Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

The walled gardens of shit

Over a century ago, King Gillette pioneered the razors and blades business model. The DMCA led to a new twist on this: companies have been trying to force you to buy their blades in particular by slapping microchips on them–even when those things don’t really have any need of a microchip–because that makes it illegal to reverse engineer.

This gave us the Keurig coffee machine, which has been successful, but has been deservedly criticized–even by its inventor–for its wastefulness. Keurig attempted to add DRM to their pods, although that backfired.

Catering to the herd mentality of the investor class (“It’ll be like Amazon, but for X!” “It’ll be like Facebook, but for X!” “It’ll be like Uber, but for X!”), this has led to…

The Juicero, a massively over-engineered $400 (marked down from $700) gadget that squeezed $8 DRM-laden bags of fruit pulp into juice. It flopped.

Then the Teaforia, a $400 gadget (marked down from $1000) that makes tea from DRM-laden pods that cost $1 each or more. It flopped.

Now this thing, a spice dispenser that uses DRM-laden spice packets that cost about $5 a pop (spices obviously vary in prices, and it’s not clear how much comes in one of their packets, but I just bought 4 tbsp of cinnamon for $0.35).

These Keurig imitators represent an intersection of at least two bad trends: the Internet of Shit, where stuff that has no need of ensmartening is gratuitously connected to the Internet–a logical consequence of sticking unnecessary DRM-enabling chips on things, with those chips getting cheaper and more powerful–and the walled gardens of yore, like AOL–which companies like Facebook and Google have been attempting to reconstruct on top of the Internet ever since. So now we’ve got walled gardens of shit, filling up with their own waste products. Happily, the market seems to be rejecting these.

Big-number cheat sheet and BetterTouchTool

BetterTouchTool is one of my favorite Mac utilities. A real sleeper: originally it just let you create new trackpad gestures (or remap existing ones), and that was useful enough on its own, but it’s been beefed up with more and more interesting features. One feature I just discovered is that it can display a floating window with any HTML you want. This is a perfect way to show my Big Number Cheat Sheet, which is handy for checking your work when dealing with, well, big Japanese numbers.

To use this, open up BTT, add a new triggering event (can be triggered by a key command or text string, trackpad, whatever), and add the action Utility Actions > Show Floating Web View/HTML menu. Give it a name, set it to a width of 500, height of 750, and paste the following in directly. (Posting this online introduces a space between the opening < and !DOCTYPE — that should be deleted.) Be sure to enable “show window buttons” and/or “close when clicking outside” or the window won’t go away.

< !DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
    <meta charset="utf-8" />
    <title> </title>
    <style> 
        body {
        background-color: #fff;
        font-family: helvetica;
        font-size: 14/18;
        }
        table {
        border-collapse: collapse;
        }
        tr, td, th {
        border: none;
        }
        tr {
        border-bottom: 1px solid #ddd;
        }
        table tr td:nth-child(1), table tr th:nth-child(1) {
        width: 7em;
        padding: 0.5em;
        text-align: right;
        }
        table tr td:nth-child(2), table tr th:nth-child(2) {
        width: 12em;
        padding: 0.5em;
        text-align: left;
        }
        table tr td:nth-child(3), table tr th:nth-child(3) {
        padding: 0.5em;
        text-align: left;
        }
        tr:hover {
        color: #ddd;
        background-color: #333;
        }
    </style>
</head>
<body>
<h1>
    Big number cheatsheet 
</h1>
<table>
    <tr>
        <th> 和 </th>
        <th> English </th>
        <th> Number </th>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 一万 </td>
        <td> ten thousand </td>
        <td> 10,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 十万 </td>
        <td> one hundred thousand </td>
        <td> 100,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 百万 </td>
        <td> one million </td>
        <td> 1,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 千万 </td>
        <td> ten million </td>
        <td> 10,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 一億 </td>
        <td> one hundred million </td>
        <td> 100,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 十億 </td>
        <td> one billion </td>
        <td> 1,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 百億 </td>
        <td> ten billion </td>
        <td> 10,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 千億 </td>
        <td> one hundred billion </td>
        <td> 100,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 一兆 </td>
        <td> one trillion </td>
        <td> 1,000,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 十兆 </td>
        <td> ten trillion </td>
        <td> 10,000,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 百兆 </td>
        <td> one hundred trillion </td>
        <td> 100,000,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 千兆 </td>
        <td> one quadrillion </td>
        <td> 1,000,000,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
    <tr>
        <td> 一京 </td>
        <td> ten quadrillion </td>
        <td> 10,000,000,000,000,000 </td>
    </tr>
</table>
</body>
</html>

Oregon-Washington trip 2017

Hiking the Tom McCall Preserve

Gwen and I spent a couple of weeks in Oregon and Washington at the end of 2017. Following are some random highlights:

Portland OR

  • Japanese gardens. Someone suggested we go with a guide. There was a guide starting a tour right after we got there, but we quickly discovered that we’d rather take in the gardens on our own. Going in the winter turned out to be for the best, as the gardens are incredibly popular and crowded during the warmer months. We were almost able to pretend we were alone there in spots, which is more what they’re about.
  • Bollywood Theater. Casual Indian restaurant. Really good.
  • Paxton Gate. Shop that specializes in skeletons, mounted animals, etc. We already have a bat from them.
  • Powell’s Books. Covers a city block.
  • Bread and Ink Cafe. Nothing really unusual about it, just solid hot food on a cold day, and our waiter bore an uncanny resemblance to the character Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad.
  • Sweedeedee. While staying at our AirB&B, we wound up chatting with a neighbor as he was walking his dog and we were heading out to breakfast. He recommended this place for a “real Portland experience.” Mission accomplished. They didn’t tell me the name of the pig that provided my bacon, but it was straight out of Portlandia.
  • Tin Shed. Neighborhood joint near where we were staying.
  • Peculiarium. A ridiculous wunderkammer. Good for a brief diversion and getting a photo on Krampus’ lap.
  • Noble Rot. Fancy. I had the burger, which was the most humble thing on the menu. It was damned good.
  • I think Gwen found three different gluten-free bakeries in Portland, which is not all that surprising.
  • We wanted to visit Multnomah Falls, but it was inaccessible due to a fire back in September that left the soil unstable. We drove on without much of a plan and entirely by accident wound up at Tom McCall Preserve, which had no facilities to identify it as a park, but had a good hiking trail and an amazing view of the Columbia River gorge. We saw a road-construction crew pull over, jump out, and start taking pictures while we were there, which I thought was interesting–I figured they already would have seen everything. There was also a model and a photographer doing a photoshoot there.

McMinnville OR

  • Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. While in Portland, I overheard that the Spruce Goose was in a museum not far away, and convinced Gwen we had to go. It was out of our way, and not a cheap museum to visit, but worth it. The docents are all ex Air Force and will bend your ear for as long as you’ll let them. The Spruce Goose itself is unbelievable in the most literal way: you look at it and you can’t believe it’s real. Your mind rejects it. They let you walk into the cargo area, which is surprisingly small. The museum also has an SR-71, which is surprisingly long and seems like alien technology, airplanes (or reproductions) from the beginning of flight to present, rockets (including a complete Atlas rocket), demounted jet and piston engines and rocket motors, a Mercury capsule, and a Gemini capsule. You can get right up next to the Mercury capsule and look into it. I found it remarkably affecting–looking at it up close, I could see it was just a tin can, and I thought about the men who voluntarily climbed into that tin can on top of a missile, and the aspirations and pride of a nation that was invested in that tin can.

Astoria

I can’t say much for Astoria. The one thing that had attracted us to the town was the Museum of Whimsy, which we found out just a few days before we arrived was closing for the season (insert sad trombone sound).

We had dinner at the Buoy Beer Company, where we had fried oysters, among other things. The place is touristy, like the rest of the town, and is distinguished by some glass floor panels giving a view of sea lions.

We did visit the Astoria Column, which was interesting in itself, but more interesting for the view of the surrounding area it affords, which is amazing. People buy balsawood toy airplanes at the gift shop below and launch them from the top, which is fun but ridiculously moopy.

Port Angeles

We visited Port Angeles not so much for the town itself but for its proximity to the Olympic National Forest/Olympic National Park. We did manage to get in an 8-mile hike along the Spruce Railroad trail, which was beautiful, but that day ended with surprisingly heavy snowfall, so the next day we hunkered down and caught up on House of Cards.

Seattle

We had a micro-apartment AirB&B in the Capital Hill neighborhood. Like, as small as the apartment I had when I was in Japan, but with much worse space utilization. The listing didn’t exactly lie, but it showed views that we think were only visible from the rooftop deck. The unit had no kitchen, although there was a communal kitchen on the ground level for the 12 or so units in the building.

We didn’t have a lot of time to take in Seattle, and part of that time was dedicated to getting together with Gwen’s cousins (which was enjoyable, but not a recommendation for the general public). One place we happened across was Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe. As I said to Gwen, it’s either a bad thing or a good thing or we don’t have a place like it in Austin. We both could have spent all day browsing there.

One of the high points was visiting the Seattle Art Museum, which was showing a massive Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

We had dinner one night a Blueacre Seafood, which was spendy but good.

I took some pictures, too

900 miles

At the end of July, I had a routine doctor’s visit. Got on the scale. Clocked in at 170 lb. I hadn’t weighed that much since 1991. So I got back on my bike.

I still remember when I was six years old and my father took the training wheels off my bike and convinced me to ride it. I was terrified. He ran alongside me as I rode around the block. (My little sister, in contrast, took her training wheels off by herself, leaned her bike against our father’s truck, climbed aboard, and rode off.)

After that I got the hang of it, and bikes became an important part of my life. I started going on long-distance rides when I was 13. I did a little bike touring in high school, and I competed in some triathlons and bike races starting right after I graduated high school.

I didn’t have a bike during the time I lived in Japan, and when I was living in Chicago for a couple of years after that, I had my road bike but didn’t use it much (thus the 170 lb).

After I moved back to Austin in 1992, I got back into riding, and it was a great time to be a road cyclist in Austin—there were a bunch of then-pointless and unused roads that were like a playground for cyclists—360, Southwest Parkway, Bee Cave, and so on. I hardened up and could motor all day. On one occasion, I rode the 165 miles to a friend’s place in Houston in 9 hours flat. Some months later, I did it again, 20 minutes faster.

In 2000, a lot of stuff in my life changed, and I found myself cycling less and less, but in 2010, I started riding regularly again as I prepared for my Southern Tier ride, which I completed in October that year.

But that wrecked me—my upper body was emaciated when I finished. I remember at the end of the ride struggling to lift my 30-lb bike over my head. I decided I needed some kind of a whole-body workout. I signed up for a bootcamp class, and stuck with it until it petered out several years later. I never found a replacement that interested me, so I was back to a relatively inactive lifestyle (thus the 170 lb).

As of today, I’ve logged 900 miles since that doctor’s visit. I’ve clawed back a fair amount of lost fitness, and lost the weight I wanted to lose. But I’ve got a long way to go before I’ve got the level of fitness I had when I was younger—if in fact it’s possible to attain that again. It would have been better all around if I had stayed more active.

Life on Mars

Take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy

Oh man, look at those cavemen go

It’s a freaky show

Is there life on Mars?

Now watch this and have a good cry.

The next fight

As left-leaning people hunker down for the Trumpocalypse, we naturally think about the 2020 election. I don’t think Trump is going to serve the duration of his first term—I think he’s going to hate being president and will resign partway through—but I could be wrong. So let’s suppose that the Democratic nominee will be running against Trump. What will that look like? It will look bad for the Democrats.

On the Trump side:

  • Trump feels completely unconstrained by normal rules of political behavior or ethics, as evidenced by his refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to divest from his businesses, and his nepotistic appointments.
  • Trump has had Roger Stone and Paul Manafort as campaign consultants (the two have been business partners). Roger Stone was literally part of Nixon’s dirty tricks team. Paul Manafort has helped burnish the reputation of dictators around the world, and is one of Trump’s connections to Russia.
  • Trump did not run on policy, he ran on personality, and to the extent that he offered policy ideas, he was staking out some ground that would normally belong to the Democrats anyhow.
  • Trump’s supporters will put up with the basest behavior from their candidate, sometimes denying the evidence of their lying eyes, or saying it’s not so bad. Trump himself thinks he can get away with murder.

On the Democrat’s side:

  • Many Democratic voters were understandably upset with Hillary Clinton when the hardball tactics her campaign used against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election were brought to light (apparently with Russian help). It’s not clear whether this alienated enough potential HRC voters to swing the election, but considering how close the election was, it’s plausible.
  • Democratic voters expect some kind of Democratic-looking policies from their candidates.

Where this leaves us:

  • We can expect Trump to make use of every power, legal and illegal, at his disposal when running against the Democratic nominee, and he’ll have people on tap with relevant experience.
  • It is demonstrably impossible for Trump to alienate his supporters, but we’ve seen it’s easy for Democrats to alienate theirs.
  • Democratic candidates will fight personality with policy, using at least some policies that Trump has already staked out as his own.
  • Democratic voters will expect their candidates to behave like the primary campaign is the Spring Cotillion, but will need someone prepared to play hardball in the general election. The two probably cannot be reconciled.

Adventures in car-shopping

About a month ago, Gwen was rear-ended in a hit-and-run. She was fine. The car wasn’t.

Our car is a 2002 model, and the damage was extensive enough that our insurer doesn’t consider it to be worth repairing. They’ll let us keep the car and give us a payout that is considerably less than blue book for the car in its pre-crunched condition, or scrap it and give us the salvage value in addition to that payout. It’s been mechanically well-maintained, is still perfectly drivable, and is repairable. We can probably sell the car–even in its current condition–for more than salvage value.

The options we are considering are

  1. Continue to drive the car as-is.
  2. Fix the car and continue to drive the car.
  3. Sell the car and apply the money toward the downpayment on a new or new-to-us car.

So we recently made a list of all the cars that we think might serve our needs and wants, and yesterday we went for test drives. A lot of test drives.

We hit five dealerships and drove a total of nine different cars.

Dealerships

Dealerships are funny. Each one had a completely different vibe.

Honda

We started at Honda, and the dealer we met with there had been in car sales for a long time, was friendly and talkative and generally pretty sympatico. Some of that was probably an act, or a knack for finding something in each person to relate to. He spent a good few minutes with us before we went out on a test drive, asking what we were interested in, and also spent a lot of time selling us on the dealership, which I thought was a little weird. Once we did get in the car, had an established routine that he clearly liked to follow. The dealership was physically huge and had an elaborate system of storing car keys in a vault. The place had the aura of a well-oiled machine.

Volkswagen

The experience could not have been more different than at Honda. Not in a bad way. While the Honda dealership was sophisticated and heavy on procedure, the VW dealer asked us what kind of car we wanted to drive, pulled it up, and gave us the keys. Didn’t ride along with us, didn’t even make a copy of our licenses. We could have driven off to Mexico. The dealer answered our questions but didn’t put any of the sell on.

Mazda

We had a very young and green dealer who only learned how to drive a stick after he started selling cars, about six months ago. He was clearly following a script and had a hard time getting off of it, even when we told him what didn’t apply to us. He was the only guy who said “I need to talk to my manager,” and kept us waiting kind of a long time while he did that.

Ford

The only woman we dealt with in our shopping adventure. It became apparent pretty quickly that Ford didn’t have anything that would work for us, but she humored us anyhow. She also had the most classic patter of salesman bullshit I’ve ever heard–reciting stuff that was maybe not exactly false, but mischaracterized so dramatically that it might as well be, and pitched in a way that it shows she assumes the customer is an idiot who can’t see through any of it.

Subaru

Despite being owned by the same company that owned the Honda dealership, this one seemed casual in terms of their internal procedures. At one point we asked to test-drive a certain model, and the dealer helping us came out with a handful of keys to try. At one point I made a comment about “not buying anything today” and the dealer got defensive about not applying any pressure. Which he didn’t.

Cars

The only category that really interests me is the compact wagon, and it’s almost nonexistent in the USA, where the SUV has almost completely eclipsed it. So we wound up looking at other things that were compact, seemed wagon-ish, and got good mileage.

Honda HRV

This model is new to the USA, and one I hadn’t heard of until my sister mentioned that she was considering getting one. It’s built on the Fit platform, and is a micro SUV. I am extremely reluctant to buy anything that might be mistaken for an SUV, but this was pretty benign. Gets good mileage, very civilized to drive, nice interior. The second-most cargo space of anything we drove. Gwen’s favorite of the cars we drove.

Honda Fit

Surprisingly good for such a small car, but doesn’t have enough cargo space for us. I was especially impressed by the linear acceleration with the CVT.

VW Golf Wagon

I’m intrigued by the diesel, but it costs more than the gas version, and because of the amount we drive, it would take us 12 years to break even with its increased fuel efficiency. This has the most cargo space of anything we looked at, struck me as the most luxurious in terms of ride and cabin appointments, and the most solid build quality. The diesel version gets the best mileage of anything we looked at. My favorite by a long stretch, but also the most expensive thing we looked at by a fair margin.

Mazda3

Fun to drive and seems like a good value but we want more cargo space. If they made a wagon version of this, it would be a contender.

Ford C-Max

Gwen’s feet couldn’t touch the floor when she had the driver’s seat adjusted so she could actually drive it. We didn’t make it past that.

Ford Focus

Chintzy, not enough cargo space. Good looking from the outside though.

Ford Focus ST

A hoot to drive. Powerful engine, firm ride. This is a real sleeper of a sports car and I like that. Poor mileage. Like its plain Focus sibling, not enough cargo space and still chintzy. Hilariously, it pipes a pre-recorded “throaty engine growl” into the cabin when accelerating.

Subaru Crosstrek

Tried both the manual and CVT version: the CVT is actually better, which is not something I expected to discover. Compared to the other cars we drove, this felt slightly dated, and the drive quality was uncouth without being fun.

Smartphones, image processing, and spectator sports

I’ve done a couple of translations recently that focus on wireless communications, and specifically mention providing plentiful bandwidth to crowds of people at stadiums. Stadiums? That’s weirdly specific. Why stadiums in particular?

My hunch is that this is an oblique reference to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. OK, I can get that. 50,000 people all using their smartphones in a stadium will place incredible demands on bandwidth.

Smartphones are already astonishingly capable. They shoot HD video. Today’s iPhone has something like 85 times the processing power of the original. I can only wonder what they’ll be like by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around.

So what would a stadium full of people with advanced smartphones be doing? Probably recording the action on the field. And with all that bandwidth that will supposedly be coming online by then, perhaps they’ll be live-streaming it to a service like Periscope. It’s not hard to imagine that Youtube will have a lot of live-streaming by then as well.

This by itself could pull the rug out from underneath traditional broadcasters. NBC has already paid $1.45 billion for the rights to broadcast the 2020 Olympics in the USA. But I think it could be much, much worse for them.

In addition to more powerful smartphones, we’ve also seen amazing image-processing techniques, including the ability to remove obstructions and reflections from images, to correct for image shakiness, and even to smooth out hyperlapse videos. Youtube will stabilize videos you upload if you ask nicely, and it’s very effective. And that’s all happening already.

So I’m wondering what could be done in five more years with ten or so smartphones distributed around a stadium, recording the action, and streaming video back to a central server. The server could generate a 3D representation of the scene, use the videos to texture-map the 3D structure, and let the viewer put their viewpoint anywhere they wanted. Some additional back-end intelligence could move the viewpoint so that it follows the ball, swings around obstructing players, etc.

So this could be vastly more valuable than NBC’s crap story-inventing coverage. It might be done live or nearly live. It would be done by people using cheap personal technology and public infrastructure. The people feeding video to the server might not even be aware that their video is contributing to the synthesized overall scene (read your terms of service carefully!).

If that happened, the only thing you’d be missing would be the color commentary and the tape delay. Smartphones could kill coverage of sporting events.

Of course, the Olympics and other spectator sports are big businesses and won’t go down without a fight. At the London Olympics, a special squad of “brand police” [had] the power to force pubs to take down signs advertising “watch the games on our TV,” to sticker over the brand-names of products at games venues where those products were made by companies other than the games’ sponsors, to send takedown notices to YouTube and Facebook if attendees at the games have the audacity to post their personal images for their friends to see, and more. What’s more, these rules are not merely civil laws, but criminal ones, so violating the sanctity of an Olympic sponsor could end up with prison time for Londoners. Japan could do much the same in 2020. But if these videos were being served by a company that doesn’t do business in Japan, the show could go on. More extreme measures could be taken to block access to certain IP addresses, deep-packet inspection, etc. Smartphones could use VPNs in return. It could get interesting.

Flipside essays

For Burning Flipside 2015, the organization had some tickets left over after the normal ticket distribution. We decided to sell these in what I call a “bonus round,” but we decided that anyone who wanted one of these tickets needed to demonstrate some commitment. Our normal ticket-distribution process is kind of a pain in the ass. Without including some hoops to jump through, access to a ticket in the bonus round ticket would be easier than in the normal distribution, and would give the appearance of rewarding flakiness. So for the batch of tickets that I sold in the bonus round, I required that requesters “write me an essay about what you hope to get out of the experience. If you have been to Flipside, you can write about what you hope to get out of this year that you haven’t experienced before, or write about an experience you had that was particularly meaningful to you.”

Following are the essays that I have permission to share, anonymized when requested.

Continue reading

Old-school information management

Applied Secretarial Practice

I recently picked up the book “Applied Secretarial Practice,” published in 1934 by the Gregg Publishing Company (the same Gregg of Gregg shorthand). It’s fascinating in so many ways—even the little ways that language has changed. Many compound words were still separate, e.g. “business man.” The verb “to emphasize” seemingly did not exist, and is always expressed as “to secure emphasis.” And the masculine is used as the generic third-person pronoun rigorously, even when referring to secretaries, who were universally women at that time.

There’s a whole chapter on office equipment, most of which is barely recognizable today, of course. The dial telephone was a fairly recent innovation at that time, and its use is explained in the book.

But what really strikes me is that, out of 44 chapters, 8 are on filing. You wouldn’t think that filing would be such a big deal (well, I wouldn’t have thought it). You would be wrong. What with cross-references, pull cards, rules for alphabetizing (or “alphabeting” in this book) in every ambiguous situation, different methods of collation, transfer filing, etc, clearly, there’s a lot to it.

It got me thinking about how, even though I have pretty rigorous file nomenclature and folder hierarchies on my computer, I’m not organizing my files with anything like the level of meticulous care that secretaries back then practiced as a matter of course. For the most part, if I want to find something on my computer (or anywhere on the Internet), I can search for it.

And that reminded me of a post by Mark Pilgrim from years ago, Million dollar markup (linking to the Wayback Machine post, because the author has completely erased his web presence). His general point was that when you control your own information, you can use “million dollar markup” (essentially metadata and structure) to make that information easier to search or manipulate; a company like Google has “million dollar search” to deal with messy, disorganized data that is outside their control. Back in 1934, people had no choice but to apply million-dollar markup to their information if they wanted to have any hope of finding it. The amount of overhead in making a piece of information retrievable in the future, and retrieving it, is eye-opening.

Consider that to send out a single piece of business correspondence, a secretary would take dictation from her boss, type up the letter (with a carbon), perhaps have her boss sign it, send the original down to the mailroom, and file the copy (along with any correspondence that letter was responding to). It makes me wonder what would have been considered a reasonable level of productivity in 1934. I’ve already sent 17 pieces of e-mail today. And written this blog post. And done no extra work to ensure that any of it will be retrievable in the future, beyond making sure that I have good backups.

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