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Oh, hi. I’ve been working on other projects in other places. Changes are due here soon, perhaps.

High Fidelitied

I spent some time at @bookmansflag on Sunday, relaxing with a coffee and some browsing of the shelves. On a whim I picked up volume 7 of the Walking Dead and took it to the counter with a couple of other books. What followed was a scene that combines the best of High Fidelity, Clerks and the Comic Book Guy, but with just the enthusiasm for stuff they like and none of the judgmental bits. It made me laugh, and it made me happy.

Dude cashier 1: (holding up the book) Are you … reading the … Whole thing?

Me, casually: No, I mean, I just thought I’d pick it up. 

Dude cashiers 1 and 2 together, ahgast: Duuuude. You have to start at the beginning. 

2: Seriously, it’s SO GOOD

1: Sooo GOOD, dude. (Fanning through the pages, showing some to #2) See, it’s the one…

2: That ends with the…

1: The this…?

1 and 2, looking at the final page: Ooooooh, d00000d!

2: You can not read this. Not YET

I left with the book and guidance on how to pick up the first several volumes, and I promised that I would not, under any circumstances, read ahead, entirely happy with this chance encounter with enthusiastic fans of their store’s product. Thanks, guys! 

Went and got an iPhone

For a while there back in 2010 I kept waiting on the promises (by which I mean rumors) that the iPhone would soon-anyday-now-for-real be coming to Verizon. (whose signal is quite a bit better than the alternatives in my mountain town, and I get a company discount, too) But the time came I was tired of waiting, so I eventually pulled the trigger and went for a Droid X. And I liked it, and it worked very well for a while, and I spent quit a bit of time tuning applications and integrating it into my Mac desktop and workflow.

But along the way it started to get unstable. It wasn’t uncommon for it to hard-freeze while in the car dock, or if I locked it while using the camera app. It seemed to slow down, too, taking increasing (and increasingly frustrating) long times to do things that a phone should just do, like make calls.

Also, I dropped it three months ago and the rightmost fifth of the screen went dark. Do you know how much stuff, important stuff, is over there? The clock, scroll bars, send and submit buttons in a whole lot of apps, for example. Oh, the comedy of my rotating the phone to reveal a button, or blindly tapping in hopes of finding “send.”

So it was a good run, little, er big honkin’ Droid, but when my clock came up and I could upgrade, I was at the VZW store when it opened (this part was actually by accident, but I was the second guy in the door that morning) and came home with a black 32gb 4S.

Oh. My. There’s just. Why didn’t anybody tell me? It’s so good, and all the slavering over specifications at the gadget blogs about multi-core and 4.6-inch droid screens is just utter nonsense all of a sudden, because Apple just nails this thing.

I turn on the camera app, and there’s the camera. Not only does the app simply start up with a barely perceptible delay, but the quality absolutely smokes that of the droid. The camera lag matters more as my toddler gets faster; waiting for the camera to boot was okay when he was immobile, but the guy is on the move now, people, and shutter lag and slow startup were getting in my way.

The screen is gorgeous. Crisp, clear, colorful. Apps that I got used to working with on the droid — like 1password, tweetdeck, instapaper — are instead shockingly usable.

Tapping a phone number makes a call. I don’t wait, wondering if the tap registered. FaceTime is a revelation, one which my toddler is just agog over.

I mentioned my switch on the twittermatic, and a contact of mine expressed surprise to see me make the move, indicating that he expects many more to move in the opposite direction. Now that I’ve switched, I cannot imagine it. To be fair, android is — probably — forcing Apple to be competitive and pay attention to the apps and features landscape, but the past two years I’ve spent with my own droid is all I need to be very confident that nobody has the full packages together nearly as well. If there’s movement toward android right now, I expect it’s from first-time smartphone shoppers corralled by in-store salespeople. (I think smarter observers than I have made this point.) And as we come up on two years since the Verizon iPhone, I predict a surge of movement from VZW droids to iPhone.

Me, I’m happy.

Clay Shirkey on SOPA

As part of this week’s SOPA blackout protest, Clay Shirkey gave a great talk that puts the issue in context. (Bonus reading: Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks)

Later he wrote a response to David Pogue on SOPA. Arguing that Pogue underestimates the controlling intent of the media proponents of SOPA:

And arguments like Pogue’s are dangerous not because they are pro-SOPA — Pogue himself is glad it is in trouble — but because they obscure the core historical fact: The American media industry tries to stifle user freedom. Every time. Every single time.

We should delight in the stand we’ve taken in favor of things like, say, notifications, and trials, and proof before censoring someone, but we should get ready to do it again next year, and the year after that. The risk now is not that SOPA will pass. The risk is that we’ll think we’ve won. We haven’t; they’ll be back. Get ready to have this fight again.

Reads

I may not be writing much these days, but I’ve been enjoying my eveningtime cruises around the internet for good things to read. Lately I’ve been diving around a bunch of interesting places:

Hello, Typepad: On the Bo Ssam Miracle,

One of the things I love about the Momofuku restaurants is that I get the feeling that everyone who works there — bartenders, folks behind the register, and waiters — all embody and promote a culture of enthusiasm for the food and passion for doing things the right way. You’d no sooner have a fork out of alignment or have a dirty plate on the table too long than get a dry bo ssam. I don’t think that’s the result of a strict resume filter, it’s because Chang & his lieutenant’s have a strong defined culture & hire people who fit that culture and have the ability to grow within & without it. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s an important one.

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Seoul Brother on saying goodbye to his dog.

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Mat Honan at CES:

I’m forever wanting something new. Something I’ve never seen before, that no one else has. Something that will be both an extension and expression of my person. Something that will take me away from the world I actually live in and let me immerse myself in another. Something that will let me see more details, take better pictures, do more at once, work smarter, run faster, live longer.

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Slacktivist on pulling a Brisbane:

Arthur Brisbane’s column is an admission of journalistic malpractice. He should be told to step away from his desk and go home before he does any more damage. The New York Times ought to be furious for what he has done to its once-respected name.

And his name should become a shorthand epithet for all who are clueless about the most basic purpose of their jobs. The next time a cornerback totally flubs the coverage to allow an easy touchdown, the announcer should say, “Boy, he really pulled a Brisbane on that play. He looked like he had no idea why he was even on the field …”

WriteMonkey: a lightweight text environment for Windows

I recently came across WriteMonkey, a very good “zen” — or minimal distraction — editor for markdown. This came along at just the right time for me to draft a couple of documents in a situation where I wanted to get away from the standard office software environment: I needed a bit of a break and wanted to just work in plain text with a little markup for a while.

WriteMonkey handled the task perfectly. It can push a document, styled per a custom style sheet or using its own built in CSS, to Word or HTML for printing or sharing — quite handy.

And then I discovered how much it has under the hood, and found that it’s more than an editor, but a full-on machine for working in text files. It has what it calls “jumps”: regular expression-based search terms that, when matched, can define the maching block of text with any arbitrary designation. Then a built-in navigator pop-up shows those blocks in a list. So, one could define a regex match with TODO at the beginning of a line and use the jump viewer to display all the TODO items in a file full of stuff. (This was the first thing I did, based on the tips at the writemonkey site).

I set up a couple more, too: A regular expression to show a particular header format in a journal file where I quickly dash off notes to myself, and one that shows the first part of text snippets from drafts of language I’m working on in other documents. There isn’t support for multiple windows (comes with the full-screen “zen” option), but WriteMonkey lets you quickly ctrl-tab between recent documents.

Finally, WriteMonkey has a built-in scratch space for every document, accessible via alt-r. It’s a great place for storing all those snippets and todos that accompany the main document, without cluttering up the main text. All that and it’s a portable app: No installation or anything required other than clicking the executable. In two days of use it was a huge help at creating a nice environment for doing the writing and organizing I had to get done.

Blogging

A little anniversary passed me by in November:


pedal:data alan$ whois schussman.com

[…] Updated Date: 17-nov-2011 Creation Date: 25-nov-2001 Expiration Date: 25-nov-2012

Creation Date: 25-nov – 2011! I’ve held this little vanity domain for ten years now, making both it and me unquestionably ancient in real- and internet-years.

As I ego-dove a few years ago:

… due to a squirrely web host disappearing entirely one night, I don’t have any records of the first site I built except for a few miscellaneous graphics floating around. It was wicked cool (I maintain), though, using a simple perl-based templating system to display the most recent of a set of dated text files within a design and with navigation around index to the other files…

Seriously, it was awesome. That’s how we rolled in the aughts: We cobbled together our own custom templating tools and uploaded text files to our web host using some godawful Gnome FTP client. My hosting has been more stable (well, none of them have vanished, anyway), so now I have the complete blog record from January 2002 onward.

So I pulled the numbers to see my activity over time (which, by the way, is one good reason to work on a platform that one can control directly, rather than a hosted service: Want to make data from a database? Just run a query against it!). Here’s the per-month data for 2002 through November 2011:

Cool, right? Check that downward slope into 2007 as I finished graduate school, spent some time in Seattle, and thought about what to do next. Aside from a bit of a bump towards the end of 2008 (I was doing a lot of Lightroomn tinkering and writing then), I’ve kept it pretty quiet around here the last few years (lots more casual posting to twitter and facebook, family-blogging at posterous and brief flirtations with various devoweled-platforms). I don’t know if more blogging is on the horizon, but it’s fun to explore the past ten years a bit (Kieran recently did this in style, producing full-on ebook).

Ride the Divide - race visualization

I watched Ride the Divide on Netflix tonight. It’s a really well put-together documentary about a mountain bike race from Banff, Canada, across the entire great divide, to the New Mexico-Mexico border. It features great photography and strong characters in these semi-nuts enthusiasts who take on the adventure, and turns out to be a pretty moving story.

It also has a bang-up cool race visualization:

Ride the Divide image
Ride the Divide image

The image features the relative positions of all the racers along the route — leaders, followers, and distance between them — their current altitudes, the mileage and location of the current subject, day of the race, relative distances to travel through each state, elevation of the overall route, and total travel distance for the entire race (2711 miles!). In a single, dense image, you get a ton of data. Quite cool.

Bits and Pieces Without Any Meta Blogging Nonsense

Via Jim Ray, your job title is not your worth.

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The trouble with video games isn’t the violence. It’s that most of the characters are dicks. There are so many quotable lines in this one:

Every pixel of Modern Warfare 3 oozes machismo. It’s all chunky gunmetal, booming explosions and stubbly men blasting each other’s legs off. Yet consider what genteel skills the game itself requires. To succeed, you need to be adept at aiming a notional cursor and timing a series of button-pushes. It’s about precision and nimble fingers. Just like darning a sock in a hurry. Or creating tapestry against the clock.

(I don’t actually think this is the trouble with video games; I’m a fan of plenty of them and am in fact entirely unable to resist the Humble Bundle).

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Slacktivist continues to be among the very best things out there on the internets: The Search for New Ways to Take our Money

Banks were able to transfer more than $36 billion a year from us to them through the larcenous “overdraft protection” racket in part by stroking our egos. We Americans love nothing more than being told we’re above average — that we’re exceptionally virtuous and responsible people who are better than our neighbors. By indulging that vanity, banks were able to suppress much of the outrage that might otherwise have accompanied the annual theft of $36 billion. They got us to pretend that this was just something that happened to irresponsible people who irresponsibly failed to maintain large balances in their checking accounts.

But this new generation of myriad fees and fee-hikes designed to recoup that same $36 billion a year can’t be as easily dismissed as being a useful expression of disapproval of the irresponsible, immoral, undeserving poor. These hit everyone indiscriminately, and even the most financially responsible and insufferably self-righteous won’t be able to pretend that these are excusable or justifiable or anything other than flimsy pretexts for the banks reaching into private accounts and withdrawing money simply because that money is there and they want it.

(PS: Fred’s ongoing Jenkins and LaHaye read-along is simply a masterpiece.)

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A Conspiracy of Hogs: While spinning a theory that the McRib is a function of fluctuations in the pig market (or, perhaps more specifically and grotesquely, the hog offal slurry market), Willy Staley turns out passages like:

Fast food involves both hideously violent economies of scale and sad, sad end users who volunteer to be taken advantage of. What makes the McRib different from this everyday horror is that a) McDonald’s is huge to the point that it’s more useful to think of it as a company trading in commodities than it is to think of it as a chain of restaurants b) it is made of pork, which makes it a unique product in the QSR world and c) it is only available sometimes, but refuses to go away entirely.

If you can demonstrate that McDonald’s only introduces the sandwich when pork prices are lower than usual, then you’re but a couple logical steps from concluding that McDonald’s is essentially exploiting a market imbalance between what normal food producers are willing to pay for hog meat at certain times of the year, and what Americans are willing to pay for it once it is processed, molded into illogically anatomical shapes, and slathered in HFCS-rich BBQ sauce.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

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Made by Hand 2: The Knife Maker: Just a great short study in craft and expertise.

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“To the Moon” review at Rock Paper Shotgun: Closure to the “video game characters are dicks” thread: Good video games make thick-skinned reviewers weep. I want to install Parallels and Windows just to play this.

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I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to make the chimichanga the state food of Arizona. The rest of the country already thinks we’re sort of nuts, right?

Using Alfred to manage tasks

Recent updates to Alfred (my earlier post here) have greatly enhanced its capabilities to run local scripts and extensions. I’ve long used the Journal Tasks TextMate bundle in conjunction with geektool to manage and display a small to-do list in one corner of my OS X desktop, and now with Alfred I can instantly add items to that list. Quite slick.

Here’s the task list viewed in TextMate: Simple and no frills.

quick list textmate

And geektool displays it on the desktop using a bit of awk:

awk '!/@done/' ~/DropBox/SimpleText/Quick\ List.taskpaper

quick list desktop

I’ve set up an Alfred extension to add to the list using the “do” command:

alfred quicklist

The command in Alfred looks like this:

perl -p -i -e 's/^Quick List:\n/Quick List:\n\n- {query}/' ~/Dropbox/SimpleText/Quick\ List.taskpaper; growlnotify -m "Added item to quicklist"

It finds the header for the appropriate part of the list, and inserts the query passed to it at the top of the list. (Update paths as appropriate; I keep my quick list file in my DropBox folder.)

Growl provides a nice visual confirmation that the item has been added. I still have to open the file in TextMate to mark items as @done and periodically expunge completed items, but it’s great to be able to effortlessly add to the list.

The entire Alfred extension is at github.

The Setup by the Numbers

I recently found myself browsing interviews at The Setup, where various nerdy and creative types describe the tools they use to do their work, and my curiosity sparked at this brief statement on the about page: “Despite appearances, the site is not actually sponsored by Apple – people just seem to like using their tools. We’re a fan, too.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting, I wondered, to know just how many of the interviewees were Apple users? And what they used? And, for that matter, how many were into Android, or Lightroom versus Aperture, or emacs or obscure outlining applications that absolutely nobody else uses?

The code for The Setup is on github, and it includes the text of all the posts! The interviews are in markdown format, and the processor generates links for product names by referencing an index of hardware and software. This is the key for someone like me who wants to make data, because it provides a (mostly) standardized catalog of gear, no content coding required. It also means that the interview text can be descriptive while also referring to the standardized name for that bit of equipment, as in [15" MacBook Pro][macbook-pro].

The ruby code that builds The Setup from those files even helpfully includes a ready-to-go regular expression that finds those hardware and software references. So with a few of my own inelegant but functional passes using grep, perl and awk, I built a tab-delimited data set from which we can learn all sorts of things, such as:

  • More of The Setup interviewees are into Lightroom than Aperture
  • Apple machines really are popular (and so are iOS devices)
  • Textmate still has a lot of adherents
  • Canons are more popular than Nikons (though it’s pretty close)
  • Nobody yet interviewed has a Xoom or Galaxy tablet
  • Very few iOS apps are named more than once (not even Angry Birds)

I’ve used R to put together an easy-to-update, full rundown of the numbers (see usesthis-summary.txt) that I thought were interesting and/or fun, but you can easily explore via awk, too. For example, the following finds and counts all unique iOS applications:

awk ' {FS = "\t"} { if ($4 ~ /\-ios$/) print $4 }' thesetup-data.txt | sort | uniq | wc -l

There are a few limitations to the making of grand statements about this data: Of course each interview is a static snapshot, and we have no idea (without asking) if, say, Marco Arment has moved his work to a HP touchsmart, or Kieran Healy has switched to SPSS and MS Word, or if all the reported 3G users are still using that model of the iPhone. [Idea: break down some of the numbers by year.] There are also the occasional instances in the interviews where someone says something like, “I can’t imagine using something,” and due to the context-dumb nature of this data, that becomes a count of that something in the index. The counts rely on some skimming of the hardware/software catalogs and subsequent manual coding to identify models of gear that fit into various categories (Windows PCs and Android devices that come in all makes and models, for example). These will probably need periodic updating.

The data, the code to build the dataset, and the R code to run some numbers are all available at github.

All of this is possible thanks to the cool coding behind The Setup (imagine the work required to build a catalog if the interviews were simply static, hand-built html), the careful curation of interviews to make use of the hardware and software catalog, and the Attribution-ShareAlike licensing of the original — which licensing applies to this effort, as well. Thanks to Daniel Bogan and contributors to The Setup!

(One note about the interview count: the interview with why the lucky stiff is hand-written and so doesn’t register with the scraper. But it’s good, so you should read it.)

Alfred is my favorite new launcher

Back in the day, Quicksilver was the hot app for OS X. I hadn’t used it for years, now; at some point it seemed to become unstable, and its indexing sucked up a fair amount of CPU. So until recently I’ve been launcher-less on my Macs. Oh I checked out the occasional alternative like Launchbar, but never took to it.

But now I’m using Alfred and seeing the launcher light once again.

Alfred is nicely capable on its own: Invoke it, type an application or file name, and Alfred displays the matches, each with a hotkey to activate. But with its Powerpack, it gets just fantastic, with dedicated shortcut keys to active popup finder navigation, a mini iTunes player and a Clipboard history. The keyboard shortcuts continue — each popup gives hotkeys to the options it presents.

These tools have replaced my normal modes of navigating on the MacBook. It’s so easy to invoke any of the powerpack features to find and email a file, fire up a playlist, or simply launch/switch applications. What I used to do with quicksilver, I’m now doing with Alfred, and loving it.

[The launcher app itself is free and available on the Mac App Store; the powerpack, which turns up the capability to 11, costs about $20. Worth it.]

Off to the Slide Wizard

Edward Tufte is an expert on information presentation and visualization design, and can fairly be said to be among the designers and statisticians who made foundational contributions to the contemporary age of data visualization. My current work has me making a fair number of presentations, and I have found myself looking for better ways to discuss complicated systems and projects. When I saw that Tufte’s one-day traveling roadshow/course on those topics (and many others) was coming to town, I jumped on the opportunity to attend. The course and accompanying books by Tufte have a wealth of technical information on offer (the books, by the way, are self-published beauties of the highest quality), but the core things I took away go much beyond data and analysis. Indeed, the most significant lessons are about taking communication seriously — something relevant to most of us, and which I have been trying to do with new seriousness ever since.

The first key insight is an assertion that making a presentation, be it for persuasion or explanation, is not only an intellectual but a moral act. It is inextricably bound with one’s credibility and reputation, on one hand, and scrupulously honest, accurate depiction of one’s material, on the other. The audience has the reciprocal obligation to engage the presenter’s material with the same care and attention. The presenter and audience really are in it together.

This approach brings something valuable but often left unrecognized to our communication: A sort of partnership that is at once intuitive but often hard to remember amidst so many rote, lifeless meetings. I very much appreciated the suggestion that there must be some element of partnership, of intellectual collaboration, in the presentation of data and information. It reminds us to take seriously our roles not only as presenter but as audience, and allows us — requires us, really — to hold colleagues accountable for their end of the bargain.

Second, and stemming directly from the commitment above, is Tufte’s approach to the most common mode of presenting itself: “The cognitive style of Powerpoint” that many are familiar with. In opposition to the information-bare model encouraged by slide software, Tufte admonishes a determination to use whatever methods are appropriate and necessary to communicate the intended content. Don’t do anything that does not serve an understanding of your information; and to Tufte, boxes, shadows, logos, gradients, and five-bullet slides never, ever serve your case — and yet they are all but inescapable when using software, like Powerpoint, that impose simplification rather than explanation.

This becomes the crux for Tufte’s exhortations about tools: They are merely plumbing to the material that really matters. If diving carefully and exhaustively into your data requires tables, then use really, really well-designed tables; if explaining your project requires a detailed narration, then tell that story in the most complete and informative way possible. This requirement is about quality and completeness, and the requirement that those needs, rather than any kind of dedication to methods or software (and never fashion!, as tempting as it might be to try to cram information into an attractive style), dictate utterly your methods.

During the course of a day, Tufte uses examples and data from sports, engineering and art to make his case, and I found it an engaging and inspiring set of lessons. Setting aside for a short time his wonderful science of analysis, Tufte offers to a very broad audience a re-humanizing of the sterile, numbing and dumbed-down world of business communications. It’s not easy to bring these lessons back to most places of work, but it’s certainly worth some effort.

Photos: 30 from '10

Lately I’ve made a collection of my own favorite photos of the year, selected as usual according to top-secret, unreliable and entirely arbitrary criteria. Here’s the set for 2010:

30 from '10

It was quite a year: We began with five+ feet of snow in five days (3rd largest storm on record for Flagstaff), had huge wildfire on the San Francisco Peaks, and pretty much from August onward it was all Baby Joy, all the time.

Quite a year, indeed. Happy 2011!


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I’m a sociologist-errant. This site is powered by Textpattern, TextDrive and the sociological imagination. For more about me and this site, see the long version.

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