2009 New Years resolutions

After a couple of years of existential gloom, I seem to have come out the other side in my ability to embrace New Year’s resolutions (a month late, but… uh, I’m on the lunar calendar… yeah, that’s it!). I’m always pleased when I manage to do something life-affirming and forward-looking.

In 2009 I will:

  • Improve my vim skills. I could always use it for little things like checkin comments and config changes; but this year I’ve committed to using it as my main programming editor. And did you know that my posse rides with vim?
  • Build and cook with a solar oven. This is exactly the kind of project that I fail at, because it ends up having a LOT of dependencies that turn into yak-shaving exercises.
  • Continue to slowly divest myself of extraneous possessions, especially books.
  • Complete one major knitting project.

And I think I’ve learned from mistakes of the past because I’m not going to try for too many resolutions this year.

Kindles for big fast readers

Will it bore you if, like every other Kindle owner, I review my experience? I bought mine because I was going on a month-long voyage overseas. The Kindle is unbeatable for this use case — it’s basically one book and a power cord versus however many tomes you were planning to haul around in your luggage. The only disconcerting thing is that (unlike a computer but like a book) there is no backlight, so if the ambient light is bad — like in a darkened airplane cabin, or on a super-glarey afternoon on the deck of a cruise ship — you won’t be able to read. I want to make it clear that you can easily take your Kindle overseas, you just won’t be able to use Whispernet to get books delivered to the unit wirelessly (although you can still use USB delivery if you have a computer), but everything else should work fine.

It’s pretty clear by now that the Kindle is the suck for texts where it’s an important part of the experience to see charts and graphs, maps, pictures, footnotes, or fixed line breaks (e.g. poetry). Not to put too fine a point on it, all of these will look like crap and/or be impossible to see at all. However I personally read a lot of genre fiction and nonfiction (mostly history), and the Kindle is brilliant for these. In the first case you won’t have the embarrassment of the cheesy covers usually slapped on YA, mystery, SF, horror, fantasy, and romance novels. In the latter you run far less risk of accidental death due to dropping a 15-lb hardcover on your face while you recline in bed.

Without exaggeration I am an exceptionally fast reader… but I think I’m even faster on the Kindle. After having pondered for a while, my theory is this: without intending to, your eye spends a lot of time travelling to the next page when you’re holding two pages open before you. If you eliminate that second page — plus any opportunity of skipping ahead or behind in the text — you actually force yourself to stay on a single page and just focus on reading it as quickly as possible.

There are obvious problems with the physical layout and hardware configuration of the Kindle, most notably that there is no obvious place to hold the unit with your hands. I expect this problem to be solved in the next release. The navigation system, which depends on a unidimensional roller-wheel with clicker, is primitive and unexact in the extreme. I’m not even going to get into the color and resolution issues with the screen, since those were obviously sacrificed to get to the desired price-point.

My true feeling is that Kindles are absolutely not worthwhile for people who read fewer than 24 books a year or buy fewer than 12 books a year — which is almost everyone anyway. Also if you prefer books that require charts and graphs, maps, pictures (esp color), footnotes, or fixed line breaks for full enjoyment, the Kindle will not make you happy. And finally there are localized issues — if you have easy access to a computerized inter-library loan, the relative value of instant books will be less — whereas if you’re basically at the mercy of a small-town system then the relative value might be higher.

Bicycle delivery

Over the last year I’ve become more enamored of bike riding — the word “cycling” is far too serious for what I do — and finally I joined the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Today when I came home from work, there was a fat envelope on the mat from them, filled with maps and stickers and all kinds of loot. The super-cool part though was that in the place where the stamp would normally be, it said “Bicycle Delivery”!!! How awesome is that?

Schadenfreude indeed

There are few feelings as delicious as the one that suffuses you when you are driving home, safely and legally, only to be brutally passed by some jerkoff in an SUV who roars up behind you going at least 20 mph over the limit and almost rear-ends the braking minivan in the next lane before cutting you off with inches to spare and then finding himself boxed in for all his trouble… and then 30 seconds later someone else makes the exact same move… but then he hits the light bar and you realize it’s the Highway Patrol pulling over the first guy. How truly sweet it is.

Mediterranean cruise planning

We don’t exactly brag about this, but Renkoo has had an unreal record of death, disease, and destruction for a company of such modest size, with such young and well-educated workers. For the entire three and a half years we’ve been in existence, we’ve hardly gone a month without a burglary, funeral, traumatic hardware failure, or hospital visit.

After a devastating beginning to the year, I decided that I would fulfill my mother’s wish to visit early Christian sites in Turkey and Italy. So I did some research, and concluded that it would be most efficient to take a cruise. The Mediterranean is so small that basically it amounts to creeping along like a snail, with transportation and housing in one unit at night while you spend your days visiting historic sites.

If anyone has advice about lunch spots, can’t-miss sights, or early Christian history in of the following ports of call, please get in touch:

* Istanbul
* Izmir/Ephesus
* Athens
* Dubrovnik
* Venice
* Naples
* Rome
* Barcelona

I’m not the world’s greatest shopper, but I would be more than happy to repay your information by bringing you back some trinket or luxury item from the city in question. Thank you!

Over the counter euphemisms

How I adore the infinitely tenuous relationship between over-the-counter medications and the gross physical maladies they purport to cure! The drugstore is already the storehouse of curatives for only the petty, inglorious, and mortifying illnesses of humankind — the fungal infections, the clogged pores, the corns and bunions of life — but the effort required to wrassle the disgusting messes of the body into socially acceptable prose can constitute a delicious sideline to a logophile.

Imagine, if you will, the young brand manager or copywriter who first described an expectorant as helping to “thin bronchial secretions to make coughs more productive”. I didn’t understand what this meant until I was like over 30 years old. It amounts to, “you’ll hack up gobs of rubbery yellow stuff, bit by painful bit, but it’s the only way to get over the chest infection that’s making you stupid and miserable”. And you know, sometimes that’s the message you need to hear — if only you could understand what they’re saying.

Or take the latest craze, “probiotics”. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with some good folks at an ad agency which handles one of the big accounts in this space, and of blurting out the indelible phrase “Oh is that the yogurt that makes you poop?” And you know, in person they actually agree with that description… but I guess it doesn’t make for very good ad copy, because the official promotional material for these products is so tangled up with terms like “digestive regulation” and “functional foods” that most people have no idea what the point of the stuff actually does.

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if advertisers were required to state in 10 words or less what their product actually does. But then I always end up concluding that the indirection and lack of clarity are more snicker-worthy when all is said and done.