Working as a teamFri, 29th Feb '08, 11:55 pm::
Last Sunday when I woke up lazily around noon after a long kayaking trip the previous day, my partner-in-chime-and-crime, Tay showed me a new site he was working on. He has been going to the South-by-South-West (SXSW) Music & Film festival in Austin, Texas for a number of years now and has managed to make a name for himself by making easy-to-use-and-print calendars for the event. SXSW features over three thousand music shows and hundreds of film premiers, along with hundreds of interactive conferences and panels over the span of ten short days. For the twenty-five thousand people that go to SXSW each year, deciding where to go is a hectic process because so many interesting events are taking place at the same time in downtown Austin. The last thing you want to do is miss your favorite band or a book-reading by your favorite author because you were stuck at a boring party and didn't know what else was going on just around the block.
This year, I'm going to SXSW with Tay - March 7th - 16th. I saw the new design for his schedule and immediately wanted to help turn it into a wonderful, easy-to-use, auto-updating event-planner. Thus Sched.org was born. Every evening after work this past week, Tay and I worked on refining the design, layout, features, and content of Sched.org. We launched the site early this morning and already have over 200 users signed up for 4000 events. Frankly, all we wanted to do was make a neat way to find what events (films, music shows, discussion panels, and parties) were worth going to. So it's pretty amusing that not even 12 hours after launch, we're being considered among the SXSW Breakout App of 2008 contenders and getting some props.
The way I see it, I hopped on to Sched.org (I picked the name by the way - go me!) was to accomplish two things. First, make sure my ten days in Austin will be exciting and memorable (here's my incomplete sxsw schedule). Second, and more importantly, get in the groove of working in a fast-paced project development mode with Tay. I've worked on many projects online with a lot of people but over the last four years, my professional rapport with Tay has continued to improve and strengthen like no other. It's not all bunnies and butterflies because we disagree on a lot of fundamental design and business points of view. However, the fact that we always come to an agreement that actually works better than our own personal choices, is why it's always a pleasure to work with him. Simply put, I want red and he wants green. We yell at each other for 10 minutes and in the end one of us picks yellow and we both immediately say "That's perfect!"
Just like Chime.TV, our newer projects aren't about making yet-another-typical-website. Both of us are too lazy to make something that already exists, even if it's not free. Consequently, it doesn't matter to me personally whether every tiny app we build goes gold and garners publicity, though positive feedback is always wonderful. What does matter is that in the end, we feel proud of what we made and manage to help a bunch of people in tiny little ways. Here's to Sched.org and a hundred more creative deviances in the future!
Last night at 11:30pm, I got home from a superb kayaking trip with 60 paddlers down in the Florida Everglades. I found out about the trip on the Green Wave forum and immediately decided I'm going. Friday evening after work, I got home, strapped my kayak on to my car, packed some food and clothes, and headed South. I never have to pack anything other than food and clothes because everything I could never need for camping and kayaking is already in my car at all times - US/Florida Atlas, tent, sleeping bag, pillow, beach chairs, beach umbrella (eh eh eh), kayak paddle, seat, straps, paper towels, and a plastic bucket for wet clothes and trash.
I passed Everglades City at about 11pm and found my camping site in a few minutes. I setup my tent and went to sleep. I could hear frogs croaking all night in the wilderness. I woke up at around 6:20am and drove over to the Everglades Park Range Station kayak ramp near the south tip of Everglades City and met a bunch of people putting in at the same time. We paddled about 6 miles to Indian Key out in the Gulf. We meandered to many a coves along the way, catching glimpses of porpoises, herons, and ospreys. Linzy, Lindsay, and I walked around the island and saw an amazing number of whelks, conchs, tulip shells, and dried corals. There was a big lunch grill but I don't like to eat much during long hauls. After lunch, we paddled for a few miles, found a small strip of sand on a mangrove island, and shored our kayaks. A quick dip in the water cooled us three down for the rest of the paddle. We got back to the put-in at about 3:30pm. I went back to my camping site, showered, checked out, and headed back to Triad's in Everglades City for dinner.
It was pretty neat talking to a bunch of young and old kayakers about their favorites places to paddle to. I sat across from a retired captain and his daughter Jen. Many of the older kayakers are into paddle-fishing and while that's something I don't do, it was still interesting to hear them talk passionately about it. I met a few guys that actually designed these kayaks and write articles for kayak magazines. The funny thing was that I've been to more places than many of the seasoned pros mainly because I like going to a new place every time. Oh and the old captain paid for my dinner and I didn't even know or got a chance to thank him! They left early so later when I asked for my check, the waitress said "oh you're paid for."
I drove home, threw the trash, hung out the wet clothes to dry, and went to bed. Today will be yet another lazy Sunday.
My first HD video is finally online after hours of editing: Kayaking down the Chassahowitzka River. Click on the 'Full' button for the highest resolution. I'd say even after just one video, I have learnt a lot of things that will make my next video better.
Ten things I learnt after my first nature/documentary-style video:
- Dont talk about useless stuff i.e. keep mumbling to a minimum.
- Take slow, long shots. Preferably move instead of just panning.
- Don't zoom. Instead, take a clip, stop, zoom, take another clip.
- If you said something wrong, retake entire clip.
- Make sure there are no annoying noises in the background. Dubbing takes a lot more effort.
- Feel free to take multiple shots of the same thing.
- Don't even bother to shoot scenes you will edit out anyway, like four blurry minutes of sea gulls flying around.
- Don't turn 180 degrees unless it is shaded in all directions because the sun will mess with the lighting.
- Dont make girly motions with hands no matter how secure you are in your manliness.
- Speak more clearly, slowly, and do not start EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE with "So..."
I'd say my next video will definitely be more interesting. I am more than satisfied with the quality and performance of my new $200 Kodak Z812IS. I believe in upgrading my equipment when I truly outgrow it. For now, there is no camera in the world that can improve my video editing skills. Nor will any video editing software help me with impromptu dialog delivery. I used a trial version of Sony Vegas to edit the 70+ Quicktime H.264 movie clips that my camera shoots to natively and if my next video editing session goes well, I will certainly buy the software. Video editing is fun!
I swam with four Manatees in the wild today at Chassahowitzka River while kayaking. Here are my Chassahowitzka River photos, though none of me and the manatees - yet. A nice lady kayaking nearby saw me in the water and took some snaps. She said she'll email them to me by Monday. I have my fingers crossed.
I knew manatees were friendly but I had grossly underestimated their cuteness. Without me doing anything, one of the manatees approached me and started sniffing my legs underwater with his snout. Then he held my left hand between both his flippers and started nuzzling my hand! Another one came up and put his neck over my hand so I could pet it and then turned over so I could rub his belly. I swam around in the water for almost twenty minutes and one of them kept following me wherever I went. He was like a huge kitty just looking for some cuddles. I've heard of people swimming with captive manatees at places like Sea World but today when I put in my kayak at 7:45am, I had no clue I would get to swim with these gigantic lovable creatures out in the wild. Their skin feels just like an elephant's and they have a soft snout that they lift just an inch above the water surface to breathe.
One thing to always remember is that because of the Endangered Species Act, you are not allowed to touch manatees with both your hands at the same time and neither are you allowed to chase after them. The best thing to do is just stand in one place like I did initially and let them come to you. Then after a while you can move about slowly and let them chase you if they are interested. While inside my head I was extremely excited about the experience, when I was in the water, I did my best to be gentle and calm. Nature isn't like a staged show with trained dolphins jumping around. Wild manatees cannot become too tame or else they will suffer out in the ocean so human contact should be minimal and infrequent for their own sake.
Last time I kayaked was in September - 26 miles on the Suwannee - and when I went back into the water today, I really wasn't expecting much. I was hoping to take some good pictures and maybe a couple of short videos in HD. But the whole swimming-with-manatees experience was completely out of this world. I've kayaked and surfed with dolphins before but today's swim tops all of that. Now I'm going to try to edit the 73 HD clips (almost 45 minutes) I filmed today into one short video.
Me yesterday. Me today. Also my new Kodak EasyShare Z812 IS camera just arrived yesterday. It's an 8 megapixel camera with 12x Optical Zoom and shoots HD video in 1280x720 resolution. I'm still waiting for the 8 GB SD Card so I can actually start using it to its full potential. Right now on the default 32mb internal memory, I can barely get it to take a few pictures. The camera and SD card including shipping & handling were under $250. Beat that!
Also notice the top bar above where I added a new button: my videos - click it anytime to see all the videos I shoot on my new camera. Yes, finally in 2008 I have managed to figure out how to upload videos online so others can see. So far I've upload two videos of my kitties with really bad background music and one ten-minute long video of me indoor-skydiving. Hey, I never claimed to be the next Kurosawa. It's kitty and kayaking videos from now till the end of time as far as I'm concerned.
Anti-Green BandwagonSat, 9th Feb '08, 1:25 am::
Green-Green-Green: Who doesn't like saving the environment? We humans have the audacity to pretend like we can "save" a planet with mass of 6 trillion-trillion kgs (that is six followed by twenty-four zeros) while we cannot even figure out an affordable way to harness solar power. Yet every company is now trying to be green. When a company goes "green" what they are really saying is that "from now on, as we continue to plunder the natural resources of a geological area like we have been for the past two centuries, we will print lots of pamphlets and brochures to show you exactly what used to be here so you can feel less guilty about buying our products."
Behind the brilliant feel-good marketing strategy is the plain and simple truth that production of any kind requires resources and despite every attempt to use renewable resources, in the end the environment is worse off. The only way to absolutely not harm the environment is to not live in a civilized society and wander around in small herds picking berries and hunting wild boars. I tried that once and while I would not recommend it, it was still better than my trip to Disney. So where is the happy, sustainable medium between blowing up the coral reefs and foraging for wild fruits? It is somewhere nobody wants to be. It is the no-electricity, no-Internet, no-running-water, no-healthcare, no-mass-production world that over half the population of the world wants to rise up from. The drought-ridden populace of Africa is sustainable, the flourishing Scandinavian or Latin American world is not, let alone United States, Australia, and continental Europe. As long as every single person in the planet strives to achieve a decent standard of living, there is absolutely no way to save the environment.
When the dear old grandma in the heartland of China wants to get running water, someone has to make the water pipes, tap, electric pump, power lines, and a billing system to measure how much water she uses. No matter how green each of the companies that produce these items are, they are magnitudes away from an earthen-pot filled with water from the nearby stream. Nobody wants elderly women to break their backs and suffer due to the lack of clean water but that is the cost of actually going green.
Driving bicycles instead of monster trucks is a good start but it still requires metal foundries, plastic fabricators, heavy machineries, and electricity and fuel to drive it all. Add to this the physical buildings that employees work in and the entire construction industry that built it all up. You can go from a truck to a cycle but you cannot go from consumption to no-consumption. If the companies truly want to go green, they should say "stop buying out products, and if you do, use them for as long as you can even if that kills our growth."
Despite every attempt to save the environment for the children of the 6.5 billion people on this planet today, we cannot do so while promising everyone a good standard of living. Even if we magically get a free never-ending renewable source of energy tomorrow, we will still have to dig up mountains and cut-down forests to supply the entire world with rocks, minerals, metals, wood, and habitable lands. That was fine when there were 10 million people on the planet but for 1000 times that population, there will be no green way out. There is no green solution to this problem because civilization and nature by their very definition are completely opposite. If we go too far in favor of civilization, we ruin nature. If we go too far towards saving nature, we ruin people's lives.
Pretending like we can achieve a healthy balance, which is what most companies going green seem to claim, is like saying "despite every single thing we do that inadvertently ruins the environment, let us cut back marginally in some instances and thump our chests loudly, proclaiming that it is a big deal." The entire movement of going green is a band-aid to the systemic cancer that is central to this whole issue - too many people wanting too many things. If every single means of production today went perfectly green, it would not achieve even a small percentage of what a moderate decrease in demand would.
So without running off into the wild, what can an environmentally-friend person do? Firstly, realize that no matter what you do, you are absolutely positively harming the environment by simply existing. The very fact that you breathe out carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, adds a tiny tiny bit to the problem of global warming. Secondly, accept that since you are part of the environment and have chosen to live a civilized life, there is no point in pretending that you can in any way, save the environment. No, don't even think about it. You are killing it just like I am, so please stop acting like you are in any way better than an SUV driver who eats baby pandas for breakfast. You and he use magnitudes more resources than the dear old lady in China as you both drive on the same roads, live in houses made of same materials, and shop in the same kind of big box grocery stores.
Even if you consume one-third of the fuel an average person uses, that is still infinitely more than not using any resources at all. Moreover, the fuel and resources you use may not be directly visible to you. For instance, the pain-relief medication you take that the SUV driver does not have to, was brought to mass-production at a cost of over a billion dollars, millions of which were spent on manufacturing equipment, printer paper for documentation and promotional purposes, a decade of clinical trials combined with laboratory testing on cute fuzzy lab rats, and intensive medical, quality, and safety training for all personnel involved in the entire chain. So stop trying to think that you are saving the environment while not doing anything substantially different from any other around you. Third, and this is the only one you have some control over, stop buying things you do not need and can live without. Replace real-life versions with online-versions. Loading a web-page of a news-article uses less resources than the same article in a printed magazine. Be careful here as this is the part that exemplifies the primary trade-offs between civilized and hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Should you read books printed on paper or idle away all night watching the stars? Should you stay at home and brush your hair all day or travel 1400 miles away to attend a film festival? A well-traveled, well-read, well-dressed person is bad for the environment by the very acts that defines them. So pick wisely. And most importantly, stop buying the "we love the bunnies and rainbows" marketing spiels by every company that is just trying to raise their quarterly sales figures.
Say a company sells 100 widgets at a cost of five dead penguins to the environment. Now they go green with 40% improvements in efficiency and only choke three penguins for the 100 widgets. If their green marketing strategy works and sales double from 100 to 200 widgets, they are now offing six penguins as opposed to five before. It does not matter if percentage-wise they are doing much better - environment works in absolute terms. They have one additional dead penguin AFTER going green because of a rise in the demand for their product. If they stole business from other non-green companies that desecrated seven penguins for each 100 widgets, it is indeed a net absolute-gain for the penguin population however, with a marginal rise in demand for their widgets over time as a result of their effective sales campaigns, they will be back to the old pre-green dead penguin total. The only thing going green can do is slow down the damage for a very short term. And that is basically what everything from the carbon-offsetting scam to food-as-fuel is all about - making negligible environmentally-friendly advances in the near-term so as to downplay the inherent crisis of incessant resource abuse that is paramount to our way of life outside self-sustaining hamlets.
Cities like those in Europe can plan better public transportation systems and encourage bicycle use but they cannot promote negative growth. No municipality organization wants people to move out of their city to go live in villages because that would mean lower tax-revenues and negative local GDP. Every public or private planning commission in-charge of saving the local flora-fauna has the primary goal of infusing growth while ensuring minimal direct damage to the natural landscape. That is akin to a doctor who rubs alcohol on a death-row inmate before emptying a syringe full of lethal chemicals. There is no balance that can be achieved in the long-term if the axiomatic goal is to favor the destructive course of action over the non-destructive one.
The brightest, most-compassionate minds of today are striving to achieve this balance between standard of living and preventing environmental abuse. Try as they might, the only real solution will come about naturally and at a tremendous cost to humanity sometime in the future. Recurring episodes of the traditional Malthusian Catastrophe have forever ensured that whenever the population grows beyond their own ability to feed and fend for themselves, there is a sharp rises in mortality rates that in the end, bring down the numbers to sustainable levels. Bluntly put, nature takes care of over-population by killing a large number of people. It could be the starving kids in Sudan or an infectious pandemic in a densely populated metropolis; advances in technology can go far in delaying this eventual catastrophe but they can never prevent it forever.
Prof. Albert Bartlett, a modern-day Malthusian or in other words a cynical, practical economist like me, often explains how the term "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron. He is the true genius that famously stated one of my favorite quotes of all time, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." I wrote all of the above before reading his thoughts on long-term energy supplies (pdf). From the very beginning, I was quite careful about what I wrote as the last thing I want to do is sound like a pessimistic doomsday fearmongerer. But having read his article now, I feel oddly vindicated that my line of thinking was pretty much similar to his - too many people needing too many resources. He has a garnered lot of criticism, especially for voicing that over-population is to blame for depletion of resources. I usually try to stay away from the same claim mainly because the moment you mention "population control," people think of communist regimes mandating abortions on women with more than one child.
On the two sides of every debate, is a realist and an idealist. The realist sees how things are and calls a spade, a spade. The idealist reads the numbers and has a gut feeling that things are wonderful and will get better regardless of all the glaringly obvious problems. Idealists are great for leading daring expeditions in uncharted waters. Realists are great for making policies that minimize the gap between the number of single males and the number of single females in a country, so as not to cause a major uprising by the male denizens who cannot find a wife. Similarly, people can observe the status of the world as it is today, exponentially growing population with an arithmetically growing energy supply, and come to their own conclusions as to what will eventually happen. Will the go-green fad actually prove its effectiveness or will we continue down the road of oil wars and deforestation-related droughts and famines? You are welcome to let me know what you think.
Advertising AnnoyancesFri, 8th Feb '08, 10:20 pm::
There are a lot of things about advertising that annoy me but usually I shrug them off as necessary evils in a consumption-centric society. Advertising increases sales, ramps up production volumes, helps industries benefit from economies of scale, and usually raises the standard of living for everyone involved in the supply chain. However, there are more than a few products and marketing shticks that solely exist to insult and infuriate me and every person smarter than a potato. The fact that people actually buy these products in droves only reinforces my pet theory that humans evolved from dodos. Here are a few of my advertising annoyances, with my biggest one at the last:
- Water with low-calories: Let's get this straight. Water has ZERO calories. If water has calories, it's not water - it's either juice, lemonade, or really dirty water. So those Propel ads promising healthier water are as much a load of junk as the spam emails for v1Agr@. Either drink water or drink fresh juice. There is no "healthy" water.
- Seasonal Marketing: This is one of those absolutely necessary evils because you can't really sell diamonds on Halloween or snow shovels in summer but there is nothing more annoying than seeing one jewelry ad after another, each trying to prove that there is no love without diamonds and gold. Similarly, this being the season for filing taxes, every tax software ad claims that by using their service, I will get a refund check so big my friends will stand by in amazement as if I won a lottery. Stop treating me like I am stupid.
- Prepaid cards: Paying companies 100% of your own money in advance for a debit card that you or someone else can use in only a select few places, while being subject to transaction fees, monthly fees, and expiration dates is one of the stupidest things you can do with your money. It's not a "gift card." It's an "I don't know what to buy you so instead of giving you cash that you can readily use to buy what you want, I'm going to force you to go to Macy's within next 30 days" card. As if this wasn't stupid enough, the tax preparation companies this year have come out with the "novel" concept of offering you the option to get your tax refund not as a check, bank deposit, or cash but as a debit card issued by them.
- Non-native accents for local products: If you're selling chocolate made in Switzerland, I can see how a narrator with a European accent would lend credibility to the sales pitch. What I loathe is the use of a British accent to give an aura of elegance to a bottle of shampoo made in Tennessee. Conversely, stop trying to overdo the native accents for local products to show how American your products are. I'm looking at you every-Ford-GM-truck-ad-ever-made.
- Green-Green-Green: Who doesn't like saving the environment? We humans have the audacity to pretend like we can "save" a planet with mass of 6 trillion-trillion kgs (that is six followed by twenty-four zeros) while we cannot even figure out an affordable way to harness solar power. Yet every company is now trying to be green. When a company goes "green" what they are really saying is that "from now on, as we continue to plunder the natural resources of a geological area like we have been for the past two centuries, we will print lots of pamphlets and brochures to show you exactly what used to be here so you can feel less guilty about buying our products." Read the rest of my anti-green-bandwagon diatribe.
After a few months of procrastination, my Go board is finally ready. I made it 13x13 and instead of stones, I have black & white glass beads and round wooden boxes to hold them. I've started learning the rules of the game again and hopefully in a few months, I will become moderately proficient at it. If you want to experience what Go is like, check out Chat Noir game which is very loosely based on the same fundamental concept i.e. capturing your opponent.