Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Overheard (2)

Overheard in the corridor at the San Marcos Activity Center:

He’s really not a bad president — he’s just stupid.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Nebraska Woman Needs Better Coffee


This photo appears on today with this caption:

Chris Kouba, the owner of the Downtown Coffee Shop, expressed frustration with the bailout: “Do you see my restaurant filled? Is anyone going to come save me?”

I think I can help. The problem may be the Folgers you’ve got behind the counter there:

Photo: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Google Chrome

Zowie! Google has published a technical document all about their new web browser, drawn by Scott McCloud of “Understanding Comics” fame.

Google Chrome: Behind the Open Source Browser Project

A beta of the browser for Windows is supposed to be available today!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Productivity Manifesto

I have begun distilling and synthesizing approaches to productivity (also known as “effectiveness”) from various sources into a structure that makes sense for me. I have a lot more to learn on this subject, but I’m starting to see the framework.

I have learned a lot from Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” and David Allen’s “Getting things Done.” If I had to boil it all down to two pithy lines, they would be these:

  1. Decide what is important
  2. Nurture the important

Ok, but maybe that’s a little too pithy. Here are some more specific guidelines I’m trying on for size. Notice that the scope for everything is a day. This is really a manifesto about how to run a day:

  1. Whatever else has to give, you will not sacrifice your diet, exercise, and sleep.
  2. Every day, you will decide what deserves doing and honor that choice.
  3. You will fight the twin productivity gremlins: Fake Urgency and Fake Industry.
  4. With the understanding that to achieve something dazzling takes more than a day, take a step toward dazzling every day.

I’ll have more to say about each of these in turn in future posts.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Greatest New York Times Headline Ever

“Monkeys Control a Robot Arm With Their Thoughts”

Flying (And Landing) in Google Earth

I feel like I was the last to know: Google Earth 4 has a built-in flight simulator.

Here’s a page with all the controls.

But as soon as I figured out how to fly, I wanted to land! I made a tutorial showing how to make it much easier and more fun. If the idea of pretending to land an airplane in exotic locales around the globe appeals to you, bon appetit:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

ASUS Eee PC, First Impressions

I took the plunge and bought an ASUS Eee PC, mainly for the option to take a very small, very light laptop with us to Costa Rica. I have read a lot about this new crop of mini-notebooks (I call it a knee-top!) and the top contenders of the moment seem to be the HP mini-note and the Eee PC 900 (with the larger 8.9” screen). I ended up getting the cheepy cheap Eee PC 701 because it’s a full $200 cheaper than its more impressive brothers. $341 for a refurbished model is down in impulse-purchase territory, whereas the $550 versions make me want to wait until the processors get faster and the batteries last longer.

I thought I knew everything about this machine when I bought it, so here is the list of things that I hadn’t already gleaned from the interwebs:

  • It was not really usable out-of-the-box. The trackpad was set to minimum sensitivity, and before I figured that out, I was afraid I had a lemon; the trackpad basically would not work at this setting.
  • The mouse button looks like one smooth button, but is in fact a rocker-switch, meaning that you push on the left side for a left click, and the right side for a right click. If you press in the center, you get nothing. This confounded both my four-year-old and my wife.
  • Unlike the various MacBooks in my life which renew my love every day, the Eee PC does not instantly wake from sleep when you open it. It’s a minor thing, but it’s a refinement I have come to take for granted.
  • It does not close Firefox gracefully when you shutdown or restart, which means you are frequently looking at the “Restore Last Session?” dialog. Luckily, Firefox allows disabling it like this.
  • The default terminal application is pretty lousy, but it includes a better one called konsole. Making konsole the default (among other things) is described here.
  • It took some doing, but I learned how to customize the menu screens. I made a special page for Graham with all his favorite movies, web sites, and of course, Tux Paint. You can learn about customizing your Eee PC desktop over here.
  • Unfortunately, some of Graham’s favorite web games use Adobe Shockwave, which does not have a Linux version, and probably never will. The Eee PC does have the Flash player, but not the latest version, so I had to do an upgrade.

In short, the Eee PC demands tweaks before it will purr like a kitten. Lucky for me and about ten million other geek dads, tweaking is fun! Still, it makes me wonder how this is supposed to be a computer for children and seniors who don’t have a Linux-mad nerd standing by to recompile the kernel for them.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Actual overheard snippet of conversation. Two little old ladies at the San Marcos Activity Center.

…daughters, really pretty daughters. One of ’em has a, a wooden leg…

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Your Financial Freedom: the Crossover Point

When my first son was born almost four years ago, I started to reexamine my priorities and my life choices. Elizabeth and I had to decide whether she was going back to work after her maternity leave, or staying home to raise Graham. Choosing the latter meant losing almost half of our income overnight, so we had to seriously reconsider many of our habits. It turns out this is not such a bad thing.

Around this time, I read a great book that changed things for me in a big way. “Your Money or Your Life” is about how to prioritize your financial choices to align with your life’s priorities. The basic idea is that since it takes time to earn money to buy things, you are trading away a little piece of your life for each thingamabob you get. The book makes a strong case for frugality, but not deprivation. It’s ok to make the trade after you’ve determined that it really truly improves your life to do so.

Another important lesson from the book is the idea of the crossover point. The crossover point is the moment when income from your savings and investments is enough to pay your living expenses. From then on, you can continue to work, but only because you want to, not because you need to.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of Americans assume that they will be punching the clock until full retirement age (67 for me) and only then begin to enjoy the fruits of their labor. “Your Money or Your Life” puts a totally different spin on work and retirement. The crossover point means you can begin to get serious about the question, “If I didn’t have to earn a living, what would I do?” The answer tells you a lot about yourself. Get busy!

Here’s a short screencast I made with Apple Numbers to illustrate the crossover point:


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Daddy, How About…

Last night as I was driving three-year-old Graham around, he said the words that gladden the heart of any proud father:

“Daddy, how about I listen to Radiohead?”

Update: here’s further proof that Graham is his daddy’s son.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Mini Notebooks: Not for "Real" Work?

I have been eyeing the new mini notebook computers from ASUS and HP. We are online all the time at my house, including our 3-year-old. It may be hard to believe, but it’s hard for us to share two computers, let alone one.

In general, both of these machines are very favorably reviewed. The HP seems to be a better choice for adults if for no other reason than that the keyboard is very close to full-size. I’m thinking of the ASUS for my kids though, and the nerd in me delights in setting them down in front of Linux before they can potty without help.

I have noticed a pattern in the reviews for these machines that I consider bizarre: people will happily say, “Oh, this is a great computer, but it’s only good for writing or using the Net. For serious work, you’ll need a real PC.” Sometimes instead of saying “for serious work,” they’ll say “for anything complex.” Ok, maybe I have an English-major-cum-computer-programmer bias, but do we know of anything more complex than the Internet and writing the English language?

Wait a hundred years and then test this prediction: empires will be built and destroyed, fortunes will be won and lost and won again, and countless human beings will have found love, God, and life’s purpose by “writing and using the Net.”

Also, you can get a great deal on socks at

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Friends of Obama

I went to see the Obama rally in San Marcos on Wednesday night. It was a big deal for our sleepy town and oft-overlooked university, so everybody who was anybody was there, to the tune of around fifteen thousand warm bodies.

They set up a weird pair of barricades though, for security purposes, which meant that the direct path from the university to the park was unavailable. Since there’s also a river to contend with, the alternative was to walk a mile up river to the bridge at the golf course and then a mile back down river to the rally. I was in a posse of around two hundred and fifty doing just that. It’s a dark back road that not many people know about, though I’ve been down it many many times as it’s in my neighborhood and I have a three-year-old son who only falls asleep if he’s riding in the car.

Girl #1: Where the hell are we? This is some Texas Chainsaw Massacre shit right here!
Girl #2: I know where this is. We go here in my jogging class. This is going to come out over by the golf course.
— long pause —
Girl #1: Why did you take a jogging class?!
Girl #2: Because it said “emphasis on walking!”


Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Headlines are Orwellian

Look at this snip from today’s news: orwellian-headlines.png

Oy, if that isn’t dystopian, then I don’t deserve my high school diploma.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Spy Hunter in Real Life

Via Geek Brief’s Big Trip blog:

Travel Supreme has a new model that includes a nifty little garage designed to fit a Smart Car. A lift mechanically extends out of the enclosure. You park on the lift and it pulls the smart car inside the cavity of the RV.

Oh, sign me up!


Rock the Mike

I have been watching a lot of TED talks lately (highly recommended!), and I have been dying to know who makes the sexy little headset all the speakers are wearing.

Thanks to this Guy Kawasaki post I finally have my answer. It’s the Countryman E6i. By the way, the talk whose virtues Guy is extolling is truly inspirational. Majora Carter made me cry three separate times in the space of 19 minutes.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ten Years of “Aeroplane.”

Ten years ago today, the greatest album I've ever heard was born into the world. It would be hard to overstate the influence of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," Neutral Milk Hotel's second, and last, record. It's a curious masterpiece, at once obscure and legendary, depending on whom you ask.

1998 was a big year for me personally; I finished my bachelor's and went out into the real world. My dad gave me a memorable speech in which he laid out just how "cut off" I was. My best friends were also finishing school, and somehow I convinced them to move to Austin and get a house with me. That was in the Fall, and Seth drove down with a cassette copy of Aeroplane. It was like nothing I had ever heard. It was like nothing any of us had ever heard. It's a cathartic, metaphysical, deeply spiritual concept record about reaching out to Anne Frank through the shroud of space and time.

If it sounds heavy, well — it is. But in the face of the horrors that men do, there is an awe-inspiring redemption, the certainty that love and beauty are invincible though our bodies are as momentary as candle flame.

Aeroplane was more or less our soundtrack as we started our own band, Okkervil River, of which I am enormously proud. We certainly don't sound like Neutral Milk Hotel; we sound like ourselves. But we did all we could to preserve the spirit, the essential qualities that we admired so profoundly. What is the essence? Passion, the idea that when you play you ought to put yourself on the line, the idea that darkness and light are two sides of the same coin, the sense that experiencing music, both as a musician and in the audience, can be an act of defying mortality.

Anyway, I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff Mangum, Jeremy Barnes, Scott Spillane, and Julian Koster. I have waited ten years for a more important record to materialize, and I'm still waiting!

And one day we will die / and our ashes will fly / from the aeroplane over the sea / but for now we are young / let us lay in the sun / and count every beautiful thing we can see

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Recording Skype

If you record the output from Skype, unfortunately you only get their end of the conversation, because the audio signal does not include the input from your microphone.

It is straightforward to use Soundflower to combine signals from multiple inputs into a recording that includes both sides of the conversation. I started playing around with doing this in GarageBand’s podcast studio.

What is decidedly not straightforward is separating the two sides of the conversation into separate tracks, so they can be mixed after the fact. I finally figured it out, and here’s what I did:

My audio interface has two channels in and out. The basic idea behind what I wanted to do was to get my voice onto channel 1, and Skype onto channel 2, and then record those onto separate tracks in GarageBand.

The basic problem is that Skype output (indeed output from just about anything) is 2-channel stereo, so if I use that as the input to GarageBand, I’ve blown my chance to separate Skype onto one track.

Soundflowerbed to the rescue. This is a simple utility that lives in your OS X menu bar and lets you route channels from Soundflower to any channels you like on any of your output devices.

Soundflower (2ch) Channel 1 -> M-Audio Fast Track Channel 2 Soundflower (2ch) Channel 2 -> M-Audio Fast Track Channel 2

By sending both channels of Soundflower to channel 2 of the M-Audio Fast Track, I have a realtime mixdown to mono.

The next challenge is that while the Skype audio is now on the Fast Track Output Channel 2, we still don’t have anything on the Fast Track Input Channel 2. The fix for that is a TRS patch cable from the balanced channel 2 output on the back of the Fast Track to the channel 2 input jack.

The last hurdle is that you can’t try to monitor GarageBand with the Fast Track, because then you’ll be adding more signal to the Channel 2 output which is just going to turn right back around and be recorded on the Channel 2 input. Make sure you use the Mac’s built-in headphone output for GarageBand.

An optional step: you’ll notice that if you try to monitor your voice in GarageBand by turning track monitoring on, the latency is too long, and messes with your head (you hear your own voice about a quarter second after you speak, which will make you think maybe you’re drunk). You probably don’t need to monitor your voice, but if you want to, download a free app from Rogue Amoeba called LineIn, and set input to M-Audio Fast Track Pro and output to Built-in Output. You can still hear latency, but much much less. Just to be clear: you will have GarageBand monitoring off on your microphone track, and on for the Skype audio track.

Skype Audio output: Soundflower (2ch)
Skype Audio input: M-Audio Fast Track Pro
Skype Ringing: Soundflower (2ch)

GarageBand Audio Output: Built-in Output
GarageBand Audio Input: M-Audio Fast Track Pro

LineIn input: M-Audio Fast Track Pro
LineIn output: Built-in Output

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Footprint and the Cloud

I have always loved the idea of doing a lot with a little, of a small footprint, of compact elegance. When I was little, my dad had a sporting goods store (literally, a Mom ‘n’ Pop store) and I used to obsess about backpacking equipment. I was transfixed by the idea of being able to carry everything you need on your back — food, clothing, shelter, tools, maybe even a deck of cards, the whole of Maslow’s hierarchy in a bag. Not that I ever actually went backpacking; I was into the idea of it, not the physical labor, and certainly not sleeping on the ground! I used to load and unload a frame pack with gear, and make lists of everything you could need.

Later, I entered a phase of designing tree houses. This was funny because I lived in the Texas panhandle, one of the most treeless wastes in America, a tabletop of spiky mesquite. I was fascinated by the idea of building all the comforts of home into a space the size of a bathroom. I studied techniques for constructing platforms that fold up into a wall. I dreamed about how to save space without compromising on amenities.

After spending some time in Europe as a young adult, I realized one of things I loved about it was the care that Europeans take in conserving space, energy, materials. Here is a place where they know how to embrace constraints. I think what excites me about this is the idea that ingenuity can overcome scarcity, that better design can turn less into more.

In 2003 I bought my first Mac, a 12” PowerBook G4, because I saw it as the first portable computer that perfected a tiny footprint without compromises. In particular, before that time any laptop that small had opted to leave out the CD/DVD drive, with an optional external drive dangling from it in a rude display of poor taste. Apple’s designers had conquered scarcity with ingenuity. Five years later, our PowerBook has been battered almost beyond recognition, but we still use it every day and I still consider it one of the best-made machines of any type I’ve ever seen.

Rumor has it that Apple is going to unveil an ultra-portable computer next week at the Macworld expo[1]. If the pundits are right, this one will not only forgo the optical drive, but the standard mechanical hard drive as well, opting for a flash-only drive like this 32GB model from Samsung.

32GB? No DVD drive? Isn’t that going to suck? My money says it will rule. Don’t forget that when Apple introduced the first iMac in 1998, it had no floppy drive, and people thought this was insane. But Steve Jobs knew then what we eventually all came to know: floppy disks are lame. Today, the number of applications on my MacBook that I installed from a disc is exactly one (QuickBooks Pro, the only vestige of software’s shrink-wrapped legacy I use), and thanks to the iTunes music store, it’s been a loooong time since I ripped a CD. This means that most of the time I’m carrying around my MacBook’s DVD-ROM drive as dead weight.

But what about that (relatively) tiny flash hard drive? After all, I’ve got 150GB on my lap right now. The secret is the network. Our drives can shrink now because more and more of the data we care about is in the cloud. The new way to think of desktop storage is as a local cache of the things you need right now. Apple is betting that once we can rent movies straight to the Mac, we won’t need to keep a library of them on disk. With all kinds of documents and affordable storage moving online, and the growing ubiquity of high-speed net access, we can live with a smaller, faster, sturdier, noiseless hard drive.

If this new machine is what I hope it is, I’m all over it like white on rice. Less is more, baby.

IKEA makes me swoon. I fantasize about having my office in an Airstream trailer. Sometimes I imagine I’m still a bachelor (no offense, honey) and my only possessions are a few changes of clothes and some toiletries in a bag, my computer, my phone, my mandolin, and the book I’m currently reading.

As the network grows, my computer can shrink. Bring it!

[1] My thanks to Daring Fireball, for setting me straight on the correct spelling of “Macworld”.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cabel Sasser is Like Unto a God

Can I have a boyfriend even if I'm not gay? If yes, then Cabel Sasser wins! I only hope I didn't wake up my loved ones with my uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter. I cried real tears:

Friday, January 04, 2008

That's My Boy

So proud...

Yes, that's my own flesh and blood with a pair of underwear on his head.