Thoughts

Personal

New House Walk-through

June 23rd, 2011

I shot some video of our new house in it's current "before" state. Take a look!

Weeknight Initiatives

August 30th, 2010

I've decided that I'm not getting enough stuff done and it's because I watch too much TV. Now, I've been thinking this for a long time, but today I came up with a new plan to address the challenge. Before I explain what it is, I'll talk about what it isn't.

This isn't a way to get myself to do chores. It doesn't address everything I want to work on because it's simply not conducive to everything. This isn't based on anything I've read recently, it doesn't employ a system, and it isn't tested so I don't know if it will work.

Ok, enough disclaimer. Weeknight Initiatives is a plan that each weeknight (Monday to Thursday) I will set a reminder on my phone at 9:30. At 9:30 I'm done with TV and any other stuff going on. It's initiative time. It's not browsing time, Facebook time, or any other random occupation. For the next two hours I will tackle one initiative, of which I've defined four for myself (writing, coding, health, and gaming). I may choose to substitute others from time to time.

Writing is pretty self-explanatory. I'll work on my writing, primarily my book. Coding includes iPhone coding, web development, computer hacking in general, or any other technological/geeky endeavor. Health is a workout followed by stretching and meditation, with any exercise options available. Gaming is to play video games, either computer or Xbox. Believe it or not, I haven't made any time for it and with summer winding down I want to get back into it.

I'll cycle through my categories each day. If I'm way into one I may do it more than another, but the variety will hopefully keep it from getting stale. I'm not going to make exceptions, because they typically become the rule for me. If I didn't plan ahead and the show isn't over, I'll leave in the middle. Now, something may come up on a weeknight, and that can preempt an initiative, but if I'm at home and nothing is going on then it's on.

Tonight will be the first test of this. I'm going for gaming, since that's an easy one (twist my arm, right?). I'll work through the rest this week and see if the plan needs any tweaking. I've got about 45 minutes, so I've got to wrap up some things first. Wish me luck!

Too Many Directions

October 18th, 2009

I'm overwhelmed, and I'm not sure what to do about it. I realize that the only way to accomplish my goals is to work at them diligently, to prioritize that which is important, and focus on important things. Unfortunately, I'm having a difficult time deciding what the priority is. For roughly the last six months, the priority was the wedding, and that having been executed fairly well I'm now free to turn my attention to other things. Granted we are still (slowly) cleaning the house after the wedding, the return from the trip, and the post-wedding shopping took their toll on it, and of course we still need to write thank you notes to everyone.

However, in larger strokes I have before me an array of projects that I would like to undertake, knowing that unless I focus on one I will not make much progress. My website has grown stagnant, after another few years of little change. It's amazing how quickly time flies, but the current visual design has been in place for over three years. I have a host of ideas on how to improve the site. More over, the content is not as fresh as I'd like, with no new photos in a year, many movies not reviewed, and little more than tedious journal entries and the occasional thought. Why spend a lot of time re-working the look when content is king?

The next project is the engine my website runs on, Spark. I developed it from scratch, but never truly finished it. Worse, I've come up with designs entailing dramatic overhauls, as is my habit. This would require a lot of time and work, and learning new coding methods. The end product would be more flexible and capable, and could drive all sorts of sites that I've wanted to create as well as being a platform I could potentially market to others.

Code Writing Robot, my iPhone design company with Mike, has done little since releasing our first program, save one small update. I've been approached about an Android app, which would be itself a whole new set of challenges if I undertook it. Mike and I have a number of ideas we could work on as well, provided we have the time and inclination.

I've made some small efforts to get back into serious writing, working on some background and starting at a re-write of my long languishing book. This is truly the oldest incomplete project I have, since I started it in eighth grade and finished the first draft in high school.

There are numerous other small projects, interests, plans, ideas, and such that are also distracting me and pulling me many ways at once. I truly don't know where to direct my efforts, which is the most interesting to me, or which has the greatest chance of success. Each has its particular appeal and its drawbacks. Since each would enter a crowded field of similar products, I need to decide what I am best at and what sort of endeavor I stand the best chance at distinguishing myself at.

Ultimately of course I want to do all of these things, and choosing one to come before the others is a struggle, but that's the whole point of this post. I'm not sure in writing it that I am any closer to a conclusion, so I suppose I'll have to leave it open-ended.

Three Mes

July 16th, 2009

For a long time I've held the belief that one of the keys to a good life is balance between your present and future. That is, not sacrificing all of your present for a future you may never get, nor sacrificing your future by doing nothing to prepare for it in the present. By finding this balance, you ensure that you enjoy life as it happens while not being burdened by a past of excess.

Recently I've been thinking about this in a more abstract way, or possibly just a more humorous way. I've been thinking about past me and future me as distinct individuals. This sounds strange, but it can help when I'm thinking about that balance. It occurred to me that I had been leaving a lot of things for future me to do, under the apparent assumption that future me would be more inclined to do them. Now, knowing me, this isn't true. Future me is not going to be any more interested in taking care of things like washing dishes or selling things on Craigslist than I am. Similarly, I've recognized when my past self has done something nice for me, or left something unsavory to do that he really should have done.

This may or may not be helpful or even healthy, but it's allowing me to be a bit more diligent in efforts that I've been slacking on. Future me deserves better than I've gotten in a lot of cases. There are a lot of cases where past me could have done better by me, and I don't want to do the same thing to future me.

This exercise may be little more than a mental trick and it may not even last, but for the moment it's helping me to get some things done that have been lingering, things I don't want to just pass down the line to future me. He's going to have enough to do anyway without me leaving all of my stuff for him to do on top of it.

Hello, please hold

June 20th, 2008

By now we're all used to the fun of automated phone systems and waiting on hold for "the next available associate", but I was pretty surprised a few minutes ago when I received a phone call, and on answering the unknown number was greeted by a voice telling me all associates are busy.

Now seriously, what the hell? Who calls you up and puts you on hold? I didn't wait to find out and instead hung up the phone. Clearly if enough people are willing to be called in the middle of the day and placed on hold to then wait for someone to explain why they were called, more companies will do it. I'm irritated enough as it is by the calls where I say "Hello, this is Matt" only to hear a long pause on the other end, followed by "Hi, can I please speak to Matthew?". We will only be subjected to this if it works, if we put up with it. I, as a consumer, will not tolerate it, and I urge others to do the same. If some faceless corporation needs to get a hold of me, they can get someone on the other end of the line when they call me.

Influence

May 11th, 2008

I've been thinking a lot recently about influencing people. For a long time I've held a somewhat laissez faire attitude that was equal parts live and let live and a belief that people have reasons for the things they believe. Somehow it isn't my right to try to change the way other people think. That I have my opinion and they have theirs, and that's as it should be. This concept has driven a lot of the way I interact with people, where I express my opinion and give my reasons for thinking, then listen to the other persons opinion for anything that is new information that I haven't factored into my perspective. My assumption is that others take a similar tack, though ultimately it's up to them.

However, having held this attitude for many years, I'm coming to a realization that if everyone took this stance perhaps the world would be fine, but many people don't. There are many people in positions both significant and not that influence those around them, that inspire in other people a desire to hold a belief. Sometimes this can be a powerful force for good, and other times that motivation can lead to fear mongering and manipulation. The media makes a lot of effort to appear unbiased while most elements are pushing a particular agenda. People gravitate to media that reinforces their beliefs and then guides those people to hold other beliefs, be it left wing or right wing.

I see the difference that it makes when you have people in positions of leadership that inspire others. I've seen how that can bring about incredible change, for good or ill. What gives these people the mandate or the right to direct the forces of public perception or bring about social change? The answer is that nothing does. They are in a position of influence because of their ability to influence. It is a reinforcing system that elevates to the top not those that make the best decisions, but those that can make the case for their decisions. When you look back at presidential candidates that didn't make it, at a teacher that bored you, a manager that didn't make you happy to come to work, or anyone in authority that you didn't listen to, didn't believe in, and didn't care about, they all failed to inspire. Perhaps they inspired some, but not enough to make a difference. Maybe they even got close, but someone else ultimately made a strong enough case against them.

What is the difference between a leader that lays out broad plans and everyone says 'yeah, right' and one that lays out a vision that everyone says 'let's get started'? It's not the words they use and it isn't the idea they have, though those are certainly factors. Some people seem to have a knack for being inspirational, others are cliched and trite, still others are focused on the wrong things.

There's a saying that you see on bumper stickers and in other equally banal places. It says "Be the change you want to see in the world". I like to think that the way I live my life reflects a lot of the attitudes and behaviors I'd like to see in others, that the way I treat other people and the way that I conduct my business is honest and fair. I think I give people the benefit of the doubt and look for the good in others, that I have integrity and good judgement. What I'm starting to realize is that it isn't enough. What I'm doing will not bring about change in others, and it won't lead to the world I want to see.

There are so many forces at work trying to pull people down, to make them see evil in others that isn't there, and to divide us along every line imaginable. All around the world are those that profit from fomenting discontent, those look down on their fellow man as if they have done anything to distinguish themselves, and those that prey on ignorance and beat back against progress with fervor and lies.

We all have our own lives, our own sphere of interest, and enough troubles and trials to fill our days. How many days will go by before you look back and wonder what happened, where you could have really made a difference in the world instead of just being a drop of water in the wave. I am thinking now about how I can influence others, about how I can inspire, and whether I can be a leader. I don't know where this road goes, or if it will be swallowed quickly by the world once more, leaving me to again regard others with some degree of indifference, and if they will do the same.

Chronicles of Automotive Entropy

March 19th, 2008

Those that have been reading my Journal have been subjected to my ongoing litany of woes when it comes to my car (and Sarah's). Just this week I've been treated to a bad headlight and today the driver information system added a brake pad warning to the list. Now, brake pads wear out. I understand this, having replaced them on this car before (in October of 2006, actually). It's mostly just the frequency of problems that is getting to me. Allow me to go over the recent past of my car, a 2004 Audi A4 Quattro 1.8T that now has about 85,000 miles on it. If you're already sick of this (believe me, I am) feel free not to read on.

Back in September of last year I bought four new tires. The tires weren't that old, but a combination of two bent rims and the resulting uneven tread wear, as well as a slow leak and a previous flat that both had bulging sidewalls went along with some 75,000 mile maintenance to make a very expensive trip to the dealer. I didn't replace the rims, but put the really bad one on the spare because they wanted to charge me $575 each.

That trip to the dealer came after replacing my windshield because I had cracked it replacing the wiper assembly that had seized up one day. It did not resolve the two power windows that don't work properly due to broken window regulators. Incidentally, the windshield wipers have seized up since replacing the assembly once or twice.

In January I bought the car out of lease because I owed less than it was worth, I was over my miles, and I didn't want to pay for the broken window regulators or the bent rims. I didn't want a car payment so I paid it off with money I had saved. The theory goes that it is a bad idea to finance a depreciating asset. The lack of a car payment was also very appealing after paying so much in repairs on top of four years of fairly high payments. The day after I sent off the check, the car broke down on the way to work not far from home, which wound up being the ignition coils which I replaced along with the spark plugs for good measure.

Not long after this the check engine light returned with a catalytic converter code. I suspect the ignition coil problem may have caused this, given that the manifold was glowing because fuel wasn't burning in the cylinder, but I don't know for certain. The government requires manufacturers to warranty the catalytic converter to 80,000 miles, which I am of course over.

Within a week or so I hit a pot hole and get a flat tire. Of course it can't be patched (bulging sidewall) so I get a new tire and then find that my alignment is out. Before I get the alignment done I have to replace two tail lights that have gone out (a chronic problem). About a week later the aforementioned headlight goes which took me two hours to replace because the screwdriver bit fell into the engine bay, and two days later I get the brake pad warning.

Tonight I ordered two window regulators. The check engine light hasn't come on since I reset it a couple days ago, but I have a healthy degree of skepticism that it's just biding its time. In addition to the brake pads, its due for an oil change. The timing belt and the ribbed belt are also due and the center console armrest lid has a broken latch. I did find the rims online for $180, so I'll probably get those in a couple of months. I may also get some led tail lights to prevent the bulb failure problem.

My frustration through all of this is that I keep expecting it to pass. I keep thinking that I will reach some level of stability, where I don't turn the car on with a sense of apprehension. I really want to work through the problems one by one and think of the car as a collection of parts rather than a whole being with a penchant for failure or a desire to cause me misery. I am trying to regard the situation with patience and evaluate it logically. Unfortunately, while overall the problems I've had are mostly not that expensive so long as I avoid Glenview Audi, cars are very much an emotional experience. Despite my best efforts I am developing hate of the machine; an expectation of frustration and disappointment. That isn't the experience I want to have when I drive, and I don't know if I can get past it, particularly when things keep breaking.

More Than Survival

January 7th, 2008

In one of those hypothetical scenarios where you're a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world (the more likely scenarios where you don't survive are a lot less interesting) and presumably others have survived as well, I started wondering what life would be like. An alternate version involves being thrown back in time or stranded on a deserted island, but we'll go with post-apocalyptic here. The basic premise is that you're in a natural environment, with no supplies, tools, or man-made stuff with some number of other people, say twenty to fifty. I'm fairly sure that we could survive, build shelter, find food and water, etc. The question gets more interesting when you consider what skills you truly possess that would be useful.

For example, in a future without electricity, web programming becomes less important. Even fixing a car is kind of out of the realm. I'm thinking about how to make cloth, work metal, maybe fire pottery. The basic supplies that civilization requires quickly outstrip the utility of rocks and carved wood. Do you know anyone that can smelt ore? I mean, to move past hunting and gathering you're going to want to farm. Stone plows are great and all, but metal would be really handy for a lot of things. With metal you can even start thinking about motors, gears, and electricity again.

Do you know how to make thread from cotton, wool, or hemp? Once you have thread, do you know how to make a loom? Could you find clay, mold it into a bowl, build a kiln and fire it? I think a lot of people possess the basic fire-making, hunting, camping, even boiling water skills, but once you get past that there's a whole level of technologies that in the modern world have been supplanted, industrialized, and in general moved beyond the scope of the average person to recreate. What about recognizing various species of plants for food and medicine? If you're with a completely random set of 20-50 people, how likely is it that you're going to have among you the knowledge necessary to progress beyond the most primitive state of man?

I'm not the sort of person that actually believes that an asteroid is going to wipe out most of the planet and leave me to fend for myself, but it does interest me to think about the skills that our civilization lets slip away. I know that there are people out there that know and understand everything I've mentioned, but how common are they? What are the odds that your little camp of survivors will have a Professor that can make a radio from coconuts? What critical knowledge could you gain right now that would benefit you and your group immensely if you just bothered to look it up? With the scenario being so improbable, is it even worth it to know these things? I don't know that there is any practical use unless you're going to a historical reenactment. I don't really have a point in all of this. It's just one of those random thoughts that this page exists to express.

xkcd

October 24th, 2007

A long while back I heard about xkcd and read a few, but I didn't really get into it. Apparently some time after that evaluation, it got pretty funny and insightful. So I've been catching up on it and I came across one just now that I think is awesome. So, with that said, I'm doing a link and run:

xkcd - Dreams

Nutrition Rating System

September 11th, 2007

Last night Sarah and I got into a discussion about corporate marketing techniques versus personal responsibility. I believe that people are ultimately responsible for the products that they buy and that so long as companies are not misleading or untruthful in their advertising they can use whatever coercive tactics they want. I may find it annoying, and I may protest some of the more intrusive advertisements and some of the tackier product placements or truth-stretching statements, but I have the option of not buying from companies whose methods I disagree with. That extends beyond advertising to any and all of their business practices.

At the same time, I have made a conscious effort in recent years not develop strong emotions about companies, and to reduce the strength of emotion that I have accrued over the years. I feel that strong attachment or hate for a company is a form of anthropomorphism. Every company has multiple employees that each make different decisions that may impact how that company is perceived, and the sum of the experiences a person has from their own interactions, from what they see in advertisements, and from what they read or hear develops into that person's perception of that company. For myself, I want to base my decision to patronize a company or not to be based on that information and those perceptions, while still keeping a healthy detachment in how I think about what really isn't a singular entity. From Walmart to Starbucks to Microsoft and Apple, I'm trying to keep in mind that these are large, complex organizations that shouldn't be summed up with love or hate.

One of the things we talked about is that the most people seem to fall prey to this marketing, thinking that they need or deserve or should want something because of the way it is advertised, because of the consumer culture we live in, and because of perceived social pressures. In a lot of cases, though, the products are genuinely useful and worthwhile. Communities can develop around the experiences with different products, from a bicycle or motorcycle to a Gameboy or an Xbox, and being part of them can be rewarding.

Ultimately I believe the problem isn't companies and their marketing, it's people making often poor decisions with their money. Granted it is their money to spend as they wish, but while I have a fair share of libertarian leanings I feel education is a powerful force for social good. Often people make poor decisions because they don't have all of the information or the information is not presented in a form that is simple to understand. I don't believe for a second that people are too stupid to make good decisions when we've seen generations of people with better spending habits than are prevalent today. Today I happened across a story in the New York Times that underscored that belief.

A chain of grocery stores on the East coast started labelling all of the foods they sell with a nutritional star system. The more stars, the healthier it is for you. They found after doing this for a year that the products people chose shifted toward the healthier items. Some products marketed as health foods got no stars because they contained too much sugar or salt. Other products saw an uptick in sales once the stars showed people that it was a healthier food choice. With our already mandated nutritional labels, how difficult would it be for a standard set of criteria for determining healthiness to be developed by the FDA and a star system implemented for nutritional labels? How would this shift the ingredients that companies choose to put in their foods and the buying habits of Americans? If they could plainly see not by weighing various ingredients or daily diet percentages but by a simple to read and understand overall nutritional rating, it could even have an impact on the obesity of the country.

With all of the signals people get from TV, magazines, and the Internet about gadgets, luxuries, and lifestyle, maybe what we need are some PSAs reminding us to stay grounded, to be a bit more conservative in our spending, and to think about the choices we make every day. On the other hand, our government is just as bad about spending money it doesn't have, and our economy is already precariously upheld by rampant consumer spending. If nothing else, it's food for thought.