Category Archives: General

Stuff that has no other place, like lists

Living Through The Narrative Arcs

We are all more exposed and more immersed in celebrity deaths with the advances in social media because we get to gauge the reactions of our friends and family to events that may have only been tangential to our lives. Yes, I was saddened by the death of David Bowie, but immediately thought of college friends who idolized him in each of his musical phases; of friends’ bands who learned “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and not much else; of my fellow Phish fans who can generate a grin simply by saying his name with appropriate cadence. Prior to our ability to broadcast our feelings, I’m not sure I would have stepped backwards quite as far with his passing.

Carrie Fisher threw me for a short non-infinite loop, and the timing having just finished “Princess Diarist” and the theatrical release of “Rogue One” was eerie.

When the celebrities have loomed larger in our childhood hagiographies, when the heroines and stars and swashbucklers of the stories we idolized in our formative years die in real life, we are, suddenly, trying to see the next chapter in the story no matter how long it’s been relegated to the recesses of happy memory. Billy Crystal wrote that Mickey Mantle’s death forced him into adulthood; when we are faced with the narrative arcs in real life taking the dramatic turn where the hero, the inspiration, the leader dies, we are immersed in that story not as a character but as a contemporary.

This is why Facebook amplifies these feelings — clearly, Facebook has become the narrative channel of the late boomers, while our kids use Snapchat and Instagram and more image based tools, we cling to the notion that we’re writing our own great American stories, all of the time. Facebook just lets us do it simply and immediately, incorporating real world events into the narrative arcs in a way that would make EL Doctorow or Jo Walton proud.

We can argue that statistically 2016 was a rough year for celebrities, but it’s more likely that our longer term view of celebrity has been amplified by improved average life span, more media coverage, and franchise reboots that remind us of the earlier, simpler parts of our own stories.

Do take events as turning points in the story line: What happens next is up to us, and that’s the thought I’m riding into 2017.

“Legends Club” – V, K and the Dean


John Feinstein delivers in his sweet spot – college basketball – with “The Legends Club”. It is a story of fathers and sons of genetic and organizational and institutional relation; it is a love story of men and a game and rivals and life-long learning; it is at times almost unintentionally hilarious and equally sad because of the real-world characters involved. I have told bits of pieces of the following to people who ask why I left a technology company to join a healthcare company: reading stories of how Dean Smith’s mental gifts were stolen by his struggle with Alzheimer’s made me realize how elements of my management style were a reflection of his public persona, and that nobody deserved to die without the dignity of being their true mental selves through their entire lives.

If that’s a bit melancholy, it sets the tone for the book. Dean Smith and Jim Valvano don’t survive to the end of the story, but how Feinstein relates the incredibly textured, complex and rival-driven relationships of their lives is what makes this a compelling read.

My introduction to college basketball happened mostly accidentally – my freshman roommate decided to run a pool for the 1981 NCAA tournament, featuring our own Princeton Tigers squaring off against a BYU team lead by some kid named Danny Ainge (how prophetic that would be for my sports fandom years after moving to Boston). At the time, I knew very little about college basketball, and after being immersed in freshman physics, linear algebra and intro to CS, few of us knew very little about the outside world at all. So my Final Four picks included Indiana (because a high school friend went there) and North Carolina (since my closest roommate, Matt, was from Chapel Hill and his dad taught there). It was nothing more complicated than that.

I spent the week between the Elite 8 and the Final Four in Chapel Hill. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time south of Virginia, and my first exposure to life at a school with a storied coach. Marking time in NCAA brackets, nearly everything about that trip of 35 springs ago remains crystal clear, from the fact that I had a scruffy beard that was painted Carolina blue by someone during an impromptu parade after the Tar Heels won their semi-final game, to cleaning that same paint off of Matt’s car, to my intense fear that I was failing freshman E&M and had decided to re-learn the entire half semester one day, to sitting with Matt’s dad listening to “Classical Gas” which I stupidly thought was originally recorded by Larry Fast and Synergy. Seeing me studying, Matt’s mom brought me a slice of home made pie that was the single greatest incentive and study aid ever invented. Freshman physics took me deep into overtime but lost (I eventually wrapped college with an astrophysics class that made me revisit those days with a bit of educational joy). Names like Al Wood and James Worthy became part of my sports vocabulary (that Michael Jordan kid arrived the next year). Carolina fanaticism was born, slowly, emerging over the course of watching the Tar Heels tournament run reflected in the college town, because of the spirit, the people, the warmth, the fierce competitiveness that never spilled over into ugly vernacular or name-calling, and because of a slice of pie. UNC lost to Indiana in the championship game, and as a result I won the roommate pool for my first ever sports betting win. For the next 25 years I learned to idolize Dean Smith, the UNC hoops coach, my first steps in becoming a lifelong college basketball fan.

The only title-named coach that makes it to the end of the book is Coach K; the book was released before he took the US Men’s Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rio; but the final chapter is as moving as any novel where the plotlines can be constructed for heartstring tension. It’s not a happy book in the way that any resolution of long-standing, often petty and ugly personal conflict isn’t happy and jocular, but it is hopeful and illustrative of the power of mentoring, coaching and public relationships, and for those reasons I will put it in the short list of “sports books with business implications”.

Here’s what I learned from Feinstein’s deeply personal narrative of how UNC, NC State and Duke, with a strong supporting role played by Indiana and Bobby Knight: Dean Smith was far from a saint, but he acted in a way to always put the focus on his team and its players. He acted out of love for the game, and as a manager, his redirection of the spotlight is a tenet I hold dear. Mike Krzyzewski is not the (Blue) Devil, a bad person, an angry man or a bad coach. He is remarkably adaptable, dealt with physical setbacks (back surgery) that would have forced others into retirement, and worked in the dual large body shadows of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. And Jimmy V was always the mood lifter, the soul shifter, and sadly, the too gentle soul whose career was injured through actions several long arms’ lengths away from him. My dislike for Coach K has been tempered and damped with facts and backstory; while I respect Dean Smith to this day, it’s evident how much his gravitas and context created space for him to excel. And I will always, always laugh at the ESPN/CBS clip of Jim Valvano running onto the court after winning the National Championship, arms open in a half-hug, because while joyous and hilarious it also represents in relief the best part of enjoying sports – doing so with family, friends, and those you want to hug after the win.

A Tuesday Like No Other, With Perspective

Fifteen years ago I was on a United flight to Boston on a sunny, crisp Tuesday morning that started like any other work day that year. I rolled out of bed, pulled on a suit and drove to Newark Airport, arriving about 45 minutes before my flight, stumbled through security and onto the plane where I took a short nap. I was employed by Sun Microsystems, working for the iPlanet-Sun Alliance, and was en route to host a customer event at our Boston area sales office.

It was my 39th birthday, and I was going to be away for the day, mostly because I had been subjected to a well executed surprise party a few years earlier, and I truly, completely hate surprises. Each year after that party I ensured I would be traveling on the actual day, getting home for well-timed cake and celebration, but without the overhang of a surprise. And so it was that on 9/11/01, instead of attending the Waters conference at Windows on the World, on the 113th floor of 1 WTC (and where a Merrill Lynch customer of mine was speaking), I was on a plane to Boston. A bit of self-centered compulsive behavior saved my life.

Once in a cab from Logan, about half way up I93, my wife called me on my (then quaint) cell phone. That was unusual; I’d usually check in when I had a better idea of my return logistics. While watching the morning news, the little TV on our kitchen counter lost its signal, upon switching to CNN she saw the live feed of a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center. As I was on a plane to Boston, she did the logical thing to check in on me. A few minutes before 9:00, I was completely oblivious to what was happening in lower Manhattan. I had the cab driver put on Boston’s news radio for more details, at the time believing like many others that it was a small, private plane that had a hideous accident, and that New York’s bravest would soon put out the fire and return life to its normal level of crazy.

While in the car the 2nd plane hit 2 WTC, where our Sun office was located on the 25th and 26th floors. It was clear that this was a terrorist attack, and nobody knew what was to come next. After getting to the sales office, and deciding to cancel the customer event, I began calling people — using our Sun internal network to route calls out to the west coast, I was able to get outside lines and reach my family, my employee Laura who I knew was in 2 WTC that day, but I was unable to reach my friend Bob. About half an hour later, I heard “the tower is down, the tower is down” echoing down the hall and didn’t know how to parse that until I saw CNN.com coverage of 1 WTC collapsing (this was before the time of streaming video on the Internet).

I called a few people in California to let them know I was OK and that I had checked in on a few of our iPlanet employees. What I remember, vividly, is that they had no idea of the scale of what was going on; I got the feeling they believed this was a bit of New York drama and that things certainly couldn’t be so terrifying. I think if you had never lived in or near New York (or any other city which had suffered a terror attack) you have no idea what anybody on the east coast went through that morning. An administrator at our company was actually annoyed with me for calling repeatedly, and I never forgave her and the executive she supported, who knew where I was, for not failing to check up on me when she saw the morning news.

Panic ensued. One of my co-workers from NJ had a rental car, and we hopped in and began driving back to NJ. We made the trip in about 3 1/2 hours, doing well over 100 MPH the whole way, and seeing very few other cars on the road. Coming over the Tappan Zee Bridge, as you looked south to Manhattan, you could see the black plumes of smoke rising from the WTC side. Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” ran through my head, and still gives me chills.

During the five hours from the first impact until I reached NJ, I had no idea if my friend Bob was alive; there was a major financial services event going on at Windows On The World and I couldn’t remember if he was going to attend or not. I’m pretty sure I cried at least a few times as fear and anxiety set in. Once we got back to NJ, and my co-worker dropped me in town, we had a tearful family reunion as we attempted to explain the events of the day to our kids.

I heard from Bob, and we haven’t gone more than 3 or 4 days without talking to each other since.

Our Sun mail room attendant was drinking his morning coffee and saw the first plane hit 1 WTC, swept the office hollering at everyone, including those in the PA-proofed conference and machine rooms, to evacuate. He saved half a dozen lives.

One of our neighbors decided to drive his kids to school and go into work (in the WTC) a bit late, and he was still en route to the Holland Tunnel when the first plane hit.

The first plane entered 1 WTC right one floor below a customer of mine, and I was certain of bad news as the names of the missing appeared. Two days later, I got an email from the CEO, saying that they were safe and sound and operating out of temporary offices in NJ; they had a staff meeting that morning and the designated breakfast person failed to bring muffins, so the entire team was on its way out of the building at the time the plane literally crashed through their office.

I heard other stories — people who decided it was a beautiful morning, possibly one of the last nice ones, and worthy of a trip outside of the building to get coffee, or donuts, or muffins. My sister was in Switzerland on a business trip, and after finally getting on a flight that would take her to Newark on Saturday, I decided to meet her in Terminal B. Eight hours late, she arrived around midnight, and I was there while her scheduled limo was nowhere to be found. We drove into Manhattan in silence, not just in our car but in Times Square, around Central Park, up the East Side. It was the loneliest and scariest trip through New York ever.

That day accelerated the dot-com bust. It reshaped our views of security, of terrorism, of xenophobia (whether we knew what it was or not). It created many tales of tragedy, of miracles, and of bravery that simply cannot be fathomed or imagined, unless you know someone who has run into a burning building. Fifteen years later, the new World Trade Center transportation center is open, featuring a huge, white, multi-story high architectural sculpture that frames the occulus of its center. Seen from Vesey Street, it’s a maw or teeth or something large and threatening. Seen from Broadway, it’s the head of an eagle, a nice complement to the Liberty Tower behind it. Seen from the 20th floor of a surrounding building, with proper perspective you can truly appreciate the artistic and architectural intent of those long, sweeping arcs of concrete and steel.

It’s a dove.

Fifteen years later, on a Tuesday like many others, I hope we all find the right perspective.

Memorial Day, Twenty Years Later

I had a somewhat stereotypical start to Memorial Day: went outside and played basketball with my recent college graduate son. I’m as terrible as I was back in 1972, the first and last time my name appeared in the sports section of the local paper (I was fouled in a tournament game in a “Hack A Nerd” play, because nobody had ever seen my make a shot — I made both foul shots and sent the game into overtime). My shoulder (rotator cuff) and knee (arthritis) remind me that I’m slower and more cautious than the twenty-somethings, which is acceptable. But dribbling the ball, clanging it off the rim, chasing it into the backyard and providing our own Johnny Most-channeled commentary reminded me of countless days practicing on my parents’ driveway.

That highlight reel season was made more fun by one player — a relatively new kid in town who became a great athlete in high school and went on to be a Navy Seal. Steve never once criticized my playing skills, my lack of playing time, or my overall tenor as more of a student of the game rather than a player of the game. He complimented, cheered and led with the same quiet, respectful voice he used around adults. My interest in basketball waxed and waned with geography – quiet in high school, outsized while at Princeton and watching my classmates play in the NCAA tournament, excited while the Celtics were in their Bird-flight peak during my first tenure in Bean town, and finally rekindled with a little 1:1 on my own driveway – but my early lessons in how you treat teammates, or players on your team, have been invariant.

Twenty years ago Steve was killed in a search and rescue mission. He’s the only contemporary I know killed in active service. Barbecue, official start of summer, retail sales — none of them convey the solemnity of the memorial part of Memorial Day. Steve got up and did his job, every day, protecting our freedoms, our stance in the world, and our ability to enjoy every one of those calendar time markers of the season. As I wrote eight years ago, he frequently found it repetitive and grueling, but his personal comfort came second. That is, in so many ways, what it means to serve, and why we observe — not just celebrate, but mentally take note — of those who gave their lives in active service to our country.

2015: Change, Change We Must

2015 was a year of very high dynamic range, in all possible senses and interpretations. In addition to well-defined highs, there were some definite lows, and significant reflection around the midpoint.

Our daughter kicked the year off with a law school acceptance – and we somewhat stupidly decided to drive home from her celebratory dinner in what would be the first major snow storm of January. She wrapped up her undergrad career with a spectacular graduation that included large and small ceremonies, dinners with friends, and all of the pomp and circumstance you’d expect. Random highlight: the procession to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles” which was a high school band favorite.

After more than 30 years of discussion, gentle handling of basses in various music stores, and watching our son play upright and electric bass in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to McGann’s in Boston, I decided to take formal lessons. Hat tip to Max at So.I.Heard music studio in Millburn, for both having the patience for an (older) adult student as well as finding the right mix of 70s classic rock and Phish songs to stimulate both long- and short-term musical muscle memory. I still suck, but at least I can do more than pluck open strings when I find myself staring at a wall of basses that plead “Play Us”.

Despite horrible ticket lottery luck, and random travel schedules, I was able to see Phish twice at the Mann Center, including one of the best all-time sets I’ve heard them play in a dozen shows. Got shut out of the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” tour despite hand-decorating an envelope, but the Mann twinbill made up for that miss. There is nothing quite like seeing an intense show with old friends and a regular crew for the pre-game. This could become a tradition.

On other other end of the musical spectrum, we lost BB King and Chris Squire. Squire’s death was my personal equivalent of a lifelong Yankee fan experiencing Micky Mantle’s sudden and too-young death. It was the first bookend of music related events that made me realize, yes, my icons are aging, and the windows in which to see them live are closing or have closed. The other happy-but-sad event took place in Vegas, with the Bubba, as we caught one of the last large-arena Rush shows on their (effective) retirement tour. Seeing a band you love with your own kids, singing along as loudly as you are, enjoying the music in the moment, captures the wonder and pageantry and energy of live music in the best way possible. Like our daughter’s graduation, it marked a “last” that will endure in memory.

More personally, we said farewell to my uncle who had encouraged me in my more random engineering pursuits, and who epitomized the “do the right things” school of design. Despite his employer (at the time) insisting that there wasn’t that much value in the idea, he filed a patent for a radio frequency tag device which we recognize on the highways as EZPass. This Thanksgiving, our combined families celebrated the first “reunion turkey tour” in more than twenty years. Turns out we had four bass players at the dinner table. Loudness of all types ensued, and it was a wonderful celebration of the season.

By the time the ball drops on Times Square I will have read close to 50 books, including way too much science fiction and musical history, and a surfeit of trilogies with dystopian or apocalyptic under- and overtones. I do believe, as Neal Stephenson points out in the introduction to “Hieroglyph,” that science fiction drives science forward; it gives us the mechanism and meter to describe the future we wish to create. I got to use that line with Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, when he asked me why we (and by inference, he and the board) were hosting an internal hackathon, and he at least tacitly agreed (my badge still worked the next day). I had reviews of books retweeted or favorited by the relevant authors (Hannu Rajaniemi and Ted Kosmatka, both featured prominently in this year’s reading list). I learned quite a bit about the Grateful Dead, and relived some of my fascination with KISS (which introduced me to the wonders of live music, which of course fueled so much of this summer’s ups and downs).

So 2015 had its moments, good and bad, like all years. It brought changes in things to anticipate and appreciate; it reinforced the value of family and friends; it made me consider that change is good if it creates new opportunity and doesn’t forget, forgo or eclipse the path to its development.

2016 is going to be an interesting year, for all values of “interesting”.

2015 Gift Guide, Snowman Style

I’ve slightly edited my gift guide for 2015, based on availability, practicality, and functionality. It’s what to get for people who have things, or for whom gift giving is remarkably hard, or who have unique tastes, or if you just want to elicit the massive exhalation upon gift wrap deconstruction.

Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers as a bas-relief link between construction and destruction. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. Be good and look good. (About $250).

Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. You can buy the case (in case you upgrade or in my situation, lose, your phone) and keep the same lenses, or just buy specific lenses: iPro Lens System Trio Kit for iPhone 6 For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $300).

Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip, or you want to use an extra wide aperature lens to shoot an event without having to invest the equivalent of 100 tickets in the process. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. You can now pick up your lenses at their retail locations in New York City and the San Francisco bay area, which saves on shipping and time. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

Sonos Play:1 or Play:3. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a Play:1 in the kitchen, and I use a play of SONOS PLAY:3 Smart Speaker
in my office. Having music follow you around makes doing any sort of repetitive labor fun, whether it’s prep work in the kitchen or filing those expense reports with the four crumpled paper receipts from Taco Bell. Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1. $300 for a Play:3)

Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

Live Music, Later. Very early in 2015 I started taking bass lessons after 30-plus years of wishing, thinking, procrastinating, and rationalizing my misunderstanding of the bass clef (old saxophone and clarinet players have this treble clef preference that took years to unwind). It’s one of the most fun things I’ve done. Find a studio that accepts adult students, and buy a month of lessons — it’s very important to find a teacher who likes the same music as your potential student, and whose styles mesh. In my case, a huge hat tip to Max at So I Heard Music in Millburn, who has taught me that so much of the music I love goes down in a minor key. (About $150 for a month)

Meaningful Reading. My go-to is something personalized and signed by John Scalzi for the sci-fi fan on your list, but recently reading through the middle-aged Facebook lamentations of a kindler, simpler Long Beach Island made me think of Tales from an Endless Summer: A Novel of the Beach (A Cormorant Book). I’m also promoting high school classmate James Campion’s Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. (Under $20)

Strong Community Memberships. My personal new favorite is “Cash Or Trade,” a site that pairs fans sick of Ticketmaster fees and Stubhub market pricing to buy and sell tickets at face value. I’ve used it several times when my late spring Phish tour planning didn’t quite coincide with work or other obligations and I found myself needing to shuffle paper. A gold membership is $24 and is the best value for using the site, since you can get real time notification when new inventory arrives. Slightly more Phish-y and related is a donation to the Mockingbird Foundation, a non profit founded by Phish fans to support music education (see previous idea for music lessons; crowdsource this for someone you don’t know through Mbird). And finally, the Music Maker Foundation fights for the rights, recognition and remuneration of Southern musicians who have suffered poverty, poor contracts, and obscurity.

2014: See Ya

On the whole, 2014 was a good year. Rather than making a semi-structured list, I found myself thinking about two extremes — things that were absolutely delightful, and things that gave me pause for 2015.

A Year of Live Music: Four Phish shows in three states, with four newbies in tow. Animals as Leaders twice in small venues. Tony Levin with both King Crimson and Stickmen, at opposite ends of the venue spectrum. Joe Bonamassa at his best; Dream Theater at their most average but still quite good; Flux Forteana at a downtown Boston pub. Also subscribed to Concert Vault, featuring the best of “Bill Graham Presents”, which has reinforced my love of (recorded) live music.

A Year of Travel: Four visits to Prague, three to Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, a return to Seattle after 30 years, only one trip to the Bay Area, a first visit to Curacao. Discovering local food in each city (especially Seattle!) was as much fun as returning to favorite haunts. Celebrated my 52nd birthday in the oldest city in recorded history, with good friends. Prague is a new favorite place to visit and work.

A Year of Waning Fandom: For some reason professional sports just didn’t capture my interest this year. The Yankees were lukewarm from April til September; the Devils are wallowing in middle age and directionless; I have ignored professional basketball since the Nets moved out of the Meadowlands. Even my beloved Tigers failed to show on the ice or finish on the hardwood. On the other hand, youth hockey is alive and well, and I have a great group of 6 year olds who get up for 7:00 am games at outdoor rinks. A visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame taught me things about our family’s sports allegiances that I had never known.

A Year of Small Miracles: I survived a fairly bad car accident, mostly through the benefit of seat belts, air bags, and a fraction of a second. One of my fellow hockey coaches beat his leukemia into remission. The Devils signed one of my favorite players whom I’ve wished to see in the tail and horns for years (Mike Cammalleri) and then proceeded to play non-miraculous hockey. I caught a 40-pound rooster fish at the end of two days of completely quiet sport fishing.

For all of the good and positive, there were some decidedly strange moments. We stayed at the Revel in Atlantic City during the last week it was open, and then watched a third of the city’s casinos financially implode. I found myself worrying about our “adopted” Israeli daughter, when she called quite late at night during her Army service. While giving a ride to some fellow Phans for the Mann Center shows, I got the sense that if you’re in your mid-20s, it’s a hard time to be financially independent. And with the number of security events (both large scale and more personal, like fraudulent credit card charges) I think we’re looking at a year calling for more diligence and caution in all electronic interactions.

The Snowman 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

Based on the rousing success (about seven people read it and based on amazon.com click-through rates, at least ten products were viewed) of last year’s Holiday Gift Guide, I humbly present the emergent, annual (almost), carefully researched and field tested Snowman Guide to Getting Gifts For Geeks Who Seem To Have Everything, But Need Something To Ooooh About.

Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers intact. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. The Talisman collection is much more accessible price-wise, and could be a fun gift for that poker player in your life; the “In Gratitude” collection supports women in Uganda. Be good and look good. (About $250).

Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. There’s an iPhone 5S version and an iPhone 5 version and it appears you can get the lenses individually with just the snap-on case as well. For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $200).

Next year the Turn-I-Kit will be added, once it’s available through some retail/online channels. I got mine through the Kickstarter campaign, and while it’s still a bit rough to use, it is quite cool dangling your iPhone off the back of a 200mm f/2.8 lens.

Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

53 tablet pencil. How quaint – a pencil. Yet if you express yourself in the Stern 14.6 point font on whiteboards enough, you know sometimes it’s just easier to draw. Now draw on your iPad, and share the images, and you have a whiteboard to go where you do your best thinking (yes, even in that room). I’m loving my Pencil by FiftyThree Digital Stylus since it “feels” like a pencil and has a variety of brushes (pencil, marker, paint) that’s somewhere in between drawing with a mouse and using a Wacom tablet. (About $50-70 depending upon finish)

Sonos Play:1. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a SONOS PLAY:1 in the kitchen, and it makes breaking down cauliflower fun (recommended: Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge of Town”, it’s perfect for anything in the cabbage family). Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1)

John Scalzi autographed books. I have waxed, fawned, and exhibited the full spectrum of fanboy behaviors when it comes to John Scalzi. In addition to being a superb science fiction writer, he captures the zeitgeist of life in this decade with aplomb and poise. Each year, Scalzi offers personalized books for the holidays. Support a great writer, and a local bookstore. ($20 and up)

Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

Live Musc, Then. Gift a year-long membership to Concert Vault and the recipient can stream access to the entire Bill Graham Presents catalog of classic shows, along with $5 pricing on downloads of those shows. Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, and a seasons’ worth of Yes shows — all in one place. Personally, for the prog rocker on your “nice” list (as opposed to “The Nice” on your rock list, or the nice on your Unix process, but I digress), the 12-10-74 Yes show is worth the entire subscription price. It’s one of the few recordings of the “Relayer” tour (now 40 — yes FORTY — years old) with Patrick Moraz on keyboards, and the “Sound Chaser” opening freaked out a lot of long time Yes fans. Now, of course, it’s classic, and for $40 you can relive the moment (stream it to your Sonos Play:1!)

Seven For Seattle

I have been to Seattle exactly twice before: once in 1986 for a meeting of everyone involved in UCSD’s MOSIS project (small-scale VLSI fabrication for students) and once in 2001 with the Bubba for the MLB All-Star Game. Finally got to spend more than 2 nights in the Emerald City, and I have to say that it’s a place I’d revisit — Seattle gets many things “right.” Here are just seven of them:

1. On game day, everyone is a fan. Perhaps this was a function of bisecting the main walking paths to the stadium, but everyone was in their Seahawks gear – attending the game or not. Businesses have their 12th man signs up, and restaurant and store staff were dressed to cheer on Sunday.

2. Cleanliness counts. It’s the cleanest downtown area I’ve seen, probably due to the street sweepers out at 7:00am every day.

Vacuum Press at Seattle Coffee Works

Vacuum Press at Seattle Coffee Works


3. Starbucks is the mass market, coffee is the main market. I studiously avoided Starbucks in the city of its founding and instead had cold brew coffee in four different boutique shops, including a store front on Pike called “Monorail Espresso” that was so smooth that I ventured out without a jacket — twice — to grab a large one during conference coffee breaks.

Mount Ranier, as seen from the Space Needle

Mount Ranier, as seen from the Space Needle


4. Nature is literally in the backyard. The majesty of Mount Ranier is hard to escape, and only 60 miles south of Seattle proper it brings hardcore outdoors right to your doorstep. While people in the Northeast buy “outdoor gear” that might suffice for a blustery November day, Seattle outdoors folks are sealing out the elements in $500 Arc’teryx jackets that are meant for, you know, mountains. Big ones.

Pike Place Market, Seattle

Pike Place Market, Seattle


5. Public conversation works. The Pike Place Market is thriving, and not just from the “guys throwing fish” — it’s full of artisan shops, local green grocers, and buskers. Goes to show that you can combine maker culture and historical significance and produce a result that has legs and appeals to a wide range of interests beyond tourists.

6. It’s a foodie city. Start with a core of dedicated seafood places and a unique supply (Alaskan king crab, dungeness crab, coho salmon), whisk gently with the emergent restaurants in the Ballard district, season with some serious hamish burger joints, and top off with the fresh fruit and produce in the markets, and you have a foodie mecca. Where to start? Wild boar burger at 8oz Burger, possibly top ten dinner at Art Of The Table (still dreaming of grilled broccoli with preserved lemon), and fruit and vegetables that you can only dream of on the east coast? (romanescu broccoli? lobster mushrooms? medjool dates for $7 a pound?) This caught me by surprise; I figured I’d be eating salmon on a stick (which I did, but only once).

7. Comics FTW. Three different people commented on my “Coffee of Doom” t-shirt from Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content – not only that they liked it, but knew the strip, knew the reference, and had met Jeph during one con or another. I got better sight reading from strangers on Pike Place than I did from carefully curated comic placements in my LISA talk, but that’s on me.

All in all, a fun week in a fun city. Can’t wait to come back. And I’ll be hungry (again).

Apple Is Beat(s): Calling the Top

Disclaimer #1: I completely suck at picking stocks, and offering insight into the stock market, which is why I do not manage my own investments. Evidence is littered all over these posts.

That said, I’m calling something of a top in Apple on the basis of paying $3.2B for Beats. While the NY Times and O’Reilly editor Mike Loukides call out the two extreme views (Apple is a luxury brand, Apple wanted the streaming service), my view is much more cynical.


Disclaimer #2: Mike Loukides edited my first O’Reilly book, and I provided technical input on one of his, and he remains one of the most pragmatic technical writers I know.

The basis for my cynicism is that I’ve tried Beats headphones, in both the earbud and over-ear styles, and I don’t like them. I find them way too bass heavy, subtracting from the color and richness of the source material, and if you read the comments on amazon.com, their quality is lacking. I’m not sure of the actual demographics of their product sales, but a quick sampling on the NYC subway shows the Beats crowd is largely male and young. That’s a microcosm of, say, the iPhone demographic. Teenage and early-20s men are not a long-lived style-driven market; and likely not one worth more than $3B.

If Apple did buy Beats for the streaming service, why wouldn’t they just build their own? Backend technology mergers are always messier than they appear, and Apple certainly doesn’t need the online eyeballs (or earballs, as my sister used to refer to listening capacity). What I see is Apple buying someone else’s (possible) innovation, buying in deference to current high-end style definition, and buying a low quality product. If you believe that technology runs in cycles (either 25-year long cycles or waves of 10-year cycles), then the cycle begun when Jobs rejoined Apple at its helm is in its denouement. It’s just a very bottom-heavy tail end.