Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

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Four years

Four years ago today, I was smack in the middle an adventure: a transcontinental bike ride.

When I finished that ride, my body was wasted: I had lost at least 15 pounds. You could see my ribs through my back. I decided it was time to find a more whole-body workout. I started doing a boot-camp workout with Gwen. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was definitely good for me. After a few months, I had finally resolved some weak spots left over from my broken pelvis, and had built up core strength that I’d really never had before. I was pretty regular about it for the next 3½ years or so, going three times a week, occasionally taking a month off when life got crazy. Boot camp completely displaced cycling for me. I didn’t do any serious riding after I got home from my big ride, only commuting around town.

A couple of months ago, that boot camp class ceased to exist as such when the trainer started a gym; he offers something similar at the gym, but I realized I don’t want to go to a gym. I was also missing riding. Today I went out with a friend for my first ride in four years. My neck’s a little stiff, and I was tired earlier than I should be, but it was good to get out there.

I still need to do some kind of whole-body workout. But I need to keep riding my bike.

Burner-anxiety dream

You know those school-anxiety dreams where you show up in class, and discover there’s a test you weren’t expecting, or work-anxiety dreams that are similar? I had a burner-anxiety dream last night. I almost never remember my dreams, and this one seems funny enough to bear writing down.

In my dream, Gwen and I had gone to Burning Man as a last-minute thing (which should have tipped me off that I was dreaming). We were in a theme camp that had a TV playing a videotape…which is a little weird, but hey, it’s Burning Man—what isn’t weird? I was putting a bandana on my head, and realized I had left my belt pouch behind.

Then I realized I hadn’t brought even one change of clothes.

Then I realized I hadn’t brought any water.

Then I realized I hadn’t brought any food.

Then I realized we hadn’t had our tickets checked at Gate (another tip-off that I was dreaming), and I was pretty sure we didn’t have those either.

Gwen and I got into a bit of an argument over whether we should try to go back Reno to provision, or try to skate by as sparkle ponies, or just give up and go home. Since I was pretty sure we didn’t have our tickets, I was doubtful that we’d be able to get back in.

Then I woke up. It felt real while I was dreaming it.

Economics of software and website subscriptions

It’s a truism that people won’t pay for online media, except for porn. That’s a little unfair. I’m one of many people who has long had a pro account on flickr, which costs $25/year. Despite flickr’s ups and downs, I’ve always been happy to pay that. It also set the bar for what I think of as a reasonable amount to pay for a digital subscription: I give them $25, they host all photos that I want to upload, at full resolution. Back when people still used Tribe.net, they offered “gold star” accounts for $6/month, which removed the ads and gave you access to a few minor perks, but mostly it was a way to support the website. The value-for-money equation there wasn’t quite as good as with flickr, in my opinion, but I did have a gold-star account for a while.

Looking around at the online services I use, I see there are a few that are offering some variation on premium accounts. Instapaper offers subscriptions at $12/year, or about half of my flickr benchmark. The value for money equation there isn’t great—the only benefit I would get is the ability to search saved articles—but it’s a service I use constantly, and it’s worth supporting. Pinboard (which has a modest fee just to join in the first place) is a bookmarking service that offers an upgraded account for $25/year; here, the benefit is in archiving copies of web pages that you bookmark. I can see how this would be extremely valuable for some people, but it’s not a high priority for me. I use a grocery-list app on my phone called Anylist that offers a premium account for $10/year; again, the free app is good enough for me, and benefits of subscribing don’t seem all that relevant.

In terms of value for money, none of these feel like great deals to me. Perhaps because the free versions are as good as they are, or perhaps because the premium versions don’t offer that much more, or some combination of the two. But I use and appreciate all these services, and maybe that’s reason enough that I should subscribe.

At the other end of the scale, there’s Adobe, which has created quite a lot of resentment by converting its Creative Suite to a subscription model, for the low, low price of $50/month. This offends designers on a primal level. It’s like carpenters being required to rent their hammers and saws. The thing is that $50/month is a good deal compared to their old packaged product pricing, assuming that you would upgrade roughly every two years. The problem is that the economic incentives are completely upside down.

Once upon a time, Quark XPress was the only game in town for page layout, and then Adobe InDesign came along and ate their lunch. Quark thought they had no competition, and the product stagnated. Now Adobe Creative Cloud is pretty much the only game in town for vector drawing, photo manipulation, and page layout.

With packaged software, the software company needs to offer updates that are meaningful improvements in order to get people to keep buying them. Quark was slow about doing that, which is a big part of the reason that people jumped ship. With the subscription model, Adobe uses the subscription as a ransom: when customers stop subscribing, they lose the ability to even access their existing files. Between the ransom effect and the lack of meaningful competition, Adobe has no short-term incentive to keep improving their product. In the long term, a stagnant product and unhappy customers will eventually encourage new market entrants, but big American companies are not noted for their long-term perspective.

I think that’s the real difference here, both psychologically and economically: I can choose to subscribe to those smaller services, or choose not to. They all have free versions that are pretty good, and if any of them wound up disappearing, they all have alternatives I could move to. With Adobe, there are no alternatives, and once you’re in, the cost of leaving is very high.

Good reads, 2013

The following are some of the best stories, articles, essays, blog posts, etc, that I read during 2013. They weren’t necessarily written in 2013. I’m including them in roughly the order I encountered them.

Circle of Useful Knowledge

Gwen’s parents brought her a book from a library sale in their small town, The Circle of Useful Knowledge, published in 1888. It’s filled with bizarre recipes for cocktails mixed in 10-gallon quantities, tips on animal husbandry, etc.

I’m posting extracts from it in a separate blog, titled Circle of Useful Knowledge. I’m going to try to post a couple of entries a day. Enjoy.

Word processors and file formats

I’ve always been interested in file formats from the perspective of long-term access to information. These have been interesting times.

To much gnashing of teeth, Apple recently rolled out an update to its iWork suite—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, which are its alternatives to the MS Office trinity of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. The update on the Mac side seems to have been driven by the web and iPad versions. Not only in the features (or lack thereof), but in the new file format, which is completely unrelated to the old one. The new version can import the files from the old one, but it’s definitely an importation process, and complex documents will break in the new apps.

The file format for all the new iWork apps, Pages included, is based on Google’s protocol buffers. The documentation for protocol buffers states

However, protocol buffers are not always a better solution than XML – for instance, protocol buffers would not be a good way to model a text-based document with markup (e.g. HTML), since you cannot easily interleave structure with text. In addition, XML is human-readable and human-editable; protocol buffers, at least in their native format, are not. XML is also – to some extent – self-describing. A protocol buffer is only meaningful if you have the message definition (the .proto file).

Guess what we have here. Like I said, this has been driven by the iPad and web versions. Apple is assuming that you’re going to want to sync to iCloud, and they chose a file format optimized for that use case, rather than for, say, compatibility or human-readability. My use case is totally different. I’ve had clients demand that I not store their work in the cloud.

What’s interesting is that this bears some philosophical similarities to the Word file format, whose awfulness is the stuff of legend. Awful, but perhaps not awful for the sake of being awful. From Joel Spolsky:

The first thing to understand is that the binary file formats were designed with very different design goals than, say, HTML.

They were designed to be fast on very old computers.

They were designed to use libraries.

They were not designed with interoperability in mind.

New computers are not old, obviously, but running a full-featured word processor in a Javascript interpreter inside your web browser is the next best thing; transferring your data over a wireless network is probably the modern equivalent of a slow hard drive in terms of speed.

There is a perfectly good public file format for documents out there, Rich Text Format or RTF. But curiously, Apple’s RTF parser doesn’t do as good a job with complex documents as its Word parser—if you create a complex document in Word and save it as both .rtf and .doc, Pages or Preview will show the .doc version with better fidelity. Which makes a bit of a joke out of having a “standard” file format. Since I care about file formats and future-proofing, I saved my work in RTF for a while. Until I figured out that it wasn’t as well supported.

What about something more basic than RTF? Plain text is, well, too plain: I need to insert commentary, tables, that sort of thing. Writing HTML by hand is too much of a PITA, although it should have excellent future-proofing.

What about Markdown? I like Markdown a lot. I’m actually typing in it right now. It doesn’t take long before it becomes second nature. Having been messing around with HTML for a long time, I prefer the idea of putting the structure of my document into the text rather than the appearance.

But Markdown by itself isn’t good enough for paying work. It has been extended in various ways to allow for footnotes, commentary, tables, etc. I respect the effort to implement all the features that a well-rounded word processor might support through plain, human-readable text, but at some point it just gets to be too much trouble. Markdown has two main benefits: it is highly portable and fast to type—actually faster than messing around with formatting features in a word processor. These extensions are still highly portable, but they are slow to type—slower than invoking the equivalent functions in a typical WYSIWYG word processor. The extensions are also more limited: the table markup doesn’t accommodate some of the insane tables that I need to deal with, and doesn’t include any mechanism for specifying column widths. Footnotes don’t let me specify whether they’re footnotes or endnotes (indeed, Markdown is really oriented toward flowed onscreen documents, where the distinction between footnotes and endnotes is meaningless, rather than paged documents). CriticMarkup, the extension to Markdown that allows commentary, starts looking a little ungainly. There’s a bigger philosophical problem with it though. I could imagine using Markdown internally for my own work and exporting to Word format (that’s easy enough thanks to Pandoc), but in order to use CriticMarkup, I’d need to convince my clients to get on board, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I can imagine a word processor that used some kind of super-markdown as a file format, let the user type in Markdown when convenient, but added WYSIWYG tools for those parts of a document that are too much trouble to type by hand. But I’m not holding my breath. Maybe I should learn LaTeX.

Bike-share systems and the poor

This morning there was a story on NPR about bike sharing, specifically how it doesn’t do a good job of serving the poor. There are basically three reasons for this:

  1. The bike stations are not located in areas most useful to poor people;
  2. You need a debit card or credit card to use the system;
  3. Bike-share programs are expensive.

The story got me thinking about all the ways it’s expensive to be poor, and they’re certainly illustrated in this example.

To get a debit card, you need a bank account. To get a bank account, you usually need to scrape together $100 for an opening balance. This is not a huge hurdle to overcome, but if you never have $100 left at the end of your pay period, it’s going to take planning, and if life throws you a curveball before you’ve got that $100 saved up, you’re back to square one.

I looked at the prices for bike-share programs. Chicago’s Divvy has two price structures: yearly memberships and day rates. $70/year or $7/day, plus usage: in both cases you get 30-minute trips for free, but if you’ve got a longer bike trip than that, you get dinged $1.50 or $2.00 per 30 minutes. Austin’s nascent bike-share system has a similar breakdown, but is slightly more expensive.

So if you’re poor, the annual plans are probably out just because of the upfront costs, even though on a per-day basis, they’re a much better deal. If anything, you’re on the daily plan (Austin also has a weekly plan), although again, this presupposes you’ve got a bank account.

What about getting your own bike? You can get a beater bike on Craigslist. There are bikes listed there right now in the $20–50 range, so if you’re poor, the break-even point for rent vs own comes quickly—within one pay period. If you could afford the daily bike rental, you could afford to buy a bike. If you’re going to use a bike for commuting to and from work, it would be a no-brainer. It would also be a no-brainer for someone with more discretionary income who wants to commute by bike.

So given that anybody with even marginal math skills could figure out that ownership beats rental for routine, day-to-day bike usage, what’s the use-case for rental? It’s for when you’re out of your routine. Non-routine uses are hard to predict—it seems redundant to point that out. That makes the best placement of bike stations problematic.

Another obvious use case is tourism, and from what I’ve seen in Chicago and San Antonio, the placement of bike stations clearly targets tourists.

I don’t think it would be a bad idea for bike-sharing systems to be more accessible to the poor, but as long as those systems are run by private companies trying to turn a profit, it’s going to be difficult to balance that equation. Organizations like the Yellow Bike Project can do more to improve bike mobility for the poor right now, by providing them with their own bikes, teaching them how to maintain bikes, and giving them access to shop space.

PDFs, transparencies, and Powerpoint

This post is for anyone who gets frustrated trying to place vector art in a Powerpoint deck.

Gwen had a project to produce a set of ppt templates, using vector art provided by the client. Copying from Illustrator and pasting into Powerpoint, it looked fine, but saving and reopening the file showed that the vector art had been rasterized—badly.

We tried a few variations on this. Saving as PDF and placing the PDF had the same result. Saving as EMF and placing that did keep it as vector artwork, but the graphic wound up being altered in the process.

Other graphics created in Illustrator could be pasted or placed just fine, so there had to be something about this particular graphic. Although it was relatively simple, it included a couple of potential gotchas: it had one element with transparency set on it, and another with a compound path.

It was pretty easy to release the compound path and reconstruct around it—a big O with the center knocked out to expose the background. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the problem, but it wound up helping anyhow, as I’ll discuss.

Dealing with the transparency was a little more of an issue: a transparent chevron floated over a couple of different solid colors, including the big O. To fix this, I used Pathfinder’s Divide tool to segment that chevron into separate pieces for each color it was floating over, and then set solid colors for each segment rather than relying on changing the opacity. Experimentation showed that the transparency was what triggered the rasterization.

Reproducing this process showed some artifacts in Powerpoint if the compound path was still present, so that wasn’t the problem, but it was a problem. Admittedly, this was only feasible because the image was simple, and the transparent element only covered three solid color fields, with no gradients or pattern fills—it would still be possible with those complications, but it would take a lot longer to approximate the original appearance.

Update: And if I was better at Illustrator, I would have realized the “Flatten Transparency…” command does exactly this, in one step. That would be the way to go.

This experiment was performed using two Macs, with Excel 2011 and both the CS4 and Creative Cloud versions of Illustrator.

Shooting the moon

This article on the junior senator from Texas got me thinking.

Specifically, this quote, from Cruz himself:

“I do think the impact of a handful of principled leaders who are fearless in the Senate is significant, and I think it’s significant even going from two to three. If you have three, you pretty quickly get to five or six. Five or six is over 10 percent of the Republican conference, and that’s enough to move a conference and move the Senate.”

Paired with this observation from a GOP aide:

Some Republicans are so spooked about drawing a conservative primary challenger in next year’s midterms—or, as it’s now called in Texas circles, “being Ted Cruzed”—that they’ve moved even farther to the right, paralyzing the Senate’s GOP leadership. Exhibit A: John Cornyn, Cruz’s fellow senator from Texas. “He has Cornyn just frozen on everything,” one senior Senate Republican aide grumbled to me. “A member of our leadership just kind of takes his marching orders from this guy who’s been here for a day!”

I remember playing a game of Hearts1 on an airplane ride once. One of the players was an idiot. One of the players was really good: every hand, no matter what he had, he’d try to shoot the moon. Just to stop him, I had to draw a few points myself, and I always wound up losing.

Ted Cruz is shooting the moon.


  1. Hearts is a card game where you deal out all the cards to the players; players each throw down one card, and the high card takes the “trick.” Then you repeat. Hearts are worth one point each, and the queen of spades is worth 13. The goal is to get the lowest score, but drawing in all the points in the deck is called “shooting the moon”: the person who does this successfully gets 0 points, and everyone else is set with 26 points. 

Flipside, how does it work?

Burning Flipside is a regional burn, an event in the spirit of Burning Man. It has been around since 1998 or 1999, depending on how you look at it. It’s grown a lot in numbers, and along with that, the organization that produces Flipside has grown in complexity and sophistication. My aim in this blog post is to describe that organization and how it works.

All volunteer

The first and most important point to make is that Flipside is an all-volunteer organization. No one gets paid to participate in Flipside. In fact, hardly anyone even gets a free ticket: every year, Flipside awards a pair of tickets to the winner of a ticket-design contest, another pair to the winner of a sticker-design contest. Those four tickets are the only free ones to Flipside. Everyone else pays full price for their tickets, including all the volunteers. Including the members of the board of directors (who serve on the board as volunteers).

Flipside does have outside vendors, of course. The companies that provide porta-potties, the heavy equipment, the ice, and so on at the event. Accountants. Lawyers. Landlords. Those people get paid. But they’re not participants at Flipside.

So Flipside is completely dependent on its participants stepping up and taking responsibility for making the event happen: Nothing “just happens” at Flipside–participants make it happen. Some of these volunteers need advanced skills and training–which in many cases they use in their everyday jobs–in order to discharge their volunteer responsibilities.

What does the organization do?

Flipside is a participatory art festival (among other things). The way we sometimes talk about is that if Flipside is a painting, the organization provides the frame and canvas, and the participants provide the paint.

So the organization provides infrastructure that makes the event possible. Participants independently make the event interesting.

What does the organization not do?

Lots of stuff.

Although Burning Man’s principle of “radical self-reliance” technically is not one of Flipside’s principles (Flipside has three principles in contrast to Burning Man’s ten) we are still big fans of that idea. Creative self-expression is one of our principles, and it ties in with the idea of self-reliance. Any time we consider adding something to Flipside, one of the questions we have to ask is whether we’re removing an incentive for someone else to be self-reliant and self-expressive in doing it on their own initiative. We also ask whether adding something will be too expensive, whether we would have enough volunteers for it, what unintended consequences it might have, and so on.

So with that explanation out of the way, Flipside as an organization doesn’t create any art projects except the Effigy. It does support and encourage other art projects, although it does not provide funds for them.

The organization doesn’t provide its participants with food or beverages or water or power. Or entertainment. Or shade structures. There are ideas offered under the “What can the community/organization do to make Flipside better?” section of this survey on Flipside 2013 that the organization will never undertake. They may be reasonable suggestions, but they would violate the spirit of self-reliance and self-expression. But the other side of that /, the community, can do (and in some cases has already done) lots of those ideas. There are other ideas that the organization might someday decide to do, but that someone else could do immediately, on their own initiative.

The organizational structure

Think of the Flipside organization as being shaped like a tree.

At the base of the tree is Austin Artistic Reconstruction, LLC (AAR). This is the board of directors. It it is the entity that has legal and financial responsibility for the event, as well as for the Warehouse. You can think of AAR as the membrane separating Flipside from default reality (whether that membrane is like a brick wall or like a soap bubble is an interesting question). Currently AAR has six members. Being a limited-liability company means that technically Flipside is not a non-profit, but it is not profit-oriented. None of the directors (Disclosure: I am one of them) make any money off of Flipside.

One branch coming up from that trunk is the Combustion Chamber (CC). This is an advisory body that discusses policy issues and community concerns. It also helps produce twice-yearly Town Halls and organizes a presence for the local Burner community on the East Austin Studio Tour.

CC meetings are usually every other Monday night at the Warehouse and are open to the public. Anyone can show up and say their piece (as long as it’s relevant to the topic under discussion). The CC currently has 14 members and periodically accepts nominations for new members. In terms of CC meetings, the only difference between CC members and the general public is that CC members can block resolutions (the CC operates on the consensus model).

Another set of branches coming up from the trunk are the Areas. And each of the areas has several Departments branching off of it. Each area is headed by an Area Facilitator; each department is headed by a Lead. In contrast to the CC, which focuses on policy, the areas and departments are operational. Some of the departments have only one person in them; some have dozens of volunteers. The number of areas has increased gradually over the years. The exact number of departments fluctuates from year to year, as some departments are inactivated and other are created or reactivated.

Sometimes its a little fuzzy as to whether a department belongs in one area or another, and there are a lot of tasks that wind up involving more than one department. It may look like a big bureaucracy, but we do a good job of making the organization serve the people rather than the other way around.

There are 9 areas:

360/24/7

This area handles year-round responsibilities–everything except Flipside.

Department leads: CC Scribes, Church Night Coordinator, Edjumication, Equipment Librarian, Off-Season Event Planning, Regional Outreach, Warehouse Manager.

Art

This area is mostly concerned with supporting art at Flipside and includes the Design and Fabrication Team (which builds the Effigy).

Department leads: Art Hype, Art Installation Logistics, Burn Night Coordinator, Burnable Art, Department of Mutant Vehicles, DaFT, Effigy Area Lighting, Graphic Arts, Procession Coordinator, Pyrotechnics, Regional Art Ambassador

City Planning

Organizes theme camps and places them–along with art and public spaces–on the map. Also, with greeters and zone greeters, helps welcome people into the city and get people to their camp sites.

Department leads: Cartography, City and Street Signage, Disinformation Kiosk, Flags/Camp Boundaries, Greeters Lead, InterZone Coordinator, Parks Department, Placement, Safety Lighting, Theme Camp Liaison

Communications

Another set of departments that are busy year-round, handling ticketing, the website, e-mail, etc.

Department leads: Content, Email Lists, Flipside Flame, Media Liaison, Sticket Design/Ordering, Survival Guide Lead, Ticket Distribution, Website Admin

Safety

The departments in this area are where some of those people with advanced skills and training that I was mentioning come into play.

Department leads: Boundaries and Safety Signage, Fire Safety Lead, Guardian (perimeter), PETs (Pyropolis Emergency Team, aka medics) Lead, Ranger Lead, Sanctuary, Sound Marshal

Site Ops

Handles most city infrastructure.

Department leads: Equipment Vendor Liaison, Power, Sanitation, Shaven Apes, Ice, Radio Communications, Pre-Ops, Transpo, Cartelle (motor pool), Fuel, Parking

Site Prep

Every year, there are several Work Weekends to get the event site ready for Flipside, clearing brush, laying roads (when needed), etc.

Department leads: Land Search, Roads, Waiver Wrangler, Work Weekend Communications, Work Weekend Tools and Supplies

Site Sign-off

We take Leave No Trace (LNT) very seriously at Flipside, and so we have a whole set of departments dedicated to it.

Department leads: Clean-up Lead, Earth Guardian Lead, Exodus, Post-Ops, Recycling Lead

Volunteer Coordinator

In addition to the above, Flipside has an additional Area Facilitator with no departments, the Volunteer Coordinator, who helps line up people who want to volunteer with departments that need volunteers.

Conclusion

That covers the structure of the organization. In the future, I may discuss individual areas in more detail. And I’d like to discuss the art projects and theme camps that make Flipside worthwhile.

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