Thursday, December 18, 2008

My only post about the new Malcolm Gladwell book, I promise

As Lucy's comic suggests, I'm a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan.  I could blog my thoughts on almost every chapter in his latest book, Outliers, but I'm not sure I'd be able to curb my desire to just copy the book into my blog verbatim in an attempt to expose more people to his fascinating socio-economic hypotheses, so I'll try to keep it brief.  Here are a few points of interest from his recent writings.

  • Convergence tests & divergence tests

Many of the tests we take in school can be categorized as a convergence test.  For example, on a multiple choice test, a list of possibilities are presented for each question, and you have to converge upon the correct answer.  A divergence test, on the other hand, requires your mind to move in as many different directions as possible.  In the example used in Outliers, students are asked to write down as many different uses as they can think of for two objects: a brick and a blanket.  Gladwell discusses these testing methods while writing about different kinds of intelligence, and uses them to explain why affirmative action graduates of Michigan's law school, who didn't perform as well academically as other students, enjoy careers that are every bit as successful as their white counterparts.  In the same chapter, he convincingly suggests that Harvard should introduce a lottery structure to its admissions process.

  • Unconventional comparisons

In Gladwell's latest New Yorker article, he likens the selection of public school teachers to the selection of NFL quarterbacks.  Blogging about the response to this article, he espouses the value of drawing parallels between seemingly unconnected things.

"...non-symetrical comparisons are far more interesting and thought-provoking than symetrical comparisons. If I wrote a piece about how finding good point guards in the NBA was a lot like finding good quarterbacks in the NFL, the comparison would be exact. And as a result, it would be relatively useless.  What new light does the addition of a second, identical example shed on the first?"

This pretty well summarizes why I find Gladwell's work so interesting: he's good at combining ideas in previously unrecognized ways.  Would that I had such insight.  When I was younger, I was amazed at how musicians, scientists, and other creative minds were able to produce brilliance seemingly out of nothing.  The older I get, the more often I see that breakthrough discoveries or artistic achievements are the result of (or the combination of) many preceding accomplishments & influences.  My definition of creativity has been reshaped with time.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ser vs. Estar

The Spanish language has two verbs that mean "to be."  To generalize, estar is used to indicate location or a temporary state.

John está en el cuarto de baño, probablemente el juego de Riesgo en su iPhone.
John is in the bathroom, probably playing Risk on his iPhone.

Ser is used (again, generally) when describing a more permanent state of being, such as physical attributes or personality traits.

John es una locura de Taco Bell, aunque él sabe que es casi lo peor que puede poner en su cuerpo.
John is crazy for Taco Bell, even though he knows it's pretty much the worst thing that you can put in your body.

This differentiation between a temporary and permanent "to be" verb becomes especially interesting to me in the context of trying to change onself.  There are certain things I've been terrible at for my whole life to date, but I hate to think that they will plague me until the end of my days.

For example, I am a Nail Biter (yes, capital N, capital B).  Always have been, probably always will be.  While I had braces for three years I completely stopped, and when they were removed I picked up right where I left off.  Yet, nearly every day that I catch myself indulging in this habit, I say to myself, "Enough!  This is it, no more nail biting FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, starting right now."

I usually break this pledge within five minutes.  Then re-make it five minutes after that.

Still, I can occasionally claim a victory against myself.  Two months ago, I joined a gym and told myself that I'd never let that bully at the beach kick sand in my face again.  Since then, thanks to my weightlifting regimen, I've gained 10 pounds - which may not sound like much to you, but is actually a Herculean accomplishment given my physique.  Sure, only some of that weight can be attributed to muscle gain while the rest comes from a nascent belly paunch and my relentlessly growing mop of hair; it feels good to know that I'm capable of demonstrating the discipline required to institute a positive change in my life.

John es un perezoso por lo general una criatura de la costumbre, aunque de vez en cuando le va a sorprender a sí mismo.
John is a usually a lazy creature of habit, though occasionally he will surprise himself.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cautiously optimistic vs. caustically homophobic

From Obama election night rally 2008-11-04

Like most Democrats, progressives, and young people out there, I was elated when CNN announced that Barack Obama had won the presidency.  Obama ran an outstanding campaign and made a lot of great promises.  Most of my friends have astronomically large expectations of our president-elect.  It will be interesting to see how the next four years play out, especially with a firmly Democratic Congress.  I'm optimistic, but wary.  The sooner that first piece of progressive legislation comes out of the White House, the sooner I really believe that this administration is different from George W. Bush's.  Maybe it's been too long since I had faith in our federal government.

My favorite shot from the celebration: Jesse Jackson weeping.

Photo from Getty Images by AFP/Getty Images

My favorite part of Obama's acceptance speech: his inclusion of gays in a list of proud American demographics.

"Its the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

By the way, California: What the hell?  Almost 6 million of you voted Yes on Proposition 8?!  I'm not surprised to hear this from Florida, but you, California?  Ugh.  Lucy and I are planning to join a Prop 8 protest downtown on Saturday the 15th.  Let me know if you're interested in coming.

Brief video of Lucy, Kelly, Joe, and I listening to the beginning of Obama's victory speech in Grant Park, along with about 240,000 other people:

From Obama election night rally 2008-11-04

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The closest I've come to a long, protracted death

When a dermatologist told me a few weeks ago that I should get a biopsy for a mole on my head, I never seriously entertained the idea that I had skin cancer.  I didn't lose any sleep playing out worst-case scenarios in my head (though I did lose sleep trying to lie down in a way that kept the stitches in my head off my pillow).  I thought so little of the matter that I didn't even mention it to most of my friends & coworkers.  So why was I so relieved when I got the call telling me that my test results were all negative?

No problem imagining worst-case scenarios after that call.  Suddenly, I couldn't do anything but think about how different my life would have been from that point forward if the test results were different.

More than 1,000,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the US each year, so why not me?  I love biking and reading in the sun when the weather's nice.  I'm an occasional smoker and consumer of processed foods.  My mom survived a brush with cancer a few years back; that certainly doesn't help my odds.

Anyway, from here forward, I plan to spend the majority of my time indoors, with the shades drawn, wearing a raincoat, a large floppy old lady hat, and sunglasses.

Here's to a clean bill of health!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stories of the Road #32: The Lost Post

Hi, all.  It turns out that my work didn't appreciate my last post, which combined the company name and booze, drinking, etc. in such a way that my blog was spotted by their saved Google searches, and I was asked to take it down.  Here are the bonus items from the bottom of the post.

  1. Quimby's is hosting a release party for Lucy's book on Tuesday, Oct 14th, starting at 7 PM.  If you're reading this, you should totally come.  Lucy's been busting her ass putting together the presentation for her book tour and Quimby's will be the debut performance.  Come!  Seriously!
  2. Lucy & Johnny puppet blog #2 is here!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stories of the Road, issue 31: The Fonts of Scottsdale

The Sunday night before my first trip to Arizona, I checked the local temperature in Scottsdale at 10 PM.  It was 95 degrees.

Luckily, it's a dry heat, and yes, that makes a difference.  One of the locals told me that their heat index sometimes drops below the real temperature.  This is unheard of in Chicago, where humidity is a malevolent force and the heat index can be likened to the Terror Alert Level (except you actually give a shit about the heat index).

Arizona's insect population is more hoary and nightmarish than that of any state I've visited so far.  My coworker went househunting in the area and spotted three black widows in a single home, nearly walking face-first into a web on the way in the front door.  (An indigenous welcome mat, maybe?)  Housing divisions invade areas with high scorpion populations, but the original tenants are too stubborn to move.  Scorpions glow under black light, and many new homeowners are surprised by what turns up in a black light scan of the backyard.

After hearing stories like these, I was afraid to sit on the ground to stretch after my evening run.  I could only imagine how welcoming the open leg of my shorts looks to a scorpion.

The local flora are no more benign.  I gently touched the spines of a cool-looking cactus and my friend laughed condescendingly before describing the skin irritation and inflammation those spines can cause.  Chill out, Arizona nature!

Two weeks into this assignment, I'm starting to see why people live here: the evenings are 75 degrees and usually rainless, and locals tell me that this moderate weather sticks around all winter while snow plows patrol the streets of Chicago.  Summer precipitation comes in the form of thunderheads that rain furiously for 15 minutes but put on a spectacular lightning show as a prologue and epilogue to their visit.  The buildings are new and polished, and their low profile allows for fantastic views of extended sunsets.

The Southwestern aesthetic is ubiquitous.  Color schemes waver within the bounds of beige and red.  Most of the fonts look like they were lifted from a Chili's menu.  Sand, rocks, and intimidating cacti are the norm.


Two quick plugs:

  1. Lucy's book, French Milk, is now available for pre-order on!  The new & improved version has lots more pages and contains even more John Horstman than before.  How much more?  Buy it and see!
  2. My friend Lane made a 3-minute film for the Chicago Film Race, and because his film is rad it was picked to be one of the top 10 finalists.  Please watch it and hopefully vote for it here.  It's titled "Tomorrow."  Click on the picture of the sunrise.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Writing about writing

Hi, all.  About two weeks ago, my lungs turned into the La Brea tar pits, and I've been a wheezing bag of slime ever since.  Luckily, in between games of Super Mario Galaxy and meals of greasy breakfast foods, I've found a few interesting things to read.  Here are two pieces I'd recommend to anyone interested in dusting off the old quill and inkwell.

Through Merlin Mann's wonderful blog on, I found a short essay by Kurt Vonnegut entitled, "How to Write With Style."  The entire article is here and you can read it in 5 minutes if you don't get distracted - more difficult than it sounds while at your computer, I know - but I'll summarize it for the convenience of those short on time or up too late (like me).

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

My favorite line from the piece is the last paragraph for point 5:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

For those with lengthier attention spans, take a look at The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.  (Coincidentally, I was about halfway through this book when I read the Vonnegut essay, which recommends Elements of Style at the end.)  The advice is more mechanical & dry: omit needless words, use the active voice, keep related words together, etc.  These guidelines are linked by the book's central theme: writing should be clear and vigorous.  Strunk best expresses this idea with four words, elegantly practicing what he preaches: every word must tell.  There's also a great analogy in there about how there are no unnecessary lines in a drawing, so why should there be unnecessary words in a book; unfortunately, my copy of the book is 1,700 miles away right now (Stories of the Road returns soon!) so I can't quote it exactly.

* * * * * * *
Lucy & I collaborated on a comic!  I wrote it based on a true story about our internet French lessons.  Guess which version is mine and which is hers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Efficiency expert in training

OK, so I've blogged about productivity a few times before.  This time, though, I'm going to pass along some useful information instead of just talking about how great GTD is.  Here are three of my favorite efficiency tips from three of my favorite efficiency gurus.

  1. Batch your tasks (from Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek) - This one is pretty intuitive: buy all your groceries at the same store, run all your errands on the same car trip, cook enough food at once that you can eat the leftovers for days, etc.  Extending this idea to the web, you could also write all of your email replies in one sitting or check for updates to your favorite sites all at once, and no more than once a day for either of these activities.
  2. Process your email inbox to zero (from Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero talk) - My personal email inbox currently contains zero emails.  Same for my work inbox.  Every time you check your email, process every single message and clear out your inbox.  Processing means performing one of five actions: delete, delegate, respond, defer, do.  As Merlin says, deleting is the most underused of these options.
  3. Define your next action (from David Allen's GTD) - For every item on your to-do list, write down the next physical action you must take in order to "do" that item.  Let's say you lost your driver's license today, like I did (true story).  Instead of "renew driver's license," your to-do list would first contain "look up nearest DMV on internet," then once that was complete, "call DMV at 312-793-1010 to find out what to bring to get new driver's license."  This is great advice for unsticking a project that has been stuck for a while.

Also, puppets!  Lucy & I made this video before she left for vacation.  First in a series, maybe?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Euphoric nostalgia

In her latest book, What It Is, Lynda Barry provides methods, exercises and general motivation for getting your creative juices flowing.  Large portions of the book are dedicated to memories: What is a memory?  What is the past?  Where (and why) do we keep bad memories?  Why are memories important?  A few recent blasts from the past have had me thinking over these questions.

I downloaded a fan-subbed version of the first Rebuild of Evangelion movie.  For those who don't know, I was a huge anime fan in college and Neon Genesis Evangelion is my favorite series - hell, it's pretty much my favorite anything.  Books, albums, movies... I have to admit that my #1 spot remains shamefully devoted to a Japanese cartoon from 1996.

The new Eva movies are a reanimating/retelling of the original story: about 3/4 of the scenes remain basically the same, but look nicer and sometimes have computer-animated additions.  Of course, this means 1/4 of the scenes are (shudder of spine-tingling anticipation)... NEW.

Here's the great part: they didn't fuck things up with the new stuff.  (Are you reading this, George Lucas?)

It was awesome.  It was so awesome.  For 97 minutes, I was bursting with this feeling that was a combination of nostalgia and euphoria; I don't know of any English word to adequately describe it, but we could damn sure use one.  I was literally giggling when I paused the movie halfway through to polish off the remains of our pantry's cookie stash.

When the new X-Files movie came out earlier this summer, Lucy went through the same thing: almost two hours of fantasy bliss, revived straight from her adolescence.

It's a rare privilege to be transported so completely back into your past by something brand new.  When I was watching that movie, I felt the Evangelion feeling; there's no other way for me to define it.

Three more Eva movies are planned for release over the next 2-3 years.  Funny to realize that I already know exactly how I'll feel when I watch those as well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Antitheist? Moi?


My personal organization & productivity streak is still rolling. I worship zealously at the altar of GTD, and I'm working hard to internalize the dogmas of Tim Ferriss & Merlin Mann. Feeling confident in my knowledge of modern productivity theory, I recently decided to pick up a slightly older (1989) but still immensely popular advice book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey.

My favorite points so far:

  • True communication comes from a commitment to listening to others and understanding what they are saying.
  • There has been a shift in the focus of American writings on the pursuit of success.  Whereas success literature of our country's first 150 years focused on character - integrity, humility, temperance, etc. - the last 50 years' worth has been more self-centered, usually containing quick-fix tips on how to influence or intimidate others to get what you want.
  • In order to understand ourselves, we must understand the lens through which we perceive the world.

So I'm reading this book and things are going well, when all of a sudden I hit a passage in which Covey warns against "succumb[ing] to growing secularism and cynicism," then professes his belief in natural laws that he believes have their source in God.  I start to slide to the defensive: Whoa, I don't want this Mormon rewiring my brain!  Maybe 7 Habits is to Mormonism what Dianetics is to Scientology!

Then I catch myself and think, What was that all about?

I've been a member of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State for a few years now, so I'm always getting updates on the bullshit that the Religious Right tries to pull.  Since none of my friends are very religious, I probably get more exposure in general to the bad/crazy parts of organized religion than the good/sane parts.


Now, I share some of Christopher Hitchens's beliefs about religion's adverse effects on society, but I don't believe that "all religious belief is sinister and infantile" (as Hitchens once said), I don't want to ignore good advice just because it comes from a man of faith, and I certainly don't want to start thinking that all forms of worship are evil.

After all, I'm now a devout follower of GTD.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Move, Part Two

Lucy & I are now two weeks into our cohabitation.  We've reconciled our inventories, and a few more items are going to go on the eBay/Craig's List/Freecycle chopping block.  Purging is my newfound love, but it has not replaced my lifelong passion: organization.  Luckily, the two complement each other nicely, and our ménage à trois has produced a sweet little living space.  Of course, it didn't hurt to have a girlfriend with excellent taste.


The other night, The Lady & I watched Fight Club and I was reminded of one of the great Tyler Durden lines: The things you own end up owning you.  This is never more apparent than when you move; even trying to get rid of your stuff becomes a burden (as I complained about in my last post).


At the end of the day, I'm glad to have an incentive to lighten the load.  I'm mentally streamlined - my psyche is now a dolphin.  Let's hope that this new dolphinness isn't countered by cable TV, which I'm enjoying for at home for the first time in 5 years, and which is more likely to turn one's psyche into algae.


Huge thanks to everyone who helped with the move!  The Honor Roll:

  • Mom
  • Dad
  • Erika
  • Lucy's mom
  • Elliot
  • Kevin
  • Pam
  • Jason
  • Dan
  • Sean

Also, check out this comic Lucy did about the move, in which she selflessly pretends that she's been the grouchy one over the course of the last few weeks.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Move, Part One

Tomorrow morning, I'm hopping on a 6:55 AM flight to Boston, where I'll meet Lucy and her mom and then drive 2 hours to White River Junction, VT.  For the next 2 days, we'll be packing Lucy's stuff up and loading it into a van, and for 2 days after that we'll haul it all to Chicago.  On Tuesday, July 1st, we arrive in Chicago, load my stuff into the van, and bring it all to Logan Square for The Unpacking.  All able-bodied men & women who are willing to help will earn my unending gratitude - and, more importantly, will be fed with Lou Malnati's pizza and the beverage of your choice (beer included).

It's been 4 years since I last changed addresses, and there's one thing that has really surprised me above all else: it is HARD to get rid of your stuff in an ecologically friendly way!  Actually, let me modify that statement: it's not too hard, but it does take planning.  Selling stuff on eBay & Craig's List, giving things away on Freecycle, disposing of hazardous waste properly... all of these things require scheduling far in advance of the move.  It must have been a month ago that I started taking my clothes to Milwaukee Ave. to see if Crossroads or Buffalo Exchange would take them.  I've now reached the point where I'm so sick of looking at my own stuff and wondering why I have it - what the hell am I doing with 9 pairs of shoes, anyway? - that I'm about two boxloads away from renouncing all physical possessions and moving to India.  If the happiest man in the world did it, why shouldn't I?


Tuesday the 1st, big move-in party at my old place and then my new place, please come and join the fun!

Monday, June 16, 2008

long live Tim Russert

Anyone who's ever wondered what a perfect eulogy for a perfect life sounds like would do well to watch last Sunday's episode of Meet The Press. Tom Brokaw and group of Tim Russert's closest friends reflect on the life of a devoted father, a loving son, a fiercely loyal friend, and a paragon of journalism. No one could hope to be remembered more fondly. Keep the tissues handy.

Good luck and Godspeed to Tyler and Dan on their upcoming road trip! You know what Elliot says: watch out for snakes.

Less than two weeks until Lucy & I move in together! Tuesday, July 1st is the big day. All parties interested in helping will be given a hero's welcome. And free beer & pizza. Luckily, Lucy will have a lot less stuff to move in than she did two weeks ago since she sold a shitload of stuff at the MoCCA Art Festival this year. Check out her wrap-up comic blog post here, with yours truly in a supporting role (love interest to female lead).

Friday, May 23, 2008

obsessed with Google Tech Talks

Reason #852 why it's awesome to work for Google: the company frequently brings in really interesting guest speakers and gives you the opportunity to attend for free.  Also, in another Google act of web benevolence, most of these lectures are recorded and posted on the Google Tech Talks YouTube channel where anyone can view them for free.  One of my coworkers pointed me to Merlin Mann's lecture on time and attention and I've been hooked on the channel ever since.  Usually I just let it play in the background while I'm working, but that doesn't always result in the best comprehension so I usually end up listening to each talk a number of times.  In the past week I've spent a few hours listening to each of these speakers:

  • David Allen talked about some principles of his Getting Things Done (GTD) system, which is all the rage these days among organization freaks (like, ahem, yours truly).
  • Tim Ferriss - entrepreneur, mixed martial artist, record-holding tango dancer, and author of The 4-Hour Work Week - explained some of the tips he uses to save time and travel the world.
  • Soren Gordhamer gave a talk called "Stress Relief for the Creative and Constantly Connected," based on his book of the same name. 

It's kind of funny that I've been listening to all of these lectures on personal productivity and stress relief this week; I've never had fewer tasks to juggle (one) than I do at my current client.

Other cool-sounding talks that I'm queuing up for next week:

Google, I heart you.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I'm so sick of this, I could literally kill someone

Yesterday's Dinosaur Comics addressed our society's widespread inability to use the word "literally" correctly.  Today, in an interview on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Hillary Clinton described America as being "literally over the oil barrel" with regard to our energy policy. Et tu, Hillary?

One easy way to make the world a better place is never to misuse the word "literally" again.  If that proves too difficult, you can always play video games for charity.  What?  Huh??  Yeah!

FreeRice is a vocab-building game that will donate 20 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program every time you can pick the correct definition for a word.  The difficulty level moves up and down based on your answers, and there's no limit to how much rice you can donate.  Philanthropic logophiles rejoice!

What's that you say?  Big words are for bookworms and college professors and Noah Webster?  Perhaps you should try FreePoverty instead.  The game lists off cities and landmarks from around the world and you have to mark their locations on a world map.  The more accurate you are, the more clean water is donated to people living in extreme poverty.  Do you know where the country of Moldova is?  What about Namibia?  Learn how bad your geography is with FreePoverty!

* * * * * * *

For all interested parties: about 15 pictures from our last party can be viewed in the below slideshow.  Everything labeled "vs. pinata" is a video; click on the thumbnails to see them.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Stories of the Road, issue 30: Invading Mennonite territory

Thanks to everyone who made our party a rousing success!  Pam's piñata was a smash hit (ha!) and we damn near drank the place dry.  Also, we raised $55 in donations for my autism walk this May!


The party kicked off an insane 48 hours for me.  After going to bed around 5 AM on Sunday morning, I woke up at 9 to start working - as in work working.  I left the house at 2:30 Sunday afternoon to fly to Morris, MN, which is about a 3-hour drive west of Minneapolis.  After arriving at the hotel at midnight, I proceeded to pull my second-ever work-related all-nighter - the day after our party, mind you - and showed up at the customer's office at 6:30 Monday morning for a sales presentation.  Which, miraculously, I nailed.

After that I flew straight to Atlanta, where it was 70 degrees and sunny all week long.  One coworker was upgraded to convertible for free.  None of us know why.



Somehow, Lucy's ukelele love song to me (which I also linked to in a previous blog) was one of the featured videos on YouTube's home page last week.  In a two-day stretch, the video pulled in 700,000 views, 5,000 comments, and was favorited about 4,000 times.  How do you follow that up?  With another awesome ukelele love song video, of course!  I am crushed with adorableness.


To try and prove that all of the talent in this relationship didn't end up on one side, I put a new song up on the Tiger Stance MySpace page.  You can download it there or listen to it here:

share your files at

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

John Horstman, the recommendation engine

Hey gang.  Since my last post was all about recommendations made by computers, I thought I'd balance that out with some recommendations made by humans - namely, me.  The following recommendations are my attempt to better your lives.

Now that it's not so cold that every moment spent outdoors is spent swearing, I've started taking walks and listening to podcasts.  This American Life, The Savage Lovecast and Meet the Press are all about an hour long and updated weekly.  A single episode episode of any of these shows makes for a perfect companion to your daily constitutional.

Forget the iTunes Store.  From here forward, there's no reason not to buy your digital music from Amazon instead.  It's cheaper, it has no DRM, and it comes in .mp3 format (as opposed to the .m4p files Apple sells, which can only be played with iPods/iTunes).

If you've always found online blog authoring tools to be too clunky, give Windows Live Writer a shot.  It's an offline tool that's helped me to rediscover the joy of blogging.  Adding links, pictures, tags, video, etc. has never been easier.  You can save drafts of your blogs, preview them before you post, and when they're ready to go you can publish directly to most blogging services with a single click.

Watch Helvetica.  It's a documentary about a font.  And I love it.

Listen to the new song I posted to the Tiger Stance MySpace page a week ago, Trees in Retrograde.  Here it is:

Read Lucy's blog.  Seriously!  It's so good!  She updates regularly, she gets plenty of comments from her fans, and most of the posts include a new comic.  Also, I'm in there sometimes.

Finally, I'm participating in Walk Now for Autism this May, so if you'd like to do a little bit of good in the world then I recommend that you make a donation on my page.

New puppet blog to come soon, featuring puppet me!

me 001

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Knowing you better than you know yourself

In his 2005 interview with Giant Robot magazine (.pdf posted here), the artist Ryan McGinness (whose work is featured at the beginning and end of this blog) talks about how the role of the curator is increasingly important as it becomes easier and easier for people to produce creative output.  McGinness says that technology has created many more writers (thanks to blogs), musicians (thanks to cheaper computers and recording software), etc., and that it is "more and more difficult to separate the extraordinary from the average."  That observation has always stuck with me because it struck me as an excellent observation, and it becomes especially interesting when extended beyond creative output to apply to information as a whole.

The strength of the curator lies in finding someone whose tastes you trust - in a way, someone whose tastes are similar to yours.  Many internet sites now provide us with automatic curators in the form of recommendation engines, the algorithms that try to figure out what you might like based on what you do like.  The interesting thing that distinguishes recommendation engines from curators is the absence of another human being's bias; recommendation engines make us curators for ourselves.

For example, the homepage will display products that you might be interested in purchasing based on the products you've looked at in the past.  Usually the connections are pretty obvious here: you'll see books by the same author, movies with the same actor, and so on.  A more sophisticated and impressive recommendation engine powers the internet radio site Pandora, which builds radio stations based around certain artists.  I created a Pixies radio station and Pandora started lining up songs that featured "electric rock instrumentation, punk influences, a vocal-centric aesthetic, minor key tonality, and electric guitar riffs."  A Talking Heads radio station played music with "basic rock song structures, subtle use of vocal harmony, extensive vamping, a vocal-centric aesthetic, and major key tonality."  In each case, the recommendations are only about one step away from a personal preference you've demonstrated to the engine.

Many recommendation engines are perpetually being tweaked in a quest to find the best possible combination of algorithms to get inside your head.  In fact, Netflix is holding a contest to see if anyone can build a recommendation engine that is 10% better than their current engine at guessing how many stars you will give a movie.  The prize: $1,000,000.  The Netflix executives have said that they're not sure how to quantify the financial benefit of a better recommendation engine, but they're positive that it's worth more than a million dollars.

Recommendations don't just help us to find new products to spend money on (and hey, who doesn't need help with that?); they help us to find emotional fulfillment.  Dating sites are starting to evolve beyond simple search algorithms.  eHarmony prompts you to move beyond "traditional" dating by using their patented Compatibility Matching System to pre-screen partners across 29 dimensions.  Whether or not this system facilitates a more satisfied clientele than a rival dating site with a more primitive matching system - like, oh, I don't know, Adult Friend Finder - remains to be proven.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Attention span approaching zero

For those who haven't seen this yet on my tumblog, here's proof that my girlfriend is the best girlfriend in the world. In your face, chumps!

I remember reading something online a little while back about how Google is actually having a detrimental effect on people's memory skills. Because so much information is now available at all times and can be accessed with a negligible amount of effort, not only is there less incentive to retain information but the ways that we acquire that information are less thorough. These days, you can answer pretty much any bit of trivia that pops into your head - like, what's the name of that caveman-looking dude from Boogie Nights? - within 30 seconds of conceiving the thought.

Tyler & I talked about this yesterday and he said that he read something else about how the internet is actually making a number of us better learners and communicators. I think the reasoning there is that we have to clearly organize our thoughts in order to make the best use of a search algorithm, or to write a blog interesting enough that anyone will actually read it.

Um... I wish I had the links to back these up, but I couldn't find either of these articles via Google. So much for answering any question in 30 seconds.

Maybe the verdict is still out on technology's effect on memory, but I can say definitively that my attention span has been destroyed by my gadget lust. I can't read an article online, listen to a complete song, write an email, or even make it to the end of most YouTube videos without stopping at least 5 times to search for random shit, relevant or otherwise. At the beginning of my workday today, I caught myself listening to my iPod while reading a New York Times article on my phone and writing a 3 sentence email that took me almost 10 minutes to complete. Some would call that multitasking, but that description is a little too flattering.

In somewhat related news, today I created an account on twitter, which is a microblog that provides a service along the lines of the Facebook feed by allowing you to keep in touch with your friends in the most trivial and expedient way possible. Feel free to sign up and friend me!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Input vs. Output

Work is kind of slow these days, so I'm taking some corporate training classes online, like "Influencing Without Authority" and "Critical Thinking," and the best thing about them is that they have all sorts of great pictures to illustrate their points.

I know this is basically a case of the smug, cynical employee making fun of the corporate videos to prove that he's too cool for The Man's brainwash material, but they shouldn't make it so easy on me with pictures like this:

The training I've been going through at work reflects a trend appearing in other parts of my life lately - specifically, a trend in my input to output ratio. 

For example, workplace training can be considered input: the trainee receives information from an outside source.  Workplace duties, for most people, can be considered output: in my case, I produce documents, tweak and install software, troubleshoot the system, etc.  Lately, circumstances have dictated that I've had to spend more time doing the former than the latter.

Creativity can also be thought of as an input/output system.  Reading is input, and lately I've been on a tear, finishing Hunter S. Thompson's posthumous oral biography, the entire Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels, and Alan Cooper's assessment of why tech products suck all in a relatively short amount of time (for me).  However, this is my first written blog post (output) in over a month, while before that I had a streak of several posts no more than two weeks apart.

My guitar/piano practice (output) has been on the decline as well, or at least not as satisfying, and the ideas that I do get around to recording never seem very good to me the next day.  I envy my friends who seem to be better disciplined in this area; I'd expect that they make practice a priority, whereas I can never pick up my guitar until I've replied to all my emails, screwed around for a while, checked all my daily websites for updates... and by then it's usually almost time for this 9-to-5er to get ready for bed.  On the other hand, I've been listening to a shitload of podcasts (input) - Kevin Smith's SModcast and Dan Savage's Savage Lovecast are two of my favorites - and trying to pay better attention to what I like and don't like about the music I listen to, hoping that it can help me improve the stuff I'm recording.

Even my alcohol input seems to be on the rise lately.  But that's not so bad - until you input too much and are forced to output it.

There's no formula for the correct balance of input vs. output in everyone's lives.  In many cases, input facilitates an increase or improvement in output.  It's been fun to talk about this idea with people to sort out which activities are input and which are output - like if you go to the movies with your friends, watching the movie is input and discussing & deconstructing the movie afterwards is output.  This concept has been floating around my brain for a while now and I'm interested to hear other people's input (or output) on it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

New songs! Ahh!

After a consistent two weeks of too much stress and not enough sleep, my body decided that it was going on strike.  I woke up Friday morning aching from head to toe and I've barely left my bedroom since.  Luckily, I've used what little strength I could muster up to post a new set of songs on my MySpace page!  Say hello to the new Tiger Stance EP, Bee Dances.  All of the songs can be downloaded using the links on the MySpace player.  There are a lot of stereo parts that will sound better with headphones on and since most computer speakers sound like cheap garbage I would encourage you to listen to the mp3s on your portable media player of choice.  All of the new songs were made in Ableton Live, and I have to say that Mike Una and Mike Doughty are right: Live is the fucking bomb.  My upgrade to Live 7 showed up on my doorstep last week and you can be damn sure I'll be taking it for a spin once I'm back at full strength.

The old songs have been moved to my account and will remain there available for download.  If anyone knows of a better service for posting music, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Three cheers for the metric system!

Last night I was reading a book called Time and the Art of Living, which is a collection of meditations on time by an English professor named Robert Grudin.  I'm in the middle of a chapter in which Grudin is advocating metric time, which would be a system built upon our base-10 numbering system, and I have to admit that it's making a lot of sense.  24 hours in a day?  60 minutes in an hour?  Why make time that difficult to manage or calculate?  And what's up with this clumsy system of 7-day weeks, and months that not only don't line up evenly with those weeks but are also of different lengths?

It turns out that metric time (or decimal time) was actually adopted by the French during the Revolution at the same time as metric spatial measurement.  According to the website A Guide To Metric Time, there were:

  • 10 days in a metric week (called a dekade)
  • 10 metric hours in a day
  • 100 metric minutes in a metric hour
  • 100 metric seconds in a metric minute
Grudin suggests in his book that each year could be made up of 12 months of 30 days (3 weeks) each, with a vacation period of 5 days (6 in a leap year) to account for the remainder.  We could make up 3 new days of the week, and the days of the week would always fall on the same dates every month.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), the French ditched metric time in 1805 after a glorious 12-year run.

(This is a picture of an actual metric clock from around the time of the Revolution.)

As long as I'm complaining, what's up with this crazy language of ours?  The vowels are pronounced differently based on context, there are all sorts of conjugations specific to certain words, I can't end a sentence with a preposition for some reason... wouldn't it just be easier if we all learned Esperanto, the language created by L. L. Zamenhof in the 1880's?  Esperanto was designed to simplify pronunciation, spelling, and conjugation, in the hopes that it would become a universal auxiliary language.  The characters in the 28-letter alphabet (based on the Roman alphabet) are always pronounced the same way, and conjugations are universal - for example, singular nouns always end in -o, plural nouns always end in -oj, present tense verbs always end in -as, etc.  The global Esperanto community is estimated at as many as 2 million people, with somewhere between 200 and 2,000 native speakers.  There are movies, magazines, even college courses conducted entirely in Esperanto.

(Esperanto's flag, worn as a lapel pin to help speakers identify each other)

Esperanto is built well and is supposedly easy to learn, especially for those who already speak a major European language, but over a century after its inception Esperanto still suffers from a lack of exposure, and English is currently far more universal than it appears Esperanto will ever be.

Both metric time and Esperanto are great ideas that could never get a foothold.  I don't plan on learning Esperanto anytime soon, but I would love to own a metric timepiece.  How cool is that clock from the Revolution?!

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Just a few quick updates from Johnny HQ.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, there are already multiple bands named Sub Rosa including one local to Chicago, so I've decided to change my band name. From now on I'll be putting up music under the name Tiger Stance, which appears to be a unique band name after a little bit of Googling and MySpace searching. I just changed the name of my Sub Rosa profile so there will be no re-friending involved.

Also, I'm trying to put the finishing touches on a new batch of songs to post on the MySpace page, which means I'll have to take the old songs down. The songs are all available for download from the page and I'd love it if you all grabbed copies. I just uploaded the mp3 files again with all of the ID3 tag information populated, meaning that when they are imported into iTunes or any other music program they will have the artist information, album info, and even album art all filled in.

I started a new project this week working with Microsoft at their office in downtown Chicago. There are some very smart dudes & ladies working there. It's intimidating.

Soon to come: a blog about good ideas that fail. In the meantime, please enjoy this video of a "real" air guitar that debuted at CES this week.