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Book reports


So I finally broke down and downloaded the sampler of the first Twilight book, just to see what all the fuss is about.

So far, I'm not terribly impressed by the writing, though I have been enjoying that the book is set in the PacNW, and that the character has spent the first 10 pages or so complaining about all of the things I love about my distant but still beloved home. I imagine, though, that if I bought the whole book and read it cover-to-cover, I'd discover that Stephenie Meyer is a hell of a storyteller. That's got to be true on some level, or the book wouldn't have grown into such a huge phenomenon.

The truth is, in the first several pages, the writing isn't impressing me, but it's not turning me off, either. It's not perfect, but it doesn't have to be. It's possible to be a great storyteller and an average writer. Actually, that's the point I'm trying to make: work hard on telling great stories first. Beautifully crafted, sparkling writing without a good story is constructed decoration.

In other book news, I've read all five books from the Temeraire series twice in the last month and a half, and I enjoyed them as much the second time as I did the first. Naomi Novik is both a great storyteller and an exemplary writer. It's kind of a weird mix of fantasy and historical (revisionist) fiction. A bit geeked out, for sure (which is definitely a plus, from my perspective) but absolutely delightful.

The first book is called His Majesty's Dragon, and as an added bonus, you can download free copies of it for the Kindle (iPhone app or device) or for any other e-reader you use. You can also get your hands on a free PDF of the whole book, but that's a bit more difficult to wrangle.

Be warned, however, that this is incredibly shrewd marketing, akin to a drug dealer giving you the first hit for free. You'll likely end up buying the other four books in rapid succession.


The infinite task of getting organized


I'm reading Getting Things Done again, hoping to myself silently that this time around I'll get the system up and running and keep to my guns long enough to reap the benefits of an "organized life." (Whatever that means.)

It's not that I don't believe in GTD—really, I think it's the best organizational system in the world. I've had more than a few sips of that Kool-Aid, but like everything else in my life, believing is one thing and performing is another.

Filling the space with something . . .


One of the things that is both wonderful and difficult about being the stay-at-home-in-the-morning father of an 18 month-old baby is the kind of "thinking time" you get.

Here's what I mean: hanging out with Zoe isn't like brain surgery. There are no complicated problems to figure out, no serious problems to solve. All of that comes later, I think. For now, we say, "look!" to each other a lot, and roll around on the floor laughing, and carry toys from one room to the next. There's a lot of space in my brain for thinking during these times, though when she's awake, I try to be present as much as possible. Every day is new and wondrous.

But when she goes down for her nap, I have to spring into action. Dishes need to be washed, the animals need food, I have to grab a shower, lunches need to be packed, etc. Again, none of this is like doing calculus, or solving a complicated strategic problem. It's all busy work that just has to get done NOW.

So I tend to play games with myself while I'm doing the dishes or picking up toys. I make up problems—usually ones that grow out of some kind of day-to-day experience I'm having, but not always—and I try to solve them. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm that kind of geek.

The one I did most recently kept me up into the night and required some work in a spreadsheet program, but I solved it. For the pleasure of geeks everywhere, I present it to you now:

The Scenario
You are buying groceries one evening with your family. While checking out, sirens and lights go off everywhere and balloons drop out of the ceiling. The manager of the store comes running out to you and says, "you may have won 1 million dollars!"


He brings you over to the customer service counter, where they've set up a green felt gaming board. You see a stack of red dice on the board.

Here's what the manager tells you:

We're going to roll these dice once to see if you've actually won 1 million dollars. Here's the deal: you decide whether you want to roll 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 dice. When you've decided on the number of dice to roll, I'm going to grab the same number of dice for myself.
We'll roll our dice at the same time, we'll count up all of the numbers from each of the dice, and whoever has the higher number wins.
But to make it a bit more interesting, and because you are a valued customer, I'm going to give you a tiny advantage: I'll give you a win if we tie.
Go ahead and grab the number of dice you want to roll, and let's see if you walk out of this store a millionaire! Remember, you can choose to roll 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 dice.

The Question
Here's what I want to know from you: What number of dice gives you the highest probability of winning?

All seven possibilities are better than 50%, simply because a tie goes to you, as the attacker. But I want to know how much better than 50% each of the seven possibilities is.

Everyone will have an intuitive answer, but that's not what I want. Give me the intuition, but I also want to know what the percentage chance is to win for each of the seven scenarios. I'll need to see your work, too. Tell me how you got there.

The Spoils
I don't expect a lot of people to play this game, but post the right answer in the comments first, and you could win something geeky. Maybe a t-shirt, probably a gadget. You'll have to play to find out. But you have to be a complete dork (like me) to want to solve this problem at all, so I know that it doesn't matter what you win. Getting the right answer will be the best reward of all.

duffle coat, please?


Anyone out there know where I can get my hands on a duffle coat just like this one? It's navy with white rope loops, light wooden toggles, and a red-lined hood. You all recognize the movie, right?

I've been looking everywhere, and no luck. Help!

rest in peace

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It's five months too late, but I just found out that Leslie Harpold, one of the most talented writers I've ever met, is dead.

Even though I hardly knew her, she pushed me in the right direction, right when I needed it.

Back when I was a recent college graduate, with an English degree and nothing in the world to do to make a living, I ended up working for a housing company attached to a local university.

It was a boring job, in a beautiful location. Outside my window, there were blocks of city park, stretching down a lightly sloping hill. In the winter, when it stayed dark until I started work, and when it was dark before I left, I spent a lot of time staring out that window.

I also started to write a lot. It was what I was trained to do, and while I did get to write for work, it was mostly meeting notes and notices to residents of one of the many apartment buildings we managed. It wasn't satisfying, and it wasn't even remotely cathartic. I needed catharsis.

When I was in college, I remember running up against a website called Chunk that didn't seem to do anything. It was just this big colored blob. No links, no text, no nothing, except the word "c h u n k" and color. I remember very clearly wondering, "what the hell is this," and then wandering off elsewhere.

Well, in this new job, sitting and staring out that window, I remembered Chunk. I looked it up and it looked just the same, but there were links there now that led me other places. I know now that I probably just had the wrong browser (remember those days?), but whatever the reason, I suddenly was stumbling around all of these wonderful websites, pages and pages of rich text. I found myself reading all of these sites, and I remember feeling like I knew Alexis, Lance, Derek, Maggy, and Leslie--five people who were connected somehow by this invisible strand of data that ran from link to link, and story to story.

Later on, I found all kinds of other people--people a lot of you probably know, like Jason, Maura, Shauna, Paul, and countless others. This was back when everyone had online journals, and either they were hard coding the HTML, or they built their own dynamic CMS. No blogger, no wordpress, no movabletype, no facebook. These guys were the pioneers.

I loved it. So I got myself a geocities site, I read the design-o-rama (thanks, Lance), and I started writing.

After a little while, I got my gumption up, and I started emailing these folks. Alexis was the first to respond. She threw a link up to my site, and some other folks found me, and I was on the very edges of the same community I loved participating in as a reader. But now I was writing, and a few people were reading. It was heady stuff.

Other folks corresponded with me a bit, too, but there was really only one person back then who took the time to push me in the right direction. It was Leslie Harpold, who published Smug and Hoopla.

I wrote her an email, I guess, and she responded. And I responded to her reply, and so on, until we exchanged IM accounts, and chatted about lots of stuff. She was my first real online friend. Someone I never met in person, though I spent hours chatting with her about everything in the world.

I remember at one point she told me how much she loved Annie Dillard. I told her that Holy the Firm was probably my favorite book of all time, and she told me she'd never read it. So I got the book out and typed it--every word of the first two chapters--in little blocks small enough to make it through the chat engine. She loved it. I remember very clearly what her last note was that evening, as I was leaving work:

"Thanks for sharing that with me. It really was beautiful, and now I'm starting to feel like I really know you."

I built out my personal site a bit more, and at some point created a resume, and Leslie was the first person to critique it (she critiqued the hell out of it, which those of you who knew her will understand). She was always honest with me, which meant that she wasn't always nice. But she also never stopped being supportive.

At some point in the whole process, she gave me her phone number and asked me to call her. I remember her telling me, in that very forward and open-vowelled midwestern-ish voice of hers, that New Yorkers aren't as mean as everyone thinks they are. She told me that everyone in her neighborhood knew her, that they looked out for her, for each other.

This all started somewhere in 1998. In 2000, we worked together a bit, and then I lost touch with her. When she finally got back in touch with me, she was pissed (and rightly so) that the work we had started wasn't finished. I can't even remember how long she was gone, but it was months. I know now that she had surgery of some kind and something had gone horribly wrong.

Whatever the case, whatever happened, our friendship was over. I never did anything more than brush against the edge of her life, but I can tell you that she was one of the most amazing people I've ever known. I wish I'd somehow been able to reconnect with her, but I don't think there was space for me in her world after that. Considering all of the people she knew, I'm glad there was time and space when there was, even for a season.

She was the most private person I know who put everything in the world on the Web. She gave herself away in little pieces, finely crafted, carefully controlled. But for that short season when she took me under her wing, she gave me every bit of encouragement I needed to get on with my life--to stretch for something bigger and better than I had at the time. Jason Kottke said it, but it's true of me, too:

. . . like most people who knew her, she did me a favor I didn't know I needed precisely when I needed it.

A few quick comments on comments


Okay, so here's the bad news: if you've commented anywhere on this site recently and your comments are missing . . . well, they're gone. The problem is, there have been a ton of junk comments (they're comments posted by little scripts written by spammers, designed to post "commercials" in the comments sections of blogs).

I've got a pretty hefty sorting system that keeps the bad stuff out, but sometimes it's too strong, and it keeps everyone else out, too. I haven't been very good about checking through that list to see if anyone real has commented, and it's likely that your comments got lost in the shuffle.

If that happened, don't despair! Just go ahead and comment again, either by doing comments again on older entries, or by starting anew. I promise I'll be better about checking to see who has commented, and I'll approve any comments from any real people.

Again, apologies.

I'm spending the week in San Jose, at the Streaming Media West 2006 conference. It's very interesting, and my time here has been productive. We're talking about video deployed through the Internet to multiple devices -- primarily PCs, but also mobile phones, iPods, etc.

Since I have a lot of experience with Flash, and Flash Video is one of the fastest growing formats used to deliver all of this content, my past life touches the edge of "streaming media," but just barely. The world has changed in the last 5 years, and the "bleeding edge" work I was doing way back when with Flying Rhinoceros is old hat now. Drag and drop, and boom you've got a video interface in Flash.

The one bonus is that I get to see Lars and Anne tonight, and I'll get to meet Kira for the first time. Having Zoe around has helped me to appreciate all of the beautiful children my friends are having. I miss my daughter, and seeing Kira and her wonderful parents should help to dull the "where's my daughter" ache a bit.

I thought about going to In-N-Out Burger for lunch today, but they provided a box. Maybe I'll make the trip tomorrow. It's rare that I'm in Cali (or even out West) these days, so I have to take advantage when I can.

Sorry that this is such a boring update. I've been swamped at work, and all of my time at home is focused on my daughter and my wife, or on recovering from work and family commitments.

Being the pack leader

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We're housesitting a chihuahua for a couple of dear friends this month. Tiny is a bundle of energy, which often gets redirected in some very negative ways. She jumps up, bites gently to get attention, barks and growls a bit, and her mother told me she chewed up the carpet a couple of weeks ago.

In other words, she's got some issues.

I'm no expert on dogs, so I went online to see what I could find. A lot of the advice I saw talked about the "pack mentality" of dogs, and especially about how important it is to be the "alpha dog" in your house.

And a lot of the sites referred to a guy called "The Dog Whisperer." His name is Cesar Millan, and he has the uncanny ability to come into a house where a dog is misbhaving and somehow, with what looks like no effort at all, bring the dog under control.

He's so good, he's got a show on the National Geographic channel. Unfortunately, it's not part of my cable package. But National Geographic has posted about thirty short clips from the show (click through the "view more clips" link . . . you'll find them). I watched about twenty of them last night, and I was transfixed.

For Millan, the idea of "pack mentality" goes to a new level. He uses phrases like, "calm/assertive" and "calm/submissive" to refer to the way owners and dogs should act, respectively. He "bites" dogs gently, "touches" them instead of hitting them, and never raises his voice. He holds himself in a way that tells the dog that he's in charge, and he doesn't back down (even though it's assertive, not aggressive) for any reason whatsoever.

Last night, I tried some of the techniques I learned from watching the short clips. And this morning, Tiny was a model of good behavior, following me around the house, laying down when I asked her to, and even waiting patiently for the nanny to come through the door, without barking once, even though Bella (our chichi) was barking and charging the door like crazy.

I'm so amazed by how well it worked, I've got this yen to travel to L.A. to study with this guy. That won't happen, but I plan on getting his book.

Now, if I can just figure out how this whole "alpha dog" thing applies to human relationships . . .

getting dooced

Idiocy, apparently, is reaching new heights. Can someone please explain to me where Brooklyn, Mia, Rich, Bill, Robert, and the rest of the hatemail specialists get off sending email to Heather telling her what she can do with

It's funny (not HAH HAH funny . . . more of that ironic half-laugh funny) to me for two reasons:

First, though some of them talk like they've been reading Dooce for a goodly long time, apparently they're all oblivious to Ms. Armstrong's personality. She doesn't take shit from anyone, and I don't blame her. She's not going to change Dooce, or take it down, or spend another second thinking about any of your suggestions, folks. Nope. If you're especially idiotic, maybe she'll make fun of you.

And second, Heather Armstrong owns and operates It's hers. What makes the people who write hatemail think that they even deserve a read? They might get it, but that's just Ms. Armstrong being kind.

For my part, I'll take Dooce in whatever flavor she's serving up today. If it's not sparklingly brilliant (as every monthly letter to Leta has been) I know it's at least going to be fun.

pool engineer for hire. kidding.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday cleaning out the drain in my pool. It took a couple of hours because the pool is still full of water. And because once I got the cover off the drain, I discovered that the thing was pretty much brimming over with crap.

Here's what happened:

About a year and a half ago, we had the pool refinished. It needed it--sixteen years without a new coating, and the pool was leaking slowly, which isn't unusual. The previous owners of our house were meticulously careful with everything, so the truth is, the pool was in amazing shape. But after sixteen years, even under the best conditions, the pool needs to be recoated.

So we hired some guys to Diamond Brite the thing, and they did it beautifully (they also added cap tiles to the staircase, which looks awesome).

When they put that stuff on, they coat a few places (inside the drain, for example) inadvertently. And normally, it just falls off, breaks apart, and runs into the filter basket. This is all normal, on a small scale.

But a couple of large pieces got lodged in the drain, and then a bunch of crap got trapped against them, and then more crap got stuffed in there, and so on, until there was a huge, congealed pile of crap that filled the drain. And of course, the drain stopped draining. So the filter was running at half capacity, and worse, whenever I brushed the pool, the junk just got moved around, instead of getting sucked into the drain and then forced through the filter.

I swam down, used a screwdriver to loosen up the junk, pulled some of it out, swam up for a breath. And so on, again and again, until it was clear enough that I could see the chunks of Diamond Brite in there. I pulled them out, and viola! the drain started running like normal. I shoveled a bunch of the stuff that was all over the bottom of the pool through and then checked the first filter basket, and all of it was there. So everything was working like a charm.

Needless to say, fixing it was the highlight of the weekend, and I have high hopes that the pool will be crystal clear when I get home today.

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