After NICAR, I wasn't really sure I ever wanted to go to any conferences ever again — the travel, the hassle, the expense... who needs it? But I am also apparently unable to moderate my extracurricular activities in any way, even after leaving a part-time teaching gig, so: I'm happy to announce that I'll be speaking at a couple of professional conferences this summer, albeit about very different topics.
First up, I'll be facilitating a session at SRCCON in Portland about designing humane news sites. This is something I've been thinking about for a while now, mostly with regards to bots and "conversational UI" fads, but also as the debate around ads has gotten louder, and the ads themselves have gotten worse (see also). I'm hoping to talk about the ways that we can build both individual interactives and content management systems so that we can minimize the amount of accidental harm that we do to our readers, and retain their trust.
My second talk will be at CascadiaFest in beautiful Semiahmoo, WA. I'll be speaking on how we've been using custom elements in production at the Times, and encouraging people to build their own. The speaker list at Cascadia is completely bonkers: I'll be sharing a stage with people who I've been following for years, including Rebecca Murphey, Nolan Lawson, and Marcy Sutton. It's a real honor to be included, and I've been nervously rewriting my slides ever since I got in.
Of course, by the end of the summer, I may never want to speak publicly again — I may burn my laptop in a viking funeral and move to Montana, where I can join our departing editor in some kind of backwoods hermit colony. But for right now, it feels a lot like the best parts of teaching (getting to show people cool stuff and inspire them to build more) without the worst parts (grading, the school administration).
Last Tuesday was my last day at Seattle Central College, and I turned in my grades over the weekend. If nothing else, this leaves me with 10-20 free hours a week. And while I'll no doubt spend much of that time watching movies, practicing my dance moves, or catching up on my Steam backlog, I do have some projects that I want to finally start (or restart) in my spare time.
...is ridiculously busy. Class at SCCC has ramped up, I've been prepping for the University of Washington workshop, and of course I've got my everyday work at ArenaNet as well. In lieu of a more substantial post, here are some quick notes about what's on my plate.
I've recently been recommending Zed Shaw's Learn X the Hard Way books for learning a variety of computer languages. I find these books, and the educational theory behind them, kind of fascinating. Shaw himself encourages other people to fork his project for new languages, and provides some advice on its structure:
The way to think of the book's structure is the first half gets them strong, the second half gets them skills. In the first half they're just doing push-ups and sit-ups and getting used to your language's basic syntax and symbols. In the second half they use this strength and grounding in the basics to start learning more advanced techniques and concepts, then apply them to real problems.This is not a way that I particularly like to think about learning--my least favorite part of high school was doing drills in class. But in retrospect, what I hated was drilling things I already understood. I despised sentence diagramming because I already understood grammar--I didn't need to draw arrows above the subject-verb-object relationship. When it comes to new problems, I actually spend a lot of time on simple, repetitive practice, what Shaw calls "getting strong." The same seems to be true of most of my students, and that realization has dramatically changed the way I teach this quarter.
When I started learning bass, someone recommended a really good book on bass technique--not a book of songs, or a book on music theory, but just step-by-step foundation on how to hold the instrument and pull the strings without causing long-term physical harm. I spent hours just running through the most basic exercises: plucking strings with two fingers, then playing across strings, then muting unplayed strings. It was tedious, but whenever I play a looping arrangement (where unmuted strings would create "drone notes") and sing simultaneously, I'm glad I spent the time.
Likewise, I was reminded of this the other night at dance practice while talking to one of the other poppers about traveling. When I first started, I remember asking the teachers in class how they were able to combine movement across the floor with their isolations and waves--when I tried, it was too hard to keep both motions in my head, and one of them would collapse into awkward spasming. I wanted a "secret"--some kind of special technique that would let me skip the hard work. But that shortcut didn't exist: gradually I learned to travel while dancing only by working hard on each component individually and repetitively.
I'm writing from our new home, Seattle! We arrived at our new apartment yesterday, after a long, six-day road trip across the country with the dog and the cat in the back seat.
Turns out there's a lot of country between the two coasts. I wouldn't necessarily want to do it again, but it was neat to drive through parts of the United States that I'd never seen, like the deserts of New Mexico or the overwhelming flatness of Oklahoma, and to revisit a few, like my birthplace of Lexington, KY.
In any case, now we're just settling in, getting to know our new neighborhood, and waiting for the shipping containers to arrive with all our stuff. Regular blogging should return soon. Thanks for your patience!
This weekend, Belle and I got married. It was a small, homemade, personal kind of wedding. Among the crafts we made was a "photo booth" consisting of my laptop running a bit of custom ActionScript and a box of very silly props. Unfortunately, we didn't have power and I'm not sure I had the screen saver all set up correctly, so some people may not have had a chance to take their pictures with it before the batteries died. If you'd like to give it a shot, feel free to download and install the Official Nerds Get Hitched Photo Booth (works on Mac or Windows, requires Adobe AIR). It'll take four pictures of you, then save them to a folder on your desktop. There's no quit button (it's a kiosk), but you can hit Escape to leave full-screen mode and then close the window.
Anyway, feel free to install our photo booth and send us a picture. And thanks to everyone who came out to our little wedding celebration!
Look, I'm not saying George Clooney's character from Up in the Air is right about wanting to unload all personal relationships. I don't have that many to spare, after all. But getting my worldly possessions down to a backpack (and then ditching the backpack)? Reducing my carbon footprint, my level of mindless consumerism, and my reliance on cheap, over-designed crap created by underpaid factory labor? Great. Let's do it.
..in theory, at least. In practice, it is tough to get rid of stuff. Learning to live frugally is a multi-step process.
Belle started with a simple rule for our apartment: if you bring something in, something else of equivalent size has to go out. This is a great rule, if for no other reason than that the apartment is very, very small and we can't stuff anything else into it without learning to stack the pets like Tetris blocks. And it incentivizes sustainability by making it easier to use trading/swap services than to buy new books/games/movies.
The second step has been learning to embrace digital media. I still buy a few CDs and paper books, but not nearly as many as I used to, and usually only if they're something I'll want to loan out, or if they're not available online. And we almost never buy DVDs--Netflix has that covered. While it has taken some time to get used to not 'owning' my music or movies, maybe that's the point--'ownership' shouldn't be the defining characteristic of cultural engagement.
Next up is learning to be happy with last year's model. This is not easy to do, especially given the constant deluge of electronic follow-up that companies can leverage these days. Most recently, for example, TiVo sent out messages offering new versions of their DVR box to subscribers at a discount. That's tempting: we've still got the old Series 2 box, the one that came out in 2006, and it doesn't do HD, or Netflix streaming, or... well, lots of neat features. But do we need that? I mean, we don't have HD cable anyway, and it doesn't really bother us. We've got the XBox for streaming, and we'd have plenty of space on the current TiVo if we'd stop using it to store whole seasons of Damages. There's nothing wrong with it to justify a replacement, so we'll stick with what we've got.
At some point, I want to start simplifying--giving away, selling, or (as a last resort) trashing the objects that I only keep out of habit. You know what I mean: old purchases that you don't use anymore, but you keep just in case it comes in handy somewhere down the road. Ruthlessness is the key--you're never going to turn that old Super NES on again, and you know it--but I probably lack the outright willpower. So instead I think I'll get a roll of those little green dot stickers, the ones they use to mark prices at flea markets, and put them on anything I haven't touched in a while. If it actually gets used, I'll take the sticker off. Anything with a sticker still on it at the end of the year has got to go.
Which brings us to the toughest part: our book collection. Already, heavy boxes of books books are the moving experience we dread most. But paper texts have another type of inertia, a weight derived more from their intellectual and emotional impact than their actual mass. Especially if you love books--and we do--it's hard to discard them. It's like throwing away knowledge! And yet we'll never read many of them again, and some of them we bought and may never read in the first place. Everyone would be better off if they were donated to the library or recycled. Of all the steps for reducing our material footprint, cutting the number of books sitting around on our shelves will no doubt be the most painful, but it may have the biggest impact.
Belle and I will probably never get our lives down to the point that they can fit in a backpack, or even an overhead luggage compartment. In reality, we probably don't actually want to get there--we're not monks or masochists, after all. Yet just as the best essay can benefit from judicious editing, I think it's appropriate to take a critical scalpel to our lifestyles from time to time. There's a lot of pressure out there to accumulate, to the point that "consumer" has too often become synonymous with "citizen" or "person." That pressure has consequences, in the labor system, in the environment, and in our financial stability. It may be true, as Slate's Farhad Manjoo insists, that we can't actually opt out from American materialism, but maybe we owe it to ourselves to try.
Reviewer's notes: The special effects may be showing their age, and portions seemed rushed or in need of additional polish. But overall, 2009 delivered a solid annual experience, not to mention a definite improvement over previous franchise installments. Possible candidate for Year of the Year. Score: 9/10
Everyone has an employer-from-hell story, but I think mine ranks pretty highly. Right out of college, I took a job with an AV contractor in Chantilly, VA. At the time I had just started getting into sound as a hobby with my band. I figured this was a cool opportunity to learn more about audio tech.
The company, Custom Fit, was run by a guy named Steve. I didn't know it at the time, but this was apparently Steve's third company or so. He had a habit of starting new ventures, which he would then run into the ground, ruining the credit of whoever he'd conned into providing funding. Originally Custom Fit had been a beige-box computer builder for people who couldn't spell "dell.com" (hence the inexplicable domain standardparts.com), but Steve soon figured out that there was more money in bilking local government organizations for publicly-bidded contracts. So that's what we did.
Working at the World Bank could be ethically ambiguous at times, but for me it never compared with dealing with Custom Fit's clients: building managers for town meeting halls and government facilities laboring under the mistaken assumption that they were going to get a pristine new sound system or video projection setup. As far as I could tell, Steve had no interest in doing that. Instead, a significant portion of his business simply combed government sites for contracts, then figured out the bare minimum that he could possibly bid in order to undercut the competition, while using cheap parts and substandard design to ensure profitability. Of course, I was the one who had to break the bad news to the client when things inevitably started to go wrong. I should have stood up for myself sooner, but I have to admit: I was totally unprepared for the possibility that my boss was a borderline con man.
Oh, the stories I could tell: the accountant that I once inadvertently caught browsing porn (I whistled when I walked around his part of the office after that). The time I tried to order supplies for a job only to be turned down because we hadn't paid our bills on previous orders. Having to constantly go back for more training on the company's home-grown inventory database because Steve (perhaps believing that humiliation builds character) refused to teach anything in sessions longer than five minutes ("Come back when you think you've got that under control," he'd say after showing me how to work a single menu option).
In retrospect, it should have been a warning sign when one of the interview questions concerned XLR cabling, and Steve said that my answer was "wrong, but a good try." I looked it up later. Everything I had said was basically correct.
I learned a lot about how (not) to manage people at Custom Fit. And I learned it well. After two weeks, I gave my two weeks notice (at which point my employment experience actually improved significantly). My parents probably freaked out in private, but they were very supportive of me, and I soon found a new job at the Bank. I got lucky: about a month later, the IRS raided the company and Steve was forced to close shop.
Here's the funny part, and the reason I'm writing about it today: the experience at Custom Fit was so traumatic for employees that many of them have kept in touch to this day. It was a bonding experience, like being taking hostage by terrorists or having Comcast as your cable company (ba-zing!). There was a mailing list for Custom Fit refugees. People hosted reunion picnics. Today I got an invitation to the "Survivors of Custom Fit Inc." group on Facebook.
Let this be a lesson to employers large and small: thanks to the Internet, you will be remembered by an organized group of people, possibly with axes to grind. When Steve tried to relaunch the Custom Fit webpage, word went around quickly, and someone (not me) quickly wrote a script to send his page-counter skyrocketing, just to mess with his head. Don't be like Steve. Treat your people well. Misery may love company in general, but it doesn't have to love yours.
Should have put this up a long time ago: The Song Chart Meme.
By flickr user xianjessen.