Archive for 2011

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.

Leaving Strange Loop

Tuesday 2011-09-20

Tuesday night I decided to pass on the Strange Loop cardinals game. Instead I met up with an old college friend who lived in the area. We drove across town against a gorgeous sunset, out to italian restaurant they had been meaning to try. As is often the case with restaurants, we had huge portions and I took home leftovers.

From there we wandered around some school’s campus. It may have started with a comment about fountains, though some of the campus fountains were turned off. We walked around a pond, lined with large rock samples of many kinds, and passed by the cactus garden on the way out.

Wednesday 2011-09-21

Wednesday morning I ate the leftover lasagna. I didn’t have utensils, so I just used my fingers (as nature intended). On the way out I got some more pictures of downtown St. Louis, and it’s erie blue fountain.

Since the train home was leaving in the afternoon, I headed out to the City Museum. I was introduced the City Museum by my friends from the previous night, during my trip to Strange Loop 2010. That was a night visit, so I figured I ought to get a look at it during the daytime.

Yup, that's a bus hanging off the edge.

That would be plane fuselages, which can be visited by wire tunnels

One of several towers outside, often connected to the planes by the wire tunnels.

The stone tower has this enchanting dragon inside.

A utility room transformed into a secret cave. Yes, you can go down the tiny passage, it leads to "20,000 leagues under the floor"

Many of the caves are sculpted like dragons and other creatures.

The interior shaft of the building is filled with old spiral staircases. Some have been turned into slides.

Theres the bus again, as viewed from the pond on the roof.

Traveling to Strange Loop

Sunday, 2011-09-18

The trip to Strange Loop started rather early Sunday morning – I had to get to the Metra station, to get into Chicago to take Amtrak to St. Louis, arriving with plenty of time to settle in during the afternoon.

Sometime while I was in Chicago Union Station, Sunday turned into a dark and rainy day. I didn’t pay too much attention to the weather. I got a seat next to the window and power outlets, but my neighbor was a friendly student traveling back to school. His main focus was biochemsitry, but he did some web page development and search engine optimization, so we had a little to talk about.

The moist weather did give me some misty shots of the arch on the way in. Things were starting to clear up by the time the train arrived in St. Louis. It was still overcast and wet, but not actively precipitating. The path from the train station to the hotel ran past CityGarden, a park, in direct line to the arch, filled with plants, water features, and art of all kinds.

Arriving at the hotel, I was confronted with The Elevator. The elevators at the Hilton St. Louis Ballpark have a touch panel where you select your floor before getting on. It’s not a very good touch panel – in fact it’s abysmal. Someone else clued me in to use a fingernail to activate it; I can’t help but wonder if someone bought touch sensors designed for pen input to try and save money. In theory putting in the destination floor beforehand allows the elevator system to plan more efficient routes. In practice, it felt uncommonly slow, and from what I overheard, many people agreed.

One of the reasons I arrived in the afternoon was to attend the speaker dinner. At last year’s Strange Loop I thought the pre-party went rather well, but this year I didn’t make much of the conversation. I went up to the rooftop bar afterwards; the view was poor as it had started raining again, and I failed to make an connections in the overcrowded room.

Working and Not Working

The year since leaving steady employment has been a study in contrasts. On one hand I’m busier than ever, and on the other I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere.

Having the freedom of my time has allowed me to attend various user groups and conferences. I spent a lot of time preparing presentations for some of them, but haven’t taken it far enough to get more than the cost of the conference, and once a hotel stay.

I think as close as I’ve gotten to an ideal day is making some progress, perhaps doing something else for a break, and then getting more done. In practice I usually start trying to check off items from the to-do list, and watch that turn into an all-day event. Or at least enough of the day – evenings are usually filled with martial arts or user groups. Sometimes it seems like the only days I make real progress are when nothing is really going on, and I can chew the usual round of email, laundry, groceries, etc. and then get a few hours of measurable progress, which actually seems to be a fairly rare event.

The Cave of the Mounds

Thursday 2011-08-18

Thursday morning I set off for Madison Ruby Conf. The conference didn’t start until Friday, so I figured I could look around a little. When I went to look up madison attractions however, the only one that really struck me was The Cave of the Mounds, a little outside of the city proper. (The House on the Rock was farther out, and a day trip in and of itself.)

It turned out to be around a half-hour past Madison, so it wasn’t quite as quick of an excursion as I thought. I did pass Erb Road on the way out, which seemed somehow appropriate for a trip to a Ruby conference (ERB is a common template format in Ruby on Rails) I relied on there being signs to direct me to the cave, and was not disappointed. I suppose it was about as close to the highway as a natural landmark could reasonably be.

Once I got out of the car, I saw a sign saying that the caves were cool, so I went back for jeans. By good fortune I was already wearing my only regular long-sleeve shirt, from Rubyconf.

The area outside of the cave includes a road painted as a timeline, terminating at the front door of the waiting room/gift shop, with the date of discovery. The gift shop was exactly what you’d expect – lots of fossils and crystals. It looks like they have recently installed a fossil dig and gem mining (e.g. rinsing)

The tour itself started with a video which went over the formation of caves and the discovery of this cave. The cave itself is an interesting study in contrasts. One one hand, they admonished us not to touch the cave, since it can disrupt the natural cave formation. On the other hand, the floor has been paved with cement to create a smooth walking surface, with stairs in places. The larger portion also has at least one artificial level, which obscures the size of the main cavern.

It’s also a study in the contrast of light and dark. The cave itself has no light at all (a point demonstrated for a few moments in a “you can’t see your hand in front of your face” part of the tour. (The little girl with flashing shoes thankfully remained still.) Lights are turned on selectively as tours pass through, with the stated purpose to prevent mold and such from finding it too hospitable. Lighting is mostly spotlights, pointing out salient cave features while maintaining the suggestion of darkness. The tour also uses the light to great effect, leaving areas in darkness until it suddenly opens up in a dramatic reveal.

One feature of the cave is where deposits formed variegated strips called “cave bacon”. Apparently water drips follow a path and leave behind deposits; this makes the area slightly lower, and more drop follow, slowly building a ridge. It was another apropos point for the trip to Madison Ruby (Chunky Bacon is a part of the Ruby culture)

Towards the beginning of the tour, we were shown an area where a sinkhole had collapsed into one end of the cave. I spent a little time afterwards going around the above-ground paths. I found a few sinkholes, but it wasn’t clear which one was over that end of the cave.

A Martial Artist is Not a Number

When you meet someone who does martial arts, it’s easy to ask what rank the person has. I won’t be so daring as to say the information is useless, but it certainly treats the issue in it’s broadest sense.

For the uninitiated, most martial arts rank their students by a two part system, most visibly represented by the belt a person wears. A ‘black belt’ is someone who has a good grasp of a system. Below black, there are a series of kyus or gups (they name varies by martial art) which are graded in the number of ranks until black belt. Often these are the ‘colored belts’. Our systems have ten ranks, where any beginner is 10th gup/kyu and his first test is to receive 9th. Our styles once again have ten ranks, or dans, of black belt. Ranks above black belt take linearly longer to achieve, and there might (might) be one 10th dan, the founder. (It doesn’t quite form a number line, since there is no ‘zero’.) Other systems have different numbers above and below. Don’t get me started on martial arts titles.

The assignment of rank varies by style and school. In other words, two people might look at the same student and label that skill level with two different ranks. And don’t even get me started on the colored belt system – our own school uses two different color systems and has changed one of them in my memory. I tend to try and refer to ranks by gups or kyus, because it at least transcends arts and color assignments. Assuming, of course arts that have the same number of grades, which I’m doubt all do. Beyond that, the assignment of a grade to a particular skill level is essentially arbitrary. I won’t even get into the rumors of people buying belts and certificates outright, with no skill basis.

Of course the real problem is the idea that you can quantify a person with a single number. At times I’ve toyed with a system of basing the single number on a series of subgrades – kicking, joint locking, teaching, spirit, and on and on. It was an attempt to come to grips with the fact that different people might have a particular rank for different reasons, and somehow rationalize using the same scale for both. Of course, it just postpones the problem to different level – you are still trying to squeeze a person into a limited set of limited-precision numbers.

“I’m not capable of imagining you in all your complexity and… perfection.” – Inception

Faced with a messy reality, we get the ranking system. Many martial arts derive from rigid oriental societies – people have to line up in a certain order. Teachers have to keep track of an ever changing body of students. Assigning a rank is ‘good enough’, a convenient kludge to contain the complexity of real people. There are nominal rules, but in reality they bend to try and bring the raking system in line with what we intuitively feel – one person has a high rank because he has an affinity for physical activity and executes technique well, while another is a loyal supporter and servant of the school that keep thing running smoothly. The cost is this: given only the rank, you can’t say if either of those (or both, or any other quality) applies.

Refusing the Call

Thanks to SPARK I have the opportunity to get involved in Code Mountain. Now comes the difficult part of birthing a company, under very unusual circumstances.

As a SPARK team we had eight people working together. All that effort made it easier for us to put on a good show and win the competition. But for a startup with no income, all those people cause a bit of difficulty. The standard advice is to found a company with two, maybe three people. If two, you’ve got the business side (customer development) and the product side. Our team ended up being heavy on product side, so on paper we’ve got one master networker with a large stake, and everyone else splitting the rest. While I understand that some people are prepared to put in grueling hours, does that translate to a fifteen-times interest? Perhaps there is a sort of exponential price of time commitment – certainly I’ve avoided going off the high end, both because of reduced performance, and the utter blackout of everything else.

In truth I don’t know what to even ask for. The process of doing this all up front seems strangely out of place in an environment that is otherwise gung-ho agile. There are of course some provision for changes – “four year vest with one year cliff” in startup jargon, but it only addresses departures, not variance of contribution.

The other related issue (which actually came up sooner) is the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) position. This would be the entire product side in a two person startup. The investors of course want a big name that’s done it before, but we are seriously considering bootstrapping (no investment) In the world of by-the-book startups (who’s book, anyway?) the CTO is a more-than-full-time position. In the SPARK team, developers were myself, and another who has some relevant experience, but is’t available even full time.

Probably, all it would have taken for me to be that person would have been to step forward and confidently say “I’m your man”. That moment, of course, has passed. The consequences of that decision would be staggering. No more martial arts, no more condo board, no more walks in the woods, no more user groups, no more personal projects. and no more idle distractions. I’d certainly have to move downtown, at least on a trail basis, which would mean finding a place, dispositioning all my stuff, moving, and probably hiring someone to rent out my property. It would be a kind of death and resurrection – I’d be sorely tempted to throw a wake for the person I was.

I’ve lived my life mostly taking things pretty easy, sometimes enjoying moments of total effort. Since this is all I’ve known it might have been interesting to try for a little while, but this could easily become a many-years marathon. Having lived my whole life with the philosophy that it’s about more than money, it would seem a shame to just give in at the first real challenge. (Of course creating something is about more than money, but it would be a very stressful time all the same.) The fact that I don’t have the experience the advisors want doesn’t embolden me either.