Ted's Tidbits


We live in a very connected world. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from people only having phones at home to everybody carrying a cell phone. Half of the cell phones out there are smartphones which allow you to not only make and receive phone calls and exchange text messages, but you can also connect via email, Twitter, Facebook, and a long list of other “social” networks.

As a technology enthusiast, I’ve been an early adopter of these new ways to communicate. I’ve maintained a personal website since the late 90s. I think I had a livejournal sometime around 2002 and a MySpace some time after that. I joined Facebook in 2005 and Twitter in 2007. I also signed up for many of the now defunct (but superior) Twitter competitors (Pownce, Jaiku, etc.). I’ve used Brightkite, Foursquare, Gowalla, Google Latitude and other more “location-centric” networks.

When apps came to the iPhone in 2008, many of these networks became instantly accessible to me wherever I was. When push notifications came along, I became accessible to those services wherever I was.

It’s really quite incredible. The moment someone mentions my name on Twitter or posts to Facebook or checks in at a restaurant near me or sends an email to my Gmail, I’m notified. In some cases I can receive up to three notifications: my iPhone, my iPad, and my laptop. When breaking news happens, I can know immediately. Remember when the plane landed in the Hudson? We all had pictures of it on Twitter before the TV news reports even began.

And so, enamored with the apparent ability to know everything as it happens, I continued to sign up for more and more services with phone apps that can push information directly to me so that the incoming stream of information is so much that I can no longer process it. A great example of this is the new Twitter Mac app that has a live feed from Twitter. Every one or two seconds, a few more tweets scroll by. Not so fast that I can’t read them all, but fast enough that I could sit and read it all day and do nothing else. I realize that in my eagerness to embrace this connected future, I never bothered to step back and question whether this is a good thing.

Yes, I can be connected and notified immediately when anything happens, but do I want to be? The more I think about that question, the more convinced I become that this level of connectedness is more harmful than it is helpful. Last week, I turned push email off on both my iPhone and my iPad. Now, if I want to read email I have to go to my computer and check it. I’ve discovered that I haven’t missed much. I’ve also been distracted less than normal, which is nice. I’m now looking at other ways of continuing this trend.

I don’t want to completely unplug, but I definitely want to reduce the noise coming in, so that I can focus more on things that actually matter. I think a reduction of Twitter followers may be next. We’l see. I plan to chronicle my experiences here, so, if you care, stay tuned.

Ode to the Fair

The other day, when the air turned cool, I had the thought: “This is Fair weather!”  My husband, Ted, and I practically live at Fair Park for those 24 days of the Great State Fair of Texas.  People are always surprised by how often we go, saying things like, “There can’t be that much to do,” or “It’s the same every year!”  I dispute the first statement:  there is plenty to do.  The second statement is mostly true, but, I also think that is one of the reasons I love it so much.  When I breathe in the fried grease mixed with smells from the livestock pavilion, see Big Tex waving his hand and booming out a Hello, it’s like visiting a good friend you only see once a year.

Every year, Ted and I take off Friday to go to the Fair on Opening Day.  There’s nothing quite like beginning a celebration – and we definitely don’t want to miss it.  Most people think the Fair is only vomit-inducing rides and rip-off Midway games – but it is so much more.  Ted and I hardly spend any time on the Midway.  We don’t have time!  There are the pig races to see and the butter sculpture to ogle. The Vitamix demonstrations and the car show.  Open museums with new exhibits and African acrobats defying gravity.  Cooking shows to watch and searching for friends’ award-winning jellies in the Creative Arts building.  And the food – the glorious, decadent, completely unhealthy but totally worth it food.

If we did nothing else at the Fair but eat, I would be a happy woman.  I first have a round of all my favorites:  fried green tomatoes, a cinnamon roll (admittedly, I will have more than one round of this particular item), a barbecue sandwich from Smokey Johns, and my new favorite:  fried shrimp corny dog.  We, of course, must try all the new foods, especially the award winners.  Fried Frito Pie, here I come!  But sometimes the food vendors get a little too creative and come up with something I can’t stomach.  Sorry, Fried Beer, I won’t be tasting you this year.   However, last year’s most creative prizewinner, Fried Butter, was a surprising dose of comfort food.  I wish we could try every single food item, but alas, even attending all 24 days would not allow us to try them all.

The real joy of the fair is just soaking up the atmosphere.  The Fair, for us, isn’t so much a place to do as it is to be.  It’s a showcase of Texas culture and our exuberance for doing things BIG.  Everyone is here to have a good time, suspending any dower thoughts or harsh realities.  How can you frown while watching a hawk shoot out of the top of the Texas Star (the giant Ferris Wheel, for those of you squares who don’t know) and race above your head to the stage upfront – all while eating a corny dog and a Lemon Chill?

Sometimes the majesty of the fair can be too much.  The crowds are massive and the constant sun exhausting.  But even at the fair, there are places of reflective quiet.  After an exciting day of walking 9 times around the park and eating more in a day than I do in a week, I find solace in a little known spot – The Texas Discovery Gardens.  When the day is just turning into the first shadow of night, we’ll find a bench near the fountain to watch the casual butterfly float by.  We rest our tired feet and feel the cool mist from the fountain on our sunburned skin.  We talk over the day, the food we’ve had, the shows we watched, and the friends we unexpectedly ran into (which always seems to happen).  We sit and we remember, savoring the day, and feeling just a little sad that only 23 days are left.

My Prediction on Tomorrow's Apple Announcement

This morning I did a little research on all the Apple themed stories with the purpose of making an educated prediction about what Apple will announce tomorrow at their press event. As I looked into this and discussed the possibilities, I realized that there is no good way to accurately predict what will be announced tomorrow. Therefore, I will lean on the eternal wisdom:

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.

Proverbs 17:28

The illusion of my intelligence survives another day!

Zen TV Followup

Just a few notes and thoughts on changing the position of television in my life.

First, Megan and I spent some time talking about this last night, and one of the things we decided to do was to eat our meals at the kitchen table and not in front of the TV. We tried that tonight, and it was nice.

Second, I finished the experiment tonight. I actually sat down and watched the television for 30 minutes with it turned off. It was an interesting experience. At first, I focused on the TV itself. I noticed smudges and things stuck to the screen, that I hadn’t noticed before. Then, I started to realize that I was tired. My eyes began to blur. I had to concentrate to prevent that. Then, my mind began to wander. I noticed a set of dominoes on the shelf below the TV and wondered how long we had them. I thought of different ways the furniture in the room could be configured. I caught myself, and went back to the TV. I noticed the silence. I noticed the sounds of the house. Eventually the 30 minutes had passed.

Tonight I learned that my mind is actively focused and engaged while I’m watching TV because it doesn’t wander, my eyes stay focused, and I don’t feel tired. I also experienced wasting away 30 minutes and being acutely aware of every minute that I could have been doing something else.

Also, on a related note, what you see on TV is even more fake than you probably realize.

The Zen TV Experiment

If you watch television, you should take a look at this post. It’s a repost of an article that first appeared in Adbusters Magazine on the effects of television on individuals and society. It proposes four experiments to attempt at home. I did this, and I recommend you do it to.

1) Watch TV for 10 minutes and count the technical events.

What is a technical event? We've all seen TV cameras in banks and jewelry stores. A stationary video camera simply recording what's in front of it is what I will call "pure TV." Anything other than pure TV is a technical event: the camera zooms up, that's a technical event; you are watching someone's profile talking and suddenly you are switched to another person responding, that's a technical event; a car is driving down the road and you also hear music playing, that's a technical event. Simply count the number of times there is a cut, zoom, superimposition, voice-over, appearance of words on the screen, fade in/out, etc.
For this test, I watched the first 10 minutes of this episode of my namesake show. In that 10 minutes I counted 223 technical events, and then I realized I didn't count any audio effects!

2) Watch any TV show for 15 minutes without turning on the sound.

For this, I simply muted the volume on the same show and watched the remainder.

3) Watch any news program for 15 minutes without turning on the sound.

It took a while for me to find a recording of an actual news program online (I needed 15 contiguous minutes, and the news sites only offer clips) but I finally found this on Hulu.

4) Watch television for one half hour without turning it on.

I must admit that I haven't done this yet. I want to do the experiment, but I just haven't been able to bring myself to waste a half hour sitting in front of a turned off television.

So, What's the Point?

Well, the point is that television is messing with your mind. All the technical events that occur in a normal TV show make for a very disjointed set of scenes that we have trained our brains to assemble into a narrative.
Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind. You may have time out from prior obsessive thought patterns, but that's as far as television goes. The mind is never empty, the mind is filled. What's worse, it is filled with someone else's obsessive thoughts and images.

Watching the TV without the sound makes it more difficult to connect with the story and therefore easier to observe all the technical events occurring. Switching to a news program you realize that there are fewer technical events.

With fewer technical events the news show appears realistic relative to other shows in the TV environment. Further, it appears super-realistic relative to the commercial shows in this environment. As earlier, we witnessed the joining of technical events in a coherent narrative. Here, we witness the reduction of worldly events into a narrative.

I admit I haven’t yet stared at a blank TV for a half hour, but I imagine two things would occur to me. First, I would realize just exactly how long a half hour feels, and I would be bothered by the things I could be doing with that time. Second, I would see the TV for what it is, an object, instead of what it is not, a companion.

If one is alone in one's room and turns on the TV, one actually doesn't feel alone anymore. It's as if companionship is experienced, as if communication is two-way.

Again, So What?

This does make for an interesting, if not disturbing, academic discussion, but it is not fruitful unless a behavioral change occurs. I encourage you to make your own resolutions. As for me, I am making a deliberate effort to watch less TV. This is actually something I started doing a while back when we canceled our cable. There are still some shows I enjoy watching, and I will continue to watch them. I don’t think I’m going to start watching any new shows, and I’m definitely going to stop watching shows I find myself complaining about. To do otherwise would just be stupid. Tonight, for example, I elected to write this blog post instead of watching The Office or some other show.

Maybe one day I’ll stop watching TV altogether (although I have no plans to cease watching the Dallas Cowboys, no matter how frustrating of an experience that may be). I don’t want to bind myself to a statement I won’t be able to live up to. At least for now, I feel encouraged to read more.

Why is Technology Important?

Dave Winer just wrote a thought provoking piece (as he usually does) on the importance of technology. In it, he makes this assertion:

...Technology is important because it empowers people. That's where you start. Not in novelty or neatness, not in the fact that it changes things, because it might change things by disempowering. Change is not in itself a valid reason for anything.

This is an interesting statement because it appears to contradict itself. How can something both empower and disempower? And how can both of those be important qualities?

I like this statement because it describes what we’re trying to accomplish with TileStack. TileStack is important first because it empowers people to create their own applications. You don’t need a computer science degree to build an app, you just need a good idea. It is this fact that described how TileStack is disempowering software elite (for lack of a better term). These are the people that decide what’s best for people, and charge people for access to their software. These are the ISVs and consultants that charge large amounts of cash for custom projects. Technology like TileStack takes the power away from the elite and gives it to the masses.

NOTE: I know TileStack isn’t ready for primetime just yet, so we’re not as disruptive as I’d like to be. But watch out! We’re coming!

A Blast From the Past

A while back I lamented about the fact that the internet suffers from the same tear-down and rebuild mentality that plagues Dallas.  At the end of the post, I suggested that GeoCities could become the internet equivalent of a conservation district.  Well, that thought is dead as Yahoo closed GeoCities down earlier this week.

When I went by to pay my respects, I discovered a little treasure: I had a GeoCities page.  I think I set this up when I was in college so I could have a backup of my school website.  Anyway, I grabbed everything I could and put it up at tedchoward.com/geocities just for fun.

A disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed at tedchoward.com/geocities are those of past Ted and are not necessarily representative of current or future Ted.

Becoming a Pet Owner, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hank Dog

I’ve never considered myself to be a dog person. We didn’t have pets growing up. In fact, (I think enough time has passed where I can admit this without fear of ridicule) I was afraid of dogs when I was little. There were a few exceptions. Our next door neighbor had a dog in their backyard that I called Benji. (That may have been his real name, but I don’t really know.) My friend Joey had two dogs that I liked alright. Other than that, I didn’t really like dogs.

Megan, on the other hand, grew up with dogs. (That is to say her parents have always had a dog, not that she was raised by dogs). Naturally, once we were married, she wanted us to have a dog. Over time I warmed to the idea. I decided that it might be fun, but I wasn’t going to turn into one of those dog people.

In April, we brought Hank home. He was a 10-week old basset hound. Over the past six months I’ve learned a lot of the ins and outs of being a pet owner. I have adjusted my life to the annoyances of having everything chewed and slobbered. I’ve enjoyed his antics around the house. It’s a lot of fun to watch him play with other dogs. He like everybody and wants everybody to like him. He’s a natural politician.

All that is well and fine, but something else happened that I didn’t expect. To explain, I need to tell a story. When we got Hank, our vet pointed out that he has an overbite, and that we should monitor that because it could cause him problems later. Well, later arrived this month and there was a problem. His lower canine teeth were starting to poke into the roof of his mouth. After consulting with a veterinary dentist (Did you know they had veterinary dentists?!?) we decided to have those teeth pulled.

Yesterday morning I took him to the vet, and then left him there to have the procedure done. As I was leaving, I had a very funny feeling in my stomach. It was a pretty standard dental procedure, but I was feeling very anxious about Hank. I spent the day working at home, and all day I felt weird. I actually missed the little guy. The plan was for me to come get him that evening, but when I called them they told me he would have to stay overnight. That night, I was sad he was gone. I missed him. Even though I should have been happy I had a night without having my shoes chewed, without having plants from the back yard brought into my bedroom, without having gross dog slobber on everything. Last night was a very nice, relaxing evening, and I spent it feeling anxious about a dog!

I got up this morning and went straight to the vets to pick him up. It felt so good to see him, and to bring him home. He’s still got a lot of the anesthesia in him, so he’s been sleeping all day. But I keep going to the bedroom to check on him, and it makes me feel better knowing he’s home and ok.

So, what does this say about me? Have I become a dog person? I don’t know about all this, but I do know that I like the idea of having him around a lot better than not.

me and the hank dog

The Beautification of the Internet

I live in a historic neighborhood in Dallas.  The area has a certain charm and character to it quite different that what you find in new housing developments.  Most of the houses were built in the 1920s.  They have large front porches; many of them have swings.

A few miles away is another neighborhood, almost as old as this one.  There are a few houses from the same time period here, but most houses are new construction.  The older, smaller homes were torn down for newer, larger ones.  It is a nice neighborhood, but it doesn’t have the same character as my neighborhood.

The difference is that I live in a registered historic area.  Here, the homes cannot be torn down to be replaced by new construction.  All new construction must match the existing style.  In other words, significant effort has been put into preserving this part of our history.

The Web is like the other, non-protected neighborhood.  Many sites were built in the late 90s and early 2000s, but most of them have been torn down in favor of new construction.  In some ways this is a good thing.  Most of those early sites were ugly.  Bright backgrounds, blinking text, Comic-Sans font, and background music.  These are all things I do not miss.  But I fear that the character of the Web has been lost to the mass production of cookie cutter websites.

The sameness in design doesn’t bother me as much as the consolidation of the content.  When was the last time that you actually “surfed” the web?  I used to “sign-on” and then begin a journey of following links deeper and deeper down the rabbit’s hole.  The Web was a place where any crackpot with a computer could and would post their thoughts and ideas.  You could discover a topic and hit every site in that ‘web-ring.’  Today, one Google/Wikipedia search, and I’m done.

Today, we’ve traded out “Under Construction” icons for “Beta” tags.  Our web-rings have been replaced with “social bookmarks”.  Our home pages with guestbooks are now blogs with comments.  And although it may just seem that we’ve just swapped terminology, I think the Web has lost it’s charm and character.

I think we need a historic district for the Web.  A place to encourage new content, but it must match the style of a certain time period.  We should also find the old ‘classic’ web sites and relocate them to this district.  I also think there’s a place that’s perfect for this: GeoCities.  I’ll bet you didn’t know they were still around.  This could breathe new old life right back into the Web.  What do you think?