I believe in a world without soap

On the gadget blog Boing Boing the other day I read the strangest post, about living a lifestyle free of soap. The author claimed that he had gone on a year without using any soap or shampoo while bathing, although he still washes his hands and uses deodorant. He claims that going without soap has left him smelling better, with clearer skin and softer hair, than ever before.

The argument basically goes that our bodies have evolved naturally to keep themselves clean, with various excreted oils and such, and washing with hot water only and perhaps some scrubbing is sufficient for cleanliness.

I tried it for a few days. Meghan didn’t notice anything was amiss (or at least didn’t say anything to me), so I guess it was going okay, but I just didn’t feel clean, especially my hair, which was getting sort of greasy. Furthermore, it just doesn’t seem sustainable after activities like skiing, sports, and hiking that can leave one covered with dust, grime, and occasionally blood.

That said, it wasn’t until day 3 (when I gave up on the whole endeavor) that something completely obvious and self-evident occured to me that I had completely forgotten — I haven’t used soap for over a decade, and I’m doing fine.

Wait, don’t run away, let me finish.

I used to have very dry, irritable skin. I always felt like there was a film all over my body. Whenever I got sweaty I got itchy and uncomfortable. I couldn’t stand salt water or chlorinated water. I tried various products and lotions recommended by friends and doctors, until I went to a dermatologist who gave me the advice to just stop using soap. Use shampoo, he said, for areas that are hairy, and just use water and a scrubbing towel on the rest of your body.

That’s what I’ve been doing since high school. I may use a bit more shampoo, a bit more widely spread, when I am feeling particularily dirty, but I don’t really use soap, except of course for hand washing, where I use the foamy stuff. As as result I feel much more comfortable in my skin and while I still don’t love salty or chlorinated water, I have been able to enjoy swimming and the beach, as well as other outdoor sweaty activities that used to make me squirm.

We live in a society that is half over-sharing and half squeamish, and I’m sure my cleanliness habits may make others a bit uncomfortable, but I just think it is interesting. Not using soap has become so basic to me, and so ingrained, that I had completely forgotten I was even doing it. And so far no one has told me I smell too bad.

Hello, world

2011. It’s been a bit dormant around here for a while. No apologies — I resolved long ago not to apologize for a lack of blog posts. But, even as “social media” (primarily Facebook and Twitter) have made personal blogging somewhat obsolete, I think the time has come to reopen this here blog-o-book, because I have Things To Say, if not for anyone particularly interested at the moment, at least for posterity.

At the Tumbridge Vermont fair

So much has happened! A new job, over at this company called EnerNOC. I had to agree, as a condition of employment, to not publish anything that might be construed by anyone as potentially libelous, defamatory, or the least bit hurtful to the company, and furthermore that the company had sole authority over what met that standard, and even further than that, that I would be personally liable well beyond my entire net worth for the real or perceived damages caused by any supposedly negative information I’d theoretically spread about the company, and that I had no recourse to lawsuit or mediation.

Needless to say, blogging about work at EnerNOC will be even more minimal than it was when I worked at Harvard FAS-IT. But I’ll try not to let that discourage me from sharing generalities about technologies I’m working with and interesting things I’m doing and general thoughts on my new corporate life.

Sold the condo. Moving out of the city. It’s a process, a surprisingly long process.

Got engaged. As part of said engagement, seem to have gotten adopted into a whole second family, a really big one to boot. That’s pretty cool.

Growing up fast.

Chasing butterflies in North Carolina

I’ve been having a lot of aches and pains lately. I have been half-jokingly blaming them on getting old (an ancient 27, I am), but it occurred to me today that they are probably actually related to leaving Harvard. In addition to the abundant sunlight that I now lack, being stuck at the back of a cube farm rather than in a nice office, I also no longer get to have a standing desk, so I sit like a schlub all day. And I no longer have a nice track and pool nearby for free, nor do I have the work companions who used to force me to use aforementioned amenities, and pushed me to run longer and swim harder than I might have on my own. I really miss that, and I really miss Mike, JaZahn, and Francisco, in addition to my other old coworkers.

As much as I hate the idea, and as cliché as it is, I guess my new year’s resolution is actually going to be to join a gym. There are no good lap pools in downtown Boston; I’ve conducted a rather extensive online survey. The only solution seems to be the old treadmill. I loathe exercising by standing still. But if I find an above-ground gym, at least I might get some natural light during my lunch breaks.

Stay tuned to this same blog channel for future updates to include:

  • Details of home sale
  • Details of engagement
  • Photos of things
  • Geeky stuff that grandma won’t understand

That ought to keep you coming back! Bye for now.

What would make the Amazon Kindle perfect…

…is if I could buy a real physical book and get a free Kindle “license” to go with it. I’d be willing to pay a few bucks more for the privilege — I’d probably even be willing to buy the hardcover instead of waiting for a paperback.

If I could buy a real physical book to put on my shelf and keep and turn the pages of and touch and smell and bookmark and lend, but also get a code that would give me the convenience of reading the same text on one or more of my various mobile devices, then I’d be happy.

We can purchase a music CD or a movie DVD in physical form and make or receive a digital copy to take with us on our many devices. Why not a book? Why must we give up the essential “bookishness” of the thing in order to have convenience? Why must we pay twice to get a real book and an inferior digital edition?

I’m using my Kindle to read magazines and long-form articles from the web (via Instapaper), and I do grab the occasional public domain book or inexpensive Kindle edition of a commercial book, but every time I purchase a book for Kindle I feel bad about it. I want to read Cormac McCarthy on the subway, and I also want him safe on my bookshelf. I’m willing to accept the limitations of the “license” on a Kindle edition if I can still have a real edition to do with as I please. The publishers wouldn’t be losing sales, they would be gaining them.

Some may think that books are dying, just like physical discs for music and movies. I disagree. But even if they are, look at the new surge in vinyl record sales for evidence that people will pay more for the experience they want.

I learn something new every day about intellectual property

I had some trouble registering my Panera loyalty card, so I emailed their customer support. After a bit of back and forth I received the message below. For explanation, I own the domain name mindwire.org. When I sign up for accounts on web sites, I put in an email address of the form “www.website.com@mindwire.org”. This allows me to track where my email is coming from, since all messages to @mindwire.org come to me. This is a remarkably effective method of revealing how spammers get my email address, and blocking the offending address. This format has never been a problem before now…

Hello again Danny,
We’re sorry, but you cannot use the address members.mypanera.com@mindwire.org.

MyPanera is a trademark owned by Panera and you are not authorized to incorporate it into your e-mail address. Please cancel that e-mail address. Once you have retrieved your username and password, you can enter a new non-infringing address if you want by using the My Account/Edit My Info selection.

In the meantime, we are using [OMITTED] for your MyPanera account, the address from which you replied to my previous email. You will be able to retrieve your username/password using your [OMITTED] address.

Again, we’re sorry if this disappoints you, but we take the matter of trademarks seriously.

From the archives: an interview with Ralph Silverman

I wrote the following for a school assignment in 1996, when I was 12 years old. Grandpa died two days ago at the age of 87.

My grandfather has had a very eventful and wonderful life. He is the only member in his generation of his family to go through college. My grandfather also served in the military for two years and started his own business, which has been in operation for the last thirty-six years. His life has been very rewarding to not only himself but also to all of those who were influenced by him.

My grandfather is a wonderful and caring person who leaves a distinct impression on whoever he meets. I have told his story here, as best I can perceive it from two interviews. I know that if he was the one writing it, however, this story would be very different. I have highlighted the main events in his life as best I know them. Of course, I cannot get into his innermost thoughts and cannot show key incidents in great detail, since I was not actually there, but I know that from reading this paper you will understand a part of my grandpa.

Continue reading “From the archives: an interview with Ralph Silverman”

Relatively Fit

I was under the illusion that I am fit: I do half hour lunchtime swimming or running workouts a few days a week, and go on the occasional day hike or kayak trip or bike ride on weekends.

Half an hour on the frisbee field this afternoon kicked my butt. I haven’t played Ultimate in a while now, and after thirty minutes in the heat I was wiped out. I’m trying to decide whether this should be discouraging — I’m woefully out of shape and don’t know where I’ll find the time to do the sort of work necessary to become competitive; or encouraging — I can work to build up my speed and stamina and go back to playing a game I really enjoy.

With summer almost over, though, I’m leaning towards the first option. Especially since a lot of the people playing seem to have naturally a level of fitness I can never hope to achieve by effort.

Everything’s Ducky

I am home. Nine days of transit and vacation filled constantly with the frenetic energy of children. At home, once the cat has settled down, I am greeted with a deafening silence. I turn on WBUR and listen to the sound of people talking — some sort of interview about cows. Better than nothing.

The television was almost never on. There were no radios. There were many iPods, all set to shuffle. I kept up with the news of the world and my various internet feeds via my iPad. None of it seemed particularily important, none of it moved me. The only thing I felt the need to check in on daily was the comics.

There wasn’t much of a plan, aside from go to the beach now or go to the beach later. We sailed in the sound. A kayak ended up in a swimming pool. Lacking a volleyball, we used an enormous beach ball as a surprisingly effective substitute. I played RISK for the first time. I won at RISK for the first time. We made tacos, and the kids were enthralled. Near the end of the week, the jellyfish invaded.

Lighthouse

I’ve generally been of the opinion that one should spend one’s — that is, my — limited vacation time exploring new places or doing new things. I’m not rushing to do everything, moving too fast to take anything in; at the same time, I don’t want to waste time doing nothing. This vacation was an interesting combination: North Carolina’s Outer Banks are new to me, but the beach is very familiar. There was no set schedule, but there were some clear goals.

Continue reading “Everything’s Ducky”

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Why I Hate Apple’s MobileMe Sync Service

MobileMe duplicated this calendar entry over 500 times
I am trying to figure out how to get my calendar back. I have data going back to 1997, and now everything is corrupted. Some events are duplicated over five hundred times. When an event with an alarm goes off on my iPad, it won’t let me get back to what I want to do until I acknowledge the alarm. Five hundred times. I’m not sure how this compares to water boarding, but it sure seems to qualify as an enhanced interrogation technique.

Defending food, eschewing substances

After reading In Defense of Food I have been trying, with some success, to follow the Pollan approach to eating, focusing more on fresh fruits and vegetables, cutting back on meat, and avoiding most processed food-like substances, especially products that make elaborate health claims on their packaging.

I do feel better about what I am eating, in part because rather than treat this solely as a health exercise, I have framed it as a competition — me vs. the agro-giants that are out to ruin my health. If you start thinking of Kraft, Nestle, and all the other huge food conglomerates as evil corporations more concerned with their profits than the fact that they are increasing juvenile diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, it is a lot easier to avoid their products. Since said products are custom-engineered to trick your taste buds into thinking they are good for you, the mind-over-matter approach is important to avoiding them.

Articles like this recent one in the Times about salt content are especially effective, at least for me, in engendering loathing and disgust towards packaged foods:

The power that salt holds over processed foods can be seen in an American snack icon, the Cheez-It.

At the company’s laboratories in Battle Creek, Mich., a Kellogg vice president and food scientist, John Kepplinger, ticked off the ways salt makes its little square cracker work.

Salt sprinkled on top gives the tongue a quick buzz. More salt in the cheese adds crunch. Still more in the dough blocks the tang that develops during fermentation. In all, a generous cup of Cheez-Its delivers one-third of the daily amount of sodium recommended for most Americans.

As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

I think the point here is less about the specific problem (excess salt) and more about what that salt is covering up — the true essence of the food we are scarfing down, a sticky, gray, medicinal extruded corn mash.

I don’t agree with everything Pollan says, and In Defense of Food is less footnoted than I would like. In particular, he is widely critical of food science and nutritionism, but then uses many scientific studies of food and eating habits in making his claims, without adequately explaining why some studies are more reliable than others. But on the whole, I feel the book is well worth reading, and it has had a major impact on me and my eating habits.

One Pollan prescription is along the lines of “if it doesn’t go bad, it isn’t good.” I understand why this is the case, but the consequence is that I keep buying good things and not eating them before they go bad, a problem I didn’t have to deal with quite as much before.

Let us take a moment to marvel at the wonder that is salsa

I speak of salsa as we Americans understand it. A product that comes in dozens of varieties, probably more. It is frequently tomato based, but need not be. It works well mild, hot, or any degree in between. It is usually made almost exclusively from real, old-fashioned, non-bioengineered, non-preserved fruits and vegetables. When properly served, it is wonderfully healthy and safe — the worst it might do to you is give you a bit of excess sodium. It works great atop a wide variety of foodstuffs, or as a dipping sauce, or even eaten alone. The nature of the traditionally included ingredients are such that preservatives are rarely needed, even in canned, store-bought varieties. You can get great salsa at the super-expensive local organic market, and you can get great salsa for cheap at Target. There are so many varieties of salsa that everyone can find one they enjoy, and yet all of these very different sauces are recognized as salsa. I salute you, various peoples, regions, and cultures that created the sauces and dips that we now collectively know as salsa. You have made the world a better place!

Usage Note

Random House Dictionary suggests I get over one of my pet peeves:

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.

I’m literally throwing up right now.

Musings on WordPress.com

I recently had a chance to speak with an engineer at the company that runs WordPress.com, the blogging platform that hosts almost 10 million blogs and serves over a billion pageviews a month. I used to use the precursor to the WordPress software for my personal blog, and continued to use WordPress as the blogging platform evolved and improved over the years. I’ve also managed a small WordPress multi-user install, serving about 300 blogs and 300,000 monthly pageviews at Harvard Law School.

What is remarkable about WordPress.com is that, despite being absolutely gargantuan, the technological underpinnings are very similar to the open-sourced WordPress code that is available for anyone to use. Unlike Twitter, with its well-known performance woes, or Facebook, with its huge interconnected network of users, WordPress, with it’s blog-centric approach, scales nearly linearly. With the exception of a few global features, like single sign-on, blogs are relatively self-contained. The WordPress crew wisely chose to move complex operations like search out of the core (utilizing Lucene), so that as usage grows, scaling is as easy as throwing more computing power and storage at the problem.

At the database level, they run stock MySQL, and not even the latest version, because their code doesn’t require anything more complex than simple SELECTs, INSERTS, and JOINs. Rather than attempting to optimize every layer with hyper-efficient C code, they instead cache content aggressively using the powerful Varnish reverse proxy.

As the WordPress platform has gotten more complex and plugins more sophisticated, I’ve had less need to actually delve into the code to customize my blog to my liking. Taking a look at WordPress 3.0, I see that things have evolved significantly from earlier versions. The developers have wisely focusing on beefing up the plugin API over the last several revisions. Because of this, WordPress.com coders are free to spend time developing cool new features and improving functionailty using the same modular plugin and theming architecture as standard WordPress. This in turn means that development is non-stop, and developers actually push out updates to the main WordPress.com code on a daily basis.

The WordPress.com approach is not appropriate for all, or even most, large-scale web applications. But it is instructive. Rather than spending huge amounts of time re-writing and hyper-optimizing, the WordPress crew focused on incrementally improving their core product, implementing common-sense technologies to simplify their traffic management, and building a solid foundation for continuous platform improvement. As a result, WordPress.com has grown to a top-10 web property in terms of traffic while keeping a staff of only 50 globally distributed employees.

All that, and the core product, the WordPress platform, continues to be free software overseen by a non-profit foundation and open to anyone. Pretty neat and, if you ask me, not a bad way to run a business.

Bank of America updates

Since the Bank of America fiasco I find myself constantly logging into my account to make sure my money is still there. My new bank account won’t be open for a few days and the transfer of investments to E-Trade takes two weeks. Why is everything related to banking still so slow? And to top it off, today when I tried to use my Citi card to book an airline ticket it was rejected, even after going through some asinine verification process that for all I know may have been a phishing attempt. One thing I will say for BofA, they have never made me jump through stupid hoops like that.
Continue reading “Bank of America updates”

Bank of America is scary and powerful

On Friday I received a message from a nice-sounding man who identified himself as being with Bank of America’s fraud department and requested I give him a call back. I didn’t get around to it on Friday, not realizing the urgency of his innocuous request. On Saturday I discovered that both of my Bank of America credit cards were blocked and my account had a hold on it for $888,888.88.
Continue reading “Bank of America is scary and powerful”

A supposedly fun thing I shall do some more

I am happy to report that in spite for previous failures I have finally made my way through a complete David Foster Wallace piece, namely Shipping Out (pdf) also known as the title essay in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. This treatise on luxury cruises is spot-on and engrossing, and difficult to describe. I read something that said that Wallace’s gift is for honesty and conversation without irony. He just sort of talks to you, the reader, mixing high prose and pedestrian language interchangeably, with footnotes and asides, meandering discussions, and the occasional bit of straightforward insight. In Infinite Jest it drove me batty, but in Shipping Out it worked for me. And it was odd, reading this essay, a narration of DFW’s week at sea, feeling like I was getting inside his head, and then remembering how he is dead. So odd.

Losing the Ars Ad Challenge in 1 Day

Ars Technica, the popular technology site, recently wrote an article with the ominous title Why Ad Blocking is devastating to the sites you love. It has reignited (somewhat) the debate about the use of ad blocking software in web browsers. I have been blocking online ads for years now using specialized software. But I suspect almost all of us block ads to some degree by utilizing our browsers’ built in pop-up blockers.

I’m not ready to go back to annoying pop up windows, but I decided to embark on what I’m dubbing the “Ars Challenge,” and disabled my ad blocking software this morning.

The results…well. Around 2pm I went to the New York Times web site, and by 2:02pm I had re-installed a plugin called ClickToFlash in order to silence their huge distracting Adobe Flash advertising. But disabling things that move and make noise seems to me in line with the spirit of the challenge. I will tolerate ads that are respectful of me, that don’t unduly invade my space and attention or hijack my browsing experience.

So I soldered on another 2 hours, until I stumbled across this LA Times article.

Where’s the content?

Can you see it? I’ve highlighted it with a red box. Everything around it is ads and white space. Less than 20% of the screen is devoted to the actual article, and the font and spacing is such that in the entire first page on a relatively large computer screen I am able to view only about 40 words of actual article text without scrolling. Unbelievable.

And so, at 4:25pm, less than 5 hours after the challenge began, I’m giving up. Back to the ad blocker, and back to sanity.

Catastrophic vs first-dollar health insurance

Megan McArdle makes the point that our health care debate is skewed because we are debating a full coverage program rather than also discussing the need for catastrophic coverage. The latter is in some ways much easier to justify and to insure, but our framing covers the entire health care market, with all the concerns about care rationing, government intervention, standards, etc., pushing aside what should be a far simpler to implement government mandate.

One of the comments on her blog explains it well using an analogy of groceries and flood insurance. We all need food to live, but we are “trusted” to choose it and pay for it ourselves. For those with limited income, government subsidies in the form of food stamps and other programs help them and encourage but do not require good decision making. In healthcare, first-dollar care means our employer- or government-provided insurance is intimately involved in all of our health decisions, including normal checkups and things like breast cancer screenings. We are not making our own informed choices about which health care to pay for out of pocket (self-insurance) or which free market insurance company to choose. Since it is someone else’s money, there is no incentive for that sort of decision making, the market for services is not competitive, and thus prices rise.

In much the same way, we need shelter and choose on our own how and where to obtain it, be it by buying, renting, subletting, or taking advantage of a government assistant program if we are poor. But for people who live in flood zones, the government mandates flood insurance. This catastrophic insurance is required and usually subsidized or provided free by the government. In the event of a catastrophe, this insurance (in theory) kicks in. In much the same way, the government should mandate catastrophic health insurance coverage for all Americans. A policy that covers things like heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, etc. Since the shared risk pool is massive, the cost of insurance can be fairly low. While most people will never need it, it is a public safety net for everyone.

I’m not entirely convinced by this libertarian-minded argument, since I tend to see healthcare as an entire ecosystem with good choices in preventative care paying large dividends down the line, and with chronic conditions sopping up most of our health care dollars. But in terms of getting something passed through Congress to improve our system and cut costs, the idea of tackling catastrophic insurance first does have some appeal.

The iPad is a blank canvas, teeming with potential

For the last time people, it’s not about specs! Processor speed, RAM, and graphic chips are not how you judge an Apple product. This is faster and that is smaller and this one does multitasking and has USB ports and a network jack. It doesn’t matter.

I won’t prognosticate about how the iPad will sell, or how successful it will be. I will simply say that the iPad is innovative in the same way that the iPhone and iPod Touch were innovative. It’s just a bigger iPhone, you argue? Of course it is! That is an argument for it, not against. Remember Minority Report? Remember every other cool movie or tech demo that showed amazingly slick touch screen interfaces? How many of them had standard menu bars, or windows with close and minimize buttons, or Start menus? None of them did. So why is it that when people talk about tablets, they talk about shrinking Windows or Mac OS to a smaller screen?

The iPhone succeeded in large part because Apple conceptualized a whole new user experience. The iPad, if it succeeds, will do so in large part because, like the iPhone, it is familiar. It uses gestures we use in life, its iconography is rarely confusing, and it just works in a smooth, clean, fluid way that totally abstracts away the whole notion that we are using a powerful little computer with files and folders and processes and RAM and software updates. The reason that every tablet so far has failed, and the iPad may just succeed, is because instead of taking a 1980s-era desktop metaphor and shrinking it down, Apple took an entirely new direction, the iPhone direction, and blew it up.

On Windows, every app has its own user interface conventions and different sized and shaped buttons and windows. Every version of Office re-arranges things and adds new colors and shapes and shortcuts. The modern Mac aesthetic, in contrast, generally strives towards minimalism. Most of the best apps use standard platform UI conventions with minor enhancements that are intuitive and clean. Powerful and expensive apps look simple and almost boring at first glance: the full potential is hidden and gradually becomes apparent as the app just works the way the user expects, the same way as other Mac apps. Still, almost all desktop computers, Macs included, overflow with confusing error messages, dialog boxes, file save windows, and various other extraneous nonsense. My codecs are out of date? You need to modify what registry? Windows demands to shut down right now to install critical updates? Why do I have to deal with all this stuff?

Apple has created a whole new set of interface conventions and user experience standards for the iPhone and, now, iPad. These opinionated guidelines and development frameworks make it very easy to do things the “Apple way” and much more difficult to do things in non-standard ways. Apple has cut off low-level access to the system, restricting applications (err, “apps”) so that if they break, they leave everything else as they found it. Apple has created standard system-wide gestures, buttons, and interaction paradigms that just work — everywhere. The iPad puts the content front-and-center, and hides all the needless chrome. I doubt you will be able to find any successful apps on the iPad that behave like a Windows or Mac desktop app. They will work like iPad apps.

Now, I was disappointed by the iPad announcement in one major way. I expected groundbreaking content deals for interactive media. Neat new technologies for reading magazines or multimedia newspapers. But now I’m convinced that Apple did not take that path because it just makes more sense for subscription content providers, like newspaper and magazine publishers, to create their own apps and try their own experiments. Apple has given them the platform, given them the guidelines, given them a UI that gets out of the way, and said, “innovate!” The ones that succeed will be the companies, like the New York Times, that embrace the challenge.

Judge the iPad, not by what you see, but by what you can imagine. If there are over 100,000 apps on the iPhone’s App Store, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that there will be thousands more made just for the iPad. The real wonder and power of the device will come from what those apps let you do.