12/22/09

Abe Vigoda 2009....still not dead


Among all the lists of which celebrities died in 2009, I have an update to a blog story from last year:

Abe Vigoda found out he was dead in 1982. He was doing a play in Calgary, Alberta, while a People magazine writer visited the "Barney Miller" wrap party in Los Angeles, California."The Godfather" was Abe Vigoda's first film -- and more than 35 years later, he's still around to enjoy it."Somehow it mentioned in the article that 'the late Abe Vigoda' was not [there]," Vigoda recalls.The error was corrected, but the damage had been done. "I'm still quite [involved]," he says.Moss, moss, Sep 2008



In fact, Abe Vigoda did not die in 2009 either.  Both Wikipedia and this site say he is still alive.

12/4/09

What's on the menu?

Tomorrow's the company holiday lunch. The menu always sounds pretty good, but I'm sometimes disappointed with the actual results. This year the menu choices are:
  • White Balsamic and Honey French Cut Chicken with Butternut Squash Relish, Served with Asiago Polenta and Sautéed Green Beans.
  • New York Steak with Candied Red Onions, Served with Asiago Polenta and Sautéed Green Beans.
  • Pan Seared Pacific Cod with Salsa Fresca and Truffle Butter Sauce, Served with Asiago Polenta and Sautéed Green Beans.
  • Mediterranean Cous Cous with Roasted Winter Vegetables, Warm Roasted Chick Salad and Vegetable Kebob (Roasted Pearl Onion, Mushroom, Roast Tomato).

They all sound great. I tried to find on the internet some sample photos to match how I picture the meals.
Couscous:
Pacific Cod:
Steak:
Chicken:
Tomorrow I'll compare to the real meal deal.

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11/24/09

iTyranny: Tell me why I don't like iTunes

I really like my ipod touch, but I can't stand the iTunes software: not intuitive, not flexible, not nice.

I've had a Palm IIIxe for the past 10 years, and I really liked the efficiency of it. But, its age was showing: I could no longer sync to my Win64-bit laptop at home, and even the receptionist at the doctor's office mentioned that it was so old-school. I didn't want an iPhone -- I already have a cell phone -- but the iPod Touch looked like a good replacement PDA. It installs most iPhone apps, has wireless networking and bluetooth, and replaces everything I need a PDA for.

So, now I'm using it, and like it. I'm still trying to get my old calendar off the Palm, but I went for the 32GB edition, and loaded a ton of mp3 music files onto it. I also check my Facebook and twitter on it, "play" Foursquare, and I signed up for online comics previews via Comixology. Great!

All good, right? No. The drawback is the iTunes software. For people who think Apple walks on water, I've got news: If you're a non-conformist then iTunes is not intuitive, not flexible and not nice. All I want to do is to load some of my 300GB of mp3s onto the iPod, but the iTunes software assumes a smaller collection, probably all purchased through iTunes. Also, each time I sync up at home or at work I get the following message:


Each time I see it I wonder if iTunes is going to blow away my iPod, or the files on my hard drive, or both?
Am I the only one who finds Apple software sometimes confusing?

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11/13/09

Bottled Moon Water?

The Moon as NASA's LCROSS hits - iPhone WallpaperImage by MarsInOrbit via Flickr

Now that NASA's LCROSS mission has determined there's water on the moon, the possibility for internet alarums has expanded greatly.

Anthony Colaprete at NASA announced the findings at a midday news conference: "I'm here today to tell you that indeed, yes, we found water. And we didn't find just a little bit; we found a significant amount" -- about a dozen, two-gallon bucketfuls, he said, holding up several white plastic containers.

Here are some suggestions for new projects:

Bottled Moon Water: The Luna Bar people are planning to partner with Virgin Galactic to harvest moon water and sell it to the ultra-rich as a drink that's "out of this world".

Capricorn One Redux: Just like The Government silenced OJ Simpson because Capricorn One is really a documentary, the Men in Black will be harassing Sam Rockwell for Moon, except instead of energy it's water. Really.

War of the World: The water blast was just a cover-up for a real attack on the moon. NASA is a civilian space agency, but they've been corrupted by the US military to blow up the aging Soviet underground moon base. With the collapse of the USSR, Russia no longer had the resources to defend the base, and so the US moon-hawks took the chance to claim their space.

Update! A friend adds: "This premise now provides the missing 2001 backstory -- this is why they were digging on the moon, only to find the monolith... Hydration a'la Luna is the product: HAL for short.. it could go on and on and on."


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11/9/09

Adventures in On-Demand Publishing: Blurb Books

For a number of years my dad, Albert, has written a short memoir for his Christmas card. Each story was also published in car magazines (Goodguys Gazette, and Old Cars Weekly), but I thought it would be fun to gather them in a collection. It would be a holiday storybook for old hot rodders, showing an arc of sixty years' worth of Christmases.

There are many problems with putting out a book like this. For one, it's a niche market so not many publishers are going to flock to your door to promote it. Additionally, my dad's most recent published book, The Age of Hot Rods, took almost a year from completion until it was released. In this case I wanted to get the book published in time for Christmas 2009. On the other hand, if we self-published it I didn't want to have him storing 500 or 1000 copies of the book in his shed for the next twenty years. It's a big investment of money and space to go the traditional route of self-publishing. So, we decided to check out some "on demand" publishing services.

There are a host of these new on demand publishers. I first noticed CreateSpace when they partnered with NaNoWriMo last year, offering participants a chance to publish a copy of their efforts. Meanwhile Blurb Books had been recommended by my aunt, and lulu.com was also impressive. Some resources, such as mypublisher.com, and shutterfly.com looked good, but they seemed oriented toward photo books. In the end I decided Blurb looked the simplest to start with since it had it's own "Booksmart" bookmaking software, while CreateSpace and LuLu both asked for PDF uploads.

Here's a retrospective on the good points, and things I'd like to change about Blurb that I discovered while working on this project.

Good things about Blurb:
  • They have the free "BookSmart" software which guides you through the process
  • The price per book is fair: around $5.95 cost for an 80 page paperback book
  • The layout went quickly, and they provided a quick turnaround in printing.
  • The delivery was easy to track, reliable and on time.
  • The whole process was simple... easy to import your book from MS Word
  • The BookSmart Preview was great. The preview on screen was pretty close to the final bound result
  • The BookSmart software was easy to navigate, and included a spell checker
  • Illustrations were simple. When you load all the images into the Booksmart staging area software tells you if you've used them in the book or not.
  • The software also warns you if your image resolution isn't high enough. That prevents you from printing a book and getting a muddy or jagged picture.
  • You can print out the book for proofreading and it looks like the final result (except it's on 8.5" x 11" paper).
  • The online help was pretty good, although it would be nicer if there was more community support for the book templates.
  • End result was nice. The book looks like a real book
What could be improved:
  • The Blurb service and software is oriented toward photo books, not text.
  • The layout templates for text were limited, and while they may have been cute when paired with large photos, ended up looking childish unless hand-tweaked.
  • It was especially hard to deal with the "auto-flow" templates. If you changed the layout of any auto-flow templates it would break the text flow so that text wouldn't flow from page to page. At that point you have to deal with laying out each page rather than letting the software do it. For that reason alone you want to edit your content as close to perfection as possible before importing into Booksmart.
  • I suggest making backups (BookSmart calls them "archives") each time you finish a stage in your editing. The software auto-saves and you can't turn it off. If you royally mess up, your changes are automatically saved and it's not easy to go back. If you have a backup then you can reload that.
  • The location of the book files on the hard drive isn't obvious. Trying to back up those files to a flash drive can be confusing.
  • The import from MS Word had problems. Tabs were especially bad. The "Styles" imported from Word, but not exactly. The fonts were close, but the justification wasn't at all right, and the leading/kerning was up to the Booksmart software.
  • I couldn't configure tab stops in BookSmart. I wanted a tab stop that was about 5 spaces, but I could only have (a) no tabs, or (b) a tab stop in the middle of the page.
  • Because of the weird layouts I had to tweak the font and alignment of the first paragraph of each chapter by hand.
  • Despite the emphasis on photo books, if you're doing text the photo layouts are limited. Once you have a text layout you're stuck with at most a single picture per page, and it had to be centered and set to a certain size.
  • Line breaks were weird: I had problems with "you'll", and "o'clock" breaking on the apostrophe. Also there were occasionally weird spaces at the end of pages, and gaposis between lines when text had a superscript (such as in "24th").


Despite all the minor problems, my wife Linda managed to edit most of the book, and we were all happy with the end result. The photos and illustrations are clean, and the color cover came out great. The cost per book ($5.95 + shipping) was within my general goal, and the time line was excellent. In fact, from the time we started to lay out the book and add illustrations to the point where the final product arrived on my doorstep was less than 30 days.

Blurb also has some "sell online" features (same with CreateSpace) where you can name your profit margin and they'll sell and ship the books for you. I'm not sure how much shipping per book is, but if you want a copy of the book you can click here.

Bottom line is that Blurb was easy to use, but lacked a certain amount of flexibility. Also, you end up paying for the fancy software because the price of each book is slightly higher than other sites. For the next project my dad was thinking of a book 128 pages in 8"x10" portrait layout. Blurb prices this at about $32 a book, while CreateSpace can deliver this product in the range of $5 a book. But that's mainly because Blurb only offers 8x10 books in full color.

Meanwhile, "Christmas at Ed's Richfield (and Other Stories for Guys)" will be on sale at the Flat Out Press website in time for Christmas.

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10/29/09

Agile Project Management software

The Scrum project management method. Part of t...Image via Wikipedia

Here's a list of software systems that ostensibly help manage agile projects. I'm looking at using Rally for our next project at work. Anyone have a good argument to try something else?

Our past two projects used the Scrum framework and were run with a combination of sticky notes, index cards and an Excel spreadsheet. Everything worked great except for a) tracking the sprint burndown, b) reordering the priorities, and c) making sure the spreadsheet had a high visibility.

Some other prerequisites: Free or low cost, secure, uses less time than sticky notes/spreadsheets.


I've left Rational and Primavera off the list. They're too expensive, and too "heavy." I've also omitted Microsoft Project: that's great for setting up and planning a waterfall project, but it's heck to use that for ongoing tasks.

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10/14/09

Pi Twits

Quite a few twitter accounts are based on pi. I tried all these urls and almost all are registered twitter users, except pi to 8 significant digits and 15 significant digits. Is this a secret pattern?

http://twitter.com/3
http://twitter.com/31
http://twitter.com/314
http://twitter.com/3141
http://twitter.com/31415
http://twitter.com/314159
http://twitter.com/3141592
http://twitter.com/31415926
http://twitter.com/314159265
http://twitter.com/3141592653
http://twitter.com/31415926535
http://twitter.com/314159265358
http://twitter.com/3141592653589
http://twitter.com/31415926535897
http://twitter.com/314159265358979
http://twitter.com/3141592653589793

(also, of course: http://twitter.com/pi )

Also, there are twitter accounts for pi's less famous cousin e (not to be confused with http://twitter.com/e).
http://twitter.com/271828
http://twitter.com/271828183




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10/3/09

Mason Cat

I found this Mason Cat in my kitchen. I will keep him and feed him butter and pickles and call him Beans. Or maybe I'll feed him beans and call him Pickles.
 

 

(In response to the Placenta Teddy Bear)
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9/25/09

"How do you like them tomatoes?" 2009

In the book "The $64 Tomato" the author asks the rhetorical question "Why garden?" and then tries to examine his own motives in a series of essays.


I have my own personal answer to the question: the tomato. I want to be able to eat a tomato that's as fresh as possible. One that's never been refrigerated, chilled only by the Portland's cool summer nights. I remember years ago buying a tomato from the local grocery store and cutting it open. It was red, but where was the taste? I almost cried while I ate the stiff tasteless fruit, longing for the fleshy, winey, red specimens I could pick up at almost any market in France. Why do Americans put up with such bland produce (and bread, but that's another story)? The only reason we have these tomatoes is because they're easy to ship across the country and let ripen in the truck or in the back room of the supermarket. I wanted something that was delicate and tasty, warmed by the sun, from the vine to my kitchen.

So, I started a garden. That was 17 years ago. The first year I started all my plants from seed, but a 4'x8' plot won't hold twenty tomato plants, let alone bush beans, lettuce, spinach and hot peppers. Since then I've bought starts in 4" pots from Portland Nursery, tilled some compost, and let them grow in well-turned soil.


Last year I took photos and made notes of which tomatoes were successful, and which were... eh, not so much. My perfect plan was to take this list to Portland Nursery and get exactly the tomatoes I wanted, and then I could shoot in the dark for fillers to replace the less successful plants.


I immediately ran into problems: Portland Nursery changed the layout of their tomatoes, and they were promoting more organic plants. I needed help finding the heirloom tomatoes, and then they had at least three different "German" varieties. I had less trouble locating the Legend tomatoes, but couldn't find the other tomatoes I wanted. I ended up choosing a random Roma, and some other varieties.

In total I bought 8 tomato plants, a cucumber, three hot peppers, three basil plants, and a summer squash. One of the tomatoes (the German Striped) was 100% organic in a compostable pot and bag for $9. The rest were between $1 and $3 a pot. Add to that two cubic feet of Bumper Crop compost and the total outlay for my garden this year was $41.



The results? Mixed.

Early girl didn't live up to its name, ripening a week or so after the first Legends. Also it didn't have nearly as much fruit this year.
In fact, except for the Romas I got almost half as much fruit this year as last. I don't know whether to chalk that up to the heat wave in late July, my change to the watering system (from sprinkler hose to drip hose) or to my compost. Usually I buy chicken manure, but this year opted for the Bumper Crop. Bumper Crop seemed great for the leafy green stuff, but I think I'll stick w/manure for tomatoes and peppers.


Of all the plants the Romas were the best producers. Starting in early August and still going in late September I got enough for several batches of spaghetti sauce (they also mix with other tomatoes to make a good salsa).

But, for taste, the heirlooms were the clear prize winners. You'll never find either Pineapple or German Striped tomatoes at any grocery store. Both had thin skins, lopsided shapes and ripened into something between yellow and red. The Pineapple tomatoes grew so large my son thought they might be small pumpkins. Unfortunately the thin skins made them attractive to the slugs (who hardly touched any of the other tomatoes), but I had enough to share. A single Pineapple, a half an onion, and some cilantro was enough to make a healthy bowl of fresh salsa. The German Striped tomatoes were almost sweet, and I blended up one to make a sauce for a pizza that the family said was "the best ever."

Thus endeth my gardening log for this year. Next year we'll see if I can find any of the same tomatoes. In the meantime, my final answer to "Why Garden?" is "the secret is in the sauce."







Download Portland Nursery's Veggie Calendar



A sample of the bounty


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9/20/09

Making Mozzarella or Cheesemaking Made Easy


Today I stopped in at the Montavilla Farmers Market and picked up a Mozzarella and Ricotta making kit from UrbanCheesecraft (she has a site on etsy www.urbancheesecraft.etsy.com). For $20 the kit comes with enough vegetarian rennet, cheese salt and citric acid for 30 batches of cheese. There's also a cheese thermometer and some cheesecloth.

I'd read about cheesemaking on the internet, and had looked at some mail order sites, so this seemed like a fair price and a fun project. I'd also made yogurt and labneh before, so while she also had kits for chevre or paneer, I felt like Mozzarella was the next step for me.

The pamphlet says you'll have mozzarella in about an hour, so I gave it a try. The instructions were clear and easy to follow. I used a gallon of whole milk and it made almost a pound of Mozzarella.

Here's a shot of the curds while they're cooking. This is about 20 minutes into the process:


The end result isn't very photogenic, but tasty:

She suggests you can add herbs, pepper flakes, or sun-dried tomatoes to the cheese to zest it up. I plan to try some tomato, mozzarella and basil paninis (I used some of the leftover whey to make some no-knead bread).

The kit was great! Check it out.
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8/29/09

Book Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

I approached "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger with a mixed mind. Normally I love time travel books, especially ones that explore the possibilities of travel within your own lifespan, and contrast theories of free will vs determinism. But this wasn't your normal semi-obscure sci-fi tale lurking in used book stores or found in an old pulp magazine. I was getting recommendations from people who belonged to book clubs, and it was prominently displayed at the local independent bookstore. Is this some attempt to mainstream the time travel story? So, despite the title (more on that in a bit) I decided to pack it with me on my vacation.

Just as in the plays of ancient Greece where the stories had certain ritualistic elements, but each author chose to tell them with different styles, in time travel books the plot isn't as important as how it unfolds. That said, here's my summary: a guy, Henry, has a genetic problem that gives him fits, sort of like epilepsy, but instead of blacking out he's displaced in time. He arrives in the new time naked, and usually doesn't know where or when he is. He can't control his jumps, but he's drawn to places and times that have strong psychological ties for him. In this way he meets his future wife, Clare, when she's only six, and then at random intervals through her life.

I had some problems with this book, the least of which was the title. It seems like there are too many books called "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" or the "The Zookeeper's Wife" or the "Cheesemaker's Niece" (OK, I made up the last one). Moreover, the story isn't about the time traveler's wife: it's about the time traveler, but I figured some editor probably changed the title to fit a publishing trend.

Another issue was that the non-time travel problems seemed to be falsely inserted into the story, and then easily resolved. Clare's mom is an alcoholic and was forced into marriage by an unwanted pregnancy, but it turns out OK in the end. Henry's dad also drinks, and ruins his career as a concert violinist, but we know from time traveling he'll be happy in the future, so it's all good. Even the wedding scene had a false sense of tension that was too easily resolved.

Which brings me to the biggest obstacle in the plot: Niffenegger's conceit is that Henry can't change the past, but only observe it. Yet his appearance to his to his future wife when she's six years old has a weird vibe. As Henry pops into young Clare's time line he teaches her chess, French and other his other interests, forming her into a person that will love him. It's almost as if Niffenegger had taken the premise for the old game of Mystery Date, and turned it into a literal plot. Who will Clare marry? It's all pre-ordained: a muscular dark stranger from the future, who will know all her inner desires, and will be her soul-mate. Does anyone else find this a little trite? Sure, it's a common romantic dream, but presented this way I thought it was also anti-Feminist -- a romance novel disguised as sci-fi where the female lead can only watch the adventure.

Despite the problems, I still liked reading the book. The story is told from the points of view of the two main characters, and annotated with dates and ages (eg: "Saturday, April 8, 1989 (Clare is 17, Henry is 40)") so you can track whether Henry is in or out of time. The first 200 pages speed along as you learn the history or future of Henry and Clare and their friends and family. I like how Niffenegger presents their out-of-time meetings from the different points of view. The plot cleverly clicks together like a puzzle as they meet for the first time in real time and piece by piece the whole picture forms.

Niffenegger also does a great job of exploring the possibilities of Henry's particular form of time travel. I don't understand how they conclude it's a genetic disease, but that's a minor bump. From there she asks various questions. Can a time-traveler drive a car? What sort of person does it take to appear in a city, naked, without any resources and survive for couple of days. Can a time-traveling condition complicate a pregnancy? (Answer: and how!)

The final question she poses concerns death and dying and whether life after death exists. The last couple sections of the book I lived with Henry as he approached his end and even though he'd seen his own death, Niffenegger added interesting twists and details based on time travel. And because of the time travel, Henry's possible appearances into the future leave us with literal metaphor (is that possible?) of memories of loved ones living on with us.

Despite some problems, I enjoyed reading The Time Traveler's Wife.









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8/7/09

The Snowball vs The Zen Master

Classical ideal feedback model. The feedback i...Image via Wikipedia

How It Begins

Your company develops accounting software.

The user asks the sales guy if there's a way for the system to show all people over 120 days in arrears & they'd send a dunning letter to those people.

The sales guy talks to the product manager: "Some of our users want a feature to create dunning letters on the fly."

The product manager talks to the system architect: "We need integrated word processing with a catalog of stock letters: collection accounts, new accounts, reminders, happy birthday cards...the works!"

The system architect tells the developers: "We're adding integrated document management to our system. We'll wrap everything around MS Word to save development time."

The developer tells the project manager: "The new features require new components. Also we need to extend the security to the new module, rework the backups, completely revise the graphics, and who's going to develop the content and write the documentation?"

The QA person collapses on the floor, moaning: "This will take a year to test!"

A year later they show the new system to the user.

"Nice," he says, "But have you worked on my dunning report yet?"

I read a blog entry about "Practicing Product Minimalism" and feel that people commenting on it really don't get the zen of "maximizing the amount of work not done."

Developing software is a lot like rolling a snowball down a hill. It starts out easy, picks weight along the way, becomes a juggernaut, and good luck to anyone who tries to stop or slow it down. Eventually, if you're lucky, it hits a brick wall and stops. If you're unlucky it takes out some of the team on the way down.

That's why it's necessary to question every new bit of work going into a project. Talk to users and be sure you understand what they want. Moreover, keep the feedback loop short: show them your solution as soon as possible. Make a paper prototype if necessary...draw it right there during the meeting.

New features tend to multiply tasks. For example, one new feature may be multiplied by security, storage, UI, graphics, documentation, configuration, backward compatibility, operating system compatibility, and hardware requirements. If the user has asked for a button with two states: [Stop] and [Go], don't assume they want a third state for [Slow], or that they want to be able to configure a set of buttons [Stop],[Go Slow], [Go Faster], [Go Fastest]. Or even that they want to be able to provide Urdu translations of the text of the buttons. Instead: stop and ask them before developing anything.

User priorities are also hugely important to maximizing work not done. Develop your software as if the next feature is the last feature, so it had better count. If the feature you're working on right now isn't the most important item on the list for the user: don't do it.

If you had practiced the zen of minimalism the user would have had the dunning report in a couple of weeks instead of a year later, and you could have used that year to develop more vital solutions. That's the payoff for practicing the zen of minimalism.

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Xtranormal: It's a long way from X-files

Xtranormal is a web site that facilitates making creepy animated movies. OK, they're not trying for the creepy part -- it just works out that way.

You can choose from one of six pre-packaged sets, decide whether to have one or two actors, and then start making your movie. The "super hero" set looked interesting, although I have no idea why the hero is in a cage. I used my last couple of tweets for a script, then I chose various camera angles, facial expressions and body motions. All of the staging is pretty limited: twelve camera angles, about fifteen "emotions" and five or so expressive movements.

All the rendering occurs at their servers, so you don't have to have a fast computer, but even still it took 15 minutes or so to render the final movie.

Here's the result. Creepy, no?


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7/21/09

OBF 2009 - checklist

Hop cone in a Hallertau, Germany, hop yard

The Oregon Brewers Fest is this weekend (it's always the last full weekend in July). There are over 70 beers on tap and you can see the list at the OBF website, but I've also put together a one-page checklist for tasting.

Each year I go to the OBF and write down the beers I've tasted. But the official program is clumsy to use with a beer in one hand, and it's too big to easily fit in a pocket. It's also hard sometimes to find a particular beer in the program -- I forget whether it's sorted by beer name or by brewery (One year they sorted by trailer, which was really confusing). So, I made my own pocket-sized OBF 2009 checklist to help you track which beers you've tasted, and to give a quick 1 to 5 score. It's a PDF that can be printed & folded. Check it out and maybe I'll see you at the 2009 OBF.
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7/12/09

Book Review: The $64 Tomato


Last night in the middle of watching "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," just as the polyjuice was wearing off the faux Mad-Eye Moody, I realized I hadn't set the watering timer on my garden, and I had to jump off the sofa, into the night, and turn on the hose. I missed a pivotal part of the movie, but at least my tomatoes will survive to grow another day... and hopefully through the rest of the summer.

Not everyone in our household is as infatuated with gardening as I am. My sons like the chance to eat snap peas off the bush, and two nights ago dinner was interrupted as one of them protested the stir fry by sprinting outside to "eat out" by the bush instead. But, ask them to pull weeds, and I might as well be doing it myself. Also, my wife thinks that my urgency to water and tend to the plants is misplaced. "Why are you doing that instead of tucking in the kids?" she asks, and no matter how much I explain that the plants will die (yes, DIE!) if I don't help them out, she still questions my priorities.

So, given the occasional troubles you might ask "Why do I garden?" Coincidentally, this is the same question raised in by William Alexander in his memoir "The $64 Tomato." The subtitle to Alexander's book is "How one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis in the quest for the perfect garden," which is an unwieldy tag line, but an apt summary.


The book consists of slightly over a dozen essays about his gardening habit, spanning roughly twenty years, and the title essay is one of the least interesting. I wanted to know how he could possibly grow a $64 tomato but in the first essay, when he writes about hiring a garden designer to lay out his two-thousand "Gentleman's Farm," I got the idea right away. My idea of gardening includes buying a couple bags of "Bumper Crop" compost from Portland Nursery. His idea is to pay $1000 for topsoil dug from the glacial deposits of the Hudson Valley and trucked to his home along the Hudson river. Throughout the book Alexander continues to drop a good amount of cash into his garden, which in a way reminds me of the struggles Peter Mayle had in his "Year in Provence" books, except that the characters in Mayle's stories seemed to have more life breathed into them. Alexander, by contrast, seems to have only fully realized a few characters: himself, his wife, and their handyman Christopher Walken. Ok, it's not really Christopher Walken, but he looks and acts so much like Walken that we don't need to know his real name (In the course of the essay Walken goes from creepy to downright offensive, and Alexander is too afraid to actually fire the man. Instead he lets him go by lying that there's no more work to be done). Aside from those three, the real characters in this book aren't people: they are the plants, weeds, trees and the land itself which he describes with enough detail that I can picture myself in his Garden.

My favorite essay is entitled "No Such Thing as Organic Apples." Alexander describes a memory of his father growing apples in New York City. His father would prevent pests by spraying once with a wax, and then carefully wrapping each apple in a plastic bag so it could mature unblemished. The author then tries to recreate his childhood by choosing four appropriate trees and following his father's recipe. Of course he has problems with tent worms, failures in pollination, and other blights, but the essay peaks when he has a Proustian moment while opening a canister of Malathion. Even if you don't read the whole book, you should read this essay.

He also has a fun essay about weeds. With a large garden comes a larger space to weed (Alexander prefers to think of it as "cultivating"). He tries weeding by hand, using black plastic to kill the weeds, and reading books about gardening without weeds, and then finally discovers the hoe. Which works fine, except for the backbreaking work required by a short hoe handle, and also the advent of purslane. Purslane is a leafy plant which can be eaten like spinach, and since the tenacious plan spreads by seed, root, or cutting, it can quickly take over a garden. He fights the purslane, pulling and hoeing it from his garden almost constantly, until he has another epiphany: a local gardener up the street has started growing and harvesting purslane as a crop, and the seeds must have spread to the gardens downwind. Thus the quote: "One man's weed is another's dinner." This reminded me of the time I planted fennel, which grew and went to seed. Next spring I noticed fennel starts everywhere in my yard, as well as up and down the block. Fennel still grows the cracks of the sidewalks and in any bit of dirt along our street. Maybe I should start my own urban farm.

Alexander eventually answers his question of: Why garden? The short answer is because he likes to eat, and there's only one way to get food when it's the freshest: grow it. I agree with him on this point (I share another trait with him: I can't ever remember the names of flowers, especially the "p flowers: petunia, pansy, peony, poppy, potentilla, even impatiens." As he says, it's embarrassing as a gardener to have to say "Isn't that a nice -- uh, you know, P flower."). His naivete in approaching gardening is obvious: he assumes he'll be able to bend the land and the plants to his will, and it will grow as idyllically as he envisions. Each essay points out the futility in that point of view: when it's man vs nature, nature will prevail. Even if you think you've got all the gopher holes covered, one more will pop up to surprise you. But, despite everything, plants will grow and Alexander ends up with wonderful tomatoes, bounties of apples and peaches, fresh greens for the entire year, and a well-fed family.


So, to summarize my opinion of "The $64 Tomato": this book has less charm than "A Year in Provence," and less gardening insight than John Jeavons' "How to Grown More Vegetables..." But, it's engaging to learn along with the Alexander as he describes his problems with landscapers, pests, and weeding. I'd recommend reading the "Organic Apple" essay even if you pass up the rest of the book.


A side note: if you read "The $64 Tomato" and enjoy it, or if you like "A Year in Provence," then you'll also like Barbara Drake's memoir "Peace at Heart" about her experiences moving from the city to the country and learning about "the sacramental character of country life." I'm biased, since she's also my mom, but the book's really a good read.





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6/29/09

Syntax in the Auto Market

Kia Soul Concept photographed at the Montreal ...Image via Wikipedia

I read a review of the new Kia Soul, which is set to compete with the the Scion xB and Nissan's Cube. Aside from the question of a possible pun in the name (Kia is based in South Korea, so is the model a homonym for Seoul?) the interesting thing about this car is that they've used punctuation to distinguish the different models.

There's the base Soul, and the Soul Sport, but there's also the Soul Plus, or Soul+, and the top of the line Soul Exclaim, aka "Soul!" In the "olden days" Unix programmers used to call the exclamation point the Bang, but I don't know if people would be interested in driving the Soul Bang! Unixers also used to call the asterisk (*) the Splat, and I don't think anyone would want to drive a Soul Splat*.

Of course, this leads to a wide range of possibilities. Kia should have called the Sport model the Soul? (Soul Wonder? Soul What? Soul Huh?). And maybe Ford or GM could declare their own car variables. Would calling it the Chevy Camaro$ help you understand the value or price range of the car? There could be operator problems using the Ford Aero*. It would be obvious that the Soul++ is incrementally better than the Soul+, but if the car is called the ++Probe, well, does it get better before or after the probe?

I just hope they don't start using parentheses, otherwise we'll have to work out an order of precedence. Is a (4x4)+(A/C) better than a Soul!?
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6/25/09

Pocket reviews of 11 Twitter tools

SAN FRANCISCO - MARCH 10:  Twitter co-founder ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

On twitter quite a few people seem to spew all sorts of "Twitips." A recent one was "11 Useful Twitter Tools That Don’t Require Your Password."
I decided to check 'em out for you. Here are my reviews in 140 characters or less.
  1. TwitterFriends - Interesting! Graphics are hard to read. See conversations, friends, network. http://tinyurl.com/8fjbxr
  2. Friendorfollow - Nicely done! shows followers, fans & friends. Deserves a look http://friendorfollow.com/m...
  3. Tweetstats - Number of tweets/day, month, who you reply to. So-so. Kudos for strength: @Zaibatsu's stats http://tinyurl.com/nn9ckf
  4. Twitter.grader - Above average. gives a tweet cloud, rank, followers w/history, summary info http://twitter.grader.com
  5. Nearbytweets - Interesting & a bit frightening! who's tweeting near you? deserves a look http://nearbytweets.com/
  6. Retweetrank - Gives a percent of retweets. Not so interesting. http://www.retweetrank.com/...
  7. Tweetwheel - Lame-O. Advertised: "find out which of your friends know each other" Reality: spam. http://www.tweetwheel.com/
  8. Re: Tweetwheel - this page says it's otherwise, but can't get there from here http://bit.ly/bm4bC
  9. Twitoria - Good. ranks lame or lazy twitter friends. http://bit.ly/gzdVN
  10. Qwitter - So-so. Do I care when someone stops following me? http://useqwitter.com/
  11. Tweetwasters - Lame. Doesn't know who I am... http://tweetwasters.com/mxmoss
  12. Favotter - Cool. Search tweets that have been favorited by people. http://favotter.matope.com/en/


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6/12/09

Twerms: The good, the bad and the ugly?

google on twitterImage by pipot83 via Flickr

Ok, so Twitter's the current big thing, and although I use it, I still don't exactly "get" Twitter.
Also, maybe Twitter is just a fad, something to take our minds off the bad economy and a couple of prolonged and unwinnable wars. Maybe the Twitter craze can be compared to flag pole sitting and dance marathons from the Great Depression? But, there's no denying that the Internet, smart phones, and text messaging have all been brought together in Twitter to create new(ish) way to communicate.

Whether it's short-lived or going to endure, Twitter has already spawned a large number of new words to describe the activities that surround it. In fact, the AP Stylebook has added Twitter to their reference: "The new entry for Twitter notes that the social networking Web site limits messages to short Tweets."

This site, My Twittonary, has a less official twittonary (or is it a twossary?) of twit-words. Since Twitter is fixated on the 140 character limit, it seems inefficient to create words to describe things in Twitter that are longer than the useful words. In the interest of efficiency instead of twit-terms, or twit-words, I'm going to call them "twerms."

As I scanned through the twerms, I recognized they fall in two four categories: the good, the bad, the necessary and the irrelevant.

Some terms are uniquely necessary for Twitter users:
  • Twitterer -A user of Twitter (compare: Tweeter).
  • Tweet - A single Twitter message
  • Twoogle –Twitter as the human Google. Pose a question, get near-instantaneous results.
  • Twittduit –If you need to Tweet a friend that does not follow you, post a Twittduit asking your followers to pass a message.
  • Twode –To hack on the Twitter API.
Some words are just cute. There are some words just asking to be born, and once you say it aloud you realize it works as a natural English word:
  • Tword – I prefer "twerm," but these are words formed by appending “Tw” to the original word.
  • Twitterfly –Being a social butterfly on Twitter evidenced by extreme usage of @ signs.
  • Twitterpated - To be overwhelmed with Twitter messages. An existing word nicely transplanted to the Twitterverse.
  • Tweeterboxes –Twitterers who tweet too much
  • Twitterati –The glamorous A-List Twitterer's everyone wants to follow.
  • Twittectomy -unfollowing friends
  • Tweeple, or Tweeps - The people who you specifically talk to through Twitter
  • Tweetheart –That special someone who makes your heart skip a beat
Other words are irrelevant, because they're trying to supplant phrases that already work:
  • Twittercal mass – What's wrong with "critical mass"? It's a term borrowed from physics that accuractely explains the phenomena: "the minimum amount of fissionable material required to sustain a chain reaction."
  • Twaiting, Twaunt, Twerminology – mean the same as "waiting," "taunt" and "terminology" except that there are more characters in the Twerms. What's the point in that?
And some new words are just obnoxious. Most of the words in this category are not designed to be spoken aloud, but only typed on a keyboard. Take a moment and say "I'm going to send a twurvey to my tweeps." Do you feel ridiculous?
  • TwoingTwoing –To Twitter about wonderful things.
  • Twitimonial - Endorsing someone through Twitter.
  • Twelepathy - When a tweeter is so predictable you can tell what they're going to tweet before they tweet it
  • Twurvey – Survey sent out over Twitter
  • Twis –To dis a fellow Twitterer. For me these doesn't even read well, since I see it as rhyming with "buys."
  • Twead – To read a Twitter. Yeah, right. Use this in a sentence.
  • Twaigslist – To sell something via Twitter. Also Twebay.
  • Twike – To ride a bike with Twitter.
  • Twitterlooing - Twittering from a bathroom.
  • Twadd – To add someone as a friend - mutual followers.
  • Tweekend – Spending your entire Saturday and Sunday reading and posting via Twitter.
Finally, I want to end by creating some of my own Twerms:
  • Twirt - Someone who only re-tweets, and never writes their own.
  • Twat - someone who Twitters at you, not with you. Can also be written Tw@.
  • Twitstar- The elite of the Twitterati.
  • Outwit - Post a news-breaking tweet before any of your followers
  • Fatwit - Someone who proclaims a fatwah (ruling on Islamic law) over Twitter
  • Phatweet - A really good tweet.
  • Titter - Twitter after the 2008 election... 'cause there's no more W.
  • Twart - Something you do before you say "excuse me"
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6/10/09

Barbara Drake's "Pommes" set to music

My mom had the recent honor of getting some of her poems set to music. Sylvia Gray set wrote music for "The Owl", "Every Year", and "Pommes", which was performed by Christy Anne Hamilton Ford (vocals) and Sylvia Gray and on the piano at PCC Sylvania during PCC's Art Beat Week.

Here's the video for "Pommes" (French for "apples") on youtube. My mom reads, and then they perform the song:

5/14/09

This is your brain on cereal

A box of Cheerios breakfast cereal.

Apparently General Mills has overstepped their bounds when promoting Cheerios as a cholesterol-lowering agent. The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) sent a warning letter to General Mills telling 'em that the packaging of the tasty O's is misleading.

What's the problem? The FDA believes that the big-G company is marketing Cheerios as a drug:
...the claims indicate that Cheerios® is intended for use in the treatment, mitigation, and prevention of coronary heart disease through, lowering total and "bad" (LDL) cholesterol. Elevated levels of total and LDL cholesterol are a risk factor for coronary heart disease and can be a sign of coronary heart disease. Because of these intended uses, the product is a drug within the meaning of section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321 (g)P)(B)]. The product is also a new drug under section 201(p) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321(p)] because it is not generally recognized as safe and effective for use in preventing or treating hypercholesterolemia or coronary heart disease. Therefore,under section 505(a) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 355(a)], it may not be legally marketed with the above claims in the United States without an approved new drug application.

They also say the website www.wholegrainnation.com is considered part of the label since the URL shows up on the Cheerios packaging. The site claims "Heart-healthy diets rich in whole grain foods, can reduce the risk of heart disease," but the FDA contends that Cheerios are not officially approved for this statement.
Although FDA has issued a regulation authorizing a health claim associating fiber-containing grain products with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease (21 CFR 101.77), the claim on your website does not meet the requirements for this claim

The FDA goes on to say that such health claims are reserved for drugs and that products approved as drugs cannot use them. You can read the whole letter here.

The Slow Food site has an interesting take on this:
The letter has triggered criticism against both the FDA and the Obama Administration, with conservative groups seeing it as yet another authoritarian step to restrict company rights. What all critics fail to do is address the FDA’s argument. The ongoing controversy cannot take away the fact that this is the first time in nine years that the agency has taken action against a “mainstream food product”.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to eat Cheerios, despite the drug-related influences. To make up for it maybe I'll eat some Cap'n Crunch on the weekends.




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