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Skyline of Richmond, Virginia

Down with modal windows!


These guys have been annoying me for a while, and in a sudden flash of insight I remembered what they are called: modal windows, i.e. windows that hog the focus and that you must interact with and dismiss before you can use the rest of the UI again.  These are almost never the right thing.

The use case in which modal windows tend to irritate me most is when I need to configure a program using one part of the UI based on information presented in another part of the UI.  What I’d like to do in this situation is put both these parts of the UI on the screen side by side, so that I don’t have to constantly switch back and forth.  If the part I’m using to configure is modal, this is annoying; if the part I’m consulting while configuring is modal, it’s impossible.  The use of modal windows slows down such a task by about an order of magnitude.

A frequent offender is IntelliJ IDEA, an  otherwise excellent IDE.  Restricting the user’s flexibility in the UI in this way is particularly inappropriate in a product whose users are (by definition) developers. Grrr. IDEA is also bad about stealing the focus from other applications with largely irrelevant windows indicating the progress of background processing tasks, at least under GNOME.

Fat clients also love the cloud


Was at dinner tonight in a party of five, all of whom had read this article. I’m being drawn more into the vortex of Silicon Valley and its entrepreneurial dreams recently, and I’m liking it.

Idea #27, hardware/software hybrids, is one example of the often-fruitful pattern of blending two worlds that don’t meet as much as they should.

Another type of hybrid that I think holds a lot of untapped potential is that between web software and desktop software. People are pushing in this direction from both sides: web guys are trying to solve the “offline problem” with Adobe AIR and Google Gears and so forth, and desktop apps are gaining cloud-based backup/sharing capabilities, like .Mac. But I think that more can be done by combining largely web-based applications with honest-to-God fat (okay, rich) desktop programs.

Data belongs in the cloud, period, and that is where it is going to live. The local disk should be thought of as the most capacious and most persistent layer in the cache hierarchy, not as canonical long-term storage. Yet despite the amazing acrobatics that Google and others have pulled off with JavaScript, and the growing capabilities of Flash and other write-once-run-anywhere environments that download their code on demand a là web, the desktop is still a richer programming environment and will be so for some time. This is not right for every application, but there must be areas where it adds value.

Better than being an application, of course, is being a platform, so the real genius will be in creating a web/desktop ecosystem open to all developers, but in which you and your friends hold a privileged and profitable place. But that’s soo software 1.0.

Great moments in visual communication


Came across this in a document today (confidential information has been scrubbed):

Confusing Diagram

Note that the numbers in the diagram and the numbers in the list that follows have nothing to do with each other. Someone’s getting Tufte in their Christmas stocking this year…

Love and hate in San Francisco


So I’ve finally completed the Move from Hell… and by completed, I mean that my room is crammed full of boxes and my previous co-tenants should lose only a small fraction of their deposit due to the mess we collectively left behind. So yeah, there’s still some work to do to finish moving in to the new place. I’ve sworn by the moon and stars that this time around I will complete that process, fully and swiftly… not like those other times… this time will be different. But the time-pressured stuff where I worry about leaving other people in the lurch is over.

Moving, as all humanity seems to agree, sucks. But I do feel a sense of cleanness and accomplishment now that it’s over, much though I want to do it better the next time. Also, I did have a few bits of extraordinarily good luck. I bought the U-Haul damage coverage, which I usually don’t–so they can pay for the car I smashed the first time I attempted a right turn in my 14-ft van. The neighborhood I moved to has an obscenely, reliably available quantity of parking for which I don’t even need the neighborhood parking permit I’ve yet to obtain. And tonight, as we scrambled desperately to really, truly, finally get the very last things out of the house, it turned out to be trash day… a little here, a little there… thank you, neighbors, and I hope you already put in all your trash, because now those suckers are full. If the household chemicals currently in the back of my car don’t leak into the Goodwill stuff and the cardboard (or worse, the upholstery), I’ll be willing to call it a success.

Anyway that’s the hate, such as it is. On to the love.

I believe I can truthfully claim to have loved San Francisco before this past weekend. But somehow, starting Saturday morning or early afternoon, walking the street, I came to the persistent feeling that being here I’m swaddled in a warm, protective blanket. Looking even at places that I used to think of as grungy or uninteresting, I see beauty. I feel that I’m connected to something enduring and meaningful. That I’m home.

I don’t know what it was. It could be that after a year in the city I’m reaching that mass of friends where I feel like I really know people here, where I have opportunities to hang out and places to go that weren’t available before. It could be that a pleasant, intoxicated episode Friday night left its mark, as such episodes sometimes do. Whatever it was, I’ll do my best to keep seeing the city in this light.

Blindingly obvious insight…


…into the conferral of honorary degrees at graduation ceremonies:  they have nothing to do with the honorees.  The purpose is holding them up as an example to the graduates.

The Flywheel



As a one-time summer employee of Jim Collins (as a member of the vaunted “chimp” research team, although really just a small cut above gopher-chimp status) and a sometime aficionado of his works, the single concept he’s come up with that I most find myself pondering is the Flywheel.

A literal flywheel is a very heavy wheel which, because of its weight, is resistant to changes in its rate of rotation. This means that it’s extremely hard to get a flywheel spinning, requiring a lot of energy. But it also means that once you do have it moving, it will keep moving with very little additional effort. At that point, it stores a tremendous amount of energy.

The Flywheel is the central concept of the book Good to Great. It links the early stages, which can be summed up as figuring out which flywheel to push and getting the right people around to push it, with the late stages, where your company becomes awesome (okay, great).

It is rare to find such an apt physical symbol for abstract processes, and the wisdom of the Flywheel is simple. If you want to get anything done, then: (1) You need to keep pushing in the same direction for a long time and (2) When you first start to push, it’s not going to feel like you’re making progress; it will be impossible in these early stages even to imagine the incredible power the Flywheel will have once you really get it going, or how long it can keep gaining more and still more momentum even once it’s already at a good clip.

In some sense these points seem blindingly obvious, a truism; especially point (1). But keeping in mind point (2) and reflecting on the image of the Flywheel can be more valuable than you might think when attempting to change something for the better.

A corollary of the fact that you need to steadfastly push in the same direction (or perhaps more accurately, on the same wheel) is that you’d better identify the right flywheel to begin with. Not just any group of people, operating according to any culture and ethic, will be able to identify the right wheel, or have the resolve to keep pushing it: hence the earlier chapters of Good to Great.

The Flywheel concept applies to any attempt at significant change, notably personal behavior modification. Lately I’ve been seeing flywheels everywhere, and trying to keep the Flywheel in mind as a caution and an inspiration.

I’ll end this post by pointing out again the dualistic nature of the Flywheel: the downside is that you have to push hard and long before seeing results, and you must remain consistent even as your faith that you ever will see them is tested. The bright side is that, if you stick it out, the results you see, and the progress you can continue to make, will be beyond imagination. And that duality might remind those familiar with Collins’ work of another concept that’s worth reflecting upon.

News From the Ground


So I made it into Austin at about 9:30 yesterday morning, sans bag (which showed up later). After getting a Curra’s fix and catching up with Jeff and Alexis, I checked in at an Obama campaign office in East Austin.

I received a clipboard; a printed-out map of a neighborhood; a list of about 75 addresses and the name, age, and gender of people living there; and assorted Obama campaign literature, chiefly fliers to hang on doorknobs. I was given minimal training and sent out to walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors.

I’m not sure what information went into building the lists, other than voter rolls. It did seem that people I talked to who were on the list were more likely to be supporting Obama than other people who came to the door, so some effort to identify likely supporters probably went into it.

Upon making contact, the idea is to determine whether the individual supports Obama, then encourage them to vote in the primary and the caucus, and make sure they have the information to do so. Talking to people about which candidate they support was not as uncomfortable as I’d thought it might be, and Obama supporters are much more interested in continuing the conversation than non-supporters, which is exactly what you want from a get-out-the-vote perspective. I would note down information for each person about whether I was able to contact them, who they’re supporting, etc.

So, not exactly rocket science, but I do think they’ve struck a good balance between having enough organization to maintain good information, and not wasting any time before sending volunteers out into the field. I did have several conversations with people who support Obama and seemed interested in caucusing but didn’t really know what the deal was. Explaining that to as many people as possible is very important.

I didn’t have the energy at the end of the day to hang around with the other campaign folks, but it seems like a good group of people (and a diverse mix by age/race/gender). I caught up on sleep a bit at the expense of a late start today, but now I’m headed back out there.

Go Obama!

Vegas -> Dallas -> Austin


Well, I got about what I expected from US Airways, with a delayed flight and a missed connection in Vegas.  Fortunately, I was able to re-book on American Airlines flights to Austin via Dallas that should get me to Austin by 9:00 am.  Sleep was never in the cards tonight anyway, and I’ll still have time not only to make my noon orientation, but to hit Curra’s with Jeff beforehand.   Here’s hoping my luggage shows up.

Ah, Las Vegas.  A city built on hot sand, broken dreams, and $5 lobster. Apparently gambling is big here:

Vegas airport slots

And yes, Kenny Rogers is a whore:

Kenny Rogers is weak

The Journey Begins


SFO pre-departure

I’m waiting in SFO for my flight to board. I found a really good Anchor Steam and a decent barbecue chicken pizza for dinner, and found out that my flight is delayed by 20 minutes. I have a fairly tight connection in Las Vegas and hope it works out.

What I have tomorrow is an orientation meeting at noon, to take place at the address texted me by a volunteer coordinator last night. I’m excited to see Austin again, excited to work on the campaign, but more than anything nervous and eager for Barack Obama to lock up the nomination.

Earlier today, the Clinton campaign released this ad which, while not really over the top, can fairly be considered an appeal to fear. By the end of the day, the Obama campaign had already responded with this. No doubt about it: Obama is running a tight ship.

A practice photo post


I’m hoping to photo-blog from the campaign trail. Here’s a test…

Grosvenor Arch

That’s Grosvenor Arch, located near Kodachrome Basin State Park in southern Utah.  I took this photo in September 2007 on a trip with my parents.  I used my iPhone, having left my camera in the car.