All posts by Jim

The Wire


I just finished The Wire, and it was as good as everyone said. It can be pretty violent and downright depressing at times, but it’s an amazing window into gang life (and the somewhat less interesting portrayal of corrupt police and politicians).  Watch a few episodes if you’ve not seen it.  You’ll either hate or love it.

There’s slow, and then there’s QSL slow

Once upon a time I used to be pretty active in ham radio. One of the fun parts was exchanging QSL cards to make the contacts official. The cards were often interesting to look at, especially those from overseas stations. Exchanging QSL cards could get to be a pretty expensive part of the hobby if there were a lot of foreign contacts, so QSL bureaus were set up to defray the cost. The concept was simple: send and receive your cards with a local (i.e. within a few states) bureau, and they would bulk mail large quantities of cards between countries. The bureaus work pretty well save for one thing: they’re slow.

I’ve not been on the air in any substantial capacity for quite a few years, so I was very surprised to see an envelope from the Ninth District QSL Bureau sitting in my mailbox this evening. On numerous occasions received a few final mailing of stuff that was in the QSL queue, but not for a long time. Inside tonight’s packet were two QSLs:


The one from the Republic of Congo confirms a contact made on 11-Dec-2007.  The one from Argentina: 29-NOV-2003.  That’s old! To be fair, I’m pretty sure this was just a couple of guys finally making good on cards they’d promised (I sent mine in 2003…).

In my always-instant-on world where a 5 minute Google outage triggers panic, getting mail about stuff from ten years ago is a pleasant alternative.



Facebook, You Win

In March 2012 I left Facebook. Now I’m back.

In December 2012, I wrote about why I quit and what my thoughts about the decision were at the time. That post resonated with a number of people. I received emails strongly agreeing with main points, and it was even discussed for a few minutes on a popular podcast (54 minutes in).  I still agree with everything I wrote then, but I now have a bit more to add.

Quitting Facebook was always a bit of an experiment. I say that not because I planned to return after some amount of time, but because I was very interested in seeing the effects of the action on myself and others. For example, if I was wasn’t accessible via Facebook, would traffic via other channels increase? Would I discover better patterns of keeping in touch that were being ignored due to the convenience of Facebook? Most importantly, would I get to a point where choosing to not use Facebook would leave me feeling better than before?  The results: no, no, maybe.

It is no exaggeration when I say that communication with my “extended circle” (mainly family, a few friends) is through Facebook or not at all. I found that out right away. Writing emails might yield a response but was hardly a substitute for something intended to be a broadcast update of the, “Hey, look what our son did”, kind. This blog won’t be read by said people (though it continues to be, as always, an invaluable journal for me). And posts to Google+, Twitter, Instagram, etc.? I might as well save the pieces in /dev/null. The people I most want to share with are only going to be available on Facebook.

So, the communication lines are down, but maybe it’s not that bad, right? After 15+ months I can say it’s not that bad, but it’s not that good either. I’ve always been the solitary type and it hasn’t been particularly jarring to slowly lose track of what everyone else is doing. The problem becomes: what am I left with? For a few weeks the silence was refreshing, but I could have gotten that by simply not using Facebook for a while. Over the long term, an unhealthy apathy formed. Almost all of my family and friends are outside of my daily life, but they still exist! They want to know how I’m doing and I want to tell them. I care about their significant life events. I’ve realized—only after an extended period—that turning all that off to avoid some of the ill-effects of Facebook is a bad trade for me

To fix this, I’ve signed up for a shiny new Facebook account. (Having provided literally nothing more than my email address, it promptly identified and suggested I friend just about every person I’ve ever met. Privacy!)  I’ll probably be a little more judicious with my friending (or whatever it’s called now), but I’ll be a lot more quick to mute. I hope to regain some of the good of Facebook and less of the bad.

And I hope that’s all I have to say about Facebook.


“No Such Agency” Those were the days!

The NSA leak is the most interesting news I’ve seen in years.  We might as well be watching The Bourne saga play out in front of us.  And unlike almost all media sensations, this one is centered on a hugely important issue that can and must be decided by the public.

There are lots of polarizing issues the circulate through the news cycle, but frankly I tire of most of them. I know where I stand on guns, abortion, gay rights, etc… and these things will move and evolve over time, but they’ve been out in the open for a long time and usually boil down to what one person thinks others should be able to do. The NSA issue is different. This is me deciding what I think another third party should be able to do to you. Furthermore, the central party—the NSA—may well be the most secretive, mysterious department in the US government. Number of employees: Classified.   Annual Budget: Classified.  Fascinating stuff.

Probably the most intriguing/scary part of the story as I write this is the contents of the “other” slides in the 41-page presentation that was leaked by Edward Snowden. (The slides that would have graciously been declassified in 2036.)  We’ve only seen 7 pages so far.  He claims that he didn’t want to recklessly release information and put people in danger, yet two news organizations are refusing to run any more of the material (so far). On the other hand, the WikiLeaks people are champing at the bit to get at and release it. (see Wired article).  What’s in there???  Here are some wild guesses (of the more salacious variety):

  • Descriptions of much more than “metadata” being routinely collected in the US.
  • Statements divulging access that would be geopolitically destabilizing (e.g. the NSA has wired Putin’s office (or Merkel’s office!), or the Chinese military).
  • Anything dealing with markets, banking, currency, trade.
  • Finally, the most far out but potentially damaging one: the Internet company leaders who are denying any knowledge of the PRISM program… well, they’re telling the truth. The Feds are actually going after lower level employees and getting them to flip and provide the desired access.

I’m most certainly not a conspiracy nut and rarely think about this stuff, but when reputable news outlets have 30 pages of source material that are too hot to handle, my imagination starts to run wild.

After 9/11, there was a lot of talk about how we were more vulnerable since our human intelligence in the Middle East was weak. After the Iraq invasion, a lot was said about the WMD intelligence failure.  Everyone thought that better intelligence gathering and dissemination were a priority.  It was certainly a safe political position to take.  Who is going to get booed off the stump for demanding better intelligence about our potential enemies? And so we start to hear news reports that often would make mention of “chatter” and whether intelligence was “actionable”.  What did we think that chatter was?  I can image the NSA analysts reading the news now and saying: you wanted better foreign intelligence, you gave us billions of dollars, we got better intelligence and there hasn’t been an attack like 9/11 since.  But, um, a whole lot of domestic intelligence got necessarily swept up at the same time.

What will the political responses to this be?  To my conservative, small government, strong defense friend I ask: are you really up in arms at the prospect of government taking your large magazines, or telling you that you have to buy health insurance, but OK with them simultaneous spying on you?  Do you trust them to use all that information wisely, ethically? To my liberal friend who is crying that civil liberties such as privacy must trump all else I ask: if the NSA comes out an says, “Fine… but here is a list of attacks that have been thwarted thanks to this intelligence”. Will you tolerate an increase in successful attacks against the US? Will you tolerate possible military escalation?

As I said at the opening, this is a fascinating and important story. When the intelligence agencies of the US were formed, who could imagine the depth and breadth of connectedness that the world has achieved?  They’ve obviously used the technological advancements and behavior changes to their advantage.  People are handing them terabytes of information everything second.  It’s time for the US to really ask itself: given the way people live their lives today, what is an appropriate level of privacy?  This NSA leak story tees up that question.  I can only hope that the press really runs with it, really digs in, and that the American people don’t demand a return to the typical news fluff.  The conversation needs to take place.

Aaron Swartz

The news of Aaron Swartz’s suicide reached me at about 12:30am, as the story was shooting to the top of Hacker News. I was stunned.

I don’t know Aaron, but I’ve known of him for some time. I independently stumbled across his blog and one of his projects, It was some time later that I realized it was the same guy. I got curious and started reading about him. At this point I became a follower, in the simplest sense. I was simply amazed at how much the kid had managed to accomplish, and how insightful his writing was. I was blown away when he’d publish his year-end review of books that he’d read. But it wasn’t just a “wow, this kid is a genius” reaction.  It was seeing a highly capable person tear into all manner of activity and push the limits. And it was motivating.

Now he’s dead. The circumstances are still unclear, but it’s hard not to think that the Federal case against him was unrelated. If you’re interested, you can read all about that story, as well and the hundreds of opinions that have been written on whether what was being done to Aaron was right.

For me, I’m just sad. Steve Jobs used the phrase, “make a dent in the universe”, which was an apt description of what Aaron was doing. Now that is stopped, far short of what might have been accomplished.

I had one correspondence with Aaron.  Just over three years ago I wrote him a thank you note, saying how much I appreciated the software he’d written and shared with the world. I got a response:

Date: Thu, 8 Jan 2009 00:49:07 -0500
To: [email protected]
From: "Aaron Swartz" <[email protected]> 

Thanks. It's really nice to hear feedback like this!

Life post-Facebook, Nine Months On

As the end of 2012 draws near, I approach nearly nine months without Facebook. This past March I deleted my Facebook account. I wasn’t the earliest adopter, but I did have over three years of fairly regular use with the site. When I deleted the account, it was the real deal. People proclaim that they have deactivated their account, but this amounts to little more than logging out for a while. “Delete” is final and unrecoverable. All of your posts, photos and friend links are gone.

Now I want to review the decision and talk about the effects. A lot of posts are written about quitting Facebook by people who have just done so, and the tone of many indicate an intense anti-Facebook sentiment or general backlash against social networking. My decision to bow out was arrived at over quite some time and had nothing to do with some of the oft-listed reasons for quitting. I don’t think Facebook is evil, I wasn’t addicted to the service, I wasn’t worried about privacy and didn’t have any acute “bad” experiences on Facebook. And though I agree with a lot of the technical bitching about Facebook (site changes, annoying sharing and games, ads, etc.), that played no role in the decision. The reason I left: the benefits were outweighed by an unexpected mental tax created by following a bunch of people.

First, the good. Facebook was an excellent way to keep tabs on people. Our nearest relatives live over 1000 miles away, and much of the family is on the other side of Earth. Former colleagues are similarly dispersed. For staying ostensibly connected to these people, Facebook was great. Another useful feature was photo sharing. I’m a long-time Flickr user, but sharing non-public photos was most easily done on Facebook. I do miss these things. People have moved to Facebook and abandoned their old blogs and photo sites. Being off of Facebook has meant that I’ve had roughly no idea what has gone on with most of my family and colleagues for the better part of the year. All of the weddings, breakups, kid and vacation photos, amazing and funny accomplishments in 2012… I know not of them if my wife hasn’t mentioned it. (I do know of some job changes simply because of LinkedIn.) Likewise, people have had few updates about me or our family. We’re largely off the radar, except for those things that get passed along second-hand. Sounds bleak, and it is. Make no mistake about opting out of the Book: if your social network is anything like mine, you will have little idea what is going on with anyone, and they will lose all track of you.

So why the hell would I incur this cost? Well it shouldn’t be a surprise that all of the amazing connectedness that Facebook allows comes at a cost. But while the benefits are readily apparent, the costs sneak up over many months/years, and probably affect people very differently. The elements that caused problems for me:

  • Everyone projects a curated Facebook image.
  • For most of the people I follow, Facebook information is the only thing I regularly hear about them. The perception formed by reading Facebook becomes the reality.
  • Being exposed to real-time, semi-private details of many people at distance is abnormal and certainly not something I’m used to.

For me, this created stress. Reading Facebook was not like skimming the news. I didn’t just absorb a bunch of facts that I was curious in. Because I knew the subjects (people) well, I related to them. I’d be irritated with what I thought were poor decision by people I knew. When exciting, fortuitous things happened, I’ll admit that I was sometimes envious. Even a mundane post by someone might prompt me to spend time thinking of something pointless. (A prefect example would be time wasted contemplating some cute comment or rebuttal to an provocative post only to decide, “why bother?”, and moving on). I didn’t choose this mental response, it just happened. I didn’t hang out for hours on Facebook and didn’t get hooked on monitoring the goings-on of people, yet the constant feed managed to subtly eat at me. When I noticed that I’d get the a bit more tense while reading Facebook, I knew it was time to call it quits

Is my case particularly extreme? Was I overly sensitive to others’ lives and should I have been able to detach from all that and just use the utility of Facebook? Perhaps, but I highly doubt that most people can be exposed to their family and friend’s lives in great detail without some sort of empathy or reflection. This is obviously true of those “addicted” Facebook users. For me it a was just a bit stressful. I can hear Col. Jessup berating me: You can’t handle the Timeline (née Wall)!!! So be it.

Being outside of Facebook has its pros and cons. For a lot of people I think things balance out in Facebook’s favor. If you’re happy with the service, that’s great. If you think you want to quit, however, realize that the adrenaline rush a few minutes after deleting it all may be replaced with some regret later. But you’ll also start to appreciate the peace that comes from not knowing what is going on. You’ll rediscover email, phone calls, and maybe blogs. You might worry a bit less.

It’s a real paradox of choice. 20 years ago you couldn’t have this hyper-connectivity even if you wanted it, yet today you may struggle to with the choice to eschew the magic of Facebook. So it goes. I picked a path nine months ago that I’m sticking with.

Good luck, and have a great 2013!

Taking leave

I just completed my first week as Mr. Mom!  Grade: B-

Some background: Our son Ben was born three months ago, and since then Angela has been home with him and we’ve had a few family members come to help for a while. It has been going fine, but the plan all along has been for Angela to return to work and Ben to enter daycare. But we didn’t want to put him in at three months, so the idea of paternity leave entered the picture.

My idea of paternity leave came from growing up in late 20th century midwestern USA. Here’s how it works: dad takes off 1-2 weeks after the baby is born and then goes back to work. That’s it. That’s what people do.  I mention this because even digesting the concept of an extended paternal leave was a bit tough to get my head around.  My friends outside the US are probably shaking their heads in frustration by now.  You’ve maybe heard how residents of other countries get more vacation time than those in the US, well the comparison of parental leave (especially paid) is even more imbalanced.

Only four countries have no national law mandating paid time off for new parents: Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States.

OK, woe is me that I’m not from somewhere that would grant me a huge paid break.  I am, however, entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave thanks to FMLA.  All dads have had this right since 1993, but I honestly can’t remember any of my male colleagues taking an extended leave following the birth of a child.  (By “extended” I mean more than the perfunctory 1-2 weeks.)  It could be money, but it’s probably culture. The idea of doing so doesn’t even cross their minds since they don’t see anyone else doing it.  Even in some of the most leave-generous countries, dads are not taking much of the leave they’re entitled to.  Choosing to take leave may be a more difficult decision than one would think.

Angela and I discussed this early on, and I talked openly with my employer about it too, so they could plan accordingly.  I will be taking off at least the month of January to watch Ben, and I just completed the first week.  My initial impressions of full-time, all-day care without a live-in support crew:

  • Completely out of my comfort zone
  • Very time consuming (let go of the idea of getting “other” stuff done)
  • Frustrating at times
  • Often delightful

Though I may be all thumbs with certain baby things, and Ben doesn’t like the change and is protesting in various ways, even after a week I can say the experience is highly rewarding and shouldn’t be missed.  Ben has already picked up on the change in routine and we relate to each other a bit differently than at the start of the week.  I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming weeks.

I recently listened to David Brooks discuss the many thousands of letters he’s received from seniors recounting their lives, life lessons learned, what they’d have done differently. One of the top themes was from men who regretted not spending enough time with their families. Though the nature of one’s job (e.g. travel, late meetings) may be a dominant factor, I believe not spending some time with children during their first months is significant too.

Dads in the US have the right to take time off.  I think more of them would do so if they’d only consider it.

Back to the Blog

In 2005, just before relocating to New Zealand, we started a blog.  It was the thing to do back then and everyone had a blog.  You did too, probably.  For the next couple of years we chronicled the exciting overseas adventure in reasonable detail and happened upon the occasional entertaining comment thread with interested readers.

In 2007, having completed our OE and returned to Peoria, the old NZ blog was decommissioned and a less active blog of Peoria goings-on was set up.  Though it wasn’t filled with photos and tales from a far away land, it provided a log of what we were up to as well as a platform for the occasional op-ed piece.  Even mundane things can be fun to describe.

In 2010 we quit our jobs at CAT and moved to Oregon. This was not to be just the next in an unending series of relocations, but rather, according to our plans, the final landing zone. We’d visited Oregon 10 years ago and had always wanted to live here.

With new jobs, a new adventure in a beautiful and interesting state, surely there would be a healthy series of posts by now, right?  Nope.  One post.  What happened? Facebook happened.  In 2009, we got sucked into the Facebook machine due to its novelty.  (All these old friends… amazing!  I didn’t realize she even knew what a computer was yet she’s on Facebook… exciting!)  And over the past 2 years, as we actually started posting on Facebook, the blog died.  Why bother?  Everyone is on Facebook, it’s easy to post something simple since there isn’t the commitment to write very much, and you’d get all those Likes and “I KNOW!!!!” comments to stroke your ego.

But abandoning the blog was a mistake.  Being a consumer and producer on Facebook is fun and perfectly fine, but I’ve come to realize that what you’re left with at the end of your efforts is:  nothing.  Facebook is merely a stock ticker for life.  It’s random data points from your “social network”.  It’s also a lot of noise, commercials, and time wasting activities.  But most importantly, it has not been the durable diary that our blogs were.  It’s a joke to compare previous blog posts to my timeline on Facebook.  And of course, 95% of the blame goes to me.  Facebook has just been an enabler for lazy behavior.

So I’m here to declare a return to blogging.  I make no promises of frequency, but I suspect I’ll do better than one post in 18 months.  I hope it will be quite a bit better.  The prospect of moving beyond quips and jokes on Facebook to longer more thoughtful contributions on a blog is quite appealing.  I hope it’s interesting to readers too, but it doesn’t matter.  I can derive a lot of pleasure by rereading our old blogs, whereas I get zero pleasure looking at my Facebook timeline.  I hope to continue the former.

(Note: in most cases “I” means “we”.  Angela and I are of similar opinion on this and she’s keen to get back to blogging too.)

(Content note: in this iteration of the blog, there may be some technical articles.  I mean really technical that will appeal to almost no one. Ignore them. I’ve considered many times the idea of creating a tech blog, but I don’t want to deal with the overhead and don’t really have enough material for one.  So instead they will stick out like a sore thumb on our personal blog.)