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,
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.


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:
GreatNews v1.0 beta, Windows, June 2007
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.