Hospital, interlude, blood

My day yesterday began with a routine checkup at my doctor's office, took a side trip to the hospital after I fainted at the sight of blood being drawn, and, after a brief interlude, ended with actual blood.

My employer gives me a discount on my health care premium if I get a yearly checkup from my doctor.  It's enough to motivate those not sensible enough to do it anyway.  I was in the examination room, a nurse drawing blood, while my doctor for some incomprehensible reason told me what happens to a baby boy's testicles during birth.  (I think we had been talking about hernias.)  But I had a rather brutal vasectomy in my history and I have a general aversion to needles.  I passed out.

Doctors, in my experience, take it very seriously when you pass out in their offices.  My general practitioner, bless his malpractice-insured heart, called 911.

I spent the next several hours in the emergency department at the Cleveland Clinic, my ass getting sore from their Buddhist-spec beds, my phone gradually dying, hungry and dehydrated because I'd fasted for the blood tests.  Eventually they decided that they (or the paint) had observed me long enough and they let me go.

I tried to have a normal day.  I worked, ate dinner, cleaned up the kitchen.  My hands were waterlogged and slippery with lotion.

Alice wanted me to grate some cheese.  Have you ever heard of a microplane?

Thankfully, the corner of my thumb that it dislodged went into the sink, not the cheese.  I gave up on the day and retired upstairs with a quarter inch of tape on my digit.


The two men sat across a table from each other, an incandescent bulb above, in an otherwise unlit room.  The younger man tapped the edge of a folder on the desk to tidy its loose contents and then laid it down.  "I'm going to show you some pictures, Hermann, and I'd like you to tell me stories about them."

The face of the man in the military uniform did not change.  He sniffed:  mildew.  They were supposed to be assessing his mental fitness to stand trial.  He might go mad from boredom in this place.  The cinderblock walls were unpainted, the lampshade metal, even the desk was gray.

"I'll give you an example.  Here's the Mona Lisa.  For centuries people have speculated about her smile.  What was she thinking?  Was she Leonardo's paramour?  Was she happy but simply tired of sitting?  Was she even Leonardo himself, painted in a mirror, with the lady's features on top and his sly smile peeking through?  But it's a very simple picture.  I'll give you some more interesting ones to work with."

The folder opened and a photographic print was passed across the table.  The subject was a rose garden, seen from a point some distance off the ground.  The rosebeds were thick and the paths narrow.  Some were dead ends.  In the upper right, a young man stood in the garden, looking to the right over the bushes.

He picked up the picture and examined it with a barely detectible sneer.  "What does this have to do with my trial?"

"Hermann, I hope you'll appreciate that the tools of the psychiatric profession are sometimes opaque.  I am trying to understand you, and this is my method."

"You needn't lecture me on the study of the mind, boy."  In fact, he was only ten years older than the man with the folder.  "I am one of its foremost practitioners.  All right then."  His hand stroked his chin, his fingers as uncalloused as a safecracker's.

"One day a young student was given a task.  He...."  Hermann looked over his glasses at the younger man.  "She was told to gather a collection of ambiguous photographs.  She is trying to imagine how this task will contribute to her thesis.  She fails, and decides at last that her academic advisor is simply doing what he wants to do without regard for her future, and as usual is simply using her as free labor.  But she has standards, so she passes over the photograph of the moodily lit tube of toothpaste."

The younger man blinked.  "No, you're missing the point.  Stories--well, here's another."  The photograph showed a gravel road with a crumbling rock wall on one side, a meadow behind it, and on the other side a field of freshly cut tree stumps and deep ruts.  The road forked ahead.

"A forest was cleared to make way for new homes.  The landowner photographed the process for legal purposes.  An artist, having no photography skills of his own, found the photo in a public archive and stole it for inclusion in an exhibition of his work.  This exhibition was seen by a professor of psychiatry--"  Exasperated, the analyst took the photo back.

"No, let's continue, this is fun."  With the speed of a pickpocket, he reached across the table and grabbed another from the folder.  It showed a bookcase, with titles from popular culture and from academia, and a near-empty snifter on top.  "Johan was desperate for a commission, but he had no work to show.  He had to build his portfolio, so he began photographing random things."  The analyst snapped the print out of his hands.

"Göring," said Rorschach, "you are on trial for murder on a scale that Vlad the Impaler would disavow. Do not take this process lightly."

They locked eyes. Rorschach: anger. Göring: tight contempt.

"Hermann Göring. Reichsmarschall. 0000021."

Ubiquitous cameras will make it hard to hide...your feelings

Nicholas Carr has written a nice tight piece of speculative futurism called "automating the feels".  The setup:  recently a company that produces corporate training materials came out with software that uses the computer's camera to make sure you're actually looking at their training videos.  Nick picks up that ball and runs with it - read his post.  But I got to thinking about what this kind of technology could tell us about ourselves.

Let's say, as Nick predicts, future communications will have a sort of side channel of emoticons automatically generated by the camera in your phone or computer.  Sort of like a soundtrack, but feelings.  You'd get emails about some project with running commentary about the sender:  "Bored.  Bored.  Bored.  Impatient." It would be impossible to lie about certain things; social niceties such as "looking forward to seeing you again" would come across very differently if the reader knew that while typing that, your expression was "disgusted".

Some people might learn things about themselves.  "The camera keeps telling me I'm angry whenever I text these people.  Come to think of it, it's right.  So why am I still hanging out with them?"  Or, "The computer kept telling me I'm happiest when I'm spellchecking.  Maybe I should have become an editor instead of an engineer."

Presumably it wouldn't be long before AI or fuzzy logic was used to fine tune these algorithms to individual users.  Then your phone would just know that you're annoyed all the time, and it wouldn't bother to say so unless it's, you know, worse.  But that might be doing a disservice to people you correspond with who have never met you.  And the algorithms will get subtler as time goes on.  At first they'll only be able to detect rage and glee, but eventually every emotional distinction there's a word for will be detectable.  And maybe more.  Maybe eventually we'll have to start coming up with new words for emotional states that our computers tell us about but we have no names for.

There are so many possibilities.  In many areas (such as lying), our society functions on an imbalance of available information.  People choose how much of themselves to reveal.  Throwing the covers off that imbalance would be pretty disruptive, the same way the internet disrupted retail markets by making it possible to instantly get the price of a product at every store that sells it worldwide.  Eventually we might have to wear a balaclava just to send a neutrally toned message.  But I'm sure the machines will have an emoticon for that!

The world ended a hundred years ago and somehow it's still ending.

I saw Ensemble HD, a classical music troupe, at the Happy Dog on December 5th, 2012. It might seem odd to review a musical performance that occurred nine months ago, but here I am, thinking about it.

Ensemble HD is members of the Cleveland Orchestra (and sometimes others), and they play classical music at the Happy Dog (and sometimes other places). On this particular night they played the music of World War I. It's worth noting that at the time of the war they didn't call it World War "1", but neither did they refer to it as simply such-and-such-a-war, either. For them, it was the war to end all wars. The music of the time reflected the cataclysmic outlook. Stravinsky wrote the Rites of Spring. Shit was fucked up. So the music that Ensemble HD played was atonal, random, and harsh. The composers and players strove to express the uncertainty of the age.

Most people hate that "modern" music. Rightly: it's not melodic and not euphonic. But that night, I felt the angst behind it. I put my head down in solidarity with my afflicted comrades of a century ago: I can feel the same today. The pace of change we deal with today is like a world war that never ends, it only accelerates.

And so it was that almost a year later, I was sitting in a bar hundreds of miles away and heard "Natural Beauty" by Neil Young. Now, Neil Young is a bozo, but he's a magnificent bozo. He plays guitar quietly and sings in a fragile, imprecise voice, and conveys emotions high and low that stubbly guys worldwide can cop to. He is a musical Kurt Vonnegut.

I had a bit of a moment. And I remembered World War I echoing down through the years to a hot dog bar on the west side of Cleveland. I felt sorry for all those poor bastards living through World War I thinking that was the end of everything, unable to imagine a future. All their strident fragility led to this moment. And to all others to come.

How fast can you write?

I just wrote a 3000-word paper in under eight hours.  I'm kind of chuffed about it.  That's what writers call "banging it out".

It turns out that Word keeps track of not only your document's word count, but also how long it's been open for editing:
I always wondered how fast I could compose when I didn't have to stop and do other things like, you know, check to make sure I'm not wrong.  It's impressive, but not useful, to write hooey at six words per minute.  In the case of this paper, I'd already gone over all the material in other contexts three or four times recently, so I had it all down pat.  I didn't paste in any text, in fact, I even added a couple figures and equations and several links.  Not bad!  If you'd asked me beforehand, I wouldn't have been 100% certain I could even type this fast, let alone compose.

Two cities, two concerts

In the last week I've seen concerts in both Detroit and Cleveland, and I couldn't help but notice how differently people behaved.  TL;DR:  Detroiters clap.

I didn't start going to small venues to see rock bands in earnest until I moved to Cleveland.  The way people act here does vary from venue to venue but I kind of figured this is just normal:  stand where you can see the stage, keep your mouth shut, and do not under any circumstances dance.  I might prefer a little more freedom, but I can deal with it.

In Detroit I saw Swans (again) with the opening act Low at the Magic Stick.  I would have paid good money just to see Low - see their incredible album The Great Destroyer - so I wasn't going to miss this show.  Their set was beautiful, and left me thinking I need to pick up more of their albums.  They have a loud-soft dynamic whose loud bits are a perfect pairing with Swans, but their soft bits are very soft indeed.  The guys behind me must not have seen each other in a while, because their conversation went on too long and got too loud.  In a rare moment of lucidity, I turned around to face them, jerked my thumb over my shoulder at the band, and asked the guys "are they boring you?"  They kept it down after that.  Unfortunately, I'd gotten up early and spent much of the day in airports, so I was too tired to enjoy Swans.  When I left at 1AM, they were still playing.

All the fans in Detroit clapped and cheered loudly after every song, and yelled in appreciation when the band started a song they recognized.  At one point Low said to the audience, "thanks for clapping."  That was what got me thinking about this.

In Cleveland three days later I saw ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead at the Grog Shop.  This was a super high energy rock show in an intimate space, and the band worked hard to fire up the 70-odd fans by climbing down into the audience to play their instruments.  A few people were actually jumping around, but with all that effort and energy, three quarters of the audience was still just standing there nodding rhythmically.  At other equally energetic shows, there have been times where I've gotten into the music and started dancing in place a bit, only to draw glares from people standing nearby.  There is no clapping and little cheering at a typical Cleveland concert.  Maybe one out of ten attendees will yell in appreciation after a great song; the rest stand there like they've seen it all before.  Bands playing in Cleveland must feel like their shows are a flop.

I don't know what to make of all this.  Maybe there's an element of hipster insecurity to Cleveland audiences, a fear that if they admit the show is good, then people will think they haven't seen enough shows to know what's really good.  Or maybe Clevelanders really have seen it all before.  These two cities are too much alike for there to be big differences.  They're both under the gun in more ways than one, and moments of escape are important.  Seeing a rock band should free you, get you out of your own head, wipe the slate clean and reenergize you for when you have to get back to the grind.  Because the grind is waiting for you.  That's why we have rock music.

The "to think about" list

I looked at my to do list today and realized that I only really plan to do, soon, the top three or four things.  But the list is twenty or thirty items long.  I need to be more honest about this.

The last time I had a "to do list" that really worked was when I had a Palm Pilot and I used it to keep track of remodeling a house.  That was tidy.  But in the real world of personal projects that seem important and then fade, or work projects that split and change focus, the linear to do list is messy.

It turns out that many of the tasks that have percolated downwards in my list are things I either can't do yet because of resources, or don't know how to do yet.  If doing something is just a matter of my time and its priority coming together, then that's a real "to do".  If something else is missing, then it doesn't belong on a "to do list".

So I think I'll calve off a "to think about" list.  Then the things I can actually do won't get lost, and there's still a place for problems I haven't solved yet.

Unsolicited product review: Meguiars Clay Bar

If you think "clay bar" sounds like a particularly repellent diet candy, I don't blame you.  It's actually for taking paint smears off your car, and it really works.  I actually posted about it once before, but this time I remembered to take before and after photos.
A few weeks ago my wife lightly scraped a concrete pillar in a parking garage while maneuvering to a newly opened ticket window.  The result was this nasty arc of gray on her deep metallic blue Miata.
It looks screwed, right?  When you see that on your car your heart sinks, you just figure it'll be like that forever unless you pay someone with permanently blackened fingernails a grand to bolt on some new body panels.  But sometimes it's not so bad:
blue Miata here
Basically you buy this kit, and inside it there are "gray bars" (here actually white) in plastic bags.  You open one and knead it until it's kind of soft.  Then you flatten it out a bit, spray that squirt bottle onto the car, and rub the bar on it.  Rub it and rub it and rub it.  It took me a half hour or an hour of spraying and rubbing to do this, meanwhile stretching and folding the bar to get a clean surface.  There's other stuff in the kit too, like a soft cloth and some wax, but the clay and spray are the main things.

You do have to be careful not to get sand or hard grit in your bar, because if that grit happens to be at the surface of your clay while you're rubbing, it will scratch the daylights out of your clearcoat.  It's not too difficult.  Just wipe off the car with a paper towel before you start, and don't lay the damn clay down on the ground while you're working.  Put it in the little plastic box they gave you.  Easy!

Shenzhen travelogue 5: door, ass, etc

Leaving Shenzhen, I took a taxi to the ferry terminal.  On the way, we drove alongside this:  an open truck full of half butchered pigs, uncovered, unwrapped.
Their tails flapped in the breeze.  It reminded me, as I left, that the Shenzhen project is a thin veneer of modernity and cosmopolitanism laid over much older ways of doing things.  And in the long run, I and the other westerners, the scientists and managers and vice presidents, don't belong here.  The Chinese government is modernizing China not for us but for the Chinese.  Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

Shenzhen travelogue 4: avoiding fiery death

Below is an email I sent home in the middle of the trip.

Oh hey I forgot to tell you, I almost got killed yesterday. We were driving to that vendor site and avoided an accident by inches. There was this tanker truck, I could tell it was empty by the way it was bouncing, and the driver was absolutely flogging it. The highway was three lanes each way, we were in the left lane. This tanker came up in the right lane going about 20mph faster than traffic, and moved into the middle lane to pass someone. But the smaller truck he tried to pass got into the middle lane too, to pass even slower traffic. Mr. Tanker was going too fast to avoid rear-ending the guy, so he laid on the horn, locked up the brakes, and drifted to the left towards us. We were about six inches on either side from being pinned between a concrete barrier and a semi, as the road with three lanes briefly had to accomodate four abreast, three of which were trucks. But in the end, there was no contact.

Our taxi driver was a pussy. He left too much following distance from the car in front of us, and he was constantly getting cut off. And he stayed in the left lane. And he should have seen (as I did well before the incident) that that tanker driver was dangerous and stayed the hell away from him.

Traffic in Chinese cities is anarchy, but it works. There's a system, it just isn't the same system that they teach in driver's ed and put on the signs and laws. Traffic on the freeways, on the other hand, doesn't work. There is too much speed difference between the slowest and fastest vehicles, slow vehicles don't stay to the right, and everybody is constantly changing lanes without looking behind them. There's a custom here that you're only responsible for what's in front of you. That's technically true in the US too, but people usually check their mirrors anyway to be polite and because they know the consequences of getting rear ended. Here they don't look first.

Shenzhen and its people: here to stay?

On the day I arrived in Shenzhen, I had a conversation about the city with a native.  We shared the shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel, and I took the opportunity to ask a stranger a question that had been nagging me.  Almost everyone in Shenzhen is in their twenties, so why doesn't it feel like a college town?

My fellow traveler grew up in Shenzhen before the construction began, but he'd spent the last ten years in Washington DC.  I told him that the last time I was here, I hadn't seen a lot of local culture.  In the US, if you had all these young people living in a citys, there'd be a thriving music scene and sports leagues.  Like Ann Arbor, but fifty times the size.  I told him maybe I don't know where to look, but I haven't seen that in Shenzhen yet.

He said basically the young people are working long hours and sending their money home, so there's no time or money left for cultural activities.  Also, they don't feel like Shenzhen is their home, so they don't want to invest in improving the city itself.  They're not there to stay.  They work for a few years and then go back home to establish themselves.  I found this response both depressing and incomplete.  The kids have got to do something on the weekends.  And at their age, this city must be a roiling cauldron of hormones.  They should be competing to get laid in this pan-Chinese cultural melting pot, inventing and discarding styles faster than the Japanese.  But no.  Karaoke is the closest thing they have to a local pastime.
This time I'm seeing more children and old people here in Shenzhen.  Like the city is here to stay.

That might seem like a staggeringly odd thing to say about a city; the only time a city disappears is when the climate wipes out its civilization, right?  But in 2010 the impression I got was more like a colossal factory than a city, although I couldn't put my finger on it at the time.  A factory can close down if a simple business decision is made.
At a Chinese Walmart, are all the goods made in the USA?
And maybe that's why:  all of Shenzhen felt like a business decision. The Chinese government decided to perform an experiment in openness and modernization.  They set aside a tract of land that for some bizarre reason didn't already have a metropolis on it, and they invited foreign companies to come use their abundant labor.  Everybody won:  the companies got trainable production workers at relatively low wages; the workers got what was for them relatively high wages for a few years.  As time went on, the Chinese government ramped up the value added:  first it was only production workers, then supervisors, then managers, then engineers, then scientists and vice presidents.  At every step, foreign companies got the benefit of low wages, and the Chinese employees got training, and the Chinese government got highly skilled people that could be used elsewhere in the economy - to build Chinese companies, for example.  Really, you have to hand it to them.  It was very well managed for a government program!

But by now, Shenzhen has acquired inertia, a presence of its own.  People actually live here, and not just the people that lived in the sleepy fishing village my fellow traveler grew up in.  The production workers sending money back to their families don't call it home, but others do:  the managers and engineers.  If a factory closes down, those people don't pack up and move back to the provinces, they find another factory.  They're here to stay.  But it's still a mystery to me why those managers and engineers haven't created a local culture.

Shenzhen travelogue 2: the rotating restaurant

I ate several meals in a rotating restaurant on top of the Baolilai International Hotel, where I stayed.  I took some pictures as the scenery came and went.

If you were an architect assigned to build a rotating restaurant, how would you do it? Like a lazy susan, with ball bearings? Air bearings, like an air hockey table? Or just a giant greased plate?  Would you use a screw drive to push it along?
View from the rotating restaurant, 12:23 PM
I think that hole in the ground is going to be another hotel.

12:33 PM.  Things at the right edge of this picture were on the left edge of the one above.
When I'm here, I eat a lot of fresh fruit. There are fruits here I simply can't get in the US. Right now, there is something in season that looks like a Rainier cherry and has a similar pit, but tastes totally unlike cherries. There is guava, which has big hard seeds that stick in my molars. Also there is a melonlike fruit with white flesh and many soft small black seeds. Lychees are in season - vendors sell them by the side of the road, there's a stand about every thirty feet. 
Finally, 12:54PM.
Based on these images, it looks like the hotel rotated about 90 degrees in the half hour I was there.  Two hours per full rotation isn't fast, but then again, the restaurant is huge.

Who's been hospitalized in China? This guy!

By the time you read this, I'll be home, but I'm writing it in the middle of a two-week work trip to Shenzhen, China.  Travelers do get sick here.  Even the locals don't drink the tap water; bottled water is everywhere.  Usually a few days of Imodium clears up any problems.  But not this time.

On Friday night, I decided I wanted something nice to drink with dinner.  Since alcohol is pretty expensive here, I ordered a cheaper-than-usual dinner:  a cheeseburger.  It came fully cooked; I prefer medium rare but it's safer to have your food thoroughly cooked here, even in a restaurant inside a four-star hotel.  It tasted a little funny, sort of like they'd mixed in some sausage spices with it, but I finished it.  Ten hours later I was awakened by the urgent need to use the toilet.  I was kind of bummed, because I thought I might get through this trip without The Problem, but it's usually no big deal.

An hour after waking, I started vomiting.  Between throwing up and using the toilet every 30 minutes, I was dehydrating fast.  I started to see spots.  I called the front desk and asked them to bring me some medicine.  They came up to my room so I could write down the brand name I wanted.  While they were there, I ran to the bathroom and threw up violently.  The assistant manager said 'we think it's better if you go to the hospital with a bellhop'.  I knew that the anti-diarrheal medicine wouldn't cure vomiting, so I agreed.  

I felt like I'd swallowed Satan's motorcycle and he spent several hours doing donuts in my gut.

The bellhop transcribed/translated this conversation between me and the doctor
The Chinese doctor wisely diagnosed me with acute gastroenteritis.  It's pretty obvious when a foreigner throws up in a plastic bag in your office and runs to the WC twice during the visit.  He gave me three medicines, which the bellhop immediately administered to me.

I post the image of this guileless dog not to imply that the foreign doctor was untrained.  Far from it - I entrusted him with my life.  It was me that had no clue how to proceed.

If you are a foreigner, how do you pay for hospitalization in China?  Cash.  Visit the ATM in the hotel lobby before you leave.  In this case it was very cheap; the whole doctor visit was only 99 RMB, about $16 including the medicine.  The hotel had told me it might cost as much as 1500.

The bellhop dropped me off at my room and gently but firmly urged me to sleep.  Oddly, he and the doctor both said to drink only warm water, not room temperature water.  My coworker described this as a mere tradition.  My guess is that it helps prevent people from drinking too fast.  I know my inclination was to pound three bottles of water immediately upon returning to the room, but if I'd done that, it surely would have come right back out, along with the medicine.

Saturday was a lost day.  One of those medicines may have been a sleeping pill, because every time I'd wake up (to answer the phone or the door or to roll over) I'd fall right back asleep again for 2 or 3 hours.  I ate nothing, only pills and warm water.  On the other hand, delirium might be normal after losing five to seven pounds of water weight in a few hours.  My medical condition improved quickly but didn't clear up completely.  Sunday morning, 24 hours after the beginning of the incident, I finally showered and ventured down for breakfast, and as of this writing I've been awake and clear-headed for, oh, six hours.

In compressing this story to conserve time, I haven't mentioned the help and support of two important people.  First is my wife Alice, who contacted me by every means available to cheer me on.  Second is my coworker Mr. Gu, who visited me, double-checked my doctor's orders, and brought additional medicine.  Many thanks to both.

Travelogue: Shenzhen 2013

I've just returned from two weeks on business in Shenzhen, China.  The next few posts will be about that trip; I'll space them out so they post every few days.

If you thought modern art was bizarre before...

... Then you'll be stunned when you find out it was supported by the CIA

They did it to make the point that the United States stood for freedom of speech, even bizarre speech, in contrast to Soviet totalitarianism. It's a goal we find surprisingly holistic after generations of Bond films portraying spy organizations as ruthless killer-protectors.

The means toward that goal had to be secret, ironically, because the American public by and large hated the new art. It couldn't be supported through official channels - they tried. To picture (npi) the backlash, recall the NEA support of Robert Mapplethorpe.

"It takes a pope or somebody with a lot of money to recognise art and to support it".  Reading this phrase in the article caused me to imagine a scene in a cave, thirty thousand years ago, featuring another artist and his Pope.

"Thog want to paint more elk on walls."

"Gord want that too."

"Thog have babies to feed, cannot stab real elk when painting spirit elk"

"Gord believe Thog spirit elk bring slow lazy meat animals to tribe area, help everybody, also express ineffable link between human condition and meat animals"

"Thog got to get paid, son."

"Gord have childless brothers who will stab elk for Thog's babies. Thog keep painting."

Winning the MPG/0-60 tradeoff

A friend of mine just bought a car.  He happily told me it gets amazing gas mileage and accelerates great from a stop.  I smiled and kept my mouth shut; I've seen the car's spec sheet so I know it's not fast, but why spoil his fun?  On the other hand, instead of pitying his misunderstanding, maybe I should envy him for successfully faking himself out:  he got the feeling of acceleration without paying for actual acceleration.

He traded in a giant American V8 sedan with some unholy level of horsepower.  I'd been in that car - driven it, even - and I know he liked the power.  His new car is a VW Passat TDI.  That's also a full-sized sedan, and not a lightweight one, but the TDI engine makes about half the horsepower his last car did.  It gets from zero to 60 about one second faster than a Prius.  So how is it that he's so happy about its acceleration?

Answer:  it's a diesel.  Power is torque times RPM, and diesels tend to have a lot of torque but they can't rev to high RPMs.  So when the light turns green and you step on the gas, a diesel makes a deep HURRRRR sound instead of the higher pitch of a gas engine.  Psychologically, in your head you're expecting that deep tone to go along with lazy acceleration, but the diesel's torque accelerates you better than you expect.  It feels fast.

Car design involves compromises.  Quick cars tend to be thirsty.  My friend values fuel mileage, so he found a way to be happy with the acceleration of a fuel-efficient car:  he's fooling himself.  He probably even knows it, he's got an engineering degree.  But I'm not going to be a jerk and point it out, and risk ruining it for him.  I wouldn't want someone to pull a hipster move like that on me.

Shared comment streams between Blogger and Google+

Google has just announced that Blogger can now display comments submitted by your Google+ contacts.  Blogger already provides the option to automatically post your new blog posts to Google+; as best as I can tell from the screenshots of the new service, comments made on your Google+ post can now appear on your blog.

I don't yet know if comments made directly on your blog by people who aren't on Google+ will appear on Google+.  The new option hasn't yet been enabled in my Blogger dashboard so I can't check for myself; my older cross-posts with comments in Blogger do not show up on Google+ as having comments, but that doesn't mean that it won't work that way moving forwards.

This move is doubtless in response to the shared Facebook comment streams that are finding increasing use. Bloggers posting a link on their Facebook page to one of their blog posts can set up a similar two-way interaction.  It solves the problem of where to comment - on a friend's blog directly, whose archive they control?  Or on their Facebook page where the interaction might be seen by more people?

I haven't spent much time on Google+, but I know people who do.  A truly integrated comment stream would be a welcome addition, and might actually get me to connect with more people in Google+.  At present, my blog has trimmed back down to much like what it was in 2008:  public but unadvertised, read by only a few family members and local friends.  I still co-organize a blogger group, but my outreach died down with the decrease in activity of the Cleveland Social Media Club.  That could change.

The Black Angels at the Beachland, v2.0

There's a certain transcendence I reach under the correct conditions of alcohol, volume, and other undetermined factors.  I almost got there last night.  Almost - but not quite.

I first saw the Black Angels at the Beachland over three years ago.  I had only a passing familiarity with their recorded output and was on the fence about going to the show.  I did, I enjoyed it immensely, and the group became one of the columns supporting my developing fondness for low-fi retro indie rock.  The genre reminds me of the searing, overdriven stride of Weld-era Neil Young and the big blues-rock bands I listened to in college.

Maybe it was a case of high expectations.  Maybe it was my ears; I've been seeing a doctor about wax buildup.  Maybe alcohol, as in not enough of it - the show was sold out and it was crowded enough that if I'd gone to the bar, I wouldn't have been able to get back to the spot where I could see the band well.  I can't blame the venue; even at its worst, the sound is good and the concertgoers are well behaved.

That transcendence, that sudden and radical shift of perspective, is why I go see live music.  It's an epiphany machine.  I get stuck, and I need all the help I can get to see the proverbial forest.  It honestly doesn't matter if the music is atonal classical pieces, or bluegrass, or metal, or something I'd actually choose to put on.  It's allowing myself to be carried along with it that sheds all my assumptions and preconcieved notions, showing me the world fresh, as if after a spring rain.  Or maybe it's just vibrating my synapses loose.

I'll keep trying.

Humor impaired

"Been watching Game of Thrones and I think I've figured out why people like it.  It's a medieval fantasy with office politics but they get to stab annoying coworkers."
I posted the above as a Facebook status update because I thought it was funny (after all I amuse myself better than anyone else does).  But then it occurred to me that posting the phrase 'stab annoying coworkers' on a public site might have unintended consequences.  So I deleted it.

I'm posting it here, where I can crack a joke while making it clear that I don't intend to actually perforate anyone.  Here, I can provide context, because I can write more than two sentences without people's eyes glazing over.  I hope.

In a world where an eight-year-old can be suspended for pointing a chicken finger at someone and saying the word "bang", discretion is the better part of comedy.

Trying on some alternatives to Google Reader

As I posted recently, Google is killing off Reader on July 1.  Having moved past denial, anger, and bargaining, I am now sadly seeking another feedreader.  Here are the two halves of the solution:

  1. I need a front end that shows me the contents of the blog posts - preferably on both a computer and on my phone
  2. I need an online database of what feeds I've subscribed to and what stories I've read

The second point is important because to date, many alternatives to Reader (to name just one example, Newsrob which I used for a while) provided custom front ends but behind the scenes they synced with Reader's database rather than maintaining their own.  That approach will soon stop working.

I began with the Lifehacker article where I first heard about it.  A desktop app would be cumbersome for me, so I started with the four online services they named:  Netvibes, Feedly, Newsblur, and The Old Reader.  Here are my first impressions:

  • Newsblur has a nice look and feel, and it has the functionality I'm looking for.  It also has some nice spiffs (scroll down to "the next three months") such as the ability to "learn" and afterwards filter or prioritize posts for you.  It's a one-man operation staggering under the load of something like 30X growth in one week, so it's throwing a lot of errors right now.  The free version is limited but I'm willing to pay the $24 a year if it stabilizes.
  • Feedly came highly recommended (to be precise, by 65% of respondents to a Lifehacker poll).  But for some reason they require users to install a browser plugin (see below).  I was a bit put off by such a brash request, but I went along with it.  Then I discovered that you cannot create a Feedly account without providing login credentials to either Facebook or Google.  You can't just make up a new username and password and be anonymous.  Maybe I'm paranoid but allowing a company to see everything in my web browser and have access to my Facebook or Google account made me fear I might be leaving myself open to identity theft.  Not necessarily from Feedly, but maybe from somebody who hacks them, or buys them.
  • Netvibes appears to be oriented towards social media professionals, that is, marketers.  What they call a "basic" account is free; they charge for things like analytics for brand management.  This is a very nice feedreader considering that it's built for people who read for very different purposes than I do.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised it's good, since marketing people actually get paid to read the internet all day.
  • The Old Reader was actually patterned after a previous design of Google Reader.  You might recall the teething pains of the last few years as Google rolled out its "MOAR WHITE" look-and-feel.  The implementation of that look on Reader was particularly ugly and difficult to use, so some folks coded up a new site that looked like, well, the old Reader.  When Google stripped the "sharing" functionality out of Reader a year and a half ago, The Old Reader retained it.  Encouraged, I went to the site to create an account, only to discover that they too demanded that I log in either with Facebook or Google credentials.  Since I already had two good alternatives at that point, I declined to open my kimono to another stranger.

Reader's death sentence has created a power vacuum, and some growth-minded dotcoms are stepping in.  Digg has announced they're working on a reader, so I've filed that away to keep track of.  If you want to read more, the Google Reader tag on Lifehacker has been busy.  You can also visit the Google Reader Users community on Google+.  In fact, there is so much being said about the passing of Reader that I'm confident you could spend the next three months reading it all and not have any time left over to actually do anything about it.

This Is Bullshit

Since you're reading this, there's a fairly strong chance you've already heard that yesterday Google announced the imminent demise of Google Reader.  (The upshot:  sorry you're SOL.)  Reader is the most popular service for subscribing to RSS feeds, which is how most of us bloggers keep track of each others' posts.  If it weren't for RSS, we'd have to subscribe to blogs via email - or, worse, visit every site every day to check for new posts.

This is bullshit.

Google, here are some thoughts going through my mind:

  • How do you build an utterly dominant tool, crush the competition, and then abandon it?
  • Are you trying to obsolesce the underlying technology, RSS?  If so, in the name of Faraday, Einstein, Tesla, Edison, and Newton, why?
  • How do you keep supporting Blogger but take away the network that links bloggers together?
  • How do you fail to provide a migration path to a new service, like, say, Google+?  Surely you have someplace you'd like to have our eyeballs.
  • Were you not making enough money from ads on Reader?  Is that it?  If so, couldn't you have bothered to try pushing a few more ads to support a team to maintain it?

I have 323 subscriptions in Reader.  I use it not only for reading blogs but also for comment threads on blogs, and for totally unbloggy things like local Groupons, tour dates for bands, new Meetup activity, jeez, the list goes on forever.  I probably spend as much time on Reader as the average american spends watching TV.

Yeah, there are some people talking about alternatives (most of whose sites are currently down under what amounts to a DOS attack from tens of millions of techies freaking out) and gamely stocking their digital fallout shelters.  But I'm pissed.  You know what?  Outlook has an RSS reader.  There's probably a way to get a list of feeds in Outlook to sync between two computers and a phone.  Fuck you Google, I'm going to Microsoft.

There's nothing like righteous indignation to wake a slumbering blog, eh?