On the nature of tiny magic ponies

When I was a kid, I loved magic.

There is a picture on display in my mother’s living room. David Copperfield sits at a table signing autographs. My brother and I are next to him, while he signs our event posters. I’m slack-jawed, literally the picture of awe. I had a magic set, so I knew how simple illusions worked. But Copperfield’s work was so far beyond what I understood, he may as well have been Merlin. Or Jesus.

Only kids really believe in magic. When you’re an adult, you can see a Copperfield show and enjoy yourself, but the whole time you’re trying to figure out the trick, and that’s not really believing anymore. You’re all too aware that you’re watching an illusion, that it’s just a show. As a kid, I only knew the word “magician”; it was only years later that I heard “illusionist.”

Science fiction is like a variant of magic. It’s a genre based completely on premises that could, maybe, happen someday, but not yet. Enjoying science fiction requires you to temporarily ignore what you know about how the world works and try to imagine the story is feasible. Sci-fi fans even have a term for this: “suspension of disbelief.”

You watch characters on the Enterprise wander around huge environments in a Holodeck, then the program stops and they’re in a 20×20 foot room. You’re suddenly left wondering if they just walked like a mile during the program, why didn’t they walk into the walls? That’s poor writing, because it’s too easy to drop out of your suspension of disbelief. But when you watch The Matrix, and Trinity explains the true nature of déjà vu to Neo, what you think is that it makes perfect sense. So that’s what déjà vu is; of course, what else would it be?

I realized recently that a number of things now exist which, in my childhood, would have been pure science fiction. I’m not talking about extravagant things, like the Large Hadron Collider or space tourism. I’m talking about things I can simply walk into a store and purchase, as an average guy off the street.

Like so many people, I carry an iPhone. Really think about this device for a moment. In a form factor about the size of a deck of playing cards, it has more power and communication capability than several of the computers I’ve owned in my life, combined. It can do everything from simple text-based applications like email, to fast-paced first-person shooters, and you can put entire feature-length movies on it.

Watch old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the 80s, and you’ll see characters walking around using tablet-shaped computers, no keyboards, nothing but a slate and a finger. 25 years later, we have the iPad. They even have a similar name: on the Enterprise, they used PADDs.

More of a Disney fan than a Trekkie? That’s fine, just think of iPad as the magic mirror instead. A smooth plate of glass whose power you can call forth. Ask it something—anything—and it can tell you instantly.

I’m an avid reader, and have been for as long as I can remember. I have shelves and shelves of books. Too many to even keep in bookcases anymore. Ignoring storage needs, some books are just damn heavy, and big. Holding them for a while is a pain, and carrying them around with you is inconvenient. But now, I have a Kindle. Dozens of books in a package the size of a Superman comic.

Do you remember the erasable PaperMate pen? It sucked, didn’t it? Well, the Sharpie Liquid Pencil isn’t a whole lot better, but it’s still like magic because it doesn’t use ink; they figured out how to make liquid graphite.

I am old enough to remember having to get up and change channels on the TV by hand. I remember when you could still buy a black-and-white set. Channels were not all equal: some were VHF and some were UHF. The UHF channels always seemed a little bit ghetto, didn’t they? Somehow the mere fact that they were on that second (usually lower) dial made them inferior, regardless of what was actually on.

My wife complains all the time about the DVR doing things like deciding to record something at its 2AM run instead of the first run, forcing her to watch it a day later than expected (or not recording a show at all). And I think, does she even realize how much better this is than everything that came before? Would she really want to go back to using a VCR, or (gasp) watching things live? She’s grown up now, and forgotten how to believe in magic.

Frank Chimero wrote about an experience in the Apple Store. There was a horse in the store, and as he looked around, nobody seemed to see it except for him. He coined the term “tiny pony,” which refers to anything that is fairly exceptional on its face, but for whatever reason, nobody seems to notice.

Cell phones and the ability to make a phone call to anyone from anywhere is a tiny pony. The instant gratification provided by being able to have almost any question answered immediately is a tiny pony. Airplanes are tiny ponies. A black president, whose father is from Kenya and mother is from Kansas, being elected President of the United States is a tiny pony.

My wife looks at the TV and DVR and doesn’t see it for what it is: a tiny pony. Its fairly minor flaws seem major, but only when its larger context is ignored.

Do you remember life before the things we have today? I mean really remember. How things were before you had a DVR, a laptop with a home wifi router, an iPhone, a TV remote, XM radio, or a microwave oven? When you had to open your car windows with a hand crank, and unlock the door with a metal key? Can you imagine going back to the time when your everyday life was still science fiction?

I, for one, cannot.

The FAAN Food Allergy Walk (in photos)

Yesterday we participated in the 1st Annual FAAN Walk for Food Allergy, held at Jacobs, er, Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland. My mom, my in-laws, and others joined us.

This event being in its first year, there were a few rough edges. The emcee was barely audible because she wasn’t talking into her microphone loudly enough. There weren’t any signs directing people to the proper gate at the stadium. But it all worked out in the end.

I was afraid that nearly nobody would show up. I thought that we’d arrive to find two or three other families, and the whole thing would feel rather pitiful. It wasn’t quite that small, but it wasn’t the enormous crowd that the Race for the Cure draws every year, either. Still, I thought: it is the first year.

My wife and I found the choice of venue a little strange. A baseball stadium, notorious for serving tons of peanuts every season, hosting a food allergy event? Really? I wonder whether the venue kept some people from participating in the walk.

After sitting around for a while listening to the emcee ramble and give a plaque to some guy (I don’t know who, due to the aforementioned lack of audibility), we were finally ready to walk.

The walk was billed as being one mile, but it feels like we walked much further. We had to wend our way through the parade route tunnel leading down to the ball field, do one circuit around the field itself, then take the tunnel back up to street level. Then once around the stadium exterior, back to the gate. Even that felt like more than a mile, but there was an optional second leg around the field (entailing two more trips through the lengthy parade tunnel).

Half of our group headed for the seats after the main walk, including the kids, but a few of us went back down to the field. I started later than the rest because I walked my daughter down to the front row first. For some reason, I felt compelled to catch up to the others, which I did, just before home plate (about halfway around the perimeter). Today, my shins are begging me to explain exactly why I did that.

I wish we had managed to raise more money for the event, but all things considered, it went well.

It was interesting to see some of the innards of the stadium. To be honest, I could care less about baseball, or sports in general, but seeing the hidden areas of huge buildings like stadiums fascinates me.

Exiting the parade tunnel.

Photographer’s pit.

18 very exclusive parking spaces.

We walked for my three-year-old son, who (little does he know) deals with multiple food allergies on a daily basis. He’s allergic to several basic ingredients that you probably eat every day, like dairy, eggs and soy. He’s also allergic to that Big Daddy of food allergies, peanuts. Which, if I didn’t mention already, are everywhere at baseball stadiums.

My son, in the seats at Progressive Field.

My son, walking in the FAAN Food Allergy Walk.

He walked through the tunnels and almost halfway around the field before he decided the stroller was a better option.

If you care about someone who has food allergies, consider donating to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

Sharpie Liquid Pencil

First, a confession: I’m a pen nerd.

I recently read about Sharpie’s new Liquid Pencil, and was excited about it. A pencil with no leads to break? An erasable writing instrument that becomes permanent after a day or so? It seemed like the perfect pocket pen (er, pencil). Sign me up!

Just over a week ago I saw a two-pack at Officemax and bought it. I’ve been carrying one in place of my usual Pilot G-2, as an experiment.

Sadly, I must report that I’m not impressed. Maybe Sharpie will perfect the technology over time, but this initial version is a dud.

Here’s a sample page using several pens and pencils I have around on my desk.

Contrary to the claims on Sharpie’s blog, the Liquid Pencil writes anything but smoothly. It lays down the graphite unevenly; it’s choppy and inconsistent. It also feels kind of rough on the paper, at least compared to the pens I normally use.

Even the super-cheap Bic Round Stic wrote more smoothly and consistently.

Now let’s talk about erasing. Or rather, not erasing.

The Techniclick using regular graphite erases fairly well. You can sort of see what was written, if you squint at it. The Liquid Pencil, on the other hand, leaves a lot behind. I wrote “Something I regret writing” and then erased. I probably should have added “with” to the end of that sentence.

The pencil-to-ink conversion is also a bit overstated. I have seen claims ranging from one to three days. Okay, I’m willing to accept that there’s a variable or two here: paper type, humidity, etc. But after a week, I’m still able to half-erase what I wrote. Not very “permanent” even compared to a dime-a-dozen ink pen.

Verdict: I’m switching back to the Pilot G-2.

Ye old Facebook

If you use Facebook, you’ve undoubtedly seen this at least once.

I hate the new Facebook! Join my petition group! Let’s bring back the old Facebook!

It happens any time Facebook changes anything significant. People are enraged for a while. After a few weeks, it peters out and things go back to normal. Until the next change, at least. Rinse, repeat.

Think about this. What are they really saying?

I have learned how this site works. You changed it, so now I have to learn it all over again. I’m pissed off.

This isn’t what people think they’re saying. People don’t like to think of themselves as incapable or inflexible, so they resist the idea that it’s not the new design they dislike, but that a change has occurred at all. Yet time after time (after a short adaptation period), users figure out where things are, and the gripes recede.

Fast forward to the next change. Even though people had bemoaned the previous version, they now eagerly jump to its defense, apparently having even more hatred for the newest design. There’s a certain sort of amnesia at work.

Sites like Facebook face the constant problem of keeping users coming back, and adding new features is a big part of that task. They also need to keep their interface both useful and desirable to average people. This butts up against a huge problem: most people don’t have much flexibility in their habits when it comes to using computers. They don’t understand the fundamentals building blocks of interfaces, the way technical people do; they learn by rote. Any time something changes, confusion and resentment result.

I wonder what these people would think if Facebook really did stop developing the site. No new features, no evolution. Would they start complaining that they want to do x or y, creating petitions asking Facebook to enable new features?

A Hallmark moment

Attached to a gift from my brother this afternoon.

Superhero quandaries

Some things that bother me about our favorite caped crusaders:

Spider-Man swings all around the city on thick, sticky ropes of web. Who cleans it up? How many people arrive to work in the morning, only to find their windows covered with it?

Batman uses a lot of high-tech top-secret tools. He has a handheld gun that can fire a rope into a beam and lift him to the rafters of a warehouse, or the top of a skyscraper. He has batarangs that he throws all over the place, and never seems to retrieve. Is there a black market in found bat-items?

Superman, Spider-Man and other superheroes wear their costume under their street clothes, and at a moment’s notice they slip into a phone booth or a dark alley and transform in order to save the day. Don’t Peter Parker and Clark Kent carry a wallet with a driver’s license, credit cards and the like? Yet they have not been identified based on the contents of the pockets of their frequently abandoned clothes. How often do they have to buy new clothes?

How does Superman keep his hair so perfectly styled when he flies “faster than a speeding bullet”?

If Iceman is made of ice, how exactly does he move his limbs?

What is Destro’s head supposed to be made out of? If it’s metal, how does he make facial expressions and move his lips?

What are the odds that G.I. Joe and Cobra each recruited no more than and no less than one ninja? And that those two ninja happen to have a history?

Will the new line of Batman films ever introduce Robin? Let me go on record as saying I hope not.

What do you suppose Steve Jobs’ secret identity is?

No comment

Joe Wilcox challenged John Gruber to allow comments on Daring Fireball. Gruber explained why comments aren’t enabled. Wilcox responded by turning off comments on his site for two weeks (an experiment).

I recently disabled comments on this site. It’s not widely read, and what readers I have don’t often comment. The level of attempted spam finally decided it. Readers can still remark using my contact form. The ones who know me personally know how to find me using Twitter, Facebook, or email.

But the truth is that spam isn’t the only reason I turned off comments; that was just the catalyst.

Of the many blogs I read, two do not have commenting systems: Daring Fireball and Marco Arment’s blog. I have a certain sense of relief when I read those sites, and it feels like a different level of quality. Is it entirely due to the content, or is part of it that the cacophony of the unwashed masses isn’t waiting below to spoil the experience?

These two blogs are not like most blogs I read. They are platforms, or to borrow Gruber’s term, soapboxes. Somehow it feels better to read them.

My theory is that when you write for a site with a commenting system, everything you write is tainted by the expectation that there will be a response, and that the response will be attached. Like letting random strangers add footnotes to your thoughts. As I write these words, I feel a certain level of freedom, not caring what anybody might say or think about it. Sure, people can email me. There’s a slight possibility that someone will write a response on another site. But what I write here will stand as published, its message not driven in other directions by outside forces.

Blogs are often hailed as a participatory medium, where readers and authors can engage in a conversation. On a carefully managed site, I suppose that might be possible. But anyone who has managed a blog in recent history can tell you that a non-curated site will quickly become a link farm, peppered with flamewars. On popular sites, especially those with a technical or political bent, comment threads devolve rapidly.

Don’t even get me started on the “First!” idiots.

What is a comment, really? In rare cases, perhaps a thoughtful contribution to the initial statement or question. More commonly, it’s ego-stroking; people pick up their megaphone and shout into the darkness, simply because they can.

Sorry, but I’ll skip it. When I wear my writer’s hat, I’ll say what I want to say, and none of you out there get to slap a post-it note on the side with your brilliant observations. If you want a voice, get your own soapbox.

Improving Instapaper in Fever° part deux

I recently wrote about improving the Instapaper function in Fever°.

It occurred to me that a small pop-up window would be much better than having a full-size browser window come up just for a second. Then I wondered if I could put a javascript: URL into the Fever° settings. And whaddya know, it works!

The new link I’m using (wrapped for readability):

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javascript:window.open(
  'http://mysite.com/instapaper.php?url=%u&title=%t&selection=%e',
  'instapaper',
  'width=300,height=200,toolbar=0,scrollbars=0,resizable=1'
);

Right-click this link to copy it: Instapaper

Improving Instapaper support in Fever°

I recently switched from Google Reader to Fever°. I am happy I switched, but I quickly missed the ease with which I could save articles to Instapaper. The Instapaper bookmarklet has some way of divining which article you’re focused on in Google Reader, so you can add the article right from the feed page, instead of opening the article itself, then adding it to Instapaper. It’s very convenient, and fast.

Fever° also has Instapaper support, but it works a little differently. When focused on an article, you tap i to open a new window containing a pre-filled Instapaper form, then click the Add button. The item is added, and you’re left with a window showing your Instapaper unread items.

That’s not bad, but I didn’t want that window hanging around. I had to wait for it to load, then get rid of it. I had to take my hand off the keyboard to click the Add button. It worked, but was less graceful than what I had before.

I spent a few minutes with PHP and came up with a solution. It’s not as pretty as what I had with Google Reader, but it’s just as fast, and works without any mousing, clicking, or lingering windows. I tap i on an article, and a window pops up, says ‘Saved,’ and disappears on its own after a second or so. (If there’s a problem, you see an error instead and the window does not go away.)

First, create a script on your site. I named mine instapaper.php and put it at the root of my Fever° site. But you can put it anywhere, including on another domain entirely. You just need to know the URL to configure Fever° later.

instapaper.php
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<?php

$api = 'https://www.instapaper.com/api/add';
$close_timer = 750; // how many ms to display 'Saved!'

// Your instapaper.com credentials
$user = 'my_username';
$pass = 'my_password';

$u = urlencode($_GET['url']);
$t = urlencode($_GET['title']);
$s = urlencode($_GET['selection']);

$curl_url = "$api?username=$user&password=$pass&url=$u&title=$t&selection=$s";

$ch = curl_init($curl_url);
curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_RETURNTRANSFER, TRUE);
$ret = curl_exec($ch);
curl_close($ch);

if ($ret == '201'):
?>

<h2>Saved!</h2>
<script language="javascript">
setTimeout("self.close();",<?php echo $close_timer ?>) 
</script>

<?php else: ?>

<p>ERROR: instead of response code 201, we got:<br />
<?php echo $ret ?></p>

<?php endif ?>

Now, go into your Fever° preferences and click the Sharing tab. I suggest removing the i key from the Instapaper item, and changing its name (I used ‘ORIGINAL Instapaper’). That way it’s still there if you ever want to switch back.

Click the + icon to add a new service. Name it ‘Instapaper,’ set the key to i or whatever you prefer, and set the URL as follows. You’ll need to substitute the path to your script.

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http://mysite.com/fever/instapaper.php?url=%u&title=%t&selection=%e

Click Save and you’re done.

(I’ll write more about Fever° itself after I’ve used it for a while longer.)

Porcelain engineering

Tonight I had dinner at a downtown restaurant called The Greenhouse Tavern. They use locally-sourced ingredients, organic foods, and are into recycling and so on. I can get behind all of that.

But here’s what struck me most: their bathroom. Yes, yes, I know, I’m hopeless. Bear with me.

First, the toilet. As described to the user via a small plaque on the wall, there are two buttons on top. You push the button corresponding to your (ahem) deposit. The toilet will use more or less water to flush depending on your choice. Or, if you don’t want to touch anything, it will attempt to divine which way to go based on how long you took. Here is a toilet that thinks.

Did I mention there’s a solar panel on top? There’s another on top of the sink faucet. I can’t imagine they see much sunlight.

Speaking of light, it’s controlled by a motion sensor, so you can’t forget to turn it off when you leave.

The hand dryer has a spout at the bottom, on which is a sticker reading, “Feel the Power.” I smirked and thought “What idiot decided to put that stupid sticker there?” And then, I put my hands beneath it and felt the power. This machine must have put out three times the air velocity of your typical hand dryer. It was a wall-mounted jet engine.

Bravo, Chef Sawyer. Your staff are great; your food is fantastic; your bathroom, sir, is well-engineered.