What a difference a year makes

I started this blog one year ago today. It's foggy in my memory; I was such a different man then. Such gut-wrenching events, and always I reacted, always passive, never acting, envisioning, moving forwards. The measure of how much I have changed is the fact that I had actually forgotten.

This week is also the anniversary of our wedding. It has been eight years. We hope to buy a nice piece of fish to cook, and have a quiet evening at home. I love you, Alice.


The title of this post is an inside joke. Bob Guinea was a reality TV show contestant and we handed around his book about his fake experiences for laughs. The joke, of course, is on us for having watched the show in the first place. But it was as good an excuse as any to get together for beers.

Unforgettable food problems

  • Deliquescing potatoes
  • Smoking tar in a coffeepot
  • Spoiled meat helpfully dragged out of your garbage by a raccoon in July
  • The hot peppers your translator won't eat
  • Fernet Branca
Things that Fernet Branca tastes like:
"medicine. You’re going to hate it, I promise."
"the end of a bad marriage, all bile and bitterness followed by a certain sulky relief."
"a mixture of aromatherapy essences and dilute Marmite."
"somewhere between pine-scented lysol and baking-soda toothpaste with hints of anise, molasses and ashtray."

Gender roles and the middle ground

I recently posted about the need for a male coming-of-age ritual. The question of how to be a man in today's society has inspired a fair amount of blogging, the best of which is, in my opinion, at Art of Manliness. Last week AoM's Brett and Kate McKay reiterated some of their blog's principles and motivations.

I don't have much to add, beyond reposting it because I think it's important. But it makes me think of Milk and how the gay/lesbian movement became the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered movement. People fought to be accepted as gays; later, some people found being gay just as exclusive as being straight, and wanted to be bisexual. I'm probably oversimplifying, but this is the nutshell version of history I was once taught.

It's time for men to find a middle ground between being chauvinistic and being nothing. I'm not sure which is worse.

Gaming the system

"Find The Raincoat" is shorthand, in our family, for gaming the system. The source is an anecdote about a business trip, long ago, where the traveler was sent away on such short notice that he arrived at his destination with nothing to keep the rain from ruining his suit. He bought a raincoat, and included it on his expense report. The company declined to reimburse him for it. He then revised his expense report, removing the raincoat but modifying other items, and resubmitted it with the exact same total. And a note reading "find the raincoat".

That traveler had to game the expense-report system to get reimbursed for an expense that the company forced him to incur. My car's automatic transmission forces me to plan ahead and manipulate it to get acceleration when I need it (this is why expensive cars have powertrains described as "responsive"). When people take short cuts across lawns (see The Parsley, a blog about landscape architecture), they're doing the same thing.

Gaming the system is an indication that the system doesn't do what its users want it to do. The designers' vision (or budget) was inadequate. On the other hand, some systems are built without any concrete expectations of how they'll be used. The fractally expanding world of social media is a prominent example. In many social media platforms, gaming the system is the point; the technology has just been thrown out there. It is almost literally a game to explore all the possibilities.

At this week's blogger meetup, Bill Callahan pointed out that a few years ago, the discussion at these meetups was almost all about the content of the blogs--current events, politics--and hardly at all about the mechanics. The expansion of technology has brought a whole new generation of curious users with it. I'm guessing that this is in addition to the political bloggers, but I'm too new to the scene to say.

So there is a difference between a system that's the only tool available for an unavoidable task (like sidewalks or your car's transmission) and a system made available for people to do--or choose not to do--new things. Between rigidity (you might say obligation) and flexibility or choice. Where is the raincoat in this analogy? Probably in the first category.

Five Bad Wine Names

Burning Tires Merlot
Sauvignon Plonk
Sleeveless Undershirt Chianti
Purple Drank
Hipster Asshole Cabernet

Residential energy efficiency: Topics

As I become inspired to do so, I'll be "running the numbers" on various aspects of residential energy efficiency. Here's a list of some of the topics I have in mind. Comments may spur me on, so speak up. For starters, check out the Department of Energy's excellent "Your Home" site.
The basics: First, how much energy leaks through your home's insulation and window and door seals. Second, the efficiencies of your main heating and cooling appliances, your furnace and air conditioner.

Occupant comfort: Heating or cooling small parts of the home to allow you to spend less energy on the rest. Sweaters; cieling fans; warm floors.

The System: in an engineering sense; you draw a dotted line around the house and account for all energy going in or out. Establishing a thermodynamics basis for where the energy goes while it's inside the house.

Utilizing waste heat: the energy in your hot water heater flue, furnace flue, and dryer flue; in the hot water down the drain at your shower, dishwasher, and laundry. How much energy is it compared to your insulation losses?

Electrical heating, intentional and unintentional: Lights; power leakage from appliances, wallwart AC adapters, etc. Note that this heating is helpful in the winter but counterproductive in the summer!

Ways of collecting the energy available to you: solar heat energy on your roof and driveway; wind; maybe even the potential energy of rain going downhill.

Alternative cooling: Evaporative cooling ("swamp cooler") when temperature is high and humidity is low; geothermal.

Your home's context: how lousy municipal power plant efficiencies are; waste heat utilization through campus combined power/heat systems.
My motivation for writing about these topics is the sense that people don't think beyond the off-the-shelf solutions. The farthest anybody seems to go is to hire an insulation crew. If this series of posts was about eating, what if you had every meal at a restaurant? I feel like I'm pointing out that there's food that literally GROWS ON TREES, and it's not full of SALT AND FAT, and it's even good for the PLANET. I'm stretching the metaphor - but I'm sure there are loads of little things we can do to reduce our use without sacrificing any comfort or convenience.

Fear of Inbox Zero

Lately as I've juggled commitments and searched for quiet time for myself, it occurred to me that quiet time is not something everybody wants. I wondered to myself "what if I just ignored Google Reader for a while, to make time to do something completely different, or do nothing." And I understood that for some people, the treadmill serves a purpose, and to do nothing is anathema.

Google Reader is an example of an inbox - communications pile up there until you deal with them. Most of us have a lot of inboxes: work and personal emails, voice mails and texts, recorded TiVo/PVR programs, magazines we subscribe to, a stack of books we plan to read, et cetera. Something like TiVo is supposed to make your life more convenient, by letting you watch only what you want, when you want it. But a funny thing happened to early adopters: the hard drive full of unwatched programs began to feel like a burden. In a word, an obligation. An inbox creates a sense of obligation. Timothy Ferriss has identified this and he avoids it.

Some people always look busy - to others and maybe to themselves. The constant fulfilment of the obligations of the inboxes creates a sense of being busy doing something important. Well, maybe "sense" isn't the right word for it if the inbox is your TiVo, but this is the treadmill. To ignore your inboxes is to step off the treadmill, to live without the reassurance of running. Even reaching Inbox Zero means stopping.

Stopping. The opposite of feeling busy is having free time, in other words, having to choose what to do next. You might choose to just sit and observe, or think. You might do something active and unstructured - play. You might shift from dealing with the minute-to-minute to thinking about where you want to be in five years. This might disturb you. I've commented before that the way a person deals with boredom is a good indication of their character: if they can't sit still without their head exploding, then they're probably not at peace with themselves.

I need quiet. A couple weeks ago I assembled some cheap bookshelves and set up a desk in an unused extra bedroom in my house. Just fifteen minutes there is enough to calm me down and center me. I'm practicing quietness, even though it's hard to justify in the face of so many obligations. I'll just say that I'm fulfilling an obligation to myself.


My working definition of "geek" is: a person who collects functionality. I've had this in the back of my mind for years, and accepted it without knowing what else it might mean, but recently I made a connection. In the comments section of an earlier post I wrote:
I think people get wrapped up in the latest toy/tool, and they forget about the older, subtler stuff [like talking face to face]. Solving problems (like figuring out how to work a machine) is so ingrained in us, and has such immediate rewards, that it's kind of addictive.
Collecting functionality gives us problems to solve - simple, rational ones - that give us an opportunity to get that rush of accomplishment. I now think it's related to consumerism, where the problem is deciding what to buy, the effort is the research, and the reward is the belief that you bought something superior or cheaper. The difference is that most geekisms involve some kind of DIY element where the geek adds value, maybe by assembling or repairing or modifying what they acquire. Consumerism is passive; it just collects.

To collect functionality, though, is to run the risk of forgetting why the technology exists in the first place. Most of the Internet, for example, exists to assist communication. But it defeats the purpose to sit there fiddling with your computer or your phone when you should be having a conversation with someone who's actually in the room.

Here's an example: I heard of a technology conference where Twitter was being used to liveblog various presentations. The idea was to help attendees decide if they wanted to step into presentations already in progress. It can really help make conferencegoing more efficient and this application is a solid win for Twitter. But in a couple cases, the twitter feedback was negative: the audience panned the speaker. The thing is, they didn't do it out loud; the speaker didn't know about their objections until it was all over, if at all. As far as I'm concerned, this is the height of hipster selfishness. I'll save you my righteous indignation, but I've made plenty of technical presentations to anonymous audiences, and I regard feedback as a professional obligation.

I try not to go over the edge. Sometimes it's hard to keep the map of the forest in mind when I'm picking my way through the trees. I'm a geek too, after all.

Male coming-of-age ritual

A while ago, Paul Spinrad suggested that Guys need a coming-of-age ritual that has some teeth, like exist in other cultures. I like the idea, because the more I look around, the more disturbed I am by the infantilization of America. Spinrad points to consumerism as one cause, but I suspect there's a lot more to it than that. Whatever the background, we'd be better off with manlier men, men with spine and integrity. But what's standing in the way?

If you bounce this idea off people, you'll get a mix of blank stares and wrinkled faces. The blank stares will come from people who have been taught that everyone is great and no one needs to change. Wrinkled faces from people who are offended at the implication that they need to grow up. Before you can like the idea of a coming-of-age ritual, you have to admit there's a problem.

Partly it's a question of separating real manliness from the trappings of manliness. It's one thing to grunt at pretty girls and defend your territory. It's something else to fulfill your commitments and live consistently with your principles. This is really fundamental: when you think about the men in your life, your coworkers, your acquaintances, do you know what they stand for? Are you sure they've even thought about what they absolutely will and absolutely won't do? What they're committed to making happen or preventing?

If you're a man ... are you sure you've thought about those things?

I think there needs to be a little more recognition of and respect for men who act like adults. Then maybe there will be an appetite for a coming-of-age ritual.