Technology and Lent

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1462 days ago

This website

The plugin that provided the email notification feature for this website broke with a recent update to my blog software, and it’s not going to be easy to fix. So I’m not going to fix it.

Of course, that means that the affected people aren’t going to hear that they’re affected. Sorry about that! (I’ll tell personally the few I know.)

In fact, I’m likely to switch to ikiwiki …eventually. Textpattern seems to have lost its mojo, and there have been some long-standing issues with it (like no native tagging support!) that seem unlikely to ever get fixed. And I’m hip to the cool technologies now, so a more infrastructure-like framework (i.e. ikiwiki, with git) for my blog feels like a better answer. And schmonz volunteered to do most of the work :)

That also means I’ll probably abandon tru_tags …more than I already have. There hasn’t been anything to do with it in a long while, at least not that I felt was worthwhile to be done. Most of the features that remain to be implemented require a major refactoring of the core Textpattern code, and that just seems very unlikely to happen (by me or anybody else) any time soon. So hopefully it will remain useful to the people who still use it.

This year’s Lent

I have utterly failed at this year’s Lent give-up. I have been better at going to bed at a reasonable hour, sometimes for days at a time. But I simply can’t do everything I need/want to do in my life with the few hours that leaves me between work, kids, and chores. So sleep will continue to lose to projects – although less-so than it used to. There are some nice perks to getting more sleep – I’m much more on-the-ball and willing to take on mental tasks that otherwise seem hard. But that extra value doesn’t offset the lost value from just not being able to do all the things I need to do.

Vegetarianism

Speaking of Lent, I also broke a 5-year streak of vegetarianism a week or so ago. Benjamin, Liam, and I had some extremely delicious tilapia, also breaking both boys’ life-long vegetarian streaks. Kristina chose not to participate.

We had a bunch of reasons for deciding to do it. And a bunch of reasons to not do it (i.e. to stay vegetarian). I may blog about all the tradeoffs some day soon, but for now, suffice it to say that it was a very close decision, and I’m not sure what’s next.

I made a web app!

If you recall, I started using SmugMug for my online gallery a few years ago. But when I made the switch, I left behind an old gallery site (on Menalto Gallery 1) that I’ve been meaning to clean up for a long time. It broke a while ago, motivating me to finally migrate off that old software – to ZenPhoto, which had been my long-standing plan. It took a few days getting ZenPhoto to work (when it should have been easy!), but I got it there, and I shut off the old site.

I also started this exchange with the ZenPhoto dev in which I start by being too grumpy and then he finished by insisting that his software simply must be unsupportable for him to support it. Net effect: I had to get off ZenPhoto.

But I had no alternate destination for self-hosting my images. My long-term goal is to migrate the images to SmugMug, but I want to filter them down from “every picture I took during that time period” to “just the best ones, tagged and rated” (like all the other pictures I post to SmugMug). And it will take Nathan-weeks of work to get that done, so it keeps getting put off. So in the short term I just needed a new self-hosting product, and there just aren’t any good alternatives. They’re all either old or ugly or badly designed or some combination of those three.

So I made one myself. I’ve never made a web app from scratch before, but I am quite comfortable in perl, had used Catalyst from a prior job, and I’d heard then that Mojolicious is better. So I tried it.

And wow, was it easy. Probably 8 hours total from “install mojolicious” to “the gallery is up and running on the new software”. That’s only just a little more than I spent trying to get ZenPhoto to work. Many kudos to Mojolicious, perl, and pkgsrc.

Now… ZenPhoto does way more stuff. (TONS more… too much, actually.) And this new software isn’t really ready for someone else to use it. And it has no tests. And it only does one extremely simple thing (i.e. serve nested directories of images, in name-sorted order, with no metadata).

But the code is small, easy to read, and easy to modify. (Roughly 300 lines of code, 115 lines of CSS, and 80 lines of HTML template.) The site looks really good (in my opinion). And it doesn’t require a database – just a directory full of images. And with some app-level caching and the help of Mojolicious’s preforking web server and great documentation for setting it up under apache mod_proxy, it’s about as fast is it could possibly be on my old host and slow network connection.

So ZenPhoto is out and my home-grown software is in. Here’s hoping it doesn’t need maintenance!

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Apple vs. Dell/Microsoft

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1706 days ago

I have a MacBook Air that I used as my work (consulting) computer for 18 months or so. Then my new job gave me a Dell laptop that feels seriously inferior, but as with all things Windows/Dell, it is sufficient.

So yesterday I did something I’ve done hundreds of times before with my Air, but never before with my Dell: I closed the lid at the end of the day without shutting things down first, stuffed it in my bag, and went home. (I was in a hurry.)

On the Air, that reliably sleeps the laptop, and I can always trust that everything will be exactly as I left it when I reopen the lid, and the battery won’t have drained at all.

I knew not to trust the same thing on Windows, but I was in a hurry so I decided to risk it, and maybe if it turned out well I’d adjust my opinion about Windows.

So what did I see when I opened it this morning? A boot-time message telling me that the laptop had shut itself down because it was overheating, which usually happens because it is in a tightly enclosed space with the fan vents blocked. Like, say, a laptop bag. And by “shut itself down” they mean “hard power off, no saving your work”. And they mean that they waited until the battery was half drained to do that.

Now, I checked and I do have the laptop set to sleep when I close the lid. So it should have just slept, and it shouldn’t have been generating heat (although I’m not certain if the Windows sleep really does go that far), so it shouldn’t have had this problem. But it did. I’m guessing the culprit is Outlook, which often prevents rebooting because of third-party integrations that aren’t very well-done, so maybe it also prevented sleeping.

But then of course, the culprit is Windows for actually listening to Outlook and not putting the laptop to sleep.

And then Dell is really the savior here; faced with Windows not sleeping when it was supposed to, Dell’s choice was either to let the laptop overheat (and break permanently), or build a feature to shut it off when it begins to. So, thanks, Dell!

But more than that, thanks to Apple for making devices where I just don’t have to worry about crap like this!

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I picked a bag: Tumi T-Tech Presidio Filbert T-Pass Organizer Laptop Briefcase

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1763 days ago

(See my previous post for context.)

What? Seriously? Tumi T-Tech Presidio Filbert T-Pass Organizer Laptop Briefcase? Let’s break that name down:

  • Tumi: The company who makes the bag. Well known for making quality, well-designed bags.
  • T-Tech: The “collection” (i.e. all the bags in the T-Tech line share key features and styling).
  • Presidio: Uh… an even more narrowly-defined “collection”.
  • Filbert: The model name of the bag. (Really, Filbert? Someone thought that was a good name? As my wife says, this bag is royalty!)
  • T-Pass: The brand name they use for their “checkpoint friendly” feature.
  • Organizer: It has dividers for paper.
  • Laptop: It is designed to hold a laptop.
  • Briefcase: It is carried by handles and/or a shoulder strap, and doesn’t have a flap over the top (in which case it would be called “Messenger”).

So yeah, their marketing department needs to be sacked. What I bought was the Tumi Filbert Laptop Bag. But apparently that wasn’t confusing enough.

On the other hand, their product design department seems quite healthy – this is a great bag. Let’s review the criteria:

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Laptop bag 4.0, backlogs, and story form

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1771 days ago

Laptop bag 2.0

Somewhere out there is a laptop bag just waiting for me to find it. But first, I have to spec it out.

Like Rands, I recently got laptop bag religion and I spent an excessive amount of time cogitating about features, price, tradeoffs, where to buy, and features again.

Then I got serious about it.

I haven’t yet found the bag, but in the meantime, I’ve written this blog post, because it provided the excuse I needed to really go batshit insane do a thorough job of my analysis. Not only does this post include a detailed list of requirements for my perfect laptop bag, but it also includes a glance into what I do in my life as a Product Manager. Hopefully one or the other of those is interesting enough to keep your attention :)

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Green Man Gaming

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2059 days ago

A month ago or so, I spotted a slickdeal for a pre-order of a game we really want, from a company I hadn’t heard of called Green Man Gaming. The comments under the deal indicated that Green Man Gaming was reputable, and the deal would provide a Steam download code, which is my preferred way to buy games, so it seemed like a no-brainer to buy it that way and save $30.

Until I tried to actually buy it, and the purchase process was terrible – but this post isn’t about that. It’s about the nasty-gram I sent to them, and their response – which was fantastic.

Let me back up for a moment… I used to be a Product Manager for a software company, so I care a lot about software user experience. I get really angry when I see someone who did a piss-poor job of it. As a product manager, I also crave feedback from my users, so when I see bad work, I usually take the time to tell the company about it.

My experience with that has been frustrating. Usually the feedback process goes like this:

  1. Try to figure out how to provide feedback, discover that you have to enter it into a tiny field on a webpage.
  2. Type a thoughtful / angry letter into that field. Re-reread it, improve it, etc.
  3. Hit Submit, and have the web page lose everything I just typed because it has some secret field-length limit or time-based timeout that they didn’t warn me about.
  4. Paste the letter back into the field (because I’ve learned to copy it by now!), shorten it to whatever limit they are using, and hit Submit again.
  5. A few days later, get a generic form response saying “we are sorry for your troubles and we hope you understand that we serve lots of customers and sometimes these things just happen” – even though my feedback is nearly always about design flaws, not about incidental things.

I expected nothing better from Green Man Gaming, but I sent them a letter anyway. (And I’m sorry to say, re-reading it now, that it’s way more rude than it should have been, and now I feel shame about that.) I’m going to quote the part of it that describes what I had just gone through, and leave the rest out:

  • Register (ok, fine)
  • Fill out one of those stupid captcha things (ok, fine)
  • Re-enter my date of birth because you wanted it in the UK format, rather than US (but that wasn’t obvious at all)
  • Go back to the buy page and re-click ‘buy’ because your site lost track of where I was in the process
  • NOT use my American Express card that I use for everything, because you don’t take it
  • Have to skip past a bunch of fields on your site because apparently you can’t take the time to hide them / show them per card-type
  • Do another captcha, even though I’d done one just moments before
  • Have my card declined twice, and have to re-enter my details each time (!!!), even though there is money in the (debit!) account
  • Try another debit card, have it send me through the “verified by visa” process – and then STILL be declined!
  • Finally go back and change my email address on my account to the one that matches my paypal account (but that I don’t usually give out to websites), just so I could go through paypal.
  • Re-start the whole purchase process for some reason
  • Re-enter the captcha!!!
  • Pay via paypal
  • Oh my god, that actually worked!

You might have thought that I should have just given up, but hey, anything for a deal, right? ;)

So I sent that in, and expected a crappy form letter back. But instead, I got the exact opposite:

Hi Nathan,

I apologise for the problems encountered when purchasing from us; I’ll do my best to answer the problems raised.

- Captcha is a requirement and is used to reduce fraudulent transactions via ‘bots’. I agree, being asked again to repeat it is a pain; I’ll speak to the tech team regarding this.

- DOB, under the DOB field it does clearly state ‘Please enter the date in dd/mm/YYYY format’

- American Express. We are currently evaluating our current payment processing service and hope to offer American Express in the near future.

- Credit card declined; over the weekend we did see an increase in cards being declined; we believe this to be an isolated issue and are actively looking at how/why this happened and stopping it from happening again.

- PayPal email – This requirement is to reduce fraudulent transactions. It is possible to set up additional email addresses through PayPal and assign any of those as the primary email address instead of changing your GMG email to match your PayPal.

- Having to go through the purchase process again – your basket should not have been emptied. If this is happening, it is something that our technical team needs to address and I will certainly raise this as an issue.

We appreciate the feedback and we take all your criticisms on board and will actively address those issues to improve our service. I can only apologise again for the problems encountered and the inconvenience to you.

Regards,
Martin – HCO Green Man Gaming

Wow! A reply from a real human who thoughtfully addressed my concerns! And more than that, he said they’d actually do something about them!

Here’s what I sent back:

That’s a GREAT reply – thank you :)

Just a few suggestions in return:

  • Once I’ve done one captcha (to get an account), it seems pointless to keep making me do more of them. You really need to not require captchas for account-holders, when checking out.
  • DOB: perhaps use geolocation to see if the user is in the US, and reverse the expectation? I know that’s probably not worth implementing, but if you do end up having a lot of US sales, this will be a constant problem for US buyers.
  • AmEx: I understand that not all retailers take AmEx, and I’m usually quite forgiving about it. It just seems strange for a website to not take it.
  • Paypal email: (a long paragraph explaining why I didn’t want to use my paypal email, which isn’t really relevant here)

Thanks again for the thoughtful reply!

An in return, they upped the ante again:

Hi Nathan,
Thanks for your response; just wanted to follow up on it.

Captcha; we’ve removed this from the payment page now – so you will only see this the once.

AmEx: The reason we don’t accept it is because I believe our payment processing company SagePay, doesn’t – we are looking at alternatives to this so hopefully, we’ll be able to offer AmEx soon.

DOB: – Great suggestion, but may take longer to implement than simply putting: DD/MM/YY in the text box – that should hopefully make it a bit clearer for people.

PayPal – thanks for your insight and obvious concerns with that. As I briefly stated in my earlier mail, this ‘hoops’ are there to reduce fraud. However, we are continually looking at ways of improving both our customer experience while maintaining a good level of anti-fraud measures and so I will pass this feedback on to the team.

Thanks again for your reply.

Regards,
Martin

So, wow. My letter made it through to a real human who both replied thoughtfully and was able to actually implement changes to make things better the next time. Just, wow.

My hat’s off to you, Green Man Gaming – thank you very much! I’ll certainly be buying from you again.

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Boon, Inc.

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2080 days ago

Just wanted to take a moment to say thanks to Boon Inc.. (They make baby gear.) We have their highchair (the “Flair”), and we really, really like it. It’s easy to clean, easy to move around, easy to load Benjamin into (and out of)… it just does what it should, with no irritations.

And I’ve had to call Boon about it, twice. Both times, I called late in the evening and left a voice message. Both times, a real human called me back and just talked to me about my issues. For the first call, I was concerned that something wasn’t working correctly, and they explained that it was actually working as designed, and that if it worked the way I thought it should, it would actually be dangerous. (Imagine that – a customer service person who can reason about product design!) The second time, the brake on the bottom had worn out and was coming off. The chair was out of warranty, but they offered (without me asking or mentioning the warranty) to send me a new one if I’d just send pictures of the old one, showing the problem. I did, and they did.

So the point is, not only do they have great products, but they also have great customer service. Pretty darn rare :)

And looking around, I realize we have a bunch of their products, and we like them all: Flo, Grass, Snack Ball, Squirt, and Fluid.

So, thanks, Boon, for being awesome!

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Baby gear for the first-time parent: the definitive list for 2010

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2200 days ago

(Yes, I know, it’s 2011. Read on and the title will make sense.)

Before Benjamin was born, I did a lot of research into all the “stuff” we’d need for him. A lot. A LOT. (You’ll see… keep reading.) I read books, reviews, and websites. I made spreadsheets and budgets. I comparison-shopped.

And in the end, I think we actually did a really good job with the stuff we bought. Only rarely did we get something that we didn’t end up needing and/or loving, and usually those ‘mistakes’ were because we rushed into a purchase.

My family knew about all this research, so when Benjamin’s aunt was pregnant, she asked me to pass my information along. I did so, with some advice about things we’d learned in hindsight. And then a co-worker was having a baby and asked for the information. And just today, an extended family member heard about this info and asked for it, and another family member suggested I just publish it, so…

The information below is an amalgam of lists, emails, and spreadsheets that weren’t written with publication in mind, and that have only been somewhat cleaned up. And I gathered most of this information in 2009, in preparation for an early-2010 baby, so it’s rapidly becoming out of date. But I’m guessing that it will still be useful to some, so here it is:

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$80 a year for a great, great service

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2240 days ago

Amazon Prime. If you don’t have it, you’re missing out on something great. Get it. You won’t regret it.

It’s $80 a year to get free two-day shipping from anything Amazon sells, and/or $3.99 (per item) for overnight shipping. So you pay for that once a year, and your whole shopping lifestyle changes, in a really great way.

Need something around the house? Go to Amazon (on your phone, if you have a smartphone!) and just hit “Buy now with 1-click” (if you have 1-click set up) and BAM! Two days later it’s at your front door.

Need baby supplies, because you’re about to run out? Spend 2 minutes on your phone, and two days later, they arrive. No need to make a special trip to the store.

Need a Christmas present at the last minute? Spend two minutes (er… maybe more than that, to be sure it’s a good one), and two days later, it arrives – and you didn’t have to fret about paying extra for fast shipping.

Two days is probably sooner than you would have gotten any of these things if you’d put them on your shopping list. And they probably cost less from Amazon, too.

Even if it’s big (e.g. two boxes of 250-count diapers, shipped monthly). Even if it’s small (e.g. watch batteries). Even if it’s food (e.g. the particular brand of basmati rice we like). Same thing: two days later, no extra expense.

And it seems to affect returns also, in a great way. For example, I just received a pair of headphones that I ordered. I opened them and found a broken part. I went to Amazon, clicked a few links to find my order, said I wanted to return it, typed in a description of why, and chose “defective” as the reason. Amazon arranged for UPS to pick up the defective one from my front door tomorrow (I just had to print a page to include in the box, and re-tape the box – UPS will bring a shipping label with them!). The replacement headphones will be shipped tomorrow, one-day shipping, for free, and will arrive the day after tomorrow.

Again, faster (and MUCH cheaper, considering gas costs and time) than having to go back to a store and refund it. And I don’t have to deal with waiting in line, or with annoying store clerks.

So: do yourself a favor. Try a free trial of Amazon Prime, to gain back a little time in your life, and enjoy the experience of having a really great service right at your fingertips, all year long.

(No, I don’t get anything from Amazon for writing this review – it’s just my way of saying “thanks” to them for doing something exceptionally well.)

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Pivotal Tracker

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2336 days ago

I just sent this note to Pivotal Labs:

Thanks, guys.

In a world where everybody talks about “agile” but hardly anybody knows what they are talking about, and where it is very rare to see an agile team (by which I mean a group of people who are actually a “team” and are actually “agile”), and where product managers usually struggle to even maintain control over prioritization, let alone actually manage it well – it seems very unlikely that any software would exist that is designed to work in well-functioning agile teams.

And it seems impossible that that such software, produced for such a tiny market, would be brilliantly designed, brilliantly executed, and just always there when you need it. For free.

So I don’t know how or why you do it, or what the world did to deserve it, or why I was lucky enough to find it. But THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, for Pivotal Tracker.

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Why I switched from Menalto Gallery to SmugMug

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2577 days ago

Two posts ago, I described my struggle to figure out how to fit my Menalto Gallery album structure into SmugMug. In a comment to that post, one of the Gallery developers asked why I switched from Gallery to SmugMug. I started to reply in the comments on that post, but the reply got to be long enough that I thought it deserved its own post instead; this is that post.

Note that it’s fairly mind-boggling (even to me) that saw my post and responded to it in a single day; I wonder how he did that?

——

Andy,

Most of my experience is with Gallery 1, although I do have a site using Gallery 2. Back when I first started using Gallery 1, it was really the only choice (this was before Flickr, even!) that had the ability to handle a large gallery like mine, had the key features I wanted, and would preserve all my images in original form. So it was really my only choice.

For a long time it did what I needed, and I was grateful for that. I told people about it, and about why I chose it. I know one or two people who ended up using it because of me, but most of my friends and acquaintances ended up using Flickr or similar sites.

But even though I chose it, and was able to use it, I didn’t like it very much. It was clumsy, hard to modify, and too complex. It was just my only real option, so I stuck with it. About once a year, I would try to find something else, and I never could.

So when Gallery 2 was announced, I liked the redesign philosophy, but I thought you all were nuts to try to rewrite a product from the ground up. I was certain that it would be a year or more before Gallery 2 was even close to ready, and in the meantime Gallery 1 support would wane, so I was pretty sure I’d be forced to choose another product. That didn’t quite happen – you folks kept supporting Gallery 1 – but it took a very long time to get Gallery 2 out.

So when it was actually released, I was pleasantly surprised… but then it took an even longer time for Gallery 2 to catch up to some of the basic features from Gallery 1 that I needed. (I forget what they were, now.) So I still didn’t have the replacement for Gallery 1 that I was hoping for.

But eventually Gallery 2 did have the necessary features, so I gave it a try… and it was confusing. Sure, maybe the code was much better this time around, and it was certainly more themeable… but it wasn’t easily themeable, and it was confusing as heck to administer and to teach my users about. So I gave up on Gallery 2, decided to live with Gallery 1, and to search more earnestly for a replacement.

Back then, I had my hopes set on ZenPhoto, but it didn’t quite have everything I needed, either. I certainly liked their “simplicity first” approach, though. It did eventually get to the point where it had all the features I needed, and that was enough for me to install it and start working in earnest to switch over to it.

And then I had a system failure that suddenly forced me to host my gallery on my own local machine, which had me terrified – if my house burned down, with it would go all my pictures. So I had to figure out a better hosting option. I considered renting a virtual server somewhere, but it’s hard to find a low-cost NetBSD host, and I didn’t really want to host on Linux. So I looked around at other gallery options, and found SmugMug.

SmugMug isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty great, and I like that they care (a lot!) about usability, and that they have humans on their support staff, and that they’ll take good care of my pictures. I like that I don’t have to administer the site myself. I like that they are a commercial venture, and are therefore forced to prioritize customer needs first, or fail as a business. I like that the features I find lacking, now, are features that I never even dreamed up, back on Gallery.

So now that Gallery 3 is coming out… it seems somewhat surreal. I first heard about it in an April Fool’s post on ZenPhoto, and when I followed the link to the real announcement of Gallery 3, I really thought it was an elaborate April Fools joke from you folks. I couldn’t believe you’d have the gall to say “when we went back to do it right, we did it wrong, so now we’re going to do it right again!” But it turns out that that’s really what you were saying, and that you really are giving it a third go-round.

Sure, maybe Gallery 3 will be better, and maybe someday I will find a reason to move off SmugMug. If so, I’m sure I’ll look at Gallery 3 (or 5, or 9?) and see if it fits the bill. But my default stance will be wariness – I don’t trust that you’ll ever get it right, or feel that you have gotten it “good enough” to just keep supporting (or evolving) the platform you are already on.

Of course, it now seems ironic that you posted your comment in a post titled Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress. It looks like we all struggle with the balance between those issues! Perhaps we should both take the lesson from this – that our customers won’t give us many chances to find our balance.

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Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress

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2585 days ago

As I mentioned in the announcement, I have a temporary photo gallery set up with some early pictures of Benjamin in it. But I password protected that gallery, not because of any particular security or privacy concerns, but simply because the gallery is not in its final home, and I don’t want to publish the gallery to the wider internet until it has reached said destination. Recently, a friend asked about the delay in posting more pictures, and offered to help resolve any problems that might be impeding progress. I wrote a very long reply, which I have quoted (mostly) below.

It is, I think, and interesting way to both reveal why I haven’t opened up the gallery, and to allow my readership to understand more about me. Because in this email, it is clear how my perfectionism and my pragmatism do battle, and how I usually seek to resolve such conflicts.

And if you do take the time to read all the way to the end, please feel free to provide any suggestions!

Let me explain the root problem(s):

I plan to switch my pictures from gallery.rainskit.com (which uses Menalto Gallery) over to use SmugMug, and in fact have already paid SmugMug for a year of service which has already elapsed. (I signed up over a year ago.)

I don’t want to start dumping Benjamin pictures into Menalto; I have numerous other albums (like Thanksgiving from last year) that I haven’t uploaded to Menalto because I told myself that I was going to force a hard stop on using Menalto, to encourage me to finish my switch to SmugMug. So I don’t want to break that rule for Benjamin, and I also don’t want to publish one URL for Benjamin pictures and then change it to another URL later.

I don’t expect to be able to use gallery.rainskit.com for my SmugMug site, because I have other users of my Menalto gallery who won’t want to have the URL change out from under them. So I’ll have to leave Menalto at the old URL, and come up with a new URL for SmugMug.

When I tried to convert my gallery over to SmugMug, I discovered a (frustrating!) limitation of SmugMug wherein it doesn’t allow infinite nesting of albums. Specifically, it forces me to organize my pictures in a particular hierarchy, either:

Category -> Album -> Image
or
Category -> Subcategory -> Album -> Image

So some of my Menalto albums are nested 5 or 6 layers deep, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm. Also, some of my Menalto albums have both images and sub-albums, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm.

So a long time ago (April of ’09) I started work on Smuganizer, a tool to help me convert my Menalto gallery over to SmugMug. That tool has grown into a fairly awesome product, but it isn’t quite done yet – mostly because it has a few important missing features, and the documentation is out of date (and misleading!). Note, however, that SmugMug has given me a free Pro account for as long as I continue to maintain Smuganizer, so I don’t currently have to pay for my SmugMug account.

And I’ve been using my SmugMug site as the test database for Smuganizer, largely because I don’t have any other available SmugMug account. So my current SmugMug site (which is entirely password-protected) is filled with random test data, and in unsuitable for public consumption.

Concurrently with all of this, I discovered Windows Live Photo Gallery, a free app from Microsoft that (finally!) just works the way photo gallery apps always should have worked. Really. I have always hated photo management apps, up until this now. Now, I tell people that they should use it. (It does have some major flaws/gaps, but they are not sufficient to keep me from loving it anyway.)

One of the major features of WLPG is that you can tag people in pictures (like Facebook) and/or add arbitrary tags to images and/or give ratings (1-5 stars) to images, and then instantly browse your whole library by those elements (plus by date). They also make it really easy to publish selected photos to arbitrary photo sites, like SmugMug. So suddenly I have a really strong desktop app for managing my pictures, and I find myself caring much less about putting my entire photo library online.

So I modified my plan about converting from Menalto to SmugMug, such that I have decided instead to download all my Menalto pictures to my computer, tag and rate them all there, store them there primarily, and only upload the best ones to SmugMug. In other words, use SmugMug much like a normal human would use a photo gallery.

Problem is, that takes a lot of time. I’m only about half way through my existing pictures. And I’ve been working on it for 6 months or more.

Note that this also makes Smuganizer largely irrelevant to my current needs :) (Except that Smuganizer can also be used to upload pictures from my computer, and to manage the pictures once they are on SmugMug, so it does still have value to me.)

Note that this also means I won’t have an off-site backup for my entire gallery any more (like I had when you were hosting my gallery). To solve that problem, I signed up for Carbonite.

Net effect, I have a bunch of things that theoretically need to be resolved before I start posting more Benjamin pictures to SmugMug:

a) Finish tagging my existing photos
b) Finish and publish Smuganizer
c) Delete all the existing stuff out of SmugMug
d) Figure out how to organize my SmugMug gallery
e) Get SmugMug set up on its permanent URL
f) Upload my ‘featured’ pictures to SmugMug
g) Upload the new Benjamin pictures to wherever they fit in that structure

Of course, I recognize that this will take a year or more, and that Benjamin pictures can’t wait that long. So I figure I have a number of options:

1) Abandon Smuganizer, don’t worry about the other pictures, and just clear out SmugMug and upload Benjamin pictures for now. That would only require steps © (d) (e) and (g) and could probably be done in a few hours.

2) Try to split my SmugMug gallery into a few “Testing” categories and then “everything else” and just password protect the “Testing” categories. Go ahead and upload the Benjamin pictures into their final home, while concurrently working on everything else.

3) Some other option I haven’t thought of yet.

4) Follow the original plan and just wait until it is all done before publishing more Benjamin pictures.

5) Publish the Benjamin pictures on the Menalto gallery.

So I figure you can help in a few possible ways:

i) Talk me out of the tree and just convince me to do (5)
ii) Help me with (d) so I can do option (2)
iii) Come up with an idea for (3)
iv) Talk me into (1) (Note that this is probably impossible)

So you can see my dilemma :)

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Giving up on Facebook

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2672 days ago

(I originally tried to post this on Facebook, but apparently Facebook has a secret post-length-limit, so I had to post it here instead.)

I will no longer be monitoring my Facebook wall / news feed / whatever.

Let’s list the problems with facebook:

  • It has five nearly-identical features (News Feed, Live Feed, Profile, Wall, “Nathan Arthur”)
  • The help for those features is unbelievably bad
  • The “Settings” pages are unbelievably complex
  • It has a million oddball features, but a horrible UI that makes you think those features do things that they don’t really do
  • It has a post-length limit that you don’t find out about until you exceed it
  • It has generally insulting advertising
  • It is rife with predatory applications (many disguised as games) that are just trying to steal personal information, or to trick users into spending money
  • And the coup de grâce: there’s no way to get an RSS feed for my news feed.

On that last point: apparently facebook doesn’t want you to be able to get your news feed via an RSS reader. I can get it just fine through a desktop application (and that’s how I’ve been doing it, for a long time), but if I want to switch to a web-based RSS reader instead, I’m just out of luck. And of course, it’s impossible to discover this in their help. (They seem to actively avoid addressing the question, thereby actively wasting a lot of my time.)

So, I’m done spending energy on something that has a net negative value.

But I’m not going to shut off my account. I’ve configured twitter and my blog to both feed into Facebook, so any of my facebook friends who do still want the occasional update from me can still get it via facebook. (Hopefully this blog post shows up there, so they see it!)

I will definitely miss the day-to-day updates I get from facebook, but it’s just not worth it for me to keep trying to fight facebook in order to use facebook. Facebook friends: if you do use twitter (and I encourage you to do so!), please follow me, and I’ll follow you in return, and all will be better.

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A wedding photographer worthy of note

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2731 days ago

You may not know this about me, but I have investigated wedding photography pretty heavily. As an amateur photographer, my primary interest is in photographing people, but I’m less interested in portraiture and more in showing emotion and reaction, so wedding photography is a perfect specialty for me. It turns out that wedding photography is also one of the harder photographic specialties – the subjects don’t pose, the family is hard to manage, the lighting and weather are out of your control, you only get one chance to get the pictures, you need really expensive equipment to get good shots from a distance in a dark church without a flash, you have to have a backup person and backup equipment, you have very high contrasts (black/white) to deal with, and the profit margins are usually small. And there are many, many wedding photographers, so competition is fierce.

So I didn’t give up my day job to pursue this interest :)

But nonetheless I have read about it a bunch, and I always try new techniques when I attend weddings, and I am always interested to watch wedding photographers at work. I can pretty quickly judge the great ones from the so-so ones, based largely on their equipment and their approach. It’s not how you might think, though: the best photographers have the less-flashy equipment, and the least-noticeable approach. The so-so ones have flashy equipment and big gear bags and are usually either pushy or timid.

So we were at a wedding this past Saturday, and the wedding photographer caught my attention, and then held it. He had a good camera, a minimal gear setup, a good flash (with modest attachments), a good assistant, and nice clothes. He knew how to use his equipment to best effect. He focused more on composing the shot and giving it some creative attention than on “being in charge” or “showing his skill.” He dealt with people naturally. He knew how to quickly handle problems (like the memory card filling up) with minimal fuss. It just seemed like he had all the right elements, and I’ve never seen a wedding photographer before who I really thought had everything right.

At the reception, I asked him for a business card. It turns out he actually had a Mac laptop set up, showing a slideshow of pictures from earlier that day, taken during and after the wedding. The pictures were amazing! I couldn’t believe he had such a good show assembled with little or no time between events to get it ready. So I watched the show, grabbed a card, and made a note to myself to look him up later on.

So yesterday I went to his website and it looks like my intuition was correct. He has a degree in photography, and his focus (per his bio) is similar to mine – to “capture the essence of individual moments and make them memories to last a lifetime”. His sample pictures are great. He has a sample slideshow posted, and it looks great. I always assume those slideshows are assembled from a wedding where the photographer worked extra-hard, but in this case I’ve already seen his work from a “real” wedding and I can attest those pictures were just as good. So it seems that he consistently produces great work.

I didn’t want to pass by something great without encouraging it, so I took the time to post here about him. His name is Chad Moon and the business is named Chad Moon Photography. Check him out, especially if you are looking for a good wedding photographer in the Columbus/Cincinnati/Dayton area.

P.S. – I’ve posted my pictures from the wedding – some of them turned out really well (after a few touch-ups).

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YesWeCanSong

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3334 days ago

Obama

This is pretty amazing. Click through and watch it. Now! Really, I’ll wait. And you don’t want to miss it.

As I have mentioned before, my feelings about how we should hire a president don’t exactly match those of the rest of the country. To summarize: we should think of the election as hiring the president, and we should hire him or her on the basis of his ability to lead, not based on the issues he believes in. The president’s job isn’t (supposed to be) to set policy – it’s to execute it. As such, I want to vote for the candidate who will be the best leader, regardless of what their policy opinions are.

That makes my decision very difficult, because the campaigns focus mostly on issues, so it’s very hard for me to tell who the best leader is. This song may have introduced me to a side of Obama that shows the leadership. I’m going to have to chase it down.

A relevant side note: I’ve tried a number of those “which candidate should I vote for?” tools, and each one as focused on how well my beliefs match up to the candidates. They make me sad, for two reasons. First, they’re a sign that we’re doomed to always elect a president for the wrong reasons, which makes it a toss of the coin whether they’ll actually be a good leader. Second, when I use those tools, the strongest match is usually around 45%. So even if I wanted to vote by the issues, I’d have nobody to vote for.

I thought it was obvious in the last election that Kerry could be a good leader, and Bush could not. We elected Bush anyway, which is what made me realize how badly-skewed our presidential elections really are. I like to think that I’ve been proven right about Bush over the last four years, so maybe all of you who voted for him last time can take a long hard look at why you made that mistake, and try to learn from it? All the signs were there during the election season, so please don’t think that you couldn’t have figured it out.

And by the way, I’m probably slightly more a republican than a democrat, so I’m not necessarily urging you to vote for a democrat. I’m urging you to vote for the best leader, whomever that may be. If they’re a democrat, that scares me somewhat, because they’ll probably try to restrict my gun rights. But if they’re the better leader, I’d still prefer to have them in office.

Updated: Matt sent me a link to a (40-minute) speech by Obama about politics and religion. It is a strong clue that Obama is a reasoning, thoughtful leader. I am starting to have hope :)

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The Nerd Handbook

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3370 days ago

From The Nerd Handbook:

For any given piece of incoming information, your nerd is making a lightning fast assessment: relevant or not relevant? Relevance means that the incoming information fits into the system of things your nerd currently cares about. Expect active involvement from your nerd when you trip the relevance flag. If you trip the irrelevance flag, look for verbal punctuation announcing his judgment of irrelevance. It’s the word your nerd says when he’s not listening and it’s always the same. My word is “Cool”, and when you hear “Cool”, I’m not listening.

I received Managing Humans as a Christmas present, and it’s a fantastic book. It lead me to (back) to Rands in Repose which is now at the top of my list of great places to spend time on the internet. Enjoy :)

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Oregon trip

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3493 days ago

Kristina and I took a vacation in Oregon this August, and as expected, we fell in love with it. We’d both always had this idea that we’d like Oregon, and one of the people on my team at NetJets lives out there and invited us to visit, and this year is our fifth anniversary, so we decided to go. With the help of a few borrowed guidebooks and the advice of a local, I did a lot of planning, made a loose itinerary, and booked the flights and hotels.

I’ve posted about 500 pictures over in the gallery, and they tell the basic story. (I know, 500 is way too many… but we took 1300 originally so this is a huge improvement.) We started in Portland and wandered all around town on the very-well-done public transportation. While there, we went to the world’s largest bookstore and went there again to stand in line for the midnight release of Harry Potter. We also went to the stunning Japanese Garden and the much-less-stunning International Rose Test Garden. From there, we got on the road and happened to pass by (and stop at) an aviation museum that houses the Spruce Goose. We then drove down the coast to Yachats, which is now the easy winner as our favorite place to vacation. I was a little sneaky and had rented a room with a view, and we spent a lot of time exploring the rocky coast and playing in the tide pools. Driving around there, we saw these cool Tsunami Hazard Zone signs, went to the famous Newport Aquarium (and stopped by the headquarters of Rogue Brewery), and took a few long-distance (but free!) pictures of the Haceta Head Lighthouse. You can see our cool Mustang convertible in some of those pictures :) Sadly, we eventually had to leave Yachats, and we semi-intentionally ended up having a crazy driving adventure through deep forest roads housing scary people who really, really don’t want visitors. From there we visited a few waterfalls and drove out to Bend. (Bend is the town where the person I work with lives.) Somehow, we don’t have any pictures of Bend, but we really liked it there. We do have pictures of our canoing trip and a trip we made up the Mt. Bachelor ski lift to try to eat dinner, but we ended up not eating there. Finally, we drove back to Portland, did a little more sight seeing, and flew home.

Phew!

Actually, it was great. We had 9 days, and no set schedule except for the hotel bookings. We were able to take our time and do whatever struck our fancy, from a big menu of previously-researched sights and activities. It’s my new favorite way to take a vacation :)

I have a few lasting thoughts / advice that I want to save, also:

  • Portland was an OK city, but we didn’t really love it. The highway traffic sucks, and the sky is always gray. It does have some great vegetarian food and good public transportation, but it just didn’t grab onto us the same way Chicago did.
  • The Japanese Garden is truly incredible. Wandering through there, I could help but feel awe and wonder, and be inspired by the talent and energy and time that went into making it. I will go back.
  • The International Rose Test Garden was boring (for me). It is just row after row after row of roses. If you really love roses, maybe you’ll like it.
  • Voodoo doughnut is only going to seem cool to you if you come prepared for it to be a dingy place from the 70’s.
  • When you think Portland Saturday Market, think “flea market” and you’ll have a good idea what to expect.
  • The Newport Aquarium is well worth visiting, and it’s even worth the price of admission :)
  • Never, ever, ever go to Yachats. If you do, you’ll be tempted to stay, and then it will be more crowded when we retire there ;) If you must visit, it’s well worth the money to stay at the Overleaf Lodge. You should also eat at the Drift Inn Restaurant (we ate there five or six times) and at the Yachats River House.
  • The best thing about Bend is that you can drive 30 minutes one way to be in desert, or 30 minutes the other to go skiing, or you can just stay in town to have great weather and lots of cool things to do. It’s the ultimate in micro-climate adjustability!
  • The Mt. Bachelor twilight dinner is a giant rip-off. We thought it would be really nice, but it’s really just a cheap ski lodge trying to sell fancy food. We tried to eat there, but they didn’t have anyone to seat us, didn’t have a table ready for our reservation, don’t have a good wine or beer selection, and ran out of steak (one of the four dinner choices). We left, and ended up at the Seasons restaurant in the Seventh Mountain Resort. It is now at the top of my list of all-time best restaurants, for service, atmosphere, food, and wine. Dinner there was absolutely amazing.

Anyhow, the trip was fantastic. We will go back to Oregon, maybe this winter. We want to see what it’s like in winter, and we’re already wishing that we’d brought back some good art from there. If not soon, though, then someday.

One last thing: I’ve put together a folder of favorite pictures, suitable for framing or giving as gifts ;)

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Recent events

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3621 days ago

It’s been a while since I wrote and I have a small pile of small things that I wanted to write about, so I’m posting them all at once. In chronological order:

Cool blog / cool book

In my first case ever of one blog leading to another, Amitai’s blog led me to Bil Stachour’s blog, Journal Wunelle, on which I found this awesome post about evolutionary psychology and the book The Moral Animal. Bil writes intelligently, often, and interestingly, and his writeup of the book has led me to put it on my wishlist.

A combination street car and airplane

Check this out. Terrafugia has announced that they plan on creating the first commercially available flying car, called the Transition. I like living in this age :)

Buckeye Blast

On April 1st, I attended the Buckeye Blast, a fun-day shooting event put on by Buckeye Firearms Association, an orginzation heavily involved in passing the concealed carry laws in Ohio, and of which I am a member. The event is a fundraiser for the organization, and my wife bought my ticket as a birthday present.

The day was a blast! (ha ha) I learned more about real-life shooting in that day than I had in all my previous training and shooting, and greatly improved my shooting skills. I met a bunch of new people, and even got my picture taken. The event was held at the very impressive Tactical Defense Institute – I highly recommend them.

The Principles of Beautiful Web Design

One of my birthday presents was an awesome book called The Principles of Beautiful Web Design. For years the “designers” have been saying that the “coders” can’t learn what it takes to design great websites; this book tries to prove that wrong. You can judge for yourself when I update this site’s layout :) (someday soon…)

The shooting on my birthday

The Virginia Tech shooting happened on my birthday. It’s a very sad, tragic event, and I’m sorry that such things happen in this world. It was initially reminiscent of the Case Western shooting which was a little closer-to-home for me.

My mom asked me what I thought about the shooting, and my response sums up my whole belief about the issue: “if someone there had had a gun, they could have stopped the attacker.” It’s a shame that Virginia Tech (like Case Western) has a ban on all firearms on campus.

I know this is a big issue, but I don’t want to dwell on it. My middle sister (privately) wrote a great piece about her feelings and reflections after the event, and there’s a lot more like that on the web. I’ll leave it to others to hash out all the nuances, but I did want to get my broad-stroke opinion out in public.

Other

There is other news, about life, work, and family, but most of it isn’t really good fodder for a public forum. Suffice it to say that all three have been interesting, hard, and good. This is a good time, for me.

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Soooooooo good!

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3840 days ago

Variable Star book cover

It’s a simple story, really: boy falls in love with an author and reads everything he ever wrote, author dies, boy grieves, boy grows up, new author writes a book based on the first author’s notes, grown-up boy reads it, it’s perfect, grown-up boy is ecstatically happy…

Variable Star, by Robert A. Heinlein, written by Spider Robinson. It’s a dream come true – I feel like I’ve won the lottery :)

Thank You, Spider Robinson. Thank You, everyone else involved in bringing that book to life. And of course, Thank You, Robert Heinlein.

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Liberty, by zefrank

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3927 days ago

zefrank duckie

the show with zefrank is pretty rediculously funny. (It’s not particularly kid-safe, however.) Try this one, for example. You may notice that it’s also pretty damn good commentary on important issues. The point of all this? This one has the best explanation I’ve ever heard for why we shouldn’t give up our personal liberties for more security.

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Airlines

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3998 days ago

I recently realized that I never made a link from this blog to my rant about airlines.

I came to this realization when I actually had a fantastic experience with American Airlines. They’ve reaffirmed their place in my head as “least crappy airline” and maybe even moved up to something like “good” – a first for any airline.

The condensed version of the story: I needed tickets on a specific set of flights (that my wife was already booked on) which were sold out online. I called American directly and got a very nice woman who sat on the phone with me for 20 minutes or so, working through all the possible options with me. In the end, she came up with an option that got me onto the flights I needed, at a lower price than regular retail, and in exit row seats (both of us!) for 3 of the 4 legs. Amazing.

I haven’t had that kind of customer service, on the phone with a big company, ever. Thanks, American.

P.S. – yes, this means I’m going to Hawaii for Holly’s wedding.

Update – they screwed it up

A few weeks later I was at aa.com to check into another flight, and I discovered that my flight was cancelled. Apparently they didn’t finalize the reservation, and it eventually cancelled itself. I called them, seething mad, and they told me that the return legs were full and that my choices were to return one day later at a cost of $250 or two days later for no additional charge. They refused to actually fix it, or give us a discount, or waive the $250.

We took the “two days later” option. Funny thing is, the hotel for those two extra nights is going to cost us about $250.

The only upside to it is that we’re now in the exit row for all four legs.

Net result: ignore all the nice things I said above, please. All airlines are crap.

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An endorsement for Protec

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4070 days ago

Just a brief note to say thanks to Protec, an IT consulting and recruiting firm. They’re the people who matched me with NetJets, but more importantly, they’re good people. They were honest, direct, and I was able to trust them. They weren’t just worried about their own best interests, and they weren’t just focused on this deal, this minute. It was a pleasure to work with them, and I hope to do so again someday.

There's not much that perplexes me...

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4071 days ago

…but Americans do.

What is it that’s so perplexing? First, they don’t seem to understand that they should hire the President. But that’s an old issue and one I don’t have the energy to write about now. The second perplexing thing is that they continue to support the Cheesecake Factory. I’ll explain myself, but first I need to explain a few other things.

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