Cutting the cord

Over the past few months, I realized that we were streaming more and more of our entertainment content. Like 80%. For a couple of reasons. But mostly: because the interface on my cable box takes shitty to a new, epic level of suck. 

Every other year or so, I've been looking to see if there was a better streaming service - Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu Plus. Then, just over a year ago, I got our first Amazon Fire TV.  The same one that Gary Busey advertises. 

'If you're like me, you like talking to stuff... Hello, Pants.'

That man is a genius. How did he know that I like to do that, too?? 

The interface on Amazon fire is so clean and simple and easy. If you can't find something, just talk at it. It'll show up. Plus, it integrated all of my other services into one, simple to navigate screen. 

I realized that I was defaulting to Amazon 'On Demand' over Time Warner just because it was so much easier.  Please, Bezos, let me give you my money, just because it doesn't HURT to do so. 

Don't believe me? Here. Look at the difference in the remote controls. 

Time Warner has like 1,000 buttons. I know what two of them do.

Fire has 7 buttons. I know what all of them do. And mostly, I use the mic. Which lets me tell it things like "Peter Falk", and have all of the Columbo movies magically appear in front of me. 

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And don't get me started on the screen interface. I actually had a long, reasonably patient conversation with someone fairly intelligent at Time Warner. Who determined that the cause of my frustration was that I was using an older hardware kit, and that my problems would be solved with a newer cable box. I thought my problem was that when I hit "CBS", it didn't take me to "CBS". It took me to a listing of all the major networks, and 'allowed' me to scroll over to "CBS" to select a program (which is what I wanted to do the first time I hit "CBS").  But I let him swap out my cable box anyway, which gave me a slightly faster version of the same crappy interface. Winner. 

I know. This is a first world problem. And for a long time I just shrugged my shoulders and decided I had better things to worry about. 

But then last month, I got my bill. And all the charges on it were doubled. Because I now had two cable boxes, right? One crappy old one. And one crappy new one. 

Except I didn't. Because why the heck would we have kept the crappy old one? I called my cable provider's customer service line to calmly explain this to them. And then I walked through the charges. $3.00/month for the programming guide? $100/month for the extended line up of channels that I generally ignore?  

Our normal cable bill is ~$150/month. That covers the extended package (because I like HGTV, and my Bride likes zombie shows), and a premium channel or two (which we only watch once a year or so). 

We already pay for Netflix ($20/month) and Hulu Plus ($8/month), because it's easier to find TV shows there than through the cable on demand service (It does nice things like show a listing for "New episodes of things you've watched before" right up at the top. Imagine that.) And we pay for Amazon Prime (mostly for the free shipping on Amazon), which comes with its own set of content now.  So we're already paying for more streaming content - that we use more regularly - than for our much more expensive cable service. 

In a casual conversation, a buddy of mine mentioned that he had cut the cord, and shut off his cable service. This got me thinking. 

I went home and talked to my Bride about the shows we watch, and figured out that we'd be missing maybe 3 things if we turned off Cable tomorrow. The Walking Dead (nothing in our lineup of services includes streaming AMC), Big Bang Theory (Hulu Plus covers CBS shows, but they don't stream this one, as it's their most popular comedy). And... wait. Maybe it was just two things. 

Cable costs us $1,800 a year. 

For two shows. 

Yeah. Not worth it. 

I called Time Warner the next day, and told them I wanted to cut our service off. Just internet, please. 

"Um.. why?" 

I laid out the reasoning. 

"But... doesn't someone else in the house watch cable?"

Nope. And if they did - they won't when I'm done with this phone call. 

"But... what if we cut $30 a month off your bill?"

Your interface would still suck, and I'd still be paying $1,400 a year for cable. 

"Well. Um. OK, then?"

Thank you. 

 

It's true: I lost a few bucks of 'advantage' in the bundling of internet service and cable from the same company. But still, we're saving more than $1,500 / year. And that's after tax earnings. It's equivalent to giving myself a $2,000 or more raise. And who wouldn't be happy with that? Plus, I'm not left confused and irritated every time I pick up the remote control. 

Still. I've got to figure out how to stream AMC now. Even if it costs me a few bucks. Because my cute +1 is a lot happier if she can scare herself silly with her favorite zombie shows...

 

Our government not working at internet speeds

Our first little iPhone app, VaxTrak was first published 4 years or so ago (remember this?) . An app to help parents and families keep track of immunizations received, recommendations, find their nearest flu clinic, and generally keep your kids (or self) safe from preventable diseases. 

 The VaxTrak video - acted by my friend & colleague Anna

The VaxTrak video - acted by my friend & colleague Anna

This was probably one of the professional contributions I'm most proud of, even now, as it came from a very personal place in our family of having moved around enough to have lost that little yellow paper booklet the pediatrician entrusts you with when your child is first born. 

If I had realized that importance placed on that little yellow booklet, and that it would almost certainly be the deciding factor in whether or not your child would be admitted to the graduate school of their choice or spend the entirety of their lives asking if you'd like the egg white only breakfast McMuffinator. we'd have probably taken better care of where we put the Suddenly Important Yellow Booklet.

Look doc, we were new parents, still trying to figure out which end of this baby you just plopped on our laps is doing the squalling, and which the pooping. Seriously. Your medical judgement in putting another helpless human into our completely unprepared care is questionable at best. I'm not sure if I managed to dress & bathe myself the first year of parenthood, let alone keep Little Precious clean. 

So coming up with a way that my company at the time - squarely in the vaccines-supplying business - could help parents out with their job of vaccines-keeping-up-with efforts, was pretty cool. 

Cool enough that Novartis filed a patent on our behalf. 

Never mind that the filing is several years old, or that the app was discontinued last year, a little ways before Novartis sold off their vaccines business to GSK.  The patent continues along its merry way through the halls of the US patent office, and may, someday, actually be approved. No doubt just before we all ditch our smart phones in favor of a embedded chip that shoots lasers into our retinas and tells us where we need to go. 

Whatever. This week we got some paperwork from Novartis basically to sign away the rights to any money made from the (always-published-for-free-on-the-App-store) app (that-is-no-longer-available). 

It's just nice to see "Inventors" there in black and white, with our names listed. 

 

Pumpkin Chunkin' - the @Work addition.

Every year, we hold a company Halloween party. Mostly for the kids for the employees, who get to come to the offices in costume, walk through a not-very-scary raw-materials-warehouse-turned-haunted-house, and we all gather in the cafeteria to eat and take an hour or two away from our desks or lab benches to enjoy one another's company and families.  

From time immemorial (and certainly before my time with the team), IT has sponsored a pumpkin carving contest. It always gets 4 or 5 fun entries, and adds to the Halloween spirit. 

I'm not sure how, but at some point a few months ago, we were having a sort of idle conversation around the team space and I threw out the idea, "You know what would be fun, and in the spirit of Make? Let's take the leftover pumpkins and hurl them across the field. It could be a contest." 

The team leapt on the idea. NEB Pumpkin Chunking was in the works.  

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I work with a bunch of Makers. It's one of my absolute favorite parts of what I do and where I work. Scientists and engineers are by nature tinkerers. And modern IT embodies this spirit. It's who we are. 

And I'm a big believer in encouraging the Make. It's a huge part of how innovation happens. Plus, it was an excuse to throw pumpkins at work. What more could you ask for? 

I thought about finding some way to make this an 'official' event. But we were all busy, and when we talked about having departmental teams, it just wasn't coming together. So a few weeks ago, I sent out an email to the team and a few select others that said:  

"Dear all. I have a trebuchet in my barn. I am bringing it to work on Halloween to throw pumpkins across the field. You are invited to bring your own, and see if you can beat mine. Or not. It's totally up to you.  

P.S. Someone should bring beer."

 

 

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My trebuchet was leftover from teaching my daughter's 5th grade class a lesson in basic applied physics.  

It works. But to be honest, not very well - it throws upwards very well. But forward release had always been a bit of a problem. I had plans to tweak and refine it, but I never got around to it. But I figured, what the hell. That kind of wasn't the point. 

We had entries like the above onager. Which was a scaled up version of something like I built for the 5th graders. It had wooden wheels and a winch to cock the arm. And bolts to assemble it all on site.  

 

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Then there was the other end of the engineering extreme.

A stick with some cinderblocks tied on to one end with some rope.  

"Do you remember that episode of 'Northern Exposure' where the DJ wanted to throw a cow, but they ended up convincing him to throw a piano instead? I was thinking about that, and just figured I could sort of scale it back."  

That's the builder there with a beer in his hand. The one who was inspired by a 25 year old sitcom to tie cinderblocks to a stick.  

The beautiful thing was: it worked at least as well as the other one.  

My trebuchet, on the other hand, threw pumpkins 40-50 feet vertically into the air. which mostly then fell down around my feet.  

 

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The final entry was a potato gun. To make it qualify, we shoved summer squash and decorative gourds down the pipe.  

They didn't hold up as well as potatoes - they sort of disintegrated in mid-air. But boy, would those sticky bits really fly. 

 

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Let the spirit of Make live on.  

Best team building event ever. 

Another #MAKE Friday

To follow on to our last MAKE project, we got interested in what other metrics we could display in creative ways. Again, we went to look at some less traditional measurements at my company, that reinforced or highlight the company values. It's interesting to display revenue or shipments. But we have plenty of ways to do that already with intelligent and mobile dashboards, etc. 

Our head of HR suggested that we pick up the hours of volunteer time our colleagues contribute: as a standard policy, everybody at my company gets a paid day a year to volunteer at whatever charitable organization or institute is meaningful to them. It's one of my favorite benefits (obviously. Twice.) But the reality is that not enough people actually remember to do it.  

If we make the metric more visible, would we see that change?

I have to think so. The pages printed has gone down since we deployed the cube. I think we can have an even greater effect on this fantastic benefit as well. 

What I really wanted to create was a split-flap display - like you would see in old train stations. The clatter and the action of the split-flap is just fantastic. It draws you in, and strikes a chord with me because of the audible reinforcement of seeing the information change. Unfortunately, everyone has ripped those things out some years ago to switch to digital screens (yawn), and they're nigh-impossible to find. (although I did find one or two examples of building them entirely from scratch. But even I'm not that ambitious).   Sure, you can fake it on a big screen, but that just didn't tug on my creative urges enough. 

So we kicked this idea around for a while with the team, looking for an alternative idea that blended that tactile attraction, but was simple enough to do in the spare time of the few of us who were working on it. 

One of the programmers on my team had a couple of old, cheap Android-based tablets. he made one of them into a single digit flipper and showed it to me. Voila.  

Let's just pile up a bunch of individual screens to do the trick, create a web service to change each counter, and nest the whole thing in something that 'softened' the digital aspect of the display. We bought a few more old tablets, and I took one of the leftover rafters from our 300 year old farmhouse that had been taken out and saved in my barn to create a cradle.  We spray painted the non-screen parts of the tablet a uniform matte black to further take away the digital reminders (no buttons or logos needed), and a colleague from my team and I set it up in the hallway of the main office without telling anyone what it was. 

 

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We let it sit there for a week or so, displaying a number (267), smiling enigmatically when people asked about it.  Our CEO was giving some partners from another company a tour - even with all of the art and scientific instrumentation surrounding it, this stood out enough for them to ask about it. 

It wasn't labeled. It was just a set of numbers. It made people ask. 

That's exactly what we wanted.  

After about ten days, we released another video - I wrote the script, but yet another one of our team voiced it. Again, I think this said it better.  

This one was a great collaboration amongst my team. It was fun to see how into it different people got, and certainly met the objective of both producing something that combined utility, creativity and artfulness, and of getting the team inspired to innovate and think differently.

We've got another project on the design board that'll combine a couple of the best parts of each of these.  

More fun to come!  

You can tell the quality of the science by the scale of the props involved

Back in the fall, my Bride & I went in to the Critter's 5th grade class to teach chemistry for the day. Which was rich in irony, as I struggled to find the joy in chemistry when I was a student. But the experience itself was fun - fifth graders are at that great age where they're young enough that they're not too cool to express interest in a subject, and old enough that you can make fun of them without creating a need for lasting therapy.  I told the teachers when they hit the physics & engineering segment of the curriculum, let me know. That's my wheelhouse, and I had a couple of ideas I thought might be fun. 

Here is a truckful of ideas:

I asked the teachers how many kids to expect, and if we could consolidate the classes. I enjoyed the smaller groups of individual classes for the dry ice demonstrations in the fall. But with the larger catapults, we needed to move outside (for obvious reasons), and I was a bit worried about the higher likelihood of catastrophic breakdown. Which is a lesson of a different kind, I suppose. 

Soon enough, the first horde of kids were crossing the field. 

My lesson plan was more or less as follows: 

  • Intro: Simple machines, Complex machines, and Hurling Produce
  • The basic lever in your arm - come up and throw a potato
  • Extending the lever - a lacrosse stick hurls potatoes further
  • The Slingshot - using potential energy in a device to save my rotator cuff because I am old
  • How the Romans did it - A torsion engine, an onager, and an intro to siege warfare
  • Le Trebuchet - Counterweights & hurling bigger produce with an improved design
  • The Potato Cannon - The chemical potential energy of Aquanet, and a really loud noise 

There was a lot of improvisation in this basic plan, but I showed up with a tub full of cabbages, a couple of watermelons and sacks of potatoes, and figured we could make a go of it. 

I showed up an hour early to set up. I had promised the Critter that I would do my best to embarrass her, so I brought an extra prop or two along. I did a good portion of the lecture while wearing my Roman legionnaire helmet.  The other kids seemed to dig it. 

(Someone in the school administration office asked me 'Where did you ever find that helmet!?'  To which I answered: On the internet, I am two clicks away from just about anything.)

The sling shot and lacrosse sticks served as simple ways to get the kids up and into the action: we'd hurl about half a sack of potatoes down range, and then other kids were jumping to volunteer to run down and collect them. Honestly, I probably didn't have to do anything more than let the kids play with this for an hour, but I had a few other props prepared, so we moved it along.  

I knew from the get go that I wanted to make another catapult. Bigger this time, and more durable. So I started with the same basic plan, and scaled it up a couple of notches. I scavenged some wheels off a non-functioning wagon, and added more cross-bracing. 

Soon enough, I had a working potato-onager. 

I actually ended up modifying this further. The onager is under a lot of stress, and has a bad tendency to shake itself apart after a few throws.

I switched out the arm for a metal pipe, and added a more durable & functional sling to the end to give it the arc & trajectory I wanted. 

This is me, apparently incorporating an explanation of how the Bangles had a hit song in the mid-80's with such a stupid song. 

By comparison, the trebuchet was simple to build. And a lot bigger. It only took me a couple of hours to knock it together, and scrounge about 125 lbs of weight to serve as a counterweight. (I knew those dumb bells would eventually come in handy).

I had the kids throw some cabbages by hand for comparison, and then we tried launching them from le trebuchet.  

The trebuchet won. 

Then we upped the ante, and launched a watermelon. 

It was almost 90 degrees out. The kids spontaneously chased the smashed watermelon and scooped it up off the grass as a treat. 

We ended with a potato cannon that I borrowed from one of my colleagues. I've never built one, though I've thought about it a couple of times. (there are countless versions of them on the internet). 

A little bit of PVC, some aquanet and a click-starter from a Weber, and you've got a pretty serious projectile demonstration. 

It's also loud. Which makes it even more fun. 

Once again, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the book 'The Art of the Catapult' by William Gurstelle. There's nothing here that took more than a few hours to knock together, and provided a huge amount of fun, and hopefully some tactile examples of some of the hardcore physics concepts that the kids will remember, and maybe want to learn more about.  And of course to the teachers for inviting us in to make a fool of ourselves throwing various forms of produce around the field for an afternoon. 

Plus: It gave me an excuse to buy a legionnaire’s  helmet. 

Everybody wins. 

#MAKE Friday - Ambient Cube

Late last year, I had begun thinking about some new ways to communicate information across my company. I am fascinated by a) taking information that you either rarely (or never) look at and making it more available, and b) bored with bar charts. 

There's a lot of ways to communicate information. But we seem to get stuck in the same ways old ways we have always used, because they seem simple, we've trained ourselves to use them, and so we reach for them out of convenience. But with the sheer amount of information available to us at any given time, putting more data into the firehose won't result in anything actionable or noticeable unless it's either truly compelling, or interesting enough to stand out. 

I was taken with the idea of the ambient orb, and began playing around with ways to build one myself. It took a little bit of finessing to figure out exactly how I wanted to set it up. The biggest challenge is to get enough light out of the LEDs to be visible in all situations. A single LED just isn't gonna cut it when the sun is up and shining through the window.  But just as importantly as the technical aspects, I was determined to make the object pretty. It had to fit into the ambience of the area I intended to put it - the lobby of a multi-million dollar scientific facility, surrounded by works of art and natural beauty. 

So of course, I turned it from an orb to a cube. 

 

 

The lighting was brightened by using a BlinkM MaxM LED - a stupidly bright RGB LED that is super easy to work with. I tore apart carefully disassembeled an old, non-programmable ambient orb to see how they had tackled the diffusion. Answer: frosted wax paper. Engineers are a practical people. The cube came from some $5 Amazon toy - I threw all the functional part of it away, and just kept the plastic cubey bit. 

Now for the base. I took a piece of burl buckeye that I had in my workshop, and carved back the suface to accomodate the cube. I haven't done much carving, but I love working with this wood. I've made some small box parts out of it in the past, and it is both light and dense (a great combination for woodworking, but a bitch on the sawblades). Best of all, it has a gorgeous natural grain that is warm and interesting. 

 

 

Never mind the rust on my chisel. My barn isn't hermetically sealed, and it's a constant battle with my steel tools. 

I routed out the underside of the block to accomodate the arduino board and components (I installed an ethernet shield on it as well), and drilled a hole through the center of the square cutout to slip the LED through. Then it was just a matter of plopping the cube into the slot. 

It still didn't look quite finished to me. I also knew I'd be putting it out into a rather sunny location. Even with the MaxM LED, in direct sunlight, it has to be pretty bright to be seen. So I grabbed a small sheet of stock rolled brass, and bent it into a shade. To keep with the artsy feel, I used a torch to discolor and oxidize the brass a bit. 

Added bonus: Fire! 

 

 

The little sketch I wrote for the cube can be found here - pretty straightforward (you will need the BlinkM_funcs.h and WebServer.h libraries as well). But you set the IP of the ethernet sheild, pass the color you want the cube to turn in standard RGB values via a webservice, and it shifts prettily to the next shade.

Several applications of danish oil to protect the base and And boom. We have ourselves a remotely programmable ambient cube, that can automatically be set to change as any metric we choose to monitor shifts. Here it's set to "purple." 

 

 

The idea for the metric is simple. We picked paper usage for the campus, because environmental stewardship is an important core value for our organization.  But we could've picked pretty much any goal.  If the cube is red, we used less paper yesterday than we did the day before.  If it's blue, we used about the same. If it's green, we used less. 

While we played with different and more complicated algorithms, the goal is just to do a little better every day. If we do that, it adds up to thousands of pages saved each year.  The numbers are easy - our print servers record every print job by printer, sender, page type, etc. anyway. All we had do to was setup a simple automatic comparison, and send out a little nightly web call to the cube. 

By putting it out in the lobby to be seen as people walk in each morning, it becomes both a visible reminder of our core values as an organization, and an opportunity to reflect on our choices. 'Oh. Today is a red day. Maybe I won't make as many copies of that report, and will just email it instead.'

But we said it better in a video - I put this together for internal communication. It explains the concept and the meaning. 

 

 

And there you have it. Information presented in an interesting fashion that becomes actionable, for less than fifty bucks and a few hours of effort to put together. 

I probably should've planted an apple tree

I have no idea what half the stuff in my basement is, or where it came from. 

We only moved in four - no wait, five (when did that happen?) - years ago. But my basement is full of... stuff. Oh, sure.. part of the basement is tidy (the part dedicated to wine, meat, preserves and cider) - but the corners and ends are full of things that have accumulated in drifts and piles.  I don't know what it is. Once a year or so, I cull a portion of it to take to the transfer station/dump, or give away random bits of furniture to a local charity. 

Companies are like that too. Not long after joining my company, I made a rule that we would not support any software or hardware that was old enough to compete on American Idol.  

You've got to draw the line somewhere. I draw the line at Randy Jackson. 

Walk through a data center at pretty much any company that's been around for a time, though, and there are corners that look kind of like your basement. Something dusty and occasionally moving in the furthest corner that you're not quite sure what to do with, but aren't quite ready to get rid of. 

To thank my team for finally de-commissioning and unracking a ten year old G4 server that had long outlived it's sell-by date, I turned this into a planter for the office. 

I am the best boss. 

And now, for a moment of geekery

New rule: If I have an electronic thingy (laptop, smartphone, tablet) in front of me, and you have an electronic thingy in front of you: you are not allowed to give me paper.

New rule addendum: If there is a projector in the room and you STILL try and give me paper, I get to kick you in the shins.

I'm head of IT for a biotechnology & reseach company. Which means I get to work with a lot of smart people. Smart people that have laptops and iPads. Smart people who still want to use their laptops and iPads to print out paper to hand to me. Me who also has a laptop and iPad. You get where I'm going. They're not evil. It's just habit. It's the same at offices everywhere. 

Once a year or so, my team does a comprehensive analysis of how much we spend on toner, printer maintenance, cost per page, etc, and we decide what to do about it. We print tens and tens of thousands of pages a week. We recently switched out all our printers for these really cool Xerox machines that run off of wax instead of traditional ink. Very green and cost friendly. And every print-out smells like a box of crayola. It's cool, and it saves us a bunch of money. But wouldn't it be even better if we reduced the amount of printouts we used in the first place? How many pages are printed each week that could be simply avoided? 1%? 5%? 10%? 

But other than kicking people in the shins when they make bad choices, how do you find a more gentle and elegant way to use that information more than once a year, and help people make good choices every day?

 A few years ago, a company was founded out of the MIT labs called Ambient Devices made a really nifty bit of kit called the Ambient Orb. It turned a metric into a color, and put it over in the corner of your visiion as a constant reminder. It's easier and more "ambient" than a website you have to log in to (hence the name).  And it's kind of a cool, interesting, and easy way to display information where details are less important than the general state. The beauty is in the simplifying the interface to a color that provides meaning to your metric.

 

Along with all that paper we consume, we also use a lot of power. We make and store biological material. We have to keep it cold.We have a lot of freezers. I mean, a lot. They use a lot of electricity. We're the single biggest consumer of electricity in the local city.  

We do a lot to make things more efficient, and have found all the big opportunies. Still, is there stuff we could do to reduce that by 1%? 3%? 5%? Probably. Switch off my monitor when I go home. Turn off the lights in the conference roomwhen the meeting is over. Those kinds of things. They add up. They accumulate into real savings, and real impact over time.  

But just like people who print stuff off, I forget to hit the switch on my way out the door.   I can log into my power company account and see my home energy consumption in almost real time, any time I want. But I don't. I check it once a month or once a quarter. The data is there. But I'm not using it to change my behavior on a daily basis because of the barrier to getting it. (which is pretty low, I must say). 

Goals to reduce waste and energy consumption by - for instance - 5% per year are pretty typical company aspirations. We're ISO 14001 certified. We have an environmental mission statement. We're officially green. But people still give me paper I don't want, and I still forget to turn off the lights. 

It got me thinking: What if we had one of those orbs at the front desk when you walk in. Green means we were on track yesterday for our 5% savings. Blue means we're between 96-99% of 'norm'. Red means we're using more paper, more electricity, more whatever than we want to use as a company. Would it change behavior to know that yesterday was a bad day, and today you could help offset it? Without impacting the business success, would it be more effective than getting an email from me once a year ranting about printers?

And how rewarding would it be to see it move back from 'disappointed red' to 'healthy green'? 

That kind of feedback mechanism is simply missing in a lot of things - we know we want to achieve X, but we have little way to know if we're doing so real time. Wouldn't it be great if we could find a way to leverage the data we already have in a way that provides that kind of visual cue to our success & commitment? 

So, I followed up on with Ambient Devices. They stopped selling the orbs commercially a few years back, but they'd 'be happy to make a special production run for me, if I committed to buy 3,000 or more. 
Um. No. 
But how hard could this freaking be? It's a glass ball with some colored lights in it. Controlled by some simple little input string. They were selling about twenty bucks worth of parts for a hundred bucks and a monthly subscription fee. 
Now I felt challenged. No way could I not build one of these things. Thanks to the internet, I found out I was not even close to the first.

I read through a few of these DIY versions, and picked up an Arduino board last week (a programmable microprocessor board), and spent some time futzing with it. It's generally programmed in C, with a few additional functions specific to the board (things like controlling the voltage going to a specific pin, or using the serial in/out for different ways of relaying information to the board). It's an open source standard, and the creativity that people have shown with it knows no ends. It looked (and really is) easy enough to pick up and have a go. But you should have seen me trying to remember how to use resistors - I'm a computer guy. The last time I did this kind of thing was in a EE class in university more than a couple of decades ago. 

Once I sorted it out with a simple connection of 3 LEDs (red, green and blue), I set up a sketch to control the intensity of each, interpreted by a standard webformat color (e.g. #ffffff), input over a terminal screen (the arduino is connected to my laptop via a usb cable).  (that's purple (#ff00ff), green (#00ff00) and red (#ff0000) below). 

I popped off the hook end of a frosted glass christmas ornament, and dropped it over the LEDs and voila. Not a bad ambient orb.

I added an ethernet shield, and gave it an IP address, and added a little web service to allow it to be controlled over the network, plugged into any network port. The LEDs weren't quite bright enough, so I added a BlinkM MaxM LED, which has about a hundred-fold intensity. Boom. Pretty up the base and we're in business. 

Now I have an indicator that I can set up in common areas as a simple, visual reminder of how we're doing on our goals. We could use this for anything, of course - it's easy to configure for any metric you care to track. I'll be happy if I stop walking out of meetings with more paper than I walk in with. 

Now if only I could figure out how to fix a string of Christmas lights without having to throw the whole thing out and buy a new one.

Personal technology for a geeky luddite

Last week, I  added a couple of new technologies to our household. I realized when I set them up that these were the first truly new technologies I had added to the house in a couple of years or more. Which might seem pretty odd for a guy in charge of IT.  But either as a sign of age, wisdom or crotchiteness, I'm much more selective about the technology that enters our house these days. It's got to meet certain criteria of both usefuleness, ease and form. 

Computers: In addition to my MacBook Pro for work, I have a 21" quad core iMac on my desk at home. Which I love for the beauty of the display as well as the processor power. I tend to keep my work stuff segregated to my laptop, though I've been known to use the large Mac for graphics or the occasional Powerpoint creation.   I gave up Windows about 4 years ago now, more or less, and though I have occasional pangs of longing for some particular bit of software or other that I can't find on a Mac, they are truly rare moments these days. 

In addition, my Bride and the Critter also have their own MacBook Air laptops. (Our local school is all Mac based). We have one Windows NetBook left in the house, as the software that runs my Bride's fancy Swiss sewing machine is Microsoft only. (I also have a graveyard of 4 or 5 old computers in a cupboard under my stairs. One day, I am going to clean that out, I promise). 

 

Tablets & eReaders: We have 2 iPads (both 2nd gen) in the house, and 3 Kindles. (I've written about the relative strengths and weaknesses between them before).  

If I had to break down the use, though, I'd say I use my iPad very little, and almost exclusively for work (as a handy viewer of documents and email in meetings or when I'm not in the office), occasionally to look something up quickly, and rarely for anything else. My (4 year old) son probably uses the other iPad the most, as a viewer for Netflix and/or for one of the games. Mine is a 3G iPad, and my bride's is WiFi only. If I had it to do over again, I'd probably just stick with WiFi for both. 

Even though I remain a big fan of the iPad Kindle app, my Bride & I moved to our own Kindle Touch (not Fire) this last Christmas. The Critter inherited her mom's 2nd gen Kindle for a while, but it eventually gave up the ghost, and she now has a basic Kindle that she loves as well.

 When I read, I want to read, and not be distracted by eMails or the tendency to browse or "just check this one thing". In addition, the form factor, robustness and usability of the Kindle (read on the beach, anyone?) appeals to me much better. The touch interface is still some distance behind the iPad in many ways, but for all that this is a single-purpose device, it almost certainly is the one bit of technology that I would mourn the most if I was forced to do without.  

Network & Backup: It was very early days that this became important to me. Just after we were married (18 years ago this next month), my Bride lost about a week's worth on her thesis to a failed hard drive. We were living in central Texas. The nearest computer shop was 45 minutes away, and he was unimpressed with ideas like "timelines" or "service levels". And I quote: "Well, Mr Grady, it's not the end of the world if it takes an extra few days to recover..." 

Yes, Tex. It would've been. 

However, with the advent of the 'personal cloud', I am feeling a lot better about my backup state these days.  We have several thousand photos online at this point. Many of them are stored on Flickr, but I still sync them across my network with Time Machine. (All of the computers in my house, with the excption of the one Windows netbook, are backed up this way. I have had to restore twice off of these backups, and have thanked Apple for their ease of interface both times.)  However, given the importance of so much of our electronic data. I will almost certainly add iCloud or another online backup service in the coming months as well, as a 'belt & suspenders' approach.  

Unfortunately for me, Comcast cable is really the only provider of note where I am, so I haven't been able to make the switch to Fios. Even though both are contractually throttled at around the same rate ("up to" 15mbps), fiber optic service is technically capable of higher throughput and suffers less down time than cable, historically.  It's steadily creeping out my way, though, and we'll definitely be switching as soon as it makes it to Carlisle. 

DVR: Ok. I don't care how big a luddite you are. The reason the internet was invented was so that mankind didn't have to do without TiVo anymore. 

I'm pretty sure this is how Jesus watches TV. 

Sharing & Collaboration: One of the best things we've done is start using a shared note taking application as a family. We use Evernote (since we're Mac users), and can easily update lists, tasks, share notes, etc. Add to a grocery list on the go, or take a note about a doctor's appointment. Otherwise, we'd never stay synced with all the family activities.  

For work, I greatly prefer to take notes electronically. I was never organized enough to keep them tidy when I used paper, and two months after the fact, I'd be trying to find some random scrap of paper from that one discussion on some esoteric topic that triggered a thought or a visualization that I'd like to refer back to. And so often, those notes became the core of the minutes and actions from a meeting, or the basis of an email or other communication. Having them electronic from the start makes me much more efficient at following up with others. 

Cameras: I've owned at least one digital camera since 1998, and currently have 4 or 5, if I count my phone in the mix. I've tried Olympus, Sony, Canon, Nikon, HP, and probably one or two other of the cheapo point-and-click variety. Each of the kids has a digital camera now. I've got both a 'point-n-shoot' Sony still (which I never use anymore) as well as a Canon SLR (EOS Rebel Xsi) with a couple of lenses (which I love, but use less now that my camera phone doesn't suck. See below). I'm by no means an expert photographer, and my strategy remains "take lots of pictures. You'll find one you like," which translates into lots of digital file management.  With the advent of the iPhone 4, I find it harder to keep my photo library synchronized in a central place, which is meaning that I'm needing to rethink my photo management strategy, I find.  I've tried Picasa and iPhoto, and find them both to cover about 90% of an overlapping set of needs. But haven't found the one that I'm ready to switch everything to yet.  

On my wish list is a Lytro camera - which uses new lightfield technology to capture views and images. (back to my growing obsession with photography). 

Phones: I have said in the past that if it wasn't for work, I'd probably not bother with a cell phone, as I'm not a big phone talker. I don't know if that's true anymore, as the phone now does so much more than just lets you talk to folks. With Apple products in the rest of the house, it's probably not surprising that we're also dedicated iPhone users, which allows a great degree of syncing across devices. I recently had the chance to test drive the new Motorola Razr for a few weeks for free, and while there were things I liked about it, it was different enough that I'd have had to reteach my fingers new muscle memories. And the differences didn't add up to an advantage. It was just different. So it went back, and I stuck with my iPhone. 

Probably the most frequently used app (besides eMail), is Evernote, as above. Followed by JogLog - an app that keeps track of my running distance and time for me. However, the app that made me happiest on a personal level is the upgrade of the camera, and all of the associated apps that came along with photo editing and sharing. 

We have not yet given up the separate house phone, though we've talked about with increasing frequency. I'm sort of hanging on to it as a phone for my daughter to use as such things grow more likely (vs. getting her a cell phone). Though that excuse is wearing thinner with the increase in "please consider donating to our candidate" calls we get in the evenings. 

Other stuff: The biggest technology investment I have made in the last 12 months was definitely my car. I moved from a 1967 Ford pickup with manual everything, to a fully loaded 2012 Mini Cooper S, with the best technology package I could put into it. Bluetooth is my friend. And satellite radio is a life changer. I'm not sure how I ever lived before I found the all-bluegrass, all-the-time station. (I am so not kidding about this). 

And because staying in reasonable shape is an increasing focus for me as the years go by, I also just bought a new connected scale from WiThings, that lets me track and monitor my weight and BMI via an app. They also sell a blood pressure cuff that I'll probably buy in the future. Mostly so I have data I can share in my discussions with my physician, and to keep my health front of mind, so to speak. 

The technology in my house that I continue to be most impressed with (but use practically never) is the Kinect for the XBox. The kids use it to play games (although not that frequently either), but I've seen some development work for it involving remote diagnostics (letting physicians track the progress/status of their patients with multuple sclerosis, for example, when they can't make it into the office) that are truly remarkable. I bought it mostly just so I could support the continued investment in that platform, as it's one of the most revolutionary I've seen yet. (the xBox was originally purchased - and is still used overwhelmingly - for streaming Netflix on demand). 

That purchase was an exception for me, however. For all that I feel responsible for keeping up with technology and try to keep my finger on what's happening, I rarely run right out to buy most new technologies. More of my purchases are like the WiThings scale - I'm looking for technology that both suits a purpose and works with the other tools that I have.

I have very few technology "point" or "siloed" solutions in my house. For me to bring ina new t has to blend & compliment with the other tools I have or needs I manage. It's interesting to think about how the kids will use these tools later in life. I think the idea that we would have one place to store pictures (an album), one place to look at movies, one place to get recipes, etc. - none of which talk to each other - would be absolutely insane to them.

Meanwhile, I'm still struggling to figure out the voicemail menu on my Comcast service... (Why on earth is "7" the delete key? What 6 other things could I want to do to a voicemail?)

For all your chicken jugular inquiries

I rarely do this, but here were the top 10 searches that drove people to this website this week: 

  • "women killing rooster"
  • "chicken jugular"
  • "hand crank chipper blade" 
  • "cinder block hog roast"
  • "braised beef shank tough"
  • "ford pick up gilmore girls"
  • "cockled"
  • "sorghum candy"
  • "how long does it take for a salami to be overdue"
  • "focusing on the important things"

The juxtaposition of the last one with the rest makes me happy. 

 

Stuff I did when I wasn't here

 

I don't write about it much (here), but I really still do have a day job where I diddle with computers. 

  • Your password policy is stupid - this the (actually somewhat toned down version of the) post I shared at my company.  (Sometimes I realize: it's good to be in charge of things. Especially when you can make it easier for people to work here.) 

 

Things which should be read

1. On the writing of Thank You notes by Leslie Harpold (via mightygirl.com) 

I’m not going to go all Miss Manners on your ass and get into the social intricacies and delicate situations that surround thank-you note writing, as I was taught that a solid thank-you note will transcend all complicated situations—and I have seen no evidence to the contrary.

2. Want to know what's going to be in that iPad 3? via CIO.com

A prettier display, and a little bit faster, but it's probably still not going to have a hologram.  However, the better lesson is this: 

I don't think [Apple competitors] understand how loyal it makes people when Apple continually pushes out improved functionality to their existing customers.

I hadn't really thought about it before I read it, but there is a shockingly obvious difference between how Apple treats its customers (making them brand enthusiasts) and how, say, Samsung does. Interestingly, Amazon has continuously tried to help people use its online sales channel, but not its physical (kindle) one. Probably indicating a separation between the product teams internally. And so sputters along another "iPad killer"

3. Speaking of cool ways to treat people - Thinking well outside the box on how to help people use your product...

4. Valentine inspiration (Etsy shop

An absurd surfeit of tablets

It's officlal. After this Christmas, we've become a multi-Kindle family.

My Bride and I agreed to give each other a new Kindle Touch for Christmas, upgrading from her old 2nd gen Kindle (the one with physical keyboard and the superbly non-touch screen, which I rediscovered after jabbing it multiple times every time I picked it up to play with it). We also each have an iPad 2, so we definitely did not want a Kindle Fire.

This wasn't about getting a new pretty tablet. I just wanted a book I could read in the sunlight that didn't also have email. (Why yes, in fact, I do realize what an nauseatingly 1st world post this is. Go ahead. You can throw stuff at us anytime you want) 

After a couple of days of living with the new Kindle, here are my summary thoughts: 

Kindle Touch vs. the iPad w/Kindle app: I've wanted a Kindle for a while now. I made the switch over to an e-reader as a default about 2 years ago now, on my iPad w/the downloade Kindle App.. I probably buy more than 90% of my books in digital format at this point (the exception being cook books and certain business books. i.e. those that have a large chance of having something splattered on them or loaned out), virtually all of which come from Amazon. 

For even longer than me my Bride has been an all-digital reader with her aging Kindle. And I've been jealous of both her reader's insanely long battery life (a friggin' month. What, did Bezos put a little nuclear reactor in there?), and her ability to read in daylight without resorting to awkwardly improvised shade props. 

I also really, really, REALLY wanted to return to a time when my book didn't actively try and distract me from, you know, reading. Hey! Check your eMail! And your Facebook! And maybe that app that lets me see the webcam looking at every active volcano in the world! That's all really cool, but I want to actually read now. And don't say "self-control," because that is so last millenium. (Another reason we didn't even consider the Fire). 

The Cons: I was excited to open the Kindle. They arrived several days early, and the pair of them sat, wrapped under the Christmas tree, quietly mocking us with their inaccessibility. But we forced ourselves to be patient. We opened them Christmas morning, and set them aside after only a moment of basking in the new-digital smell and patiently constructed lego cities and other various kid-booty with the children.  When we returned to them later in the day, we sat down to set them up with our individual accounts. 

Thing you should know number 1: Kindles are not made by Apple.  

Yeah, ok. That's obvious, right? But when they say "Touch" - they aren't talking about your elagantly intuitive iPad/iPhone interface that your 4 year old can pick up and use without instruction. You actually have to read the manual on this one. Where you touch on the screen is all part of the study-and-learn interface that you simply can't get by without spending some time to assimilate. It took me an hour to figure out why I kept jumping ahead 30 or 40 pages at a time because I tried to skip this step. (swipe up? Advance a chapter.) The touch interface is a little bit sticky, a little bit clunky. Not clean and graceful. 

Things that will bite you in the ass number 2: Transfering stuff to your new Kindle does not work the way you think it should.  

Once again, if you're spoiled by the ease of the Apple "Let me do that for you" magic, you will be disgruntled. I wanted to be able to tell my Kindle who I was and have my current library offered for download. It does not. Frustratingly, it seems like that's what you can do. If you go to the website on your computer. But if you've arranged your books in collections, and want to have your personal organization migrated wholesale, you're going to be disappointed. You can migrate the "collections" (read: 'folders'). But then you have to individually download the books again one by one. (each one only takes a few seconds, but if you've got dozens already... that's a lot of scrolling and clicking. 

I admit that I couldn't really understand this particular irritation that well at first. This was mostly my Bride grumbling for half an hour or so, trying to migrate things. I had never actually used collections, because on the iPad Kindle App, the scrolling and archiving worked so simply and beautifully that I never really needed that functionality. After a couple of days on the Kindle, I can see however that the scrolling definitely does not work so beautifully, and suddenly the advantage of collections becomes more clear - breaking your library into manageble portions. 

I also had some frustration turning off the ads on one of the two Kindles. I went to the website and "unsubscribed" (I do not want my book to sell me things, even if I have to pay an extra $30 to make it stop). It worked perfectly on mine, but I had to do a full power re-boot on my Bride's for some unknown reason. Which meant I had to figure out how to do a full power re-boot, as that was also not obvious. (another trip to The Google). 

Also? Included is a USB cord, but not a power adapter. So you're either going to plug it into your computer to recharge, or spend the extra 20 bucks or whatever on the power adapter. Just be aware. 

The Pros: Most of the frustration with the Kindle comes in the setting up and navigation. (And if you're not trying to transfer from an existing account, you probably don't have much in the way of the first issue). None of that works quite the way you think it should, and you're going to want to be at your computer managing your account there, rather than on your Kindle itself. 

However, once you're set up and through the grumbling, the Kindle does start to shine. The physical form is simply lovely. It fits extremely comfortably in one palm, without the sometimes-annoying landscape/portrait re-orientation of the iPad interface (when I forget to lock or unlock that.) I admit my bias towards my book pages being taller than they are wide. That is the way God designed books, and how they always should be. Even when I'm lying on my side.   

The Kindle is astonishingly light. True story: I have a small scar on my head from letting my iPad drop onto my forehead while reading in bed. My eyes closed, and WHACK. Suddenly I was bleeding. And I had to explain to people for the next week that the scab across my forehead was an iPad-related injury. And then deal with the resulting "You poor, poor idiot," looks. This is almos guaranteed not to happen with a Kindle. Unless maybe you sharpen the sides into a knife-like edge. But that risk is on you. 

Somehow, even when you factor in all the intial disgruntlement, the Kindle just feels good to read. More... book-like than the iPad, for lack of a better term. Even with all its clunkiness of interface and nigh-waterboarding expierience of setup, once I had it ready to roll, I was instantly hooked. The digital ink is somehow much easier on the eyes than the lighted iPad screen, and I'm reading even more than before.  It doesn't eMail, and it doesn't 'post' to my 'wall' and I'm happy about it.  (though I do see hints of that functionality buried in the OS. I'm avoiding it.)  

It's also dirt cheap, comparitively. Again: a month of battery with free 3G access for $150. (and no ads for a few extra bucks). It fits into my coat pocket in a way my iPad never would, and suddenly I'm back to never having to do without my book again. 

All in all, we're definitely happy with the Kindle (the Critter is inheriting my Bride's 2nd generation version), and sticking with it as our primary reading device. I'll keep the iPad (mostly for work for me, and for occasionaly Netflix access on long trips when the kids need pacifying). But I would gladly recommend the Kindle to anyone considering an eReader with little hesitation. 

I will be glad, however, when the folks at Amazon finally figure out how to make 'touch' feel as good as Apple do. 

 

Note to my children: When you're skimming the worst bits of this blog later in life, stop here a couple of minutes and read this one.

There are a whole lotta reasons I don't write much about work. Most of them have to do with not getting fired for writing about work. Because, you know, you hear the horror stories. And because for the past decade, I've worked for a large Swiss pharmaceutical company who is in any number of ways a terrific company, but can sometimes be a little rigid about these things, I've just developed the habit of ignoring the hours of 7am to 6pm. At least when it comes to writing. But I think I'm going to make an exception. 

For the first time in more than ten years, I'm preparing to leave my job. Back in the heady San Francisco dot-com days, this was common. I averaged less than a year at a gig at one point. It's what you did. For better pay. For better benefits. To learn new things. To go new places. Because your buddy went to a cool new company. and they had a foosball table in the datacenter. Because you could do that. Eventually, I moved to a biotech company that made drugs to treat cancer, and blood tests to prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV, and vaccines to keep kids and families healthy. And I figured out that what I did could matter. Not just a little bit, and not just to my paycheck, but significantly and to other people. Even as an IT guy. And that was pretty thrilling. Add to that the chance to learn something new pretty much every day, meet cool people, and to move across the world. Not once, but a couple of times. This has been a good gig. 

Somewhere along the course of that decade, I worked for a guy who gave me perhaps the best piece of advice I have received in my years of earning a pay check. In the middle of some particularly busy time, he was listening to me prattle on about the dozen or so things I had in progress with an accompanying multi-faceted slide show, because the corporate world eats PowerPoint like the fat kid eats Skittles.

After I finished my spiel, he leaned back, folded his hands across his stomach, and said, "I think you're a little too comfortable. It's time to push." 

Given that I had just spent 80 hours or so finely crafting a presentation detailing a roadmap of activity that represented months of cumulative effort and the endless hours of overtime I was prepared to commit myself to, my response was a spluttering objection. Clearly, he had lost his ever-loving Swiss marbles.  But on reflection (which meant mulling it over for several weeks over a few pints and the occasional rum-based cocktail) he was right. 

I was confusing working hard with being stretched.

In the past few months, I've been lucky enough to find and talk with another great company in the same life sciences industry. A company that does extremely interesting things to further science & our understanding of the basic building blocks of life. I prefaced my conversation with their hiring team with, 'Um.. You might be looking for the other Grady that I live with. I'm not the scientist. That'd be my Bride. I play with "computers"...'  Fortunately for me, it seems like the skills and experience I have managed to accumulate do fill a need, and I'll be joining their team next week as their head of IT & CIO.

But before we got to that point, there was a lot of deep thinking on my part about the next part of my career. Since the bank and the IRS still won't accept bacon in trade, I'll be maintaining one of those for a while longer.  And as this 'blog is a combination of both my opportunity to reflect in black & white and the eventual primary evidence in my children's future therapy sessions, I thought I'd summarize the few simple things that it's taken me more than 20 years to figure out about what brings me fulfillment in my career. 

  • I always want to work with people who are smarter than me. They make me try harder.
  • Being uncomfortable is a welcome thing. It means you're not dead. 
  • Knowing when and how to take a risk, and why you're doing it, is a valued & marketable skill.

I've been lucky enough to have the first thing for most of my career. (Some people might tell me that means the majority of people are smarter than me. Some people might be right.)  That last thing - knowing how & why to take a risk - is surprisingly rare, at least in my experience. Which means that even being a little bit good at it can make you successful.

But the truly hard one - the one that goes contrary to almost every instinct of the human existence - is in seeking out things that make you uncomfortable. Things that make you work harder to keep up. Things that push you beyond what you thought you knew, or could do, or could enjoy.  

Because I'm human, given the choice between doing something difficult but worthy or curling up on the couch with a ratty warm blanket and a bowl of cheeze doodles is to opt for the latter. I have to remind myself that as much as I love fromage-flavored crispy bits, I need the awkward, clammy feeling of pressure & expectation to keep me moving forward. 

I've still got a few years to work on them, but if I can launch my kids out the front door of our house with a more fully developed appetite for challenge (and help them skip my decades-long learning curve), I'll declare victory.  

I will comfort them by letting them know that you still also get to eat the cheeze doodles.

Perhaps the coolest I have ever been

Check it out. This all started after a conversation with my beautiful Bride about how it was too damned hard to keep up with all of our young 'uns immunizations. I (and a few others at the company I work) have been featured by Apple (you know... that big, famous company that Steve Jobs runs) for the deployment of iPhones (one of my projects) and - more importantly - our app, Vaxtrak we wrote to help parents and families keep up with their immunizations and find their nearby flu clinics.
Watch the video. Or, if you want, read the article. Even better - go download VaxTrak for yourself. This article was about 3 months in the making. Mostly in the legal reviews and clearances. True story - they filmed the 'hand shots' in the video the Monday after I had been tilling up my garden. They asked if I'd be offended if they used a 'stand-in' instead of filming my blistered, grubby paws. You hear that, mother? Your son had a hand model stand in for him on camera. Ha!
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From the book of Guy Inventions

Bob's Rod Holder and other man inventions
For years the typical guy faced an unfortunate dilemma: the only way he could maintain his rod in a highly desirable, upright position was to grasp it firmly with both hands. This required tremendous concentration and stamina and, the second he loosened his grip, that rod would droop significantly. This was a source of great embarrassment and shame for many guys. Bob's device changed all that. That same guy is now able to keep his rod up and at the ready for hours at a time. Thanks to Bob, he has the confidence to strut proudly up and down the pier - ready to leap into action at the first sign of a tug or nibble - while men and women alike gaze upon his equipment with a mixture of astonishment and admiration
Seriously. It's a problem that needed addressing.
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Cool find of the week

5 Scientific theories to make your head explode By Michael Swaim
There are generally two types of science: first, there's the type that makes computers work, allows us to ride around in metal boxes propelled by continuous explosion, and makes it so that milk doesn't taste all gross. Then there's the fringe science, the stuff that shoots up your nose like mathematical horseradish and dances a jig on your brain...or brane, as it were (that's the nerdiest joke in the article, we promise). So kick off your work boots, put on your thought slippers, and prepare for a science course so mind-blowing, it's written almost entirely in italics.
Go get your coffee. Then click here to have your brain melt with the gooey scientific goodness. Also: The 5 Scientific Experiments Most Likely to End the World
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On toys

Just before the Critter's birthday, we had a long discussion about whether or not to get her a Nintendo DS. I can't for the life of me remember why now, as voting against anything with a circuit board and a touch screen seems pretty unlike me, but I was against it. Maybe it was a reaction to having just inventoried all our crap in preparation for the move. Including the mountain of shiny plastic and doll bits that our daughter of just-now-6 has somehow accumulated in her short life. Not long after she was born, I went to a Toys 'R' Us for the first time as a new dad. Looking at the racks and racks of toys as a father, rather than a post-teen that didn't want to grow up was a revelation. It was a whole new experience for me. I realized that there were so many things that I would get to introduce her to. Things that I loved as a kid. Things that I would have loved as a kid, but only got to see on commercials. Things that I would have loved as a kid, but weren't invented yet. There were action figures, and bikes, and erector sets, and Legos! Oh, how I loved the Legos. A kid up the street from me had enough Legos to rebuild Versailles, actual size. On the moon. (Because he had the space sets). I had the remnants of one sad Lego castle set and a few blocks that I got in a Happy Meal. I totally had Lego envy. Also, I had computer envy. Because he had an Atari 800, and I had, well, the remnants of one sad Lego castle set and a few blocks that I got in a Happy Meal. So flash forward 20 years, and I'm standing in Toys Be We, and looking at the shelves of Legos. A bucket of Legos about the size of a standard bathtub costs less than twenty bucks. Twenty bucks. For hours of happy construction, yellow-headed fun. All I could think was: my parents were such cheap bastards. With a few years of parenting under my belt, I now understand. They weren't cheap. They were smart. A bathtub of Legos equals dozens of night time incidents of Lego-foot crippling. Stepping on one of those little pegged hazards in the dark hours has probably caused more me to swear more viciously in one go than I did in all my years in the military. They used the price tag as an excuse, but really they were just trying to limit the deluge of crap that can take over your house if you ever let down your toy guard. But back to the DS. My Bride over ruled my objections, and the Critter somehow ended up with a DS. It was because we were moving, she said, and she wanted her to have something that she could play with and out of trouble while all our things were in transit. About five seconds after she opened the box, she had hauled me out to the game shop to pick out something she could play. She picked Cooking Mama 2. I threw in Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain? as well, because I saw it had sudoku. And my Bride is a fiend for sudoku. And I'm nice to the little lady like that. That was my mistake. Soon, my Bride and I were hovering over the Critter saying things like, "are you done yet?" and "you look like you're tired. Here, let me hold the DS for you," and "As your father, I am instituting a 7 minutes a day time limit for DS use for children in this household. It's for your own good. Now hand it over. My brain age is 73, and I need to be mocked by a strange Japanese man to make it better." About a week and a half of this, and my Bride broke down and bought me a DS too. And then I discovered that there were other games. There's a Lego Star Wars game, people. Princess Leia in Jabba-dancer bikini and it's all Legos. Stick that in your toy box, kid down the street. I may never leave my house again.
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Switching providers

After a week of the 'groove being mostly inaccessible due to database issues, I've finally gotten around to switching web hosting companies. The good folks at LivingDot have made the whole process pretty easy, I must say, and the cost of their service is actually less than I was paying before. I'm still using Movable Type (which I still love), but have upgraded to the next version, throwing my stylesheet and template design into a bit of chaos. But I'll use the next few days to sort it out. I've found a few things that don't work (self-referencing links in the text of past entries and such) that I'm probably not going to bother fixing. Just use the search text box if you're looking for something in particular. In the meantime, both the comment feature and our emails are working much better as well. So if you had problems getting email through before to me or my bride, try again. Also: the Critter and Squirmy have their own addresses. If you spot something else broken, just bear with me. The packers show up tomorrow, and I'm trying to find time between pointing out which things go where to sort it all out.
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