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24 Years ago Today - May 18, 1980 (Mt. St. Helens Erupts)

Back in 1980, I lived in Spokane, Washington, and was in 6th grade. On Sunday, May 18th, I walked, barefoot, out onto my front porch - it was a warm day. I was bored, it was a Sunday. I was stretching and looked to my right, to the West, and saw a huge dark cloud heading our way. It looked exactly like this. I called to my Mom, and we both stood in our front yard, a little scared, a little excited. We thought that it was likely ''the mountain'', as we had been hearing that Mt. St. Helens (250 miles away from us) could blow its stack ''any day'' for weeks. Soon after, the cloud moved over us, blacking out the sky. We watched the streetlights flicker on in the early afternoon. We could feel the grittiness of the pumice and ash as it brushed our skin, falling to the ground. I can remember how it felt, underfoot, as I stepped on a thin coating of ash on our painted-concrete front porch steps.

In retrospect, it seems sort of a yawner, the whole ''getting ashed'' thing - akin to a big storm or something, but at the time, there was a lot of doubt and worry - would there be poisonous gases in the air? Would the ash be harmful to our lungs or throat? Would it scratch the finish on a new car? Would it choke the livestock? Would it clog air filters? Nobody really knew, but everyone seemed to think it would be alright (and it was - the only major problems were felt up close to the volcano).

The next few days were bizarre - dark days and darker nights. I was a volunteer for the Red Cross, and we handed out disposable face masks to people on city streets. The only problem was - we (volunteers) were the only ones out on the streets. I remember a semi roaring through downtown - a giant roiling cloud of ash billowing out from under it and behind it - all colored orangey-gray by the street lights, punctuated by flashing yellow traffic lights. You'd have thought it was 2 am, but it was only 2pm. Soon, some rains came and made a muddy mess of everything, and within a week or two, it was mostly back to normal.

As it happens, I got caught in an ashfall once again, twelve years later in Anchorage, Alaska in 1992, when Mt. Spurr sent a small cloud over us. The ash was rougher, larger bits of grit. It actually stung a tiny bit if it fell on bare skin. I got caught outside and had to ride my bike about a mile home in it, breathing through my shirt. The two experiences were equally surreal, but May 18th will always be ''the big one'' for me, and a lot of other folks I know. Remember when natural disasters were scarier threats than people (other than the ones with nuclear bombs)?
Mon, May 17, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

The Perfect Takeoff Song

Several years ago, when I used to fly a lot, I discovered a handful of songs which had intros that matched up to the takeoff sequence of an airliner fairly well. In the spirit of laying my own personal soundtrack over the Real World, I'd sit calmly, while we were awaiting clearance for takeoff - my thumb on the play button of my Cassete/CD/MP3 Player. As soon as I heard the engines wind up, and the gentle starting push, I'd hit the button and fall into it.

The one song that always gave me goosebumps, that seemed to click into the timing and rhythm so well was Unsung (iTunes Link) by Helmet. The first 30 seconds or so of the song - Man. When I started to write this entry, I listened to the song again, to remember the feeling, and could vividly recall the sensation and the timing. (I even got goosebumpy again, just sitting here).

Here's the sequence: Start - Jet Engines wind up, I smile, sit back and hit play (:00). Drums and quick bassline hit. Gentle acceleration pushes me back into the seat. (:07) Now going quite fast, a little scary, Guitar 1 kicks in, ratchets up the tension. Wheels start thumping the ground, a little wiggle in the body (:12) Guitar 2 Whines into the mix. Plane is going very fast - it's been a while, when is it going to start nosing up? Tension builds even more. (:20) Slight relief as I feel the nose start to rise, but wheels are still thumping mightily. (:24) Crescendo and pause in the music, the bottom drops slightly away as we take to the air - now being pushed not only back, but down into the seat. (:28) The chorus riff starts, gruff and direct, looking out the window, the rapid climb and accelleration is obvious and thrilling. Cars, buildings and trees drop away as if the Earth just decided to stop, with me falling up and away. Then it's just an enjoyable transition into the rest of the flight.

Of course, it all depends on you enjoying the song as well, but the matching choreography of song and takeoff just can't be beat, from my perspective.
Fri, May 14, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

New Project: HDTV Focus

After buying and moving into a new house, we started upgrading a lot of our furnishings. Being a guy, and a geeky fan of Movies and TV, I started entertaining the idea of upgrading our TV (currently a heavy analog 27-inch set). I'd briefly seen HDTV displays in stores, and knew there was a bit of a learning curve involved (plug-and-play is a long ways off). So I thought I'd record my journey into the world of HDTV, from the point of view of a non-expert. That idea has become HDTVFocus.

The HDTV resources you can currently find online almost all come from ''experts'', or those who wish to sell you something. They can be quite helpful - but there are an unbelievable amount of variables, marketing terms, standards, numbers, claims, distortions, equipment out there and a deep lack of simplicity or clarity.

These systems are a substantial financial commitment, and they really seem to defy the urge to ''just walk into the store and buy the one that looks best''. (Although, one could argue that there is such a thing as over-researching a purchase).

At any rate, if you are interested, please follow along. If you wish to correct my assumptions, please do (comments enabled over there). HDTVFocus is powered by Blogger, and I've really enjoyed the ease of building a custom template (even a silly little resizing trick to keep the window at an HDTV 16:9 aspect). For some reason, this looks fairly bad in Mac IE. I am working on that. It's nice to rely on a good free service like Blogger, rather than my roll-your-own CMS tools I've been using for a long tme now. No offense to TypePad - it was fun to try it out and make this blog work over there, but Blogger as it now stands offers more flexibility (template-wise) for free. Hard to compete with that.
Tue, May 11, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

Amazon.com XML-to-Javascript Widgets

So I learned a hard, but useful lesson last week. Don't overcommit yourself, and don't offer an open-ended service to the world if you're not confident you can and will support it indefinitely. Over a year ago I built a small suite of widgets to allow people to copy and paste javascript into their sites that would show Amazon.com items. Basically they were ads, and I unintentionally turned myself (and my webhost) into an adserver (the ads were driven by ASP). I did make a little bit of money, but the overhead and maintenance (well over 1,000 sites using this by last month) was killing me. Every time Amazon or my webserver went down, javascript errors or hung pages were flying around the internet, with angry folks hunting me down.

Last week, it all came to a head, my web host's machines were collapsing, and they were ready to pull the plug on me, so I decided to switch everything off. As of now, Amazon Light's Web tools are no more. BUT - I've got a new, more flexible way to do the same thing now, XML-to-Javascript Widgets. This is an easy, free way for anyone to place live Amazon.com data on any website.

These widgets use XSLT to transform Amazon's XML Feeds into Javascript, and CSS to style the lists. The code is free for anyone to use and/or modify (in fact, I ask that people download and host their own XSL and CSS files).

The setup is not as simple as the older tools, I can't mask the complexity of amazon's offerings, but hopefully there's enough info here for people to make useful things with this. I felt bad that the old tools had to be killed so unceremoniously, and felt an urge to give away this code freely. It's also a good way to get myself off the hook ;) You get what you pay for, no? If you have any problems, suggestions, etc. Let me know.
Fri, Apr 30, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

Amazon's Red Light District

Amazon.com has had a little-publicized Sex and Sensuality category online for months now - a part of the Health and Personal Care tab, including Bondage gear, Sex Games, Sensual Delights, Safer Sex and, of course Sex Toys. It is difficult to find, unless you look for a specific item or brand. Not quite as difficult to find as some racy DVDs, or some erotic merchants, or even a magazine or two. There's a gold mine waiting for the Amazon Associate who builds an ''Adults Only'' view into Amazon.com with Webservices. The products are generally tasteful, come from a reputable dealer, and are delivered in discreet Amazon.com packaging. (This post was inspired by Jeremy Zawodny's post over here)


Tue, Apr 6, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

My self-indulgent Kurt Cobain Story

Ten years ago. I lived in an apartment, alone, on Lake Washington Boulevard in Seattle. A few blocks north of me, on that same street, Kurt Cobain climbed into a room above his garage, pulled out his heroin kit, fixed one last time, and took himself out of this world with a shotgun. He was 27, one year older than me, and as old as he'd ever get. He grew up in rural Washington State, like I did, and moved to the big city of Seattle, as I did too. We even moved into the same Lake Washington neighborhood (I discovered he lived up the road after I'd moved in) - though my rent was probably a fraction of his. We both wore flannel, jeans, listened to the Pixies, liked Sub Pop Bands and had an appreciation for pointing out hypocrisy and a tendency towards nihilism. That's about where the comparison ends.

I did not know him, but I knew many people our age who were dealing with the world in a very similar manner. I was not as disaffected as Cobain, but was far from happy with the world. I was completely untalented musically (still am), though I have a love and appreciation for all types of music. I was single and searching for my place in the world. He was married, with a child, a hit album and a life full of fame and fortune. I was sober and had just escaped a series of destructive relationships. He appeared to be trapped in several bad relationships - including one with himself, and was dealing with it badly.

When I read the newspaper the day his body was found and did the quick math, I realized that the day he shot himself, I was just hanging around my apartment, doing nothing - just a few blocks away. It's presumptive and a bit stupid, but my first thought was - I could have done something, I could have been there. We all feel connections to artists we appreciate, and feel even closer to those who are most like ourselves. I felt as if I had gone to college with Kurt, had been to parties with him, had argued with him, had tolerated his shit, and in the end, appreciated him. I had had enough post-adolescent relationships with Angry Young Men in the Pacific Northwest by that time, that I felt as if I knew him.

I felt a real kinship to the underlying anger and irony that runs through a lot of the music later labeled Grunge. I still listen to a lot of music from that time, still wear the flannel shirts that I had worn for years before then as well - it's probably where a lot of my tastes will remain stuck in a cultural freeze-frame. Along similar lines, I also think about Layne Staley (Lead singer of Alice in Chains, now dead from overdose) from time to time. Staley also killed himself, two years ago today, in a Seattle apartment in the same building as a good friend of mine.

I just read a great article about the tenth anniversary of Cobain's Death. In it, there is a line:

''Countless fans of a certain age can tell you where they were when they first heard 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' It was the sort of time-stopping event that triggers a flashbulb memory, like the news of an assassination or a national disaster. You heard 'Teen Spirit' and knew that something had changed, that the future in some small but important way was going to be different than what you'd imagined.''

That really hits the nail on the head for me. I remember hearing it on the radio, sitting in a friend's truck at a Seattle gas station - we were preparing for a cross-country road trip. The song really hit me like a bomb - and stuck with me so much. I sought out a CD and found one a couple weeks later, in Pennsylvania. By the time we were on the East Coast, the song was an MTV phenomenon and the Grunge Explosion was on the way. It was so bizarre. When I bought the CD, I thought of them as a local band - like Soundgarden, or the Dwarves or Mudhoney. By the time I was in Florida, I could hear ''Teen Spirit'' blasting out of the cars of kids all over the state. It was like I was riding the crest of some weird cultural wave, spreading eastward from Seattle. Of course, it all blew up and blew over quickly afterwards, but the entire experience was a very personal one, and it's hard to convey to others how amazing the sound was, how exciting it was to have others appreciate something that you'd appreciated for a long time - and then how pathetic it was to see it commercialized and rendered inert.

Ten years have passed. In that time, Kurt Cobain has not grown one bit, he removed himself from the game. I'm now 36, and in the years since our mutual time on Lake Washington, I have met and married the love of my life, discovered a career and skills I never knew I had, brought two fantastic children into the world, and have learned a tremendous amount in the process. I've also had a lot of fun, and shed some tears in the process. In short, I've lived my life.

There is no particular moral here. I'm not a number-one fan of Nirvana, though I do like most of their music. Kurt was usually full of shit, and a overly tragic/ironic most of the time, but that's okay - I knew a lot of people like that and still liked them anyway. This is just my story, my personal relationship to the suicide ten years ago, of someone I could very well have known, and who many people in the world feel some kinship to.
Mon, Apr 5, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

nowords 365 - the wordless blog

For two months now, I've been testing myself, to see if I have the discipline to put something online on a daily basis. The venture is called ''365'', a part of my offshoot site nowords.org. Each entry is an image I have made using Photoshop, some as recently as yesterday, others a little older. It's also my first attempt at using a blogging tool that I didn't bake myself (blogger), and so far so good.

The images are open to interpretation. Some definitely have meaning to me, others are interesting, intriguing or I just plain like them. The process involves starting with some sort of seed - brush strokes, or a copied image, or a gradient, then filtering, tweaking colors, pixel-mashing and other fun Photoshoppery. Sometimes the result is - ''Ah, exactly what I was after today''. Other times, it's ''Wow that really looks like X'', and still others it's simply a matter of taste. I wonder if this is the first wordless blog (that does not rely on photographs). It needs a trendy categorization, like imgblog or nonblog or something snappier. It even sports an atom XML feed, to keep up with the Joneses.
Tue, Mar 30, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem

I now am a resident of Massachusetts. The state motto above in Latin (Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem) translates to ''By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty''. So they seem to be serious about their liberty around here. The trip was crazy - over 6,400 road miles traveled within a few weeks (cross-country twice). Got in a fender-bender in Troy, NY and managed to to hit the guy who was the Mayor of Troy up until a few weeks ago - lovely. No injuries, except to my ego. Saw a wild turkey walking alongside a New York road and thousands of Geese heading North - Spring must be coming soon.

We landed in a little town called Tewksbury, about 25 miles NW of Central Boston. This will only be temporary. Hard to get used to apartment life again - I get pissed when the upstairs neighbor decides to vacuum at 11pm and wakes my kids up. Nearly all of the locals nearby have strong Boston accents - if you're a fan of the CBS show Survivor - they sound like Boston Rob.

Still don't have my bearings yet, in many ways. It'll come, I know it. I got emotional several times as I left Seattle - that region means a lot to me - it was there I met my wife, courted and married her - had my two children and built a career on the Internet (within a span of 10 years no less). I used to dream of living near Seattle when I was a child growing up in arid Eastern Washington State. But life had become comfortable (routine) and I no longer felt such a strong pull to the region. My wife's pull to move back to her native region was much stronger, and it made sense to make our move as soon as possible, for many reasons.

I also feel strange from a genealogical standpoint. My entire family - on both sides - has been marching steadily westward from Europe since the 1500's. From Germany, Ireland and England to New York, Virginia, to Pennsylvania and Ohio to Nebraska then Wyoming and to California, then recent generations to Washington and Alaska. It's almost like I'm at the end of the generational trip, some 500 years later and can say ''I've seen the frontier - been there, done that, there ain't no more.'', and return to the East. Maybe my kids will move to Germany someday, who knows.

Apologies to any of you who tried to reach me during the trip - I was web-deprived most of the time. When I got my PC up and running again (with newly-acquired DSL no less), I was a very happy camper.

Sun, Mar 14, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

Road Trip and Moving On

I am leaving Amazon.com (on good terms), and I am leaving Seattle. I'm moving my family to Boston and will begin working at Monster.com in a few weeks. I will be driving 3,000 miles - twice, in the next few weeks, so apologies to any who are trying to get in touch. Don't expect much contact until mid-March. It's another big adventure, as life should be, no?

Fri, Feb 13, 2004 < link >
 
 
 

So, what the heck is this thing on Mars?

Well, what is this object right next to the Opportunity Rover? Browsing (like the geek I am) through the raw imagery from mars, I noticed a small white spot - a bit smaller than a bowling ball, about 10-12 feet from the Rover - being focused on in a couple of frames (Stereo-wiggle image below left). Some more digging found a better-quality second look at it as well, from the most recent panorama (contrast-enhanced detail at right). The whole panorama shows it in more context (slice of that panorama below right, click for full image). Oddly enough, this object does not appear to be present (or in the same place) in the Sol 1 panorama image here - there is a small white spot, but it's location is shifted to the right quite a bit. The Opportunity Rover has now rolled onto the surface and appears to be right next to (or on top of) this thing.


I'm not a conspiracy theorist - and am sure there's a logical explanation. It looks like either a crumpled piece of metal or paper (somewhat rigid), or maybe a broken piece of crystalline rock. I hate to say that it looks sort of like a small vertebra, but it does (to my eyes). My guess is that something broke off the rover/lander, or that it disturbed and knocked something into the crater with it. If you look at the stereo-wiggle image (left) you can even see some soil that looks recently disturbed. I would be really curious though, to know exactly what this is.


Thu, Feb 2, 2004 < link >

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