Optimal Movements

This is a post about pooping. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t poop, has never pooped, and would prefer to go on believing that no one else has ever pooped either, then you should probably not read this.

For the rest of us? Well, shit happens. As a matter of fact, if all goes well, shit happens regularly.

Here is a significant factoid for you:
In parts of the world where people use squat toilets, hemorrhoids are practically unheard of.

Yeah, no shit.

OK, I’ll stop doing that now.

Let us define some terms.

A squat toilet, in the most basic sense, is a hole in the floor. You squat down (in hillbilly vernacular we’d say you “hunker”) and shit in it. Modern squat toilets are white porcelain with plumbing and tanks and things so you can flush them, but it’s still just a hole you shit in.

Technically, hemorrhoids are blood vessels in your anal canal. We all have them all the time, but if somebody says “I have hemorrhoids”, what they mean is that some of those blood vessels have gotten swollen and inflamed. When that happens, they will protrude from the anus where they will begin to itch, burn, hurt, and just generally turn you into the most miserable son of a bitch who ever lived.

I’m personally fairly lucky, in that I’ve only had to deal with hemorrhoids a couple of times, but those few times were bad enough. I’ve got a couple of friends who have chronic problems with them, and they pretty much live in fear that at any given moment an inflamed blood vessel is going to poke its way out of their asshole and make their life a living hell for a few days.

Let’s just agree that hemorrhoids are one of those things, like polka music and Jehovah’s Witnesses, that are best avoided. Unfortunately, much like polka music and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are going to happen to all of us eventually. Into every life a few hemorrhoids must fall.

Now that we’ve covered all of that, let us once again savor our factoid:
In parts of the world where people use squat toilets, hemorrhoids are practically unheard of.

I don’t remember where I first heard that. I remember someone dropped it as an offhand remark, somehow. Might have been a talk show or a documentary or something, but it was one of those little data nuggets that just jumped out at me, you know what I mean? Like, seriously? I’d gone all my life thinking hemorrhoids were just an unavoidable fact of human existence, but here was a fairly conclusive piece of evidence suggesting that the affliction has something to do with the way we shit.

So I started researching this topic, because I’m just like that and I can’t help it.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Over millions of years, humans evolved to hunker down and let it fly. When you assume that sort of position, your colon and anal canal line up, open up, and everything goes. That’s how the system developed to work. When you sit down on a regular toilet, the whole system gets a big crook in it. Instead of everything rolling on out, it has to be pushed past that bend in the pipe.

You know what pushing causes? That’s right. Pushing is where hemorrhoids come from.

I think part of the reason why this rang true with me is just that it fits with a lot of personal experience. I’m an outdoorsy dude, you know? Us outdoorsy people have to shit in the woods on occasion, and shitting in the woods is basically just like using a squat toilet – without the toilet part. I had often been struck by the fact that outdoor shitting doesn’t require nearly as much time, effort, or concentration as conventional indoor shitting. It’s just whoosh and you commence the clean-up. I guess I’d always assumed everything got sped up because of the discomfort, awkwardness, and potential for a snake-bitten fanny that is a natural part of taking an uncivilized crap. Turns out it’s all about the positioning. Who knew?

Anyway, I got intrigued by the idea. At one point, I actually thought about installing one of those lovely porcelain squat toilets in the downstairs bathroom here at the house, but I decided it was just too expensive and too much work, all to accomplish something that was really just an experiment. I didn’t want to make permanent changes when I didn’t know if I’d like it. Plus, if we ever sell our house I wasn’t looking forward to explaining the whole thing to a real estate agent. “No, it’s not a boot washer. You shit in it. Have at it.”

The big thing among internet people who are into this sort of thing (yes, of course there are) seems to involve a lot of platform building. They build a deck at the level of the top of a normal toilet, or you just stack up some cinder blocks or something. The idea is you climb up on this homebuilt contraption, and it elevates you enough that you squat over your regular toilet just like it was a hole in the floor. For all sorts of reasons that are (hopefully) too obvious to elucidate, this seemed to me like a really bad idea.

Then a couple of months ago, I spotted an ad for the Squatty Potty.

Yeah, I know. When I saw the name, I rolled my eyes too. The thing is, stupid name aside, it’s actually a clever compromise.

Yes, I ordered one. Yes, I actually use it. Yes, it’s pretty cool.

It’s really just a stool for your feet. You put your feet on it while you’re sitting there, and it raises your knees so it kind of puts you in that healthy squatting position. The best part is that nobody has to go climbing around on anything. It’s designed so it kind of slides up under the toilet bowl. You sit down, slide it out, put your feet on it and do your business. When you’re done, you just slide it back under the toilet and stand up.

Does it work? Well, the marketing lingo on the Squatty Potty website claims I’ll have “optimal bowel movements”, but if that means unicorns are going to scamper out of my asshole, I’ve yet to witness that. As far as hemorrhoid prevention goes, I honestly don’t know. I haven’t had any hemorrhoids since I started using it, but as I mentioned earlier, they are a rare problem for me, so the fact that I haven’t had any doesn’t really mean anything.

I can tell you this, though – I’m getting a hell of a lot less bathroom reading done.

- Ken

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These Boots Are Made For Working

The Allegiance Footwear factory.

Looking back on it now, I think it all started with the goddamned chainsaws.

We don’t have a wood burning stove (although we keep talking about it) so I don’t need a chainsaw very often, but chainsaws are kind of like nosehair trimmers – when you need one, nothing else is going to do the job. Except maybe napalm.

So I’d go out to the garage, dust off the chainsaw, sharpen the chain, add some bar oil and fuel, and the damned thing wouldn’t start. Or, if it did, it would run for about 10 minutes and die. I’d take it back to the garage, take it apart, figure out what the problem was, then go looking for chainsaw parts.

Have you ever tried to find parts for your average chainsaw? Not happening. Eventually I’d get sick of looking, and go down to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy a new chainsaw. Over a period of 15 years or so, I’ll bet I bought 4 of the damned things. I started thinking of them as one-time-use gadgets. Disposable tools. Might as well pitch it in the trash when you’re done, because it’s not gonna work next time.

Love the door.

Last year I decided I’d gotten sick and tired of the disposable chainsaw routine, so I hit Google and started researching. To make a long story short I ended up buying a Stihl (which you can’t get at Lowe’s or Home Depot because their entire business model is based on selling you garbage) because they’re made in the US, built to last, and they promise you’ll be able to get parts for any model for a minimum of 10 years after you buy it – but that’s not really the point of this post. The point of this post would be that in the process of doing all this research, I learned a lot about Chinese manufacturing techniques.

Sheets of leather, ready for cutting.

See, if you’re a Norte Americano or a European or something, when you think of a factory, you think of a factory as a place where a specific thing gets built. That’s the chainsaw factory. That over there is a furniture factory. That other one is a widget factory. Whatever.

We do it that way (or we used to do it that way) because labor is our biggest expense, so you save money by developing and installing machinery and systems designed to build chainsaws (or whatever) as efficiently as possible. In China, labor is essentially free. You can make up for any inefficiency by throwing more people at it. So in China, they have factories that aren’t specialized at all. They make whatever someone is paying them to make.

It’s kind of like an auction. Some businessman shows up in Shanghai with an order for 3 different models of chainsaw, 20,000 of each. 100 different factory owners bid on each model, sometimes even splitting the orders between a bunch of smaller factories. The whole system is stacked to encourage every factory to cut as many corners as possible, first to keep their bids low and then to shave a little profit.

Mike cutting patterns for boots.

So why can’t you buy parts for that chainsaw you bought last year? Because every model is slightly different, every year they get built by different people in a different place, and the factory where they built your chainsaw is building DVD players now.

Except Stihl chainsaws anyway, as I said. But enough about chainsaws. Let’s talk about boots.

Construction people get just a little bit obsessive about boots. Don’t believe me? Do you know any construction workers? The next time you see him, ask what kind of boot he prefers. Two hours later you’ll be catatonic, but he’ll just be getting wound up on the subject. We spend a lot of time standing and walking, in the mud, on rocks, around oil and fuel and (sometimes literally) shit, and we put a lot of thought into what we put on our feet.

I’d been a loyal fan of Red Wing boots for around 20 years, but I’d really been unhappy with the last few pairs I bought. I couldn’t get a pair that fit right, they didn’t last as long as they used to, and they always seemed to have a bunch of flaws. I discovered that Red Wing farmed out the majority of their manufacturing to China at about the same time that I started getting weird-ass size problems, and combined with my newfound knowledge of Chinese manufacturing techniques a lot of things suddenly started making sense.

Once again, it started with a Google search. “Does anyone make work boots in the United States anymore?”

Not many do, but there are still a few, and it turned out that one of them was less than an hour from my house.

Timberland used to have a little factory in the town of Mountain City, TN. When Timberland sent all the work to China, a couple of employees bought the equipment from the factory, decided to call themselves Allegiance Footwear, and started making boots. More importantly, they started making the kind of boots they wanted to make.

A sewing station at Allegiance.

My most recent pair of Red Wings had decided that they didn’t really want to be waterproof anymore, so I was in the market for boots again, so Vicki and I went to visit the Allegiance factory store back in January. They keep quite a few boots in stock, but they don’t normally make them with steel toes, so I had to place a custom order, but that ended up being pretty cool, just because you can choose every single option. Type of leather, height of the boots, padded collar, steel toed, type of sole, everything. They even asked if I wanted hooks or eyelets for the bootlaces.

But the best part of the whole deal was having the owner measure my feet. Length, width, top to bottom, he even measured my arches. It doesn’t take long to realize that the guys at Allegiance are even more obsessed with good boots, and a good fit, than construction people.

It took about 6 weeks before my boots were ready. All the work, from cutting the leather to sewing the boots, is done right there in Mountain City, but they have to ship them to Wisconsin to glue the soles on, and that adds a few weeks to the wait time. I had planned to have them shipped to me, but as it turned out I was going to be passing through the area a few days after they called, so I was able to stop by and pick them up myself.

Mike in the factory store.

I can’t speak to the durability yet, but I can honestly say they’re the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn. In fact, when I put them on the first time I thought they had messed up and forgot the steel toes – but they are steel toed. They’re just so well built I couldn’t even feel the caps.

The price impressed the hell out of me, too. A new pair of Red Wings would have run me about $150. My custom, handmade, US-built Allegiance boots cost $165. I’ve always said that if I could get something of good quality, made in the US, I’d gladly pay a little more for it. It was really nice to be able to back that up. If I hadn’t needed a custom pair, they would have been even cheaper.

Allegiance takes orders online or over the phone, but if you can make time to go by the factory store in Mountain City, I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating experience, and a good opportunity to meet some cool people, who are devoted to doing great work, producing a great product in a great place.

- Ken

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2012 KenThomas.us Calendar

2012 Cover


The 2012 KenThomas.us Calendar is on sale now.

For the last 3 years the calendars have been made up entirely of landscapes, but I wanted to try something a little different with this year’s effort. This year it’s all about the critters.

I’ve chosen 13 of my favorite wildlife photos – well, 13 that were almost my favorites. Vicki vetoed a couple of my initial selections, explaining that nobody would want a foot-wide close up of a spider on their kitchen wall for a month.

I’m really pleased with the way it came out, and I think you will be too. Cafe Press has improved their printing process (not that it was bad to begin with) and the photos in the printed version seem to be more vivid than ever.

CLICK HERE to visit the order page.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December


 
 
I should probably mention that on the printed version of the calendar, each month has a little text in the corner of the photo saying what type of animal it is and where the picture was taken. I left that out of last year’s version, and everybody wanted it back.

If you’d like to buy an individual print of any of the photos you see in the calendar, CLICK HERE to visit the KenThomas.us PhotoStore.

- Ken

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Just The Way It Works

Back in the 1950’s, medical researchers discovered that when an epileptic is having a seizure, a ‘storm’ of electrical activity (think of it as a cluster of misfiring neurons) begins in one hemisphere of the brain, then jumps from that side of the brain to the other, then back again, over and over. Each time the storm jumps, it gets more intense, and the seizure becomes more severe.

This wasn’t terribly useful information for the vast majority of epileptics, but some people have a type of epilepsy that is so severe that it’s literally life-threatening. Seizures so intense, and so long-lasting, that you could die from them.

To try to help those people, doctors developed a new surgical procedure called corpus callosotomy, that involved cutting every connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The idea was that by severing the links, you could prevent that storm of electrical activity from jumping across, and so it wouldn’t grow more intense.

And it worked. Surprisingly, side-effects were mild, and the success rate was high. The procedure isn’t used much anymore, because we can map the brain and monitor electrical activity much better now, so doctors can be a lot more precise about the part of the brain they operate on – but from the 1960’s until the 1980’s, thousands of people had their brains cut in half.
 
 
 
 
Michael Gazzaniga is a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara. He’s considered one of the world’s leading experts on cognitive neuroscience – largely as a result of experiments he conducted with ‘split-brain’ patients in the 80’s and 90’s. Gazzaniga realized that these people presented a unique opportunity to study the differences between the left and right hemispheres, because each half of the brain was isolated from the other. Like having two brains (or two half-brains, basically) living in the same head.

As odd as it sounds, when you ‘see’ something with your left eye, the picture goes to the right side of your brain, and vice versa. Most of the time both of your eyes see the same thing, so you’ve got similar images going to both sides. If you cover your left eye, the image from your right eye goes to the left side of the brain, but the halves of your brain are wired together, so your whole head knows what you’re looking at. Gazzaniga realized that if he covered one eye of a split-brain patient, he could send information to one half or the other. In other words, he could communicate with one hemisphere at a time.

If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember the left/right brain psychopop fad that exploded in the 80’s. Your left brain is creative and your right brain is analytical. If you’re a creative person but your desk is a mess, it’s because your left brain is dominant. Remember all that? A big chunk of that came from Gazzaniga’s research, but he says most of what the public got out of it was oversimplified bullshit. In a normal brain, most functions are integrated across both hemispheres.

Besides, the creativity vs. analytical ability stuff was probably the least interesting thing uncovered by his research.

You’d have to read one of his books to get the whole concept, so I’m going to be guilty of a lot of oversimplification here myself, but what he discovered is that most of the thinking (what you would think of as your ‘internal dialog’) happens in an area on the left side of the brain, and most of the doing happens in an area on the right side. Even in a normal person, these two areas don’t communicate all that much. In split-brain patients, they didn’t communicate at all.

The scientists would have a split-brain patient sitting there at the table, and they would send a signal to the right side of his brain: “Go to the water fountain down the hall and get a drink.” After seeing the message, the person would get up and start to leave the room, and the scientist would say “Where are you going?”

Now, the left side of the brain controls language, the vocal chords, and the concious ‘thinking’ this guy is doing. The problem is that the left brain didn’t get the message about the water fountain. It has absolutely no idea why the body just stood up. It doesn’t know where it’s going. So what does it do? It makes up an explanation.

The patient would reply “It’s cold in here. I’m going to get my jacket.” No pause, no confusion, instant rationalization. More importantly perhaps, the left brain was able to create, on the spot and in microseconds, memories of feeling a little cold earlier, then a little colder still, and making the decision to go get their jacket. The patient was utterly convinced that these memories were real, that their reasoning was sound, and that they’d come to the decision on their own.
 
 
 
 
One of the few things that separates human beings from animals is the ability to percieve patterns. You can see how that would come in handy for primitive hunter-gatherers, right? If you know where the antelope sleep, where the antelope drink, and where the antelope eat, you can put yourself in a good position to intercept the antelope and get you and your family some dinner. If you drop some apple seeds here, in a few years you’ll be able to come back and eat some apples. In fact, this mechanism was so successful it allowed our species to thrive, in spite of the fact that we don’t have the physical capabilities a lot of other predators do. Later, the same ability led directly to agriculture and making our own tools.

Not only do we still have this ability, but millions of years of evolution have honed it, refined it and expanded it to the point that it has become our conscious mind. This is who we are.
 
 
 

Think about it for a second. When that poor guy was standing there trying to answer the question, his left brain demonstrated the ability to create a perfectly plausible explanation, create memories that supported it, and believe it completely. And this wasn’t some huge event we’re talking about. It wasn’t traumatic or stressful. It was simply a very clear example of something that normal people do all the time.

In fact, this trait was displayed so often and so consistently during the research, that Gazzaniga ended up concluding that what we think of as our conscious mind is basically a narrator. The part of your brain that thinks conscious thoughts is pretty much just tagging along, watching what you do, and putting it all together into a pattern. It is telling the ongoing story of your life. It’s not important that it be true. What’s important is that it’s consistent. It all works. It all fits a pattern. If some pieces are missing that mess up the consistency of the pattern, the brain can simply create them after the fact. If some memories don’t fit the story, the brain can make them go away.

You could think of it as every person being made up of two people. One is directing the show, making most of the decisions, driving the car. It is driven largely by biological and evolutionary imperatives. It is focused almost entirely on the hierarchy of needs. The other person in there is the narrator. It’s creating a story, providing explanations, justification and supporting evidence, but it has almost no idea what’s really going on.

I know it sounds strange, but there’s actually a lot of evidence to support this. For example, I’m sitting at my desk typing right now, and I just reached my right hand across the keyboard, grabbed my cup of coffee, and took a drink. Studies have shown that the muscles in my arm started moving before my conscious mind made the decision to move them. I decided “I would like a drink of coffee” – but my arm was in motion before I decided that.

Who made the decision? Well, I did, but not the part of me that does the consious thinking. Did I actually want a drink, or did I do it because my hands are cold and I wanted to warm them on the cup? I don’t know, because my conscious mind decided that being thirsty was the most plausible, consistent explanation, and in the process it may have written in a few recent memories of my throat being dry.
 
 
 
 
So what’s the practical upshot of all this? Understanding Gazzaniga’s research has changed my entire outlook in a lot of ways, and this post is basically an attempt to explain why.

For starters, I spend a lot less time listening to what people say, and a lot more time watching what they do. Once you realize that most of what comes out of a person’s mouth is just after-the-fact justification, it becomes pretty easy to dismiss it.

I also stopped judging people based on what they believe. When you understand the way the system works, it becomes obvious that beliefs are nothing more than an expression of need. The stronger the belief, the stronger the need that creates it. If a person was trying to convince me of something, or explain what they thought about a situation, I used to try to sit back and judge their opinion based on the facts they presented. Do they make a good case? Are they right or wrong?

Now I understand that all of that is beside the point, because every person I’m talking to has the ability to create facts, dismiss facts, rewrite whatever didn’t fit, in order to support the opinion they need to have. They aren’t lying. They aren’t trying to decieve me or themselves. This is just the way the human mind works, all the time. So instead of judging the validity of the opinion or the person, I’m thinking “What does it say about this person that they need to believe this?”

But of course, understanding others is just the tip of the iceberg. It gets really fascinating when I start applying the same concept to what I believe.

- Ken

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Plus(es) and Minus(es)

Google is a huge, successful, powerful and influential company – but Google has a problem. The problem is that the only place where Google really makes money is Search. Sure, YouTube makes some money, Gmail breaks even, some of the business-oriented stuff like Google Docs does OK, but the real cash cow in the House of Google is the ads you see when you do a web search.

Why is that a problem? Because some nuclear genius whiz kid could come up with a better way of searching the web tomorrow, sell it to one of Google’s competitors, we’d all switch to using the new gizmo, and the Empire goes down the drain faster than you can say “Use the force, Luke.” So it only makes sense that Google has hired a bunch of nuclear genius whiz kids of their own, and they spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about what’s going to be the Next Big Thing in search engines.

Right now, all the whiz kids are convinced that the Next Big Thing is going to be what Mark Zuckerberg (the Facebook dude) calls “The Social Graph.”

When you strip all the Zuck-derived bullshit off of that term, what it means is that when you do a Google search, the results you get would be more relevant and interesting to you if they were influenced by things your friends found relevant and interesting. The general idea is that when you search, you’re probably looking for the same kinds of things your friends were looking for.

So everybody’s goal right now is to come up with a way of indexing your search results with the people on your Friend list, so things will float to the top that they found useful.

Yeah, I know. Horrifying, isn’t it?

If that doesn’t horrify you, then go back and read those two paragraphs again. Then go to Facebook and scroll through the people on your Friends list. Then think about it for a moment. Your search results are going to be influenced by what those people found useful?

This is clearly the dumbest idea ever, but they’re all deadly serious about it.

In a perfect world, Google would get access to all that juicy data that Facebook keeps on you, your likes and dislikes, and your friends. They could come up with some clever way to massage that into their search algorithm, and that would be that. The problem is that Facebook won’t let them have the data. Why not? Partially because Facebook wants to milk that data for revenue themselves – but the main reason is that Facebook is partially owned by Microsoft (didn’t know that, did ya?) and Microsoft would really, genuinely and truly like it if Google died in a fire.

Which means that if Google wants access to a social network, they’re going to have to build one themselves.

That’s where Google+ comes from.
(Pronounced “Google Plus”, or “G-Plus”, or just “Plus”.)

I’ve been playing around with G+ for about a month now, I guess. It’s interesting, in the sense that Google is trying to create something that is both like Facebook and better than Facebook. They may have succeeded with that, but I don’t know if it will make a difference. Facebook simply has such a huge lead at this point that in order to be a real competitor, G+ is going to have to do something dramatic. A killer app. Something that changes the social game in a powerful way. Some feature that will make people say “Wow. I need to check that out.” I’m simply not seeing that feature yet.

But don’t get me wrong – even at this early stage there are some improvements, the biggest of which is probably Circles.

On Facebook, if someone is on your Friends list then they see everything you post, and that’s that. On G+, you don’t have a Friends List, you have Circles. When you add someone, you put them in a Circle (or multiple Circles) and that determines what they will see. For example, you’ve got one Circle for your Friends, and another Circle for Family, and a third Circle for Co-workers. When you post, you can decide which Circle will see what you just said.

That seems like a pretty cool idea, doesn’t it? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience where our boss showed up on Facebook and sent us a friend request, and it puts you in a weird position. If you called in sick today, and your boss can see you posting pictures from poolside, that would probably be A Bad Thing. With the Circles on G+, you can put your boss in one Circle, and post your poolside pics to a different Circle, and you’re good to go. I can definitely see where this would come in handy for college students. You could post your “Dude, I’m SO high right now!” messages without worrying about your Mom seeing it.

So I can see the potential behind Circles on G+, but the truth is I haven’t found it to be nearly as useful as it sounds. You may remember that back in February I wrote an article called The Facebook Guide, and Rule #2 was “Never put anything on your Facebook profile that you wouldn’t be willing to have printed in a newspaper, so anyone could see it.” Years of Facebooking has taught me not to post anything unless I’m comfortable with everybody reading it. The whole Circles concept sounds cool, but everytime I post something I end up posting it to all my Circles, and if you’re going to do that, then what’s the point in having people divided up into all these little groups?

Besides, if the whole Circles idea is something that really appeals to you, then you can do something similar with Facebook now. On Facebook it’s called Lists, and they’re a pain in the ass to organize, but with a little work you can, at least in theory, accomplish the same thing.

To tell you the truth, if G+ has any advantage at all, it may simply be the fact that Facebook feels so slimy. Everybody uses it, but nobody likes it, because the whole experience leaves you with the impression that it’s run by shitheads. Applications that trick you into allowing them to access your data. Viruses that spread and spread and are never stopped. A barrage of messages from games you don’t want to play. But for me the advertisements are probably the worst part. I’m a man, and I listed kayaking, photography, and fishing among my interests, so you know what I see when I log onto Facebook? I see tits. Ads with tits in a kayak, tits with a camera, tits with a fishing pole.

The biggest problem with G+ is that it was developed by nerds – but in my opinion that’s a problem with every product Google rolls out. This is, after all, the same company that routinely sends me breathless, excited announcements about new hotkey combinations they’ve developed. In the history of computing, no one but the most extreme nerds have ever given a shit about hotkeys. People who work with computers for any other reason than just screwing around with computers, want a big button they can click with a mouse or stab with a finger. Telling them you can only do something with some obscure hotkey combination is the same as telling them it’s impossible.

It’s not that a G+ account is difficult to set up. It’s actually pretty easy, even if you can’t tell what the fuck it’s doing most of the time. It just doesn’t walk you through everything, and explain everything along the way like Facebook does. The Grandma demographic is a huge (and underappreciated) part of Facebook’s success. It’s why most people will stay on Facebook even when it’s slimy and run by shitheads, and G+ is never gonna catch Grandma’s interest without significant changes.

So does that mean that G+ is a failure? I don’t think so. People seem to think it has to replace Facebook for it to be a success, but I don’t believe that. Our online social life can (and should) be about more than just keeping track of people we already know.

The smartest thing I’ve heard said about G+ so far is Guy Kawasaki‘s description that “Facebook is for people. Google+ is for passions.” If you want to find a group of people with similar interests, similar hobbies, or a similar outlook; and get engaged in some fascinating, in-depth conversations, then Google+ is an amazing vehicle for that. If you want to see if Aunt Mildred’s goiter is still tormenting her, then Facebook is where it’s at.

- Ken

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Ersatz Ticker

I hate it when people ask about the music I listen to. The short answer is along the lines of “I guess I like a little bit of everything”, but that just sounds kind of shallow, doesn’t it? It makes me sound like one of those people who just turn on a Top 40 station and proceed to ignore it, or (God forbid) one of those “happy, uplifting and inspiring” stations. The bumpers alone are enough to make me contemplate The Van Gogh Option.

Judging from my Facebook news feed, most of the people in my age group are still listening to the things we listened to in High School, which for the most part means hair bands, power ballads, and classic rock. I’m not sure where I lost that group, to be honest. I suspect that it’s because I worked in radio for a few years on an ‘album rock’ station, so I had that stuff drummed into my brain on a daily basis. I just can’t deal with it now.

Of course, a few of those bands have held up pretty well. AC/DC still holds a prominent position on my playlist, for example. A little Def Leppard here and there is OK. The one that surprises me the most is Guns N’ Roses. I was a huge G&R fan for a few years, but I can’t listen to them at all now. I put it on and 2 minutes later I’m thinking “Holy crap. Was I ever this angry?”

On a side note, I have to admit that it amuses me when I hear people say that Nirvana killed hair bands. The truth is that hair metal died the day Guns N’ Roses released Welcome to the Jungle. One look at Axl Rose and Slash was enough to know that these were people who had knifed somebody in the back for heroin money. Everyone in teased hair, eyeliner and spandex instantly looked absurd.

With the joys of my youth now largely excluded, I ended up with some pretty odd taste in music.

I’m fascinated by creativity. The creative process. I’m fascinated by where it comes from, how it works through people, and what they do with it. Thomas Edison referred to it as “Holy Fire” – the divine spark, I guess. Some people are just burning up with it, and that’s what tends to grab me about certain music. I told Vicki once that “I like music that sounds like the artists were leaning forward when they recorded it.” I think you can tell when the musicians are excited by what they are doing, and excited about getting it out to people.

If you looked through my playlist right now you’d see old stuff and new stuff, punk, rap, techno, rock, country and even bluegrass. The genre just doesn’t interest me that much. I’ve heard a snatch of music in a movie soundtrack that grabbed me. I discovered Petra Haden and Robert Randolph from TV commercials. Ben Harper was playing on the restaurant sound system during dinner one night. I found Guy Clark when Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air. Just a little snip is often enough to recognize the spark, and then I start Googling. What was that? Who recorded it? What else have they done?

It drives Vicki up a wall sometimes, because when I stumble across something new (new to me, anyway) I can listen to it over and over for weeks. Absorbing that fire. Reveling in it. I can understand how that could get pretty irritating, but Vicki will listen to the same audiobook over and over again – which I find completely unfathomable, so I guess we’re even.

What’s got me thinking about all this right now is that Jonathan Coulton released his new album Artificial Heart over the weekend.

Like most people, I found Jonathan Coulton when someone sent me a link to a YouTube video, and he’s been a favorite for 3 or 4 years now. If you aren’t familiar with Coulton (often called JoCo by fans) he’s a hard guy to explain. He gets stuck with the ‘Geek Rock’ label a lot, and while I think that’s accurate, it’s also an oversimplification. He makes music for bright people, and tech-literate people. Some of that can get pretty geeky, but a lot of it is just common experience – transcending the geek thing and just talking about what it’s like to be an arguably non-stupid person in 2011.

The content of his songs was kind of a precision-guided warhead for an internet generation, but it wasn’t the songs alone that turned him into a sensation. Back in 2003 Coulton started releasing music through his website, with a Creative Commons license attached to each song that allowed people to freely use each one in a non-commercial project of their own. The whole thing snowballed and spread like wildfire, with people making their own videos, recording their own versions, you name it. Using the web, he established a succesful career for himself completely outside of the usual record industry channels. He’s a viral dude.

Artificial Heart is the first full album of original music that JoCo has released in 5 years, which also means it’s the first new thing he’s done since I became a fan. He was so creative and so prolific in the past that I was curious about how the delay and the intervening years would influence him, but it doesn’t seem to have dimmed his spark any. It seems like a more mature and less goofy effort, but I suppose that’s natural. Ain’t none of us gettin’ any younger, after all.

I think the biggest difference with the new material is just the fact that he’s playing with a band. For most of his career Coulton performed solo with an acoustic guitar, and did all his recording in a home studio. This time out he used a real band and a real producer, and you can tell that dynamic is where the creativity is coming from this time around. It’s both a good and a bad thing. Working on your own you can spend as much time as you want on your goofiest ideas. When you’re working with a group, some restraint is imposed by the simple fact that you have to explain to somebody else just where the hell you’re trying to go with this.

Also on the ‘mixed blessings’ page would be the fact that the album was produced by They Might Be Giants co-founder John Flansburgh, and a lot of the tracks have a definite TMBG feel to them. I’m cool with that. There’s a big overlap in the fan base, and if you’re not the kind of person who likes They Might Be Giants, then you probably wouldn’t like JoCo either.

Vicki and Marshall and I saw Coulton live at the The Orange Peel back in March or April (he’s coming back, opening for TMBG in September – so we’ll probably see him again) and he played several songs from the new album during that show. It’s been surprisingly cool to finally have recorded versions of songs I first heard live – especially Good Morning Tucson, Sticking it to Myself, and Glasses, all 3 of which have been stuck in my head for 7 months now.

Boy, this is an odd post, isn’t it? It started with meandering observations about music, took a little diversion into creativity, and ended up sounding like an album review. But let’s be honest – reviewing Artificial Heart would be kind of stupid. It’s new JoCo tunage, and it’s very good, and what else matters, when you get right down to it? If this is the sort of thing you like, then the odds are good that you’re already liking it. If you aren’t, then you should be.

- Ken

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Miss Muffett

A couple of years ago Vicki planted a butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) next to the house, and it’s become somewhat… huge. It attracts butterflies (and lots of other flying things that like nectar – like honeybees) as advertised, so it has become one of my favorite places for insect photography. It also has the advantage of being fairly tall in its hugeness, which allows me to take insect photos without laying on the ground. That’s always a nice feature.

So anyway, this evening when I got home from work the setting sun was lighting up the butterfly thicket, and there was a beautiful female Tiger Swallowtail flapping around it. I grabbed the camera and snapped a few shots before going in the house for dinner.

Butterflies obviously aren’t going to sit still and wait for you to take their picture, so getting a good one is basically just luck. I shot about a hundred photos of that female Swallowtail, and I was casually flipping through them on the computer when something white caught my eye. I sat up, leaned into the monitor, and started zooming.

Seems like… over on the left… back in the flowers… it’s… What The Hell Is That?

It’s a White Crab Spider, is what it is. I had absolutely no idea it was there, and it was pure chance that I happened to be shooting the butterfly when it practically landed on the spider. I didn’t even notice it until I was looking at the photos full-size on my monitor.

But it turns out that’s just what Crab Spiders do. They don’t build webs or trap anything. They just hide back in the flowers, wait until something tasty comes along to sip a little nectar, and then they whip those powerful front legs out and grab it. I guess Swallowtails must be too big or too feisty for Crab Spiders to ambush, or else I might have gotten some really fascinating shots.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Pretty cool, though. My new favorite unexpected critter.

- Ken

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Grandfather Mountain Camera Clinic

I attended the 2011 Camera Clinic this weekend, which is an annual event sponsored by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

I’d never been to a photography workshop before, so I wasn’t certain what to expect, but it turned out to be pretty interesting. Most of the people who were speaking at the event weren’t really talking about a specific type of photography, more along the lines of photography in general – so I can’t claim I learned a lot of new things, but it was kind of neat hearing how other people approach the field. Besides, you’re never wasting your time when you’re listening to people who are really good at something.

A lot of the discussions were about the art of photography, which isn’t a subject I’ve ever been really comfortable with anyway. If someone can ever give me a good description of what makes something ‘art’ then I guess I’ll start worrying about it. Until then, I’ll focus on the technique, the craft, and the technology. If art arises from those elements, then so be it.

Having said that, anyone who gives a presentation at one of these workshops definitely has my sympathy. I saw people in the crowd shooting with everything from entry-level point-and-shoots all the way up to $4K cameras with $6K lenses on them. If you were going to teach a group like that, who would you cater your presentation to? I guess I’d probably stick to theory, principles and art too. That stuff applies to everybody.

Of course, anytime you host an event on Grandfather Mountain, the mountain itself is going to be the star of the show.

See, the Stewardship Foundation hosts 2 camera events each year, and those two events are the only time all year long when people are allowed on the mountain during sunset and sunrise. They even let us camp up there. That’s a big deal to photographers, because the moment we see a beautiful landscape we start thinking about a great early morning or late evening shot.

Being up there during those two magic times of the day was really a great experience, and as much as I enjoyed the workshop I would have gladly attended just for the photo opportunities.

These 8 photos are a few of my favorites from my weekend on Grandfather Mountain. I’m moderately proud of a couple of them. Click on the thumbnails to see the full-size images.

- Ken

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Space Center

It’s kind of hard to believe it’s been 3+ weeks since our trip to Florida to watch the final Atlantis launch. I’m still going through all the photos we took. On Sunday after the launch we went back out to the coast to take a tour of Kennedy Space Center. These are a few of my favorite shots from KSC.


You start your KSC tour at the Visitor Complex, with the usual museums, rides, educational displays, and the obligatory rocket garden. All of the NASA facilities have a rocket garden, and they all look about the same, and I love them anyway.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Marshall is standing on the actual access gantry that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins walked across to begin the Apollo 11 mission. I was surprised at how moved I was by it. Made me feel like a kid again, just walking back and forth, running my hand along the guardrails, following their steps and wondering what they were thinking.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Just another NASA gift shop, with all of the usual stuff – but the one at KSC is huge compared to the others we’ve visited. Besides, the photo came out really well.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

After the Visitor Complex you get on a bus that takes you around to different sites on the center itself. The second the bus starts moving they start bombarding you with promotional videos, which were honestly the only truly irritating thing about the whole tour. They’re just so bad, you know? Cheesy effects, clumsy dialogue and interviews, canned music. They look exactly like the horrible industrial safety videos that employees everywhere have to suffer through on a regular basis, and I’m sure they must be made by the same people.

Only a government agency like NASA could take the idea of accelerating a human being to 17,000 miles an hour and firing them into orbit, and make it sound boring. After 10 minutes of those damned videos I couldn’t remember if I was touring a launch complex or a widget factory.
 
 

Reports differ as to whether the Vehicle Assembly Building is the largest single building in the world or the 4th largest. I guess it depends on how you measure it. All I can tell you is that it’s pretty damned big.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The tour bus stops at a 4-story tower in the middle of the launch complex called the Observation Gantry. The top has an open deck that wraps all the way around, so you can get a good view of the different launch sites. You can even look across the Banana River and check out the Air Force launch facilities to the south.

Looking back towards the VAB I took this shot of the Crawler-Transporter they used to ferry shuttles from the VAB to the launch pads. The twin strips of gravel you can see behind the crawler make up the road it creeps along when it’s loaded. Because of all of the heavy equipment I’m around at work I found the crawler pretty interesting. It was both bigger than I expected, in terms of length and width, and smaller than I expected in terms of height. She’s pretty low to the ground.
 
 

This is Launch Pad 39A, where they had fired off Atlantis just two days earlier. I expected it to look a little more singed, to tell you the truth. Between 39A and 39B they launched over 100 shuttle missions from these pads, so I guess they build them to take some abuse.

July is mosquito season on the Space Coast, and you wouldn’t believe how aggressive those little bastards are. 10 seconds after I stepped out of the elevator onto the 4th-floor deck I looked down and there were hundreds of them on my legs. I started slapping and blood started flowing, and suddenly I looked like I’d been working in a butcher shop all morning. Killing them didn’t make a difference anyway. There were thousands more ready to take their place.

I was kind of surprised that any of the photos I took from up there were worth looking at, seeing as the whole time I was shooting I had a horde of vicious little insects jabbing needles into every inch of exposed flesh. The fact that I took any photos at all is a testament to how fascinated I am by this stuff – but you’ll notice that all subsequent pictures were taken indoors.


They’ve taken the old building that used to house Mission Control for the Apollo flights, and turned it into a museum called the Apollo/Saturn V Center. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and if you visit KSC it’s something you don’t want to miss.

Every chair, workstation and display has been preserved, and you sit in a set of bleachers behind it while they go through a recreation of the Apollo 8 countdown. When they finally hit liftoff the whole place shakes and rattles the way it did when they launched Saturn V’s down here. Trust me, it’s more impressive than it sounds.
 
 
 
 

When you finish watching the display in Mission Control, you go down a set of steps, around a corner, and come face to face with this.

One of only three Saturn V rockets that didn’t get used in either Apollo or Skylab. One is at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, the second is at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and now that I’ve been to KSC I’ve seen all three.

Other than the shots I took of the Atlantis launch itself, this is probably my favorite photo from the entire trip. Vicki and Marshall under the tail of a Saturn V.
 
 
 
 

If you’re going to hang a 330-foot long rocket indoors, you need a big ass building to hang it in. It’s basically one long hall, with museum displays under the rocket fuselage along the entire length of it. The space suit in this photo is the one Jim Lovell would have worn on the Moon if Apollo 13 had made it that far.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I’m guessing that visits to KSC will probably plummet now that there won’t be any manned launches for a few years, but to be honest, that may be the best time to see it. Besides, there are still launches going on. They fire off satellites down there on a regular basis, and I’ve heard those can actually be more fun to watch from a pure viewing perspective, because you can get a lot closer and the crowds aren’t nearly as intense.

Since we got back I’ve had a ton of people tell me that they wish they’d gone to see a shuttle launch before they wrapped up the program – I tell them they should think about going anyway. KSC probably isn’t the kind of place I’d visit twice, but I’m definitely glad we went once, and I kind of think everyone should. Even if they never launch another rocket from the Cape, the sheer history of the place is overwhelming.

500 years from now kids will learn about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins the way we learned about Christopher Columbus. At KSC, you’ll find yourself strolling along a bright orange walkway, you’ll look down and see a little sign that says Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins walked along this gantry on the way to Apollo 11. You’ll look down at your feet and for just a second, you, those 3 guys 40 years ago, and all those kids 500 years in the future, share a little wonder, and occupy the same moment in time.

That part alone is worth the trip.

- Ken

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Branded

Vicki and I were talking about it a few weeks ago, and for both of us it seemed to start with Lacoste shirts and Nike shoes. Lacoste (also called Izod, for some reason) made polo shirts that had a little green alligator on the left breast. Nike made athletic shoes.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, it became very important to have a shirt with an alligator on it, and shoes with the ‘swoosh’ thing on the sides. I have no idea why. Both brands were popular among tennis players, but I don’t remember tennis being all that popular at the time. Maybe the idea was just to look like you were wealthy enough to play tennis, or pretentious enough, or something.

Fads were nothing new. As long as there have been people there have been fashions, and as long as there are fashions there will be fads – but Nike shoes and Lacoste shirts were the first major fads I can remember that were connected to a particular brand. It wasn’t enough to be wearing a polo shirt, it had to be a Lacoste polo shirt. Same deal with the shoes. They had to have that swoosh thing.

Lacoste claims to be the first clothing company that ever put their logo on the outside of the clothes. I don’t think Nike was the first company to have a distinctive design on their shoes, but they definitely made a big deal out of it. Both brands were pretty expensive, and that may have been the appeal. After all, most jewelry is designed to say nothing more than “I am wealthy enough to afford this.” Putting the logo out there where everybody could see it was probably the most efficient way to advertise how much you spent on something.
 
 
 
I’ll freely admit I don’t do a good job of keeping up with pop culture. Just to give you one example, for a long time I thought this whole ‘Jersey Shore‘ thing was some kind of joke. I kept seeing references to it, but the whole premise seemed so absurd I thought people were talking about a Saturday Night Live skit, or maybe a running gag on some other comedy show I don’t watch. Then I saw an episode of South Park where they were making fun of a character called Snooki who was part of this Jersey Shore thing, and it seemed odd to me that South Park would be mocking something from SNL, so I looked it up.

I was probably better off being ignorant.

It was kind of the same deal with Abercrombie & Fitch. I kept seeing people everywhere with Abercrombie & Fitch shirts. Kids, women, men, you name it. I travel a lot, and everywhere I went I saw people with shirts that said Abercrombie & Fitch on the front. If I thought about it at all, I guess I thought it was a place, you know? Like those t-shirts people buy when they go to the Hard Rock Cafe in Istanbul or wherever. Like, “this is the t-shirt you buy in the gift shop at the Abercrombie & Fitch restaurant.”

We spent a long weekend in Orlando when we went down for the shuttle launch, and Vicki managed to talk me into visiting this place called Downtown Disney, which is basically an entire mall made up of gift shops. Seriously. That’s what it is. The whole place was flooded with people sporting Abercrombie & Fitch attire, but I still didn’t see any Abercrombie & Fitch restaurant. I figured if there was any single place where all these millions of people had gone to buy their souvenir Abercrombie & Fitch shirts it would be Orlando, but no dice. So when I got home I googled it.

It turns out that Abercrombie & Fitch is just an overpriced clothing store, where you go to buy stuff that has the Abercrombie & Fitch logo on it. Seriously. That’s what it is. They don’t even pretend the shit is high quality, or stylish, or innovative or anything. The singular appeal of Abercrombie & Fitch garments seems to be that it has the Abercrombie & Fitch logo on it.

I have a hard time getting my head around this sort of thing. It seems like it would be simpler and more effective to just wear a sign around your neck that says “My clothing is very expensive.”
 
 
 
Ten or twelve years ago I was doing some independent safety consulting, and one of my clients was this big textile outfit near Fayetteville where they made sweatshirts. They were having problems with employees getting ergonomic injuries like carpal tunnel and repetitive stress stuff, and they asked me to go take a look at their process and see if I could suggest some improvements.

I spent a week in their factory watching them make sweatshirts, and aside from all the injuries (that’s a story for another post) it was fascinating. The whole thing started with big rolls of sweatshirt-type fabric (whatever the hell you call that stuff) and at the first few stations they would cut all of it into sweatshirt shapes. Then the next station would sew the seams down one side, and they’d pass it down to the next station to sew the seams down the other side, that sort of thing. Every stitch had a different station. They’d sew one cuff on, then the next cuff, then the collar. They even had one station where this woman’s entire job was turning the sweatshirts right-side-out, because they were inside-out when they sewed them.

To you, this probably sounds like an unusually tedious episode of How It’s Made, but I thought it was pretty neat. There must have been 200 employees in that factory; every single one of them, from the manager down to the maintenance people were women, and it just blew me away how fast they could crank out those sweatshirts. They moved them along in bundles of a dozen, and the bundles were flying. It was like watching water flow through a rapid, somehow. Fabric went in one end, and sweatshirts came out of the other.

Among all this frantic activity, my favorite station was the last one, where they sewed on the labels. There was a huge rack on the wall, and as I wandered along and looked into the bins, I saw labels from Nike, Champion, Jerzees, Target, Eddie Bauer, and Adidas, just to name a few that I remember. There must have been a hundred labels. A couple of bundles came off the line and they got Nike labels. A few more bundles came off the line and they got Target labels.

I was kind of stunned. I said “But those are the exact same sweatshirts” and the woman said “Of course they are.” I said “So what’s the difference?” She just shrugged and said “Price.”

They kept it pretty cold in that factory, but as I wandered back down the line I couldn’t help but notice that none of the women were wearing Nike sweatshirts.
 
 
 
Ballcaps, trucker hats, whatever you call them – they used to be called “Gimme Caps.” Know why? Because they had company logos on the front, and companies felt like if you were going to walk around advertising their product with a significant portion of your cranial real estate, the least they could do was give you the damned hat for free. There was an implied agreement in this arrangement. “Give me a free hat, and I’ll advertise for you.”

Somewhere along the line, the companies realized that people would actually pay money out of their own pocket to become a walking advertisement. Terms like “identifying with the brand” and “being part of the product lifestyle” started cropping up. It isn’t called advertising, of course. It’s “Getting the gear!”

Remember when you were a teenager and it just seemed vitally important to have that t-shirt with the name of your favorite band on it? I’m with you. My AC/DC t-shirt was my favorite garment for years – but why did we all do that? Were we trying to convince other people that this band was awesome and they should listen too? No. We wore those shirts because as teenagers, we had a fragile sense of our own identity. They were a form of tribal marking, much like bumper stickers. Not communication or persuasion, but a way of saying “This is who I am.” See what I mean by that? “I am the kind of person who likes AC/DC.”

I suspect that the same kind of impulse is behind all this branding. We’re identifying with the brand, right? “I am the kind of person who uses this product.” I guess what concerns me is that the popularity of it seems to imply that it’s the adults with the fragile sense of identity now.
 
 
 
At the Bass Pro Shops store in Concord, NC.
“Can I help you with anything, sir?”
“This is a really nice shirt. I like it a lot, but why does it have this guy’s name on it?”
“Oh, that’s the Bob Timberlake logo, sir. We have an entire Bob Timberlake line.”
“Yeah, I see that. You’ve got his name on shirts, hats, pants, luggage, knick knacks, apple butter, furniture and rugs.”
“Mr. Timberlake is a world famous painter of landscapes and wildlife, sir.”
“Great. Do you think Mr. Timberlake has a shirt with my name on it?”
“Ummm… probably not, sir.”
“So why would I want to wear a shirt with his name on it?”

- Ken

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