29 December 2009

Half Foods



Post moved to imby.net.

Priceless

Mini R/C Helicopter: 22 dollars

AA batteries: 5 dollars

The following mang-lish instructions: priceless

"This remote control has already installed to protect the device, if want the flight, please open the switch, the indicator would be shining, after operating the pole to the motive to heading up to push then pull to go to most next, the indicator is often Bright, at this time remote control normal usage of ability."


I should probably leave well enough alone, but I ran this English through Google's translator, then took the resulting Chinese and ran it back, just to see if two wrongs might make a right. Strangely, some of the instructions sound better, but with flashes of what sounds like political propaganda.

"The remote control has been installed protection devices, if you want to fly, please turn on the switch, indicator light flashes, it will operate under the motivation, leadership of promoting, and then evacuated to the most, this indicator is often a bright future, at this time, normal use of the remote control"

24 December 2009

100 Catalogs


We started stacking catalogs on Thanksgiving day. The pile didn't get as high as we thought it might, but today (December 24) my daughter and I counted 100 catalogs. These catalogs are filled with clothes (by far the majority), shoes, books, toys, food (popcorn, spices, english muffins, fruit), snowboards, computers, cameras, fleece jackets, jewelry, GPS-enabled golf rangefinders, exercise machines, and endless pages of cheap branded trinkets that will self-destruct 15 seconds after you tear off the wrapping. Our bank sent us a catalog (that's where you can get the GPS-enabled golf rangefinder). There are even catalogs selling sheep and other livestock to give (in someone's name) as charitable gifts to poor families--these catalogs are among the smallest, and that seems good to me, though I'm not entirely sure why.

There are 26.6 pounds of paper here. Zoe looked up the number of households in the U.S. and did a little math for me. In America, we're close to 15 million households. 26.6 pounds times the number of households in this country gives us roughly 3 billion pounds of catalogs. In one month! Be sure to check out our new eco-sensitive clothing line ....

Imagine how big our pile would be if we actually bought stuff from catalogs.

27 October 2009

The Geography of Hope



Some months ago, I posted an essay about how a ranger scolded me for walking 10 feet off the trail at Palo Alto's Arastradero Open Space Preserve. This preserve is in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a wide-open place where one wouldn't expect the kind of "keep off the grass" rules associated with strips of city park. The title I gave the essay communicated my feelings on the matter ("Signs of The End").

But, I can admit now that I was of two minds on the matter. It still seems ridiculous to be told to stay on the trail in such a wild place. But soon after I wrote the piece, I felt a prick of conscience, and a sense of responsibility to tell the other side of the story. Why? Because I keep going back to Arastradero ... on foot, on mountain bike, alone and with my family. I find myself enjoying that same trail, and many other trails along the San Francisco peninsula again and again, and I began to have new thought share space with my semi-righteous indignation. I realized that I have very little to complain about. I live in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, in the high-tech center of the modern world, and yet ... I am surrounded by simply beautiful natural spaces, forever preserved against development or modification beyond the laying of trail. I have in fact enjoyed open space along the Peninsula for my whole life, in all four seasons, in rain and shine, day and night. I've slept under oaks, prayed on benches, sat writing in journals, and stared without a thought into wilderness ... all in settings that allow my heart and mind and soul to drop their guard and to breath.

Room to breath. This is one of the themes in the language of open space. You come across the phrase frequently in the history of one of the largest of the agencies that oversee open space in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. I wanted to get to know this organization, to meet the people who keep this land for me, and to learn what it takes to preserve open space in a region that the rest of the world associates with high home prices and high technology. How do they do it?

I confess that when I met with Leigh Ann Maze of the OSD, I was looking for dirt (no pun intended): I wanted to hear all about the fights over who gets the land and how it is used. I guess I imagined a great battle over each acre: developers and technologists on one side, and sandle-wearing soldiers in the open space army on the other. Maze couldn't satisfy my need for drama. She said it might get a little hot in the nitty-gritty negotiations over a particular parcel of land, but she's not really aware of any great philosophical divide on the Peninsula. The overall impression I got from talking to her is that the OSD enjoys a lot of favor in the Bay Area. She suggests that open space is a part of what attracts people to live here, and that even the developers recognize that being able to see trees on the mountains increases the value of the homes down in the suburban sprawl between highways 101 and 280.

So it may be that some experience it as a tension, and others as harmony, but either way, there's no argument over whether it is good to have open space here at the end of America's westward expansion. You might expect to see an insulting profusion of development here, in the same way you see great mountains of boulders at the terminus of ancient glaciers. After all, people keep coming .... Instead, land dedicated to open space is increasing, not as much as in the early days, but still increasing each year. Anne Koletzke writes in Peninsula Tales and Trails, a guidebook to the district, that the Bay Area has one of the largest systems of public open space to be found in any urban area in the United States.

But it wasn't always that way. Journalist Jay Thorwaldson, in the foreword to Peninsula Tales and Trails, describes looking down, as a youth on horseback, from the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains as the "valley's endless apricot and prune orchards [gave] way to homes and highways in a sad, but seemingly inevitable, roll of market demand and economic reality. Before silicon became the heart of computers," and a significant driver of development for the region, "this was called the 'Valley of Heart's Delight.'" In 1970, the threat was very real. But Thorwaldson was on hand to document a local, citizen-driven campaign to preserve open space. He himself influenced that campaign through editorials which urged these early environmentalists to find a way to buy the land they wanted to protect against development, a strategy also promoted by Wallace Stegner, a Stanford professor and novelist who contributed important ideology to the movement. If you want to preserve open space, the argument went, you have to own it, so that you can keep it open for ever.

Today the OSD owns over 55,000 acres of land, most of which can be explored by anyone who lives in, or visits, the Bay Area. When land is purchased, the first goal of the OSD is preservation, ensuring that the environment in and around the land is protected. These concerns always extend beyond the boundaries of purchases. Wildlife (from ubiquitous deer and squirrels to endangered red-legged frogs) pass through open space preserves and policies within the boundaries must account for the through-traffic. The course of streams in preserves can affect local watersheds and species (including our own species) many miles downstream. At times, early 'improvements', such as logging roads (called by the OSD, 'cultural resources'), need to be reversed to halt the pernicious effects of erosion on the ecosystem.

A very few times, the OSD closes a preserve to human visitors. But the "goal is to keep them open," says Maze, though always with limited provision for human comforts. "We set ourselves apart from other parks: we like to keep the infrastructure to a minimum. ... You'll see dirt parking lots and pit toilets, but no barbecues, play structures, or picnic tables ... the whole system only has one overnight campsite. ... We call what we do ecologically sensitive recreation and education." This emphasis on letting nature be, and not filling it with soccer fields, golf courses, or other recreational infrastructure, is summed up by Wallace Stegner in his Wilderness Letter, who asserted that preserving natural open space has "no more to do with recreation [than] churches have to do with recreation." We need, he says, to learn the "trick of quiet" that our ancestors knew from time spent in the big empty plains. "We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses ... all the wild that still remains to us."

Adding to the delicate balancing act that is managing a piece of nature, the OSD is a public agency and so is accountable to local public opinion, state and federal governments, policies including the Endangered Species Act, and other rulebooks overseen by agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "There are a lot of layers," says Maze, "even for one little project of putting in a bridge ... we have to get permits from cities, counties ... and the public always want to weigh in. ... Ultimately it's the public's land; it's your land, your trails."



With all these obligations to balance, the OSD seems to work really well. They do a great job communicating to the public -- they have a quality website, good-looking publications, and were willing to talk to a snarky blogger like me (that "end of the world" post was not much of a calling card). And, of course, they do a very good job stewarding the land. My experience of the preserves is that they are consistently clean, accessible, and well laid-out. I know that takes work, even when the bulk of the land is trusted to natural processes. Finally, and maybe most impressively, from what I've seen, it appears the OSD manages and spends their considerable budget wisely.

It doesn't mean it's all sunny skies over the preserves though. The downturn in the economy has affected the OSD, like it has every other business. Grants and private donations have dropped, and to add insult to injury, even though the District manages it's budget very well thank you, the State of California is exercising it's "emergency right" to take money from "special districts" to deal with it's own budget shortfall. They are borrowing roughly 2 million from the OSD, "which legally they need to pay back," says Maze (uh ... good luck.) When I asked if the money taken from the OSD would at least go to save some of the state parks that are expected to close (again, good luck), Maze couldn't say, and she showed a remarkably goodnatured attitude towards Sacramento. "We look at it as an investment in the state."

For all this organizational complexity, federal policy, resource managment, state budget trouble, and, yes, the threat of development on currently un-preserved land, the OSD does an amazing job of giving the people exactly what was hoped for some thirty years ago: room to breath.

And though I don't like fences in the wild, I recognize the difficulty of protecting land, especially when the land in question is surrounded by forces hostile to it. Regardless of the relatively harmonious relationship between open space and ... crowd-space on the peninsula, I know that if the fences came down, the land would be lost. So I'm thankful for the activists who fought to purchase land to preserve it, and I'm thankful for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and other powers that protect land for me, even if it means there are some views I have to enjoy from the trail.

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope. -Wallace Stegner, The Wilderness Letter



A (low) tech writer principle: invest in the things you love. If that loose community of nature lovers back in the 70s had only come together to complain and had not put their money where their collective mouth was, the land between San Jose and San Francisco would be very different today, and we would all have a lot more to complain about.


=====
http://www.openspace.org/ (be sure to look at their Google Map mashup: the Preserve Finder, on the front page). And get your copy of Peninsula Tales and Trails at the OSD's website to support their work. It's a classic guide book.

A snapshot from space of the Regional Open Space District (with the open spaces labeled nicely, thank you Google):
http://bit.ly/openspaceba

=====

Photography by Karl Gohl and used by permission of the photographer and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

14 September 2009

bag

My Bag has one pocket, and it's BIG. I like simplicity in my bags. I do not like complexity. My bag used to have a single inside flap, stitched to the top lip of the opening, with an assortment of little pockets for organizing stuff, but I removed it. It's not that I don't like being organized: it's just that I don't really like having someone else's principles of organization forced on me. The organizer pocket that was stitched inside this bag had a couple pen slots (I carry more than that and so I use a pencil case, which you can see in my profile picture), a wide pocket sized for something like a palm pilot (which most people now keep in a box in a closet, while they wait for the museum to call), a tinier fleece-lined pocket for a phone or media player (which is now a single device, and holstered to my strap for quick access while riding), and other miscellaneous slots that simply didn't fit the stuff I have. So out with the perma-pockets! The bag's a little lighter, it sits open more readily because there isn't a heavy array of pockets pulling the lip of the bag down, and is ready to be customized according to my needs.

Even when it left the factory - organizer pocket intact - my bag was downright simple compared to the modern daypack. Daypack design has gotten a little silly: the more specialized pockets, ports, sleeves, techy functions, fobs, and space age suspension technology a bag has, the more X-Treme you are, and the more money you will be separated from and ... the more doomed you are to throw away the bag as soon as your needs change. Think of it: you buy a new bag to fit your stuff. Your stuff breaks, or gets replaced with new stuff, or you stop using this stuff, or somebody invents a new piece of stuff that has an entirely different form-factor ... then you have pockets and features that are no longer relevant.

What if you don't have an MP3 player? Or you want to put it somewhere other than the specialized, padded media-pocket with a custom port for the headphones? What if you buy a bag with a padded pocket for your 12-inch laptop, then upgrade to a 15-inch? What if the water reservoir that came in the special insulated hydration-sleeve breaks or gets funky (it happens) and the new one you buy has the tube-thingy coming out of the wrong part and so doesn't reach out of the special hydro-hole and so on?

Custom pockets and padding and extra zippers add weight and more points of failure, and often stay empty for want of the Right Sized Thing. My bag, a Timbuk2 large Classic Messenger Bag (made in San Francisco), on the other hand, is insanely durable and beautifully flexible. In the one pocket of my bag, I have at different times carried a case of beer and snacks (ahem, to share), a full-size bike stand (a four foot long box ... it stuck out), camera bodies and multiple lenses, groceries, full picnics for a family of four on the beach or in the mountains (then all the rocks and stuff we collected to take home), and small ad hoc reference libraries. Basically, I can carry more in my bag than is wise, comfortable, or safe for anyone to carry while riding a bicycle. Of course when I only have a few things in it, it collapses to fit. It has no frame or foam suspension. It's a bag: it has the shape of the things it is carrying.

I do have the need to organize and carry small things: bike tools, pump, lights for night riding, food, extra clothes, books, journal, pencils and pens, and various other possibles. I have cheap little ditty bags and stuff sacks for all the things I carry, each one perfectly suited to my purposes because I chose it. If my needs change, I swap out the cheap bags. I put my laptop in a neoprene 'sleeve' that fits it like a glove. If I were to buy a bigger laptop, I'd get a different sleeve to fit it. What happens if the sleeve is stitched into the bag? And for that matter, what does the pocket do when you leave your laptop at home? What else do you put in a permanent, rectangular, foam-padded pocket? A very carefully folded sweater?

Bags with tons of pockets are also a serious liability in the rain. Bags with a lot of pockets and openings either have to use waterproof zippers and specially sealed seams (every stitch point is a point of entry for water in a downpour) or must be under a waterproof cover. My bag has one large, vinyl-coated, rain-proof flap, with no zippers to fail. Simple, beautiful, and durable.


(One extra provision I make for the possibility of really bad weather is the stuff sack that holds my rain gear: this bright orange bag is also waterproof. If the weather turns bad, the rain gear comes out and anything really sensitive to moisture goes inside the bag as extra insurance against water finding its way in.)

(low) tech writer principles. Rigid compartmentalization and design complexity limit flexibility and shorten the lifespan of a thing: complexity wears out its welcome sooner than simplicity. Complex things slow you down, require more maintenance (of a more specialized kind), solve problems you probably don't have, and cost more in the bargain.

Simplicity in design is more enduringly functional, flexible, adaptable, durable, and inexpensive (both on the day you buy it and when you need to repair it).

05 August 2009

More on Simple Toys & the boxes they come in

It's the simple toys that last, and that have a lasting impact. In our house we occasionally clean out the closets of old toys. Massive piles of colorful plastic are thereby doomed to landfill (you'd be surprised how un-recyclable these things are). Each addition to the pile stirring feelings of mild parental shame; each missing a small piece essential to its function, or missing something altogether more essential than just a part. The toys that remain are missing nothing, except perhaps marketability. ... The giraffe, the duck with the floppy feet made of old bicycle tubes on wheels that go flap-flap as you push it around, the little wooden car, unpainted, colored darker brown where handling has stained it. (The pic below is from DoodleTown Toys, a 37 year old maker of classy wooden toys. Click the picture to see their web site, and some really wonderful tiny toys. I like the Doodle Dozer and the Doodle Pickup.)

These unpainted, unpowered, analog, silent, and imagination-ready toys don't get old, and don't get thrown away. When you're done with one of these toys, they are given away to serve for a season in someone elses home. They are simple but come to life when a child projects their imagination onto them. Kids need a blank space to project onto.

With these toys, the less provided, the more room we have to add our own stories, to really make a toy a part of our story. They are the truly beautiful toys, that are quiet enough (in every way) to allow our children to think, to begin to dream. It's not really that there are too few of them, it's that there are too many of the other kind ... noisy, plastic, electronic, brightly colored toys-with-an-agenda that clog the shelves.

Some toy designer somewhere is thinking about adding even more lights, more sounds, more chips to toys. Toys have to compete with computers now, is how the story goes. It talks to you! It's more lifelike! It follows you around! It responds to your commands! It sings-and-shows-you-the-notes-on-an-LCD-screen-so-you-can-learn-to-read-music-before-you-turn-three!

My son has a robot toy that occasionally gets woken up (with the push of a button, if the batteries aren't dead) to do it's pre-programmed dance (to pre-programmed music). But that's it. It will break soon, or we'll get tired of providing the four D batteries required, and it will go to whatever place these clever-complex toys go when they die (I have my theories). Sometimes I wonder if we aren't already there, when he tells me all about this years' model with it's much more realistic robot dance.

Once, when my daughter was very little, her grandparents came home from a trip with a stuffed monkey from the airport (warning). Yes, I'm talking about you, Mom and Dad. Its fur was a kind of hyper sparkly white, and it held a red satin heart that had some earnest expression of affection written in white cursive on it. When they handed it over, and showed her how to squeeze the heart, that little howler monkey from hell began to shake ... and ... shriek. Repeatedly. I remember the look on their faces: a kind of embarrassed thrill. They had clearly scored points in some grandparent competition but seemed uncertain about their victory. There was nothing to do but bask in the ridiculous, momentary joy of their granddaughter and dodge the momentarily incoherent protests of her father. They don't have to worry. Even if I will remember this event, ahem, for the rest of my life, I think better of them than this. They are much more thoughtful than the howler monkey episode suggests. They are progressive and intelligent and my kids have not had more than their share of silly gifts. It's a grandparent thing. I will have my moments when I get there, I'm sure.

To balance this painful memory, I recall the time my dad used his jigsaw to cut a rifle shape out of plywood for me. No paint. No moving parts. No logos or names on it. Talk about room for imagination! So cool. Or the times he helped me trick out cardboard boxes for play. Now there is a plaything to make a wooden car seem high-tech. In a flash of brilliance, a toy museum in New York inducted the humble Cardboard Box into its hall-of-fame (next to Barbie and GI Joe and an old Atari).

Empty boxes are ready to be filled with stories. Yes, kids will shriek with joy when they get the hot new toy, as seen on TV. Yes, it's great to get a really big gift. But the truly blessed will recognize that it's not the size of the gift ... it's the size of the box it came in.

At the end of any holiday, a kid should have a cardboard box to climb into, if only to shut out the noise and light and have some discretionary quiet time. If it was socially acceptable for grown-ups to climb into a cardboard box, with a blanket and stuffed bear perhaps, maybe there'd be less people climbing into a bottle at the end of the day.

My best cardboard-box memory has a techy twist: I set up a box in the garage and punctured it with a string of Christmas-tree lights so that I could pretend I was inside the blinking cockpit of an X-Wing fighter. Yes, I converted my simple, low-tech box into a high-tech cockpit from the future! I see the irony, but it was my choice. I made that X-Wing fighter. It was my imagination fueling the creation, and the thing lasted precisely as long as my imagination did: a few days. There was no grief when the whole thing was broken down and the Christmas tree lights went back on the shelf. Nobody was upset about wasting good money, and I got a memory a hundred times more powerful than any packaged, licensed, authentically-styled, battery-powered Star Wars X-wing with authentic sounds and lights could ever provide.

01 July 2009

CAUTION - A toy that never goes away



In total contrast to the toy that once belonged to the power transformer of the previous post (which has disappeared from our lives for reasons that may include, but shall not be limited to, a) failure of electronics, b) boredom deriving from the limited electronic function, c) breaking of shiny and colorful but flimsy plastic enclosure, or d) inability to find the power transformer of the previous post when needed), the toy in the above picture has been a part of our lives and a fixture in our family room for something close to fifteen years. Seriously, for no other reason than we never got tired of it, this thing won't go away. Not only do visiting children instantly straddle it to roll around the room, but our kids occasionally do, and they are 12 and 16 years old.

'Nuff said.

CAUTION-ELECTRIC TOY


'nuff said?

23 June 2009

The smells of success


My family just spent some time at a lake house as guests of good friends. It was a nice vacation: I think we all got the kind of readjustment that we were looking for. There was water-skiing, swimming, sun-worshiping, fishing, and ... we even got in a hike to a small jewel of an alpine lake called Crystal Lake (that's my happy place). There was also much consuming of barbecued meat, and, although you can do that back home, for some reason barbecued meat tastes better next to a lake at 5000 feet surrounded by friends and by pine trees that are catching the setting sun after a day of fun when you know you get to have another day of fun right after that. I think that's a culinary principle.

To get to this lake, we had to cross over the Pacific Crest, the high-elevation spine that runs through California. I love the change in atmosphere as you climb out of a hot-and-dry valley like the Hwy. 5 corridor. First the temperature changes--but not like you'd think: the air is crisper and feels colder, but the sun is more intense, so it can feel hotter. The air is thinner, which means you'll be out of breath for a few days, but your body will adjust. Then there is the smell. On a drive like this, I can't wait to roll the windows down and be done with the air-conditioning (and air-recycling) needed to survive a hot valley highway jammed with traffic: up high, the air seems so much more breathable. It's the smells.

Above 4000 feet, the air smells fresher, cleaner, and richer. You can smell the herbal shrubs when the sun hits them and they release their perfume. You can smell some of the giant trees, like the pines that cover these mountains. You can even smell the dirt ... and it smells good. One of the most powerful (and I'm ashamed to say, most satisfying) smells comes when a logging truck carrying felled pine trees passes your car. I know that's not so p.c., but the trees are logged sustainably in this area, and anyways, it is such a surprise to smell something good behind a truck that it catches me a little off-guard.

Speaking of trucks, two of the families at our house towed boats up to the lake. One was a fishing boat, and the other was a sport boat that pulled the water skiers. Both of these boats were towed by the original giant sequoia of the road, the Chevy Suburban. Though I am a low-and-green-tech kind of guy who would like to see less big gas-burning cars on the road, I can't deny that these are the very cars you need when towing six people and a boat up to the mountains. Or, as one of the dads said as sixteen of us piled into the two Suburbans for our trek up to the trailhead for an afternoon of hiking, "... Probably the most fuel-efficient way in the world to move 16 adults and kids up to 7000 feet. Prius just wouldn't do it."

I'm inclined to agree, and anyway, this is not the crowd to blame for SUVs crowding the roads in the cities and suburbs: these families are actually using their trucks as trucks. But too many people buy SUVs for their (perceived) safety, their (very-real) projection of power, or the (dubious) image of success they bestow, and then proceed to drive them like cars to and from the market and soccer games. The Suburban has the right size engine for towing and climbing mountains, but way too much engine when all you're towing is ego and attitude. Just because you can afford the gas to drive an empty truck doesn't mean you have a right to burn it: that aroma on the roads of Silicon Valley just may be the unintended smell of success.

When our families arrived at the trailhead for our hike to Crystal lake, one of the moms got out of the car, took a deep breath and said, "Oh! It smells so good here!" And it did. I said to her, "There's lots of good smells back home too, we just don't know it, because there are too many other smells on top of the good ones." I don't like the idea that it can only smell good far away from home. That sweet smell of the naked earth, uncluttered and unmasked, was one of the rewards at the end of our long ascent. But what about those hidden smells back home? How should our home towns smell?

As in the case of the giant, pine-scented logging trucks laboring over the mountains, one powerful smell can mask another. On mountain roads, I learned, pine trumps diesel (and how cool is that?). Back home in the Bay Area, the smells of nature are more subtle and diffuse than cut-pine: as a bicycle commuter who often spends time wedged between SUVs, I can tell you what smells are winning. I wonder: is there anyone still living here in suburbia who remembers what this place really smells like?

16 June 2009

A lover's quarrel

My friend Heather writes a beautiful, honest post about returning home to Georgia and the tension of how things change. She talks about Georgia like one might a former boyfriend--winsome memories of lovable qualities, and a hard encounter with all the reasons why it could never have worked out .... Her clear-headed reflection on the imbalance in the urban/rural relationship is itself balanced and evocative.

When I return, I feel...I feel betrayed. Atlanta has sprawled beyond her rightful and necessary boundaries. Or you could say the symbol Atlanta is of urban commerce has overrun its banks and flooded the rural landscape that gives that commercial river the right to flow in the first place. I'm not naive enough to say that commerce is bad or that cities are bad but I am principled enough to say that when the balance of urban and rural gets knocked off its fragile footing both sides lose.



From Heather's blog, Garden Street Farm: A song of you comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.

09 June 2009

Upside Down

Once I held the impressive title of Director of Marketing at a Java software company .... Ok, the truth is that the company belonged to my friend Steve, and he was in fact the only employee, #1 of one, until I came along. He asked me to help him staff his booth at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco. He made business cards for me with my new title on it. Steve had written a Java Obfuscator (what?) and I was doing some marketing/communication work for him at the time, so I understood his product as well as any of the other attractive young people who handed out brochures at conferences. Yes, I was a booth babe.

It was a blast being on the floor at a tech convention during a peak time in the industry, and we had a choice location. We were right inside the main doors, so that every single one of the 30,000 attendees walked right by our spot. I did a fair job of introducing his product and liked working with him. But the real fun was in walking around the huge hall at Moscone Center and just looking at all the stuff. When else was I going to be at a Java software convention? It was like walking around a city in a foreign country. This was back in the boom times, when companies gave away serious hardware for free. Each paid attendee at the conference got a brand-new Palm V, loaded with conference software.

I didn't do that well, but I came home from that event with a bag full of exceptional swag: logo key chains, stress balls, flashlights, all of it carefully designed so that we would remember ... something about some company being the premier provider of solutions that I'm confident had something to do with Java. My kids got it all ... except one piece of treasure I still use (and who can say that about their Palm V? Beam me your contact info, anyone? ... Anyone?). I visited the booth for Upside, a technology-and-money magazine that I used to read, where I managed to score a nice big UPSIDE mug. I'm drinking my coffee out of it as I write this, and I am almost awake.



This is still the largest coffee mug in my kitchen--almost ten years later--and that's saying something in America, where any technology for delivering food or drink doubles in capacity every decade (I believe that's Moore's law of American food consumption). It had the word "UPSIDE" printed in huge letters on it, with the words "PEOPLE TECHNOLOGY CAPITAL" in smaller letters under it. I say had, because those words are now entirely missing from the mug. Worn off, or faded, or gone to wherever all the money went.

Now you can just barely see where the words were. At the moment, it looks a little like one of those ceramic mugs that has a secret word or picture that materializes when you put a hot or a cold drink into it, the novelty item that reveals a hidden surprise when conditions are right. Only conditions will never be right for this UPSIDE to reappear. Sounds like the year 2000 and the promise of the dotcom market. Is my mug big enough to contain such an overblown metaphor? It is big enough that I will not need any more coffee today. After this post, maybe I should cut back.

12 May 2009

25 March 2009

Signs of The End

Signs that we are in the last days: police action in the wild-lands of Palo Alto. On the very same day as my encouraging visit to Peet's, I was walking in Arastradero Park, in the foothills above Palo Alto. This is no city park: there are no lawns, no landscaped flower-beds, no bandstands--just 10 miles of beautiful trails.



A great effort has been made at Arastradero to return this suburban open space to wilderness. But wild is as wild does.

After shooting some pictures of wildflowers just off the trail, I was met by a ranger (where DID she come from?) who scolded me for leaving the path--a violation of park rules. This picture is the evidence of my shameful transgression.

OK, I know, because she told me, that this park gets "loved to death", and that the rules are there to preserve this natural beauty for future generations. But the whole experience made me feel like I was in a museum, or a zoo, except in some zoos you get to go through the fences and pet the goats. Look at that trail. It's beautiful. Isn't it spoiled, just a bit, by a "Keep Off The Grass" sign?

I've written about this kind of madness before. If I cut off a trail at the same place as a hundred other people, or if I choose to walk just to the side of a trail to avoid the mud in the low track, then I would be contributing to visible wear on the ecosystem. But is it really going to scar the planet if I leave the trail at a random point to walk out in the grass a bit for a different view? Please.

No matter what justification is offered--and it all has a kind of grim logic about it--who can be happy about such barriers arising between human beings and nature? There are many more disturbing things in the world, but this still feels to me like one more sign of the apocalypse.

Signs of Hope

Signs of hope ... that we Silicon Valley peoples aren't totally enslaved to our devices. A couple days ago, in a local Peet's, I counted a total of no laptops. You read that right. I also counted no smartphones, no handheld computers, no Internet surfing technologies whatsoever. The place has wifi, but the clientele seemed totally unconcerned that they were falling behind on their email. And the place was full of coffee drinkers: can you drink coffee and not be productive?

There was the old couple in the corner mostly being quiet and looking out the window (searching for ...?). There was the family of four (mom, dad, teen girl, tween boy) sitting around a small table and talking, not on phones, but all in-person and stuff. There was the guy in the corner reading a book, printed on a pre- e-paper technology called, confusingly, paper. There was the man chatting with the store manager, who sat next to him on a bench against the wall.

And just in case you don't know how strange this is, in case you live in a town where it's normal to go out in public to be with people, consider the case of the Red Rock Coffee shop, a mile or so down the street. I was in the Red Rock today. I love the Red Rock. Good coffee. Good art. Good vibe. Good grief: I counted twenty-eight laptops.

16 March 2009

Timing and Technology, A Pattern Language

One of my very favorite books is A Pattern Languageby Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. The book is ostensibly about architecture, detailing how to design and build the places we live, from the regional scale down to the nook in the corner of a child's room. It is a beautiful manifesto for simple, economical, ecological, human-centered design; I know of nothing better to have come out of the 70s. Inside this 1200 page book are about 250 patterns, each describing a principle, a pattern, that is essential to designing and building livable, humane spaces and communities.

But the beauty of The Pattern Language is that you quickly come to realize that the patterns being described are not limited to application in the world of architecture. Alexander says in his introduction that he hopes "that a great part of this language ... will be a core of any sensible human pattern language, which any person constructs for himself, in his own mind" (my emphasis). To read how Alexander lays out the pattern for the furniture in rooms (Pattern 185, Sitting Circle), or for the essential businesses in a town (88, Street Cafe, etc.), you get the idea very quickly that the patterns all assume that the reason for design is to accommodate life, not economic forces or engineering principles. The book has the effect (whether or not you are in a position to build your own home) of awakening an appreciation for community and humanity that has been somewhat dampened by the design of modern social spaces. The book is inspiring, and gives me a sense of expectation that good things can happen between people when technology doesn't get in the way.

Technology, by definition, is the application of scientific knowledge for the purpose of increasing efficiency in any practical endeavor. There is nothing wrong with technology in itself. Problems come when a technological solution is pursued blindly, hastily, and at the expense of the potential intuitive solutions that are much better suited to a local context. Technology is tied to efficiency, and efficiency is tied to questions of scale. It makes a certain economic sense to mass-produce formulaic solutions that can sell, or communicate, across cultures. Technology often provides the most efficient and economical solution. But, does it ever provide the best solution? Getting back to architecture, Alexander argues that normal people are fully able to discern, design, and build their own unique living and work spaces, and that they will do the best job of it for the least amount of money, too. Does that sound radical? Why should it? It wasn't that long ago when that was the way it was done. Today, we assume that anyone who builds their own home is either a licensed contractor or just quaint (think of people that gather for barn-raisings, all beards and buttons and suspenders). Alexander intends to provide "an alternative to technocratic and rigid ways of building that have become the legacy of the machine age and modern architecture" ... for normal people, not only contractors and the quaint.

I've been reading the book for three or four years (not unheard of with me and certain books) and I'm almost done. I recently came to a moment late in the book where I was stunned to realize just how serious Alexander is about providing alternatives to rigidity. This moment, spanning two patterns that come into play as a subject begins to build their house, perfectly expresses when and how to embrace technology.

In pattern 212 (Columns at the Corners), Alexander describes the standard architectural practice of hiring a draftsperson to create blueprints from a design and then turning them over to a contractor, who relies on the drawing to raise the house on-site. But, he says, this practice "cripples buildings". Not only does it force a kind of rigidity on a design and put too many technological barriers between design and construction, but it will be doomed to frequent revision as the builder encounters a multitude of problems on site not imagined when the design was committed to paper. Many trips back and forth between contractor and designer and client result. This scenario, which threatens to suck a property owner dry of enthusiasm and money, might be eliminated if the client could be both the designer and builder, and skip the whole blueprint stage entirely.

Oddly enough, the way I first learned about A Pattern Language was by reading the account of a writer who decided to build a small writing hut on his property. Odd because he falls into the very trap Alexander is preaching against. When the floor of his hut was laid, a mistake in measurement was discovered: the foundation was ever so slightly off-square, and it could not be easily or cheaply fixed. With horror, the author and his handyman realized that the whole building was now going to need customizing. Every subsequent piece of the building would need to be finished with a slight angle to fit the whole, a situation described as catastrophic. I guess this author failed to read or take seriously the part of Pattern Language where Alexander suggests that they could have scribbled the design on the back of an envelope, and then walked the site pounding in stakes where the corners felt right, with no concern for uneven lines or imperfect angles. In case you didn't get that: Alexander is really saying that precise blueprints are not necessary. In fact he would rather they be rejected: in the pattern language, the design process doesn't end until well after you mark out the corners of your building, with chalk or stakes or whatever. The beauty of this organic process, as it is described, is that the design grows around the realities of the environment ... and the concerns of the people who will live there. Stand in "the kitchen" and you'll realize that the wall with the window and sink will need to be bigger, and perhaps angled differently to take in that particular view ... no sweat: move the stakes. Change the size of rooms according to your experience of the site, and obsess ye not over right-angles. Amen.

But before the reader can swear on a stack of building codes never to step foot inside a house where design and construction are happening all at once, we move on to pattern 213 (Final Column Distribution). In this pattern the question is asked how the "spacing of columns" is effected by the size of rooms and number of stories, and the chapter is sensibly free of any organo-hippie vibe. Having just told you in 212 to put the corner columns wherever feels right to you, Alexander goes on in 213 to detail the complex technical formula for determining how to design a wall, with it's intermediate columns, to support the weight of a roof and additional upper-story rooms. And this technical, industry-standard formula comes just in time. It is important for walls to be able to support a roof - this will provide many holistic benefits to the occupants of a home, like not dying under a collapsed roof when you slam a door, or not dying under a collapsed roof when the wind blows, and so on. I believe it is axiomatic that one should not take shelter in a home where the compressive load-bearing capacity of its walls has been intuited organically.

If technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, then there is a time and a place for it in all aspects of our lives. Technology can be a lifesaver. However, apply it too early in a design process and it cripples our products and projects, our homes and communities. They become cold and rigid--we fear any imperfection in them. They will be impersonal and homogeneous, ill-suited to our unique context or environment. You can see the results of an overly technological architecture everywhere you turn in suburbia: homes built according to some remote architect's bland, marketable standard of what a beautiful home should look like ... and when such "homes" are planted on a typical suburban half-lot, these mini-mansions look like part of a demonic plot to destroy a neighborhood. The best thing you can say about them is that they won't fall down in a storm ....

Let's adopt this as a (low) tech writer principle: let individual or community wisdom, forged-in-context, dictate the unique shape of your house, project, product, or organization. Take time to listen for, intuit, and live with the implications of the designs you are working on. Only after organically discerning the shape and scale of a new project should you consult outside "experts" (or formulas). These may aid in developing levels of structure efficiently, but such expert witnesses will seldom have your local, contextual perspective, and so should not under any circumstances be allowed to dictate design.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs 24:3 says, "By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." This is the original idea of getting the order right in building. "Wisdom", it says elsewhere in Proverbs, is the product of a healthy reverence (awe) for God. In the biblical context, of course, this is referring to the need to listen to God before you start anything that bears The Name, whether a building or a military campaign. In other contexts, the same reverent attention to the names associated with a venture is called for: the name of the family that will dwell in a home; the name of a town where a business is starting up. How does the life of these communities, small and large, dictate the design of the structures that will serve them? The getting of wisdom has to come first in the building of anything, a home or a life. Later, once the foundation is understood and laid, it's gifts of a more intellectual kind (not less sacred) that come into play: the understanding of compressive load-bearing capacities that makes it possible to raise a structure, and the knowledge of the community that dictates the filling of the structure with the stuff that makes a place livable and pleasant. But wisdom is needed to determine the shape of a thing, not technology or intellectual precision. And wisdom comes from a reverence for the life that a thing is meant to serve.

A companion volume to A Pattern Language is The Timeless Way of Building.This book takes a higher-level view of the philosophy of building towns and buildings.

15 March 2009

09 March 2009

Homemade Flute

I have often wished that I could play a musical instrument, but the learning curve seemed to be too steep. And while I have once or twice tested the waters (Learn Harmonica in 30 Minutes a Week!), I didn't have the energy to pursue it. My parents gave me a chance back when I was in elementary school. I missed catechism at St Bartholomew's that year because I was taking trumpet lessons at West Elementary in Hillsborough. It just so happens that I learned how to play the trumpet from the man that taught Ansel Adams how to play the piano. I take some comfort in the fact that Ansel Adams didn't become famous as a pianist, just like how I didn't become famous as a trumpeter. I can't wait to become famous for the other thing, just like Ansel Adams got famous for his other thing.


But I still wished I could play something and if I could have picked an instrument to play it would have been the flute. A couple months ago, I found designs on the Web for a make-your-own PVC flute. For less than a dollar, I got a scrap of PVC plumbing and followed the directions, and you're looking at the results. I am now the proud owner of my very own flute.

I've been able to pick out some songs on it, even though I can't read music. The trick seems to be that if I have a tune in my head, then I can play it with some practice. As it turns out, the tunes I have in my head are hymns, so I can play Amazing Grace, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, and another one the name of which I can't remember, but if you were here I could play it for you.

What I love about the whole thing, is that I'm playing music right now without anyone telling me how to do it: no learn-to-play-in-thirty-minutes-a-week techniques, just me. I suppose I could take lessons some day, and maybe spend a few hundred on a real flute, but for now I'm loving that I'm enjoying a nice low-tech, low-cost musical renaissance. I'm still not famous, but I am enjoying myself.

23 February 2009

22 February 2009

Old Atlases, Printed Maps


There is another book that I like to put on my music stand (see my previous post on old dictionaries): my old Times Atlas of the World, found in a used bookstore 10 years ago. It's old enough to show a divided Germany, Leningrad-in-the-USSR instead of St. Petersburg-in-Russia, and countless other geo-anachronisms, but oh, is it beautiful to look at. And really, do we care what the politicians say about where the borders are, or whose ego is institutionalized on the city masthead? Yes, ok, sometimes we do need to know such facts. But that's what Internet maps are good at. I am well aware of the other ways that computerized maps and atlases are superior to the soon-to-be obsolete printed variety: they are up-to-date (i.e. -to-the-minute), truly comprehensive, and augmented in infinite ways with personalized layers of meaning (see the history of natural disasters for the city you're visiting, or see where the coffee shops are).

Claims of comprehensiveness and currency in a printed atlas always assume you will buy the latest version, which, if you are buying a nice atlas, may run you a few hundred dollars. And why would you not buy a nice atlas? You can get ugly atlases online. So, my recommendation for the killer combination? A nice old Atlas (cheaper, probably prettier, and still 90% accurate) and the Internet to supplement your old beauty with the latest facts. The picture above, of Oban, in Scotland, is from my old Times atlas (be sure to click on the image to see a bigger version).

I love maps, and love studying maps of a place before, and after, visiting it for real. My introduction to maps was via the topographic maps produced by the United States Geological Survey, used by everyone from soldiers to miners to hikers for navigating in the wilderness. There was a USGS office in Menlo Park, a few miles from where I grew up, so we got to browse the beautiful, poster-sized, four-color maps whenever we wanted. On a trip to my wife's family home in Greece, I visited that country's equivalent of the USGS, the Greek Army Mapping Office. My brother-in-law and I were planning to climb Mt. Olympus, and I also had plans to camp out in the Peloponnese. When I asked for the maps that covered the westernmost finger of that peninsula, the army officer looked at me suspiciously. He fetched his commanding officer and they grilled me: "Why do you want to go there? There is no camping there! What is your business?" I tried to assure them (with the help of my Greek brother-in-law) that I was just going to find a place to put down my bag on the coast and enjoy the sea and stars. They never did give me that map. I forgot about the incident until I was awakened on my hillside perch near Koroni, overlooking the Mediterranean, by what sounded like bombs going off. What had sounded like bombs going off was in fact bombs going off .... Turns out the Greek Air Force likes to practice their aim on the little island of Skhiza, which was just about a mile south of my sleeping bag. I watched jets looping and dropping bombs for an hour. No wonder the army guy was suspicious.

Since I can't show the map with Skhiza on it (ahem) ... here is my Greek Army Map of Cape Tenaron, about 40 miles southeast of my camping spot near Koroni. Maybe nothing is as interesting as being woken up by jets dropping bombs at the foot of your sleeping bag, but the topo map below shows the tip of the Mani Peninsula, itself a very interesting place: in the cove near the southern end, surrounded by wind-torn, razor-sharp white rock and ancient ruins, is the cave of Tenaron, the mythical entrance to Hades.



Strangely, USGS topo maps were the thing that reignited my interest in computers, after many years of abstinence: in the mid-nineties, a San Francisco company, Wildflower Productions (now owned by National Geographic), was scanning all the topographic maps for the United States, in various scales, digitally stitching them together, and adding tools for searching and customizing. When I first got a look at their product on the shelves at REI where I worked, I called the company and asked them what I needed in my new computer (the one I didn't have yet) to run their product. At the time, I didn't care what else the computer could do.

I still have a soft spot for this product because it's based on pictures of real maps, made to be held in your hand. The computerized version allows me to look at topo maps for anywhere in the country, and of course you can't own that many printed maps. I understand how computers add value here. But I still say printed maps and atlases are so much more beautiful and satisfying to hold. And they provide much the same opportunity for serendipitous discovery that a printed dictionary does, as I detailed in my previous post. The maps in my world atlas are produced by the famous John Bartholomew & Son cartographers in the UK. Their maps, especially the old, hand-lettered ones, are so pretty to look at, and so clear. Am I repeating myself?



If you can afford the already-obsolete current edition of the Times World Atlas (obsolete, because world atlases go out-of-date about as fast as newspapers these days), here is a link to the Twelfth Edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. But my strong recommendation is to search your local used bookstore for an older version, if only for the joy of the maps.

Old Dictionaries, Old Meanings


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09 February 2009

More Homemade Stuff - Not Just For Hippies

If Panasonic were to make a lens hood for my LX3 digital camera, it would probably cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50. All the accessories for this camera are ridiculously expensive.


I wanted a way to protect my little camera from the rain and ended up with a perfect lens hood in the bargain, for about 2 dollars and a half-hour of work. The project was featured on instructables.com (where you can read about the benefits of the hood, and the process of customizing a $2 piece of plumbing for my high-end digicam):

Digital Lens Hood / Rain Hood on instructables.com

One of a number of clearing houses for the DIY set, instructables.com is a great place to find elegant (or funky) ways to solve any problem you can think of, usually for cheap or free, from recycled or otherwise lowtech stuff. Make Magazine (and their Web space and blog) also features daily projects for solving problems in ways that will save you lots of money and give you lots of low-tech satisfaction: solve a problem by making something and you are beating a socioeconomic system that only knows how to offer prepackaged, mass-produced solutions for high prices.

07 February 2009

31 January 2009

Andy Goldsworthy on Tech


Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy writes on his process: "The work itself determines the nature of its making. I enjoy the freedom of just using my hands and 'found' tools - a sharp stone, the quill of a feather, thorns. I am not playing the primitive. I use my hands because this is the best way to do most of my work. If I need tools, then I will use them. Technology, travel and tools are part of my life and if needed should be part of my work also. A camera is used to document, an excavator to move earth, snowballs are carried cross country by articulated truck."*

I am very comfortable with this pragmatic approach to technology. The problem (here begins my opinion) is not technology, in itself, it's in the adoption of technology, or technique, as "the way" (or even "the best way") to fulfill a desire. When a community (artists, for example) discovers a piece of technology that makes a part of their job easier, or a technique is developed that introduces efficiencies into a process, this is not a bad thing, per se. But if technique precedes meditation, exploration, and inspiration, then creativity withers.

-----
*From the introduction, Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature.Take a look at Andy Goldsworthy's other books at Amazon.The DVD, Rivers and Tides is a very good documentary, rich and satisfying. Remember, if you can find these books at a local independent bookstore, get on your bike and go. Photo of The Neuberger Cairn (2001) at SUNY, is from Wikimedia Commons, and is in the public domain.

24 January 2009

Old Places (The San Gregorio Store)


From the so-close-and-yet-so-wonderfully-far-away dept., a 30 minute drive from Silicon Valley will take you to a place that feels far, far away and a long time ago. The San Gregorio Store is a place that could be the Anti-Tech Museum. The single building is essentially the downtown of a sub-300-population oceanside community (most of which is not visible from the store), what used to be a hotel and hub for San Franciscan weekenders in stagecoaches.

The store, which has been in operation for 120 years, is simple in architecture, and is filled with stuff of simple goodness. While, on the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains, Silicon Valley patrons can now sit down in restaurants with touch-screens for ordering their food (and then for playing video games), the San Gregorio Store has no flickering screens at all. It does have a historic bar to sit at where conversation happens, and tables set up by a wood stove and shelves of books for borrowing (and others for buying).

The store is isolated enough to stock some essential groceries, but not so much that you'd come here if you needed to stock up. But you can find a good selection of local beers (at the bar and in the fridges), oil lamps, glassware, denim, cast iron cookware, some good looking puzzles, socially progressive reading matter ("World Atlas of Biodiversity"), posters (of Bob Marley, Albert Einstein, and Marian Anderson, for example) and bluegrass music (live, if you come at the right times). In what may be the only nod to the store's proximity to Silicon Valley, you won't find cowboy hats here, only "cowtechnician hats".

It is a country store, but "country" in the way that only a large metropolitan area like the San Francisco Bay Area can produce. In other words: liberal, humanist, and intellectual, where in some other places, "country" might mean conservative, hick, and unread. Bay Area "country" means laid back ... in a socially and politically intense kind of way. The prices also betray the fact that the store is close to a major metro area: it's a bit hard for me to justify buying a t-shirt for over 20 bucks. But if that's the price of keeping a place like this on the map, then it's cheaper than a museum (and there is none of the staged feel of a museum to the San Gregorio Store).

The San Gregorio Store is on Hwy 84, just off the Pacific Coast Highway and just North of Pescadero, another old California town. Take 84 west from the store for one minute and you're at the Pacific Ocean, where the breakers will drown out all the noise and memory of the modern world. Take Hwy 84 east for thirty minutes and, as you re-enter the modern world, one of the first restaurants you'll come to is Buck's of Woodside, where bits of famous and ground-breaking computer technology are framed on the walls, gifts from famous and ground-breaking tech pioneers, many of whom were funded in part while lunching at Buck's with venture capitalists. That's the spectrum right there: the old towns of the Pacific Coast on one end of the 84, and a Silicon Valley deal-making hub on the other. Noisy waves to the west, bits of tech to the east. ... Go West, (low tech) traveler*.

The San Gregorio Store
 37°19'37.21"N
122°23'12.07"W

*that is, find the point on your compass which leads you away from industry and development for a spell, and go that way.

15 January 2009

Cast Iron



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08 January 2009

07 January 2009

Puzzles

My wife grew up doing puzzles with her family. I didn't quite understand the appeal until I got a look at the puzzles they did. They came in Gold colored boxes, without pictures to guide you, and were cut from 1/4 inch plywood. The pictures themselves were interesting, full of detail, and some of the shapes were cut to resemble iconic toys: rifle ... ballerina ... boat. Puzzles are very low key, non-competitive, and interesting. Anyone can walk by and spend a few minutes poking around looking for a piece to fit. Amazingly, our 15 year old and our 12 year old each sit at the puzzle table with us at the end of the day. We blast music and lean on each other. As family entertainment, this is low-tech gold.

We've bought puzzles over the years, when we could find ones that had some visual complexity, and the first thing we do, is throw away the picture. (It's surprising that most puzzles are of scenes with very little detail. How do you assemble a puzzle of a sunset scene, when most of it is sky and water?) We don't do a lot of board games together: it's hard to agree on one we all like, and sometimes the competition is hard on the family unit.

This year we found a puzzle made by Masterpiece Puzzlesfrom a picture of San Francisco by Eric Dowdle. After looking at the picture on the box long enough to determine that it was sufficiently complicated, we tore off the picture and chucked it. Oh, man, was this puzzle hard. We've been working on it, on and off, for two weeks.

It's a picture that, by itself, does not appeal to me--you see pictures like this in tourist shops in big cities. But in a puzzle, pictures like this, packed as they are with funny and quaint details are engrossing and entertaining.

In the picture below, you can see the 1000 piece puzzle under construction in my living room, along with a couple essential tools: hot tea to calm down the puzzle masters, and a spatula for moving little groups of assembled pieces without them falling apart. My wife keeps mumbling that her father would NOT approve of the spatula. I thought it was pretty smart.


It's even more detailed than it looks in this picture. Every building has distinctive window patterns, and they are crammed together in the work in such a way that it's really hard to understand how it all fits together until you see it done. Fun!

[Update. I found a company selling expensive wooden puzzles: they look beautiful and fun in the way I remember my in-law's puzzles, full of custom-cut pieces and interesting pictures. Stave Puzzles]


Here's the San Francisco puzzle for sale on Amazon (though if you have an independent local toy shop that you'd like to stay in business, call them first, please):

General's Semi-Hex 498 2 2/4 ... Reasons Why #1

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04 January 2009