Category Archives: Personal

Aaron Swartz

I met Aaron briefly at SXSW, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, when the conference was still so small you could run into everyone. He wouldn’t remember me, but I followed his work and linked to him a couple times here. He was so young and already doing great things.

Lawrence Lessig:

“He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?”

Brent Simmons:

“He’d gone on to do cool things — and make some mistakes, and get in trouble for them. But I knew he was extraordinary, and I expected him to grow up to become an American hero.”

Cory Doctorow:

“Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

Daniel Jalkut:

“After witnessing a small extent of the struggles Aaron fought, I choose to commemorate him with gratitude for the many bad weeks when he resisted drastic action, and gave us all more time to appreciate and share his contributions.”

and:

“You’ve honored Aaron Swartz by acknowledging what he did before he died. Now honor him by doing what he might have done.”

Such a loss. For more links, I started a collection of tweets when my timeline woke up to the news of Aaron’s death.

Buy apps, help Japan

From a “beautiful post by Craig Mod”:http://craigmod.com/satellite/nourishing_wake/:

“I pulled all of the poison out of the air — I drew it deep into my lungs and exhaled into my socks. My socks are full of the radiation, don’t touch the socks. I pulled the tsunami back. I drew the inland water back into the ocean. I pulled it over the rice paddies, unflattening them; the trees, straightening them — a billion billion leaves fluttering back into position. I drew the water back, back, back. It was easy because it was what I had to do, I tell her looking her straight in the eyes. Perhaps you don’t understand, but I had to.”

Check out “appappeal.jp”:http://appappeal.jp/ for a collection of apps that are donating their profits to the Japanese Red Cross Society. Buy a few. And don’t forget “Developers Against Poverty”:http://developersagainstpoverty.org/, which needs your donations before the end of the month.

Honeymoon world tour

“Via Daring Fireball”:http://daringfireball.net/linked/2010/09/12/lanyrd, I’m loving “this blog and idea”:http://sparkabout.net/ from newlyweds Simon Willison and Natalie Downe, who are traveling the world on a working honeymoon:

“We’ve been in Morocco now for just over a month. We launched Lanyrd from a rented apartment in Casablanca, and we’re writing this update from a Riad in Marrakech. So far, travelling and working on a startup have complemented each other surprisingly well.”

In 1999, Traci and I took a similar but shorter 2-month vacation to Europe where we both worked remotely. This was before wi-fi, so much of the destination planning centered around pay-by-the-hour internet cafes or reliable hotel phone lines for dial-up. Lots of backpacking, cheap rooms, and trains and boats between 6 countries. We were constantly broke and our accommodations varied between the crummy (freezing showers at a hostel) to the beautiful (freezing showers with a Mediterranean view), but those were easily some of the best weeks of my life. At the end of the trip we got engaged and came back to America to get married and have kids and never leave our neighborhood again.

Someday we’ll go back.

Mike Lee

I like this paragraph from a “long post by Mike Lee”:http://le.mu.rs/motherfucker/Entries/2010/7/1_Fuck_modesty.html

“On any project, whether it’s a band performance or a team shipping, there’s a time to curse, and a time to praise. Someone who gets those in the right order is an inspiring leader. Someone who gets them backwards is just an asshole.”

As I mentioned on a recent “Core Intuition”:http://www.coreint.org/2010/06/episode-31-skipping-the-morning-session/ episode, I have a really hard time remembering who I meet unless I read their blog, or follow them on Twitter, or have heard about their reputation. None of these were true when I first met Mike Lee, walking to pizza one night at C4[1]. I didn’t even know at the time that he worked at Delicious Monster. But it didn’t matter because he essentially opened with: “I was hit by a car last week.”

Bam! World’s toughest programmer indeed, and now I’ll never forget his face or the conversation. We can’t all be as relentlessly passionate and memorable as Mike, but there is a lesson here in personal brand: finding what sets us apart from every other programmer and letting that shape our voice and the projects we work on.

LEGO minifigures

My son is seriously into LEGO Star Wars right now. He’ll spend hours every day building ships, and it’s the most incredible thing watching how good he’s gotten at it over the last couple of months. For his birthday we ordered him the X-wing set, which is “all kinds of awesome”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/manton/3766379995.

One of my favorite posts to this blog was partially about LEGOs. “In 2006 I wrote”:http://www.manton.org/2006/01/limitations_in_toys.html:

“If the toy is made to do a few specific amazing things, with a bunch of bullet points and exclamation marks on the side of the box, be weary of it. For example, modern LEGOs come in all sorts of pre-molded shapes. If you buy the pirate set, it will be great fun for the first few days until you realize that it can only be a pirate ship. But if you buy a bucket of LEGOs (yes, they still sell these), you can build a pirate ship one day and a barn the next.”

There’s a lot more to the post, and I still believe what I wrote. But it turns out that LEGO Star Wars sets are surprisingly well designed. There are very few custom pieces, and almost all the sets (we must have about 10) share the same shapes, just with different colors and for different purposes. I’m a big fan now.

lego_minifigures.jpg

Tonight we sat in bed together and looked at LEGO catalogs. I’m in those awesome years where being a dad is just like being a kid again, and this post is to capture a little part of that moment, before it’s gone.

Ugly reminders

In my “last post about family pricing”:http://www.manton.org/2008/10/family_packs.html, I mentioned that I modified my PayPal scripts for backend order processing to support family packs, but I left out that the whole system is a hack. A hack that processes a nice chunk of money, but a hack nonetheless. Hard-coded PayPal buttons and coupons, PHP that would make even newbie web developers cringe, too few lines of code to really be taken seriously.

I refactored it a few months ago, but kept some ugliness in there to remind myself that I should move to a “mature store solution”:http://www.potionfactory.com/potionstore. Sometimes we build systems that are flawed from the start, and it’s wasted effort to invest time into something that will be replaced. Instead, let the thing stand out like a sore thumb.

It’s a complement to doing things simply and taking shortcuts even when it’s tempting to overengineer and build the perfect system.

This ugliness trick works for other things too. For example, the Wii Transfer product page is /software/wiitransfer/ instead of just /wiitransfer. I gave this URL more thought and second-guessing than it deserved, and every time I type /software/ or see the link I cringe a little. But I did it for a purpose: one day I hope to sell or promote things other than software. For example, when I registered riverfold.com I was working on an independent animated film which I planned to sell on DVD direct to customers. (I’ve had that shelved for years now, though, as I’ve recently discovered there are only 24 hours in a day.)

Others will say that you shouldn’t mix such different projects under the same brand, and that makes a lot of sense. But I also know it to be true that if you want to build a strong blog following, you should stick to one subject and become a respected voice in that field, and I didn’t do that either. I made a conscious decision with my personal blog to keep it loose and cover several different things that I am passionate about, and because of that I’ll likely never have tens of thousands of readers as other popular Mac development blogs have.

So maybe one day Riverfold will sell something other than Mac software. When that time comes, it won’t matter what the URLs are, but until then, the /software/ URL won’t let me ever forget that I have other things in mind.

Work at sunrise

I don’t have an expensive camera and I don’t know that much about photography, but you’ll just have to trust me that the sky looked amazing this morning. Especially a few minutes before this picture was taken.

Sunrise

We should have another 80-degree day today before it gets cold again. As much as I complain that it doesn’t snow in Austin — that wouldn’t it be great if the kids could live a real winter at least every couple of years, the kind they read about in books and newspaper comics — I have to admit that it’s pretty nice to be outside with a t-shirt in the middle of winter.

Funny thing about mornings. I could sleep until noon every day if kids and work didn’t prevent me, but I seem to be most productive early anyway. Stepping into my home office still dreary eyed and without breakfast, catching up on tweets and email from Europeans and other night owls, then settling into source code or design or testing with some amount of quiet before the rest of the world sends another batch of distractions my way.

Forget the realities of slipping release schedules and buggy software. Morning is that special time when everything still seems possible.

Slow-growing trees

We planted some trees in our front yard recently. They take decades to grow, and we are under no illusion that they’ll provide meaningful shade before our children have families of their own. It’s easy to say: “Why should I bother? It will take too long before we can see results.”

But it’s like anything — the sooner you start, the less time you have to wait until that thing is mature.

If you procrastinate forever, just because you won’t see results anytime soon, you’ll find yourself looking back 10 years later and wishing if only I had just planted that tree / started that new software project, it would have been done by now.

In other words, don’t let the weight of potential work stop you from doing the right thing.

Passion and Paul Potts

The other night I was digging around in other people’s old blog posts, catching up on things I never read but should, and I found this gem on “Seth Godin’s blog”:http://sethgodin.typepad.com/.

paul_potts.jpg

“Watch it on YouTube”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k08yxu57NA and then come back here.

Maybe the video and show is old news to everyone else, but I was stunned. A seemingly unremarkable man, by his own admission lacking confidence, the judges and audience clearly expecting the worst, expecting humiliation.

And then he is transformed. He nails it.

I consider myself reasonably competent, but not great, at what I do. My weakness is that I have my hands in too many unrelated projects to ever master one thing. The areas I am most passionate about receive a cruel pittance of attention. Not so with Paul Potts.

It’s inspiring to see someone who is just freakin’ good, rising above expectation out of a bland job to surprise and overwhelm everyone around him.

Oh, and the nice thing about discovering this video late? I can fast-forward to the finish. “Here’s the winning performance”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDB9zwlXrB8 with some additional backstory.

Wii Transfer in PMC auction bundle

Seth Dellingham is “auctioning off a bunch of great Mac software”:http://www.truerwords.net/fundraising/pmcsoftware/ for the Pan-Mass Challenge, raising money for cancer care and research. “Wii Transfer”:http://www.riverfold.com/software/wiitransfer/ is included in the 2nd bundle, full of games and useful utilities. Some of the gems I noticed in the list include Black Ink, SketchFighter 4000 Alpha, Fission, Tangerine, BetterZip, FlySketch, Knox, Overflow, Pukka, and SuperDuper, among 40 others. “Click over to the eBay auction”:http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&ih=011&viewitem=&item=320149165952 for the complete list before the auction ends tomorrow.

Lost season 3

The 2-hour season finale for Lost last year was some of the best television you’ll ever see. I re-watched it a few days ago and it was great stuff. And yet, I had a feeling that season 3, which premiered this week, would reset the clock again. Introduce a few more characters, change all the usual assumptions, but leave more questions instead of answering the existing ones.

Turns out it was even worse than that. Frankly, the start of season 3 was junk. Clearly the writers are making stuff up as they go along, and that drives me nuts.

When I think of epic story, perfectively woven together from beginning to end, I think of JRR Tolkien. After reading the collection of original manuscripts and commentary by his son Christopher Tolkien, I was surprised that for the first half of Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien really didn’t know where he was going with it. It was chapter by chapter, and characters changed or story points were rewritten as he went along. But there came a point where I think the vision must have clicked for him, and at that point everything came together and the result was a work of fiction that will hold up for centuries.

The suspension of disbelief works on me better than many people. If I feel like the creator of a novel or film has a real vision I’ll overlook the small problems and fall in love with the story and characters. For Lost, the dialog and pacing of each episode is technically brilliant, but the overall vision is missing, and I don’t think it will resolve in any meaningful way. Instead, the ratings will slowly decline until the show disappears in the same pattern of X-Files or Alias before it.

So I may have to sign-off of Lost for a while. I did the same thing in the middle of season 2 when it got slow. Perhaps I’ll just read the synopsis and then join back in for the season finale every year. I’m afraid every time I watch it I’ll compare it to what it could have been, and only think of executives trying to milk the show for as many seasons as possible. I don’t want to be dragged along with them. Thanks anyway.

New fence

Last month I tore down the rotting privacy fence in our backyard and built a new low spaced-picket fence. In addition to just being ugly to look at and nearly collapsed in a few places, the old fence was tall and prevented us from enjoying the space behind our house: essentially a private park owned by a local church but also accessible to the neighborhood.

new fence It took me a week of part-time work and numerous Home Depot trips to build the new fence, which is about 60 feet across. I was able to salvage the strongest of the existing posts, cutting them off to match the new fence height. The ones that were rotten I removed and replaced by laying several new posts in concrete. I measured and cut each post so that the top of the fence line was level even though the ground slopped up slightly on one side of the yard.

I’m very happy with the way it turned out. It opened the yard up even more than I was hoping for, and the better gate makes it easy to take a walk in the back. Another side effect I had not expected was encountering new people who routinely take their dogs for walks. Having a shorter fence is similar to parking your car in the driveway instead of your garage: you’ll see your neighbors more if you do.

Anyway, a very rewarding experience. After so much crafting code and pushing pixels, it’s nice to build something real and see the results. The “image on Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/manton/155794959/ is one I took a few evenings ago and shows about half the full fence length.

Red crayon

I was wired when I got back at midnight last Thursday from the late Mission Impossible 3 show with “Damon”:http://www.damonclinkscales.com/. A storm had passed over while we were in the theater. Tree branches were down in the neighborhood, and rain continued.

I sat at the dining room table with a sheet of typing paper and a fat red kids crayon and did some characters. It’s hard to draw small with something so big. These were at least twice the diameter of your standard crayon. I shrunk the result slightly and included a few below because I liked some of the line, despite the otherwise clunkiness.

Fun with a fat red crayon

New year drawing resolution

For me, one of the best sources of motivation is when I know other people are paying attention. So, my new year’s resolution is going to be to draw more and post at least one drawing a week to this weblog, either standalone or to illustrate a post.

Happy new year!

Randal and Rebecca

Okay, I admit it. I’ve been watching The Apprentice this year. I hate being addicted to it. It’s not even entertaining for me because it’s so stressful just to watch. I’m probably more nervous sitting on my couch then they are in the boardroom.

(Spoiler warning for those of you who do not watch live television.)

Traci predicted he would hire both of them, and I was leaning toward a Rebecca pick, but either choice would be fine. Then Trump totally sets it up to hire both of them with the two potential jobs, until Randal slaps Rebecca in the face with the “There can only be one Apprentice” line. Unbelievable. I’m still obsessing over how wrong that was.

Hopefully writing this blog post will allow me to move on and think about something else.

I found my cell phone

So a couple of months ago a 1-year-old who shall remain nameless tossed my cell phone into the toilet. I thought surely I would have to buy a new phone, but after taking it all apart, cleaning it, and letting it dry in the sun — good as new. (Except for the screen. Wow, that thing has seen better days.)

Then, a few weeks later, the phone disappeared altogether. Again, I’d probably have to drop some $$$ and buy a new one. But you know what? I stopped looking for it. I could borrow Traci’s if I really needed one, I haven’t been traveling recently, and there is something strangely liberating about going to the store or whatnot and being impossible to contact. (Except for pigeons. They will always work in a pinch.)

The phone turned up yesterday. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.

Hurricane Rita

Blue sky clouds They warned of 70mph winds, massive flooding, and loss of power, but in the last days before landfall Hurricane Rita shifted north and Austin didn’t receive even a drop of rain. The organizers of Austin City Limits Music Festival were so proud of themselves for waiting to cancel the weekend concert series, but the evacuees were less pleased — stuck in Austin at shelters because the hotels were booked for an ACL in limbo.

Meanwhile, people panic and grocery store shelves are almost out of canned food and bottled water. The less than 3-hour trip from Houston becomes a long full day of gas shortages and frustrated evacuees.

Cars are not an efficient way to transport large numbers of people, but the rail and public transportation infrastructure in this oil state is pathetic. Nightline’s Ted Koppel asked the obvious question to someone from Homeland Security, but they acted as if they didn’t even understand there was a problem. If you can’t get out of a major city with a week’s notice, how can you get out in a real emergency?

Hurricane Katrina

Last Wednesday I wrote a rant destined for this space, I was so saddened and then upset by what was happening in Louisiana. But I let the post sit unpublished, and by the end of the week others were voicing my frustrating much better than I could have. Randy Lander used profanity, Michael Moore raised the National Guard question, and the New York Times criticized the lack of leadership from our President.

It was particularly refreshing to read some of my everyday weblogs and see personal stories. Keith Lango, an animator from Dallas, broke from his usual animation topics to describe what his church was doing to help evacuees.

Last week you could feel the frustration as people wanted to reach out but didn’t know how. Some of Traci’s family in southwestern Louisiana took their boats to New Orleans to help in the rescue effort, but were turned away, despite the call going out earlier for exactly that kind of help.

While leaders were still making promises of troops or doctors or buses two days into the aftermath, MoveOn.org had built a brand new web application for helping shelters and people now homeless to connect with others who are offering spare bedrooms: HurricaneHousing.org. It’s working.

We sent baby stuff to family in Louisiana, gave to the Red Cross, and then yesterday loaded up a bunch of clothes and bedding to take to the central drop-off location here in Austin. Driving down the highway today my eyes searched for the location. We needn’t have worried about missing it. There was a huge line of cars entering to donate, with several police cars and many volunteers directing traffic. Just about every level of the several-story parking garage was loaded with items — bags of clothing, beds, and baby toys stacked high and stretching across the whole area of the garage. It was being sorted pretty well, and it was heart-warming to see that it wasn’t just going to sit there for weeks — some of the most important items, like diapers, bottled water, and suitcases, were already piled up on slats and wrapped up, ready to be picked up by trucks and taken to shelters. A daunting task was slowly being whittled away and you could feel that efforts were paying off.

This disaster will likely rival the World Trade Center in terms of lives lost and damage done. And yet television stations didn’t suspend normal coverage as they did on September 11, nor did advertisers pull ads (unbelievably, we saw several for cruise ships and gas generators). I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, just that the shock took a couple of days to build up rather than the immediacy of an airplane crash. And I’m glad photographers and television crews got in, since this was very hard to visualize otherwise.

There’s going to be a lot of blame thrown around in the coming weeks and months. Some of it justified and some just politics. Personally, I see this as a national security failure. Just a week after the storm hit, protests are already being organized. People are angry.

I’d like to end on an uplifting note, with some message of hope and perseverance, but really, that seems a little naive. Still, great work is being done, and it’s inspiring to see it.