Wednesday, May 30, 2007

how to reproduce 36k ft thinking at sea level?

Today is not the first time I've had some holy-smokes! strategic insight blind-side me mid-flight.

I'm just about to pass over my 50,000th mile flying in the last three months, and besides the toll of the cramped seating arrangement and the challenge of liquids (both to consume and to expend), the cocoon of air travel actually presents me a very fertile space for big-picture thinking.

I divided up this flight into three segments (all segments soundtracked with noise-canceling Shure e4c headphones and a random playlists on my iPod).

  • In the first segment, I caught up on all the short articles I'd been printing out and stashing in my "flight folder" (Tom Friedman opinions, CIO mag leadership articles, conference prep materials)
  • [break for food and drink]
  • in the second segment, I dove into the book I'm plowing through right now (The Difference by Scott E. Page)
  • [break for short nap]
  • in the final segment, I read all my RSS feeds offline to get inspired by a whole plethora of different perspectives, and that's when the insights hit.

The ideas flow like water, and I madly dash the notes down in an email to myself. And here I sit wondering what is it about hurtling through space that enables this kind of thinking.

Much as I don't want to admit it, I think the catalyst is the one-two-three punch:

  • my cocoon of iPod-laced sound
  • the lack of distractions from others around me asking questions
  • and, gulp, the complete lack of internet connectivity.

Without connectivity, there's no way for me to satisfy my curiosities by following the links in my RSS reader, so I gobble up the static ideas and perspectives quickly... and that leads the neurons to fire in ways they otherwise don't.

Next time I'm inclined to spend sleepless hours in the middle of the night surfing the web (yes, undisturbed, but no music playing), I'll instead try to reproduce the airplane experience: pop on the iPod, sign off the web and then see if I can get into an uncomfortable seating position.

Bonus points if I can endure the awkward tug of both a full bladder and a dry tongue for full replication of the high-level thinking environment that seems abundant at 36,000 feet.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

too many netflix dvds unplayable

Over the weekend, Left Coast Mom and I finally got a chance to sit down and watch The Pursuit of Happyness, courteous our Netflix subscription.

Well, we got to watch the first hour and fifteen minutes of it. Then the damn thing froze and we couldn't get the rest of it to play. I tried cleaning the DVD (per Netflix suggestion) but no dice. We were stuck at the beginning of the Taxes Due chapter (21) and unable to skip ahead. Lots of forced quits of the Mac Mini's DVD player before we finally gave up.

If this were the first time this'd happened, I might be more understanding, but we seem to have run into a slew of unplayable DVDs from Netflix.

Yes, Netflix is more than happy to quickly replace the unplayable DVD, but that's at least a three-day-long solution, and the nights are few and far in between when both LCM and I hit the parenting trifecta of 1) kids in bed and asleep on time, 2) caught up on DVR shows and 3) have at least two hours before we fall dead asleep.

We're on the 2 at-a-time (4 a month) program specifically because we hit the trifecta so seldomly. Now that we're running into unplayable DVDs, to boot, we may just have to reapportion our $12 a month movie habit over to HBO instead of Netflix.

We just got billed, so I'll give Netflix until end of June before making the decision. If we get yet another unplayable DVD, we'll switch.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

the feature creep conundrum

James Surowiecki (of Wisdom of the Crowds fame) has a great article about Feature Creep in this coming Monday's May 28 issue of the New Yorker. In the article, he adroitly addresses the painful situation that technology producers have found themselves in now that design cycles are relatively short, innovation is relatively cheap and the consumer feedback loop is so short:
This spiral of complexity, often called “feature creep,” costs consumers time, but it also costs businesses money. Product returns in the U.S. cost a hundred billion dollars a year, and a recent study by Elke den Ouden, of Philips Electronics, found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn’t figure out how to use them.
Surowiecki points out that a lot of Feature Creep problems stem from the internal-audience problem where the developers themselves don't use the very products they're developing and therefore have no idea how crappy the end product turns out.

I learned at AOL to combat the internal-audience problem by making the producers use the actual goods they're making (aka "eating your own dog food"). Back in 1998, when my team created the 1-2-3 Publish and Easy Designer home page publishing tools, you bet I used them to make and maintain my own AOL Hometown page (still there after all these years. Ah, good times).

The number of features we didn't include in the basic publishing tool was huge, and not all of them fell off the list because of scarce development resources... we had constant battles to strip down the 1-2-3 Publish tool to be as lean as possible so newbie web publishers wouldn't get distracted by gizmos on their way to creating their first web page.

Of course, as a product manager, I cheated by throwing all the gee-whiz features intended for 1-2-3 Publish instead into the specs for Easy Designer, the WYSIWYG publishing tool. The price we paid for including all these things was comically bloated html code in the resulting published pages. As long as you don't view source, the products not all that bad.

I still make sure to use the tools I produce, but my primary interaction with feature creep now is as a consumer. I fancy myself to be a geek and take pride in making as much use of features on my gizmos as possible, only if I have time to study and learn and ham-fist my way through menus of options.

I've come to expect that part of the purchase equation I've internalized is that I'm willing to pay for high-end stuff and yet use only a tenth of the features available on that stuff. Case in point, my Harman Kardon AVR245. Of the 70 buttons on the remote, I use only 5 of them (power, volume up, volume down, FM, HDMI) when I'm not just manually pushing buttons on the receiver itself. That fact in itself tells you just how much of the capacity of the AVR245 I'm using. However, I love the sound quality of the AVR a lot, and even that's an understatement.

I'd like to say I bought the AVR245 specifically because of its sound quality and not because of all the cool kick-ass features I'll some day use, but that's not true. I bought it for the feature set (and the sound quality!), and that's exactly the conundrum Surowiecki talks about in his article:
as numerous studies have shown, people are not, in general, good at predicting what will make them happy in the future. As a result, we will pay more for more features because we systematically overestimate how often we’ll use them. We also overestimate our ability to figure out how a complicated product works.

Maybe I'll spend Memorial Day learning how to use another button on the remote.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

yet another bug with the HR20 HD DVR

More bizarre behavior from our DirecTV HR20 DVR has recently cropped up:

When we press the 30-second skip ahead button, the DVR actually rewinds about 15 seconds before starting to skip ahead 30 seconds. It doesn't happen every time we press the skip button. And it seems more likely to happen when the show we're playing back is within the first five minutes of the recording.

No, I'm not fat-fingering the skip button and accidentally hitting the replay button (my fingers aren't that big, thanks), and I can't understand why this bug has appeared now.

Our latest upgrade (to software version 0x145) happened on Friday 3/30/07 at 1:47am. Nothing has changed recently in our setup, so I'm stumped about this one.

I'd resisted posting about the HR20 for a long time because I didn't want to jinx our good luck with the latest software build. However, this rewind-before-skipping-ahead "feature" is getting a little annoying.

Oh, and another beef that I've got with the way the HR20 sets up series to record: if there are multiple broadcasts of a show (like the Daily Show or Deadline or Art Mann Presents), the DVR records the earlier broadcast, even if you choose the later broadcast to avoid overlaps with other recordings. Annoying.

But hey, at least I'm not losing programs anymore. (fingers-crossed)

turning old CDs into something valuable

Thanks to a BB post, I see that a couple of those old CD-ROMs I've been lugging around since I moved from San Francisco to DC back in 1995 might actually be worth something, at least from a patent-busting point of view.

Overly quoting the EFF story here (but for good cause):

A company called Acacia has claimed a patent on an “information distribution system” that amounts to the idea of shipping a CD-ROM that contains hyperlinks to online resources. (EFF is currently working on busting another Acacia patent that covers streaming audio and video over the Internet.)

To help bust this overly broad patent, we are looking for prior art that shows the use of this technology before 1994. Specifically, we are seeking the following items:

1. NetNews CD-ROMs, sold by Sterling Software, preferably volumes #1 through #35. These CDs may have been also available through CD Publishing Corporation.


2. Other CD-ROMs that were distributed in 1993 or earlier that contained
hypertext content or were installation disks for applications that linked to Internet content.

Information about these or similar items is greatly appreciated. Submit tips to Philip H. Albert with Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP.

Can't wait to dig through my file boxes to see if I've got a golden ticket!

Friday, May 11, 2007

my favorite Treo 650 map app

I'm still oozing with gushy feelings over having found the Google Mobile Map application yesterday (thanks to the folks blogging at WWD).

This lightweight little app (480KB download) brings all the power of web-based Google Maps to your handheld (mine's a Treo 650) with surprisingly quick speed and decent resolution:
  • real-time traffic data
  • detailed directions (written and illustrated)
  • search results displayed on screen
  • satellite images
I couldn't be more pleased to have this little app. What's more, it's not browser-bound, so I don't have to go through the slow launch process of pulling up the web every time I want to use the maps.


The only other Treo app that I've found even close to this clever and useful is the Caltrain Schedule for Palm OS, but now that I'm a mile from work, no need to slavishly consult the "next train" info for me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

i remember her when...

Over a bowl of Grape Nuts at breakfast, I was glancing over the list of attendees at the white-tie dinner for the Queen at the White House last night, and what caught my eye were the names of two different pro football players in attendance: Peyton Manning and Timothy Hasselbeck.

Perhaps Dubya thought it proper to have some footballers in attendance for the Queen? (shhh, don't tell him).

What stood out all the more was the fact that Elisabeth Hasselbeck was in attendance with her husband (or was he with her?). Yes, she's a co-host of "The View" now and all that.

But this is also the same Elisabeth (Filarski) that we watched sweat through a season of Survivor Australia to finish in fourth place.

Who could have thought she'd go from getting eaten alive by flies in the Outback to an audience with the Queen?

Just goes to show that life is funny sometimes... and there's no way to know what's coming next.

when the party's over...

My beloved Sharks managed to lose in the second round of the playoffs (again). This, after being up two games to one in the series against the Red Wings.

I was at the game last night, and it seemed like after the initial 15 minutes of trying to score, the Sharks, as a team, shrugged their collective shoulders and gave in. It didn't help that we were sitting in front of a couple obnoxious some-time fans of the game (see Left Coast Mom's description of the experience), but it was still great to get in one more game at the Shark Tank this year.

So, the 2007 Stanley Cup will be won by the better of the Ducks/Red Wings or the Sabers/Senators. Don't even know whom to root for in those matchups.

And, after a day or two of beating up the Sharks in the local papers, hockey will be relegated to its usual 4 column inches per week in the Mercury News.

On the bright side: only four more (hot) months until preseason starts!

Monday, May 07, 2007

name change or revised history?

Courtesy a link, I discovered this Air & Space article on the First Photo from Outer Space.

Turns out that shortly after WWII, scientists launched a V-2 missile into outer space from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The rocket had on board a 35mm motion picture camera, and it reached an altitude of 65 miles at its apex. The missile crashed to earth, and the camera broke (as you'd expect) but the film survived in its steel case.

Several of the film stills were stitched together to form a panorama that showed over a million square miles of the Southwestern United States. More specifically, of New Mexico, a state I grew up in.

And beyond the golly-gee-willikers nature of the shot, I'm amazed to see that the Jemez Mountains, the mountains I grew up at the foot of for ten years, are called out in the panorama as the "Valle Grande Mts."

Huh. I'd always known that the caldera that makes up the vast interior of the Jemez Mountains was the "Valle Grande" (and more specifically, "Baca Land" after the family that owned the vast expanse).

Granted, the photo was taken when the city of Los Alamos was freshly emerging from its secret-squirrel status as home of the Manhattan Project. But when did the name change? Or was the person in charge of labeling points of interest on the photo a little loosey-goosey with names?

Looking over at Wikipedia's entry on Jemez Mountains, I see that what I knew as "Valle Grande" is referred to by others as the "Valles Caldera." Wikipedia contribution, here I come!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

use wordpress or blogger? blogger wins

Those following along know I'd started a new blog a week ago to track our progress as urban chicken farmers. I've used Blogger for over a year to publish this string of posts, and having blogged on the WordPress platform a few times as a guest blogger, decided to try something new.

After just five posts on WP, I've now moved the nascent Urban Chickens blog back to this platform. While you can still find the blog at, the domain now forwards here to I'll be deleting the old WP blog this weekend.

Why did I pick Blogger over WordPress? for several reasons:
  1. Knowing as much html and CSS as I do, it's easy to customize the Blogger template. To do the same on WP, I'd have to pay (literally) for the privilege. When I start creating artwork for the design, it'll be easy to add here on Blogger.
  2. WP disallows all advertising and anything more than a few, relatively low-key affiliate links. I've got designs on building up enough niche traffic to Urban Chickens to warrant at least token advertising and affiliate income (enough to pay for chicken feed). Here on HVY TK, I've earned upwards of $10 in the last five months without really trying.
  3. I'm comfortable with the Blogger interface. I know where to click to find things. I lived through the starting this blog pre-Beta and then moving to the now no-longer-Beta interface. Starting a new blog here on Blogger is incredibly easy.
  4. I use Statcounter to track traffic, and WP didn't allow me to add it to my blog there. Here, I've just added the Urban Chickens blog as a new project. Piece of cake!
  5. Finally, what I thought would be the deal clincher on WP is no longer a value-add: I can add guest bloggers (like left coast mom) to the Urban Chicken blog in a snap.
Glad to be back here. Be sure to change your feed readers!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

WWO: walking to work everyday

(I'm participating in World Without Oil, and as of today, gas is up to $4.12 a gallon in this alternate reality game.)

I filled up my car for what I hope is the one and only time this month. Gas hit $4.12 a gallon, and that's up from $3.69 last week. I can't believe that it only took $0.50 a gallon to push me over the threshold, but driving a mile to work now feels like such a luxury, and one I can now do without.

No more weekend fun rides on the motorcycle -- it will stay in the garage unless I absolutely must travel to attend meetings outside the office, then I'll ride it (@ 45mpg) instead of driving the car (@ 22mpg). And if I can get away with Skype video conferences instead of face-to-face meetings, I will.

Glad I booked my June trip to Boston last week, as it looks as though airfares are shooting through the roof. And I'll take the T from the airport this time instead of a taxi. Who knows what the fuel surcharge will be at the end of the month?

cheep, cheep, meet the peep(s)

meet the chick!
Originally uploaded by thomas pix.
After much hemming and hawing and fence-sitting, we've finally got our chicks. Two Barred Rock pullets joined our family yesterday afternoon.

To spare regular readers all the bloggy details of raising chickens, I've started a new blog about them chicks here in my new blog Urban Chickens.

Only rarely will the chicken stuff bleed into this blog, and that'll only be when there's a technology or food angle to the post.