Experiments in Wardrobe

I acquire more “stuff” every year, especially now that I live in a house with a basement, attic, and garage. From time to time I go on a downsizing kick, lured by the appeal of minimalist living, tiny houses, and the search for quality goods. But it always feels like a losing battle against the forces of entropy and clutter.

About a year ago I identified wardrobe as an area ripe for attention and have achieved pleasing results. Step one was to move most of the clothes I rarely wear into boxes and store them in the basement. Step two was to revisit them six months later and either put items back into my rotation or donate them. Pretty much everything got donated. I’ve now gone through this exercise twice, and I have significantly fewer articles of clothing, all stuff I rarely or never wore anyway, including some expensive gifts that I had held on to for years.

Stack of T-ShirtsA few weeks ago I decided to go even farther. I have dozens of “vanity” t-shirts, most of which are showing their age. I pulled out the few that I wear most frequently and discovered that they are all the same model. It turns out you can buy this t-shirt brand online in a wide variety of colors (for screen printing) at incredibly low prices.  So I bought a dozen new t-shirts in several different colors colors, and have been wearing them exclusively for the past two weeks.

I’m really enjoying the change.  I don’t have to spend any time thinking about what to wear in the morning. The shirts are sufficiently decent that they don’t look out-of-place in my workplace or around town.  But I can also wear them for yard work or cooking and not worry, because if I ruin one I can always buy six more for the same price as I used to pay for one of my old tees.

I have also standardized on one type of khakis (I now own four pairs) and gotten rid of almost all my other pants.  And I’m slowly working up the nerve to dump any jacket, pullover, or sweater that I don’t wear at least a few times a month.

Of course I will still keep some formal attire for the (very) rare occasions when I need to actually dress nicely, and I have various seasonal garments like swim trunks, hiking pants, and ski clothes that can’t get quite the same treatment.  But I continue to be on the looking for opportunities to standardize and downsize wardrobe.  It’s probably not the right choice for most people, but I find that I get no joy out of fashion whereas having a “uniform” is quite freeing.  And — so far at least — my wife hasn’t complained. 😛

Danny and Meghan at the Breakers in Newport
Me in my “uniform” of LL Bean Pathfinder Canvas Cargo Pants, Gildan Ultra Cotton G200 polycotton t-shirt, and Adidas Premium Essentials Hoodie with Meghan on a recent trip to The Breakers in Newport, RI.

“I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.

Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.”

Tim Urban, “The Tail End” on Wait But Why

Our dishwasher has been out of commission for a month now and Sears has visited four times. They won’t have the part that we (presumably) need to fix it for at least another month. Meghan called last night and gave ’em hell, and now we’re getting a new dishwasher gratis. Which is great and all, but I’m feeling pretty bad/conflicted about this otherwise perfectly good machine getting junked just because the service department can’t get their act together.

“Indeed, the Pew report suggests that polarization along religious lines may be increasing in the United States. While the percentage of Americans who say they don’t affiliate with any religious tradition is growing, those people who still identify with a religion are becoming even more devout.”

Tom Gjelten, “Poll Finds Americans, Especially Millennials, Moving Away From Religion“, NPR.

Disappointing but not surprising that at the same time more people are moving towards logic and enlightenment, those who remain devout are doubling down on ignorance.

“A future without human drivers is a long, long way off. But we’ll get there. No matter what you think. No matter what you hope. No matter how you feel about it. Because the efficient, unemotional, necessary logic of cars that operate without human error and instability is unquestionable.”

Mat Honan, “Google’s Cute Cars And The Ugly End Of Driving“, BuzzFeed.

I agree – automated cars are inevitable, and they will be more disruptive than anyone can image.


Pirate Cinema

Note: I wrote this entry in late 2012 after finishing the young adult novel Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, a book that explores, among other things, the consequences of criminal penalties for civil acts like copyright infringement. I was thinking about civil liberties and internet freedoms and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the entry after writing it, so it sat for three years. Re-reading it now, the feelings and conflict I expressed still resonate.

I can get to feeling about Cory Doctorow the same way I often feel about Richard Stallman, the famous advocate for free and open-source computer software. Zealots. Troublemakers. Not everything is about The Man out to squash the little guy. Geez, I’m not evil just because I use Apple products! I respect your opinions on copyright and software, on free expression and privacy — but do you have to be so darn annoying about it?!

I suppose it is the same with anyone with a Cause. It makes the rest of us nervous, because we aren’t True Believers like they are. The long and short of it is that I have gotten older and supposedly wiser, and at some point I decided that the world is really complicated. Seeing lots of shades of gray makes it hard to get worked up about causes, which I suppose is why most people don’t.

I do care about this stuff. I care about it a great deal. I care about internet freedom, about privacy, about civil liberties, about remixing and free expression, about individual rights and blanket licenses, internet radio and everything else. I cared about it all through high school — I even took a summer course at UC Irvine in “Internet Law”, back when the whole field could be surveyed in 5 weeks! I followed mailing lists and message boards about the Napster and Kazaa court fights and the DMCA and the Communications Decency Act legislative battles.

When I had the opportunity in college to get an internship for my legal studies minor, I wrangled a placement at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the original epicenter for scholarship in the field of internet law. And when I got my first job out of college, it was at Berkman as well, working alongside some of my heroes.

I thought I would be a public interest lawyer. I thought I would live and breathe this stuff. And I met a lot of very smart people in this field, and I respect them a great deal. But the pace of it didn’t work for me, someone built for high pressure and quick wins. The law is slow and plodding, a years- and decades-long synthesis of law review articles, amicus briefs, books, conferences, and winding cases. It works for many people, and its very good work indeed, but it was not going to work for me.

Now I’m in the fast-paced world of technology, wrapped up in fancy new trends like “DevOps” and “continuous integration” and “infrastructure as code”. There is lots of energy and lots to do. I feel busy and driven, but not the way I felt about internet law. I don’t have the same purpose — I never feel like the work I am doing has the last possibility of fundamentally affecting our culture or reshaping our society. No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server. The stakes just aren’t very high.

No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server.


I just finished Cory Doctorow’s latest novel for young adults, Pirate Cinema. The main character is a teenager in a near-future Britain whose (illegal?) video downloading and remixing gets his family “banned” from the internet. This leads to all sorts of serious consequences — his father loses his (online) job, his mother can’t apply (online) for her disability benefits, and his sister fails out of school due to being unable to research and do (online) homework. Embarrassed and ashamed, our young cyber-criminal runs away from home and ends up in London. There he builds a new life after taking up with a loose collection of anarchists, activists, and other down-on-their-luck free-thinkers. Eventually he spearheads a a campaign to overturn the draconian laws that got him in so much trouble in the first place.

It’s all a bit contrived, and some things fall in to place much too easily. Certainly the homeless life is glamorized to a degree I find unsettling. But the fundamental fear expressed in this pointed critique is sound. Yes, Big Content (also known as the entertainment industry) pushes for laws that protect their commercial interests at the expense of our culture. Yes, the penalties for victimless crimes of copyright infringement continue to become more and more harsh. And yes, this leads us down some pretty slippery slopes.

And frankly, it is a whole framework of thought that I have managed to relegate to the dustbin at the back of my brain, a big ball of stuff I believe deeply in but have carelessly shoved aside.

Cory Doctorow’s novel has given me a bit of fire back, and for that I thank him. It also gives me hope. Doctorow postulates a future in which the internet becomes so central to everything we do that the general public has no choice but to stand up and take a stand against the government and corporate control that is clamping down on us from all sides. Doctorow makes a persuasive argument as to why this sort of control is not only wrong, it is destructive to a free society. And he aims to persuade young people who are the most affected by these changes but not always cognizant of them. He is telling them they should care, and I hope his message takes root.

As a young kid I taught myself how to edit videos long before I taught myself how to program. I can only imagine that if I was born ten years later, in the age of high speed internet and much more powerful computers, I would have been a “remixer” myself. Heck, when I was young I saw the world as amazing and wonderful, the future as bright and thrilling and open for the taking. In short, I was just the sort of person liable to get caught in one of these copyright webs and have my life completely ruined.

I can blame my current cynicism on all sorts of things — endless war, recession, the general ennui that comes with growing older. I wish I could recapture some of that excitement, some of that optimism I had as a kid. What gets to me about Pirate Cinema is that by the end I was rooting for our young heroes to succeed, yet all the while convinced that he was writing to us from his eventual jail cell. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that as I read the final pages tears welled up in my eyes. Not because its the best book or the best story in the world, but because it reminded me about what I care about, and that things are worth fighting for, and that the bad guys don’t always win in the end.

For all that, it is not at all clear that our “hero” lives happily ever after. Doctorow acknowledges that youth can’t last forever, and even the most idealistic of us do have to grow up and face, dare I say it, a more complex, more nuanced world. It is up to each of us, then, to temper our wisdom with a streak of idealism, and to not forget about the causes and morals we hold dear.


Book of Mormon

I’m in San Francisco for a work conference and was able to snag a last-minute ticket to see the touring production of Book of Mormon at the beautiful Orpheum Theatre. I was sandwiched between a group of 47 lovely residents of an Oakland retirement community. The abundant crude humor in the show made this seating arrangement only slightly awkward.

The show was uproariously funny throughout, but was also laced with sad and even tragic stories. South Park veterans Matt Stone and Trey Parker did an amazing job of using humor to present a thorough and multi-layered social commentary. As I watched the show I kept wondering how much of the audience was grasping the deeply cynical and biting undercurrent of this show. I expect that many were not — and perhaps that in itself is just another joke, this time at the audience’s expense.

Early (and ongoing) humor plays off of Mormon beliefs and practices that are surprising or seem silly to non-Mormon audiences. But time and again the humor is predicated on absurd comparisons to more “mainstream” beliefs. For example, one song by a main character proclaims that “I believe that the Lord God created the universe.” The audience remains silent. He continues, “I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.” No reaction. Then, “and I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!” Uproarious laughter.

It makes no sense. It’s absurd. Who would believe that? Never stopping to think that the two preceding lines, from a non-Christian, would sound just as absurd. The verse ends with, “a Mormon just believes,” but isn’t that also mocking all others who “just believe” their own deeply held but never critically analyzed religious convictions?

A whole other class of criticism takes the form of upbeat and absurd songs that portray the suffering of the native Ugandans. In chipper tones and catchy music they tell of their children raped by warlords, family members dying of AIDS, and friends felled by preventable diseases like dysentery. The audience laughs along, but at times it becomes sporadic as particular lyrics hit a little close to home.

A memorable song dreams of the magical land of “Salt Lake City” as a place where the “goat meat is plentiful,” the “warlords are friendly,” there is a “Red Cross on every corner,” and “the people are open-minded.” We laugh, then we realize what we are laughing at — the longings of a poor child who can dream of nothing more than a slightly nicer version of the desolate village that is the only life she has ever known.

Interwoven with the stories of the “Africans” are a number of pokes at white Westerners — missionaries and others — who feel entitled to lecture native peoples on how they should be living, push them to change their lives in highly disruptive ways, and then abandon them to deal with the unexpected long-term consequences of the half-baked “improvements” on their own.

The overall theme of the Book of Mormon seems to me to be that well-intentioned, dedicated, and focused individuals can make a positive impact on the world around them, but that the strictures of organized religion often serve to get in the way of or actively subvert that impact. In that way I see it as a message of hope — our society’s accelerating move away from organized religious institutions need not imply that we will become less dedicated to improving the lives of our fellow man. Far from it. Without outdated doctrine and absurd rules getting in the way, real and lasting impacts may finally be achievable.

Many will no doubt disagree with this interpretation. People often tell me that my relentless positivity about our ability to make the world a better place is absurd. But I continue to take to heart John Perry Barlow’s words that groundless hope is the only kind worth having.

The Fallen of World War II

This is a gobsmackingly incredible visual exploration of deaths related to World War II and other conflicts.  You’ll start watching and it just keeps getting more insane, and you can’t stop until the end.  Well worth the 18 minute run time. I thought I understood the scale of the conflict — to the extent anyone can — but I had no idea.

The Engineer’s Lament: Two ways of thinking about automotive safety

Malcolm Gladwell’s look into how automotive safety recalls work, and don’t. But hidden inside is a look at how we examine and evaluate risk and where we place priorities. And the sometimes insurmountable gulf between what engineers see and what normal, emotional people see. And the consequences in safety for how we prioritize and deal with public safety issues. A good read.

Geeking Out

A week of disappointment with the Apple Watch

I got up at 3am to pre-order the Apple Watch and mine arrived on release day. My justification was simple — I have found the FitBit activity trackers to be useful but limited, and a more comprehensive device seemed like a great upgrade.

Unlike the many glowing reviews, I have found Apple’s much-hyped new gadget to be nothing but trouble. My litany of complaints is vast, so I will focus on a few major pain points that might dissuade others from purchasing this device until the next version is released.

Third-party app support
Third party app support is universally poor. I have not yet found a single third-party app that works well, they are all slow to load, quick to crash, and often fall out of sync with their phone apps. Apparently when the watch goes to sleep the watch app loses connection with the phone app, so things can’t just finish processing or loading in the background. You constantly have to stand there like a dope staring at your wrist waiting for something to happen.

The “glances” (cards) in the watch app for quick updates are also problematic for the same reason. Even Apple’s built-in glances, such as weather and stocks, do not update in the background, so I often find myself seeing yesterday’s weather or an out-of-date version of my todo list. Because I can’t trust the data to be accurate, I find myself not even bothering to use glances.

Watch faces
If you want a “digital” watch face with additional data (“complications”) rather than a pseudo-analog one, there is only one option. The level of customization is actually quite limited — you can’t put the time in the middle, for example, and while you can show your next calendar event or the phase of the moon, you can’t show your daily step count or any other third party app data. The calendar complication can only link out to Apple’s built in calendar app, the weather complication to Apple’s weather app, etc. There is no third-party integration possible, so if you like using Dark Skies to know when it is going to rain or Things for task management or basically any other of the thousands of third-party apps, there is no way to integrate them into your watch display.

It is very difficult to tell the difference between a phone notification that is not actionable, a watch notification that can be tapped to get into an app, and the app displays themselves. The whole interface is confusing in that way — am I in a notification, an app, a glance? Will swiping work, or not? Tapping? It is complete inconsistent. And it is very easy to get lost or frustrated, tapping the screen repeatedly only to find nothing happening. Why tap repeatedly? Because sometimes in apps you need to tap multiple times to hit the tiny touch targets. And sometimes you hit the wrong one, end up somewhere else, and have no obvious way to get back.

General bugginess and unreliability
The built-in health tracking is extremely buggy. Sometimes it tells me it is “time to stand” while I am standing. Sometimes it tells me to stand when I’m in the car driving at 60 miles per hour. Sometimes it tells me I achieved a fitness goal while I’m in the middle of a run, knocking me out of my running app, which then crashes and will not reconnect with my phone, so I’m frantically navigating through the tiny app launcher while trying to keep up my pace. The scroll wheel (err, “digital crown”) gets mucked up and won’t turn until I run it under water. The maps app takes forever to update with my current location. Sometimes I get buzzes for notifications but then none display. Sometimes I send a text message reply and the whole watch freezes for 30 seconds. A couple times I’ve had to hold down both buttons to restart the watch because it got completely stuck.

If I’m going to wear a device on my wrist, I want it to integrate into my day. I want it to be effortless. I want it to show me the information I need when I need it. I don’t want to fiddle. I want the apps I already use to easily integrate and work well. I want to be able to hide the many apps that I don’t care about, making it easier to find the ones I do. I don’t want spurious notifications. I don’t want a watch that crashes.

The Apple Watch, in my experience, is a failure at its basic purpose. Even the buttons — there are two, one of which is dedicated to sending your friends drawings, which I will never do. There is no way to assign that button to something I might actually want to use, like a dedicated way to get to a single app, or back to the watch face.

Luckily, almost all of the problems I have run into are software related, so I can only hope that Apple will remedy them in software updates in the future. But will that be anytime soon? And will the updates work with this watch, or will I have to buy a newer model? In the case of the Apple Watch, it does not pay to be an early adopter.

After Jobs Dry Up, What Then?

An excellent distillation of one of the most important issues of the next decade.

Update (2015-03-29): This post sparked a few conversations with friends that have caused me to revise my opinion. I still believe that rising economic inequality, lack of opportunities, decreased social mobility, and poor measures of success focused on economic growth are all major problems for our society. I’m not convinced that technological progress is the major cause of this shift or that this technological age is fundamentally different from previous periods of “creative destruction.” That said, I do still worry about the types of new jobs that are currently being created, many of which in the “gig economy” offer very little economic security and no benefits.

Geeking Out

Introducing Hygroscope

Hygroscope is a command line tool for managing the launch of complex CloudFormation stacks in Amazon Web Services.

CloudFormation is a tool for creating and managing Amazon Web Services infrastructure using code. A JSON-formatted template describes the state of a “stack” including such resources as servers, S3 storage buckets, and load balancers. Utilizing the AWS Virtual Private Cloud service, entire software-defined networks can be described and repeatably created, updated, and destroyed using CloudFormation.

CloudFormation is not without its pain points:

  • Templates must be written in JSON, which, in addition to being difficult for a human to read, does not support niceties such as inline comments and repeated blocks.
  • Launching CloudFormation stacks requires knowledge of the various parameters that need to be provided, and it is difficult to repeatably launch a stack since parameters are not saved in any convenient way.
  • There is no easy mechanism to send a payload of data to an instance during stack creation (for instance scripts and recipes to bootstrap an instance).
  • Finally, it is difficult to launch stacks that build upon already-existing stacks (i.e. an application stack within an existing VPC stack) because one must manually provide a variety of identifiers (subnets, IP addresses, security groups).

Hygroscope aims to solve each of these specific problems in an opinionated way:

  • CF templates are written in YAML and processed using cfoo, which provides a variety of convenience methods that increase readability.
  • Hygroscope can interactively prompt for each parameter and save inputted parameters to a file called a paramset. Additional stack launches can make use of existing paramsets, or can use paramsets as the basis and prompt for updated parameters.
  • A payload directory, if present, will be packaged and uploaded to S3. Hygroscope will generate and pass to CF a signed time-limited URL for accessing and downloading the payload, or the CloudFormation template can manage an instance profile granting indefinite access to the payload.
  • If an existing stack is specified, its outputs will be fetched and passed through as input parameters when launching a new stack.

The latest version of Hygroscope can be installed via RubyGems. The inline help documents each command and its options. The source code for Hygroscope and additional documentation is on GitHub, and a sample template that sets up a “bare VPC” is a good introduction to creating Hygroscopic templates.


The Fault In Our Stars

This review does not contain any spoilers.

The Fault In Our Stars Book CoverI found this novel deeply affecting. I hear from time to time, as everyone does, about various loose relations who have cancer, or are in remission, or have succumb to the disease. I see the cancer stories that describe tragic but stalwart children, their caring and committed parents, the charities they found and causes they champion, the valiant way in which they battle with dignity, their indefatigable courage.

And it all feels like bullshit to me. I don’t have the experience or the pain to justify this feeling, but I feel it all the same. Cancer patients and their families and support networks are not magically heroes. Evolution run amok does not make one noble or immune from normal-person feelings.

I hate the language we use to describe illness. I hate how we so often glorify people suffering from cancer while simultaneously pitying them. I don’t know how to interact with or relate to people who are suffering from disease, and I think the structures we as a society have created make that interaction harder than it should be. When we hold people up on a pedestal due to circumstances outside of their control, we don’t allow them to be normal people with normal-people feelings and concerns and fears and needs.


The Fault In Our Stars is a book about kids with cancer, but it is quick to point out that it is not a “cancer book” full of the standard tropes and plot progressions. The narrator is a teenage girl stricken with a form of the disease that affects her lungs, kept in check via experimental medicines and various machines to assist her breathing. Hazel is weak and frail and still alive long beyond her predicted expiration date. Her Sword of Damocles hangs ever-present as Hazel goes about her daily life, which is entirely normal in as much as she watches trashy TV and goes to the mall, and entirely abnormal in that she has nothing to strive for, few friends, little direction and plenty of pain.

Hazel joins a cancer support group suffused with a macabre sense of competition to outlive and outlast. The reader quickly gets the sense that most of her life post-diagnosis has been like this. There she meets a fellow sufferer, a high school boy with a prosthetic leg and a fear of oblivion.

They form a bond, they share Experiences (capital-E) and pain and fear and philosophy and random poetry and video games. They are overly wordy and prone to soliloquy and sort of strange, but in other ways quite real. They have ways of dealing with cancer and life and parents that feel very authentic to me. Things take dark turns, then people get better, then they get worse again. The future is uncertain, except that it is completely certain — dying is the endgame, and sooner rather than later.

How do you live when so much of your waking time is spent worrying about and wondering about and trying to fend off death? It is horrible and tragic but sometimes brilliant and funny and often just numbingly depressing. It is living, it is not living, it is a disease that doesn’t make sense and isn’t supposed to and doesn’t magically make people heroic or different, a disease that doesn’t care in a world that doesn’t care in a universe full of lives and people that may not have any meaning at all.

Oblivion. How do you face it? What choices do you make, when you aren’t given a chance to go out in a blaze of glory or on your own terms, but instead only slowly, by inches, in pain and agony and sadness? What does it all mean? Why should it mean anything? And how do you deal with that, each and every day?

Deep questions. Dark questions. Real questions.

Thank goodness there is a happy ending. Hazel and her friends figure everything out and feel better and know that they have accomplished something real and lasting and memorable.

No, I made that up. Of course it doesn’t end that way. It can’t. It just ends when it ends, as we all do. A surprising ending, but not surprising at all.  Because that’s how endings are.  They come along when you least and most expect them.  Sometimes, right in the middle of a