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.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Grilling with charcoal is a messy enterprise. Soot before and ashes after, with flames and smoke and grease in between. The grates never return to truly clean, and I look at the showroom condition of new grills with the envy I used to reserve for a sparkling new car. And yet I find tremendous satisfaction in doing what my father did, taking up the challenge of cooking for friends and family over a hardly regulated flame and eye-stinging smoke. Our tools and techniques are different, though the simple Weber grill at the core is identical. My father keeps the temperature of the coals lower, uses more indirect heat, and has the patience to cook an entire roast to well-done. I like a quick searing flame, the drips from marinades and meats converted directly to smoke, and the risk of scorching dinner if I let my attention wander for more than a minute. My father closes the lid over the grill during cooking and uses the vents on the lid to control the air flow. I'm convinced the lid is mostly a decorative accessory that keeps leaves from accumulating on the grate between uses. Yet standing in front of the grill brings back plenty of childhood summer evenings, and I feel that I am honoring my father through this simple act of preparing food outdoors. And as we sit down to eat, I offer a quick and silent thanks for his example.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Friday, September 21, 2007

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre is tonight, the start of Yom Kippur. Six hours left to make amends in the world, and then the focus must turn inwards and upwards.

There is a liturgical disagreement in our prayerbooks about whether we seek to annul our vows to God from the last Kol Nidre to the present one, or from the present one to the next. Do we seek forgiveness for promises we have failed to fulfill, or do we focus on the knowledge that we will not be perfect in the coming year? By choosing one wording and acknowledging the other, we place ourselves squarely in the middle of the past and future. On a timeline that might appear to coincide with the present, but we do not live in the present on Yom Kippur. We look at the year past and the year to come. We look inwards and upwards. And we observe the fast both to emphasize our turning away from worldly concerns and to take us out of the present.

This will be my 14th Kol Nidre with the same rabbi and cantor. For me, that creates tremendous echoes and a sense of continuity beyond reciting prayers that were written many hundreds of years ago, and eases my personal transition out of the present. Their voices are a familiar anchor and the prayers are a sturdy chain which allow me to float securely while I try to make peace. If you are trying to do the same, whether in communal services or alone, whether as part of Yom Kippur or part of a different journey, I wish peace for you and for us all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

All I ask

I claim no special insight into what makes a concert great. But attempting to define a great concert is a fun challenge, because it recalls to mind some potent memories.

A great concert makes people dance. The music is melodic, the percussion syncs to a fast heart rate with a dollop of syncopation, and the volume of reverberating air is a partner held close. At Paul Simon's Graceland concert with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Madison Square Garden in July 1987, people were dancing in the aisles even 500 feet from the stage.

A great concert includes a phenomenal band. When Jane Siberry performed her Child holiday tour in December 1996, she brought together a dozen top musicians including Tim Ray, Rebecca Campbell, Phillip Brown, and others who can all stand on their own as soloists or lead performers. Musicians who have nothing to prove, and everything to share.

A great concert showcases a performer's repertoire. You hear old favorites brought to new life, new work that surpasses your old favorites, and you come to new understandings of why you love this musician. You learn about the performer through anecdotes and introductions that bridge the songs, a process that makes lyrics shine. And over and over, you lose yourself in the music as much as you imagine the musicians do.

A great concert has layers of standing ovations and encores because neither the audience nor the performers want to let the evening end. A great concert wears your feet out from tapping, wears your hands out from clapping, and simultaneously energizes your soul. Suzanne Vega's last lyric tonight was "All I ask is you remember me." When she puts on a great concert like she did tonight, that won't be a problem.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

IP theater

According to the Harvard Coop (a Barnes & Noble college bookstore), the ISBN numbers of books required for courses are their "intellectual property." Or perhaps it's a combination of the ISBN and the price. Or some other basic book information. It's hard to tell exactly what their theory is, because the article in The Harvard Crimson is insufficiently specific about the intellectual property that the Coop is trying to protect, nor whether the Coop is claiming legal protection under copyright, trademark, patent, or trade secrets law. Normally it's important to determine the specifics of a legal claim before ridiculing it, because intellectual property law is a complex and mysterious ruminant prone to devouring both reason and common sense and spitting them back out as an unrecognizable pile of rules and regulations. The Coop is just making this up, however, using "intellectual property" as a magical incantation that supposedly justifies whatever they want to do. It's IP theater, just as confiscating water in airports is security theater.

Vardibidian posted about IP theater last month, when a civil service exam warned test-takers against writing down any of the questions, claiming that would be just as much copyright infringement as listening to a song on the radio and writing it down. (Gosh, those darn kids are writing down songs again. I knew they were up to no good.)

Last week I posted about trying to create a clear and sensible software license. I'd like my users to understand that copyright law does actually say they aren't allowed to distribute copies of the software to all of their friends. That gets harder when there are idiots in positions of apparent authority claiming that copyright law says you can't write down a song or an ISBN. So, Harvard Coop, for the sake of those of us who actually create something, please stop with the IP theater. And if you really want to help lower textbook prices as you tell professors, maybe you should welcome some comparison shopping.

Red, white, and blue

Photo by Michael

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Garden update

The late summer can be rough on gardens, but ours is doing well this year. We created a stepping stone path on one side using granite from family property, and ground covers (both chosen and volunteer) are filling in much of the path. Snapdragons have been popping up non-stop for the past several weeks, and we've had an unexpected second spring for many of our plants. Our only loss in front to the August drought was an azalea, and the drought may actually have slowed the cedar apple rust on our new apple tree. We planted a lot this summer to see what would take, and indications so far are that almost everything is doing well. I'm starting to think that we'll be able to fill several planting beds in the back next spring with the excess from the front garden. A lot will depend on how harsh the winter is.

It has been a real joy to grow so many new plants amongst the maturing plantings form the previous summers. The blend of familiar and strange gives us new patterns every few weeks as the plants grow, bloom, fade, and die back.

We do have one small plant by the steps that appears not to have changed at all since we planted it. I'm not sure yet if it is sleeping, slow-growing, or plastic. It replaces the "alien bush" (a native wild hydrangea, we eventually discovered) that we had in that location, which every summer grew like a St. Bernard puppy. It's quite the contrast.

Despite all of the plant changes, the biggest difference this summer has definitely been the retaining wall around the perimeter of the garden. It's now half the height, allowing in much more sun, and topped with granite instead of brick. The wall now feels like a border rather than a barricade. And while there are many different ways to have a good garden, none of my favorites involve a barricade.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bonus post

Lisa pointed me this evening to a 1993 article by Alfie Kohn called "For Best Results, Forget the Bonus." Apparently, offering workers rewards as incentives is hardly better than punishing them. Have you had a job where some workers (or all workers) received rewards of some sort? Do you feel it changed your focus so that you cared more about the reward than about the work itself?

The best response may receive a prize!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

South Rim

Photo by Michael

Free movement

"Free movement by the citizen is of course as dangerous to a tyrant as free expression of ideas or the right of assembly and it is therefore controlled in most countries in the interests of security. That is why the ticketing of people and the use of identification papers are routine matters under totalitarian regimes, yet abhorrent in the United States.

This freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society, setting us apart. Like the right of assembly and the right of association, is often makes all other rights meaningful -- knowing, studying, arguing, exploring, conversing, observing and even thinking. Once the right to travel is curtailed, all other rights suffer."

-- Justice Douglas, United States Supreme Court, 1964

In a better world, people would read this quote and think about the importance of freedom of movement. Change. In a better world, I could leave postcards with this quote on the public bus for people to read. Change. In a better world, this quote would be plastered on the side of each bus because the public bus represents freedom of movement. Change. In a better world, freedom of movement would be the motivating principle of the public transit system. Ah.

The camera is a metaphor

A digital SLR camera has an important difference from a traditional SLR: the film that moves along after it is exposed in a traditional SLR has been replaced by a sensor that stays in place. This means that dust can become a bigger and bigger problem in a digital SLR, because it continues to accumulate on the sensor over time rather than moving along as the film in a traditional SLR advances. I ran into this with my new camera, and settled on an affordable cleaning kit from Copper Hill Images. You take off the lens (which you can do with an SLR, unlike with a compact digital camera), lock the shutter open so the sensor is exposed, and swab the dust off the sensor using a soft pad on a stick and a drop of the right sort of cleaning solution.

Does a similar kit exist for cleaning the digital records of our lives? Dust and detritus no longer cling to a single frame of film or a single commercial relationship. The permanent record that schoolchildren fear has become a capricious reality for adults. Credit records, medical histories, spending habits, blog posts and criminal records, calling patterns and e-mail traffic, insurance claims and travel patterns, all mixed into a real witches' brew of error-ridden databases where negative information piles higher and higher with no natural expiration date. I wonder how many people we will be shunning in 10 years, or 20, as the dust accumulates.

This post is for you

Can a blog be the equivalent of marginalia in a medieval Book of Hours? Benjamin Schwarz in "Life in the Margins" (The Atlantic, October 2007):

The books are crammed with pressed flowers, recipes, notes on debts and rents due, charms and incantations, souvenirs of pilgrimages, affectionate messages from family members ...
Not every book contained each sort of owner contribution; some simply reported important life events, others directly annotated particular prayers. The range of content sounds familiar, as does the democratizing effect of considering the marginalia seriously. Schwarz quotes Eamon Duffy describing these marginalia in Marking the Hours as
a series of unexpected windows into the hearts and souls of the men and women who long ago had used these books to pray.
Creating such windows sounds like a good goal to me.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Photo by Michael

Bar codes on a plane

FedEx operates in a world of bar codes and scanners, RFID tags and GPS units. Package information is entered electronically, and the networked tracking system gives FedEx and the public instant access to the most recent known location of a package in transit. All of which is very cool, and hasn't really changed in over a decade.

Every year for the past 10 years, I have received a notice that FedEx rates are going up 10% or more. And in the past 10 years, the only visible improvement in their computerized system has been that customers sign for packages on an electronic clipboard instead of a sheet of paper. In that same time period, the Post Office has implemented an entire bar code system for delivery tracking (though they still don't track packages en route), new interoperational systems with foreign postal systems that have sped up international deliveries, a "known shipper" program, and an e-mail tax. Ok, the e-mail tax is a myth. But when did the Post Office become a more nimble organization than FedEx?

By now, FedEx should be able to track packages and trucks on a live map, contact drivers and stations and ramps, update shipment information easily for a package en route, allow a recipient to switch the billing for a package to their own account number, provide conditional return labels, and maybe, just maybe, find a package at the airport ramp. Even on a Saturday. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Beautiful Dictionary

This site is really fun. Hit "random" a few times to see what happens. Then pick a few words for it to map.

Art in a boat

Photo by Michael

Daydream #1

I've long daydreamed of creating a shared library with friends. A library with space for books from 10 or 20 people, for those of us who love to keep the books we have read but don't need to keep them all at home. We'd buy a space and fill it with bookcases, a few good writing desks, and some comfortable reading chairs. I walk in on a Sunday morning or a Tuesday evening, settle in with a new find or an old favorite, maybe put on a kettle. The feel of the place is in my bones.

The books are organized, and the shelves are easy to peruse. The science books are all over here, near the case of essays and across from the room filled with mysteries and science fiction novels. Like in any fine library, it's a joy to look through the shelves and find the book you are looking for and 10 more good choices beside it. There are no bad books here, because there are no bad books in my daydreams.

The library has no distractions. Perhaps a cool and quiet breeze, or the crackle of a fireplace, or some quiet music, but no traffic noise or phone calls or television. No chores to do, no unmet obligations, just the easy absorption into story and scene that we experience so much more often as children than as adults. The library is a respite from the larger world, a place apart, a place filled with other people's stories where we can set aside our own.

The shared library is an extended community. Here there's a brief recommendation about a book just finished, over there a central table where we all place our favorite couple of books from the past year. Story readings, small book clubs, maybe an occasional author reading, but the highlight of the year is the day you run into a friend there who presses a book into your hands and says "You have to read this," and the book opens your eyes or your heart.

I love having my books at hand, even though they are disorganized and scattered around the house, even though there are too many distractions. But the shared library is a persistent daydream, and a very pleasant one.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hi, honey

Apples and honey are a traditional way to welcome the new year, apples for the harvest and honey for a sweet year to come. And the apples are great, but it's really all about the honey.

For the past several years, we have taken a small escargot plate and filled the divots with different honeys. It turns the simple act of dipping apples in honey into a gourmet tasting event. (We use a variety of apples as well.) Because we pick up fun or unusual honeys when we travel, it also becomes a springboard to memories of recent trips. Like a photo album you can eat.

This year we had a wildflower honey from midcoast Maine, where we rented a vacation house last spring. We also had a honey we picked up in Hawaii at the Hilo farmer's market. The seller marks each jar with the month of collection and the flowers in bloom at that time, and this was our favorite of the vintages he had when we were there. The third honey was a lemon honey that neither of us like on baked goods, but is pleasantly tart on apples. Lisa and I both came home one miserable winter day each having independently purchased a jar of that lemon honey to put in hot water to soothe our sore throats. Fourth was a tulip poplar honey Lisa found at an Amish seller's stall at Reading Terminal Market when she was in Philadelphia on a work trip. It tastes like molasses, and was my favorite honey until we found the Hawaiian honey. Then a crystallized honey with candied ginger mixed in, a treat from a wonderful Edinburgh cheese shop. And the last was a raspberry flavored "killer bee" honey butter given to us as a wedding favor at my cousin's wedding in April. He and his bride had run across the honey on their travels in the southwestern US, and correctly thought it would make a funny, memorable, and tasty gift for their guests.

If you decide to try a honey flight, it's important to consider the ordering or the pairings. Like a good wine or cheese flight, you want to leave the stronger flavors for later so the palette is not overwhelmed early by a more aggressive serving. Lisa's great at that, so if you need help, just send her full jars that you're considering using. She'll try them all, enjoy most of them, and probably even tell you which ones she'd like more of.

L'shana tovah

Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect on the year past and figure out changes to make for the year to come. It's supposed to provide a respite from the daily chaos of our lives, as is Shabbat, but in a way that encourages a longer look back and forward. Yet we focus on a year in each direction, and not much longer.

I have friends who I haven't seen in longer than a year, hobbies and interests I haven't pursued in longer than a year, travel plans that I know won't happen in the coming year, and goals for my business, my home, and my life that are much longer-term than a year. As I get older, the temporal frame through which I view my life (when I have time to reflect) naturally grows wider. Rosh Hashanah used to insist that I think longer-term than I wanted to, and now Rosh Hashanah insists that I think shorter-term than I want to. Both are useful. Time lived in the present is precious, and a broader view enables us to better create and improve our worlds and ourselves.

The rabbi last night asked us to consider, as we go through the service, how the service goes through us. Rosh Hashanah asks us to consider how we will go through the coming year in light of how the past year has gone through us. We should look to the past year not just to see how we did, but also how we were changed by it. Our intentions from the past Rosh Hashanah were based on who we were a year ago. As long as we continue to grow as people, our intentions must grow as well. The flip side is a consistent and shared liturgy to keep us steady, to remind us that the nature of the world continues on even as the details change, and to offer community to our personal struggles and hopes.

May the new year be sweet, filled with love and laughter.


Photo by Michael

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Greyhound Day

A few hours after posting the Three Greyhounds photo, I received a phone call from Grey2K about their latest effort to ban greyhound racing in Massachusetts. Back in 1999, I adopted a very sweet retired racer named Luke from the local rescue organization. He still loves meeting new people, and it's hard to believe that conditions on the track can be all that bad when he is such a happy and friendly creature.

But the conditions are that bad. The dogs endure hellish conditions, have a terrible injury rate, and after a couple of years on the tracks are too often left with significant health problems and a fully justified fear of people. Rescue groups spent years trying to convince the tracks to let them place the dogs in homes after their racing careers were over (often 1 or 2 years old, never more than 5 years old), and the tracks refused in fear that people would not tolerate the industry if they learned more about how the dogs are treated. Instead, a common "retirement" for a greyhound was a bullet to the head, and their ear (where their identification number is tattooed) cut off so the dog could more easily be dumped. The tracks put out propaganda for years that greyhounds are vicious and unsafe to keep as pets, when the reality is that the breed is incredibly gentle (as long as you're not a rabbit). Now the tracks put out propaganda that the racing greyhounds are well cared-for at the tracks. Don't believe it.

Banning greyhound racing was supposed to be on the ballot in 2006. The attorney general approved the specific wording in advance, the petition process was successfully completed by hundreds of people volunteering a huge amount of time and effort collecting more than 100,000 signatures over several months, and then the SJC decided the wording wasn't kosher. And rather than punishing the attorney general for his incompetence, or allowing the wording to be corrected, the SJC simply ignored over 100,000 voters who had thought the wording was just fine with them and killed the ballot question.

Now it's time to do this all over again for 2008. I don't know if it will succeed in shutting down the two local greyhound tracks, but maybe the process will lead to more people making room in their homes for a retired greyhound. If so, it will be worthwhile.

London pub

Photo by Lisa

The age of e-mail

From a review of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home in The New York Review of Books:

"Just because we have email we shouldn't use it for everything," Shipley and Schwalbe write, introducing a notion that younger readers may find too radical to take seriously.
Brief aside: If the quote from Send is right, it reveals a more pernicious attitude of "Just because we have editors doesn't mean we should use them for everything."

Perhaps The New York Review of Books has a lower bound for its readers' ages of 30, because the younger people I know don't view e-mail as a default choice at all. My generation (approximately 40 years old) is far more likely to default to e-mail as the best or easiest way to communicate. Younger people are more likely to use AIM, text messages, phone calls, really anything but e-mail. They view e-mail as stuffy, old-fashioned, too formal, too slow, and increasingly broken by the spam and spam filters that together make e-mail both painful and unreliable.

The recent parody flowchart meme was capped off by Lifehacker reposting a nice older flowchart from Salon showing some of the myriad communication choices in a business setting that are not e-mail. A simpler version for younger people in a personal setting would show e-mail as a last resort, following questions such as "Is the person I'm trying to reach an old fogey? Yes: Try e-mail. No: Try something better." I suspect that The New York Review of Books is assuming a readership for whom the first and final question on a communication flowchart is "Can I send it from my Blackberry?"

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How to write a software license

I need to write a new software license, a task that highlights the complete inadequacy of copyright law. Copyright law historically assumes that the work is distributed as a tangible object, that the tangible object has some value, that copying the tangible object is hard, and that most people don't need to copy the tangible object in order to use or enjoy it. Those assumptions work moderately well for books, because most people want a physical book and don't need to copy the book in order to do what they want with it. None of those assumptions work for software. The value of software is in the digital file, not the tangible object. Copying software is easy, and most users do need to copy the software in order to use it. So software publishers try copy protection and DRM and license codes and dongles and other ways to get around the fundamental problem that the value of software is in the easily-copied digital file. And software publishers are forced to use license agreements to lay out what users can and cannot legally do, because the defaults from copyright law are all wrong. And users ignore the license agreements, which are ever-changing incomprehensible and illogical fine print that's not relevant to anything the user cares about.

I'd like to write a comprehensible and sensible license agreement. I'd like the agreement to be fair to the user and to me. The problem is that I've never seen such a license agreement in the wild. Creative Commons is a great solution for authors who don't need to be paid. Let's create something similar for authors who do.

My niece

Photo by Michael

Arts council

I am hoping to be appointed this fall to the local arts council. It feels like a perfect way to be involved in my community, deciding on grant applications for art projects and cultural events that will benefit the city, promoting the arts within the city and promoting the city through the arts. I’ll gain more connections to the local arts community and a new view of my city.

The current chair of the arts council has high hopes that the council can take on more responsibilities over the coming years, and I’m excited to be part of that process. I’ll have a lot to learn, and I hope a lot to contribute. The next step is apparently an interview with the mayor, who makes the actual appointments.

Hope and connection

The rain has finally arrived today. We have been waiting for six weeks, watering our small garden by hand and hoping for a good soaking rain. The skies and weathermen teased us with many promises of summer thunderstorms, but the delivered reality is a calm and steady shower. This is the way the world renews.

Tomorrow starts a new year, a good year, a year of hope and connection. Today I start a journal, because I do not wish to wait for tomorrow.