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Friday, October 28, 2011

The orange and yellow season

Friday finds fall in full visual force. The tree leaves are still mostly clustered around, and tenuously clinging to, their branches. They simply couldn't be more colorful, as the ebbing chlorophyll gives way to the residual reds, oranges, and yellows. Afternoon sun rays limn these arboreal spectacles, a visual consolation for the rapidly shortening days and dropping temperatures.
Of course, none of this is visible during my morning commute in, when dark and cold predominate. Daylight doesn't arrive until well after I have arrived at the office and dug into work. But the afternoon drive home has been a top-down, (nippy) blue-sky, trees-on-fire delight most of this week.
Trees are not the only orange/yellow popping out at this time of season, of course. Carl Sandburg calls it SPOT on in his poem Theme In Yellow:
I SPOT the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o'-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
This morning's drive in had another one of those wonderful soundtrack mixes that I wouldn't have thought to combine, but which played so well together. There is something about Madeleine Payroux's Lady Day-esque vocalization that fits a cold October morning, and any playlist that features the Guggenheim Grotto (really, if you haven't yet discovered this group you really should!) is bound to be a good one.
The full playlist:
- Madeleine Payroux: To Love You All Over Again
- Bruce Cockburn: Different When It Comes to You
- The Guggenheim Grotto: Just Not Just
- Bob Dylan: Everything is Broken
- The Fray: Enough For Now

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I prefer tweeting, frankly

It's Wednesday, which seems to be posting day in my new less-frequent posting schedule. The seasonally usual dark and cold commute is now complete for the morning. The forecast calls for something-that-might-be-cloudy-to-sunny and uses the standard sun-with-clouds icon we see so often here in the PNW.

If you have followed these finite rumblings with even vague regularity you will know I loves me some technology. Whether waxing fondly reminiscent about an old sea-green Hermes typewriter or an iPad app, I admire technology that is both elegant and functionally precise, and especially technology that really does something for me or extends my capabilities. Three current examples of apps (two for the iPhone and one for the iPad) that fit this criteria:

- Twittelater Nue (a Twitter client for the iPhone so beautiful to use it makes me want to check in)
- Camera+ (produces stunning camera results from the iPhone camera)
- Zite (a brilliant customized magazine, almost magical)

However, applying this same enthusiasm to social media, the results are decidedly mixed for me. Twitter has become very useful and powerful for me, Google+ shows promise but is wait-and-see still, and Facebook has become something I increasingly dislike using.

Facebook is starting to feel like an old skin, itching to be sloughed off. It is crowded with advertising, hoaxes, games, inane "surveys," and promotions. It's interface and privacy policies (an oxymoron if ever there was one) shift constantly, which makes navigating Facebook like watching a stop-motion origami-in-progress video. The new Facebook apps for iPad and iPhone are crowded, buggy, and seemingly capricious in the information they present. Both constantly suggest folks I don't know as people I should "friend," and both give this useless and intrusive behavior top billing on finite screen real estate.

But my itch to ditch Facebook is about more than all of this (sufficient as all this should be). You know how, in what is clearly becoming its sunset era, personal email is now more about SPAM and an endless stream of forwarded jokes, LOL-cats, contrived inspirational stories, pass-this-on-to-ten-friends-and-make-their-day, and ridiculous political fictions? Facebook feels like it is going much the same way. The quality of the posts are getting buried under the quantity of effortless shares and likes.

Oh, I love the photos of friends and family, and the posts that keep me connected with folks I don't get to see everyday. And I like the thought-provoking articles that occasionally get shared out, mostly by colleagues, and especially the resulting discussion thread that grows in the comments. Not as good as a good discussion over a cup of coffee (or gourd of mate!), but in a crowded and busy world, these online discussions often serve as a useful stand in.

To use an old expression, the signal-to-noise ratio is growing so poor that I frequently miss a post I would enjoy seeing for all the other crap Facebook tosses at me. Facebook allows us, too easily, (to quote Douglas Adams) to attack, "...everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it [is] often difficult to tell which [is] which."

I've been playing with Google+, and like how clean it is compared to Facebook. No ads, no games, no interface crowded with shifting shite. Of course, it is still largely bereft of friends and family at present, too. Hopefully that will change, because I do think it represents a cleaner space for staying connected than does Facebook. I also think it provides much better tools for sharing and managing photos, with it's link to Picassa (now called, simply, Google photos). Upstart potential, to be sure.

Of the big three social media tools, though, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to Twitter (and you can follow me there at kevmckonline). When I first experimented with Twitter I didn't really "get" it. You don't, really, until you start following a bunch of individuals and organizations. I follow the local Dept. of Transportation tweets and so I see traffic conditions and alerts for the area, I follow the local newspaper and news station tweets, so I get a lot of my news there, too. I also follow several micro-local twitter feeds, so I get the kind of community news that is so hard to find otherwise. I follow organizations I care about, bloggers I want to keep tabs on, and the friends and family I know who are on Twitter. Mark Bittman, James Lileks, Bloomberg News, Pink Martini, Sigure Rós, The Economist, TUAW, Stephen Fry, Lynnwood Today, Edmonds Patch, Advisory Bored, Guayaki, SoundersFC, Barack Obama, and many others, pass daily through my Twitter feed.

It all comes to me in an elegant stream that I can scan quickly, and click on specific tweets to read more or follow links to stories and articles. Photos are inline (in the better Twitter apps), unless someone is still using Flicker (in which case they require extra steps to view regardless of the social network the come through). Posts have to be kept to a tight 140 characters, which keeps status updates focused and to the point (you want to rant, set up a blog and link to it!).

So far, so good, but there is one more less-intuitive value to Twitter. Twitter doesn't support comments. You can direct message someone, you can publicly reply (which becomes its own tweet, separate in the timeline), and you can quote/retweet someone. If you post specifically to garner feedback or validation from others, though, Twitter will seem a bit lacking. That is a very good thing, in my opinion.

So, increasingly you will find me on Twitter, and I do hope more of my friends and family will find their way there as well. Because I check Facebook with less and less patience or frequency. I keep a hopeful eye on Google+, waiting for some critical participation mass to form, too. Twitter I follow regularly.

Speaking of following, this morning I followed very little traffic in, and the following tunes followed one after the other, in this particular order:
- Train: Give Myself To You
- The Guggenheim Grotto: Philosophia
- Pink Martini: Hang On Little Tomato
- Bruce Cockburn: If I Had a Rocket Launcher (Live)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wednesday's homme brúlant

Wednesday, dark, low 50's, but the stars are out, so I left the top down for the drive in. There has been a very bright star in the Western sky the last several mornings, often sitting just to the left of the moon. I think it's Jupiter, if I'm reading my iPhone star-gazing app correctly. Whoever he is, he sits bright and fixed, a stellar landmark for the season, quite unlike the vacillating nature of Wednesday.

This Wednesday is a particularly true midpoint for my week. Last day camped out in my nearly-empty office (carpet is being replaced, having finally deteriorated to the point something had to be done, so only a couple of empty pieced of furniture are still in the office until the carpet remnant arrives tomorrow) before spending the last two days of the week at a state council meeting of business officers. So today brings the frantic get-stuff-wrapped-up-as-best-as-possible, the cram-three-days-worth-of-meetings-into-one, and the sense of walking away from the office/campus at the end of the day, a not-quite-weekend feeling. Not at all the certainty of the brightly burning planetary landmark that floats unblinkingly above me on my way in this morning.

The music this morning, only two long tracks which exactly covered my trip from driveway to campus parking spot, was spookily well-keyed to a drive that featured an unimpeded view of the stars. First came the group Explosions In The Sky, and then came Michael Occhipinti with a jazz rendition of the Bruce Cockburn tune Homme Brúlant (Burning Man). Either or both could describe Jupiter and his many bright companions this morning.

The iPod knows, man, the iPod knows.

The full playlist:
- Explosions In The Sky: First Breath After Coma
- Michael Occhipinti: Homme Brúlant

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Would you believe...

Wednesday morning shone bright and sparkly as I drove into the office, top down, chirping birds singing me along my route.

As the audience looks around at the dark, wet, defoliating and decaying reality of this morning, queue the voice of Don Adams as Agent 86, "Would you believe... there are three golden suns lurking just over those hills, waiting to spring out and snare you in their glare?" Silent disbelief. "Well, would you believe a single sun is going to rise any moment now?" More silent disbelief. "How about a single head light reflection from a car's rear-view mirror?" General nods of agreement. As Agent 86 was also want to say: "Missed it by that much!"

And so flows Wednesday, that Mr. Malleable of weekdays. Could have been great, could have been lousy, but missed both by just that much. Instead, it is a blank slate upon which something in-between can be made. Sure, we can really say the same about any day, with our self-made-man/woman ethos (and to the extent circumstances allow, nudge-wink) but I still maintain Wednesday's mid-week stance lends it an extra dose of at least perceived malleability.

The iPod, on both last night's trip home and this morning's trip in, was pulling out the stops in it's mastery of eclecticism, and all of it good stuff. From the first faintly classical violin notes of Sweet Talkin' Woman to the discordant ring of the telephone in All Hallow's Eve, it was a wonderful mix of tunes. John Denver had just fired up as I pulled in, so I packed him into the office with me to finish his song.

I have no idea how John Denver's music may be trending these days, I suspect not very much. I don't care, though, because Annie's Song has to be one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Both the music and the lyric are perfect, and the imagery is sweeping. Love is a filling up of the senses. I know, as I count myself among the most fortunate of souls in this regard.
You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like a mountain in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again
Come let me love you
Let me give my life to you
Let me drown in your laughter
Let me die in your arms
Let lay down beside you
Let me always be with you
Come let me love you
Come love me again

Today's full playlist, make of it what you will:

- ELO: Sweet Talkin' Woman
- The Format: On your porch
- Bruce Cockburn: Burn
- Jeff Johnson: All Hallows' Eve
- John Denver: Annie's Song

- Posted via Hermes.

Monday, October 10, 2011

October Music, October Poem

Monday came in this morning acting his stereotypical role in shades of melodrama: dark, wet, and cold. The home furnace, which isn't yet configured to keep the house particularly warm (me still not having fully accepted the change in seasons), has kicked in the last few mornings of it's own accord. This morning I was glad for it's company as I stumbled from bed to bathroom for my morning ablutions. I guess that means I should do all those getting-ready-for-winter things. Pull in hoses, check seals, last prunings, check the furnace, and reconfigure the thermostat for the new season.

Easing out of the driveway and into my morning commute I had the roads to myself for the first two or three miles. No doubt the Monday effect had kicked in and many folks were taking a bit longer than usual to shift from the warmth of bed into the cold of the morning routine.

The first song the iPod eased into was a perfect match to the morning. Light, folky, authentic music, like it was being played in the room on a single guitar. Fionn Regan's lyric on Noah (Ghost In a Sheet) was just as beautiful and appropriate:
There's nobody out there, the rain is just starting to fall
You get some reset now you'll worry yourself thin
I hope that happiness finds it's way to your little house

While you were sleeping I, I played a ghost in a sheet
When our frames collide there's nothing left to be
The skeletal wings of birds I'll take the stairs
The ghosts of tiny animals with the tiniest of feet
The forecast is going down a storm
The third track from this morning's playlist is also an October memory piece for me, fitting for this October morning. It is an album of instrumental covers of songs written by women. I rarely buy covers albums of this sort, but this one had a chance to get to me, work on me, convince me. It was late October just after the 9/11 attacks, and a colleague (at that time, he held the position I now have) and I had just flown into Minneapolis for a conference. If you remember back to that time, travel was way down and the conference was pretty much a bust.

We gave our presentation to the handful of other participants who had made it, and then couldn't get an earlier flight back so ended up with two full days to kill in Minneapolis in late October. We'd ask folks what there was to do and everyone said, with a certain amount of pride, "Have you been to the Mall of America?" No, we aren't the shopping sort, thanks. After that, it was head scratching and off-beat second suggestions like ice fishing (though the couple that suggested that also noted it wasn't really the right time of year).

Finally, we gave in and took a bus over to the Mall of America where we shuffled from one Caribou Coffee shop to another (they had several around the mall), eventually able to give other visitors directions to most stores. We spent the better part of those two days there, for want of anything better to do.

In one shop of curiosities this album was playing. After several tracks I found myself wondering who the musician was and liking the renditions of the songs I knew. Of course, they sold the CD, so I bought a copy. Turns out my colleague had done the same, for much the same reason.

The whole playlist, really, is October music. In fact, the four song titles, arranged just as they came up and with very little punctuation editing, could be an October poem:
Noah (ghost in a sheet),
Quiet now.
Only heart.
The full (and now redundant) playlist:
- Fionn Regan: Noah (Ghost In a Sheet)
- Bob James Trio: Quiet Now
- Brian Withycombe: Why
- John Mayer: Only Heart

- Posted via Hermes.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Candy Man's Gone

It is Thursday, that trifler of weekday-weary emotions. Can't you just taste the weekend coming? Well, it's not here yet! Lure, hook, whack!

This blog started as a tracking of commute music playlists suggested by the random shuffle algorithm of an older 80GB iPod (the scroll-wheel sort that now is called an "iPod Classic"). The man behind the magic of that device passed away yesterday, and the Web is crowded with reaction. I first heard (read) the news via Twitter (Twittilator Pro app purchased through the iTunes App Store) on my iPhone 4. Like the address of the Company he founded, there is a certain infinite loop in that circumstance.

So, like many many others, a reflection on the impact one man has had on my life.

Back in a previous life, when I worked for a large commercial bank, Apple introduced the first Macintosh computer. The bank I worked for decided that it was time to put a desktop computer on every employee's desk and that the Macintosh would be that computer. I was tapped to become a paratrainer for the introduction of desktop computing at the bank. I was loaned one of the first Macintoshes, a large padded carrying case for it, and a cassette tape player with Apple's follow-along-on-the-screen tape introducing how to use a "mouse" (this is how you move it, click, drag, etc.), pull-down menus, windows, and fonts/styles you could actually see on screen before printing. If you weren't there, you probably cannot understand how eye-poppingly revolutionary it was to have a personal computer that displayed documents the same on-screen as they would look coming out of the printer.

I was hooked, and I was spoiled. I had tasted what design elegance and the ideal pairing of form and function could mean (not that every Apple product hit that sweet spot, to be sure), and would have little patience for the poorly implemented knock-off operating systems the soon followed.

Look at the technology landscape today and tell me who, other than Apple, could make a mouse whose surface works just as well as a multi-gesture touch pad? One that really does work as well as advertised?

Critics sometimes complain that Apple didn't invent the mouse, or the MP3 player, or even the desktop computer. They miss the point. Apple took those early innovations and channeled them into a complete user experience product and brought them to market in a way that consumers would gravitate to. The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, but it was the most elegant to behold and use, and (most importantly) it came with the iTunes music store. Only then did digital music make sense to the average person.

My first iPod will always have a special significance for me. As anyone who has read this blog can likely guess, music has always held a significant place in my life, and here was the leap to digital music encapsulated in a device that was as satisfying to see and touch as it was to use. The year it came out we were not exactly cash flush, and as much as I wanted one, it just wasn't in the cards. My family, however, felt otherwise. For my birthday that year my wife and kids pooled their resources and saved up to buy me one of those first iPods.

I had already transitioned through vinyl albums, eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, and CDs (in that order), but this shift didn't require as much loss of older media. Now I could easily "rip" my already-purchased CDs and begin to buy digital music moving forward. Suddenly, my entire music library could go with me. For a serious music junky, this was huge.

I think folks, now, easily forget (or, were simply born after) how groundbreaking a shift the first iMac was, how much it changed the way we think about using computers. The notions that the floppy drive was dead, that all home computers should be connected to the Internet, that USB should be standard, and that the computer was the conduit rather than the repository, were all (as so often is the case with Job's visionary products) ahead of the curve. The iMac anticipated the path of human need and interest and in so doing lead us where we were destined to go but hadn't yet realized. Too much credit, you say? Think back to the explosion of translucent plastic and bondi-blue colored gizmos that quickly followed, the seemingly cathartic release of some unrealized demand resulting in a near veneration of "i" everything and translucent plastic everything. Think back to the rapid growth of USB and the increased interest in home Internet access that followed.

Steve was foretelling and preaching the "cloud" with that first iMac. Now, pretty much all of my content is stored or backed up to one cloud or another. When my office computer died several months ago I lost nothing. Not because I had everything backed up, but because all of my files and resources were stored elsewhere. When the new computer came I had only to install the necessary applications and reconnect to my cloud-based files and resources. While I was without an office computer, while the replacement was shipping, I used my personal iPad for almost two weeks to connect to my cloud-based content and never missed a beat.

This makes sense now, but back then, when Steve first stuck a small letter "i" in front of Mac to signify Internet-focused, it was more than revolutionary, it really was visionary. Most pundits focused on the lack of a floppy drive and the lack of upgradability, but the real story was that small letter "i" and where it was taking us. Without the iMac, we may not have gotten to social networking, because ubiquitous home Internet use was not commonly envisioned outside of tech-geek circles.

And Steve has taken us, and the entire technology industry, on a journey into what could (he would no doubt argue, should) be. Apple, under Steve Job's guidance, has never advertised equipment specifications. If you want to shop smart phones based on processor, MHz, pixels, and refresh rates, there are plenty of alternatives out there that will cater to your inner geek. Probably the same demographic that argues passionately about which make/model of car is best based on an extra 10 ponies under the hood, the specific shape of the torque band under full throttle, or the weight of the flywheel. None of which does the average user any good at all in normal usage. Get over it.

Instead, Apple's advertising focuses on what you can do with their products, and how easily you can do them. Apple wrested computing devices from the technical smoke-screen jargon of "experts" and made them commodities any mortal could purchase without first finding a geek friend/family member for advice.

I have, over the years, been fortunate to use or own most of Apple's various products, from the first Mac to the iPad-2. I have a first generation Newton (for the record, the handwriting recognition worked very well for me after the first few days of conditioning). I have an older 80 GB "scroll-wheel" iPod that has driven much of this blog's purpose. I use an iPhone 4 and my iPad every day, and my only office computer is an 11" MacBook Air.

Last night I started jotting down much of what would frame this post. iTunes was shuffling through my music and playing it over a Mac Mini driven entertainment system running the Lion version of OS X. My wife sat working on the classes she teaches, using a two-year old MacBook Pro while I wrote on my iPad from another chair. Both of us sent and received texts from others off and on over the course of the evening, on iPhones. We retired to bed and listened to an audiobook from our iTunes library via a second-generation AppleTV.

Most of my tenure at the college saw a second-class status afforded to Apple products and those who used them. Oh, there were believers within IT, but they were few and official support was often hard to come by. Allowed, but not officially supported, was the policy. There were several attempts to "standardize" on a single platform (read: eliminate Macs), but the numbers behind the justifications never stood the test of scrutiny.

When I stepped into the IT Director's role I know one of the concerns some had was whether my Mac-centric background would mean I would start to push Apple products. I didn't, but then I didn't have to. By then, Apple's products (laptops, the iPod Touch and, later, iPhones) were already drawing users. They became what is known in IT support circles as "invasive" technology trends. A number of Windows users wanted Apple's laptops even though they planned to run the Windows OS on them.

Today, nearly every portable device I see in meetings and events around campus has an Apple logo on it. It is rare to see a different flavor of laptop, and iPads are rapidly spreading across campus (though Windows is still the dominant desktop computer OS on campus).

The rise of iOS is another watershed in computing history. When those of us who have been around since the start of the personal computing era talk about looking forward to the new version of an operating system, we are usually talking about those that run on desktop/laptop computers. When my daughter, in a text exchange last night, mentioned she was looking forward to the new OS, I knew she was talking about iOS. Oh, we use desktop/laptop computers, but mobile computing is where more and more of our digital lived are lived.

Only Steve Jobs had the vision to eat his own lunch and create a new platform and totally separate OS that would cannibalize sales of the company's other offerings. It was a genius move, and the results speak for themselves. Microsoft, by comparison, still cannot bring itself to create a new OS for mobile devices, only a new view of an old OS, still attempting to keep users tied to the old revenue stream metaphors while offering them the new eye-candy.

It was Steve Jobs' ability to understand how technology could be better, and specifically how it could be better for non-geeks users, combined with a perfectionistic drive to deliver that perfect balance between form and function, that made his efforts so successful and his impact on our lives so significant. No wonder the Web is crowded with remembrances and tributes.

For all of this, and though I never met you, I sincerely thank you Steve Jobs.

Today's soundtrack should be:
- Bruce Cockburn: The Candy Man's Gone

- Posted via Hermes.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

From Peter Lorre to O Pato

Tuesday came simpering in, wet and grey, like Peter Lorre's character in Arsenic and Old Lace. "Oh, pleeeeeease, Johnny, do we haaaave to? Not agaaaaain!" Some days, I know that feeling (though without the knives).

I say wet and grey, but grey has to be taken on faith this early morning as it was dark when I got up, dark when I drove into the campus, and dark as I write this. However, here in the Pacific Northwet, wet means grey, so it is a safe assumption.

We are now rapidly heading into that portion of the year for which my rear-view mirror will stay permanently set on night mode. For now, there is still daylight on my trip home, if I get out soon enough, so that small plastic mirror toggle is getting at least a couple flips each day. For now.

There is an app on my iPad I like to use most evenings, Flickpad HD. It allows me to see and upload photos to and from most of my social networks. I don't really use it that way, though. It has a lessor feature I find fascinating. It pulls up roughly 100 photos from Flicker's "explored" pool each day. These are most-viewed, most-liked photos. I sit and relax looking over some great (or very interesting) pictures. There are themes that emerge, such a color for a particular day, or "Fence Friday" where folks take pictures that involve fences, and there are the natural seasons-driven patterns. Turning leaves are now starting to feature prominently, along with misty woodland snaps, and dew-dropped spider webs with bokeh backgrounds.

Today's soundtrack was fun. Starting out with the very whimsical O Pato, about a duck, a drake, a goose, and a swan doing the samba (English translation):
by the lagoon they're swaying
Watch them as they swoon
Underneath the moon
Happy as crows out in the corn

But then the duck let out a curse, he'd made her stumble
The goose thought it was just a game and took a tumble
I laughed as they all lost their cool and fell into the pool
And started shouting some more:
Quack, quack, quack... O Pato

If there is a moral in the lyric, on this early, wet, grey, "Oh, pleeeeeease, Johnny, do we haaaave to?" Tuesday morning, maybe it is that we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously, or if we do, recognize that it's ok to get wet and laugh about it in the process.

Here is the full playlist:
- Karrin Allyson: O Pato
- Doves: Sky Starts Falling
- Joey DeAfrancesco: The Tackle
- Bob Florence: With All The Bells And Whistles

- Posted via Hermes.