Good tools help you juggle

When I taught myself how to juggle, I learned that you take it in steps. First step is to practice tossing one ball from hand-to-hand with a consistent arc and positioning. *Toss catch.* You need to be able to do it repeatedly while just watching out of the corner of your eye. *Toss catch*
Step two is to add a second ball in your other hand and do the same consistent arc. Toss the first ball right-to-left, and toss the second ball left-to-right just before the first one reaches the top of the arc: *toss-toss catch-catch*. It’s this two-ball motion you need to practice the most.
Now here’s the thing. When that *toss-toss catch-catch* motion feels **incomplete**, like there’s something missing at the end and you just want to keep going without that awkward pause you get after catching the second ball… that’s when you add the third ball. Suddenly you’re *juggling*, and the motion doesn’t feel incomplete any longer.
The sensation of that moment – when one motion feels incomplete – that’s the closest thing I can come to how I feel when something I’m using is well-designed well but has a lack someplace. It’s designed well enough that I can start to get into a groove: *toss-toss catch-catch*. But then something happens that incurs that awkward pause – and I start looking around for the equivalent of adding the third ball. How can I make it feel like a complete motion?
I guess I spend my time trying to find the things that help me juggle.

Us Old Guys in IT

I’m now firmly in my mid-30s (it doesn’t get more mid-30s than 35), and certainly older than your average young turk in computing. I’m married, own a home, and my first child is due in March. So I found the recent discussion on Slashdot – Lifetime Careers in IT? – to be pretty interesting. But what I enjoyed the most was this comment, and the followup. Note, btw, that I’m a university sysadmin – technically a state employee:

Original Comment: It’s not as if you have to be on top of the game in IT. At least, not the government sector.. Most managers and senior support staff are in their 30’s and 40’s and completely ignorant of whats been going on for the past 5 years.

Reply: Ironically, most of the people I know in their 30s and 40s chuckle at the young turks who don’t realize that their “hot new paradigm” (or language or whatever) is the same recycled cat shit that’s been around – and dismissed – for years. They’ll all very much aware of the new stuff that really matters, but are also aware of the true cost of changing legacy systems and don’t make changes casually.

Exactly. Youth can bring new energy and enthusiasm, and expose fresh eyes and attitudes to old problems – something I’m enjoying immensely from our two new student employees, both of whom are very talented freshmen. But age and experience can bring a long view that recognizes when something “new” is just the same shit in a different package, and an acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of most any organization. Also invaluable. To discount either is to court disaster.

Tech Support From Idiots

Being a highly technical and informed user (such as I am) means that obtaining any sort of technical support implies entering a special level of Hell. Chances are excellent that you know the product better than first or second tier tech support. Before you call, you’ve: referred to the online help, referred to the manual, checked the online support forum, managed to reproduce the problem and determined exactly the set of circumstances which creates the undesired behavior.

So when you contact tech support, you’re ready to say: “I’m having a problem with Flubistor 3.2 running on a default installation of Windows XP. When I have two and only two files open and I select the Flubify item from the Edit menu, the program deletes my 2nd file and calls my 1st cousin. Do you have a fix for this?”

You think you’re being a helpful user. You’ve done your research. Foolish mortal. Now the hell begins. The tech-support drone on the other end is going to force you to walk through every trouble-shooting step that you just did, because that’s their script, and The Script Is Law. And when none of that works, they’ll tell you to re-install your operating system rather than bump you up to an engineer. Because the goal, as a tech drone, is a) to have to think as little as possible and b) to log as many completed calls as possible. And the Engineers frighten them.

After several rounds of this (and several hours of your wasted time and increased frustration), you may finally get to someone who knows something besides their ingrown knee-jerk responses and pre-written scripts. Mostly because the tech-drone’s fear of you has, over the past several hours, come to exceed their fear of the Engineers. So you get to someone who actually knows their orifices from random holes in the ground…

“Oh, that? Yeah, that’s a bug. We fixed that in version 4.0, which we’re releasing next month. You can pre-order the upgrade now for $399.”
“There’s no patch for Flubistor 3.2? I have to buy the upgrade to fix this?”
“I’m afraid so. Would you like to pre-order Flubistor 4.0 now?”
“Shhhh, I’m trying to kill you with my mind.”

Yes. Hell.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail

You know, I don’t know whether to consider this article a Good Thing (ie, recognition of digital djs and legitimate use of MP3 tech) or horribly insulting to my meager knowledge that being a DJ is more than just being able to fade between songs on a playlist.

The article raises some good points about use of new technology versus established practices, and some of the controversy regarding digital music in general, but parts of the article remind me of when I hear people say programs like Dreamweaver can make any schlub a webmaster. Or that desktop publishing software can make anyone a graphic designer. Photoshop and a digital camera makes you into Ansel Adams. Painter means that anyone can be a fine artist. Bullshit.

The still-evolving tools which allow the computer to help us with “analog” tasks can certainly take away the emphasis on some of the “tedious” portions of the task – just like CAD/CAM software removes an architect’s need to mess with t-squares and a drafting table. However, the true skill and artistry is not in those simplistic manipulations. Rather, it’s in having a deep knowledge of theory, the actual medium, and how to properly utilize those tools – whether it’s proper understanding of information architecture, layout and design, or music theory – to generate a desired result. A better hammer does not a carpenter make.

I’d like more spam like this

I received the strangest spam earlier this week. The address it came from is invalid – generates a bounce. But… I liked it. I wouldn’t mind receiving more unexpected messages like this one, not at all…

Date: Wed Jul 17, 2002 03:43:28 PM US/Pacific
Subject: BEAUTY & ART

Dear friends of my art, Beauty and art will always enrich our lives. They give us the power to survive in the madness of the millennium\'s too-fast pace. Beauty gifts us having a sense in everyone\'s existence. Art can transform every beautiful moment into a new vision of the future.

The Rise of the Creative Class

There’s a very interesting article on Salon discussing Richard Florida’s new book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

Dr Florida is the H. John Heinz III professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University. His book (according to the Salon article) discusses his theories that the “creative class” (scientists, engineers, tech people, artists, entertainers, musicians) drives economic growth, and the models that most cities still use to “attract growth” (malls, convention centers, stadiums, enticing large corps) are not the things that are attractive to this “supercreative” core. The creatives, rather, are drawn to culturally diverse areas that provide flexibility and a dynamic environment – things that are often driven out by the current methods used to attempt to “grow” a city.

The article hints at a very thoughtful book. Might have to pick it up when it comes to print. In the meantime, go read the article…

Range and depth of sensoria

Jenni, Pete and I camped out in a smoky back booth at Big Time last night, drinking and talking bullshit. Damn, it was good. The bullshit, strangely enough, because iy was disturbingly coherent – and we came to several conclusions (and epiphanies) regarding the nature of the senses…

Actually, it all started with an unusual cross-pollination of conversational topics; we were talking about video games and the ways in which they engaged (or failed to engage) to player, and briefly took a tangent into how smell is among the most primitive of sense and has the deepest hooks into the brain – both physically and operationally. Smell and taste, actually, are tightly related (don’t believe me? Try tasting something the next time you have a head cold). And they are, it would seem, essentially the same process – chemical sampling from a medium. Smell samples the chemical composition of the air you breathe, whereas taste is a more direct sampling of things that you put in your mouth. Smell/taste is the oldest of senses (coming, one could argue, from cellular life sampling its surroundings to find a food-rich environment), and links back to the most primitive parts of the brain. Pete compared it to a protected or kernel process – since smell/taste is processed in the “older” parts of our brain it manages to bypass our primate forebrain and most of our mammalian cognition centers.

Hearing and touch we also lumped together, with both being relating kinds of frequency sampling analyzing waveform, frequency, or amplitude. Hearing, for example, samples the waveform of pressure patterns in the atmosphere. Touch samples amplitude (resistance/pressure) and frequency (heat/cold). It’s a more advanced sense than smell-taste – and requires more processing than smell-taste or vision (more on that later). Studies done – some done to study audio interfaces, others studying cell-phone use patterns – find that someone who is conversing or listening for content is intensely distracted by the mere act. The reaction times of someone driving while talking on a cell phone are as bad, if not worse, than someone who is legally intoxicated (!). Touch, we all agreed, is an intensely distracting sensory input – unfiltered touch sensations easily distract us from other processes. Because of this, we came to the conclusion (in this model we were building) that hearing/touch was linked to the “mainline” portions of the brain – and required the brain to be directly involved in processing the sense.

Sight is pretty much its own beast, and is the newest and most process-intensive sense – while it’s still sampling like hearing/touch (sampling the wave/particle action of photons), the quantity of simultaneous sampling and pattern recognition is significantly greater. It has, for lack of a better framework, its own processing center in the forebrain – with a great deal of grey matter devoted to “rendering” optical data. The kind of vision we have – high detail color binocular depth-perceiving vision – is generally reserved for higher mammals with a considerable amount of brain. However, because of the “offloaded” nature of vision processing, along with its “newness” as a sense, vision has the most tenuous hook into our unconcious mind. It doesn’t have the power to evoke memory that smell-taste does, and isn’t nearly as distracting or cognition-intensive as hearing-touch.

Granted, there exceptions and paths of specialization in all of this. Some species of bat are all but optically blind (but many do have excellent vision) as they went down an evolutionary path of using hearing-touch to perceive. Birds of prey have amazing vision, although it’s heavily specialized in the realm of detecting prey at a distance. But if you’re willing to accept the generalization, you end up with a hierarchy of senses: smell-taste is the most basic, operating at our core levels with many hooks into our primitive brain. hearing-touch is mid-range, but is very involving because it’s tied into our “general purpose” mental processing. vision is very “high end”, capable of a great amount of detail, but the mechanisms that handle the intense processing required “distance” vision from having many deep hooks into our mental processes.

Now take that to our videogames. (HA!). Jenni works at X-Box, so game design is quite a valid topic of conversation – we talk about it much more seriously than just “cool game!”. What this model of sense gives us is another tool to determine how best to involve the participant in any sort of entertainment. Visuals, while the primary part of most any game, actually have the least ability to draw in a participant. Combine those visuals with compelling sound and atmospheric music, however, and you’ve just involved the “offloaded” vision centers and tied in to the more involving hearing-touch processes. Luckily we don’t have smell-o-vision, else we’d have an utterly involved gaming crack (but one can argue that highly detailed visual and aural landscapes will allow the participant to sythesize imaginary smells).

It’s an interesting new lever, this way of looking at how the senses involve us. And I haven’t even subjected you to our tangents of all the unconscious processing we do – the things that manifest as aromotherapy, why certain sounds are grating and others aren’t, why some colors soothe us. Like I said, it was a killer night of conversation. Think and chew, my friends…

Middle Class Guilt

It’s a lovely, beautiful day here in Seattle – and I’m lucky enough to be working from home, so the windows are open and I’ve been taking several outdoor breaks. Being home, I also heard it when the mowers showed up at my neighbor’s house.

When I was growing up, I had lawn-mowing duty from the time I was old enough to be trusted with a lawnmower until I left home. Mowing services were for people too self-important to take care of their own yards. I took that attitude with me into adulthood, and mowed the lawn at my later residences in Ohio. So did everyone else, save when a neighborhood kid might come around with his dad’s lawnmower. You had to drive over to Upper Arlington to see the trucks of the lawn services.

I’ve been mowing this lawn since I bought the house, but it’s been one of those eats-into-Saturday things. It’ll be another month before the sun is up late enough for me to mow after I get home from work. Curious, I asked the guys mowing and edging my neighbor’s lawn what they charged.

“Oh, yeah, I mowed that lawn for the guy who lived there before you,” said a guy who introduced himself as Art, “Fifteen bucks.”

Fifteen dollars. I have a rule of thumb – I “bill” myself at about $35/hour. It works this way: let’s say there’s a task I’m perfectly capable of doing, but lack the time or inclination to do. If it takes an hour to do, and I can pay someone else to do it for less than my personal $35/hour rate, I’ll have that other person do it. It takes me a little more than a half hour to mow the lawn, and I don’t have a weed whacker to edge it. $15 is a deal by that rule-of-thumb I have – I quickly hired Art and his partner Joey to add my lawn to their neighborhood circuit.

Still, why do I have this strange sense of “I should be doing that” guilt? There’s plenty (plenty!) of other yard work for me to do and this frees up my time for other things (and I firmly believe that my own time is the sum capital of my life). But I still feel like I’m some uppity yup now that I’m paying someone to mow my lawn. sigh.


My friend Kat, whom I haven’t heard from in a rather long time (she was in the Navy, last I heard), long ago gave me the title of Schmooze-King on her web page. I’m not entirely jazzed about the sobriquet – mostly due to the implications of schmooze – but the explanation Kat gives doesn’t have those negative connotations:

Jim is a schmooze-king, one of those people who has the awesome ability to be outgoing, meet all kinds of impressive people, and remember their names.

Now that I think about it, she’s kinda right. I realize that, without necessarily trying to, I’ve acquired a far-flung web of acquaintances and friends – mostly by having the good fortune to both be in the right place at the right time and to have met people (and, oddly enough, places) that have that schmooze-king ability in orders of magnitude greater than my own. These people and places have been, in addition to all other things, doors into wider worlds of people, places, and things that I likely wouldn’t have found otherwise. Now they overlap – and I’ve long lost track of who it was who introduced me to certain people, since there are so many possible approaches.

So, yeah, I guess I do know some interesting people – which is kinda neat. Makes you feel odd when you hear someone else idolizing a guy you were making fun of and drinking beer with the other night. Still, it means I have to watch myself so as not to sound like a name-dropping jerk when I mention meeting up for drinks with so-and-so, or playing paintball with those guys, or exchanging email with whatsisname. Then again, it’s nice to have ammo to outgun other name-dropping jerks. Heh.