Sunday, December 30, 2007

Auld Lang Syne

From Rosh Hashanah to Lessons and Carols, 100 posts. It’s the new year once again, in this syncopated rhythm of overlapping calendars. The winter turning of the year is necessarily full of work concerns: tax planning and royalty statements and such. But tomorrow evening that will all pause, and a few moments of peace will settle slowly over my world as the ball descends.

Thank you for reading, for commenting, for taking a few moments to be here over the past several months. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Photo by Michael

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Office progress

I may have finally found the new ceiling fan for my office. I’ve spent far too much time looking at ceiling fans on the web and in stores, and haven’t really been satisfied with any of the options. Lisa and I had just concluded that we should give up and look at new designs in 6 months, when one of the web sites I’d been perusing suddenly added a brand new line from The Period Arts Fan Company. And there was the Altus fan, which we both looked at and said “Ah!”

We’ve also selected a floor for my office: Mirage 3/4" solid wood yellow birch, select and better, matte finish, in a 3 1/4" width. The lengths will be shorter than I’d really prefer—that’s the nature of modern flooring. Much of it will have to be covered by a rug or a cork mat or something to protect it from the office chairs, but I’ll definitely feel better knowing that there is an actual wood floor in the room.

We learned from visiting my artist brother-in-law’s newly completed studio room that we should use an eggshell finish on the walls and a flat finish on the ceiling to reflect the light most gently (with the least glare). Soft chinchilla is a leading candidate for the wall color—it looks more green or more blue depending on the lighting, so it may be the right compromise between blue and green. It should contrast nicely with the white trim, and it should have enough gray in it to recede. We’ll have to get a test can and see how it looks.

Wrapping gifts: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. For gifts that you receive, do you care what they are wrapped in? Do you want them to be wrapped at all? Does tearing paper feel more fun or more satisfying than opening a cardboard box?


Photo by Michael

Sunday, December 23, 2007


As our global environment changes, so will our local environments. This can cause a profound sense of loss that Glenn Albrecht has termed solastalgia, “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’” The latest issue of Wired has a nice article by Clive Thompson on the topic. Our sense of place may be largely unexamined or even unacknowledged, but disruptions to that sense of place can still hurt.

One of my favorite books in the world is From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place, by Deborah Tall. I read her book shortly before leaving Ithaca, and it helped me realize how thoroughly I had connected to the local environment: the hills, the lake, the parks and waterfalls, the deer and ducks and seasonal rhythms had become a part of me, and I still miss them. My sense of Boston is much more fragmented, despite living here for much longer. Perhaps it’s because Boston is more urban, or because Boston is larger, or because I no longer have the time or vantage point to go eat lunch while staring at the lake several times a week. Perhaps we connect differently to places at different ages, or perhaps the difference is simply that I still live in Boston.

Clive Thompson claims that how deeply we are affected by losing our sense of place is related to whether we have chosen the change. Can we therefore inoculate ourselves against solastalgia by more actively claiming personal responsibility for the local effects of global climate change? Can vacations to warmer climes make the increase in tropical gardening in New England function as a pleasant souvenir that compensates for the loss of our local flora? Or in 10 years, will post-winter-solstice December rain like tonight’s mean popping another pill to ward off the memories of a time when such a rain would have been helping to melt the previous week’s accumulated snow and ice?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

That time of year

Food banks are struggling this year, and need our support. We give to the Greater Boston Food Bank, who distribute a staggering amount of food each year in Eastern Massachusetts.

In this wealthiest of countries, the scope of the hunger problem is hard to believe and is wrapped up in a host of related serious problems facing the poor and lower middle class. We desperately need better social policies and a more inclusive politics. We need housing assistance and fuel assistance, we need non-predatory banking and lending, we need short-term shelters and long-term shelters and a focus on health care rather than health insurance. But to those in our communities who are going to bed hungry every night and waking up hungry every morning, the food banks offer a lifeline.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dam ice

Rain fall on our roof, and the water runs down our roof to the front gutter. The front gutter diverts the water to downspouts on both ends, and the water runs down the downspouts and out onto the ground. Except when the gutter is not attached to the house, as it wasn’t until last year, so that the water actually runs down the roof, looks longingly at the gutter just out of reach, and plummets to its death rather than making the leap of faith across the gap and into the teasing gutter.

Now the gutter is attached to the house, and we have less water flowing across our fascia boards and less water falling onto our front steps. That seems good. In winter, as snow melts on our roof and turns into water running down the roof, the water does not form huge icicles in the gap between the roof and the gutter. That also seems good. Until the temperatures are such that the water in the gutter freezes, and builds up more and more ice, and eventually becomes a solid gutter-shaped ice sculpture. At that point, the water running down our roof cannot get past the gutter-shaped ice sculpture, and instead pools on the roof, finds its way under the shingles by going the wrong way (I blame that pernicious gravity interacting with properties of liquids), and starts to run around the wood supporting the front edge of the roof. Into our front porch. First in one spot, then in many spots. Around and through all the framing of our enclosed front porch that we just paid far too much money to have painted. I’m trying hard not to fall apart. I wish our house would try also.

The roof starts about 12 feet off the ground and goes up at a steep angle for another 40 feet or so, so even with the best roof rake we could only clear snow off of a small fraction of the roof. Still, whatever we can clear presumably won’t then melt and run into our house. A longer-term solution presumably rests with stopping the gutter from turning into an ice dam. We could remove the gutter (which can cause other problems), install some sort of heating element in the gutter and downspouts to prevent them from freezing (my instinct says this is a great way to set your house on fire), or possibly extend the front roof edge a bit and lower the gutter a bit (which might reduce the chances of the gutter-shaped ice sculpture acting as an ice dam, since melting water would then have more opportunity to run past the ice in the gutter).

I’d prefer to mount a secondary gutter system inside the roof somehow to channel away water that gets through the roof. Similar to what would happen if you built an addition onto a house, and left the original gutters attached between the original edge of the house and the addition. Sadly, that causes many other problems, according to the folks we talked to at a recent housewarming party who eventually discovered that particular treasure between their addition’s ceiling and their roof. Or we could get giant heat guns and personal hoverpacks. Time to do some more shopping on Amazon, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Without wireless Internet: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Having only intermittent wireless Internet service over the past couple of day has been like being on vacation in a remote location. A working vacation, where I play full-time tech support. Over 48 hours, I’ve lost the wireless side of my SMC router, forced the Apple Store to replace one of my two defective Airport Express routers (which get my vote for least reliable piece of hardware ever created), disassembled an original graphite Airport base station to see if the WaveLAN card inside it would be usable elsewhere, set up my MacBook to act as a temporary part-time router, ordered a new Linksys router (WRT54GL), and reconfigured the temporary network a whole lot of times. Next I’m going to see if I can use the spare 2 pairs in the house’s CAT-5 wiring as Ethernet cabling while leaving the other 2 pairs live as phone lines. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 14, 2007

French Toast Alert System in action

Photo by Michael

Universal Hub has created a brilliant French Toast Alert System, which inspired the sacrifice of my hot breakfast. The french toast was still pretty tasty even after taking a spill off the deck into a snowbank and getting partially frozen waiting for its glamour shot. I’m sure the fork will turn up by spring.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Public Transit?

Sometimes public transit doesn't involve much actual transit.

There was a little accident in the Boston subway this morning. Nothing major, just one train rear-ending another which closed down the green line for a couple of hours while they got the injured train back on the rails. So to get across town I had the choice of taking a train one stop to get to the bus which would take me to work, or I could walk. I walked.

This afternoon everyone got out of work early because of the snow. But the green line was only running its normal middle-of-the-day number of trains. The station was so packed I couldn't get down the stairs. I walked to the red line.

After a detour in the wrong direction in the hope of getting a seat (yay! I didn't have to walk to Somerville!), the red line happily delivered me to Davis. And there was a bus! My bus! Completely full. . . I walked home. (And didn't feel like a fool because during the 45 minute walk along the bus route, nary a bus went by going my direction.)

2.5 hours instead of the more usual 1 hour. Not so bad really given how hard it was snowing. It wasn't windy, or sleeting, or particularly slippery. I had proper boots. So really, not much to complain about, except for that lack of transit in the public transit I supposedly use for my commute.

I hope everyone else is safely home and out of the weather.

Home office, second post

I’ll have little Internet access for the coming several days as we finish clearing out my office so we can fix the walls. Textured wallpaper over badly patched 140-year-old bare horsehair plaster will soon be a memory. The vinyl tiles and plywood on the floor are already gone, revealing face-nailed painted barn boards. We’ll pry those up and see if we have to replace the subfloor. Which requires choosing a new floor, so we know what thickness of subfloor to install.

I’m trying out the decision to use real wood for the floor, with rugs to protect the floor from the office chairs. Cork is still tempting for its insulating and noise-reducing properties, as well as its environmental benefits, but I haven’t found one that looks appropriate for an office in an old home. And I’ve always loved wood floors. Maybe a wide plank, to follow the old tradition of using wider boards for upstairs rooms and narrower boards for downstairs rooms and to echo the old barn boards that were first used in the room. And a light color to keep the room feeling more open. It’s not my original plan of matching the oak strip flooring with a medium tone that we have on the first floor, but I know that I want to keep the room feeling fresh and modern rather than like a stuffy old library.

I love stuffy old libraries. One of the show rooms that I looked at yesterday was a stuffy old library, with wood paneling and dark shelving and heavy trim and a leather couch and a fireplace, and it was lovely. The elegant walnut strip flooring in the room was gorgeous, and I just wanted to settle in with a good book and a cup of cocoa, preferably while a snowstorm settled in outside. But that style doesn’t work as an office for me. I need lots of illumination, because a lot of my work is still looking at details on paper (which does not yet come with its own internal light source). And I work best in an environment where I feel like it’s ok to play music loudly sometimes, even if I mostly prefer to work in a quiet environment. I love the quiet of libraries, but that quiet is too salient to allow me to focus on work.

What I really want is for someone else to come in and choose a floor the room, and tell me to live with it. That would be great.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

8 nights

We study in secret, worship in secret, and wear our faith well-concealed. Is that not the foundation and history of our faith? The Lord heard us cry out from our suffering in Egypt and left us in slavery for 200 years more. Ten generations learned not to cry out.

When our ancestors furtively marked their doors and stayed inside to avoid the Angel of Death, they survived to escape Egypt. We told their story year after year so as not to forget a time of redemption, and claimed their story for our own. We tell that story still, and we tell ourselves we are free, but we tell that story at home with fewer outward signs than were dared by a people enslaved. They at least marked their doors as they stayed inside.

For 8 nights in midwinter, we light a menorah so that it is visible from the street. For 8 nights in midwinter, we celebrate the reclamation of a village, the reconsecration of our temple, the miracle of the lasting flame that should not have lasted, a representation of the lasting faith that should not have lasted. For 8 nights in midwinter, we make a specifically outward sign. We may bet on when the candles will go out, but we know the faith will last. And maybe with more openness, we find more freedom.

That freedom is a difficult road is a Jewish story, but it is also a human story. So to all my readers, Jewish or not, Happy Chanukah.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


Federal bailouts can seem very unfair when you look at it from the perspective of a single family. We provide disaster assistance for large groups of people who have been affected, but not for individuals who have been similarly affected in isolation. So if 500 families lose their homes to a fire or flood, we offer each of those 500 families relief that we don’t offer to 1 family who loses their home. Yet if you’ve lost your home, you have the same needs as anyone else who has lost their home. Why do we only help some people in that situation and not everyone?

The reason is that as a society, we don’t really care about any of those families at all. We only care about the effect of the disaster on the rest of us. What if too many people are suddenly made homeless, or lose their jobs, or lose their investments? That can cause ripples of disruptions as economic effects spread. If a city block burns, the regional economy can absorb the effects. If a city burns, that’s a much larger problem for the regional economy, so we look to stop the effects from spreading by providing disaster assistance.

With disasters, we’ve decided that the way to stop those effects from spreading is to provide assistance to large groups of people. With the drug trade, we’ve decided that the way to stop those effects from spreading is to incarcerate large groups of people. These different approaches both have the common purpose of trying to maintain economic stability in the rest of society.

The current attempts to stop the foreclosure rate from accelerating beyond control are generating a lot of self-righteous complaints from people who are not facing rate resets and want to know why they aren’t being rewarded for having chosen a fixed-rate mortgage. They see some people benefiting from this attempt at disaster control and feel that it’s unfair. It is unfair, as are all federal bailouts. The surprising part of this bailout is that in the process of trying to maintain economic stability, we may actually help poor and minority populations since they are the ones who are most likely to face foreclosure otherwise. That would be a good outcome, and an unusual one. It also rouses two suspicions in my mind: first, that the mortgage bailout details will be arranged in such a way as to increase long-term debt for these poor and minority populations; second, that the reason some people are so willing to complain about the unfairness of this bailout is because of who may be helped.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Life in the lava field

Photo by Michael

Christmas means seeing: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, most people have some break in their routine because of the day. For me, Christmas used to mean going out to see a movie matinee. Now it means visiting Lisa’s family in Maine and maybe a trip to L.L. Bean.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Stay out of my way, Green Line!

When I moved to Boston, I learned that the MBTA bus drivers regularly won national bus driving competitions. These competitions involved slalom and obstacle courses, but nothing about actually stopping for passengers or learning a route. The power-mad dream of driving an MBTA bus around Boston pales in comparison to driving a snowplow around Boston, however. It would be better if there were pedestrians and cars as well in this little on-line game, though crashing your snowplow into Boston landmarks and the Green Line trolleys is pretty good.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

8 miles from Hilo

Photo by Michael

Sunday, December 2, 2007

My favorite sign in Hawaii

Photo by Michael

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Surfing in circles

I’m clearly misunderstanding how to use various web tools at my disposal. I use Google Reader for a number of news sites and blogs, and I mark interesting posts by clicking the star. I’m gradually creating a fun personal library that I can rummage through, but I don’t know how to add other random web pages to it.

How do I keep track of the odd web site One Cold Hand? Or the occasional bit of moving writing about writing on a political blog that I don’t subscribe to? I want to put them in my personal library, without doing all of my web surfing through Google Reader. I suppose I could mention them in my blog, and subscribe to my blog, but that seems rather roundabout.

Lead in the duck

A local public library offered lead testing today with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) meter. Much more accurate than the swab kits that they sell in the stores. All of the “Made in China” toys that we brought tested fine, but the “Made in Taiwan” rubber ducky has a lot of lead in it. I should probably stop chewing on it.

A current Ikea playset of little metal pots and pans (Duktig) that someone else brought also tested high for lead. It’s really a charming set, beautifully executed, and apparently quite popular with little kids. Ikea is still selling that one, so I figured I’d call them. It took about an hour total, three phone calls and hold time and several transfers, to finally leave them a message saying that they should test that product because the XRF meter said the lead level was high.

We need a wiki-style database with photos and tags and descriptions of products along with test results for all of these little testing sessions that are going on around the country. I’d like to type in some keywords or attributes and see whether someone’s already gotten hard numbers on the product. I can tell you that the white Polar soda polar bear that they were handing out two summers ago in Copley Square doesn’t have any lead in it, but I’d rather tell the database. And I’d rather someone else deal with Ikea’s phone tree next time.

Death on the deck

The sparrow’s life was simple. Fly around, eat, drink, sleep, fly around some more. She had learned to avoid the occasional appearance of the greyhound, figured out which air conditioner to sleep under, and had found all the great dryer vents in the neighborhood (a marvelous source of heat and humidity in this suddenly-frigid weather). The chain link fences were built for sparrows, clear views from a set of perches set at regular intervals. Fly, eat, drink, sleep. Maybe chirp a little. It was a good enough life. The sparrow’s mother had explained all about blue jays, and hawks, and that greyhound. What she hadn’t been warned of was the Giant Flying Mum.

We don’t know exactly what happened. The mum used to be 20 feet away, around a corner, secure on a hook. Now it’s lying on the deck outside our dining room doors, with the poor sparrow an apparent casualty of the mum’s sudden aerial journey. And I keep imagining the fleeting final surprise in the sparrow’s head: I didn’t know that thing could fly!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just one

Photo by Michael

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Voter pledges

What would you promise to do in order to be allowed to vote? Would you, for example, sign a loyalty oath to a political party? In Virginia, the government will require voters in the upcoming Republican primary to sign a statement saying “I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for president.” This is fundamentally wrong.

The pledge can be interpreted in many ways. It could be read as a statement of current intent with no promise of future support. It could also be read as a promise of future support. That future support could be interpreted as donations of time or money to the Republican candidate, or simply a vote in the presidential election for the Republican candidate. How strong does your intent have to be? If you change your mind after the nominees are chosen, or after you learn more about the candidates or the parties or the world, or simply after thinking more, have you broken your signed pledge? If you believe that Romney will be the Republican nominee and you intend to support him, but you would be unwilling to support Giuliani if he is the Republican nominee, can you honestly sign that pledge? Different people will understand the pledge differently, and indeed the linked article offers two different interpretations just a few sentences apart. What is certain is that the pledge will pressure at least some people toward voting for the Republican nominee in the general election, because some people will take what they are signing seriously.

Worse, that pressure will feel like it is coming from the government, rather than from a political party. While a political party is not required to follow anything resembling a democratic process for choosing a nominee, the Republican party in Virginia has chosen to use the state’s electoral process. That electoral process should clearly follow some basic principles in a consistent fashion, so that voters can be assured of the fairness and integrity of the electoral process. Coercion and bias in the state’s electoral process is incompatible with democracy. When the state requires voters in a party’s primary to sign a pledge that they will vote for the party’s nominee in the presidential election, that is coercive. When the state does that only for one party’s primary and not for the other’s, that is both coercive and biased.

The coercion can easily be reinforced after the primary by reminding primary voters of their pledge. Records of who voted in a primary are public. Sample push poll: “Earlier this year, you signed a pledge to support the Republican candidate for president. Do you intend to vote for the Republican candidate tomorrow? [Yes] Thank you for being an honest American. Please remember to encourage your friends to vote tomorrow as well. [No] Are you aware that you signed that pledge? Are you aware that perjury is a crime?” Voter intimidation 101, made even easier by the state having required voters to sign a loyalty pledge in order to vote.

Let’s assume that it’s reasonable for a party to restrict primary voting to members of that political party. (States have different policies on this.) If I am a member of the Republican party, why should I not be able to vote in the primary even if I have no intention of supporting the likeliest Republican nominees for president? Ron Paul supporters, for example, may well realize that their guy has no chance of becoming the nominee and may not want to support anyone else. Why are they not entitled to vote in the primary? Some Republican voters may want to vote in their party’s primary for other local, state, or federal offices, but intend to vote for a non-Republican presidential candidate. Why are they not entitled to vote in the primary?

These objections don’t begin to address the question of what else voters could be required to sign in order to vote. I don’t want to go in that direction, because it might suggest that this loyalty oath is somewhere near the top of a slippery slope. This country has spent many years struggling up a difficult slope towards more free, more fair, and more open access to the right to vote. Loyalty oaths as part of the electoral process are not a small slip down that slope; they are a wholehearted leap downwards.

The two major political parties are very entrenched in our political system, and are very much majority groups. Freedom of association is usually taken to protect our right to join minority groups, but should also protect our right to register as a member of one of those major political parties without agreeing to join in lockstep with every priority of that party. Instead of respecting freedom of association, instead of recognizing the benefits of including different viewpoints, instead of reaching out to independent voters, instead of any pretense of a Big Tent approach, the Republican party is now willing to actively alienate even Republican voters who do not want to subordinate their will to the will of the party. I hope that is not a winning strategy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Visual dictionary

Visual Dictionary Online is a handy way to find the word for the thing above the part that kind of looks like a doohickey. You know, like a philtrum or a petiole.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Work holiday parties: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Does your work have a holiday party? Do you wish it did? What is your vision for the perfect work holiday party?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

8 miles from Boston

Photo by Michael

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Kamila Shamsie has written a wonderful short essay entitled “Martin Amis’s views demand a response.” Two sentences particularly stood out as being important and broadly relevant:

The failure to express outrage cannot be easily distinguished from a lack of outrage.
But in worlds without censorship, the way to respond to odious views which are given space in the press is to, well, respond!
These moral requirements cannot be satisfied by any one person. There is more we should express outrage about and more we should respond to than any of us can possibly react to, even if we were to devote all our waking time to responding. Much of a well-lived life goes beyond public discourse. Within the realm of public discourse, we should spend time envisioning and describing the world we actively want, not just the world we don’t. But if each of us heeds Ms. Shamsie’s call to speak up, our collective voice could be strong enough to push back, express outrage, and respond.

We may give thanks for many things at Thanksgiving — time with family or friends, a good meal, a holiday parade, or our own good fortune. We may help others in a soup kitchen or a shelter. We may just enjoy the day off work. I know my friends are celebrating the holiday in many different ways. I’ll start my Thanksgiving here and now. I give thanks for the freedoms we still have, and I hope for the endurance to still feel outraged by those who have taken away the ones we’ve lost and who are denying freedom to others. Above all, I hope we will all keep the courage to respond to that which outrages us, so that our failure to express outrage cannot be taken for a lack of outrage. That is how the world will improve, and that is how we will have thanks to give next year.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Photo by Michael

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Expectation of privacy

In the world of law enforcement, gathering evidence that can be used in court is all about people’s reasonable expectations of privacy. Which places and situations are public, and which are private? That’s largely determined by what we all agree on as the dividing line, rather than what an individual might prefer. I’d love to consider my living room to be private, but if my living room is visible from the street then it’s not. The prisoner who doesn’t realize that his phone call to his attorney is being monitored by the warden may believe his conversation is private and protected by attorney–client privilege, but that belief isn’t sufficient. Interesting questions arise then as new technology allows police to see through walls, to track heat signatures deep inside buildings, to listen to conversations happening 100 yards away, or to monitor phone calls between people talking in their homes. At what point can we no longer have any reasonable expectation of privacy?

The government would say that time is now. From an AP story on Veteran’s Day:

As Congress debates new rules for government eavesdropping, a top intelligence official says it is time that people in the United States changed their definition of privacy.

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people’s private communications and financial information.
Privacy means something different for urban and rural areas. We may expect that nobody can hear or see us in our homes if our homes are surrounded by fields or woods, but privacy in a city means that people pretend they cannot see and hear their neighbors. Essentially, we rely on our neighbor’s discretion with our secrets. Donald Kerr wants us all to consider the government to be just another too-close neighbor and trust in the government’s discretion.

The question of how our notion of privacy should change is an important one, and one that citizens and organizations and the government should debate. But by leaking a constant stream of news over the past several years about how much information the government is already collecting, the government does not just prove itself unworthy of our trust in its discretion. The government preempts the debate, by making it manifestly unreasonable for us to expect privacy anywhere.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Multi-channel publishing

Every asset in every medium. Every medium in every mode.

This was the foundation of the workshop last night about multi-channel publishing. Most of the workshop was a presentation of XML, semantic tagging, and options for production workflow, with this foundation that justified all the rest coming 90 minutes in when the tech guy finally sat down.

For traditional book publishers, the likely mediums are print, audio, and electronic. Each medium can have several modes: print can appear in the mode of mass-market paperback or dust-jacketed hardback or reader-printed stack of loose paper; audio — cassette or CD or mp3 player or computer speakers; electronic — e-book reader or computer screen or iPhone. The different ways of accessing any given medium have increased tremendously, and this fragmentation of access creates both headaches and market opportunities for content producers. You might have to repackage your television show for DVD, but on the plus side you get to sell DVDs.

It can be difficult to figure out all the mediums and modes that any given asset can appear in, but that process can help you figure out what your assets are. A textbook, for example, is not just a unitary asset. It’s also a set of chapters that can have value separately in coursepacks. It’s also a set of lessons within each chapter that can be used in other textbooks. It’s also a set of exercises which can be used in assessments or workbooks, and terminology which can be used in flash cards or glossaries, and examples which can be turned into recordings for a language textbook, and images which can be turned into a slide show for an art history textbook, and many other ways of slicing and dicing your assets. I worked on a language textbook some years back, and figured out that the figures could be used for transparencies and the examples could be used for audio recordings. I got there by wondering what parts of the textbook could be used for transparencies and audio recordings, rather than wondering how I could reuse the figures and examples. That process of developing a multi-channel approach to the textbook was the trigger to seeing the figures and examples as assets apart from the textbook as a whole. Every asset in every medium isn’t just about taking advantage of every market opportunity. It’s about discovering new assets which can then be repurposed.

The same can be said of XML (or any tagging system based on content rather than appearance). The process of deciding on tags for each level of your content can help you realize that your cookbook is composed of recipes, and each recipe contains ingredient lists, and there could be interesting ways to reuse recipes or even ingredient lists. As long as you use tags better than Cengage Learning’s <float-chunk>, you can go through your set of tags to see possible new levels of assets. And who knows, maybe Apple will come out with a new iFloatChunk, in which case Cengage Learning is ready with assets they didn’t even know how they had.

King’s College

Photo by Michael

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Open enrollment

Ah, the 2-hour info session in the cafeteria about next year’s health plan options. The capstone of befuddlement month.

Our health plan is switching from the Blue Cross network that covers every provider in Massachusetts to CIGNA’s Open Access Plus/Carelink network which actually uses one of the Tufts Health Plan networks in Massachusetts. They won’t tell us which one. We will have three logos on our insurance cards: CIGNA, Tufts, and Carelink. Each doctor’s office will have to guess which one applies in a fun game of three-logo Monte.

Someone asked whether a doctor who is in the Tufts network and not in the CIGNA network will be considered in-network under our insurance. The CIGNA rep said yes. A few minutes later, someone asked whether a doctor needs to be in both the Tufts network and the CIGNA network to be considered in-network. The CIGNA rep said yes. So the person who asked the first question pointed out that those answers could not both be true. The CIGNA rep shrugged his shoulders. Somehow I suspect the 200 employees in the cafeteria failed to achieve health plan enlightenment.

A number of people pointed out that the options for finding out whether doctors are in-network—calling the doctors, calling CIGNA, using the CIGNA web site, using the Tufts web site—all result in different answers. In fact, calling CIGNA a second time often results in a different answer. The stated solution was to use the printed provider directory which is not yet available. Left unstated was the fact that nothing about the current status of a provider indicates whether that provider will be in-network or not after January 1. My chiropractor is considering dropping Tufts at the start of 2008, and is contractually obligated by Tufts not to inform his patients ahead of time if he decides to do that.

We were told in this info session that we should figure out now what all of our health care expenses for 2008 will be. Apparently HR believes that if we concentrate really hard, we can discern our future illnesses and injuries and approximately what they will cost. We were told that it would be better not to have significant medical expenses in the first part of the year. Apparently HR believes that we can schedule medical emergencies. We were told that various unused funds in our health plan will roll over into 2009, but we were not told that (at least some of) these funds will only actually roll over if HR decides to offer the same plans with the same insurers in 2009. And we were told that there will be various gaps in dental coverage and prescription drug delivery, so we should try not to need any dental work in the last few weeks of 2007 or any prescription drugs in the first few weeks of 2008.

The news wasn’t all confusing. There was a very clear PowerPoint slide explaining that the retirement plan was being frozen as of January 1. No uncertainty there.

To make up for the retirement plan contributions evaporating, they are contributing 4% to a 401K. Based on your 2008 salary. Oh, by the way, and this isn’t on the handout, only if you’re still employed as of early 2009. Nothing like ending the info session with an unsubtle hint that the company will see an additional savings by firing everyone before the end of next year. That’s just the piquant touch of spite that rounds off the bitterness and bafflement with undertones of discontent. Robert Parker would definitely approve.

Monday, November 12, 2007

How trim should work

We helped friends yesterday with some finishing details in the new addition to their house, and I was once again baffled by the way trim works. Their contractor followed the standard approach today of putting up unfinished trim before the wood floors were finished and before the walls were painted. This means you can’t finish the back of the trim, and you need to carefully cut in as you finish the floors (impossible), walls (tricky), and trim (time-consuming). If you instead finish the floors and paint the walls without the trim in place, you don’t have to be as precise at the edges where they meet because those edges will be covered by the trim. And if you finish the trim before you install it, you don’t have splashes of paint and polyurethane to contend with, you can finish around the back, you can easily replace pieces where the stain doesn’t come out right, and you can apply the stain and polyurethane outdoors or in the basement or somewhere you don’t have to be careful of your new floors and walls. So there must be good reasons to do put the trim up earlier, though I don’t know what those reasons are.

Much of the time in the life of a house, trim is already in place. Our house shows no evidence of the trim being removed when walls were repainted or rewallpapered, nor when floors were refinished (ok, there’s no evidence of the floors being refinished). We are probably going to take the trim off in my office as we redo the walls, but that’s largely because we want to replace the trim. We certainly were happier working around the trim when we sanded and plastered and painted the walls downstairs. So aside from the trim already being finished, it creates all of the obstacles to easy refinishing that it creates in the first paragraph. Clearly what is needed is a new way to attach trim that allows the trim to be easily removed and reattached. If only screws with decorative heads were available. And if only the trim were finished before being put up, so that those screws didn’t wind up painted or polyurethaned into place.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Grand Canyon

Photo by Michael

Thursday, November 8, 2007

First frost

Beyond welcoming an opportunity to muse about the weather, I am influenced by the personal journals from a century or two ago which can show us how much local climates and microclimates have changed over time. Modern science is excellent at recording and analyzing numbers, so we hear a lot about air temperatures and ocean temperatures and permafrost depth. Satellite imagery has shown us that very small temperature changes over the last few decades are happening concurrently with large areas of North American greening up two or three weeks earlier in the spring. Plants are sensitive to temperature in different ways than people are, or perhaps other factors are causing this earlier greening. But little of this tells us how late the snapdragons bloom in the fall, or when the swans stop keeping sentry on the river next to us, or how long we’ll have to wait for the columbine to return. Those things we learn from notes and hints in personal journals.

This morning was the first daybreak with real frost on the ground. The more delicate blooms in our garden have shriveled overnight, but the snapdragons do not appear to be affected. It was not a hard frost last night, just enough for the plants to take notice. The low angle sun is glittering off the field, and a tree by the entrance to the field is hurling its leaf stalks at the ground (and me, and the dog) with an assertive and continuous clatter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Notes to a young programmer

1. While zip codes in the United States are composed of numerical digits, they are not simply integers. Some zip codes start with 0. Much of New England, in fact. Do not strip out leading zeroes from zip codes.

2. If you provide search access to a database on the web, do not require the user to start each search from scratch. For example, a user searching a database of doctors in a provider network might want to check for a dozen different doctors, and might not want to enter the same home address every time.

3. When you provide search results in alphabetical order, use word-by-word alphabetical order. Freed, Albert; Freedman, John; Freedman, Thomas; Freed, Thomas; is letter-by-letter alphabetical order, and frustrates users. Especially users who only wanted people named Freed.

4. When you display states in alphabetical order, set the order based on whether you are displaying full state names or abbreviations. Maine comes before Massachusetts, but MA comes before ME.

5. Consider a database that contains records for people who are in and out of a particular set. When you allow a user to search the database by name for people who are in the set, include the people who are out of the set in a separate batch of search results. That way the user can see that the person is out of the set, rather than wondering whether the person is failing to appear in the “in the set” results because of a data entry error.

6. If you provide full web search access to a database where 2 out of 8 records in a sample contain key data entry errors that prevent them from correctly appearing in search results, allow the user to download the entire database in some universally readable format such as CSV so the user can query the database in Excel or Word (or even print it out).

Thanksgiving dinner: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Is turkey the only mandatory component of a Thanksgiving dinner? Is everything else gravy, so to speak? Discussion welcome in the comments....

Monday, November 5, 2007

Saint Columbo

Photo by Michael

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Web design

The design of the front page of the website has greatly improved today, and now looks much more like the Guardian website. Updated a few days later: took only a couple of days to clutter themselves up again with a seemingly infinite number of ads, pop-ups, random images, and outside links. It is now worse than ever.

I’m supposed to be redesigning one large established site and developing a new small one from scratch, so it’s great to have new models to wander around. While I’ve been noticing news sites, I really need to find good models for two different sorts of websites: one for shopping (oriented around text descriptions rather than product images) and one for a small organization.

What sites do you find easy to navigate and pleasing to the eye?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Noel presaging Noël

Cold, wind, and rain today. The remnants of Hurricane Noel passing through as a nor’easter, this first weekend in November, and fall is suddenly over. Tomorrow will be a brighter day, but with a different light than Friday as the sun shines through newly bare trees. A winter light to recollect today’s winter wind.

We still have a few fall tasks to complete. Wrap the azaleas and install a couple of porch windows over the screens. Find some unpasteurized cider for the porch. Change our furnace filter. But we completed the big ones: carve a pumpkin, go on a hay ride, look for the most spectacular trees, watch the football season develop and the baseball season end, partake in a cider donut and some token Halloween candy and that favorite squash soup.

Time rushes along, with Thanksgiving and Chanukah early this year. In three weeks Thanksgiving will be over, in five weeks Chanukah will be more than halfway lit, and in seven weeks we’ll be heading north for Christmas. The least we can do is forestall winter for one more hour, write about the fall, and know that the harsh weather of today would be washing away snow in a couple of months. Tonight we’ll set our clocks back, and wake tomorrow to a warmer day and that winter light.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Green book publishing

We went to a panel this evening on the greening of the book business. The panelists were almost entirely book manufacturers, the audience members all worked for publishers, and the actual theme of the first hour felt more like greenwashing, or perhaps a group therapy session.

The panel discussed a lot of ways that book manufacturing can be made less environmentally damaging. It’s useful to hear that major changes can happen in paper choices at a book manufacturer because of a few customers or even just one customer pushing for recycled papers. I’m glad to know that the offset work I order runs on sheet-fed presses where the inks may be 25% VOC and only 5% of that escapes into the atmosphere, rather than web-fed presses where the inks may be 40% VOC and 80% of that escapes into the atmosphere. But it makes me feel bad about occasionally buying a daily newspaper, since those do run on web-fed presses.

The shift away from hot lead typesetting and chemical films, the advent of soft proofing, smarter paper inventory management, lower-VOC inks, HID lighting, recycled paper, FSC-certified paper, alkaline paper production, soy-based inks, these are all important environmental steps that have been done first and foremost for cost reasons. (As one panelist helpfully explained, if they lower their costs, they can also lower their prices. And apparently customers choose based on price.) What the book manufacturers have figured out is that they can promote the environmental benefits as a way to make their customers and themselves feel good. They can even offer to let customers pay extra for the book manufacturer to buy carbon offsets or directed power generation. And for customers who aren’t willing to spec a recycled paper, they can offer a growing range of mostly meaningless certifications on virgin papers.

I knew who the panelists would be, and I shouldn’t have expected more. Book manufacturers who specialize in long runs are not going to tell you that the real environmental benefits in book publishing come from printing fewer books or shifting to electronic publication. The Xerox rep isn’t going to suggest a paperless workflow, the Adobe rep isn’t going to tell you to find a software solution that runs on your current hardware and stick with it, Barnes and Noble isn’t going to tell you to fix bookstore and distributor return policies. And the planet isn’t going to suggest anything as a solution, because the planet can’t join a panel at a conference table in the publisher’s 5th floor cafeteria.

Train station, not in America

Photo by Lisa

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Evening beverage: comments

I believe that the current poll should have a comment thread.

The poll: What is your preferred evening drink with company?

coffee/tea/port/brandy/egg nog/cocoa

Does it matter to you, as it does to me, who the company is?

Making the copies

A copy shop seems like a mundane resource until you realize that every place you used to like has closed or changed completely, and you need 500 booklets printed by next week. Fortunately, I found FlashPrint in Harvard Square.

I used to bring these jobs to Typotech or Kendall Press. Typotech closed some years ago, along with their well-maintained equipment and their hypercompetent staff. Kendall Press still has great press operators, but the front end has gotten too hard to deal with since the ownership change. I need to efficiently choose an available paper stock, discuss finishing requirements, confirm file specs, figure out the price, and know that the file output will be done correctly and the job will be completed on schedule. None of those steps are reliably easy any longer.

As the rep at FlashPrint said, it’s not hard. But far too many places make it hard. Most copy shops here no longer provide a comprehensive price list for simple jobs (and 500 saddle-stitched 5.5"x8.5" 16-page black-only 1/1 self-cover booklets on 60# natural white or cream smooth text with no bleeds really is a simple job). Instead, you have to request an estimate. So I requested an estimate from 5 places, expecting responses by the next morning at the latest. Place #1: no response yet. Place #2: over a day to get a (sky-high) price. Place #3: three days until a phone call saying the quote would be done “soon.” Place #4: almost 24 hours to get a quote that had the specs wrong. The winner by a long shot? FlashPrint: 7 minutes. And they have a price list you can pick up in their shop, with perfectly reasonable pricing.

FlashPrint showed me the paper they recommended and double-checked that they had it in stock, told me they’d call if they had any questions, asked if I wanted to see a proof, ran the job perfectly, and called me to let me know the job was finished two days early. Place #3 (mentioned above) said that I sounded like I was in the trade when I confirmed the job specs and confirmed that the imposition was correct in the PDF file. I’ve been buying printing for over 15 years. But FlashPrint is in the trade.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Snapdragon in late October

Photo by Michael

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Welcome to the Guardian

The Guardian now has a US-oriented web site called Guardian America, using the same clean layout as their primary site and linking to many of the same stories. Really, it’s more of a US-oriented portal to their content, and that suits me just fine. I enjoy their content, and this makes the choice of content more familiar. They are supplementing with some new material created in the US, primarily in the areas of culture and commentary. And thus we glimpse the new answer to our concerns about global outsourcing: with the current exchange rate, American writers and editors are a tremendous bargain. We’ll see whether we can adapt to the Guardian stylebook better than China’s factories can adapt to our manufacturing requirements.

In other news, tomorrow the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins will play a regular season NFL game at Wembley Stadium in London. You can read about it in the Guardian or on or even on the horribly-named (Was unavailable?) There’s even reports of a comedy routine at a press appearance by one of the Dolphins players. I’m surprised that a team owner would give up the home field advantage and home field revenue, although the Dolphins stands looked pretty empty during last week’s game and home field advantage hasn’t been doing the 0-7 team any good.

So we send over an NFL game (which we still get to watch on its regular time and channel), and we get Britain’s best newspaper partially customised in return. Free trade does work!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I want LibraryThing for the art in our home. An image of each piece, provenance, artist info, maybe some notes about what in particular I find striking or unusual. The urge to catalog is deep, but the will is rather lacking. I keep some notes scattered around, a folder of artist bios mixed in with gallery information, museum brochures, and fun postcards (my “art” folder), occasional receipts. Not exactly the 5 million pages of organized notes that Thomas Edison left behind.

The way to build ArtThing would be to position it first and foremost as a way for artists to keep their own catalog of what they create. It would be useful for archival purposes and for marketing, especially for artists who do not yet have their own web site. You could look through all of an artist’s pieces, and see which ones are for sale. You could import listings into your own catalog as a collector, and even maintain private or public wishlists. There’d be nice interfaces to existing art sales sites like Etsy, and eventually ArtThing could be its own thriving secondary market for reselling or trading pieces.

The obvious difference from books — the lack of an ISBN for an art piece — would be handled by the ArtThing unique ID number (ATid) assignment system. That ATid number would be handy for insurance lists and estate planning, and would be easy to put on the price tag or even include on the back of a print. If a signature in the corner of a nice pastoral oil painting adds value, surely an ATid number in the corner would add even more.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Art at home

In Modern Art Notes, Adams Helms offers insight from the artist’s point of view on how art pieces are or should be treated when they are placed in a home, and how much the artist should (not) worry about that. He quite sensibly explains that

works of art produced leave the studio and go out into the world, more often than not, into private collections. These private collections more often than not are in people’s homes.
While he proceeds to encourage artists to accept that and move on to making new work, the context he creates in the interview is that his own piece in his dealer’s home is being moved at his request. He has reasons, just as any artist would, and those reasons are interesting. But it is rather at odds with his overall message.

A few of my photographs are in other people’s homes, including the homes of some people I don’t know. That fact is still new enough to me that I’m not at all worried about where they’ve been placed; I’m just delighted that I’ve sold some prints. And while I can imagine having an interesting discussion with someone about where a piece might really stand out, I think that the placement process should be owned by the person who owns the art piece.

What I’ve noticed in my own home is that it’s important to have the context and placement of a piece change over time. Art in a home becomes background noise if its placement is too static; periodic changes keep the art fresh and prevent it from becoming a meaningless design element. That fits well with my belief that there is no single ideal context and placement for any given art piece, because the piece can evoke different responses from a viewer depending on the context and placement. Sadly, I don’t live in a home that could be featured in The New York Times Style Magazine. In practice, many pieces stay put and only the distracting clutter changes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Photo by Michael

When shall we three meet again?

To compensate for their production last spring of Titus Andronicus with an all-male cast, Actors’ Shakespeare Project is putting on an all-female Macbeth this fall. We went to opening night, and the show needs a lot of work.

Some scenes are done beautifully, mostly in Acts IV and V. The second half opening with the witches is hair-raising and convincingly supernatural. The scene between Lady Macduff and her son before they are killed is a touching bit of normal human interaction, with Lady Macduff striking a perfect note of harried and distracted mother trying to answer her child’s endless questions. Lady Macbeth’s unbalanced and unseeing monologue is a more unified whole than it might be, with the commentary from the observing doctor and gentlewoman practically a voiceover. Our attention is kept correctly on Lady Macbeth as she paces and stumbles about the set, our and her recollections of misdeeds reinforced by her wandering through the places where we saw those misdeeds plotted, executed, or revealed. There is no safe place on the set for us or for her to escape the memories of violence, though that idea could have been further emphasized had she exited where the audience exits.

The cast is uneven, and not in the expected way given the mix of equity actors and college students. The best performer is Victoria Bucknell (Angus, Fleance, Macduff’s son, and Young Siward), a BU college student who sings beautifully, is expressive and comfortable with the language, and conveys very different characters through different movement choices that all seem natural. Marya Lowry (Macbeth), on the other hand, is an established actor with a broad résumé in regional Shakespeare performances. According to the program, she runs Ecstatic Voice and Lamentation workshops in the US and in Europe, and I saw her hold up her end as an interesting Gertrude in ASP’s Hamlet last fall against Johnnie Lee Davenport’s marvelous Claudius. I did not expect her sing-song obscuring of the language in this show, her single-note character who expresses emotion only through how she holds her hands and whether her eyes are wide open or wider open. I enjoy Shakespeare performances more when the actors make the language feel natural. The contrast in language is most noticeable when Marya Lowry is talking to Jacqui Parker’s Banquo, who speaks much more naturally and with far more range and clarity.

Jacqui Parker also shows more apparent awareness of her surroundings and fellow actors than most of the cast, though Victoria Bucknell is the only one who is consistently fully present when she is present. Through most of the show, actors on stage who are not immediately involved in the dialogue do not react to anything they see or hear. They stiffly await their cues, moving only when necessary and trying not to distract from the person speaking. It doesn’t feel like a directorial choice so much as directorial incompleteness (or incompetence), and the lack of response definitely inhibits the audience’s response. That’s disastrous when the theater is small and the audience surrounds most of the performance space.

Using an all-female cast in this play that most famously questions gender roles should add some layers of confusion, amusement, or irony. Instead, the directorial choices reinforce stereotypes of violence as inappropriate for women (either for women to perform or for audiences to see women performing). Weapons are replaced by vaguely bloody sponges, the battle between Macbeth and Macduff is quick and uses mimed swords, and the daggers used to kill Duncan are too-small kitchen knives. The violence in ASP’s Titus was even more stylized, using water for blood, but was far more effective. This production of Macbeth is not afraid of expressing sexuality or conflict, and even moves Lady Macduff’s death onto the stage, but pulls back from the violence of the show in an odd way.

I was really surprised that so little was made of the relevance of the show to the contemporary world, particularly given that Actors’ Shakespeare Project claims to present Shakespeare “as a playwright urgently relevant to our own times.” Ross certainly sounds like he is speaking of today’s political climate when he says to Lady Macduff:

I dare not speak
much further;
But cruel are the times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves, when we hold rumour
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and move. I take my leave of you:
Shall not be long but I'll be here again:
Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward
To what they were before.
Malcolm and Macduff explore the relative horror of unchecked lust and unchecked greed in a ruler, but Malcolm’s speech is too rushed to allow the audience to relish the obvious parallels to our recent and current rulers. The show’s broadest theme is a nation falling under tyranny, but we see little aspect or effect of that tyranny. Lady Macduff’s speech about whether the innocent have anything to fear in the present times is elided entirely, despite the compact way these few lines touch on the disconnect between action and consequences, the upsetting of logic and justice, and even the gender issues that this production should be exploring:
Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence,
To say I have done no harm?
And when we have a show about a female power behind the throne and a production where women play all the roles of powerful men, during a presidential race which holds out the prospect of the most influential First Lady of recent times becoming our first female president, why is there so little resonance?

The highlight of the evening was chatting with a local theater reviewer sitting next to us about this production and many others. (He was experiencing the added dramatic tension of wondering whether his car was being towed, because the legal parking spaces around BU were mostly taken up by people going to Game 6 of the ALCS at Fenway Park.) It was exciting to talk to someone who sees far more theater than we do, and to compare notes about his recent experience seeing Patrick Stewart in Macbeth and ours seeing Patrick Stewart in The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra, to fondly recollect the period a decade ago when the American Repertory Theatre was interesting, and to discuss the RSC’s temporary Courtyard Theatre in Stratford. We may have convinced him to see the Henry VI trilogy in Stratford in February, in which case we will have done him a great service. If this production of Macbeth evolves for the better during the run, we should probably go back to seeing ASP productions late in their run as we have done in the past. However, having an opportunity to talk to this reviewer is a powerful incentive to go to opening nights. It’s an interesting question for us, and not one that I usually take away from an evening at the theater.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Reuters reported today on a Senate bill that would let victims of ID theft “seek restitution for money and time they spent repairing their credit history.” The article omits some pertinent questions, such as how you document the time spent, how you put a value on that time, how ID theft is defined, and most importantly where the restitution would come from.

ID theft has come to encompass a range of crimes, including simply using a stolen credit card. Correcting wrong charges on your credit card statement is a breeze, however, compared to dealing with new credit accounts opened in your name with thousands of dollars in charges. To restore your credit rating, each of those new accounts has to be cleared and closed properly. You have to get a police report, fill out piles of paperwork, get forms notarized, and follow up for months with letters and phone calls. In the meantime, your newly lowered credit rating can raise your interest rate for buying a car, buying or refinancing a home, or obtaining a business loan. Your credit rating affects how you’re viewed by many potential landlords and employers, determines your car insurance premiums in many states, and really has an amazing number of ways it can screw up your life. If the ID theft extends to someone else’s health care, insurance claims, or even criminal charges being attributed to you, good luck ever getting it all fully straightened out. Restitution would be nice for some of that, too.

The Senate bill probably suggests that the restitution come from either some sort of public fund or from the criminal in the rare case that someone is actually caught. It would be easy to suggest that the restitution come from the companies and government agencies who are cavalierly collecting and then accidentally revealing our Social Security numbers and other personal information. I’d prefer that the restitution come from the banks and stores that open new credit lines despite fraud alerts on the credit bureau accounts, or from the insurance companies who use credit ratings as a proxy for racial discrimination, or from the police departments who write off thefts of thousands of dollars as a victimless crime, or from the credit bureaus themselves who trade so irresponsibly in error-ridden personal information. But the ultimate solution cannot be restitution. When 8.4 million people have their identities stolen in a year, the solution has to be to stop pretending that Social Security numbers are secret. We need better data protection policies and practices, but we also need to stop treating a Social Security number as a magic password that unlocks vast riches and creates vast headaches.

The vast whirling ballet of credit card shopping that comes crashing to a halt in the television commercial when someone tries to write a check isn’t portraying individual purchases. It’s portraying the vast whirling ballet of opening credit accounts that lenders and retailers are afraid will come crashing to a halt if we implement any sort of rational security policies. From the vantage point of the corporate box in the balcony, that ballet is beautiful. It’s not so beautiful for the 8.4 million people who got trampled last year.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A time to sow, a time to reap / Wild Oats, Wild Harvest

Our local Wild Oats (formerly a stand-alone Wild Harvest location) is closing for the winter to become a Whole Foods. Yesterday was an impressive scene of controlled chaos as they put everything on sale at 40% off. The parking lot was crowded, the store ran out of grocery carts for a while, and every register was in use. It was fun going on a little shopping spree, with happy customers and happy staff. The store hasn’t done that level of business even before blizzards or holidays, but the staff stepped up to the plate and kept the lines moving quickly.

What surprised me most was that the store took a simple and honest approach to clearing out their inventory. I’ve seen a lot of stores close down, and in the past decade the inventory clearance has been run by outside companies that bring in minimum wage staff, advertise huge savings, raise the prices, and then take 10% or 15% off the inflated prices. I’ve learned to avoid those closing sales. Wild Oats brought in all of their most experienced store staff to handle the registers and took 40% off the exact prices that they were charging the day before (including sale prices). That simple and honest approach is my model for how to do business. It created quite an impression to see a large business do the same. Whole Foods clearly did a lot of preparatory work with the staff, because the staff was all friendly and competent and upbeat. I believe they’ve all been offered jobs with Whole Foods, most with pay raises, but it still must be disconcerting to see their store closing down so quickly. The way they handled this closing gives me great hopes for the Whole Foods that will open up in that location in the spring with much of the same staff. And we now have enough chocolate bars to get us through the long winter without a grocery store.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nature’s camoflage

Photo by Michael

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Duties incumbent upon me

I’m now on the local arts council, which over the next month means reviewing all the grant applications for next year to decide which art projects and cultural events should be funded and at what amounts. My personal priorities are projects that will have a long-term impact, high visibility, and use a local space that is currently underused. A mural that will stay up for 10 years is better than an art exhibit that will stay up for 2 months. An outdoor event in the middle of town is better than an indoor event that most people don’t hear about. A concert at the public bandshell that’s rarely used is better than a concert in a church basement.

There are also established priorities, such as funding events that will serve a variety of local populations (events for kids, events for retirement homes) and funding new projects. And there are legal requirements, such as not funding businesses and not funding activities that are supposed to be fully paid for by regular funding sources such as the school budget.

Arts councils are supposed to solicit public input, so: What sorts of art projects and cultural events do you think are important to provide funding for? What criteria would you use?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Monopoly: The Subprime Edition

Rule adaptations to traditional Monopoly:

1. All property prices are doubled.

2. When you buy a property, instead of paying for the property outright, you can pay 1/4 the purchase amount each of your next five turns (but not this turn). The banker must keep track of your upcoming payments on a separate piece of paper, and check each payment off when you make it. Payments are due before your roll.

3. If you do not make a payment on a property, the property is returned to the bank.

4. When a player pays rent on a property that is not yet fully paid for, half the rent goes to the bank.

5. If you roll doubles, all upcoming payments that the banker is tracking for you are doubled.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Forming a more perfect union

Larry Sabato calls for a new Constitutional Convention in a recent column in the Los Angeles Times. The column is a confusing litany of falsehoods, misrepresentations, and nonsensical arguments. He starts out his column complaining that current proposals for tackling health care or Iraq are merely incremental fixes, and goes on to propose “radical changes” such as slightly increasing the number of electors in the Electoral College. Personally, I think that an incremental fix to health care might just benefit more people.

Unlike Sabato’s suggestions, there are useful changes we could make to the Constitution. We could revoke the legal status of corporations as persons. We could add an explicit right to privacy. We could protect habeas corpus even in times of war or insurrection, make all elections direct and protect the right to vote, create a right to basic health care or education, eliminate asset forfeiture laws, and much more. The framework by which we structure our society is worth careful consideration by an informed body politic. But before we consider either incremental or radical changes, it might be prudent to try enforcing the Constitution and laws we already have.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Not about the dishwasher

Yesterday morning I started to write a post about how much I like our dishwasher. It’s a Bosch, it has very simple controls, it’s quiet, and it works really well. Then I went downstairs and discovered water all over the kitchen floor. And dripping into the basement.

Now, this is not the dishwasher’s fault, and I don’t say that because I refuse to ascribe evil motives or moral responsibility to a kitchen appliance. It’s the refrigerator’s fault. And I absolutely ascribe moral responsibility to the refrigerator. I’m leaning toward evil motives as well. I think the refrigerator was jealous of how much we prefer our dishwasher and our stove. I think the refrigerator doesn’t like the fact that we keep a secondary refrigerator in the basement, and that we look at other refrigerators when we’re out shopping. I think the refrigerator was upset that we aren’t in love with it any more, and was determined to demonstrate that it is not cold and heartless. (Although being cold is what had made the refrigerator attractive in the first place.) Maybe the refrigerator just wanted some attention, and this was the quickest way it knew to get some.

I won’t pretend that I don’t feel a sense of loss. I met the refrigerator on July 4th weekend in 1995, when I was on the rebound from the death of my first refrigerator. (I don’t consider the dorm fridges in college to have been serious refrigerators.) What started as a summer romance blossomed into a long-term relationship, even if it was mostly centered around food. It was a Maytag refrigerator, one of Maytag’s first ventures out of their traditional laundry and dishwashing domains. Like my Panasonic bicycle 20 years ago, my Maytag refrigerator caused some cognitive dissonance at first. Will it wash my food? Does it have a spin cycle for the lettuce? But the jokes quickly faded as I realized how good the refrigerator was for me. When I bought a house 3 years later that came with a full set of appliances, I brought my Maytag refrigerator with me. Now, with more than a little regret, I’m starting to accept that it’s time to move on.

Unless it’s a much bigger problem, such as a leak in our back wall that it somehow steering water onto our kitchen floor exactly where the refrigerator used to live! (We’ve moved the refrigerator to test this theory.) I’m fantasizing about disaster scenarios that will excuse the refrigerator, and I’m not sure that’s healthy. Appliances change, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t used to be a good appliance.

Besides, have you met my dishwasher?

Monday, October 8, 2007

110% coinsurance

Soon we will engage in our yearly ritual of choosing next year’s health insurance plan. I found the process frustrating last year because I was trying to figure out which insurance plan would be the right choice. Many aspects of the two plans were apples and oranges, despite both being Blue Cross PPO plans. Would I prefer a $150 copay for an MRI, or 10% coinsurance? Hard to decide. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the plan summaries are inaccurate and many of the plan details change during the year, so there is no way to make a rational choice. That will take a lot of the pressure off this year.

I’d prefer 110% coinsurance for everything short of hospitalization. I’ve seen enough medical bills for ER visits and doctor’s appointments to understand that the major benefit of health insurance most years isn’t about covering enormous unexpected expenses of major injuries or illnesses – the benefit is the insurance company pricing. ER visits that are $850 for the uninsured are $65 if you have Blue Cross. A specialist consultation drops from $200 to $38. Tests drop from $250 to $22 or even free. Medical care is suddenly much less expensive. If I could pay the insurance company pricing (100% coinsurance) plus a small surcharge in exchange for the insurance company handling the paperwork (so make it 110% coinsurance), I could afford the direct cost of routine health care.

A huge added benefit of 110% coinsurance would be that the insurance company could stop reviewing for medical necessity as a way to save money. The health care decisions could be between doctor and patient, the payment process at insurance companies could be streamlined, and many arguments about medical necessity could be avoided entirely. Everyone wins. So how do we convince Blue Cross to offer this as an option?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Edinburgh Castle in blue

Photo by Michael

Friday, October 5, 2007


A recent episode of Food Network’s Recipe for Success follows a Chicago-based woman named Hilary as she starts to develop a small business baking cookies. The cookies look amazing, and impress everyone who tries them. She sells the cookies by mail, to local theaters, and eventually through four local Whole Foods stores. She makes so little money that she has to give up her apartment and take side jobs cleaning houses. This is not actually encouraging.

The gender roles are really quite stark. Hilary has had two failed businesses before, and the only other woman featured in the episode is a sister who repeatedly bad-mouths her. Her initial loan comes from a male relative, she gets accounting advice from another male relative, she gets business advice from successful male bakers, the buyers she meets with are almost all men, the baker who she ends up contracting with to arrange larger-scale production is a man, and her housing woes are solved when her boyfriend “allows her to move in with him” to end the episode.

On the bright side, the show is realistic and open about the numbers of a small food business, and packs a lot of challenges and possible solutions into a short episode. And unlike reality television, this is television about reality. If you like the look of the chocolate caramel coffee cookies or banana bread cookies, you can place an order.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Dark data and grey literature

Thomas Goetz writes in Wired about “dark data,” the negative results that come out of many or most scientific experiments. The traditional publication process favors results that establish correlations, so studies that do not find a correlation generally do not get reported. Yet studies which do not show a correlation can be useful as well, establishing that a particular off-label use of a drug is ineffective or showing that gay marriage doesn’t actually cause the collapse of, well, anything.

Negative results are of less general interest, but are incredibly important in assessing particular hypotheses. They are also a natural consequence of broad scientific research. The sort of research that can find startling results is often the sort of research that examines factors and variables that we would not expect to be correlated. Our intuition that there is not a correlation is frequently borne out, but we should not discourage counter-intuitive inquiry.

The biggest obstacle to publishing dark data has been the lack of space in journals. Why not publish positive results rather than negative results, if space is limited? The traditional grey literature of departmental working papers and conference proceedings is a farm system for the journals, where results and ideas compete for limited attention as the best ones graduate to the big show. Goetz correctly points out that the web provides plenty of space to host massive quantities of data, but he’s wrong when he posits that this is a full solution to the dark data problem. The web has allowed an enormous expansion of the grey literature, extending downwards into rough drafts. Publishing data is a further step down from that if it is not accompanied by full explanations of the methodology used to collect and analyze the data, and if that methodology is not scrutinized by a rigorous peer review process. Goetz falls into a common misunderstanding of science in believing that data show truth independent of methodology, and any publishing scientist will tell you that there is far more to publication than dumping data at a journal’s doorstep. Dumping data on the web is not sufficient either, no matter what type of data you’re dumping.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Complexity of nature

Photo by Michael

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Adventure travel

In Death of an Adventure Traveler, Rolf Potts describes his editor telling him that American travel magazine readers

didn't want to read about journeys that were obscure or complicated; they wanted exotic challenges wherein they might test — or, at least, imagine themselves testing — the extremes of human experience.
This testing of extremes apparently is supposed to involve some limited planning, extensive shopping, and a comfortable bed. It turns out that I’ve done far more “adventure travel” myself than I had realized.

Volcano National Park on Hawai‘i is filled with cautionary signs. Park rangers casually mention that the current ranger station is on wheels and that the previous ranger station was completely destroyed by a lava flow. They warn you against breathing in the wrong place, and explain that the steam rising from the ground all around you is rainwater that has seeped down a little ways and hit magma. The large metal “danger” sign at the end of the road that was covered by a lava flow a few years ago has itself been partially destroyed. It is a fascinating and alien landscape, and I definitely recommend a visit.

I’m glad that for a couple of days I overcame my perfectly rational fear of hiking around an active volcano, but it confirmed for me that my own experience of adventure travel is not about the sense of danger or testing the extremes of human experience. I find adventure simply in being somewhere new and different where I don’t know what to expect. Exploring the ruins of a Scottish castle nobody has ever heard of was equally an adventure, partly because I took some random bus into the countryside without a map and wasn’t sure how I’d find my way back. I’ve had the same sense of adventure pulling my car over in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and following a half-marked trail into the woods to see what I’d find. Maybe my adventure palate is insufficiently refined, and I’d understand better if I read more travel magazines. But along with making the exotic destinations seem reachable, travel magazines can make them seem more familiar. And then actually going there won’t feel like an adventure, will it?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Math for math’s sake

The Center for Women in Mathematics at Smith College has started a post-bac math program for women who are considering graduate studies in math. It’s the first such post-bac math program in the country, and I really hope the idea spreads. For some, the program offers a transition to grad school after time away from academia. For others, the program offers an opportunity to build confidence and develop a more solid foundation for graduate studies. For students who do go on to a degree program, the post-bac year offers a new set of connections to other students and professors. Those connections can be invaluable during grad school in providing mentoring possibilities, maintaining external support, and easing the too-frequent isolation that grad students experience.

The program can also be a great resource for the undergraduate students in the math department. The post-bac students enlarge the math community at Smith, and are integrated into the student side of the department rather than positioned oppositionally to the undergraduates as grad students in a university setting are.

I hope this is part of a larger reworking of the academic model in this country. The academic career path toward a tenured position will likely continue to narrow and lengthen, and the resulting pressures on graduate students will worsen the competitive nature of too many graduate programs. As teaching shifts from a collegial occupation to a commuter one, the ideals of study for the sake of learning and collaboration for the sake of community should still have a place.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fall colors

Photo by Michael

Thursday, September 27, 2007

How goodly are your tents

At services this morning, the rabbi described Rosh Hashanah as a holiday of the heart, Yom Kippur as a holiday of the head, and Sukkot as a holiday of the hands and feet. Sukkot is a harvest festival, a celebration of nature. We build a sukkah, a temporary structure which is partially open to the sky, in which we eat meals with friends over the next week. We see the stars through the sukkah’s roof, and spend time outdoors, and ignore the coming winter.

Oddly, Sukkot appears to be a holiday without any popular holiday-specific songs. No work song about building the sukkah, no recursive children’s ballad about the quest to find an etrog, no chorus-heavy drinking song for after dinner in the sukkah. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice to listen to nature instead of ourselves, though lunch in the sukkah today after services was hardly quiet. Perhaps it’s a decision not to disturb the neighbors in the evening. Or perhaps it’s a musical market waiting to be tapped.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Home office

Just what I expect at the end of September in New England: sunny and 94 degrees. If I didn't need to keep my office cool for the computers, this would be perfect weather for removing the vinyl tiles on my office floor without a hair dryer.

I’m slowly deconstructing my home office, hoping to turn it into a nicely furnished room with space for two people to work on separate projects, storage for books and files, power for computer equipment, and good lighting. All I have to do is remove the trim, several layers of flooring, and all the current office contents; figure out how to make the wallpaper paintable; and hire someone to replace the windows and the doors, put up a new ceiling, rewire the room, build desks and shelving, and install a new floor. And design the new space so that it's both functional and attractive. And keep my work going during all of this.

Have you ever thought about what your dream office (home or elsewhere) would include? What would it look or feel like?


Photo by Michael

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lunch in the parking lot

I remember going to my first Red Sox game at Fenway Park with a group of friends in 1994, and bringing in a tray of brownies and a container of homemade peanut noodles with honey-roasted walnuts to share at the game. Plenty of people brought in their own food back then to supplement the inevitable ballpark peanuts and hot dogs.

Since that time, bringing your own food and drinks (even water) has become forbidden at more and more places. Many venues are afraid that outside food and drinks will reduce their concession sales. At the same time, food allergies have risen dramatically, meaning that for many people a ban on outside food is a ban on all food. I am used to dealing with this for 8 days a year during Passover, but it's a year-round concern for many people.

People who go hiking or camping learn to pack all the food and water they need, but this fundamental Boy Scouts lesson of “Be Prepared” is being inverted in the less pastoral settings of amusement parks, festivals, and fairgrounds. The renaissance faire in southeastern Massachusetts bans all outside food and drink, and does not allow you to go out to your vehicle and reenter without buying a new ticket. They allow no exceptions for religious or health reasons, so if you keep kosher or have other food restrictions you face a couple of unpalatable choices: (1) plan to attend the 8-hour faire for a far shorter period of time, or (2) plan to take time during the middle of the faire to return to your vehicle, have lunch in your car, and buy a new ticket to reenter. It's hard enough not being able to enjoy the same food as everyone else; the shunning aspect of not being allowed to eat with others and the added penalties of time and money are enough to drive me away from an event I would otherwise love to attend.

Perhaps as food allergies increase, venues will realize that bans on outside food and drink are driving away a noticeable number of customers. I wouldn’t mind a corkage fee, or simply a higher entrance price to offset lower food profits. In the meantime, please know that you’re always welcome to come watch the Red Sox game at our place, with or without your own peanut noodles.