Email bulletins working (really)

No life stories today, just a site update. I’ve hacked some of the back end of the web site so that I can get the site sent out by email. If you want to start receiving site updates via email so you don’t have to point your web browser at the site all the time (and yes, I know the site goes out from time to time), go to your preferences and toggle the switch that says you want to receive email bulletins.

More Navigation

Update: I’ve put together a couple pages that highlight some sets of stories that make sense together. So far there are two: a batch of travel related stories I wrote last year, and a page that pulls together the stories that have more or less to do with my time in Seattle in the summer of 2001. You can get to them from the Navigation area on the left hand side of all the pages.

Hopefully this starts to address some of the navigation challenges imposed by the “calendar” format of the site, and to make some of the writing on the site a little more discoverable. Let me know if you like the change.

Continuous Improvement

The title of this piece is a phrase you hear a lot in consulting, software development, higher education, and basically any other highly complex process environment. When I hear the phrase “continuous improvement,” I generally think it means three things:

  1. The speaker acknowledges that the thing being “continuously improved” is broken.
  2. The speaker confesses that not only is it broken, it’s so badly broken that it will never be fixed.
  3. Look for a lot of half-assed changes to try to fix the problems, but never really succeed.

Maybe that’s a little too cynical. I certainly hope it’s too cynical for my “continuous improvement” efforts on this site!

Improving the site

One of the nice things about writing a personal web log is that, at least until you get linked by Dave, you know everyone in your audience. I’ve been taking advantage of that to gather feedback from people about how the site is working for them. I’ve heard two pieces of feedback: the navigation can be confusing, and the email options don’t work. I’m trying to address both of those:

  • Navigation: I’ve just added a new help page to the site, accessible both from the FAQ and from the side links on each page. It explains how the site works, in concept and in how you click from page to page. I’m also trying to improve how things on the site are labeled.
  • Email: I think that I didn’t understand how the email bulletins feature was supposed to work. I’m changing the process for how I write the front page of this site. After I write a page, I’ll manually send out a bulletin with the contents of the page. If that works, this will be the first page update you’ll get by email. Remember, you can turn bulletin notification on and off using your Preferences.

This site is definitely a work in progress, so please give feedback either to me directly or on the site. If you have problems with the site navigation or have an idea of how I could improve it, or if the email bulletins don’t work, let me know! As Dave Winer, the developer behind the Manila platform used to say, “Dig we must!” It’s a phrase I prefer to “continuous improvement” because it’s more concise: there’s work to be done! I’ve got to do it! I’m working on it now!

Overreaching

I’m feeling a bit overextended lately. This is nothing new for me; after all, I gave myself an ulcer when I was an undergrad with the stress of the various things I was trying to accomplish. I’m still surprised on a day like today when it seems I haven’t learned my lesson.

This summer, I’m trying to do the following:

  • Complete a successful internship
  • Customize a commercial calendar package for MIT’s entrepreneurship portal, e-MIT
  • Give the web site for the Sloan Leadership Forum a facelift
  • Get ready for a new season of the Sloan E-52s — including arranging some music
  • Oh, yeah–and be a good husband

Am I stupid? Why do I always overpromise things?

A few years ago at AMS, I had a 360-degree review. If you’ve never been through one of these, I highly recommend it as a diagnostic tool. A group of your direct reports, managers, customers, and peers provide you with anonymized feedback in response to a questionnaire designed to measure your leadership effectiveness. It can be pretty humbling. One of the respondents noted my tendency to get involved in a lot of things (at the time, I was, at the request of my management and my clients, holding two unrelated full-time positions), and accused me essentially of letting my ambition write checks that I couldn’t cash.

Maybe there’s some truth in that statement. I don’t know that I’d ever considered ambition a major component of my personality, but maybe that’s the problem — or vanity, or something. Or just a chronic inability to estimate time. I do know it’s frustrating not having the time and energy to deliver the best things that I can.

Back in Boston

…at least for the weekend. After my long sleepless plane ride (which admittedly was freakishly cheap), it was a relief to just sit on the bank of the Esplanade in Boston beside the river and watch the crowds go by. Lisa, our friends Niall and Dubhfeasa, and I went there about 3 pm yesterday and spent a nice afternoon just being lazy. There are probably more historically appropriate ways to spend Independence Day, but I don’t want to know about them.

Lisa has said that the weather in Boston has been oppressive this summer with high heat and humidity, but (at least so far) it doesn’t touch Washington, DC for nasty sticky.

I’m currently sitting in a team room in Sloan writing this. It feels strange to be back here, knowing that there will be 350 new people running around in a month and that I’ll be the one that’s supposed to know something about Sloan and how it works.

I had an email today from someone in Alabama who may be related to the Jarrett side of the family. Weird thing–he says he has my uncle Aubrey Jarrett’s dog tags… I’ll have to call and see if Aubrey was even in the military.

PS — Freudian slip: the first version of this page was called “Back in Cambridge” — even though we moved across the river to Boston in May. Funny how the brain gets confused in a different time zone.

And the eyeball’s red glare…

Updates will be sporadic for the next few days, as I’m flying back to Boston for the 4th of July holiday (redeye flight tomorrow night, hence the title of this piece). I’ll probably sneak one update in later in the week, but I hope to mostly be enjoying the heat, humidity and sun that I’ve so far managed to escape in Seattle this summer.

I had dinner with our dear friend Shel and her folks tonight. They’re visiting her in Portland, having flown out this morning from Poquoson, Virginia. Exciting news from Poquoson–apparently they’ve put a sewer system in now. Too bad–as they say, it used to be “where the effluent met the affluent”…

I tried to talk Shel into starting up one of these sites (by the way, have I mentioned you too can have your own weblog, entirely edited through your browser, at www.manilasites.com?), but over dinner wasn’t able to get quite worked up enough about it to convince her. I guess the only thing I can say is to point to the web site of Justin Hall, which remains unparalleled in my experience.

Justin’s been writing an online diary since he was a callow youth at Swarthmore back in 1994, and has faithfully posted every joyous and painful (and sometimes explicit, so be warned) detail of his life since then at his site, Links from the Underground. In a way, you might say Justin is to blame for my site and others like it. But at the same time, his words from 1995 still ring true, even after the DotBomb.

For him, and for me, it’s about getting humanity onto the web before it’s so choked with commerce, official TV show fan sites, technical support knowledge bases, and pop-under ads that it becomes just another worthless sewer of data without information, communication without listeners, words and images without soul.

The Verdict

On the verdict

There’s been a lot of coverage of the verdict of the Microsoft case today. There were a lot of news trucks in the part of the Seattle area where I work. The web log traffic has been heavy too.

Dave Winer thinks that the decision still contains some really strong teeth against Microsoft and in favor of Independent Software Vendors (ISVs). He thinks “the judges put in writing some basic principles about how platform vendors must deal with independent developers.”

Thomas Madsen-Mygdal has been excerpting the decision of the appellate court, highlighting sections that upheld the ruling of the lower courts.

Slashdot has more than 1000 comments on their reporting of the article.

On the competition

I have some thoughts on how all this will play, but one point I have to make from the Mac-using population: the decision does throw into pretty sharp relief the issues facing the Mac platform. From the case:

The District Court found that consumers would not switch from Windows to Mac OS in response to a substantial price increase because of the costs of acquiring the new hardware needed to run Mac OS (an Apple computer and peripherals)and compatible software applications, as well as because of the effort involved in learning the new system and transferring files to its format.
Findings of Fact ¶ 20.The court also found the Apple system less appealing to consumers because it costs considerably more and supports fewer applications.

I guess that’s the challenge for Steve. He’s got a brand new operating system that has a combined heritage of 17 years of the Mac and more than 30 years in Unix. Is that enough to keep the platform from falling into irrelevancy? I’ll keep using my PowerBook until it’s pried from my fingers (or I upgrade to a new model), but I have to hope that the early burst of activity I’ve seen with new apps for the platform will help reverse some of the trends of the past few years.

Well, how did I get here?

…but first, an update on all the boring tech geek stuff from yesterday: If you are a member of the site and want to subscribe to this page by email, click on the new “My Preferences” link in the left navigation area under Membership and make sure that the “Receive email bulletins?” radio button is selected.

So why am I here? I’ve found myself pretty surprised that I’ve been updating this page so frequently. When I called the post for June 11 “Quarterly Update (i)” it was only half tongue in cheek, as I hadn’t done an update before that since October 2000, and before that it was August 2000…

What I think is causing this: I haven’t really written much in a long, long time. I learned how to write in a business style when I worked at “AMS”, but the insidious downside of business writing is that it makes it very difficult to write when you don’t have a business purpose. Business writing, like scientific writing, is a very different set of muscles than writing essays (about non-business topics), poetry, record reviews, or anything else that requires independent thought. I used to write all these things, and one day I hope to do so again.

But the first lesson in writing, and the one lesson I never really learned when I was studying Poetry at Virginia, is that writing is a muscle. If you don’t exercise your ability to write, it atrophies and dies, slowly and horribly. Over the past seven years, I stopped writing poems, reviews, articles, letters, emails (except for very brief and perfunctory ones), and pretty much everything except software code and documentation.

I’m good at writing software, but it’s a very restrictive medium because it has to do something. I like my words to have a chance just to lounge around sometimes. And if they happen to let something interesting out while they’re doing it, so much the better.

So this website is where my words come to hang out. Maybe at some point soon they’ll start exercising a little bit, lose that spare tire (like I need to do), and start surprising me again like they did in college. We’ll see. While I’m waiting for that to happen, though, it’s kind of nice to know that anyone who wants to can read them any way they choose.

P.S. Again, don’t expect an update until sometime on Sunday. Four in a row is pretty good for me right now, and with my wife coming into town I think I’m going to give myself and my words a few days off. –tj

Discussion boards are live!

Just a quick note: For those who want to use the discussion boards, they’re now “live.” You can post feedback on any story, including these front page stories, and start your own discussion topics.

Apologies to all for not finding the badly set site administrative option before now — and thanks to my sister Esta for pointing it out.

So to enter the discussion, you have a couple different paths:

  1. You can click the “Comment on this item” button at the bottom of each day’s page.
  2. You can click the “Recent Discussion” link in the left, which lists all the posted discussion items in the last few days. Choose an item to read or respond to, and a response area will appear in the bottom of the page.
  3. You can click the “List by Topic” to see all the top level topics (including these stories). Clicking through to one of the topics will show you the discussion topic and all its responses, and allow you to respond.
  4. You can click the “Create New Topic” to start your own topic.

Enjoy!

It’s late…

…so only a quick note.

I went to see Spain tonight. More notes on the show tomorrow. The main points:

I didn’t realize I was so much of an old fogey. Another MBA intern from my company came to the show with me, and his comments were, “Please, another mellow song…” I think I was so sucked in on an emotional level to the music that I didn’t realize the main failing of Spain: if you’re in a crowded room, and Josh Haden’s vocal mic isn’t turned up enough over the mix (or is too muddy to be heard), and if a lot of people are talking in the background, then it just sounds like an extremely well-rehearsed country wedding band.

Which points out a few things:

  • I get far too deep into the music that I listen to;
  • the importance of a good sound man;
  • certain important things are best shared only with a few close friends, no matter how much fun others may be to hang out with under other circumstances.

And with that grammatical awkwardness…

Fun with Streaming

As many of you reading this page know, I’ve been a Mac user for many years, and am also a big music fan (to the tune of about 4 GB of MP3s ripped from my CDs sitting on my Powerbook’s hard drive). So when I started working at my internship this summer, I didn’t want to move all the MP3s to my work computer so I could listen to them. But I don’t have a portable MP3 player either…

I’m definitely also a big Mac OS X fan. The brainstorm I’m currently working on is setting up streaming media services on my Powerbook running OS X so that I can leave my MP3s on my personal machine and listen to them on my work machine (there was already an ethernet hub in the office when I got here, so I can bring my Powerbook in and plug it in for music). Why not just plug headphones into my Powerbook? Well, I’m not exactly in a Mac-friendly organization, so I want to be able to turn off the music from my work computer so I can tuck the Powerbook somewhere inconspicuous. Also, my middle name is “stubborn geek.”

Setting up streaming turns out to be slightly more complicated than I thought, though. There are three programs I’ve looked at so far, and each has its own issues. All the servers have a few problems in common:
(a) All the MP3s have to be the same bit rate. What a pain in the neck. I’ve encoded stuff with a bunch of different settings using multiple different encoders and I have no desire to re-encode my files…
(b) None of the servers support any client-side playlist formats. It’s pretty annoying to have to go back to foldering or some other format for listing MP3s to be played.

MP3 Streamer

This program began life as a Classic Mac OS application and has been “Carbonized” for use on Mac OS X. Its operation is theoretically simple: choose the port on which you want to stream, drop the MP3 files you want to stream into a folder, and click Run. You should then be able to connect with another computer.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a successful connection from my Windows laptop using either Quicktime or Windows Media Player–lots of errors.

Current

Like MP3 Streamer, this is a Carbonized application with one purpose in life–streaming MP3s. Unfortunately, like MP3 Streamer, it also doesn’t like providing music to Windows clients very much. Plays great on a Mac client pretty well, though. But it does have more serious problems:
(a) It blows up when you drag’n’drop files on top of its playlist pane.
(b) It only allows you to start it up 10 times before registering it. This is especially a problem when combined with (a).

So I moved on to look at

Quicktime Streaming Server

This is the mack daddy of streaming media servers for Mac OS X (and Solaris, and WinNT platforms, and Linux…). It’s pretty industrial strength. It’s also relatively headless–you administer it through a web page, so if you want to go and make changes from another machine, you don’t have to physically sit down at the server to make your configuration changes. However
(a) It only plays QuickTime formats natively. This means that you need to convert your MP3 files to hinted QuickTime movies before you can stream them. I’m pretty sure there’s a quick tool around somewhere to accomplish this, but it’s too bad it can’t handle MP3s natively without additional tweaking.
(b) The web admin interface is buggy, occasionally complaining about having insufficient privileges to execute certain configuration actions.

So it looks like I’ll be learning all about QuickTime movie production if I want to hear my music this summer, unless I find another alternative (Shoutcast server for BSD might be another option). Unfortunately, I also (since I’ll be listening behind a firewall) don’t think it’s going to be possible for anyone else to listen in. Oh, well. Sometimes being a stubborn geek isn’t the most rewarding path.

Quarterly Update (i)

I had planned on updating this page more often than once every nine months, but sometimes school and work seem like a more pressing responsibility than maintaining a web log. See the FAQ for other updates.

Two quick thoughts:

1. OK, so I haven’t visited either of them more than once or twice in the past six months, but I’m still depressed that Suck and Feed are gone. Plastic isn’t really an adequate replacement (though it will be if Polly Esther can continue to write her stuff somewhere else…) See the full story many places online, including The Industry Standard.

2. Listening to Radiohead‘s Amnesiac for the third or fourth time this morning in the car on the way to work in the pouring rain with no coffee and indigestion makes me think of that famous question that the head of Atlantic Records asked of Peter Gabriel on hearing the “melting face” album: “Has Peter been hospitalized?” But bits of it are so pretty. I am more tempted than ever to try to figure out a way to translate the music into something that can be performed by a mixed a cappella group just for the sheer challenge of humanizing it.

Intermission: It’s been a while

For anybody who’s been waiting two months for me to get around to posting the next round of photos from our most recent European vacation, I apologize. Business school and a Powerbook crash (watch this space for details on both) have kept me from posting recently.

In lieu of something more personal, I post these thoughts from William Carlos Williams:

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,–

if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,–

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

c. 1917

Pompeii Pt 2

The other really impressive thing about Pompeii was the sheer scale of some of the remaining buildings. One of the facilities was a big arena that included a swimming pool (now completely grassed over but still visible as a sloped depression in the earth).

The other amazing building was the amphitheatre, which is thought to be the oldest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire, predating the Colosseum. The entire structure, unlike the Colosseum, is intact (though many parts are grassed over), allowing you to see the symmetric shape of the facility.

We only spent an afternoon in Pompeii, far too short a time to see everything we wanted to see. But we had to drive on to Positano.