Sunday, November 08, 2009

I’m still here

If you’re trying to find me, and you looked at this blog hoping for some updates, you’ve been disappointed. 

I’m still updating, even more frequently than before, but on Twitter. I’ve found the 140-char limitation there to be liberating, more in tune with the short snippets of attention that I typically can afford most updates.

That said, I have a lot to say, and Twitter is beginning to feel too short. I’m not sure exactly how to replace it, and I suspect this blog may be part of it, if I can figure out how to organize my thoughts in a way that make sense to have on a single web site.

It’s complicated, though, because of the many faces of me. If you’re looking for personal updates, Facebook’s a better medium.  If you want professional information, see me on LinkedIn. But where do I put the rest of me, the hodgepodge of interests I have in technology, Hayek, China, Mercer Island, and more?

I’m still waiting to figure that out. But meanwhile don’t go away.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cloakbox Catch

The verdict is in: I’m pretty happy with my Cloakbox VPN router.  I love being able to surf as though I’m on a computer in San Francisco or the UK.  I’ve used it in two places, a temporary residential hotel and now (finally) in my permanent apartment. In both cases I literally just plugged it into the internet tap and it worked.  I love to tinker with settings, so later I adjusted things for higher security (e.g. WPA Personal) and a fixed location (rather than letting Witopia decide).  I also fiddled with the built-in WDS settings to get it to work with another Linksys router.  Everything was easy.

But it’s not entirely free.

Here’s my internet speed without the Cloakbox:

Internet Speed Test

Here’s my speed with the Cloakbox:

Internet Speed Test

My internet connection is much slower.  I assume some of this is due to the overhead of VPN, with extra encryption information being sent with packet. But the biggest problem is that every single communication gets sent across the ocean and back (sometimes multiple times), producing a much higher latency (upwards of 400+ ms).  That’s painful, although I find communication services like Skype are still completely usable.  But still, that’s quite a speed and latency drop.

Fortunately, you can turn off the VPN functionality at any time, and I do, so on longer uploads/downloads when I don’t need to get around any firewalls or when security is less of a concern, I switch it off.  Unfortunately you need to reboot the router each time, which can take a minute or two.

Bottom line: Cloakbox does what I need it to do and I have been recommending it to all my friends. For $199, it’s an easy way to eliminate one of the biggest hassles of living in a regulated internet.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Testing the Cloakbox VPN router from Witopia

The internet is a chaotic place, where packets of information swim all over the world, ready to be scooped up, peered at, or blocked by anyone (or any government).  To be truly secure, and to own your own channel in that ocean of data, you need a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that encrypts everything and ensures that the rest of the internet will see only what you want them to see.  Companies operate VPNs all the time, but consumers have the same ability thanks to a plethora of services from companies like Witopia, who I chose for the VPN I set up this week at home.

The Witopia Cloakbox costs $199, a lot more than the $50 or so you’ll pay for a Linksys, but it includes one year of VPN service. On the outside it looks just like a regular Cisco Linksys router. In fact, the model number (WRT54GL) is the same as the Wireless-G router I’ve been using at home for years. Everything is so similar that at first I wondered if there’d been a mistake. The photos on the web site made me think the box would look distinctive somehow—maybe bright orange—but it’s not.

Setting up was trivial. I plugged it in and it just worked. I just substituted the plugs and cables from my previous router, and everything swapped over without change. Then I turned it on and it all worked.  The wireless features are disabled by default, but Witopia operates a Wiki site with easy-to-understand instructions for how to get that going, and I had my household wireless network running minutes after opening the box.

Upon starting up, I checked my IP address and (cool!) it thought I was in Kansas!  This is convenient because (1) it means I can access web sites (like iTunes) that restrict non-US users, and (2) any government-run site-blocking service won’t work because as far as the internet is concerned, I’m located in the United States.

Next, I checked my access speed. This was a little disappointing.  All that hopping around causes an exceptionally long ping time.  Here’s what my speed test shows when I run my computer using my regular (non-VPN) router from my home near Seattle:


And here’s what it looks like with the Cloakbox:


The results change slightly each time I run the test, but these were the best times I was able to get for each version.  As you can see, the Clockbox VPN gives me about 1Mbps slower download speed, and a much longer ping time (160-300ms versus 40-70).

Overall I’m very pleased at how easy it was to set up.  Although the speeds are slower, I think it will be manageable, and of course nothing can beat the convenience of being able to surf the internet securely and without restrictions.

But how well does it really work?  For that you’ll have to wait for future posts from this blog.  In a few days, I’ll be living in China, but if the internet thinks I’m in Kansas, you’ll know it’s working.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Break my back

Long ago, I used to make fun of people who complain of back or muscle problems. Lazy complainers I said. Then about seven or eight years ago I suffered the same thing and it was sooo awful that I swore I’d be much more careful with my musculo-skeletal system, and I became very sympathetic toward others who have similar problems.  When the pain hits, you can’t think about anything else and you really become handicapped.  Not fun.

Fortunately somehow I escaped further problems until now. While picking up my laptop the other day, I felt a sharp pain in my lower back and it basically has been there ever since.  It was bad enough that I’ve now gone back for several treatments with a chiropractor, Dr. Jeff Pardon from Mercer Island Chiropractic.


Jeff is extremely friendly and articulate, patiently explaining the ins and outs of the spinal system and its affect on health but I’m  never sure how much to trust the whole field of chiropractics.   Is it an art or a science?  I’m moving to China in a few weeks, so I can’t get on a treatment protocol for long-term relief anyway, and I’m not sure if anything will eliminate the risk of this pain happening again.  

Meanwhile I just have to be extra careful.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Switcher with second thoughts

I'm a veerrry long-time Mac user.  I had one of the first 128K Macs.  I dropped out of college for a while with some friends to develop one of the first Mac applications.  I  worked at Apple for 6 years.  So I am pretty excited about getting back to Macintosh, after having gone to Windows for the past ten years (after my company was bought by Microsoft).  But now that I'm in my second week as a Switcher, I'm frustrated.  The Mac just isn't as great (compared to Windows) as I had hoped it would be.

I'm using an old Macbook Pro with 2GB, so you can probably start by laying the blame on an older machine.  But here are some of my initial frustrations:

  • Macbook Pro keyboard and trackpad placement are poorly designed: my thumb has to travel very far to get to the mouse click.
  • The mouse seems more critical than on a PC, where nearly everything is easily available with keyboard shortcuts, which I miss. Where's the ALT key?
  • Video capture doesn't work out of the box. I plugged my camcorder into the firewire port but nothing happened. What's this about Final Cut?  Is it not standard on a MacBook Pro?
  • The battery is super hot.  I mean, I can't have it on my lap while I'm wearing shorts.  Ouch!
  • So many things are slooooww.  Safari seems to take forever to load pages, for example.  Maybe this is caused by the lack of RAM, but my Windows laptop is also 2GB.  Is the hard drive speed slow?

I should write up the list of things I like, because there are many of those things too.  I like the built-in video camera, and the super-cool geek factor of having a full-blown Unix machine at my fingertips.  I also love being able to set up my HP printer with absolutely no extra steps -- it just worked! There are no doubt many more things I'll prefer after having a few more weeks at this.  But in spite of a few nice things, I'm sorry that so far I haven't been blown away.  I guess you need to give me a few more weeks to play and ask me again which I prefer.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer Hail

It’s the Summer Solstice, longest day of the year, first day of summer and all that…and what do we get?


A hailstorm! The kids and I went for a leisurely bike ride to the new Mercer Island Farmers Market and this is what greeted us on the way home.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I’m a builder

I was devastated to read, in the latest Atlantic, that one of my favorite female writers, Sandra Tsing Loh, is divorcing.  In an excellent summary of several books she reads while reflecting on the topic, she includes this description of a new one by Helen Fisher.

Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type'>Why Him? Why Her? explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher posits that each of us gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality types:

The Explorer—the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.

The Builder—the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.

The Director—the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.

The Negotiator—the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.

Fisher reviewed personality data from 39,913 members of Explorers made up 26 percent of the sample, Builders 28.6 percent, Directors 16.3 percent, Negotiators 29.1 percent. While Explorers tend to be attracted to Explorers, and Builders tend to be attracted to Builders, Directors are attracted to Negotiators, and vice versa.

Although I love nothing more than cracking out the manuals to discover every feature of my new gadgets (and lord knows, I have a lot of testosterone)  I think I’m more of a Builder than a Director, the only other item on this list that seems to fit me.  I don’t go through friends quickly enough to say that I value “interesting” over “loyal”.  I mean, some of my best friends are people you probably think are pretty boring. 

What do you think?  Which are you?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Politics as entertainment

I know very little about Iran, other than the headlines I read in the mainstream US press. I bet you don't know much more than I do, though like me you are probably cheering for the "underdog" Mousavi to beat that awful Ahmadinejad. But if I reflect honestly, I have to admit that I don't really know what's best for Iran, or even the long-term interests of the United States. I cheer for one side because it's "my" side, and because a lot of people I like are on this side.

This is no different than why people cheer for a particular sports team. A Mariners fan doesn't care about baseball in any purely detached or objective sense. He wants his side to win because it's his side. Although you could imagine an objective standard of "Truth" about which team is ultimately the best, even the most well-informed sports nut -- the guy who can recite statistics all day -- is going to cheer for his team, not because it's the "best" but because it's "his". It's not about truth, it's about entertainment.

Most well-informed political junkies are the same: to them, politics is a form of entertainment. It's not about being "right", it's about cheering for and supporting one side, sometimes for no reason other than to oppose the competing side. Sure, they can recite facts and statistics -- they enjoy it! -- but press them on why, or about the truth of the matter, and it comes back to "because my side says so".

I think entertainment gets in the way of truth. Few of us have the time to dig into each policy decision in the kind of detail necessary to come to a real opinion, so it's nice to delegate our thinking to a political party. But combine that with the natural tendency of Type A people to dominate conversations, and we get cacophony. No real understanding, just a bunch of loudmouths who classify everything as either Republican or Democrat.

I'm trying to think of a good answer for the next time somebody asks me my political party. I find that the question itself is like asking my favorite baseball team: it's not about any serious discussion of Truth or the issues, it's about figuring out which (of presumably only two -- why is that?) team I'm cheering.

Libertarians aren't really a political party as much as a mindset. Ask what matters to me in the current situation with Iran and, without knowing any facts, I'll give you as reasonable an answer as is possible without a lot of research. But, like domestic political issues, why do I have to cheer for one side or another?

Friday, June 05, 2009

Moving to China

I’ve been a little quieter than normal online the past few months.  There were a bunch of changes happening at work that were keeping me busy and it just wasn’t appropriate to go into details until it was final. 

So here’s my news:  my family and I are moving to Beijing!  I’ve received a wonderful offer to work with Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit, which it turns out has an important office in China.  It’s not a localization office – it’s a true development org, responsible for many of the core components that go into Macintosh Office.  Specifically, I’ll be working on Mac Excel, which has me especially excited because it’s not only my favorite Office App, but it lets me dust off some of my Apple experience since I’ll be part of a team where everyone uses Macs pretty much exclusively.

Now that the decision has been made, I need to work very quickly on logistics.  Since we plan to be there at least two years, we’ve decided to sell our house (know anybody who wants a well-kept home on Mercer Island?)  We’ll have a big garage sale this weekend (tomorrow!) and then we’ll be selling our cars sometime in July (want to buy a great, slightly-used Prius?).  Meanwhile we have to get visas, do the packing, say goodbye, etc. etc. – it’s going to be a busy few months.

The kids are enrolling in an international school that starts in mid-August, so that’s our big deadline.  Now that the word is out, I hope to be much more active online (I’ll need lots of advice!), so please continue to follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog.  See you in China!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Fix your windshield for cheap

Several months ago I found myself behind a gravel truck on the freeway, and before I could maneuver out of the way a tiny pebble flipped onto my windshield and gave me a tiny crack.  It was just big enough to be annoying, but not big enough to justify replacing the entire windshield.  For several months I just lived with it, but it bothered me because I’ve heard that it weakens the glass and can cause more serious problems later if you don’t take care of it.

Fortunately I discovered that there are several cheap solutions, all covered by my auto insurance. will give you a summary of the options in your area, customized to your car make and model.  In my case, there weren’t any locations close enough to bother, but I found that my local Jiffy Lube will do it too, while I wait.

Although the cost is covered by insurance, I was apprehensive about fixing it. Wouldn’t they raise my rates? My insurance company (Amica) said they don’t.  Leaving it unrepaired exposes me to potentially more serious damage later, and besides, the cost to fix it is pretty minimal.

A professional auto glass place will charge everything to insurance, so it’s actually cheaper than Jiffy Lube, which makes me pay $5 as a convenience fee.  But finding an auto glass place and scheduling an appointment is too much hassle, so Jiffy Lube it was.  And it really was fast: they had the glass repaired and I was out of there in 15 minutes.

They don’t actually replace the windshield.  They basically just squirt some special glue into the crack to seal it and prevent further damage.  Although supposedly this makes the glass about as safe as a full replacement, you can still see evidence of a crack, so it’s not a perfect solution.

Here’s how it works: the technician first cleans the hole, by drilling it carefully.  Then he uses a special vise to “pull” the windshield glass in such a way that the crack opens enough to fill it thoroughly with the glue.



The glue is essentially a special transparent resin that seals the glass and prevents further damage.


You can’t use this process for cracks longer than 6 inches, but for marks like mine it seems just perfect.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sharpen your lawnmower blade

You’re supposed to do it once a season, but Consumer Reports says that 25% of owners never sharpen their lawnmower blades. I’m happy to report that I no longer fit in that lazy category, and found to my delight that it was easier than I thought.

First step was to pin the blade down in such a way that it wouldn’t harm me while taking it off the mower.  The directions say use a 2x4 board, but I didn’t have one handy, and I found that a brick works just fine.  In my case, a quick counter-clockwise turn of the main bolt was enough to remove the blade safely.

Sharpening a lawnmower blade.


How to sharpen the blade: I suppose I could have found my own sharpener (I hear you can buy a small $4 blade sharepner that works with any power drill for example) but that was too much hassle.  People say that local plant nurseries, or hardware stores will sharpen the blade (for free?) but after some calls to Lowes and Home Depot, I came up with nothing.  Eventually I discovered that our local equipment rental place (Eastside Rental, in Bellevue) would do it while I wait.  They charged an exorbitant $11, but it was worth it.

You should see how much better my lawn looks now!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Andy Raskin’s book tour at Queen Anne Bookshop

Andy Raskin and I first met in graduate school, where both of us were interested in Japan, and over the years we somehow keep bumping into each other, often in strange, coincidental ways.  There was the time, for example, when he wrote an article for Wired about the country of Tuvalu and WebTV Networks, which (unbeknownst to him) just so happened to be the company where I was working. 


A year ago, while in San Francisco for a press tour, my PR colleague and I found ourselves with some extra time in the middle of the day.  Knowing that Andy was a writer with ties to the high-tech world, I thought it might be nice to look him up so my colleague suggested we stop at the Apple Store downtown for a bit while I tried to find his contact info.  Of course, right at that moment, who should happen to walk into the Apple Store?  (this photo was taken that day)

He told me he was working on a new book, that he had just signed a contract with Penguin and would be writing about some experiences he’d had with Japan and the inventor of instant ramen (who had died a few years ago). 

Well I was pleased to hear that the book is now finished and that Andy will be in Seattle for a book signing at Queen Anne Bookshop on Tuesday, May 26th at 6:30. [iCal  or Google Calendar ]

Andy’s book, The Ramen King and I, looks very interesting, and has already hit the  San Francisco Best Seller list.  I can’t wait to see him and hear more.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Digital socialism = capitalism.

In the Jun 2009 issue of Wired, Kevin Kelly uses the loaded term "socialism" to describe how the fragmentation of everything is giving us access to more choice than ever before.  He admits to using a word with much cultural baggage, and it's not clear if by coining the phrase "digital socialism" the result will be to co-opt and re-define the popular meaning of the word, or if careless readers will simply think he's giving a nod of approval to a dangerous meme that of necessity is associated with coercion and top-down control.

Open Source founder and guru Richard Stallman reminds us of the two meanings of "free":  The first ("as in beer")  refers to not having to pay for something. But the second, which embodies the real power of the open internet, means liberty, the freedom to choose what you like, with no coercion from a government or supplier.  Traditional socialism offers a world that is free in the first sense ("free healthcare") but not in the second ("freedom to choose a non-government appointed supplier").  Capitalism, in the original Adam Smith sense, emphasizes the second (liberty) aspect of free. The Invisible Hand won't work unless you can freely choose your suppliers and customers.

Kevin Kelly's insight is that we are moving to a world where we can have both meanings of "free".  The best things in  what the Wired issue calls the "New New Economy" are free in both senses (e.g. Wikipedia, which lets you both access and modify freely without payment).  He calls it "digitial socialism", but he wants us to think of it as a third way that renders irrelevant the old debates about traditional capitalism and socialism.

But it isn't a third way.  What Kevin Kelly calls "digital socialism" is just plain old decentralized, Hayekian capitalism: zillions of independent, free actors whose individual self-motivated choices add up to something bigger than any of us. The real baggage of socialism, and the reason I think Kevin Kelly's term doesn't work, is that it relies on coercion by a third party (government) to make it work.  Capitalism and liberty are always tightly associated because neither can work without the other.  Socialism's "free as in beer" is always associated with a strong (government) Leviathan who can (by force if necessary) redistribute from one person to another.

In the digital world, where redistribution has no cost, Kevin Kelly thinks we can remove the coercive aspect of socialism.  Nobody forces you to contribute your Linux bug fixes or Youtube videos to the collective -- you give freely and selflessly, something he believes you would never do in a world motivated only by money.   But capitalism isn't about money, as  Adam Smith himself notes: "The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it."  If Kevin Kelly's digital socialism simply means we no longer need government to reduce the cost of acquiring things, then why not use the term that already describes a system that does exactly that:  capitalism.

update: Lawrence Lessig agrees,  disputing Kevin Kelly’s word choice.  Socialism requires coercion.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I (heart) technology

Heart CT
Originally uploaded by sprague
At my annual physical this week, my doctor suggested that I get a $99 CT Cardiac Score to find out how good my arteries really are. Rather than guess that my low cholesterol is keeping me safe from heart disease, why not find out for sure?

So this morning I went to Bellevue Medical Imaging and 15 minutes later walked out with this video. No needles, no yukky medicine, no poking. I just laid down (in my regular clothes) for a minute or two while they ran this donut-shaped CAT machine over my chest.
Getting a multi slice CT exam to painlessly measure calcium i... on Twitpic
I have no idea whether this is a good heart or not -- some expert will need to interpret it for me -- but you can't beat how easy it was.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Move over Mercer Island

The weather has finally changed enough that I can close my eyes and imagine it’s springtime, and that’s a good time to think about adjusting a bunch of things, including my blogs.  When I started years ago, this blog was a central place to keep my stuff.  Why post book reviews at Amazon, or restaurant opinions on Yelp, or advice about contractors at <fly-by-night websites> when it’s just easier to keep track of everything on my own site?  Plus, the engineer in me says if you want to understand the Web you need to jump in and do it yourself—don’t just read about it.   The downside of this is that my blog has tended to be a bit of a jungle: a little of this, a little of that, with no obvious theme or relevance to anybody but me.  (Even my mom doesn’t read me that much anymore).

So I’m switching to be a bit more thematical and that means focusing my posts in a way I didn’t in the past.  I didn’t expect that so many people would read me for the posts I made about Mercer Island.  I love it here, of course, but unless you do too it’s not going to be all that interesting.   Careful readers will note that I haven’t posted much about Mercer Island lately  because for the past several months I’ve been posting instead on a new site:  Go there if you want to read about local issues.  I may cross-post now and then, but generally speaking from now on will be more about general ideas that I find interesting and less about the wonderful place where I happen to live.

The nice thing about is that it’s open to posters besides me, so feel free to contribute yourself (email me if you want to learn how). 

By the way, if you want to get even more up-to-date MI information, you’ll want to follow Mercer Island on Twitter.  See you there!

Prius and Tulips in the Springtime.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The many faces of me

I’m a blog social media hobbiest.  I do this for fun, not for a living.  But as more people come on line, both friends and work-related colleagues, and as more people shift to online as their main source of information, I’m finding myself worried a lot more about my “brand” and how I appear online.  It’s enough to give me writer’s block. Here’s why:

Every one of us who uses online social networking can point to interesting and fulfilling experiences that wouldn't have happened otherwise, and we become evangelists for the cause. I think it's because any interesting person lives a complex, multi-dimensional life with at least the following faces:

  1. Locational [people who happen to be physically near you] neighbors, the mailman, your barista.
  2. Professional [how you make your living]: work colleagues, your boss; customers, others in your industry
  3. Situational [associated with a particular time or event in your life]: your college years, grad school, that summer you spent in a timeshare in the Hamptons
  4. Associational [organizations you belong to]: church or synagogue, service organizations like Rotary Club, the PTA.
  5. Beliefs [people who share opinions or beliefs about something]: religion, politics, superstitions
  6. Familial [immediate family and relatives] : brothers & sisters, uncles, ex-wife.

In the real world, these faces collide only occasionally, and when they do it can be an experience that ranges anywhere from wonderful to embarrassing.

In some cultures, these dimensions are marked with strict rules about clothing, use of eye contact, and even language. In Japanese for example, you literally change your vocabulary to suit the dimension you are in at a given moment, and it can be awkward -- even offensive -- to use certain styles of speech in an inappropriate situation. Even in English, we switch "speech registers" all the time: think about the words you use around your poker buddies versus the way you talk in a job interview.

Which of these is the real you?

Although we generally socialize with a given person based on only one of these dimensions, sometimes seeing little snippets of another dimension can make that person seem more alive and interesting. But go too far, expose too much of another dimension, and you've violated some rule that is awkward for you and your listeners.

Politics and religion are the easiest examples: what happens if your professional relationships find that you have a different (perhaps unpopular) opinion than they do? You are hopefully proud of your political or religious opinions, but express it too loudly among people who disagree (or who don’t understand) and it can be an unnecessary distraction.  Instead of being “that really smart guy who works hard and knows a lot about X”, you’ll be “That <member of minority group> who somehow knows about X”.  Even outside the obvious politics/religion examples, this can be true on lots of topics like health or even favorite movies and books.  Will it really help your “brand” if people know you like <such-and-such sappy musical group>?

A few weeks ago I heard a talk by Dalton Conley, sociologist at NYU and author of Elsewhere, U.S.A. who thinks the future might require us to meld these worlds into one. You will become a "hall of mirrors", with so many of your dimensions exposed that people simply won't be able to tell which of you is "real" except in context -- and we'll all just take it for granted that people are multi-dimensional.

Many of the “leaders” I know in marketing or management think they’ve solved this problem by ignoring their personal brand identity.  “I’m too important to be online” or “I make my team be online, so I don’t have to”.  But I think that’s dinosaur thinking.  You can’t understand the digital world if you don’t live in it yourself.  There are many faces of me, but I’m not going to figure this out unless I jump in.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How many books in your house?

We must have thousands of books in our house, on top of the hundreds (thousands?) we’ve donated to libraries and various book sales over the years.  But are we unusual?

from Hit & Run

The answer is surprisingly hard to find. Data from the 2000 National Survey on Childhood Health indicate an average of 83 children's books in white households (the corresponding numbers for black and Hispanic households were 41 and 33, respectively). I assume adults would tend to have more books than children (although maybe I'm wrong about that), in which case the average would be well above 100. In 2005, according to the Book Industry Study Group, 3.1 billion books were sold in the U.S., about 28 per household.

It’s tempting to dismiss the “average” American as a dumb TV-watching couch potato, but 28 books per household per year seems like a lot to me – even if there are a lot of non-readers out there.   Maybe the voracious readers out there are driving up the averages?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Meeting Online friends

Today was the first time I’d ever met Ken Camp and Sheryl Breuker.  For real, at least.  But I feel like Ive known them well for a long time, through Twitter and through their blogging.  Thanks to Google Latitude, I knew they were driving through the area this afternoon, so a few tweets later and we agreed to meet in person here at the Mercer Island Tully’s. 

There’s nothing like meeting an online person face to face for the first time. I can’t wait till the technology becomes ubiquitous enough that more of my friends are able to meet spontaneously this way.

One thing we talked about was my experience living in Japan years ago, where it seemed like I was constantly bumping into people I knew.  Of course it was easy to spot me back then, since I’m so much taller and just stick out in a crowd of Japanese people.  But I’m convinced that the same thing happens right now, wherever I am, but I just don’t know about it because we get lost in the crowd.  What happens in the future when technology makes that it possible to stick out of the crowd no matter where you are?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Twitter helps lazy people express themselves online

I think I finally understand the appeal of Twitter and why it’s making it harder and harder for me to get excited about blogging. 

For all the talk about how blogs have dumbed down the world’s discourse, the fact is that most of us take a certain amount of time before we post.  Much as I’d like to write more often, the process of creating something readable just takes too much effort, and it means I write only a fraction of the things I would write if I had more time.

But with Twitter’s 140 character limitation, I don’t worry about the time constraint.  I just whip something out:  very brief and very ephemeral.  Ultimately that’s the seductive appeal of Twitter: the short message FORCES me to set aside the universe of things I’d like to write and focus just on the things I CAN write in the here and now.

Plus, Twitter space is full of so much crap that, paradoxically, it makes me MORE LIKELY to write, since it feels like nobody will be taking it seriously anyway. 

That said, i do feel that Twitter is more of a fad than a permanent fixture of the future.  Ultimately it will have to be replaced by something a little more substantive, something more worth reading.  The signal to noise ratio on Twitter seems to be dropping over time and eventually I’ll seek out something with more staying power.  But for now I’m having a blast.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Better stay away from cocaine

A new study reported on the 23andme blog shows a link between cocaine-induced paranoia and the SNP rs9387522.  Turns out that I have the TT variation of this gene, which correlates with increased odds of cocaine-induced paranoia.

Guess I better stay away from cocaine.

I find this to be a problem with many (most?) of the conclusions I get from my 23andme results.  So far most of the actionable consequences of my genes tell me to avoid behavior that my mother taught me long ago was bad anyway.  Although I’m glad I took the test, and I eagerly look for a reason to recommend the test to others, so far I haven’t found many examples of why I think you should pay $300 to see your results.

No more Vitamin D shortage

Late last Summer at my annual physical, my doctor tested my Vitamin D levels and found that, like most residents of the Northwest, I was well below optimal—only 16.2 nl/ML in my case.  Since then, I began taking Vitamin D3 supplements to the tune of between 2000 and 4000 I.U. per day.  Basically, this means I pop two pills in the morning and another one or two in the evening.

Well, I’m happy to report that this week I had my levels tested again and I’m now up to a healthy  52.0 nl/ML.  Since the ideal range is between 32 and 100, I’m not going to bother increasing my dose.  By the way, although the test was covered by my insurance, the normal price for the test is $150 – outrageous!

I found that I was able to get good results by taking relatively cheap supplements purchased at Costco  for something like $10 for a bottle of 300 (on the left in this photo).  Lately I’ve been trying the drop version (on the right, below) which is about the same price but takes up less space.

Vitamin D pills

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, and knock on wood and all that, but I haven’t had any colds or flu or any other significant sickness since last summer.  We’ll see if that lasts, but I’m pretty convinced this is a good idea when you live in an area without much sunshine.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Write like me

I’ve hate handwriting. I’ve been using keyboards since I learned to write and my fingers just don’t want to use a pen. But there are too many occasions when people expect the “personal” touch of a handwritten document, so I couldn’t get out of it completely.  Until now.  Using the free font-generation software at, I have a whole collection of handwriting fonts that let me give a personalized touch to computer-generated greeting cards and other documents I used to have to break out the pen for.  I even made a “handwritten” CD label for a Valentines present.

The process couldn’t be simpler.  The site is completely free; you don’t even need to register.  Just print a one-sheet template (don’t bother printing the second page, unless you care about special foreign characters).  Scan it and upload to the site.  Double-check that it looks right, and download to your hard drive.  Presto – you have a font you can now use in any of your applications.  I made one for each member of the family.

Here’s mine:

Youfont sample

and here’s the same text “written” by my eleven-year-old:

Youfont sample

It can take a few tries to get it perfect.  You can see a few problems with vertical character placement on the above samples, for example.  But it’s waaay better than writer’s cramp.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Where are the Spragues?

I often run into people who, upon hearing my last name, ask if I’m related to so-and-so other Sprague they know.  Usually the answer is no.  Our family has been in the country since Pilgrim times, so it’s not a terribly rare name, and now there’s a new web site, Dynastree,  that shows name frequencies graphically and statistically. I typed in ‘Sprague” and found this:

  • There are about 30,000 of us spread across the U.S. 
  • We’re the 1210th most common name in the U.S.
Create your family tree at
Distribution of the surname Sprague
Distribution of the surname Sprague

Where does your name come from?

Unfortunately the map is deceptive, since it appears not to correct for the population of each state.  Since California and New York are the largest states, that means just about any name is likely to show red in those places.  Here’s what I got when I sorted to find the top ten states where the name ‘sprague’ is highly frequent.  “Common-ness” tells you how common the name is;  for example In Maine, we are the 175th most common name, even though there are only 507 of us there.

State Common-ness People
Maine 175 507
Vermont 248 157
Rhode Island 416 115
New Hampshire 438 195
Oregon 600 245
Michigan 602 369
Nevada 714 74
Washington 752 331
New York 783 833


The “common-ness” metric still isn’t perfect (I’d rather get a number like frequency per thousand), but it’s much closer to my experience, with many Spragues in the Northeast, and a surprising number in Oregon and Washington.  Here on Mercer Island, there’s only one family of us in the phone book, which feels about right.

I’m not sure I want a name that is super-common.  On the other hand, it would be nice not to have to remind people that we’re pronounced “SPRAYG"  (rhymes with vague) and not “SPRAHHHG” (like the linguistically unrelated city in the Czech Republic).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Chevy Suburban Drivers Get Fewest Tickets

Quality Planning, an auto insurance validator, did a survey of traffic violators that summarizes which types of cars get the most tickets. Leading the list is the Hummer, followed by various versions of the Scion.

I thought it was more interesting to look at the bottom of the list to see which types of drivers are the most careful:

MakeModelBody StyleViolations*
ChevroletC/K- 3500/2500Pickup28%
BuickPark AvenueSedan32%
GMCSierra C1500Pickup40%
*Violations/100,000 miles driven, expressed as percentage of average.

The Prius is not listed in the press release summary, so I assume it falls somewhere in the middle. But next time I see one of those huge Chevy Suburban-driving soccer moms driving too fast through my neighborhood, I guess I’ll take some comfort in knowing that statistically they’re safer than most others.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Do It Yourself Biology in Seattle

I finally was able to attend one of the DIYBio meetings this weekend, and now my mind is reeling from all the interesting possibilities I heard.  DIYBio is an organization of people who like to study and do amateur experiments in biology.  Like me, most of the members think state-of-the-art biotech is becoming more accessible to normal people and want to take advantage of it.

The meeting was organized by a guy who has set up his own private lab at an industrial building he rents for $250/month in a rundown part of Seattle.  He’s stocking the lab with used, but usable equipment he buys from eBay:  a $40 PCR machine, for example, plus incubators, reagents, centrifuges, and much more – all at very reasonable, amateur prices.

Here are some of the ideas for DIYBio:

  • “Bio Beer”, just like the real thing only with specially engineered properties to make it glow in the dark, or with built-in resveratrol  (the anti-oxidant that makes red wine so healthy).
  • Abalone shells: a substance so strong the US Army wants to use it as armor.
  • Biodiesel, made from specially-engineered high-fat algae.
  • Bacteria that eat polyethylene, making any plastic biodegradable.
  •, an organization that is making devices to let paraplegics walk.
  • Artificial meat: go after the $1M PETA prize for growing chicken breasts without chickens.
  • Personal genomics: learn more about – and maybe manipulate -- your own genetic code.

The concept reminds me of the original Homebrew Computer Club, from California, which I attended a few times myself before its own success caused it to peter out in the mid-1980s.  Just a bunch of amateurs, all with day jobs doing something else, but convinced that the plummeting prices of technology are making for a revolution that we want to join.


[flickr photo from dullhunk]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Worst economy since the Great Depression

From the Jan 13th issue of Time Magazine:

The slump is the longest, if not the deepest, since the Great Depression. Traumatized by layoffs that have cost more than 1.2 million jobs during the slump, U.S. consumers have fallen into their deepest funk in years. "Never in my adult life have I heard more deep- seated feelings of concern," says Howard Allen, retired chairman of Southern California Edison. "Many, many business leaders share this lack of confidence and recognize that we are in real economic trouble." Says University of Michigan economist Paul McCracken: "This is more than just a recession in the conventional sense. What has happened has put the fear of God into people."

(oops, forgot to mention the year: this article is from 1992, during what in retrospect turned out not to be much of a recession at all.) [via Marginal Revolution]

If you’re one of those who thinks President Obama is inheriting “the worst economy since the Great Depression”, please check out two years: 

1982 [via David Leonhardt in NYTimes]

The first big blow to the economy was the 1979 revolution in Iran, which sent oil prices skyrocketing. The bigger blow was a series of sharp interest-rate increases by the Federal Reserve, meant to snap inflation. Home sales plummeted. At their worst, they were 30 percent lower than they are even now (again, adjusted for population size). The industrial Midwest was hardest hit, and the term “Rust Belt” became ubiquitous. Many families fled south and west, helping to create the modern Sun Belt. Nationwide, the unemployment rate rose above 10 percent in 1982, compared with 7.2 percent last month.

and, of course, 1973.

I wouldn’t trade today’s situation for either of those two years, and not just because today’s economy is by comparison so much better. It’s impossible to know the future, so who knows and maybe things will get a lot worse. But meanwhile it’s important not to over-react based on over-dramatic headlines.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

American Creation [book]

We want to believe that the present is messier and more dangerous than the past. Why can't we live in a time with a Jefferson or an Adams or a Washington? Why are we stuck with Bush and Clinton (or as we'll soon see) Obama?

The idea behind this book is that things looked pretty messy at the time back then too.

A few examples

  • Thomas Jefferson was despised as someone intensely political, but apparently unaware of his backstabbing ways. He teamed up regularly with James Madison and founded the first opposition party -- all while insisting he didn't believe in political parties.
  • Valley Forge was the low point of American history, with many soldiers dying and almost no hope of victory. Hope only arrived, in fact, during the early Spring with news that France was now supporting them.
  • If there ever was a chance to achieve a morally good ending to the colonists interactions with native Americans, the Creek Indian chief Alexander McGillivray was probably it. The guy was half-white, well-educated, commanded a large and well-organized nation, and signed an equal treaty with George Washington and the new American government in the early 1790s. But unfortunately he was also what today we would call a corrupt warlord, who double-crossed the Americans and died at age 34 of alcoholism.

Ellis' big idea is that the real innovation of the American Founders was to stumble upon a system of government that, instead of resolving differences permanently, provided a framework for on-going discussion and experimentation with government. Unlike other places, America became a place where it was okay to be in opposition.

Although I liked the main theme, I thought the book could have used more organization. It flows more like a series of unrelated essays. A better book is Ellis' earlier Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Steven Pinker on Personal Genomics

The Jan 11th edition of the New York Times Magazine has a cover story by my favorite thinker describing his experiences with genome testing, and he finds the same lack of satisfaction that I have.  He coins the term “Geno’s Paradox”, to describe how with genomics it seems that the more you know the less you know.  My experience with the 23andme test is that yes, I’m glad I tested myself, but what did I really learn?  Like Pinker, I find myself using my knowledge of myself to make sense of the test results, rather than the other way around.

Some interesting takeaways from the essay:

  • He didn’t have the guts to test himself for Alzheimer’s.  [unlike me]
  • Although he has the bitterness receptor (unlike me], he still enjoys brocolli and beer.  So what good does the gene do?
  • He’s a libertarian! [like me]
  • The company Counsyl specializes in pre-natal genetic testing, a good idea before you have kids.

He doesn’t use the Taleb term “narrative fallacy”, but that’s what he means when describing the need that people have to explain why they turned out the way they did—even if it’s untrue.

some good quotes:

The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: “The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.” By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar.

[this is obvious to anyone who has children]

Although Pinker is clearly doubtful about the short-term promise of genetics testing, I actually think the situation is even more complicated.  What if much of our “environment” is determined by all those genes from the bacteria inside our bodies, some of which are inherited, some of which just arrives through whatever accidents life presents us.  In that case we’d have something with a genetic component (bacterial genes) combined with an environmental one (how we picked up the bug).  How in the world would you ever be able to analyze that amount of complexity?   But like he says:

Personal genomics is here to stay... People who have grown up with the democratization of information will not tolerate paternalistic regulations that keep them from their own genomes…There are risks of misunderstandings, but there are also risks in much of the flimflam we tolerate in alternative medicine, and in the hunches and folklore that many doctors prefer to evidence-based medicine. And besides, personal genomics is just too much fun.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It’s Twitter’s Turn

Every great new social phenomenon has a "fad" phase, where zillions of people join in because, well, because zillions of others are joining. A few years ago I suddenly reunited with my old friends at Apple Japan because suddenly it seemed like they all were on Orkut. That died down after a few months, and then (with Japan) it was Mixi, and a little later it resurfaced at Facebook. Now the same thing is happening on Twitter. It's fun! Every day somebody new is "following" me, and I hear snippets of updates in the lives of people who I enjoyed working closely with but for various reasons have moved on to other things and I don't keep up with as much as I wish I could.

Part of the fun is the newness of it all.  You reconnect with old friends who, unfortunately, life hasn’t permitted an easy way to stay in touch with.  And along the way you run into brand new people who are interesting and suddenly become

But we are all limited by a fundamental problem that humans can only develop so many relationships at a time.  People living in the wild usually travel in bands of 50 or so, with 150 being roughly the maximum size of the extended “band”.  Your “nation” may consist of a few hundred more than that, but it’s just not possible to be close to too many people, not at one time. Whatever you do on Twitter comes at the expense of what you do on Facebook and ultimately what you do in real life.  I’m a technology fan, so I don’t mind these other media having as much play as the real world, but still, I can only be in a few places at one time.

I’m not sure how long the Twitter phenomenon will last.  To me, it’s a basically a huge, open version of IRC or Instant Messenger—things that have been around forever and were looking for something like Twitter to take it to the next level.  I’m wondering when the commercials will hit it—you see hints of it already—and you start getting distracted from your friends by all the compelling and professionally-created content (like real-time news updates).

But meanwhile, go ahead and follow me:  I’m there now, running Thwirl and Tweetdeck, having the time of my life sending and receiving 140-character updates to great friends I haven’t seen in ages.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

My blog graphically



Graphical view of my blog

What do the colors mean?

  • blue: for links (the A tag)
  • red: for tables (TABLE, TR and TD tags)
  • green: for the DIV tag
  • violet: for images (the IMG tag)
  • yellow: for forms (FORM, INPUT, TEXTAREA, SELECT and OPTION tags)
  • orange: for linebreaks and blockquotes (BR, P, and BLOCKQUOTE tags)
  • black: the HTML tag, the root node
  • gray: all other tags