Sun Phases: The Sound of the Eclipse

Craig and I mashed up of two of his creations – Sun Boxes and Moon Phases – for the eclipse on the 21st. If you let the app know your location, it will use local data to begin at dawn, climax during the eclipse’s maximum obscuration, and end at dusk. If you aren’t in the US (or if you want to know what the eclipse “sounds like” in a different location), you’ll also be able to choose a location instead.

Check it out here when the time comes:

RSVP on Facebook

Sun Phases: The Sound of the Eclipse

Purple America: 2016 Edition

As I tend to do after presidential elections, I’ve been diving into the data from November 9th, 2016 in order to convince myself that things are much more complex than the narratives on offer in our news media.

This year I came up with a more interactive visualization:

I also wanted to figure out where my presidential vote might “count” the most, so I made a little table for that that shows both Electoral College weight, as well as “competitiveness” weight:


Purple America: 2016 Edition

Toward Institutionalized Empathy

I originally drafted this post exactly a year ago, right after the Paris attacks. I didn’t post it then because I thought it would be too inflammatory, and I was honestly just too sad. I didn’t feel like getting into an Internet Argument. I still think it’s true, though, and think it’s worth saying even though I’m sure there are plenty of people out there just waiting to ignore the nuances. Either way, here it is.


Since Paris was attacked on Friday night, my Facebook feed has exploded with posts about how fundamentally unjust it is that Americans are so upset about this event, but they weren’t upset the day before when Beirut was attacked.

While I think it’s an argument more persuasively made later, when emotions are not quite so high, I do understand the impulse behind it: There is an inherently dehumanizing aspect to feeling more empathy for some and less empathy for others, and we know where dehumanization leads.

However, the virulence of these posts prevented me from showing solidarity with the people in Paris for fear of the flak I would get for NOT having shown the same solidarity with the people of Beirut the day before. And that just means less empathy and less solidarity to go around.

In actuality, my empathy for Parisians is not a sign of my lack of empathy for the people of Beirut. In fact, it’s a sign of my normal, if lamentable, neurology.

Before I continue, let me take a moment to unequivocally state the obvious: The life of a person in Beirut is not fundamentally or objectively worth more or less than the life of a person in Paris.

While there’s some disagreement on the exact number, current science suggests each human can only see between 150 and 300 other humans as fully developed, complex individuals. This limitation clearly comes with some dire consequences – hate crimes and genocide defining the far end of the spectrum, nimbyism and neglect covering the nearer end. However, it is practical from an evolutionary perspective.

In order to survive as a social species, we each need to know and care about the people upon whom we most depend for survival. In an abstract sense, in a modern world, that group could include some complete strangers on the far side of the planet. But even now, even with the Internet and a globalized economy, one’s in-group is still mostly populated by the people who are geographically and culturally proximate – our families, our neighbors, the people we went to school with, the people we work with, etc.

Let’s take me as an example. I know people in France. I have been to France. If there is another language I come close to being able to speak besides English, it’s French. The victims of the crimes in Paris were doing things I do on the regular: I go to rock shows of the Eagles of Death Metal sort, I sit outside on patios at restaurants eating dinner. I don’t frequent huge sporting events, but I’ve been to a few.

Beirut, on the other hand, is slightly further outside my usual sphere. I know people who were born in Lebanon, and still others who have visited Lebanon, but not anyone who currently lives there. Since Beirut is a modern city, I can imagine that the lives of its residents are largely like my life, but I don’t know that viscerally from having seen it or from knowing people who are currently living it.

That said, my visceral reaction to hearing the news about Paris on Friday differed from my reaction to hearing about Beirut on Thursday because of Paris’s societal proximity to my life. I don’t think that’s wrong. I think it’s the emotional reality of a human existence for most people most of the time.

What is wrong is preventing people from expressing empathy by making them feel that their empathy is misplaced or fundamentally bad in some way. We need more empathy in this world, not less, and it’s not a finite resource.

What’s even more wrong is to ignore the reality of our biases – to pretend humans are fundamentally different than we are – and thereby to inhibit our ability to mitigate or overcome those biases. Simply asserting one should, at root, care equally about strangers as one does about friends does not make that any more practically possible than it already is. However, if we accept that it isn’t possible through sheer will, then we can start to build structures and institutions to counterbalance them.

It’s only because we know we’re forgetful that we keep to-do lists and calendars. We could pretend that it’s possible for a human being to just remember everything, or we can accept our limitations and build structures in life to mitigate them.

Likewise, only when we’re able to honestly see and confront our tribal biases can we start to support the work that takes care of the people outside of our tribe – because they deserve it. Their lives are worth just as much.

Toward Institutionalized Empathy

American Oligarchy by the Numbers

The original wonder twins, John Adams and John Quincy Adams
The original wonder twins, John Adams and John Quincy Adams

Already during my lifetime we’ve had one president (George W. Bush) who hailed from the immediate family of another (George H. W. Bush), and there’s a good chance we’ll be repeating the phenomenon with our next president.

In total, we’ve had five presidents (11.6%) who were at least second cousin¹ to a previous president:

  • John Quincy Adams was John Adams’ son
  • Zachary Taylor was James Madison’s second cousin
  • Benjamin Harrison was William Henry Harrison’s grandson
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was both Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin and his nephew
  • George W. Bush is George H. W. Bush’s son

Four of them (9.3%) shared the last name of their familial predecessor: Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, and Bush.

If Hillary Clinton is elected to the 45th presidency², it will bump those two stats up to 13.6% and 11.4%, respectively.

My question to the sociologically-minded statisticians of the world is: What numbers would we expect if we lived in a true meritocracy, rather than the oligarchy we evidently live in?

Put another way: Given what we know about the genetic makeup of the US population, how often would we expect a president to be at least second cousin to another president sheerly by chance?

¹ If we want to roll super deep with this, it appears that 42 out of our 43 presidents so far have all been related to the British King John Lackland who signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

² Thanks to Grover Cleveland serving two non-consecutive terms, we’ve so far had 44 presidencies but only 43 presidents.

Soon after I posted this to Facebook, my cousin-in-law Daniel Roston came forward with exactly the sort of math I was seeking:

so…i think i can put an upper limit at around [a snowball’s chance in hell] that it would happen by random chance.

assuming an average family size of 4 offspring (high for now, but maybe less high for 1790), and including the presidents’ and their [partner’s] families, i get 256 people with the level of relation of 2nd cousin (i.e., either the president or their partner shares at least as much DNA as a second cousin). Let’s assume all people live at the same time and there are 10^8 people eligible for the presidency.

Then let’s calculate the total number of family members to choose from, since there could be overlap there. The probability that some family member of some president will be among the 256 family members of some other president is 256/10^8. So the probability that they won’t be is 1-256/10^8. We can calculate the probability that none of the family members will be the same person by multiplying together all the individual probabilities that they won’t be the same: (1-256/10^8)^(256*43)=0.972. So removing the family members we expect to be the same person, the total number to choose from is .972*43*256=10,700.

Then the probability that a randomly chosen president will not be among those people is 1-10,700/10^8 and the probability that all 43 will not be is (1-10,700/10^8)^43=0.9954. So the probability that one of our presidents would have been so closely related is 0.0046 and the probability that it would have happened 5 times is…0.0046^5 = 2 x 10^-12.

American Oligarchy by the Numbers

Making a Thing for People to Use

At Joel‘s patient urging, I finally got around to reading Will Oremus’s piece about Facebook’s news feed algorithm in Slate. I found it to be a really rewarding “long-read”. Here are my thoughts.

It’s always exciting to find faithful portraits of what I do for a living, since it can be difficult to describe to people. The art and science of it is basically:

  1. Put an initial stake in the ground in terms of the functionality we think is going to be useful.
  2. Gather data on the usage of that functionality.
  3. Interview real people about how they are using it and how they feel about it.
  4. Revisit the functionality with the data and human insights we’ve gleaned and improve it.
  5. Repeat.


Numbers 2 & 3 above barely scratch the surface of a key tension in this work: What users do, what they want, what they think they want, and what they tell you they want are four different things. There’s some overlap, but not as much as one would hope or expect!

We need more solid, narrative descriptions of the limitations of machine learning (AI) at present. I find that non-technical people tend think machine learning can do both more and less than it currently can. The reality seems to be that in some ways our dystopian future is already upon us, but in other ways it’s further away than ever.

The article suggests a subtler point about making products that is generally overlooked: Luck and randomness are built into this process, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t approach it analytically.

Each person on a team like FB’s product team brings something different to the table, and each one of them has their own stuff going on that makes it harder or easier for them to hear their teammates’ views. The fact that feature development begins in such a chaotic place, but can end up with real, testable product recommendations that, once implemented, are frequently successful is amazing. It speaks to the fact that trying to do something methodically and scientifically, while never perfect, is better than the alternative.

If the Facebook employees featured in this article are a representative sample, Facebook is a very young, white, male place. That’s not entirely surprising, of course, but the fact that this cohort is setting the standard for technology of this kind globally is problematic.

Making a Thing for People to Use

Et tu, NPR, mi fili?

For some inexplicable reason, NPR decided to announce its special coverage of the UN climate talks in Paris with a question:Screenshot 2015-11-03 19.08.14

First off, clearly they think climate change matters – at least enough to warrant special, month-long coverage.

Also, surely someone at NPR is familiar with Betteridge’s Law of Headlines:

“Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

It would be a bold move on NPR’s part, suggesting climate change doesn’t matter. But given their overall patchy coverage of the issue, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised.

All of that said, the recent rise of the Cavuto mark seems to contradict Betteridge. When Fox News asks questions like “Have the Democrats forgotten the lessons of 9/11?” or “Is the liberal media helping to fuel terror?”, we can assume they expect their viewers to supply an answer of “yes”. Perhaps that is likewise NPR’s intent.

Either way, phrasing their headline as a question absolves NPR of being accountable for what they’re writing and makes the implicit claim that climate change is up for debate.

But it isn’t. So to answer your question, NPR: Yes, climate change matters. It’s possibly the only thing that matters at the moment, actually.

Et tu, NPR, mi fili?

WaPo’s Police Shootings Graphic

First off, it is awesome and you should go look at it right now:

I am struck in particular by their focus on individual human beings; each victim* is represented as a single figure in the timeline graphic the Post leads with:

Screenshot 2015-07-25 11.22.05

Below the original graphic space, the Post shows each victim as an individual, with details about the circumstances as well as a photo when possible. This further emphasizes the humanity of each person.

Screenshot 2015-07-25 11.47.55

That all said, I feel like some key context is left out of the graphic that just as easily could have been included, and would have made the racial aspect of these numbers manifestly more obvious.

Screenshot 2015-07-25 11.30.45

Almost twice as many white people as black people have been killed by police so far this year. This figure alone, without context, dramatically undercuts the assertion by civil rights activists that blacks are unfairly targeted and killed by police.

Had the Post included census data with those numbers, the impact would be quite different:

Screenshot 2015-07-25 11.41.56

Whites are underrepresented by a third, blacks are overrepresented by half. Only Hispanics are being “fairly” represented in these statistics.

9/23/16 Update: Turns out there was a suitable alternative out there all along! Peep The Guardian’s on-going vigil “The Counted: People killed by police in the US” which has a much better way of showing proportionality:


Thanks to BJ Warshaw for sussing it out.

* I realize how charged it is to use this word, but the police involved in these events might also be termed victims; when deadly force is used, everyone loses.

WaPo’s Police Shootings Graphic

Same App, Different Experience

Why oh why, Twitter? You control both and, yet each has a completely different workflow for adding a handle to a list!


Add-to-list on Twitter


Add-to-list on Tweetdeck

But it’s not just that there are two different workflows; it’s that they are similar enough for me to constantly confuse them! Here’s what my brain sees each time I’m presented with one of these dialogs:

Twitter Lists (Brain View)

…which is perfect if I’m inside Tweetdeck (the second image above). But if I’m on, I’m suddenly (and confusingly) inside of the “Make a new list” workflow:

Create-new-list on TwitterWhat happens when I click out of that? Will I have a new “untitled” list? What happened to my original selections from the previous screen? I basically have to click ‘x’ and start over to find out.

So I ask you, Twitter: Why settle for this cludgy and confusing experience when you already have a usable experience in Tweetdeck?

Same App, Different Experience

On Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise

Cover of the book 'The Signal and the Noise' by Nate Silver. Published by The Penguin Press
Cover of the book ‘The Signal and the Noise’ by Nate Silver. Published by The Penguin Press

Overall, I put this book up there with John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy as required reading for anyone interested in thinking clearly. It is a fantastic demonstration of how mathematical thinking can be fruitfully (and practically) applied by anyone to anything.

There are a few moments I do want to comment on, though; the book is so thoroughly thoughtful that its lapses in thoughtfulness really stood out to me.

Continue reading “On Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise

On Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise

What’s the best shelf-stable, gluten-free chocolate chip cookie?

Just because you aren’t eating gluten (for whatever reason – I’m not here to judge), doesn’t mean you don’t still occasionally crave a store-bought chocolate chip cookie, a la Keebler’s Soft Batch or Pepperidge Farm’s Soft Baked.

I was in just such a position recently [ed. note: “recently” here means “almost one year ago”], but did not have access to the far-and-away, hands-down best imitation of the genre, Udi’s Soft & Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Udi's Soft & Chewy

So I did what any self-respecting, non-gluten-eating blogger would do: I bought one of every single other brand of chocolate chip cookie I could find and did a taste test! I was aided in this endeavor by my husband Joel, who is a good control because he CAN eat gluten, but still find’s Udi’s Soft & Chewy cookies pretty delish.

Continue reading “What’s the best shelf-stable, gluten-free chocolate chip cookie?”

What’s the best shelf-stable, gluten-free chocolate chip cookie?

Liz Prince’s “Tomboy” Is an Invitation to a Better World

Tomboy, a graphic memoir by Liz Prince

My friend Liz’s new graphic memoir, Tomboy, was released on Tuesday. Reading all of the interviews and press she’s been getting this week has been a true joy for me. It’s also made me want to write publicly about why I find her book so meaningful (beyond it being an awesome work of art by a very close friend).

Continue reading “Liz Prince’s “Tomboy” Is an Invitation to a Better World”

Liz Prince’s “Tomboy” Is an Invitation to a Better World

Mr. President, Mr. Inskeep: Climate Change Is Both a Foreign Policy Challenge and an Existential Threat

In the wake of the President’s commencement address at West Point, NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Barack Obama on Wednesday about foreign policy. Here’s how the interview began:

STEVE INSKEEP: I want to begin this way. You’re here at this historic place, trying to speak with a sense of history. And I was thinking of past presidents that I know you have studied and commented on. And a couple came to mind who were able to express what they were trying to do in the world in about a sentence. Reagan wanted to roll back communism by whatever means. Lincoln has a famous letter in which he says, I would save the union by the shortest means under the Constitution. As you look at the moment of history that you occupy, do you think you can put into a sentence what you are trying to accomplish in the world?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m not sure I can do it in a sentence because we’re fortunate in many ways. We don’t face an existential crisis. We don’t face a civil war. We don’t face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries and that could threaten our way of life. Instead, what we have is, as I say in the speech, this moment in which we are incredibly fortunate to have a strong economy that is getting stronger, no military peer that threatens us, no nation-state that anytime soon intends to go to war with us. But we have a world order that is changing very rapidly and that can generate diffuse threats, all of which we have to deal with.

And I think that the most important point of the speech today for me is how we define American leadership in part is through our military might, but only in part, that American leadership in the 21st century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively, and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.

A senior reporter at NPR gets the opportunity to interview the President about foreign policy and never once asks him about climate change.

To his credit, the President does mention it. Once. In a single sentence. About China.

This is what journalism and leadership look like in America in 2014.


Mr. President, Mr. Inskeep: Climate Change Is Both a Foreign Policy Challenge and an Existential Threat

Why I went back to one monitor

While the idea that more desktop real estate means higher productivity seems sound, in practice I found it mostly just invited distraction.

The fact is, I can only look at one monitor at a time, so whether I’m turning my head or using a keyboard shortcut, I’m not ever going to be able to see code and output simultaneously without putting those two windows on the same monitor.

So more often than not I just used the extra monitor to keep email or social media open constantly, inviting those things to distract me or, worse, trigger a stress response via peripheral vision.

In short: Mo monitors, mo problems.

Why I went back to one monitor

Help me find the flaw in this authentication paradigm

Recently, I tweeted this:

It prompted a discussion with my super-colleague, Mark, about why no one has implemented that as an authentication process yet. Consider a process like this (I’ve bolded steps that the user would actually see):

  1. User enters email address, clicks LOGIN.
  2. User is prompted to close their browser tab or window, then go check their email.
  3. Cookie is set on user’s browser.
  4. User clicks time-sensitive, encrypted link in the email which opens a new tab or window.
  5. Cookie and link are required to actually be logged in.
  6. User is logged in.
  7. Server is flushed and encryption algorithm changes.

Four steps.  No passwords.

So, what is the flaw in this process? How is it not both as quick and as safe, if not safer, than the existing authentication paradigm of creating a new password every time you go through the forgot password flow?

Just to be thorough:

  • What if I type in the wrong email address? That would send an email to an account you don’t have access to and would thus prevent you from signing in as that account-holder.
  • What if my email gets hacked? First of all, the links in these emails are active for a brief window of time, say 30 minutes at the very most.  Second, if your email has been hacked you are already screwed because the hacker can reset your password to every account in the current paradigm anyway.
  • What if your server gets hacked? Again, the generated url is valid for a very short time and is then completely erased from the server.  Also, logging in requires not just that url, but also the presence of a cookie on the same machine.  Further, the algorithm changes constantly. Thus, it would have to be an inside job performed in under a minute, just to gain access to a single login. Not a very economical way to make a living.

Help me find the flaw in this because, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why every website doesn’t already work this way, saving us all from the utter farce of passwords.

3/4/2013 Update:

Thanks to @andystalick for pointing out the post I had been searching for before writing this one: Is it time for password-less login? Its follow-up is also essential: More on password-less login.

And more on why we need SOMETHING other than the current password system: 30 years of failure: the username/password combination

Help me find the flaw in this authentication paradigm

How to Get Things Done

I’ve been freelancing for about two and a half years now. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about staying productive:

The Freelancers' Union is really rad.

  • Make yourself accountable to someone else.  Schedule regular check-ins with the people you are doing work for since you’re unlikely to want to show up to those empty-handed.  If you’re not working for anyone, schedule presentations to update your family or friends on your progress. Social pressure is an amazing motivator.
  • Break down larger projects into discrete chunks and assign each chunk a deadline.  Projects I haven’t broken into manageable sub-tasks are less likely to ever get started, and tasks that have no deadline are unlikely to ever get finished. It might feel overly forced at first, but once your calendar/to-do list is calling the shots, it takes on its own air of authority.
  • Schedule meetings in clumps. Nothing breaks up my concentration as dramatically as meetings. Since one meeting can derail an entire day, why not just plan them all on one day? Then I don’t expect to produce anything and am not disappointed in myself when I don’t.
  • Get structured about email and social media. The constant stream of activity is hard to tear yourself away from, so make some rules. Unless it’s an essential tool in your work, don’t look at Twitter or Facebook until after lunch (at the earliest). Get good at delegating emails. 99% of them don’t need an immediate response, so star them and get back to work. Better still, schedule intervals for looking at your email; try first thing in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day.
  • Keep in mind what your productivity killers are.  If you know your enemy, you’re much more likely to be able to defend yourself against it. E.g. when a meeting ends, I know I have to really concentrate on getting back on track because I’m especially vulnerable to distractions at that moment.

Now stop reading this and get back to making stuff! 😉

How to Get Things Done

UX Rant: Current Postage Rates (with bonus solutions!)

???????????I dare you to find out how many clicks it takes to get to the current first-class letter and postcard rates on the USPS website. Take your time. I’ll wait. Unbelievable isn’t it? I stopped counting at five.

Because I really enjoy sending and receiving physical objects through the mail, the question of current postal rates probably motivates more than half of my visits to that website. Every time it does, I am stunned by how difficult it is to find this simple bit of information.

Well, this most recent visit was the last straw.  I have created two sites which exist solely to answer these questions. Behold:

Update 1/11/2016: It was a pain in the ass to keep maintaining this, plus Google started doing this “instant answers” thing where it answers certain questions you type in rather than just give you a bunch of links. Thus, I’ve decided to put those domain names to good use and just redirect them to Google’s answers. Enjoy!

UX Rant: Current Postage Rates (with bonus solutions!)

Visualizing the 2012 Presidential Election Results

I found a really great visualization of the state-by-state election results, linking blue and red hue to the percentage of people in the state voting Democratic or Republican (respectively).  If you followed the link, you can see what a moving image it paints: No corner of this country is ALL blue or ALL red (despite the impression we might get from media coverage of the results).

Another map I stumbled upon showed these same election results, but warping the size of each state based on the state’s population.  This distortion made it a hard map for me to look at and make any sense of, so I thought I’d explore alternatives, while also incorporating this idea of purple states.

Below are the results of this experiment. One thing to note: Alaska and Hawaii are on all three maps! Their populations just make them either very light, very small, or very far away.

Visualizing the 2012 Presidential Election Results

Today’s UX Rant: Restrooms, Trash Cans, & Public Heatlh

I think we can all agree that it is in the public interest to promote behaviors which do the most to prevent the spread of germs. So why do I so frequently find myself being forced — by design! — to touch the doors of public restrooms and the lids of public trash cans?

Public Restrooms

So far the only places doing this right seem to be airports, rest stops, and public swimming pools. They’ve figured out this bit of rocket science: Just don’t have a door! Or, if you MUST have a door, make it swing both ways and put a kick plate at the bottom so I can push it with my shoe.

Trash Cans

The most egregious example of this in my life (which is in Boston) are BigBelly Solar Compactors. Why should I have to choose between dodging a rhinovirus and choosing a more sustainable waste receptacle?

More common are the trashcans that insist you push in a spring-hinged door in order to dispose of waste. It’s nearly impossible to get out of this situation without touching the door, which is exactly the thing that has had trash smeared all over it again and again.

How about a foot pedal instead? Or maybe just an open trash can like you see on the street in NYC?

Rocket science.

Today’s UX Rant: Restrooms, Trash Cans, & Public Heatlh

Today’s UX Rant: Previous, Next, & Swipe

One thing that really bugs me about the text messaging interface on my HTC Thunderbolt is that once I’m viewing a conversation, there is no way for me to navigate to the previous or next conversation. I have to go back to the main list screen and navigate from there. Other examples of this “strategy” include the messaging interfaces on both LinkedIn and Facebook.

I see no excuse for it, really, especially in the case of mobile, where there is such a powerful interaction event to be leveraged for previous/next functionality: swiping. Swiping feels *amazing* compared to clicking. Some app creators seem to really get this (for instance, the Economist, which makes reading their magazine on a phone remarkably similar to reading a physical copy).

Here’s hoping everyone else gets on that bandwagon soon.

Today’s UX Rant: Previous, Next, & Swipe

P.S. on frameworks, libraries, toolkits, et al.

In the research I did for my recent post on CSS preprocessors, I came upon a comment that went something like this:

Not using LESS/SASS is like refusing to use a Javascript library.  All CSS preprocessors do is handle the common repetitive tasks in CSS so you don’t have to.

I can’t find where I originally read it, unfortunately, but the sentiment popped up a number of times and has been eating at me ever since I read it.

Javascript libraries are Javascript.  One need not learn a new syntax or resort to command line at any point to get jQuery to work in a project; just include the file in a script reference in your HTML.

A better analogy would be that Javascript is to Javascript libraries as CSS is to toolkits like Twitter Bootstrap, html5boilerplate, et al. (many of which I have had the pleasure of using recently).  These packages leverage plain old CSS to take care of common and repetitive tasks like rounded corners, gradients, and sprites.

The appropriate Javascript analog to CSS preprocessors is CoffeeScript, a new/separate syntax that outputs to Javascript.

P.S. on frameworks, libraries, toolkits, et al.

My (current) take on CSS Preprocessors

CSS preprocessors (Sass, Less, et al) have come up repeatedly in the last few weeks.  I have some existing views on the topic that seem to take a lot of preprocessor advocates by surprise.  One even suggested I write a blog post about it, so I sat down to do just that, starting off with some research, as I like to do.

Lo! The blog post I was about to write has already been written — several times, in fact:

Those are just the first few I found; I’m sure there are many, many more.  Plus, the above posts have much more lively and interesting discussions in the comments than would probably happen on my outpost of a blog.

Many of the anti-preprocessor arguments overlap, but they broadly go like this:

  • The layer of abstraction a preprocessor adds is not worth the cost of integrating it into an existing workflow (e.g. setting up a development environment, adding team members, maintenance, bug fixing, et al)
  • Preprocessors solve problems that could easily be solved with better CSS (e.g. variables and mixins are just classes by another name)
  • The CSS output of a preprocessor is less smart than the CSS output of a human

I more or less agree with all of that.  Like many of the authors above, I think being able to perform functions and set variables inside of CSS could be very useful; so why not make CSS4 do so?  Then we have a single, open standard that browsers already know how to parse and that developers already know how to code.

What’s troubled me since the first time I heard about preprocessors was why on Earth anyone would think to make one.  I’ve always found CSS’s syntax both logical and flexible.  My complaints with it are few and minor.  But then, I do not have a computer science degree.

What I eventually came to realize is that computer programmers do not like CSS because it is not a programming language (see also the relationship of Haml to HTML, which is also not a programming language).  Some found that fact so irritating that they resolved to write a CSS-generating programming language with a syntax that made more sense to them.  Other programmers were overjoyed to at last be freed from the tyranny of CSS; the rest of us were surprised to find that, unbeknownst to us, one of our favorite tools had actually been terrorizing many people (many smart people, it turns out, which made me wonder if I’m just a moron…).

Ultimately, there may come a day when I find that the utility of preprocessors outweigh their associated costs; enough people — and enough people whom I respect — use them that from a statistical perspective I have to assume this will happen eventually.  It just hasn’t happened yet.

My (current) take on CSS Preprocessors

How to transition from your for-profit bank to a credit union.

Credit unions are rad.  They are not-for-profit organizations. Their members (i.e. YOU) are their customers, not shareholders, so they are always looking for ways to make you more money and to keep your business.  Here’s a Lifehacker article that goes into more detail on why you should switch.

These days, many of us have our checking accounts deeply integrated into our financial lives via automatic bill payment, direct deposit, and other services.  Untangling oneself can seem very daunting, which is why I took notes during my transition and am posting them publicly here.  It’s as easy as 1-2-3 (-4-5-6-7-8)!

  1. Find a credit union you qualify for.
  2. From the list you qualify for, evaluate which one would best suit your needs. Criteria for me included:
    • online banking tools
    • the ability to mail in my deposits and/or use direct deposit so I wouldn’t have to travel to their single branch every time I get a check
    • interest-bearing checking accounts
  3. Open your new account(s) at the credit union of your choice. Deposit enough money to get you through a month of bill paying. Be sure to walk out with, at the very least, your new account number and routing number. (I walked out with that plus 12 starter checks and a whole lot of literature).
  4. Transfer all bill paying, automatic payments, etc. over to the new credit union account. I actually went so far as to keep a running list of places to look for accounts I might have linked with my bank account. Then I just set aside an afternoon to go through all of it, account by account.  Don’t expect to get everything settled that very afternoon; several of my accounts were on the verge of clearing a payment, so I needed to wait for that to go through.  There were also a few that had auto-payment processes I could only change offline by calling or mailing something in.
  5. Wait a few weeks and watch the old account to make sure there are no other automatic payments being taken out that you forgot about or checks left to clear.  My tack was to wait one week after the last thing cleared to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
  6. Close your for-profit bank account. The bank employee who helps you do this may ask what your reasons are. Feel free to get as activisty as you want, but you don’t owe them an explanation.  Money speaks for itself.  Walk out (or hang up) with a check for your remaining balance.
  7. Deposit that check at your new credit union.
  8. Reap rewards.
How to transition from your for-profit bank to a credit union.

Sun Boxes Mobile App


At long last, I am very excited to announce the launch of the Sun Boxes Mobile App in both the iOS (iTunes) store and the Android store!    You may recall from an earlier post that I built the Sun Boxes website last year.  Sun Boxes is a sound installation by Craig Colorusso that uses solar power to play a series of guitar drone notes out of single speakers.  Sounds mundane, perhaps, but it is one of the most humbly powerful pieces of art I’ve seen recently.  I feel lucky to be a part of its momentum!

Our aim with the mobile app was not only to give users an easy way to interact with the piece by themselves, but also to encourage them to stage their own installation of the piece by turning their and their friend’s devices into individual Sun Boxes.


For this project, I was user experience designer, graphic designer, as well as front-end developer. Back-end development was handled expertly by my long-time collaborator and all around kind person, Mark Henderson. He created an API for the project, so you can expect more interfaces to join the fray soon.

Having never built an app myself (I’ve only designed them in the past), I have many, many resources to thank in making this possible.  First and foremost, we leveraged the Phonegap platform in order to develop for both iOS and Android simultaneously, using the web technologies we already know and love.  Steven Levithan‘s Date Format plug-in made handling times much easier than it would have otherwise been.  Jason Job’s epic blog post about archiving and distributing iOS builds saved me from utter failure more than once.

And, as always, I would never get past “hello” without the amazing community that is Stack Overflow.

Sun Boxes Mobile App

The Little Ice Age & the Narrative Web

A recent pleasure-reading jaunt through the Internet impressed me in its fluidity, so I want to document it here as a great example of user narrative. It started when I opened the “Opinion Today” newsletter I receive daily from the New York Times.

In it, toward the bottom, was a small item on the Dot Earth blog about a study of the potential causes of the “Little Ice Age”, an era of depressed temperatures worldwide from the fourteenth century to the early twentieth.  While the study focused on the delicate nature of the global climate — how relatively small nudges can dramatically change local weather — I was left wondering more about this Little Ice Age.

So I looked up “Little Ice Age” on Wikipedia and was introduced to a scientifically and historically fascinating episode in human history.  A subset of that article discussed increased volcanic activity during the LIA, and linked to something called the Year Without A Summer, which I learned had wreaked havoc globally on crops and therefore on societies generally.

At the bottom of that article was a list of “See Also” links to similar events in climate/human history, which included such enticing titles as “New England’s Dark Day“, “White Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere“, and the tersely ominous “Volcanic winter“. In the span of a half an hour, my life had gained an entirely new category of fascination — the dramatic, unpredictable, worldwide climate event resulting from a volcanic eruption.

Whenever episodes like this crop up, I am struck by how seamless and almost lubricated the activity of gathering information has become due to the Internet.  It took me less than an hour to find out more about this topic than a full day (at least) in a library would have done just fifteen years ago.

At first this revelation (which I have almost daily), made me feel very hopeful about humanity.  With near-universal access to all of this information, how will we avoid an imminent era of peace and unity?  Almost as soon as I had that thought, I began to feel a sense of the precariousness of  both factual authority and access to certain kinds of information.

Because it’s clear that my journey depended almost entirely on the sphere of information I live in — one that includes the New York Times, scientific journals, and Wikipedia.  What sorts of narratives are emerging for people who either don’t find those sources of information credible, don’t know they exist, don’t have access to the Internet, or can’t even read? How far apart is my worldview from theirs? How do we start to see the world more similarly, thus making unity even a marginal possibility?

The Little Ice Age & the Narrative Web

Some Sites

My pal Mark and I launched Some Demands on October 15, 2011, 28 days after the first gathering in Zucotti Park (and three days after having the idea for the site!). While public support of #occupy was rising, so were criticisms that the movement had no clear goals.

We started Some Actions on November 4, 2011, as Occupy Oakland called for and carried out a general strike. Growing numbers of people were asking what they could do to get involved beyond occupying public spaces.

Together, these two sites are known as Some Sites, and they aim to provide an open space for suggesting and voting on what needs to change and how to change it.

Some Sites

Occupy Wall Street & the Death of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Hearing about these two current events in the same news broadcasts this week has given me a bit of cultural whiplash.

I own and use a few Apple products, most of which I need in order to do my job.  They are elegant.  They are easy to use.  They are functional.  Despite all of these things, they are still consumer electronics that I paid a huge premium for.  They are not works of fine art, and they are certainly not works of transformative public policy.

So, while I agree wholeheartedly that Steve Jobs was a visionary who changed consumer electronics dramatically worldwide, the hagiographies that have been sprouting up everywhere are somewhat disturbing to me.  The man was a CEO whose main responsibility was to generate profits for his company’s shareholders.  This situation does not usually a saint make.  Furthermore,

Arik Hesseldahl of BusinessWeek magazine opined that “Jobs isn’t widely known for his association with philanthropic causes”, compared to Bill Gates’ efforts. After resuming control of Apple in 1997, Jobs eliminated all corporate philanthropy programs. -

In short, Steve Jobs was absolutely, fundamentally part of the 1% of American society holding over 75% of American wealth (and likely 99% of its power and influence).  While I don’t view Mr. Jobs and his ilk as The Enemy, I do view them as a huge roadblock to meaningful reform in this country right now.

So, yes, let’s praise the man for his achievements.  But let’s also make an example out of him and encourage other wealthy entrepreneurs to spread their wealth around through philanthropy, through paying their share of federal and state taxes, and through agitating for policies that will help others less fortunate than them have the same opportunities for success that they had.

United States Income Distribution 1967-2003

Occupy Wall Street & the Death of Steve Jobs

I wish my government was this responsive

We get these Bed Bath & Beyond coupons in the mail roughly once a week. Perhaps you’ve seen them?

Anyway, I’ve never once used one, mostly because I don’t even know where one is around here.

So a few weeks ago I was looking at one of these coupons and it dawned on me: They obviously have my address; why can’t they just print the address of the nearest BBB on the coupon? Instead they have a “visit our website to locate your nearest store”, which, for lazy Americans like myself, is way too much to ask.

So I wrote them an email suggesting, among other things, that they change their mailouts:

Hi, BB&B  –

Two things:

1) I get your 20% coupons in the mail pretty regularly, though I don’t think I’ve ever once used one. I realized this week why: You have my address, obviously, yet you insist that I call or visit your website in order to determine the nearest store to me. If you could just print the address of that store ON THE COUPON, I might keep it in my car or something and drop by the location while I’m out and about.

2) Your website’s sitemap is worse than useless. I don’t know if you only have it there for bots or something, but in trying to figure out how to contact you, the sitemap was obviously of zero help to me.

Keep on truckin!

Today I got another Bed Bath & Beyond mailer and lo! it has the address of the nearest store on it.  Perhaps it was not just me giving them some common sense advice, but it still felt like amazing turnaround for an off-the-cuff suggestion.

If only my government was this responsive to common sense suggestions!

I wish my government was this responsive

Messes we knew we were making

Today, I came across the idea (probably via stackoverflow) of technical debt. To quote Martin Fowler:

You have a piece of functionality that you need to add to your system. You see two ways to do it, one is quick to do but is messy – you are sure that it will make further changes harder in the future. The other results in a cleaner design, but will take longer to put in place.

Technical Debt is a wonderful metaphor developed by Ward Cunningham to help us think about this problem.

As is my wont, I immediately saw how this problem is not confined to the world of software (and web) development, but really to any project at all that has an element of iteration to it.

For example, consider making a table.  You really need this table fast, so you don’t spend as much time putting it together as you could.  Maybe you don’t let the glue set long enough or you don’t countersink the wood screws.  Whatever the shortcut, shortcuts have consequences.  Your table might not last long or put up with continued use.

To go even further, away from the arena of “making stuff”, think about a relationship in your life where many initial missteps were made that were not vetted at the time.  Those missteps almost always come back to haunt you once the relationship is tested, even if that test is just the passing of time.

Now, as many have pointed out, sometimes the debt is necessary.  Martin Fowler again:

The metaphor also explains why it may be sensible to do the quick and dirty approach. Just as a business incurs some debt to take advantage of a market opportunity developers may incur technical debt to hit an important deadline.

So how can we get better at knowing the difference between the debt black hole and the debt that confers an advantage?  Which messes are worth making?  I’ve been thinking of some criteria:

  • Have I encountered this situation in the past, and the debt just wasn’t worth it?  This is seemingly obvious, but oftentimes I find myself glossing over how bad it was last time.  It’s better to really get inside of how frustrating the shortcut ultimately was.
  • Does it just keep bothering me?  This sounds vague, but I think all of us know what it’s like to have a decision or conflict or debt that gnaws at our minds.
  • Will it possibly be the ruin of my project?  This is heavy, but needs to be asked, point-blank, at key decision times.  Sometimes we don’t want to believe something seemingly so small (and so helpful!) could undermine everything, especially if the alternative route is painful in any way.  Interestingly, many times I’ve confronted this metric only to realize that I actually didn’t care if the project destroyed itself. Which made me realize I was spending my time on the wrong project!
I’m sure there are countless other questions I ask myself when trying to decide how best to move forward, questions which barely scratch the surface of my consciousness.  Enumerating them, I hope, will make me more likely to actually ask them, and therefore make better judgment calls about incurring debts — technical, emotional, or otherwise.
Messes we knew we were making

“Our Mission”

The subtitle of this post could be “how to get people to read your statement of philosophy” or “how to introduce yourself to a new user”.

Frequently, clients want to include a page on their website that both welcomes the new user into their world and also expresses their mission and philosophy in detail. They also often want this page listed first in their main navigation, which is tough from a user-focused perspective. I usually advocate putting the things first that your users are putting first, and reading a lengthy essay on how your organization views the world is almost never their primary goal when visiting your website.

But I was recently disarmed by just such a main navigation point, and it had everything to do with the language.  The link said, “Hello”.  As a human, my immediate impulse was to say “hello” back, and the only way I knew how to do this in the context of visiting a website was to click the link.

That transaction amazed me, not least because once I got to the page I realized it was just the usual four paragraphs of abstract corporate purpose.  I had unwittingly clicked through to a mission statement!

Not to put too fine a point on it here, but the words we use in the context of applications matter (and not just for SEO).  A door that says “pull” is very different than a door that says “push”.  A link that says “hello” or “start here” or “read me” feels very different than a link that says “our mission” or “our philosophy” or “who we are”.  Had this nav point said one of the latter, I almost certainly would not have clicked it.

But really the lesson of my amazing experience is that even if you do manage to get a user at “hello”, you aren’t guaranteed a relationship with that user until you give them something worth clicking to.

“Our Mission”

The Limits of User Advocacy or Why Everyone Should Be Investing in Usability Testing

The field of “user experience” is in a phase right now where everybody seems to acknowledge that it’s important, but no one wants to actually invest the time and money to make users the centerpiece of their web strategy.  Even when there is a testing phase baked into projects, it’s usually one week (or less) spent asking four or five volunteers to complete a remedial set of tasks in the company of a test-giver who can conveniently prompt certain behavior.  Ultimately, we often end up gambling on the expertise of the individuals on the web team rather than getting some robust data from actual site users.

This isn’t to say my and my colleagues’ expertise is not vast!  Advocating for users is an important part of all our  jobs — from information architecture, to user experience to strategy, to front-end development, to back-end integration.  But a bunch of people who make the Internet for a living have got to have a somewhat skewed perspective on how said Internet is actually being used.  At some point, if the project is going to be a long-term success, the actual user needs to be included in the planning.

To be fair, not all web endeavors require a robust usability testing phase.  The less app-like a website is — that is, the less complex a user’s interaction with the site will be — the less user testing it likely requires.  I even made a (terrifically complex) chart to illustrate this:

(Where 0% appiness is equivalent to an ad campaign site that does not contain a single user interaction more complex than a hyperlink, and where “infinite” weeks spent on usability testing means “on-going”.)

However, at this point in the web’s development, we’d be hard-pressed to find a site that is truly 0% appy.  Even a site that is ultimately just an ad campaign usually attempts to get information from its users via a form of some kind.  Furthermore, in my experience, the more brochure-like a site is, the more likely it is that there are some innovative design leaps being taken by the creative minds involved in its production — which recommends more usability testing.

Even furthermore, we seem to have finally gotten to a place where everyone recognizes that wholesale redesigns every few years is suboptimal.  Instead, web-makers are opting instead to continually tweak and update (often based on user feedback! Ahem).

So, really, that chart up there should look like this:

That’s right. I pulled out an asymptote.  Well, almost an asymptote.

Clearly, as I am arguing in this very post, you should not take my word for it.  There’s actual research backing up my mad claims!  Check it:

Wikipedia’s “References” section for its article on Usability Testing is a great place to start, though it focuses on user testing generally, not specifically for websites.

Unsurprisingly, there are whole blogs devoted to the science of usability research.  Though one should be skeptical of the data on a site promoting a service it provides, there’s a lot of externally-funded stuff on there.

If you’ve got an extra $499 laying around, this report from Forrester Research looks promising: Need To Cut Costs? Improve the Web Site Experience.

I’m sure there’s even a kit out there to help you transform user advocacy into cold, hard usability testing. Don’t make me Google this stuff for you.





The Limits of User Advocacy or Why Everyone Should Be Investing in Usability Testing

Designers vs. Developers

jennamarino So tired of the “designers need to code” talk. We heard you.. and you … and you. Got it. Is there anyone still arguing the fact?

skybondsor @jennamarino I don’t think it’s nearly this cut & dried. I’m sure you would agree that devs with some design experience create better sites.

jennamarino @skybondsor hell yes, I agree! Yet you never hear that argument stated. Where is that posting? Where is that long drawn out discussion?

skybondsor @jennamarino I think my entire career is that post/discussion! But now you have inspired me to write it. Stay tuned!

So here we are.  How did we get here?  How did creating websites become a zero-sum game between “designers” and “developers”?

In short, we got here because the advertising world glommed onto the Internet first and thus dominated the thinking on what websites could and should be.  It was only fairly recently that everyone could agree websites are (and should be) more like applications and devices than like an ad in a magazine.  So we have this vestigial ad agency model where clients hire “creatives” to come up with a concept, which they then pass on to the “engineers” to build; rinse and repeat with each new “campaign cycle”.

However, as we are all (mostly) well aware at this point, users increasingly want websites to do things for them, sometimes complicated things, and they want those interactions to be intuitive.  It’s nice if the experience is also beautiful, but passively absorbing graphic assets is neither the ideal nor the dominant user case on the web these days.  Thus, the industrial design model is coming to seem ever more apt. In that model, many areas of expertise come to bear on creating an intuitive, usable product.

So, what is industrial design, exactly? According to Wikipedia:

Industrial design is the use of a combination of applied art and applied science to improve the aesthetics, ergonomics, and usability of a product, but it may also be used to improve the product’s marketability and production. The role of an industrial designer is to create and execute design solutions for problems of form, usability, physical ergonomics, marketing, brand development, and sales.

Wow!  Science AND art at the SAME TIME? Aesthetics AND usability?  From the ad-world perspective, this is a complete oxymoron. Creatives are not supposed to be analytical and engineers are not supposed to be creative. Usability and execution are supposedly the enemies of aesthetics.  And yet, here we have an age-old field where those things are expected to go hand in hand, often within the same person.

So, yes, it is very helpful when graphic designers have some coding experience; but it is also helpful when engineers have some eye for aesthetics.  These things are in constant interplay when creating an application. Everyone involved makes their own small decisions along the way that never reach the committee for consideration; it helps when those decisions always have the user’s experience in mind.

The familiar example is often that of a graphic designer creating visuals that are difficult or impossible to pull off inside of a browser.  But consider the developer who has to make a judgment call about a hover state that wasn’t fully described in the designs; hopefully that developer has enough of an aesthetic perspective to pick an interaction that fits with the overall design and is intuitive for the user (without having to call a meeting of every designer and stakeholder on the project).

Furthermore, consider code optimization; isn’t a big part of that aiming to make the user’s experience as seamless as possible? Knowing that users expect clicking “submit” to yield a wait of a few seconds — but not a wait of a minute — can help guide engineers’ priorities when designing the communication between  browser and server.

Obviously, there’s enough to graphic design, user experience planning, and programming that we should look with suspicion upon anyone claiming to do all of those things with equal expertise.  However, silo-ing our skills to the point where each perspective has no awareness of the others is dangerous.  At the very least it causes a base level of distrust amongst team members who are presumably working toward the same goal (user bliss).  At worst, it creates patchwork applications where “designed’ areas have a vastly different feel than areas of the site built entirely without graphic objectives in mind.

Designers vs. Developers

Toward a Moral Catharsis

While listening to NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, my husband (hereafter referred to as “JT”) and I heard a piece about same-sex marriage legistlation in NY state. NPR played a clip from a speech Republican Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward gave in 2007: “I knew when my son was very young that he was different… I knew that I had to say something and I just told the story of my family and why I believe with all my heart that it’s a civil rights issue…”

This prompted a lively (read: caffeine-fueled) discussion centering around morality, courage, and changing one’s mind.  JT opened by expressing his unease at people who come at a certain position because of personal experience, rather than because the position is philosophically correct.  Our go-to example of this is the pro-war parent who becomes a pacifist when their child is injured or killed in combat.

Our ensuing dialogue increasingly focused not just on the idea of changing one’s moral stance, but more specifically on how one changed one’s stance.  It is one thing to be the person who has rationally and emotionally considered their own as well as others’ viewpoints, and who has emerged with a balanced and empathetic viewpoint.  It is quite another to be the person who has changed one’s mind due to new information or personal experience.  The narrative this changed person tells about their change says a lot about something larger — a meta-morality, perhaps.

Obviously, there’s no shortage of voices in our culture calling for people to admit when they’ve been wrong.  And it has been my experience that in the last few years those calls are being heeded more and more, possibly as a backlash to the ironclad tone set by Bush during his presidency.  Apparently, our culture is beginning to get over the need for leaders who are steadfastly unwavering in their views.

However merely saying, “I’ve changed my mind” — without further explanation — is curiously unsatisfying.  It’s nearly as dissatisfying, in fact, as when no change takes place at all, as it glosses over the complexity of the transformation.  Merely switching sides appears self-serving and ultimately erodes one’s credibility.  More importantly, it doesn’t invite others to grapple with the issue as well.

What does feel satisfying is the complete narrative:  “Here’s what I thought before and why I thought it.  Then this and this and this happened and I realized how narrow my view had been.  I wish I had been able to see outside of my narrow view in the absence of personal experience.  I hope that others who hold my previous view might empathize with my experience and change their minds too.”

How much more courageous — and humble — does that sound?

A similar act of courage in our current cultural climate is admitting that you just don’t know, and that not knowing doesn’t necessarily diminish your overall authority.  One striking example of this happened recently at the first 2012 GOP debate. When asked about foreign policy, Herman Cain stated basically that he doesn’t have enough information to have a position.  He assumes that the President has access to classified information and expert opinions that he currently doesn’t, and in the absence of that information, he can’t make any substantive claims about foreign policy.

How different would President Obama’s shifts away from his campaign rhetoric appear if he were to be upfront about what made him change tack?

There is something deeply cathartic about admissions like these.  Something, dare I say it, culturally mature.  It gives me some hope that we are starting to be able to handle more complexity and ambiguity in our public discourse than has heretofore seemed possible.  And who knows — maybe the more this discourse invites everyone to change, the easier changing will become.

Toward a Moral Catharsis

The new Sun Boxes website is live!

This project is near and dear to my heart.  Sun Boxes is something I want as many people as possible to experience and it’s really satisfying to get to be part of making that happen.

The most exciting part of the site is the part I didn’t build!  The incomparable Sean Carstensen put together a Flash-based app which allows web users to hear the cycle of sounds that comprise Sun Boxes while seeing a slideshow of the boxes in action.  We hope to expand this experience to mobile devices, and to add functionality that encourages users to “stage” Sun Boxes on their own with as many devices as they have at hand.

Also coming soon: the Sun Boxes store! T-shirts, recordings, and things so exciting I’m not allowed to tell you about them!

I built the site on the WordPress platform, with jQuery as the primary JS platform.  For the newsletter sign-up, I used Quad’s excellent script for using AJAX on the DreamHost list signup form.  I did mod it slightly, as I am using more than the customary name and email fields on the site.  In order to avoid the tedium of spelling out each extra variable, I modded Quad’s submitToList() function to just grab every non-submit form input and serialized it all using jQuery’s serializeArray() function.  Damn if that wasn’t just easy as pie!

Check it out:

The new Sun Boxes website is live!

Keg O’ Tunes

My adolescence is punctuated by important mixtapes.  One in particular overshadows all the rest, having defined the scope of my music taste for the better part of a decade.  It is the mighty “Keg O’ Tunes”.

I have no idea who made this mix.  It appeared at some point in my sister’s car during the summer of 1992, presumably having been lifted from the office of the country club she was a lifeguard at.

This post is basically a thank-you note to that unknown mixtape author who introduced my 13-year-old self to the Smiths, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, the English Beat, General Public, and the Replacements.  Who would I be now without this mix? There’s just no telling.

Track Listing

Side A

  1. Soviet Snow by Shona (misspelled Shana in the notes) Laing
  2. The Celiba Sea by Vigil
  3. What Have I Done To Deserve This by the Pet Shop Boys
  4. I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boom Town Rats
  5. Cut Me Down by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
  6. Shell Shock by New Order
  7. No Stars by Figures on a Beach
  8. A Million Things by the Lucy Show
  9. The Game by Echo & the Bunnymen
  10. Girlfriend in a Coma by the Smiths
  11. Mirror in the Bathroom by the English Beat

Side B

  1. Mexican Radio by Wall of Voodoo
  2. Pop Music by M
  3. Don’t Go by Yaz
  4. End of the World as We Know It by REM
  5. Let’s Go To Bed by the Cure
  6. Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads
  7. Phantom Bride by Erasure
  8. Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes
  9. Faults & All by General Public
  10. She Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals
  11. Everyday I Write the Book by Elvis Costello
  12. A New England by Billy Bragg
  13. Can’t Hardly Wait by the Replacements
  14. Superman by REM

I recently recreated Keg O’ Tunes as a playlist in iTunes.  It was interesting which tracks I already had as MP3s (Girlfriend in a Coma, Mirror in the Bathroom, Superman) and which ones I had a very hard time tracking down (No Stars, A Million Things).  It was also interesting how many nuances of the physical artifact were lost.  On the mixtape, Psycho Killer begins abruptly and with some weird tone problems presumably left over from whatever tape was serving as the “master” in this case.  And the end of the song gets cut off prematurely.  The MP3 can’t be made to behave this way.

Ultimately the recreation process made me think about how much less precious a mix is when it arrives via ZIP file.  Even a mix CD fails (and failed, when it first emerged) to stir me the way a mixtape did and does.  It used to take hours to make a good tape — first planning what should be on it, then really considering the order for the songs, queuing up  each cassette, trying to make the transitions between songs as non-obnoxious as possible (though now I find the click from hitting stop/record really endearing).

My nostalgia doesn’t delude me into thinking there aren’t other things serving the purpose of the mixtape in friendships and romances now, but I don’t think I know what they are.  If I was 13 now and had a crush on someone, how would I let them know it?

Update 9/12/2020

This mix still rules, so I just turned it into a playlist on YouTube:

Keg O’ Tunes

The @font-face future is STILL not yet now

Ever month or two, I revisit the state of @font-face on the web to make sure I don’t need to update or overhaul last summer’s screed about web fonts. Believe me, I am anxiously awaiting the day when everything I said in that post is no longer true or — better yet — irrelevant.

Today is still not that day, despite my having found — how did I miss it? — A List Apart’s article on the topic that predates my own. The last few paragraphs really underscore why we are still only at the “crossing” with fonts:

…I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having an outside entity in control of something as basic and fundamental to the design of my site as a typeface. Further, every independent web designer I’ve spoken to about it has said they simply would not, under any circumstances, saddle a client with an ongoing expense for fonts.

And, regarding actual implementation:

All together now, let’s get really confused…

The waiting continues.

The @font-face future is STILL not yet now

Honing a Cross-Browser Font Stack

It is a testament to many things that I didn’t find this problem sooner, but apparently it is more difficult to arrive at an effective cross-browser font stack than I previously thought.

I have the good fortune to be working on a website redesign with a client and a designer who are realistic about web fonts.  They agreed that while Trade Gothic Condensed No. 18 was ideal for the headlines on the site, Arial Narrow would suffice when users didn’t have Trade Gothic installed.  Thus began my epic quest for a font stack that would work in all browsers.

The Problem

At the outset, I couldn’t figure out why font-family: "Trade Gothic Condensed No.18", "Arial Narrow", Arial, sans-serif; was not doing the trick. It wasn’t just not showing up on one or two browsers, it wasn’t showing up on any of them!

So I did a search for “font-family: trade gothic”. After a few modifications to my search, I found a number of situations where developers had “TradeGothic” in their font stack. Having never seen this space-less construction, I dug deeper.

Eventually, my search turned up a very thorough blog post by Rachael Moore fittingly titled Declare a Safe Font Stack With CSS Font-Family?, the upshot of which was that different browsers use different standards for naming fonts and font families.

Some interpret spaces in the name as spaces, some as dashes, and some prefer no spaces at all.  (I am not too proud to admit that this led me to hours of creating the most enormous font stack ever conceived, where I listed every possible permutation of “Trade Gothic Condensed No.18” with spaces, without spaces, with dashes, without dashes, with some words abbreviated and some not, etc).

Furthermore, some browsers (for instance Chrome) will accept styling inside the family name, e.g. “Arial Narrow Bold”; whereas other browsers (Firefox, for instance) take only family names, e.g. “Trade Gothic”, and relegate styling such as bold or italic (or “Condensed No.18”) to CSS properties like font-style and font-weight.

This last revelation led almost instantly to despair for me.  How was I going to be able to achieve bold for one browser but not the other without some very disappointing hacks? What could I possibly do about “condensed”?

The Solution

Luckily in my case I wasn’t trying to bold something.  Going forward, I’ll probably just always do that with font-weight rather than in the font name.  (Let’s not start thinking about what’s going to happen when I want a non-bolded font to cascade down to a bolded one).

But condensed was pretty key to my current mission.   This is where Moore’s post came in handy once again, as it introduced me to the concept of “font-stretch”.

Never heard of it? Neither had I.  Do a Google search for it. Click that w3schools link and then ctrl-F “font-stretch”.  Weird, right? Read on and you’ll discover what I did, which is that apparently this property is a spottily implemented one at best, and at the very least controversial. Luckily for us, Firefox, the main perp as regards strict font-family names, has started supporting font-stretch.  Also, and this is key, the other browsers seem to ignore it.

So, drumroll please, here is my working cross-browser font stack for “Trade Gothic Condensed No.18”:

font-stretch: condensed; font-family: "TradeGothic-CondEighteen", "Trade Gothic Cond Eighteen", "Trade Gothic Condensed Eighteen", "Trade Gothic", "TradeGothic", "Trade-Gothic", "ArialNarrow", "Arial-Narrow", "Arial Narrow", Arial, sans-serif;

Honing a Cross-Browser Font Stack

Conditional Statements As A Weapon

A friend of mine recently sent me this article in defense of using inline hacks instead of conditional statements for IE-specific styles.  I disagree with a lot of things in that article (see user Alex’s comments for a good summary of my thoughts), but I mostly use conditional statements for two reasons: 1) It makes code easier to maintain; and 2) I want to punish IE users.  If I have to use extra HTTP requests to exact said punishment, so be it.

Get a real browser.

Conditional Statements As A Weapon

Anatomy of a Web Page: Inline Tabs

The graphical conceit of tabs is a prevalent one on the web, and that fact is not without justification. Hyperlinks are like little doors suggesting treasure troves behind, tabs marked “top secret” in an FBI agent’s filofax. One can find unordered lists of main navigation links marauding as file folder tabs all over the Internet.

Which is all well and good, but what happens when tabs are not merely hyperlinks to other pages, but are rather intended to show and hide information without a page refresh?  The problem of how to semantically mark up such inline tabs has troubled me for years. Yes, years.

I started out making them their own unordered list of links, connected only by JavaScript to their corresponding content further down the page.  But this created a semantically empty set of links that were useless to users browsing without JavaScript.  To solve that conundrum, I even went so far as to generate the HTML for the tab links on the fly using JavaScript.

My next generation thinking on this problem led me to all kinds of fanciness involving definition lists (one of my favorite browser elements) and absolute positioning.  The idea was to have each tab be the DT of a corresponding DD — a semantically sound idea, but a very difficult structure to transform into graphical tabs with only CSS and a little JavaScript.

At long last, about a year ago, it occurred to me — something so fundamental to the Internet, I couldn’t believe I had overlooked it for so long.  Of course there was a deeply semantic way for me to link a list of hyperlinks at the top of a page to corresponding set of content further down: named anchors.  Duh!

All I had to do was write a quick JavaScript to hide my inactive tabs on page load and then convert links to “#divName” into a show/hide function.  So easy!  So obvious!  Now my inline tabs not only degrade nicely for users browsing without JavaScript but are also extremely friendly to search engines.

Anatomy of a Web Page: Inline Tabs

Time as a Room: The Metaphysics of 12 Monkeys

The movie “12 Monkeys”, directed by Terry Gilliam, is one of my favorite films of all time.  I recently  revisited another Gilliam film, “Brazil”, which has similar themes, and I was reminded of why I find “12 Monkeys” to be the better film.  (What follows assumes you’ve seen and can remember these films.)

Both films take up as their primary theme a sense of modern, epistemic claustrophobia.  In the case of “Brazil”, the trap — however terrifying and complete — is purely mundane.  While the bureaucracy itself is the main villain against which the protaganist strives, there are individual faces to it that are utterly culpable.  Add a thousand Jack Lints together and you get an out-of-control and airtight bureaucracy easily capable of having one hand wash the other.

In “12 Monkeys”, one is ensnared by time or fate itself.  There is no escape from what has already happened, which includes not just the past but also the present and the future.  Furthermore, because you are at the mercy of what seems to be natural law, there is no one to appeal to, no one to blame.  The fatalism seems to be complete.

However, unlike in “Brazil”, all is not lost in the world of “12 Monkeys”.  This fatalism, in its completion, circles around to hope. In the final scene, which is also shown as a flash-forward/back throughout the film, the main character sees a future version of himself die.  On the face of it, this is an awful, nightmarish event.  In fact, the protagonist has been having nightmares about it his entire life.

Where the hope lies, for me, is in the exchange of gazes between the protagonist-as-child and the protagonist-as-adult’s love interest. While he has no idea what is going on or who these people are, she knows exactly who he is and what is happening.  The thought I see running through her mind is, “It’s all starting over.”

It’s as if the film is saying, “Don’t worry, this has always happened and will always happen; nothing is starting or ending really.”  Gilliam may feel that closed circuit as an incarceration of sorts, but to me it’s got a web-of-life element of comfort to it.  Not only will I be young me and old me forever, simultaneously, but I’ll also be you and the people I know and a rock and a tree, etc.  What could be more comforting than the certainty of eternal existence?

Time as a Room: The Metaphysics of 12 Monkeys

Storyboards vs. Wireframes

I’ve been doing a lot more wireframing lately and it has me thinking about the usefulness of both the form and the term. What is a wireframe? To paraphrase Wikipedia, a wireframe is a basic visual guide used in interface design to suggest the structure of a website or webpage.  “Structure” in that definition could be anything from a user’s path across the site to the hierarchy of information on a single page (see more on this at w3avenue).

In many of the web projects I’ve been involved with over the years, there has not been a user-interface lead dedicated to the process of creating wireframes.  The task has generally fallen onto a designer or developer.  The former tend to wireframe in a graphics editor like Photoshop, and the latter tend to wireframe in HTML.  Once in a while the wireframer will use “diagramming” software like OmniGraffle, however I find those generally get used as graphics editors in the end.

The wireframing I’ve been doing lately tends to focus on page hierarchy rather than user flows, but in the past I have been involved in projects that favored user flow over page hierarchy.  Either way, I don’t think wireframes are doing what they could be doing for communicating to all the involved stakeholders what the ultimate structure of the site or application will be. When the process is too design-focused, the wireframes become merely a black-and-white Round Zero of design.  When the process is too user flow focused, wireframes can become unintelligible to less technical stakeholders.  (For a more detailed discussion of these tensions, see Dan Brown’s “Where the Wireframes Are”.)

I’ve begun to consider advocating for more of a storyboard approach to structural planning.  Frequently the term “storyboard” is reserved for experiences with a single, linear narrative such as movies and would thus seem to conflict with the web’s choose-your-own-adventure vibe.  However, while web producers (in this case I mean literally anyone producing the internet) have to juggle multiple perspectives and motives when creating a website, users come to a website with an objective in my mind and their perspective on the site always remains narratively their own.

Thus, I’ve found it increasingly useful to think of the sites I build in terms of use cases, works flows, and user narratives.  So why not also adopt the terminology of narrative? In addition to being truer to the task at hand, the idea of “storyboarding” has the added reputation of being fun, even spontaneous.  Indeed, some are even advocating for the sketch as a legitimate structural tool.

All in all, better planning means better websites and I think good web planning is more apt to happen when people are engaged, understand the process, and when the user always remains at the focus of it.

Storyboards vs. Wireframes

Why the future is not yet now: The truth about @font-face

I’ve had a number of clients come to me recently claiming that — because of growing browser support for the CSS rule @font-face — the future is now and they should be able to have whatever fonts they want for body copy (and everything else).  They’ve seen the Google Font API or Typekit and they’re certain that the floodgates have finally opened.  What ensues is a painful conversation about intellectual property, font foundries, and free fonts.

Unfortunately, the future is not now.  You cannot use Helvetica or Trade Gothic for your body copy unless said body copy is part of a Flash movie (or worse an image!).  It is still illegal to make rights-protected fonts downloadable on your website — which is what @font-face does.  Yes, you can now easily embed web-licensed fonts on your website.  And yes there are many services making this easy and fast to do.  But I have yet to meet a professional graphic designer who is willing to confine themselves to those fonts.

Why the future is not yet now: The truth about @font-face

Urban Planners or Spiders on Drugs?

My friend Nick recently pointed me in the direction of a beautiful work of information artistry: Subway Systems of the World, Presented on the Same Scale. It reminded me of that study of spiders on drugs and the various sorts of webs they weave from some years back.

If we use the latter as a key to the former, it appears that Moscow’s and Madrid’s metros were designed by a spider on benzadrine, while Chicago’s was built by a spider on chloral hydrate.

Urban Planners or Spiders on Drugs?

The Carbon Cycle & the Notion of Intellectual Property

When I was a freshman in college, I was trying to major in creative writing. My professor in the “creative writing 2” course was a woman whose name I have long since forgotten, but little snippets she’d read us out of her fiction have stuck with me.

One was about a man who would stand on a freeway overpass in LA with a baton and “conduct” traffic. This was something that she really saw — everyday on her commute at the time — and she worked it into the narrative of the novel she was writing.

I’ve thought of that man often over the years, but today I found myself wondering how he would feel were he to read her novel and see himself there. Would he be angry that she hadn’t asked his permission to be a character? Would he be honored?

This got me thinking further: What if someone reading her novel had found the idea of conducting traffic so charming that the reader then took up the practice? What if a different author then wrote about that reader?

What if the original conductor himself had been inspired by a story he’d read that my professor didn’t know existed, but which she ended up referencing in her novel, which was then read by a third person who had read the original and thought my professor’s reference had been intentional?

Perhaps ideas in art cycle through the world much like atoms of carbon do.

The Carbon Cycle & the Notion of Intellectual Property

Alphabetical Shuffle: Dance Card Denied

The Beatles confess, “I’m happy just to dance with you.” And Animal Collective immediately reply, “I’m not.”

What’s interesting about this, to me, is that the Beatles became less danceable over the course of their career, while Animal Collective have become more so.

For more on Alphabetical Shuffle, click the linked tag.  Or find out what on Earth is is in my original post about it.

Alphabetical Shuffle: Dance Card Denied

Alphabetical Shuffle: How?

The stretch of songs beginning with “How” are an aching, beautiful set, and has me wondering another very human question: Why is “How” so difficult sometimes? It can be even more difficult than “Why”.

How (The Cranberries)
How Can I Tell You (Cat Stevens)
How Deep is Your Love (The Bee Gees)
How Do I Let A Good Man Down? (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings)
How Do You Sleep? (Evangelicals)
How Do You Sleep? (John Lennon)
How Does It Feel? (Ronettes)
How Does It Feel? (Spacemen 3)
How Long Do I Have To Wait For You? (Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings)
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths)
How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You) (Junior Walker & the All Stars)
How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You) (Marvin Gaye)
How You Been (Certainly, Sir)
How? (John Lennon)

For more on Alphabetical Shuffle, click the linked tag.  Or find out what on Earth is is in my original post about it.

Alphabetical Shuffle: How?

Alphabetical Shuffle: Car, car chase terror

I’ve been listening to all of my songs in alphabetical order by title for a few weeks now (only while at work). Occasionally, a true bit of poetry emerges from what is ultimately a sort of shuffle, and while I mostly comment on this via Twitter, I’m going to start documenting such moments here when they require lengthier explanation. Here’s one now…

“Car” by Built To Spill followed by “car chase terror!” by M83

“Car” is one of my favorite Built To Spill songs and it has a wonderful line in it: “I want to see movies of my dreams.” “car chase terror!” seems like the audio portion of a movie about someone’s dream and thus seems like a fitting response to that line. It adds a little careful-what-you-wish-for element as well, since this particular dream seems more like a nightmare.

Alphabetical Shuffle: Car, car chase terror

Go Solo

Several years ago, while at a party, a friend of mine remarked that musicians tend to fare better once they go solo after having been in a band. I think his statement was something like, “I should just go solo; everybody does better once they go solo.” This prompted us to start listing examples and counter examples. It dominated the conversation at that party and well beyond.

Recently, while attempting to bring some order to the files on an old hard drive, I found the list we made and was again amused. Since I now have a blog, I can post it here! And hopefully the comments feature will allow the list to grow.

I’ve added my current commentary in brackets.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –
First, the rules we gradually established were:

  • The band cannot have contained the solo artist’s name (e.g. Paul Simon / Simon & Garfunkel doesn’t count)
  • The band must have temporally preceded the solo career (e.g. George Harrison / Traveling Wilburys doesn’t count)
  • Solo career means solo MUSIC career (e.g. Keanu Reeves / Dogstar doesn’t count)
  • Solo career also means SOLO career (e.g. Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven doesn’t count)
  • Success/popularity is measured by record sales (I’ve been using the RIAA database to figure gold/platinum sales — thanks, Eric [Roston, I assume? Also, this database seems a lot crappier for doing this kind of research now.])

Where there has been controversy, I’ve relayed the RIAA stats as the ratio of the number of solo records that went either gold or platinum to the number of band records that did.

[Additionally, I’ve now italicized examples on this list I find highly suspect, but that, due to the aforementioned crappification of the RIAA database, I am too lazy to do the math for.]

Ryan Adams (Whiskey Town)
Beyonce (Destiny’s Child)
Bjork (The Sugarcubes)
Bobby Brown (New Edition)
Busta Rhymes (Leaders of the New School)
David Cassidy (The Partridge Family)
Nick Cave (The Birthday Party)
Eric Clapton (Cream)
George Clinton (Parliament Funkadelic)
Phil Collins (Genesis)
Dr. Dre (NWA)
Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo)
Eminem (D-12)
Brian Eno (Roxy Music)
Roky Erickson (The 13th Floor Elevators)
Peter Frampton (Humble Pie)
Peter Gabriel (Genesis)
Juliana Hatfield (Blake Babies)
Lauryn Hill (The Fugees)
Billy Idol (Generation X)
Michael Jackson (The Jackson Five)
Joan Jett (The Runaways)
Janis Joplin (Big Brother)
Paula Kelly (The Drop Nineteens)
Ben Kweller (Radish)
Kool Moe Dee (Treacherous Three)
Ted Leo (Chisel)
Aimee Mann (Til Tuesday)
Ricky Martin (Menudo) [This one’s weird — isn’t Menudo still a “band”?]
Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs)
George Michael (Wham!)
Van Morrison (Them)
Ozzy Osborne (Black Sabbath) — 47:27
Iggy Pop (The Stooges)
Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground) — 2:0
Lionel Ritchie (The Commodores)
Diana Ross (The Supremes) — 19:5
Elliot Smith (Heatmiser)
Will Smith (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince)
Rod Stewart (The Faces)
Sting (Police) — 32:25
Justin Timberlake (N’Sync)
Tupac (Digital Underground)
Steve Winwood (Traffic)
Neil Young (Buffalo Springfield)

And the even more controversial:
Morrissey (The Smiths) — 3:3
Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) — 0:0
Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac) — I’m leaving this up here for history’s sake, but 17:46.
Frank Zappa (The Mothers of Invention) — 1:1

Go Solo

My favorite music of 2008

My friend Mike inspired me to do this. Here are some of my favorite records that came out in 2008, in alphabetical order:

Agathe Max “This Silver String”
Bohren & der Club of Gore “Dolores”
The Breeders “Mountain Battles”
Brightblack Morning Light “Motion To Rejoin”
The Bug “London Zoo”
Dan Friel “Ghost Town”
Goslings “Occasion”
Growing “All The Way”
Health “Disco”
Ho-Ag “Doctor Cowboy”
Hot Chip “Made In The Dark”
Icy Demons “Miami Ice”
Meho Plaza “Meho Plaza”
Mount Eerie “Black Wooden Ceiling Opening”
Parts & Labor “Receivers”
Santogold “Santogold”
Thunderhole “Animals, Monsters, & Fat People”

Great records I discovered this year but didn’t come out this year include:

Amy Winehouse “Back To Black”
Animal Hospital “Memory”
Aphex Twin “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”
Apples In Stereo “New Magnetic Wonder”
Brian Eno “Here Come the Warm Jets”
Can “Delay 1968” and “Ege Bamyasi”
A Certain Ratio “Sextet”
David Bowie “Low” and “Heroes” and “Lodger”
Delta 5 “Singles and Session 1979-1981”
Dri “Smoke Rings”
Evangelicals “The Evening Descends”
Health “Health”
Justice [the title is a cross and I’m not sure how to do that]
T. Rex “Stars and Cars”
The Meters “The Meters”
The Microphones “The Glow Pt. 2”
Red Bennies “Announcing”
Six Finger Satellite “Severe Exposure”
The Slits “Cut”
A Sunny Day in Glasgow “Scribble Mural Comic Journal”
Television “Marquee Moon”
Unwound “Leaves Turn Inside You”

My favorite music of 2008

The Nuclear Option

Given our impending climatological doom, many scientists, bureaucrats, pundits, and my father have been suggesting a nuclear energy renaissance in the United States. There are three main reasons I believe this option should stay permanently off the table:

  1. It’s too expensive. The Rocky Mountain Institute makes the financial non-viability of nuclear plainly clear. How non-viable are we talking here? Try twice the cost of wind.
  2. The waste is geopolitically and environmentally toxic. I don’t know about you, but none of the current technologies for treating nuclear waste leaves me feeling particularly safe. Why this alone doesn’t rule nuclear out completely is testament to humanity’s painfully myopic decision-making tree.
  3. It’s not renewable. If “energy independence” is as big a goal as everyone claims these days, we should be avoiding tying our fortunes to yet another non-renewable fuel source proven to destabilize the regions where it’s found.

Why are we still even considering this?

The Nuclear Option

People of Earth: To Thine Own Email Address Be True

I have a fairly common last name. It’s not Smith or Jones or anything, but it’s been around the English-Speakers Surname Block a few times. And I have a very common first initial (i.e. not ‘Q’). Those two things — very common first initial followed by fairly common last name — comprise my email address with a popular webmail provider.

I guess I was an early adopter and scored an amazing username with them, because increasingly over the years I have received more and more email directed to people with the same last name as me, but a different first name beginning with the same letter. That’s fine; I usually just say, “Hey, it seems like you’re looking for a different [first initial] [last name], this is [first name].” And they apologize and move on.

Increasingly often, though, it isn’t emails directed at people who aren’t me, but account updates of some kind originating from people who have erroneously entered my email address as their own when purchasing plane tickets or ordering a book or, say, accruing points with a popular hotel chain. Thus begins our current tale.

I received my first email from the HHonors program at Hilton Hotels on November 7, 2008. Needless to say, it was not intended for me, but it was “My Way Account Summary and Deals” update. The email’s almost-illegibly-tiny footer warned me, “Please do not reply to this email. Mail sent to this address cannot be answered.”

So, adding insult to injury, I had to track down a contact email for these people. I politely informed them of the situation and “David” responded to me one day later. Clearly he had not read my email, however, because this was his response:

Thank you for your message to Hilton Reservations and Customer Care. It is my pleasure to assist you today with your request.

For security purposes, please respond with the United frequent flyer account number and birth date that we have on file for you.

Once we have verified your account, we will be glad to process your request.

If you have any further questions regarding your HHonors account, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

I replied:

I can’t supply you with that information since it wasn’t actually me who signed up for your program. Whoever [dude’s name] is, he erroneously typed in my email address instead of his when signing up. I suggest calling him to get the correct address.

Someone named Ursula responded to that message with:

As you have requested, your email address has been removed from our distribution list. Please allow 3 weeks for our systems to be completely updated. We appreciate your patience and understanding.

If you have any further questions regarding your HHonors account, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

I received my next HHonors missive a few days later. It was a mass mailing.

Dear people of Earth, please endeavor to remember your own email address. Thanks.

People of Earth: To Thine Own Email Address Be True

Dear Afterlife Overlords

For as long as I can remember, I have harbored this fantasy that when I die, there will be some benevolent being or beings who will answer all of my questions about the mysteries of life and the universe. I never remember caring much for other purported aspects of “Heaven”, like good food or clouds or temperate weather etc. I want(ed) answers!

As my good friend Fred* pointed out, it would be like the bonus features at the end of the DVD of your life.

So, though I am now nearly certain that I will never get this wish for answers fulfilled, I would like to begin recording the questions I would ask here. Feel free to add yours in a comment.

+ What the hell was going on before the Big Bang?

+ Is ESP bullshit?

+ How many native people lived in the Americas before white people and their diseases killed most of them?

+ What’s the deal with the Voynich Manuscript?

*Not his real name.

Dear Afterlife Overlords

Donate The Rebate!

As I’m sure those American readers out there are well aware, our federal government will be sending out rebate checks to most taxpayers this May in an effort to stimulate our faltering economy. Given the ballooning federal deficit and many challenges facing our country currently, I feel this rebate is recklessly ill-advised. To boot, many economists predict it will have almost no effect on the economy whatsoever.

Thus, I intend to donate my rebate to organizations doing the work I wish my federal tax dollars were doing. I encourage you not only to do the same, but also to take that further scary step of urging those around you to do it too! Crazy, I know.

Donate The Rebate!

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 2: What Makes A Good President and the Vulnerability Of Hope

I just read an article in the New Yorker about the role of charisma in making a good leader called The Choice: The Clinton-Obama battle reveals two very different ideas of the Presidency. The article contrasts Clinton as capable of navigating the government’s beauracracy toward incremental (but lasting?) change and Obama as a transformational idealist capable of bringing disparate groups together around common interests (I’m paraphrasing, possibly ham-fistedly). I am willing to buy into these characterizations somewhat, but was left wondering which type of person would make the better president.

So I started trawling the internet for articles by presidential historians (PHs) about what sort of president is the best sort of presdient. It seems that most PHs consider the best presidents in US history to be George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To quote a Rolling Stone article by a PH (about why Bush may go down in history as one of the worst presidents ever):

“These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office.”

(As a sidenote, by contrast: “Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties — Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush — have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust.”)

Randy Allgaier, in a very thoughtful post on his “unabashedly liberal” blog The Alligator, calls this ideal person The Transformational President, and comes to the conclusion that Barack Obama has the potential to be just such a president.

I voted for Obama yesterday in the Democractic Primary process for similar reasons to what Allgaier outlines in the above blogpost. (I’m not a registered Democrat, but my state has open primaries, so I went for it.) Since then, however, I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of conscience. It’s taken me a day or so to figure out what was brewing, but I think a big part of it is this: In the furor over Obama, I have somehow let down my very cynical guard toward politicians, and now that I have, the prospect of disappointment is making me feel very vulnerable. What follows feels very much like a confession, given how totally naive I think it is to let oneself become enamored of politicians or to let oneself look for transformation in the political process.

First, I will be bitterly disappointed if Obama does not achieve the nomination. Second, if he does, I will be bitterly disappointed if he does not win the national election. Third, I will be bitterly disappointed if he wins and governs badly, becomes embroiled in the typical political scandals, panders to this and that special interest, ignores issues I find to be of near-crisis-level importance currently (climate change, our disastrous pre-emptive foreign policy, education).

Yes, to dare to dream of a transformational leader feels very good, but the cynic in me feels incredibly vulnerable now, considering what recent history tells us about politics in this country.

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 2: What Makes A Good President and the Vulnerability Of Hope

The Graphological Implications of Rampant Computer Use

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about off and on since about 1999. It was at that time, when I was working at the Strand Bookstore, that I acquired a copy of Your Handwriting Can Change Your Life by Vimala Rodgers.

Yes, handwriting analysis, or graphology, may well be the worst kind of pseudo-science (though certainly trumped by astrology and phrenology); however, I do find it an interesting construct when considered as a metaphorical extension of Freud’s “superego” (Not his actual superego! His idea of it. (Furthermore, don’t jump to the conclusion that I habitually turn to Freud for useful commentary on human emotional structures. It’s an occasional turning, to be sure.)). In handwriting, we find one of the clearest and most cross-culturally consistent expressions of self-as-social-arbiter. Diaries aside, when one writes something, one intends for it to be legible; one is seeking to be understood, to communicate.

Given the psychic and cultural position of handwriting, what does it mean for (probably mostly Western) humanity that we are now transitioning away from handwriting entirely now, toward typing?

I hypothesize that this trend augurs a (possibly very scary) split between the self and its connection to the social world that surrounds it. How much more two-dimensional are our written communications now that they occur almost exclusively via typed text?

Perhaps other forms of expression will pick up the slack, or maybe the importance of our actual prose will come to dominate in a way that is equally expressive. Barring such creative work-arounds, though, I worry for each of our bridges between ego and superego.

The Graphological Implications of Rampant Computer Use

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 1: Civic Duty

I was just walking home from work and saw that the little sandwich board sign the town puts up to alert people that an election looms had been covered with snow. I had dutifully walked out onto the median and started kicking the snow off of it when two twenty-something, urban-clad white guys appeared.

One asked if it was relating to the primary, sort of implying that I had maybe erected the sign to begin with and I said, “Yeah, the primary is on February 5th. I didn’t put this sign up, I’m just…” “Doing your civic duty or some shit?” “Yeah, I guess.” We all chuckled.

I assumed they’d walk on and was just glad I’d escaped being made fun of or hit on, but no, they wanted to chat politics. “We gotta get that asshole and his crony friends out of power for good,” said Guy One. I asked who they were going to vote for (hoping that my assumption that they WOULD vote would maybe motivate them to actually do it). Guy Two immediately shouted, “Hillary!” Guy One was incredulous. “Why, man? It’s just the same bullshit.” “Because then Bill would be back! Bill was the best.” “Nah, nah. She wears the pants, man. Bill’s just hanging out in the background, puffing on a cigar… or a spliff…” More chuckles and then a sly glance my way to see how I’d respond to that.

I said gamely, “It’s hard to tell who’s wearing the pants in that relationship, isn’t it?” More chuckles. Then, from Guy One, “You smoke at all?” “Occasionally, yeah,” I said, not exactly lying, but speaking a truth from five years ago. “It’s hard to find a dealer around here, huh? Maybe not for you — girls get offered puffs everywhere, all the time right?” Luckily, my street had arrived. “Not in my experience, man, but it was nice talking to y’all! Vote!”

2008 US Presidential Election, Vol. 1: Civic Duty

Dirty Dancing’s Anti-Capitalist Message

Recently I, together with my housemates and a bottle of Bushmills, revisited Dirty Dancing. We were all floored by this scene when Robbie — one of several rich, privileged villains Baby is caught between in the film — busts out a copy of The Fountainhead, trying to underscore what a dog-eat-dog world it is we all live in.

A-plus, Hollywood. A-plus.

Dirty Dancing’s Anti-Capitalist Message

On Disposable Gender

In each stall of the women’s restroom at my workplace there is a little metal trashcan meant for menstruation-related refuse. 51% or more of you will be familiar with such things. What makes this particular incarnation of the beast interesting is the symbol on it indicating its purpose. A white and black icon depicts a hand releasing a long, cylindrical object with a female symbol on it.

It literally appears as though someone is jettisoning her gender. It got me wondering what it would mean if I could dispose of my gender. How would it work? What would it look like? It wouldn’t look like being male because that would just be substituting one gender for another. It wouldn’t even look like a somewhat-neutered Barbie or Ken doll, because they still retain many gendered traits.

Biologically, it would probably just look like me as a child or me as a geriatric, yes? So really gender is a phase, a space we all move through culturally from birth, but biologically only from roughly age fifteen to age fifty-five.

On Disposable Gender

Art as Complicator

I make art as … a complicator of social feeling. – Marion Coutts

Why the idea of art as complicator had never occurred to me before is probably testament to my spotty formal education on the topic; but since reading that quotation in an interview of the sometime Dog Faced Hermans frontwoman, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the idea.

Specifically, it’s helped me recontextualize the perennial question: If everything is art, how does some art seem to fail at being artful? Or, more commonly, Why does some art suck? This debate, whether I’m having it with myself or others, tends to devolve sooner or later to bolstering the notion that there’s no accounting for taste. But that’s not incredibly satisfying to me, so the question continues to come up.

With Ms. Coutts’ quotation in hand, I think I may finally have a good argument. Maybe art fails when it fails to complicate any part of reality, or any part of a perceived reality. I realize how tenuous notions of reality and perception are, but at least arguments can be made about them.

Taste, on the other hand, seems not only unengaging, but unengageable.

(This also sheds some further light on my complicated love for Clipse.)

Art as Complicator

Clipse is a Fine Wine

The chorus to the song “Trill” by Clipse goes thusly: “Bitch, I’m trill. Bitch, I’m so trill. Nigga, I’m trill. Nigga, I’m so trill.”

According to the Urban Dictionary, “trill” is either true + real or some contraction of “truly ill”. Either way, the word has positive connotations. So, ostenibly in this context, do the words “bitch” and “nigga”, whose meanings and etymologies I think we’re all familiar with at this point.

I’m a white American woman. While I could probably cry reclamation with regard to the word “bitch”, I certainly can’t for “nigga”. As it stands, I use neither word. The word “bitch” specifically seems like a real linguistic trap. Either I use it as an insult and thereby insult 51% of the population including myself, or I use it as a term of endearment and end up suggesting that the negative stereotypes of women being bossy or nagging or manipulative are worthy of celebration.

All of that said, I really love the song “Trill”. I love a lot of songs whose lyrics are reprehensible — reprehensibly cheesy, reprehensibly misogynist, etc. — but this song really gets to me by weaving these culturally complicated words so casually into its irresistable refrain. And it makes me feel conflicted.

On the one hand, I’m flatly alienated by the cultural signifiers at work in “Trill”. Not only are its lyrically stated values almost exactly not my values, but this music isn’t even intented for me. My demography is like the spandrel formed through the negative space of everything that Clipse positively embodies. I’m pointedly, deservedly excluded from their party.

On the other hand, this song is tops. The musicality of the language is undeniable. Clipse masterfully wields a diverse palette of syllables against a dark, squirming canvas of beats and synths. While not at all “funky” in the sense of what funk has come represent stylistically, you can see where a word like “funk” came to be a positive signifier in the context of music. This song is musically disgusting in the best possible way.

A few years ago I would have dismissed the song out of hand for the “on the one hand” elements above, but I’m at this point now where I sort of relish the discomfort. I relish the complexity of my relationship to this song. It’s like a very complicatedly flavored wine or chocolate or salad. It’s not an easy, but is absolutely an enjoyable, listen.

Clipse is a Fine Wine

Cultural Entropy, Vol. 1: Hyphy

Finding out about minute cultural enclaves always makes me reflect on the vastness and complexity of humanity’s modern situation. It seems like things are trending ever more toward the multi and myriad — a la our friend entropy.

For an immediate — er, possibly slightly past prime — example, I turn to Hyphy. Let’s list some attributes, courtesy of Wikipedia:

– gritty hip-hop
– playful, proliferant slang
– cars, specifically ghost riding the whip

Luckily enough for me, this example does not tempt toward pessimistic cultural bemoanment. Rather, it almost gets me excited about the sorts of cultural mishmashery we can expect from globalization and its comrades (I’m looking at you, Internet!).

What next? Southeast Asian women obsessed with flapper fashion, nuclear power, and shchi?

Cultural Entropy, Vol. 1: Hyphy

What happens to my consciousness when I die?

Clearly, given the resolutely slippery notion of consciousness combined with science’s resolutely reductionist view of human existence, the rational response is: My consciousness dies when I die.

But I didn’t always believe that, and lately I’m coming to think I might be better off with more comforting beliefs about The Afterlife.

As a young adult, I believed in some kind of reincarnation, orchestrated and overseen by benevolent higher beings who, if I asked really politely, would answer all of my unanswered questions about the mysteries of the universe. Etc.

Over the last several years, though, I’ve lost not only that belief but also its attendant comforts. Lately I’ve been thinking that when one dies, one is just dead; end of consciousness, end of story. All of one’s accumulated information, feeling, memory is just gone.

So, I’ve been depressed — and, more alarmingly, anxious. Am I living this precious life to the fullest? Is each moment living up to its potential? Rather than motivating me to seize the day, I’m immobilized by the anxiety that I’m not doing a good enough job of seizing the day.

But then a few months ago I was out with some friends and one of them put forward the idea that if the universe is as vast as we think it is and the development of life as unlikely as it seems, then our sheer existence as who we are, where we are is sort of like winning the evolutionary lottery.

For him, the mere thought of it inspires an almost giddy ecstasy — I imagine it as the way one feels when one manages, after having knocked it off the mantle, to catch the glass vase a second before it hits the floor. Or, even more mundanely, when mass transit forces align to make my typically 45-min commute to work last only 20 minutes.

While this idea offers some relief from the void science has left in my heart, it’s a rather dangerous idea. In the next sentence after explaining the idea, my friend also used it to justify why he had decided to have biological children — something I at the very least feel very conflicted about. His argument here is that if life is an ecstatic exercise in the unlikely, why not invite as many people to the party as possible?

But what if the party isn’t always fun for everyone? I’m talking here, of course, about all the suffering in life making it seem a fate worse than death — war, torture, crippling disease, etc. My friend’s response was that even moments of pain are ecstatic plumes of experience — consciously experiencing pain is better than no feeling at all.

And therein lies the danger. In a philosophy like that, there’s very little basis for acting to end violence, poverty, disease — any suffering, really. One is left, it seems, with little more than a blend of hedonism and social darwinism.

Could there be a balance, though? Since it seems the only viable pathway for me out of my currently bleak and debilitating attitude, I’m eager to find a way this perspective could be easily married to ideas of social justice and charity. If this life is ecstatic at its core, why not seek to make it the most ecstatic experience possible for the most people? This, of course, doesn’t answer the question of whether or not to have children — how does one weigh the addition of a life of ecstatic experience versus increasing the ecstasy of an existing life? — but the idea is distracting me temporarily from the gnawing despair and indecision of nihilism.

What happens to my consciousness when I die?

Pop & Heavy Metal: The Case of Jesu

I heard Jesu for the first time about two weeks ago, the self-titled record. I had no context for them at all; I didn’t know they were ex-Godflesh, had never heard Godflesh anyway — basically, I had no metal reference points whatsoever, just the music.

And it sounded mostly like mid-nineties British shoegaze to me. I would have readily filed it sonically somewhere between Blur’s Leisure and My Bloody Valentine’s Glider, with a bit of spacerock (Spacemen 3?) thrown in for good measure.

I’ve since done some homework, which has been instructive, and now I’m midway through listening to Jesu’s newest record, Conqueror. Despite all this, my mapping of Jesu sonically hasn’t changed much, if my view of them culturally is very different now. (I had a similar trajectory with Harvey Milk — coming at it from a sort of avantgarde perspective, and then gradually conceding the more overtly metal aspects as my interest in them grew.)

I’m not very schooled in metal, but have found moments in it that I really enjoy. Culturally, however, it might as well be in another galaxy for me, being for the most part male-dominated, often nurturing aggression, fascinated with violence, etc.

But the whole thing has brought up a perennial question for me with regard to the relationship of heavy music to pop, and with regard to musical subgenrification (perhaps this cultural engine has a better name I don’t know?) in general. That is, the many genres of popular music seem to be ghettos rather than friendly neighboring boroughs. Clearly boundaries are constantly shifting; yet there’s also a persistent rigidity.

As someone who loves the physical experience of heavy and loud music, but who also viscerally appreciates a good hook and a sad melody, I find myself longing for a music that seems to not exist. Or, I’m having to satisfy myself with bits and pieces of songs from here and there — like trying to fill myself up on pomegranate fruit.

Pop & Heavy Metal: The Case of Jesu