4 May 2010

Firstly, I am sorry I disappeared for so long. At the risk of making this a boring and trite “dear diary” moment, I’ll just say I was slightly preoccupied about where to take the Tiny Flying Goats project and dissatisfied with my perceived failings. But, damnit Annie, you know you need to just forge ahead. So here we are, and here we go.

Secondly, today is a one-day holiday (International Respect for Chickens Day) amidst an entire week-long holiday (Polaroid Week). I think this Chicken Respect business is pretty much up there with Groundhogs’ Day in terms of brilliant holidays. I have, coincidentally, been spending quite a bit of time respecting chickens of late (chiefly hanging out with them in various locales, working on a new photography series). I’ll be writing about the chicken photos later, but for now, please do celebrate today by respecting chickens. You can also read some more about our fine feathered friends at United Poultry Concerns. (I am concerned that the chickens are all going to be hung over tomorrow, after all this partying.)


As for that other thing, Polaroid week… I’ve been celebrating that too. Mostly, this is because I sprung for some of that yummy new PX100 Silver Shade film that the Impossible Project put out recently. It’s pretty pricey (understandably, with the R&D that’s been going on the past year), but it’s completely delectable, and I wish I had more of it. But it’s sold out, so I guess I’ll have to wait for the “second flush”.

Nerdy Camera Stuff

Though I try, I’m kind of bad at being a geeky photographer. I get a bit befuddled about the parts of photography that involve numbers. Sure, I know that stuff, and sure, I’m always trying crazy ambitious things like taking lens-building workshops for medium format cameras which totally involve math, and getting together with my photographer friend Jared for hours of coffee and camera-geek-talk… but at the heart of the matter, I’m much more of an impressionist than a stickler for exactitude and technique.

That said, let me tell you a little about my experience with the new PX100 Silver Shade integral Polaroid film… I was slightly wary of using it, at first, as it is, as I was saying, rather pricey ($21/8 shots), and the website made it sound very temperamental. But it turned out to be quite charming and not that difficult to deal with.

I was using a circa 1977 Pronto! B rigid-body SX70 camera.

Outdoor Shots

First, I went outside and shot with available light. It was a bit cold out… maybe 55 or 60˚F. (This film is prefers 63-75˚F), so I put each shot in my pocket to develop (the film is also light-sensitive while developing). Turns out the heat and darkness of my pockets did the trick quite nicely — though my results varied based on how long I kept the pictures away from light and what setting I had the light/dark adjustment set to on the camera (starting with it in the center for outdoor shots and adjusting in small increments worked well).

Indoor Shots

Later that evening, being addicted now to the Silver Shade film, I decided to do some still life photos inside. I set up two very bright color-balanced photo floods on either side of a table. I pulled out a Polaroid “macro” lens (i.e., a +3 filter). Of course, this lens wasn’t actually for this camera (it’s for pack film Land Cameras, I think), and actually had a different dimension and attachment mechanism than the Pronto lens, so, you guessed it, Scotch Tape to the rescue! Actually I’m quite well-chuffed with the weird vignetting that the smaller-than-the-lens-and-inexactly-attached filter caused.

The temperature inside was in the upper 60s, so that wasn’t an issue, but I still developed the shots in my pocket, to protect them from the light. I think they may have, thusly gotten a little too hot, causing some solarization-like effects (in a kind of oxblood-red color, in the shadows). Shooting indoors, with all that light, I had to turn the light/dark dial way up… or is that down? (I didn’t meter this situation, but it was pretty obvious what needed doin’.)

Summation (whoa, that’s an awfully formal subhead)

Interesting that the outdoor/colder weather shots came out far more yellowy-sepia and the indoor/hotter shots came out far more red. Both are lovely palettes. Especially fooling around with ill-matched filters and stuff, these pictures are delightfully and weirdly reminiscent of van dyke brown prints or even callitypes… but then they’re encased in plastic and pop out of one’s 70s camera instantly! If “thumbs up” weren’t trademarked vis-a-vis the rating of films, I would certainly give one or two to this film.

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25 March 2010

Today, I would like to pontificate about my love for you control:tunes. This little add-on/plug-in for iTunes from you software has been around for a long time. I’m not sure how long, but I feel like I’ve been using it for years. And the cool part is, despite upgrades to the OS (we’re talking Mac only here) and to iTunes, it has always worked.

Although it can do lots of stuff, I’m not really a power user. On the other hand, I’m awfully sad when I’m without it.

Here’s what happens:

I’m working away at my desk, listening to music from iTunes. As each song starts, an unobtrusive overlay (sort of like a Growl notification) fades in to the lower left hand of my screen, telling me what the song and album is. Since the iTunes app is usually buried under heaps of other programs on my second monitor, and since I do tend to let iTunes DJ entertain me for hours at a time, or forget what record I’ve put on, or don’t know what song or album I’m listening to, or wonder what a song is called, it’s very handy to be able to consult this pop up. It’s also very easy to ignore it if I want to. I can also make it go away faster by clicking on it. And all of this is totally customizable. The size, position, color, duration, transparency or the very existence of the pop-up. It’s all in your hands.

Here’s another thing that happens:

I’m working away at my desk, blasting MC Yogi’s Elephant Power record (which has brought me untold hours of happiness this year) or some punk rock, or Fred Astaire or something when the phone rings and I see from the caller ID that it’s a client. Or the government, or some other party upon whom the benefit of answering the phone without a raucous party in the background should be bestowed. Of course, iTunes is buried under all kinds of stuff, and I’m not flight-fingered about the F8 “pause” button on the keyboard (as I tend to use those F keys as key commands in my Adobe software and don’t ever expect them to work in the Finder for some reason)… and, moreover, the phone ringing flusters me, and I’m generally busy trying to plug the earbuds of my headset in and act all cool and suave and like I don’t spend most of my days working in splendid isolation. You control: tunes comes to the rescue. There’s a very handy PAUSE button right there in my menu bar (along with, admittedly, a lot of other stuff with which I’ve cluttered it up — sorry Mac minimalists!). It’s super-easy for me to click it and stop the party asap. Phew, suaveness recovered.

You can also use that same menu bar interface to find out what you’re listening to or select something new to listen to and to do iTunes geeky things like set ratings and favorites. And you can customize this little menu thing too. It comes with a huge variety of button sets in various styles and colors — and apparently, you can also make your own. You can put them on the left or the right or not at all. Personally, I’m quite happy with the flat orange buttons on the right and have been for years. Familiarity breeds comfort.

You can also set it so that the name of the song you’re listening to scrolls by in this button area for the amount of time (and at a speed) you specify. I like that.

I’m totally sold, based on the features I’ve mentioned (especially because it’s a free app). But you can apparently also set up all kinds of hot keys to control various iTunes-y things in an even more streamlined manner. I’ve not pursued this option, as my braincells allocated to storing information of that kind are already filled up remembering that option-u is umlaut and option-x is almost equal to and what the typographic names of such things as æ, «», |, and # are. (ash, guillemets, pipe and octothorpe).

Thank you people who make good software and give it to us for free. You are very cool.

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12 March 2010

Spring Cleaning

My Gentleman Friend, who indulges in a form of tracking which mountains he climbs up in terms of what season it is, tells me that winter is ending, technically, in a couple weeks (March 20th, at midnight, I think). Thus, spring is coming, and that means it’s time for spring cleaning. While I’ll take on the obligatory dusting and cleansing, I don’t really find it all that thrilling, truth be told. I do, however, really get into more enterprising reorganization projects around the house. (Well, apartment.) I love the black and white quality of a violent clutter purge, or a furniture move. A changing of storage methodologies or artifacts on display can also do a lot to brighten up a room and make one feel very accomplished and clever and productive.

Indeed, this morning, I took on the the first step in a reorganization project I’ve been mulling over for a while (usually at inopportune times), in which I move my most oft-used cameras to the top of the Ikea Expedit in my studio and store the rest in a box relegated to the basement. (Granted, since I shoot with lots of crazy cardboard pinhole cameras and modified cheap plastic and antique numbers, as well as a few “real” cameras in different formats, the number of items in my “oft-used” group exceeds the space available on top of the 5×5 Expedit). So I moved the stuff on top of the design books bookcase (old design notebooks, a box full of handmade paper, old Emigre magazines when they were in journal format, a (badly) handmade clamshell box full of fur from one of our dead bunnies (Mr. Bunny 2, the Big Orange Bunny) wrapped in Saran Wrap) to various places. I moved the boxes of photographs from the top of the Expedit to that bookcase. I started putting cameras up on top of the Expedit. I liked that they were accessible, but it looked kinda crappy. Too chaotic. Too many shapes and sizes. Too many cameras to fit nicely in the space. I decided I probably needed a more complex holding system for them, to keep them reigned in and organized, but still in view. Probably need to build something clever. Maye hack something from Ikea. Hmmm….

Seeing as I had a coffee date lined up, that wasn’t going to happen today. So I decided to spend my remaining morning puttering-about-the-house time browsing some of my favorite websites about fixing up one’s apartment. The kind I like are kinda DIY, mindful of one’s resources — both personal and global.

Don’t Act, Just Look at Websites

If you’re a decorating/home improvement DIY aficionado sort, you probably already know about these sites, but I thought I’d give a little run-down, just in case you were looking for this sort of thing (and it will spare you, dear readers, from another rant on prehistoric archeology, at least for now… ).

When you are in a quandary as to whether you need more clutter or less clutter and either way, what arrangement it should be displayed in and, moreover, how you might make the project of creating said display device as crafty and ambitious as possible, take a gander at these sites:

The standby is Apartment Therapy. I’ve poked around there, off and on for years, it seems. But I think I just realized there is an actual Boston section, where I can view the nice apartments of people in my actual vicinity. You’ve got to love that — especially if you’re hopelessly voyeuristic about people’s apartments, the way I am. It’s full of great stuff, but some of those places are actual houses and way nicer than my apartment will ever be — I don’t think my landlord would appreciate my installing a black and white psuedo-19th century stove) or painting my floor white. (That white-floor bedroom is so amazing… can you imagine you (and your muddy golden doodle) being that clean?)

Then there’s Design*Sponge. There’s tons here — great “Before and Afters” and “DIY”s which will make you want to pick up even more trash-furniture off the side of the road to rehabilitate, recipes, podcasts and my fave section (again with the voyeurism!) “Sneak Peak“. Looking into the houses and apartments of neato artists, designers and crafters is really a wonderful guilty pleasure — only not so guilty, as one can do it without actually sneaking around in person.

Finally, there’s Tiny-Ass Apartment, compiled by Simone, whom I believe has also written for both of the sites mentioned above. Having spent about 10 years in about 600 square feet, I relate to and appreciate this site a great deal (even though my space has now grown larger as has the amount of stuff I choose to fill it with — like a goldfish that grows to fill his bowl). When I lived in my studio apartment, I reveled in the cleverness of vertical stacking, secret hiding spots and general stuff-compression. Guests may have found it precarious, but I found it wonderfully cozy. At any rate, Tiny Ass Apartment has tips and tricks and a healthily irreverent attitude that makes for a good read regardless of your dwelling’s proportions.

Bonus: Real Life, Brick and Mortar

My aforementioned coffee date being in Salem, Massachusetts, I happened by a lovely new shop whilst on my way. It so charmed and enchanted me (and I so wanted to buy everything, except that I’m not a consumery consumer person… and thus limited myself to one gift for a friend). You may be nowhere near Salem (but everyone ends up there, eventually, no? And Salem has been getting really awesome the past few years), but if you are (or online) check out Roost. It’s small and bright and purveys attractive, affordable wares displayed in sensitive groupings that glimmer like color-sorted jewels. It’s got a bit of the aesthetic of Anthropologie without all the mossiness, attitude and clothes for waifs. (Though I do love a good, inspiring visit to an Anthropologie store on occasion.) Lovely vintage-style glassware, felted bowls and toys, letterpressed greeting cards, repurposed and recycled items and some great assemblage art. Everything so clean, quirky and delightful… just makes you want to have a really neat apartment.

Jamie, one of the proprietors (and a quite agreeable, friendly sort at that), told me they may hold some DIY workshops in future, to help encourage people to reuse/upcycle curbside finds and worn out this and thats. I love that stuff!

Nice to have a day when one thinks about light, practical things rather than worrying about the woes of the world (and to do lists). Here’s to spring!

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6 March 2010
Gateway of Ezion Geber
Image by uair01 via Flickr

Old Stuff at School

When I was a student of art history at university, the oldest art I learned about was, I think, that of ancient Greece. I also took a course in the “Architecture of St. Paul the Apostle”, which seemed like it was about something more aged than ancient Greece, on account of everything being indistinguishable heaps of sandy rocks, but St. Paul the Apostle and the architecture in which he was hanging out were, logically, a product of AD times. (I actually paid so little attention in this course, it’s almost like I didn’t take it…. reading the New Testament and looking at slides of dusty heaps of stones… not so interesting to me at the time). Anyway, yes, ancient Greece. Having lived near several Museums with respectable Egyptian galleries, I’ve poked around ancient Egypt as well. But I never really looked at anything older. Never took any courses in prehistoric art of any sort, nor did I have anthropology or science requirements that made me go there. Which was good, since I didn’t think that stuff was very interesting — didn’t have the wow-factor of, say, Medieval art.

Old Stuff at Home

Lately though, I’ve started to see something it it. I have been listening to The History of the World in 100 Objects podcast from BBC Radio 4. (Available on iTunes, with more info here), which begins with discussions of quite a few prehistoric objects. I’ve also, over the past few months, been watching whatever documentaries I come across about early humans. This all started when I saw population geneticist Spencer Wells’ fascinating documentary on how we’ve recently been unraveling the early migrations of humans out of Africa using DNA.

I think why this period (prehistory) has been attracting me is a because of its reductionism. Not that life was simple then, or that early people were less capable or clever than contemporary ones — rather, we know so little about that time that we can only ferret out (what we perceive to be) the important aspects of prehistoric lives in broad strokes on a vast and gappy timeline. And these things, or achievements, if that’s how you want to characterize them, can make us really think about what we do now. What we’ve evolved to do — and whether these activities make our lives more complicated or simpler and better. When did people start to talk? Did it make things better, or add undue complication? Was it worth it? What does that tell me about verbal communication today? Monogamous couples, staying put instead of being nomadic, building shelters instead of relying on caves, cooking food, eating meat, hunting in groups, planting seeds, domesticating animals, wearing clothes… all this and so many other big and small steps in becoming who we are today. Better, worse, what if it were different?

My to do list

The other day I was driving somewhere, doing some errand or other, in a bit of a driving coma. I thought fleetingly about all the things on my to do list, my very populated white board back at home. I felt a slight bit of apprehension about getting the to do items done. Being in a slightly altered state as I was, suddenly all these tasks I was meant to do, which I’d been carefully collecting, curating and crossing off, seemed intensely arbitrary. Why these tasks? Why email this person? Why email at all? Why have a computer? Why work with computers? Why design a business card for my friend? Why write in my blog or promote my design firm? Why even have design firm? Why lock myself into doing all this busywork?

OK, there are reasons, at least if I’m participating in the framework of human society in which I live. And I do tend to do that. I need to make money, I like to make my friends happy, I design things, I use computers. That’s what I do. I need to buy coffee because I’m addicted to it and like it. I need to send emails to share information. You know the drill. Arguably, none of these things are about survival on the basest level, and aren’t strictly necessary. Some of them would be very difficult not to do, with the way things are in the world (like making money), but I expect I could go off in some wilderness, eat nuts and berries, live in a cave, keep warm under a pile of leaves, that sort of thing. (Now, I know I’m not the wilderness type and have a problem with mosquitoes, but we’re talking theory only.) But assuming I had the base survival things under control, wouldn’t I want more? Wouldn’t I want to have some clothes that felt good next to the skin or to wear a nice shiny rock I found on a cord around my neck? Wouldn’t that make me happier? Would making these not-strictly-necessary items which gave me aesthetic pleasure be busywork? Or would it, in a sense, be art? Does it even matter which, if I have the inclination (instinct?) and it adds to my joy at being alive? I posit that it does not.

Meanwhile, in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania…

That’s why I find episode 2 of The History of the World in 100 Objects so moving. It’s about a stone chopping tool made 1.8 million years ago and found by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. It’s a heavy rock, chipped just so to make it useful for a number of cutting tasks. And it is the oldest object we know of that demonstrates human’s capability to design. In the podcast, naturalist David Attenborough says:

This object is something created from a natural substance for a particular purpose, and in a particular way, with a notion in the maker’s mind of what he needed it for. Is it more complex than was needed to actually serve the function which he used it for? Do you know, I think you could almost say it is. Did he really need to do one, two, three, four, five chips on one side and four on the other? Could he have got away with two? I think he might have done so. I think the man or woman who held this, made it just for that particular job and perhaps got some satisfaction from knowing that it was going to do it very effectively, very economically and very neatly. In time, you’d say he’d done it beautifully but, maybe not yet … the start of a journey.

The maker of this chopper went, perhaps, one step beyond the point where the tool would serve its purpose, to make it also pleasing to the eye and well-fit to the hand. When I upgraded to a Good Grips vegetable peeler after years of using the standard plain metal kind, I was acting on the same impulse, as was the person who designed the Good Grips peeler.

So what’s my point?

Maybe it’s a silly thing to have gone on about, since most of us, especially us blog-writing, blog-reading types, are, generally, members of the framework of modern human society. We don’t live in the woods and make decisions relating only to survival. Most of us have completely bought into the validity and necessity of our to do lists.

But once it a while, it’s good to question it. Question it all. Reaffirm that you’re still on board with making tools with extra chips to make them fit in your hand better. That design and art, and purposeful, technically non-necessary actions add beauty, meaning, pleasure (what have you) to your life and those around you. That they’re worth doing. If they aren’t — if there’s anything on your to do list that isn’t necessary (for survival, or its modern equivalents) or doesn’t add joy to life, you might want to just cross it off now.

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1 March 2010


At the risk of redundancy in having two regular features that utilize the word “happy” in their title, I hereby announce the start of another regular feature in which “happy” is a word in the title.

In the great editorial tradition of such esteemed publications as TV Guide and PETA’s Animal Times with “Cheers and Jeers” columns, I thought I’d make some layman’s observations on various companies’ positive and negative contributions to more sustainable products and packaging under the taxonomic classifications “happy” and “crappy”. Granted, PETA almost always seems to give “cheers” to Pamela Anderson’s wearing of bras made out of lettuce and cabbage, and I although unable to compete with that journalistically, I’ll just do what I can.

I say a “layman’s” view because I’m not a packaging or product designer, or a material scientist or chemist (despite many in my family tree). This is just what I see, as a consumer and observer, as seemingly good and bad stuff going on in the world of things on offer. I don’t know how to do Life Cycle Analysis. I’m not, necessarily going to talk about purposefully, consciously green products (check out Inhabitat for that, it’s an awesome site) but just regular old stuff I see for sale or happen to come by one way or another.

OK, enough introduction.

Happy: Refillable Sharpies

Plastic pens drive me crazy. I love them, horribly, painfully, indefatigably, but I know they are wrong. I know I should be using my lovely heirloom fountain pen (which sips ink from glass bottles ever so daintily) all the time, and perhaps pencils and should stop buying any sort of non-refillable, non-recyclable, filled-with-god-knows-what-chemicals writing implements. I’m working on it. I put a moratorium on the number of such offending tools I’m allowed to have at one time (I get to fill the 4 jars on my drafting table and the 1 glass on my desk. When they’re full, that’s it). It’s hard for an artsy-fartsy/designer type person like myself. I was raised to love the fruits of the art and office supply stores. (My gentleman friend has been making his way through a 20-pack of Bics for the past 5 years or so… he still has lots left. He doesn’t own paperclips either, and is good at sitting still).

Certain pens, though, one needs. Or at least one thinks one does. So imagine how pleased I was to see, at the office supply store, (where I wasn’t buying anything, I swear) a refillable, stainless steel Sharpie marker! A return to refillable pens is certainly a positive step towards designing things we need with a systems mentality.

Now, that said, it doesn’t seem like Sanford (the manufacturer) is necessarily taking the refills back for reuse, recycling or anything else — and that’s not very systems-thinking at all. Indeed, their web marketing centers on the “luxury” quality of the pen, not any sustainability benefits. While a Material Safety Data Sheet is available for the product, it’s quite vague. It basically says you can huff Sharpies or write on your skin and eyes under “normal conditions”. And the ink is non-toxic. Doesn’t mean too much.

So this product is a “happy” in that it’s a baby step. Sharpies are popular and, dare I say, even seem trendy of late (since they started innovating in the product line so aggressively over the past few years), so it’s good to see them, perhaps, leading the way with a non-disposable product. Keep pushing that envelope! (Can a pen push an envelope?)

Crappy: Dixie Grab’N GO Cups

Also at the office supply store, and featured in a TV commercial that I happened to catch only to be shocked by its environmental callousness, are these disposable cups from Dixie. I’m not sure how new this product is, but the ad framed it as a clever new invention. It’s shocking a company would bring something like this out at this time (but I guess people still want it, and I guess Georgia Pacific, Dixie’s parent company has to do something with all those trees they cut down.(I’m not going to read their whole Sustainability Report and try to figure out whether they’re being cool or not… I don’t have the knowledge to really determine it fairly. You can read it if you want, though.) (And, full disclosure, I have used papers they manufactured for design projects in the past.)

At Staples, you can get 50 of these cups and 50 lids for $20. They’re touted (twice, in the 5 product benefit bullet points) as being a great alternative to “costly” double cups. Wait… a disposable paper cup is great alternative to two disposable paper cups? Well, I guess…

Bur really, in this day and age? Paper cups and plastic lids meant to last the duration of the morning commute, at best? Not cool.

Reusable hot beverage vessels are not that difficult to come by, deal with or know about. Their benefits are easy to understand. They can save not just 2 cups, or 1 cup, or 50 x 2 cups, but all the cups. You can even put a lid on a reusable hot beverage vessel.

Really. Why bring out this product now? Why encourage this behavior? The French would be appalled. (Well, actually, I believe most of the rest of the world is fairly flabbergasted at North American’s need to drink hot beverages while mobile… but I have to admit I like to make sure I have a coffee with me when entering potentially coffee-less environments, such as long meetings… especially as a non-milk-drinker, it is best to come equipped with your own pre-soy-milk-infused concoction).

Since I’ve bothered to go to the Dixie website to see what I can find out about this product, I would like to add, what’s with this web copy?

These are no ordinary cups. Just like you, Dixie cups work double-duty. They’re easy drinkware, for everything from tea for two to galas for gazillions. And they’re hygiene heroes, teaching kids the importance of rinsing with their own cup. And not just any cup. A Dixie cup.

That’s it…

Though a normal sort of “Cheers and Jeers” column would have 3 or so of each, I talk way too much. It would just get silly long. More for next time!

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17 February 2010

This is a pretty simple one. Well, I guess all the little apps I put on my list to write up are simple, only, once they fall into the pile of prolixity which is my mien, they may seem not so simple. But this one, really, it’s simple.

Today’s app is Free Ruler. It’s a ruler. You can get it here, for free.

How often have you been designing or coding up a website only to wonder, “how many pixels is that”? Or, how many times have you been working on something when someone, say, an art director type person in your life, asks, “Is that actual size?” and you realize you’re not really sure? Or, how many times have you been browsing the web and wondered how wide someone designed their site? How many times have you wondered just how many point that type you already turned to outlines in Illustrator is?

OK, I will admit you may have answered “zero times” to the questions above. But these were awkward situations and conundrums that once plagued me. Not so with Free Ruler trustily stowed in my dock!

You can drag it around your screen You can convert units. You can measure vertically or horizontally or both at once. You can make it more or less transparent. You can get it to tell you the exact measurement at the place you’re pointing your cursor. You can tweak it to give you accurate measurements for your actual monitor. You can lock it in place. You can get it to convert units for you. You can use keyboard shortcuts. And, it looks pleasingly like a ruler.

See, it was pretty simple. I use this thing a lot. Maybe you wouldn’t. That’s ok. I also really like metal drafting rulers with cork backs. But I can’t get those into my monitor.

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15 February 2010

I’ve had two reminders lately about the power and importance of feedback. They both sparked lovely little lightbulbs of goodness in my head, so I thought I’d share.


I was just listening to a conversation in the Gamechangers Roundtable series (which, by the way, I highly recommend), amongst Jonathan Fields, Chris Guillebeau, Pam Slim, and Reese Spykerman with Elizabeth Marshall and Sarah Robinson. Reese, the designer of the bunch, who’s always tweeting interesting and smart things and creates some really wonderful websites, said something at the end of the conversation that struck me. I’ll have to paraphrase, but it was something like this: The minute someone stops and engages with you, take time to think about it and appreciate it, because it is a gift.

How I internalized this — and I hope I’m not misinterpreting — is that when someone bothers to look at what you you do and then, goes on to bother to tell you why they like it, or what they like about it, or how it effects them, or anything along those lines, it’s vital that you concentrate, and listen to them, and appreciate back that they have taken time, out of their no-doubt busy life, to connect with you. They have gone one step beyond, probably several steps beyond, what was required of them. And have made the world, or your life at least, that much better.

Chock up one more point in the universe for EM Forster’s “only connect”.

This is a reminder, too, to reciprocate. When something strikes you, appeals, influences, challenges, inspires — jot its creator a note. Or say a kind word. It doesn’t have to be public, you don’t have to become part of the 3% (or whatever it is) of blog readers that actually comment on blogs. It can be an email, a call, an in-person conversation, a direct message on Twitter or Facebook, a card in the snail mail. Depends on the circumstances, your relationship and your proclivities. But don’t just think it, let them know. (Is that someone’s advertising slogan?)

This happened to me

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few days, actually. I know I’m detrimentally sensitive, but I was noticing what a big difference a kind word can make, even, or especially, in the world of work. (And the opposite is also true — despite my training, my “hardening” in art school critiques as a youth, one unkind word can ruin my day, or my feelings about a project).

I’m pretty embarrassed about this story, but I’m going tell it anyway.

This is what happened. Last August, I did a family portrait photo shoot for an acquaintance. The “client” knew I was busy with my design work and that photography isn’t my main thing, so she expressed a vague timeline for having photos in hand by “the holidays”.

“No problem,” I thought. It was summer. If the holidays start at the end of November, I have scads of time to edit the photos and get her a DVD. So I procrastinated a bit, but not horribly. It took me a couple months to edit the photos. But I finally finished and put up a website to show the client. I told her I’d be glad to send her a DVD of everything, so she could make Christmas cards, or whatever. It took her a little while to get back to me. She said she’d love a DVD.

That was about all she said. As I’m a bit insecure about my portrait photography (I’m really an artsy-fartsy alt-process pinhole kinda photographer, not one who does truly realistic, portraity stuff), I took her brevity to imply that she was disappointed with the shoot, but figured she might as well get copies of the photos, since she paid for them.

Feeling bad about the quality of my work, it took me a few weeks to put the DVD together and put it in the mail.

A week or so later, the client emailed to say that her daughter broke the DVD before she could load the photos, could I send another?

It took me a few weeks to do that. And then, that DVD arrived broken. Stupid me. I didn’t package it well. We went through the dance again, the client asked for a new dvd, it took a while, I sent another, this time well-packaged. A few weeks later, she got back to me. She received the DVD, but it wouldn’t work in her computer.

By this time, not just November, but Christmas had come and gone. I’d felt progressively worse and more and more lame with each DVD malfunction. I put together another DVD, tested it, packaged it in a ton of bubble wrap, included a card with an apology and sent it off again.

This time, not only did the client get a DVD she could work with, but she wrote back thanking me, saying the photos were beautiful and that she’d definitely be ordering some prints.

I’d been feeling awful about this whole project for almost six months. And with that one simple email, no more than 3 sentences in total, she blew away half a year of cobwebs and self-doubt.

I don’t relay this story to criticize my client in any way. If anything, I’m sure I’m the one who looks the worst through it all — unable to complete a simple task properly and keying my self-image to irrelevant external factors. She was just being succinct and businesslike. I was reading too much into everything.

However, what I learned from this experience, and why I related such a long boring story to you just now, is that it’s really important to give people feedback, especially good feedback. It’s important for me to do that for other people. Even if I think someone’s far more clever than me, with a much better developed ego that doesn’t need praise and reinforcement, give them a true, kind word anyway. How do I know how it will effect them? Certainly it couldn’t hurt.

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14 February 2010
A page from Medizinal Pflanzen (Koehler's Medi...
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I’ve had this recurring dream new and then, as long as I can remember: I suddenly realize I’m in another country, and the idea that I can go out and explore and see all new things and have all new experiences is the most magical feeling imaginable — akin to (but even better than) waking up on your birthday as a kid and knowing that all day, everything will be special and for you.

Sometimes, in the dreams, I’m going through the paces of some banal, day to day existence, in some familiar, expected place, when the revelation of where I am and how excited I am to go out and thoroughly experience my surroundings hits me with overwhelming, epiphanic force. It’s a sleeping wake-up call, reminding me that even the usual might be hiding some magic with the right spirit of adventure applied.

Sometimes, I wake up determined to begin to explore my own city, where I’ve lived for years, with the open eyes of a tourist. To visit the ends of town where I never go and see them as if they are exist in foreign territories I’m making my own by bringing them into the realm of my personal experience.


In high school, I don’t remember having a strict curfew. There was some specific time or other that I was supposed to be home, and certainly I was always to be easily located and accounted for (though luckily this was before cell phones were a glimmer in their parent’s eyes).

When I went off to college several hours away from home and lived in a dorm, I had an important realization: I could go out whenever I wanted. Granted, being shy and not a party-type person and living on a rural campus with no means of nighttime transportation, even into town, I didn’t really have anywhere to go in the traditional sense. It wasn’t that normal notion of teenage rebellion. Rather, the revelation was: If I want to get up at three in the morning and go climb an apple tree in the orchard and sit there listening to my walkman until the sun rises, I can.

It was a realization about freedom and autonomy. About making decisions, however unconventional, and that no one could tell me “no”.

My Mum

At the end of ten years of caring for her own aging parents 24/7, then several long overdue surgeries she needed, my mum was released from being a virtual prisoner in her own home. She realized that without the obligations and the debilitating pain of the previous ten years she had garnered a new freedom. But she was so out of practice, she didn’t even know what that meant.

In an effort to remind her that now should do whatever she wanted and be the master of her own life, I told her the story about sitting in the orchard in the middle of the night in college, because I could.

She said, “I’m surprised you didn’t get raped.”

Now, what kind of thing to say is that? This is no slight on my mum, she said it without thinking. She grew up in a more conservative time, in a more conservative way than me. She was never, necessarily, encouraged to embrace non-conformity in the ways she allowed me to. She grew up during the Cold War, when being conventional and living in fear and fatalism were de rigeur in polite society.

That said, she always tells me she lives vicariously through me. She always wants to know what I’m doing, not out of nosiness, but so she can imagine a freer life. It’s ironic, as I’m excruciatingly boring most of the time — I sit in a chair and design stuff at a computer. I go to meetings with clients. I have dinner with my gentleman friend. I play with the dog. I talk endlessly about the dog. But this is just a phase of my life at the moment. One where I get some shit together so I can move on and and more adventures.

I’m hoping, my mum will have adventures too. She’s starting to, now, a year after become free. It takes practice, for some of us, to get into the mindset. It takes our subconscious to remind us in dreams, or a remembrance of the impulsivity of youth.

You can do whatever you want. Go where you want, when you want. Even without money and time for real travel, you can explore the world with fresh eyes every day. You can wake up excited for the experiences the day holds instead of waiting subserviently for nuclear annihilation, real or metaphorical.

So see what you can do with apple-tree-climbing. You might wake up in another country.

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10 February 2010

This is a really old school topic. It’s so what I used to love to read in the paper version of Macworld 10 years ago. I always loved reading about the fun and productive add-ons you could could get for your Mac (and install with Font DA Mover! Remember?)

In honor of all that, I’d like to give some kudos to a few little Mac apps that make my life better. Since, apparently, I am exceedingly verbose, I will just write one up at a time, and make this an ongoing series.

Today’s gem is: MsgFiler:

This is a really simple plug-in for Apple Mail (did you know there were such things‽). It lets you use a keyboard command to file messages into mailboxes.

That may not seem that exciting to you, and if you’re a refugee from Outlook or someone who uses Mail in what I’ve been told is the “normal” way, it might not even make sense. But to me it’s huge. As far as I’m concerned, this little plug-in has single-handedly made me stop pining for Eudora (no pun intended… though that would be one geeky pun!), and that is no easy feat. I loved Eudora. Oh so much. I was such a “power user”. At some point though, after a few years of OSX, I decided my life would be simpler, less expensive and more compatible with my colleagues if I switched Mail.app.

The paradigm for most users of Eudora goes like this: all your incoming messages stay in your inbox. You click them to read them (I think there was a preview pane, but I never used it… I didn’t like having the messages be readable before I was ready like that). Once you’re done with them, and don’t want them in your inbox anymore, you hit Apple-F, for filter. With this one magic keystroke, Eudora would file all the selected messages into their permanent storage folders, however you’d chosen to set them up those folders and map characteristics of messages to them (using Filters). You could have a complex tree of clients, projects and friends, or just one big “read” folder. Whatever you wanted. Bye bye. Messages that need dealing with are in In, everything else is put away, according to sender or subject or date or whatever crazy methodology floated your boat. Oh, so neat and tidy.

But with Mail, setting up Rules makes the messages fly right into their assigned mailboxes by default when you receive them, whether you’ve read them or not. Sure, there’s a little blue dot to indicate there’s something unread in a folder, but who wants to go around reading things in all sorts of different folders and keeping track of what needs doing? I like having the things to deal with all in my inbox until I file them. I could do that, by not setting up rules that put things in mailboxes, but then I had to use my mouse to manually drag each message I was done with to its ultimate resting spot. And that was annoying, in a carpal tunnelly sorta way.

This drove me crazy about Mail for ages, until I found MsgFiler. It doesn’t work exactly like Eudora, in that you don’t set up filters ahead of time (which can be a time-consuming, and frankly endless task). Rather, you hit your chosen key-command (or Apple-Option-T to repeat your last task) and you get a list of mailboxes in which things can be filed. This works wonderfully if you throw everything, like I do these days, in one great big “read” folder and rely on searches to find old stuff*. I especially like the Apple-Option-T thing. Now I feel, properly like a Mail power user. Phew. One less thing to stress about.

MsgFiler is shareware. It costs $8 to buy, and certainly you should do that if you like it as much as me. Or half as much. It works with all those different Leopards. Get it here: http://www.tow.com/msgfiler/

* BONUS: Finding Stuff in Mail

You might be wondering how I can deal with throwing all old messages into a “Read” folder, when Mail’s find feature is somewhat notoriously wussy. Using the find field in the toolbar of Mail only allows you to input one criterion, which is usually a pretty useless way to find an email, if, for example the sender has sent you more than one, or more than one sender have sent you emails on the same topic, or, indeed, you don’t know or remember all the facts. This frustrated me for a long time. Luckily, somewhere I read this fabulous tip:

Create a Smart Mailbox (use the little + sign in the sidebar). Call it something like “Robust Searches”. Whenever you need to search on multiple criteria, edit this Smart Mailbox (right click or contol-click it and choose edit in the contextual menu). There you go. What a smart mailbox.

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7 February 2010
Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempe...
Image via Wikipedia

I caught the tail end of an interview with an author of a book about the Berlin Airlift on Bob Edwards Weekend this morning. He mentioned that because of the Airlift, Berliners thought of the American soldiers as “angels in uniform”. It struck me as a stark contrast with what’s going on today. It seemed a reaction to a governmental philosophy that reflects a better way to be, to live, to operate.

I’m not saying it’s not complicated. Along with keeping civilians in Berlin alive, we also bombed the hell out of their city (and of course, the German government was doing unspeakable things and dragging many of its people into it). The Airlift had a big propaganda component, too. But it also was the most ambitious humanitarian relief campaign in history, as far as I know.

Despite my undivided attention to Ken Burns’ The War, I don’t even know very much about it all. Indeed, I’m pretty sadly ignorant of the details of political history between about 1900 and 1980, though I have been learning.

I’m not sure anyone, especially not us everyday people, really knows much about what’s really going on with our present day government and its wars. Or undeclared wars. I don’t say this in a conspiracy-theorist kind of way, or even to be especially accusatory of non-transparency from the reigning administration. It’s just complicated, and much is kept under wraps for strategic reasons, and I don’t read a lot about international policy. I know we do provide humanitarian assistance to the war zones we’ve created of late (as well as to war/disaster areas that aren’t even our fault). But I don’t hear tell of Afghans or Iraqis or Pakistanis calling our military “angels”.

I should probably read the book Bob Edwards was talking about, and not speak out of my impressions of history and politics alone. But, it seems to me, that the Berlin Airlift was a big old going-beyond-the-call, giving to and helping of people because it is the right thing to do kind of event.

Not to belittle the horrors of war and the complicated nature of humanitarian aid campaigns, but I do think this has parallels with the smaller things. The decisions we make in day-to-day living. In fact, look at what Mr. Godin wrote today. It’s a little snarky, and he’s talking about business/marketing. But same thing.

I see it more and more, this realization that Giving (without expectations) is the way to be, the way to live. I’ve always been prone to act this way, but now, seeing it codified so much more often, it seems more and more important as a code of conduct. Not a gimmick, a lifestyle. And good things come of it — the universe is abundant, you know that. Don’t worry about the “getting” part. Don’t worry about reciprocation part. It will all work out. And way better than if you’d worried about it.

I think it’s really interesting that this has been infiltrating the world of business and marketing more and more. Interesting and good. A positive development. A lot of people (or corporations… or are corporations people?) don’t get it. But they’ll be forced to, eventually, or will become obsolete. At least that’s my hope. The fact that so many of my fellow entrepreneurs, designers, marketing gurus, business thinkers, activists, etc., do get it warms the cockles of my heart. Really. Makes me feel part of something positive and progressive and good. A movement. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or the Bauhaus. Idealists, yes, but I love idealism.

There are even books that try to explain this idea to more conventional (business) thinkers. Tim Sanders’ Love is the Killer App is written rather cloyingly, and can get slightly smarmy, but it makes a lot of good points — and importantly, “normal” people seem to understand it and get inspired by it. Michael Port’s Think Big Manifesto also has some of these qualities (though it’s a painfully repetitive read).

All of you out there who write blog or publish a zine or make art because you want to improve the world and give people cool, interesting thoughts and images — all of you designers, like me, who refuse to put more crap into the world, only pointful stuff — all of you who will sit and talk to someone over coffee for a couple hours and help them figure something out, and enjoy doing it — all of you who act out of compassion not expectation of returns — thanks! Let’s keep doing it. Let’s make this the movement. Let’s make this how we change the world and what we’re known for in history. I’m down with that.

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