Welcome to another thrilling episode of The Blog About Developing A Blog. Special “I think I’ve got this licked, no really, I think I’ve got it” edition.

As you can see: the Celestial Waste of Bandwidth has a new theme. It’s in progress, but I like it a lot and it represents something worth writing about.

When last we talked about The Making Of The Site, I waxed emphatically about just flat-out robbing my friend Jason Snell blind. His Sixcolors blog was, and remains, an inspiration. It’s just so clean and friendly!

Now armed with a clear direction, I spent the remainder of the winter scheming to hire someone to do some WordPress building. The idea was to hire someone to take a basic theme or framework and turn it into the new CWOB by doing all of the CSS, PHP, and HTML mods to the theme that (collectively) sap my will to somethingorother.

Some readers presented me with very kind offers to do the work for free, but I would have felt like I was taking advantage of their generosity. I lined up a couple of WordPress devs whose work I liked and who wanted to take the gig, but I needed to wait for a hole to appear in their busy schedules (that’s how good these folks are).

In the meantime, things lay somewhat fallow.

I remembered that my hosting service, Media Temple, charges me just for the wear-and-tear on their servers. I can have one blog or a hundred; they’re happy to just keep creating new WP instances on my virtual server.

So I created a couple of new blogs and started to play with them. There’s a lot of freedom in anonymity. I can do something dumb with a design and leave it up for days, just to see if I still hate it a few days later. I can install plugins and themes and screw around to my heart’s content. It’s like having your own sandpit and stable of bulldozers and bucket loaders. All I’m doing is pushing dirt into piles, and carving out holes, and moving piles into holes and making new ones. It’s fun!

(One of these test blogs is online, in fact, and it’s got a few weeks’ worth of nifty original content. I leave its discovery as an exercise for the reader. I’ll probably migrate its content here eventually.)

During this freewheeling period, I discovered the standard WordPress “Twentyfifteen” theme. The basic layout wasn’t exactly what I had imagined for the redesign. But it was good. And, it looked good on phones and tablets.

I kept working with it and noticed something else that made me very happy: its built-in styles were almost all great.

It’s such a simple thing to be happy about. But check this out:

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.
Hey, wow, swans in the Public Garden!

…It’s a photo, centered within its enclosing container.

I could cry, I’m so happy about it. All I had to do was tell this theme that I wanted this photo to be centered. And it’s centered. Just like that!

I’m sorry for getting all emotional. But I’ve been tearing my hair out over this issue. I download a theme, and it’s nice, but it’s part of some sort of religious cult that believes that Jesus lives on the left-hand margin and that an image that doesn’t want to hug Jesus is evil evil EVIL.

It illustrates my ongoing problems with the fancier themes I’ve been trying. I like the overall look of it. I appreciate how easy it is to click some buttons and make adjustments to the style, and I would think I was home and dry.

But as Douglas Adams said in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” I wasn’t even home and vigorously toweling myself off. Because everywhere I turned, I’d find a CSS style that I couldn’t stand. Like a quote style that had a big cartoony quotation mark behind it and obliqued, and with puffy letters completely out of scale with everything else on the page.

It would have been little trouble to dig into the CSS and fix it. But multiply that by another dozen or two problematic things.

The previous theme I’d tried (a commercial one) was too clever. It wanted to insert a big bloated icon in the headline of every blog post, to helpfully signal you that this post, which only contains a huge photo, is in fact a photo post, which you wouldn’t have sussed without the huge cartoonish camera icon.

I hated, hated, hated that.

I couldn’t eliminate the things without doing a lot of editing of the PHP code in the theme files, which themselves were so complex that making a fix work predictably was a lot of work. Again, not so terrible a job in and of itself, but it was another item on a long punchlist of to-dos, and the weight of it ultimately tripped the pad on my “Why do I even bother?” rat trap.

It says something about tech in general. Imagine a machine that cures all forms of cancer with just twenty daily treatments. Your doctor tells you how many units of treatment the machine should deliver for your specific diagnosis and stage of treatment.

The machine’s keypad only has five buttons: 3, 7, plus, minus, enter. So if he says you need 18 units, you have to work out the math and then key in 7 PLUS 7 PLUS 7 PLUS 3 MINUS ENTER.

You would do this, because it’s a machine that will cure your cancer in just 20 treatments.

Most pieces of technology do not cure cancer.

There is a point at which the user is being confronted with way too much work for too little reward. And if the thing is designed really poorly (or in the case of WordPress: just not designed for consumers), he or she also thinks that by going through these hoops, he’s encouraging the behavior of psychopathic engineers.

I’ve seen user interface choices that were so bad that they only possible explanation is that the person who made them was hoping that the TV exec responsible for the cancellation of ‘Firefly’ would use this some day.

Remember that building websites isn’t my passion. Here, check out one of my favorite blogs. This guy is, by far, the handiest person I’ve ever encountered on the Web. He’s restoring an Austin 7 by hand.

“Big deal…lots of people restore cars as a hobby.” Well, sir, you don’t, so perhaps you shouldn’t be so dismissive.

He’s practically creating every part from iron ore that he digs himself. He formed the entire body, by hand, by pounding sheets of metal with a hammer. Oh, the hood attaches to the body with hinges. So, he makes the hinges himself.

Clearly, he’s doing this project for reasons other than just getting a cool old car. The process fascinates and delights him. He revels in the details and every problem solved adds (in retrospect) makes the meal more satisfying.

I do not have this relationship with WordPress. I enjoy writing stuff. Look, WordPress tells me that I’ve written 2000 words in this post so far! For no tangible reward other than endorphin flow!

I just want the blog to look nice. I don’t want to feel frustrated every time I look at a page. And I want you folks to be presented with something that looks swell.

Thus, every time I have to spend twenty minutes doing something for this site that doesn’t involve writing, it’s a super bummer. I don’t want to do that. But if I don’t do that stuff, then I have a terrible looking site. It bums me out to write for a bad-looking site, too.

I don’t want to jinx my current state of enthusiasm. But I’m encouraged and energized by Twentyfifteen in ways I haven’t been in years, since I first stuck the self-conscious “beta” label on this site. It seems to be a happy medium between what I’d have if I spent thousands on a totally custom design, and the mythical “perfect premade theme” that makes me happy after an investment of $44 and an evening of clicking buttons and uploading theme graphics.

Twentyfifteen isn’t perfect. But — and I’ll be darned — it hasn’t been wasting my time. Almost all of the work I’ve been doing with it has been creative work. I haven’t had to spend a week decyphering someone else’s source code, all the while going back and forth between Coda and the WordPress codex to understand how WordPress’ own developers see the world).

It’s working. It’s not just a clean design, but its CSS and .PHP is so clean that I can easily suss out what’s happening under the hood and make my own changes.

“Author bio attached to every blog post”? No, no. That won’t do. Where’s the PHP snippet that pulls up that data? Ah! There it is. Annnd…there it goes. Unlike other themes I’ve tried to monkey with, that’s it. It’s gone. In every place where it could have been rendered.

I’ve also shifted my approach from “I’m going to train myself to be a legit WordPress developer” — or at least a legit developer of the CWOB theme — to “I’m going to design something I like that can operate within a set of limitations.”

Witness another image, centered lovely-ily:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 5.10.57 AM

This is an idea I’m playing with for this blog’s new masthead. Yes, it goes uppy-downy and not lefty-righty.

All along, I’ve wanted a masthead that goes lefty-righty, which is what I’ve had on this blog forever. It’s also what Jason has on Sixcolors and remember, my goal here is to just rob my poor, dear friend of mine whom I’ve known for almost a third of my life blind.

But Twentyfifteen wants its header content to be in a sidebar. I could customize it to add a top deck that spans the window, but that seemed like a lot of work. I could install a plugin that can add a top deck to almost any WordPress theme, but these plugins are only free because their code adds ad trackers to the site. I didn’t wanna do that to you people.

I could easily edit the .php file that generates this page so that it starts this wide content column with something masthead-ey. That’s how I put the title graphic in the sidebar, after I couldn’t figure out how do get the control I wanted through Twentyfifteen’s built-in customization options.

I got interested in another option, however. I got interested in the challenge of being creative within these limitations. Could I design a masthead for [the under-wraps, super-double-top-secret new blog I’m also putting together] that’s vertical?

I played in Photoshop. And I wound up with a masthead for [under-wraps blog] that I love. I just adore it. It represents everything I want for this new blog.

I added some code to Twentyfifteen (actually, my custom child theme) to render it right where I wanted it to go, without having to horse around with sidebar widgets. It looks so freaking nice.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that I only came up with that solution because I don’t know enough about PHP and WordPress to just spontaneously bang in a full-width masthead, or change it to a single-column layout. But I now have something I never would have considered that’s so much better than anything I had already conceived. Whee!

I’m so pleased with all of this that I said “What the hell” and decided to just activate Twentyfifteen on CWOB right now, without diving into any real customizations.

It’s been a great experience. When you don’t enjoy the appearance of your blog, and (unlike the guy building the Austin 7) you don’t even enjoy the work of fixing it, you get kind of glum about it. You’re not motivated to work on it or write for it.

But! When you know that the end result of what you write in this little editing window won’t have a grotesque and unnecessary “sheet of paper” icon on top of it that you didn’t ask for and can’t figure out how to remove…well, all things seem possible and every cloud in the sky only exists to keep the sun out of your eyes.

I feel as though my long-desired, semi-mythical “tech blog that archives all of my Sun-Times and other writings in a pretty, reader-friendly format” is within reach. We’re not talking “days away,” but we’re not talking months, either.

(The status: I built the Twentyfifteen child theme for the Test Blog That’s Online But Unpublicized almost specifically as the theme for this Super Double Top-Secret other blog. I also have a logo for that thing and a URL that’s…amazing.

Super Double Top-Secret isn’t online — I want it to show up all at once, finished — but it’s mostly just unpacking a suitcase.)

It’ll be the end of a long road with lots of U-turns. I can’t wait for that to happen.

Push the button, Frank…

A Burst Of Light, The Tang Of Melted Plastic

Kodak Instamatic X-15 Camera

Today’s Idle Thoughts That Consumed Way Too Much Of My Time:


I wonder how old the final generation of people to have had their childhood photos taken with a flashbulb are?


I wonder how young the first generation of people to have had them taken with a phone camera are?

Let’s eliminate hipster parents from the “flashbulb” question and turbo-nerd parents from the “phone” one. Those people will skew the results. No, I’m thinking about the usual thing where the kid is opening birthday presents, and Mom or Dad takes a photo with whatever it is they use to take pictures.

Flashbulbs are a significant marker because they represent the final era in which mechanical cameras dominated. You clicked a cube on top of a plastic Instamatic and it fired when a mechanical lever punched up into it and struck a primer, which then ignited some flashy-powder. Eventually, even the cheap cameras came with electronic flashes, which were a lot less fuss, but now you’re moving into an era where cheap consumer film cameras have circuit boards and batteries and stuff.

For the second question. we have to decide the year when phone cameras weren’t just good enough to take “real” photos, but also when parents started relying on them instead of a conventional camera. It’s probably not solely a measure of picture quality; it’s also a marker for the arrival of photo sharing infrastructure, and the attitude that we share photos via Facebook and Instagram instead of the postal service.

For flashbulbs: I’m guessing 1982 was the last year when they were common. Subtract ten years for a child’s date of birth and I’d say the last group to have their childhood photos taken with flashbulbs are 43 today.

For phones: well, that’s a tougher call. I mean, I was generally alert during the years in which this particular revolution was happening, so I actually have to replay the tape in my head and pinpoint the signposts. I’m going to declare the iPhone 3GS as the first popular phone with a not-at-all-crap camera. It was released in 2009, which is also prime (if not peak) Facebook time. Let’s say a kid stops having those kinds of birthday parties at age…12? So I’m gonna go with “18.”

Hey, cool! Totally by accident, I’ve chosen answers in which the last kids to get their birthday photos taken with pre-electronic cameras become the first adults to take birthday photos of their kids using phones!

It’s the sort of tidy observation that compels me not to question any of the assumptions that got me there. Why wreck it?

Tim Cook talks to Fast Company

At this point, the Steve Jobs era is far enough in the past that it’s almost dumb to note that Apple under Tim Cook is quite muchly different. Still, I’m a member of the old guard and I’m still adjusting to this weird company that regularly makes its top-tier executives available for interviews.

(Yes, “when the company has something to promote,” but that’s to be expected.)

Here’s another Tim Cook interview, this time with Fast Company. We’ve seen enough interviews that fresh insights are now hard to come by, but it’s still interesting to note that Tim chooses to reiterate certain core values of the company. Viz:

Steve couldn’t touch everything in the company when he was here, and the company is now three times as large as it was in 2010. So do I touch everything? No, absolutely not. It’s the sum of many people in the company. It’s the culture that does that.

That sort of thing is why Apple’s product line seems cohesive. Apple is tens of thousands of people, but you don’t get hired or promoted into a serious decision-making mode unless your style of thought — not your ideas, but how you build and evaluate ideas — is very much in harmony with Apple’s.

A couple of quotes leaped out at me and I gotta make a couple of comments on them, though:

You look at the watch, and the primary technologies are software and the UI [user interface]. You’re working with a small screen, so you have to invent new ways for input. The inputs that work for a phone, a tablet, or a Mac don’t work as well on a smaller screen. Most of the companies who have done smartwatches haven’t thought that through, so they’re still using pinch-to-zoom and other gestures that we created for the iPhone.

Try to do those on a watch and you quickly find out they don’t work. So out of that thinking come new ideas, like force touch. [On a small screen] you need another dimension of a user interface. So just press a little harder and you bring up another UI that has been hidden. This makes the screen seem larger, in some ways, than it really is.

These are lots of insights that are years in the making, the result of careful, deliberate…try, try, try…improve, improve, improve. Don’t ship something before it’s ready. Have the patience to get it right. And that is exactly what’s happened to us with the watch. We are not the first.

We weren’t first on the MP3 player; we weren’t first on the tablet; we weren’t first on the smartphone. But we were arguably the first modern smartphone, and we will be the first modern smartwatch—the first one that matters.

First, I can’t think of any smartwatches that use “pinch to zoom.” Their main competitors today would be Android Wear devices and Pebble, and neither of them use that gesture. If we go broad, it’s also hard to say that they use any gestures created for the iPhone. It’s clickybuttons and touch-button taps, both of which are so straightforward that it seems wrong to associate them with any of the iPhone’s predecessors, even. “Swipe” is an important gesture on Android Wear, but it wasn’t created for the iPhone (although the iPhone was the first device to introduce it to the popular consciousness).

I’d also challenge the description of Apple Watch as “the first modern smartwatch.” That plaque definitely hangs on a wall somewhere at Pebble HQ, and if Pebble gets caught up in some sort of blood doping scandal and is disqualified post-race, then it goes to Motorola for the Moto 360. I don’t consider that quote to be misleading — hey, “pride of ownership” and all that — but it’s something that stood out as Worthy Of Comment.

As for “the first one that matters,” well, that’s certainly credible. Apple Watch can’t be the first smartwatch that matters to individual consumers. I know plenty of people who still wear their Kickstarter-edition Pebbles every day and it sure isn’t because it’s the most fashionable watch they own. And I’ll point out that the Moto 360 hasn’t been off my wrist since September (barring sleep, showering…).

But the Apple Watch is guaranteed to be the first smartwatch to matter to the market. It’s impossible to lock down the number of Android Wear watches that have been sold since they first became available late last year, but it’s clearly well under a million units sold. Apple will probably sell more than that many solely via pre-order, and I bet sales during the first week will be iPad-like in scale.

If you’ve got a prejudice against Apple, it’s easy to ding them for their ability to generate buzz and hype before a product has even proven itself in meatspace. That’s silly. I see their ability to promote their work as part of what makes Apple such a good company. You can end the sentence “What good is a new technology if…” in many ways. Surveyyyy says!

“…nobody can afford it”

“…you can’t rely on it to work whenever you need it to”

“…it’s so complicated it’s not really worth it”

Let’s throw in “Nobody knows about it or cares.” Work needs to be placed in front of an audience. Your novel isn’t doing anybody any good if you threw it in a drawer after you finished writing it. So “ability and desire to promote” shouldn’t be seen as something tacky, or as a distraction from the work itself.

That’s particularly important with a new device such as a smartwatch. Android Wear has sold (probably) just three quarter of a million units, but it’s not because everybody saw it, tried it, and shrugged. It’s almost a secret product. People see the Moto 360 on my wrist and ask “What’s that?” They don’t ask “Oh, is that one of those things I’ve heard about?”

I think all of the attention that Apple is bringing to this whole product category will be good for everyone.

Reporting In A Social Media Age

Here’s a photo I shot for the column I just filed. I had to go back and reshoot it:


The Raspberry Pi 2.
The Raspberry Pi 2.


If you’re a Raspberry Pi user, you’re sure to spot the problem.

…Got it? Okay:

I populated its ports as though it were in operation. USB cable, ethernet cable, HDMI cable…but dammit, yeah, I forgot to to hook it up to power. There should be a microUSB cable connected to the lower-right.

I do like to get things right. But in the olden days, I might have posted it anyway. It was late in the day, I had a lonnnng list of things to finish before the weekend…I might have held my nose and cursed myself out and then went with what I had.

But this is the modern Twitter age. Here’s what I saw when I peeked into my near-future: I saw dozens of people spotting the mistake and saying “Amazing! The Pi 2 benchmarks just as fast as even a Mac Pro…assuming neither of them are plugged in to AC!” Things of that nature.

This is no way to start a weekend.

Particularly when I already know it’s supposed to end with 3 to 6 inches of new snow.

So. Back to my studio desk I went, where the Pi was still set up.

Incidentally, bonus points if you identified the book I used as a background. It’s good stuff and well worth your attention and your ten bucks.

Okay, look, before you even mention it: the phrase “it’s worth your ten bucks” automatically implies that it’s also worth the $4 you would be paying for the Kindle edition. And, yes, if you’re a Prime member you can read it for free. Zero is also less than ten bucks, which brings it under the original umbrella of my recommendation.


stupid two-way connection with my readership

people like me used to be able to have a whole career without having to give a rats behind about what happens after they publish something

i should get into the ladder business

i bet i could be a kick butt ladder salesman

do they even have ladder stores

oh wait i bet people buy their ladders on amazon now


oh but what if theyre selling them all wrong i could create an uber-of-ladder-stores

ill write an app you gotta have an app

maybe i should kickstart this i hear you should kickstart things

o boy this is getting me real excited i know just who to call for angel funding too

Edited to add: when I wrote this, I needed to look at the photo again to see where the microUSB connector is. But then a puckish thought struck me and I wrote “It took only 52 minutes for someone on Twitter to point out that I had written “There should be a microUSB cable connected to the lower-right” when it should be “lower-left.”

And they were totally nice about it, this is not a column about people being jerks on Twitter, this is an essay about how quickly a column can get fact checked and copy edited when you’re crowdsourcing the job to tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

Incidentally, the fact that I said “connector” instead of “cable” went unnoticed by the writer and all readers to date. I have now fixed it.

The Andy Zaltzman Pun Run To End All Creation

A dog I once knew loved a stuffed chicken toy. He carried that chicken toy everywhere. It was a love that had no rational foundation, and like many instances of true love, anyone outside of that relationship was at a complete loss to explain it.

But it was a pure love. Witnessing this love made me happy. Happy enough to overlook the fact that the chicken — which, I will remind you, spent all of its time being slobbered over by a dog that rarely brushed its teeth — was filthy and torn and gross, and I guess it was smelly, too, but if you looked at it you wouldn’t instantly think “I need to get closer to that chicken and then take in a good whiff of that.”

If there’s one man on this planet who can understand the love between the dog and that chicken, it’s Andy Zaltzman (co-host of The Bugle podcast). He has this same relationship with the concept of puns.

To Zaltzman, a pun is like a broken bottle in the street. The whole world regards these things as a nuisance at minimum, a hazard at worst, and wishes they’d all just disappear. Puns, we all recognize, are a menace to the public peace. Zaltzman is the crazy man who keeps scooping these things up and carefully pocketing them, after examining them with great interest and delight.

It seems like an unhealthy relationship. But only when you see him fondling a single pun. When he assembles a whole chain of them into an epic pun-run, you sense that perhaps he sees something to this jangle of crusty artery-piercers that has escaped the rational world.

And when two whole hours of his puns are cut together? Then the bizarre genius of Andy Zaltzman’s puns finally assumes a recognizable shape. He has been carrying these things to an empty lot in the desert and building a massive towering cathedral of shimmering multicolored facets. His puns are individual pieces of junk that achieve a sort of grandeur when assembled on a monumental scale.

It’s beautiful. Not just the thing itself, but also the evidence of a brain that could maintain such a commitment to such a thing over such a consistent span of years. Though I don’t condone the use of puns in the hands of the casual dabbler, when manipulated by a master who takes such raw glee in their construction and deployment, respect must be paid.

Do pray for the soul and sanity of Zaltzman’s brother-in-Bugling, John Oliver. You and I have the freedom to stop and start Andy’s puns whenever we wish. Poor John can’t…though Lord knows, he and the show’s producers do keep on trying.

How Bad These Snowden Leaks Have Become

Yes, British and US spy agencies infiltrated the systems of the world’s largest maker of SIM cards and stole the encryption keys that allow private individuals to have private conversations.

After so many breathtaking revelations, one of my reactions to this news is “Well! At least the NSA was forced to break in to this company. I’m very, very happy and relieved to learn that they don’t have the power and authority to simply demand that the company hand over the keys to hundreds of millions of phones and not tell anybody about it.”

Good lord. There’s going to be a monument to Edward Snowden some day and it had better be a damn big one.

“Thanks For Your Service”

I was grateful for this New York Times piece. It explores the reasons why some vets are bothered to some degree when someone who clearly has never served in the military comes up and says “Thank you for your service.”

This phrase entered the lexicon sometime in the past ten years. I instinctively liked the idea behind it. But I don’t think I’ve ever said it to a vet or someone in uniform. I don’t know why, precisely. Something about this phrase nagged at me and this article helps me to understand my discomfort a little bit better.

Partly, there’s the simple fact that maybe this person just wants to read their Kindle in peace without being forced to interact with a (well-meaning) stranger. And my social software is not optimized for random interactions with people I don’t know.

Mostly, I think, it’s the over-familiarity of the phrase, and how easy it is for me to say, compared to what this man or woman went through and the world that an active soldier will return to shortly after our paths cross in an airport Starbucks.

“Have a nice day” is such a common phrase at this point that it can be said at absolutely no cost whatsoever to the person who says it. Imagine instead a world — no, better yet, think of one of many existing cultures — where that isn’t a social norm and it isn’t expected or anticipated.

Imagine walking up to someone and instead of saying “have a nice day,” you said this:

“Despite the fact that we’re total strangers, and our sole interaction has been me asking you if this is the right platform for the train back to the city, I want you to know something: I wish for you to experience every possible good fortune today. I wish that for you and for everyone you care about today, because as a thinking, feeling human I know that your happiness is at least partly tied to the happiness of those you love. I wish this for you because I know that you have value, and I want you to hear those words explicitly.”

Well! Now you’ve got some skin in the game. You’re making a true connection with this person. You need to consider these words and sentiments carefully. When you say those words, you’re taking a risk that this person is going to think you’re a nut and walk away, or holler at you, or ask just who exactly you think you are.

“Thank you for your service.” I worry that I’d just be using a catchphrase that I picked up somewhere.

I worry that I’m not entitled to say it. I worry that I’d be saying it without being able to fully and genuinely articulate my appreciation for someone who does, or who has done, a very difficult job of which I feel that I am not capable and which exposes them to immediate and longterm dangers that I literally cannot imagine.

Do I even have any idea how the term “difficult job” is defined within the context of military service?

I say “Thank you for your service,” I receive my acknowledgment, and then I walk away without any understanding whatsoever of the full dimensions of this person, or what true sacrifice of this nature means. This idea bothers me.

I don’t even feel as though I’m doing the right thing by not saying it. I instinctively feel like I should instead use that interaction to try to learn about what their experiences were like, without the filters of politics or media coverage.

Even there, I’m filled with doubt. Why do I feel that I’m entitled to hear this person’s story? Particularly in an airport Starbucks, an environment in which he or she probably wishes I would just leave them alone with their Kindle? And especially considering that although I can listen to their stories, I cannot possibly understand their experiences.

Am I being selfish by even considering using that phrase? Am I hoping that this man or woman will nod and say “Yes, you are very kind for noticing me. Here is your ‘I was nice to a veteran today’ cookie.”

I know that this is going to be one of those blog posts that merely ends instead of concluding. I don’t know what to do and I don’t even know why I don’t know what to do.

I just want to do something. I think that’s what fuels “thank you for your service.” It comes from a sincere desire to express a feeling of gratitude that none of us can adequately articulate.

I have this desire to make these men and women not feel as though we send our volunteers overseas and then consider our country’s military operations are someone else’s problem. I want them to not feel as though the national sentiment is that their mission and their sacrifices are just things that happen “over there somewhere.”

Selfish, again. I want them to feel that way because I know deep down that, in large part, this is how those of us not in the military actually regard those who are currently or formerly in uniform. Brian Williams lying about his experiences in Iraq got America talking about that conflict far more, and with far more (misplaced) passion, than we have in years…despite the fact that operations are ongoing.

I want to badger my elected officials to make sure that current and former members of the armed forces are cared for — whether they’re overseas or within our own borders — and I want to help them by voting.

Though I feel that I don’t understand the huge web of US foreign policy, I want to work to achieve some sort of understanding of the lives of military men and women…those who work overseas and those who work within our own borders. When I think about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and other regions into which we’ve sent troops, I should be thinking about soldiers.

And I should be thinking about soldiers’ families as well. I didn’t think of them when I wrote my first draft of this: it was a Marine in my Twitter feed who reminded me of this, and I’m shocked by my own idiocy. I want to find the other end of that long tether that stretches back here from overseas. If, as a man without kids, I can’t properly imagine the grinding physical, financial, and emotional struggle of single parenthood, I doubly can’t imagine single parenthood while your spouse is in constant danger thousands of miles away. I want to badger those same politicians and cast those same votes in their support as well.

On a material level? I want to pay for their coffee or their sandwich or their beer or their newspaper. I can’t understand what their lives are like and I can’t understand the shape or the weight of their sacrifices and burdens. But I am capable of buying someone a beer, and then letting them read their Kindles in peace. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something.

Light Work

Studio self-portrait, me wearing headphones and a Colorado U cap.

Okay, not bad at all! I’m pretty happy with that.

Oh, not my physical appearance. My apologies for thrusting this odd blob of pixels into your face…sometimes I forget that I’ve literally had decades to make my peace with the sight of this.

No, I’m referring to the lighting. A new piece of lighting equipment arrived for my podcasting studio today and I’ve just spent an hour or so setting it up and trying to get everything dialed in right. Lights have been moved, tilted, intensities have been adjusted, et cetera. The end-result isn’t a tectonic improvement in my home studio’s video quality. But it’s an improvement! This pleases me.

Oy. There was a time when I never needed to do video. Life is pretty sweet for the audio podcaster with delusions of adequacy. Everyone should want decent audio and many can even afford to have terrific audio. Either way, it’s easy to achieve: buy a really good mic (Blue Yeti if you’re on a budget, Heil PR 40 if you’ve got some scratch). Just plug it in and make sure the end of the mic is pointing at the noisehole you’re using to express your thoughts, and you’re done: you’ve got audio that is nearly as good as compressed audio can possibly be.

Over the past five or six years I’ve come to appreciate how much harder it is to get good video. Tricking people into thinking that I’m running a high-class operation is an ongoing challenge on my kind of budget. Even with limitless funds, you can make such a pig’s ear of placing and adjusting all of your expensive lights that all you’ve achieved is the lateral move from crappy ambient lighting to crappy artificial lighting.

Fortunately, lighting gear that isn’t hardened for constant packdowns and setups is fairly affordable and I have plenty of time to experiment. I don’t have to get it all right straight away and after a few years of annual or semi-annual adjustments, the improvements start to add up.

Today’s arrival was a boom stand for one of my two lower-powered lights. My current setup, as it now stands:

  • A big 10K halogen-bulb softbox, about 30″ squared, on a low floor stand, blasting into my face slightly off to one side. This one has variable output, so I can dial it up or down for the right effect. The halogen bulb throws a nice, warm light. This the main light source.
  • A cheaper compact-fluorescent softbox, about 24″ squared, now on a boom stand, positioned right over my head and pointing straight down. Folks expect light to come from the top, so this one keeps the picture from looking too weird. There’s now light on the top of my head and the tops of my shoulders, which helps to add a little dimension.
  • Thick curtains blocking out all natural light. The improvement that these curtains made is hysterically funny to me because the whole reason why I set up my studio here in my office in the first place was because it has huge windows and gets terrific natural lighting. It turned out that having loads of light isn’t as important as being able to completely control whatever light you have. With these curtains closed, I’m my video isn’t getting blown out by direct, cloudless sunlight, and the studio doesn’t gradually get darker and darker over the course of a two-hour show that starts at mid-afternoon.

And actually, that’s it. It doesn’t sound complicated, now that I look at it. Frankly, I’d feel less silly about my five years of work if there were at least two more bullet points on this list. So:

  • I’ve got my USB webcam mounted on CRANE-CAM 3000 THE FUTURE OF VIDEO PODCASTING MARK II, which is a slightly permanent-ized version of a jury-rigged contraption I put together last year. Mounting the camera on the end of the swing arm of a broken architect lamp allows it “float” over my desk and allows me to place it in the best position. I didn’t have that kind of freedom when it was perched on my monitor or screwed into a tripod.
  • Incidentally, the correct term is indeed “jury-rigged” and not “jerry-rigged”. Well, blow me down: it refers to a hasty style of rigging sails. I’ve been saying it wrong for years.
  • And one more bullet point for good measure.

That’s better. A casual glance of this page makes this look much more technical than it actually is.

I’m relieved to learn that having expensive (aka “the right”) lighting isn’t nearly as important as correctly placing and manipulating whatever it is you have. I think I spent about $120 for that pair of CFC lights and stands, then another $160 for the big halogen softbox a couple of years later, and finally this boom stand cost all of sixty bucks. Quite a manageable list of expenses over four or five years.

I think I’m pretty close to the “smacks of adequacy/well, bless Andy’s heart…he’s clearly trying” effect I’m looking for. I might set up my spare CFC softbox to soften the shadows on the other side of my face. Slightly. The shadows add depth, and if there’s one thing that’s consistently lacking in my contribution to any podcast…

I’d also like to give the backdrop its own lighting. The one overall lesson I’ve taken away from my own experiments and from having been on a bunch of broadcast TV sets is “control everything.” On a network news show even the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s been lit has indeed been lit, which ironically is why everything looks so natural. The human eye has a much wider dynamic capture range than any camera. Making video look “real” therefore requires a narrower range of light values. “Shadows” must be “something lit at a lower intensity.”

Apart from the boom? Well, I decided to switch to a simple backdrop. Previously, the background of my video was the table of assorted ephemera that lives in that corner of my office, plus a spare screen so that I could demonstrate an app or show off a photo via a mirrored display. I was content with this. Then, H. John Benjamin made fun of my setup. I figured that the man must have a point…he’s TV’s “Archer,” after all.

In all seriousness? Yeah. The “wall of random crap” backdrop has been a staple of video productions since the dawn of television, from the first time a set decorator for a DuMont network program filled a goldfish bowl with baby shoes and placed it in the cubby up and to the left of the host.

Other shows and hosts can pull that look off. Alas, I can’t. It’s like a studied four-day growth of beard hair. It looks dashing on Matthew McConaughey but makes me look like someone who’s still trying to find a Walgreens that doesn’t keep its packages of razor blades locked down inside an alarmed cabinet.

I feel so strongly about this “neutral backdrop” direction that I bought an actual photo backdrop plus the rigging. I haven’t gotten around to setting that up, as I need to clear space for it, and if I’m going to clear that space, I might as well pull that whole half of the office apart and give it a good clean, and if I’m going to spend a few hours cleaning the office, I might as well just stay here on the sofa and binge-watch “The Bob Newhart Show,” because that seems to be much, much easier.

Meanwhile, it’s got me thinking that maybe I ought to just buy some canvas and some paints and make something more interesting. It’ll be no loss if I don’t use the white backdrop. It’ll come in handy if Apple ever produces a “talking head” video that can be made fun of, somehow. I suppose I ought to hold out hope; we’ve got to come up a winner some day, right?

The very last item on my to-do list would be to upgrade from my $70 USB Logitech webcam and go back to using a proper camera with a proper lens. My one disappointment with this Logitech webcam is its super-wide-angle lens either distorts your face (and God already distorted my face far more than I’d like). In an ideal world, I’d use a camera with a more powerful lens, mounted five or more feet away. But that means buying a “real” camera with HDMI out, and buying a box that convert HDMI to a form that my Mac and Skype can work with.

That’d run me well over a thousand bucks, I think. It’s way more than I need to spend on what a subtle improvement that only I would really appreciate. Everything I’ve done so far has been possible because of the availability of quite decent bargain-grade hardware, where the greatest outlay is actually the time you invest in experimentation. Which is exactly the right idea in an operation like mine.

If I spent thousands of dollars on professional video gear I’d be no better than those dopes who spend $720 on a custom 9-iron because they they’re under the delusion that it’ll improve their game. It’s easy to trick yourself and lose sight of what the game actually requires of you. 25,000 people bought tickets to hear The Beatles perform in San Francisco and it wasn’t because Candlestick Park had a terrific sound system. I’m pleased that my little home studio can generate video and audio that’s pleasant for viewers and listeners, but even $100,000 in new equipment would produce a fraction of the benefit of simply getting a full eight hours of sleep on the night before the show and spending part of the morning patching the gaps in my understanding of the day’s topics.

Thank you for reading this far. Here are more test frames, in which I engage in progressively dopey behavior:


Nope. Dammit. Nope. I dunno if it's...I mean, Just...nope.
Nope. Dammit. Nope. I dunno if it’s…I mean, Just…nope.


Me, rubbing my face with both hands
The “Madonna debut album cover” pose, aka “Maybe if I just keep staring at this I’ll work out if this is okay or if I need to tweak things a little more.”


Me, wrestling with three vintage slate notebooks
What if I need to hold something up to show the camera? Will the lighting still work well?
And why on earth do I have so many old computers piled up around the office?


Snow Day

It’s Tuesday night. I’m nice and warm and on my sofa, I’ve got things baking in the oven, and I’m watching a TV show that I’m barely interested in. When the storm began on Monday night, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say any of these things tonight, let alone say it from a computer with the screen brightness turned all the way up, so I’m not at all annoyed with myself for watching something dumb and forgetting that I rented a terrific documentary a couple of nights ago.

That is: well, yes, I’m a little bit annoyed. I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Finding Vivian Maier” ever since I saw the trailer last year. But it sure beats clinging to a Kindle through numb fingers and an uncertain future.

Whoops! I forgot that I didn’t lose power during the blizzard. Also, the communities that really got socked by the snow (and boy, did they ever) were well north of here. My town only got what might be termed “a buttload of snow.” It certainly wasn’t the kind of storm that invites survivors to add dates to the end of that phrase (“The Buttload Of 2015”) or to call themselves “survivors.”

Put it all together, and I really shouldn’t be kiting up the drama of the situation…even I’m only kiting up how badly the Andy in some alternate universe is suffering. No need for sympathy for Ihnatko-prime on this day.

Oh, what a relief it was to wake up this morning and see the correct time on my cable box! I went to bed at about 3 AM Monday night, after essentially replaying that scene from “Apollo 13” where Command Module Pilot Kevin Bacon finishes shutting off every last electrically-powered system in the CM. The camera pans across acres of panels that are seriously never supposed to be totally dark like this. He takes a moment to appreciate there is no circumstance in which you are floating in zero gravity inside a command module without any power and can say “my life is going very, very well.”

As a preventative measure, I shut down all of the things inside the office could be damaged by a sudden loss of power and also unplugged everything from my uninterruptible power supplies, so that all of that stored energy could be used to recharge tablets, phones, and laptops over the next few days if necessary. My NAS was cold, dark and silent, as was the iMac that I normally set to crunch on a project overnight, the network bridge that turns lights on and off at the right times, the SONOS interface…all kinds of beep-boops were no longer beeping nor booping. For the first time in ages, there were no fans whirring or LEDs blinking anywhere in the house. Actually, just for the first time since the last power outage, but you know what I mean.

The house was restored to a state of utter quiet, and a minimum of visual distraction. It was like a meditation space.

This didn’t create a space of calm and peace. Quite the opposite: like Kevin Bacon in his darkened spacecraft, I found it slightly unnerving. And then, I was unnerved by the fact that I found this decreased level of distraction unnerving. This observation makes me want to seek out one of those monasteries that maintains a few minimally-appointed rooms for paying guests. That’s a real thing I once read about. The monastery gets a few bucks, and their visitors get couple of nights of distraction-free contemplation.

(Ideally, this monastery would also Chipotle-adjacent.)

I think of my brain as a computer running the general-release human operating system. I customize and extend the OS as I go, but there’s still some core code that’s so important it’s flashed into the bootloader and its expression can’t be suppressed by circumstance. So, for example, if someone fails to have a child, and also fails to die before age 35, then the “be alert to the possibility that a child has either wandered off or stopped moving and breathing” background daemon shrugs and finds another outlet.

In my case, this code making me react to house-wide silence by making me worry that maybe my servers have crashed or the main board of a computer has failed.

Oh, and I took one hell of a stupid risk before I shut everything down. I needed to free up some space on my DVR, but it was filled with hours and hours of shows that I wanted to keep. I hooked my Mac Mini to to the DVR, started a “Great Performances” broadcast of “The Marriage Of Figaro” playing, and spun up the capture software.

It’s three and a half hours. But hey, man…free opera!

This was a fine idea, in the sense that deleting this one show would free up more than enough space for future recordings. This was also a terrible idea, in that oh, right, a blizzard was just starting up and I’d been preparing as though I were certain that I was going to lose power sometime between Monday night and Tuesday afternoon. Cutting power to a hard drive while it’s writing data is muchly super doubleplus ungood.

I dunno. I guess I just wanted to feel like a Han Solo-esque rogue. The man who starts a 210 minute write operation on a machine that’s not plugged into a UPS and could lose power at any moment is definitely the sort of devil-may-care scoundrel who would try to shake off pursuers by attempting to manually navigate an asteroid field. The loser who busts his ass hauling a completely-not-even-connected-to-anything thirty pound UPS up a flight a stairs doesn’t win the heart of a kick-ass princess at the end of the movie.

Well, everything turned out OK; the capture ended and I shut down the Mac Mini safely. Which means it was definitely a safe thing to do! I knew it all along. “¡La historia me absolverá!” I shouted, as I defiantly stabbed my index finger onto the mouse button to begin the 210-minute capture. And hey, I wasn’t wrong.

So I somehow fell asleep inside a creaking and rattling house lashed by high winds. I woke up Tuesday morning, I discovered to my profound relief that the power was still on, and then I pulled Lilith off of the nightstand for my first look at the world.

I tabbed into Messages and eyed, with a mixture of interest and concern, my Buddies list. It had become a status board of how my New England friends had fared over the evening. A green pip next to the name signified live computers and, likely, a home with power. A grey one told me to, um, keep an eye on that one, and to remember to send a reassuring text message from my phone later in the day if the situation hasn’t improved.

I didn’t consider myself to be totally out of the woods until about noon, when the winds had completely died down. The fierce, blizzard-like conditions of night and morning transitioned into a mere Lovely Non-Aggressive Powdery Snowfall.

In fact, the weather had completely lost its ability to intimidate. The neighbor kids texted me to see if they could incorporate parts of my yard into an epic multiple-property sled run. I was so eager to grant my consent that I flaked and gave them Monday’s passphrase. Needless to say, when the backyard critters working on my security detail rounded them up and herded them to my back door, I had a lot of apologies to make all around.

Other than that? This has been a semi-uneventful Tuesday. The MacBreak podcast went off hitchlessly and afterward, I was left in a house filled with snacks and the other things I’d bought to stave off what could have been serious stuck-in-the-house-without-electricity-for-a-long-time grumpiness.

I’m closing out this day with some Amazon shopping. It’s hard to think of everything you’d like to have in a certain situation until you’re actually in that situation. Now’s a good time to order those things so that they’ll be on hand for the next one of these. I used to own a lovely pair of Army-surplus windproof and dustproof goggles but I can’t find them anywhere. I won’t have ’em for whatever cleanup duties I need to perform outside tomorrow, but a few days from now I’ll have a new pair standing by. I also thought about what I’d be doing right now if the power cut out and that’s what took me to The Wirecutter’s page of head lamp recommendations.

(I love The Wirecutter for stuff like this. I’m grateful to the sort of people who, unlike me, care enough about this sort of thing to obsessively test out twenty different options and present a parametric argument defending their choice. I kind of feel guilty when I wave off the twenty eight-by-ten color pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one explaining what it is and instead just buy what they suggest I buy, without any further questions.)

Ultimately, I reflected on the fact that during previous power outages, walking through the house at night holding an LED lantern before me like a slightly doughy Diogenes had been a perfectly fine solution and that perhaps I should spend $40 without some additional contemplation.

As for the storm prep stuff I bought over the weekend but didn’t have to use? Almost all of it is a useful thing to have on hand, whether I need it today or two years from now. As for the rest…hey, cool, I have corn chips and salsa. I almost never have corn chips and salsa in the house.

I guess the fun ends on Wednesday. That’s when the kid comes by with the snow thrower, I hope. If not? We didn’t get so much snow that I can’t just shovel my car out by myself. But I’d rather do that work in the form of writing columns, for which I get money, which I then pass along to the kid with the snow thrower.

A pile of automated shipping notices in my Inbox underscores the fact that it’s vitally important that I clear a safe path from the street to my front door. There were an unusually high number of FedEx and UPS and other deliveries scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. One of them is — oh, dear — a queen-size mattress and platform.

Truth be told, I’d really like to spend Thursday in Boston, taking a long walk and a pile of photos of the city decorated with a couple of feet of snow. But if I came home in the early evening and discovered a door tag waiting for me, I’d be nervous and guilty. I’d examine every loop and whirl of the handwritten “time of failed delivery” for signs of hostility. Poor driver. Came all this way, in terrible roads, probably in shorts, even, only to find a recipient who couldn’t be bothered to hang around.

If I do make it out of the street tomorrow, maybe I’ll pick up a few Dunkin Donuts Gift Cards. It’s gotta cost less than the expense of removing muddy boot prints from a mattress.


Okay! I’m done. I carried the last handcart full of firewood from the car to my Supplemental Woodpile, wrapped it up in a blue tarp, laid a pair of snow shovels on top like the cross marking the furtive burial plot of the weakest member of team of Antarctic explorers, and then I said goodbye to the outside world. If things go well, I’ll be free to go back outside on Wednesday. If not, then Thursday.

If things go very badly, the neighborhood will lose power. In which case, my parking the car close to the end of the driveway changes from a “too lazy to shovel the whole thing in case the snow-removal guy never shows” move to part of an escape plan. And yes, I mean “escape plan.” If there’s an extended outage, the ability to get the hell out of Dodge will become an important thing. I’m well equipped to hunker down in an unheated house for a night or two but after that, I’ll bunk in with friends whose living rooms are well above freezing. In a situation like that one, I’ll want to be able to get my car freed and on the road after something less than six hours of shoveling, you see.

No worries, though…this is just good planning. By stacking a night’s worth of heating fuel by the wood stove, and another couple of night’s supply by the front door where I can easily get at it, I’ve reduced a long list of variables to an easily-managed list. I can now enjoy a winter-weather lockdown.

If you’re well-prepared for these things, the experience is a lot like camping. I assume we all agree that the signature feature of camping is “enjoying nature while being annoyed by your temporary living situation?” Good. There you go. You get Nature in the form of gorgeous flocks of snow all around, and Annoyance is represented by the fact that you can’t leave the house and nobody’s willing to deliver a pizza.

The pluses: you get to sleep in a real bed and you’re surrounded by all of your stuff. Even if you lost your electricity, well, you wouldn’t have had that in the tent, either, right? At least here, you’re cold in a real bed. And you won’t have to carry all of this stuff back to the car when you’ve finally had enough.

I’ve been prepping for the blizzard all weekend. I think I’ve completely run out of batteries to charge. After topping up my phones, my tablets, all of the USB battery chargers in the house, and a couple of batteries for the camera — critters come out in force after a big snowstorm — I started charging up a few Bluetooth speakers. I honestly don’t know why I wouldn’t prefer to listen to music through headphones, but how much work is involved to plug this thing into the wall? It’s actually more work to think the decision through than to just shrug and go ahead.

Besides, I might be glad I did. After two days without electricity, I might need to turn the kitchen into a roller disco just to maintain my sanity.

(Crap. I don’t own roller skates. Well, wool socks on my feet and Lemon Pledge on the floor will do just as well. “The old Dunkirk spirit” and all that.)

Lilith’s battery is at 100%. I can keep charging it for a couple of days off of the UPS in my office. Check and check. If I want to put in damned-near a full workday, there’s little to stop me. I’ve got mobile broadband and days and days worth of electrons socked away. Even if the town loses power, the cell tower will keep running for a day or two. Meanwhile, there’s a police-grade LED flashlight in my pocket at all times and big LED lanterns in almost every room, waiting to be put into the game.

I went out for breakfast this morning. It was just one last, long, lusty sniff of the outside world before the indoor camping holiday began. As I tucked into a plate of hot French toast and sausage and thought about my battle plan, I realized that although I’d done such a careful and thorough job making sure that all of my digital necessities were in order, and laying in fuel for the wood stove, I was only about 70% certain that I owned a box of matches.


This would have been the classic “larder full of canned food, not a can opener in sight” blunder. As I truly was in no rush to go home and begin my three days of contemplation, I set out to lock down this ability to make fire.

Once again, I’m embarrassed by the ease with which a freelancer can get things done while the normal people are at their offices. I encountered no lines at the Home Despot (box of strike-anywhere matches, box of firestarters, plus a butane fire-lighting stick thing which I’ve always wanted to have). Even the supermarket was barely lapping above a Saturday-afternoon level of crowding and hostility. Peanut butter, sliced turkey, bag of apples, tea, cocoa, oooh they have the BIG cans of alcohol cooking fuel. I have a camp stove that can make quick work of a pot of liquid or a pan of vittles, but it’s even quicker work with the softball-sized cans. Two in the basket.

Sterno is terrific stuff. It’s like a stovetop burner that you can safely use indoors, and you can keep lighting it, dousing it, and resealing it over and over again. Toss it in the pantry (unlit, ideally) and it’s good forever. Honestly, losing electricity to the house during winter sucks, but so long as you can have hot oatmeal or scrambled eggs in the morning, hot soup and a sandwich for lunch, and a burger or a steak for dinner, it’s easy to recite prayerful thoughts for Those Less Fortunate instead of focusing on the lack of any microwaved Hot Pockets.

I was well-prepared before the trip to the store (two bags of tortilla strips, two jars of salsa, and enough whiskey to keep me naked and raving for days on end). Now I’m weller-prepared. It’s all an investment in the ability to relax through this. It’ll be okay. I’ll be warm and I’ll eat well, and though the outside temps would be a threat to life and limb if I didn’t have a roof over my head, I have that thing. Plus, if I lose power I can empty the freezer into a cooler and drag it into the garage; nothing will go to waste.

As such, I am indeed looking forward to a couple of days of quiet contemplation.

It’s weird to say that. I’m a freelancer. I could arrange a couple of days off from my work schedule at any time and just, you know, not leave the house. But the words “snow day” work the same magic on the adult as they did to the child. It’s the hand that stills the daily metronome and an opportunity to do something else.

I have a shelf of new, unmarked notebooks, collected in stationery stores from across the country and all over the world. If I do lose power, I’ll pull one of them out and write longhand for a few hours at my desk, by lantern-light, living the dream of being the struggling writer in a freezing garret trying to eke out a single solitary bud of genius before dying in a fashion that a moody artistically-inclined teen will one day commemorate with some Sharpie art on a jean jacket.

Oh, some folks asked me about MacBreak Weekly tomorrow. I am not only going to participate but I’m going to participate the hell out of it tomorrow. Even if there’s no electricity, I’m going to stream live video and audio through my phone, and I’ll have the curtains open so everyone can see just how bad it’s all coming down. It might cost me forty or fifty dollars in overages on my data plan, but you would — nay, you should — question my fitness for command if I don’t take advantage of this opportunity for such a killer backdrop, and exploit this gold-plated opportunity for generating sympathy and shoring up my fragile legend.

So to everyone who’s emailed me on social media: I’ll be fine.

I am not, however, expecting that the “guaranteed Monday delivery” of the new mattress I ordered will happen.

Outside, the snow that’s been falling all day is now being tossed around by high winds. That’s the difference between a blizzard and a mere snowstorm. It’s also the reason why being outside in this is absolutely foolish and why by the time this dies down on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, many people will open their doors to find another door of packed snow preventing their exit.

That won’t happen here (for reasons). Once again, this all could be very, very worse. Here’s just one example: I could be the parent of two children who were only just this month starting to stop being such obsessive freaks about “Frozen.” I’m not a parent but I instinctively believe that the sight of several feet of snow everywhere will trap mothers and fathers in a Frozen hell of Disney’s making until the next “Avengers” movie opens, at the very soonest.

Google Project Ara Update

The Verge got another chance to fondle Project Ara, the big stinkers. They wrote up what little details exist of this most cool work-in-progress.

Project Ara is (a) Google’s experiment to build a fully-modular smartphone, and (b) a strong example of why the tech world needs Google. It’s bonkers. Phones cost anywhere from $0 to $199 on contract and by the time one stops working, or requires an upgrade, we’re kind of sick of it anyway and are ready for a new gadget. So why design a phone in which every major feature — screen, camera, battery, storage, CPU — is a snap-in LEGO piece?

Asked and answered. Maybe we’re all dopes for falling for Apple’s and Samsung’s and HTC’s (and Google’s) constant string of “next big thing” phone announcements. Maybe we’re dopes for buying phones on contract instead of buying them as plain consumer items.

I’m shopping for a new phone right now and when you come down to it, if I can just keep everything I have now and just get a better camera…I’m good. Seriously. Better photos is the engine of about 80% of my lust for new phone hardware and that goes for both iPhones and Android phones. On top of that…how many times have I settled for a certain device because it has everything I want except for, say, removable storage?

Ara would let you build a phone with exactly the features you want. Upgrade specific components without having to ditch everything else.

Another another cool twist is implied, though it hasn’t really been covered: if your phone’s identity is on a swappable module, it’s as easy to have multiple styles of phone as it is to have multiple styles of wristwatches. Your daily carry is a 4.8″ frame and screen, but youalso have a flip or candybar frame on your dresser, for formal events when you’re only carrying a tiny purse or wearing an outfit without real pockets.

But yes, Ara remains a bonkers idea. The concept of a power and data bus with modules that can be ejected and remounted without necessarily rebooting (or crashing) the whole platform is…OK, I’m enthusiastic about Ara so I’ll be nice and describe it as a “nontrivial issue.”

The interesting thing about ideas like this one, however, is that they’re only bonkers until someone goes ahead and actually builds one of the damned things. Figuring out how to land people on the Moon in less than ten year’s time was a crazy idea, filled with seriously nontrivial problems. We not only landed on the bastard…we left three golf carts up there.

Another thing about Ara that I like: Google isn’t afraid to experiment, or even fail, in view of the public. Project Ara may never ship, and it might not even be a marketable product. But this is in no way a sign of defects in Google’s way of doing business. On the contrary. Projects like Ara and self-driving car tech and Glass make plain the tactile, and often fumbling, nature of product development.

Help Me To Samsung “Six Colors”

Why does the official name of this website still say “Beta?”

Jeez. Well, look at it!

Yeah, see, for years I’ve been trying to make this site look nice and clean and modern. But in golf terms, I have no short game. I can move the ball from the tee to just short of the green with accuracy and precision. Would it be tooting my own horn to say that I can even do that thing where you open up your stance a little and put a little spin on the ball so that my drive follows the curve of the fairway? Perhaps. The greater risk would be assuming that any of my readers would have any idea what the hell I was talking about but frankly, I stopped worrying about that sort of thing in 1997.

What is it that I lack as a web developer? Well, it’s a certain zen. I have a solid basic sense of design when I’m not designing websites. I’ve also written a lot of code both for play and for pay in my day and some of it’s pretty good. What I assuredly do not have is the ability to demonstrate both of those competencies at the same time.



Yeah, this scene pretty much sums it up. I need two hands to hold the logic of a piece of software and another two hands to hold the visual design of something I’m creating. If I put one of these things down to pick up the other, it all goes blrrppthh across the table, like Jello that’s only halfway-set.

It’s an interesting insight into mind-mapping, isn’t it? My creative mechanism that thinks “Wouldn’t this CSS element look nice if it were centered?” is located in the part of the brain that I need to solve the problem “Why the HOLY F*** isn’t this stylesheet targeting the correct container?!?”

Have I completely given up?

No, but ask me again in another couple of months, maybe.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll keep working on it. My personal blog here has always been a bit of a mutt and at this point, its slappy appearance is kind of a signature feature.


I’m considering starting up a brand new site just for my tech stuff, including my Chicago Sun-Times columns. Like all of the best web startups, the primary inspiration for this new venture is the shocking revelation that a certain URL, perfect for a tech blog, was available for purchase. It seems like a damned shame that you can’t type [REDACTED] into a browser and then start reading about tech.

One should definitely take pride in building something with your own two hands (or one, or none, please select as appropriate). One should also definitely acknowledge that there are people in the world who can do a far better job of it in one hour than you can do in a whole week, and that many of these people do things for money.

So. It’s time for me to find out just how much money that is.

The most efficient way to describe my design mandate: I want to rip off my good friend Jason Snell’s design for “Six Colors.” Just Samsung the whole damn thing.

What if he tries to sue me for damages? Hahahaha. See this half-finished bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper on the end table? I don’t own it. For legal purposes, I’m leasing this beverage on a non-ressertive quarterly basis from an untitled holding company, which is itself a subsidiary of an LLC retitled from an offshore trust. Then the next step from that one gets kind of shady. Jason’s a close pal and a smart man and I’m sure he knows that unwinding the legal barbed wire back to the source of my actual assets would require the sort of machinery that Bletchley Park threw together to crack ENIGMA.

Okay, maybe I don’t literally mean I want to rip off “Six Colors.” But I’ll tell you people what I told Jason when he launched the site last year: I admire how he managed to make the site simple without resorting to the sort of bleak, Soviet starkness that makes other blogs look like a turreted no-fun zone.

  • This is a “longish post”-powered blog. So I want everything to be easy to read. Visitors land on a page that shows off the latest stuff, as opposed to a magazine cover sort of thing.
  • I want a dominant column of content (full blog posts like this one, quick links, some posts that are just embedded media like Tweets, videos, or single photos that span the whole column).
  • I have lots of content on the site. If readers want to spend a lot of time reading stuff, I want them to stick around and be able to find stuff to read. But I don’t want one of those sketchy designs where the user is forced to click around to find things, as a way of tricking them into following more links.
  • If I decide to take on sponsors, or to sell digital content, I want the site to support that kind of stuff elegantly. This site isn’t a moneymaking venture but wouldn’t it be lovely to have it start making money for me?
  • I want this all to run off of WordPress (because it’s what I’m familiar with) but I’ll consider an alternative (like Squarespace).
  • I reckon that an existing theme with some custom CSS will do the trick. Budget-wise, that’s probably what I can afford, as opposed to “build me a TheVerge.com”
  •  It should be dead-simple for me to put things on the site. I want to write something and tag/categorize it and click “Publish.” Done.
  • No ad trackers/beacons, apart perhaps for stuff on the “mostly harmless” end of the scale that allows me to figure out who’s reading what stuff and when.

If you’re someone who can pull this off for me, or if you’re thinking “Hell, Andy…here’s a canned WordPress theme that’s pretty much 90% there, right out of the box”…leave me a comment below. I’ve enabled comments for this post. Or contact me privately at (my last name) at Gmail.com.



I decided to run a not-entirely-necessary errand in the city yesterday. I could have put it off until next week but I wanted an excuse to see the lights and the city tree — or at least a tree in the city of Boston — before Christmas.

This here is my kind of Christmas tree. It’s just a little bit lopsided, and the lights were hung with care, but not with obsessive precision. It’s charming and human and analog and friendly and 100% in keeping with the spirit of the season.

Sometimes, I look at holiday decorations and I can only imagine the sorts of arguments that broke out at every step of the process. It’s definitely the result of two or three highly-fussy people butting heads all day, with each one repeatedly insisting that the others were “doing it wrong” and sighing that “it’s up to me, alone, as always, isn’t it?”

Result: a very pretty house. And a catalogue of petty resentments that have almost, but not really, blown over when it’s time to decorate again next year.

(“Mom? It’s almost time to open gifts. Is Uncle Dave coming to Grampa and Gramma’s Christmas party?” “Shut up. But tell me: doesn’t Grampa’s inflatable Santa totally make much more sense there in the front yard, next to the mailbox? You’re not opening any presents until you agree that putting it close to the house, by the walk, would have been completely insane.“)


This was a Three-Tree Holiday Season for me. I seemed to be campaigning my way up the Eastern seaboard and checking off big city trees as I went. I saw the National Christmas Tree in DC. It was a perfect cone with such a precisely-laid grid of LEDs that I was a little disappointed that it didn’t blink over into a conical video ad for LG 4K HDTVs every six minutes. The Rockefeller Center tree is somewhere on the “amazing” spectrum, for sure. But it’s huge, and up on something that looks uncannily like an altar, and it seems to demand that you bow down before it. The fact that the approach is preceded by trumpeting angels and terminated by a huge golden man grasping fire adds to this off-putting “LAY THE BODY OF YOUR FIRSTBORN BEFORE ME AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE CAROLS” vibe.

The tree in Boston Common hits it right on the nose. Tall and proud, bright and beautiful, well worth the trip, and at no point is any reasonable person inspired to wonder how many additional teachers’ salaries could have been paid with the budget for that thing.

It was colder last night than I imagined it would be, and the steady drizzle made me regret using my daypack’s umbrella pouch to hold a camera monopod instead of the item the good people at Osprey Bags intended. I walked from Copley Square to South Station, spending time at the library, the Public Garden, the Common, and the shop windows at Downtown Crossing.

I found myself in a rather prayerful mood as I strolled through the evening mist, my hands clasped behind me. I was aided by the weather, I suppose. But I gave thanks for the people in my life, and I thought pleasant, comforting thoughts and enjoyed many fine memories of those people I’ve lost.

Plus, I arrived at South Station early enough to get a burrito at Chipotle before my train. All in all, it was a very good day.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Grace Notes


Sometimes, you see a work of art and you break out into spontaneous applause. Here we see two examples.

Augustus Saint-Gauden’s “Diana” there in the background is well-known. It was originally designed to adorn the top of Madison Square Garden (the cool, original one) and was fitted out as a weathervane, of all things. It proved so successful that Saint-Gaudens refined the original over the next few years and produced it in different scales.

It’s deceptively simple, isn’t it? Diana is perched on one toe, leaning slightly forward towards her target, captured in the moment before she releases the arrow. There’s nothing complicated about the pose but executing it with consummate grace must have been a nightmare. The human body is composed of hunks of irregularly-distributed meat suspended on stems connected by dozens of joints. We can intuit when an artist or sculptor has articulated a figure correctly and when it’s even slightly “off” we can spot it instantly and intuitively, even if we can’t figure out exactly <em>why</em> we’re reacting so negatively.

The same puritanical groups that drove MacMonnies’ “Bacchante And Infant Faun” out of Boston attacked “Diana,” too. What a bunch of dopes.

I imagine, and hope, tat Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s “The Vine” gave the all of the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union heart attacks. I’d never seen or heard of it before my first visit to Gallery 700. Via the Met, I read that she often posed dancers for figures and the edition of bronzes she cast of this one in tabletop size was so successful and well-received that she decided to re-do it, with a new model, in this monumental scale.

I keep learning about figure sculpture and my mind continues to boggle. To conceive of this figure; to execute it flawlessly; <em>and</em> to solve what must be some serious engineering problems to keep this dynamic pose stable as it’s built up in clay and then fixed in bronze; all in all, this is the calling card of consummate skill.

It also pleases me that Frishmuth has taken a very real ballet dancer by the name of Desha Delteil and made her immortal, as MacMonnies immortalized Eugenie Pasque. Dancing is a hard legacy to preserve because it all about motion and time, and photography is about freezing motion and stopping time. Desha Deltell was well-photographed and even filmed during the 1920s. But no photo or movie could have created such a lasting monument to Delteil’s form and movement as the series of sculptures she posed for in Frishmith’s studio.

I read that Deltell lived into her Eighties. I like to imagine her stopping by the Met every now and again to say hello to Twentysomething Desha. If I looked as good as that at any brief period of my life, I’d be pretty happy that it got captured for posterity.

None of that distracts from the dramatic impact that “The Vine” has on you. It’s like a Maxfield Parrish painting in three dimensions.

I keep coming back to the sculpture gallery in the American Wing because I keep failing to get a photo of “Bacchante” that I’m totally happy with. And I keep reading about “Bacchante” because every new detail I learn about the work, its sculptor, its subject, and that era of sculpture draws me in deeper.

The nice side effect of all of this is that although I’ve become so distracted by “Bacchante” that I’ve barely spent any time in the rest of the Met, I’m growing to know all of the figures in this one gallery in greater detail. I know the stories of many of the artists and many of the models, even. I can see Audrey Munson’s face in two sculptures that surround “Bacchante,” and I think about the two very different fates of those two models. I see “Diana” in the background of “Bacchante,” and I think about what a valuable teacher and mentor Saint-Gaudens was for MacMonnies, and I also think about MacMonnies’ own “Diana” and how heavily influenced it was by another of his teachers. During my previous visit, I realized that the gallery had two works by this other sculptor I’ve been reading about, a guy who was born about twenty years too soon to take advantage of this vibrant revolution that came in the late 1800s and whose work seemed to me just so leaden and obligated to 100 years of tradition.

Et cetera. Though I’d certainly admired “The Vine” during my previous visits, I didn’t learn anything about its sculpture. And now, after 45 minutes of image searches, I want to get to know this Harriet Whitney Frishmuth a lot better.

My pal Mark Evanier has been to every San Diego Comic-Con and offers great advice to first-time attendees. It’s so big that you can’t possibly see it all. So focus on just one <em>kind</em> of Comic-Con you want to attend. Meeting artists and writers? Attending panels? Shopping for cool stuff? Pick one and you’ll have a great time.

This wisdom occurred to me during my visit yesterday. Big museums are baffling. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is to think of it as seven different museums sharing the same space, and then go deep-dive on your favorite one. I suspect I’ll have years to go before I’m done with this sculpture gallery.