Why my thermostat represents everything wrong with most consumer technology.

Using this thermostat, how would you decrease the temperature by one degree?

You press the down arrow twice to decrease the temperature by one degree. The first press merely lights up the display. Nothing else happens until you press another button.

It’s easy to imagine the “thinking” behind this:

  1. Let’s add a backlight.
  2. But wouldn’t it be annoying if it’s constantly on?
  3. So we’ll make it button-activated.
  4. But how will you know what to press if you can’t see the display?
  5. So we’ll make the first button press do nothing. It just turns on the display.
  6. Cool. Ship it!

But that’s stupid. The first three times I used this thermostat, I was irritated because I thought my button presses weren’t registering. Then I realized “Oh, the first press never does anything. It just turns on the light.”

I’ve “learned” to use it correctly, and I’m no longer confused. But I’m still annoyed, because I just want to quickly change the temperature. One poor design choice can turn a good user experience into one that is frustrating.

This might seem petty at first, but it’s exactly the kind of bizzaro-world design tradeoff that companies make all the time. Some edge-case priority (“What if they want to change the temperature when it’s kinda dark!?”) brings down the whole, daily experience of just using the thing.

Modern televisions and computer monitors suffer from this kind of thinking, too. Companies are so obsessed with making their hardware look sleek, they’ve hidden the buttons underneath the display, or on the side. The controls are barely labeled, and now in some cases: touch-sensitive! Not only is it hard to find the button you want, but by feeling around for it, you end up “pressing” everything.

Here’s how the thermostat should work.

Your first button press should work. If you press UP, the temp should go up. And yes, the backlight should come on, too. After changing the temperature five or six times, you’re not going to forget where the two big arrow buttons are, anyway.

But what if you do happen to be changing the temperature in the dark (or, less likely, defining a whole new heating schedule in the dark), and happen to press the wrong button? What’s the worst case scenario? Your house explodes? No, you’ll say to yourself “Oops, I pressed the wrong button.”

Not only is this more rational, it makes the manufacturer look smarter. Because of this thermostat, my daily relationship with Honeywell is that they annoy me. But if the backlight behaved sanely, I might actually say to myself “If I ever build a house, I might get one of these.” Sure, one rare night I might stumble out of bed in the darkness and press the wrong button (immediately followed by the right one). But I won’t blame Honeywell for my mistake.

Keep swimming. There’s always another side. You keep swimming until you reach it.

What if my arms get tired before then? What if I tread water too long and drown while looking for it? 

What if you don’t?

What if I get to the other side and the water is dark and murky?

What if it’s not? You don’t know. You have to swim. You have to keep swimming. 

What if there is no other side?

There’s no answer for that and I panic at the thought of being stuck in between nowhere and here. 

It’s easier to never leave.  

On Ash Wednesday and the Church's Modernization Problem

Internet, a fact about me you may find mockable: I self-identify as Roman Catholic. Obviously, it’s been a difficult road for me to realize and re-realize that I can’t turn away from the Church. After all, I’m an ardently pro-choice, anti-patriarchy feminist, an occasional dabbler in gayness, and I’m generally not in favor of sexually abusing children or protecting those who do so. I don’t really think I believe in God, either, but all of that is another post.

The point is: I’m Catholic, don’t fuck with me: I’ve thought more about this self-identification than any other I claim, and it’s been very difficult to make that declaration. My whole immediate family (and many close friends) have left the Church, and I don’t blame them at all (the opposite of mothers everywhere, my mother actually has occasional displeased talks with me because I do go to church). I guess, simply, I’ll never be comfortable with–or without–the Church.

TL; DR, I’m going to get ashes today. Every year of my adulthood, I’ve struggled with Ash Wednesday; I’ve come to realize it’s emblematic of the Church’s devastatingly stubborn refusal to modernize, or even consider that modernization is necessary. Here’s why: you walk around with ashes on your face on THE VERY DAY we traditionally read this Gospel at Mass:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.“

(Matthew 6: 1-8, 16-18; NIV)

Since childhood, this has seemed, well, hypocritical to me. These words, such an important part of Catholic doctrine (and extremely important to my personal Catholicism), are directly followed in the Mass by the believers receiving a mark to tell all the world "I went to church today! Lent is starting and I went to church, you guys! Did you go to church? No, you didn’t, and I can tell because you don’t have a black smudge on your forehead.”

Except, of course, that’s not always what it meant. Ashes, historically, are a symbol of repentance and prostration. As the tradition began, spreading ashes on your body was a way to debase yourself, and in so doing, best equip you for super-serious prayer and supplication to God. It was your sign to God and all around that you were humble and lowly, ready to receive God’s judgment, and hopefully, His help. As Christians appropriated it, it was also a symbol of your solidarity with Jesus’s suffering in the desert– we too are hungry and dirty, Lord. Even today, when you receive ashes, more old-school priests remind you that you ain’t shit compared to the awesomeness of God: “remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return.” The point: humility and debasement in order to best begin your meditation on the suffering of Christ and the power of God. To me, it’s really a beautiful rite. That’s why I still do it.

These days, churchgoing is less and less common. Our society is secular, our lives are for the most part not rooted in the Church anymore, even for people who consider themselves religious. Yet, there is a certain nobility and respectability that comes with churchgoing– what with the getting up early on Sunday and wearing your nice clothes and participating in church life and all that. I would guess that most people have a favorable opinion of churchgoers; if not of their beliefs, then of their devotion and dedication.

That’s why getting ashes on your forehead has, crazily, become an act of public piety as society has evolved. You know, like the hypocrites.

It’s easy to say “the Church is out of touch.” It’s worse though. I wrote about this in the early days of my blog: there’s an institutional resistance to any change at all. This isn’t nearly the most dangerous, frightening, or galling example of that. But it’s so symbolic: by refusing to cede even a little ancient doctrine to changing societal beliefs, you force believers into public hypocrisy. You force them to wear the mantle of the Dark Ages while living in the Digital Age– or leave. And you know what? They. Leave.

I’ll get my ashes today, I’ll meditate on their meaning, on my smallness, on the Universe’s hugeness and the unwavering power of love. Then they’ll be wiped away as I put my hat on to go home. Like me, like all things, they’ll be temporary. And just like that, the symbol and the Gospel retain their importance. Really, though, it’s only a tiny, Pyrrhic victory over a Church which devastatingly refuses to change, by someone who has tried in vain to leave. I learned long ago that I go to church not seeking to be forgiven, but desperately searching for ways to forgive the Church.

PS- I have had this as a draft for years. YEARS. I struggled with the fact that in decrying public piety, I was implicitly promoting my way of remaining in the Church and staying true to myself. I hope it’s clear that my discussion of my own churchgoing, my own struggle to stay Catholic, is for the purposes of illustrating my internal turmoil, and not to say, as the hypocrites do “see how great I am? I’m going to CHURCH.” If you feel, in reading this, like I’m still hypocrite, feel free to call me out. I’m trying to be as constructive as possible with this while still writing about my very personal dealings with Catholicism. And it feels a little impossible to discuss that without noting my own churchgoing habits, and describing my thoughts regarding the rituals therein.

You promised we’d see the world from up high. You promised we’d get close enough to the sun to always feel its heat on us. You promised we’d look down on everything below us and wonder how we ever thought we were happy down there. 

There’s no sun here. It’s damp and gray and the wind eats through my skin and settles in my soul. I’m dangling, I’m helpless and I miss the ground under my feet.

I want to ask you about promises. I want to ask about the sun and happiness. 

I’d ask, but I’m up here alone.

I want a hybrid LCD/e-ink display

A pattern I keep repeating:

“I could really use a copy of that book!" Unfortunately, either:
A. I already own a copy, but it’s in storage somewhere.
B. If I have it shipped to me, I’m stuck with a heavy, old, stupid book.

So I think "I should get a Kindle!” But then I’m stuck with another battery-powered thingamajig. (Hey, your possessions own you, you’re sick of hearing.)

Then I get annoyed by two facts:

1. Books I already own, I’d have to buy again to own digitally.
2. Even if I take the plunge, reading off a LCD sucks.


“OMG hybrids! Of course!”

I googled “Hybrid LCD e-ink screen”, and lo and behold, this Pixel Qi is apparently a thing. I think it’s just a screen technology and not actually a laptop you can buy, yet.

I didn’t read too hard, because my excitement lasted about four seconds.

I don’t want to go back to owning a PC. And there’s next to no chance Apple is going to do something like this. I’m this weird, edge-case dude living out of a backpack, who’s willing to sacrifice the iPad/Kindle form factor advantages to keep a few more cubic inches of plastic out of his life.

As for everyone else, e-ink or no e-ink, reading off a laptop screen is dumb. Apple knows that. And so Apple’s not going there.

Also I want a pony.

What bugs me about Yelp (and how to fix it)

I think I finally put my finger on it. I used to hate Yelp because the reviewers are so often unreasonably whiney. But hey, all reviewers are like that, right?

Now I’ve come around. Yelp is a great resource. By digging into the reviews and using my judgment to filter out the jerks, I’ve found some great places: Ethiopian food, LASIK, and a decent haircut.

But I still don’t like the whiny jerks. And now I know why. I used to work in food service, and I can tell you this: in the five years I waited tables, I was the worst server you could ever get, and also the best server you’ve ever had. Sometimes even both on the same day. It’s hard, it’s unpredictable, and sometimes: shit goes wrong.

You can’t properly review a restaurant (or service establishments in general) in just one visit. You go, you order one meal, you eat it, it’s great or it sucks, and the same is true for the service.

Here’s what I’d prefer. How about “Visit Reports” instead of “Reviews”?

You log in, you write about your most recent visit, including a star rating, and it gets attached and aggregated into your general review of the place.

I log in, search for Ethiopian food, click a restaurant, and there, as usual, is the list of reviews. But each review is actually the aggregated experience report of one particular user.

The best part is, now I can sort by things like descending number of visits, so if I want to favor users who are “regulars” instead of one-time tourists, I can do that.

Meanwhile, Yelp sees the amount of user-contributed content increase as users vie to log the most visit reports to their favorite places. And since Yelp has recently “Foursquared” their site with a geo-app, you could even highlight the number of “verified visits” each user has logged. This increases everybody’s credibility, and helps Yelp promote its mobile app.

Original Sin, or Thinking About This Way Too Much

Internet: I have the best cat.

(I mean, this house actually contains two cats, but one of them is a beast not of our choosing; a cat only inasmuch as she belongs to the genus Felis. She sucks.)

Anyway, the point. About my cat.

My cat, the non-sucky one, is the most affectionate animal I’ve ever been around. He actively seeks to cuddle with any human being in his vicinity, and he flops on his back to accept cuddles if they’re offered. He comes when he’s called. He responds to speech directed at him with chirps and meows. He greets me at the door every day when I come home from work.

His affection is so incredibly pure and heartbreakingly earnest. But I feel guilty every time he curls up on my chest, blocking my view of my computer screen:

The moment I took him from his brothers and sisters and the loving family that had raised him, we got in the car. Just he and I. He was 9 weeks old, and palm-of-hand tiny. Together, on a sweltering afternoon in July, in a car with no air conditioning, he and I made a two-and-a-half-hour drive from rural western Massachusetts to Brooklyn.

He was terrified. He mewled and trembled inside the hilariously-cavernous cat carrier I’d brought. He reached his tiny paws through the metal bars up to his shoulders. It wasn’t long before I relented and opened the carrier, but it didn’t make him feel better: he roamed around the car in screaming terror, more than once trying to hide under my feet near the pedals. When he finally realized there was no escaping this horrifying motion, he hid under the driver’s seat and howled in abject misery. About a half hour into the drive, I pulled over. I coaxed him out, and he was hyperventilating from heat and fear. I gave him some water, and he calmed down a bit.

As soon as we started moving again, he resumed breathing heavily and mewling. Finally, I took him in one hand, and held him close to my chest. I could feel his teeny heart fluttering. He was scared of the noise from the open window (remember, no A/C, leather seats), so I closed it. I turned the music down and clutched him as tightly as I could. After a little while, he only mewed every minute or so, seemed to calm down when I spoke to him, and was far less panicked than before. But if I loosened my grip, he got frightened all over again. So I drove for two hours in a sparely ventilated car in the July heat, with a kitten held tightly to my chest. We made it home, both of us exhausted and drenched in my sweat.


Sometimes, when he has fallen asleep in a room that was inhabited, only to wake and find he is alone, he runs through the house frantically, meowing for a token of acknowledgment until someone responds to him.  Although he is about 10 months old and nearly full-grown, he often tries to curl up under my chin as though he were still a tiny kitten. He has no qualms about laying on my chest, or above my head on the pillow, even though he’s now far too large to do either comfortably. When I’m on the couch or bed working on my laptop, he lays in the crook of my arm and rests his head on my chest. He needs to be as close to me as possible, purring all the while, occasionally kneading and making suckling sounds.

His expressions of affection mean so much to me, but they are so atypical of a cat. He’s never aloof or coolly disinterested. He falls over himself to be near me. And though I love the way he is, I can’t help but feel that my selfishness, my desire to have him even if it meant doing something traumatic, is what made him this way. He’s the pet I’ve always wanted, and he seems no worse for the wear. But I put a kitten through a truly terrifying experience to get this sweet cat, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel okay about that.

Sometimes you follow the dotted line through the jungle. Finding the right spot seems like an achievement in itself, but you’ve still gotta dig. You joyfully thrust in the shovel where the X should be. But then you dig until all you know is digging. When you find nothing, you check and re-check the map; you dig in nearby places just to be sure. You dig until there’s nowhere left to stand, and even then you keep telling yourself to try just a little longer, because oh, what you could be leaving in the ground.

And then you finally realize you’re standing on utterly destroyed earth, and all you have to show for it are blisters and wasted time. When do you finally let the shovel clatter to the ground? When do you admit that there is no gold?

And what if you’re wrong?

Music albums are dead, not dying, and am I a freak?

No one’s shocked anymore that digital downloads are destroying the record companies’ traditional sales model of using singles to sell albums, whether stored on CD or “packaged” as a virtual album. And with instant access to whatever track catches your ear on the radio or in a commercial, you’d expect sales of singles to be up compared to albums.

But damn. From The Real Death of the Music Industry:

“[Americans buy] just over 1 album per person per year now, and only 0.25 downloaded albums per year." Meanwhile, the volume of singles sold per capita is roughly 1000% of what it was in 1997.

I didn’t realize what a "strange” music customer I am until I saw this data.

Like many people, I stopped buying CDs years ago, making exceptions only when there’s no other way to get the music I want. And of course, any CD I buy is immediately ripped to my hard drive and stashed in the closet.

But singles? I would estimate I bought between fifteen and twenty albums in 2010. I can’t even think of a single I purchased. Sure, I love setting my hard drive to random and building custom playlists, but the idea of buying “just that one song” is almost totally alien to me.

Groundhog Day 2

A sequel that should be made. (Bill Murray mandatory, of course.)

Twenty years later, Phil the weatherman is divorced and unhappy again, and the universe decides he needs another dose of repetition to remind him that life is between the seams of the hours, not the hours themselves.

I recently rewatched Groundhog Day. Not only is it wonderful, but the nominally repetitive premise holds up amazingly well for the entire running time. Instead of getting old, it gets richer. In the course of re-living the same day over and over again, he learns to play the piano “overnight”, falls in love with the same woman a thousand times, repeatedly commits suicide, and learns the name and history of the town’s every resident.

As an actor, Murray has only gotten better over the years. A Groundhog sequel would be an opportunity to revisit not only Phil the weatherman in the present day, but also to see how the present day Murray inhabits his old stomping ground: a day without closure. 

Quicksilver is the messiah returned

Seven months ago, I switched from Windows to Mac.

I suppose no one likes to think of themselves as a “brand loyalist”. I stuck with the PC for so many years because:

  1. I like building my own systems. 
  2. Even “entry level” Macs are pricy (not overpriced; pricy).
  3. Switching meant migrating all my data, buying all new software, and re-learning everything the “Mac way”.
  4. I had my Windows PC super-configured down to the tiniest detail. One example: using a combination of ATI’s HydraVision and a little no-name program called Amazing Brass, I could “fling” windows from one monitor to the other using simple mouse gestures. That’s just one of many homegrown innovations I considered indispensable.

But I also knew Macs were better. And I was very sick of the crashes, incompatibilities and uncertainties that come with Windows. In July 2010, I bought a 13" MacBook Pro. Four months after that, I replaced my CD drive with a second, blazingly fast SSD drive.

And today, I installed Quicksilver.

Existing Mac nerds will ask “What took you so long?”, while Windows holdouts will ask either "What is that?“ or "Is it everything they say it is?”

And the answers to those questions are “I don’t know”, “The second coming of Christ” and “Yes”.

I've done this three times now

I made a commitment to write at least a paragraph a day, every day for a month.

What happens is I sit down to write “a quick paragraph”, and then get lost in what is suddenly the Most Epic Post Ever, and decide to sit on it. Why? Because I don’t want it to suck, and that means putting it in a drawer to cool off for a few days. So while I am nominally one day behind, I’m actually three posts ahead… if you count the drafts.

What is the point of all this? The point is that if I write something stupid and pointless, there’s no way it can possibly grow into an unfinishable monster.

And I have just done so.

I still want a pony.

Oh, hey! Also, please welcome 100WordStories to EaRStaBMoP

EaRStaBMoP: Effie and Remiel's Stupid and Boring Month of Prose

Every day until March 7, 2011*, EffingBoring and I will each write at least one paragraph of whatever floats our respective boat, so help us non-denominational-entity-but-still-with-lightning-powers.

This is the result of a regretful chat session in which I naively thought I might employ flattery to encourage one of my favorite people ever to write some shit to entertain me every day. She reciprocated by cheerfully inviting me to join her in this endeavor. I couldn’t find a razor blade, so I agreed.

I will probably fall behind.

And then she / you / my little Jiminy Cricket (that’s my conscience not my penis) will have to guilt trip me into pretending I feel like wisdom-tooth-pulling some bullshit out of my brain and putting it here to regret in a few years.

If this inspires you, you are retarded. You have better things to do. Better to just stick with the re-posting of other people’s cat pictures.

But if that doesn’t dissuade you, well then by all means: join us. Tag your Tumblr posts with the intentionally unwieldy and non-memorable tag:

I promise you this: If you somehow make it known to me you are participating (via EaRStaBMop tags or Twitter replies or smoke signals), I promise to draw attention to your efforts by making fun of you here, publicly. So, you’ve got that going for you.

Also: This fucking counts for today.

* (Hey, I can’t help it if we just happened to think of this during the shortest month of the year.)

What I want from this

I over-articulate. I want to learn how to make the visceral things in my gut inherent and apparent. I want someone, one day, to call my writing “spare”. Cuz that’s cool to me.

How do you write a paragraph that is both honest and evocative? Aren’t they mutually exclusive?

If I tell you what happened, you judge the motives of the characters I introduce. If I tell you their motives, it’s over. True? I fucked up, right?

I failed out of college. I don’t know how this works. And my default is lazy, not prolific. But here we are. Hey, I just used hypertext in a literarily inventive way. That’s something, at least. Tell me what you know. I’m all ears.

#EaRStaBMoP Progress Report

So far, we appear to have four participants for Effie and Remiel’s Stupid and Boring Month of Prose:

@EffingBoring. My dearest friend and roommate and confidante and kitten-fan-hey-noboby’s-perfect.

@Remiel. Me, AKA Gabriel, AKA “G”. AKA you never know whether I’ll tackle upgrading the shit out of your MacBook, barely-masked depressive pontification, or gay marriage for everybody.

MsRed AKA @NancyDrew2. She doesn’t like it when I hype her. If you know who she is, then you know who she is. If you don’t, then follow her progress as an aspiring actress studying in Scotland and otherwhere abroad.

@lafix is not someone with whom I am personally acquainted, but she clearly has her comic priorities in order. Welcome to the paragraph-of-original-prose-a-day club, @lafix. Keep in mind that this is a binding contract, subject to severe penalties should you fall behind. Also we love you.

You can see all #EaRStaBMoP output by searching for the EaRStaBMoP tag on Tumblr.

Sorry, G

I didn’t write anything today, violating the challenge on day one. I’ll make it up to you and anyone who was following the EarBlahToe thing.

But instead of letting myself go to sleep (and letting you give me good-natured crap for it tomorrow), I braved fluttering eyelids and dragged these words out of my fingers. There’s something here. So that’s, well, something.