Is anyone familiar with the LHC? The Large Hadron Collider is one of the most monumental undertakings of mankind. Vast both in physical size and in ambition, it’s purpose is accelerate sub-atomic particles faster and faster, to ludicrous speeds, around and around, until BANG! … quarks and muons and bits of atoms all over the kitchen floor. Or… hopefully some sensitive detectors where astute scientists can better understand the way our world actually works.

Fellow toastmasters, honored guests. I have made something of a discovery of my own. Perhaps I can pass it on to you in less time than it took me to understand it myself.

Everyone comes to toastmasters for their own reasons. I came looking for a user group for presentations, and I learned ways to improve my speaking and communication skills. However, the way in which we approach something can also act as a bias. Coming at toastmasters as a group for presentations, I saw only what I wanted to see.

Fast forward four-odd years, to a few weeks ago. I was driving home from the Toastmaster Leadership Institute, or TLI. The excitement of the morning was over, the brain is starting to relax a bit and try to make sense of the day’s events. In particular I was thinking of two women I had seen at TLI.

D.M. ran the TLI event, and with with great bravery and did so without pretense about the fact that the people running these events are often “learning on the job”. TLI itself is a major undertaking – a large number of people need to be brought together, checked-in, session leaders need to be ready, schedules created and kept, and refreshments provided. Even though toastmasters elects officers once a year, it for some reason goes to all this trouble to schedule officer training twice a year. One thought, spinning around in my head.

The other person I saw is the sister of our own P.R., herself an enthusiastic toastmaster. One of the things J. said is that when she first sits down with a mentee, she asks “What are your goals?”; “Why are you coming to toastmasters?” Based on this, she decides whether to start with the communication manual or the leadership manual. What? The leadership manual? that thing we sometimes check off and throw back in our papers? I thought everybody started with the icebreaker. There is another thought, spinning around in my head.

I’ve got all these thought spinning around in my head, and then…. BANG!

Learning. By. Doing.

Toastmasters is not only a speech club with an unusually large bureaucracy. Toastmasters is also an environment where people can practice running an organization at all levels. The apparent activities of that organization happen to be speaking and evaluation, both useful skills for leaders. Toastmasters not only runs speech contests for competition and spectacle. Toastmasters also provides people the opportunity to practice planning and running events, from a few people to hundreds of people.

And yet, that weak evidence of memory attests that, if in my four-odd years in toastmasters, anyone has attempted to communicate this idea to me, then it has fallen on deaf ears. I came to toastmasters seeking a user group for presentations. To a large extent, I heard only what I wanted to hear. That is on me. Still, I think that at least in this club, if the leadership manual were to give a speech, the evaluator might suggest “you need to speak more loudly”. Some of us are a little hard of hearing.

At a practical level, if you are here to improve your public speaking – that is fantastic. Keep at it. The apparent activity of speaking and evaluation is the axis about which the implicit activity of the leadership program turns. Without speakers, there is nothing for the organizers to organize.

If I have been at all successful in communicating this idea to you, then you can now go out into the world and share with others. If you encounter people who want to improve their confidence or gain practical experience in leading an organization, then toastmasters is waiting for them. If your primary interest is in public speaking, those people will have an interest in taking club officer roles, freeing you to focus on your speaking without the distractions of officer duties.

LHC might mean “Large Hadron Collider”; or perhaps it means “Leaders Honing Communication”. Certainly if you get people working on communication, going faster and faster, and people working on leadership going faster and faster…..

Imagine what could happen.

Attend Every Meeting

(This is being written some time after the event, and was a last minute speech to begin with)

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests. We come to toastmasters to learn the art of public speaking. While actually getting up and speaking is important, listening to others to others speak is also a powerful tool to pick up techniques and ideas you can use yourself. Of course, you have to be present to hear the speeches. If you find yourself needing that extra bit of motivation to attend every meeting, perhaps you should consider the officer role Sergeant at Arms.

Officially, the Sergeant at Arms reserves and manages the meeting location, keeps the club equipment, and has primary responsibility for setting up the room before each meeting and for cleaning up afterwards. In this club the relationship with the city hall is nearly on autopilot; they requested a single contact rather than a new officer every year, so it mainly comes down to ensuring the reservations are extended for the next year.

Setting up the room is not hard, and will quickly become routine. Often other toastmasters, arriving early, will help move and position equipment, so you don’t even have to do most of the work. If you are unable to attend some evenings, just let us know. There are several former Sergeant at Arms, including myself and several others present, who could be available to help out. You simply have primary responsibility for ensuring the room is set up – you don’t always have to do it yourself.

The Sergeant at Arms is responsible for the club equipment. Fortunately the club has use of closet space in the city hall, so it only needs to be moved short distances. The necessary equipment is already well understood and provided for, you merely need to keep an eye on supplies like ribbons and new member folders, and provide notice when they need to be restocked. If you have a talent for organizing things, the club supplies, while sufficient, could no doubt benefit from some additional sorting and straightening.

Finally, the Sergeant at Arms is one of the club officers. If you have an interest in getting a gentle introduction to the management of the club, this is a great way to start. The Sergeant at Arms is one of easiest roles to get into – it’s duties primarily occur during meetings you already attend. At the same time, you will be part of club officer meetings, gaining experience in how the club operates, and some perspective on the duties of the other officers.

If you like organizing things, want to get a gentle introduction to the club officers, or just need that extra nudge to hear more speeches, the Sergeant at Arms may be for you.

Password Problems (and Solutions)

2014-08-14 Fox Valley Toastmasters

Today I’d like to talk to you about one of the most pervasive and pernicious plaguing the world today. You may have received one (or several) emails in the past year from internet sites sayings “OOPS! We lost your password. You might want to reset it before something bad happens.” If it hasn’t happened to you personally, you’ve heard the stories in the news – database after database compromised, each exposing millions of user’s accounts and passwords to criminal attacks.

These sites were relying on passwords for account security. As shared secrets, passwords make it possible for either you or an internet site to loose or compromise your account. Passwords in particular suffer from a number of issues.

With the profusion of site today, passwords are commonly reused. This, however, is a bad practice. Reusing passwords turns a compromise of one account into a compromise in several accounts. This problem is magnified significantly by the occasional database loss, giving internet criminals access to a large quantities of passwords that are likely used on many other sites. There are ways for internet applications limit the damage of a database, but these means are not always implemented well, if at all. I recommend that you always use a unique password for every site you visit. If you really can’t bear to manage that many passwords, at least do it for your important accounts – banks, online email, or any e-commerce site that has your payment information.

Weak passwords are another major issues; reused passwords are often weak, but the temptation is doubly strong if you need to keep track of several. Here is a selection of the most common passwords (hint: all of them are weak)

  • 123456
  • password
  • 12345678
  • qwerty
  • abc123
  • 123456789

… and so on. I recommend that you use long and complicated passwords. Long in this context means twelve characters, at a minimum. Complex means using arbitrary combinations of different character types – upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols.

People also have trouble remembering passwords – especially if you are tying to use unique, long, and complicated passwords for every site. This often leads to writing passwords down somewhere, such as a notebook. Unfortunately, this exposes you to the risk of someone peeking at your notebook and getting access to all your accounts. I recommend using a password manager. I use LastPass, and there are number of others, such as 1Password, KeePass, and many more. A password manager will keep all of your passwords – much like a notebook – but a good one will keep them encrypted while no in use. You use one good long, complex password to unlock your manager. Once unlocked, the password manager can assist with generating good passwords, and many can automatically fill in web forms, saving you from even having to copy and paste.

The ultimate solution is to get rid of shared secrets. The gold standard right now is public/private key cryptography. A private key, which is never shared, allows you to make assertions. Those assertions can be verified by the matching public key, which can be freely shared. The major caveat to this system is that the user has to take full responsibility for their private key – there is no more “password reset” button. I’m investigating a system called SQRL (squirrel) that makes public/private key cryptography as simple as scanning a QR code with your phone, yet secure enough to log into an untrusted public terminal.

SQRL is the future. In the meantime, I encourage you to use a password manger. A password manager will help you generate long, complicated passwords, and keep track of unique passwords for each site you visit.

How I Perform Evaluations in Toastmasters

This was speech #3, Get to the Point, for Fox Valley Toastmasters on 2013-06-27.

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, today I’d like to describe to you how I perform evaluations here in our toastmaster’s club. I view evaluations has having two main parts. The first part is where I listen to the speech and observe how it’s presented. The second part where is I think and organize to prepare a speech of my own. For me, these two parts take the form of two sheets of notes.

The first part covers listening and observing, so I divide my notes into two parts along those lines. The first aspect is listening to the content or text of the speech itself. This is where I’ll take not of major elements I want to comment on, interesting turns of phrase, and the overall structure in case I want to comment on the use of introduction, body, conclusion, and so on.

The second aspect, or half of my notes, is observing how the speaker presents the speech. This is everything outside of the content itself, which you know from your Competent Communicator manuals:

  • Did the speaker use notes? Where they distracting?
  • Did the speaker use gestures? Did they add to the speech?
  • Did the speaker use vocal variety? Did it add to the speech?

Through trial and error, I’ve learned that it’s important to maintain balance in note taking. One trap I got into early was taking too many notes – I was looking at my paper, writing instead of paying attention to the speaker. Another trap I’ve fallen into was spending too much time on the content side, reproducing the outline of the speech. However, I’ve found that I tend to spend far more time in evaluation on the presentation than on the content, and the way I was taking notes wasn’t supporting the way I performed evaluations.

Once the speech is over and you’ve got your notes, it’s time for the second sheet of paper. This is where you think and plan out how you are going to deliver in your own evaluation. For me this takes the form of a kind of timeline. An evaluation is two to three minutes, so I make room for all three just in case, and divide the paper into three parts. Through experience I’ve found that make approximately four points per minute, so I divide up each minute in to four sections, giving me a kind of skeleton to hang the meat of my evaluation on.

That gives me 8-12 points. That may be daunting, but remember that a bit of it is ritual. Most evaluations start with “Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, and especially our wonderful speaker…”. I usually continue with the title of the speech, the purpose if I know it. This can make a nice lead in to commenting on how well the speech fulfilled it’s purpose. And of course, the speech needs a conclusion, where I thank the speaker, perhaps reinforce a strong point, and turn the stage back over to the general evaluator. In total that’s three points – you’ve at least a quarter done, and you haven’t really had to say anything yet.

For the body, I aim for around four strong points, and three areas that might do with a little improvement. The wonderful thing about these number is how well they interleave, a technique often called sandwiching, so that I don’t dwell on either side two long. It also allows me to both start and end on a high point.

I view evaluations as two parts, which for me are two sheets of paper. In the first part, I listen to the speech and observe the speaker. In the second part, I think and plan out a timeline for my own evaluation.

Five Birds in the Bush

Ah, those vicious decisions. Focus on one thing, and I mourn for dead ideas. Indulge my interests, and the surer bets seem to languish for want of attention.

My interest in Disk Clock faded after a total lack of marketing doomed my brief attempt at selling Disk Clock in the Chrome store. I’ve marked it as free, and released Moon Disk and Disk Calendar. I’m of a mind to approach Scott Thrift about doing a version for The Present, and I’ll need an annual movement to show off.

Meanwhile, on the actually making money front, I’ve been in touch with someone looking for Rails tutoring, and I’ve a got a line on another training opportunity which could lead to some small but passive income.

My compatriot on the startup project is sure it’s fundable with a little more work, which would solve the immediate money trouble, and be it’s own adventure.

On Reflection

Another year rolls by. I never really got into new-years-resolutions, but I have been in the habit of reviewing my progress every quarter or so. I actually let a review pass me by this fall, but I sat down for a brief bit of reflection a few weeks ago.

It seems to be a year filled with fail. My goal for the year was to make some money from a new income source – not even sustainable, just get something started. I calculated a new set of average expenses and the money remaining won’t last the year.

Meanwhile it seems that I can’t help helping people, so I’m doing yet more work for free.

Siggnal didn’t have a nibble, so I behind to try working on a collaborative project. That’s been dropped in favor of another one, and I find we are often at odds as what that is to become. I’m constantly amazed at how often a day disappears without significant progress. E-mail, meetups, grocery shopping, cooking (and blogging – I’ve grown more hesitant to do conference reviews. And go to (or pay for going to) conferences) Even thought the products are my default activity, I don’t seem to get there very often.

Resolutions for the quarter start with “moving the ball” – starting with projects and doing the miscellany during breaks. The holiday break was splendid for this – no martial arts or meetups, so I plenty of time to cycle between projects and other todos without an immanent deadline. It really makes me question if I need to be doing so many extra activities.

It looks like I’ll need to take on some sort of contracting work. It will start small – paying attention and seeing what comes up in conversations. As I approach the next quarterly review, I may have to get more proactive.

Christmas Attack

It was a fairly normal holiday at my parents. We did the important things – coming together, and left out a lot of ceremony – tree and decorations. We are so distant now that gifts are token – we don’t know each other enough to say what the other wants, and there are few material things I want to begin with. (Perhaps there will be more with the money running out.)

The morning was pretty uneventful. I brought over my Wii. My parents were thinking about getting one, and it was pretty much gathering dust as I focused on other things. So there was a bit of an adventure trying to sort out all the cables, especially with the nicely hidden cabling of their AV setup. In the end, there wasn’t a good port on the TV, and it went through the front panel inputs of another box.

Later in the afternoon, some of their friends came over, and we played Uno Attack. The random-draw mechanism has a few obvious effects. The draw deck is held by the machine, and it only has one button, which often gives zero cards, but often spits out 6+. This essentially destroys the feature which saved the basic game for me: the strategic choice to draw instead of playing, which is far less attractive with possibility of filling up your hand again. The chance of getting away with none is cold comfort in comparison.

What saves Uno Attack is a set of new cards. Some are the obvious adjustments – draw X has to be translated into hitting the button. An interesting distinction is made between ‘hit twice’ (which is also a color card) and ‘hit till you get’ Far more interesting are the really new cards. Two of them give you an opportunity to affect a player who isnt’ adjacent to you, a constraint which is often dearly felt when you hear “Uno” across the table. “all hit” is wild but depends on the gadget, which gives nothing more often than cards. There is however one targeted card – change hands. This is colored, so you often can’t play it when you want to. And of course, you get your hand stolen as often as you pull off a nice swap. The other new card is ‘discard all of same color’, which offers a new strategic choice – it makes it possible to go out without having to say “Uno” (and dare anybody with a trade-hands) On the other hand, it tells the other players that you really truly are out of that color.


I’ve had my sturdy JanSport backpack for several years. It was still in good shape, and can be expected to last a while longer – the last one went on the order of ten years with one stitching job, and only had to be replaced when the zipper became unserviceable. One thing I liked better about the previous model was the vertical arrangement of the outer pockets. The current backpack has them layered, so one being full affects the capacity of the other.

However, I was getting tired of shuffling things in and out of the one bag as I changed destinations and modes of transport. I also figured that this one will wear out eventually, and so buying a new one would just use them up in parallel, rather than sequentially.

The bike accessories were one challenge – air pump, elastic ties, rag in case the chain fell off, tire patch, and sometimes a headlight. Getting all that into a package would be a good start. At the bike store what I found was an under-seat bag. However, I had to get a fairly large one to accommodate the pump. It was designed for permanent mounting, whereas I wanted a quick release so I could take it with me when locking the bike up. The construction was also very stiff, making it awkward to carry or put into another bag.

The solution seems to be a simple fanny-pack. From my brief tour of stores, a simple fanny pack is a hard thing to find these days – the one I found has side pockets on both both front and back. It works well enough – the main compartment holds the bulky items, and the outer pocket takes the smaller things that would otherwise find their way to the bottom and require a search party to be sent out. The quick-release clasp is a huge improvement over the loop-and-velcro arrangement of the bike bag, and the default attachment is to me, so it automatically goes with me when I lock up the bike. (Downside being it doesn’t automatically stay with the bike in my garage.)

As to the backpack itself, the most common trips were tech events in Chicago, and Martial Arts. I have a messenger bag that I used to carry the laptop in, but I found that it was uncomfortable for long walks across the city. My alternate, a Twelve South laptop case for the backpack, was also rather bulky. It was awfully convenient having all the accessories (video adapter, remote, flash drives) in a dedicated bag, however.

A little searching determined that office stores commonly had computer backpacks, so I headed down to the nearby Staples. They had exactly one Swiss Gear backpack. It’s overpriced, overdressed, and overcomplicated, but it fit the laptop well enough, and I didn’t want to spend the opportunity cost of driving all over the fox valley searching for the perfect backpack. I suppose that’s what the store counts on.

Surprisingly, I found a use for most of the compartments. Most of them are still mostly empty, and I often find myself fumbling from pocket to pocket trying to remember where something is, or just grabbing the wrong zipper.

Most of the martial arts paraphernalia went into the sparring bag. There a few things I usually want at hand when I’m home, and I didn’t want to haul the unwieldy bag upstairs. I experimented with a drawstring backpack “conference freebie”, but it could have really used one small pocket, and didn’t fully close on top in the event that I hit with some light rain. In the end I observed that I was removing pretty much everything from it when I got home, so I might as well use my trusty old backpack for that task.


Thanksgiving day itself was at my parents house. They had another couple over, and we passed a lot of time playing UNO.

UNO was beyond my memory when I was doing game design. At first it seemed pretty mindless, until I grabbed the rules and figured out that you could choose to draw even if you had a playable card. (I purposefully looked at the rules when it it didn’t matter, but got slammed with draws anyway.) It’s still a heavily constrained game where you often can’t do what you’d really like to because the color is wrong or the leader isn’t sitting next to you.

Last year, the idea rolling around in my head was that it was the first real thanksgiving. It had only been a few months since I left my job, I was traveling around speaking at conferences, and turning down job inquiries. This year I’ve been disenchanted by empty conference rooms, preparation time, and travel costs. Meanwhile, my savings is halfway down and I really ought to start thinking about how I’m going to support myself. I suppose I should be thankful that I’ve had a year without ‘work’, and still have some money left.

New Shoes

I’ve been a bit preoccupied during the last several months. It was easy to ignore the wear and tear, long ago replaced laces, and undone stitching as I bounced from project to project, ran errands, or took a walk. The cracks in the bottom meant that I had to be sure to wear the boots if there was a chance of rain. Of course I’ve also found that if you’re out in the rain for any length of time, an umbrella really doesn’t cut it, and you want something water resistant regardless. But with winter coming up, I definitely needed solid soles.

Shoe shopping isn’t my idea of a good time. The last pair of Birkenstocks gave me a good 5-6 years. I choose those in part because I had read that they used fairly sustainable materials, though I drove to the other side of Chicago to find a place where I could try some on. I wasn’t too keen on doing that again. I’d also heard of Tom’s Shoes one-for-one program, and figured that if I don’t care that much, it gives me an easy decision criteria.

I still had to drive out to Woodfield Mall to actually try some on. One thing I discovered is that the standard Tom’s Shoe is more of a light summer shoe – usually worn without socks. Not so much use for winter, but something I could use next year. The other thing I discovered is that they don’t have wide sizes.

There was one day where it was warm enough to give them a try. Lots of space in the toes was pretty much expected. With socks, the front of my foot was definitely squished. Without socks, I feel like my heel is sliding around loose. As an experiment, it may not work out. Or perhaps I should get some low socks and cut off the front part.

Meanwhile, I needed winter shoes. Tom’s also makes some ‘Botas’ with a little thicker construction, lined interior, and raised sides. They also have laces, which I imagine helps take up the slack in the shoe size; I got these a half size larger to account for thick winter socks. I had them out in the rain; the seemed to survive the first 30 minute walk okay, were wet by the time I got home, but comfortable the whole time.

Tom’s also makes some lighter laced shoes, but I was hoping to avoid them since I generally leave the laces tied and slip the shoes on. The laces one the Botas (without the sides up) are huge and I’m not sure what to do with them.

I do have one concern with the Botas – either I stepped in something, or the soles are delaminating. Hopefully it’s just a surface layer leftover from manufacturing and won’t be a long term problem.