In My Head Like a Riot

This past weekend has been pretty fruitful, as I’ve dedicated a good bit of time to practicing some photography and learning about Swift UI, which is used to create applications for Apple devices. That said, it hasn’t been a particularly restful weekend as my patience for various sounds and the volume they’re projected at has all but vanished. The TV has become more annoying than usual, the boy’s high pitched tantrums are infuriating, and the echo in the house makes everything else two or three times more difficult to tolerate. It’s getting bad enough that I am actively ignoring as much sound as possible, which includes people’s voices as they never seem to cease. I’ve actually wished on several occasions this weekend to be deaf.

Is this normal, though? How often would a person willingly choose to permanently lose one of their senses for the sake of present discomfort? The question is as absurd as the wish. Podcasts, music, and conversations are really hard to enjoy without the use of our ears so being deaf would just lead to more problems. What I really seek is quiet … something that is impossible when working from home when not living alone.

Once again I’m wondering if it would make sense to give up working in my own environment and return to the office. There would be a number of immediate disadvantages to this, such as the hour of wasted time commuting from home to the city where I would end up using the very same computer. This lost time would cut into how much overtime I can do which, though it sounds like a good thing, really just means I’d be falling behind on projects faster. Heading to work during a typhoon or 40°C temperatures isn’t great, and I wouldn’t have the luxury of wearing little more than shorts and a t-shirt as professional attire is understandably expected from employees working at the schools. Then there’s the added issue of not being around the boy as much while he’s young and still very dependent on his parents. Most fathers do not have the same opportunity to watch their kids grow.

The advantage, however, would be the hard cut-off for when I need to put the work away and unwind. As it stands, my typical working hours are 10:00am to 6:30pm — with the occasional gap for lunch and tending to the boy — then from 9:30pm until 11:00pm. The evenings are generally dedicated to meetings with overseas colleagues and working on the really complex things that cannot be done while the boy is awake and running around the house. Unfortunately, this “quiet time” generally means that I continue working until after midnight, which is clearly not cool. The degree of exhaustion I feel is beyond absurd, yet I generally feel compelled to complete “just one more thing” again and again until I look at the clock and say “What the? It’s 2:30 in the morning!”1 Despite the gaps, or perhaps because of them, it feels as though I’m working all day long. From the time Nozomi’s morning walk is finished until I climb into bed 18 hours later, I’m thinking about work. Sure, the pay is decent, but this isn’t at all what I want to do for a company that is not my own. A hard cut-off might be the friction I need to properly “shut off” when not at the office, and the hour-long commute each way would be the buffer between work-mode and dad-mode.

Would this solve my listening problems, though? It would drastically increase the burden on Reiko, and I would still need to work from home two or three days a week when she goes to work. This would lead to more friction and possible resentment at home, which is the whole reason I made the enormous efforts to work from home in the first place2.

Ultimately what I am looking for is a quieter house where I don’t need to keep my ears open just in case someone is talking in my direction. I’d like to be able to block out the world when it’s feasible so that the only thing I hear is the ceaseless chatter in my head while solving problems. The boy starts kindergarten in February where he’ll be gone for a couple of hours every morning. Perhaps when he’s busy at school I can use some quiet time to work on complex things during the day rather than only at night. My goal is still to be in bed before midnight every day, and I would love to go back to not using and glowing screens an hour before sleeping. Right now neither of these goals are even remotely realistic, and it’s causing a lot of undue stress.

  1. This happened twice last week, and it’s not at all uncommon.

  2. It’s very uncommon for a male to be allowed to work from home in Japan. Very, very uncommon.

The Wrong Culprits

Hannah Fry, an associate professor in the mathematics of cities at University College London, said an equivalent of the doctor’s oath was crucial given that mathematicians and computer engineers were building the tech that would shape society’s future.

Maths and tech specialists need Hippocratic oath, says academic — The Guardian

Ms. Fry seems to have left one bubble only to get stuck in another. It's not just the mathematicians and software developers who should be thinking about the ethical and long-term concerns with any given technology, but the people who lead organizations that build the digital tools. How often do we hear someone say something along the lines of "I don't like this, but it's my job and I have bills to pay, so I'll do it anyway?" It's all well and good to lay the blame for the adverse effects of social networks, facial recognition, and machine learning at the feet of the early pioneers of the fields, but it's a little too convenient as well.

Mark Zuckerberg didn't write every line of code that powers all of Facebook's tools. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn't write every line of code that powers all of Google's tools. The same can be said for for Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and every other person who has led a group of people that has created something that the world once considered to be impossible outside the realm of fiction. It is not just the people who make the tools that should consider the ramifications of their labor.

Looking at this a little more broadly, everybody should pledge an oath equivalent to the Hippocratic oath for every job they do. We rely on so many people from so many industries to do things we're either unwilling or unable to do. We must trust that the labours of others will not harm us or the people we care about. Should meat processors pledge to not mix stale bread or rodents into their beef in an effort to reduce costs while conning the consumer out of money?1 Yes. Should a person who develops medicines do their darnedest to ensure that the pills they make are not addictive? Yes. Should a taxi driver strive to take the most direct route between point A and B to save the passenger a little bit of money?2 Yes.

And so should the managers of these professionals. And so should the middle-managers of the organization. And so should the C-level executives. Every person has a responsibility to "do no evil", including the people using the products and services (willingly or otherwise).

I'm not at all happy with the fact that every time I go to a JR train station in Japan my face is recorded and that data is instantly sent to a Fujitsu-run data centre in Tokyo, where it's processed, analyzed, and stored for who knows how long. There is no GDPR in Japan, and there is no way to even know how much data Fujitsu has on me. I wrote to JR about it and I wrote to the federal politician who represents this area. Neither even took the time to respond because there aren't enough people raising their voice over this issue.

I despise the fact that my non-smart TV and even stupider DVR want to send viewing habits back to Sharp and Panasonic respectively. It's not their bloody business what TV shows the family is watching and when. I've blocked these devices from accessing the Internet while maintaining a connection to the media server, but people shouldn't have to do this. I've written to both companies. Sharp responded with a generic "please read our revised privacy policy on our website"3, and Panasonic — having already taken my money — didn't care enough to even receive the message. Their web contact form gave an error.

Every couple of weeks my microwave wants to be paired to an Android phone despite the "cookbook sync" feature being disabled for 5+ years. My Canon printer recently asked if I wanted to order more ink because the PGBK4 cartridge was low. My work-supplied phone received an SMS a couple of months back when I walked into a mall in Nagoya offering a 50 Yen coupon for a restaurant in the food court5. Were all of these the fault of developers or mathematicians? No. They were the fault of management.

“We need a Hippocratic oath in the same way it exists for medicine,” Fry said. “In medicine, you learn about ethics from day one. In mathematics, it’s a bolt-on at best. It has to be there from day one and at the forefront of your mind in every step you take.”

People should be learning about ethics from day one on Earth, regardless of what career choices they make in life. Placing the blame for these technologies at the feet of the people charged with creating and implementing them is just a lazy cop out. There is nothing inherently bad about a lot of the technologies and tools we create until an ill-defined line is crossed. It's the job of management to ask "Is this too much?" before directing their people to make it happen.

  1. This was a real problem in Japan with a company a few years back, until a whistleblower had enough and ratted them out to the press … after three years of keeping quiet.

  2. This was another problem that was rampant in Japan for a little while.

  3. My eyes rolled twice when I saw that it was specifically referred to as a revised privacy policy.

  4. Photo-grade Black. Why do printers have two black cartridges, and why can't it use them more intelligently?

  5. This was freaky and very undesired. I've since learned that the mall has "ended their limited trial" and won't be sending SMS messages to phone numbers tied to faces anymore.

Night Flights

When the weather isn't too hot or humid, Nozomi and I like to sit on a bench next to a nearby ball diamond after the sun has set, listening as the world goes by. Cars drive past at a little over the speed limit. Cicadas chirp loudly at each other. Mosquitoes search enthusiastically for blood. Every couple of minutes, though, a plane can be seen crossing the sky en route to a destination that is likely no more exotic than the neighbourhood that Nozomi and I call home.

Planes Fly Over London

There will likely be another flight to the US coming up in the next 12 months as the global project begins to roll out and various teams wind down. Meetings will be held in New Jersey to decide the next steps, create organizational structures, and assemble small teams that will take ownership of various elements. I don't mind flying to the other side of the planet to attend 50-hours of meetings crammed into a 5-day working week, but I do wish I could bring the family — minus the puppy, unfortunately1 — somewhere beforehand.

Until this most recent annual row2 with our neighbouring country, Reiko and I were talking about visiting South Korea for a couple of days. The flight wouldn't be too long for the boy and it would give us an opportunity to get him accustomed to more complicated forms of travel. When the time comes to bring him to visit family in Canada, he'll need to be much more patient than he is today. This can only happen with experience and practice, so South Korea seemed like a logical choice. However, with this not being a viable option for the moment, it makes sense to look elsewhere.

Another option would be to head to Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture, as the weather there is much cooler. There are daily direct flights from Nagoya to Sapporo for about $80 a seat. The flight itself is just under two hours and the trip to the airport would likely be just as long; an excellent way to get the boy accustomed to travel without the hassles of spending an entire day in airports and planes.

I wonder if everyone would be up for a trip up north ….

  1. I would ask the in-laws to look after Nozomi, as they seem to get along quite well. This would be less stressful for the puppy than a pet hotel.

  2. Every year around August it seems that South Korea demands another round of reparations from Japan, deeming all the previous apologies, cash payouts, and infrastructure investments null and void.


Over the last couple of months I've found myself writing a lot of posts that will likely never be published. The topics are varied as is the general vibe of the article, but one thread that can be found in each of them is a type of cynicism that rarely results in anything positive. Negativity towards an idea is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Constructive criticism is still criticism, which is often viewed negatively by the receiver, but when it's actionable then something good can come from the critique. Every so often I'll look at these abandoned posts and find the pessimism to be little more than frustrated venting about Facebook, hype around an unproven technology in its infancy, or the state of the Internet. Stuff that's not even worthy of a Digg.

The writing process that I've tried to follow for the last 11 months has been pretty simple:

  1. Jot down one or two sentences on a possible topic during the day
  2. Choose one topic during "writing hour"
  3. See where it goes
  4. If it's not horrible, press publish

For the most part this does work. On an average day there will be five or six topics that I have quickly put into Evernote or Byword. The one that seems the most complete is selected and the others left aside. Over 330 of the most recent posts on this site have been written in this manner … which certainly explains the "stream of consciousness" style of writing that permeates the blog. However, with less than a month to go before completing my goal of writing a post a day for 365 days, I'm seeing some patterns in how I've managed to accomplish this streak. Just over 70% of the posts I write that contain more than a single paragraph are cast away, most of which are written on Thursday and Friday. At the start of this challenge, the percentage was much smaller.

Does this level of waste exist in other places, too? I wonder. Looking at my commit history on GitHub, there does not seem to be a disproportionate amount of deletions from one day to the next, nor is there a pattern that shows more commits taking place at the start or middle of the week. If anything, my coding has remained frighteningly consistent for this past year.

How about body weight? I've recently started measuring myself twice a day just to see how a mostly-sedentary life is treating me. Interestingly enough, I've lost 5kg in the last year and generally gain weight on Sunday and Monday before losing it again Tuesday through Saturday.

Sleep? Thursday and Friday are the two worst-quality nights according to SleepCycle, so there's a good chance that my general state of mind near the end of the work week is more negative than positive. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, though. More data is needed.

One thing I would like to do over the coming month, however, is spend less time writing posts that will only be disposed of. If the vibe early on is too negative, it will be best to just cut the idea loose and move on to something else.

BASF Tapes and FM Radio

Since it seems I'm perpetually stuck in the 90s, it seems apt to share a thought that crossed my mind while listening to an iconic 90s techno track from Sash!. While growing up in Canada during the early 90s, there were just a limited number of ways a young person could get their hands on music. If the opportunity availed itself, a person could get a part-time job and buy albums for anywhere between $16 and $22 a piece1 or they could buy a bunch of blank cassettes and engage in an intricate dance involving pause buttons, radio DJs, and dumb luck.

As one would expect from a teenager, I generally went with the second option.

BASF Cassette Tape

My cassette of choice was BASF's 90-minute Ferro Extra I line, which could typically be found for about $2.50 from the discount shops in town. These had pretty decent sound reproduction and would allow just under 45 minutes of audio on each side of the tape. There were better options available but, given that the source for much of my music was the radio up until 19962, the BASF tapes proved to have the best ROI.

The early 90s were the age of the mix-tape, where people would put music on cassettes for friends, family, and loved ones. I enjoyed doing this as much as anyone else, using my evenings to listen to Burlington-based "Energy 108" to record the tunes of the day. Friends would often give me tapes what were just straight copies off the radio, which included DJ banter, ads, and the random play of Celine Dion between Tupac and Dr. Dre "because Canada"3. As one might expect, I didn't like this lazy approach to mixing. You cannot call a 44-minute straight recording of a radio station a mix. It just doesn't work. If a person was going to mix a tape using the radio, it had to be done with a little more finesse.

My process when assembling a mix tape would be simple, though time consuming. I'd choose the person who would get the tape, often a friend from school, then select a single genre to record. From there I'd put the radio on and fiddle with the dial until the reception was just right, then put a blank cassette in the loader, press pause, then press record+play4 simultaneously. From there it was a matter of waiting for the radio station to play something of the right genre without a DJ speaking through the entire intro. When a song was being recorded, I'd time the length of the track and record the information to a folded-over sheet of 8.5"x11" paper. Times were in red ink. Song titles in blue. Artists in black. This allowed me to verify a song wasn't already on the tape and to calculate how much time remained on each side without going through the hassle of pressing play and listening to how much dead air there was before the tape ran out, then determining how much space at the end of the reel couldn't be recorded on. A single mix-tape might take two or three days to assemble. Once done, I'd fill out the track listing using the cover that came with the cassette case, including a quick message to go along with the tape. If I was feeling particularly creative, I'd go all out with the cover-art and draw things that interested the recipient5 such as cars, stacks of money, cigarettes, or — for one special person — cute frogs.

There were some mix tapes that I kept for myself, of course. Some of these were listened to so often that I can still remember the track sequences and — much to my chagrin — the songs that bled into the music I wanted because the radio station cross-faded between two tracks. When I listen to the songs today my mind still expects to hear 2 seconds of TLC's Waterfalls after Sash! belts out Ecuador. I expect to hear a little more than 1 second of a beer commercial after Pearl Jam's Alive. On my most-played cassette, Eiffel 65's Blue cuts out half-way through because I'd run out of recordable tape.

Most people don't have the same degree of friction today when assembling a mix tape for friends or family. Heck, to the best of my knowledge, I don't know of anyone who puts together a play list for someone else. This is despite the relative ease of making a list and the much higher sound quality people can enjoy from streaming services. Nobody needs to be bound by a hard limit of 60, 90, or 120 minutes, either. The whole process is much more elegant.

There are a lot of activities that look better when using rose-coloured glasses, but this isn't one of them. I enjoyed putting the tapes together this way at the time because there was no other realistic option. I enjoyed the thought and care that went into the mixing. I enjoyed doing the artwork, too. Would I do it again today with a cassette, CD, MD, or some other physical media? Sure. But only for someone really special, and only with better-quality audio.

  1. Beware those Columbia House offers of 6 CDs for 1 cent!

  2. In 1996 I started working at the farm across the street from where I lived. I'd go over to help where possible and often earned $20 more than they offered with every visit. One day I'll have to write about the time their pack of insane dogs — yes, plural — got off the leash and took a bite out of my leg. Fun fact: I've been employed almost every day of my life since 1996. There was just a 7-week period in 2002 and again in 2007 where I was not being paid for doing something for 40+ hours a week.

  3. Canadian broadcast stations are required to play a certain percentage of content created by Canadians as per the law, otherwise they can lose their broadcast license. For this reason, there would often be music of a different genre thrown into the mix just so radio stations could meet their quota without playing the same songs more than once every 2 hours. Mind you, if you did listen to the radio for more than 2 hours, there was a very high probability that you'd hear the same song twice at some point.

  4. Remember doing this? Pressing record only would include the play button, but always felt like something might break. It was better to press both at the same time.

  5. Before computers, I planned on being an artist. A pad of fresh unruled paper and my trusty 3H pencils would keep me busy for an entire day … if the family was out somewhere.

A Content Purchase?

Earlier today I read that Automattic, the company behind WordPress, will buy Tumblr, a platform that was at one time the company's primary blogging competitor. The first thought that went through my head was Why? and then, more specifically, What benefit would Matt (Mullenweg)1 get from buying Tumblr? The only real reason I can think of is that this is a content purchase more than anything else.

By all accounts, WordPress is superior to Tumblr in every measurable way. The underlying technology that powers WordPress is better. The mobile applications are better. The communities around the platform — for both open and paid — are better. The level of customization and attention to detail in WordPress is better. And, to top it all off, people actually use WordPress.

When Yahoo! bought Tumblr in 2013, the product started to stagnate. New features were few and far between, and updates to the mobile applications were always in response to what other blogging tools were doing. Four years later, when Verizon bought the platform, they quickly implemented a "no porn" rule that effectively killed off their most ardent fans. This affected not only the people who were posting pornographic content, but also artists who might have photos that reveal just a bit too much skin for the automated content filters. People quickly picked up and moved on to different sites where they could share their work without fear of censorship. What will Automattic do with the service?

Tumblr Traffic

According to some metrics on SimilarWeb, Tumblr sees about 380-million visitors a month. This is about 150-million fewer visits than, which doesn't include all the premium and VIP-level sites that run off with their own domain addresses. Given Automattic's past record, I doubt this would be an attempt to increase revenues through ad impressions. It's not the company's style.

This train of thought is what led me to the idea that this acquisition likely has nothing to do with the technology, or the talent2, or even the name recognition. It can only be the content that is of value.

The Wall Street Journal talked to Matt Mullenweg about the acquisition and wrote this:

He said he has long been a Tumblr user and sees the site as complementary to "It's just fun. […] We're not going to change any of that."

Tumblr certainly comes across as less structured than WordPress, but I'm not sure "fun" is the word to describe the site anymore. If there is going to be an attempt to build a social network with Tumblr as its base, then this strikes me as an odd decision given the knowledge and problem-solving ability of Automattic's legion of developers. The company could release a "fun" and light social platform called Wordy McWordface and still get more traffic and interest than something with the Tumblr branding on it.

However, if you take the content and make that part of the WordPress ecosystem, you start to get some interesting numbers that make the competition look insignificant. There's no evidence of this yet, but I would not be surprised if this is the start of a push within Automattic to make the place people go to publish on the web. Medium, Facebook, and Twitter all have their pros and cons. If WordPress can regain the mindshare it once had when blogging was at its peak a decade ago, it might once again become synonymous with the idea of unmoderated, unfiltered, unrestricted publishing on the web3

  1. Matt Mullenweg created WordPress by forking the B2 blogging system and then building a very successful business around it. It wasn't easy, but he did it.

  2. Most of the best developers have long since left the company.

  3. … so long as the content isn't sexual in nature. Matt doesn't like that.


Hello. My name is Jason, and I'm a pain in the ass to work with. I don't always intend to be, but this is often the case when I'm asked to be patient when patience hinders an outcome. There are some colleagues that I can work with for long stretches of time, of course. A lot of people — managers in particular — tend to get upset when I first ask for information or resources or support then, before any of these things can be granted, provided, or refused, I follow up by saying "X is not needed anymore. I solved the problem myself." 自分で解決した。

This has been done where it's been easier to reverse engineer systems than wait for documentation to be provided. This has been done where it's been easier to buy a $15 software package to get a job done rather than go through regular channels, fill out reams of Excel sheets, and get sign off from multiple managers. This has even been done when it's been easier to simply buy my own computer hardware than request the equipment I need to do the job I'm expected to do.

Which is where I find myself again.

As a result of being classified a risk by a manager at the day job, my request for a more modern Mac has pretty much stalled. If the request does eventually go through, the system is expected to have some pretty limiting management software installed that will actively get in the way of me doing my job, which means I won't use the hardware, which means the computer that costs a lot of money will sit idle on a shelf in my house wasting space while I continue to use my own hardware to reach the goals I've set out to accomplish. None of the previous hardware the company provided needed to have management installed1 and none of my peers in the IT department here in Japan or around the world have management software installed. Heck, I've been using my personal Mac for years without any legitimate complaints being issued. This is just a senseless roadblock that is in the way because "reasons". And not even good ones.

So, being the kind of person who tends to be a pain in the ass, I'll once again ask that any effort to acquire a company-financed device be halted. I'll buy my own. Again. Because it's not only easier, but it will ensure that I don't skimp on the hardware in an effort to keep costs down for the organization. Being my own hardware means I'll be free to manage it how I see fit. Being my own hardware means that I won't have to ship it back when the company and I eventually part ways. Being my own hardware means the "manager" who is so concerned about "security" and "risks" can conjure up new reasons I should be dismissed or have my access to the critical systems I'm in charge of severely restricted while simultaneously explaining why these same risks do not apply to them or any member of their team, who tend to have even more access to critical systems than I do.

自分で解決します。I'll solve this myself.

  1. The Lenovo I received back in January had just a default installation of Windows 10 when I received it. The thing hadn't even been connected to the corporate network nor its domain. This made it rather easy to image the SSD, put Ubuntu on the thing, and use it quite a bit … until the friction of using lots of Microsoft services through Ubuntu Linux started to take its toll.

Five Things

Another Sunday, another five things to quickly run through. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at a number of textbook publishing products that are sold to schools around the world in an effort to understand what sort of features schools are using, and which ones are seeing successes with teachers and students. Interestingly, there are three rather large companies doing this based on South Korea, and a handful spread out across the rest of the planet. One vendor recently wrote a blog post about the academic book experience and had this to say:

The academic world is facing a problem but not everyone acknowledges that, including ourselves. Not until we were invited to participate in a workshop for university institutions (Columbia, NYU, MIT, University of Michigan) with press and library representatives attending as well. […] During the workshop, the large issue that was discussed is the lack of a simple yet effective user experience (UX) for users that are not only students, but alumni and faculty members.

This is certainly true. There are some companies who are trying to use HTML and PDFs with mixed results, but many are relying on proprietary formats that simply do not translate well. While this is convenient for the software vendor, it’s rather frustrating for everyone else. Not only do educational institutions need to accept vendor lock-in, but there’s a very real possibility that teachers and students will need to have multiple accounts with multiple textbook suppliers requiring multiple applications with different design language just to get through a regular school day.

This isn’t at all cool.

In order to make something that works for the institutions charged with educating people, we need to ensure that the software works for people. Fortunately, there are a few things that would go a long way to improving the situation with our digital textbooks … and learning materials in general.

A Common Format

Every format will be an exercise in compromise, but the most logical format for a textbook is HTML. This is a standard that people have been using for decades and will continue to persist in the foreseeable future. Just about everything a person might want to do can be done in HTML though, admittedly, it is not the best format for every situation.

A Core Set of Features for Students

Every digital textbook publisher seems to have a different way of presenting materials to students. Some do little more than present a PDF in a wrapper that prevents text selection, printing, writing comments, and just about anything that would aid a person’s learning. Others, like National Geographic, over-engineer their textbooks in an effort to make them “immersive” for the handful of people who have the latest and greatest hardware. Between these two extremes are all the other vendors who try to offer schools enough shine and pizazz to justify the expensive support contracts and vendor lock in.

Ultimately the needs of the students must come before those of the school. This includes basics like being able to print pages without “page credits” or other asinine forms of friction1, writing notes “in the margins”, links to additional resources to expand on or reinforce a topic, and — depending on the topic — a way to ask questions or for further help should be part of every delivery platform.

A Core Set of Features for Teachers

This is a problem near and dear to me despite the lack of formal teaching in my day-to-day work now. Having been in the classroom for nine years I’ve seen systems that work well and systems that do not. This is true for both analog and digital content targeted at teachers. The one pattern that I’ve seen with systems that do not work is that they’re all based on rigid, theoretical models of teaching that generally work only with a certain kind of student. Rarely will any class go completely by-the-book. Teachers support tools need to be flexible, while also being consistent.

This is where a core set of features that are standard across all platforms, even if the implementation is different, can help teachers get the most from their learning tools. Built-in glossaries, alternative lesson plans, and additional presentation materials are just a couple of items that would generate interest from teachers, even if only a subset regularly uses them.

The Option to Self-Host the Textbooks

A valid concern that schools have is what to do if the publisher goes out of business or upgrades their infrastructure without supporting older versions of their software. One of the benefits of paper books is that once you have it, it’s yours. Digital materials have long been touted as being superior to their analog counterparts but, as we’ve seen with book distribution systems like eReader2, there are serious questions about the long-term viability of systems hosted by external entities. For this reason, it should be possible for organizations — or even individuals — to host their own content server that interacts with the application(s) used to read the materials.

A Browser-Based Option

The problem with platform-specific applications is that they typically focus on the main operating systems being used in wealthier nations. While there is some utility in having a textbook in a dedicated or platform-specific app, there should always be the option to view a personal copy of a textbook in any browser. This will also help some people get around the problem of “not having their book” because a battery died. Of course, if the textbooks are offered in HTML format, this will be easily accomplished. If there’s a custom format, some loss of functionality might take place during the conversion.

There’s a lot of really interesting ideas in the various textbook systems, but many seem focused on making things easier for the publisher at the expense of everyone else. Given the publishers are not supposed to be the “customers” of the software, this seems backwards. Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people working on making these tools better for everyone.

  1. Yeah, yeah. Intellectual property, blah blah blah. Get out of here. The students who can’t or won’t afford a textbook will get their hands on it one way or another. Stop penalizing the 99% of people who are just trying to study.

  2. This used to be called Peanut Press and was a great way to buy and read books back when the Palm PDA ruled mobile computing. Now the DRMed files will never “legally” unlock again because the entire DRM system disappeared with the company many years ago.

Sitting With Nozomi

Moments of quiet are few and far between as of late but, when Nozomi and I are out for an evening walk in the park, we do make time to enjoy a few minutes on a bench next to a ball diamond. This used to be something that we could enjoy several times a week at the old apartment. There was a circular bench surrounding a tree where we would often sit for fifteen minutes or so before heading home. What I liked about this routine was the private time with Nozomi, where I could just chat with her about whatever happened to be on my mind. Unlike a human, she could listen and just enjoy the time together no matter how serious or trivial the topic. These moments were incredibly therapeutic.

The summer heat tends to make sitting outside rather difficult for any length of time, so Nozomi has generally wanted to return home immediately after relieving herself in the tall grass alongside the hedges that circle the neglected baseball diamond in the park. When a typhoon is on the way, however, the air is less humid and a near constant breeze keeps everyone comfortably cool, even when they’re covered in fur. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, with 台風15号1 on the way. Cool air and less humidity ensured the evening walk was enjoyable. When Nozomi saw some benches after relieving herself, she walked straight for them understanding that I’d be sitting down and she’d be right beside me getting a head scratch or tummy rub.

Every evening walk has a conversation topic, which is more for my sake than hers for obvious reasons. Tonight I was thinking about what kinds of software I couldn’t build personally without risking a concern from the day job. Blogging and social clients are non-issues for the day job, but how about multi-lingual dictionaries aimed at adults leaning a foreign language? Would a note-taking application where notes can be shared between teachers and students be seen as questionable. My employer offers neither of these, but I’m seriously considering building one of them for too long.

Nozomi sat next to me in silence the entire time we had this one-sided conversation. At the end of our small rest she list looked at me as if to say “Are you done? I’m hungry.” From there we trekked home.

  1. Typhoon 15 (of 2019)


At some point in the last few years it seems that I put on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and, as one would expect, it has coloured my perception of the digital tools people used 20-odd years ago. This isn't true for every piece of technology, though, as I was not particularly enamoured with the Pentium II/266 that I used for a while nor the finicky graphics drivers for the Voodoo card. CRT monitors weren't all that great to stare at for more than a couple of hours, and bandwidth at the turn of the century hovered around 300kbps on a good day if you lived next to the phone company and had a $100/mo. ADSL connection1. "Fast" hard drives rarely moved data faster than a couple dozen megabytes per second. WiFi was awful if anyone around you was using a cordless phone. Perhaps worst of all was the reliability and pervasiveness of Windows Me, an operating environment so bad that only grandparents and public schools dared to use it.

When I think about all the devices I've owned over the years and what they meant to me, there are a few that stand out. There's the first Mac I owned, which allowed me to learn a better way to design UIs and write software. Before this there was the SoundBlaster AWE64 that saw heavy usage until 2007 and allowed me to easily connect musical instruments to the computer to compose music. Back in 2001 I built a dual-processor PIII/1.0GHz workstation with 512MB RAM that allowed me to really explore software development and, more importantly, the power of relational databases.

But when I think about the device that had the biggest impact on me — before switching away from Windows2 — the machine that instantly springs to mind is the Palm PDA.

A Palm V PDA — Image from Wikipedia

Between 1999 and 2006, I owned twelve PalmOS-powered handhelds, only one of which was made by Sony. Every six to eight months the screen would be scratched up beyond repair, and I'd head to the nearby computer shop to pick up a new model. In 1999 it was the Palm IIIe that allowed me to streamline processes at the day job. The next model up, the IIIxe, made it possible to use applications with simple video graphics. It was around this time that I started reading books on the Palm, eliminating the need to carry paper novels with me everywhere. The Palm V, pictured above, was an incredibly capable device that earned me a better job.

In 2003, a few months after moving to the Vancouver area, I was working in the warehouse of a printing company. I ran the afternoon shift, ensuring warehouse hands had enough work, keeping the printing and binding machines properly stocked, and removing waste products as soon as the bins were about 80% full. Within a matter of weeks I had worked out the patterns for all the machines and the crews so that I could keep everything operating with almost zero machine downtime as a result of my lack of preparedness. Because I knew the pattern, I could write a piece of software for my Palm V to help run the warehouse. People saw me come to work 15 minutes early, walk around the floor while taking notes on a little PDA3, then hop on the forklift to get things organized for the start of the shift. Eventually management learned about the tool and asked for a demo. A few weeks later I was moved to a different department, given a raise, and put to work solving more complicated problems for the company.

Writing software for the Palm handhelds was not at all easy. The tools at the time were sluggish, cumbersome, and one little error could take a whole weekend to track down. Still, it was the software and tools that I wrote for the Palm that opened interesting doors, such as the submarine project in 2004 that used a Palm Tungsten T.

The tools we use today are far more powerful and capable than anything a decade ago, let alone 2004, but it's always the Palm that I remember fondly. If I had to use one today then there would undoubtedly be a string of complaints on this site, from the lack of support for modern encryption algorithms to the lack of a decent WiFi radio. However, if I had to use one today, the first couple of days with it would have me feeling incredibly nostalgic for a time when it seemed that anything was possible … so long as you didn't mind waiting a bit.

  1. Internet speeds in Canada 20 years ago were generally 1/5th of what was advertised … if you were lucky.

  2. I know it seems I bash on Windows a lot. For a long time I was a huge proponent of Microsoft and their tools. Around 2008, though, it just started to be too much hassle. There were too many problems when switching between languages. Visual Studio, the primary development tool for Windows applications, would often "forget" how to display Japanese and Korean characters, making my software builds look worse. My computer at the time was deteriorating with every use … which isn't Microsoft's fault, but still. When I made the switch to the Mac, I started to learn a lot more about how people interact with computers and how to better design efficient systems that people want to use.

  3. People used to laugh at me for staring at a little screen all the time. Today everybody is staring at a little screen.