18 December 2011

Grumpy holiday guidance to fundraisers

I've been known to make donations to organizations or causes whose goals and efforts I support.  Sometimes, though, I have second thoughts about doing so, given some of the responses that well-intentioned generosity has engendered.  I don't know whether or how my reactions may be unusual, but doubt they're unique. In this year-end season, I thought I'd frame some of these concerns as if in an open letter to keepers of worthy causes, suggesting means that could make those causes more amenable to support.  Here goes.

Don't call me on the phone.  This is unlikely to achieve a positive result, no matter what time of day or how enthusiastic I may be about the cause involved.

"Annual" means once a year.  Attempts to solicit contributions described as being annual on a more frequent basis are likely to be recognized and rejected.

Thanks and requests don't mix well. A response to acknowledge a contribution is appreciated.  If combined with an additional solicitation, however, that leaves at least this recipient thinking that the original donation wasn't deemed and welcomed as sufficient.

A prior gift represents a likely midpoint for its successor range. Please respect and value the amount that a donor has decided to offer, and the fact that subsequent gifts may vary either above or below it for any number of reasons.  Please refrain from proposing specific desired amounts, or scales that lead only upward from a prior value.

Time-limited pledge drives are counter-motivating.  I hope and expect that a contribution made outside a particular advertised window can still be useful and appreciated, and am unlikely to be motivated by the end of a calendar or fiscal year, by an ephemeral matching offer, or by interruptions to broadcast programming.  In fact, I'm sufficiently contrarian so as to be more likely to make donations outside such designated cycles.

Thanks for reading.

05 November 2011

A World Lit Only by Flashlights

I was one of the hundreds of thousands (or was it millions?) who lost electricity during the recent unseasonally early snowstorm in the US Northeast.  I only saw about 5-6 inches, but that was enough to weigh down leafed trees and pull down lots of wires.  We had an unusually dark night thereafter, which may have been one of the few times I can recall sitting at home with eyes open and becoming solidly dark-adapted. Brilliant, by Jane Brox gave a compelling picture of how the advent of available-on-demand light changed society; it was a startling reminder to have a few inches of snow swing the status quo back to a temporary darker age where illumination was faint and had to be hoarded and carried rather than conveniently switched.  Learned instincts failed, as familiar switches located upon entry to rooms proved ineffective. Pre-electric winter nights must have been long and black, far beyond common contemporary experience. I've renewed my appreciation for the power grid, and for its timely restoration.

19 October 2011

Why should printing be hard?

It's not always irremediably last-millennium to render something from bits onto paper, at least in my opinion. To carry some information for one of those increasingly rare moments offline, perhaps.  Or, to put on the wall.  Perhaps even to read and mark up with different ergonomics than on a screen.  Increasingly often, though, I find that printing just doesn't work, or doesn't work usefully.  Several times, I've printed driving directions from an online service, only to find that the thoughtfully provided map (fine onscreen) emerges overprinted with a block of solid color, as if the route has been redacted or censored - not the most useful result for navigation.  Browsers, web pages with frames, and printers still don't seem to coexist constructively, even after years. Last night, we tried to print a few 4x6 photos.  Two printers didn't feed the paper correctly, but we finally extracted a few images with unexpected colors and irregular margins.  Other times, documents fail or disappear silently when crossing the hostile waters of a local network, never to be rendered. File storage (fortunately) doesn't seem to have as many comparable problems.

Have I motivated this rant yet?  I'm wondering now about why printing should so often be problematic.  Device flaws are part of the problem, but I think it's broader than that. Is it that paper is old, untrendy, and that technical trend setters aren't generally as focused on integrating well with it?  If you're always at a screen, does this define your assumption for what others will want to do as well, and hence your priority for what's most important?

25 September 2011

Exposures bracketing a day

I spent a couple of days on Cape Cod, which reminded me that there aren't so many places well suited to seeing both sunrises and sunsets. An unobstructed ocean view to the horizon is ideal, but geography doesn't usually provide those conveniently in both directions from one place.  The US East Coast was suited for early-to-rise lookouts, awaiting ships crossing the feared North Atlantic from Europe. Today, Long Islanders commute to New York opposite the sun's glare on Sunrise Highway. The Pacific, true to its name, provides a base for beach volleyball later in its day, and for Sunset Magazine.  Both sides have their early and late dog walkers and photographers, but whether the sun's showcase occurs at the beginning or end of the day may influence local culture more than we sometimes realize.

25 June 2011

More Information Than You Desire

As I write this, I'm on a train, a transport mode which I often prefer and use when practical.  It's running on time, which isn't unusual though is hardly universal.  In a prior era, I'd have had a quiet morning, just arriving comfortably ahead of departure.  Now that we're in the web era, though, I'm able to check information about this train ahead of time. And, about other trains that might affect it. And, since I'm able to check, I feel that I should.  And, since I did, I found that trains a couple of hundred miles away on the line had been disrupted earlier.  And, earlier, it wasn't apparent whether or when this would be resolved.  Gasp!  I might not reach my destination as intended.  Time to purchase an alternate itinerary, only partly refundable.  Check again.  Still no web information confirming departure.  Arrive at station.  Normal departure, the agent tells me. Received with welcome surprise but still some skepticism. Board train, cancel alternate itinerary wirelessly.  I'm smoothly on my way just as I would have been if I hadn't checked online, only with more preliminary angst.  Online access sometimes brings more data, and sometimes offers more useful control, but can also lead to innovative goose chases that wouldn't have arisen otherwise.  A mixed blessing.

13 May 2011

Do they, now?

I see this AP headline on the NYT and wonder how long it'll be before it's revised:
"NW has Too Much Dam Power, Plans Wind Power Halt".  (At least for now, at this link.)  Yes, it's about hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, but it's so easy to infer a fourth letter...

24 April 2011

Another bird for the blog

A wood duck.  Bright color contrasts can be good for disguise, as long as you select the right places to show them.

31 March 2011

Ah, those were the Times...

Having a fascination for obscure history, as demonstrated below, I was delighted to see a Slate article reference leading, in turn, to David Friedman's annotated selection of century-old New York Times magazine articles.  Mooing cows as music?  Growing giants at will?  Incapacity for leisure?  Who knew? 

26 March 2011

Radiation in graphic context

Randall Munroe, esteemed keeper of xkcd, has posted an illuminating graphic placing the radiation doses that result from different events and activities (across many orders of magnitude, including banana ingestion and reactor core meltdown) into context.

06 March 2011

Strolling by Cogniac Street

I recently read a fascinating account of some little-known history, Stephen Mihm's "A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States" (Harvard University Press, 2007, paperback 2009.)  Before the Civil War, paper money was issued and circulated on behalf of numerous banks, whose quality varied from sound to weak to wholly fictional.  Absent national uniformity and rapid communications, it was very hard to determine whether a particular bill was legitimate or valid, opening up opportunities for many fraudulent activities, whether copying, modifying, or fabricating currency.  (The Cogniac Street of this post's title, e.g., refers to a road across the Canadian border, in a then-remote area of Quebec, on which most inhabitants were alleged to be involved with counterfeiting enterprises.)  In an environment where banks often failed, there wasn't uniform consensus that banks' notes should be respected and accepted, or that a counterfeiter's creation of money was necessarily less valid than a bank officer's action in doing so.

In response to the chaotic situation, a number of subscription "detector" services developed, providing information to be used to detect false bills in reaction to observed counterfeits.  There's an analogy to the lists that were once printed and distributed (are they still?) to list invalid credit card numbers, but many of the detector criteria were more subtle or ambiguous than the presence or absence of a number on a list.  Further, the detectors' quality was itself compromised by conflicts of interest; for example, publishers were sometimes engaged in brokering the redemption of notes from distant banks, so could benefit by lowering the ratings of sound bills in order to obtain them at discounts.  In any case, the detector business depended on continuing uncertainty as to whether a new and unfamiliar bill should be trusted, and sought to reassure its subscribers with periodic updates providing a form of independent validation.  In a sense, it acted as an anti-malware service in the context of early 19th century financial networks.

PS: I see now that Mihm's book is currently #586,833 on the Amazon.com Bestsellers Rank list.  Long live the Long Tail!

19 February 2011

On being surveyed

Increasingly, I find merchants (both physical and on-line) and services actively asking to survey me about my reaction to their offerings.  I respect the motivation to tailor and improve what's presented to customers, and appreciate that the data has to come from somewhere, but it sometimes can become irritating and unproductive.  Is it really likely, for example, that I'd be able or enthused to submit a review of something like a printer ink cartridge?  Was it unique, the best one I've ever had the opportunity to use, yielding those special black tones that made my resume stand out from others and opening new doors of personal opportunity?  It seems unlikely, or even that many other purchasers would have much that's special to report about a fairly generic item.  (Disclosure: I haven't checked for purchaser reviews of ink cartridges before writing this.  Maybe there are many.  Maybe even an active forum of ink cartridge connoisseurs.)  Seriously, it's hard to see the motivation and value of soliciting comments on topics where there's unlikely to be much to say.  

26 January 2011

And, the most important item is...

It was unusually cold a few days ago, and a local media source was advising the public about how they should prepare before going out in their cars.  They referred to traditional items like ice scrapers and windshield washer fluid, but I was interested to note their stress on one particular piece of equipment as more important than others: a charged cell phone. This makes a lot of sense, so as to be able to summon emergency assistance. On the other hand, it doesn't say much if your goal is self-sufficiency in an emergency.  I don't think most cell phones would work effectively to clear windshields, though they could be useful to obtain weather forecasts. 

09 January 2011

Two years of books

Two years of completed books, 2009-2010. I've been keeping these logs
for some time now, and have often found it interesting to review them to
see what I've read and to recall some of my motivations and reactions.  It's another view on a personal empire of interests, a mix of highbrow, lowbrow, sidebrow, and nobrow, and maybe a challenge case for a "you liked this, so you might also like that" algorithm. I count 48 books over 24 months, but my average consumption rate has a high standard deviation and is probably trending downwards given competition from other media and activities.  Still, finishing a book represents a form of completed commitment and offers a metric to observe.  If any readers here would like to comment about books cited here or to provide "if this, try that" suggestions, please do.

Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Brendon.
The Wrecking Crew, Frank.
Thames, The Biography, Ackroyd. (More mystical in parts than I'd prefer.)
The Forgotten Man, Shlaes.
House of Cards, Cohan. (Bear Stearns crash and history. Good, but
sometimes technically obscure.)
The Man Who Smiles, Mankell. (Good mystery.)
The Media Relations Dept. of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday,
MacFarquhar. Engaging and insightful, and one of the more fascinating
titles that I can recall.
Before The Frost, Mankell.
Origins of the Specious, O'Conner.
The Toothpick, Petroski.
The Dogs of Riga, Mankell.
Julie and Julia, Powell.
The Aggressive Conservative Investor, Whitman & Shubik. Some interest,
but also appeared somewhat dated. Deprecates total return investment.
Return of the Dancing Master, Mankell. Very good.
Spoken Here, Abley. Well-done travels among endangered languages.
Manias, Panics, and Crashes, Kindleberger. Classic and authoritative.
The Man who Loved China, Winchester.
The First Tycoon (Vanderbilt), Stiles.
The Devil's Picnic, Grescoe.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton. Thoughtful and witty.
The Lost Art of Walking, Nicholson.
Rogues' Gallery (Metropolitan Museum, NYC), Gross. The discussion of later years seemed more focused on society gossip than on the museum itself.
A Splintered History of Wood, Carlsen.
Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, Kohnstamm.
The Ground Truth (9/11), Farmer.
An Arctic Voyage, Carter.
The Last of His Kind (Bradford Washburn), Roberts.
Traitor to His Class (FDR), Brands. VG.
The Match King (Kreuger), Partnoy.
The Technical Culture of Ham Radio, Haring. A sociological remainder.
Italian Shoes, Mankell. Sometimes odd, but moving novel.
Inventing Niagara, Strand. Intriguing.
Birds of Concord, Griscom, Fascinating changes over decades. I picked up a
well-annotated copy in a used bookstore some time ago, and this is one
of the few cases where I've appreciated comments added to a book other
than by the author.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux. Worth savoring.
Panic!, Lewis. Good collection.
Too Big to Fail, Sorkin. Long, informative, and engrossing.
Brush Cat, McEnany.
To Hellholes and Back, Thompson.
The Big Short, Lewis. Riveting and insightful.
The Last Fish Tale, Kurlansky.
Red House, Messer. Engrossing.
Grounded, Stevenson, Fun, short.
Idiot America, Pierce. Good.
Brilliant, Brox. (very good, history of light)
To Rule The Waves, Herman.
Dark Genius of Wall Street (Jay Gould), Renehan.
Enemies of The People, Marton.
At Home, Bryson. (Engaging. More quotable points than maybe I've seen assembled in any one book.)

08 January 2011

Thanks, great bird, for standing still!

On New Years' Eve, I was walking along a snowy trail, having seen few other creatures larger than chickadees, when I was startled to see this heron perched on a bridge.  It didn't seem fazed at all by my approach, and I'm sure that I found it more interesting for the next several minutes than it found me. (To me, it was a rare chance for a close-up portrait; to it, I must not have appeared relevant in either the food or threat category.) When a couple of other humans arrived nearby, this may have been too much, too close, and then it flew. 

02 January 2011

Streak planning for the well-annotated calendar

This JPL link has a convenient writeup about meteor showers through 2011.