Chico Wildflower / Mildflower

My introduction to distance biking happened Sunday on the 31st annual Chico Wildflower Ride, though I actually did the 65-mile “Mildflower” loop rather than the full 100-mile Wildflower. But given that my previous longest ride had been 40 miles around Wildcat Canyon, it was vigorous enough for starters (though not as intense as I had imagined it would be). I had blown it up in my head, thinking it would be one of the most physically challenging experiences of my life – but once you get into a rhythm, the miles fly by quickly.


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Wildcat Canyon Fail

Attempt to find a 25-mile route all the way around Wildcat Canyon pretty much failed. Turned from San Pablo Dam Road onto 24 West, then signs said I had to exit the freeway. No where to go, totally stuck. So ventured onto EBMUD land and ended up hiking with the bike three miles up a muddy path, pushing the bike. Road bike brakes got totally clogged with mud, had to take the wheel off and clean them out by hand at home. Has anyone done this? How the heck are you supposed to complete the circuit cleanly?

Building LED Flashlights in Altoids Tins

I spent a couple of hours with my son’s fourth/fifth grade classroom today, teaching them to build LED flashlights in Altoids tins. This project was both simpler and more complicated than last year’s Bristlebots project – fewer parts to manage, but we went deeper into electrical and electronics concepts. The students learned about voltage, insulators, conductors, circuit load, diodes, polarity, and various types of switches. And had a great time! Every single kid finished with a working flashlight. Some even enjoyed the process so much they stayed after school to build a second one.

I started with this recipe from Instructables.com, but modified it a bit (we used a single LED and battery to reduce wiring and to eliminate the need for resistors, though we did talk about resistance).

One of the biggest challenges for me was figuring out how to drill clean holes in aluminum – every attempt with a punch or standard drill bit resulted in sharp, ragged, non-round holes. Finally figured out that what I needed was a “graduated” drill bit. Happily, I found one from the 1940s in a toolchest that I had inherited from my grandfather. So not only was the bit we used ~70 years old, but I later learned that my grandfather made all his own bits! He would have been proud to see us using his tools this way.

Sorry I didn’t get more photos of the process – no shots here of drilling or soldering, or of the kids playing with their finished flashlights in a dimmed room,  but was bit busy…

View the Flickr set with captions, or check the slideshow version below.

Photo365 2011

On January 1 2011, I made a commitment to take at least one photograph every day of that year. Now, 365 days later, I can proudly say that I’ve actually accomplished a New Year’s resolution for once. And despite my trepidation at the start of the year, it wasn’t a chore at all,  never grew tiresome. In fact, the process became an obsession. As the year progressed, I found my habits changing. Rather than photographs “leaping out at me,” realized I was learning to scan the environment subconsciously, always on the lookout for “that moment.” And I developed a Pavlovian response to that little time window after getting the kid into bed – time to study the day’s images, delete the duds, and upload the pick.

Yeah, there were days when the busy-ness or the same-ness of everyday life made it hard, and yes, some shots are weaker than others. But seldom felt like I had to cop out and just shoot for the sake of the project – there’s always something out there waiting to be found. Other days, had the opposite problem, where selecting just one out of many possibles was the real challenge. Definitely feel like the first 100 images are so are weaker than the later ones – felt my eye improving as the year progressed.

Only regret is that I was using Instragram heavily in the first few months, and Instagram leaves you with low-rez originals (or at least it used to). Over time realized  I was almost always better off shooting with the phone’s native camera app, and filtering/processing later with Analog, FX Studio, or Photoshop if I thought the image needed a little goose.

Check out the Flickr set to see the images with captions, or click the grid below for the slideshow (go full-screen!).

Many thanks to Richard Koci-Hernandez for the inspiration – I wouldn’t have gone for it if not for him and his bottomless inspiration. Enjoyed the process so much that I’m planning to do it again in 2012.

A Decade at the Berkeley J-School

In November of 2001, after working for several years as a freelance technology writer, I took a job as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. I was led to a humble wooden desk in a converted boiler room, half-underground. Light poured in from a door open on to nearby Soul Road, and the sound of students yammering about engineering problems over cell phones filled the air.  Had no idea at the time that I’d be sitting at that desk for the next ten years, or that it was about to become one of the richest, most interesting periods of my life.

After a decade in that position, I’m about to move on, with extremely mixed feelings, and will be taking a job as web developer with campus’ central Educational Technology Services (ETS) department later this week. Before I go, wanted to spend a few words digesting my years at the J-School and Knight Digital Media Center.

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Couples Sharing Email Addresses

Doing tech support for an elementary school, I’ve recently discovered something I’d never seen in my 20 years of technology experience: There are a small percentage of couples/partners who share an email address between them, or even have a single email address for the whole family. When I first encountered this, I was sure there must be some mistake, but when I Googled for more on the phenomenon, I found other mentions of the practice.

In most cases, it seems people do this for one of two reasons:

1) People tend to see an email account like the family telephone land line, or like a shared bank account
2) One person in the couple is “not technology savvy” and it’s just easier for one person to manage the email

I have a few thoughts on this:

First, an email address is a unique identity in the modern world, not a shared bucket. Email is not like a telephone line or a shared bank account. You might receive a few calls a day on your family phone, but individuals often receive 100+ emails per day. The volume of email we all have to manage would seem to make sharing an account non-viable from a simple housekeeping perspective.

Secondly, when people write an email, they have a reasonable expectation of reaching an individual on the other end. I’m going to write an email very differently to a couple sharing an address than I would to an individual. If I don’t know in advance that it’s a shared account, that’s not fair to the writer, who naturally assumes that one email equals one person.

Thirdly, to share an email account makes it seem like two people talk with the same mouth. When I’m reading a message, I don’t have any clue who’s actually talking unless it’s personally signed at the end (and emails are often not). Again, this is frustrating for the recipient.

More importantly, we all have dozens if not hundreds of accounts on systems all over the web today. From Facebook to our online banking to stores to school intranets to reading clubs, many if not most of these systems tie accounts to email addresses. If two people share an email account, then many systems cannot manage their individual identities. Let’s take the example of a school intranet that tracks things like contact information, family jobs, individual board positions, photographs, etc. It may also be the case that that system sends email to individuals that have certain responsibilities in the school. The school can reasonably expect that people who are privileged to see that mail are not sharing those private messages with others. It’s reasonable to expect that each parent in that school has their own email address.

Finally, there’s basic privacy / politeness. I’m curious – if you share an email account, do you also open one another’s paper mail?

How To Create Individual Email Accounts

It’s trivially easy for each member of a family to have their own email account, and the basic expectations of privacy that go along with it.

The best/easiest way is simply to create free accounts at webmail providers like gmail.com or mail.yahoo.com or similar. Then all you have to do is log the browser into one account or the other.

If you prefer to use email on your ISP’s domain (such as comcast.net or pacbell.net), be aware that almost all ISPs let you create lots of email accounts for no additional charge. Just log in to their site and find their Mail Help center. However, you’ll have a much better experience on GMail than you will on your ISP’s mail system – there really is no good reason to use an email address attached to your ISP. What happens when you switch to another ISP? You don’t want your email to have to change along with it!

If you prefer to use a desktop email client on Mac or Windows like Apple Mail, Entourage, Outlook, Thunderbird etc., you’ll want to have multiple logins on that desktop computer. That way each family member has their own desktop, their own documents, their own bookmarks, their own email, etc. If you’re not doing that already, take the time to give every family member their own login, then set up your desktop mail accounts from within those respective logins.

Digital Literacy

Managing an email account is the cornerstone of basic digital literacy in the modern world. Not to be brusque, but that partner who is “not technologically savvy” needs to at least rise to the level of being able to send and receive email. An adult not being able to do email in 2011 is excluding themselves from the modern world in a way that just doesn’t / can’t work any more. If you want to go all the way off the grid, OK, but if you’re going to live in modern society, you need to be able to do your email, period.

Bamboo Bike – Renovo Pandurban

Back in January 2010, I donated my old Gary Fisher mountain bike to the Peace Corps in Africa and took a leap for my next ride – decided to buy a custom-built bike from a small shop in Portland called Renovo, who specialize in wooden and bamboo bikes (laminated, not raw bamboo stalk like some other bike makers do). Renovo sent me a body measurement chart and the wife diligently took to me with a tape measure, so the resulting frame and parts would be dialed in perfectly for my dimensions.

Renovo builds some incredible stuff – every one of their bikes, from road bikes to mountain bikes to commuters, is a work of art, made with love and incredible craftsmanship. These guys know what they’re doing – in a former life, the Renovo guys were building wooden airplanes.
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Loose Notes from Djangocon 2010

It’s been inspiring to watch the growth of the Django developer community, and the increasing traction the platform is getting from high-profile sites. NASA, The Onion, Washington Post, Mozilla, PBS, and many other prominent organizations are discovering the power of deploying on a pure Python framework, rather than on an opinionated CMS written in PHP that gets in your way as much as it helps. I was lucky to attend the first Djangocon at Google headquarters a couple of years ago, and lucky again to be able to attend the conference in Portland, OR this year.

Three solid days of panels on topics ran the gamut from low-level detail-oriented sessions like tips on working with forms to high-level recommendations from experts on things like scaling to high-traffic situations, automating the deployment process, and what could be done better. As with any conference, 3/4 of the value is in the panels, and the other 1/4 is in the networking – meeting and talking with people working with the same toolchains, exchanging tips and helping one another. I learned a ton this year. There were surprises, too – from everyone getting their own pony in their shwag bag  to the visit from Oregon congressman David Wu, to the realization that I wasn’t the most junior developer in the room, to the discovery that you could get full to the point of bursting at a vegan restaurant.

About that pony: It all started during a discussion on what features should go into the next version of Django, when someone said “I want a pony!” The feature under discussion was delivered, and the person got their pony. That led to the creation of playful sites like djangopony.com and My Little Django. Hilarious at the time, but honestly, I think the meme has played itself out, and may have just jumped the shark with everyone getting their own pony this year. I love the pony, and I love my new Pinky Pie, but I’m ready for the meme to go away now.

While most sessions were highly technical, one of the highlights was the keynote presentation by Eric Florenzano of the Djangodose podcast, “Why Django Sucks (And How We Can Fix It).” video | slides . The talk generated some controversy, but that’s healthy and good. The talk was refreshing for its honesty and forthcoming with actual solution proposals on most points. Django appeals to enterprise in part because it takes a conservative approach toward change, but the atmosphere of the platform must remain on its toes to stay competitive and forward-thinking.

Newly launched: whydjango.com – to become a collection of case studies explaining why Django is a good fit for organizations and enterprises. I plan to submit case studies for the Graduate School of Journalism and the Knight Digital Media Center soon.

Took copious notes at most of the sessions, but have only edited them lightly – apologies for typos and incomplete sentences. And sorry this is so long! (I didn’t have time to make it shorter). Downloadable slides from many of the talks are available here. And of course I only attended half of the sessions by definition. Full list of sessions here. Want to watch the whole thing? Videos of the sessions are already up!

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Bristlebot

Saw instructions for a giant bristlebot in this morning’s Instructables newsletter and immediately knew I wanted to build one with Miles. Then realized the smaller versions – based on a simple toothbrush head – were even more do-able. Decided on this improved version with antennae to help it resist falls and to bounce off walls and objects.

IMG_6068

Parts needed:

  • Toothbrush head – with flat, not curved bristles
  • Button cell battery
  • Small vibrating motor from a pager or cellphone
  • Double-sided adhesive foam tape
  • Nails
  • Possibly a soldering iron

Radio Shack, unfortunately, doesn’t stock vibrating motors. Nor will they give you old/returned cell phones to pull apart to pull the vibrators out of – they’re all in a database, destined no doubt for China where they’ll be pulled apart by underpaid workers in toxic waste dumps. They did, however, give us a couple of flat batteries with a bit of charge left in them. Headed for MetroPCS to see if they’d give us an old phone to tear apart. Nope, same story. But a guy in line heard us, and offered to sell us his old one for $5. Bingo!

We were able to pull the vibrating motor out just in a few minutes. But it had no leads – I was going to have to solder some onto the two bare contacts. Hacksaw and sandpaper worked perfectly on the toothbrush head. Everything came together pretty easily per the Instructables instructions. We were amazed – our bristlebot worked WAY better than expected! Totally scoots along. Turns out the key to getting it to go straight and not in circles is to really bend those bristles back, so that they store and release energy in a forward direction.

Bristlebot

Unfortunately, not everything went exactly to plan. I plugged in the soldering iron to warm up on a high-ish shelf while Miles was in another room playing with the cell phone leftovers. I went to the garage for a couple of minutes, then heard him crying loudly — he had wandered in, seen the electrical cord, gotten curious, and picked it up just to see what it was. Got burned pretty badly on his thumb and forefinger. Long period of tears, ice, ibuprofen, burn cream, and of course, ice cream. And of me feeling like a total bad dad for not warning him about it. I assumed he wouldn’t be in that room, and assumed he wouldn’t see if it he did come in. And got bitten by my assumptions. Felt horrible for the little guy. He’s doing OK, and we had a gas playing with the bristlebot at the dinner table.

Spectacles

Thanks to everyone who took the time to vote or offer advice about my first pair of glasses. To be honest, the process was a bit of a rush job, because I wanted to have them in time for SXSW. Not that I like to rush decisions like this, but my distance vision was blurring out fast, and I knew I’d be spending a lot of time in big halls looking at far-away projection screens. In the end, I’m glad I did. I had no idea just how blurry my vision had gotten until I was able to A/B them in a real-world setting. I think I honestly thought that projection screens were inherently blurry – classic “boiling frog” situation.

As for the for the frame choice, it was tough – it really was. There were a lot of options I would have been happy with. But in the end, I defer most aesthetic decisions regarding my person to my wife, who knows these things. Her choice matched the choice of an artist friend of hers whose taste I also trust, and to be honest,  this was the one pair that just felt right from the first moment I put them on.

It’s not all peaches and cream though – it’s been a mixed experience. Distance is fantastic. But these are bifocals, and that part isn’t cutting it. The close-range reading thing doesn’t focus until the very, very bottom of the lens, and then I have to tip my head way back to make it work. I’d rather just hold the page farther away than deal with that. And at the computer, where I spend most of my working hours, things are in way better focus with them off than on. So I’ll have to make a return visit to see about working stuff out.

I have a new-found respect and sympathy to everyone who’s dealt with glasses all their lives. I never really stopped to think what a pain in the neck this whole glasses thing is, or just how lucky I was. Ah well, I’m here now. Age stinks.