Year: 2009

Cilantro lime ginger sauce

People seem to be interested in this, so here’s how to make it.

  • Take one bundle of cilantro and cut off the stemmiest parts. Chop coarsely into smaller bundles.
  • Juice four limes.
  • Peel a fat chunk of ginger about one inch long and chop coarsely. Enough to fill the palm of one’s hand.
  • Take one or two jalapeños (depending on intensity) and cut off the stems.
  • Throw all this in a blender and puree. See if you need that second jalapeño. Add about a tablespoon of oil and salt to taste. Run the blender for a few more seconds.

This is especially good on fish or shrimp, but will work on just about anything. We typically pan-fry some kind of white fish, pour the sauce over it when it’s about halfway done, let it cook in the sauce for a while, and serve over rice.

Search tip

A couple of nights ago, Gwen used the phrase “Googling for something on America’s Test Kitchen” instead of “searching for…”, which just reinforces that Google has become a synonym for search.

Google search results are often polluted by irrelevant links to commercial websites like bizrate and dealtime, though. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to avoid that? There is: use Give me back my Google.

It would be even nicer if you could search via GmbmG right from the search field in your browser. And in fact you can, but you’ll need to set it up first


Safari does not let you customize your search field out of the box, but there are some hacks like Glims that add this capability. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to add GmbmG to Glims as a custom search engine and teach it the specific search syntax that GmbmG uses. It is: search key

Firefox or Internet Explorer 7+

These browsers support something called the “open search description document,” which makes adding a new search engine dead-simple. I have no idea how this works in IE, but in Firefox, just install this plugin (which I created, not the creator of GmbmG—the plugin is currently listed as experimental, but it’s perfectly innocuous, I promise) and it will add that site to the list of search engines your browser uses.

Moving forward and circling back


I recently resolved a nagging issue in my life that had been like an albatross around my neck for years.

Back in ’97, I visited the Netherlands, and became interested in recumbent trikes. I’ve always been drawn to the mechanically obscure, and if recumbent bikes are weird, recumbent trikes are way out there. As is my wont, I researched them obsessively when I got back home, and eventually homed in on a model that, even by the rarefied standards of recumbent trikes, was exotic. It was the AS Engineering Zenit. Made in Russia by former Illyushin Aircraft engineers, it had front-wheel drive, a box-section aluminum frame, hydraulic drum brakes, and other unusual features.

I ordered one. It took forever to arrive—the better part of a year. I may have been the last customer to have an order filled. I know that AS Engineering stiffed several customers. It didn’t come as a finished product, but it didn’t come as just a frame (the way many custom bikes do) either: because of its many custom parts, it was somewhere in between. I began putting it together with quality parts, but after a while, I got bogged down. I had routed the hydraulic lines poorly, and didn’t want to redo them. One of the lines also needed to be re-bled, which was a massive pain. The shifting was erratic, and I had trouble getting that dialed in.

So it sat in the shed. For a decade.

Every time I went into the shed, there it was, mocking me. Eventually Gwen gave me the ultimatum “ride it or get rid of it.” and I eventually decided to get with the program. I took it to Austin’s recumbent bike store, and had the proprietor deal with its various shortcomings. At the same time, I found a website for recumbents that included a classified section. Someone saw it listed and told a friend, who had been looking for a Zenit for years. I sold it.

Putting that trike behind me was an illuminating life-lesson. I had let a molehill grow to a mountain in my mind: I had become frustrated by some minor problems and intimidated by the prospect of fixing them. Ironically, in the ten or so years that had passed, those problems became much more difficult to solve (the hydraulic parts needed for the trike had become much harder to obtain, and there was a new leak somewhere).

But revisiting the trike reminded me of an idea I had for it when I first got it: to use it as the vehicle for a transcontinental bike ride. I had completely forgotten about that goal after the tumult of breaking my pelvis, getting divorced, and getting into firedancing in 1999–2000. But reminded of it, I realized that I still wanted to do it. I mentioned it to Gwen and she said “You’re not getting any younger!” So that’s going to be my big project in 2010.

Ironically, I still think that a recumbent trike is the right vehicle, but I have no regrets about having sold the Zenit, and would shy away from using it for this purpose if I hadn’t: a trike with critical parts that simply cannot be replaced if they break is a bad vehicle for a 3,000 mile journey. And at this point it would be bad mojo to ride a trike that symbolized my own inability to complete a project.

Mueller ramble

Gwen and I went for a walk through Mueller today, and because it’s Sunday, there were a lot of open houses. We stopped in six. It was educational.

The first two we stopped in were of a small number of showcase, architect-designed, “parade of homes” houses facing the park. These all have seven-digit pricetags. The others were all builder houses. The contrast between them was interesting. The architect-designed houses were profligate in their use of fancy materials and construction techniques. One of them had a floating staircase where each tread was supported from the ceiling by a serpentine square-section tube, and slatted overhangs above the windows that in total consisted of many hundreds of small tubes, each screwed down in four places. Swingarm mounts for flat-panel TVs abounded. Another had a rooftop porch (accessible by elevator!) with a sink shaped like a martini glass.

The builder homes, in contrast, were all swaddled in carpeting that could charitably be described as “disposable,” and generally had cheap finishes and cheap materials except on certain bullet-point features. We were struck by one home, listed for $608K, that had pine cabinets stained to look like walnut, but a vast expanse of marble countertops in the kitchen practically equal to our house’s floor space. On a house that was listed for more than $500K, the interior doors were plastic. Most the builder houses felt very suburban, with fussy trim, “great rooms,” and upstairs playrooms for kids. There was only one house that had a (sort of) open-plan first floor. While all the homes have some level of LEED certification and meet some kind of green-building standards, this struck me again as a bullet point to be checked off rather than as an actual design goal. Houses had incredibly high ceilings (whose main purpose seems to be making lightbulb-changing difficult), but no ceiling fans. None of the homes made any provision for rainwater collection, and when Gwen quizzed the realtor at one of the architect-designed homes as to why, she answered “there wasn’t room.” Which struck me as unlikely—I doubted it had ever been contemplated.

I was struck by the way quantity is prioritized over quality: maximum floor space seems to be the number one priority. Yard space was very limited—I know that short setbacks were mandated for Mueller, and I can’t really complain about small back yards in a city, but those are some of the very few features of the development that feel urban. All of the houses were at least twice as big as our house, and were clearly not designed with people like us in mind. Something that traded space for quality of construction, without going overboard on showy, labor-intensive features, and that reflected a more urban aesthetic. There is a single row of boxy, modern townhouses, but that’s the only part of Mueller like that, and we didn’t get a chance to look inside them.

Finding translations

Wil Shipley wrote about how coders can organize their software projects for localization. But what happens on the other end—once those files of strings to be localized get handed off to those “errrr… whatchacallums. ‘Polyglots!'”

I’m a translator. I’ve done a small amount of coding, so I can appreciate the issues involved on that side, but it’s not my strength. I’ve done a little software localizing, and a lot of translations of software manuals.

Suppose you’ve got an application that you want to make available in other languages in addition to your native language. You’ve got the technical aspects of the problem solved. How do you get it translated? I will assume that you want every localized version to produce the same delight and satisfaction in speakers of other languages that you are trying to create with your own-language version, and that you are willing to go to some trouble to do so.

Your first decision, from which many other tradeoffs will follow, is whether to give the project to a translation agency or to act as your own translation coordinator. There are pros and cons to each approach.

When you hand a job off to an agency, they will act as a buffer between you and the translators. In fact, they will insist on it. If the translators have any questions in the course of the work, they’ll footnote it and the agency will try to resolve the question either on their own or by contacting you.

Most large agencies will claim to handle any language combination; for any relatively common language combination, they probably have access to dozens or hundreds of translators. The coordinators at these agencies often have no ability to evaluate the quality of translation work themselves. Some of these large agencies farm work out on a first-come, first-serve basis, some farm them out to whichever translator is in their database as handling that subject matter at the lowest rate. Large jobs on tight deadlines will likely be split up among multiple translators, perhaps with some effort at harmonization after the fact. Editing work is also usually farmed out using the same methods.

One point that Shipley makes is not to use pictures of words, since they are so much more work to localize. While this is unquestionably good advice, bigger agencies may have tools for stripping text out of Photoshop/Illustrator files to be translated, and substituting the translated text back in (if it’s styled text, this could obviously get sticky).

There are smaller agencies that specialize in only one language, or only a few. These typically have bilingual people on staff, do the editing in-house, have some kind of personal relationship with the freelance translators they work with, and have a pretty clear understanding of each translator’s strengths and weaknesses. These agencies will also act as buffers between you and the translator.

Finally, there is dealing with individual translators. This will allow (or require) you to work more closely with the translator, which should in theory permit them to do higher quality work. Dealing directly with the translator will expose you to a wider range of rates: on the one hand, you’re not paying the agency’s vig (which can be anything from 15% to 200% in my experience). On the other, you may be dealing with translators who have priced themselves out of agency work. Dealing with individuals does place you at risk if one of them flakes out (rare but possible), and will take some work just to find suitable candidates. You should also arrange for someone to edit the work. You should be able to ask the translator to do this, although some translators might be reluctant to let their colleagues see their work. Any freelancer worth his salt who is working for a direct client will do a meticulous editing job, but the more eyes that look at it the better. Mistakes can always slip by.

Let’s assume that, one way or the other, your localizable strings file has reached the translator. I’ve seen agencies send these as Excel files, with each text chunk in its own row, the source in one column and the target to be translated in another. I hate doing extended typing in Excel, but this at least has the virtue of clarity. I usually wind up moving the table into Word, which is a friendlier place to type.

The problem with these chunks of text is that they are disembodied. Out of context. And context matters. Knowing that a chunk of text is going to appear as a menu item, as opposed to a dialog box, tooltip, or whatever, will influence how the translator expresses that idea. For that matter, knowing that several menu items are all clustered in the same menu, between separator bars, would also influence how each of them was translated. A keen-eyed translator will often be able to figure out some context based on hints the text provides, but there are limits. The result of this lack of context is that the localized version will be prone to seem a little disjointed to native speakers. Screenshots of the most common interface elements would be one way to ameliorate this. Actually giving the translator the software to play around with (in addition to the strings file) would be even better, but this restricts you to working with translators who use the same platform as you (which wouldn’t be a bad idea, since they are more likely to be conversant with platform-specific lingo), and probably rules out working through an agency.

Let’s jump ahead and assume that you’ve received the translated strings file. Now what?

Well, you could blindly assume that the work has been done to your satisfaction, and you might get lucky. Or not. Regardless of whether you are working with a big agency, small agency, or individual translators, you should line up native speakers of the target language to critique the translation and make sure that if you incorporate it into your product, you’ll be happy with the way it appears in that language.

It would be prudent, regardless of who you’re working with, to request an early delivery of a fraction of the work, and have that go past your native informants to make sure the work is up to snuff. Sometimes, prospective translation clients will ask an agency to have a sample translation done on spec. In cases like this, some sleazier agencies have had a known-good translator do the sample (or many translators do a sample so they can pick and choose), and then pass the job on to the cheapest translator. Many reputable translators resent being asked to do spec work at all, so the use of spec work as a selection method is clearly fraught with problems. Better to suck it up and gamble on 10% of the project.

You should also provide as much information up front about the job as possible. Make a list of special terminology that needs to be handled consistently, and give a glossary if possible. Explain your expectations regarding style and voice.

Update: See also the response by Ryan Ginstrom, a real-live programmer and translator.

Dean Keaton restriping

Google Maps image of Dean Keaton at I-35

When I got home from the recent road trip, I discovered that Dean Keaton had been restriped, adding reverse-angle parking, bike lanes, zebra stripes, and a generally dizzying array of new road markings. On the day of David Byrne’s recent talk about bikes, I rode this newly restriped stretch of road and found it to be a disaster for bikes.

The image above shows how the street looked before restriping. To be fair, this is an inherently difficult situation to make bike-friendly, especially westbound: there is a pullout for a city bus, an offramp, an onramp, and two places where traffic is turning across the lane. Not visible here is the fact that this is all happening on a downhill, so both bikes and cars are likely to be moving relatively fast (this stretch is signed as 30 mph, but the limit is rarely observed). Also not visible is another intersecting offramp just to the west.

As shown here, the street has two lanes, with a third lane for merging offramp traffic. After restriping, there is one lane on the left, a no-man’s-land denoted by zebra stripes, and a bike lane on the right; there’s a second lane for merging offramp traffic.

The way the bike lanes have been striped makes them an absolute hazard. The bike lanes zig-zag across onramp and offramp traffic in a way that minimizes the crossing distance. This runs contrary to both my own intuition and effective cycling methods, where the cyclist holds a straight line across the onramp/offramp. Worse perhaps is the quality of the pavement: although the pavement in the main travel lanes is in good shape, pavement in the bike lane is very rough.

As a cyclist, I am skeptical of bike lanes in general. They seem to be designed to cater naïve riders, who don’t know how to conduct themselves in traffic, and more than that, to motorists, who don’t want to be forced to deal with bikes at all. Many motorists will interpret the existence of a bike lane as a requirement that bikes ride in it, even when it is impassable. And naïve riders will follow bike lanes, even when they’re laid out poorly. That said, there can be good bike lanes and bad bike lanes. This is a bad one. A motorist taking the onramp or offramp will come up fast on a cyclist staying inside the lane, who is swerving and cutting perpendicularly across the motorist’s path at the same time. The choppy road surface set aside for the cyclist clearly reflects our second-class status. And the plethora of dashed lines, zebra stripes, chevrons, etc, all serve to confound everybody.

That night, I went to David Byrne’s presentation. One of the speakers was the City of Austin Bicycle Coordinator, Annick Beaudet. She spoke proudly of some of the city’s new bike facilities. Including this one. I can understand a city bureaucrat taking pride in seeing a project to completion, but I have to wonder: has she actually ridden this stretch of road?

See also: How not to design a bike lane.

Highball observations

After seeing The Informant at Alamo South, Gwen and I stuck our heads in at The Highball. A few observations:

1. The place looks great. Seriously, like some kind of Rat Pack fantasy.
2. If Tim & Co don’t do a good job keeping the place up, it’s going to look like shit in three years.
3. I predict it will be the site of the Hipster Singularity.

The Temple Burn

Burning Man was too big to fit into one blog entry. I’ve got a few ideas for things to say, but for now, I’m going to focus on the Temple and the Temple burn.

The Temple was finished on Tuesday, and we spent Tuesday evening getting rid of temporary scaffolding and cleaning up the work site so that we could open it to the public. Finally, Dave and Marrilee, the project leads, called all the crew up to the top floor of the Temple for a champagne toast and to hand out T-shirts. Fine words were spoken. The fire tornado was lit up. We all got to experience the Temple as it had been designed—for the last time.

Once this brief celebration was over, the safety perimeter was dropped and the Temple was instantly flooded with visitors. In that moment, it became a gift to the community, and became transformed into something else.

I later spoke to Johnny 5 about how he felt about the Temple, and he admitted to having complicated feelings about it: the Temple, to him, was about happiness. But to the community, the Temple has always been a place to seek solace—to say goodbye to people who have died or to let go of some negative personal trait. When we dropped the perimeter on Tuesday night, that’s what the Temple became. People immediately began writing on it and leaving memorials. There was at least one box of cremains left there. There were several elaborate memorials to pets, which left me especially choked up and which cause me to mist up just recalling. There was a message from a grandfather to his lost grandchildren. How could one not be moved?

After it had been open for a day or two, it was impossible to walk around in the Temple without being moved by the emotions there. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do believe that artifacts can be sanctified by the labor that goes into them. That definitely happened at the Temple, but it was sanctified far beyond that by the emotional outpouring for which it was the medium. The memorials were like a new skin on the Temple that made it impossible to see it in its original form.

We all knew in advance that there would be plenty to do on the day of the Temple burn, so Gwen and I got out there around noon with our work gloves. When we got there we learned that the plan was to set up a safety perimeter around the Temple pretty soon, to prepare it for the burn that night: the fire tornado at its center needed to be removed, another art piece that was going to be burned needed to be lifted into place (both these operations requiring a really tall crane), and the structure was going to be filled with as much scrap wood as possible, plus accelerants. When we got there, the upper floors were already cordoned off and other crew people were up there being industrious. A young couple arrived with a small chest. It was full of toys that had belonged to their infant son. Everybody there was wrecked.

Shortly after that we set up a safety perimeter, which Gwen and I and several other people maintained. People kept showing up, wanting to leave a message or memorial in the Temple. We couldn’t let them in, but we had offcuts from the panels and sharpies so that they could write messages, which we carried into the Temple on their behalf. We carried in other things too: I scattered the ashes of three people that afternoon. That’s a hell of a thing, to have a complete stranger walk up and give you the ashes of his brother to leave in the Temple. The same went for someone else working perimeter: we both knew in the abstract what the Temple was about, but we hadn’t realized what we were in for when we volunteered. It may have been the most emotionally intense day of my life.

A deaf woman approached me and whipped out a Sidekick, on which she deftly typed out a question asking if she could leave a message in the Temple. I less-deftly typed out a reply telling her what I told everyone else. She came back a few minutes later with a wood scrap bearing her message, gave it to me, and immediately walked away. I imagined she was frustrated communicating through the gadget, and wondered if she wanted someone she could talk to directly.

The people kept coming. We generally didn’t have any trouble with people trying to get past the perimeter, although I recall one couple blithely stepping over the yellow CAUTION tape and when I pointed out that we had a perimeter up, acted surprised. Yes, it does apply to you too. I held back on the sarcasm—it wasn’t the occasion for it.

At about 3:00 PM, Gwen took a bathroom break and found that the cable locking my bike to hers had been cut. My bike was stolen, and so was her headlight. I decided not to let that get to me, but being forced to confront behavior that shitty at Burning Man was a real disappointment.

At about 7:00 PM, we headed back to camp to have a bite and a bit of rest. By this time, a bunch of Rangers had arrived, as had the Temple Guardians. At 9:00 or so, we rode out on Blinky the art car with a bunch of other members of the Temple crew to work perimeter during the burn. I wound up standing in front of a few members of the Pyronauts, and had a chance to chat with them before the burn.

The burn itself was fast and quiet. The burning of the effigy the night before had been a huge party—all the art cars were there with sound systems going full blast. There were fireworks. It was fun. The Temple burn was different. Parachutists trailing fireworks circled down. A single firedancer performed. Only a few minutes passed from the time that the fire started inside the structure until it was completely engulfed, and it was reduced to a pile of embers in less than half an hour, I estimate. Dust devils spun off downwind every few seconds once it got going. Most remarkable was the crowd—there were probably 30,000 people present, and they were all silent.

There were so many people that came to the Temple looking for solace and catharsis. I hope they found it.

On the road to El Paso

Gwen and I got on the road at about 10:00 AM today, only an hour behind our desired start time—pretty good for us. Ever since a road trip back in ’96 or so that was plagued with mechanical troubles, every road trip I’ve embarked on since has made me anxious. This one included, even though we just had the car checked out. We were in Junction before my stomach settled down and I settled into driving.

This trip is also special in that it almost feels like a religious pilgrimage. I don’t exactly expect to be changed by it, but I expect that I might be.

I handed the reins to Gwen in Fort Stockton. Our destination for tonight is Tucson. A long way away.

The Temple

temple sketch

Today is a minor milestone for me.

I’ve been talking about going to Burning Man for about ten years. Every year I’ve come up with a perfectly reasonable excuse not to go. In the meantime, I’ve become an active member of the local burner community. I’ve been to the regional burn, Burning Flipside, six times, and have become at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond.

The longer I’ve been involved in the local burner community, the more Burning Man has become freighted with diverse significances. I’ve heard all the stories of how harsh the environment is (I’ve seen playa dust stuck to seemingly impervious surfaces for years), how astounding the art is (I’ve seen the pictures), how corporatized, mainstream, and Californicated that Burning Man is (everybody likes to complain). I know that if I go, I’ll be a small fish in a big pond. A newbie.

And then Dave and Marrilee, two stalwarts of the Austin burner community, were awarded the Temple build this year. With an inadequate budget and half the normal amount of time to finish. Shortly after this year’s Flipside they held a fundraiser. David Best, the artist behind the first few Temples, was present, and a documentary about his work was screened. A whole bunch of burners were there. Before that event, Gwen and I had been talking about how this, too, was not a good year to go to Burning Man. After we got home, we just started making plans, without ever explicitly discussing the fact that we had suddenly decided to go. The decision had become inevitable.

The Temple as Marrilee and Dave envisioned it required a huge amount of new design work, which would be cut into of plywood panels using two robotic routers. They had a wiki to sign up. I dived in and wound up designing 11 panels. There was also a huge amount of manual labor that needed doing: assembling pieces, moving stuff around to make room, or just sweeping away the torrents of sawdust spewed out by the Shopbots. Gwen and I made our way up to the work site as much as we could.

The Temple is being loaded in pieces onto a number of large trucks even as I write these words. Along with dozens of Austin burners who have committed to spend a month living in incredibly harsh conditions, the pieces of the Temple will head out to the Black Rock desert in a few days, where the rest of the construction work will happen.

Tomorrow, Gwen and I are going out to San Francisco to celebrate a friend’s wedding. It’s not the timing I would have picked, but I can’t fault the happy couple, and am happy to be going. But when we get back, the Temple crew will be gone. By the time we get to Black Rock City, the Temple will be up. So today, my role in building the Temple ended.

It’s a hell of a thing to be able to be involved in the construction of the Temple, especially as a first-timer at Burning Man. The Temple is one of the major landmarks and spiritual focal points at every year’s Burning Man. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s going to be significant to some 50,000 people. As a newbie, it would ordinarily be difficult to contribute to Burning Man in a serious way. Being involved in the Temple has been an opportunity to do that.

Follow-up on National Fire Performance League

Almost a year ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha in the fire community—especially the local fire community—about some “championships” sponsored by the National Fire Performance League. I wrote about what little I knew at the time.

I learned shortly after the NFPL event that it was organized by a guy I kinda knew: one of my fire friends, Baru, went to the event and had a chance to chat with the organizer about it, and she learned that it was his very explicit intent to avoid associating his (or anyone’s) name with the event/organization.

A few months ago, he got wind of the blog entry linked above, and called me on the phone asking me to take it down, since it was showing up in Google searches before any of his own pages. I refused, but said that if he wanted to post a rebuttal somewhere, I would happily link to it. He wound up posting the last comment you see on that blog entry now.

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered the organizer, which was momentarily awkward, but we wound up talking about what he’s doing for about 90 minutes.

He told me he’s been involved in fire performance for only 3 years. I get the impression that is part of why he’s reluctant to have his name associated with the NFPL: because he doesn’t have a well-established name in the community. He’s been doing shows, and has gotten schooled by more established performers on two issues: safety and rates. He’s apparently taken these lessons to heart, and wants to promote better safety standards and more awareness of what a fire performer can/should earn for a gig. He also wants to create a mechanism for pairing up newcomers with established performers as a mentoring thing.

And in general, he feels that the fire community is too fragmented, and he wants to make the NFPL the central talking-shop to tie us all together and to use it to reach these goals, which are reasonable, even laudable.

One problem with this is the wheel-reinvention. There are other websites and organizations that that already exist but have not become centralized talking shops (I am reminded of the Unification Church, which seeks to unify all religions by creating yet another religion). And there are organizations with overlapping goals: I mentioned NAFAA to him. He had never heard of it. I did not get around to mentioning Wildfire or Fire Drums or the Crucible, and I wonder if he’s heard of them.

There’s also considerable irony in the fact that someone trying to organize a talking-shop is so opposed to communicating himself. I tried to emphasize to him, in a friendly way, that I thought his insistence on anonymity had backfired. He explained he got a lot of hate mail, and even one physical threat (which would be hard to carry out against an unknown person, but whatever). He felt that this justified his insistence on anonymity. Of course, I think it was mostly created by his insistence on anonymity.

Indeed, anonymity is the crux of his problem. People in the fire community often keep outsiders at arm’s length, because they know that exposure to people who don’t understand it can be dangerous, because they feel protective of the community, and because they are concerned about fire performance being exploited on someone else’s terms. My perception is that people in the community gain a reputation based on their accomplishments, their helpfulness, and their humility. And for any major undertaking that involves the community, reputation is the key to community buy-in, which in turn is the key to the success of the undertaking. While an anonymous person obviously has humility in spades, the humility hides one’s reputation (or lack thereof), but more importantly, masks whether the person is even a part of the community. Many people were concerned that (or assumed that) the NFPL was organized by outsiders to exploit us.

In short, I think his goals have merit, but he’s shown poor judgment. Although he’s done a fair amount of homework, he seems to have the enthusiasm of a newcomer who looks around and says “I want to do this! And this! And this!” without finding out what others had already attempted.

Since he wants to be anonymous, I’ve avoided naming him in this post.

Standards, schmandards

When it comes to e-mail, I’m a plain-text kind of guy. But I know that some businesses prefer to use HTML-formatted e-mail, and thanks to Gwen’s new job, I’ve been learning way more than I ever wanted to about this. Long story short, it’s a nightmare. Avoid.

If you can’t avoid it (as Gwen cannot), you have to learn to deal with it. It’s a complicated problem because there are more renderers for HTML e-mail in frequent use than there are web browsers: in addition to client-side e-mail apps like Outlook or, there are also web-based clients like Yahoo (which has two separate renderers, depending on whether you’re using old-and-busted Yahoo mail or new-hotness Yahoo mail), Hotmail, and Gmail.

Each of these has its own peculiarities, most of which can be managed without too much pain, except for one: Outlook 2007. Outlook ’07 actually has a more primitive renderer than Outlook 2003, using the renderer from MS Word instead of the renderer from Internet Exlorer. Word’s renderer uses a non-compliant mishmash of HTML 2.0 and HTML 3.2, with very limited support for CSS. There has been a movement among people who have to deal with this to get Microsoft to straighten up and fly right. Last week, Microsoft promised that they would not, provoking considerable gnashing of teeth.

I’m surprised at Microsoft’s response. They seemed to generally be moving in the direction of better standards support, if perhaps grudgingly so. While there is a legitimate argument to using Word’s HTML renderer in Outlook, this strikes me as a situation where they could have their cake and eat it too—in fact, there’s a recent precedent in Microsoft’s approach to HTML rendering with the compatibility mode in IE8.

It would be nice if the Word HTML renderer and generator were brought into the new millennium to emit and interpret standards-compliant code. It would also be nice if I had a unicorn that farted rainbows.

Short of that, it would be a relatively straightforward expedient for documents designed in Outlook around Word’s HTML renderer to include a header element like <meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="Outlook=EmulateWord" /> or equivalent in order to invoke that renderer, otherwise relying on whatever the current IE renderer is. This would, admittedly, add some overhead to the app, but MS doesn’t seem to have any aversion to adding overhead to their code.

The machinery of intermediaries

My fellow translator Ryan Ginstrom yesterday wrote about one of those problems that can arise in the translation business when one is dealing with both the ultimate consumer of the translation and an intermediary.

As luck would have it, I was having a conundrum at the same time that was so perfectly complementary I can’t help but write about it.

I had previously corresponded with a potential client about some work. I didn’t get the job at hand, but he said he’d like to work with me in the future. Shortly after, he approached me about some new work. I dealt with him and a new co-worker of his. They sent me an NDA, which I signed and returned, provided them with an estimate, and they gave me the green light. This happened over the course of one day.

A few hours after I started working on this job, I got a phone call from someone who I had never heard of, at a company I had never heard of, who explained to me that all the independent contractors who work for this end client have to go through him. On the one hand, it was obvious that he must have gotten my name and number, and some facts about the job from the end client, so presumably there was something to what he said. And as soon as he realized that I had not been brought up to speed on this situation, he backed off and agreed that I should clear it up with my contacts at the end client. On the other hand, having a complete stranger insist that he was going to interpose himself in the deal after the fact was unsettling and seemed a little dodgy.

I did indeed talk with the end client, and he did indeed assure me that everything was copacetic—that his company pays off agencies to shield themselves from the unspeakable horror of being seen as dealing directly with freelancers—even though that is exactly what they are doing, and the agency serves as a flimsy fig-leaf against some kind of legal exposure.

Flipside fragments

I’m not even going to try to give a blow-by-blow of Flipside this year. Suffice it to say that fun was had and asses were kicked. I’ll just tell some stories.

Gwen and I (and our campmate Scott) went out to Flat Creek on Wednesday evening, a day before the regular opening. We were able to get in early because Gwen had an early Zone Greeter shift the next day and because I’m a theme-camp lead. We had just enough time to unload the van and get our own tents pitched before dark. We had the small bjurt standing up half-collapsed like a geometric sculpture. Someone wandered through our camp and said “I know what that is.” We chatted about shade structures for a while.

A certain friend who had been partying a little too hard was taking a piss and passed out. He came to later and found that he had fallen into a cactus patch. Drugs may have been involved.

I was helping Greg set up his art installation, About That Time, which involved driving a lot of T-posts. Driving T-posts is a lot of work, and I try to avoid it (I say that, but my camp setup involves 24 of them). After we had gotten a few in, one of the DAFT guys working on the effigy came over and asked “Can I drive some?” He was wearing a DPW T-shirt—DPW people are notorious for being rowdy and practically masochistic in their work ethic. I was feeling like Tom Sawyer having just convinced the neighborhood kids to whitewash the fence for him. I said “Sure.” He grabs my T-post driver and starts waling on that thing in a very sexual manner. After he got a few in, he started tearing off blisters (he wouldn’t wear gloves). A couple other DAFTies came over; he said to them “Want to drive a few?” They did. After they did two or three, he took over the rest, finishing with the same hip-thrusting gusto that he started with. The next morning, I saw a pickup with a bumper sticker bearing the DPW logo and the motto “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I thought “that sounds about right.” Later I discovered the pickup was driven by Demon Monk, the architect of the effigy.

One of the most notable events from this (or any) Flipside was the Arc Attack performance on Saturday night. If this had been just a typical performance from them, it would be special, but this was astounding. Parsec donned a Faraday suit and stood in the discharge field, like some science-fictional Thor directing lightning bolts. Everybody’s jaw hung agape. Gwen wanted to try it herself.

We had some heavy weather during the day on Saturday. I don’t know exactly how much rain fell or how hard the winds blew—I checked weather almanacs for two nearby weather stations that completely disagreed on rainfall, wind speed, and even wind direction. We had about 20 people clustered inside the big bjurt, and apart from some water getting past the rain flaps when strong winds lifted the canopy, we were dry and comfortable within. Having put so much work into the bjurt, I was very gratified to see that it worked.

After the rains, Gwen and I went wandering around and stopped by Red Camp. I was admiring a pendant a woman had fashioned out of pop-tops when she asked “Are you looking at my necklace?” I said “no, I’m checking out your tits.” She said “Oh, thank you!” I love Flipside.

We didn’t get to burn the effigy this year. Everybody was disappointed about this, but Demon Monk had come up with a no-burn plan to allow for this contingency, and I feel like the whole “unburn” ritual was a success. We had fire performers do a long (~10 minutes) set to music that was slower and more ethereal than I would have expected. That was followed by Sparky’s firecracker hats, and then excellent fireworks by Moss and the DAFT crew tearing the effigy down, having weakened it beforehand so that they could flatten it by pulls on a few ropes. This was good, but not as cathartic as a burn, and the mood throughout Pyropolis seemed more subdued—the fact that we received a noise complaint from a neighbor, which caused Sound Town to be shut down no doubt contributed to that subdued quality.

I hope I’m not giving away any secrets by explaining how the no-burn decision came about. The Flipside organizers knew for months beforehand that, because of the historic draught conditions, we probably would not be able to burn the effigy, and a no-burn plan was part of the selection criteria in the effigy contest. At a Burn Night meeting a few weeks before, it was decided that a final go/no-go decision to burn the effigy would be made at 4:00 PM on Burn Night, as this allowed the minimum amount of time needed to rig the effigy for one contingency or the other. In the week or so leading up to Flipside, there actually was some rain, but the property owner, Child Inc, in the form of its manager Strick, informed us that he would not allow an effigy burn (or any large burnable-art burns), as brushfires had followed even those recent rainfalls. After the toad-floater we had on Saturday, the organizers did contact Strick on Sunday asking him to reconsider, and additional rain was even in the forecast for that evening. Strick was present at the final go/no-go meeting and said he’d only allow the burn if that rain actually materialized. But we were already at our cutoff time, and in fact the rain never did come. Strick was apologetic, and has been supportive of Flipside for years now, but there were obviously larger issues at stake. The previous day’s rain had already soaked in and the ground was relatively dry by Sunday.

After we got home, I remembered the line that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s sort of like that with Gwen. I think I have a more visible profile in the burner community, but the fact is that Gwen works as hard as I do, and is indispensable to making all the things I try to do happen. And she does it wearing a pink wig and platforms.

I took very few pictures (and none of them were good), but other people did, so I’ll just point to them.

Bjurt construction notes

view of the mostly completed big bjurt

Having taken the bjurts out to Flipside, I have updated these notes to reflect my additional experiences

I am a theme-camp lead for Burning Flipside and one point of dissatisfaction with my camp has always been our shade structures. For the past few years, we have made do with a few cheaply made carport canopies lashed together. These drip water in between when it rains, don’t cut the heat effectively when it is very hot, and are interspersed with poles, breaking up what should be a communal gathering place into cramped zones. I had been casting about looking for something better. Domes are an obvious candidate, but they are a pain in the ass to make, and a pain in the ass to assemble on-site. After a while, I ran across bjurts, a plan for a shade structure designed by a burner to stand up to the harsh conditions at Burning Man. These seemed perfect, except for one drawback—they’re kind of small. Sizes can be varied somewhat, but the biggest calculated plan is 17′ in diameter. Not big enough to replace three 10’x20′ carports.

I corresponded with Bender (the designer of the bjurt) about ideas for making bigger bjurts, and other possible modifications, and he wound up providing me with a standard set of connectors for an 8-sided bjurt, and also a connector kit to build a giant 16-sided bjurt. This 16-sider is unknown territory for Bender and me.

We wound up dimensioning the small bjurt with a 12′ diameter, the big one 24′. This allows both of them to use some tube sizes in common, which simplified ordering and fabrication.

After much cutting, drilling, grinding, improvising, and a little bit of intemperate hammering, Gwen, some friends, and I have gotten both the big and small assembled. In case anyone else is considering doing this, I am writing up some construction notes. I have also posted some photos of the construction process to flickr.

Austin Broadband Information Center

I recently wrote about the impending volume caps that Time Warner Cable will be imposing on its Austin customers, a move which has earned an angry reaction from many Austinites. I’ve seen an online petition in opposition to these caps. I’m not a customer of TWC, and frankly, I’d be just as happy for them to continue pissing off their customers, convincing more and more customers to leave, until TWC doesn’t have any customers left to worry about pissing off.

It is telling that TWC approvingly cites Canada as an example of bandwidth caps in action. Cory Doctorow, a Canadian citizen, has stated that he cannot live in Canada because Internet access there is so dismal. It is equally telling that TWC does not cite South Korea or Japan—where bandwidth that Americans can only dream of is common—as an example of the kind of Internet service they aspire to provide.

Anyhow, the tirelessly public-spirited Chip Rosenthal is actually doing something to help: he’s put together a website to serve as a clearinghouse on information on the subject: the Austin Broadband Information Center. Check it out.