I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Language is like geology. Novelties periodically erupt, some of which remain a feature of the landscape, but most of which subside. More commonly, language is a collection of tectonic plates that separate or grind together very slowly over a long period as some features of the landscape erode and others metamorphose.

John McIntyre


<September 2023>



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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 9:19 PM Pacific

  11:32 AM

No wonder Amazon is eating their lunch

Our local pool finally reopened recently, so I'm making one of my periodic attempts to get back into swimming. I have long hair, and the last time I went, I thought, you know, I should get a swim cap.

I researched and learned that there is such a thing as a cap for long hair (i.e. fits over a bun, I guess). So yesterday, Sunday, I betook myself to the local shopping center to go to the sports store. I'm always hesitant about the place because they seem to be, as we say at our house, run by children: the average age of the sparse staff seems to be in the low 20s or thereabouts. But it was local and open.

I found the section for swim caps. They had no long-hair swim caps at all, but they did have a normal silicone cap that I thought might do. In fact, they had two identical packages of them. One was priced at $12.99. The other was priced at $9.99.

I found someone who was working there and asked, "Do these seem different to you somehow?" No. So it was odd that they were priced differently, right? "Let me look that up," the employee said, and went to the register to scan the two packages. After the scan, the employee said that yeah, the price was $12.99. Did I want to buy it?

Dear reader, I now ask you to contemplate whether this could have been an opportunity for a customer-service win.

But the opportunity was not seized. Even though I was holding a package in my hand that was clearly labeled $9.99, they were going to charge me $12.99. And it wasn't even exactly what I was looking for.

I went home and ordered what I needed from Amazon. It was less than $9.99 and it was on my doorstep by 9:30 Monday morning.

Now, I can imagine that some employee had been tasked at some point with updating price tags and had just missed this item. And I can imagine that the employee I talked to was not authorized—in fact, perhaps no employee at the store is—to override the price that the computer lists for an item.

I could have sucked it up and paid the extra three dollars for an item that wasn't quite what I wanted. And I could have felt virtuous doing so knowing that I was "supporting local business," although it turns out that this company has over 400 stores spread around the western states.

This is the dilemma of retail businesses. They can't compete directly with online sources on price or selection. But they have to offer something that makes up for this besides simply being local. Good customer service is a possibility. Knowledgeable staff. The instant gratification of walking out of the store with what you went there for.

There's a local hardware store with 7 outlets in the Seattle area that does this right. They compete with Home Depot and Lowe's (often close by), but they are generously staffed with people who know what they're talking about. Most of the stores are big, and although they don't stock as much as a Home Depot, they stock some of the weirder things you might need, and as noted, they have people who can help you find that thing and can then tell you how to use/install/fix/wire/paint it. I will always go to this store first, and I am willing to pay the "local" price, which is often 10–20% higher than what the box stores charge.

So "shop local" can be a good experience. But, as my sports-store experience suggested to me, local is not by itself enough to compete.

What are your thoughts?


[1] |

  01:23 PM

Over the last year and some, we didn't dine out, obviously, since we couldn't. Now that we're easing back into more normal life, I've realized that a year away from the lure of going out to eat has changed my thinking about it a bit.

Of course, many restaurants survived by offering take-out food. We got take-out a few times. But I realized that I didn't like this very much. For one thing, the third-party delivery services have been accused of some shady practices. But even if you order directly from the restaurant, it's a suboptimal experience. My summation of the experience of take-out food is this: cook something; leave it sitting for 20 minutes; serve and (probably don't) enjoy. Now I get take-out only if I intend to eat it more or less immediately.

One of the first things that changed was that we cooked more at home. I'm a, dunno, utilitarian cook: I can make a certain number of things, but I don't aspire to fancy cooking. What the enforced time away from restaurants did, though, was to encourage me to work on cooking things I like. For example, I like going out for diner-type breakfast. Over the last year I actively worked on re-creating that food at home. This was a success for me: I've made waffles, hash browns, eggs over easy, French toast, and hash that to me was entirely satisfactory. (I emphasize that I can now cook these things the way that I like them, not that I should work in a diner.) There are also lunch and dinner foods that I feel that I've perfected for my individual taste. (Same caveat.)

Homemade hashbrowns and eggs

This success has made me ponder the purpose of going out to eat. Certainly I (you too?) have paid for pretty indifferent restaurant meals. At this point, I ask myself why I should go out for a breakfast that I can probably do better (same caveat) at home. Should I wait in line on a Sunday morning to eat a mediocre breakfast? Do I really want to go out for another meal of American Mexican food? I'm beginning to wonder.

Then there is the cost. Any sit-down meal is going to cost $18–20 per person and of course can cost many times that. If I go out for dinner with my wife, we can easily be looking at, what, $50 at even a two-$$-sign restaurant, especially if we get drinks. If one or more of the kids come along, multiply that number. It's not that these prices are unreasonable; it's that it adds up. How much per week should I budget to get meals that have a likelihood of being pretty forgettable?

But dining out is not just about meals that you might or might not be able to make at home. Going out is about third places—not home, not work, but a third place. For example, unlike my parents' generation, we don't "entertain" at home in the way that seemed to be a premise in many 1950s-era cookbooks. If we want to socialize with people, our custom (and I suspect that of many folks) is to meet up for coffee or lunch or a beer. Obviously, socializing over a table—socializing at all—was severely constrained over the last year and some.

Pages from "The Joy of Cooking" (1975) about entertaining

My wife and I also enjoyed taking our laptops to a coffee shop or pub and working or writing. (I wrote many blog posts at an ale house that was within walking distance of our last domicile.)

Did these protocols change over the pandemic time? I have started meeting people again to catch up, and it's the same as before—find a place convenient to both parties, and then have breakfast or a beer or whatever. But I am much more aware now that I'm paying to socialize, so to speak, and I'm maybe a little more resentful when I shell out a hunk of money for something that wasn't very good, the company itself of course excepted. (It's great to see people in person again.)

Based on my limited experience again of working or writing away from home, I know that I still enjoy that. Coffee shops are opening up again to allow people to sit and work; my wife and I spent a couple of pleasant hours at a coffee shop a few Sundays ago plugging away on our respective writing projects.

Back to writing at coffee shops

It would be easy to get back into a habit of going out 4 or 5 times a week to do this. But it's possible that pandemic-time habits have made me rethink all this. Although it will be easy again to think that I'm too tired to make dinner at home and go out, I've gotten out of the habit. I think about whether I'll enjoy it and how much it costs. The same is true for grabbing the laptop and settling at a table somewhere to work. Fortunately, our libraries are opening up again to allow people to sit and work: a third place that doesn't cost anything to use (though the hours are not always convenient).

I don't think we'll change our socializing habits, though; I anticipate that we'll still meet people out in the third place. But the pandemic reset expectations about socializing, I think. We went months without seeing anyone in person, and I'm still okay with limiting face-to-face socializing to just occasionally, maybe a couple of times a month at most. In this regard I think I differ from my wife, who is not as content as I am to have long periods between visits.

I've read a number of articles about how there's pent-up demand for things to get back to how it was in pre-pandemic times. I suspect, though, that for some of us, the forced changes over the last year have done a reset on our expectations and, possibly, on our habits.

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  08:07 AM

Christmas carols are songs that you learn as a youngster, at an age when you don't spend too much time thinking about the lyrics. Everything else is sort of mysterious when you're a kid, and the oddball words to seasonal songs are just one more thing you don't quite get.[1]

By the time you're an adult, the songs are ingrained, and you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about the lyrics. Or at least not the lyrics that you mostly know, namely those in the first verses of all your favorites.

But I went to a Christmas carol sing-along the other evening, during which we sang verses two and beyond. I guess I was surprised at a few of the weird turns that otherwise familiar songs took when we got past that one verse that you know. Herewith a few examples.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," verse 2:

Christ, by highest heav'n adored:
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the favored one.
Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th'incarnate Deity

Seriously, I had to stop singing and marvel at "Offspring of the favored one."

"Away in a Manger," verse 4:

I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle 'til morning is nigh.

I thought that took quite a turn toward the personal. Also, … cradle?

"Jingle Bells," verse 3:

Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song
Just get a bob tailed bay
two-forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead

As someone sitting behind me said, "Uh-huh, now we know what that's about."

Guess the song:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold

Apocalyptic much?

This is not even to mention the vocal machinations it took to cram or stretch some awkward lyrics into the familiar tunes, all in real time. (Did not always succeed.)

If nothing else, I learned that people's ability to versify was not significantly better in, say, the 19th century than it is now. This gave me … comfort and joy. :)

[1] Tho when I told my then-young daughter that "Silent Night" had originally been written in German, she said "That explains the 'round yon virgin' part."


[2] |

  07:00 PM

I commute to work on crowded mass transit, and when I get there, I work in an open office. So I consider good headphones an essential part of my gear. My employer apparently agrees; they subsidize headphones for us. I’ve appreciated the pair I got: over-ear, noise-reducing, Bluetooth headphones. I use them for hours a day every workday.

But the daily use has taken a toll. A few months ago I noticed that the headphones seemed loose on my head. Close examination revealed that the plastic arch between the earpieces had cracked. Thus began an ever more involved effort to save these lovely headphones.

Bridging the crack

My first thought was to patch over the crack. I found a washer that was about the size of a quarter, and used epoxy to glue the washer across the crack, then taped it over to salvage some semblance of aesthetics. (Ha.) was a little dubious about this, but it actually worked ok.

However, a few weeks later the headphones were loose again. I thought my patch had failed, but no—a second crack had appeared at a different point. It seemed clear that there are stress points in the headphones:

I tried a second patch like the first one, but a third crack developed.

Repair or replace?

After this discouraging development, I spent some hours online looking for a replacement for my headphones. I looked and looked, but two things ultimately stopped me from buying a new pair. One was that omg, headphones that have all the features I want (NR, Bluetooth, over-ear, decent audio) are expensive. And to add to this disheartening discovery, many reviews suggested that many other brands of headphones were probably just as prone to breakage as the ones I already had. So I returned to the idea of trying to engineer a fix for the ones I already had.

Brothers of bands

After the severally patched cracks had failed, I kept thinking that I needed to in effect make a new arch for the headphones. I needed some sort of spring-like band of material that I could attach to the headphones. (Some people might already have thought about an obvious solution, which I arrived at later; bear with me a few moments.) I kept thinking about some sort of plastic, but couldn’t arrive at a material that was both flexible enough and had enough spring. What I eventually did was to cut apart the plastic jar from a well-known brand of popcorn and laminating four layers. This seemed to provide the right amount of spring:

I then taped this ad-hoc spring to the headphones with lots of tape, even further reducing their visual appeal:

(I swear that I catch people on the train looking at my jury-rigged headphones and wondering “What the heck is that?”)

Is there a spring for the head?

This worked pretty well for a couple of months. But inevitably, my plastic spring started losing some of its sproing, so I was back to thinking about a better way to make this fix. It finally occurred to me that there is a device that is pretty much designed for this exact purpose: headbands for hair. I betook myself to the beauty section of the local drugstore and pondered my many choices. I ended up with a set of thin metal bands:

I disassembled and reassembled the headphones, this time adding one of the metal headbands to the arch. (I don’t want them to be too springy, because I wear the headphones for long periods and don’t want to squash my ears.)

And that’s where I am today. I’m hoping that this repair, or if necessary, another one like it, will hold until the electronics fail, or I step on them accidentally, or I have some other reason to buy a new pair. And next time I’ll have a head start on ways to fix the headphones when they start cracking.

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  11:33 PM

The other day I was taking an introductory training class for some technology at work. There was a slide that outlined the technology, and one of the bullet points had an asterisk next to it. At the bottom of the page was this footnote:

Most strong statements like this are only mostly true. Don’t worry about it.

I had to stop for a while to ponder the pedagogical implications of this footnote.

There's an inherent problem in trying to describe something complicated to a newbie: how do you start? If someone knows absolutely nothing about, say, playing bridge, or verbs in Spanish, or physics, or grammar, you have to give them a large-picture, broad-stroke overview of this thing they're about to dive into.

This is hard. One reason is that people who are familiar with some domain frequently have difficulty coming up with sufficiently high-level overviews that make sense to a beginner. I've had a couple of people attempt to explain the game of bridge to me, but they could not come up with a simple, comprehensible explanation of the bidding process.[1]

A closely related reason is that experts often cannot let go of details. For example, in your first week of Spanish class, the teacher tells you that the verb hablar means "to speak," and that to say "I speak" you cut off -ar and add -o: hablo. And that this is the pattern for any verb that ends in -ar. So to say "I take," you use the verb tomar and turn it into tomo.

Easy! Powerful! Also, of course, only mostly true: there are irregular verbs and reflexive verbs and other fun. But throwing those additional details at you in the first week of Spanish 101 is counterproductive. There will be time to sort out the exceptions later, once you understand some basics.

I took physics in high school, and when you start, you're learning a lot about f=ma. I have memories of homework problems involving blocks being pulled or pushed, and the problems always said something like "… ignoring the effects of air resistance." A beginning physics student has enough to think about when calculating the effect of gravitational acceleration without trying to factor in air resistance and all the other real-life variables that come into play. In fact, there's a well-known joke in the physics community about a "spherical cow" that represents the ultimate in simplifying a model.

One more example. In the linguistics community, it's widely discussed that even if kids are taught grammar, it's not taught very well. People who are experts in grammar will sometimes complain (example) that the explanations we give students are hopelessly simplistic. "A noun is the name for a person, place, or thing," goes a typical definition. This doesn't adequately cover gerunds ("Smoking is bad for you") or concepts ("Orange is the new black") or many other ways in which we noun things.

But this gets back to the point. If you're faced with a classroom of 8-year-olds, how do you tell them what a noun is? Using terms like "lexical category" and "defined by its role in the sentence" is not going to work. You have to start somewhere.[2][3]

And that means ignoring messy details. As one of the commenters on the linked grammar post describes it, "It's quite normal for us to use 'lies to children' in education." Or, to get back to where we started, you sometimes have to make strong statements that are only mostly true.

[1] There are people can do this; it just wasn't the people I was playing with.

[2] By coincidence, I ran across a video that tries to explain what nouns and verbs are. We can have a think about whether this is a description that would be suitable for first-time grammar leaners.

[3] And another! Jed Hartman (of Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation) also has an entry Coming Down with Noun Syndrome about the challenges of identifying parts of speech. ("[A]s usual, the truth is a little more complicated than we were taught. Oops.")

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  09:30 PM

I find it harder and harder these days to ride as a passenger when other people drive. Some of that is just part of getting old. But it's not just that; as I've noted before, learning to ride a motorcycle has helped make me a better driver.

One tactic I've worked on is how much space I leave between me and the driver in front of me. To my mind, most people follow too close. You really don't want to do that. Here's why.

Note: If you want the tl;dr, skip to So what do I do?

Speed and distance

Let's start by examining what sort of distance you're covering when you drive, because it might be more than you think. At 10 mph, in 1 second you cover about 15 feet. At 70 mph, in that same 1 second you cover 103 feet. Here's a graphic that illustrates this ratio.

An accepted measure of a car length is 10 feet. This means that if you're going 60 mph, in 1 second you will travel 9 car lengths. Even small differences in speed result in significant differences in how far you travel—the difference between driving at 60 and at 70 is that in 1 second at 70 you will travel an additional 15 feet (88 vs 103). More than one car length.

Braking distance

Let's imagine that for some reason you have to slam on the brakes. Alas, physics tells us that you cannot stop on the proverbial dime. The faster you're going, the longer it takes to get to zero mph.

There's no standard chart for stopping distance for cars. Cars weigh different amounts and they have different brakes; for example, newer cars have anti-lock brakes a.k.a. ABS. (Jeremy Clarkson of the TV show "Top Gear" also makes the case [video] that cars that are engineered to go fast are also engineered to stop quickly.) External factors also come into play, such as the road surface (wet? gravelly?) and the tires on the car. Also whether you're going uphill or downhill.

Anyway, it's complex. The best that people can offer is a minimum braking distance based on a formula that takes into account the initial speed, the car's mass (weight), and the friction coefficient of brakes and road. I'll spare you that here, but I'll suggest some ballpark numbers, as shown in the chart. (You'll see a variety of numbers for this measure if you look around; these are actually on the low end.)

Notice that braking distance at 60 is 180 feet—18 car lengths. That's about 1 city block. Going 70, which of course is only 10 mph faster, the braking distance goes up to almost 250 feet, or an additional 7 car lengths.[1]

Reaction ("thinking") distance

Braking distance is measured from the time the brakes are engaged. But everyone will remind you that there's a delay between the time you see that you have to brake and when you finally get your foot onto the pedal. Remember from the earlier bit that if you delay one second before you hit the brakes, your car might already have traveled many car lengths before you even start slowing down.

The combination of reaction distance and braking distance is referred to as the total stopping distance. Since I'm all about the pretty charts today, here's one from the UK that shows the total stopping distance as "thinking distance" plus braking distance (click to embiggen):

It's the total stopping distance that matters when you're driving behind someone: how far will you keep going before you can stop if something happens ahead of you? Or stated another way, is there enough room between you and the car ahead so that if they slammed on their brakes, you could avoid slamming into them?

As with braking distance, there's no standard measurement for reaction distance. Some people have faster reflexes than others. But even lightning-quick reflexes result in some delay between stimulus and reaction.

And much more importantly, some people pay closer attention to traffic than others. People text while they drive, they yack with their passengers, they watch their GPS, they fool with their radio, they search the passenger footwell for their dropped phone, they watch TV while driving. There have been accidents where the driver behind never hit the brakes at all. In our little car bubble, we sometimes forget that we're piloting 1 ton or more of iron at 88 feet per second, something that's not scary only because we're used to doing it.

And it's your fault

The law generally puts the responsibility on you to leave enough distance. If you rear-end someone, it will almost be always considered your fault. There are a few circumstances when you can make a case that the driver in front contributed to the accident, but the default assumption will be that you were not driving in a safe manner. Not to mention, I suppose, that if you have an accident, you will have had an accident, with all the hassle that that entails.

Think of the traffic

Even if you have superhuman reflexes and a physics-defying vehicle that can stop on a dime, leaving a gap between you and the car in front can have benefits for overall traffic flow. By leaving a gap, you can actually minimize the accelerate-then-brake cycle that characterizes most heavy traffic.

Imagine that you’re behind someone and they tap their brakes to slow down by 5 mph. If you’re close, then you, too, have to tap your brakes to slow down. Even this small slowdown, and even if both of you immediately speed up again, creates a kind of wave that moves backward through traffic. In fact, this is sometimes the source of “phantom” slowdowns on the freeway, where everyone slows down for no apparent reason.

However, if you’re far enough behind someone, when they tap their brakes, you might not need to tap yours at all, or you can slow down enough just by easing off the accelerator. And if you don’t have to, the person behind you doesn’t either, and so on backwards through traffic. Result: possible traffic jam averted.

The engineer William Beatty refers to this as "eating" traffic waves. He explains:

By driving at the average speed of traffic, my car had been "eating" the traffic waves. Everyone ahead of me was caught in the stop/go cycle, while everyone behind me was forced to go at a nice smooth 35MPH or so. My single tiny car had erased miles and miles of stop-and-go traffic. Just one single "lubricant atom" had a profound effect on the turbulent particle flow within miles of "tube."
Obviously, there are limitations to this; if traffic is completely stopped, it’s just completely stopped. But if you can help reduce traffic jams by leaving a little extra space between you and the next person, isn’t that a worthy goal?

So what do I do?

When I got my license many decades ago, the rule was to leave 1 car length ahead of you for every 10 mph. If you're going 60 mph, 6 car lengths. As you can see from the various distances listed above, that's probably not enough. And that's even assuming that you can estimate car lengths correctly, which I think a lot of (most?) people cannot. (Little-known fact: the dashed white lines between lanes on the freeway are 10 feet long.)

When I got my motorcycle license, I learned a far more useful guideline: the three-second rule (PDF). The idea is that when the car ahead of you passes some landmark (a streetlight, a sign, anything static), you count "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three." If you reach the landmark before you finish counting, you're following too close.

The rule is useful because it's independent of speed—the faster you're going, the longer the distance is that you go in 3 seconds, so it (kind of) works out. Naturally, this is just a rule of thumb, which has to take into account all the factors that go into how quickly you can stop. But it has the advantage that if you routinely practice counting off your 3 seconds as you drive on the highway, it means you're paying attention, and that's a very big factor in how safely you're driving.

Event horizon

As if it isn't hard enough just to pay attention to the car in front of, you really should be aware of what's going on in front of them. The same motorcycle manual that recommends the three-second rule suggests that you try to see what's happening 12 seconds ahead of you. This is sound advice, because the driver in front of you might not be paying close attention. If you see that the driver ahead will have to slow down even before they're aware of it, you can adjust your own driving accordingly. (This is captured in the concept of assured clear distance ahead, which you can read about in a particularly poorly written Wikipedia article.)

By the way, all of this applies also to cars behind you, and to your side. Driving safely is hard work.

If you can't see ahead of the car in front of you, it's best to leave even more room than you normally would. I actually have this problem a lot. The motorcycle isn’t very tall, of course. And my normal car is a MINI, which sits pretty low to the ground. In both cases, if I'm behind an SUV or pickup or anything larger than that, I have no clue what's going on up front.

Parting notes

People have pointed out that if you leave gaps ahead of you, other drivers will swoop in. That's true. If you have completely mastered the zen of good following practice, you just let them, and you slow down to again open up a suitable gap ahead of you. I will acknowledge that this is a state of driving enlightenment that most of us can only aspire to. Still, it has helped me to think holistically about safety and about traffic, and if I’m in just the right frame of mind (like, not late to an appointment), I can do a decent impression of someone who actually has mastered all this. And of course, if I'm on the motorcycle, I am ever mindful that even a small miscalculation in how closely I follow can have grave consequences.

For the most part, driving is uneventful. Even if we speed, even if we speed and follow too closely, mostly things don't happen. But it's this very uneventfulness that can make us complacent and lead us to stop paying close enough attention to an activity that can wreak mayhem in the "unlikely event of" a crash.[2]

[1] I'm not sure how clear this is, but the "safety" of a large vehicle like an SUV has to do with how well it survives a crash, not in how well it can avoid one by, for example, stopping quickly.

[2] There's a movement to stop using the word "accident" and instead use the word "crash" in order to emphasize that almost all crashes are caused by drivers. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation puts it this way: "Using the word accident tends to make people think safety is a matter of luck, and it isn't."

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[4] |

  10:26 PM

Sarah and I have been engaged in a gradual process of downsizing, and one of the ways we’ve been doing that is by shrinking our extensive collection of books. Not long ago we did another round of culling and pulled five boxes of books off the shelves. Then, in keeping with what we’ve done many times before, we lugged our boxes around to bookstores in order to sell them.

Prior experience suggested that we’d have the best luck with specific bookstores. Several times I’ve sold books to Henderson’s and Michael’s in Bellingham; the former in particular has always paid top dollar for books, which is reflected in their excellent on-shelf inventory. We have reason anyway to occasionally visit Bellingham, so not long ago we hauled our boxes northward.

But it proved disappointing. We used their handcart to wheel our five boxes in; the stony-faced buyer picked out about 25 books, and we wheeled five boxes back to the car. Michael’s, which is across the street from Henderson’s, was not buying at all, only offering store credit.

With diminished enthusiasm, we headed back south. Our next stop was Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Like Henderson’s, they carefully picked out a small stack of books and gave us back the rest. Although I was tempted to visit Magus Books in the U District—in my experience, they’ve always been interested in more academically oriented books—the day had already gotten long for little gain. Therefore, our last stop was Weasel Half-Price Books, which gave us a handful of change for the remaining four boxes. Presumably we could have demanded back the books they were not interested in, but by then we we'd lost pretty much all of our energy for dealing with the boxes, even to donate them to the library.

All in all it was a heartbreaking experience. The web has been a good tool for those who like books. Sites like Abebooks have created a global market for used books, so that a place like Henderson’s can offer its inventory not just to those in the environs of Bellingham, WA, but to anyone with an internet connection. But the internet has also brought a lot more precision to this market; a bookseller has a much better idea today of what a book is worth—or not worth—on the open market. One effect certainly has been that the buyers at all these bookstores are much choosier than they might have been 15 years ago, when (I suspect) buying decisions were still reliant on a dash of instinct.

More than that, and a fact that’s hard for me to accept, is that used books are a commodity of diminishing value. We collected those books over decades, and each acquisition had personal meaning to us. I could easily have spent an hour pulling books out of the boxes and explaining to the buyers at Henderson’s or Third Place or Half-Price why I bought the book, and when, and why I’d kept it all these years, and why it was a book sure to appeal to some other reader. But they don’t care about your stories, a fact that’s all too obvious when you’re standing at their counter, meekly awaiting a payment that represents a tiny fraction of your investment—financial and otherwise—in the books you’ve handed over.

No one really wants my old VCR tapes or CDs or even DVDs much anymore, either, although I don’t have as much emotional investment in those as I do in books. And I can’t really fault booksellers for their choosiness, since their continued success is dependent on hard-headed decisions about their inventory.

We still have five bookshelves filled with books at home, and we'll continue to downsize. I think I might be done with trying to sell the books, though. I'm not sure I want to experience the sadness of seeing how little all these lovely books are worth to anyone else but us.

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[1] |

  12:37 PM

In the U.S. today, it's time for the semi-annual grump-fest about the changeover to Daylight Saving Time, aka DST. As we say around here, we "spring forward" an hour on the clocks, such that the first thing you do on Sunday morning is run around the house and slice an hour off your clock. You woke up at 9:00? Guess what, it's actually 10:00!

Some people don't understand why we do this, and lots of people don't like it, citing reasons from sleep deprivation to communism. It's true that DST doesn't make sense everywhere, and indeed, DST is not imposed everywhere. In the US, it's not uniform in Arizona, and Hawaii doesn't play at all.

Basically speaking, DST makes more sense the further north you go (or south, in the southern hemisphere), because it's an effort to even out, so to speak, the differences between the shortest and longest days. The closer you get to the equator, of course, the less of a difference there is, and at the equator, there is no difference (ok, only a very small difference) between the length of days on the solstices.

Ever since the beginning, offsetting the clock was proposed as a way to save energy (by Ben Franklin, who else, who calculated energy costs in terms of candles burned). The idea is to shift the bulk of daylight to the hours when people are most active.

Consider our latitude here in Seattle. Here's a graphical illustration of the times for sunrise and sunset at the solstices and with DST (not entirely to scale[1]):

Winter solstice[2]

Summer solstice without DST

Summer solstice with DST

The general theory of DST is that more people are active on the evening side of the day than on the morning side. Or to use the numbers, more people are active at 9:09 pm than they are at 4:11 am. And being active, they need light, and why use energy (candles, electricity, whatever) when you could use daylight instead.

From the simple perspective of saving energy, it would theoretically be better to let areas impose DST that can actually benefit from it (Seattle, upper Alberta, whatever) and allow those areas that don't benefit from it (Key West, FL, Brownsville, TX) to give it a pass. But the benefits of having a standardized time system seem to (so far) outweigh the issues of imposing DST uniformly across the country.

Me, I'm not a morning person myself, so the longer the evening lasts, the happier I am. Daylight in the sky at 10:00pm? Fine by me. Sure, there's a hit today in terms of a lost hour, but that's like traveling one time zone, which is not considered that odious. And so tonight I'll be happy that there will be light in the sky well after 6:00pm.

[1] h/t to stepdaughter Emma for the Photoshop work here

[2] Altho daylight here is represented by a sunny yellow, I can assure that, what with this diagram representing Seattle, it should actually be a kind of steel gray.



  11:52 PM

These days I work in a tall office building, which means that I spend a lot of time in elevators going up and down between office and lobby, not to mention up and down for meetings. Sometimes I run to co-workers in the elevator, but often it’s a bunch of strangers.

I don’t know how international it is, but the protocol for Americans—or let’s say Seattleites, anyway—is essentially to ignore strangers, and to stand facing the doors. Phones help ease the awkwardness of this situation (strangers are so near, yet so ... non-existent), because people can look down and fiddle busily with their phones instead of desperately trying not to make eye contact with other passengers.

But our elevators (and, I assume, those in many other buildings) have a feature that changes the dynamic in interesting ways. Above the bank of floor buttons is a 12-inch screen that displays a rotating selection of news bites, weather, traffic, reviews, deals, and so on. (According to the provider, this “reaches smart, busy, upscale professionals on the move and struggling to ‘do it all.’” Sure, whatever.)

People now have something to look at in the elevator besides the closed doors, or their phones, or the back of the person in front of them. This subtly changes the feel of the constantly changing group going up and down together. They’re watching TV together!

The headlines that are displayed will occasionally move someone to make a remark, or at least to grunt in acknowledgment. This can be an ice-breaker for others … it’s a conversation starter!

Sherry TurkelTurkle, who teaches "the Social Studies of Science and Technology" at M.I.T., has recently started to worry that we’re using devices to mediate human relationships for us in ways that actually increase our isolation. Maybe that’s true. But I like to think that our elevators, thanks to technology, might actually now be breaking down the barriers between people in our building.



  12:34 PM

I spent over 17 years at Microsoft, and for most of that time, the company went to extraordinary and expensive lengths to try to give every full-time employee his or her own private office space.[1] The company kept building new buildings, and every office move — and there were many — involved a substantial effort to sort out seating arrangements so that people could both have their own offices and had some reasonable proximity to their colleagues.

The company's focus on office space presumably was based on an implicit acceptance of the idea that people engaged in concerted intellectual work need to be able to work in peace. In the widely read Peopleware, a book from the mid-1980s about managing software projects, authors Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister addressed the need for this type of space:
Before drawing the plans for its new Santa Teresa facility, IBM violated all industry standards by carefully studying the work habits of those who would occupy the space. [...] Researchers observed the work processes in action in current workspaces and in mock-ups of proposed workspaces. They watched programmers, engineers, quality control workers, and managers go about their normal activities. From their studies, they concluded that a minimum accommodation for the mix of people slated to occupy the new space would be the following:
  • 100 square feet of dedicated space per worker
  • 30 square feet of work surface per person
  • Noise protection in the form of enclosed offices or six-foot high partitions (they ended up with about half of all professional personnel in enclosed one- and two-person offices)
For a few decades, it seemed that Microsoft was taking this advice to heart. About 5 or so years ago, however, it became evident that the company had changed its mind about space requirements. As buildings were added or remodeled, new layouts were introduced that emphasized open spaces and that featured areas (nicknamed "fishbowls" and the like) that seemed intended to foster interaction: a physical manifestation of the "collaborative workspace." Some years ago, all the technical writers and editors for a major division were moved to a new building and were presented with their new space, which was a cubicle farm (with 4-foot walls) inside an enormous, high-ceilinged open space. Old-timers were horrified.

I moved to Amazon in 2012. The space I'm in is a somewhat curious hybrid of semi-private offices (2 people per) and clusters of cubicles. Aside from obvious seniority/hierarchy, I can't tell exactly how the space is doled out; even as a new employee, I have half of an office. Developers who've been there longer than I have sit across the aisle from me in cubicles. There are open spaces that contain tables and chairs, and I very frequently see one developer or other sitting on a beanbag chair among the cubicles, tapping away on a laptop.

Certainly the space arrangements do encourage the kind of collaborative work that open-space proponents believe in. There's a constant hum of conversation, stand-up meetings, people popping into one another's offices, and so on. Every single person has a laptop, and people carry them everywhere. No one on my team is more than a short walk from my desk, so it's almost as easy to just buttonhole them as it might be to compose an email with a query. And there's absolutely no doubt that the mingling that occurs in offices and hallways and common areas fosters communication; hardly a day passes when I don't have a useful conversation with someone who I just happened to have run into in passing.

This has made me ponder the question of private space versus collaborative space. Were the studies that IBM did incorrect about the need for private space? That doesn't seem likely. Yet all around me I saw people working all day, and clearly getting things done, in an environment that would have made the space designers for the the Santa Teresa facility throw up their hands.

What's different now? Well, here's some speculation.

One obvious difference is that many of the people occupying the cubicles are young, by which I mean considerably younger than I am. (It is one of those milestones of a long career that I now routinely work with people who are about the same age as my children.) To be clear, the average age of software developers has probably not changed significantly in the last 30 years, and I would absolutely not claim that there's something evolutionarily different about youngsters today that somehow makes their brains different or anything like that. I would suggest only that many folks who are developers today did not come up in a corporate environment of private offices, hence are used to working in an open-space plan; it might be the only type of office space they've ever been in.

Another difference is that people today might be more used to creating what we might term "psychic privacy" (as opposed to physical privacy). One thing you do see a lot as you pass cubicles is people wearing headphones, often noise-cancelling models. I can see this as a privacy measure in two ways. One is that it creates an exclusionary environment for the person wearing the headphones, who can tune out the otherwise very close ambient noise. Two is that I for one am less inclined to lean over a cubicle wall and make an inane remark to someone wearing headphones, which is to say, headphones become a signal that someone is in fact trying to work — a kind of metaphorical closed door.[2]

And finally, I think that in some ways things haven't really changed. I was chatting to one of the beanbag-chair-sitting developers not long ago (a serendipitous meeting in the kitchen) and asked him about his ability to sit in the midst of bustling activity and get things done. His answer was instructive: when he has to get real work done, he said — by which he meant serious, heads-down coding — he stays late and works after other folks have gone.

This last, I think, is probably an answer for how to reconcile the IBM findings with the current fashion in open-space design. People do get benefits from open space in terms of collaboration, and then can carve out small niches of privacy in order to encourage flow-type experiences. But they also still hide themselves away when they need physical privacy in order to perform concentrated work. This is made easier also by the portability of laptops, which let people find an environment they prefer and to work there. Many people do work at home, where they presumably have spaces that they've structured for personal productivity, and of course let them work during the hours when they're most productive.

I suppose the conclusion is that if you're IBM in 1982 and you're going to chain developers to a desk so they can work at their non-portable terminals, you'd better give them some private space in which to do that. If they need to collaborate, give them a meeting room. The current environment seems to have essentially turned this on its head: put people together so they can work together, and if they need to, they can slink off and find some private space in which to work on their own.

Even tho I'm old-school, generationally speaking, I don't mind this new environment. Since the beginning of my career I've split my work between collaborative and secluded, with the secluded portion usually done at home late at night. It's certainly become a lot easier to make work portable in the last 30 years. That other people might not find the new space arrangements as conducive as they'd like, however, I can easily see.

More reading:

[1] Contractors were not generally afforded this luxury, and I saw plenty of one-time conference rooms that had been converted to "contractor bays." And in any event, the company's mad expansion meant that it was logistically impossible to give everyone their own office, and plenty of people had to double up out of necessity. But the ideal at the time was certainly that FTEs should have their own offices.

[2] A couple of people who work in the big cubicle farm at Microsoft have said that the open space has had the paradoxical effect of reducing ambient noise — or at least conversation — because everyone can hear everything.

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