Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Homemade Zen Alarm

I don't know who coined the phrase "life hack," but the idea is that you apply the aesthetic of hacking -- solving problems with a focused ingenuity -- to your everyday life. Here's one I just came up with: I have been interested in the Zen Alarm Clock since I first saw one six months ago. Instead of punishing your mind and body with an irritating noise in the morning, it strikes a pleasant chime. The part I really like is that it starts out with a long pause between the chimes, and over the course of ten minutes, the chimes get closer and closer together until they sound every five seconds. It gradually brings your sleeping mind around to the idea of waking up, which is good for me because my mind is particularly spiteful in this regard. The only trouble is, they want $110 for it. Absolutely out of nowhere, I had the idea to make a CD that sounds just like a Zen Alarm. I've already got a CD player in my bedroom that can be programmed to start at any time I like. I downloaded a sample chime from Now & Zen and used Audacity on my mac to boost the signal and place the tones in the prescribed sequence: Then I exported the 12-minute sequence to iTunes and burned a disc. If you don't count the CD player and the PowerBook, the total cost of my project was around a dollar.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Events Aggregator

There ought to be a way to subscribe to upcoming events in the same way that you subscribe to RSS feeds. Your aggregator would just be a calendar that knows about event feeds. Ideally, you can also see events that your social network flags as interesting. I would be interested in any events that my friends and my friends’ friends are interested in. The events should be location aware, so that you can filter out events that aren’t happening anywhere near you. The reason this hasn’t taken off before is that it only gets really useful when there is a critical mass of venues and artists and organizations using the event format. The conclusion we draw from that is that there has to be a killer application to create the critical mass of adoption. I think the killer app could be a free, hosted event calendar that is just as easy to embed as Google Ads.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Zach Facts

More OCD: When I get a Coke from the fountain machine (Diet Coke lately), I have to push down those little plastic buttons in the configuration that corresponds to my drink. So for example just now, the buttons on my lid say COLA, DIET, RB, and OTHER. I pushed down COLA and DIET, because that's what I have. I suppose I don't have to push down the buttons, I just like to.

Diminishing Returns, Local Maxima, & Saying Yes to Life

I've always been interested in how judge the goodness of something, and how we learn how to turn up the goodness knob. Like when you see a bag of snack chips that says, "Now, better tasting!" I think, "Really? How would I judge that for myself? What did they learn that made them able to produce a better-tasting chip? What secrets remain buried that will someday enable even better-tasting chips? Can chips taste 10 times better? How about 100 times?" It may sound like I'm over-thinking something that is really just a calculated bid to make a lot of gullible consumers buy their product. But there is an important phenomenon illustrated here: it's easy to tell the difference between something that's terrible and something that's kind of good. But it turns out to be extremely difficult to tell the difference between something that's very very good and something that's merely very good. As you near the asymptotic top of the curve, pouring more and more effort into goodness yields less and less perceptible benefit. This is what's known as diminishing returns. It's important because you want to realize when benefits no longer justify costs. Also, being able to distinguish between things at the top is the essence of taste. Examples abound: Is a $200 bottle of wine really twice as good as a $100 bottle? That's a tough sell. On the other hand, it will not be hard to find a $12 bottle that's much more than twice as good as a $6 bottle. Businesses need to recognize diminishing returns because if you don't, you can start working too hard to distinguish yourself not very much. What's needed in this situation is to change tracks completely, to put yourself at the bottom of a new curve. Businesses are reluctant to make this decision because it's risky. But risk is the harbinger of reward. This is important in life as well as business, by the way. More on that in a couple of paragraphs. When you get stuck working hard near the top of the quality curve, it's what mathematicians call a local maximum. It means that you may not be able to do much better where you are, but you may be able to start over and climb higher. The classic metaphor is mountain climbing: When you climb to the top of a peak, you may be able to see higher peaks around you. You will only be able to reach those higher peaks by climbing down first. People are reluctant to do this, because at first, it looks like you're doing worse. The PC started out worse that the mainframe, but ended up climbing higher. Japanese cars started out worse than American cars, but ended up dominating. We see this over and over. This is the phenomenon that makes startups powerful in the aggregate, and makes nations that encourage entrepreneurship end up doing better than the totalitarian regimes. Artists are among the people who are able to bring about the difference between good work and very good work. And while merely good artists compete for space at the top of well-known local maxima, great artists push right on through to something profoundly different. I just finished reading "Beyond Java" by a well-known Java author, speaker, and consultant name Bruce Tate. It takes a lot of courage for him to write about a sea change in the technology that has become his bread and butter. Even more so, because the prospect of such a change is going to be extremely unpopular to the very audience he's writing for. I, on the other hand, couldn't be more excited. Shakeups are always exciting (granted, though not always beneficial). They are the very shape of opportunity. And besides, the status quo is lame and boring. People tend to be very comfortable with the status quo because it's well-known and safe, but I believe strongly that safety is overrated, and that it is not consistent with being fully alive. Why is great art so invigorating? Because it demolishes our comfort zone. This is analogous to life itself: a cycle of destruction and renewal, of constantly learning, adapting, and innovating.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Text-To-Speech Rulez

Having recently failed to find a book I was interested in either in the university library or the local public library, I decided to look for it in an online book service called Safari. I had tried this a couple of years ago and wasn't too impressed with the selection. This time, not only did I find the book I was looking for, but half the books on my tech books wish list. I was like a kid in a candy store. Reading books on a computer screen is sort of hard, and Safari doesn't really make it easy to print, so I selected a page of text and invoked OS X's text-to-speech feature to have the computer read it to me. In so doing, I discovered a marvelous synergy. Allow me to set this up for you: I have two serious problems with books. The first is that while I'm reading, my train of thought is very easily disrupted. Either some external thing inteferes, or my brain wanders off on its own to think about something shiny. This tends to slow me down a lot, and I was never that fast to begin with. The second problem is that I also get distracted while I'm not reading. That is, I tend not to finish the books I start because I get interested in something else and start a half dozen more books along the way. Back to the crazy talking computer: I would not consider the computer's staccato robotic cadence a good substitute for reading the book for myself. But if I read along with the crazy robot voice, something magical happens. The voice keeps a dogmatic pace. I can adjust the speed, and in fact I have found that I can follow along faster than I would read on my own. Also, the machine doesn't permit my mind to wander. If I'm wearing headphones, external distractions are shut out and my brain locks in on the words. On top of everything, I find that combining the visual part of my brain with the auditory really saturates my mind with the ideas and improves my comprehension and retention. Best of all, being able to push through a book at a good, guaranteed rate keeps up my momentum and dramatically improves the odds that I will read all the way to the end. Give this a shot. It's weird at first, but not after you've burned through a couple hundred pages. On OS X, I recommend the voice called Bruce. He sounds the most like a person. And if you are willing to spend a little bit of money, you can do much better. Go over to Cepstral and try the demos. I think you will be amazed how far this technology has come.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Divided Attention

I think it was John Udell who said that in an age of blossoming abundance (albeit unevenly distributed), attention is the new scarcity. And there certainly are a lot of things competing for my attention. Lately I have been dreaming of working at something -- anything -- where I could go more than 30 minutes without an interruption. Some people would probably say, "30 minutes? You're lucky to get that!" Precisely my point. Elizabeth and I went to Garden-Ville yesterday, and what we thought was going to be a chore (whith Graham in tow) turned out to be a warm and meditative delight. Plants grow at their pace, never faster. There was dappled shade and living things, and Graham had dirt and a wagon and a cat and dog to play with. Just writing about it, I feel that goodness again. On the way home, Elizabeth and I agreed that there is more to this than meets the eye; that there are ways to live that feel truly alive. This is the Quality Without a Name. I think we're learning to know it when we see it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Strange Facts about Zach

From the "More evidence that I probably have OCD" file: Lately when I'm operating a microwave oven, I only want to stop it on a prime number of seconds. I don't like it to go all the way down to zero because of the irritating beeps. So when I stop it, it has to be one of the primes: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, you get the idea.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

This Photo is a Mistake

Apple is usually very saavy when it comes to design. So why is it no one noticed that this photo looks like a burn victim's mangled stump with an iPod strapped onto it?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Within Procrastination's Icy Grip

Bleh. I am easily distracted. At the moment, I am interested in so many things that I can't focus on anything in particular. Of course, the Internet only fuels my mania. I should be thrilled that I have the opportunity at Texas State to throw myself full-time into all things Sakai. But I am easily seduced by shiny things. And right now Cocoa and Ruby are competing with each other over who will distract me the most. I really really want to start a software company as soon as possible. But I have to ask myself whether I will ever be able to concentrate on one thing long enough to finish it.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pox on Acrobat Reader

This is what you have to do to install the latest version of Acrobat Reader on a mac:
  1. Go to adobe.com and download the download manager (!)
  2. Go through the download manager installer wizard.
  3. Download the actual reader through the handy download manager.
  4. Go through the Acrobat Reader installer wizard.
  5. Open the Help menu and ask Acrobat Reader to check for updates.
  6. Authorize some form of Safari repair, whatever that means.
  7. Download the 7.0.1 update and authorize it to be installed.
  8. Download the 7.0.2 update and authorize it to be installed.
  9. Download the 7.0.3 update and authorize it to be installed.
Whew. And then you're all set, until the next update. Give us a break, Adobe!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Times They Are A'Changin'

I was just doing a mental inventory of all the cool technology I wish I was a master of, and I realized that my inventory is very different than just a couple years ago: A Couple Years Ago
  • Java
  • Linux
  • Oracle
I was convinced that this technology stack was the key to my fortune. You can still probably make a fortune this way, but I'm convinced now that my heart lies elsewhere: Today's Inventory
  • Cocoa / Objective-C
  • Mac OS X
  • Ruby
  • Ruby On Rails
What's the essential difference? I'm choosing smaller, more thoughtful communities, and more elegant, more beautiful techniques. Speaking of community, Martin Fowler has this to say about what makes Ruby special.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The 7 Spheres of Influence

* self * family * friends * colleagues * community * society * the Universe In order to grow as human beings, we should strive to expand and enrich our influence at these seven levels. The last one, Universe, is the metaphysical catchall. It includes nature, God, the Infinite, the All. Whatever you like to call it, a growing person cultivates a relationship with it.

The 7 Spinning Plates of Well-Being

* health * relationships * space * work * play * contemplation * personal finance In short, these are the seven aspects of your life you need to pay regular attention to. They are like plates spinning at the top of seven sticks. If you neglect one, it may fall and break. In life, we almost always pay close attention to some of these plates at the expense of others. What can I say? I'm turning 30 in three days. I feel the need to introspect.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Software is an Alien Artifact

I have thought of an analogy that helps to explain why estimating software tasks can be so difficult. Imagine you work for the FBI or some such agency, and you recover an alien artifact from a UFO crash site. It's a seamless chrome box with no identifying marks or salient features of any kind. It doesn't rattle, it doesn't appear to do anything. Your task is to open this box, and your boss's boss wants it yesterday. How would you estimate this task? It might be efforless: grasp one end of the box and pull a little bit and it just swings right open. But what if that doesn't work? You might try hitting it with a hammer. You might run over it with your car. Let's say you spend a week and you've tried everything from bullets to high explosive and nothing even makes a mark. Then your buddy from down the hall walks in and goes, "You wanna go for sushi?" And the box just swings open on its own like that thing from "Hellraiser." Who knew that was the passphrase? And on a bad week, writing software is just like that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Yearning to Simplify

This may sound like a cliché, but ever since my son was born nine short months ago, my priorities have shifted into sharp focus. It helps that I read a book called "Living Simply with Children" that in turn led me to read "Your Money or Your Life." I find that I don't care about surrounding myself with stuff I bought. We moved to a smaller, less expensive town. My wife quit her job because we consider it more important for her to be a full time parent than a full time marketing writer. And this aesthetic is beginning to show itself in my work. I'm getting sick of stack traces forty calls deep. The Java world is rife with complexity. There's a ton of great work out there, but once you've incorporated all the cool stuff into your app, you find you're dependent on twenty libraries which are each dependent on twenty libraries and so on. I love the elegant simplicity of Ruby on Rails. I love the ethic of Unix tools: do one thing well. I love the clean lines of a well-made OS X application. All this compels me to cut the crap out of my life. Maybe plant a garden.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Value of Software

Joel Spolsky is well-known for his personal blog devoted to software and the challenges of running a small software company. Nearly five years ago, he posted an entry characterizing his company as a machine for "converting capital into software that works." He compares building great software to running a great restaurant or making a great movie. I'm interested in this idea because I still see a lot of potential in mom n' pop software shops running in someone's garage, and I'd like to run one myself. One of the great things about building software as a business is that the margins can be so high. Since I'm not interested in scaling mediocrity up to epic proportions to make a ton of money, I wanna know how much value one or a few programmers can generate. Thing is, valuing software is tricky. It's not like a commodity you can put on a scale and determine it's value by simple arithmetic. Plenty of studies have been done to find out how many thousands of lines of code a typical programmer can churn out in a month or a year, or whatever. This is sort of interesting, but on the other hand I could write a script that generates reams of syntactically correct code in moments. It's a case where quality is much more important than quantity. Since I can only slam out so many lines of code, how do I maximize the average value-per-line? And what might that number be in a best-case scenario? How about an average-case? I've got a family to feed!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Great American Lie

Something that never fails to stun me is every time someone makes it obvious that they believe the meritocracy myth: an underlying assumption that whatever succeeds in America does so because it is good, because it is better than the ones that didn't make it. In fact, the meritocracy myth seems so woven into the fabric of American culture that people are often irritated and defensive if you should suggest that it is a lie. It's such a serious and pervasive lie, that I've come to think of it as the Great American Lie. Little kids hear in school, "If you work hard, you could be president of the United Sates!" You know what? Bullshit. It's sad, because if you believe the lie, you're forced to conclude that wealthy white men are better than everyone else, because that's who becomes president time and time again. In the music business, it's amazing how bad much of the best selling stuff is. I'm so glad I have an economic justification for this in Chris Anderson's excellent article. We're starting to see a glimmer of hope that maybe people are figuring out that obscure stuff can be good, too. I was talking about all of this with a friend of mine, and he reminded me that people like to conform. We're social creatures, and we love hits because they are something we can share. So the demand curve is not going to go flat, nor should it, but it will be wonderful if we can learn to judge for ourselves what should go to the "short head" of the curve, instead of believing the great lie as told by by radio, magazines, and TV.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

What's it mean to be a badass?

I've been trying to figure out the difference between plain ol' developers and architects. It's supposed to be obvious that architects are better, but I want to put my finger on just how.

So I was listening to Jeffrey Zeldman (http://www.zeldman.com) give his keynote address at the Web Design World conference, and he was talking about Eric Meyer, who is a badass in all things to do with Cascading Stylesheets (CSS). He said, "Eric is the kind of guy you really want on your staff when you don't know how to do something with CSS, because he'll know. And not only will he know how to do it, he'll know seven ways to do it and what's wrong with six of them."

That struck a chord with me. A developer should be able to solve a problem, but an architect can describe a half-dozen approaches to the problem and what's right and what's wrong with each of them. I hasten to add that what's right and/or wrong with an approach will always depend on the context in which the problem is situated. That's why you can't replace a good architect/designer with a shelf full of books, or a small army of interns.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

the Long Tail

Here is one of those things that sneaks up on you and then just changes the whole damn world. Chris Anderson's article in Wired magazine is the best I've ever seen on the economics of the entertainment industry, including concrete reasons why we're saddled with the likes of Ashlee Simpson.

The "long tail" refers to the shape of the graph of the quantity of success of a thing (a book or a movie or a record etc.) vs. its rank in the popularity pecking order. It looks like this (from Chris's blog):

That big spike at the front represents the megahits. In music, these are the records at the top of the Billboard chart. The Y axis represents how many copies they sold. The long tail is the area in yellow. This is the obscure stuff. But the significant thing is that there is at least some audience for it. In an age when production costs are plunging, and distribution costs are approaching zero, this means the market for niche products will soon be larger than the market for hits. Not only is this a major disruptive phenomenon for life as we know it, it is wonderful news to these tired ears.

When people ask me what kind of success I want for my band I always tell them, "I want to reach all the people who stand a chance of loving it." The concept of the long tail articulates this beautifully. There are potentially a lot of people buying their records in the "red zone" who would really be into our music. We stand a fighting chance of coaxing them down the curve over to where we are.

I'm trying out Ranchero Software's MarsEdit blog editor. Ranchero is a mom n' pop OS X software company operated by Brent Simmons. I'm currently trying to figure out everything I need to do to copy his life. Actually, that's going a little far; I don't know much about his life. But I do want to copy his work life: creates his own vision, sets his own priorities and schedule, takes all the risks, reaps all the rewards. I'm a big fan of his other product, NetNewsWire (though I admit I've only got the Lite version). It's obvious he takes pride in his work. Bravo.