Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives

March 2005 Archives

I can't wait for school to start.

OK, so I'm totally going to the right school. This morning I woke up with an idea – figure out a way to use an iSight camera not as a webcam but as a direct video feed, which can then be used as a video desktop. You know, so when you're horribly frustrated with work you can minimize everything and watch the beach in Maui for a while.

It'd be the next generation of webcams, and a quick Google search for "Mac OS X video desktop" didn't pull up anything. When I get there this fall and have some time to play with other geeks, this'll definitely be on my hit list.


On Yahoo! 360.

So good old Min Jung Kim pinged me with a friend request for Yahoo! 360°, and like a good little technology ho, I signed up. For a couple of minutes I was thoroughly annoyed at the idea that I would have to reconfigure everything, start a new blog, start a new photo album service... "Screw this," I thought – and then I saw this:

Coming soon...
You'll be able to share your RSS-enabled content (blogs, photos, etc.) in Yahoo! 360°.
Holy crap. With that one simple feature, Y!360 has built itself into a combination Friendster-killer and personal RSS aggregator. This has potential. Now, if only someone would figure out how to use FOAF to bloody import your friends list instead of having to recreate your freakin' network on Friendster, Y!360, Flickr... Yo! Lazyweb! Over here!


An area ripe for improvement.

So I spent a big chunk of this afternoon trying to get my Quicken for Mac up to date, and once again I was floored by how utterly broken it is. Much like my utterly abysmal experience with QuickBooks for the Mac, Quicken is riddled with problems and errors, and they're bloody blatant to boot. These aren't little fiddly errors, these are whole columns on the main report page not pulling out data and Intuit merely shrugging and saying, "Yeah, we know, we're working on it." Right. That help ticket was filed in 2003, and apparently it's still an issue.

Yo, Apple -- how about tweaking IGG Software again and releasing a full-featured iBank app? (I say 'again' because I think their 'iBiz' was 'iWork' before Apple cleared their almighty throats last year.) Or why doesn't one of the big banks step in and create a superpowered online banking app with the same kinds of reporting features that we have to turn to Quicken for? Categorization of entries, pie charts of expenditures, forecasts and budgeting... Shouldn't these be the kinds of things that banks should be offering in the 21st century? Instead of getting their money by asinine $2-4 ATM fees, monthly online checking fees, service fees, et cetera, why not upgrade the whole system and charge us $20 a month for complete personal financial management services?

If this already exists, someone please let me know!


And, not ten minutes later...

So I posted that little "Not dead yet!" note, then refreshed the page, and felt guilty at how small and lonely it looked sitting there on the page. You, my friends, deserve a more detailed update on my own personal la vida loca. Therefore, I will now take a brief break and procrastinate some more to fill you in on what's been going on.

First up, the Big News: I have been accepted into the Grad Program of My Dreams, the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I'm not kidding when I say it's the program of my dreams – my bestest friends will recall that I first discovered this program somewhere around 2000, and I've been checking up on their website every year ever since. Every year I was also deterred from applying by my own fears of inadequacy, largely dealing with the half of my brain that deals with math and science. I used to believe wholeheartedly that I was an arteest, and if it didn't have to do with the humanities, forget it. Well, sometime in the last five years my brain somehow got reformatted into someplace right smack dab in the middle of the two lobes – I've been spending a huge chunk of the last decade learning how to make art and science play well together. I'm not just talking about those guys who make prints of fractal patterns and hang them on gallery walls (although that can be cool too – look at Tom Stoppard's Arcadia for a brilliant example of the use of chaos theory in modern theater) but also "how do we use the computer to do digital storytelling?" And, more recently, "How do we use the computer to optimize our lives?"

Once upon a time, my motto was, "If it works." This was subsequently amended with "break it," but the root principle was, "Find a solution, no matter how screwy it sounds." This has grown over the years, until recently my mantra (if not exactly my motto) has been, "All of life is a system, and all systems can be optimized." For some reason my twenties have been dedicated to building the tools and the resources I need to do What's Next, whatever that happens to be.

As of last week, What's Next is grad school. Suddenly having a concrete date for starting What's Next has caused me to kick the aforementioned life optimization system into high gear. I'm working like a fiend to pay off my credit card, get my taxes settled, pick up the last of the tools that I'd had my eye on for the last year, and draft a budget for the next two years so that I have some idea of how much cash I need to stockpile while I can still spend 80 hours a week working. Yesterday I went up to the AAA in Skokie (a suburb north of Chicago and slightly west of Evanston) and picked up a big map of Boston, which I now have set up on my desktop easel next to my monitor. Between that and, I'm starting to get a better idea of what's where in the Boston area. 24 hours ago I couldn't have told you where Somerville was in relation to Cambridge or Back Bay, but now it's all starting to click. That's the goal of this current exercise – making it all click as much as possible. I'm also entering six months' worth of bank statements into Quicken and making sure my master Excel spreadsheet is up to date, so I can fend off the panic and that "What have I done?" feeling and get back to the euphoria that I enjoyed for the parts of last week that didn't have to deal with my grandmother's passing.

I should mention that too, I suppose, although I don't like to delve too deeply into family matters here. It was nice to hang out with my family for a while, and Grandma's passing somehow seemed to mend some fences with my great-uncle, who had been exceptionally cranky ever since his wife passed away last year, but I think coming together like this helped remind him that he's not as alone as he thought. I hope so, anyway. Grandma's calling hours went quickly awry, in a way – when Grandpa died over a decade ago, or when my great-aunts and uncle passed away over the last five years, the calling hours were all solemn and somber. This time, since Grandma had suffered a massive stroke last fall and had never recovered, there was a greater sense of release and relief, the "She's in a better place" sensation. Further, word had gotten out (partly from me, partly from mom) that I'd been accepted into MIT, so there was joy there as well, and finally just getting to see people whom I hadn't seen in too long also lightened the mood considerably. On our way to the funeral home I'd joked (ah, gallows humor) that we should have thrown Grandma a "surprise wake", and much to my surprise that's sort of what happened. I want to thank my friends Rob Carter and Laurie Bower for coming out, and Kris Berkey for showing up with her kid. Man, that's weird having your old friends breed. The munchkin was really cute, though, all big eyes and constantly astonished, and he was a real trooper, barely fussing at all. The 'big trooper' award also goes out to my cousins Phoebe and Chloe, who had never met my Grandma but came out anyway, and I remember being dragged to some stranger's funeral when I was a kid and feeling all awkward and uncomfortable. Those two just earned major brownie points in my book.

So, yes – now I'm back in Chicago and, as I mentioned above, working like a mad fiend. I just launched the first version of a new site for a local art rock band, Thadeus Project, which is a very cool blend of HTML and Flash that promises to get even better here in the next 30 days as we keep adding in media. I'm also about to launch a site for a local law firm, I just landed a gig to create a site for a company that organizes field trips for students, a couple of the old regulars are once again in full swing, and I've got a couple of photographers lined up to start using some neat new techniques I've been working on. I'm also hitting the exercise bike hard again – I haven't lost as much weight as I would like lately, but now that there's at least the promise of warmer weather outside that should help – and my efforts to learn to cook are really starting to work. Earlier this week I made burritos using brown rice, fresh-chopped red peppers, grilled chicken and a blend of four cheeses. Chipotle, eat your heart out. I'm also the proud new owner of a KitchenAid stand mixer, which is going to help me in my resolution to not eat any cookies that I don't bake. I'm not sure exactly how well these 'learn to cook' and 'lose weight' resolutions play with each other, but the way I see it, if I can cook her fabulous meals, any woman should be slightly more forgiving of my lack of six-pack.

So, to quote old Uncle Cronkite, "That's the way it is." There's been a ton of new stuff popping up on the media scene lately that warrants comment, but right now I need to get on top of this whole MIT thing. Once I feel like I've got things more or less sussed, I'll be right back here fielding ideas about inventions and harping about new movies and whatnot. As always, dear readers, stay tuned!

Please stand by.

Hey, all -- I'm still alive, just busy as all get out. I promise I'll post something soon.



I got in!


Heading home.

I'm going to be offline for a couple of days. Many of you know that my grandmother had a massive stroke last fall, and had been in a nursing home since then. Last week she came down with a fever, which then grew into full-blown pneumonia, and yesterday she passed away. I'm heading back to Ohio for the funeral and calling hours, and so I probably won't be posting much of anything for the next couple of days while we get family things straightened out. Be good, and I'll be back soon.



Bitten by the health bug, and then stung in the face by the cold bug. Sunday's mental and physical conditions were all over the map, including two or three heavy-duty naps, one point where I totally zoned out while sitting in my parked car for a good fifteen minutes, and now I'm sitting here at the keyboard sniffling and blinking blearily before attempting to go to bed. Probably a good thing I didn't make Texas, then.

Ugh. Another thing worth noting: one should not, under any circumstances, attempt to read O'Reilly books while flirting with disease. My goal for the weekend was to read 400 pages' worth of ActionScript for Flash MX: The Definitive Guide, and I actually achieved a grand total of about 50. It went something like this: read chapter, nap. Read chapter, nap.

Sneeze index: high. Productivity index: low. Fark.


Current conditions in Chicago: sunny and co-o-o-o-old.

So as I mentioned in my last post, I've once again been bitten by the health bug. The wheels on the bike go round and round, and the gray metal dumbbells go up and down. I've also been investing some money in various pieces of equipment. Last fall I bought some Nike ACG equipment, including a shirt, pants and a great set of running trail shoes, and now I'm looking for some warm stuff to go with 'em, so I can go get out of this house a little in the near future. The trouble is, right now it's nineteen frickin' degrees, and while I'm all about pretending that I'm braving the Arctic conditions and hauling my ass up Everest... Um, no.

C'mon, springtime!


I wish I were in Texas, away, away.

So SXSW is going on right now. I wish I were there. I especially wish I were there because it's currently thirty-four degrees and blustery in Chicago. That said, I suppose it's a good thing I didn't go this time, because I'm busy as all get out right now. Nothing new, right? Some days I feel like my best friends are a boulder and a vulture.

On the upside, I have reinitiated my workout plan, and have been doing about ten miles a day on the stationary bike, peppered with various weight-lifting binges. I am currently wishing I knew enough about Ruby on Rails to write a kickass personal training system. This is one of those things I would be happily discussing in Austin right now over Shiners, but alas – it was not to be. With a little luck, I'll be back down to my fighting weight by this time next year, and will proceed to charm the living daylights out of the lovely ladies of Texas.

Right. I'm going to quit whining and go do some pushups or something. Or, more likely, revisit the ol' cooking project. Onward!


On Josh Woodward.

So the music of Josh Woodward is amazing, and he's a fellow Ohio boy! Tons of great free MP3s, so go grab some now. (Thanks go out to the ever-lovin' father of acoustic cool, Mr. Walkingbird himself – this is going to be my work soundtrack for the rest of the week.)

The wisdom of sThig, cont'd: handling bad clients.

In his post Top Ten Ways to handle Bad Clients, Scott Thigpen fields some really great insights, and some things I need to keep in mind right now, especially:

  • Ask for asshole money up front. Insanely wise. I have a gig right now where the clients kept me waiting for content for literally six months, and then of course need me to go at breakneck speed now that they're ready. Argh.
  • Make them cough up numbers first. I get this all the time, and I even have one client right now who's saying, "We have no money for this, so I need you to tell me what it's worth", which is loosely translated into "Tell me what we'd ordinarily pay you for this so I can come back with a proposal for a third of that paid in installments, each of which you'll have to hound me for." Argh.
  • Be a fair bill collector. This is perhaps the most critical for me right now, because it's what's keeping me in the windy city this weekend. I'd been planning to go to SXSW this week for the last two months, but the money I'd budgeted for it still hasn't come in from four different clients, which means that I'll be raising a Shiner to all my peeps in Austin from here in Chicago instead. This has me bummed out, but that's the nature of the freelance business – it's always feast or famine, and at the moment my workload is feast while the bank account is famine. C'est la vie. The worst of it is when you spend months working on gigs that run long, during which you're living off the credit card/savings account, and then they don't pay for a month or two after they're finally completed. Argh!
Of course, I realize that a large chunk of this is me still learning the ropes of small business ownership and trying to find the middle ground between hardnosed businessman and, well, me. I tell you one thing, though – the last couple of years have been staggeringly useful, which I've been constantly referring to as an MBA in Real World Economics. I enjoy working with 99% of my clients, I've only ever had to really fire one, and I'm sure that eventually all of this will sort itself out – but I'm definitely keeping my eye out for posts like these, chock-full of the wisdom of my peers...

From sThig: Poser and a WACOM tablet in workflow.

So this morning's discovery of joy is An Artsy Fartsy Blog by illustrator Scott "sThig" Thigpen, who is one of my favorite artists on the scene today. Cheating, or not? is his post describing how he incorporates Poser, a Wacom tablet and Illustrator into his workflow. I'm sitting here reading this with my jaw hitting the floor, an absolute why didn't I think of that? moment. One of my big pet peeves with my illustrations is that I never seem to get the proportions right, so using Poser as a modern-day guide for such things is genius.

Shoot. I guess I'll have to go track down a new copy for OS X then... The last version of Poser I used was way back in '98, and I have a near-religious aversion to running Classic. Of course, I need to grab a new WACOM tablet too – maybe in this year's second round of technology updates. Shoot, I'm still paying off last year's big toy purchases...


On RSS aggregators and WebKit.

If I had known on Monday how this week was going to go, I'd have started labeling each post with a big GeekWeek tag. Hmm. Maybe next week.

Anyway, the point of this post is another idea that just popped into my head. Check out PulpFiction, an "Advanced News Reader/Aggregator for Mac OS X". Now, web wonks like me grouse because after all the time and effort we've put getting our websites to look just so, along come RSS aggregators and all of a sudden, it's all gone. Poof, just like that. I understand the appeal – believe me, as someone who reads 50+ sites a day, I understand – but why not combine a feed list at the top (as PulpFiction does) with a WebKit-enabled browser window at the bottom (as Process does)? Clicking on a story loads the individual archive page of that particular entry in the window at the bottom. Poof, you're done.



Comments/keywords/tags in EXIF?

So here's a gripe – why is it that despite the growing popularity of applications like iPhoto to manage one's photo library, there seem to be no 'keyword' or 'description' tags in the EXIF metadata for photographs? Or am I missing something?

Photographers' sites suck.

So I've recently had a whole flurry of people asking me about photography websites, which is cool – I've done them before, but a bunch of recent developments on the scene (Flickr, SlideShowPro, etc.) have led me to believe that it is now possible to bulid some truly exciting things for this particular industry. This afternoon I started throwing my brain at the question, "What would make the ultimate photography site?" I grabbed my clipboard and started making notes.

After a while, when I had compiled a decent list of blue-sky thinking, I decided to go check out what other photographers were doing. Communication Arts publishes a Photography Annual every year, and at the back of that edition is an index of contact information for each featured artist. I proceeded to spend the next four hours visiting photography sites. This was extremely informative.

Photographers' sites suck.

Now, to be fair, the vast majority of these people spend their time and energy worrying about photography, not web design. That's fine – that's how it should be. But a huge number of the sites I visited tonight were absolute case studies in Flash gone horribly, horribly wrong. There were maybe 15 really excellent sites that I found, and of those only a handful made me really stop and say, "Yes, that's a good idea." The vast majority, however, were dull, slow-loading, broken, extremely outdated, and just plain ugly. Further, none of them ha any of the key features that I'd included in my brainstorming session. This makes me suspect that there is some serious bank to be made creating a professional photographer's system that can be customized for each individual photographer. Work on this begins now.

If any of you (David, Carrie) are interested in helping me develop this baby, let me know!

I needed that.

So this week is Yahoo!'s 10th birthday. As a part of their celebration, they've posted their homepage, circa 1995. I loaded that page up and suddenly I was sitting in the library at The College of Wooster, poking around on one of their few web-enabled terminals, reading Wired with near-religious fervor (hey Derek, remember they heyday of Hotwired?) and remembering that feeling of being blown away by possibilities.

The world has moved on since then, to steal a phrase from Stephen King. Now it's a world of weblogs, of Flickr, of Google, of Treo 650s, of terrorism, of 30" displays, of plasma TVs, of American Idol, of Lord of the Rings, of Laura in Japan, of my expecting-to-get-married-and-then-not, of Ruby on Rails, and so on and so on and so on.

It's a different world. Some things get better, some things get worse. Everything changes. Sometimes I sit here and feel like there's nothing next, that hope and dreams have been replaced by nostalgia and apathy. Sometimes I'm full of energy and I feel like I'm straining against my physical constraints, growing as quickly as possible. There is wisdom in realizing that neither of these are permanent conditions; make hay while the sun shines, as my mom always says, and do the best you can with what you've got. In other words, use the energy while you have it and do the best you can when you don't. What is progress if not a blend of these moments, a cocktail of inspiration and determination?

Yesterday I was inspired. Today I'm burnt out. When the two are averaged, progress is still being made – and that's deeply reassuring. Perhaps the real wisdom is realizing that it's normal and OK to have slow days, and you shouldn't worry unless you have them all the time.

Or something like that. Bear with me, I'm still trying to figure all this stuff out.

Talking with Todd Dominey, and the malaise of March.

So I'm reading this great AIGA LA interview with Todd Dominey and I stumble across the following passage:

Q: You’ve become a pretty accomplished scripter, programmer, tweaker … for Flash in particular. Does the technical fluency your output requires feel at odds with the mindset you need to be a creative designer?

Here’s what I’ve noticed — virtually everyone I know who works in interactive/web design, myself included, is mentally split right down the middle. Some days they wake up with a dominant left brain, other days right. This is drastically different than the days when I worked in print, where most agency people I worked with lived exclusively in the right. I think I knew web design was right for me very early on when I was the one guy in the office who could fix a crashing build of Quark or replace a corrupted extension in the System folder. I appreciated the technical as an integral part of the creative process, and felt the greatest professional satisfaction when both paths crossed.

Bam! Todd nailed it exactly – I was always the same way, the dork who enjoyed manipulating graphics pixel by pixel, futzing around with his computer for hours, that sort of thing. I'm not the greatest living artist/writer/programmer/whatever, but my spot is right at the middle of all of those areas, and figuring out how to blend them together.

Today, though, I don't want to do any of that. Yesterday I woke up early and energized, and proceeded to work all day without once leaving the house. I hate days like that, and I always wind up paying for them with days like this. I woke up today bleary-eyed and wincing every time I saw a coding book. In the last week I've made banner ads, a 30-second simple animation for a band, laid the groundwork for some cool new projects, accidentally utterly shattered Ken's weblog, and launched a little site for a local chocolatier. All in all, a ton has been done, but there's still loads left to do, and at the moment I'm teetering. I woke up this morning with one thought going through my head: I don't want to be here today. Ugh. It's only 9AM and I'm blitzed.

What do you guys do when you're torched?


Maybe it's the moon.

I'm not sure exactly what it is – maybe it's my discovery of the new Cirque du Soleil Ka site this afternoon, but something has kicked my imagination into high gear. Here are some of the ideas that have been flickering across my mind tonight:

  • Kelele Mbosa is the returned soul of the last of his people, a tribe that was caught and forced into slavery. He welcomed the freedom death would bring, but when his time finally came a sadistic lesser god caught his soul and forced Mbosa to be his servant. Mbosa rebelled and slew the lesser god, and as the deity lay dying its power surged into him, cursing him with an eternal existence halfway between life and death. He now travels the world, heralded by the living and the dead alike with reverence, fear or hatred as Phoenix or Godkiller.
  • A demon is freed by a little boy playing with a tiny Asian pot found in a small antique store in upstate New York. Chaos ensues as ghostly temples begin to form out of a dense red mist that engulfs Albany.
  • The betrayed man falls to his knees as his wife runs screaming down the jogging path, her head engulfed by a cold green flame – this is the birth of The Ambassador to Hell.
  • Gabriel Diavolo is the devil's son, with feathered wings brighter than any tropical bird – his bright orange hair tumbles across his forehead, nearly hiding the fact that he was born without eyes.
  • "Daddy," she hissed, "that man over there is a wolf!"
    "Hush, dear, it's not polite to stare."
    "But daddy – it's the same one I saw kill Mommy!"
    His fingers tightened on her cold little hand.
  • Every night Murray stood outside in the backyard and watched the sky, waiting for the angels to bring back his dad.

I am going to have some messed up dreams tonight, I can tell.

On syncing AirPort Expresses.

So there's a new app called Airfoil that lets you stream any audio feed to an AirPort Express station. Seems like a good idea to me. What bugs me about it, though, are these passages from their FAQ:

Why does the audio lag?
   Because of the way the AirPort Express works, there's a delay from the time audio is played locally to the time it is heard remotely. This is problematic for movie playback, and tough to solve as the issue is with the hardware itself.

Can I use this while watching movies?
   The above-mentioned delay can be overcome with alternate media players such as VLC and MPlayer, which allow the user to manually de-sync the audio from the video. In this way, you can play the audio a second or so ahead of the video, and sync the two. A perfect solution? No. Workable? Definitely.

Can I use this with multiple AirPort Express units?
   Sending audio to multiple AirPort Express units simultaneously won't be possible in version 1.0, but it may be available in the future.

Would one of the programmers in the audience (Nick, Matt, Tom?) tell me why a utility couldn't be created that sends a four-note pattern to each set of AirPort Express boxes in turn, hooks into the microphone on the machine and autolags the signals until the four beat patterns match up, then automatically caches the video or plays the audio a second or two ahead of the video, as they mention above? It feels a little hackish, so there has to be a reason why this wouldn't work, but can anybody enlighten me as to why not?