Go with the workflow

In “A Feature Request for Apple Mail”, Jochen Wolters talks about introducing workflows into Mail.app. I think this is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t go far enough. Mail may be the app where many of us organize most of our administrivia, but it isn’t the only one. Apple should give better exposure to the excellent metadata system it created for OS X 10.4, and make projects and workflows canned datatypes in it. Apple is already taking baby steps in this direction with the to-do service built into the future version of Mail

How would this work?

Let’s take a typical translation job for me. It may involve four or five e-mail messages, a couple PDFs, and a couple of Word documents; if I wanted to get really organized, I’d add an item to my calendar showing the deadline. These are all disparate types of data managed through different applications, but they’re all related. Every job goes through a few stages (some of which are often skipped): inquired, estimated, accepted, underway, completed, invoiced, paid. Different activities may have different workflows (I’d need a completely different workflow for my fire-equipment business). So I need to A) define general types of projects and the steps of a workflow associated with each one; B) conveniently set up new projects and indicate their project types to pipeline them into a specific workflow; C) conveniently associate messages, files, etc, with a project; D) view and change the state for each workflow. It needs to be dead-easy: the marginal effort to assign a message to a project rather than just skip to the next message needs to be vanishingly small. I imagine hitting a magic key that pops up a list of active projects to choose from (with the option to create a new one); if any text is selected, a new project is created with that text as the title.

Mail Tags permits something like this, after a fashion, but only within the world of Mail.app. This might be enough if you’re content to use mail as a PIM, but I’m not (and it would get ugly trying to deal with files, and Mail Tags does not currently work with IMAP as described in that article). What I’m describing would need to be a system-level feature that was exposed in mail messages, setfile dialog boxes, the Finder, etc.

Projects could be viewed through the Finder, like smart folders. The viewing window for mail messages could include a banner showing a menu of pending projects to select from; once a message was assigned to a project, a row of buttons would be used to show and change state (this could also appear in the Finder window for the project).

Update: After doing a little more noodling on this, I’ve come up with the following bezel displays

workflow bezels

The three would not all appear at once. I envision that for an unassigned file, the magic key would bring up the first; if the user selects “New Project…” it transitions to the second; pressing the space bar would flip it to the third. For a file that has been assigned to a project already, it would go directly to the third. Those aspects of the workflow setup that couldn’t be controlled through this interface would probably be handled through a preference pane. The bezel would act on whatever document window is foremost.

At a basic level, there’s almost nothing in the data model for this that couldn’t be handled through OS X’s existing metadata constructs; the one thing that could not be would be a table associating project with project type/workflow. And so there’s no reason a third-party developer couldn’t do this right now. At a more advanced level, ideally there would be hooks added that would tie project-related events to other events, for example, when the mail client is foremost, setting a project on a message might close that message and move to the next. In MS Word, saving a file with no project would bring up the project-assignment bezel.

In fact, there’s already a program, SpotMeta, that lets users create enumerated types of metadata and apply them to files. As clever as it is, it’s a little clunky to use, and doesn’t have a straightforward way of working with mail messages, iCal events, etc (though technically, it could work with them).

Dealing with items that have been tagged with a project and workflow state could mostly be handled through smart folders in the Finder, in Mail, etc. Ideally there would be some kind of universal viewer (most likely hacked onto the Finder) that could show the contents of all the various datatypes corralled into a workflow.

The goggles, they do nothing!

I underwent LASIK treatment yesterday.

I’ve been very nearsighted (20/400) since I was in 6th grade, and from the day I first wore glasses (on a class trip to Springfield), not another has passed where I haven’t. I’ve been ready to be done with them for a long time, and finally got around to it.

The procedure was very weird. Lying back in the chair, things happened to me very quickly. It’s impossible to see what’s going on, but I’m familiar enough with the procedure to know “they are attaching the vacuum clamp to my eyeball…rotating over to the flap-cutting laser…cutting the corneal flap…folding back the flap…ablating the cornea…smoothing back the flap.” The whole process took less than five minutes. Gwen watched the whole thing in horror and amazement (which is pretty much how I felt when I watched her go through it about a year ago). When Gwen had hers done, they gave her valium that kicked in before the procedure started, so she was checked out the whole time. They gave me valium too, but it didn’t kick in until after I was home. So I lay there, rigid, thinking in the abstract about what was happening to me, while the actual events were proceeding with well-practiced speed above me.

Right now my left eye feels kind of scratchy. Both are bloodshot. Light sources have haloes around them, and my vision feels a little off—a little hazy or something. It’s hard to describe. Nothing out of the ordinary from what I understand. But my acuity is good. Predictably, my near vision has suffered a little—it’s hard to focus closer than 3.5“ away (that’s still very good, of course). I’ve got a follow-up appointment tomorrow morning.

Not putting on glasses is a weird feeling: I tried on my old glasses and was bowled over at the funhouse-mirror effect.

Now, for the first time in my life, I can buy cheap sunglasses. Or expensive ones.

Quote of the day

“Do you want to drive to farmer’s market or ride our bikes?”

“It’s hot enough out that I don’t mind contributing to global warming.”

(Yes, I actually did say that.)

Jabberwocky in Japanese

Language Hat posted links to some translations of Jabberwocky, which has been a pet interest of mine ever since I saw the French and German translations in GEB. Someone, years ago, sent me a bunch of Japanese translations of Jabberwocky, and they’ve been languishing on my hard drive ever since. Now seems like a good time to get them out there.

I am posting these with minimal formatting because I’m lazy. Headings are translator names. Notes and credits are as I received them. See after the jump.

Heaven, Hell, or Houston

Gwen and I took off for Houston this past weekend to catch the Body Worlds exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Pretty mind-blowing stuff. I’d taken an anatomy class and dissected critters, but there’s something different about seeing actual cadavers, opened up and perfectly preserved, being able to walk around them, seeing how everything fits together, seeing healthy organs next to diseased ones. That sort of thing. Makes me want to take better care of myself. The exhibit is ending there soon, so make plans now if you have any interest.

We spent the night at the Hotel Derek (which apparently people who go to Houston know as a trendy type of place), and I goggled at the $5 water at the minibar. Makes me wonder about the economics of these hidden costs. The hotel only permitted parking via valet service; this was the first time I’d ever used valet parking, which has always rubbed me the wrong way. The current popularity of it mystifies me; its presence at suburban locations with empty parking slots 20 paces away from the front door astounds me.

At a friend’s suggestion, we had dinner at a sushi joint called ら, which was fine if you like dance clubs. The sushi was tolerable, the wait was long, the decor was chic, and the music was much too loud to permit conversation. Just to be unHoustonian, we walked there from our hotel, about 10 blocks down Westheimer.

Saturday we went to the Menil, which was also very worthwhile. They had an exhibit of surrealist art (nothing by Dali, but plenty by Yves Tanguy, who I discovered is very, very similar). For whatever reason, the surrealist exhibit was very dimly lit; I was reminded of a Dali at the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Invention of the Monsters,” which had faded so that one of the figures originally on it was completely lost, and I wondered if perhaps surrealists were notorious for painting with shitty paints that faded easily, which would explain the dim lighting. It occurred to me this would be an interesting technique to use intentionally, so that the original image changed over the decades to reveal something completely different. Perhaps something on the theme of Ars longa, vita brevis.

Driving out of town, we got a little bit lost, but happened upon the Art Car Museum. Sadly, we were running short on time at that point, so we decided to save it for a future visit.

As as Austinite, I ridicule Houston almost as readily as I reminisce about Austin-that-was. That’s not entirely fair: there’s a lot of cool stuff in Houston, and despite the atrociousness of its sprawl, the center of town is much more of a real city than Austin is. Still, it falls in the “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there” category for me.


andrea poi 05

I’ve been using Flickr to host my photos for some time, and I’ve been happy with it. And it’s one of those rare websites that seems to have established itself almost as a public utility among many people active on the web, so it seems it would be hard to dislodge. But then there are these new kids at Zooomr. Jeremy is intrigued, and as he puts it, “I’m just not sure I’m willing to give even $25 to anyone [Flickr] whose parent company might take a cavalier attitude towards helping people into prison in China.” And, shoot, Zooomr is giving away free accounts to bloggers, so what the heck.

This is an oldie but a goodie, a picture of a friend I don’t get to see often enough, on the occasion of her first burn. The smile says it all.

Mobile backup

A friend taking an extended road trip just had her car stolen, with her laptop and everything else in it. That sucks massively. It got me thinking about the problem of maintaining backups and having access to them in a situation like that.

My home computer is a desktop. Currently I have it hooked to an external drive, and backup software runs in the wee hours every night to copy my home directory to the external. At some point in the near future, I hope to get a network-attached storage drive, so that I can A) liberate a little desk space, and B) move the backup away from the computer, in case something happens the computer. Admittedly, I’d only be moving the backup about 15 feet away, but a black box wedged into a cramped closet is much less likely to attract a thief’s attention, and if the roof collapses or something like that, fifteen feet might be enough. That’s what I’m counting on, anyhow.

But what about when you’re on the road? You need a backup medium that you keep separate from the laptop but still have ready access to, that is reasonably fast, and perhaps most importantly, is convenient to use. What are your options?

Before you can decide, you need to get your priorities in order. Some files are more critical than others; some change more frequently than others. Assuming that you will need to make compromises, you want to make sure the most current and most critical files are the most readily available and most frequently backed up.

Exclusive of media files, my home directory is about 5 GB. I’m guessing that about 1.5 GB of that is actually cache files and other digital ephemera, so to recreate my home directory, I’d need to be able to store about 3.5 GB. This would exclude all applications, music, videos, and photos. In reality, I could probably cut this in half by omitting a lot of archival files, though to do that I would need to reorganize my hard drive considerably. I’m lazy, so let’s stick with 3.5 GB as a target.

So, what are my options?

It just so happens that I have a 4 GB iPod Nano (rumor has it that these will be bumped to 8 GB soon). This would just accommodate me, plus a few hours of music or whatever. A hard-drive based iPod would have no trouble at all; in fact, I could store my home directory even with most of my media files on a 60 GB model. The potential problems here are that I would need to be scrupulous about keeping my laptop and iPod separate, and the temptation to keep music on the iPod, even if it cut into my storage requirement.
My web-hosting company gives all its customers 20 GB of storage and webdav access. Webdav is pretty cool, because it lets me mount my network storage just like a hard drive on my desktop. A really, really slow hard drive, but there it is nonetheless. If high-speed connections could be taken for granted, this would be the ideal option—putting my storage in a remote datacenter that has its own redundant backups etc. But high-speed connections are hardly universal, and even when present, the upstream rate can be pretty slow. Backup software generally only backs up files that have changed since the last backup, but even with only 10 MB to back up, over a 128-Kbps upstream line, that will take at least 10 minutes (allowing nothing for communications overhead). In terms of convenience, this can’t be beat, assuming the connection is there. Make sure the remote volume is mounted and let the backup run. This is the only option that can be run unattended and still keep the backup volume physically separate. Having it on the server means I don’t need to even use my own computer to get at it; better still would be to have it in some web-readable format so that I could read it from any computer with a web browser. Thanks to Google, a lot of people are moving in this direction anyhow. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, and I get benefits from programs that run right on my computer that I’d be unwilling to give up, but perhaps if I had a more mobile lifestyle, I’d make a different tradeoff. And I do essentially do this already with my photos, by uploading them to Flickr.
Optical storage
Most newer laptops can burn to CDs at least, and in many cases to DVD. A single-side, single-layer DVD can store 4.7 GB, so I’m in the clear there. The drawback here is convenience: you need to go to more trouble to insert the disc, set up the burn session, burn the disc, label it, put it away somewhere, hope that it doesn’t get scratched before you need it, etc.
Flash drive
While this is technologically equivalent to the iPod Nano (and comes in the same storage sizes), I see a few key differences: there’s no particular temptation to use the flash drive for music, and you can hook it to your keyring. For this reason, I like this solution best for the most critical and current data: if the drive is on your keyring, you’re less likely to leave it connected to the computer. Well, I’m less likely, anyhow. This does require me to launch the backup manually, though.

I can imagine a multi-layered approach where I use a thumb drive as my primary backup for working files, bring a DVD that I burned in advance with some critical applications, occasionally burn a CD or DVD with photos (possibly snail-mailing it home), and occasionally upload my very highest-priority stuff to the server when I can take advantage of a fast connection.

Mistaken for a eunuch at an orgy

I’ve heard before about conventional media (or indeed, any commercial enterprise) trying to co-opt bloggers into creating buzz for whatever they’re selling. At one point, I was offered a pass to a movie, and it was made clear that it was because I am a blogger, and no doubt a Highly Influential Opinion Leader. I wound up not picking up the pass or seeing the movie, but it’s the thought that counts.

I have just received an unsolicited and unexpected UPS delivery of a new book. Interestingly, this was sent to the address I had for only about half a year, but someone at UPS apparently knew I had moved and redirected it to the right place. I’m not quite sure how they got my old address (and since it seems likely that whoever was behind sending me the book in the first place is monitoring this blog, please do chime in in the comments).

Rather than reviewing the book—because that would be playing right into their hands—I will review the mailing instead.

The packaging is stiff manila cardstock, and the book arrived in good shape with a press packet tucked inside. The press packet is six letter-sized sheets of glossy paper printed monochrome, double-sided. The cover letter addresses me as “Dear Producer/Editor.” They say you should always open with a joke, so this is off to a good start. I am advised that the book I am about to enjoy was reviewed as being a “winning comedy…with cracking prose and sharp observations that consistently entertain and surprise.” According to the publicist, Kristan, it is “spellbinding and wickedly funny.” I also learned the book has been optioned for a movie (seriously, has any book not been optioned? I’m pretty sure even the phonebook has been). The author managed to squeeze a colon and parentheses into the title of his previous book, and that punctuation note alone should tell you this guy is trying way too hard. The book in my hand has only a colon, which suggests either that he’s getting a grip or that he’s just given up.

The packet includes a schedule of the author’s appearances, including one in (surprise) Austin in late July. So they’re giving me a month and some change to read the book and blog about it so that my rapt audience of discerning readers will be primed to go to the book signing. Kristan, I’m not a very quick reader, I admit, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take me six weeks to plow through this book, should I choose to read it—I’m not really inclined to, but I’ve read my toothpaste tube twice already, so who knows.

Next we turn to a brief author’s bio, somewhat longer than the typical inside-back-cover bio (which is coyly brief in the book itself). It is entirely precious, telling us the author’s astrological sign in a tongue-in-cheek way, recounting the series of awful jobs the author has had, his sad litany of rejections from “every established press in North America,” his shameful descent into self-publishing and then redemption at the hands of a major publisher. And, saving the worst for last, it appears this poor schmuck has a blog.

For dessert, an interview with the author running three and a half pages. I won’t bore you with it because I didn’t bore myself with it, except for the penultimate question and answer, which did catch my eye:

What’s the one thing you’d like readers to know about you that they may not already know?

I want my readers to know how grateful I am that they have given me 5 to 8 hours of their busy lives to read my books.

Now, this may be sincere, but it comes across as an incredibly calculated “oh gosh, thank you for reviewing my book,” showing up in this review-copy press packet as it does.

On the whole, I’d say this press packet does a good job of making me not want to be a book reviewer.

renovation post-mortem: kitchen

Kitchen Main View-1

Now that we’ve had some time to live with the decisions we made in our renovation, I’m going to occasionally look at how different aspects of it turned out.

The kitchen is typically the most functional room in the house, and receives the biggest investments in appliances and built-in furniture. So let’s start there.

On the whole, our kitchen turned out really well. But there are a few areas where we could have done better.

Robotic folksonomy

I recently bought a new digicam, and I’ve been working on a translation job that relates to signal processing. These two facts, shaken together with some loose synapses in my brain, got me thinking along the following lines.

Digital cameras these days, in addition to taking better pictures, have better processors, and some have interesting ancillary functions. Kodak, for instance, used a general-purpose operating system in some of its cameras that can run user-supplied software. Inevitably, someone adapted this to play video games on the camera’s screen, but this was used in other clever ways (to take a picture every five minutes and upload to a connected computer, say).

We’re also starting to see digicams with wifi connections—in theory, if you’re near a hotspot, you could put your pictures online as quickly as you shoot them. We may also see cameras with Bluetooth that could get online via a cellphone connection.

But what a mess that would be to manage, a constant stream of unnamed, untagged photos. Since I started using Flickr, I’ve found that tags are often more useful than titles for photos. But who wants to try to apply tags via your camera’s interface? What a pain. That got me thinking about robotagging.

Imagine you have a digicam of the not-too-distant future that can talk to Flickr (which I’ll use as an example because I know and like it, but feel free to substitute the name of any other tag-based photo-hosting service with a public API), uploading images to it directly and getting information back. You want your photos tagged, but you don’t want to interrupt your shooting and you definitely don’t want to try to enter text using the camera’s inputs. How might this work?

Any image can be analyzed algorithmically by a number of different features. Color histograms, edge detection, OCR, and so on. It’s an area I admittedly don’t know a lot about. Flickr already has a huge corpus of tagged photos. The feature values for these could be extracted and saved as meta-data somewhere in the system.

When a new untagged photo gets uploaded, Flickr could extract its feature values and find other photos with near matches for those feature values. It would extract the most popular tags from those photos and send them back to your camera as a list. You’d select the ones that you wanted to use.

This user-selection process in itself would be an important part of the robotagging process, as it would help Flickr’s bot determine which feature values were relevant, or which were relevant to a specific tag. For example, it’s a good bet that a picture with the tag “yellow” is tagged that way based on a certain histogram, but that histogram would be less relevant to the fact that the same photo is tagged “flower.” Edge-detection would tell you nothing about color-name tags, but might be more strongly relevant to the “flower” tag. By training the system, the users would help the tagging bot make better choices in the future. This would have results similar to the ESP game.

Once their images were robotagged on the fly, users would probably still want to go back and add more personally meaningful tags, but as a first pass at tagging, something like this could work.

Update Looks like Riya is already doing this.

We know you’re going to love this

Problem: The U.S. government is running rapidly increasing deficits.

Problem: The FBI/CIA/NSA are collecting enormous amounts of information about U.S. citizens (and non-citizens) that they make relatively little use of.

Problem: In an increasingly diverse media market, advertisers face growing difficulty effectively targeting and reaching their audiences.

Solution: Government spook databases will be licensed to marketing firms for the purpose of developing better advertising approaches. The Department of Homeland Security will be renamed the Department of Homeland Security & Marketing Opportunities. In the course of developing their own demographic models, marketers will discover new patterns and connections, which they will share with DHS&MO (as required under a licensing agreement), resulting both in better spying and better advertising. Database access fees will help reduce the deficit and fund more effective data-collection techniques at the DHS&MO.

Other benefits: Citizens considered to be potential security threats will be enrolled in special marketing programs that will allow them to spend their way into good standing. Conversely, citizens who do not consume enough will receive special government scrutiny to determine whether they may be security threats.

Burning Flipside 2006

Chalice top

Photos from Flipside are up. I’ve got commentary in the notes on a lot of these photos. I would have taken more, but Flipside instituted very restrictive rules on photos intended for the web—and although I consider the rules unenforceable and overreaching and kind of resent them, I understand the reasoning behind them.

Many of my Flipside observations from 2005 apply to my experience this year as well. But my experience at this year’s Burning Flipside was somewhat different from last year’s. More advance prep, less on-site hassle. This year as in past years, Circle of Fire was my theme camp, and I think everyone who was part of last year’s COF wanted to make this year’s camp a better one, and so we had our shit together a little better. I took responsibility for organizing a shade structure and PA for a DJ to use (luckily, Clint, a friend of the camp, volunteered the use of his DJ rig, and sat in on Friday night to play music for us; Schon played music Saturday). I put together spin-out buckets and soaking tanks for the fuel depot, and made a dozen sets of practice poi for lessons that never quite materialized (in the end, only four pair of those practice poi got used, and somebody else brought even more)—if we’re serious about holding poi lessons, we need to schedule a time and get it on the calendar of events. And have a clock somewhere. And although COF did have functional, acceptable infrastructure for a change, our camp was still put to shame by so many others that had fantastic installations, showing a level of creativity and industry that we didn’t come close to matching. Of course, we had the firedancing, but that was our only draw. Other camps hosted firedancers plus this or that, such as Spin Camp (which always has incredible infrastructure, and had Mark’s Bible lessons and Greg’s spinning jenny) or Groovepharm (which has the best firespinners, even if they don’t come to Flipside to spin, as well as the best DJs, and a giant trampoline-lounge). What can I say? We’re a bunch of slackers.

Circle of Fire did have a much better location than it did last year, thank you site committee. I would have preferred a bigger space for our fire-circle, but since we didn’t really push the boundaries of the one we had, I can’t complain. We had a monumental fire circle that could easily accommodate six people in 2003; this year’s would would be a little cramped with four, but an improvement over 2005, when the fire circle would barely accommodate three, was on a slope, was not obvious, and also happened to be used as an alleyway to cut between parallel roads. On Thursday, I was too whipped after getting the shade structures set up to burn even once, but I had many good light-ups and even some great ones on each of the remaining nights—a few that pushed me to a different level. Firedancing can be considered a form of ecstatic motion, and in its original usage, “ecstasy” referred to a form of religious possession that is something to fear. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but a really good light-up is one of the few occasions when I feel what I guess must be something like ecstasy in its original sense. Part of this is good, loud music, part of it is energy from the crowd, and part of it is the importance that all the participants invest in the moment. And I only have a few burns to show for it.

The new location, Flat Creek, has pros and cons compared to RecPlan. The fact that it is bigger, and therefore Pyropolis is more spread out, is both a pro and a con in itself: Flipside was definitely outgrowing RecPlan, but things are now sufficiently spread-out that it can take a lot of walking to get between two theme camps. I estimate that I walked five-plus miles a day. !Bob told me that Flat Creek has 600 acres we never even touched. I’m guessing we used 100-200 acres, so that’s a lot of potential for growth, which will bring its own set of pros and cons if it happens.

The fact that Flat Creek is laid out around a roughly horseshoe-shaped road, with “center camp” on a plateau in the middle of it and radial paths cutting across at random, means that it’s hard to get a clear sense of where camps are in relation to each other. Contrast this with RecPlan, which basically has one long road with a couple minor branches. A bicycle will be necessary equipment at future Flipsides; some kind of signage showing which camps are where would be especially helpful (an interesting wayfinding project for Gwen’s office, perhaps). One improvement in layout that we saw this year was theme camps zoned by noise level—that said, I was still camping in the loudest zone, but the fact that we were more spread out seemed to lower the intensity a bit. One curious fact about the Flat Creek site plan is that the plateau feels smaller than the field at RecPlan. A little more ground-clearing (if possible or desirable) to remove some of the trees that break up the plateau’s space would fix that. The terrain at Flat Creek is much rougher than at RecPlan, both at a large and small scale. The field at RecPlan is practically like a city park—smooth, with nice grass. The plateau at Flat Creek is much rougher, with giant divots where trees have been uprooted, prickly pear here and there, etc. And where RecPlan has a gradual hill, Flat Creek has cliffs. Flat Creek has a much more inviting cold-water stream flowing through it, the best feature of the property. It is unlike the creek at RecPlan in that it is removed from everything else—you need to go through a cave and down a bit of a hill to get there. At RecPlan, the creek is right next to the field, so you can be in the water and still semi-connected to the main action. But many people, myself included, spent a lot of time down at the stream, and with the cliff overshadowing it, it was by far the coolest place to be on days that climbed to 100°F.

The theme camps and installations blew me away, as much as ever. Somebody built a hot-tub on the bank of the stream, for cryin’ out loud. This fits right in with what I called the “extravagant gesture” a year ago. The effigy, a chalice, was built by a Houston crew (that wound up getting into a fight with the Chupacabra Policia, who were otherwise suspiciously well-behaved). The effigy was smaller than the past couple of years and relied more on propane than wood for its fuel, so there was almost nothing left the next morning (in contrast to last year, when there was still a huge pile of burning wreckage). The firedancers had a typical procession, although it was disorganized enough that many of us who were standing right there almost missed it. After the big burn, firedancers formed a couple of fire-circles next to the remnants of the effigy and burned for hours. I had some killer light-ups.

It’s hard for me to condense the Flipside experience down into a few well-organized paragraphs, and I’ve put off hitting the “publish” button on this post for a few days as I try to bring some order to it. Then again, the motto at Flipside is FUCK SHIT UP!, so trying to bring order to one’s reflections on it is perhaps missing the point.

Goin’ down to Flipside, gonna have myself a time

Gwen and I are going to Flipside in a couple of days, and we’ve been in buzz of activity getting ready. I’m really looking forward to it.

Today I went to rent a PA system from Rock-n-Roll Rentals. At least two other patrons there were (I’m pretty sure) renting equipment for Flipside. The guy who took care of my order immediately sized me up.

Is this for Flipside?
I’ve got it written all over me, huh. Are you going?
Which camp are you with?
I’ll be at Get Lost.
Oh, do you know Ish?
Sure, I know her

It’s as if we’re there already.


Bank of America has a smart idea they call “site key” as a defense against phishing. Logging into their site is a two-step process: you enter your username, which takes you to another page to enter your password. On this second page there is a picture that you have previously chosen from among many pictures, accompanied by a descriptive word that you typed in yourself when you chose that picture. Barring a security breach, it would be essentially impossible for a scam artist to reproduce this.

Something like this could be applied to e-mail, to help identify it as legitimately from the bank (or paypal, or ebay, or any other institution susceptible to phishing attacks). When the user sets up an account, they type in a unique, memorable phrase that is completely unrelated to their password. This phrase will then appear in all e-mail from that institution to help identify it as legitimate. I’m calling this key phrase a “mailpass.”

I can imagine a technical objection to this, and a related psychological objection. The technical objection is that with rare exception, mail is not encrypted. So the mailpass will be sent as plain text over unsecured channels, making it vulnerable to interception.

Which leads to the psychological objection. Because a phisher could intercept and use your mailpass, the mailpass would need to be viewed as a necessary proof of authenticity, but not a sufficient proof. This point could easily be lost on a lot of people, and there would need to be plenty of attendant scare-language to the effect that you cannot count on a correct mailpass to be rock-solid proof of authenticity, should always exercise due care against scammers, etc.

But mailpass would definitely make e-mail filtering a lot easier. If I were to get e-mail from paypal that lacked the mailpass, I could confidently route it to the trash without even looking at it. And I can’t think of any other reasons this would be a bad idea, though I’m sure someone out there could.

Que onda guerrero

Problem: Bush wants permanent war, keeping citizens scared and Halliburton happy.

Problem: Military recruitment is down, because people don’t like being blown up, and relatively few Americans are so desperate for a job that they’ll risk it.

Problem: Bush wants to create a “guest worker” program, and find a way to permit illegal immigrants to stay in the country without seeming soft on them, perhaps by imposing a fine.

Solution: Create a “guest soldier” program. Our friends from south of the border who want a chance to live in the USA can take their chances getting a green card, or can volunteer immediately for the U.S. military. Illegal immigrants who are rounded up will be given the option of immediate deportation or enlistment. Those who survive a two-year hitch can go back to picking vegetables and ensuring Americans have low food prices (so that we can stay fat and sit on the couch, pretending to blow shit up on our Playstations) without being hassled by the INS.

Yes, I’m joking, but I’m a little surprised some wingnut hasn’t advocated this in earnest yet.


For nearly two weeks now, I’ve been without my main computer, an iMac G5 with a 20“ screen. It’s remarkable what an annoyance that is.

I do have an iBook that’s a few years old, which mostly gets used for checking the IMDB when watching DVDs and for travel. It has a slow-ish G3 processor and a 12” screen. It’s also running the previous version of OS X (I fear it would have hard time keeping up with 10.4, so I haven’t installed that version). So I do have a computer, and one that would have been impossibly desirable a few years ago, but that now feels cramped, squinty, underpowered, and unfamiliar. I don’t like using it, and I spend much less time at it (my excuse for not blogging much lately). And while I do have backups of almost all my data, I haven’t tried importing most of it to the iBook. If I understand it correctly, there were file-format changes in basic apps like Address Book and Mail in 10.4 that probably wouldn’t be backwards-compatible. Plus the fact that this machine has a small hard drive that I want to keep clean, and the syncing issues I’d have when I do get my main machine back.

The whole repair saga—which hasn’t ended—has been an exercise in frustration. On the night of May 4, a Thursday, we had a major storm. After the first crack of lightning, I turned off my computer. I started the shutdown process on Gwen’s too, but a misbehaving app aborted the shutdown, so hers was running all night. I’ll also note here that both computers are plugged into the same surge protector, and it’s a pretty good one.

The next morning, I turned on my Mac and found it was randomly rebooting itself—sometimes after a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes. After exhausting all the various reset and diagnostic procedures I knew of, my next thought was to take it to the Apple Store, but Gwen and I were heading out of town for the weekend that day, and the Apple Store wouldn’t schedule a dropoff until late that afternoon. So I waited until Monday. On Monday, they told me it would be about 7 days before they could even look at it, but suggested that, since my model had a number of user-serviceable parts, and it looked like the inverter might be at fault, I could order that replacement part online, and that should only take three days.

It took Apple a week to deliver the new inverter. I received it yesterday and installed it immediately. The installation process is rather delicate, involving a total of five molex connectors—one in an inaccessible location—and some very snug-fitting parts and cable runs.

The inverter did not fix the problem. I knew that the diagnosis was a gamble. Oh well.

Unwilling to spend another week waiting for the Apple Store to get around to looking at my machine, I decided to explore other service options (this is warranty work). I found a place on South Congress and set up an appointment for tomorrow. They’re going to try replacing the power supply. I hope that does it.

The episode has been instructional, though. It’s reminded me of a hundred little things that I’ve set up on my main computer to make it work more smoothly—little things like a keystroke expander that automatically corrects “teh” to “the”—and which of those little things were important enough that I’ve gone to the trouble to set them up on the iBook. It’s also shown me how nice the screen on my iMac is, and how much my productivity is hampered by having a small screen with poor contrast. I’ve made friends with command-tab, which is especially handy when most of your windows are maximized.

Update: 17 May 2006

Took the iMac into a local shop, Mactronics. As is so often the case with these things, the technician could not reproduce my problem, but he took my description of the symptoms at face value and replaced the power supply anyhow. I’ve got it back now, and it’s working. He thought it was odd that the Apple Geniuses recommended I try getting an inverter replacement: he told me the inverter doesn’t do anything except power the screen’s backlight, and couldn’t possibly account for the problem I was having. It occurred to me that, in telling me to order a self-service inverter replacement, the Geniuses (funny how I can use that word both literally and sarcastically at the same time) at the Apple Store might have been telling me something that would get me out of the store and let me feel like I was doing something to improve the situation—even though it had no relation to what they may have known perfectly well is not the real problem.

Denotation vs connotation

Out near Johnson City, there’s a new development going in called “Tierra Mañana.”

Consider the impression this phrase creates, and how very different it is from that of “Tomorrowland.”

Ambient notifications in Mail

A blog entry at O’Reilly discusses how the author has set up Mail to notify him of incoming messages. I do something similar, using a more layered approach, so in the interest of meticulously documenting everything you can do with Mail, as well as exploring ideas for ambient notification in mind-numbing detail, here goes.

When the topic of using OS X comes up, I tell people that if you drink Apple’s kool-aid and use its apps religiously—Mail, Address Book, iCal, iPhoto—then it will pay off for you. Since they hook into each other, and other apps hook into them as well, you really do get synergistic benefits. For example: if you keep all your contacts in Address Book, you can filter your mail in useful ways. If you create groups in Address Book to categorize your contacts, mail filters can be more useful.

I filter my mail based on whether the sender is in my clients group or my friends group; each goes to its own mailbox, and other actions are triggered as well.

When I receive messages from friends, their names are spoken aloud to me using this script.

When I receive messages from clients, the “work bell” rings (this is something Mail can do on its own), and a Growl notification appears on-screen using this script. I’d like to make it so that clicking on the notification blob opens the message in question, but I haven’t figured that part out yet. These notification blobs are actually pretty intrusive (they sit there until you click on them to dismiss them), but this was an intentional decision: if it’s work-related, I probably want to be interrupted.

When I receive messages from people I’ve never corresponded with before, it’s very likely those messages are spam. So I filter messages where the sender is not on my previous recipients list (this is a handy, and I suspect little-known feature in Mail) to a “holding pen” mailbox that is essentially a waiting room for my junk box. This makes it a little easier to prioritize and batch-process mail in the eternal struggle for inbox zero.

Recently, I discovered DockStar–this lets me see how many messages are in each of several boxes. This alone would almost be enough, but I like the extra channels of information I get.

How not to design a bike lane

bike lane diagram

A little while ago, I was riding to a downtown destination by way of San Jacinto Blvd, and noticed that they had striped it for bike lanes. Without wading into the controversy of whether bike lanes really are good for cyclists or not, I have to say, they really blew it here. The diagram above shows the lane striping at the 10th-Street intersection on San Jacinto.

If you’re on a bike and headed straight, what do you think you ought to do here?

If you stay in the bike lane, you’ve potentially got two lanes of traffic turning across your path. In order to avoid that problem, you need to swing across a lane and a half of traffic well before you reach the intersection. Neither is a good option. The latter is less bad, but will be counter-intuitive to a naïve cyclist. While I’ll be the first to admit there are a lot of people on bikes who do dumb stuff that understandably pisses off drivers, I wonder how often drivers are getting pissed off at cyclists who are just responding sensibly to poorly designed situations like this.

Coming home by way of Trinity Street, I discovered bike lanes there as well. Although I didn’t notice any intersections that were striped as egregiously badly as the one on San Jacinto, the oddity on Trinity is that the location of the bike lane relative to the curb changes from block to block. One block there’s a dive-in parking lane between the bike lane and curb. The next it’s immediately next to the curb. After that there’s a parallel parking lane between the bike lane and the curb. Unless you know in advance where you should be aiming, you will find yourself out of the bike lane after crossing almost every intersection. And the street is just hilly enough that in many cases, the bike lane on the far side of the intersection is invisible behind the crest of a hill.

It seems impossible to me that these bike facilities were designed by anyone who rides a bike.