grr! Maybe people want their cars to scowl so other drivers will be warned in advance of their intentions. Driving is packed full of nonverbal communication, at least if you do it consciously. One reason people sink so much money into cars (hands down the worst investment you're making) is to keep their image consistent with the rest of their driving style.

But Mazda has done this before. The first-generation Miata had a cheeky smile. Now that I think of it, the happiest pop music in my collection is also Japanese. The genre is called Shibuya-kei, and its atmosphere reflects the optimism and energy of post-WWII growth.

Maybe the reason there are so few happy-looking cars, and so little happy music, is the myth that happy people are stupid. Walk around at work smiling and someone may hand you an extra task. Drive a seething red mask and maybe people won't cut you off. Good luck with that.

(*)Pop music: Remember grunge? Emo? Punk? Now try to think of a happy pop song. If you can (OK: the Pelican West album by Haircut 100), then try to think of a happy pop genre. BZZT, time's up.

How science works: peer review

'How science works' is a professional topic I'm in a good position to explain to the general public and am not prevented from talking about due to competitive pressures. As I see examples, I'll repost them here with notes.

Ars Technica has posted a brief article about the peer review process, more specifically, how scientists feel about it. Peer review is the process of showing a scientific paper to other scientists before allowing it to be published. The other scientists read the paper in detail and make sure that it's self-consistent and not trivial.

Peer review is managed by the editors of scientific journals - say, for example, Physical Review B, Condensed Matter and Materials Physics. Such journals embody the institutional memory of a discipline. The reviews are written by volunteers, often chosen from authors who have published in the journal before. Writing useful reviews regularly is a good way to get on an editor's good side. Because the journal only has to manage the process, and not actually do it, it's unlikely that peer review is contributing to the ongoing explosion in journal prices. That's a separate topic I might discuss, though I'm largely out of that game.

The changing voice of nonfiction

This one's for you, John.

A blogger I've just begun to read, Magic Molly, posted recently about a cookbook from 1927. I was struck by this quote:
The book is written in that kind omnipotent voice that was popular before we became self-obsessed and began to use personal pronouns like commas, around the late sixties (I think).
I suspect she's talking about a transition from passive voice to first- or third-person narrative, but I don't think often enough about the technical details of English usage to really be sure.

I enjoy trying to figure out what decade something was written by looking at the font and layout. It never occurred to me until now that perspective could change with the whim of fashion.

Compartmentalization

Now that I've finished the blogging book, I've begun reading "A Hidden Wholeness" by Parker J. Palmer. That may seem like an odd segue, like listening to Brian Eno after King Crimson, but what these two books have in common is that they are both about community.

In the first few pages, Palmer puts his finger on an important point: that we teach ethics as if it were a set of external rules, not something to be internalized. We have employee handbooks, and we have the real behaviors that people engage in. Of the many words he could have chosen to describe this disconnect, he uses "compartmentalization". People sometimes put their actions in one compartment and their principles in another.

I've only begun the book, but this makes me wonder how to reach past that barrier, across compartments, to reach a student's soul. (We are students as long as we choose to be.) I remember September 11th, and stock market crashes, the deaths of loved ones, and venerable American institutions disappearing, and I think of the sickening thud I feel when something that felt permanent goes away. When the status quo changes, a window opens, and there is an opportunity to reach the soul. And, of course, when we choose to open that window ourselves, when we choose to be students.

***

Casting about for a bookmark, I grabbed a very old one from Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the back I had written this quote:
Does tolerance necessarily require a relativism that goes to the depths of men's and women's souls, depriving them of their natural right to prefer and to learn about the beautiful?
From "Love and Friendship", by Allan Bloom. Perhaps a quote from the controversial The Closing of the American Mind would have been more appropriate here.

Scott Rosenberg, "Say Everything": speak to the author

As I posted previously, Scott Rosenberg, co-founder and former tech columnist for Salon, has written a book about blogging. There is a discussion with the author going on at The WELL.

The conversation's started. Here's a link to the discussion itself. If that doesn't work, here's a link to the front page of the Inkwell area (which normally has several discussions going in parallel).

Happily, the conversation page has an RSS feed. Down in post 8 there's an email address where you can send questions. (I won't repost it here in order to keep from straining their spamfilters.)

As I've gone through the book, it's been fascinating to watch blogging evolve and ultimately see how it fits in with the newer forms of social media. For a surprisingly long time, blogging was the best way for people to put their perspectives out there; now we've got better ways to issue short status updates, post photos or videos, etc. That leaves blogging better defined as a venue for extended-form writing.

California burns beautifully

It's a raw week for theparsley, a landscape architect in California blogging about how the fires threaten landscapes. The beauty of the dirty sunsets clashes with the knowledge that people are dying. Nerves are exposed here too.
I’ve got to stop tagging every post with “love and loss.” [....] in every post, I will discuss how each thing we gain has inside of it the seed of its loss. and a few people will read it, and they will get depressed. but that’s not my intention.

Clever-land, Cleave-land

A coworker at one of my company's Asian offices made a highly complimentary mistake in their English: Cleveland became Cleverland. What would Moses Cleaveland think?

To cleave:
  1. to adhere closely; stick; cling (usually fol. by to).
  2. to remain faithful (usually fol. by to): to cleave to one's principles in spite of persecution.
  3. to split or divide by or as if by a cutting blow, esp. along a natural line of division, as the grain of wood.
  4. to make by or as if by cutting: to cleave a path through the wilderness.
  5. to penetrate or pass through (air, water, etc.): The bow of the boat cleaved the water cleanly.
  6. to cut off; sever: to cleave a branch from a tree.
Clever:
  1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.
  2. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.
  3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem.
  4. adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble.
Either is fine, actually.

The Birthday Party

On Saturday we threw a party for my 40th birthday. We invited old friends and new - family, coworkers, bloggers, wine tasters, people from all sides of my life. It was what you'd expect a party to be: hard work to prepare for, a little chaotic to execute, and a lot of fun to experience and remember.

It must have been a little odd for my coworkers (just to pick an example) to look around at 30-odd unfamiliar faces and wonder what to say. Should I have celebrated my birthday with cupcakes at work, and later opened a fine bottle with my fellow wine afficionados, and so on, just to keep them all comfortable? I don't think so. I've become convinced that we need these aimless conversations with new people to expand our lives. There is also a place for ever-deeper conversations with those who know us well, but that isn't enough. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say we all need villages. If there has been any lesson in the last 18 months of my life, that is it.

There are some pictures on Facebook (my profile is public). More have been graciously posted by Heidi Cool at her flickr stream. Thanks Heidi!

How to: repair a broken fan in an external hard drive


I'm feeling kind of proud of myself after this ordeal, so I decided to post about it.A couple months after I bought this Maxtor OneTouch III external hard drive, it started making honking, buzzing noises. I like the fact that the enclosure has a fan (most don't) to actively keep the drive cool; I've had drives fail from overheating in the past. After a couple more months of ugly noises, it fell silent; the fan was dead. I decided to either repair the enclosure or move the drive to a new one.

I found it remarkably difficult to open. This page instructs you to open the drive by making yourself a finicky little tool to pop open several internal hooks. However, this YouTube video tells you you can just tear it off with brute force. I opted for the latter. (I have a spare enclosure in case this one couldn't be reassembled.)

The fan is tiny, only 30mm square. I found only this one in that size, so I ordered a couple. Once they arrived, I discovered they run on 12V whereas the fan they're replacing runs on 5V. DC motors usually will run on lower voltages, only slower, so I gave it a try. However, using a variable voltage source I found that the new fan would not start moving until the voltage exceeded 9V, so the 5V source wouldn't cut it.

Luckily the enclosure's power brick supplies 12V, so I knew it would be available in there somewhere. It turned out that two of the four power wires feeding the drive itself carried 12V, so I spliced them to tap in the fan wires. The drive wires were very short. The only way I was able to make the spliced wire reach the drive was by cutting all the excess plastic off the bottom of the twist connectors (blue, at the upper right corner in the photo).

I plugged it in. I turned it on. The drive came on. The fan came on. Woo! Hoo!

Upcoming book discussion: "Say Everything" by Scott Rosenberg

Scott Rosenberg, Salon's co-founder and tech columnist, has written a book about blogging. I've always appreciated the long-range perspective he brings to tech issues, where so much of the coverage provides up-to-the-minute detail but no meaningful context. I mentioned on the Social Media Club site that this book will be discussed on a publicly-readable part of The WELL, starting September 2. Normally The WELL provides an email address where nonmembers can send questions for the author.

The current plan is that I will lead the discussion - though that means little more than keeping it from wandering too far afield. I'm absolutely flattered at that; the WELL is home turf for some real powers in the blogging world: Bruce Sterling (Wired, etc), Mark Frauenfelder (BoingBoing, MAKE), etc. What I hope to bring to the discussion is my perspective as a recent learner of blogging alongside other, newer social media services. What I hope to learn from the book is how network-building has been put into action in blogging. I'm looking forward to spending my next few weeks with the book.

Debugging and the Scientific Method

The coders among you will appreciate this: Can we teach debugging? The post talks about debugging as a programmer-specific application of the scientific method, and suggests that we should do a better job of teaching it. I agree. In fact, I was shocked to realize that this was the first time I can recall anyone actually defining "the scientific method" for me. I've never been anything but a scientist, but evidently the philosophy of science wasn't core curriculum in my schools.

The author doesn't actually identify himself at flatline.net, but I found it from a link in his other blog. He is a designer, art metalworker, MAKEr, etc., and lives in the Pittsburgh area, not too far from here. And just because I like to illuminate connections, I'll tell you that you could find All Art Burns, and this blog, in the unofficial WELL blogs aggregator.

Swimming in the Blue Hole

Oh, oh, oh, this guy is good. When you get a few minutes, read this. "Time to eat the dogs" is quite a name for a blog - it refers to that moment in an Arctic expedition when drastic measures have to be taken to preserve life. The blog is about exploration of the natural world, but this post is more personal.

Robinson's post starts with a nagging desire to push his own limits, a theme I've touched on a few times myself. Doing so, he has a shocking, perspective-altering experience, and it becomes a touchstone among his friends for decades. A metaphor. Milan Kundera once wrote that metaphors are dangerous: to assign meaning to a chance event on a first date can influence a relationship forever. Robinson also addresses this, finally wondering after decades if shock is really necessary for growth.

My own life has been a punctuated equilibrium, eras of stasis interrupted by short periods of total openness, rearrangement, and change. Only now am I finally finding a happy medium. I'm always happy to hear from fellow travelers like this.

Microwriting

Technologies come and go, and each affects our style of communication. I've been thinking lately about the craft of writing, and what happens to other craftsmen when their habitual modes of expression change. What will Twitter do to long-form writing?

New technologies are often accompanied by proclamations of doom - 'the TV is turning us into couch potatoes'. I imagine that early telephones, allowing people to talk without seeing one another's body language, hyperdeveloped their users' sensitivity to tone of voice. Email wiped out that channel of communication too, leaving some to blather and navelgaze while others learned to use complete sentences. Texting on numeric keypads rewarded economy. Twitter enforces a limit of 140 characters. I'm sure that someone filled with righteous indignation has already proclaimed the doom of long-form English because the new generation of writers has grown up with emoticons, lolspeak, and #hashtags.

When you drive, staying within the lines probably almost comes automatically compared to when you were 17. Repeated obedience to the constraints of the process has worn those necessities into your neural pathways, so the effort is less. And so our new writers have learned to work on numeric keypads or within 140 characters.

Here's another tangent. The startup chime for Windows 95 was written by musician Brian Eno. Eno's avant-garde rock masterpieces often stretched the limits of their media: he put 20-plus-minute songs on vinyl LP sides and he had recently filled a compact disc with a single track. But this job was something different. The following excerpts an interview with him in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996.
The thing from the agency said, "We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional," this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said "and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long."

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.
Oceans of time, for a man who always seemed to want his music to move more slowly. Oceans of words, perhaps, for writers for whom words were free until Twitter came along. I'm confident that they will use their words economically. Ease teaches us nothing. It is only against resistance that we grow strong.

Changing fields, and what's in your toolbox

This week I created the first prototype for a project I've been working on for two and a half years. I was given this task on literally my first day of work in late 2006. I had just changed professional fields. It took me that long to get the tools I needed to solve this problem.

Changing fields is normal, if not inevitable. Long ago a person entering a new line of work may have been looked upon with suspicion, as if they had failed, but now it's seen as a sign of growth and ambition. As a materials scientist, I've worked in three fields and I'm not yet 40 years old. In grad school I worked on thin film surface coatings. My first job was in friction and wear, which involved some wear-resistant coatings, but mostly not. In late 2006 I began working on semiconductor materials, which is about as far from lubrication as you can get while still being materials-related. My education provided the background for it all, but every new set of problems had to be approached with its own set of tools.

How long does it take to reach peak productivity in a new field? The hardest problems involve multiple interdependent challenges, and these are the problems people get hired to solve. You need to be at your peak productivity to solve them. If you've just changed fields, at first you won't even know what tools you'll need, but if you keep learning and stay open to possibilities you'll find a way. In my case, it meant learning about all the surrounding parts and assembly techniques that go into my company's products, and admitting that tweaking the semiconductors alone couldn't solve the problem.

Think back to the jobs you've taken, and the problems you were hired to solve there. Whether it was designing a next-generation product or getting two teams to cooperate or selling into a new market, they probably hired you to do something they couldn't figure out how to do. You probably weren't expected to show up and tick off checkboxes all day. If so, you probably got replaced by a machine before too long.

It takes time to fill your toolbox. Approaching problems as a stranger, though, can often give you novel ideas - and novel ideas are the kind that are needed when your employer's conventional wisdom didn't work. Best of all, as your career goes on, you build two advantages: first, broad practical experience; and second, mental flexibility.

Our crowded garden


So much growth in just two months! I took these pictures on the 18th. Here's Alice standing under the tomato plants:See all the yellow flowers in the middle of the picture below? We're gonna have a lotta cucumbers....Which, by the way, taste amazing. We have several varieties of tomato, snow peas, pod peas, green beans, cucumbers, carrots, beets, several kinds of lettuce, several kinds of hot peppers, green and red bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and five or six different herbs. All this makes cooking so much more rewarding.

Incredibly Useful Meetup Calendar Tricks

You can see any, or all, of your meetup.com groups' calendars on Google Calendar. Then you can turn their visibility on and off by clicking them under "other calendars" on your Google Calendar page.

To do it for all your meetup groups together:
  1. Go to "Your Meetup Groups" on meetup.com.
  2. At the bottom of the list you will see "feeds of your meetup groups".
  3. Right-click the "iCal" link to the right of that
  4. Click "copy link location"
  5. Go to your Google calendar
  6. On the left side, under "other calendars", click Add
  7. Click "add by URL"
  8. Click inside the box labeled "public calendar address" and do a Paste
  9. You will see a long strange URL that begins with "webcal://www.meetup.com/events/ical"
  10. Click the Add button
  11. Go back to your Google Calendar page and you'll see all your meetup events in their own color!
  12. To turn their visibility on and off, look under "other calendars" on the left and click the colored box "My Meetups".
Wow. It's like an RSS feed for your social life. To do it for individual groups, go to the group's calendar page on meetup, for example,
http://www.meetup.com/clevelandwine/calendar/
You'll see two months' worth of calendar. At the bottom it says "subscribe to a feed of this calendar" with an iCal link. You can use this iCal link the same way I described above, to put one group's meetup events into your calendar and be able to turn its visibility on and off separately.

One of the wonderful things about Cleveland is how many things there are to do during the summer months. Many things all on the same evening! It's like drinking from the firehose. I and other members of the Social Media Club have been having scheduling conflicts and we're looking for a solution. upcoming.yahoo.com has also presented itself as a possibility. I like the idea of feeding all of my calendar sources into my Google Calendar and turning their visibilities on and off depending on what I'm looking for. Thoughts?

*****

NOTE: upcoming.yahoo.com also provides Google Calendar feeds. Here's the page for Cleveland: only 1191 events, that's all. Firehose! Click the "subscribe" box and then click "add to google calendar". Or maybe you could choose to be more selective, like subscribing to The Grog Shop's calendar.

Mixed message marketing: free pastries for tree killers

Yesterday was "free pastry day" at our beloved Starbucks(*). Word went out on the company's web site, via email, and on social media sites like Facebook.

So why did they require customers to bring a printed coupon to get their pastry?

This event was promoted electronically, which is great, and social media probably spread the word pretty well. But isn't it dumb for an environmentally conscious company to require people to download and print out coupons? (I haven't replaced the printer I bought in 1998 because I hardly print anything anymore.) And if the customer doesn't--a likely scenario if they heard about the promotion online--they stand in the store fuming, pay full price for a picked-over selection, or go away hungry.

I am kind of expecting SBUX to get spanked in the social media backlash over this one.

(*)Disclaimer: we own stock because Alice was once an employee.

Play, reprise: Twitter

Apropos my recent post, the blog Murketing describes tweeting as play. I can't really comment because I don't use Twitter, but Rob belabors some of the same saws I do. Also, his writing feels uncannily like mine.

One point Rob makes is that Twitter users describe it as productive because that's more socially acceptable than calling it play. Remember me saying people justify DIY by saying it saves money? Yeah. We find it necessary to rationalize so many healthy things. What healthy things aren't we doing because we can't rationalize them? Things like, maybe, nothing?

T-shirts by My Future Past

Just for kicks, I've launched a T-shirt store. It's called T-shirts by My Future Past, at CafePress. I make up the designs in Photoshop, then CafePress prints them one at a time. Anyone can order - I'd be honored and amused to meet one of my shirts on the street! The one I posted a picture of recently is there, along with a worksafe version.

Here's one for the environmentalist in you:I say it's just for fun because I'm not making any profit on them. CafePress allows designers to mark up their products and earn money, but I haven't done that. The prices are whatever CafePress charges for the shirt - organic cotton costs more, for example. And they'll only let me use each type of shirt once ("dark men's fitted T-shirt" or whatever) so there's a large range of prices. If you'd like a design printed on a particular type of shirt, let me know; I can make that shirt available by temporarily taking down another design.

Here's another alcohol-themed one:

Bikepsycho success

On Saturday I finally went for a bike ride without blowing a tire. I went to the Tow Path trailhead at Harvard Road and rode the path south for ten miles and then back. I was glad I was physically able to do it.

I saw a lot of wildlife. I lost count after a dozen dwarf rabbits - the northernmost mile or two of the path is lousy with them. The babies would have fit in my hand sideways. I'm glad I went the full 10 miles because I saw a deer at the end, first on the other side of the creek and then, when I turned around, right on my path. Also: a blue heron and a muskrat.

I'm looking forward to doing this regularly. Maybe next time I'll try to take pictures. Well, maybe not.

I Choose Cleveland

Today is the 4th of July. It's a day when, if you're one of those people who sneeringly say everything Europe does is better than the US, then you simply have to shut up. It's a day to be thankful for what the US does well and for the efforts of those who made it this way. Happy Independence Day!

I moved to Cleveland from Chicago in late 2006. I was puzzled at the muted awe Clevelanders expressed at my mention of Chicago - it was nice there, but it wasn't Nirvana. When I would mention the move, the most common response was actually "why?" Eventually I began to notice an undercurrent of disparagement directed towards Cleveland - and the worst offenders were usually natives. The negativity first made me wonder if I had made the right choice in moving here, and then made me angry that my judgement was being called into question. And I echo: why?

Why? It's a pose. It's the public face of a person too afraid or too weak to stand up in favor of anything. It's pretending that nothing is good enough for them. It's hipsterism.

Examples? When I called to cancel my subscription to the Plain Dealer, they asked me why. Not wishing to explain to this nice lady that I thought her employer was obsolete, I made up the more palatable lie that I was moving out of town. She asked me to where, and I replied Chicago. Her response? A cheerful "oh good for you!" This, from a representative of the local newspaper. Congratulations on leaving. My mind reeled.

Oh, and let's not forget the sickening "fake tourist videos" one and two. These are utterly toxic, lacking the faintest shred of positivity; even the punch line at the end of the second one is degrading.

Well. FUCK THAT NOISE.

I chose Cleveland. I choose Cleveland today and every day that I wake up. I will not have my judgement questioned by people who don't have an uplifting word to say about anything. Nor will I stand idly by and let those comments go unanswered. Why NOT Cleveland? What will you do to make it BETTER, hipster asshole? You can start by quitting spewing POISON.

I'm not in favor of unconditional boosterism. Mindlessness on either side doesn't help. This is not a public service announcement. I've never bought the argument that Cleveland is actually awesome because of its world-class museum and orchestra and hospital; other cities this size have a few great things too, but they don't have this counterproductive mixture of narcissism and self-loathing. No, I want to focus on the day to day things that make life here good. The restaurants are good. The weather's never awful and usually pretty nice. Housing is cheap. And I have friends - honestly, right now I want to weep with gratitude at the wonderful people I've come to know here. I am happier here than I have ever been.

Yeah, I choose Cleveland. I hope you will too. And happy Independence Day!

How do adults play?

I hadn't thought much about the concept of play until I saw two adults do it really badly. What started out as a game of predicting the winners of a reality TV show descended into a shouting match about how they should play. I thought to myself, wasn't that supposed to be fun? It was then that I realized that what I had witnessed was play.

For the young, play is practice (watch two puppies play-fight sometime) and exploration. Adults aren't supposed to need those things anymore, or at least that's what they tell us, so it's uncool in many circles to admit you're still playing D&D. But we play golf and video games. This made me wonder more broadly about how adults play.

A quick stop at Wikipedia provides a partial definition that play is always voluntary and done without the prospect of material gain. I was particularly struck by this quote: "According to Stephen Nachmanovitch, play is the root and foundation of creativity in the arts and sciences also as in daily life." Sciences! Could it be that my work as a scientist depends on play?

This line of inquiry coincided with some well-timed posts by other bloggers. First, Art of Manliness included play on their list of 30 things one could do to be a better man. Shortly thereafter, Gretchen at The Happiness Project quoted Carl Jung saying that "the creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

I think of play as mental experimentation constrained by improvised, changeable rules. It is continually asking: what if? Einstein explained his theories of relativity using "gedankenexperiments", thought-experiments. Here, again, is the link to science. Openness to possibility is necessary for play and certainly necessary for success in science.

What have I been playing with lately? T-shirts. For years I've kept a list of pithy slogans I'd love to wear. For Alice's birthday recently, I took the next step and had one printed for her. It says "ALL THIS" in three-inch letters, and below it in small type, "and brains too." This shirt, and several others, are available at my online store at CafePress. I did the designs myself, with my limited skill as an illustrator. The prices are what CafePress charges; I haven't applied any markup so I don't make money on it. (No prospect of material gain here!) Oddly, CafePress will only let me use each type of shirt once, so all the prices are different.

A blogreader with comments? Unfortunately, no.

As a blogger, I read other blogs--many of them about local goings-on, written by people I've met--and occasionally read or post comments. Comments are one of our basic tools for establishing ties between blogs (another is linking to other blogs in our own posts). But following conversations in comments isn't easy. Every day I witness new wonders in the world of social media - can't we do this better?

I read blogs in Google Reader. It's one of many such services, and it provides a nice minimalist presentation of the content. But what it doesn't do is show me people's comments on the posts I'm reading. I figured that couldn't be difficult, so a couple months ago I set out to find a blog reader service (or application) where I could read comments.

I quickly found this blog post from late 2007, saying that Bloglines fits the bill. The author also does a nice job of explaining why it's important. So I signed up for Bloglines - but the feature is currently nowhere to be found.

My second search revealed a directory of RSS aggregators, with a handy row entitled "has_subscribe_to_comments". I jotted down the names of the aggregators with a check mark in that row:
FeedEachOther
FeedLounge
GreatNews v1.0 beta, Windows, June 2007
MonkeyChow
NewsIsFree
RSS Bandit v1.8, Windows, October 2008
I went down the list and investigated each one. Four were defunct. GreatNews appeared to be available, but there hadn't been an update in two years. RSS Bandit showed promise, but to make a long story short, the feature only works on blogs that use an obscure protocol (CommentAPI), to wit, the blogs written by the authors of that program and virtually none others.

Aargh. Can this possibly be so difficult? I can understand not allowing people to *post* comments from a reader, but at least we should be able to read them!

Another approach is to use a third-party service, such as FriendFeed or Google Reader Sharing or about a thousand others like them. Users of those services are posting and reading comments about a blog post, but not doing it at the blog itself. This does not build community, in fact, it splinters it; this separate collection of comments is only visible to those within that specific third-party network.

My current workaround goes like this. The great majority of blogs allow readers to subscribe to RSS feeds of the comments on individual posts. (In Blogspot, you can only do this when viewing an individual post, not from the home page or the comment-posting page.) So when I read a post I like, I click through from Google Reader to the source page; there, I read the comments and subscribe to the comments' RSS feed. These comment feeds are added to my Google Reader subscriptions - which is rapidly being overwhelmed with clutter. Still, it's better than nothing.

Quiet, part 2

"Quiet" has become an important word for me, a word that follows me around and guides me. It's part of my quest to listen to myself, to figure out what motivates me and what makes me happy. Quiet sometimes means literal silence (leave the stereo off) and sometimes it means stepping away from the chatter of the computer; sometimes it means skipping the cocktail party, or just not having wine with dinner to keep my thoughts clearer. Not all the time - but we give ourselves so many distractions and once in a while you have to get away from them. As I've thought about it and tried to practice it, I've become convinced that this is why men go fishing, or hunting, or golfing: it's quiet.

Thanks to a recommendation from John Ettorre, (with a great thread of comments) I've been slowly reading "Listening Below the Noise" by Anne D. Leclaire. Savoring it, sort of, rationing it out as I know that if I read too much at a sitting it won't sink in. On at least one stressful occasion, having read it earlier that day gave me the presence of mind to say the right thing and be a better man.

There's a whole set of skills, a mindset or a perspective, that have come into focus for me recently, related to the practice of having a directed life or a directed career. Quiet is one of the skills that contributes to identifying the direction you want to go. Passion--in my boss's words, engagement--is the hallmark of a person who is actually doing what they want to do. People who are passionate about their work go home energized, not exhausted. Networking is a skill for moving your career in that direction. If you know your direction, networking is natural. If you're reacting, instead of acting, it's not.

Noise is anaesthetic. Quiet is necessary for life.

CLE Social Media Club: eBook and Site Launch

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at the launch party for this great collaborative eBook and its accompanying site. Heidi Cool, the site architect, has posted a nice thorough round-up of the salient links, along with some history of the project.

My involvement was, first, to write a chapter for the eBook which appeared in draft form at this post. Then I joined the "editorial team" bringing the 19 chapters into alignment with respect to English usage. Finally, I was one of the three presenters at the launch party. I wish I'd been able to practice my talk more, but I think I got my points across.

Hmm ... I think I might clean up the "notes" portion of the presentation and make it available somewhere.

It's been a very stone-soup affair. Self-organizing, like some kind of emergent phenomenon, it was just a bunch of people with something to say getting together to speak with a unified theme. It was Dominic Litten's inspiration to start the SMCCLE, and George Nemeth's encouragement helped bring the eBook into existence. This is George's particular talent: harnessing energies without telling people what to do; identifying passions and aligning them to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It's been a really energizing project - thanks to all.

Night bloomers

Day:

Night:

These flowers are called "night bloomers". During the day, they look like they've shriveled up, but at night, their large intense yellow petals open wide. I think they're wonderful.

Face-to-face reprise: email banned

Today I ran across a link saying that a PR firm had put in place a permanent ban on internal email and IM.

Ahem. Not email my coworkers?

My first reaction was, "Wow, that would be a great answer when an interviewer asks why you're looking for a job: 'they took away my email.'"

But listen to their motivations: "we were having conflict conversations over email ... in order to avoid the person, but still say what had to be said." Red flag! Once they implemented a temporary ban, they started getting positive feedback:
With email, you don’t hear the tone in someone’s voice, nor can you quickly ask for clarification. Instead, your find yourself analyzing the message: Do they sound upbeat? Are they upset? Do they not care? Now that we’re talking face-to-face, the unknowns are gone and we get to the answer much more quickly.
Well now, that sounds familiar. Tone of voice, level of interest, all these subtextual and sometimes subliminal things help us communicate. I encourage you to click through the above link to the original post and read the rich list of comments from the workers at this firm.

In related news, I'll be making an oral presentation on this topic at the Social Media Club Cleveland eBook Launch Party. I'm pretty proud of the eBook (I contributed a chapter, which also appeared on this blog) and I've become something of an evangelist on this topic.

.....

BTW, I found this story through the Coudal Partners Fresh Signals RSS feed, a very active group microblog from a Chicago PR firm. It's highly entertaining (if often inscrutable) and IMO is actually more like a "directory of wonderful things" than BoingBoing has been in years.

Generalized theory of binary social interactions

Observation: If you're at a poker table and you can't figure out who the sucker is, it's you.

Observation: If the traffic you're driving in seems to be all idiots and no assholes, then the asshole is you.

Theorem: In situations where there are only two kinds of people, and you can only see one kind, then you are an example of the other kind.

My lawn has stripes.


I stood in my driveway today getting ready to mow the lawn and confirmed a suspicion I've had for a couple weeks: my lawn has stripes. In this photo, especially in the more-distant parts, there are alternating light and dark green bands going from left to right.

In early spring, we spread some weed&feed on the lawn using one of those plastic push-carts that broadcasts pellets. I remember pushing it back and forth from the sidewalk (on the right above) to the house. Evidently I should have overlapped a bit more.

I guess that stuff works. *shrug*

How to: transition from a Treo to an iPod Touch and a plain old cell phone

Times are tough. Maybe last year you had the cash to pay for your own smartphone, but now paying the phone company for that high-dollar data plan isn't so attractive. One solution is to go back to carrying two devices, a PDA and a plain old phone.

Alice and I have been Palm users for about ten years. We love the PDA functions and the third-party software, but the current Palm OS reminds me of Mac OS 7.5. It is, as they say, beyond all redemption. As I approached upgrade time for my Treo, I wanted to save money. Then in the space of a month, I talked to two people who were using the Apple iPod Touch as a PDA, because all the applications written for the iPhone will run on it too.

So I simultaneously changed PDA platforms and downgraded from a smartphone to a conventional phone. Here's how it went.

*****

Calendar:
This was easy. I was already using GooSync to synchronize my Palm calendar with my Google calendar (which is my Firefox home page). Google offers google sync to synchronize the Google calendar with the iPod calendar, and it works so well that I quickly forgot I'd installed it.

Mail:
Once logged in to Google, I linked my gmail account to the Mail app on the iPod. Poof, done. (However, this caused me a lot of grief later, which I'll post about eventually.)

Contacts:
I'm told that if I were an Outlook user, this would have been easy, but I'd been syncing the Palm to Palm Desktop. I had to export my contacts and do major cleanup in Excel. Since I now lacked a desktop PIM program, I decided to make use of an old Mac that had been collecting dust. I imported the cleaned-up data into Apple's Address Book application and synced them to the iPod. It mostly worked - the email addresses imported incorrectly and I need to fix them in Address Book.

I should note here that I tried using google sync between my iPod contacts and my gmail contacts. I don't advise it - this sync is strictly a beta-quality service from Google. Several of my gmail contacts were deleted in the attempt, though I haven't lost any email.

Passwords:
On the Palm, I kept dozens of password hints in a Contacts category with their security set to "private". There's no such thing as a private contact on the iPod, so I downloaded the mSecure app. Here, too, I had to clean up the data in Excel before re-importing it. But mSecure works really well - better, actually, than the main contacts.

Memos and to-do list:
I've had the iPod for a month and, unbelievably, I still don't have this data in it. It looks like Evernote will work for my memos; there's a desktop client and the basic service is free. But for my To Do list, I'm still searching for something with import/export that will back up its data when I sync. I tried one program that promised to sync with Google Tasks, but I discovered that only tasks with due dates get synced, and it won't import.

iPhone apps are mostly a few bucks. Mostly that's all they're worth. Your PIM data is your most valuable data; it deserves to be platform-portable, synced, and backed up. These cheap apps don't do those things.

The phone:
My provider couldn't/wouldn't (I got a lot of attitude at the tech support counter) transfer my ~500 contacts from my Treo to my new conventional phone. They literally told me my only option was to hire a 12-year-old to peck them into the phone. Horseshit. I knew the phone's manufacturer provided a software suite so I bought a data cable, but the phone wasn't supported. Ultimately I signed up for an online Contacts service with my cell phone provider, and cut-and-pasted the fifty or so most important contacts into my web browser. They synced to the phone and I'm reasonably happy.

Data:
I did get a data plan for the phone, just in case I need to Google something when I'm outside of Wifi range. Its WAP browser is thoroughly disappointing - I'll probably cancel it even though it only costs a third of what I was paying before. It's still too much to pay for something I don't use.

*****

The iPod Touch makes my Treo feel like it was made of mud and straw baked in the sun. Looking at the Web on it is actually pleasant, which surprises me. And, oh yeah, it works pretty well for music and photos. But my new phone feels like the Motorola E815 I ditched two years ago. It's as though the user interface was designed by an engineer with a checklist of features to implement, and nobody asked the users. Surely we can do better than this.